Rebekah Isaacs had been working in comics for years, at Devil’s Due and Marvel, before making a big splash with “DV8” last year for Wildstorm. Her character designs and use of space made the book stand out and she showed that she was equally comfortable with the characters moments as she was with violence and fight scenes.
2011 is set to be Isaacs’ biggest year to date. Besides the “DV8” collection set for release in April, there’s a collection of “Drafted,” written by Mark Power’s and originally published by Devil’s Due in March. There’s also “Captain America and Falcon,” a one-shot at Marvel and part of a 70th anniversary celebration for Captain America that CBR News spoke with writer Rob Williams about last week. Add to that two new projects she’s not allowed to talk about yet and it makes for quite a year for the young artist.
Isaacs’ current project is “Magus,” a creator-owned book from 12 Gauge Comics. The series deals with the ramifications of magic in suburban Massachusetts. Banished by a clandestine group for thousands of years, not only has magic returned to the world, but now seemingly everyone has the ability to perform it.
The second issue of the five-issue miniseries is on stands today and Isaacs spoke with CBR News in a wide-ranging interview about her many projects, her process and an exclusive look at the book.
CBR News: The second issue of “Magus” is about to hit stands. I know that the book’s writer, Jon Price, is your boyfriend. How did it end up that you two ended up doing this together?
Rebekah Isaacs: I met Jon when I was in between jobs. I started working at Devil’s Due in 2007 and I did a year and half’s worth of work for them. When they started having trouble paying freelancers, I quit. I unfortunately wasn’t quite ready to start getting work at Marvel or DC so I spent about a year and a half just doing new portfolios and doing some independent work online and then I met Jon. I needed to build up my portfolio and I wanted to work with a writer. We met through the Strictly Platonic section on NY CraigsList trying to find friends with like interests. We’re both huge nerds, so that was the common ground. [Laughs.]
We met with no intentions. I was seeing someone else and it was not a date. We talked a little bit about some story ideas that he had and I really liked them, so the next time we met it was over lunch to talk about starting to work on a pitch of one of his ideas — a zombie TV show. This was before “The Walking Dead” had even been announced, but we worked on that for a little bit and then when “The Walking Dead” was announced a few months later we were like, “We’re not going to get this picked up,” so we started looking at other ideas that he had. He mentioned “Magus” and I thought it sounded ideal as a comic. Not as a vehicle to get a movie or TV show made, but just strictly as a comic, and we just went from there. By that time we were dating so it made it easier when you work in the same room all day and bounce ideas back and forth off of each other. About six months later we got it picked up. We sent it out to a bunch of publishers and I knew Keven at 12 Gauge already, so he was really eager to hear any ideas that we had and he really liked that one.
So you’ve been working on this between your other projects for past couple years.
I started on issue one and I think two pages into that I got my first Marvel gig. Since then I’ve just been alternating, but it’s worked out really well. I did “DV8,” but there were some gaps in the scripts so I was able to go back and forth every now and again.
One of the notable things about “DV8” which really made people take notice was the style and approach that you brought to the book — the character designs, how they dressed, your use of space. How did doing that in the midst of working on “Magus” and the lessons you learned from that, change how you worked over the course of “Magus?”
I think you can tell there’s a sharp improvement over the course of “Magus.” I did several issues of “DV8” in between each of the “Magus” issues, so in a lot of cases I think it looks like a different artist drew all of the “Magus” issues. It’s not like it’s going to be jarring to anyone. They’re so different. Like you said, there’s a ton of open space in “DV8” and I didn’t really have to worry about designing structures or worrying about blocking or staging inside of buildings. I had a lot of freedom with just drawing the characters in these huge open vistas and just really worrying mostly about body language and expressions because there really weren’t any set pieces.
Was it nice to have this stripped down setting and be able to focus on certain aspects of craft in “DV8?”
Oh yeah. It was awesome. Especially since I never had to use a ruler. [Laughs.] I loved that. And it made it a lot easier for me. It was good because I had to draw a lot of characters, but it is nice how it just moved everything out of the way. You’re just left with the barebones of the story and what these characters are going through. It feels like you can really feel their fear and the tension without all the trappings of elaborate buildings or backgrounds or towns.
Then you jumped back to the next issues of “Magus” where drawing all of those things were key to the story.
It’s not as much of a character study as “DV8” is. “DV8” doesn’t have to focus so much on environments and where people are. It’s more about the characters and what they’re experiencing. With a story like “Magus,” you have to have a very clear sense of where they are and what goes on in those places and what the people who live there are like. The story is so dependent on the real world around them.
Do you use a lot of reference?
