Talking Comics with Tim: Shawn Crystal

Shawn Crystal is a SCAD Atlanta professor I met back in October (as documented in this story). In addition to his role educating storytellers, Crystal is a professional artist equally busy building a name for himself in the comics industry. Tomorrow (February 3) will feature the release of his latest effort,  Deadpool Team-Up 896 (written by Stuart Moore). As previewed last week by CBR and detailed here: "Get ready to hit the road with U.S. ACE, Marvel's truckin' hero! He's back behind the wheels of a big rig with an unlikely partner -- DEADPOOL -- and together they're puttin' the hammer down, ridin' the open road, and decapitatin' giant killer raccoons. Good times...if they don't kill each other first! Featuring the working-class villainy of THE HIGHWAYMAN, and the world premiere of the chart-toppin' "Ballad of U.S. Ace," composed and performed by Wade Wilson. What part of 'Collector's Item' don't you understand?" I was pleased to get an opportunity to talk to Crystal about this issue and creators he respects (as well as find out his David Lapham news). After enjoying this email exchange, be sure to check out Crystal's blog as well as his  deviantART page.

Tim O'Shea: The first question I have to ask--what reference does an artist use when drawing giant killer raccoons?

Shawn Crystal: There is a very popular book many artists have in their studio, and cherish like the arc of the covenant. It’s called “Homicidal Animals: A reference manual for the aspiring cartoonist.” Unfortunately, I do not own this book, so I had to resort to some more traditional methods. I started with the obvious, books on raccoons that were peppered with glamour shots of these little buggers. I also spent some time seeing how other artists had handled raccoons, mainly animators. There was some decent stuff in “Disney’s: The art of Pocahontas.” I also talked to a buddy of mine, Brad Walker who draws Guardians of the Galaxy, which has Rocket Raccoon as a team member. Researching raccoons was fairly easy; creating the chopper gang was a ton of fun. I needed to design a gang of Uzi wielding raccoons on motorcycles. The first thing I needed to find was a thread, something to make this gang seem like a team. Working for Marvel affords me the luxury of using their library, so I chose the X-Men. Well, the kid in me did. I started designing raccoons based on the themes and shapes of some of the X-Men and their costumes. I also wanted to give this biker gang a Hells Angel’s feel, ol skool choppers and leather. I didn’t want to go with the more current crotch rocket trend. I have an affinity of the art of Von Dutch, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Robert Williams. I pulled out the books I have on these guys and started drawing. X Men + Hells Angels + Racoons = Crazy fun designing.

O'Shea: In Marvel's interview with the issue's writer Stuart Moore, he said you "make combat between semi trucks look dynamic and exciting, which is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds" When you got the script, how much time did you spend racking your brain--trying to figure out best to render semi truck battle?

Crystal: It was in the script. Seriously. Stuart crafted a really fun story. Everything that happened in the story really helped to propel the action. I read the script, and I saw it in my head. Now to get that on paper, I had to reach into my bag o' tricks. My initial instincts went to Manga. Speed lines. Lots of ‘em. That’ll certainly show movement, but won’t keep a reader on the edge of their seat, so I needed more. This is where I use page design to add more energy to the sequences. I made sure that I was tilting the diagonal axis of each panel every chance I got. The panels read like a seesaw, creating the feeling movement before anything is drawn. Now, the pages had motion, and I was creating some visual tension. When I created the shots, I went off a short lens/ fish eye feel. This should put the reader right up in the scene. The last thing I did, was to keep switching the camera angles from low to hi, and hi to low. That last piece really pulled it all together, creating a visually engaging dynamic sequence for the reader. Or so I hope.

O'Shea: In terms of the script, can you pinpoint certain scenes that Moore constructed that were your favorite to draw?

Crystal: This book contains two meta-scenes, the Highway stuff and the back-story. The Back-story was great, because I was in my comfort zone. The scene called for a few characters in a tight room with a single light source. I let the Noir fiend in me out of the cage. The highway stuff was COMPLETELY out of my comfort zone. This scene called for a bunch of mechanical objects in an action sequence. I like to find the uncomfortable zone in projects and focus on making it good. I play this game in my mind where I’m like “Ok, I suck at this, let me put everything I have into it. Let me figure out how this works.” It allows me to take something new I’ve learned from each job so I can keep growing as a cartoonist. So, I think I pulled this one off. My editor (Axel Alonso) and Stuart Moore (the writer) tell me I pulled it off with style, and I trust them. Now we’ll see what the readers say.

O'Shea: When you're doing a semi-comical character like Deadpool, how hard is to pull off comedy with a character who wears a full mask--given that masks almost completely obscure facial reactions--or do facial elements not enter into the Deadpool comedy equation?

