TIMOTHY TRUMAN ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Timothy Truman is known for his gritty art and even grittier characters. His early work on both Grimjack and Scout earned him that honour. Yet, if you look beyond the panels of danger and death you will see a sensitivity in Timothy’s line work – a tenderness that grounds his stories. I would never describe Timothy’s art as pretty, but what he lays down with ink on paper I believe without question – and that’s the about the best compliment that I can give to any storyteller.
Hawken, published by IDW, is Timothy’s latest creation, which he proudly produces with his son, Benjamin. It is a violent supernatural tale of the Wild West that Tim believes incorporates the best artwork he’s ever done. This interviewer wholeheartedly agrees.
A gallery of grit and guns, compliments of Mr. Truman, can be seen following this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Timothy Truman: My cousins’ comic book collections. During family visits when I was a kid, my folks always knew where to find me: up in one of my cousin’s rooms, enjoying Combat War Stories, Kona, Space Men, Kirby-Lee’s X-Men, etc. I was a hyperactive kid (In my adult life, I’ve been certified as being 98th percentile ADHD!) so it was always a relief to them when I was sitting in one spot for hours, checking out comics. I always drew pictures– no one remembers when I first picked up a pencil– and I loved to hear and tell stories, so I was naturally attracted to comics.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
TT: After graduating from Gauley Bridge High in West Virginia in ’74, I attended Columbus College of Art and Design for a year and then studied for a semester year at West Virginia University in the Art Education program. Flunked out of both – I wasn’t ready for college, really, but more importantly I wanted to be a comic book artist or fantasy illustrator. However, no schools existed that specialized in either one. One day I saw an ad for the Joe Kubert School in a DC comic book. I worked for a couple of years delivering flowers, framing pictures at an art store, pumping gas and clerking at a record store while my wife Beth finished getting her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and master’s degree in child development at W[est] V[irginia] U[niversity]. When she was finished it was my turn to resume my education. I attended the Kubert School for three years and I graduated in ’81 with Dean’s List honors.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
TT: Well, Jack Kirby is the guy who basically wrote the entire basic language for U.S. adventure comic books, then Will Eisner turned comics storytelling into a true art form. Close on their heels came Joe Kubert, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Harvey Kutzman, Wally Wood, John Severin, Alex Toth. Of course, they were all following in the footsteps of newspaper guys they admired, like Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Roy Crane and Milt Caniff. Cresting the wave after them were groundbreakers like Jim Steranko, Mike Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, Barry Smith, Howard Chaykin, Marshall Rogers, Paul Gulacy, Alex Nino, Jim Starlin and others who picked up the threads of what those guys were doing and wove entire new tapestries with them.
That said, it always annoys me that the underground artists of the 1960′s and ’70′s almost never get the props they deserve for the impact they had on modern comics. Guys like Greg Irons, Richard Corben, Robert Crumb, Rick Griffin, Jaxon, and Spain Rodriguez turned the comics medium inside out and totally reinvented it. They really brought the form kicking and screaming out of the juvenile ghetto and into adulthood. Overseas, the great European artists like Jean Giraud (Moebius), Hergé, Phillippe Druillett and Hugo Pratt and Japanese artists like Otomo Katsuhiro took up the mantle from the early American masters and codified the medium into a truly sophisticated art form. We who followed owed them a great debt.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
TT: The art of communicating a story in a coherent fashion using a series of pictures. Like Joe Kubert used to tell us: “Comics is communication.”
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
TT: Will Eisner once spoke to our class at the Kubert School and said something I’ll never forget: “Comics are the most sophisticated form of art that a single artist can do.” For about two minutes, I thought his pronouncement a little self-serving. But the more I thought about it the more I realized he was right. Comic book artists have to become absolute masters of a whole assortment of disciplines. In other mediums, folks have the luxury of specializing in one single thing and making a profession of it. However, comic book artists have to master them all. We have to draw and compose as well as any illustrator. We have to direct action like a movie director. We have to set up scenes and do lighting like a cinematographer. We have to create characters like a casting person, then dress them like a costume designer. We even have to have some acting ability, to make sure that our characters emote appropriately and believably. On and on. As storytellers first and foremost, we have to have it all down to do our jobs well.
One thing which I think constrains the medium is the fact that to make a living we have to do lots and lots and lots of drawings and we have to do them fast. The typical comic is 22-24 pages. We do an average of 5 drawings per page. That’s 110 to 120 individual drawings per issue. If one is doing a full time book, that’s 12 issues per year – 1300 to 1400 drawings. I have a shelf at home with all the books I’ve ever done on it and sometimes I look at it and the volume of work just boggles my mind. By the same token, I have illustrator buddies who do 10 or 12 cover paintings a year and spend about a month on each piece. To do comics, you really have to be in love with the medium. You’re driven to do it – to tell these crazy-assed stories story with pictures.
