Monday, 26 January 2009

Stephen Downey Draws Out The Infection

This week we have a interview with Cancertown penciller Stephen Downey, the man who brings the nightmares to life.

Take it away Stephen.

Q: How did you first get involved with Insomnia Publications?

SD: I first got involved with Insomnia when I met Alasdair Duncan (writer of Daemon and The Kill Cell) while he was hosting Insomnia's stand at the Birmingham Comic convention 2007. Alasdair liked my work and gave me contact details of details of Insomnia’s publisher Crawford Coutts. Emails were exchanged, online portfolios were shared and I was offered the chance to draw a graphic novel.

Q: Ok, then, let's start at the beginning. Tell us about your process for working and how you approach a script.

SD: When I first read a new script I’m naturally visualising what goes on in the pages from a storytelling perspective. There are a few images that will stick in my brain (especially with the crazy images Cy Dethan’s scripts conjure up) and end up pretty much exactly how I first imagine them. Most of the other images though will change from my first impression to tell the story better or to make sure all the information that is needed is told visually.

I always re-read the script again before I start doing layouts in case there are any important occurrences later in the chapter that need to be referenced early. Then I read the script for each page individually and decide if one panel needs to be the focus of the page, or whether I need one panel to be particularly long or wide for dramatic purposes etc and fit the other panels around it.

I try to analyse each panel description and to find a more dramatic way of expressing the story by changing the angle or pulling back without sacrificing the storytelling, all the while leaving enough room for Nic Wilkinson to fit in the lettering. I usually sketch these out on some spare A4 paper, forming little thumbnails that are incoherent to anyone but me.

If I need any photo reference I’ll set up my tripod and take photos of myself (for pretty much all the male characters) or my tortured girlfriend Aimee (to catch any female curves) based on the thumbnails and from there start on the main page.

I lay out my panels on the page, usually sketch in the thumbnails and then work up from there, all the while keeping the script in front of me just in case I need to have a look again and don’t forget to put anything in.

Q: You mentioned Cancertown. Your work on that involves the creation of monsters and of complete new environments - things for which there are no models / references. How do you go about designing these things and making them come to life?

SD: That’s a difficult question because I’m not sure if I really know. I sometimes think that these things are alive in Cy’s brain and parts of them have filtered down through his scripts to live in mine.

While I’m working on the layouts I usually think in terms of ‘shapes’ and what would look best in the panel. I usually have multiple sketches of how monsters should fit within the panel frame before I decide which one works on the page. Once I have a basic shape and characteristics of the monster I usually go straight to the page and see what my hand draws lol. This works at least for a particular monsters first appearance and the more I draw them, the more of a feel I get for the character and the more confident I‘ll be of what will end up on the page before I start.

I sometimes think in terms of animals when I trying to picture how a monster will move. The “Corpsegrinder” in particular I’ve started to see as having spider-like attributes, with his spindly arms stretching out as an extension of his body.

Q: So, you've read the script, visualised it, done your thumbnails and you're ready to begin the pages. What media do you use to create your art?

SD: For the Cancertown project we’re dealing with multiple realities and I wanted the art to reflect that. Its all drawn on 11 x 15 inch comicbook bristol boards and for the ‘real world’ scenes I use the traditional ‘pencil-for-rough-work-with-inks-over-the-top’ comicbook approach. The cancertown reality and residents are left un-inked and I like to add a little shading and smudging for Mel (colourist) to work with. I use little HB disposable mechanical pencils for the rough and line work (BIC ones are my favourite as you twist to extend the lead and don’t accidentally extend it every time you use the eraser on the other end). For the shading and greyscale work I have a range of pencils from 6B to 8H, but I mostly stick to below 2B so I smudge it easily and give a nice ‘dirty’ look to the artwork.

For inking I use a Windsor & Newton (sceptre and Gold 11) size 2 and size 0000 brushes for medium and fine lines respectively and a bigger brush that’s so old I can’t read the name on the side for filling in blacks. These are dipped into little jars of Windsor and Newton black (and white for corrections) Indian Ink.

And of course, like most struggling artists, my most used tool is the eraser (I actually have an almost empty pack of them sitting next to me).

Q: When you are working do you listen to / watch anything while you work to create a mood?

SD: It depends on the situation. When I’m working on layouts or page construction I like to work in silence so I don’t have any distractions. As I get into the actual meat of the drawing I like to listen to a variety of things to keep me entertained. Sometimes its music; Radiohead are my favourite band so they’re often being played. Every now and again I’ll have some DVD extras playing in the background though these tend to get distracting as its mostly ‘comic book to DVD documentaries’ and I keep turning round to see how all the magic works. I also look forward to new wordballoon podcasts, to keep me entertained on those late night drawing marathons.

Q: I have heard you are a musician yourself - is there any cross over with the creation of your music and the creation your artwork?

SD: They’re obviously both artistic media and I think they both appeal to my creative urges. I mostly play and teach Irish traditional music, which allows for a certain amount of inventiveness, adding in your own triplets, tricks and variations while working around the starting point of a traditional tune.

This applies almost metaphorically to the way I approach my artwork. I start from a defined starting point i.e. if I’m drawing a person it has to look like a person, with two eyes, a nose etc and stay consistent with how they have been portrayed before. Then I can add whatever flair I want on top of this to enhance the character and make it my own, adding just the right amount and thickness of lines and flourishes, without changing the character, to make it look how I want.

