HOW’s In-House Inspiration issue gives you a peek behind the curtain at NPR, the details on 89 award-winning in-house designs, and steps for preparing for the inevitable—change. Plus: How locking in an iron-clad infrastructure will strengthen your team.
HOW has a healthy fascination with illustration—especially comic book illustration. Maybe that’s because you can learn a lot from a good comic book artist, like how to draw inspiration from a variety of sources, and why artists should learn to love each step of their process.
We had the pleasure of speaking with comic book illustrator Kody Chamberlain, a native of southern Louisiana who spends most of his time creating comic books and graphic novels but also works in film, animation, video games and television. He’s produced work for big names like DC Comics, HarperCollins, Marvel Comics, MTV, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros., to list just a few, and recently sold a feature film to FOX.
Read on to get Chamberlain’s perspective on style, creativity and all things comics.
“The most important thing an artist
can discover is a love of process.”
—Kody Chamberlain, comic book artist
1. How would you classify your style?
I tend to work in a variety of styles and techniques. I make adjustments artistically to better serve the type of story being told based on the tone and genre of the story. It’s partially due to my background in advertising and design; having to work on a brochure for a children’s hospital one day and a poster for a skate shop the next day, you must adapt and evolve to better serve the project at hand.
In comics, I take a “form-follows-function” approach to try to craft a unique and interesting story each and every time. The art style for “Sweets: A New Orleans Crime Story” is vastly different from the photo collage style I use on “Punks“ or the cartoony style I used on “On Purpose.” If I see an opportunity to improve the story with any part of the process, I’ll usually make the effort.
2. What medium(s) do you work in?
I use what most would consider the traditional tools of a comic book artist, including pencil, ink, and bristol board (thick paper). I use a variety of inking nibs, brushes, and several modern brush-pen hybrids, and I vary those tools quite a bit depending on the aesthetic I’m trying to achieve.
It’s amazing how changing tools can change the process and influence the look of the finished page. It’s truly fascinating, and it’s one of the things I love most about what I do. One of my artistic philosophies is to nurture the idea of “process” because that’s where I spend all my time.
That’s not to say I’m not a fan of speed, because I am, but it’s about priorities. I try to speed up the things I don’t enjoy so I can allocate more time toward the things I do enjoy. Rather than trim an hour from my drawing time, I’d rather trim an hour from scanning pages, uploading, meetings, etc. and use that time for more drawing.
On that point, I think the most important thing an artist can discover is a love of process. Love of process fuels innovation, craft, technique, skill, work ethic—well, everything. I often hear artists bragging about some new technology or tool that speeds up or removes a step from their workflow, and that’s great, but we need to be careful to avoid eliminating the things we most enjoy about what we do. I’m not sure every artist thinks about that, but they should.
One of the other reasons process is important to me is because as a comic creator, I can’t enjoy my own books the same way readers can. I’m too close to it, and it becomes very difficult to see it objectively. It’s the same reasons most bands don’t drive around listening to their own albums and actors rarely enjoy their own movies. A magician can’t see the magic in the top hat because she knows where the rabbit’s hidden.
“Most of the original stories I write do
have a connection to south Louisiana …
because it’s been under-represented in comics.”
3. Where are you located, and how does your environment influence your work?
I live in Lafayette, Louisiana, better known to the rest of the world as the home of the Cajuns, roughly two hours west of New Orleans. It’s an amazing city and was recently said to be the happiest city in the country by the Wall Street Journal. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly a great place to live. The food is amazing, nonstop festivals and live music, tight families, rich culture, fast internet, and we get a handy three-day warning on our natural disasters.
As for a direct influences on my work, it’s hard to quantify that sort of thing because I don’t have anything to compare it to, but most of the original stories I write do have a connection to south Louisiana, with settings and characters mostly because it’s been under-represented in comics, or worse, it’s been stereotyped. Film and TV have both done a better job recently in representing Louisiana, but it’s still severely lacking in comics. One of my goals is to represent the state in an honest and authentic way, even when it’s stylized and exaggerated with fiction.
“Seeing other people do great work is its own form of inspiration and far more powerful than borrowing their ideas.” —Kody Chamberlain
My three-year-old son inspires me most. I know that probably sounds like a thing parents always say, but there’s a genuine creativity kids have that’s absolutely infectious. Sitting at the table and drawing with my son after work is one of the real highlights of my day. His raw sense of discovery is teaching me just as much as I’m teaching him.
As for pop-culture inspiration, I didn’t read comics as a kid and didn’t get to the movies very often, so most of my earliest influences are from television. Even at an early age I favored crime shows like “The Rockford Files,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Starskey & Hutch,” “Columbo,” “Homicide,” and more recent favorites include “The Shield,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Sherlock,” “Justified,” and “True Detective,” which I thought did a solid job with Louisiana as a setting. I don’t look to television for inspiration on ideas, but seeing other people do great work is its own form of inspiration and far more powerful than borrowing their ideas.