The only other time I ever found the medium constraining was when I was doing my historical graphic novel Wilderness: the True Story of Simon Girty. It was hard to condense so much historical information onto single pages. In many cases, I felt like I was allotted “sentences” when I needed entire “paragraphs”. However, I looked at it as a challenge and the final work turned out quite well in the end. It forced me to choose information that would most powerfully & directly get the story across to the reader. All told, that’s “sequential art” in a nut shell, I reckon.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
TT: As indicated above, the most important quality that a comic book artist can master is to be able to first visualize a story and then communicate it to a viewer in a series of pictures. That said, one of the aspects of sequential storytelling that fascinates me most about the medium is that there is no single “correct” way for one to tell that story. Give two different artists the exact same script and they’ll each tell it in a different way. Comics are a deceptively personal means of expression in that regard. I’ve seen it happen quite often. I actually used it during a couple of my lessons when I was teaching comics classes at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design from 2000 to 2003. I would give twenty students the very same script or sequence to depict sequentially and then we would all sit back and marvel at the radically different approaches to the story that each person would develop. It was always amazing. The students learned a lot from those exercises. It helped them see [how powerful] comics can be as a tool for personal expression.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
TT: Process is something that I’ve always experimented with and my work routine has varied over the years as I discovered new work methods. Drawing is hard for me and I’m my own worse critic. For many years, I drew all my layouts on sheets and sheets of tracing paper, refining and redrawing, trying to bring to paper what I was seeing in my head. Unfortunately, this made for some rushed-looking work, especially when I was working with First Comics, penciling and inking 5 pages a day, and doing Scout for Eclipse, scripting, penciling and inking about 24 pages a month plus covers. It was a dizzying amount of work. I can barely stand to look at my old work, and unfortunately I formed some bad drawing habits that were hard to break. I’d love to go back in time and redraw all that stuff!
For a long time, I started doing simple roughs on tracing paper, then using a light box I would transfer the roughs to the backs of my bristol board page, tightening the roughs as I went. Then I would flip the page over and tighten them even more in pencil, then ink these final penciled versions. This method gave me the opportunity to rethink my drawings. When you see things in reverse like this, you catch a lot of mistakes that you might not see otherwise. Other artists have developed various methods for doing this. For instance, Frank Thorne once told me that he keeps a mirror on the ceiling over his drawing desk, so that he can look up from time to time and see the drawing in reverse, thus fixing things as he goes. When I was teaching and a student told me they were having trouble with a drawing I’d tell [the student] to take the artwork to the restroom ad check it out in the mirror! The technique usually helped them work things out.
A couple of years ago, I downloaded a free modeling program called Daz 3D. Daz is a Poser-style program which allows you to create 3D figures and pose them any way you like. They provide you with a basic line-up of characters, then you can buy programs that allow you to morph and sculpt the characters any way you like. You create your own cast. Unlike real-life models, these digital models work for free, are on call any time you need them, don’t expect you to feed them lunch, and can handle any pose you ask them to! You can pose them, change camera angels to explore different angles and perspectives, and create just about any scene you can envision in your brain, as well as stumbling upon accidental compositions that you’d never have come up with otherwise.
Some might consider it cheating, I suppose. If so, they’ve never seen how book cover illustrators work. Art directors expect – in fact, demand – that illustrators use live models for their paintings. With a few rare exceptions, using live models is a luxury that most comic book artists can’t afford when they’re under the gun, producing a monthly book. The Daz 3D program overcomes this problem. It’s helped me take my work to levels that I never thought I’d get to and would never have been able to attain otherwise.
When I use Daz, I usually stick to basic figures, and generally create things like backgrounds, utility items, and clothing details either out of my imagination (except when I need photo reference for everyday items) or historical stuff.
So, these days my work method pretty much goes like this:
1. Reading the script, I visualize the pages, creating really quick thumbnail layouts of every page of the story on 8½ x 11 typing paper. This gives me an idea of how many panels I’m going to be putting onto each page, story flow, composition flow, figure placement, the general mood of the scene, what my “camera” angles are going to be, and things like that. These thumbnails are very basic balloon-figure drawing. Anyone else who looked at them probably couldn’t make sense of what was going on.
2. Then I go to the Daz program. Collecting whatever cast of characters/models I’ve created for the project, I start posing them in different scenes, one panel at a time, sometimes two or three different versions of the same panel. I usually use the simple texture setting on the Daz program rather than the full rendering setting. This forces me to do more drawing during the following stages and make each scene truly my own. I save each of these digital shots as JPEGs in a folder.
3. When I have all these digital versions of the various panels done, I open a program called Comic Life and begin creating pages. Comic life allows you to create a basic template for each page, panel by panel. I drop the Daz JPEGs into each appropriate panel and make adjustments- tilting JPEGs as needed, zooming in, pulling back, until I’ve created a basic digital version of each page.
4. Once these digital page layouts are created, I print out each layout onto 11 x 17 layout bond using a Brother Pro Series MFC-6490CW, which is a large format printer/copier/scanner. (I can’t recommend these machines highly enough for either pros or beginners. You can pick them up at Staples, Best Buy or OfficeMax for less than $300 – sometimes as little as $200 – and they [do] everything a comic book guy needs.)
