Thursday, April 15, 2010

Interview with Comic Artists: Sonny Liew, Theo Ellsworth, and Jungyeon Roh

Since my thesis project this semester is a series of short story comics I decided to take this chance to interview some of my favorite comic artists, Sonny Liew, Theo Ellsworth, and Jungyeon Roh. I was really wanted to learn their experiences and views about such a demanding, obscure, yet amazing profession. I tried to interview comic artists from different genres/scenes, from mainstream, to indie, to another student such as myself who is starting off in comics and illustration. And I’m happy to say that no matter what anyone was doing, everyone took the time to give me thorough and interesting answers to my questions.
Sonny Liew’s Interview:

I first saw Sonny Liew’s work in the comic anthology, Flight 2 when I was in high school. Out of all the comics I most admired the sketchy, loose but well structured style of the story, Malinky Robot. Actually Malinky Robot won the Xeric Award. Since then Liew has been nominated for an Eisner and has worked with mainstream companies such as Marvel and Disney on projects like Wonderland and covers for Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Liew has also been involved with projects outside of mainstream US comics, such as Liquid City, an anthology of Southeast Asian comics. What is amazing is the Sonny Liew has done all of this while living in Singapore and still somehow had time to promptly answer my questions:

How did you get started with comics? Or art in general/ How do you feel about comics as fine art? Do you have time to do fine art since your Lucky Plazas show? What art do you look at? What contemporary artist/comic artists/graphic novels inspire you right now?
- Hmm when I started art in general is tricky, goes back to childhood doodling right? For comics, grew up reading stuff like Beano and Dandy , Spiderman, Doraemon…but in money-making terms my first paid work in comics was a daily strip I did for a Singaporean paper, called “Frankie and Poo”, something I thought up whilst on summer holidays, inspired both by Calvin and Hobbes and teenage angst :p The trend to creating art comics… I think is as legit as any fine art form, though just as baffling sometimes; freed from the tethers of traditional rules its sometimes hard to tell if there really is something there or just a lot of hot air. But it’s definitely fun trying to bend your head round some of them, and there are times when it’s just pure genius.
Haven’t had much time to paint since Lucky Plazas, caught up with comic book projects ….
- Well a few face artists off the top my head would be… Phil Hale, Antonio Lopez, Tetsuya Ishida; mostly realism grounded at some level….
- Comics wise…recent stuff I’ve liked include: Manu Larcenet, Nicolas Decrecy, just read Jiro Tanaguchi’s A Distant Neighbourhood which was excellent… and Dave Mckean’s work on cages is always inspirational….

You won the Xeric Award for Stinky fish Blues, how did you come up with the idea for Malinky Robot and how long did it take for you to promote it and for people to start responding to it? What does Malinky mean?
- It started as a school project at RISD, a class taught by David Mazzuchelli. A combination of influences from Bladerunner, anime, manga I guess… I’m still promoting it! :p the title itself just popped up – I thought it was a nonsense term but found out later it meant something in Russian/Hungarian, ‘malinky robot’ translating into something like ‘little work’ or odd jobs, which was a nice coincidence :)
What do you think the elements are to a good comic/story are? What types of stories are you drawn too or what themes do you incorporate in your work? How do you start composing? What is your process for the day?
- Hmm good elements is very subjective… I do like anything with good/interesting draftsmanship, the loose style that guys like McKean or Kent Williams have, but also more alternative styles like Gary Panter or Yoshiharu Tsuge… story telling wise maybe just things that avoid being too dark or violent, a gentler sort of approach with quiet moments; not that there’s anything wrong with darkness/violence, but too many times it just feels like they’re trying to push the envelope and appear edgy/adult/nihilistic rather than having anything substantial to say. - Coming up with new stories I guess is partly a matter of sitting down with paper and doing thumbnails, but also looking for inspiration in books and other media, and sometimes just going for long walks to figure out any storytelling knots :p

I heard from a graduated student that it is important to maintain a connection with some type of art community. How did you continue to be a part of the art community after leaving school, was it through conventions or online? Do you feel like you’ve created a niche for yourself in the comic community? Do you prefer working on your own projects or collaborating with others and why.
- I do think you have to stay connected at some level; for inspiration, support and maybe collaborations. Whenever I go to SDCC I always feel re-energized and get a sense of how closely knitted the comic community is in the US. It’s a slightly different scenario in Singapore, where the industry is much less developed ; in some ways I think I’ve been part of a smallish group of people here trying to build a comics community. Its getting year by year though :) - Collaborations and solo projects both have their place I think; with the former you get a meeting of minds and hopefully something more than the sum of parts; the latter tends to feel more personal and closer to your heart – though in a sense also more risky, since you probably invest more of yourself in it, whether it turns out good or bad… for me I think a balance between the two is ideal, though its tough juggling act at times :p

