DAVID PETERSEN ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
David Petersen is living proof that an artist should always follow his dream. David started out by self-publishing the first issue of his comic book series Mouse Guard and despite the fact that it was about medieval mice, and not super heroes, and the size of his book did not conform to the constraints of comic book racks, Mouse Guard created enough buzz in the industry that it was picked up for publication by Archaia.
David’s art is reminiscent of the best children’s book illustrators and his richly crafted fantasies, which Archaia continues to release in hard and soft cover editions, make a distinctive contribution to multiple market segments. David has won three prestigious Eisner Awards, the comic book industry’s equivalent of an Academy award, and Mouse Guard has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Italian.
His fans (this interviewer among them) eagerly await each new yarn he spins.
A gallery of David’s delightful art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
David Petersen: I read a bit of my sisters’ Archie comics, but it wasn’t until I read some X-Men and Ninja Turtles that I understood the pull of sequential storytelling. I was interested in drawing comics from the time I was in middle school. By the start of college, though, I had abandoned most all hopes because I didn’t see work like mine in comics…All I saw were the people who drew big flashy superheroes and sexy ladies. I started building a portfolio for children’s book illustration instead. After college I was submitting my work to publishers of children’s books, when a friend invited me to set up next to him at a comic convention. People were interested in my work and especially my drawings of mice with swords, so I told them I’d have a comic of that material ready for the next convention
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
DP: I had art all through my public schooling (elementary, middle, and high schools) I then started my degree at a community college with a terrific art program. I transferred to Eastern Michigan University to finish my bachelor’s degree in fine art. My education was all formal basics (2D, 3D, figure drawing, etc.) with an emphasis on Printmaking (etchings, woodcuts, silkscreens, etc.) Anything having to do with illustration was either self-taught or “group-learned” by hanging out with other sequential artists looking to get their stories started, and bouncing ideas and critiques off of one another.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
DP: I don’t know if the word “pioneer” fits…but I see these folks as game-changers…who did something lasting, special, and broke away from what was the norm of their times: Windsor McCay, Will Eisner, Moebius, & Frank Miller all come to mind.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
DP: Storytelling that blends words with a series of pictures.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
DP: Most of the time I find it “near limitless” and am only hampered by my own imagination (or it’s unwillingness to work at times). But there are times where there are limits that have to do with motion or sound that I can’t do in sequential art the way I see it in my head…sound effects, movement and the passage of time are all interpreted into sequential art using various techniques to make them static graphic images that imply sound, movement, or time…sometimes things get lost in that translation.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
DP: Being able to see a story in your mind. Being able to hear characters’ voices, imagine the settings, and feel the weight of the story. I think playing role playing games and running adventures for my friends helped my sequential storytelling. Even when there were times their decisions took my adventure off track and I saw no good way of bringing it back, it was an exercise in adapting and editing. Also being able to have the right balance in drawing of simplifying a panel down to its bare essentials so it can be “read” easily but also providing enough detail and information to keep it interesting and give the reader more information than just what is in the dialogue.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
DP: I think about a story for a while before I write it down. That way I let it gel into something more than a jotted down initial idea. I work first from an outline then flesh that out into a script. I don’t like doing layouts more than a few pages in advance. I sketch rough versions of the panels, or even just [specific] elements in each panel, into a sketchbook and then scan them and composite them into a panel and page layout template. I print that layout and ink the final art on a light box using my printout as a guide.
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?
DP: It varies. I have no set schedule for work other than that I seem to be in my studio most days for most of the day. Sometimes that’s story work or drawing or coloring or lettering, but other times it’s interviews, paperwork, web updates, blog posts, etc. I try to let how productive my mood is dictate what part of the process or business I attend to – until deadlines get close, then I prioritize my work.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
DP: I didn’t really “find” work so much as I “made” work. I had a day job at an architectural antiques store selling 100 year old fireplaces and light fixtures. It paid the bills, but I knew I wanted a career doing some type of artwork. I decided to write and draw the first issue of Mouse Guard to test the waters. Self published it using a print-on- demand service, was then picked up by Archaia, and quit the day job after it was obvious my Mouse Guard financial security was secure. However, when I worked the day job, cash was tight. We weren’t poor, but we certainly rationed how we spent “fun money”…so all the paper, pens, table fees at conventions, and the printing costs from that first issue and any promotional items I used were a risk…if it had not paid off rather quickly, I may have had to postpone a second attempt until our “fun money” fund was replenished.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
DP: Talking with other professionals about story and drawing. I think most professionals are willing to talk about this subject at conventions when meeting fans, but when they are talking to another professional, the conversation tends to go more in-depth, and last longer. Bouncing ideas off of so many creative people I admire is very rewarding and valuable and wasn’t something I was able to get as much of as an amateur and fan.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
DP: A little bit of everything. I think the heart of Mouse Guard is set in the memories of my childhood as a Boy Scout, daydreamer, role player, trouble maker, and wanderer. But I get inspired from conversations with fans, specials on the History channel, books I read, movies I see, music I listen to, food I eat…and that’s nothing to say of the creative sequential storytellers I admire who inspire me on an artistic and storytelling level.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
DP: They are a good thing. This is an art form about expressing information and getting it under the eyes of our readers. Any way we can do that, and possibly branch out to new readers is a good thing. That is not to say there aren’t flaws in the system with how you find digital comics, their cost, sharing and ownership issues, how they are bundled, collected, packaged, etc. But I see all those as issues that will be sorted out as time goes on. I also don’t see this as an end to paper comics…perhaps individual issues will die out, but I still believe that collections that are nicely dressed and designed (like Mouse Guard books at Archaia) are objects fans will still want to own and will be willing to buy.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
DP: The distribution system is broken. And part of what I mean by that is the fact that shop owners have to buy books in advance on a razor thin budget [after] speculating what will and won’t sell…Three months later fans get to see the books picked by the shop owner on the shelves. Fans have very little active say in what comics sell well at the distribution level…they may not even know a book exists if their store’s owner didn’t order it. I’d like to see fans – and not just the hardcore ones that buy previews and read comic news websites – have a better way of knowing what each publisher is offering so they can order it. I think that will also lead to another problem I see which is not enough diversity in comic genres and styles; though right now it is better than it has been in years and years.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
DP: I suppose under Howard Pyle…. mainly because of who he turned out as students. Or Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac…or….
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
DP: I want a long line of my stories published that would take up a very large bookshelf. I also want to make sure I do something very different than Mouse Guard, while never leaving Mouse Guard behind, since it is the project I most want to be known for.