Getting to Know Your Imaginary Friends

A bullpen for the internet era, Imaginary Friends Studios produces art for movies, video games and comic books. Whether from the covers of "JLA Classified," "Warhammer," trading card games like “World of Warcraft” or contributing to other comics shop staples like “Witchblade, “GI Joe” and Marvel’s frequently sold-out title “Anita Blake, Vampire Slayer,” readers are familiar with the highly stylized and heavily digital work of Imaginary Friends Studios, even if they don't know it.

We’ll see a lot more from Imaginary this May, when Radical Comics releases its debut titles "Hercules" and "Caliber,” as well as the publisher’s Free Comic Book Day offering, spotlighting not just "Hercules" and "Caliber," but other upcoming Radical titles illustrated by Imaginary.

"Hercules" and "Caliber" will be the first major interior comics work created by Imaginary Friends, and studio head Edmund Shern spoke with CBR News to give comics readers some insight into the studio, discussing comics, artists, and the work involved with creating the fantastic worlds of Radical’s titles and conceiving environs for Steve Niles's idiosyncratic stories.

How did Imaginary Friends Studios and Radical Comics find each other?

Everything happens for a reason. We were looking for a publisher to be our partners in creating a new approach to comics from an artistic perspective. Right at that point, Radical Comics did a big press release about their new business and about their own creative perspectives but we sensed they had yet to pull a creative team together. We wrote in, met at Comic-Con in 2008 and since then not only have we become partners but Barry and I have also become best friends.

Radical's Free Comic Book Day release this year features all-Imaginary stuff. When you were putting it together, what did you want to show readers? Especially since it's coming out just before the first commercial comics do.

As with everything we do, we try to be a little different from others. Instead of giving out an issue for free- we thought it would be cooler to do a free mini art book instead. After all, we're already doing our debut issues for “Hercules” and “Caliber” at only $1. We hope that shows how much we believe people will enjoy our stuff if when they pick up the first issues.

Our FCBD, “Imaginary” #1, features our fully painted concept art pieces, a couple of which became future covers, to give a taste of just how much foundational design work we really do before commencing work on our comic properties. You'll see concepts from “Hercules,” “Caliber,” “Freedom Formula,” “City of Dust” (formerly titled “Khrome”), as well as “Aladdin” - something that is literally hot out of our creative oven.

Jim Steranko designed Hercules' look, fully taking on the burden of making people forget the leather-panted Hercules of the 1990s television series. Hercules is still a familiar icon in society. How did Imaginary disentangle the character from the preconceived notions of how he should look?

In addition to Steranko, we were fortunate that the amazing folks at Weta Workshop made a previous pass and we were able to learn from that. Steve Moore had also researched the Hades out of this to the point where he had built this amazing library of references. Meanwhile, we went out to buy every single visual reference to Greek and Roman weapons, clothes and art. Rather than looking to being 100% historically accurate to the fine details, we added our own touches to the designs of the world in the same way that great production designers on films like “300,” “Troy” and “Gladiator” used the historical research as starting points for their creativity.

“Caliber” is a Western and the Western genre is one of the United States' leading exports in the last fifty years, but not so much in comics.

As with many projects, we try to turn any potential weakness into our strength. Even though we aren't based in Arizona or even Canada, we could feel the spirit of the Westerns. In many ways, it has a lot of similarities to the classic Wushu and Samurai movies as well. So on top of watching every major western film and pouring over gun encyclopedias and even books about horses, we try to bring our own feel to this genre to make it authentic to us. The spirit of being on the frontier of a changing world is really what is at the heart of the genre.

“Freedom Formula” is an Imaginary Friends Studios creation. You showed it to Radical’s Barry Levine and loved it and wanted it. How's that project, as the first issue's release approaches, different from Radical’s creations?

We're really pushing all the limits with this one as far as ideas, storytelling, paneling and even lettering. We really want to make this a story that is authentic to us as creators. We're drawing from all our influences that we grew up with from both international and Asian entertainment and even folklore while also being inspired by the best of our current idols such as Frank Quitely, J.H. Williams III, Stjepan Sejic, Adi Granov and Alex Ross.

Let’s talk about Radical’s “Aladdin.” Imaginary had to make people forget Disney and Robin Williams' jolly blue genie. How did you approach the problem?

Unlike Hercules, where we were dealing with a whole new untold story about the character, in “Aladdin,” the tough part is re-imagining the classic tale in a new way. The starting point was challenging everyone's understanding of the core idea. If you could conjure up this supernatural, possibly demonic spiritual entity and command it to grant you wishes- would you do it? And do it repeatedly? And what would that do to you in the process as your relationship with this entity grows? As you can see this is going to be pretty dark.