How did you support yourself in the beginning of your career? What would you consider was the turning point in your career/work/life? Does every aspect of your career connect, do you feel burnt out sometimes? And if you do what to you do to re-motivate your self.
- Hmm…. Well once I started freelancing, aside from a dry spell after “my faith in Frankie’, there’s always been work to do, even if the money wasn’t great. With time though rates get better, more projects come in, so I think for me its been a gradual process rather than one big turning point. Of course if I hadn’t turned down The Surrogates years ago that might have been it :p - I would like to be able to find more time for paintings, but it’s tricky with deadlines and all… I guess it would be nice if the two markets (comics and fine arts) was more closely connected, at least here in Singapore – right now pursuing one can sometimes feel exclusive to the other. - There are periods when you feel less enthusiastic about it all, but when I stop to think what I’d rather be doing, I do get reminded how privileged I am to be able to draw and paint for a living. But as mentioned, attending conventions, meeting fellow comics creators and other creatives also helps :)
Since you live in Singapore, does where you live have an impact (creatively, career wise) on your work, do you get to travel a lot? Why did you choose to stay there rather than live in lets say NY or CA? How is the comic scene in Singapore or Southeast Asia? Can you briefly describe your opinion about comics from America, France, and Japan, such as differences, similarities or certain preferences and qualities you’ve noticed.

- Well with the internet and FedEx I think it’s much easier these days to be able to work from anywhere. Maybe being in the states would have made going to conventions and events a lot easier – as it is I get to go to SDCC maybe once every 2 years, and have never got to go to nycc or APE. - The choice to come back was kinda forced on me I guess – at the time I was still in the states with a post-college 1-year visa when I got offered “my faith in Frankie’, and found out how difficult (near-impossible) it was to get a long term visa as a freelancer. So I had to pack up and head for home :p - Well been to France a couple of times to promote French translations of some of my comics, probably heading for Angouleme next year  - Southeast Asia comics industries generally are very nascent, still full of bad practices like publishers paying low rates and demanding copyright ownership. It’s hard to compete with stuff coming from the US and Japan as well. But there are exceptions (Malaysia’s Lat for example) and things do seem to be getting better with time… -
Are you where you want to be career wise? Is there anything you haven’t done that you want to do now?

Heh well it would be nice to have a megaseller that generates endless royalty revenues but I guess I’m pretty ok with where things are
:) Maybe a chance to try out some sculpting/modelling/casting or making toys :p

What are your opinions about the new Doctor? (had to ask since the new Doctor Who episode is coming out soon!! : D)
- Just caught the first new episode :) looks promising, though it always takes getting used to I guess… when David Tennant first popped up I thought there was no way he’d replace Chris Eccelstone, but there you go :)

Theo Ellsworth’s Interview:

Theo Ellsworth is more a part of the indie comic scene with the semi-autobiographical and imaginative short stories compiled into a book called Capacity. I stumbled across Ellsworth’s work when a friend pointed me out to his booth saying “this guy’s work is crazy awesome.” And it was true. Ellsworth is a self –taught artist living in Oregon. He used to also manage the Pony Club Gallery, but now he primarily makes his living from his comics:

How did you get started with comics, especially since I’ve read that you’ve been self taught? Or art in general? How did you first integrate yourself into the art community? Mainly through conventions/ online? Do you feel like you’ve created a niche for yourself in the comic community?
Drawing has been part of my own personal vocabulary since I was a kid. Especially in High school when it really started feeling like a vital outlet and life line for me. It took me awhile to actually start making comics. I was always drawing different characters and making things up about them, but drawing the same character more than once, or getting them to move and speak for me was a big challenge. I still feel like I’m figuring it out. Soon after I finally started making comics, I was exposed to some of the zine/DIY culture and realized I could start making my own publications. I got a table at the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco and was blown away by the kinds of work I saw there. Just by focusing on my work and trying to get it out into the world, I feel like I’ve come in contact with a pretty amazing community. I don’t know if I’ve really created a niche for myself or not. I do feel lucky that I’ve been getting by for awhile now, doing my own thing.

What did you do in school? What did you do after school? How did you support yourself in the beginning of your career? What do you consider to be the turning point of your career/work/life?

