In comics, Mike Ploog is best known for his work on Marvel Comics' classic 1970s Man-Thing and Monster of Frankenstein series, and as the initial artist on the features "Ghost Rider" and "Werewolf by Night". His dramatic yet cartoony style at the time, in which bodies appear almost to be made of soft wax, was heavily influenced by the art of Will Eisner, under whom he apprenticed — a resemblance particularly apparent in such female characters as Topaz (see at left) in Werewolf by Night #13 (Feb. 1974).
Raised first on a Minnesota farm, and later in Burbank, California, Ploog entered the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17, remaining for 10 years. Toward the end of his hitch, he began working on the Corps' Leatherneck magazine, doing bits of writing, photography and art. After his discharge, in the late 1960s, he found work in Los Angeles at the Filmation studio, doing cleanup work on animation art for Batman and Superman TV cartoons.
The following season he was promoted to layout work. "Layout," Ploog recalled in a 1998 interview, "is what happens between storyboarding and actual animation; you're literally composing the scenes. You're more or less designing the background, putting the characters into it so they'll look like they're actually walking on the surface". At Hanna-Barbera the following season, he worked on layouts for the animated series Autocat & Motormouse and The Wacky Races, as well as "the first Scooby-Doo pilot; nothing spectacular, though. It was okay; it was a salary, y'know? ... I had very few aspirations, because I didn't know where anything I was doing was going to take me".
A Hanna-Barbera colleague passed along a flyer he had gotten from Eisner seeking an assistant on the military instructional publication P*S Magazine. Ploog was familiar with it from his Marine Corps days, and knew well the art, though not the artist's name. "I'd been copying his work for years", Ploog said, "because I was doing visual aids and training aids for the military for a long time". Winning the position, Ploog moved to New York City and remained with Eisner for just over two years.
Eventually, at the suggestion of Eisner letterer Ben Oda and artist Wally Wood, Ploog broke into comics at Warren Publishing, doing stories for the company's black-and-white horror-comics magazines. A Western sample he showed at Marvel got him a callback to draw Werewolf by Night, which premiered in Marvel Spotlight #2 (Feb. 1972). After three issues, the series spun off onto its own book. Ploog launched on a second character, the Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider, from that supernatural motorcyclist's premiere in Marvel Spotlight #5 (Aug. 1972) through the next three adventures.
Ploog's creative high-water mark in comics may have been his six issues of Marvel's Monster of Frankenstein (Jan.-Oct. 1973), the first five of which contained one of the most faithful adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel to appear in any medium. Scripter Gary Friedrich, whose 1960s Sgt. Fury issues remain among comics' best examples of humanistic military drama, meshed well with Ploog in creating an articulate, sympathetic, yet terrifying living-dead behemoth. "I really enjoyed doing Frankenstein," Ploog recalled, "because I related to that naive monster wandering around a world he had no knowledge of — an outsider seeing everything through the eyes of a child". The following year, Ploog teamed with writer Steve Gerber on Man-Thing #5-11 (May-Nov. 1974), penciling a critically acclaimed series of stories involving a dead clown, psychic paralysis in the face of modern society, and other topics far removed from the usual fare of comics of the time, with Ploog's cute-but-creepy art style setting off Gerber's trademark intellectual surrealism.
Ploog's other regular titles at Marvel were Planet of the Apes, Kull the Destroyer and the series Werewolf by Night. Ploog also drew the Don McGregor story "The Reality Manipulators" in the black-and-white comics magazine Marvel Preview #8 (Fall 1976), and the Doug Moench feature "Weirdworld" in the color comic Marvel Premiere #38 (Oct. 1977), among other items.
He left Marvel following what he describes as "a disagreement with Jim Shooter. I had moved to a farm in Minnesota, and agreed to do a hand-colored 'Weirdworld' story. Marvel backed out of the deal after I had started. I can't remember the details, but it doesn't matter. I think I was ready to move on. Marvel and I were both changing. I finished off a black-and-white Kull book that was my last comic for many years".
Marginalia includes some work for Heavy Metal magazine in 1981, and three "Luke Malone, Manhunter" backup features in the Atlas/Seaboard title Police Action #1-3 (Feb., April, June 1975), the first of which he also scripted.
Ploog returned to the movie industry. By his account, he has worked in post-production on the movie Ghostbusters ("All that stuff you saw on cereal boxes are my paintings" and with film director Ralph Bakshi on the animated features Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, and Hey Good Lookin'. He was production designer on Michael Jackson: Moonwalker (1988), and has storyboarded or done other design work on films including Little Shop of Horrors and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and, he says, several Jim Henson Company projects, such as the films Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and the TV series The Storyteller.
Between movies, Ploog spent two to three years illustrating L. Frank Baum's the Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1992; ISBN 0-7567-6682-6), a graphic novel adapting The Wonderful Wizard of Oz creator's 1902 novella.
With old colleague Steve Gerber, Ploog drew the Malibu Comics one-shot Sludge: Red X-Mas (Dec. 1994), but otherwise remained away from comics for another decade before teaming with veteran writer J.M. DeMatteis on the CrossGen fantasy Abadazad (May 2004). Ploog and DeMatteis announced they were collaborating again the following year on a five-issue miniseries, Stardust Kid, from the Image Comics imprint Desperado Publishing.
When CrossGen went out of business, Hyperion Books, a division of the Walt Disney Company, purchased the rights to all of CrossGen's publications including Abadazad. In June 2006, Ploog and J.M. DeMatteis teamed once again to release Abadazad Book #1: The Road to Inconceivable & Abadazad Book #2: The Dream Thief. The story was reborn in a unique hybrid format: a children's book series that combines diary entries, full-page illustrations, and sequential art. At least eight Abadazad volumes are planned.
Despite a relatively short initial stay in comics in the 1970s, Ploog left an indelible impression for his highly stylistic, immediately recognizable style and naively propulsive storytelling.