The Aaron Kuder Interview 2: Finding the Balance

Last week I began my interview with soon-to-be-a-big-deal-artist Aaron Kuder. We talked about his start in the industry and the role of the message board drawing competitions, and this week, we wrap up our discussion by talking about some of his specific work for BOOM!, DC and Marvel and what's coming in the future.

But first, we pick up where we left off -- on the cliffhanger -- as Kuder talks about receiving the phone call from Chris Burnham that would force him to make a decision. A decision that would change his life.

Tim Callahan: So Burnham calls you up and says he wants to throw your name in as an artist to fill in for him on a series -- on "Amory Wars" -- and you had to stop and think about that?

Aaron Kuder: Yeah, well, I had a full time job as an electrician, with health benefits and everything, and I had to decide whether or not to give that up to draw a comic book for four months.

So that was the choice? You didn't think, "I can still draw this on the side while working as an electrician?"

If I had two or three months lead time, I could have kept my job and drawn that, maybe. But I didn't have that.

You just had to jump right in...

I think I had two days to decide.

And you go around to your friends and your family and you try to ask them to help you weigh the pros and the cons, and I think there was only one person that did not say, "Duh!" And that was my dad.

He was probably thinking, "Okay, four months drawing a comic, and then what?"

And he's a health economics professor at Cornell...

Well, there you go! [Laughs]

He's the practical one. So I took [the "Amory Wars" gig], and as the project was wrapping up I was scared out of my mind.

Did you have anything lined up as the project was wrapping up at all?

Nibbles, but nothing definite. I mean, who picks up a book halfway through a series and thinks, "Hey, I want that guy?" Just because I had drawn the last four issues of "Amory Wars" didn't prove I had the chops to make it in the industry on any level. Fortunately the folks at Boom! and Evil Ink didn't think that way and they hired me on for "The Key of Z."

Did that follow pretty much on the heels of "Amory Wars?" You didn't have a big gap in between the two projects?

No, it was actually the perfect gap. I wrapped up "Amory Wars," I moved from Arkansas to New York and by the time the move was over, I was ready to go with "Key of Z" issue #1.

Let's talk about "The Key of Z," a bit. It's an action, thriller, zombie apocalypse kind of thing. Was your approach on that any different than your approach to "Amory Wars?" Did you change anything stylistically going into that?

I don't know that I yet feel comfortable saying that I'm going for a particular style or anything like that.

So would you say that you visualize what the script says, and then you draw what you visualize.

Yeah, I really try to focus on the characters, the mood, the environment and how I would see them formed. Only recently have I started to look at a page and say, "Okay, here's an overall design." Or, "This is more doable than that." Or try to find the middle ground between three all-nighters and three days' work.

I'm struck by your approach, in your "Key of Z" work, and in your issue of "Legion Lost," which we'll get to in a minute -- and maybe they aren't interesting choices from your point of view because that's how you see it all in your mind -- but there are interesting choices about what you choose to emphasize on given pages. You don't always choose to emphasize the big action. It seems that the worlds in which your characters exist sometimes have as much emphasis as the giant leaping pose, or whatever.

Yeah, the thing that got me to fall in love with comics was the environmental aspect. That's definitely something that Art Adams brings to the mix. And also [Grzegorz Rosiński's] Thorgal books. That's something that a lot of European comics do. They emphasize the environment and the mood and the action is...there...but it's not any more important than anything else.

While the tradition in American comics, to go back to the influential Jack Kirby approach, is to figure out the big huge action piece and then draw the rest of the page around that. But you're not even thinking that way. You think of a piece of action as part of an entire landscape.

Right. The goal for me is to illustrate the story. If the story is all about action, and a lot of the story in "Legion Lost" was a lot of action -- and there I emphasize action as it comes -- but with "Key of Z," the action became less important as the story progressed. It was much more about the characters and the mood and where they were coming from, and what motivated them. That's really where that comes from.

How do create that in the landscape? How do you reflect their emotional state? What are some choices you find yourself making as you go through that process?

