Last month, the best-looking DC Comics issue on the stands was from a fill-in artist who made his superhero comics debut. If you haven’t been reading “Legion Lost,” you probably missed it, but April’s issue #8 featured Aaron Kuder’s pencils and inks, and his meticulous-but-energetic style was not only distinctively different than the solid Pete Woods art from previous issues, but it flags him as an artist ready to make his mark on the comic book mainstream.
I’d already fallen in love with Kuder’s detailed artwork on Boom! Studios’ “Key of Z” which debuted last October, around the time of the New York Comic Con. Clearly influenced by Art Adams and some of the same European stylists whose work has filtered through to American audiences via guys like Geoff Darrow and Frank Quitely, Kuder’s work has an obsessiveness of line and a sense of expressive physicality that echoes the playful nature of his friend and colleague Chris Burnham.
If guys like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane were influenced by Art Adams’ mid-1980s use of line and shape to depict the idealized superhero in action — and they were — guys like Burnham and Kuder take that approach and apply it to the whole landscape on the comic book page. Their comics are hyper-detailed and fun to read. Well-drawn but never stiff. Elastic, but gritty. In the most wonderful way.
I wanted to talk to Aaron Kuder to find out where he came from and what he’s all about. He’s an interesting guy with an interesting story and though he will surely be an overnight sensation by the end of this year, with an arc on “Avenging Spider-Man” and a few other mystery projects due between now and the close of 2012, he has been hanging around the edges of comics for a long time. Watching and learning and drawing every chance he got.
Our conversation began via email, but after a couple of weeks of stalled electronic conversation, where we barely got into the Art Adams influence before our schedules got in the way, we decided to do a good old telephone interview. And here it begins…
Tim Callahan: Let’s kick it off talking about Art Adams, because that’s where we were going to start with email discussion. Tell me about where you first noticed Art Adams work as a youngster – were you a youngster when you first noticed his work?
Aaron Kuder: Yeah, it was in the late-1980s, I would say. I was in the pre-teen category…
And had you been reading comics regularly at that time?
When I was a kid I moved around a lot and comics were the thing that my parents shoved in my face to keep me quiet on long road trips. [Laughs] Little did they know they know that they would damage my future so badly.
So you were reading comics thrown your way and you chanced upon some Art Adams work in those issues? Is that fair to say?
No, I went from comics being shuffled in my face to going to the comic book store every week, almost over night. It was like…comics were the first thing that I realized that I wanted as a kid. Kids would grow up and see a toy and say, “I want that!” and then they’d have to figure out a way to get that. Most parents aren’t just going to hand it to them.
I remember comics being the first thing I said to myself, “I don’t care how I get that. I’m going to earn it.”
The same thing happened to me. It was the first thing I’d walk to the general store to buy. I wouldn’t go there to buy a candy bar or anything, but I’d go there to buy a comic.
The place where I started buying comics was also a baseball card shop, it was pre-big boom in comics, the McFarlane Spider-Man was still a year or two away and comics were in the back of the store. I had to wade through sports fans to get to the comics.
Was that around the time of something like “Secret Wars II,” or was it later than that?
I don’t remember ever picking up anything from Secret Wars II. The first series I remember really wanting was “Infinity Gauntlet.”
So that would have been a few years later. And “Infinity Gauntlet” was the first comic you remember specifically wanting and trying to buy?
Yeah, I wanted that. Unfortunately, it was one of those scenarios where you go to the comic shop with your best friend and he ends up getting the last issue of the thing you wanted, and that ended up being the last copy of “Infinity Gauntlet” #1.
And has that kid grown up to be a comic book artist extraordinaire?
No, I think he’s a truck driver now.
See? You win. You’re playing the long game, clearly.
The slow burn. [Laughs]
Okay, you got blocked on “Infinity Gauntlet” and then Art Adams comes into the picture around then? What was the first stuff you noticed from him? I mean, he’s one of the major influences on your work, right?
