The Comics (Artist) Panel
Five Austinites on the state of the sequential art, from comics to comix to manga and beyond
Instead of breaking out in the comics pages of The Daily Texan, which in its day played gallery to Robert Rodriguez and Ben Sargent, these artists are simply making it on their own. Comix, manga, noir, diaries, and superheroes, they're making it. We sat down with five local artists who range from living and working through the Eighties' zine scene to just starting their first big contract about how they got there.
Mack White is one of the classic Austin artists. A close friend of the late Jack Jackson, one year away from retirement in the dean's office at UT's school of architecture, co-editor of The Bush Junta, featured in the touring gallery Comics on the Verge, and a blogger and podcaster on politics and conspiracies prolific enough to rival Alex Jones, White most recently has been creating work that's closer to surrealistically illustrated essays than straight comics.
"What I do now," he says, "tends to be more political than anything else I wonder why. And those topics don't lend themselves to traditional comics. In The Bush Junta, I contributed a piece about 9/11, and that piece is barely a comic strip. It's really just an illustrated timeline. The most recent comic I did since then was last year, in Hotwire, and it was more a noir-type mystery about JFK, called 'My Gun Is Long.' And it's still very, very dialogue and narration heavy."
Growing up the son of a newspaper editor in Mansfield and Arlington, White was in Dallas the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, making him one of the youngest conspiracy theorists ever at 11 years old. And though by 14 he'd burned out on the Silver Age supermen and crime-fighters, he found Zap Comix only a few years later.
"There's a really important ancestry in Austin from the underground comix scene," White says. "And I wasn't doing comics then, but I was definitely influenced. I'd go every week to hit all the head shops, and they were everywhere in Austin then. But even the blue-jeans shops were carrying the underground comix."
In the interim, White had experimented with a literary journal through his father's printer, but he says the Xerox revolution changed everything: "In the Eighties, anyone could publish anything. I stayed up on the underground scene, and Robert Crumb was publishing Weirdo, and that's where I first heard about this zine scene for comics. I thought, 'I could do that.' So I sat down and drew a comic. And you'd sell 'em by mail, because there were publications that would run ads and reviews, and people would collect these little minicomics that you'd photocopy and staple yourself."
But now he's gone digital. "It's better than the zine scene," he says. "That was just driven by these scattered few hundreds of people around the country who had to find out your work in ads and then order it. But then I put my comics on my Web site, and before I knew it, those things had been read by more people than I could ever count. Just the other day, a Web site in China was linking to it. There's no money in it, but I can look at the stats on my site, and 1 million people might have seen those comics. That's worth it. "
But in what White describes as "my other persona, Bison Bill," he's also working on a Western novel, drawing a Bison Bill comic, and managing an online collection of Wild West curios. With his long hair and Texan accent, he can fit the part. "One other idea I've had for retirement," he says in a way that seems both serious and joking, "is I'd set up a gallery out in the West and dress in buckskins and do nothing but paint serious, realistic, or surrealistic Western themes. I'd have to be Bison Bill all the time, though, and greet people. But it would beat passing out coupons at Wal-Mart."
To see Bison Bill's exhibits and Mack White's comix and essays, visit www.mackwhite.com.
While Mack White is part of an Austin tradition, David Marquez is the most recent artist to make the scene. After graduating from UT in 2005, Marquez went almost immediately to working as an animator for A Scanner Darkly. Since then he's worked as a freelance illustrator and designer for everything from posters to greeting cards. But his big news is a deal with Image Comics to illustrate a political thriller, Government Bodies, written by Stephan Nilson.
"The problem is that with Image," he says, "all the money is back-end. Getting published is a great opportunity, but the problem is that while I love working on it and have a lot of fun working on it, I have to find time to do it when I'm not working on something that actually pays for rent and groceries and things like that."
The important thing is that it gets him noticed. According to Marquez, "Comics is the sort of paradoxical business where you have to have done work to get work. Producing a comic means it becomes like your business card. You can say, 'Hey, here I am. This is what I can do.' Past that, it's all about getting to know people."
The easiest places to meet the players in the industry are conventions. Unlike Hollywood, where directors and producers hide behind assistants and velvet ropes, comics editors go to the major conventions to review portfolios and scout talent. And the biggest of the big are at the San Diego Comic-Con.
