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Interview by Tim Leong
FORMER YOUNG GUN LOCKS AND LOADS FOR CIVIL WAR
Civil War artist Steve McNiven shares his advice and experience on how to cut it in the comic industry and how to use your B.S. meter.
First off, I hope that no reader will take my opinions for fact. I’m as prone to B.S. as anyone else out there , though I’ll try to keep it to a minimum. I’m still new to the comic medium and I’ve got a hell of a lot to learn. If you want great info on the medium, hunt down interviews with some of the greats: Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Frank Miller, Gil Kane, Jim Steranko, Alex Toth and more. Maybe even venture outside of the box and have a go at some of those fine artists and illustrators. It’s well worth the search.
You got your first gig by going to a convention and showing a sample package of your work. What should an artist about to do the same keep in mind?
Show them that you can tell a story. Keep your sample to five or so sequential pages, either pencil or ink or color or script, but try to keep them separate so the editors can see your skill in each area. I had about five pages of pencils, I think. Show them you can draw the ordinary stuff in those stories, you know, cars, cups, offices and such.
Avoid splash pages, as they fail to show off your storytelling abilities (and it’s really all about the story). Editors need artists who can tell a story. Writers want to work with artists who can tell a story (and from what I’ve seen it’s a writer-driven market these days), so learn how to tell a good story while you learn how to draw that cool shot of your favorite character.
Now you’re on the other side of the convention table. How does a comic book hopeful get your attention?
I don’t know if they would want to attract my attention because I am not in a position to hire anyone. That’s the editor’s job. Of course I’m always open to looking at someone’s work if they want some constructive criticism. Like I said, keep it to five or so pages because that’s all anyone really needs to see to help form an opinion of your work. Keep it easily accessible, like in a portfolio.
What are some of the best things you’ve learned since working on Meridian?
The only way you get better is to draw pages. Study other people’s work, read the interviews, keep up with industry trends, show your samples. All of these are good and will help, but they pale in comparison to actually drawing. That’s what you have to focus on. Because out there right now is someone drawing their brains out and getting better and better and … man, I better get back to it or I’ll be left behind!
How has your style progressed over the years?
Before I broke in, I was (and still am to a certain degree) a big fan of anime and manga. A lot of what I was going for drawing-wise was very stylized and ‘cartoony.’ Problem was I had no sense of structure, so my work was awful, lacking consistency from panel to panel. At Crossgen I started to work on that problem and I’m still working on it to this day. As a result my work has gotten more ‘realistic,’ so now I struggle with trying to let go of some of the structure and become more stylized. But my main focus went from the technical aspects of how to draw something to the technical aspects of why to draw something, that is, to delve into storytelling and let that dictate how I draw. I’m starting to feel that I’ve finally put the horse in front of the carriage and I can actually start to get somewhere.
I’ve read that you think the best way to learn is being near and working with other artists. What if one has no peers to work with?
Show your work at conventions, post some work online at sites that have a community of other artists looking for the same feedback, search out as much stuff about the medium as you can. If there is a school around that has a life drawing class or open studio, run, don’t walk, and sign up. Seek out kindred souls in your city and get together and draw.
How do you achieve such detail in your work?
I tend to use very little blacks (harkening back from a love of anime art books, art nouveau and 20th-century illustrators, I think), and as a result I compensate with more texture.
Your work has a lot of rich texture to it – how does it work between you and the colorist?
My colorist is the same guy that I started my career with, the incredible Morry Hollowell – Mo! to his friends – and he saves my butt on a regular basis. I’m lucky that Mo and I are on the same page art-wise because a lot of how I draw is for color. Mo and I have worked side by side at Crossgen for over a year so we have a good idea of what we are going for on a comic book page.
Take us through the conceptualization of a page.
It varies, mostly in order to keep things fresh for me because I dread routine. Essentially I read an entire scene to get the overall feel of it, then I do a small thumbnail of the first page, working on the storytelling, revising and creating multiple shots until I have something I can work with. I blow up the thumbnail , tighten it up and then transfer it onto the art board. Repeat until finished. Very inefficient and time-consuming. Someday I’d like to go straight from a thumbnail to drawing on the board, but that probably won’t happen until I learn to ink.
You draw covers and inside pages as well. How do you treat them differently (on a conceptual and technical level), if at all?
Well, covers function on a different level than interiors, more akin to illustration work, where you need to tell a story with one image. More often that not though you are asked for an ‘iconic’ image of the main characters (for a variety of reasons I’m not getting into here), and with those you just try to make the most dynamic image possible.
How important is design – in general and in relation to panel shapes and cover elements?
Very important, although it is interesting to note that design is not something static and immutable. For instance, it reflects trends in culture, allowing for an artist to design an image to reflect 1960s sensibilities or 1920s if that’s what is needed. It doesn’t have a fixed set of rules that are easily applied to the comic page. That being said, it would do any aspiring comic book artist a great deal of good to study the fundamentals of design and to try and apply it to their work. Grab a book or take a course.
You taught visual arts at North Toronto Collegiate Institute for four years – what were some of the most important lessons (and applicable to comics) you wanted your students to learn?
At that point, I was just taking up comics as a hobby so I really had no clear ideas about comic work. Much of what I had to say involved my fascination with sculpture that occupied a good six years of college prior to me becoming a teacher. A lot of that was more conceptual than technical and would require a bit of a stretch to be applicable to comic work.
What were some of the recurring problematic areas you saw in your students’ work – and what were the solutions?
You come across a weird notion that most society has about talent and whether one has some of it or not. Just ask anyone, much less an art student, to define talent and your B.S. meter will go through the roof. Practice and desire is what you need, but you can’t teach desire. Especially not in school. You get jail time for things like that.
If you were to make a triumphant return to teaching – this time for comic book art, what would be on the final exam?
I guess it would be to complete a one-shot, 22-page comic all on your own.