Oh yeah! Huge! It was right around “Uncanny X-Men Annual” #9. Either that one or the “New Mutants Annual” that he did. The same story arc.
Yeah, the big Asgardian Wars thing or whatever it was called.
It was totally Art Adams that pulled me in. 110% percent, definitely. At that time I wasn’t familiar with any of the X-Men side characters at all and just seeing his work…it just floored me.
What was it about his style that made you take notice of the fact that here was someone with a style? Maybe something you hadn’t really noticed about other artists before, but when Art Adams came along you thought, “this is something different.”
Yeah, it’s interesting because when you emailed me that kind of question [for our aborted email discussion], I sat down and realized I hadn’t given it two moments thought before. Art Adams style was something…it just clicks with you. But I remembered that when I was a kid, whenever I would read a book, every time I would picture the characters in my mind, they would all be like claymation.
This was also right around the same time the California Raising were doing commercials and there was a Mark Twain “Adventures of Huck Finn” movie [from Will Vinton].
I feel like Art Adams crossed the classic comic book style with hyper-realism in a really tangible way. That’s something that really clicked with me.
So there was a solidity to his…
A solidity and texture and dimensionality to Adams’s characters that made them seem like a whole new level.
When you say it “clicked with you,” was that the moment when you said, “I want to draw this kind of stuff,” or did that decision come later?
I had always known that I wanted to art for a living. Always.
When I was nine, my mom gave me anatomy books because she wanted me to become a medical illustrator.
Because you were drawing so much?
Yeah, little did she know…[Laughs] she really should have gotten me a computer.
I have always drawn. I didn’t go to art school or anything like that. I’m pretty much totally self-taught other than the normal gamut of high school education. And I knew that art would be my profession on some level. I didn’t know whether it would be through comics or what.
I think I always wanted to be an animator as a kid. That was just the easiest jump in my mind from what I liked to see at the time, cartoons and animation.
One of the things I still strive to capture in my art, in my comics, is that sense of motion.
That’s quite obvious in your work, yeah. You can see the movement. The kind of realistic…textured exaggeration of things. Makes it seem like things are fluid and moving. Did you actually follow certain animators as a kid, or were you just interested in animation in general?
I think it was just regular Saturday morning cartoons, with “He-Man” and “G.I. Joe” and all that stuff. I don’t think I learned that animation was something to be followed in the same way that…I think that’s one of the reasons I fell into comics was because you could see a name attached to the art, a name attached to the writing. When you’re a kid and you’re watching cartoons, it’s just this whole line or artists and writers that just scrolls across the screen, and a kid doesn’t pay attention to any of those names.
And one episode doesn’t look any different than another episode, whereas in comics…one issue of the series can look quite different if drawn by a different artist.
So even though you were interested in art and had anatomy books thrown your way and you were into comics, you didn’t go to art school. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Well, I kind of just fell into life.
Since high school I’ve done freelance illustration and random art jobs, but being that I was raised the way I was, it seemed incredibly impractical to do comics for a living. To do art solely for a living.
So I was a bartender for 12 years. I sold Turkish rugs. I worked at the University of Arkansas art department. A crazy hodgepodge. I worked as an electrician before I started doing comics full time.
And had you been drawing all those years?
Oh, of course. Yeah.
Were you drawing anything specific? Comic book kinds of things? What were you drawing back then?
One of the gigs that I did was for Osprey backpacks. They needed some instructional illustrations for their pamphlet book. I’ve done wine bottle labels and a bunch of poster art for bands and all the while still loving comics and doing comic book online competitions and stuff like that.
Let’s talk about that timeline a bit. From my understanding, you started doing things at the Ten Ton Studios Forum at some point. You hit upon that and started doing the various challenges and competitions…how long ago was that?
It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but it was close to ten years ago now. But because it was something I was just doing on the side at first, and not taking very seriously, those ten years have just flown by.
So it wasn’t a matter of you saying, “Here’s my ten year plan for breaking into American superhero comics…”
[Laughs] Not. At. All.
