Nathan Fox on "Haunt," Joe Casey and Teaching

Wed, September 19th, 2012 at 7:58am PDT

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer

Over the past seveal years, award-winning illustrator Nathan Fox has made a name for himself in the world of comic books. In titles like "Pigeons From Hell" and "Fluorescent Black," which originally appeared in "Heavy Metal," fill-in issues of "DMZ" and other comics, Fox showed himself to be a master of mood and atmosphere.

It was with the Marvel Comics' series "Dark Reign: Zodiac" in 2009 that Fox gained more mainstream attention and last year Fox took over as artist on the Image Comics series "Haunt" with his "Zodiac" collaborator, writer Joe Casey. With "Haunt" #26 on sale now and the first trade collecting the initial issues of Casey and Fox's run on the title coming out soon, CBR News spoke with Fox about the series, his career thus far, and his newest endeavor, overseeing a new low-residency MFA program at the School for Visual Arts in New York City.

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Nathan Fox followed "Zodiac" at Marvel with "Haunt" at Image, both projects written by Joe Casey
Art from "Haunt" #26

CBR News: How did you end up working on "Haunt" and what was the appeal of the book for you?

Nathan Fox: Joe and I had been looking to work together again, either on a second arc of "Zodiac" with Marvel -- which ended up falling through and turning into something equally cool but completely different -- and/or looking to tackle a creator owned book through Image when Joe was contacted by Todd [McFarlane] about "Haunt." I saw the first few issues of Haunt when they came out and really enjoyed the character. When Joe told me Todd was looking to hand the book off to a new creative team now that Robert [Kirkman] and Greg [Capullo] were leaving -- and wanted Joe and I to do our own thing with the characters and world -- I was completely in! It was a chance to tackle my first monthly book but also the opportunity to revamp a character I really enjoyed. We'd be working with Todd, which was amazing in its own right, and the potential for the book and series was massive! Issues #1-18 had set the scene, but in there was and is so much more to explore in terms of character development, who Haunt is, what is his real purpose, what about Kurt and his struggles as a ghost, what is beyond just the cloak and dagger spy stuff, etc. So when Joe and I decided to jump on board, we really wanted to tackle those larger explorations and expansive questions in "Haunt" and the "world of Haunt" at large.

As you mentioned, this isn't the first time you've worked with Joe Casey. What do you like about collaborating with him and why do you think you work well together?

Well, over time I guess I would have to say we have similar sensibilities in terms of humor and storytelling. "Zodiac" was the first time we worked together and an amazing fuck all, kill all, bend the rules and keep on truck'n roller coaster of a ride super hero book -- it was unlike ANYTHING I had worked on to date. That series pretty much set the tone for the partnership and opened up a lot of discussion and excitement for continuing the collaboration. I ended up learning a lot on "Zodiac" and really enjoyed the open ended creative collaboration with Joe on the series. [Colorist] Jose Villarrubia knocked it out of the park as well and truly made it all come to life. It all just clicked. Joe says he writes for every artist. Whatever is in that sick and twisted, shades wearing head of his, when it comes to working together -- it all just works. I hope people pick up on "Haunt" and/or continue to join us on this grad adventure and nightmare. Once a few more pieces are laid out on the table I really think readers and fans, both new and old, will see why we took it all on in the first place.

Fox begins thumbnailing while he's still reading Casey's scripts

Does Joe send you a full script for "Haunt?"

Full script with page break downs. When things need to be specific or referenced Joe adds it in by way of character descriptions or links to pics, sites and the like. Otherwise his scripts are just descriptive enough to get the overall idea across and I'm left to creatively edit and design as I see it. Ahead of issue #19 we worked on a lot of preproduction brainstorming and design work so that when the scripts do land in my Inbox, we are on the same page creatively and I'm primed and ready to go.

Take us through the process of illustrating an issue. How do you work?