For environments, yeah. In “DV8,” I had to make the environments look realistic, but I never tried to make it look like a particular part of the world, because obviously it’s not supposed to be our planet. If I needed to do a desert scene I would find a picture of a desert, remember some characteristics, and try to draw it from memory. In “Magus,” I definitely had to use a lot of reference. It wouldn’t be successful or compelling if we didn’t make the world around it feel as realistic as possible. The environments had to be really heavily referenced.
Do you use much photo reference for people?
No. The only photo reference I use for characters is to take pictures of myself. I’m sure that you’ve heard it’s a very common technique for animators to have a mirror near their drafting table and just look at their own faces when they’re drawing a face just to get the correct expression. I do a variation on that where I use the webcam on the macbook and I just snap really quick pictures. I always draw the basic expressions and basic body language in my layout first so that I have some idea of what I’m looking for when I actually take the photo reference later.
What is your process like?
I do layouts, but mine are really quick and really ugly. They’re not the kind of thing that I would ever show anyone, mostly because no one could tell what’s going on. I think that my writers and editors are usually okay with them because they have the scripts in front of them so they can gather what the squiggles are. I have to make my layouts really really lose because I do pencils and inks. If I were to say do a really detailed layout and then pencils and then inks, I’d be drawing a finished picture three times over. So in order to keep things more interesting for me — and fast — ’cause I do finish one page a day, I have to do really awful layouts.
It’s more blocking out a scene than anything else.
Yeah, some of them are literally stick figures. [Laughs.] I’m always so jealous when I see artists who do these really beautiful layouts. I know artists who sell their layouts and they’re very in demand. I can’t imagine that would ever happen to me. [Laughs.] I’ve started doing them on the ipad as well, so that makes them even sloppier. It doesn’t have any sort of pressure sensitivity and the precision is just a little off with the stylus on that. It just makes it a lot faster for scanning and editing them and it saves me a lot of time, so I’m perfectly happy with that. In the end no one’s ever going to see my layouts except my editors.
Along those lines, as you said you ink and pencil. Are your pencils are pretty lose and you tighten it up in the inking stage?
Yeah I keep it really loose. Just to keep things interesting, so I don’t get bored and annoyed with drawing the same thing over and over. Aspiring inkers have asked me to scan my pencils and send them to them so they can practice and I can’t bring myself to do that. I feel like that would give them a really unrealistic expectation of what they would get if they were an inker. I mean it would be a challenge, so maybe it would be a good thing to prepare them. In case they do get a really sloppy penciler. But I think mine are, for the most part, totally un-inkable by anyone else but me.
I’ve heard that from a few people, that they try to do a lot in the inking stage, to keep it interesting and just because they don’t know how else to do it.
Yeah. After you’ve been doing it for a while, you just get so comfortable with it. I can’t really imagine being able to pencil for an inker. I’m going to have to, actually, and I’m kind of worried about it. Because you do become kind of a control freak after doing it for a while. But it’ll be a challenge so I’m looking forward to it.
Why do you feel need to ink as well as pencil?
It started out as just a money-saving idea on Devil’s Due’s part. When they started hiring me, they saw that my pencils were pretty tight. They were like, well, why don’t you try upping the levels in photoshop and see how that looks and it basically looked like inks. It was a little messy and a little scratchy in places, but that enabled them to not have to spend that extra money on an inker, which I think is perfectly reasonable for a small publisher to do. They did that on a lot of their books. So I just got into that groove and got used to doing super super super tight pencils.
Issues #1-4 of “DV8” were done that way with really, really tight, dark pencils that were bumped up in Photoshop, but it started to hurt my hand really badly. I started getting the onset of carpal tunnel, basically, so I had to teach myself to ink because I couldn’t get that kind of definition and ease up on my hand. The only thing I found that would enable me to do that would be to ink with a brush.
Having done that for a little while now, do you like how that comes out? Are you enjoying inking?
I do like that. I don’t think that I’m as capable an inker as someone who’s paid exclusively to ink, but it saves so much time. I think that that has helped me stay more in demand than someone who is at my level but only pencils. That’s a really attractive thing to an editor, to have somebody who can do a page of pencils and inks in one day, so it’s a marketability thing on my part as well.
Let’s back up, just because for many people their first exposure to you and your work was through “DV8.” How did you get into comics?
I really didn’t think that I would want to draw comics. It never occurred to me until I went to college. I went to Savannah College of Art and Design and before that I thought that I wanted to go into animation. I did a workshop on 2D animation at the Disney Institute a few years before college and I enjoyed it, but it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I just felt like the endless repetition of drawing the same thing over and over again took the joy out of the storytelling for me. I still wanted to tell a story and I still wanted to do it with pictures, but I just felt like I didn’t have the patience for 2D animation basically. [Laughs] And I never really had that much of an interest in 3D animation. I really enjoy watching it, but I just felt like being in front of a computer all day would really drain me of creative energy. I’m not very computer savvy, either.