5. Using a light box, I transfer these digital layouts to bristol board. I’m not simply tracing the digital versions here: I’m doing a lot of tightening and refining, dressing figures, adding costume details and regalia, adding backgrounds, and generally adding all the details that I need.
6. With the pencil version completed, I start inking. My most common inking tools are these: for folds and general figure rendering where feathering is needed, I use Zebra bush pens that I buy online from a great outfit called Jetpens.com. For faces, hands, background stuff, gun-belts, weapons, etc., I usually use Zebra AR7 or NR5 or Rotring rollerball pens or Uniball Vision ink pens. Occasionally I’ll use Pelican Techno Liner or Rotring felt tip drawing pens. I’m also really fond of a fine-point Japanese fude pen made by a Japanese company named Sailor. I add gray tones with gray Japanese brush markers, graphite, or water color. For covers, I might use these really great school-nib fountain pens that I also picked up from Jetpens.com.
7. After the inking is done, I scan the pages on the Brother.
8. After the scanning comes the lettering, which I just started doing with the book that my son Ben Truman and I do, Hawken. I mainly use a font called Lafayette. It’s really versatile. I use a simple photo retouch program called ACDSee for the basic lettering and balloons. For sound FX, I use the Comic Life program again. It’s really slow for regular lettering, but it has some amazing functions for doing sound FX.
That’s my basic routine, at least this month. I’m still refining the process as I go.
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?
TT: Five to eight hours a day, usually, but sometimes as many as ten or twelve. Depends on the day and the deadline.
The days are always different. Some days I’ll set out to ink one page and instead get four or five basically done. Other days I’ll want to ink two or three pages and get only one done. Same as anything else. I’ve gotten slower and more careful as I’ve gotten older, shaking off some of the really bad “speed demon” habits of my younger days.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
TT: Sure. However, the day after I graduated from the Kubert School, I went into New York City and came back with my first illustration jobs from SPI Games. I was always a go-getter. However, that first year as a pro was pretty rough. My wife and I had a combined income of $7,000 for that year. After that it got better. The second year of my career I landed a job at TSR Hobbies, working on the Dungeons & Dragons games and other stuff, and had a salary of $18,000 a year. The year afterward I got a raise, $21,000. Pretty good wages for a neophyte artist in 1982. I’ve made much better money than that as a comic book artist, thankfully.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
TT: Oh, Lord, so many. Meeting and hanging out with Tom Yeates, Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Tom Mandrake and Jan Duursema at the Kubert School. Plus the instructors I had there, like John Belfi, Dick Giordano, Hy Eisman, and Joe [Kubert] himself; Being around guys like Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, and especially one of my best friends I ever had, the late, great, very-much-missed Keith Parkinson, at TSR; Working with my brother John Ostrander at First Comics; working with Cat Yronwode and Dean Mulaney at Eclipse – I really learned a lot from them and they gave me so much liberty as a writer, artist and packager. We did some very innovative things together that I don’t think people have fully realized, not just creatively but also in publishing and marketing; packaging, editing and publishing comics via my 4Winds Publishing Group in the ’90′s; meeting and working with my other brother, Joe R. Lansdale, on Jonah Hex and elsewhere –truly a match made in hades; meeting and working with guys like the Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna, Jim Lauderdale and Santana. Since I’m a music fan and musician as well as an artist, working with these guys was truly amazing. Teaching from 2000 to 2003 at the Pennsylvania college of Art and Design, I learned as much from the students as they did from me; and now, working on Hawken with my son Ben, and seeing him grow up to be such an amazing writer and fine man.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
TT: I worship at the feet of the God of Creativity. Any human creative endeavor inspires me – looking at the work of my favorite comic book illustrators, especially the European guys; good history books; film; photography. Even music. Many of my images are more music-inspired than folks might believe. One of the primary and least-acknowledged creative motivators for me or any other successful artist or writer, however, is always the mortgage.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
TT: It’s funny, but I don’t think they’ve really come into their own yet. We won’t know for a few years. In some ways, they’ve taken a lot of attention and revenue away from print comics. The same thing has happened with music, and I don’t think that industry has quite figured things out either. In other ways, they can be a boon. There’s stuff going on out there – people doing work that we might never have seen and projects going on that might not have come about otherwise. I don’t know. We’ll see. Ben is fully versed in the digital realm so we’ve been talking over some ideas about things we might want to do for future projects.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
TT: If I had a magic wand? Heck, I’d get sales back up to the point they were at in the 80′s and ’90′s. I gotta tell ya, it’s tough selling new projects these days, even for the most established pros.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
TT: Jean Giraud, who was, without a doubt, the greatest cartoonist and illustrator the field has ever produced. I’d also like to have been able to sit beside their desks for a week or so and watch Russ Heath and the late John Severin do some inking.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
TT: Comics-wise, more Hawken! For creative endeavors outside of comics, I want to write a screenplay for a film I’d like to do about turn of the century labor activist, Mother Jones; and a few years back I started writing a detective novel that I’d love to finish, set in West Virginia during the mine wars of 1920′s; and I have some music projects going on in my recording studio that I’d like to find time to finish up.