Conversing on Comics with Dustin Nguyen

Welcome to the new weekly interview series Conversing On Comics,  in which Robot 6's Chris Arrant talks with notable people in and around the comic industry, focusing on the creative lives of artists, writers, editors and other figures in the industry. Look for new installments every Friday.

Dustin Nguyen isn't your traditional superhero artist. Sure, he can draw like the best of them -- and has done so on Detective Comics and Wildcats 3.0. But Nguyen's managed to forge his own path without sacrificing his own sense of style, from his early angular work on DC/Wildstorm's Jet to his maturation as a storyteller in Wildcats 3.0 and onto his entrenchment as a veteran on various Batman titles. And like some of his contemporaries, he's brought painting into his work, but not in the mold of Alex Ross or Steve Rude; he relies upon a nuanced palette and application using watercolor and acrylic.

For the past five years,  Nguyen has devoted himself almost exclusively to the Dark Knight and the denizens of Gotham City with runs on Superman/Batman, Detective Comics, Batman: Streets of Gotham, Batman & Robin and Batgirl. But now Nguyen is spreading his wings and pushing himself to what seems like the next stage of his career as he begins writing (with longtime inker and friend Derek Fridolfs) the digital-first Batman Beyond while also preparing to go outside of superheroes -- and outside of the DC Universe entirely -- as he draws a new American Vampire series subtitled Lord of Nightmares. And Dustin's not finished yet, as the project he wants to do next is a first for him: a creator-owned book of his own.

Chris Arrant: Easy one first, Dustin – what are you working on today?

Dustin Nguyen: Today, as we speak, I'm working on an American Vampire cover  and roughing layouts to a cover for a new Justice League Beyond chapter. Interior-wise, the next few months is dedicated to American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares with Scott Snyder.

Coming out right now is your work on Justice League Beyond and Batman Beyond, which sees you both drawing and co-writing and doing it for digital devices, which is later reformatted for print. How is this new phase of your career going for you?

It's been really fun having my hand in a the writing of things. I am, however, finding out that writing comics is a whole lot harder than drawing them. As far as the digital-first releases for Justice League Beyond, it honestly feels the same for me since we work months in advance anyway. The only big difference was the new format of breaking down the portrait orientated pages to work on a landscape reading device. That itself took a bit of rethinking, storytelling-wise.

Has the landscape reading format given you any unforeseen advantages or tricks you can use in panel design that you can’t do it traditional print comics’ dimensions?

One of the things that didn't require changes to the script, but I took advantage of were smaller "page turner" panels mid-page since the landscaped orientation required each page to break down into two halves for digital viewing. Without making each page read like a roller coaster of camera angles, it's fun to play around with that. As far as unforeseen disadvantages, digital means folks can zoom in and see all of your mistakes as well. [laughs]

Looking back at your career, I realized that you’re one of a handful of creators who’ve stuck with the same company for their entire career. Ever since your debut in 2000, you’ve worked exclusively with DC and their various imprints like Wildstorm and Vertigo. The only things I see you doing in comics outside of that was a backup in an issue of Blade of the Immortal years ago. What’s led for your decision to only work for DC?

Funny, because the Blade of the Immortal pin-up was actually fan art I did for the book, so really, all my professional work has been with DC. I started out with Wildstorm, and they really took care of me there, so I guess I just stuck with them -- renewing every time my contract was up for the past 12 years almost. Also, for the longest time, all I ever wanted to do was draw Batman, so might as well draw Batman and get some sort of stability.

Now that you've firmly had your chance to draw Batman -- and draw him excellently, I might add -- who else are you pining to draw? 

That's a good question, and I haven't really given it too much thought, honestly. My schedule until summer 2013 has been filled up, and I'm avoiding the "We should totally do that!" talk with anyone because it usually ends up with a scheduling conflict and not working, and I look like a flake. But, I would always like to have a solid foot in comics, if possible. It's what I love and where I think I'm most comfortable. One thing I know for sure is I'd love to eventually be drawing my own creations. In the long run, that's the most satisfying.

