DAN BRERETON ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
I have enjoyed Dan Brereton’s art ever since The Black Terror. I am a huge fan of his Nocturnals series. Dan’s images evoke both fear and delight. He populates his nocturnal worlds with the creatures who sleep under your bed; the phantoms who whisper to you from the dark corners of your room; the very monsters you secretly want to befriend.
Dan’s illustrations harken to a time when all comics were hand-painted by a skilled artist skillfully laying brushstrokes upon paper. The digital age has its place; but like home cooking, nothing replaces the delectable pages of art born of pigment, brushwork…and Dan Brereton’s imagination.
A gallery of Dan’s ghoulish art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Dan Brereton: I have always loved comic books – they knocked me out from the age of seven or eight. And this is in 1974 or ’75. So when you were seven years old back then, you were really seven, not like today, when “seven” means more like “twelve”. (If you don’t believe me I’ll introduce you to my six-year-old, who is thirteen). I started reading comics pretty much since I could read them. I used to skip captions because I thought they were kind of boring. I still think captions are kinda boring and I try to avoid writing them – except that comic fans seem to like them, as they help make story lines easier to understand. It used to be the action and the dialogue did that.
Being as crazy for comics as I was, they influenced me more than children’s books, TV or movies. Comics as a medium are seventeen times more creative than anything else for the single creator or the writer-artist team. I say this because there is less interference from outside non-creative forces in comic book making and I love that. And because I love telling stories I can’t abide by single-page illustrations alone.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
DB: I went to two art schools, and that’s where I learned anatomy, how to paint, how to put the right colors together, and compose an illustration. Comics were both appreciated and frowned upon back then. Later, the last school I attended starting teaching comics in the curriculum.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
DB: I believe movies and even some children’s books can be considered sequential art, so it’s not limited to comics, but for me the idea of the images I create to tell the story in a chain of images and words is the closest I’m going to come to how it looks and sounds in my head.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
DB: It’s completely free and nearly limitless because the imagination of both creator and reader make it so. I don’t need the side of a building or a big screen to tell a story in words and pictures; all I need is pictures, words and my brain to fill the rest in. The reader of a comic book is a participant in comic book story-telling to a greater degree than film or TV and in many ways has more input than [a recipient who is] reading or listening to a novel. Our imaginations are fully engaged when experiencing comics, which makes it the most unique forms of art and storytelling.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
DB: I could fill a page, here…Other than the obvious stuff like drawing skill, the ability to graphically convey ideas and mood and character, action, atmosphere, emotion on the page, angles, lighting, economy of form, negative space, etc., a good storyteller should foremost be able to convey the story simply, honestly and convincingly without any captions or dialogue.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
DB: Most of the time, when the project is one fully committed to and I’m in a groove, it doesn’t feel like work at all. This is not to say it’s effortless, because it isn’t – at least not for me. Other times I’m concentrating very hard and making sure to be precise and that can get tedious, but the results almost always make up for it. There are times when it is complete drudgery, and for those times I make sure I have the radio or TV handy to keep the lazy part of me busy while I work. I learned this a long time ago but never felt right about it until Barron Story revealed he does the same thing and I realized it’s a common thing – sometimes it feels like work so you entertain part of your brain so the other part can get something accomplished. It works wonderfully. But I find when I’m illustrating anything I become immersed in the world of that illustration. I read N.C. Wyeth to an even more disciplined degree used to imagine himself inside the canvas. When I write, I can maybe have music but the fewer distractions the better, because you are, for sure, inside the story in your head and that demands even more concentration.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
DB: It depends on deadlines and how inspired I am, but typically I work and work and work until a job is done or a deadline met, and then I burn out and have to recharge mentally and physically. When I’m at it, I’m at it for six to eight hours – but that easily extends to twelve to twenty-four hours when working a deadline. At that point, the work is everything and you just have to give over to it. Days bunch together, sleep schedules get murky. But it’s the life, it’s the story playing out and becoming physically there that drives you.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
DB: No. When I first started looking for work I was still in art school. Back then, comics work was plentiful so I got a small job very quickly. After I started doing samples of painted comics, I was hired right away. That has changed quite a bit now. Painted comics aren’t the novelty they were before digital work came on so strongly and made painted work seem…perhaps… a bit dated? I can’t really tell, but once the Best Painter/Multimedia Artist (Interior) category of the Eisner Awards was changed to include digital work it’s never been the same. Despite this, it’s never been a struggle to find work – it either comes or you hustle out there and find it. Struggle comes when you marry yourself to something solely for the paycheck, so I try to become attached to good stuff, and I’ve been very lucky there, or in absence of that, find something in the work I can connect to.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
DB: Working on the first Nocturnals miniseries, which I wrote and illustrated after developing for a year or so before. It was my first crack at doing both professionally, and I profited from good advice from people like Harris Miller, Howard Chaykin, Steven Grant and Walt Simonson. I learned so much from that experience about writing comics, about editing, storytelling, but also about the business.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
DB: My relationships, nature, books, films. Small things – details – tend to get my attention more than the big stuff. I tend to be in awe of large concepts and they don’t fit into my brain to create a story in a deliberate way and I wish I could do that. Themes and the actual story tend to come organically – if I let my unconscious sort it out, the story will eventually tell me what it is. At the same time, I am very conscious when I write an outline. I used to like to say that the characters tell me what they want, but supposedly that sounds pretentious, even though most of the time it’s true; characters are parts of us so of course they tell us what we need to know.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
DB: As soon as I have experienced or profited from them (or not) I can answer that question. But I don’t think there is such a thing as a “bad” medium. My position on campfire tales is the same as TV, comics or Little Golden Books.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
DB: Children need to be a much more important part of how comics are introduced as a medium, rather than a genre. Comics publishers need to work harder to get comics into children’s hands and to get children reading them at the right age, making them familiar with the medium and life-long readers. And it can’t just be about superheroes, obviously. Free Comic Book Day is a great start, thanks to Joe Field, but it has to go further. Teachers want them now because their students aren’t reading enough. It’s an untapped market. Also libraries should carry comics; that’s a no-brainer, as well. If the spin rack at a local library were even partly well-stocked as the local comics shop, it would bring about changes. The president is a comics fan – has anyone at the big houses seriously tried to cultivate his interest into some kind of reading program?
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
DB: I have always felt like my mentors in spirit, growing up reading comics, were Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Gene Colan and Frank Frazetta. I was lucky enough to know Gene as a friend and to have met John a year before he died. Howard Chaykin and Walt Simonson also mentored me, as did Mike Mignola to a degree when I was in school. Teachers in art school who made a huge impact were Vince Perez and Barron Storey.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
DB: I always want to grow as an artist as a writer. I want to be better, period. A better father, a better mate, son, brother, friend. From a selfish point of view, I just want to be able to tell my stories. Right now, this is not an easy climate for doing it and the stories are backing up. I’m hoping it will change.