The Sketchy Guys: Tone, Nar & Mark Dos Santos on Sketch Cards

Trading card companies are always looking for something new to entice collectors into buying more packs. That's where the term chase card came from; cards you have to chase after. OK, that might not be the actual origin of the word, but the result is the same. These little buggers are randomly inserted into packs and are usually worth three times a full set of cards. And they have come in many styles - hologram cards, gold foil inlay, puzzle pieces, etc. You'd be surprised at how many different ways there are to up the value of a trading card.

The newest craze is sketch cards. That's where a company hires a group of artists to draw directly on the cards themselves and then gives them away. Original art on a tiny piece of cardboard. Pretty amazing stuff and the value of these cards go up astronomically.

At Wizard World Los Angeles, Tone Rodriguez asked if I would dust off my tape recorder and do one more interview with him. Tone has been doing sketch cards in between his comic work for the last couple of years for Inkworks, but now he had a crew of artists working with him and wanted to bring them along for the interview. So, with the recent release of "Robots" cards and the upcoming release of "The Family Guy" cards, it seemed like a perfect time to sit down with the artists that make the sketch cards possible. Well, the day of the interview rolled around and the turnout wasn't what we had hoped, but the conversation was a lot of fun.

Let's start off by introducing yourselves.

TONE: I'm Tone Rodriguez and I drew "Violent Messiahs" and "Snake Plissken Chronicles." I am currently working on a project for Top Cow called "The Covenant," which is set up at Sony Screen Gems for a feature film. And I work for Inkworks doing sketch cards. We did "Robots" and we're now getting ready for the release of the "Family Guy" trading cards.

NAR: I'm Nar, just an up-and-coming artist, I've been an up-and-coming artist for the last five or six years. I've assisted Tone on the covers for the "Snake Plissken" books and for "Masters of the Universe." And I'm doing the sketch cards with Tone.

MARK: Mark Dos Santos, also an up-and-coming artist. I've had a bunch of small press things published over the years. I had a short story in the "SPX" in 2000, did a three-issue story with a buddy of mine called "School Girls" and then decided to do my own book called "Air Space." I'm currently working on a two-part story arc in "Western Tales of Terror" for Hoarse and Buggy Productions and doing some spec work for Tokyopop. And I'm working on the sketch cards with Tone and Nar.

TONE: That's amazing, we're all here talking about the sketch cards… maybe we'll bring that up some more later.

Now, basically you have put together this large studio of people to do these cards.

TONE: Yeah, you can tell by the huge turnout of artists we have here today. I basically refer to them as my A-Team.

Why don't you give me a run down on who isn't here?

TONE: Oh, sure… people that aren't here today…

You have to read their names from a list?

TONE: I don't want to miss anyone. Imaging I do this whole interview and forget a guy…

That's like Sgt Fury needing a list of the Howling Commandos, "Who's the guy in the green, where's my list… damn… what was his name… oh yeah… Michelson! Duck!"

TONE: These people are so important and special to me that I have their names on a list so I won't forget who they are. Okay, some of the guys on the A-Team: we have Roland Paris who was an inker at Crossgen, super-super cool guy. Rick Koslowski the artist and writer from "Three Geeks." Joel Gomes, who is supposed to be here, has done work for Top Cow, mainly doing background pencils on books like "Witchblade." Chad Frye who was a former Disney guy, a fascinating and amazing artist. And Chris Moreno who is currently working on "Dracula vs. King Arthur."

Evil meets Medieval.

TONE: Yeah, that is some crazy shit. It's a great looking book and he's an amazing artist. Beck Grutzik… absolute sweetheart; I met her about 5 years ago and just fell in love with her. She does all these great little independent books and I've wanted to help her out all this time so when this project came up I immediately called her. She married another wonderfully talented artist named Matt Wendt who I also got to work on these cards. Jeff Zugale of "Kindergoth" and he's now doing video game designs. And the last guy on my little list here is the president and CEO of Neko Press, Billy Martinez. He publishes "Wildflower, Kick-ass Girl" as well as teaches art classes. The guy definitely knows how to use all 24 hours in a day.

Let's talk to the other guys and let Tone rest his vocal chords. Mark, standard question 1a… how did you get into art?

MARK: I've been drawing since as long as I can remember. I originally wanted to get into animation so I went to the Joe Kubert School which wasn't the smartest idea since the school is geared more towards comics, meaning the animation department was somewhat lacking. But it taught enough so I knew what I was supposed to be doing. I moved out here to California, hit up all the big companies except Disney (I wasn't into that whole "whatever I draw they own" thing). They all told me the same thing, "your stuff looks great, but we're not hiring right now…" The only thing I was offered was internships and being married and having bills to pay didn't make that an option. I was already soured by the fact that a role-playing game company I had done work for when I lived in New Jersey told me they would have tons of work for me if I was in California, but once I moved and went to see them they had nothing for me. So that made me feel all crappy inside and made me want to get out of art…

Man, talk about bringing down an interview.

