A Real Nguyen-er: Tom Nguyen talks "Justice League Elite" and more

The Justice League of America has seen a new spin off in DC Comics' "Justice League Elite," showing a team of characters doing the dirty work that the JLA won't touch and while you may at first think of writer Joe Kelly or artist Doug Mahnke, there's another vital part of the creative team you can't forget- inker Tom Nguyen. The muscular Minnesotan spoke with CBR News about a variety of topics, including how Doug & he became involved with "JLE."

"We had been on 'JLA' along with writer Joe Kelly as the regular creative team for over two years, so when Joe and editor Mike Carlin were discussing this 12-issue spin-off series, it was only natural that Doug and I tag along to experiment with something different," explains Nguyen. "'Unique' is the way some people would describe it; others may not see it that way. It is unique to me because up to that point I had never done it [laughs]."

While the now-classic film "Chasing Amy" branded inkers as tracers, Nguyen says his job working with long time friend Mahnke is not just tracing. "I take Doug's sloppy lines and make them pretty," laughs Nguyen. "Just kidding, Doug! The simplest way to explain what I do (and I have to thank inker Mark Stegbauer for this explanation) is that I take Doug's pencil lines and re-draw them in ink. The lines must be clean and clear, although that can be a stylistic preference. Add detail where I need/want to. Use different shading techniques and texture to separate things. Basically I'm trying to make Doug (or any penciller I work on) look as good as possible. I'm a 'linesmith,' I guess. I don't want to get into "inker hippie" talk, as it's really not as complicated as some guys want to make it out to be, and it's not my favorite subject [laughs]."

While Nguyen does "redraw" Mahnke's intricate linework, no character is more difficult to work on, though some interest Nguyen less than others. "I wouldn't say that, in my case, some things are harder to ink than others. Rather, some things are definitely more tedious and boring to ink than other things. For instance, I'm not a big fan of super-detailed tech stuff and machinery. That just puts me to sleep. Especially if it's roughed in and I have to rule out lines in correct perspective and connect other lines. Circles and ellipses (ovals) are the worst--especially one right after another in succession. Doug tends to freehand them, so I have to rule them out. Also, I hate inking very small objects and people. I do, however, enjoy (if there is such a thing in my work) hatching and crosshatching at times."

He also says that generally his own perceptions of the characters don't affect his inking, with some exceptions. "I don't really have a view on any characters that would affect my inking, other than if it's an attractive female, I'll try to use clean, flowing, graceful lines. Particularly in her hair and outline of her body. If it's a rugged, stubbly, dirty guy, then I'll reflect those qualities in my inks with more jagged lines and more texture and rendering. Maybe add more hair on his arms, chest, and stubble on the face. More wrinkles on the face, perhaps?"

In his career, Nguyen has worked on many major superheroes, from the JLA to his upcoming work on "Batman," but he doesn't get the same thrill as others might from working on these icons. "It's just work, man....just trying to pay the bills. Not exciting at all to ink them. I get as much excitement inking Superman as I do a crumbled can of soda. I mean it's nice, I guess. But it's much more exciting to draw them because I'd have complete control over how they look and pose. Ask me again when I'm pencilling one of the big characters in the future!"

Providing CBR with the perfect segue, attendees of Micro-Con in Minnesota will attest to the lines to see Nguyen's pencilling and obtain a sketch, which begs the question- why isn't he pencilling professionally? "I'm too busy tracin'!" he laughs. "I have done a couple pinups (pencils and inks) for DC. I'm so backlogged with ink work that I don't know if I'll have time to pencil anything for the time being. Actually, I lied. I am pencilling and inking an 8-page story written by Keith Champagne ('JSA' inker and DC writing up-and-comer) for ATP comics. A cool, futuristic chick story. A few editors are aware of my pencilling capabilities, it's just that they may be afraid to throw stuff my way because I'm so busy with inking. Or they just don't like my art haha! Also, I'm not sure they want to lose me inking."

If DC were to lose him inking, there's one character that Nguyen would jump to illustrate, saying, "I was always a big fan of Spider-Man. Yes, definitely Spider-Man all the way. I just know that he's been my favorite character for as long as I can remember. I remember him being one of the very first things I ever attempted to draw. Wonder Woman lately has sparked my interest in perhaps one day drawing her regularly."

There's some debate among fans about the relative merits of using photo references for art, but Nguyen is happy to utilize any resource available and explains what he finds useful. "For my work, personally, if I use any reference it'll be from photos like most artists do. Muscle magazines are good for musculature, but I also use myself posing in the mirror at times. That's another incentive for getting in shape, fanboys! For females, sometimes a swimsuit magazine or Playboy will suffice. There are tons of sexy women pictures on the internet for those, but they tend to be on the posed, cheesecake side, and not much on candid or action side. But I have friends who sometimes pose, and I'll take a digital snapshot of it and pull it up for reference. I don't use it as much for comic book style work as I do for my airbrush illustrations, where accuracy and realism are my goals. In those cases, I am very particular with my models and the references that come from those photo shoots. The poses and lighting have to be exactly as I want them. And then of course there are references for things other than people, like cars, planes, animals, etc.

"I don't have a problem with any artists using reference. If you use reference enough, it should eventually become part of memory anyway so you wouldn't need that particular reference in the future. I'd much rather see an artist use reference for something that is a weakness in his or her artistic ability than just fudging it and hoping for the best."

