Here’s an interview I did a little while ago for EnterVOID.com…
EnterVOID Interviews: Rob Stull
First, thank you for agreeing to this interview. On behalf of the enterVOID community, could you give us a little introduction about yourself?
I’m an artist, illustrator and curator from Boston. I’ve been working professionally for close to 30 years in the comic book, advertising and graphic design industries. For the past 20 years the majority of my work has been sequential art for most of the major comic book publishers.
What inspired you to become an artist and how did that passion extend to comic books? What made you say, “Comics! That’s the life for me!”?
Inspiration was all around me growing up. My father is an architect, my mother was a dancer and my uncles taught art. It’s in the blood. I was about 3 or 4 years old when I told my parents I wanted to be an artist, and they began plugging me into environments where local artists thrived. As a child I attended gallery and museum openings all the time. The artists I met became my heroes and mentors later on. As for the comic book connection—I collected comics throughout my adolescence. Back then I often thought how cool it would be to make a living as a comic book artist, but I didn’t begin my pursuit of a career in comics until after I graduated from art school. I never considered comics as being “the life for me.” I saw it as one area, of many, that I wanted to explore. Even after I broke into the industry and began receiving work on a regular basis, I never felt comfortable doing just one thing and nothing else. I was always looking for additional sources to feed my appetite for creative expression.
What makes sequential art appealing to you over other media?
The overall creative process of producing comics appeals to me the most. As a professional I enjoy collaborating with other artists whom I respect and admire. It’s very rewarding to be part of a team whose individual contributions collectively bring a project to life. Sequential art is a story telling medium, but most visual art is telling a story of some kind. Some of my favorite painters like N.C. Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell had the ability to tell a complete story in a single painting. They were natural story tellers. I’ve always believed that all art is relative. With comic books (and also story boarding for TV & film) the artist has several frames and panels to try and convey their story to the viewer. Sequential art mirrors film in many ways, so the opportunities to create mood or build up to a significant point in the storyline are endless. It’s as though each panel has the potential of being its own individual work of art.
Where did you learn your craft? And what do you think was the most vital part of the journey to becoming a professional artist?
As I mentioned, I collected comic books when I was a kid, so the seeds were definitely planted a long time ago. At a very young age I understood the creative process, and that it took several people to produce a single comic book each month for mainstream publishers like Marvel and DC. So when I decided to pursue work in the industry I already had a firm grasp on the “language” of comic books.
I think a few of the more important elements in becoming a professional artist (comics or otherwise) are support, drive and determination. The talent and passion for what you do should be there from the beginning. But it ain’t easy. For some, the mere notion of being an artist represents a lifetime of struggle and can often become a back-burner profession or more of a hobby while you’re out doing you’re “real job.” If the talent is there, then every aspiring artist needs to have access to the proper information on how to succeed. Some call it “the business of being an artist.” Education is the key. Art school (or any university with a decent fine arts program) and courses in business management can help nurture and refine the talent that is already there, but the best teacher is always real life experience.
Who were some of your influences? When you started did you set about emulating any artists? Do you think it’s important to do so?
I have a ton of influences inside and outside of comics. I broke into the business as an inker, so the stuff I identified with was the stuff I grew up reading. I loved all the classic penciler and inker teams like Gil Kane & John Romita, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano, Frank Miller & Klaus Janson, etc. Like I said before, I didn’t decide to become a comic book artist until after I graduated from art school. Immediately after leaving school, I did a lot of advertising and design work locally (in Boston) for places like the New England Aquarium and the Children’s Museum. At that time my major influences were the local artists and illustrators that I met when I was younger like Paul Goodnight, Nelson Stevens, Napoleon Henderson and Dana Chandler. Nelson Stevens, in particular, had a big influence on the illustration work that I produced while I was in college. He would draw and paint in a very graphic, high-contrast, collage-type of style. Very distinctive and very stylized. His black and white (or pen & ink) work was just as powerful as his full color work. These guys were my heroes, so I naturally aspired to be like them. But emulating or copying them was something I did not do. It’s okay to be influenced and inspired by someone, but I always valued the importance of having my own voice and creating my own individual sense of style.
What do you think is important for visual storytelling? What do you think helps an artist to clearly tell the story that she/he (or the writer) is trying to convey?
If you’re a penciler, inker or colorist working in this business, first and foremost, YOU MUST KNOW HOW TO DRAW! And by draw, I mean EVERYTHING—people, animals, fish, cars, space ships, monsters, buildings, trees, etc. And you must learn the rules of perspective, light logic, figure ground, how clothing rests and folds against the human form and so on. It’s very important to have a clear understanding of the basic fundamentals of drawing. Then you have to give life to your subject matter, or make your characters “act” with an unlimited series of expressions and emotions. Once the artist has the basics down, it’s time to reference and research. Sequential art has often been referred to as film on flat paper, and essentially that’s what it is. Old black & white movies are an excellent source manual for enhancing an artist’s story telling skills.