Creatively, Ian Edgington and us did a leapfrog build where his words would inspire us to paint concepts and those concepts in turn got Ian inspired on more stuff. I can't wait for you guys to see what we came up with. It's our darkest work yet. Even Barry thinks we're freaks now.

“City of Dust” (formerly titled “Khrome”) is written by Steve Niles. You guys have previously described him as a twisted writer, so we won't have to. What's it like getting a project like “City of Dust” on your desk? I imagine it didn't come up a lot in your advertising experience, the challenge of conceiving an awful future instead of a more ideal one.?

While we usually have a team on our other Radical projects, our artist Zid really had a great feel for this, plus he's a big fan of Steve Niles so he was fending off the other interested artists in the studio with a flaming pitchfork. Zid really drew from our collective experience of this world where only the practical is held sacred. Coming from a culture where parents usually discourage their kids to study art because its not a real job to aspire to, we took that idea and pushed it to its extremes. Once we understood the psyche, it was much easier to create the physical world that these people would inhabit.

Both “Freedom Formula” and “City of Dust” are set in highly mechanized, but also very different looking, futures. “Aladdin” and “Hercules” are both set in mythic pasts. All of them have singular tones. Which one do you find the most affecting to you personally? And which one is your favorite?

“Freedom Formula,” “City of Dust,” “Hercules” and “Caliber” are all worlds that are grounded in reality in significant ways. From the costumes, to the technology, architecture and even speech patterns. However, “Aladdin” is really a concept where everything is challenged in its design. In that sense, we are really building a world from scratch. In the same way that “Lord of the Rings” was so believable because Tolkien and Peter Jackson had built this whole world which had its own history and logic, that's how we are approaching Aladdin's world.

There are two physical Imaginary Friends Studios spaces, one in Singapore and one in Jakarta, with about fifty artists between them. How does it work?

Actually it's more than that - in addition to the two studios, we also maintain a business office in Tokyo, are starting a new studio in Sofia, Bulgaria and also opening a new office in Los Angeles. Fortunately, we also have a support structure with fantastic administrators, project managers and art directors, which help me manage our growing force.

Ultimately, however, the real difference comes from the fact that we are a studio created by artists for artists. Things are run very differently here as are the choices we make. We're not a studio that was created to make money. That is really secondary. We have in the past turn down even a million dollar contract simply because we didn't feel it would benefit us as artists nor allow us to do our best work. The artists who join us know this and see this in how we operate day-to-day and because of that. We really do have fifty artists working together, putting egos aside everyday and helping to build something new that's never been seen before.

You worked in advertising as a Creative Director. What's it like going from that environment to one of illustration and production? Has the experience in advertising helped prepare you for the comics and video game industries?

Absolutely! I took what I learnt as a Creative Director in the Ogilvy Group and also as a Studio Director for MTV Asia-- two very different industries and companies. The advertising world is very business focused, well structured and practical, while MTV was this creative chaos kind of a place where experimentation was encouraged and rules were constantly broken. Illustration production up to this point was usually the domain of the individual artist working in a personal studio space at home. There hadn't been any comics bullpens in a long time. These experiences inspired the tools as well as business and operational structures that we have developed to support our creative aim- to become a platform for artists to be noticed and to create kick-ass creative work that we would all be proud of.

Digitally painted comic art has become a lot more popular in the last few years. How do you see Imaginary's artists being different from other artists working in this medium?

Digital painters tend to be a younger lot and also largely self-taught - they also tend to be a lot more experimental because the medium is totally forgiving. This is both good and bad. It's great in that it encourages exploration, but it's not so great when many digital artists substitute experimentation for studying the craft more. Traditional artists tend to be more disciplined about understanding what each paint stroke adds to the picture even before applying it. For that reason, we're also flying in some traditional painting masters to come teach at our studios and inspire and teach our digital artists. Its as much about understanding the theory as it is about achieving the result.

How do you select the artists for Radical Comics' projects? Do they submit samples or do you usually have someone in mind when you hear the idea?

[Radical President and Publisher] Barry Levine is really my brother from a different mother -- at least creatively. While Barry has the last say on choice of artists on Radical projects, I've never had to submit more than one choice to him. I know what his vision is for Radical and we know who works and who doesn't for what they have in mind. This is only possible because Barry himself is an artist. As a photographer- he knows exactly what he wants visually and that really makes my pre-selection easy. As soon as I hear an idea from him, I usually have 2-3 artists do tests. From there my art directors and I only pick one to propose and so far that's all that's been needed.

How does Imaginary find artists?

Imaginary's artists have a strong online fan following. My Creative Director's personal art blog alone has millions of page views. We first became friends online and it is through our links with the online artist communities that we constantly receive applications by artists. In addition, as specific opportunities present themselves, we seek out the artists whose progress we've been watching online. Its a brave new world!



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