Q&A: Michael Kronenberg From the Film Noir Foundation

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NOIR CITY cover designs by Michael Kronenberg

TCM’s Summer of Darkness is almost over but before Friday night’s Film Noir programming comes to an end I decided to contact artist and designer, Michael Kronenberg and chat with him about his work with TCM guest host Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation. I’ve admired Kronenberg’s work for a longtime so it was nice to be able to learn more about the man and his creative influences. If you like film noir, pulp fiction, comic books and great art, you should enjoy our timely back-and-forth.

Q: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, your work and your affiliation with the Film Noir Foundation?

MKA: I’m a graphic designer and artist living in Chapel Hill, NC with my wife and four dogs. I also have a son who is currently studying abroad in New Zealand. I’ve been a comic book fan and collector as long as I can remember. I grew up in a home filled with movie fans and my love for cinema continues to grow. I’m also a passionate boxing fan. My father was a former prizefighter and he put the hook in me about the Sweet Science.

I co-created the Rondo Award-winning monster magazine MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT and I’m also the co-writer and designer of the book THE BATCAVE COMPANION: The History of Batman in the 1960s and 1970s. My clients include a number of book and magazine publishers, along with Marvel Comics, but my love and passion is the work I’m doing for the Film Noir Foundation. At the FNF, I work closely with founder/President Eddie Muller and promotion director Daryl Sparks. I’m the art director and designer of the Foundation’s official quarterly magazine NOIR CITY. I’m also responsible for designing and maintaining the magazine’s back issue website; and I design the annual NOIR CITY book which collects the best NOIR CITY articles of the previous year as well as the programs for the Foundation’s NOIR CITY Film Festival in San Francisco. If all that isn’t enough, I’m also the designer for Eddie Muller’s publishing firm Black Pool Productions.

Q: How did you become involved with the Film Noir Foundation? Have you known Eddie Muller long?

A: As a film noir fanatic, I was aware of the Film Noir Foundation long before I started working for them. I also owned a copy of Eddie’s brilliant book THE ART OF NOIR before I knew him. In 2009, I received one of the Foundation’s monthly email updates advertising for a graphic designer to do their quarterly e-newsletter NOIR CITY SENTINEL. I fit all the criteria for the job and was determined, if not downright obsessed to get that job. I immediately emailed Eddie my resume and samples of my design work. I told Eddie that I was the perfect person for the job and actually wrote: “if you don’t hire me, you’ll always regret it.” I have never pursued any job so vigorously before or since. As a test, he sent me a story he wrote along with images for me to design and layout. Within an hour, I sent him back three different layouts for that story. I guess he was impressed because I got the job.

Eddie and I became fast friends. Many of our interests intersected: movies, comics, Jim Steranko (who we were both friends with), baseball and boxing. Eddie’s father was one of the preeminent boxing columnists on the West Coast and my father was a one-time pro boxer.

When my work with the Foundation began to broaden, I approached Eddie with the idea of expanding the e-newsletter into a full-fledged e-magazine. He agreed and I proceeded to redesign the NOIR CITY SENTINEL newsletter into NOIR CITY e-Magazine. I should also mention that my brother Steve is one of the managing editors of NOIR CITY and writes regularly for the magazine. That’s a great thrill for me.

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Top: An example of Robert Riggs Work
Middle: Lithograph by Michael Kronenberg
Bottom: NOIR CITY #11 cover by Michael Kronenberg & original poster art for HIGH TIDE (1947)

Q: Your art and design work is really bold, dynamic and expressive. I’m often reminded of vintage pulp magazine and book covers while looking at it as well as classic film posters. I can also see the comic book influence. You mentioned your interest in Jim Steranko, who dabbled in a lot of different mediums including graphic design, comic books and even did conceptual art for films, but are there any other artists that have inspired you? And are there any mediums you prefer working in?

Thank you! All of those things you mentioned come into play with my work because they’re indelibly etched in my mind since childhood. Jim Steranko certainly is a renaissance man, our friendship began over a mutual fascination with Harry Houdini and the escape arts. In addition to Jim’s mastery of art, writing, design, and music, he was one of the greatest escape artists who ever lived. He’s been both a friend and mentor. The first artist to influence me was Neal Adams. When I was eight years old and saw his art in a Batman comic I was thunderstruck. After seeing his work, I knew I wanted to be an artist.

The WPA artists of the Depression, particularly Robert Riggs, have also heavily influenced me. Because I was creating boxing lithographs, I felt an affinity with Riggs’ boxing lithos. He struck an extraordinary counterbalance between his black and white, fine art lithos that portrayed boxing, mental wards, and circus sideshows with his colorful, commercial illustration work. I was very proud and humbled that the gallery which rediscovered Riggs’ art also represented me. Other artists I’ve been inspired by include James Bama, Bob Peak, Robert McGinnis, Frank McCarthy, Reynold Brown and Wally Wood. And this is a little outside of the box, but cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is currently having the biggest impact on my work.