"It's just a crazy mecca of nerd culture," says Marquez. "Its nickname is 'nerd prom.' But once you know one person there, you meet another, and so on. I'd been working on an Image pitch after Scanner, and it kind of flopped, but one of the guys I'd met knew Stephan. And Stephan needed an artist, and I was looking for a job, so it just worked out."
But even that flop was at the end of a line of others: "A writer in England named Alex de Campi had noticed my work on some bulletin boards and asked if I wanted to do a quick spec project with her. Then she introduced me to the first working pros I'd met. So we tried to pitch some things, and it kind of fizzled out. Which I'm starting to learn is that it's part of the process: For every idea that makes it, you have five more that bottom out. And mostly it's just important to talk to people."
But now Marquez is on the project that made it. And even if Image only pays back-end, it's still a major press. And with the first issue of Government Bodies due in May, "the best and really lucky part," says Marquez, "is that Image stamp means there's a distribution network. Whether individual retailers want to sell it is another story. But it's there to be sold."
To see Marquez's work, visit www.davidmarquez.com.
While the process of rejection, rejection, interest, rejection, and then acceptance is probably the most traditional, ever since Rivkah started drawing manga, she's had success. "I've never received a rejection letter," she says, "but I'm aiming for one now. I've been trying to get into short stories, and I want to do a children's series, just prose, and I just sent something to The New Yorker, so I might get my first letter from them. I figure that the higher you aim, the rejection doesn't feel quite so bad."
For now, though, she writes and draws Steady Beat, a manga set in Austin about two sisters that deals with relationships, homosexuality, and adolescence.
But the 25-year-old native Austinite says she's "really only been drawing seriously for about three years. I wasn't serious at all before, and I didn't draw that much before. I took some life-drawing classes in high school, but that was it. But I was lucky. Tokyopop was looking for stories targeted towards teenaged girls, and I had those stories that I wanted to write."
She still had to go the convention route, but after winning a free hotel stay and admission to the Los Angeles Anime Expo in an online create-your-own-manga contest, it was a bit easier. "Steady Beat was initially a Web comic, and I had about 20 pages, so I printed them out and took them to Tokyopop, and I said, 'Hey, what do you think of my work?' And the good news is they liked it. A couple months later I had a contract."
Rivkah's quick rise to a professional contract is especially odd in an industry dominated by men. Even DC's Minx, a just-announced imprint aimed at teenage girls, is stocked with mostly male creators. But that's one of the things that drew Rivkah to manga.
"I was always more influenced by Japanese comics than American comics," she says. "I'm just not into Superman or Spider-Man. I like Batman, but mostly the movie or cartoon. The Japanese art is just a lot prettier, the stories are more diverse, and it's about girls instead of guys in tights. And the women that were in most American comics were objectified. And they were older women, not girls. I didn't want to see women with huge breasts and wide hips; I wanted to see people like myself as a young girl."
But Rivkah didn't go directly into comics. First she started her own publishing company, Rabid Press, and worked as marketing director. When Tokyopop came calling, she decided that she didn't have time to do both, but her experience informs the way she looks at her current work.
"I am kind of a businesswoman," she says. "I do my comics out of love and passion, but I also want to make money out of it some day. With the children's series, I also think about how merchandisable the characters are. And I can put my message and my theme in there, and that has to be the important part, but you still think about how to sell the book."
With her success so far, that seems like sound advice.
To see Rivkah's manga and read her blog, visit www.rivkah.com.
For those who prefer heroes in tights and detectives who fight space aliens, there's Nick Derington. He moved to Austin two years ago to take a role as a lead animator for A Scanner Darkly, leading the team that David Marquez worked on. As happens with many artists, Derington stayed.
While he is quick to point out that Austin isn't brimming with big-name comics writers and artists, he was "immediately inserted with 50 other people who were into it and knew about line art and were interested in cartooning and just making stuff. I got injected to the group pretty quickly."
But as a lead animator, he still found it hard to recruit talented local artists. "Cartooning is kind of a lost art form," he says. "You know, as far as taking it crazy seriously, illustration is kind of dying off. Most people are into graphic arts, and they become Photoshop jockeys. And, also, comics had been kind of crappy for a while, so that made a lot of cartoonists not start bubbling out for a while."