It probably wasn’t even until four or five years into it that I realized that, by doing these drawing competitions, it was setting personal deadlines for myself. It was a great exercise. And as soon as I realized that, I would try to enter as many as I could in a week. Just to challenge myself.
Presumably the time at that forum was also about meeting other people and making relationships, so tell me a little about that side of things.
Before I was affiliated with Ten Ton, I was doing competitions at other sites like PencilJack and Drawing Board and all the other ones. I think I originally stumbled across Reilly Brown’s artwork, and he was showing his work and saying, “This is something I’d done for this little site called Ten Ton.” So I checked it out, and to me it was the best online sketch challenge around.
It had Khoi Pham, Reilly Brown, Chris Burnham. This guy Chris Chua who is a phenomenal caricature artist. Jason Baroody. You can just go to the site and see that a bunch of the guys who are in the mainstream of the industry right now were just doing these online competitions every week.
So I saw that, and I saw the level of skill that these guys were bringing to the competition every week, and I said, “I can do this. I got this.”
So you weren’t at all intimidated by their awesomeness? Because by that point you’d developed enough chops to compete?
Awesomeness is contagious.
Even if I couldn’t bring anything to the table, it was always just fun to be a part of it. And I didn’t know if I was going to win every week, but after doing it a while I realized that I had just as much chops as these guys. Which was cool.
What’s interesting is that if you were to say, “Here’s this school of guys that came out of that forum…” you guys do have similar approaches to comics. Did you find yourself learning from each other as it went along, or did you all have similar influences going into the competition?
Whenever you have a studio of creative minds together, you’re going to swap ideas, you’re going to interact with each other and adopt things from each other. After a while, it becomes such a gray line as to where that starts and where that stops. Talking about Chris Chua — he always brought this incredible level of design to the challenges. And most of the time it was us trying to one-up him.
Or, Reilly Brown always brought this fun little quirky moment in time. There was a Green Lantern sketch challenge that we did, and he drew Guy Gardner mowing the lawn, turning around and behind him is this yellow dandelion sticking his tongue out.
There was just a ton of stuff that these guys brought to it.
And they had been hanging out for a couple of years on other sites, and they’d been going to conventions together, and I felt like kind of a third wheel getting involved in that, for a long time. But, eventually, I wore them down and they made me an officer…
See, part of your ten year plan! It all worked out. So you were doing these challenges and working with the guys at Ten Ton, but how did you transition from that into sequential comic book work? Was your first thing the “Amory Wars” book, or was there other stuff before that?
Well, the first thing I did was “Elephantmen” #25. They had decided to have each page as a splash page from every artist who had worked on the book in the past and my buddy Chris Burnham had done some stuff for “Elephantmen” and Richard Starkings was talking to Chris and saying, “You’re the only one left, I really need a page from you,” and Chris really couldn’t do it at the time. I think he was drawing “Amory Wars” and “Officer Downe” at the same time, which was crazy.
So Chris called me up and said, “We have kind of a comparable style, so how would you feel about doing a page if I did the roughs for it?” So Chris’ name could still be on the book and fulfill that need for art. So that was the first.
And how long did it take you to say “Yes” to that?
Like two seconds. My page was two pages away from a Dave Gibbons page. Crazy cool.
But I did really think anything else of it at the time. It was a nice little gig. But I was working as an electrician full-time. And a handful of months later, Chris gives me another call, and says, “Hey, this ‘Amory Wars’ project. I just got a call to do Batman. And I really love these ‘Amory Wars’ guys, the Coheed and Cambria guys, and I really need to find somebody to fill in for me. Do you mind if I put your name out there?”
And that was a harder choice.
NEXT WEEK: The finale of the Aaron Kuder interview, where we discover why the “Amory Wars” decision was a tough one, how much thought he puts into his background drawings, what surprise guest will appear in a panel of “Avenging Spider-Man” this summer, and more!