I had the opportunity to speak with several comic artists over four days at SDCC. Each has a unique style and a variety of inspirations, which is, of course, a huge part of what keeps the massive medium of comics so fascinating and engaging.
Here’s what Chris Uminga, Agnes Garbowska, and Juan Ortiz had to say:
BR: Your style is really unique. Tell me a little bit about how it developed.
CU: Cartoons, animation…I always wanted to draw comics. It was always my goal to somehow draw Batman. The way I drew, though, I was trying to mimic what I thought they (the company) wanted. It was becoming more of a chore, trying to be not myself artistically. One day, there was a gallery showing as part of an event and I said, “I’m going to draw Batman, but I’m going to draw him how I want to draw him.” I made the head five times too big and thought, “Oh, that’s really interesting, and he doesn’t need eyes because he wears a cowl,” so I took the eyes away. I started to borrow things I had noticed in street art and tattoo art, Saturday morning cartoons, and sculptors I had met. If someone has five fingers and you only draw three, it’s still going to register as a hand so I started picking and putting everything together and slowly started to develop a “creepy cute…” style. It was a more natural way for me to draw and I had more fun drawing that way. It’s still evolves…
BR: One of the particular influences you mention in your bio is graffiti art, and you mentioned tattoo art a minute ago. Do you have any favorite artists?
CU: I’m lucky, I live in New Haven, Connecticut. It’s a really good hub for tattoo artists…a lot of high class artists who work there like Jill Kubala and Derrick Merrill and my friends own shops. I’d hang out and watch their techniques, it’s very similar to watercolor, the medium I grew up painting with. I’d ask questions or watch how they did lines…a lot of local guys I grew up with taught me about lettering and lines…you learn brushwork, that hand motion…those guys inadvertently played a really big part in developing me as an artist. I remember I was sitting next to a guy who was not, probably, traditionally a great artist but to me, his graffiti was amazing and I loved it and I would pick his brain every day about “How do you do that?” and he would show me with a marker, and somehow it got into my brain and I still use the outlining to this day. I saw him about a year ago and I said to him, “I don’t know if you know this…you were more of an art teacher to me than my art teacher in high school.” It was nice to be able to tell him that.
BR: Any books or inspirations you keep close by when you’re working?
CU: Whenever I get in a rut, I’ll always look at my Humberto Ramos or Francisco Herrera or a Blaine Fontana. There’s a photographer I like who’s a little more macabre. I listen to podcasts a lot, funny ones like How Did This Get Made. I watch the movie Se7en a lot and all the comic book movies. And classic monster movies.
BR: You’ve done a lot of stuff that’s been translated into 3D, the collectables and such. What is it about your style that lends itself to that transition?
CU: I think…whenever I start a drawing, I try to think of it as a shape overall. I think that’s helped me. And I think about, if I was going to buy this, how would I want it to look? I love bulky, squatty things that are not proportionate, completely stylized. During this process, I found myself becoming even more aware of how things would look three dimensionally even though it’s a 2D piece. I think having the right sculptor too—Joe Menna did the sculpts on my pieces and he’s like my Jedi Master. Without him, I’d be completely lost. I think finding that guy who gets what you’re doing and can understand my proportions, which aren’t traditional…it was a great fit.
BR: I’ve seen you do digital stuff and I’ve seen you do watercolors. Is there one you prefer?
CU: I love watercolors. You’re under such a time crunch sometimes, you have to do digital, you have to go that way. I would love to get to the point where I could get more of a watercolory look with digital; it’s just a matter of practice. I still speak to my watercolor professor. There’s something about it where you have less control…if you make a mistake you have to live with it, find some way to make it work in your piece.
BR: You’ve worked with some very iconic characters: you have your own horror guys, which are so cool and you’ve done Batman, you’ve done the Joker, you’ve done Ninja Turtles. I saw your Star Wars Adventures cover with little Rey which is one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. How do you go about, because you have a really unique style saying, “Okay, this is what they look like and this is how I’m going to make it mine?”
CU: Especially with Star Wars or something like that, you have to find a middle ground because, if I could, I would go off the rails with Rey, but I’d get the notes…I think more about the personality of the character…I draw Chewbacca a lot for different companies and to me, Chewbacca is just grumpy. So whenever I draw him, it’s a grumpy pose or a grumpy smirk. With the Batman I drew, sure, Batman is part of the Justice League but he doesn’t necessarily want to be there so he’s like, “Ugh, I have to help you guys again? I know how to beat all of you, but I’ll help you if I have to.”
BR: Do you have a favorite character you’ve worked on?
CU: I love them all equally! I love the Batman because growing up, he was my favorite, my first real introduction to comics. When I got a chance to work on that it was amazing. I got a chance to play with Superman and Wonder Woman. You couldn’t ask for a better first assignment.