It's kind of like being a cinematographer. You look at lighting. At what little details of an environment are going to give you -- if you're on somebody's porch or hanging out in their backyard, what are the little details of that backyard that are going to tell you more about their personality than, say, their t-shirt.

Do you find yourself adding and subtracting details as you're composing the picture, or does it come fully-formed when you're thinking about the overall image of what it should look like.

It's an organic process. I might have something drawn out in the roughs, but the main goal is, when I'm drawing it, to re-analyze myself as I go.

There's a page in "Key of Z" where the main character is knocking off a zombie's head with a baseball bat, and in the background is New York City -- a post-apocalyptic New York City -- but as I draw the buildings, I think about what the buildings have gone through in the last five years. Where fires broke out. Or where a family was kept in an apartment for a long time, waiting for help. So the background stories are just as important for all that.

As someone who reads a lot of mainstream American comics, I don't often feel that the backgrounds have that much thought, so it's interesting that you say that. Because your work feels like -- the backgrounds seem like part of the story, in an essential way.

Thanks. I try.

Okay, tell me about "Legion Lost." How did you end up getting that gig and what was the challenge of taking that single issue on?

One of my editors at BOOM! was friends with some of the guys at DC, and I think he was just boasting about me, and DC contacted me. It turned out to be a fill-in issue for "Legion Lost."

Had you been familiar with the Legion, or did you have to go back and research a bunch of costumes and everything?

I don't think anyone could be thrown into a Legion book and not have to do a lot of costume research. "Legion Lost," in particular, doesn't have a whole army of characters, but the rest of the Legion does. It can get pretty complicated.

I'm kind of glad it wasn't the main "Legion" book I was asked to do.

It was nice just to step in and do a few of the characters.

Exactly. Well, one of the cooler aspects of doing that book was that I got to design a good percent of the new villains. Yeah, coming into my first DC book, with writer Tom DeFalco -- who was awesome, that guy is golden -- the script was Marvel-style, so we really had a lot of back-and-forth about what we wanted to add or take away, and I really felt like I was part of the story process.

Are any of the characters you designed going to be part of that "Culling" crossover or whatever DC has in the works?

I don't know if any of my characters will. I think that Psykill guy, the big cyborg, droopy-face guy, I think he's part of "The Culling." I don't know if any of the side characters are. But they were fun to design.

You also have your upcoming short arc on "Avenging Spider-Man" coming out in a few months. Anything else between now and then?

A cover for "Legion Lost" #11, which I also got to design the bad guys for.

Can you talk at all about "Avenging Spider-Man," or is that still top secret stuff?

I can talk a little bit about it. Kevin Shinick is writing it, and I'm not sure if I'm supposed to divulge the other character who's in it. But I will say that this book has been a fanboy dream come true.

How so?

I get to draw the craziest, zaniest, whacked-out stuff. Basically, at least for the first issue, anything that I can think of, I can draw in there. Spider-Ham makes an appearance.

No way. Really?

Yup. Well, if I can draw anything in a book, Spider-Ham will be there.

Looks like you've accomplished your dream, then.

Right. Where do I go from here?

Was there any particular Spider-Man artist that you looked back at? I know a lot of people can have trouble drawing Spider-Man, and have to key in on a previous interpretation to figure out how to approach it. How did you approach the character?

Yeah, that's totally a mountain. When Marvel comes to you and says, "We want you to draw Spider-Man." The first thought that comes is, "Woo-hoo!" and the second is, "Oh, my God -- everybody else who I've ever loved that draws comics has completely mastered this guy, and what else can I bring to it?"

I started really reading Spider-Man when Todd McFarlane drew it, and the way that McFarlane could manipulate his body and show him in all these contorted, crazy poses -- I tried to channel that a little bit. I'm also a huge fan of John Romita, Jr.'s work and the way that he could also contort a body, but could also make you feel like you can see the curve of the spine, or the flex of a stretched-out muscle.

So you tried to balance between those two takes on the character.

Yeah. And that, again, goes back to my love for Art Adams. Finding that balance between what it would look like in reality and, let's face it, we're drawing comic books here. Let's make it fun as possible!

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 blog.

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