We chose John F Malta to create the cover for SB52, the Art & Illustration special, after seeing his helmet design for the 21 Helmets display at the One Show 2022. We (deputy ed Mick, art ed Andy and I) had a search through his work online and agreed, he was the one we agreed on from our short list of options. One of the reasons we chose John (that's his self-portrait above) was because he was unlike anyone we'd used before, and we had no idea what he'd come up with.
Here's a Q&A I did with John.
Interview: Gary Inman
All artwork & photos: John F Malta (except where stated)
Tell us about yourself - where you grew up, where you live.
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, spent a decade on and off in New York City, and currently live and work in the West Bottoms neighbourhood of Kansas City. For those unfamiliar with the West Bottoms of Kansas City. It’s a warehouse neighbourhood that’s filled with haunted houses, art studios, music venues, bars, and a sprawl of pop-up antique malls. It’s a neighbourhood that couldn’t be more tailored to my personal interests and one that I love calling home.
I spend most of my days drawing alongside my tiny dog Porky, out of my studio surrounded by my collections of Halloween decorations, old toys, puroresu [Japanese wrestling] artefacts, and punk posters.
Do you call yourself an artist or an illustrator?
I am an artist and illustrator. The distinction has never been that important to me. I self-publish comics and zines, art direct and illustrate client projects, and exhibit work with art galleries.
How did you turn your skills into something that pays the bills?
Years of relentless hard work and self-promotion as well as a combination of luck and fortuitous timing.
How would you describe your style?
Candy-coloured haunted punk wonderland.
You produce your own comics/comix/zines - can you tell us about them and what it means to produce these personal projects among the commissioned work?
I have been self-publishing zines and comics for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager I was making zines about the punk and skate scene in Cleveland, OH, and ever since have made it a habit to collect and self-publish my drawings and interests into comix and zines. It’s how I first connected with the creative communities that I identified with and that eventually led to tabling at various fests around North America like Comic Arts Brooklyn, Comic Arts Los Angeles, Kansas City Zine Con, and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.
To this day it’s a habit I maintain as I find it creatively energizing. It’s the source of inspiration for the projects that I Illustrate and art direct and how I work out new ideas.
What commissioned work are you most proud of?
My work with Complex and All Elite Wrestling, an Op/Ed illustration I did for The New York Times titled: 'Go Ahead Millennials, Destroy Us', and the Garbage Pail Kids card I illustrated for Beyond the Streets.
This is not commission work, but my comic series Haunted Francis is the project I am most proud of. Haunted Francis follows a punk kid who has a sentient skull burst out of his chest that ruins his life in every way. After a series of failed relationships and jobs he and his skull eventually find themselves through professional wrestling.
This comic has led to a series of projects. Including a seasonal roadside attraction called Haunted Francis Storybook village. This project was created during a residency at Cooler Ranch at Treiber Farms on Long Island in New York (in collaboration with Cooler Gallery, Brooklyn). Additionally, a real-life professional wrestler has been working independent dates as Haunted Francis on the East Coast.
We first came across your work via the 21 Helmets show. How did you get chosen for that?
The agency Lincoln Design Company curated that show and asked me to take part.
The 'real life' Haunted Francis in action. A wrestler inspired by John's comic book character Photo: Earl Gardner
Do you have any crossover with motorcycles?
Only through my favourite neighbourhood coffee shop in Kansas City is a combination motorcycle repair shop and coffee roaster called Blip.
We've seen photos of you in Dead Kennedys T-shirts - where does punk fit in your art, and how is a band whose original line-up split before you were born (I'm guessing) still have a relevance to you?
When I was younger I played in punk bands - punk aesthetics and DIY ethos are woven into the fabric of who I am as a person. I’ve spent so much of my life skateboarding, drawing, and listening to/playing punk music. Those three things have informed a lot about my identity as a person and artist.
For Dead Kennedys specifically: some of the first punk songs that I covered with my friends were their songs, so they’ve been a long-time favourite. You are correct that they broke up the year before I was born but their music, and lyrical content, is, unfortunately, as relevant today as when they recorded it. Outside of that - they are just so good: Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and Plastic Surgery Disasters are two of my all-time favourite albums.
What was the inspiration for the Sideburn cover artwork?
The graveyard dirt bike scenes in Phantasm are something that has always stuck with me and something that I had on my mind when I first started working on this. While working through the sketches I came to the conclusion that I wanted to give the art more narrative content. So rather than the hero on the cover outracing another dirt tracker, I had him blasting by a wolf.
A motorcycle is a freedom machine but...
there's nothing quite like bombing down a hill on a skateboard.