Preview: Illustrator John Malta

From the August 23, 2012 edition

As a kid, John Malta started scribbling characters from Nickelodeon shows like “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” and “Rocko’s Modern Life,” but they always inadvertently passed through the filter of his own imagination and ended up looking like the approachably grotesque characters that now populate his art. It’s not the only aspect of ’90s pop culture that infiltrates Malta’s consciousness when he creates his acclaimed illustrations.

“Super Mario, Donkey Kong and lots of video game characters, too,” Malta said. “When I compose a landscape, I think of it how somebody would design an 8-bit video game.”

When Malta was majoring in illustration at CCAD, his uniquely twisted cartoons positioned him as one of the most promising talents to emerge from a school full of them. Two years after graduating, with that promise rapidly coming to fruition, he’ll return to his alma mater Sunday as the welcome speaker.

“It’s intended for the incoming freshmen, but it’s open to the public and it’s mostly about my work and stuff,” Malta said.

That work is getting a lot more eyeballs on it than when Malta was showing his work at now-defunct Short North coffee shop/scooter dealership Kickstart and drawing album covers for Columbus bands like Dolfish and Way Yes.

Now based in New York after finishing his master’s in illustration as visual essay at the School for Visual Arts, Malta frequently sells freelance illustrations to publications including The New York Times. He contributes comics to Vice. He’s working on an animated short for release next spring, and the ’zines he began drawing in high school just keep coming.

Perhaps most impressively, Malta recently won one of 17 coveted self-publishing grants from the Xeric Foundation, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” co-creator Peter Laird’s organization. He’ll use the grant to self-publish his graphic novel, “The Professor and the Paperboy,” inspired by “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and the sci-fi pulps of H.P. Lovecraft.

“I kind of wanted to create an interdimensional journey of all these worlds that I had been painting and drawing, and the relationship two people can have,” Malta said.

Meanwhile, his own journey through this weird world continues to take intriguing turns.