Stuart Immonen on Computers and Art

After beginning work in comics in the late 80s, Stuart Immonen broke into the mainstream comic world in the early 1990s for DC, working on Legion of Superheroes before moving on to a long tenure drawing Superman. More recently, he has worked for Marvel Comics, including Nextwave. It was recently announced that Immonen will be following Mark Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man. Stuart also has a web-comic, Moving Pictures, that he works on with his wife, Kathryn Immonen. You can follow the comic here. Immonen's website can be found here. It contains his blog, which you can read here.

Oblique Strategies

Many years ago, at a wedding where, apart from one of the intended, I didn't know a soul, I got roped into the usual small talk, and someone asked what I did for a living. I tend to get a little uncomfortable in these situations-- I'm by no mean embarrassed by my vocation, but I recognize that it's a bit esoteric, and generally not well-understood by the layperson. "I draw comics," tends to elicit a cascade of other questions, most of which require quite a lot of explaining, and by the time you're done, the person who asked is either overwhelmed or utterly bored. But this time, I was taken aback by the response; All this fellow said was, "So they do all that on computers now?"

Naturally I scoffed-- this was pre-internet, almost pre-Photoshop, after all. "No," I coolly replied, "I use a pencil and paper."

And for a good long time afterward, that statement defined my M.O. Even now, most of the community of professionals working in the assembly-line method established almost at the birth of comics still work this way. But it would be a considerable oversimplification to say that a pencil and paper have never been the only tools at the artist's disposal.

Face it, deadlines are murder, especially when they come around every thirty days or so. The sheer volume is astonishing; even with a lowball mean estimate of four panels per page, the typical monthly superhero comic boasts nearly 90 separate drawings each issue-- that's over a thousand a year! I don't think there's another job in the commercial arts field which is similarly demanding. The comic artist's motto might very well be "by any means necessary."

It's no wonder artists condescend to using various tricks in order to try keep up. Some have an arsenal of stock poses and expressions from which to choose; other use assistants to contribute to background drawings; others fill empty space with incoherent linework, or lots of silhouetted figures; still others use that dirtiest of dirty tricks-- photo reference.

Recently, drawing the human figure from life has come under heavy fire, and indeed it seems like there have always been macho artists who have dismissed the practice, claiming some superiority through their intimate and intricate knowledge of human and animal anatomy; through their natural ability to "work it out with a pencil." However, not all of us are so gifted, and when the editor starts to call for more pages, one is often forced to resort to the methods closest at hand.

Photoreferencing has suffered under the pejorative euphemisms of "copying", "swiping", "stealing" (not to be confused with "aping", implying a (possibly still unsavoury) talent for mimicry) or that most damning of epithets, "cheating", and without temperance, the otherwise competent artist can easily lapse into outright plagiarism. Whether or not the harangued artist intends to appropriate someone else's work or to merely quote it-- what Thomas Mann ennobled as "higher cribbing"-- is irrelevant; of late, the artist who uses reference material is a pariah.

Perhaps it has always been thus. David Hockney's 2001 book, "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters" details the methods and mechanical aids of everyone from Brueghel to Vermeer. Much in the book is conjecture (refuted later in an issue of Scientific American), indicating the existence of a conspiracy of silence surrounding "cheating" going back as many as five hundred years. Herge travelled extensively, sketching en plein air, copying buildings, scenery and costumes from life. Carl Barks, an armchair adventurer, pilfered from the pages of National Geographic. Even Mike Mignola, hearsay has it, began using photos on Bram Stoker's Dracula, and continued thereafter, claiming it sped up his whole process.

Well, I have a confession to make.

I'm a user. Hardcore.

It started out innocently enough. Back in the late 80s, one of my first jobs was drawing the unauthorized comic biographies of rock musicians, which demanded likenesses of real people and locations in every panel. But even before that, I'd started a "morgue" of reference folders, each categorized and subdivided as required ("figures/ children/ perspective", "technology/ industrial/ 20th century", "architecture/ urban/ interior/ office", etc). Each folder was filled with magazine clippings, photographs, photocopies and newspaper articles. The point being not to copy verbatim, but to inform decisions already made concerning any given composition.

However, rifling through hundreds of paperscraps to find suitable inspiration was almost as time consuming as doing it the "hard way"-- constructing figures and environments as a series of cylinders and cubes, as popularized by the art instruction series by Andrew Loomis (the irony being that Loomis himself was a known photoreferencer). Soon, with the aid of a basic 3D application, I helped the Superman office redesign Metropolis, and I created a set of models to help me visualize the Shockrockets with Kurt Busiek. 3D was a revelation to me-- better than photos, especially for invented props, vehicles and buildings. Figure generation software like Poser never did work for me, for whatever reason.

For certain projects-- Superman: End of the Century, for instance-- I took scores of photos, mostly to keep characters consistent and naturalistic. It was expensive and cumbersome, however, and the lag time between taking the photograph and being able to use it (if it was usable!) negated the positive aspects. Digital photography changed all that, and even Nextwave, with its cartoon sheen, benefited.

Also, huge imagebanks and community photosites started cropping up online. If I wondered whether the NYPD drove Ford Crown Victorias or Chevy Impalas (trick question-- they use both), the answer was available in a matter of clicks. Need to know the typical architecture in the Pyrenees or the Ginza? No problem. The governing philosophy is this: reference is a device, and is only as useful as the artist who wields it is talented. In other words, ideally, it will spur creativity, not stifle it, allowing the artist to work efficiently and effectively. This philosophy isn't new, but there are some camps who will not recognize its value. Still, as more artists reveal their practices in trade magazines or in work blogs, I think digital referencing is gaining momentum.

And I think it's changing the way artists approach their work.

Joe Quesada, Jason Christensen and Dave McCaig are using Google SketchUp to calculate complex perspectives, and design and render background buildings. SketchUp is a versatile and simple tool, with a plethora of open-source models, and bespoke modelmakers like Form Fonts to fill specific needs.

Brian Bolland and Kaare Andrews are two creators so immersed in digital art that they each have told me they sometimes look for an undo keystroke when working with traditional media.

Jonathan Hickman's work on The Nightly News pulls out all the stops; combining drawn, referenced imagery with vector-traced photographs and custom brushes and clipart, Hickman has transformed the way comics look and read in a single effort. Furthermore, he has paved the way for the auteur creator to control all aspects of the work and bypass the comparatively antiquated assembly line method. Hickman alone turns in written, drawn, lettered and coloured work in the same time it takes four or five others to concurrently do the same job.

Despite my bristling reaction all those years ago, I shamelessly admit that the computer has radically altered how I draw, and how I think about drawing. It's improved my speed, and I think, my creativity. I still use a pencil, but it's not the only tool in the shed.

Picasso (a macho artist if there ever was one) said, "Bad artists copy. Good artists steal." I think he was just rephrasing Ecclesiastes: "Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."

What would he have done with Photoshop and a Creative Commons photo library, I wonder?

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