TONE: What is this, a Spielberg flick? We have to kick your ass for the first two reels and then lift you up to greatness by the end?

MARK: That's about it man… you're an artist and you can never stop drawing. Luckily I came up with the idea for "Air Space" and was asked to draw "School Girls," which re-ignited my passion for drawing. I wanted to go into animation as a designer or storyboard artist and comics to me is basically storyboards, so it wasn't really that far of a transition for me.

Nar, same question, but don't be so depressing.

NAR: I started practicing to draw comics when I was 18 on my own. I had hit a point in my life where I felt like an outsider, I didn't hang out with friends, I just spent almost a year just locked in my room drawing away. After that I put a portfolio together and started going to these little comic shows trying to get work. About two years into doing that I met Tone at the Los Angeles Comic Expo.

TONE: How long ago was that now?

NAR: About five or six years. I had gotten in line, shown my stuff to Tone and he gave me some pointers. And then for some unknown reason I got back in line and showed him my stuff again. Well, on the second time through, he pulled out a piece of paper and wrote out his phone number. We've hung out ever since. But at that time the market was really bad and I was getting nervous. I had to find work and I knew that if I ended up doing something other than comics, it would be almost impossible for me to get back to doing comics down the line. For me, comics would be a full-time job. I couldn't work a day job and then go home and do comics at night, I need the full 10 to 15 hours to do a page. So I stuck by it and Tone really tried to keep me in the scene. But what I've found is a different kind of fire. This isn't the place to make big money, but I look at it like a savvy old veteran now. Even though I haven't done any high profile books, I know the pain of sitting for hours on a single page and I have a lot of respect for those who are out there doing it. Now I do it not only for the love of the art, but I see a bright future coming up. So I'm going to put myself on the line and go for it. All the stuff I've got though I have to give a big thanks to Tone, because he hooked it all up.

Let's talk a little bit about how you got involved with Inkworks and what led to you putting together this group of artists.

TONE: The very long version of this story starts about a year prior to "Violent Messiahs" being released. That tells you how long I've known Alan Caplan of Inkworks. Alan and Martha had just started up Inkworks and they were doing those Diamond Retailer Conferences and I met him there. We would talk at the shows and then at the first Wizard Philly show he was right in front of us. They were debuting the "Scooby Doo" movie and had a monitor showing the movie preview. Now, I liked the "Scooby Doo" movie, but after two and a half days of it, I was pretty much Scoobied out. Later on a friend of mine, Anthony Bozzi, called me up and asked if I wanted to do sketch cards for the "Scooby Doo" set for Inkworks. Now I was hesitant because I didn't think I could draw the movie characters, but Bozzi told me it was the classic cartoon cards so I jumped on it. And that was my first job with Inkworks, and then literally didn't hear from them for about a year when they contacted me about the "Aliens vs. Predator" cards, which I did.

Another six months passed and Inkworks got a hold of me to for the "Robots" project and out of the blue they asked if I happened to know of any other artists I could get to work on them as well. They said they needed about ten guys and the first two that came to mind were these two here. Then I started checking with other artists I knew and got the team put together. This was also the first gig where each of us had to do 500 cards each. The previous jobs were 250 - 300, but now we had to do 500 cards in a two-week period.

Now what exactly is a sketch card?

TONE: Well, it's a pre-printed blank front card that we literally draw on. The backs have our information on it, but the front just has the logo of the set and then we are free to use the space to draw. Then they insert these cards into the sets randomly.

So how was your experience on the cards the first time out?

MARK: Tone called me up and said, "Want to do some 'Robots' sketch cards?" And I said "Sure." Then he tells me it's 500 cards in two weeks. You get the cards and it's very intimidating. I started working on them and figured I wanted to do a really good job so I'm hand drawing each one. So I call up Tone and ask him what number he's on, '200 something' and I'm on 50. The next day I call and it's '300 something' and I'm on 60. But I have a full-time job at a comic store so I work all day, then come home and draw all night; I'm getting two hours a sleep a night, but I got them done.

I didn't know much about "Robots" in the beginning. I knew it was for kids so I figured I would follow what was in the trailer and then expand on that some. I did hit on to something that everyone else in the group stole from me. I wanted to take the characters, but draw them in the style of other famous movie posters. We got together in a group about a week before the deadline and looked at each other's cards and Chad Frye stole my idea.

