TOMORROW'S SUPERSTAR ARTIST: JASON LATOUR
Like so many things in and around the world of comics, my first contact with Jason Latour was online. I know you haven't heard of Jason Latour yet, but trust me, you will come to know his work well by the end of this year. He's that big of a deal, even if he's humble about it. I realize that I'm prone to hyperbole at times, but in this case, I'm telling you straight: Jason Latour is the best comic book artist you haven't heard about yet, and with all the work coming out between now and January, he's going to make a name for himself in the comic book industry. His style is so distinctive and bold, his understanding of comic book grammar so refined, that, well, just wait and see for yourself.
So I first met Jason online a couple of years back, when we were both in a fantasy football league together. I didn't know he was a fantastic artist at the time, and when I met him at San Diego last year, I found out that he was an artist, but I didn't know he was an ARTIST. Because, at the time, very little of his work had hit comic book shops. He'd done a few small press things that I completely missed, and he was talking about work he was producing that wouldn't be seen until 2011. He was drawing in this weird void without feedback from readers, and he knew he'd be doing that for a long time.
But then I saw some of his work, and I could not believe how fully formed he was as a stylist. I've met a lot of artists, famous in the world of comics and not, and I've never been as surprised by what an artist's pages looked like as I was with Jason. He was such a funny, unassuming guy. Like me, Jason comes from a working class background with no patience for pretense or arrogance. And still, he was carving these panels that showed that he was ready to be something special in the industry, right away. Yet no one outside his friends and colleagues would see his work for months or years.
This is the week when Jason Latour makes his splash. His work on "Daredevil: Black and White" shows up this Wednesday, and he has a lot more high profile work scheduled for the rest of the year. And I wanted to talk to him about that, and about a bunch of other things. So I did.
Tim Callahan: Okay, Jason, you're going to hit the second half of 2010 pretty hard, and a lot of people - people not yet in the know - will look at the work you're doing and think, "huh. Who is this Jason Latour? Where did he come from, and how did he get so good?" So, who are you, where did you come from, and how did you get so good?
Jason Latour: Well first off, I'm flattered you'd call my work "so good." It means a lot to me when someone says they dig what I'm doing, because from where I sit my stuff is kind of like the "The Great Trash Heap." In the right light, at just the perfect hour I can see it as beautiful, but most times it's just garbage or things I dropped the ball on. Still it's MY garbage. My magic talking garbage.
Anyway, to your question... I'm from Charlotte, NC and my family back ground is kind of a pale blue collar, so despite having the comics bug early I wasn't around a lot of artists or creative people to foster that. But I was fortunate to have overly supportive parents and to find one hell of an oasis in my local comics shop, Heroes Aren't Hard to Find. I drug my dad to my first Heroes Con in my early teens and it wasn't long before I started putting together sample pages and going to the show in an effort probe the brains of the artists and writers there. Luckily those guys were very giving and open, those comics pros helped raise me, or at least gave me a drive that lead me to pursue my interests further. I did that for years on end, it was pretty much my only formative art education. Three summer days a year for ten years and then back to the desert.
But from there, well, the interest didn't wane but the drive did. I drifted for a while until I woke up in my early to mid 20s with a very non-creative, worker drone, drink your weekend away kind of life staring at me. That kind of caused a real melodrama, a mid-life crisis-Ed-Norton-"Fight Club" moment of sorts which finally prompted me to give comics a real shot again. Jump cut past damn near ten years of relatively obscurity later...
TC: Okay, so you've been toiling away in the comic mines for about a decade, and what have you learned about yourself and your approach to comics in that time? What kinds of stories have you worked on? Has your style changed over the years, even if many readers may not have seen the development?
JL: It's honestly taken me that long time to feel like I'm not just regurgitating my influences at every turn. I think that's kind of the nature of the beast when you're trying to figure out who you are. You kind of repeat what you take in.
I became pretty aware early on that I tend to be very imitative, which made the idea of working in mainstream comics feel like I was climbing someone else's mountain. My first desperate rebuttal to that was doing my own silly little comic strip, which was the first time I felt authorship of something. It taught me that I could open up and be myself a little, use a genre as a language to say something, even if that something was a bad joke. The problem became that once I realized I had my own voice I decided I wasn't going to talk quietly in the library. I fell victim to that awful "kill-your-idols-your-favorite-band-sucks" nonsense. Pretty soon my own ideas all became grand, sprawling, personal "how do I know you see the same color red I see" statements .