For the first part of your career you were known as a Wildstorm guy, and now you’re years into being known almost exclusively for Batman. What’s it like to be so identified with one set of characters?

Yeah, like I said, it's all I wanted to do for a while, and it's not a bad thing to be identified with an icon like that. Fortunately, DC also has a huge backyard called Vertigo, so that's where I'm hoping to try new things and see what I like. Creator-owned is probably the next step, if not a serious passion project. But ultimately, I think with any artist that's ever worked on a huge iconic character -- you want to be the one selling Batman, rather than Batman selling you. That's not to say I'm leaving Gotham; I still have many stories to tell, and now that DC's letting me dabble in writing as well ... well, the future is very open. My samples to break into comics were Batman pages, and in the long run, I'd like my last story before I leave comics to be Batman. But who really wants to leave comics, right?

You’re an alum of Wildstorm, and others I’ve met who worked in their system have a deep affinity and camaraderie with the others who worked there. Can you describe your feelings about the Wildstorm offices and people you worked with there? Also, did you ever work in their studio, or have you always worked from home?

It's very true, for some reason, there is a huge camaraderie with anyone who's ever worked in Jim Lee's studio. It's a tight bond between not just the artists, but editorial and staff as well. My editor right now on Justice League Beyond, Ben Abernathy, was also my editor on Wildcats 3.0 -- my first monthly series. It's one of those things where you say to each other, “Let's get back together on a book one day," then years later, you do and it picks up right where you left off.

I worked in the studio when I started out; I was there for little over half a year, I think. I was living in Long Beach at the time, and the office was in San Diego, so it was a bit of a drive day to day. Drawing comics, like most freelance art careers is an all-day thing, so it became difficult to drive two hours in, settle down to draw, then pack up, drive back two hours again and then set up and settle back down to draw again. I eventually found I was most productive if I stayed in one spot, so I asked to leave the studio and work from home. Around that time, they asked if I would like to go exclusive. It was a good idea at the time, being how unsteady comics can be for new guys.

Another thing I noticed when looking back at your first work is that inker Derek Fridolfs, who now co-writes with you, has been with you since day one. How did you meet Derek, and how would you describe your relationship with him?

Derek and I was paired up by Chew's writer John Layman, who was the editor at Wildstorm at the time, and gave me my first comic gig. I was new and they wanted to try a few different inkers on my work, and Derek was actually the first one and we worked on the Jet miniseries together.

Derek is probably one of my first friends in comics -- anything we work on is always the truest of collaborations. We talk almost every other day, if not just shooting emails and instant messages to either talk about a new idea, or joke about a bad idea. Either way, ideas are constantly being exchanged and sometimes fought over. And as long as he knows that I am always right, we're always really good friends. [laughs]

Together, you and he have become writers at DC -- first doing shorts and some fill-in work on Batman: Streets of Gotham, and now you tow are writing Batman Beyond and Justice League Beyond. Has writing been something you’ve always been angling to get into?

Yeah, after Jet, we split up for a bit but kept in touch and kept exchanging ideas on stories we'd like to tell one day, books we'd want to get on, and said if the chance arose again, we'd make it happen. Right about the time I started moving to do more DC work than Wildstorm, I was offered Superman/Batman. I felt that was a perfect chance for us to kick off our insidious plot in taking over, so I wrangled Derek back in the mix and from there went to Detective Comics and Streets of Gotham. By a total strike of luck, we landed both series working with one of my favorite writers, Paul Dini. I learned a ton working from his scripts, and he was nice and open enough to let us collaborate on plots and script a few issues of Streets of Gotham. That sampling made us thirst for more, so here we are.