How do you decide what mixture to do or how many of one character compared to another to do? How much freedom do you have to make that decision?

NAR: "Robots" was my first set and I created a system where I would break my cards up into groups of fifty. And we had enough characters for me to split them up and draw fifty of each. Of the fifty of each character, I would do twenty-five mostly head shots and twenty-five full body shots. I would then take and stare at the characters for a while and sketch them in my book before ever doing a card. I needed to get to the point where I felt like I had created these characters so I could draw so many of them in the time I had.

Do you have an actual process for getting the work done so quickly?

TONE: The process is the job. You have X number of cards to do in X amount of time, so get started. But to speed up the process, I would get the sample art they would send and draw each character a few times. Once I felt comfortable with them, I would start on the cards, but I would start basing the drawing on one of my earlier sketches. On some cards I would take a particular pose and draw it on vellum, then do a rubbing onto the card and sketch from the rubbing. I did this on a few cards when I wanted to start with the same base pose or look and then expand on it from there.

The process was just getting the cards done. Chad went ahead and did some of his cards in watercolor, we didn't ask him to but that was just one of the things he thought of doing and did it. Mark and I did a lot of ours in color. Nar used acrylics on some of his and they look freaking amazing. They did what they wanted to get the job done.

So the way these cards work, if I understand it correctly, they are going to take the cards you send in and insert them as is into cases. No copies, no extra printing, nothing. Original art dropped randomly into boxes.

TONE: What they are going to do is put one card in a pack and put one of those packs in each box. So there is one sketch card in every box.

So collectively this group did over 5,000 cards.

TONE: Yup.

NAR: We are given back two of the cards we did and a box which has a card in it. So we get back three cards total, but one may be someone else's work.

So if you got Mark's, would you trade him?

NAR: Nope, it goes on eBay.

TONE: I've got a great eBay story…

Would you like to tell it?

TONE: Yeah. This is the greatest coolest thing and the most hurtful and painful thing an artist can go through. About a day after the "Robots" cards came out, the sketch cards were all over eBay. Well, I've seen it before, but it was new to these guys. "My card went for $20." "Mine went for $30." I actually had one of my "Alien vs. Predators" cards go for $75. So I got an email from Chad (Frye) and he had done a sketch card of "Robots," but done up in the Hildebrant "Star Wars" poster theme in watercolors; well this card was listed for sale on eBay. It's a gorgeous card. Well, his email said, "I wish I had a piece of this" and a link to the auction. At that point it was going for $175.00. So we kept an eye on it over the next couple days and it kept going up. Finally it sold for $384.00. That's a lot of money for a little piece of cardboard. For $50 I could get Chad to draw me a large version of that.

Have they given you an idea of what the next card set may be?

TONE: They've been dangling "Serenity" in front of me for the last six months. But I'm not sure what kind of sketch cards would be coming from that.

OK, dream projects. What card set are you guys dying to work on?

NAR: Transformers. Teen-aged Mutant Ninja Turtles. Batman.

MARK: Justice League Unlimited. Futurama.

TONE: Futurama.

How many more sets do you see yourself doing?

MARK: It's not something I see myself doing all the time; but I have fun working on them. It's different every time and it only lasts two or three weeks tops. I'll work on as many cards sets that they want me on.

TONE: That's what I was going to say. As long as they will have me.

Speed round time. Quick answers. Average cards, how long does it take you?

TONE: Three minutes.

NAR: Five or six minutes.

MARK: About five or six.

Favorite card you did from the "Family Guy" set?

TONE: There are about ten of these I did and they're based on the first episode where Peter has lost his job. He signs up for welfare and they make a mistake on the check so instead of $100 a week he's getting $100,000. Well, he surprises Lois with the Statue of David, but he only rented it. But Peter is concerned because when they were unloading the truck, the statue's penis fell off. So Peter chucks it and it ends up crashing through his boss's window. The boss grabs it off the floor, holds it up next to his check lovingly and says, "I will call you Eduardo." So I did 10 cards with the statue of David's penis against this guys cheek.

NAR: I drew a card of Stewie saying, "Change me I'm stinky" and he's holding his diaper that's just chock full of crap with flies around it.

MARK: My favorites were the last four I did. Lois is a red-head and I was trying to come up with something so I figured famous red-heads… "I Love Lucy." So I drew Lois in some "I Love Lucy" situations: Squashing grapes, the throwing knives, the Vita-meta-vitamin commercial and I did all of them in gray tones except for her hair. And on the last card I did the family as "The Honeymooners."

Marvel Comics Unveils First Look at Doc Justice and the J-Team's Roster

More in Comics