You can tell a story in comic form without words, but a story without pictures can never be a comic. At this year's Emerald City Comicon, Image Comics held a panel to celebrate the people who turn an assortment of words into a literal piece of art -- the artists. Several illustrators of the publisher's top-selling books were present to talk about their process and answer questions from the crowd, including Benjamin Dewey ("Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw"), Nick Dragotta ("East of West," "Howtoons"), Dustin Nguyen ("Descender"), Wes Craig ("Deadly Class"), and Leila Del Duca ("Shutter").
The panel began with some exciting news from Dragotta: "The 'Howtoons' project has just been picked up by Scholastic." For those unfamiliar with the title, he quickly described it as "an educational comic that teaches you how to make things using everyday household goods." The moderator quickly added, "It's the 'Anarchist's Cookbook' for kids."
This was followed by a discussion of Dewey's art on "Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw." His work was described as "absurdly detailed," and a spread he drew of a city was given as an example. He acknowledged the amount of work this took, but downplayed heavy artistic detail as a sign of great art, saying, "The thing about having detail as a part of getting people into the narrative can be a drawback in some ways because you're articulating certain aspects of that for them.
"One of the artists I really like is this guy named Goran Parlov, who is awesome but not super well-known. He did 'Starlight' [with writer Mark Millar] and there's a double-page spread in that where he's drawn this entire alien landscape all the way to the horizon. There can't be more than 200 lines in the page, and it does everything I would do with 20,000 lines. And I feel like that's the mark of someone who is really masterful -- not that every style has to be the same. In part, the reason that there's so much detail in the things I do is because I don't know how to do it efficiently."
The topic then moved to methods of capturing the emotions of characters when drawing them. Dragotta replied, "I think you start with the eyes. If you don't get the eyes right, you're probably off. And then you'll do that first gesture, and you'll go, 'All right. This is worth finishing.' But if that gesture is not right, you can finish it all you want, but it still won't be alive."
Craig added to this and said, "If you're drawing a grimace and your face is grimacing, that's a good sign."
Next, the panelists talked about how they decided on projects. As all of them are working with established writers in the industry, one may assume that they would automatically say "yes" to any project offered -- but that wasn't necessarily the case. For all of them, it came down to passion and desire. Dewey relayed the history of his partnership with "Autumnlands" writer Kurt Busiek first.
"I had been complaining to my studio mates [at Periscope], 'Nobody draws Kamandi anymore, and they did Kamandi for DC's 'Wednesday Comics' project and it was awesome...I really wish I could draw Kamandi.' And then I got a phone call the next week and it was like, 'Hi, this is Kurt Busiek. Do you want to draw a book that's like Kamandi?' And I said, 'Yes, I do!'"
Dragotta had a history with his partner Jonathan Hickman, but he still made sure to follow his passion. He told the audience, "With Hickman, we just came off a stint at Marvel doing the Fantastic Four, and...I felt pigeonholed into just being a second-rate artist trying to do Kirby. Jonathan said that [his book] 'The Manhattan Projects' was doing well at Image, so we should try to do an Image book. He originally wanted to do a western, but I wanted to draw science fiction, and he was just like, 'We'll just merge the two.' And that's how 'East of West' was born."
Dewey then offered a bit of advice to the aspiring artists present. "Once you get into freelance, if you end up doing a project that takes a year of your life and it's not exactly what you want to do, you'll get to a point -- no matter what the money is like -- where you're not getting to see your friends and family, and you're eating badly...so make sure it's damn well worth it.
"I advise anyone who's in comics or trying to break into comics, make sure -- no matter what -- make sure you value the story, even if it's just 8-pages," continued Dewey. "If it doesn't say something that speaks to what you think is important for the world to have, then it's a waste of your time and ultimately a waste of your reader's time."
After this, the panelists began to discuss their art's coloring. They all admitted to feeling an attachment to their colorist, as Image creators get to choose who they want to work with -- a scenario that doesn't regularly occur with other publishers.
Del Duca enthusiastically offered to kick off this discussion and began by saying, "'Shutter' is colored by Owen Gieni...and he is so freaking talented. I work in different styles sometimes, my colorist matches every new style I introduce into the comic. And in the process, he comes up with entirely new styles of his own."
Dragotta followed this and said, "The guy I work with is Frank Martin Jr. And for me, personally, I think colorists are like the new inkers or embellishers. They're finishing a lot of the art now. And Frank particularly elevates my stuff to a different level, and I love him."
The colorist of Dewey's work is Jordie Bellaire. He explained, "Jeff Parker, who is very nice and helps me avoid being a shut-in, brought my stuff over to Jordie and was like, 'I want to show you these pages.' And she freaked out and was like, 'I want to work on this book with you!'"
Dewey said that Bellaire already had a lot on her schedule, but she wanted to make it work -- and he is very thankful that she did. "I feel honored to work with her and Kurt every day. Jordie elevates my work and she helps my scenes make emotional sense."
A question was put forth to the panel next: how does an artist develop their own personal style? Interestingly enough, the term "style" seemed to have a bit of a negative connotation for many of the artists. Dewey replied, "I think of style as an accumulation of tics and homage that you can't get rid of. It's gonna happen whether you want it to or not."
To this, Nguyen added, "A long time ago, [artist] Whilce Portacio said, 'Your style is your mistakes.'" He further clarified this by explaining that a lot of artists excuse the inadequacies of their art by saying, "That's my style." Instead, he encouraged artist hopefuls to practice the basics of drawing and study the fundamentals.
The challenging topic of "work-life balance" was then brought up by an audience member hoping that one of the artists present could explain the best way to find a balance. Unfortunately, the question seemed to stump them all.
Dragotta admitted, "I still haven't found it. I have a beautiful wife and two children and there's, like, two weeks out of every month where I just disappear...It's tough. We love what we do, so it's hard to walk away from the table."
Nguyen jumped in and said, "People on social networks are always saying, 'Thank God it's Friday!' I have no idea what that means. That just means it's the day that everyone else expects you to work so they can see those pages Monday."
Regardless of the time involved though, it was clear to the crowd that all the artists have a passion and appreciation for the work they do, and that appreciation they feel even extends to all their readers. Dragotta offered this last bit of perspective to the audience: "Me and Wes [Craig] were talking before the panel about this -- we are so fortunate to draw comics now at this time, with this kind of creator movement. Thank you for supporting Image Comics. Because, with that, you're making a better industry and you're educating all of us up here as to the business of comics -- how much money can be made and how much money we're really worth when a book sells. So thank you! Keep supporting good comics! You're creating a better industry for us creators."