The mind of a comics cover artist works differently than those of the interior gang.
While many comics fans know the stylistic and storytelling ins and outs of their favorite pencillers, cover artists like Andrew Robinson work from an entirely different standpoint - trying to craft a well balanced image that's evocative and gets across the point of the story at hand. And while Robinson himself made a big splash back in the day taking over cover duties on DC Comics' "Starman" for the departing co-creator Tony Harris, the painter's signature style seems more popular now than ever with work on DC's Titan-centric "Deathtrap" crossover and several of its Superman books, amongst others.
To get into Robinson's process for turning a story concept into a killer cover, CBR News spoke with the painter about how he's switched up his style since returning to comics work full time, the unique challenges of his current gigs, and his future as an interior artist on his creator-owned series "Dusty Star."
CBR: Everyone remembers your covers from a few years back when you were pulling double duty with James Robinson on both "Starman" and "Hawkman." What have you been up to since then, and what brought you back into the comics fold?
Andrew Robinson: I spent some time doing other things. I did quite a few paintings for Cartoon Network for the initial "Ben 10" series. I was working on "Dusty Star," which is my own book, and that moves kind of slow. I also took some time to work on a band project called "Space Junkies."
What instrument do you play?
I play the harmonica. That's about it. [laughs] I'm trying to learn guitar, which is pretty tough. Lucky for me, I've been able to collaborate with a really talented musician, my friend Suki. She took my lyrics and then wrote the music. We've had a few gigs where I play harmonica for a few songs, and it's her singing and playing guitar, and her boyfriend plays the drums. So I took time to work on my own stuff. I did some gallery work and some fine art. I did game stuff like "Magic" cards here and there. I've done some painted sequential work for Wizards of the Coast. It was a seven-page online comic for the "Magic the Gathering" website, the second installment of their online comic. I think Chris Moeller did the first comic. I also did the Halloween issue of "Jack of Fables" in 2007, and last year I worked on "Superman/Batman" #50.
Did something happen where you decided that you wanted to get back into comics full time, or did it just kind of snowball from taking a gig here and there?
That's kind of how it went down. There's was one or two things, and then it was a whole slew of "Titans" covers, "Vigilante" covers, "Outsiders." And then [ editor] Jann Jones at DC learned I was available for painted covers, and she was talking to James Robinson, who was saying, "We need a cover artist for Superman," and she was like, "I'm pretty sure Andrew Robinson is available." Then wheels were in motion.
You guys put the band back to together.
Exactly. "Team Robinson." [Laughs]
With your current output, you've been doing a lot more traditional pencil and ink work. How has it been different than working in paint?
I think the main difference when I do covers like that is that I'm more just drawing out of my head. It's a bit more stylized and cartoony. And then when I do the paintings, especially for things like "Superman," I feel they're a little more serious - a little more realistic. I take the time to get models and set up lighting and have a photo shoot. It's just nice to be able to paint from a set of photographs. Not that I'm chained to the photos, but it lays a nice base for the lighting of the faces and the bodies. Shadows and all of that are really hard to just pull out of your imagination. That's the big difference. One is out of my head while the other is based more on reality and actually drawing for models.
The connected covers for the "Deathtrap" crossover certainly seemed to change things up for you in how you lay out a cover and render characters. Was that your own concept or something you worked out with DC editorial?
They sent me a few sketches of the Titans and the Teen Titans all headed towards Vigilante and Jericho. To me, it was just trying to make a nice, flowing composition that works as a whole but also works individually, cover to cover. It was pretty challenging trying to get a good mix of characters on each cover and having characters overlap from one cover to the next. It was their idea, but it was up to me to follow through. I was real happy with it.
It was a lot of fun, and I've done that style of composition a few other times - way back when I did a pinup with the X-Men and the Wildcats that was a very similar left-to-right motion. It's fun on some covers just to be able to show someone's arm, but if you see Flash's arm, you're going to know it's Flash without seeing the rest of his body. That's what's interesting to me - the nice cropping that let's you see some people in full figure and others obscured, but you can tell by the costume who it is.
You've also done a few of the "Faces of Evil" covers featuring the villains of the DCU on stark black backgrounds. In a case like that, do you shift your brain to think less about composition and more about character?
You're pretty much locked into the sort of "Jesus Christ" composition where it's not exactly in the middle - the people are centered, but the focal point is above the center horizon line yet still based on that center vertical line. There's not much you can do with that. But it was nice to have a black background and just one figure and then put everything you've got into that one person to make it look as cool as possible. I think my favorite was the Hush cover [for "Detective Comics."] I was really happy with that, but I did Hush, Deadshot, Kobra and another Vigilante cover.
With "Superman" and "Action Comics," you're working again with James Robinson, who has a pretty distinctive storytelling style. When you work on a book over a long run, do you keep up with the stories and try and match what the writers and artists bring to the table in terms of tone and theme, outside of the relative plot points?
I try to. I talked with James Robinson and Greg Rucka, but the hard part is that I'm trying to get covers done in time for a solicitation while sometimes the stories aren't quite finished yet. So I have a rough idea of what's going on, but it's basically a process of me getting information on the main characters of the book and trying to figure out what the setting might be. I just finished one that's Steel fighting Atlas, but I have to leave the background somewhat ambiguous because I'm not sure in the story where they're going to be. I try to just make things very natural and organic.
With "Action Comics," you're drawing the Nightwing and Flamebird characters, who have new costumes whose finer points were not established when you began your work on the covers. What's the learning curve like on depicting a new character for a cover?
Sadly, things are moving so fast that the character designs I got for the new costumes were very sparse. They were only shown from the front. So I'm constantly trying to get sequential pages for research, and that's been very challenging. I was hoping they'd let me design the costumes myself, but that wasn't in the cards. [laughs] I did get to design a couple of villains from Krypton that are on some covers coming up.
Do you see yourself doing more interior pages in the future?
I like doing sequential work. I'm just very slow. It's hard for me to keep a monthly book pace where you've got to at least pencil a page a day. For me, when I pencil a page in a day, I'm wiped out, but these monthly guys can do it day after day after day. And with 30 days in a month and 22 pages in a comic, you only have so many days to screw off until you're really in a crunch. Honestly, I think most pencillers these days have to have it in them to do two pages in a day just in case you get behind. I'm definitely not that guy. Or if I was, I'd have to change my style up. I'd have to do something a lot looser like a Kent Williams style to work at that speed.
How does it work for your own "Dusty Star" book then? Are you just producing pages when you can and eventually you'll get it to a publisher?
Yeah. There's an issue that came out three years ago from Image, and all-in-all I spent a good five years on that issue, which I know sounds kind of ridiculous, but it's been an off and on thing. But for me, I put every bit of my essence into those pages so things move kind of slow. Now I'm going to self publish. I want to do hardbacks, and I'm teamed up with the guys at Brand Studio Press. They do books with Phil Noto, Sean Galloway and a lot animation guys. It's just a nice way to do your own thing in the hardback, 46-page, full-color format. I figured if I'm really going to put the time into, I want it to be all me - from the front cover to the back, no ads, just "Dusty Star." I'll be doing pencils, inks and colors while my friend is doing the letters. Once the whole book is out, I'll send it off to them, and hopefully they sell. My goal is to have the first hardback out by this summer, and hopefully I can do my regular work and have time to finish that project.
Andrew Robinson's art continues to grace the covers of DC's "Deathtrap" crossover including this week's "Teen Titans" #70, May 13th's "Titans" #13 and May 20th's "Vigilante" #6. Check out his online home at http://nextexitcomics.com.