Voyaging to Mars, with a Co-Pilot From India

One of the most necessary skills for a comic writer is the ability to recognize art talent. Ultimately, your story is only as good as the artist drawing it. There aren't many surer recipes for success than working consistently with great artists.

Over my career I've been fortunate to work with a bunch of exceptional artists. I feel like I'm working with another one right now in Indian artist Abhishek Malsuni, who is penciling "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" for Dynamite.

If you have even a passing acquaintance with this column, or my Twitter feed, you're likely aware that writing a "John Carter" series has been on my bucket list since I was 11 or 12 years-old. I'm finally living that dream, with Abhishek as my artistic collaborator, bringing the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs to life every month.

My first contact with the comic industry in India was working as an editor on three titles for Virgin Comics (which eventually became Liquid Comics and Graphic India). I worked with a wide range of talented, India-based writers and artists, many of whom I'm still in touch with.

A few years later, an Indian company named Rovolt Entertainment hired me to edit a project called "The Legends of Aveon 9," a science-fiction/fantasy epic. The artist attached was Abhishek Malsuni, whose work impressed me immediately. Abhishek's ability was obvious, even if the pages were a little raw at time, the storytelling a little unpolished. "Aveon 9" was set upon a far-flung world, with a stalwart hero and his plucky sidekick, a beautiful princess, weird alien races, and fantastic creatures. I thought to myself, "If I ever get to write John Carter, this is a guy who could handle it."

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When Dynamite offered me to opportunity to finally write the officially-approved "John Carter: Warlord of Mars," Abhishek was the first name I put forth for art. Now, with inker Zsolt H. Garisa and colorist Nanjan Jamberi, we're in the midst of our initial storyline on the title, a six-part arc called "Invaders of Mars." Abhishek's art has gotten more accomplished with each issue, and issue #4, out next week and featuring a Civil War battle, is his best yet.

Abhishek and I talk via e-mail and Skype, but we met in person for the first time when I visited the Comic Con India in Hyderabad last October. This is his first U.S. interview.

Ron Marz: Some biographical stuff first. How old are you, where do you live, and how long have you been drawing comics?

Abhishek Malsuni: I turned 30 last year. I have been staying in New Delhi for the last four years, but originally I'm from Pithoragarh, a hill station from the Uttarakhand state of Northern India.

Professionally, it's been eight years since I started drawing as a full-time job. But I used to work freelance during summer vacations, during my Arts College days, mostly summer jobs, internships, etc.

How did you get your start in art? Did you go to school for it?

Like every other kid, I loved to read comic books, watch animation and cartoons. Instead of stories, I was more attracted to the characters and used to draw on my school notebooks. As this fascination grew with time, my artistic interests took over. I started off trying to copy the poses and scenes I liked from the Indian comics available in my town. That's when it dawned on me that I wanted to become an artist, especially a comic book artist.

Being good at my studies did not help me, though, as my parents wanted me to pursue engineering. But I decided to follow my dream, and it took me a long time to convince my parents. Finally in 2004, to make my dreams come true, I came to Lucknow, and joined the College of Arts and Crafts to pursue a BFA in Applied Arts. Art school gave me the supportive environment I needed. While Illustration was only one subject of my college studies, drawing comics is something I learned mostly with self study, internships, summer jobs and freelance work.

Who are your influences artistically?

Early on for me, obviously Indian artists were my first and biggest influences, because I grew up with Indian comic books and magazines until my admission to art school. In the beginning, I loved Anupam Sinha's work, and I'm still a huge fan. His art was a big influence for me. Later, when I got introduced to American comics, I found amazing artists that changed a lot of the way I was drawing.

As an artist, we always try to get better, so the influences change over time as well. There is not one particular influence on me. I started to observe elements from all the great artists out there, studied them and tried to implement it on paper. The atmosphere of art school also worked as a catalyst for me. Sketching, drawing from life, and exchanges with my classmates, helped me develop as an artist.