They’re also both really time consuming lol.

Q: There aren't many industries in the world harder to break into than music and comics. What made you want to draw comics and how did you learn your craft?

SD: I’ve always loved art since I was a kid, drawing the things I read in comic books. I don‘t know if there was a particular point where I decided I wanted to be a comic artist, but I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be one.

I studied art to A level in school but although the teachers in school did encourage and guide you, there was no real formal teaching of perspective or style etc and that’s the sort of thing I had to pick up myself.

I honestly don’t know where I leant these things, I vaguely remember picking up various tips in the ‘how to draw’ pages in Wizard magazine and in different interviews with artists. These days the internet is a great place for learning new things, be it snippets of colour theory (which I’ve been looking at recently) or just tips from other artists and being able to share and get critiques of your work.

Q: Let's unpack all of that a little bit, then. Starting with: What comics did you read as a kid and now?

SD: The first comic strips I remember reading and collecting were in the ‘Funday Times’, the supplement that was part of the ‘Sunday Times’. As far as I remember there were strips like ’Banana man’, ’Rex and Tex’ and the ‘Numskulls’.

From there I started picking up magazine sized reprint comics from the newsagents. First was ‘Heroes’ which was an anthology type comic reprinting Batman, Blue Devil, and Legion of Super Heroes. That comic was eventually cancelled but around that time the X-men cartoon had started showing over here and a new comic book came out on the news-stand reprinting the Jim Lee/Chris Claremont X-men series.

I found my first comic store, Talisman comics, by driving by and seeing a large sticker of Wolverine in the window and low and behold I discovered American comics. I became a bit of a Marvel zombie from there and with a few exceptions pretty much my entire pull list is Marvel comics, with a particular fondness for Thor, Daredevil and Black Panther. However the good news is that my brother is a DC fanatic so I get the chance to catch up on any of the good stuff they put out and vice versa.

I’ll also pick up any books by friends or people I know (Tank Girl by Rufus Dayglo & Alan Martin and Starship Troopers by Cy Dethan are on the buy pile when a new one comes out.)

If I hear good reviews I’ll pick up a few books in trade format. I think the Walking Dead, DMZ and Ex Machina are the only regular ones on there at the minute.

Q: Who are your main artistic influences and inspirations?

SD: As a kid I loved the Jim Lee/Kubert brothers slick, action packed, square jawed art style. These days I lean more towards a heavier inked sort of style with a bit more realism; Steve Epting, Butch Guice and Bryan Hitch among many.

That said, as much as I admire a more ‘realistic‘ approach, its great so see the comicbook industry with such a wide sprectrum of comic styles. Even if its not a style I would particularly want to draw in, I love seeing artists with lots of style and confidence in their art, whether it be realistic or more cartoony.

You can probably see some influences of the artists I mentioned above in my work but I’ve always promised myself I wouldn’t be a ‘clone’ artist, and have instead tried to draw and learn more from real life than copy any artist in particular.

Q:Do you collaborate with other artists to share/ learn new techniques etc? If so who has helped you out?

SD: I’m always looking at other artists work, and collaborating with Mel Cook on Cancertown has been a revelation of what a colourist can do to enhance your work. Its shown me that I didn’t need so many lines to get my ideas across when Mel was able to portray the rendering in a smoother way using the colouring.

In Belfast we have a monthly comic creators meeting and a variety of comic artists and writers, both pro and amateur, come along to share their work. I always get good critique from Paul Holden (2000AD artist) and the other guys who show up.

Comic conventions are always a great place to get tips and meet other artists. I met Rufus Dayglo first at the Derry comic festival and in subsequent cons. He’s been really helpful at giving me tips to improve my drawing and hinting at little changes I could make to improve storytelling and make even the mundane moments look exciting.

Q:What has been your best moment in comics so far?

SD:Hmm, that’s a toughie. Maybe getting my first artwork work published (a four page story in Small Axe comics #2), or getting offered Cancertown, being short listed to meet a Marvel editor at the Dublin Comic con. I think once I have a hardcopy of the Cancertown graphic novel in my hand, that will surpass them all.

Q: Tell us the name of a creator we might not have heard of, but who we should look out for.

SD: Patrick Brown, a fellow Belfast comic creator has just released his first mini graphic novel collection of his web comic ‘Ness’ based on an old Irish legend. He draws straight with a red biro on A4 paper and its makes for a lovely unique looking style.

Aidan Largey, another Belfast comic creator is getting his first published story in Insomnia’s Layer Zero: Choices anthology. I’ve read a number of Aidan’s scripts and he has a knack for finding the human element in some violent stories, so I’m sure you’ll see a lot more published work from him soon.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give artists trying to get into comics now?

SD: Go to comic conventions. Even though these days you can show a portfolio online, if you go to a conventions you’ll hear of new publishers and contacts you would not have heard of previously that might lead to something. Oh and the old cliché of ‘draw every day’ too

Q: What else are you currently working on?

SD:I’m working on the final chapter of Cancertown: An Inconvenient Tooth, I’ve just finished a two page strip for the Irish language comic strip Rí-Rá, and getting ready to start work on Slaughtermans’s Creed for Markosia, re-teaming with Cy and Nic of Cancertown fame.

And there you have it, Ladies and Gentlemen. A big hand for the extremely talented Stephen Downey.

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