BR: Is there a character you haven’t worked on yet you’d like to work on?
CU: I would love to work on the Penguin. I have the design drawn out, I have a Joker ready to go. I’d really love a chance to play with the villains more.
BR: Who was your first comics crush?
CU: I think my first one…I gotta say Catwoman. I really loved Catwoman growing up. I watched the ‘66, so I’d have to say Julie Newmar. But going on, “I really like Harley.” And “Joker’s pretty awesome.” I have a little man crush on Joker…I was reading the ’49 and Catwoman and the Joker have destroyed each other and they’re just laying around talking about why they weren’t invited to the wedding and why they hate Batman. I love the witty banter like that.
BR: I hear you have an amazing hat collection. Do you have a favorite hat?
CU: I have a lot of hats. I actually do have a favorite. I went to this CVS and I bought the tackiest black hat. Its got neon pink triangles on it. Everyone asked why I was buying it and I was like, “I don’t know, I just really like this hat.” I wear it all the time. My girlfriend is like, “Ugh, that hat again?” She tried to hide it from me. And then I have a Haunted Mansion hat that I wear a lot.
BR: What are you working on now?
CU: I’m doing some stuff with Disney, some pieces for them I can’t talk about. And then I’m going to start cover work for IDW and Oni. I’m really excited about that. And I’m going to have a Flash, he’s coming out in December.
BR: The last question I always ask people even if it’s off brand: What color would your lightsaber be?
CU: Red. No. I love purple. So purple.
BR: I love Superhero Girls. So does my daughter and so does my son.
AG: Awesome! That’s the way it should be. They’re for everyone. A good story is a good story and they’re super cool female characters and everyone should like them. Boy or girl, cool characters are cool characters.
BR: You’ve worked all over comics. Do you have a favorite?
AG: My end goal was DC Comics. That’s something I wanted from early on, when I was getting in to comics. Supergirl…I remember sneaking into my friend’s brother’s basement every time he went out somewhere and we started reading through his comics. Supergirl was one of the first comics I pulled out. She was holding a skateboard on the cover and I was like, “Who is she?” It really launched everything. I wanted to know everything about this woman. Working on these characters now is really my dream project. Every project I’ve worked on so far, from Ponies—I grew up with Ponies in the ’80s—has been amazing, but there’s that one company you want to work for, one time in your life, and I’m doing that right now.
BR: For Superhero Girls and such, you do digital, right?
AG: Yes. It’s easier for deadlines, especially for corrections, and when you work on licensed properties, where you do have to work off of certain models, almost 100% of the time at least small changes will come in. Digital helps me with time, it helps me be quick, and I can make it look really, really good. I do wish I could work traditionally but I have digital and I want to hit those deadlines, I want to make sure it looks good in a timely manner.
BR: I was looking at your Tumblr and it looks like you still do some commissions in watercolor?
AG: Yes! Watercolor…I do them every convention, it’s something I really enjoy doing. It’s very organic, the complete opposite of digital, and I get to have peaceful release, to get out that organic energy, to do something different. I like creating nonstop. I’m very bad at stopping.
BR: Have you always made art or was there something in particular that triggered your interest?
AG: I was always fascinated by cartoons and I think the real trigger point—I’m Polish and I immigrated to Canada at a very young age—when I immigrated, I didn’t have the paperwork to go to school right away and my mom plopped my down in front of the TV with a pen and paper to entertain myself. Just having the pen and paper there while I was watching these cartoons—and I actually learned a lot of my English from the cartoons—I kept drawing and it kept evolving. My mom realized it was something I loved to do and she encouraged it. She didn’t know a lot about it because she’s not an artist, she’s a computer programmer, but she said, “My daughter loves this,” and she kept encouraging me…she was always very supportive and that meant a lot to me…my mom told me, “If you can figure out a way to make money at this, go for it. But figure it out. It’s your job.” And I did. I was always very determined, even now. That drive made sure I made it somehow.
BR: You’ve worked with a lot of properties that are considered pop-culture icons. You’ve done: Jem, My Little Pony, Transformers, and all of our girls. How do you strike a balance between giving a nod to tradition and making it your own?
AG: It depends on how demanding the company I’m working for is. How on model do they want me to be? How much freedom do I have? A lot of the time, freedom is earned by working with the company. My Little Pony trusted me 100% and they would say, “Go forth and prosper,” because they knew I knew the characters and they knew I could do it. Superhero Girls, they said, “You know our characters, have fun with the poses, be more organic.” The problem when you start adapting your style to a different property, you start off a a little stiff. They were like, “Organic, organic…” They pushed me to better myself in each book. In each book I grew and in each book, more of myself came out which I think worked even better because, especially when I worked on the last one, Spaced Out, Jessica Cruz is a very awkward character, I’m very awkward. “It’s me, I can draw what I know!” A lot of it come out in posing and expression. You can’t help it, it’s a part of you, no matter how much you adapt your style to something, a part of you will slip out…
BR: Were you guys expecting Superhero Girls to be such a giant success?