As mentioned earlier, Nguyen will be inking over Mahnke's pencils on "Batman" later this year as they take over regular art duties on that book and he explains how it feels to be on the book. "It will be exciting for the first ten minutes of inking the first 'Batman' page as I realize that it's an official Bat-book. Then reality will set in and it'll be just grunt work again [laughs]. The only opportunity this offers is that I'll have steady work for a little while longer, and that I don't have to ink as many characters in one book as I have been the last few years!"

While it is up to readers and fans to decide if comic aficionados are truly like "Comic Book Guy" on "The Simpsons," Nguyen has made his mark with his own physique along with Mahnke. Many fans have commented that Nguyen's attention to his own anatomy shines through in his art style and the inker/artist is glad to explain the roots of becoming a gym rat. "Thank you kindly. Doug and I are trying to bust the stereotype that comic fans and pros are out-of-shape losers! Through my youth, I had always been interested in strength and muscles. But my gym habit was haphazard at best, and as a result I was always skinny. I had the drive--I just didn't have any direction. Doug had always been into weightlifting (he's a freak!); in fact, he's a competitive Olympic lifter. A few years after I met him he finally wrote me a basic program to follow in the gym. I now had a direction! This was back in February of 1998. Couple this with intense reading of a few muscle magazines, and an appropriate diet, and I gained 20 pounds in my first few months of hardcore dedication. I was hooked with the results. Dammit, I wanted to look like the characters I drew. I've put on about 60 solid pounds since then, and have won 2 bodybuilding trophies.

"Bodybuilding has really complimented my approach to drawing the human figure. A lot of comic artists tend to outline every muscle generically in their art. But the muscles behave differently in certain angles and situations. Tension and lack of tension changes a muscle's shape and pronunciation. I try to integrate these ideas in my art. Doug is a master at this approach. Notice how he can create the illusion of mass and density in an arm, for instance, without having to outline every muscle. He never draws the same set of generically tensed abdominal muscles in every pose, because they stretch, relax, twist, etc. It's all in the careful placement of shadow and veins. Let's not forget the female figure! There are subtleties within the generic hourglass figure that can really add to the realism of their bodies. Now this, I am a dedicated student of! Wouldn't it be funny if any comic book art program integrated a required semester of 'Bodybuilding 101' in their curriculum? It would probably do some good...for your art and your body!"

Many comic book fans have asked Nguyen and Mahnke, along with other buff comic pros like Keith Champagne, about beginning a workout regimen and Nguyen has a few tips. "For starters, any muscle magazine on the shelf will do just fine. Just pick one up and start reading, even if you have no clue what you are reading about. That's how I started. Those magazines are catered to beginners, and it shouldn't be too hard to pick up. If you work out at a gym or health club, don't be afraid to ask questions. No matter how intimidating or big a guy looks, believe me if you are polite enough he (or she!) will be more than happy (and perhaps even flattered) to help you out.

"The internet is also an unbelievable source for more advanced information when you're done wearing out the magazines--particularly message boards where questions are constantly asked. As for supplements, if getting bigger and stronger is your goal, I would recommend a protein supplement first and foremost. These come in powder form that you can mix with milk/water, or a 'candy bar' form. For more hardcore lifters, I'd recommend giving creatine and glutamine (an amino acid to aid in muscle recovery) a try."

With the amount of injuries one can experiencing pumping iron, it might seem that this passion could hurt Nguyen's art, but he says that it hasn't hurt him at all. "It doesn't much...in fact it probably helps my back quite a bit since I'm hunched over for hours on end all day at the drawing table. If I resume working after blasting my arms at the gym, they will occasionally cramp up as I'm working. I am very careful in all exercises, making sure not to jerk the weight around, and never maxing out. I've been blessed to stay remarkably healthy in my almost-7 years of hardcore lifting."

If you have the chance to meet Mahnke and Nguyen, you'll notice the two have the rapport of brothers, something that isn't lost on either of them. "I actually had the same grade school art teacher that he had when he was young," says Nguyen of how the two met. "When I was 15 I visited her back at my old elementary school where she taught. Keep in mind I had always been a good student in her class, and have always showed great interest in pursuing art. As we caught up, she asked me if I was still drawing. I told her yes, and that I wanted to be a comic book artist. She said, 'One of my former students is a comic book artist. He does 'The Mask'.' Of course, this was referring to Doug and John Arcudi's memorable run in the early 90's for Dark Horse Comics. She arranged for us to meet and the rest is history. We became friends before we started working together.

"I couldn't ask for a better person to work with, because we're good friends and know exactly what to expect from each other. I know exactly what he wants and expects in his lines when I ink it. He knows what he's going to get from me. Sometimes he'll draw things that will cater to my strengths, and vice versa. We both like realistic, bodybuilder anatomy. We don't give each other shit when either of us slacks a bit. It's beneficial for me work over him because he's an excellent draftsman. I almost said 'fun' there, hehe. The best part is that we love weightlifting, and fall back on that quite a bit for conversation because a lot of times we don't talk comic books. Or at least I don't like to. By the way, my production company is working on Doug's pencilling and my inking instructional DVDs. Keep an eye out for those in the next year. Go to my site to check out the video preview."

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