That was a large reason why things fell apart on my first book "The Expatriate." That book wasn't David Lynch or anything, but it really was kind of an attempt to bust free. When it fell apart, laying there in my own bool-sheeiit I was kind of forced to reassess some of those early lessons. I realized I'd kind of been handed this really great handbook and somewhere along the way I'd used the good chapters for toilet paper.
So I literally went back to the drawing board. I sort of stole away and walked the Earth like Kane from the "Kung Fu." Spent time coloring comics, writing stuff that no one will ever see, some that people will. Ate a lot of ramen and kind of made a real effort to figure out what comics means to me as a person and as a professional. It probably sounds artsy fartsy, but life is now kind of my work and vice versa. I'm trying to approach every story with new eyes and kind of try to figure out what part of me needs to come out, or what I need to put into myself in order to tell it. I have a theory that's the key to doing this stuff, be it "Daredevil" or "Eightball." I guess those are the big lessons from the coal mines so far.
TC: Well let's backtrack a bit (sorry to make you regress) and talk about some of those early influences. When I first met you in person, our long talk was about the greatness of David Mazzucchelli, because it was right after "Asterios Polyp" came out, and you were definitely feeling the glow from that book. What do you like about that graphic novel, and about Mazzucchelli's other work? And what other artists influenced your approach to comics, mainstream or otherwise?
JL: Well, I seriously think we should be giving out an award called the Mazzucchelli. I don't think anyone has ever used comics in the way that "Asterios Polyp" does. I was fortunate to met him a couple of times in passing. I remember him talking about drawing as a form of writing. He was just casually dropping the kind of knowledge. Those are the kind of conclusions it takes decades to come to. When he made that meaningful in "Asterios," that really blew my mind.
Influences? Definitely Miller... specifically "Dark Knight Returns." Mignola. Those two guys really formed my view of what a cartoonist could and can be. Chuck Jones is actually a huge influence.
I've always been a huge fan of art and comics where you can feel the invisible hand behind it. I kind if internalize a lot of other kinds of art and try to channel it. Music, movies, novels. Comics kinda feel like songs to me sometimes.
TC: Let's talk Chuck Jones, since everyone in comics cites guys like Miller and Mazzucchelli and Mignola as influences (because they are pretty damn great). But why Chuck Jones? And what specific Chuck Jones work has inspired you the most? Was it a childhood thing, or an appreciation you developed later? I guess this is my way of asking: what the heck do cartoons have to do with these serious funnybooks we're talkingabout?
JL: I think his cartoons were the first time I noticed a distinct mind at work. They really helped cultivate my absurdist side, my sense of humor. The stuff he was doing was so full of character, you felt like his Daffy Duck was a real person. I could picture Daffy walking off the set after a shoot to go drown his bruised ego in vodka and cry in a hooker's lap or something. I know he had large literary influences. Sure the stuff was satirical of its time but you can really see he was so well read, so smart, but never condescending.
Aesthetically there's such a visceral rawness to it. Like controlled freedom. You'd have a perfect gestured, supremely well designed character... but then the freedom to just let his mouth go wobbly and crudely expressive. My dream is to get away with... to find the place for in a story for blotches of color for trees, or something like that Marvin the Martian space base.
TC: I like those Chuck Jones/Maurice Noble collaborations too. Jones is at his best when Noble does the backgrounds/layouts, with something like "Duck Dodgers" or "Duck Amuck." When Noble's not around, and the backgrounds are more conventional, less abstract, Jones's "controlled freedom" isn't given the platform it needs. This is kind of a poor analogy, but if the background is too conventional, or too detailed, it's like putting a dynamic painting inside a distracting frame.
Since we're on this path of aesthetic appreciation and stylistic approaches, what is your technique for drawing backgrounds? How do you integrate your characters into a world that feels substantial but also has a vitality to it? And how do you keep your figures from getting drowned in background detail? I know a lot of artists have an impossible time with making their characters look like they're inhabiting a physical space, and yet you make your characters and their worlds fit together seamlessly, with just the right balance of realism and abstraction of detail. What's your process for pulling that off?
JL: I did say "controlled freedom" didn't I? Christ. I sound like Dick Cheney. Now HE would have been a great Chuck Jones character. I'd like to see Jones draw him having a heart attack. It'd look like when Daffy drank that cowboy hooch.