AG: I don’t think so, but I’m not surprised. We’ve all been waiting for it. As a little kid, I would think, “This is something I’ve always wanted,” and to get to work on this as an adult…I feel like I’m living the dream of my childhood. This is exactly what I wanted. I think that’s why it exploded. Every single girl really wanted that superpowered, totally awesome, kick bum female character and now we have them…it’s totally awesome!
BR: Because it’s superheroes, there always have to be some villains, but it’s nice that for the most part, they get along and they help each other. It’s not always the case in superhero comics or in writing with women.
AG: The best part about writing Superhero Girls is they make mistakes. They’re not perfect, and that’s the most realistic thing you can do for a kid’s book. Say, “Hey, it’s okay to make that mistake,” and you learn from it. They learn how to apologize if they do something to offend someone or hurt someone, so it really is a book that talks about bonding and friendships growing and developing, which is a relatable thing for all of us. These are things we all go through at a non-superhero level.
BR: Which of the girls has the most of you in her?
AG: Jessica Cruz. If you ever meet me and talk to me day to day…when I get shy I start shriveling myself up a little bit. I am very hard on myself because I never feel good enough. I’ve come to accept I don’t have to be the best at everything, I just need to be good at it, and put my heart into it and do my best. I’m learning that and it’s Jessica’s learning curve too. She knows she’s good at stuff but she’s hard on herself.
BR: What else are you working on right now?
AG: Well, I have stuff…coming out…that I can’t talk about yet. I know, I’m awful and evil. Spaced Out was the most recent thing I did, and it was the most memorable for me because I got to do Green Lanterns, which I’m a huge fan of. I got to create a shi tzu Green Lantern. We have Out of the Bottle coming out this summer.
BR: Our readers always like to know what creators are reading.
AG: What am I reading? I’m barely reading anything! I did get sick a while ago so it gave me a little down time on the couch so I did read some Saga; it was absolutely amazing. I love Sarah Anderson’s comic strips. I’m always working and if I’m not, I spend time socializing with my friends because I don’t want to lose them. They’re very important to me and they keep me motivated, so if I’m not working, I try to spend time with everyone who’s important in my life. Balance.
BR: Do you listen to music when you work?
AG: I’m kind of obsessed with The Greatest Showman right now. It plays a lot on repeat…I like happy music. I need music that’s happy because I work on happy properties and it keeps me going. And I binge watch a lot.
BR: I know it’s not DC, but I’m a giant Star Wars fan so I always ask what color people’s lightsabers would be if it could be any color.
AG: I want to say green, but I want to do pink because it’s so happy.
DC Superhero Girls: Out of the Bottle releases 08/07/2018
BR: You said in the interview at the beginning of your Lost in Space book that part of the reason you chose that project, as well as the Original Star Trek project, was your love of shows that you grew up with. Do you remember what it was about one or both of those shows that captured your attention?
JO: Definitely the kid with the robot. Who doesn’t like a kid with a robot?
BR: You also mentioned in the interview that you’ve surrounded yourself with childhood memories—books and comics—from the ’60s and ’70s that have kept you grounded in the aesthetic. If people who were born later wanted to understand that sensibility, what comics and books would you recommend to them?
JO: The early Marvel. Anything Jack Kirby. Any of the popular TV shows.
BR: Any music of the era you recommend?
JO: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. The Who.
BR: Did you you do commercial art before you started doing the books?
JO: I tried my own comic. I worked for Disney and Warner Brothers.
BR: What are you reading now?
JO: Going through my old collection. A lot of them I bought and never read.
BR: Have you read any of the Star Trek novelizations?
JO: No. When I had to do the covers for the Harlan Ellison story, City on the Edge of Forever, I read the original teleplay.
BR: Any other shows or movies you’d like to do a book for?
JO: I’d love to do Space 1999.
BR: Are there any modern properties you think are equivalent to Lost in Space and Star Trek in a visionary sense?
JO: Game of Thrones, but I like the old stuff. I grew up with it, I love it.
BR: Is there anything you’re enjoying watching right now? Do you watch the new Star Trek?
JO: I don’t have a TV right now. I’ve been watching Game of Thrones but I have to wait for the next season to come out on DVD. I haven’t watched Discovery yet but I’d like to.
Ortiz’s book Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space: The Art of Juan Ortiz (Titan Books) is due out 8/7/2018.