Aside from working on the computer using InDesign and Photoshop, I still love to draw. I just wish I had more time to do it.

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Designs by Michael Kronenberg

Q: You mentioned that you were a noir fan before you started working with the Film Noir Foundation. What is it about film noir that you appreciate? Do you have some favorite noir films or favorite genre directors and actors?

The definition of film noir and noir is so vague and argued over. It makes me think of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote in the Supreme Court’s 1964 hearing to define pornography, “I know it when I see it.” I feel the same way about noir. In college, while I was doing lithographs I attended showings at a repertory cinema near my campus, where I first watched film noirs and discovered that they explored the same territory as the WPA artists that I liked so much. That’s when I started getting drawn into the genre.

I love the classics like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE KILLERS, CRISS CROSS, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, OUT OF THE PAST, DETOUR, GUN CRAZY, THE MALTESE FALCON, TOUCH OF EVIL, CROSSFIRE, KISS ME DEADLY. Similarly, I love neo-noir movies like CHINATOWN, THE CONVERSATION, POINT BLANK, NIGHT MOVES, CUTTER’S WAY, TAXI DRIVER, THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Because of my love of boxing, I’m particularly drawn towards the boxing noir sub-genre like BODY AND SOUL, THE HARDER THEY FALL, CHAMPION, REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, FAT CITY, RAGING BULL, and THE SET-UP. THE SET-UP ranks as my all-time favorite film noir. For me, Robert Ryan’s performance in that movie cannot be topped. I’ve watched it countless times and it never fails to amaze and move me. Audrey Totter also gives a very nuanced performance in THE SET-UP. Just contrast and compare the performances Ryan and Totter gave in THE SET-UP with what each did in CROSSFIRE and TENSION, they were both so talented. I also love that THE SET-UP‘s narrative unfolds in real time. Director Robert Wise brilliantly and subtly focuses on clocks throughout the film.

As a visual artist, I have to mention cinematographer John Alton, whose work is true artistry. Eddie dedicated one of TCM’s Friday nights to Alton’s movies. Alton really did “paint with light.” I have to credit Jim Steranko for turning me onto Alton’s work. Many years ago, Jim and late artist Dave Stevens, sent me bootleg DVDs of Alton’s movies that they recorded off television. Even watching those low-quality recordings, I could see what a master Alton was. I also enjoy B-noirs, which one of our excellent NOIR CITY writers Jake Hinkson is exploring in a continuing series that we’re running in the magazine about Poverty Row directors.

There’s no denying the influence Eddie Muller has had on me. They don’t call him the “Czar of Noir” for nothing. His knowledge is unparalleled. He also helped open up the world of noir literature to me and my favorite writer is Jim Thompson. Eddie is as fine a writer as I’ve ever known and his debut novel THE DISTANCE is a must read. Not many people know this, but he’s also an excellent graphic designer. I rely on his eye and opinion on everything I design for the Film Noir Foundation. I’m indebted to him, because he’s pushed me to become a better designer.

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Designs by Michael Kronenberg

Q: There are only two more Friday nights left in TCM’s Summer of Darkness programming. Out of all the films scheduled to be shown, which ones would you recommend viewers tune in for?

The next two weeks are filled with wonderful movies to watch. If I had to single out some, it would be these:

On July 24 make sure you see ROADBLOCK and THE NARROW MARGIN, both starring film noir icon Charles McGraw (who was the inspiration for Steranko’s Nick Fury). ANGEL FACE directed by Otto Preminger and starring another noir icon Robert Mitchum. But the real reason to watch it is for an incredible performance by Jean Simmons as one of the scariest femme fatales you’ve ever seen. And stay up late or set your DVR for ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, a fantastic noir from France directed by Louis Malle and featuring a brilliant jazz soundtrack by Miles Davis. We dedicated the new issue of NOIR CITY to examining noir in music and this film is discussed.

On July 31 I would recommend Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT, you must see Gloria Grahame in this movie! THE HARDER THEY FALL is one of the best boxing movies ever made. CRISS CROSS directed by noir icon Robert Siodmak is arguably the best film noir ever made. Anyone who doesn’t have it on their top ten list hasn’t seen it. Jules Dassin’s BRUTE FORCE starring Burt Lancaster is one of the best prison movies ever made. Lancaster’s early noir work THE KILLERS, CRISS CROSS, I WALK ALONE, SORRY WRONG NUMBER and KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS represent some of his best work. And lastly, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the heist movie to end all heist movies.

I also want to add that one of the best things about TCM’s two month focus on noir has been Eddie Muller’s fascinating info in his intros and outros to the movies. He’s great and when he hosts his annual 10-day NOIR CITY Festival in San Francisco, it feels like the city comes to a halt. Every night the Castro Theater is packed and Eddie holds court. I highly recommend attending. While attending the San Francisco NOIR CITY festival I was able to meet and develop a continuing friendship with GUN CRAZY star Peggy Cummins and Lisa Ryan, the daughter of my favorite actor, Robert Ryan. The FNF also hosts satellite NOIR CITY film festivals around the country and you can find more info on the Film Noir Foundation site.