As you were developing your art, were you familiar with Western comics to any great extent?

I got to know about mainstream American comic books when I joined art school, thanks to Gotham Comics, which printed DC and Marvel titles in "pocket size" for the Indian market. It opened a whole new world for me, and introduced me to the wonderful comic book world of America. By that time, I started exploring the internet as well, and it opened an ocean of comic book art for me, with a flood of influences, art styles, variety in storytelling, and above all, unlimited learning resources.

Who are some of your favorite artists? And can you get print versions in India, or do you have to depend on digital releases.

Oh, there are so many: Joe Kubert, Albert Dorne, Sy Barry, George Perez, John Buscema, John Romita Sr., Arthur Adams, Giuseppe Ricciardi, John Byrne, Barry Windsor Smith, Marc Silvesri, Alan Davis, Riccardo Federici, Marko Djurdjevic, Kim Jung Gi, Jo Chen, Indian artists Anupam Sinha, Edison George, Mukesh Singh. The list gets extended every year.

In India, we mostly get trade paperbacks and hardcovers of DC and Marvel. We usually get older, selected copies here, so the digital medium plays a big role in this part of world. Now through online sites, we're able to get a variety of publishers and relatively newer issues. In last few years, the growth of the Indian comic con scene has also helped create momentum in the Indian market for American publishers, creators and content. That momentum inspired new publishers to come out.

Do you work traditionally, with pencil on paper, or have you moved to working digitally?

I love to work traditionally, with pencil on paper, and I most always do that. Before collaborating with my inker Zsolt Garisa, I used to ink my pencils as well. But for the last year, I started exploring the digital medium on covers and pinups. I did a few covers digitally, and usually do corrections on my scanned pencils digitally. Working traditionally brings more accuracy and command as an artist, as there is no "undo" button there. I also love watercolor, and would love to explore some "John Carter" art with it in the future.

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Your style is very detail oriented, lots of backgrounds. Is that something that's natural for you, or is that something just for our "John Carter" series?

Drawing detail is something I love from my art school days, and it's something that attracts me as a reader as well. Comics are a storytelling medium, and backgrounds play a heavy role. Backgrounds aren't necessary in every panel, but I try to draw as much as possible. Backgrounds help set the scene in good storytelling.

For my previous project, "The Legends of Aveon 9" with Rovolt, I researched some of the best French and Italian graphic novels, because the publisher wanted content with global mass appeal. I found that backgrounds are a great asset for storytelling. Artists generally draw the roughs of a whole page, but for "Aveon 9," I actually drew the whole series by finishing panel by panel, taking each and every panel into consideration.

"John Carter" is the biggest project for me to date, so I followed the same pattern of drawing detail, even a bit more than in "Aveon 9." I draw guidelines for each page, based on previously-drawn layouts. Each issue presents new challenges, and issue #4 was the most time consuming and toughest to draw, thanks to the Civil War scenes. But these kinds of challenges always help me to develop and learn more as an artist.

I edited you on your work for Rovolt and I was really impressed then. It was what planted the seed in my head that if I ever got a chance to write "John Carter," I wanted you to draw it. Your work is even better now. Do you see the progression in your work, or are you too close to it to see that?

Having you as an editor for the "Aveon 9" series was the best thing that ever happened to me. It helped me improve my storytelling a lot, and now that I am collaborating with you on the "John Carter" series, it's happening to an even greater extent for me.

As an artist, there's always a hunger to do better and learn as much as I can. Art is a never-ending learning process, so the progression is in the work. While positive appreciation helps me to work harder, critical advice and negative reviews help me to know my weaknesses, and I work on them even harder. Self-analysis is something that comes from experience and progression. I look at my older art from time to time, and realize that I could have done better when I find mistakes both in drawing and storytelling. "John Carter" has been getting good reviews, so hopefully that means I am on the right track. I take it as motivation, to prevent myself from stagnation as an artist.