With Joe's scripts, as well as with Brian Wood and MF Wilson's writings in the past, I inevitably start to draw the pages and panels in my head as I'm reading them. As I'm reading the script and inevitably drawing in my head as I'm reading it, it just made sense to take make notes and sketches as I'm reading it on the script along the way. Most of my thumbnails and prep work starts on the script itself. I research Joe's notes about specific details and then I go about collecting and reading up on as much of the material and research as I can as it relates to each issue. So page by page I am collecting visual reference and researching as much as possible -- as it applies to each scene, unique object and/or character action on a page by page, panel by panel basis. It takes up a lot of time in the beginning but it makes it a lot simpler when I get to the actual pages -- pencils and inks -- so that I have everything at hand before I get started. After that it's basically a face first jump into pencils, inks and storytelling.

Over the years my pencils have gotten looser and I've gotten more and more in the habit of finishing the page and design in the inks rather than the pencils. And much like "Blue Estate," I've started to work more and more with digital inks. On "Haunt" specifically, there is a reason to why Joe did what he did story-wise when we came on in issue #19 and for me there is a reason I started in solely brush work and then melded into both digital and brush. As "Haunt" evolves new, old, and dedicated fans will see why we did what we did and where it is all headed, so stay tuned!

After shorter projects and OGNs, "Haunt" marks Fox's first ongoing monthly series

Working on a monthly book is a new experience for you. What's been the biggest challenge, because obviously the schedule can be punishing but it's also a slightly different approach to storytelling than working on a miniseries or a graphic novel?

I am originally an illustrator that got into comics sideways so the biggest challenge has been to balance both editorial/advertising work with what has now become my personal work -- "Haunt" and sequential art works. So yeah, reshuffling what I'm used to on a miniseries or OGN was new and a bit punishing ever since we took on the series with #19 but it's also been an education and creative challenge as well -- a reward in its own right -- in hindsight, of course. But the books are coming back online, Kyle Strahm and I are working on an upcoming two-issue guest artist arc and some great developments are on their way so hopefully the delays and wait will be worth it and we'll earn the trust and readership back as the series continues.

Your work is very much about mood and atmosphere, but you also work with a colorist. Who are the colorists you've enjoyed working with and what approach do you think works best with your work and style?

I really enjoy using color, mood, atmosphere, and lighting as narrative tools and visual language tools. As I mentioned before, Jose [Villarrubia] is amazing and a pleasure to work with. I've been fortunate enough to work with colorists as well as writers who have all blown me away. Jeromy Cox, FCO and Ivan Plascencia and Rico Renzi have all been great collaborators and unique in their own right. I guess I would have to say I have no clue about what works best with my style -- I guess it would just depend on the story. The story rules and great colorists know how to approach. The narrative is king, right?! -- as it applies so it must be. Hell, my own color style doesn't work on most books. That's one major reason I don't color my own work or request to when it comes to comics/work for hire, or at least the comics I've worked on in the past. I would have to say it just depends on the story. "Fluorescent Black" wouldn't have been what it was without Mr. Cox, same thing with Jose on "Zodiac" and so on. Those colorists elevated the narrative.

Personally I am a huge fan of big fields of bold, pure flat color and using it to lead the viewer's eye and add to the story through the designed use of color, color placement and manipulation. But that's not what the story always calls for. I have my own thoughts and often give detailed feedback on color. Apologies Ivan, FCO, Jose, Jeromy and Mr. Renzi -- I can't help it, but what has been truly amazing is seeing how great colorists bring those pages to life. It takes a team of artists to put these books out. Writers, artists, colorist -- and editors too. The fun and creative part of these books is discovering what happens and how the story is amplified when great artistic teams and collaborators come together to make those stories their own.

Fox collaborated with Joe Lansdale and Dave Stewart on "Pigeons from Hell" at Dark Horse

That said, as soon as I start writing my own stories -- heaven help my color usage and readers' eyes!

I've followed your work for years but I know very little about you. Were you always interested in drawing comics?