Crystal: It’s really not that hard, and it’s quite fun. With Deadpool, it’s all about his eyes and his body movement. I LOVE trying to figure out how the eyes can express each emotion. Because DP is comedy, I can really exaggerate what the eyes do. The body is also a great tool for communicating emotion. We, humans (and animals) rely so much on body movement as a tool of communication. The short time I spent as an animator really helped me pick up on this. I spent a lot of time studying this, and I am continually sketching gestures. Now, having said all that, I noticed how Jason Pearson was able to hint at a face under that mask, on his Deadpool covers. This really made sense to me, but I needed to figure out how to pull it off. You see some guys who draw these masks like a second skin. Too me, that’s a cheat, and really cheap. So I went on this mission to figure out how to hint at a face under the mask without making it a second skin. If you look back at my career on Deadpool you can see glimpses of me working it out. This issue is where I think it clicked. One of my close friends, Chris Brunner (who is one of the best guys working in comics), called me after seeing my pages and said, “You made Deadpool Smile! That’s a hat trick.” It made me feel like I’m onto something.

O'Shea: Did you end up having to read some of the original US1 series for research?

Crystal: I didn’t read them, but did spend time with several images. Marvel wanted a fresh new version of Ace. A modern Ace. So that’s what I set off to do.

O'Shea: So, will readers find that the chart-toppin’ “Ballad of U.S. Ace,” composed and performed by Wade Wilson, to be the kind of song that gets stuck in their heads? Any chance you'll make it the ringtone on your cellphone?

Crystal: I’m waiting to hear back from the Neptunes. If we could get them to lay down the track, BOOM! It’ll hit like a virus. Maybe The Clipse could come in for a guest spot? Stay tuned…

O'Shea: As a SCAD Atlanta professor, it's part of your job to keep an eye on who is doing some of the best work in the industry, who is setting the trends, styles and techniques that editors and publishers most appreciate. From your perspective who are some of the artists that are at the top of their game at present?

Crystal: The Sequential Art program at SCAD Atlanta is really quite impressive. Not only are the faculty all working professionals, but a larger percentage of our students are working in comics while they’re in school. The guys I teach with at SCAD Atlanta (Nolan Woodard and Chris Schweizer) are really breaking some new ground in teaching and in comics.

Nolan Woodard. Nolan spent many years working as a photo retoucher. His knowledge of print rivals anyone in comics. I’ll put my money on that. He is going to be the next big name in coloring. He’s just recently put out some feelers to become a coloring artist and is already in hi demand at Oni Press and BOOM! Studios. It’s just a matter of time before the word spreads on his work. He can also draw his arse off!

Chris Schweizer. A graphic novelist and creator of the Crogan Adventure series (a series of historic fiction books for all ages published by Oni Press). Chris went from being a student of mine, to a graphic novelist, to a faculty member, to an Eisner award nominee in about two years. Fast track anyone?

I have a lot of friends who influence me on a daily basis. We have a lot of intense conversations about comics (business, craft, and theory), that are always challenging and thought provoking. These people influence my work on a deep and personal level. If you don’t know their work, seek it out. It will be well worth the search. They are working hard to shape the new frontier of comics.

Chris Brunner. If I were to honestly call someone I knew a “genius,” I would have to say its Chris. I really mean that. His work is earth shattering. The amount of thought he puts into every ounce of graphite and ink is staggering.

Jason Latour. The O.D.B. of comics. There is no father to his style. I’m partly kidding when I say that. Jason’s work is his own. I see him in every mark he makes, no one else. I dream of being able to do that.

Sean Murphy. He is the Che Guevara of comics. Part artist, part revolutionary. A brilliant guy who’s work is among the best being done. Hands down.
 His work on Joe The Barbarian should easily get him an Eisner.

Nick Dragotta. We used to work together in Zylonol Studios, doing flats for Lee Loughridge. Nick loves comics and it shows in his work. Yeah we all do, but Nick LOVES comics, more than most anyone I’ve met. His work combines a respect for the old super hero masters, with a flair of modern flash. His drawings jump off the page and smash you in the face with “awesomeness.”

Dan Panosian. I don’t know Dan personally, but I’m a die-hard fan of his work. Dan is a true blue cartoonist. His work seems effortless and is full of life. I don’t see labor in his art, I see a masterful hand and mind working in complete harmony. He’s also THE Urban Barbarian.

Eric Canete. Eric hurts. Well, no he doesn’t, he’s a great guy and good friend. His work hurts. He’s firing on all cylinders ALL the damn time. A lot of artists have certain strengths that they learn to play to. Eric has no weaknesses he only has strengths. I am constantly awe struck by his compositions. I spoke earlier about dynamic page design and camera work, Eric is the BEST at this. THE BEST.

O'Shea: Is there anything you'd like to discuss that about your Deadpool work that I neglected to ask you about?

Crystal: Haven’t I said enough! If anyone reads this far, they’ll be thankful I left this last quesion blank…somewhat.

WAIT! I LIED! I have a lot of exciting things in the works at Marvel. Axel has a lot in store for me, all of which has Biggie Smalls’ “Juicy” in heavy rotation on my ipod. Next up is another Deadpool Team Up issue. David Lapham, one of my favorite comic creators of all time, is writing this one. Stray Bullets changed my life.

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