But it is improving. And to make it easier for artists to connect with the medium, Derington works with a company in New York that is designing software to allow users to generate their own comics. Users can choose between a set of backgrounds and provided elements to fit into a frame and write in their own word balloons. "It's pretty neat," Derington says. "I'm doing a bunch of elements like this mad scientist with all sorts of poses and faces for a detective or heroine." He's also working with a company that creates educational comics for children in hardbound books. "I'm so excited about it," he says. "I love the idea of doing comics in weird ways. They let you reinterpret classical stories and write biographies, history, science, and then some original stories."
But that's to provide a basis to do his own work. While he's had success so far working with franchises, Derington is eager to make his name with his own work. "The thing is, though," he says, "unless you're a straight-up Marvel or DC slave, you still have to supplement your income." This is from the guy who got a big break doing a backup feature for Savage Dragon and then drawing for Catwoman and co-writing and drawing an X-Statix story with Mike Allred.
When that's pointed out, he admits that he has been lucky to work with pros and learn. After self-publishing an anthology called Paper Museum with a friend and, as he puts it, doing "this kind of tricky thing and having all these famous guys do parts of the cover to get people into it," Derington realized he had a lot to learn.
The best way, he says, is to take every chance to dissect and learn from other people's work: "After I did those first two stories, I thought, 'This is all right, but it's not great. So I can draw for this guy and see how he lets his stories flow and look at how he works the mechanics of storytelling.' And then you start working with other writers and watching them and learning their tricks to see what they do that you like or don't like."
And, he says, publishers are actually always looking for talent. The big two may have plenty of artists already, but almost anyone else still needs more help. After you learn to do good work, it's all about "well, just being sociable," he says. "It's much harder than it sounds. If you're interested in comic books and cartooning, it probably means you're socially awkward to begin with. Like, 'Oh, I love spending days on end in a little room, hunched over the table doodling on this little thing.' So you go to conventions, and if you've got a cool vision and you're not a total spaz, you can just hang out and meet people."
You just have to "draw, draw, draw. Be a storytelling geek."
Nick Derington's work is online at www.nickderington.com.
Instead of going national, Tim Doyle stayed extremely local. In addition to managing a group of comic shops, he self-published or, as he calls it, "sub-published, sub-sub-sub-published. Basically, I knew a guy at Kinko's." a two-year-long run of a diary comic called Amazing Adult Fantasy. Each month's issue collected daily strips based on the day in Tim's life.
"I didn't have to pay for it, I could do a comic. It was great," he says. "But people would track you down 'cause they know you through a comic. It's kind of dangerous for your ego. You know? I wasn't doing anything that amazing. People just knew all about my life anyways. Which is kind of why I stopped. I couldn't make it grow anymore, and I couldn't make it any crazier. And a daily diary comic is a grind. It's just like, 'Well I didn't do shit today, but I've got to grind something out.'"
Doyle has gone on to do much more. In addition to working at the Alamo Drafthouse, he opened successful galleries of his paintings, which are a mixture of Vespa scooters, Iron Man, and Nintendo. But when pressed to explain them, he only says that he hates artists' statements. "It doesn't matter," he says. "It's just, 'Do I like this painting or not?' Like with my painting, people will ask what it means, and I'm just like, 'I like King Hippo, and I thought it'd be funny to put him there instead of Jesus.'"
He'll admit to having a narrative of how two images wound up together, but he usually won't go beyond saying that "I just put images together that I like. I'm coming from a Weird Al school of art: It's fun, it's enjoyable, and that's it."
But Salvage Vanguard Theater seems to think there's more there. SVT tapped Doyle to design the backdrops for their The Intergalactic Nemesis series, and it worked well enough, whether or not Doyle explained anything, to bring him in on the Nemesis Web comic written by SVT's Jason Neulander. "I'm absolutely loving doing the comic. My fiancée is doing all the colors. We'll be in the back room, and I'll draw, and she'll be coloring. It's on the Web site, about a page a week. But it's weird. Jason Neulander has been great to work with. He's never written a comic before, but we'll sit down and look at the play's script that's been running for 10 years, and then we get to figure how it'll work in a comic and give a visual idea to the characters. What the play does in 10 minutes might take us a few months, though. So hopefully people enjoy this enough to keep reading."
Since the play version of Nemesis has been touring around the country for the last few months, with plans to perform it in New York sometime in the future, that seems a safe bet. So maybe he won't stay local for long.
To read The Intergalactic Nemesis, visit www.theintergalacticnemesis.com. To view Doyle's art, visit www.mrdoyle.com.