Enter Greg Smallwood: Crafting Your New Dreams

A couple of months ago I had a chance to preview the first two issues of "Dream Thief," an upcoming Dark Horse miniseries by Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood. I loved what I read, and though Nitz has been making the rounds around the internet talking up the book (as he should), Smallwood has maintained a relatively low profile. But it's his bright, clean and chiseled artwork that will make readers pay attention to this comic.

"Dream Thief" is planned to be a series of miniseries, like what Mike Mignola has done with his BPRD/Hellboy comics at Dark Horse, and I'd love to see Nitz and Smallwood get a chance to delve into the longform story they want to tell. The first issue of "Dream Thief" comes out this Wednesday, so check it out and see for yourself why I found it so worthwhile.

Meanwhile, I snagged Greg Smallwood for an interview to find out more about who he is and where he came from. I was curious, and I thought maybe you'd want to know more about him too. He's going to be pretty big, sooner rather than later.

Tim Callahan: "Dream Thief" has a relatively specific aesthetic for a supernatural crime comic. What was the development process like for the character designs and the fashion and the visual world building?

Greg Smallwood: Jai's script for issue one read like an 1980s crime film to me so I drew heavily from noir movies of that decade -- "Thief," "8 Million Ways to Die," "The Big Easy," etc. Although "Dream Thief" fits into the superhero and supernatural genres, my goal was to ground it in the real world and emphasize the noir/crime elements of the book. I look at a lot of reference for backgrounds/fashion and I watch a lot of 1950s noir films for ideas on utilizing shadow and light.

Jai and I went back and forth on the design of Dream Thief himself. In the original pitch, John Lincoln had a dream about the mask and went about crafting it himself. I gave Jai about twenty different sketches based on this idea and he picked the one that he thought worked best. We ultimately ditched the idea of a homemade mask but Jai and I had grown attached to the initial design so we kept it. The rest of Dream Thief's costume came from Jai's script.

What kind of inspirations did you use for the design you ended up choosing?

The mask is Aboriginal in origin so I tried to simplify some common design motifs found in Dreamtime art. Aboriginal masks don't look anything like superhero masks so I went with a design that resembles their face paint markings rather than an authentic tribal headpiece. Someone remarked that Dream Thief looks like the Ultimate Warrior (from the WWF) so maybe I subconsciously drew from that, too!

In my earlier preview/review of the first couple of issues, I alluded to some kind of spiritual connection between what you and Jai are doing in "Dream Thief" and the kind of weird and edgy genre comics of the 1980s, like we might have seen from Eclipse Comics, for example. Is that just my baggage coming into play as I read "Dream Thief," or were you thinking about precursors from other eras of comic book history? Any connection there at all?

Absolutely! A lot of the Eclipse titles share more in common with the action adventure pulps of the 1930s and 1940s than the superhero comics of their time and "Dream Thief" is no different. I definitely see our comic as a descendant of books like "Scout," "Crossfire," and "Sabre."

Oh man, that goes a long way toward explaining why this comic lines up with my sensibilities. My comics reading habits were turning from a hobby to an obsession around the time I discovered that Eclipse stuff. "Crossfire" definitely, but "Scout" was the big one for me. I loved Tim Truman's tattered western apocalyptic biker vs. monster aesthetic.

When did you first come across the Eclipse stuff? Were you reading comics back then or did you find them later?

I was familiar with some of Eclipse thanks to my dad but I discovered most of it as a teenager, digging through quarter bins at local conventions during the mid-'90s. Image was just a darker version of Marvel and DC but Eclipse delved into genres that the big two didn't touch. And it was exciting to uncover these raw and gritty comics, away from the Wizard Magazine hype that dominated the decade.

I'm going to assume most CBR readers don't know much about you yet, so before we go any further with your soon-to-be-released work, we should probably flash back to your beginnings. What's your deal, Greg Smallwood? Where did you come from and how did you get into this thing we like to call comic books?

I grew up a military brat in Leavenworth, Kansas. I come from a very artistic family but I'm the first to pursue it as a career. My dad collected comics so I don't really remember a time in my life when I wasn't surrounded by them but my earliest memories of funny books would have to be the mini-comics that were included with the DC Super Powers action figures. I was absolutely obsessed with those! Beyond that, my dad was always putting comics in front of me and a lot of those eventually became my all-time favorites -- "The Rocketeer," Xenozoic Tales," "Weird Science-Fantasy," "Vault of Horror," etc. I don't think I ever considered a career in anything besides comics. I've been trying off and on to nudge my way into the industry for about the last ten years and "Dream Thief" marks my first big break.

What have you been doing in those last ten years, then? Your style seems extraordinarily well-defined -- and supremely confident -- already. What have you done to get to this point?

When I got out of high school in 2000, I took my pencil samples to conventions and met with editors for portfolio reviews. Unfortunately, the response to my work was pretty underwhelming. I was easily discouraged at that point in my life so I mostly goofed off for the next couple of years, dabbling in comic books only intermittently. It wasn't until I got laid off from my day job in 2008 that I decided to put a concerted effort into breaking in. Remembering the less-than-enthusiastic response to my pencil samples, I thought it might be advantageous to learn inking, coloring and lettering in order to better sell myself as a complete package. So while unemployed, I taught myself process over the course of a year and at the end of that year, I produced an eight page comic called "Villain" that I submitted to Zuda. They ran it in their December 2009 competition and that's where Jai came into the picture.