“It’s a great time to be a comics reader,
and the quality all around is very inspiring.”
Looking to film, I’d have to go with those that I rewatch the most. The auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Hitchcock, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, Paul Thomas Anderson, too many to name really. With Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Ben Affleck has been in regular rotation in my BluRay player. Swingers is a personal favorite as well and gets played often in our house. We love all the Pixar films, and lately, the bulk of the Marvel films have been very well done.
In comics, my biggest inspirations are some of the names you’ll hear often from comic creators, but for good reason. Will Eisner, Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Mike Mignola, Paul Pope, Alex Toth, John Buscema, Bill Sienkiewicz, Chris Ware, and some of the early Image Comics titles that initially got me interested in comics like Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, and Keith Giffen’s “Trencher,” which I consider to be way ahead of its time.
Argentina seems to have a library’s worth of brilliant artists including Carlos Meglia, Alberto Breccia, and more recently, Eduardo Risso. Looking at the current list of artists working in the industry today, the stylistic range is incredible, and the talent is consistently high almost everywhere you look. It’s a great time to be a comics reader, and the quality all around is very inspiring.
“The limitless opportunity of being able to do
anything is daunting, but it’s also the most rewarding.
I’m having the time of my life.”
5. What types of clients/projects do you like to work on most?
When I did design and advertising full-time, I always enjoyed projects that required me to learn something new about an industry or process. There’s a story to be told about each an every client, and it was fun to find that story and find a way to tell it effectively.
As I shifted to freelance comic book projects through the years, I discovered a phenomenon I call “nostalgia chasing” going on in comics, where stories are constantly being retold, revised, and recycled. Superhero origin stories are like Shakespeare, and they’re constantly being retold in various forms with a retro or a modern twist.
There are a lot of fans that love that stuff and a lot of creators willing to supply it, but since I didn’t grow up reading comics I never made that nostalgic connection with the material, and I have no real ambition to get involved. I’m far more interested in projects that offer an opportunity to build something new, break new ground, and maybe reach a new audience. Not every publisher or editor is open to that type of material, but I’ve been fortunate to find the right freelance projects that suit my goals as a creator.
“More than ever, today’s comic audience
is eager for unique and inspired ideas.”
Over the last few years I’ve moved away from freelance client work, and I now focus most of my time on creating original work. In a way, I have become my own client. It’s easily the most fun I’ve ever had as a creator. The limitless opportunity of being able to do anything is daunting, but it’s also the most rewarding. I’m having the time of my life.
6. Is there anything quirky or interesting about your process?
“Punks” is quite a bit different than most of my work, and frankly, most of what’s in comic shops around the world. This comic is done entirely with paste-up using an old black-and-white photocopier, X-Acto blade, glue stick and scotch tape. The only digital work is done in the final coloring stage. The artwork is done in black and white at 11″ x 17″ and then scanned and scaled down to comic-book size for coloring.
The idea came from my love for the old punk-rock flyers and posters. Things were repurposed, printed on the cheap, images were reused and cut up in various ways. That raw, edgy visual aesthetic has always interested me, and I thought it’d be fun to try using it to tell a story. So far the reception for the material is fantastic, more than ever, today’s comic audience is eager for unique and inspired ideas.
7. What are you most proud of as a comic book illustrator?
“Sweets: A New Orleans Crime Story” was certainly a high watermark for me because it’s the first fully creator-owned book I’ve ever done, and I did the book as a solo creator, meaning I did every job from writer, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer, designer and the bulk of the marketing. Typically, comics are done by whole teams of creators, so it’s highly unusual and a massive undertaking. I brought in a friend, Andrew Brinkley, to edit the book because I needed someone to second-guess my decisions, offer honest feedback, and watch my back throughout the process because when you’re flying solo it’s surprisingly easy to overlook critical details.
I look back on “Sweets” as the most important moment of my career so far because I had to push myself harder than I ever had before to do each and every job at a professional level without compromise. It was a fantastic learning experience and something I’d recommend to all creators working in this industry. It really is the ultimate comic book challenge.
“Sweets” went on to win great critical success and has opened a lot of doors for me professionally. I’m damn proud of that book. So far, “Punks” at Image Comics is becoming one of those landmark projects because it’s the first ongoing series I’ve been involved in, and that comes with its own set of creative challenges, but since I’m not writing the story it does make things move a lot faster. Josh Fialkov is co-creator and writer on “Punks,” and he’s brilliant. We did a few one-shot comics back in 2007, and I’m thrilled to have it up and running as an ongoing series. “Punks” is easily the best collaboration experience I’ve ever had on a project.
Don’t miss all the latest issues of HOW magazine. HOW strives to serve the business, technological and creative needs of graphic-design professionals with a practical mix of essential business information, up-to-date technological tips, the creative whys and hows behind noteworthy projects, and profiles of professionals who are influencing design. And now you can get it delivered in print or digital format!