Q: Must add that I agree with you about Eddie Muller! I’d personally like to see “Friday Night Noir” become a regular feature on TCM with Eddie as a fulltime host. Last but not least, where can people see more of your work or purchase copies of the magazines and books you’ve worked on? Any websites or social media outlets readers should know about if they want to get updates about your upcoming projects or just get in touch?

NOIRCITY2You can subscribe to NOIR CITY e-Magazine by joining the Film Noir Foundation (FNF) and donating at least $20 to the Foundation. Your money goes towards film noir movies in need of restoration. The magazine is a fully interactive PDF that includes videos of full movies, clips, trailers, and interviews. In our new “Noir in Music” issue, I’ve added music links so you can listen to music while you read the magazine. I recommend reading NOIR CITY on an iPad or similar tablet. More info and subscription info can be found on the FNF’s website and all of the NOIR CITY back issues are available for $5.99 each at noircitymag.com.

I also design the Film Noir Foundation’s Annual book collecting the best articles from the previous year’s e-Magazine. All previous editions of the book have sold out and only a limited amount of the new edition are still available and can be purchased at Amazon. The books I’ve designed for Eddie Muller’s publishing firm can be found on the Black Pool Productions website, featuring our book on author David Goodis and the movie GUN CRAZY.

Anyone interested in Batman during the 1960s-’70s can purchase my book THE BATCAVE COMPANION at Amazon and I just finished designing a book on Bela Lugosi for my friends Gary Rhodes and William Kaffenberger that you can also purchase there.

I’d also like to invite everyone to connect with me on Twitter or Facebook and if anyone wants to get in touch with me directly, I can be reached by email at mkronenberg@mac.com.

11 Responses Q&A: Michael Kronenberg From the Film Noir Foundation
Posted By swac44 : July 23, 2015 4:55 pm

Great interview! As someone who grew up on a mix of Adam West’s and Neal Adams’ Batman, Michael’s book looks like a must-have.

Posted By Ben Martin : July 23, 2015 6:03 pm

Hey this was great. I am joining the Film Noir foundation today. Also – have always loved MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT and have every issue.

Posted By Emgee : July 23, 2015 7:13 pm

Great interview. The graphic design is such an important part of the appeal of crime novels and noir movies. Sometimes the poster or book cover is even more exciting than the movie or book it is promoting.

Also love his definition of noir: “I know it when I see it.” So true.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 23, 2015 8:03 pm

Great art work. I am going to try to work this blog post into my film noir class in the fall. I will likely have budding illustrators in the class, and they will be interested in this.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 23, 2015 11:10 pm

Thanks for all the kind comments! I’m glad people are enjoying the interview and Michael’s art & design.

Posted By Michael Kronenberg : July 24, 2015 12:42 pm

Thanks to Kimberly and Movie Morlocks for the opportunity to chat. And thanks to all for the nice comments.

Posted By Geg Jones : July 24, 2015 4:34 pm

In Michael we trust. Michael has been an amazing “Noir Guide” for me as I’ve fallen in love with the genre late(r) in life. As far as the books he designs or writes, if MK writes it or designs it, it’s worth buying and reading. I just finished Bela Lugosi In Person and it was fantastic. MK is both designer and contributor to The Unforgettable Buzz, the history of Tudor Games & Electric Football. A bit off-topic but more must-see and must-read stuff. I eagerly await every issue of Noir City. The writing, the design and the history are unparalleled. There is nothing like it anywhere.

Posted By george : July 25, 2015 12:26 am

Great interview, Kimberly. I’ve read “The Batcave Companion” and highly recommend it.

As a fan of hard-boiled paperbacks and their “lurid” covers, I got a kick out of these cover designs.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : July 25, 2015 8:34 pm

Really enjoyed this interview and all the wonderful art. Anyone who loves Jim Thompson’s work is A-1 with me. Thanks so much for running this piece in MORLOCKS.

Posted By George : August 2, 2015 3:59 am

Noir wasn’t just an American genre; it also thrived in Mexican cinema at the same time, as the Museum of Modern Art’s recent series, “Mexico at Midnight,” showed.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/19/movies/mexico-at-midnight-the-perfect-match-of-villains-and-foils-in-golden-age-film-noir.html

You can find some of these films on YouTube, albeit without English subtitles. Does TCM have any of these in its archives, WITH subtitles for those of us who aren’t fluent in Spanish?

Posted By robbushblog : August 24, 2015 8:29 pm

Very interesting interview. As a big noir fan and a big comic book fan, I really enjoy his artwork, and passed it on to my best friend who is really into comics and is also a graphic designer. He would love to get a chance to do design work like this.

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