No, not necessarily. I never thought it was possible back in the day and I didn't grow up with comics outside of "Calvin and Hobbes," "Garfield" and a single issue of "Conan the Barbarian" sprinkled in there somewhere along the way. I didn't grow up reading comics but was aware they were around, saw movies and cartoons and the like along the way, just never really got into single issues or discovered alternative and indie comics until I got to college. I went to the Kansas City Art Institute with Jim Mahfood, Paul Briggs and Paul Chatem. Mike Huddleston was a year ahead of us. Their bookshelves were my education into comics. I was an uneducated art hopeful -- a somewhat sheltered kid from Texas aiming to be an animator at Disney. Once I got to KCAI, working alongside those guys and other classmates I quickly discovered Manga, Anime, Printmaking, Illustrations, Comics -- underground through mainstream -- and just about everything else in the world for the first time. I quickly changed my artistic ambitions and headed down the happily twisted path I lead today.

I finally pursued comics for the first time around 2002. I got an introduction to Bob Schreck through Mahfood. Bob was still at DC back then. Bob encouragingly yet constructively destroyed my portfolio in every meeting and criticism off and on for about two years. We kept in touch and he kept giving advice along the way until he and [editor] Matt Idleson gave me a shot on one of the last "Batman Black & White" stories. I started to get more and more work as an editorial illustrator in newspapers and magazines during that time as well. Some of those illustrations and comic/pro bono work led to a cover at Vertigo for Brian Wood's "Fight for Tomorrow." Brian held onto it if memory serves and that led to the work on "DMZ." Working on Brian's script was an eye opener and an intense education. As a fan of the series it was an honor and my first real taste of comic book work beyond a contained issue. From that point on it has been a full steam pursuit in comics, OGNs and pushing the limits of illustration and visual storytelling. It feels beyond fortunate to be here. I give great credit to all I've met and whom I've been inspired from.

You were an illustrator for many years and have been recognized by the Society of Illustrators and others for your work. For you, is there a close relationship between your work as an illustrator and your work as a comics artist or are they very different?

As much as he enjoyed drawing the humans, his favorite character was the house

Professionally, as a working illustrator in the beginning, they were two totally different beasts business wise, but personally and as an artist I have never really separated the two -- I just kept moving forward and developing my work and art practice inspired and influenced by both. So personally, they are as influential on each other as visual arts and mass media.

Back in the day, I definitely saw them as different and had no clue how influenced by both I really was. Back then you were taught that there was only one model -- to be either an "illustrator" or a "comic book artist/cartoonist" and each required their own set of skills and professional practice. Which usually meant going to different schools or departments to get the right direction and education in each field. You were expected to make a choice. I couldn't choose back then. I never saw a divide between fine art and commercial art -- they were one and the same to me -- art, regardless of the end product or medium. My influences ranged from Milton Caniff and George Pratt to Lucien Freud and Robert McGuinness to Taiso Yoshitoshi, Hokusai, Samura, Wes Anderson and the brothers Quai -- the list goes on. As an illustration student I spent most of my time in printmaking, painting and photo/video electives and trying to find a way to bring those experiences, influences and mediums into illustration. There had to be more to illustration than just the traditional approach for me. When I picked up a brush and ink I started to see through the work I was producing how my broad education and influences would inevitably inform my art practice and professional work along the way. Illustration and comic books just ended up becoming the vehicle for getting that work out into the world and thankfully I get to tell stories and draw for a living (knock on wood...).

Visual problem solving as an illustrator and visual narrative as a comic artist will forever go hand in hand for me -- it's all story and storytelling. Be it visual essays for editorial or advertising illustrations for a magazine or a comic book narrative or graphic novel -- it's all storytelling.

There are two books you drew a few years back that fans who know you from "Haunt" and "Zodiac" might not be aware of, "Pigeons from Hell" and "Fluorescent Black." They're very different books, but as far as I know they're the first comics where you were the artist who drew the whole series and got to design the book. How large a role were they in your evolution as a comic artist?

It took some time for writer MF Wilson to convince Fox to draw "Fluorescent Black" at Heavy Metal

I loved working on both of those properties. It was my first taste into the hectic schedule of working on a series and an eye opener for approaching character design and world building. I had never tackled the horror and Sci-Fi genres before. They were a wild and amazing ride.