My style mostly evolved out of necessity. In order to work quickly, I needed to simplify. So I started looking at artists who had streamlined their style, like Alex Toth and Chris Samnee, and adapted their techniques to my base style. I like simple, clean styles because, as you noted, they suggest confidence and boldness. That said, I still like to get messy from time to time.

I could come up with a fancier way of saying this, but let me cut right to it: how do you work? What's your process?

I work entirely digital. I do my layouts, line art, coloring and lettering in Photoshop CS6 and I work on a Wacom Intuos5 tablet. I started out just doing layouts and coloring in Photoshop but I eventually moved my entire workflow into the digital space. Working digitally gives me freedom and speed that is impossible with pen and paper. I also frequently use 3D modeling programs as reference. Google Sketchup is invaluable software for artists and I use it quite a bit to flesh out a background or environment. Google maintains a large database of components (furniture, vehicles, appliances, etc) so you never have to build a model from scratch. I've also created a lot of character model heads in Sculptris in order to maintain consistency in facial features throughout the comic.

Your layouts seem particularly ambitious -- or maybe a better way to say it is that your layouts seem to directly tackle the needs of the scene in a rather aggressive way. Not a lot of three-tiered, same-size panels in "Dream Thief."

Most of my design decisions revolve around the desire to fill space, spice up a static page or disguise my laziness. Pages 11 and 12 of "Dream Thief" #1 feature x-ray cutaways to indicate the pain John Lincoln is feeling in his shoulder and jaw. This gimmick wasn't written into the script but a large panel of Lincoln simply holding his jaw/shoulder and wincing seemed dull to me so I started brainstorming ideas. I recalled a scene from a kung-fu flick called "Riki-Oh" that spliced x-ray shots between punches to show bones breaking. The movie was absolutely awful but that idea really stuck with me! X-rays are associated with pain in the minds of most people so they serve as a great visual shortcut for the reader and they add a bit of variety to a mundane page.

Pages 12 and 13 in that first issue were written as a three-panel page and a splash page, respectively. I hate drawing three-panel pages (because I'm not as good as Darwyn Cooke) so I knew immediately that I needed to either (A) add more panels or (B) do something interesting with the design. Plan A required more drawing so I immediately settled on Plan B. I created a winding layout for page 12 that inadvertently looked like a question mark and it made me recall the exclamation mark/question mark motif I had thrown in pages 1 and 11. The idea of fitting the action of the two pages into question marks and exclamation marks appealed to my laziness and my desire to avoid static looking art.

For the average page layout, I do a quick sketch and start blocking in the lettering. I work better when I know exactly how much space I have for the art so I guess you could say that I work the EC Comics way. I'm obsessed with the flow of a page so the panel arrangement comes from a trial and error layout process in Photoshop. Once I've set my layout, borders, and lettering, rendering the art in the remaining space doesn't seem quite as intimidating.

The decision to use pencil-drawn black and white for the flashback panels was a simple one - it's another visual shortcut for the reader. The black and white immediately lets the audience know that they're looking at the past and the rough pencil technique suggests memory fuzziness. Our memories aren't crystal clear so I didn't want Lincoln's to be, either.

I do have to note that all of this is possible because Jai allows me quite a bit of freedom. If I feel that a page is better suited by combining two panels or adding an extra panel, Jai trusts my instincts and lets me tweak it. If "Dream Thief" has a unique visual look, it's only because Jai removed the constricting parameters of a script etched in stone. Fortunately for me, Jai is an organic writer that embraces change and improvisation.

How did you even get hooked up with Jai for "Dream Thief?" I jumped right into the questions about your art and background and process without even knowing exactly what brought you guys together, though you alluded to the Zuda entry being the start of it somehow. Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of your working relationship and how "Dream Thief" originated, even before you started working on designing the costume?

During the Zuda competition in 2009, I dropped off some flyers at Astrokitty Comics in Lawrence, Kansas. At the time, I lived about forty-five minutes away so I wasn't a regular at the shop (yet) but the owner, Joel, was happy to get behind the comic. He showed my work to Jai (who lives in Lawrence) and not long after that I got a cold e-mail from Jai introducing himself. He told me that he had a few ideas for pitches but there was one in particular he thought I'd be perfect for called "Dream Thief." He sent me a page-long pitch and I immediately agreed to work on it. Truthfully, he could of sent me a pitch for "Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers" and I would have said yes. I was a big fan of the mini he did at DC called "El Diablo" so I was thrilled with the idea of working with him on anything. Anyway, that's when we started going back and forth with designs and fleshing out his already detailed concept.

We made a pitch for it in 2010 but no one picked it up. To be honest, I don't think Jai and I were really crazy about it, either. I started working on other stuff when Jai came back to me in 2011 and suggested we have another go at "Dream Thief." Jai and I had gotten to know each other a lot more since the creation of the first pitch and our friendship made the creative process a lot more synergistic. We created a second pitch which consisted of the script for the entire first issue, the first five pages illustrated by me, and an Alex Ross sketch for the cover. Dark Horse picked us up and we went from there.

What other kinds of comic book projects would you like to work on next? Do you have anything lined up to follow "Dream Thief"? Any ideal projects that you'd like to tackle someday?

I don't have any concrete plans after "Dream Thief" but there are other genres I would like to tackle -- horror, post-apocalyptic, sword and sorcery fantasy, cyberpunk -- in between arcs of the comic. Jai has a sixty issue run in mind for "Dream Thief" and I'd like to draw most of that.

Look for "Dream Thief" #1 in comic shops on May 15th.

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

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