Jason Howard: "When I'm Drawing Comics, I Want to Control What the Viewer Sees"A comics interview article by: Chase Magnett
Earlier this month, Warren Ellis made his return to creator owned comics with the series Trees. He was accompanied by the very talented Jason Howard (Super Dinosaur, Astounding Wolf-Man). Howard has made a career out of working on creator owned titles and has already established a unique visual sensibility in the first issue of Trees. It is already a series that is equally challenging and rewarding to readers both conceptually and artistically.
Howard attended Denver Comic Con last weekend where he found sometime in the morning, between speaking with fans and arranging meetings, to speak with Comics Bulletin about his new series and the evolution of his art over the past five years.
Chase Magnett: How has the initial reaction to Trees been from your perspective. How confident are you about the future?
Jason Howard: I’m pretty happy. In fact, I’m really excited. People really seem to dig the book. When you’re working on a book, you’re pretty close to it, so you think that it’s good, but… I’m drawing it and I’m staring at it all of the time. But I think Warren is telling a really great story. There are a lot of interesting concepts and cool character stuff. So far the fans and people at the convention this weekend seem really into it. Some of the stuff online has been really positive. So I’m happy.
Magnett: You ordered a larger print run than your initial orders. Have you been selling through that backstock pretty well?
Howard: It’s been going really well. Eric Stephenson at Image is really confident in the book. The initial orders were good, but we felt that once people saw it that it might do pretty well. We’re confident enough to spend money on a print run that’s quite a bit larger than the orders and hope it pays off. So far it’s going really well. As of last week we still had some of that print left, so stores can still order it. Issue two comes out in a couple of weeks, so we’re hoping that will help finish the remaining print of issue one. That’s what we wanted. We wanted those copies there for people to read.
Magnett: The vast majority of your work in comics has been creator owned. How has that affected your view of the industry and how you like to work?
Howard: I really enjoy creator owned books. For me, part of the process is coming up with a concept and an idea. I have done a little work-for-hire stuff. I did some Spider-Man covers last year. It’s cool to work on a character like that where you knew the character growing up and really liked it. I’d like to do more of that stuff in the future, but right now my heart is really in creator owned books. I like developing different things like Super Dinosaur which is geared more towards an all-ages audience and is action-adventure in tone, in your face kind of stuff, and then Trees which is very much the opposite of that. It’s more grown up with bigger concepts and requires more of an investment from the reader in order to put all the pieces together. That’s fun for me, getting to do different things.
Magnett: Speaking of Super Dinosaur, I think Trees #1 displays a definitive shift in your style. Was it a choice to differentiate Trees from previous work or is it part of a natural progression in your style and how you like to draw?
Howard: A little bit of both. The stuff in my sketchbook over the last couple of years has drifted towards how the stuff in Trees looks. I’ve been playing around with an inking style that feels more organic and captures some of the immediacy of when I’m sketching for fun, and doesn’t feel as slick or polished as Super Dinosaur or Astounding Wolf-Man. A year or so ago, Warren and I collaborated on a webcomic called Scatterlands and that was an opportunity for me to experiment with stuff I was doing in my sketchbook in a way that didn’t affect what I was doing in the middle of Super Dinosaur. After we finished that and started working on Trees, it felt like a natural progression to keep doing it. Also, Warren’s story is a lot more grounded in the real-world, a kind of gritty, slightly broken world. I wanted the art style to convey that and be a little gritty with a little looseness, but also with a more organic feel.
Magnett: This is your second collaboration with Warren. Is Trees something that grew out of that initial collaboration?
Howard: We did the Scatterlands webcomic, which you can get on the Image website as a digital collection. We have a couple more chapters we would like to do before we do a print collection, but you can get the first chapter from Image Comics for 99c. So we had done that and I had an opening coming up in my schedule where I would have some time, so I talked with Warren and we decided that we would want to do an actual “proper comic” as he calls it. As we developed, that’s what became Trees.
Magnett: You mentioned that your sketching style has affected how you draw over the last several years. Are there any other major influences that have changed how you draw over that time period?
Howard: Some of it has been looking back. I started looking back at older comics and people that influenced me initially. Even people like Jim Lee and his X-Men and manga I read like Appleseed, some of that stuff has a looseness of line and those were some of my earliest inspirations to draw. I thought it’d be fun to explore that. I’ve since moved past that towards a cleaner look, but I’m really trying to capture the immediacy of some of my sketches in the finished art, rather than go through a longer process where I sketch something, then clean it up, then design it, like I might do in Super Dinosaur. I really like playing with style. As an artist, I like doing different things. I drew 23 issues of Super Dinosaur. I love that book, it’s super fun to draw, but sometimes you start to feel that you’re doing similar drawings. Even if it’s a different drawing, you’re doing it in a similar style, in a certain way. Shifting that up and trying something totally different, feels like you’re exploring new creative muscles. It helps to keep me interested and I feel like I’m learning and trying new things.
Magnett: What’s the process working with Warren like? Do you work off of a full script or a general plot?
Howard: He writes full script and I try to stay out of his way when writing. He’s obviously a bit of a genius and well known for the stories he crafts. My role on the art side is to try to visualize that, add touches that will add to the story, keep it clear and engaging, and try to execute it the best I can. We’ll talk about things here and there, but for the most part he has a vision for where the story is going.