"Pigeons from Hell" was a great opportunity to work with Joe Lansdale and Dave Stewart. I knew of Dave's work and was a huge fan. He was a dream colorist to work with and Dark Horse was a dream publisher -- still is. In all honesty I had very little knowledge of Robert E. Howard at the time it was first pitched and knew nothing of Joe Lansdale outside of recognizing the name somehow. Guy Davis introduced me to [editors] Scott Allie and Shawna Gore at Dark Horse and I eventually met Matt Dryer who brought me onto the project. Philip Simon took [editing] it over. Initially. My freelance illustration work had just started to pick up more and I was new to the comics game professionally and honestly a bit unsure of how to approach it. How in the world was I going to tackle a bunch of college aged kids who inherit a haunted house? And how in the world could I make it a true horror story? That said, Matt kept encouraging me, introduced me to Howard's and Lansdale's work and then told me if I wasn't chomping at the bit once I researched Howard and Joe's work and then read the first script, that he would understand if I wanted to pass. HA! I read for maybe a few hours, discovering Howard's short stories and Joe's comic and novel work and I was on the phone back to Matt demanding to read the first issue and sign on the dotted line. It was an amazing opportunity and legends to work with. I had been handed a golden horror opportunity I couldn't pass up.

It was the first time I had ever had the opportunity to develop my own characters and the one character I fell in love with was the house. The college kids were great but the house and other related characters from R.E. Howard's original short story are what did it for me. I became a big fan of world building, architecture and details working on this series and did my best to get it right on paper. The house and spirits anchored it all and set the tone for how I would approach horror and suspense in the book outside of design and storytelling techniques. I basically learned about horror comics and character development along the way. It was an eye opening project and I got immersed in the process and story of the series. Fun project to say the least.

"Black" gave Fox his first taste of Sci-Fi

Color wise, I really wanted to do something that would do the original R.E. Howard story and Joe's adaptation justice -- tell the story through the ink work as well as color -- utilizing it as a narrative tool, adding to the story and its impact, etc. After talking with Dave he came up with the color schemes and we were off and running. It was the first time I as an artist got a chance to design, plot and tell an original story from scratch. When the trade came together, Philip and Dark Horse were open to collaborating on the final design of the book. I really wanted the TPB to feel like the house. Exist as its own unique character on the shelf and exist as a solid representation of the story from the time the reader opened the cover until the last page turn. The house was alive in the series and the TPB should feel just as seductive, immersive and creepy. Hopefully that experience holds true.

"Fluorescent Black" is completely different and my introduction to Sci-Fi and what has now become Bio-SciFi-Punk. As the story goes, MF Wilson found me online through a google search, looking for an artist to illustrate his comic book/graphic novel. My name and number is on my website and Matt picked up the phone. I had literally just accepted my first "DMZ" fill-in when I got a cold call from what seemed like a crazy excited screenwriter in California who had this insane opportunity to get a book published through "Heavy Metal," had a budget and was willing to work with my freelance/teaching schedule in order to get it done. I thought it was a joke. He then told me it was a Bio Sci-Fi Punk story full of genetic alteration, sex, violence and a pot smoking biker gang in a future dystopia meets utopia Singapore -- was I interested? I knew then he was insane and I wasn't that lucky. I turned him down several times. I knew nothing about Sci-Fi, wasn't a reader of the genre, and had stopped reading Heavy Metal and the like years before. Then he sent me his first script, and adaptation from his screenplay that he sold to Imagi Stuidios that was funding an OGN version of the film. Everything he told me was true, I couldn't turn him down a fourth time and it all just came together by the time I finished reading the script. We were on the same page from scene 1 once we got started and seriously working on it all.

Wilson and Fox soon discovered they had plenty in common once they began working together

We discovered that we had a lot of similar influences and approaches to storytelling. I got to fly out to LA and meet him in person the year before the first installment, 48 pages, were due to come out. We sat down for some killer tacos and an hour or two later, left with a sketchbook full of character designs/sketches, notes and future plans that would make it into the book. Originally, "Fluorescent Black" was meant to be two 48 page installments. After we completed the first 48 pages there was no way two installments would do it. To be honest, we could have actually turned it into a five-part installment if given the chance and funding! We pitched a third installment to Kevin Eastman and our investors at Imagi and they approved it all. The rest is history.  Matt had never done a comic book and I had never worked on such an ambitious and detail oriented narrative. Jeromy Cox brought all of our work to life in bold, amazingly vivid color. We had some bumps along the way but it all just kind of ran itself and came together in the end.