Could you describe what your process is on an average day for making a comic page?
If I’m inking a page I’ll use a variety of different tools. I’m very traditional in my approach, so the majority of my work is inked with a brush (Raphael 8404 sable no. 2), but I also use dip pens w/crow quill nibs and rapidographs. I use KOH-I-NOOR Ultradraw Rapidograph drawing ink for most of my ink work. In my opinion, it’s the best ink for giving you a dense solid black when applied to the paper. I’ve used Higgins Black Magic, FW and Pelikan inks in the past, but they changed their formulas so they all suck now. I’ll usually start out by outlining all of the panel boarders first. From there I’ll just start inking away until the page is done. I used to have a system where I would, very lightly, ink all the backgrounds in a panel first. Then gradually move my way forward from the background to the mid-ground and then the foreground, being very conscious of my line weights, light sources and textures. I don’t have much of a system these days, as far as what gets inked first on a page. Although, sometimes I’ll still ink the backgrounds first. My theory is that it’s easier to keep my subject matter on the right plane if I establish a point of reference at the beginning. By inking the backgrounds first, I can gauge how much line weight needs to be added to move objects into the foreground, or push them back deeper into the page. When all the inking is completed, I erase all of the excess pencil and do minor touch ups using Pro white, white ink or a Pentel Presto white-out pen. Now the page is ready for scanning and uploading to the publisher’s server. If necessary, I can make additional touch ups after the page is scanned, using photoshop. It’s worth mentioning that nowadays a lot of publishers and pencilers are moving toward the blue-line option and digital inking programs, to save on time and money. I don’t care for it. I do both, but prefer traditional collaboration over digital inking of any kind—and so do the fans!
One point of contention we’ve had in our community at enterVOID is what makes up an appropriate critique. There are people who believe critiques should be harsh and others who believe that they should always be handled with kid gloves. In your experience what is the best sort of critique that can help an artist grow?
You have to keep it real with people. I’ve done hundreds of portfolio reviews over the years, and I feel if someone invests the time and money to attend a con and wait in a long-ass line to get my opinion of his/her work, then I owe it to that person to be as honest, informative and helpful as I can. I’m not doing them any favors by not being straight with them about their work. That being said, there are people out there who just aren’t cut out to do comics, no matter how much they love it. That doesn’t mean that I need to crush their spirit or kill their dream. I would much rather point out the areas in their work that need improvement. Then they can go back and apply that information and try again and again and again, until they get it right (or not). There’s a big difference between constructive criticism and being harsh for no reason. Being an asshole, just because you can, never made sense to me.
How do you handle deadlines and do you have any tips for keeping focused on them?
Deadlines can make or break you. I find that I’m at my most productive when I can fit everything I need to do into a 9am to 5pm schedule. So basically, I treat the work that I do just like anyone else would treat a regular job. I even take a lunch break at noon. The people that are the most successful in this business are the ones that can treat and respect it like a real job. The incentive is being able to do something that you enjoy. Legendary artist/inker Joe Sinnott told me at the beginning of my career, “If ya can’t get it done between the hours of 9 to 5, then you shouldn’t be in the business!”
Could you tell us how you got your first big break? And what opened the doors for you?
In the early 90’s I attended a comic book convention at the Jacob Javits center in New York. I was fresh out of art school and full of confidence. My portfolio consisted of penciling, inking and coloring samples of only my own art—no collaborations and no sequential story telling whatsoever. While in school, I majored in illustration and graphic design, so my attitude was such that I wasn’t about to let anybody tell me I didn’t have what it takes to do comics. What the publishers and editors did tell me, however, was that my portfolio was all over the place. Not enough discipline in any one particular area. The artwork, though it looked good, lacked direction and focus and didn’t tell them anything about my ability to tell a story. So I began contacting various publishers requesting sample scripts and photo copies of published pencils to produce inking samples from. Water color had always been one of my favorite mediums to work in, and I saw a lot of similarities in comic book inking. The more I learned about the language of inking and how to manipulate the tools, especially the brush, the more it stuck with me. I put together a new portfolio, with the majority of my work being inking samples and maybe 30% pencil samples. Several months later I met Hannibal King (a penciler from Boston) and David Quinn (a writer from NY) at Comicfest in Philly. They were both working on a book called Night Vision for Rebel Studios. I showed Hannibal my portfolio. He liked what he saw and put me in contact with his good friend Larry Stroman, a very popular artist at that time known for his work on Alien Legion and X-Factor for Marvel. Larry loved my work and introduced me to Marvel editors Suzanne Gaffney and Mike Lackey. Weeks later Larry took a one-shot penciling gig on What If # 71, just so he could request for me to ink it. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be a new comer and get the opportunity to work with a veteran like Larry Stroman on my first Marvel assignment—not bad. After the book dropped I started showing it around to other Marvel editors, and before long received a phone call from Sarra Mossoff offering me a full time inking gig on Spider-Man Adventures with Alex Saviuk. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What would you advise for budding artists who are trying to make it into the business?
