Francis Tsai Discusses "Tracker" and Art Design

Jonathan Lincoln and Francis Tsai are taking the werewolf mythology for a spin in "Tracker," the upcoming miniseries from Top Cow Productions and Heroes and Villains Entertainment. "Tracker" tells the story of Alex O'Roark, a federal agent with an expertise in tracking down his targets - but after contracting the werewolf-inducing lycanthropy disease, Alex is forced to hunt the monster that infected him before his clock runs out.

Tsai, a freelance illustrator with roots in architecture and the video game industry, is the artist on "Tracker." In addition to his work on a variety of games, including "The Bourne Conspiracy" and "Darkwatch," Tsai has also written a number of how-to-draw art books, and illustrated other comic book projects as well. Despite having worked for Marvel Comics in the past, "Tracker" might be the title that takes Tsai to the next level, thanks to the book' reimagining of the werewolf mythology.

CBR News spoke with Tsai about his experiences as a freelance illustrator, his process on "Tracker" and his thoughts on the current state of the comic book industry.

Tsai was an architect in the early '90s, though he eventually broke into the video game industry as a conceptual designer for small-time developer Presto Studios in 1997. "It was a good fit because, at the time, they were known for pre-rendered games like 'The Journey Man Project' and, later, 'Myst 3: Exile,' which required a lot of architectural and environmental designs," Tsai told CBR of his first video game job. "I worked in various video game companies after that, doing conceptual design and art direction. I left the day job in 2006 to pursue freelance full time, and since then I've split my time between video game design, film and TV design, role playing game illustrations, comics and writing a couple of how-to art books."

Following his decision to go freelance, Tsai secured some comic book work, much to his own surprise. "I've been a fan of comics since I was maybe 12 or 13 years old, but I never really considered drawing comics professionally until I started working in entertainment - then it started to seem like more of a possibility," he said. "I had been sending samples to wherever I could think of for a long time, and finally my good friend Davie Wilkins put in a good word for me at Marvel, and they hired me for some covers and fill-ins."

Working for Marvel led Tsai to other comic book projects, including the first volume of William Harms' "Impaler" and "Mercy Thompson: Homecoming" for Dabel Brothers Productions - but it wasn't Tsai's comics work that landed him the "Tracker" gig. "As I understand it, the Top Cow and Heroes and Villains guys were sold on some of my game concept artwork, specifically the work I had done for the 'Bourne Conspiracy' video game," he recalled. "Those pieces were fully painted production pieces with lots of information, and were pretty heavily art directed. They were also pretty time consuming to do, and I knew that doing pages in that style was not going to be feasible, but I did want to bring some of that kind of production value to the artwork for 'Tracker.'"

"'Tracker' seemed like an interesting opportunity," Tsai said of his reasons for accepting the job. "As with ['Impaler's take on vampires], Jonathan Lincoln's take on werewolves is kind of a departure from the traditional mythology, with more of a real world interpretation of werewolf-ness rather than the normal supernatural angle. I always appreciate a bit of deconstruction in established subjects like that, so it was definitely something I wanted to do."

Given the reality-based setting of "Tracker," Tsai's designs ended up reflecting what a werewolf might actually look like in our contemporary world. "I think one of Jonathan's goals in presenting this new take on the werewolf myth is to downplay the supernatural element and to make the reader feel like werewolves are something that could believably exist," he said. "Jonathan describes the werewolves as being somewhat more bestial and rough looking than the average person, but not so monstrous that they would immediately attract attention in a crowded setting. They do need to read as werewolves to the reader, so there are some visual cues that I am relying on to convey that."

Tsai supplied CBR with a side-by-side comparison of series lead Alex O'Roark in both his human and werewolf forms to show the subtle but important differences between man and beast in the comic. "Alex O'Roark was described to me as being of mixed ethnicity, and sort of the Boy Scout federal agent type of character," Tsai described of the lead character's human appearance. "I did want to hint at the werewolf quality through his coloring - light blue-gray eyes, like what you'd see in a wolf or Alaskan husky, and dark brownish-black hair to contrast the eye color. That fit with his back-story of being part Hispanic and part Anglo, with possibly other ethnicities thrown in.