I thought about going to school for art, then architecture, but ultimately decided to travel for awhile instead. I wanted to develop my own style and way of thinking about my work and the world. I lived out of my car for quite awhile until a felt I needed a space to work. I went back to my home town and sold my car, using the money to kick-start my comics career. When I ran out of that money (which didn’t take long) I worked all kinds of crappy jobs to make rent, while working as much as I could on comics. Moving from Montana to Portland, OR a few years ago was actually a pretty big turning point because I was actually able to start making my rent by selling art by selling my comics and prints at an outdoor art market. The next huge breakthrough was getting approached by the small press, Secret Acres, who published my first book.

How do you find the time to work on your comics and manage your art gallery and read other comics/keep up with the comic scene? Does everything you do relate to comics? Do you also illustrate on the side? How do you feel about comics as fine art?
When I first moved to Portland I took up every art related opportunity that came my way. One of them was starting an art gallery with a fellow cartoonist I’d met. It was a great experience, but I had to let it go after 2 years because it ultimately took too much time away from comics. The gallery still exists and is run by some great people. Trying to make a living on comics alone is a huge challenge, but it’s definitely my goal. I do illustration work sometimes. I teach art workshops once or twice a year. It’s a big mix of things that keeps me afloat. Comics are at the core of it all. Comics are also the most challenging and time consuming, so I’m always fighting to make sure the stuff I do to make my rent doesn’t take over.

How did you come up with the idea for Capacity? Did you have an original plan or was Capacity just a compilation of your work over the years?

Originally I started making the Capacity series as practice. I just wanted to launch into making comics and see what kinds of things I could do. It was basically just a way to explore the medium and try to find my voice.
Your work seems very impulsive, do you still revise/edit? Do you write the script first or draw and write as you go? How do you start composing? Or how do you start in general? What is your process?
I get a lot of ideas when I’m walking. I’ve never really written out a full script. I never do thumb nails. It’s been interesting meeting other cartoonists and learning about all these other methods. I usually picture a scene in my head and start sketching it out right on the page. Sometimes I’ll simply draw a panel without knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s always changing. It always seems to take on a life of its’ own. I have half finished pages everywhere right now, and I’m trying to piece it together now and figure out how it all connects. It usually feels like a pretty subconscious process, and I don’t always quite know what’s really going on.

Your work reminds me of a fusion of folk art, Asian monsters, and ancient Latin American/Mayan art, because it is so distinct is it natural or inspired? What art do you look at? What contemporary artist/comic artists inspire you? What things in life inspire you?

I feel like inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. I feel a strong connection to a lot of outsider artists like Adolf Wolfli. I also love native art of all kinds. North Western Indian art has really been catching my eye, living in the North West. I love a lot of the old newspaper comic artists like Windsor McCay and Tove Jansson. I love Jack Kirby. There’s plenty or recent work that I find wonderful too. I feel a strong kinship with David B’s work. I read a lot of novels too. I’ve been currently really in to David Michell and Italo Calvino. I’m inspired by nature documentaries. Pretty much everything that interests me gets filtered into my art in some way or another.

What are your plans for your next comic or is it a secret? Are you where you want to be career wise/life? Is there anything you haven’t done that you want to do now?

I’m working on a longer story now. It feels like a leap ahead in many ways and a much bigger challenge too. I’m working more with color and having to work out a lot more about characters and the worlds they exist in. Right now it’s called The Quiet Family. The name might change by the time it sees print. At some point I’d like to do a bit of animation too, but comics will always be my main focus I think.

Jungyeon Roh’s Interview:

Three people have sent me to Jungyeon Roh’s website this year telling me I have a very similar style and aesthetic to this current SVA grad student. So I went on her site and promptly became an avid follower of her work. Roh is an amazing illustrator whose works revolve around food, personal life, and religion. She as already won a number of awards as a student, such as the silver medal in the Creative Quarterly 18 and the Student Show for Society of Illustrators. She currently working on a project comic series called Eggplant Girl. I was really excited about this interview because I was actually learning from someone who is a student like me, but has seemed to have accomplished so much more.
It reminds me to work harder!

I wish her support as another fellow illustrator/comic artist.

Actually I wish everyone I have interviewed support and success!

What’s your idea of the perfect meal? You have so many lovely drawings of food, what’s your favorite food to draw (mine is hamburgers, they’re so colorful, iconic in American culture and I have many good memories of eating hamburgers with friends.)?

I used to draw fast food including hamburgers when I was a fine art student in Korea. As you said, it was the icon of the culture and I was interested in. Since I moved to New York, I found that New Yorkers are in love with Asian food, which motivated me to make a Sushi book. Now, I became vegan starting a half year ago, and enjoy drawing my favorite vegetables that have character. The perfect meal for me is all vegan food.

How did you get started with art in general? Or comics? What will you do after school? I heard from a graduated student that it is important to maintain a connection with some type of art community how will you stay involved with an art community once you’ve graduated from SVA?