Don’t limit yourself. Ask questions. Explore and absorb all the information you can—not just about comics, but about everything. Study artists, painters, sculptors and master illustrators—not just comic book artists. These days it’s very important to be multi-media. Try to do as many different things as you can. And work hard.
You’ve been in the business for decades. What are some of the advantages of being a ‘freelance’ artist versus creator owned? Have you ever tried or desired to make and establish your own creator owned characters?
To me, freelance implies freedom. You can work for a variety of publishers and you’re not obligated to any one particular company, unless you’re under contract. A creator owned property enables the artist/author to have, in most cases, 100% total creative control that they may not otherwise experience when working on someone else’s material. And yes, I do have my own creator owned characters and properties.
Knowing that you have these influences of graffiti and hip hop how do you integrate these influences into your art? Is it a matter of technique?
I wouldn’t say those elements are directly integrated into my work. It’s more of a mental thing, as opposed to a visual thing. Like a sensibility or an attitude. I was an 80’s kid and Hip-Hop was a positive source of creative expression that dominated my youth. It’s a part of who I am as an artist. If you were a kid growing up in the 80’s you were affected and influenced by Hip-Hop. It was pure back then. Not the inauthentic, watered down version of what it is today.
And besides influence do you find some overlap between graffiti and comic books? As I can see on your site you have an art show (COMnGRAF project) that showcases artists of both sides but what is the common ground?
There is definite overlap. In my opinion, the same individuals that are into Hip-Hop (from the pioneers to the major movers and shakers of the culture) are also buying comic books. There has always been a mutual love and appreciation for the two, from both sides. COMnGRAF is an extension of that reality; a first of its kind project that showcases the collaborative grouping together of sequential art and aerosol art by comic book artists and graffiti artists. The concept is a “fusion” of two cultures, celebrating the influence each has on the other. A good example of cross-cultural influence (or common ground) between the two art forms was shown in graffiti artist Dondi’s 1980 homage to Vaughn Bode’s Cheech Wizard comic book series from the 70’s. Dondi was one of the first artists to incorporate comic book characters in his graffiti pieces on New York City subway trains. Both Dondi and Bode are now deceased, but their work continues to inspire and influence generations of others to follow in their footsteps.
What makes comic books so appealing to hip hop culture?
Hip-Hop is a global cultural phenomenon created by American urban youth, which transcends race, class and gender. Comic books are a staple of American popular culture. The two are intrinsically connected.
What pratfalls should artists avoid in trying to objectively depict hip hop culture without being offensive?
Always educate yourself on whatever your subject matter is. And don’t write about stuff you don’t know, or it will come across fake to your audience. Also understand that there is a distinct difference between Hip-Hop culture and Rap music. “Rap” is a genre—something you see on TV in a music video (example: Soulja Boy and Lil’ Wayne). “Emceeing” is one of the four elements that make up the culture of Hip-Hop (example: Grand Master Caz and Melle Mel). Big difference.
Research is very important for artists when attempting to depict Hip-Hop culture positively (and research should not be limited to ONLY what you see on TV). It’s just as important for the author to have some sort of personal connection to their subject matter. I love Hip-Hop, but I also know Hip-Hop, so it wouldn’t be difficult for me to convey a believable concept to my audience. It’s important for artists and writers to establish what their subject matter means to them, and be as real and honest as they can in their depiction.
You’ve done a lot of work in promoting awareness of the contributions of African Americans to comics and sequential art. What struggles should minorities and other similar groups be prepared to face in trying to promote their own works?
In answering this question, I feel it would be equally as important to address how artists and creators of color deal with issues of racism and prejudice within the industry. So here goes…
In my experience I’ve found that the struggles can be the same for anyone trying to push their own creative comic book properties, outside of the mainstream. On the surface it doesn’t matter what ethnic group you belong to. The difficulties one might face would have more to do with the content and subject matter of their material, as opposed to their ethnic background. Most mainstream fans don’t buy comics based on the ethnicity of the creators, unless a conscious and deliberate decision has been made to do so. However, “content” and “subject matter” become very precarious elements. The amount of prejudice an individual creator could potentially face, can have a lot to do with what area of the field they choose to pursue and push their work—indie or mainstream. The mainstream is basically superheroes. That’s what sells. The indie market is not as limited as the mainstream and, in my opinion, is definitely the way to go for creators who want the opportunity to be able to tell their stories in their own words without a lot of interference or protocol. If you’re a creator who just wants the thrill of working on iconic characters like Superman or the Avengers, then the mainstream is for you. But mainstream fans are very possessive and protective of the characters they love. If they feel a creator has negatively contributed to the pre-existing storyline of their favorite book, then they will let that creator know. And the feedback isn’t always pleasant.