"In werewolf form, [Alex] grows fangs and the nose kind of shortens and flattens out a bit, changing the shape of his face somewhat," he said of Alex's eventual transformation. "The hair gets a little shaggier looking, and he sprouts some stubble and raggedy sideburns. The werewolves in 'Tracker' don't get the full on extended snout and all over body fur like in traditional 'Wolfman' type stories."

The artist explained that his cover for the San Diego Comic-Con International preview book, which featured a more traditional type of werewolf, was illustrated before he fully understood the scope of Lincoln's more reality-based take on the werewolf mythology.

Tsai's extensive experience as a video game concept designer was certainly helpful in constructing the comic book's visual world, but there were some important differences to keep in mind between the two mediums. "In video game design, you're essentially creating an instruction manual, or wish list, of people and things and effects that you want to have in the game," he said. "The artwork is not the end product, per se, the game is. In comics, the artwork is a narrative device consisting of many images rather than a single still image - also, it is the final product as opposed to game concept art. These days, there seems to be more of a general audience for game concept art, but it wasn't always that way. Most of the time, the only people seeing concept art are the artists, animators and programmers who are building the level.

"Another difference is that, with video game concept art, style can sometimes get in the way of conveying information," he continued. "There can definitely be a specific visual style in a game, but in general, the clearer the designs are on paper, the easier time the artists will have in translating the concept art into the final video game product. Everything needs to be clearly specified in concept art, otherwise people will come looking for you for an explanation or clarification, which is a waste of everyone's time. I think in comics, there's more room for artistic license and being able to leave some things to the audience to interpret and fill in. I'm still pretty new to comics, so we'll see if that approach holds up."

While Tsai is somewhat new at working in the comics industry, he's no stranger to the medium as a fan. Some of his favorite artists include Travis Charest, Adam Hughes and Joe Madureira, while a selection of his favorite stories include Shirow Masamune's "Appleseed" and Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns." Even as a relative newcomer, Tsai said that he sees why comic books have become so alluring both to fans and creators.

"Creatively, it seems to be a pretty exciting time in comics these days," he said. "I know Hollywood's interest has pumped some money into the industry, for better or for worse, and it has also kind of reduced the 'comic shop guy' nerd stigma somewhat. Apparently, it's cool to be into comics now! Artists seem to be really exploring and pushing the envelope with their art and, and I think, at least for some artists, having access to digital tools helps that along. It's as competitive as it has always been, which is good for innovation."

But Tsai has noticed some downsides to the industry as well. "I really wish there was a way to get comics in front of more eyes," he said. "Although places like Borders now carry manga and some of the more mainstream comics, for the most part you have to go to a special comics store to get comics. It would be nice if comics were easily available in a wide variety of stores. I don't know if the answer is trade paperbacks, or individual issues, or some other evolution of what we're used to reading, but sometimes it does feel like the industry is missing the boat in terms of marketing.

"I'm intrigued by the possibilities of digital distribution channels like the iPhone or eReaders," he suggested as a potential remedy for expanding the comic book readership. "I think there could be a big untapped market there to get newer audiences into comics. I do think comics will have to adapt to take advantage of the new platforms. I buy comics on my iPhone, but it does feel kind of clunky sometimes, which is understandable given that it's kind of a round peg in a square hole set-up."

Whether or not more readers flock to the comic book industry, Tsai said that he's sticking around for the time being. In addition to "Tracker," the artist has a few other projects currently in the pipeline. "I am working with a writer named Violet Glaze on a few different projects, mostly self-contained stories in a variety of genres," he said. "We've pitched one project, called 'Red Sky,' to a few publishers. It's a science fiction story about a burned out rock star who is uniquely gifted to save the world. There are a couple of others, which hopefully we'll be able to bring to life at some point."

As for what's coming immediately after "Tracker," Tsai couldn't even play coy. For a full-time freelancer, the future is always uncertain.

"I'll let you know when I get there," he said. "I seem to be able to plan ahead three days at a time at the most!"

"Tracker" #1, written by Jonathan Lincoln and illustrated by Francis Tsai, hits comic book stores on November 11, 2009, courtesy of Top Cow Productions and Heroes and Villains Entertainment.

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