1TrickPony stepped up on the Graphic Novel book design. Much like "Pigeons From Hell" we knew we had to stand out -- both at "Heavy Metal" and on the book shelves. "FB" was unlike anything in the magazines and we wanted it to be just as visible and vibrant on the shelf and at SDCC and other cons as the story itself. The TPB had to be oversized and it had to scream "get off your ass, drop some change and buy me! -- I will fuck you up and sell your organs!" Anyway, the guys at 1Trick Pony truly made the finished TPB shine. We knew we needed the set the tone and establish some kind of branding from the get go so we added in over 50 pages of content including continuity pages to plug the holes we discovered along the way. 1TrickPony set the tone, redesigned our logo and established the final design of the book. They were great collaborators and really took our vision and the story and made the final GN book a jewel and an eye catching object on the shelf as well as in hand.

Unfortunately you can only get a soft cover edition through "Heavy Metal" directly but hopefully in the future we'll get to release it digitally and print another edition in Hard Cover, distributed through Diamond or the like. So if you are looking for a wild, no hold genetic bar ride of sex, violence and Singlish! -- swing by HeavyMetal.com and snag a copy today!

It was just announced that you're overseeing a new program at the School for Visual Arts. They're offering an MFA in Visual Narrative, a low residency program that you'll be chairing. Talk a little about what this program is.

In addition to his comics work, Fox is teaching as part of a new MFA in Visual Narrative program at NY's School for Visual Arts

The MFA Visual Narrative program was created and designed to address the desire for an MFA in visual storytelling and to make it accessible to both practicing professionals and students. Visual storytelling can and does apply to multiple professions and art forms including graphic design, children's books, advertising, illustration, graphic novels, animation and multi-media arts. There are already a number of MFA programs that address each of these professions in a traditionally singular and specific fashion. The MFAVN program focuses on the craft and process of visual storytelling as a whole, equally emphasizing creative writing and visual arts regardless of profession or medium. The program was designed to be low-residency -- three eight-week summer workshops in NYC and two academic years online from wherever the student hails -- so that students in the U.S. and abroad can maintain their own professional lifestyles while pursuing their MFA in visual storytelling. Much like I mentioned before about the evolution of story and its contemporary influence, the MFAVN program empowers students as the creators and arbiters of their own unique and original content, no matter what their chosen profession may be. Enabling the program and its students a truly narrative MFA program dedicated to the education of the "Artist as Author."

The program came about over the past year and a half or more. We've been working on getting the program off the ground the past year and hiring working professionals as faculty to teach the summer workshops and online fall and spring courses. I'm very excited and honored to be working with the faculty and will be teaching a few summer intensives as well. A good portion of the program's curriculum is online so there is a great opportunity for students to benefit from peer collaboration and gain accessibility through online courses and lectures to faculty, mentors and visiting artist from around the world.

It's been an amazing and eye opening ride so far, and an opportunity to run my own department, still have time to work on my own books, teach, and live in NYC again -- finally -- I can't complain! I have always enjoyed teaching off and on the past ten years for undergraduate schools but have always dreamed of contributing in some way on a graduate level. No one has attempted a program like this to date and there are few MFA programs that welcome such a wide spectrum of working professionals and students to collaborate, practice and master their art and craft as visual storytellers. Plus it is in NYC and at SVA; reaping all the benefits and creative resources the city and its professionals have to offer. I am very proud of what we've established and looking forward to all the future holds. The program starts in June of 2013 and applications will be live and available online mid September for US and international students to apply.

There is a teaser version of our full department website up at the moment with our full site debuting in mid September.

We will archive and showcase current events, faculty and student work, archive interviews, demos and lectures as well as connect with future students and the public at large. Within a few years we hope it will become a great public archive and showcase both professional and future storytellers around the world. So please visit, connect and contact us soon. And as always -- stay tuned!

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Nathan Fox's upcoming projects or visit his website.

TAGS:  nathan fox, haunt, joe casey, zodiac, fluorescent black, pigeons from hell, dmz

 
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