Were you at all familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs in general, or John Carter in particular, before we started on this project?

Yes, first with Tarzan, and later with John Carter. Gotham Comics released a few Tarzan issues in India, so I got to know something about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Then on the internet I got to know more about him, his novels and especially the Barsoom series, John Carter and Dejah Thoris.

How did you go about getting familiar with John Carter and his world? There's a century of great art tradition for John Carter -- was that at all intimidating?

When I started exploring Edgar Rice Burroughs over the internet, it took me to the incredible work of Frank Frazetta and other amazing artists. Then I got to know the legacy behind John Carter, and the huge amount of great artwork and interpretations of Barsoom, John and Dejah.

Its influence on other content and artists is immense. I remember when Disney released the first trailer of the 2012 "John Carter" movie, I was like, "I would love to draw these characters sometime." I was in the sci-fi/fantasy zone already with "Aveon 9." But when destiny gave me the opportunity to be a part of this legacy, I was so nervous. I felt extreme pressure as an artist, and it actually took me some time to prepare myself. Research and study helped me overcome my nervousness.

I know you had a choice of doing comics or taking a staff job at a video game company. You chose comics. Are you happy with your decision?

Yes, I had that choice, and I even tried to strike a balance between them for a time. But despite the time-consuming, hectic schedule, and irregular financial living from freelancing, drawing comics has always been my first love. So I choose it over a steady, monthly-salaried job working five days a week. Now I'm drawing "John Carter" with a celebrity writer like Ron Marz, and I couldn't be happier.

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Well, I think maybe you have a weird definition of "celebrity," but okay. The biggest balancing act for comics artists is speed vs. quality, especially drawing a monthly book. Short version: there's never enough time to do the work exactly as you want, without compromise. How are you managing that struggle?

For a monthly series, getting the right balance between quality and delivering it at the right speed is a major challenge. I'm still struggling with it because of my detailed drawing style, trying to reach my artistic satisfaction. We have to meet the deadlines, delivering quality work on time. Most of my time is spent at the drawing table, 12 hours a day, mostly seven days a week.

Friends have always advised me to go for a less detailed or stylized drawing style, but drawing the details and getting closer to realism is something I love as an artist. So I try to do it as much as I can, dealing with the deadline. I would like to mention my inker Zsolt H. Garisa, who puts the same effort to deliver even better output. Love and passion for drawing is the only thing that keeps me going.

You got married last year. What does your wife think of your comics career?

She works in fashion and apparel design, and we have been friends since our art school days. Both of us being from creative fields, our wavelengths match, and based only on this, we decided to get married even though we were just friends. She has been supportive of me since our college days, and she continues to do that now.

Being with her is the biggest reason that I'm drawing comics as a freelancer, and could make the choice not to switch to a steady, salaried job. I have late nights working, and hectic schedules, but her job allows me to work with a free mind. She has always been my strength. I remember how happy she was when the first article about the "John Carter" series came out. Things would be much different if she had not been here with me.

You're really at the beginning of your career in comics. What do you hope to accomplish in comics over the long term?

Whenever I start drawing on a blank paper, I feel like a beginner with the same nervousness. At the end of the day, seeing a complete page gives me immense satisfaction and pleasure, despite the long hours. There should be love and passion in drawing comics, with a high dose of patience and dedication. I want these elements to remain with me always, so I can draw more and more.

I think of art as a constant learning process, where there is no benchmark to achieve. I want to learn throughout my life, so I haven't set any goals for the long term. I want to draw comics with different subjects and genres, from good scripts, so that I can learn more, explore more, and tell a better story.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Witchblade" and the graphic novel series "Ravine" for Top Cow, "Skylanders" for IDW, "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" for Dynamite, "The Protectors" for Athlitacomics, and Sunday-style strips "The Mucker" and "Korak" for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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