I think most creators, being an artist or writer, always had to start out with an idea, a story in their mind. I've always wanted to write, but I've found I'm a lot better at drawing, so I've always stuck to that. On Justice League Beyond, I'll be honest and say that Derek does most of the heavy lifting for both of us. Most of my “ writing” comes into play during plotting and before scripting, and while I'm drawing and structuring the story thru panels and gestures by the characters. Its very satisfying to be able to have your hand completely in the book throughout the process.

That sounds akin to the Marvel Method Stan Lee famously used. Have you ever drawn a comic in the Marvel Method, where you have a loose outline but not full script? Would that be something you’d be interested in doing?

I did once, for a Justice League of America short story a few years back with Marv Wolfman. It worked out great, I thought. I think when it comes to scripts and plots, and how they are written, it really just comes down to a solid story and if you're working with a writer who knows what he/she's doing. You can have the tightest full script and have it make absolutely no sense if the pacing or story telling is off ( and if its a crappy story). Guys like Paul Dini and Scott Snyder can give you four sentences for each page and it'll be all you'd need to make that scene be amazing. It's like getting a full-on pinup with all the hatches, renderings, and full-on Photoshop treatment -- but with bad anatomy, versus a solid pencil sketch with all the right gestures and emotions going across. That's if you want to compare it to a drawing.

As an artist-turned-writer, what do you think of DC’s recent change in policy to encourage artists to try writing, from you to J.H. Williams III and Tony Daniel among others?

I think it's just great. They don't push it on you, but to know the option is there. It says a lot about the working relationship between creators and editorial. I think the true test on whether it's a good idea or not, however, is always on the acceptance in the final product by readers.

You mentioned earlier how you were thinking about doing creator-owned work, and seeing how you’re working at Vertigo where they do a bit that … how real a possibility is it that you, and perhaps Derek, might do something on your own there in the near future?

I'd like to think it's very real. The editorial team I've been working with is amazingly receptive and open to ideas. It really just depends on me now, I guess -- if i can come up with anything worth publishing.

While you dream that up, your mind is currently on drawing the spin-off miniseries American Vampire: Lord of Vampires. I believe this is your first thing for Vertigo, and quite different from what you’ve done before. Is this project something that sought you out, or were you looking for something different?

It's a lot of both. A while back, Scott Snyder and I had talked about working together on something. At the time, we were talking about a New 52 book for the reboot, but I was already committed to Justice League Beyond at the time, and it wasn’t going to work schedule-wise. So we just put it off for a while. A little before that, I had already been talking to Mark Doyle over at the Vertigo office about trying out something “different." I think I've always been stuck with one of those styles that's not mainstream enough to sell massive numbers for titles, but at the same time, not indy enough to get the street cred. [laughs] So I figured, why not just do something completely different from what I've been doing, and let's see what comes out of it. So back and forth, scheduling finally lined up with opportunity and we were able to make it work.

Your use of watercolor, which you added to your palette during the time you were doing Wildcats 3.0, has really set you a part from others. I notice you do it frequently on covers, but have you ever done an entire book that way?

I have not, just short stories for annuals and specials, but never in its entirety. Its a totally different process for me, and takes me forever to get anything done, so again, one of those things where scheduling has to really be planned out ahead of time. This might be the year, though.

Another thing you’ve innovated with your work is chibi-style characters. At first you did them for fun, but recently DC’s let you use it on two back-up stories, calling them "Lil Gotham Tales." Can you explain how it went from something you were doing for fun to something DC wanted you to do in their books?

Yeah, I'm very happy with the way it's been going. I think that look has been popular for a while now, I started trying it out after I saw Capcom's Puzzle Fighter designs. It sort of just grew on me, and I honestly feel I can do more expressive characters in that style than any other. Also, again, it's something different than what I do every day in books. It took a while, but eventually, I think DC felt I was going to do it no matter what. [laughs]

Really, though, its what I was saying earlier, the option is there to pitch new ideas. And if it could benefit everyone, there's a good chance it can happen.

Come back next Friday as Conversing on Comics returns and Chris Arrant talks with comics big players who most fans have never heard of: artists' agent David Macho!

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