So I went to SCAD not really knowing what I was going to major in, but I had heard that they had a comics major — they call it sequential art — and it sounded like something that might be an option for me, but I never really read that many comics. I read a little bit of manga, but very, very little. So I started it thinking if I really don’t like it, I’ll check out the 2D animation program there. So I started this program and I just loved it from the very beginning. I had really amazing professors and I learned just so much about what comics could be. They had a really great library there. That’s when I first read “Watchmen.” I was immediately hooked.
As far as getting into comics, I graduated and I took a year off teaching English in Japan. That was something I’d always wanted to do. When I came back I had a former classmate at SCAD named Mike Bear who I was still in contact with. He was drawing “G.I. Joe” for Devil’s Due and he got me the fill-in work on “Hack/Slash” with Tim Seeley. From there I did “Drafted” and “Sheena.” Then there was that year and a half lull. Then I got “Ms. Marvel” and “DV8” both through contacts that I made at New York Comic-Con that year. I think it was ’09. “Ms. Marvel” came out just a few months after the con. I did it super snappy in twenty-two days and it was printed just a little after that.
That likely helped your marketability right there, finishing an issue in 22 days.
Yeah. I mean I don’t think that you can possibility underestimate the importance of being fast. I hear that so much. People tell me, you’re really fast so you’re never going to want for work. Even if they don’t particularly like my work, they do acknowledge that I’m fast. And that’s good. I mean if aspiring artists need just one piece of advice on how to get and keep work, it’s to be fast.
Now “Magus” is coming out from 12 Gauge and it’s a very different book from their usual lineup. How did you get in touch with them originally?
I met Keven through SCAD, actually. All the students drew a selection of stories for “The Ride,” one of 12 Gauge’s most popular books and then they basically had a contest at the end to select who would actually be published in that issue. So he had a really good relationship with the professors there. One of my professors had recommended that I send work to him and meet him at New York Comic-Con. I did and it ended up being kind of bad timing because I got two pretty big gigs out of that con so I wasn’t really able to do anything with Keven at the time, but by the time we were done with the “Magus” pitch, things were clearing up for me a little bit and I had a few gaps in my schedule so we contacted him.
Let’s talk a little about how Jon Price or Brian Wood work. Do they write detailed full scripts? Do you have some freedom with what you do?
It’s pretty detailed full script. Brian tends to be a little freer with details. Because he used to be an artist, it’s easier for him to let go and let the artist decide on things sometimes. Jon came from a TV and film background so he tends to spell out angles and shots a little more, which is totally fine. It’s understood with us that if I think there’s a better way to show something, then I’ll just do it. We’re able to talk things out a lot because we live together, but he does have kind of a screenwriter’s take on writing a script. It’s a little more detailed.
You mentioned that your next project you’re just penciling. What made you take that on?
Well originally I was supposed to ink it as well. There were some delays in the script and I’m taking another job that I can’t say anything about, but it’s really, really exciting. I needed to start on that fairly soon, so it was basically just a time issue. I needed to finish this issue that I’d already committed to but we were running really really short on time and so we agreed that I would just pencil and we would get an inker for it.
As far as what we can talk about, “DV8” has finished and the trade is being released this spring. There’s a collection of “Drafted” coming out from IDW.
I just heard about that. Mark Powers contacted me this morning to get bio information ’cause they’re going to put new bios in. I had no idea. It’s really awesome.
You’re also drawing a one shot for Marvel, “Captain America and Falcon,” which also comes out in March.
It’s part of a series of one-shots featuring past and present allies of Cap, to celebrate his 70th Anniversary. The one I did with Rob Williams focuses on Falcon, who I didn’t know much about before doing the issue but really grew to like. I love that it’s always been kind of a recurring theme that he saves Cap’s butt right at the last moment. It made me wonder, why isn’t this guy more popular? I think he’s gotten some bad treatment in the past, and some of the turns his story took then played to unfortunate stereotypes. That’s one of the reasons I really loved Rob’s script. He addresses the Snap aspect of Sam’s personality in a very subtle and realistic way that ends up being quite heartbreaking. The first part of the book is all classic, splashy action that was really fun to draw, but the last two thirds of the book were what I really loved. There’s a lot of very heavy emotion in the story that was a great challenge to convey.
And then of course the second issue of “Magus” comes out today.
I’m finishing up “Magus” right now. I’m almost done with #5, so we’re definitely going to be on track to get the rest of the issues out on time. The delay with this one was a miscommunication with the printer. It wasn’t because we’re scraping pages together at the last minute. We’re definitely very on schedule for getting them out. Hopefully those should come out monthly after this one. We’re not sure about when the trade will come out but there’s definitely plans for a collection when all five issues are done.