Since I was twelve, I have preferred drawing to studying. When I was in sophomore year at SVA, I chose storytelling class instead of painting. The teacher let me do whatever I wanted, so it was really helpful to find my own style of comics. After I graduate, I want work as a freelance illustrator for years, then want to be a teacher at SVA. New York has lots of opportunities to maintain connections in illustration field such as Society of Illustrators and Art Director’s Club.

What did you study in Korea? And how has that influenced your work. Did coming to America change the way you work and if so how? Why did you choose to be an illustrator based in America rather than Korea?

For being an artist, New York is the best city to live. My major was fine art in Korea, and I didn’t really enjoy it. I found my talent in illustration after I decided to study abroad in America, and it was the best choice I’ve ever made in my life. It takes time for someone to find his/her own style of art, but my background in fine art definitely helped me to find my style fast.

Do you consider the fact that you had to learn American culture in order to work in American illustration as an advantage, disadvantage or double-edged sword for your work?

For about two years, I had a hard time adapting to American culture with regards to my work and personal life. I saw everything in my narrow view that I had had for 23 years in Korea, and struggled with using the second language. However, after a while, I realized that my Asian base could be used an advantage of my work. Many Americans are interested in Asian culture, but I have a totally different view. Even though I have great painting and drawing skills in art, if I didn’t really understand cultures, they are useless. Illustration is a language, so it’s more important for artists to absorb different cultures in their life.

How did you come up with the idea for Eggplant girl? Most of your themes revolved around food, religion, and self-image/memoirs. Do you wonder where these themes stem from?

I decided to become vegan when I started Grad school. Since then, my major dishes changed to vegetables, and I was compelled to study about vegan life. When my mom visited me last summer, she said “ American eggplants are huge~!!” because Korean eggplants are less substantial. What my mom said inspired me. The shape of American eggplants reminded me of a chubby body, and I was attracted by its name. How come Egg+Plant could be a name of a vegetable, and it was funny enough for me. Then I put my character into Miss Eggplant.
Most of my works are from my personal life experiences. Sometimes I’m producing the drawings to my work using symbols. Most of the characters are people who are around me during the time.

Since your current work is a series of comics, do you see yourself as fine art or comic oriented? There are some stories that are very personal, like your ex-boyfriend series, did you feel embarrassed about showing them at first?

Yes, I did. My fine art base is the strongest thing I have. It helps me think more out of the box using shifting approaches and a variety of styles in all kinds of my work, and made my eyes open wide. I didn’t really have so many ex- boyfriends, but I thought as long as I made them funny stories even though it will be my fake autobiography, it was going to be a cool project. But I was embarrassed when people believed I had seven- ex boyfriends. For now, I have no plan to continue the project. (I’m truly conservative about this matter.)

How do you feel about comics as fine art? What art do you look at? What artist/illustrators/comic artists/graphic novels inspired you in the past and right now? What do you think the components to a good comic/story/illustration are?

David Sandlin, Esther Pearl Watson, and Adrian Tomine are three of my favorite. I like independent comic books. For me, the visuals are more important than the story for comic books. Some favorite comic books I have I didn’t really read the story because looking at the drawings in the books made them worth having. If the drawings do not attract my eyes, I didn’t even look through a comic. The reason why I respect Adrian is he is amazing at both engaging text and images.

How do you start composing? Or what is your routine for the day? What is your process? Do you write the script first or draw and write as you go along?

I don’t really write a script, and sketch my ideas out really roughly from my head very quickly.
Finding good references and detailing in the pencil drawings are the most critical things and take most of the time in my work. Then inking and coloring.
My routine for the day is so simple. Trying to go sleep at 10 pm, and wake up at 6am. Three cups of coffee in the morning, and go to school or work at the studio or home. Drawing, eating, and sleeping are my routine. (haha)

So far, what do you consider is the turning point in your work/life? Do you feel burnt out sometimes? And if you do what to you do to re-motivate your self.

My turning point was attending Marcos Chin’s class in 2007. He changed my life and made me find the right way to go for my future as an illustrator.
When I was doing my projects with silkscreen, I almost died every time. Not only silkscreen, but also doing any labor-intensive projects made me worn out. But the imagery of the finished the project and people’s expectations of my work made me work really hard. Also looking at other awesome artists’ work gave me lots of motivation. (Such as David Sandlin, Jon Vermilyea, and Jen Tong. Jon and Jen are my peer artists around my age, and they are creating amazing jobs at the same print shop. Also Esther Pearl Watson is my idol and role model.)

No comments:

Post a Comment