As for backgrounds, a big key is to treat environments like characters. So sometimes abstraction is what's most expressive or called for, and other times it really should appear nearly photographic. If you draw a guy waiting at a subway station like Jack Kirby would, then you're probably not communicating the experience of waiting at a subway station. That shot is probably going to be still and full of detail, because when life slows down, details generally become more clear. That's where you do life studies, pull out the reference and the photos and the 3D models, whatever it takes to get that subway right. And of course the inverse is true, we've all seen the photo traced punch or the guy who traces Chicago when he's supposed to draw NY. We know that turd. Every time that's done the sky rains Jack Kirby's tears.
A real problem is that people just don't know what the focus of their shot is, much less think of it like a shot. Make an effort to understand the story you're drawing. You can't do a shot if you don't know the story. It's about observation, and being representative of the world and not so much about being accurate. There are just a million ways to achieve a shot. Once you kind of figure out why, the how is a byproduct of that.
TC: Can you give a specific example of a scene that you drew, and walk us through your method of composing each panel as a shot? How did you select what to emphasize, and how much of that emphasis was dictated by the script?
JL: I can try. My mind is like a bad neighborhood, we might not want to stay in there too long.
Here's a page of script from the :Daredevil: Black and White" story, written by Peter Milligan.
CUT. EXT. Matt walks along a street. He is wearing the dark glasses again.
CAP I'M ADVISED TO WEAR DARK GLASSES FOR A WHILE, AS THE GLARE MIGHT HURT MY SENSITIVE EYES.
CAP BUT EVEN WITH GLASSES, THE LIGHT IS INCREDIBLE.OVERWHELMING.
CUT. Inside a modern art gallery. Matt stands in front of an abstract painting of swirling, expressionistic shapes. He's taken his glasses off to look at it.
CAP I SPEND HOURS IN ART GALLERIES, GETTING HAPPILY LOST IN ENDLESS LANDSCAPES, ABSTRACT TERRAINS.
CUT. Now we're in a subway. Matt sits on one of the seats. He isn't wearing his glasses. He has a smile on his face. Even this simple thing is giving him joy.
CAP I RIDE THE SUBWAY.
CAP AND EVERY INCH OF GRIME I SEE IS AS BEAUTIFUL TO ME AS ANYTHING IN THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART.
CUT. Now we're out on the street, it's a sunny day. Matt is talking to a lovely looking young woman. Real California girl, with blonde sun-kissed hair.
CAP I CHAT TO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN ABOUT THE WEATHER.
CAP OH, THE SHIMMER OF HER BLONDE HAIR. THE WAY THE BLUE OF HER EYES GETS LIGHTER WHEN THE LIGHT FALLS ON THEM.
The story is about Matt Murdock regaining his sight, or so it is meant to appear. So I felt like the entire page should build into a walk through that experience from his POV. The problem with that is that it's a pretty cinematic approach. In superhero comics readers aren't generally conditioned to seeing through the eyes of the character (which is strange because there is so much first person narration) or being presented with associative imagery. So one trick was gradually setting him up and losing him, stealing him away. The second thought I had was to really saturate things with white and give the impression of flooding light. That's where it started. Everything else kind of grew out of that organically.
I wanted to move toward that gradually building as his emotions and experience built, have each step become more overwhelming in it's way. The added element here is was that a lot of this is Matt's subconcious seeping through. This is not a literal event. I decided to use that to hint at the larger issues in his head. The art gallery is full of images associated with his past (or meta-textual homages to his comic book past). The janitor is suspiciously familiar, as are the "thugs" on the subway and the "beautiful" woman. To us at least. Matt's never seen them. I felt that kind of made some of this scene plausible and allowed for the details being lost to be natural because he never possessed them before. So is this his mind filling in the gaps? Or is it just bright light? Both? Something else?
By the time we get to the girl we've lost the image of Matt and are hopefully with him. The effort is to build toward the moments. The subway and art museum are the only real environments, so they need to feel more or less like they would in real life. Art museums are flat. Subway cars, when you're in them, aren't these tubes that stretch on forever. I tried to put the attention on the mundane so that the experience of seeing the girl would be more impactful for it's lack of detail and abstraction. If I were drawing Kirby's Asgard, the focus would possibly be the other way around.
My head hurts. Can we talk about Daffy Duck and hookers again?
TC: Daffy Duck and hookers? This is COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, your home for deep aesthetic discussions about the art and science of comics, not a home for pop culture drivel!