Magnett: There are some very distinctive design elements in the first issue of Trees. The icons on the trees and flowers and the very last page with a symbol encompassing a single phrase reflect a clear sense of design. How have you gone about developing that iconography for the series?
Howard: It was a lot of sketches. Warren and I had some conversations about that kind of stuff, then I got the first two scripts and was able to get a sense of where things were headed specifically. That really helped and I did a lot of design work on the trees, the symbols, and just trying to find a look that I felt fit what the series was going to be. I explored different directions, like the trees looking very complicated to very simple which is where I ended up. For the symbols I looked at a lot of very different things to find what might be a good kind of look. I ended up jumping off something like crop circles as a touchstone.
Magnett: One thing that struck me about the trees in the first issue is that, although they are a central character of sorts, they’re very simple in design: monochromatic cylinders. You never get a real sense of them, never seeing their top since they always reach into the bleed or the top of a panel. How did you want to go about characterizing the trees due to them having no direct interactions with characters or any form of language?
Howard: It was very intentional and we had some discussions about that. In some of my early designs the trees were much more complicated. I tried lots of different approaches and tried things like an insect leg or something else. I ended up feeling something alien wouldn’t reflect anything here on Earth and maybe it would be completely utilitarian, very simple. The trees are going to be in different locations throughout the Earth. We some spots in the first issue and will see more in following issues. I wanted them to have almost no personality of their own other than their size. They fit wherever they are put. We do get to see a little more of the trees as the series goes on, as different people are affected by them.
Magnett: The first issue does present a diverse set of locales, with no two landing on the same continent even. How much research went into portraying these diverse settings and cultures, and creating a clear sense of place?
Howard: I did a lot. I don’t want to be a slave to place and think this is exactly how this place looks. I believe that when I’m drawing comics, I want to control what the viewer sees and sometimes I make choices for drama or design or storytelling that don’t reflect how a place would really look. In the first issue it opens in Rio and you can see the favelas, which I looked at a lot of photos for and I really tried to see what that kind of environment is like. So there’s some real knowledge behind there, but I’m not trying to be a slave to exactly how it might be.
I do want them to feel like real places and as we move about the globe I have reference folders. Like the automobiles in the China scene in the first issue, we see cars and a bus, so I try to think where these things might have come from. I referenced the bus on an old Russian bus, because I thought maybe an company in China had acquired some old Russian buses. I try to think about where these things might have come from. I don’t want to take it to an extreme where it’s taking up all of my time instead of drawing, but I do want to give a unique sense of place to each of my drawings. That’s a lot of fun for me too.
Magnett: In addition to the basis in the real world, it is set in the not-too-distant future. There’s a lot of room for imagination and creation in deciding what the world looks after ten or fifteen years have passed. For example, in the first issue there are large mechanized police dogs that are used to chase protesters. How do you go about deciding what looks different and how these places have changed?
Howard: We try to look at some things that are happening already. Warren has some input on that. The police dogs, specifically, have a video online where a company has built a robotic dog that I based that design on. We wanted to take a look at what people are doing now and see where it’s going. For example, the drone helicopter is something that has been in the news. Amazon is designing them to deliver packages. It’s not too far astep to say that a drone helicopter with a machine gun on the bottom is something that I might want if I were in the military.
We try to keep the science fiction elements grounded in a way that even if they’re fantastical, you can still imagine them happening in the future. One of my favorite pages to draw in the first issue was when the bus pulls up to the city wall and there are lots of cars there and these robot turrets. You have this kind of old fashioned bus with these futuristic robots. I like the juxtaposition of old stuff with new stuff. That’s really fun for me.
Magnett: Warren definitely has a reputation for being a futurist. The first issue of Trees has a lot of focus on the future, covering topics like the liberalization of China and gentrification in the United States. Have you been paying more attention to those topics to help develop the themes in Trees?
Howard: A little bit, China specifically. My sister lived in China for two or three years and went through some experiences that I mentioned to Warren. It helped develop some of the China stuff we’re doing in terms of how the government reacted to the tree. It’s stuff that I’m interested in, but as you mentioned, Warren has his finger on the pulse for that kind of stuff.
Magnett: You are doing all of your own colors for this title. How has that experience been, developing that palette? And do you find it more rewarding to be in complete control of the art, minus the lettering?
Howard: I really like having control of all of it. There are times where schedule-wise it would be really nice to have a colorist. On Super Dinosaur I did the full art on the first few issues, then to keep schedule brought Cliff Rathburn aboard to ink, so I penciled and colored. On Astounding Wolf-Man I did the full art on the first trade, then we brought a colorist in. I do like setting the look and tone of a book at the beginning. I have no plans to bring someone else in on Trees, but it does take a little extra time to do all of the inking and coloring yourself. I really like the final result in seeing how I envisioned it being a certain way when I was first sketching the page and thinking how I would use this color or fade it in this way. To actually have the ability to do that is creatively rewarding. When the comic comes out, it’s the way I want it to look for better or worse.
Magnett: Thank you for your time this morning. I’m really looking forward to future issues.
Howard: No problem. Thank you.