The late Dwayne McDuffie was the co-founder of Milestone Media and an award winning African American writer for both the animation and mainstream comic book industries. He was the writer and producer for the animated television series Static Shock, Justice League Unlimited, Ben 10 and All-Star Superman. He was quoted in an interview where he stated…“Being a writer that the reader knows is black, puts a lot of the mainstream readership on edge.” He defined mainstream as being white/male. When Dwayne McDuffie took over as writer for The Justice League, he was told by his editors to include specific black male characters into the story line. When he did, he was met with opposition from certain fans, who began making ridiculous accusations against him. One of which, was that he was trying to impose his agenda on the title and simultaneously turn the Justice League all black. Seriously?? The perception from these fans was that Dwayne had done a terrible thing and without even having all of the information, felt justified in calling him out for it. It got worse when message boards popped up with fans continuing to voice their discontent by throwing every negative racial slur imaginable at him, as if he were not the veteran creator that he was. No respect at all. Dwayne countered by posting some of the more outrageous discourse on his blog. It illustrated for a lot of us how some fans could be completely oblivious to the fact that they were projecting hatred over one writer’s interpretation of fictional characters.
I experienced opposition on a different level while promoting my exhibit Sequential Art: The Next Step. The Next Step was a first of it’s kind 10-year traveling exhibit that showcased the contributions of African Americans to mainstream comic book art and popular culture. My first show was in 1994, about a year after I broke into the industry. Over the years I would promote my exhibits alongside any current comic book project I might have been working on at that time. The main goal of the exhibit was to increase the understanding, appreciation and awareness of sequential art. The secondary aspect was to empower young people of all races, by bringing attention to the fact that talented artists of color not only work on characters like Batman, Spider-Man, JLA and The X-Men, but also create, write, illustrate, produce and publish their own properties as well. In the beginning I looked to the mainstream for support, but got none. Not surprising. So I did everything myself. I also partnered with various different cultural institutions, museums and galleries to ensure that the participating artists and their work were represented properly. When the showcase started to create a buzz, certain members of the comic book community did not view it as a positive thing. To make a long story short, I started to notice a significant decrease in the amount of work related calls I received from editors. Artists that requested to work with me were told by their editors that I was either, too expensive, too busy, or simply not interested. This went on for years. When these things happen, it’s important to recognize what it is and keep it moving. The comic book industry is filled with talented people. This business, not unlike any other entertainment industry, is not perfect and has negative elements to it. But never let the opinions of a few define your character. Follow your heart and always stay true to yourself. ALWAYS.
Over the years, you’ve worked with nearly (if not) every major comics company, and collaborated with a great many people. Who did you enjoy working with the most? And who would be your dream team of people to work with?
After 20-plus years in the game, I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with just about everyone I’ve ever wanted to work with. I’ve met some of the most talented and creative individuals in my life, while working in this field. Past project collaborations that have personal significance for me involved Larry Stroman, Mike Wieringo, Todd Dezago, Paul Mounts, Alex Saviuk, Grey, ChrisCross, Dwayne McDuffie, Alex Simmons, Louis Small Jr, Keron Grant and Ken Lashley. However, I can’t say there’s any one person, in particular, that I’ve enjoyed working with the most. Nor do I have a specific dream team of people in mind that I want to work with presently. Like most people, I set goals for myself. I consider it a blessing that I’ve been able to achieve most of those goals within the time that I’ve invested in the industry. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing what I do. But it also doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t set new goals and think (and look) outside of the box for new challenges. That’s how we evolve as creative people.
What do you think is important to maintain a good relationship between artists and writers? What do you think is needed for a team to have harmony on a book?
Communication. Giving and sharing of ideas and view points, along with the mutual desire to do the best work they possibly can. They also have to trust each other. I don’t believe that writers and artists immediately mesh after being thrown together on a book for the first time. It’s more gradual. It can take a while. The subject matter is secondary. A good writer/artist combo can make almost anything appealing.
Again thank you for the interview but before we end I have one more question: They say you can peer into the soul of a man by the kind of soup he likes, what’s your favorite?
Thank you for your responses and I hope to see more of your work in the future!