Speaking of pop culture drivel, what else inspires you to create your art, outside the realm of comis? Any movies? Television - I assume you're a "Breaking Bad" guy, right? Music? What fills the essence of Jason Latour's soul?
JL: The essence of my soul is filled by muffins. I am where muffins go to die. I'm still upset I didn't find that rumored muffin yacht at SDCC last year.
Yes. "Breaking Bad" guy. Right here. It started out so well. I thought it was going down in the annals of TV history. Then it took a dip for me in that second season, I felt like the fact that they'd planned to kill Jesse and then back tracking from that caused them to scamper for footing , but this third season I think it found its direction and charged straight into being the most entertaining show on TV. I just find myself rooting for Walt to go full blown toxic hog shit evil. It's totally the egomaniac in me that wants to see him truly become amoral and prove he's the smartest man in the room. For once I want to see a show that should end with Nero playing the fiddle.
Music-wise it's mostly storytelling or lyrically driven stuff. I'm a very big outlaw era and alt country fan, especially stuff like Patterson Hood and Drive By Truckers. I still have a great love for hip hop. I get obsessive when I find something I like. I've listened almost exclusively to Nick Cave for weeks now. Never have I had stabbing and kissing so confused. At least not since Junior Prom.
The last great book I read was "White Noise" by Don DeLillo. I went on NY-centric authors binge and read a few Paul Auster and Richard Price books prior to that. Last movie.... I just re-watched "Taxi Driver." I hadn't seen that since my early 20s. It was like a totally new movie. I watched some of "Delta Force 2" with my dad. Awful movie that is. The dialog is so shitty it's like a work of art. I always confuse that movie with the one where the guy has the flying bike. God, early 80s action movies. To be a screenwriter back then... just laughing the cocaine all the way to the bank.
TC: I pictured "Megaforce" in my head, when you responded with "DeltaForce 2," so I know exactly where you were coming from. As a kid, I was always impressed that the guy from "Knight Rider" could quote Shakespeare in "Megaforce." That impressed me almost as much as the kickass weaponed-up vehicles.
In other embarrassing news from my past, I did spend much of my childhood drawing guys dressed like Boba Fett driving flying rocket-launching "Megaforce" motorcycles. Actually, that shouldn't be embarrassing at all. I would totally read a comic with pages of drawings like that. I guess that leads to my follow-up question: what is your next big project, and does it involve guys dressed like Boba Fett and magic motorcycles? If not, why not?
JL: There is kind of a big wheels-esque kind of power vacuum in comics, huh? I thought there was one with ninjas but the first three things I've done for Marvel are all ninja flavored so maybe I was wrong. There was "Daredevil: Black and White" #1 with Peter Milligan. A short Iron Fist story written by Duane Swiercynski in "I Am An Avenger" #1, and I'm doing a Silver Samurai back up with Jason Aaron in "Wolverine" #1. So maybe it was my destiny to become the ninja guy? Is the mantle of "American Ninja" like the Iron Fist? I'd be cool with that. Maybe I can bring back "The Nth Man"?
After those is "Scalped" #43 for Vertigo. Which is of course Jason Aaron and I. The All-Redneck issue featuring the return of Sheriff Wooster Karnow. It's a dream gig. I get to work with a guy that talented, who I call a real true friend, on his passion project, which just happens to be my favorite comic. Yeah, that's why I got into doing this.
Later in the year is probably going to see my long form writing debut in "Loose Ends" for 12 Gauge. It's a Southern Crime Romance of sorts, drawn by Chris Brunner and colored by Rico Renzi (who is my tag team partner on the Marvel stuff as well). If you don't know their work you really are missing out. Chris in particular is the kind of guy who keeps other artists awake at night. We share a workspace which is sometimes like playing next to Jordan or something.
In February "Noche Roja," the 180-page Vertigo Crime OGN I did with Simon Oliver, is released. That was a tremendous experience and opportunity, and basically the bulk of my work to date. I'm pretty proud of it and eager to hear what people think. It's gonna be a nice thing to have in my library.
Beyond that I'm working away on a couple of creator owned things, one I hope to do as an ongoing writing gig, the other as a writer/artist. I'd really love to crack the stands on some work for hire writing or writer/artist work at some point. I'd like to do a humor strip again eventually. I guess we'll see. I just want to do the kinds of comics I like to read. I don't think I have time for anything but that... I mean it's going to be a busy year. Finally.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan