Image Comics paid tribute to several of the artists on their roster at the Image Expo in San Francisco, with the "I is for Illustrator: The Artists of Image Comics" panel. Image co-founder and "Savage Dragon" creator Erik Larsen moderated the session, joined on stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts by "Young Avengers" and "The Wicked and the Divine" artist Jamie McKelvie, "Batman Incorporated" and "Nameless" artist Chris Burnham, "Outcast" artist Paul Azaceta, "Deadly Class" artist Wesley Craig and "East of West" artist Nick Dragotta.
Larsen started the panel by asking his fellow artists how they broke into the business. Craig said things started slow for him -- first no responses to submissions, then form letters. Azaceta said he was helped by his former job doing production work at Marvel, and "taking critique seriously."
"It's just repetition, and improving," Larsen said of growing as an artist. Burnham joked that early in his career he was misguidedly doing a bad Moebius impression with his art. McKelvie shared that his long-running partnership with writer Kieron Gillen started after they met at Bristol Expo in 2003, and Dragotta discussed his background as a colorist, and subsequent gigs working with Mike Allred on books like "X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl."
"I learned so much working with him," Dragotta said of Allred.
Discussing artistic methods, Larsen reacted to both Dragotta and McKelvie disclosing that they work solely digitally. "You never run out of ink. You never knock ink over. But you don't have any original art to sell." Both Dragotta and McKelvie said that digital helps speed up the process -- McKelvie called it a "massive help" in getting 15 "Young Avengers" issues out in a year.
The next topic was working with a plot versus a full script, with Dragotta informing that for "East of West," "Me and Jonathan [Hickman] are all over the place. Marvel style. Telephone calls. Now it's just like streaming dialogue."
McKelvie said for he and Gillen, it's "full script for conversational stuff, when it moves to action, it's Marvel Method." In contrast, "Defenders," which McKelvie illustrated with writer Matt Fraction, was entirely the plot first, then art, then full script "Marvel Method."
Digressing to when it's OK to depart from reality, Larsen advised, "Some people can really get away with it, where it's really loose and wonky to begin with, and others where it's super-realistic and something looks wrong, you go, 'Wow, that looks out of place.' It's finding that happy middle ground where you can still sell your work as a reality that you can step into."
Craig said he was less confined by reality in the current issue of "Deadly Class" he's drawing, because in that installments, all of the main characters are on acid.
Larsen then quizzed the artists on their illustrations tools: McKelvie, computer and Manga Studio; Burnham, "blue pencils and whatever Japanese markers I like this week;" Azaceta, also a fan of Japanese markers plus pen and brush; Craig, Col-Erase pencils; Dragotta, also digital.
Turning to fan questions, an audience member asked how involved the panelists were with the coloring process. "I've been working mostly with Matt Wilson for the last six or seven years," McKelvie answered. "Without me saying anything, he can color things pretty much how I want them, but much better than I ever could. But the process is very collaborative."
"I'm the pickiest jerk," Burnham cracked. "[Nathan Fairbairn] won't show me the colors until he's done the whole issue, because I'm a maniac."
"I've gotten closer," Azaceta added of his relationship with colorists. "I've tried to get more control over things. The one thing I do digitally is a grey layer, almost a color guide."
Craig said he's enjoying currently working with Lee Loughridge, who he had been hoping to get the chance to collaborate with for a while. Dragotta praised his current experience with Frank Martin Jr.: "He's brought my stuff to a different level. I've never worked with a colorist that was also a really confident illustrator."
Larsen says he supplies color notes, will sometimes do color passes, and when the coloring is turned in on "Savage Dragon," it's turned in to him. "I make the last changes that need to be done."
"I've colored a few issues myself," Larsen added. "I've lettered some issues myself. That was a mistake."
Larsen noted that though computer coloring has been around since the start of Image, the process has still evolved. "The big change there is just that computers have gotten better and the storage space is much more affordable."
Next question came from an artist asking about the process of working with writers, and communicating suggested changes to the story.
"I've worked with some terrible guys," Larsen said, to laughs. "Just stuff when you're like, 'That doesn't make any sense at all, that's crazy!' With some stuff, I was changing things so much that the guys getting it would be like, 'I don't even recognize what this is.' For the most part with my earlier stuff, I was always working plot-wise, so there was a lot more leeway than when you're working with a full script."
McKelvie said he's been "really lucky" with his collaborators. (To which Gillen, watching from the crowd, yelled, "Tell the truth!") He continued that he doesn't think the person who asked the question should be afraid to speak his mind.
Dragotta commented, "I don't like working with writers that are so precious over their words. It's like, 'I know what you're going for, let me try and do it. But if I add a panel or if we move this line of dialogue, or maybe if you rewrite that, we can really sell this emotional beat.' Guys that understand the craft get that, and will change it. Those are the kinds of guys you want to work with."
"Comics books are a visual medium," Azaceta said. "If I'm going to change something, usually the writer understands."
"Unlike other mediums, in comic books, you see scenes ahead when you flip that page," Larsen added. "It's really important, what's on the left-hand page and what's on the upper-left hand panel. When you're watching a movie, you're not getting stuff spoiled. When you're reading comics, you're getting stuff spoiled constantly. Pacing is really important."
That insight prompted Dragotta to share something he enjoys about the format Image provides. "That's one of the things I love about Image: there's no ads," Dragotta said. "Having no ads in your comic really just allows the reader to invest in the world you're trying to create and not take you out of the read. It's just so important."
An audience member asked what the panel was excited about drawing in their current projects. "There are a lot of times when I'll set up really strange challenges for myself," Larsen answered. "This issue, I'm going to start with a 20-panel page, and then each successive page, two of those panels are going to merge, and it's going to merge in an interesting way.
"It takes a lot of the possibilities off the page, which is kind of important to me," he continued. "When you sit there and can do anything, that's almost too many things."
"I like challenges," McKelvie said. "One of the things I love about comics is every issue I'm drawing something I've never drawn before."
"Drawing something I've never drawn before is always fun," Burnham added. "It's pretty easy to get yourself into the same old habits when you draw Batman for three years. There are only so many grimaces you can draw on the guy. But when there's a new thing for him to be doing, it re-juices your interest. 'How the hell am I going to pull that off?' I like the weird, impossible challenges of how to get three-dimensions and time onto one piece of paper."
Of Robert Kirkman-written horror book "Outcast," Azaceta said he has "ground rules" of what makes things scary. "It's all about atmosphere. That's what's fun for me right now, figuring out how to create that creepy atmosphere."
A fan asked the artist if they prefer a loose plot or a super-detailed one. McKelvie said he thinks the best comics "feel like it's one person's vision," even if it's not. "I don't think there's one right way or one wrong way."
"I prefer to work from next to nothing," Larsen said. "Just give me the barest idea of what goes on."
Dragotta said he believes the "purest form" of comics is when it's one person, but when working with the right writer, both sides can benefit from a healthy collaboration.
"When you're writing and drawing your own stuff, there is a tendency to take the easy way out and get lazy," Larsen said. "When you work with another writer, they cause you to stretch more than you probably would. I'm never going to write the scene where he's attacked by dogs. I can't draw a dog to save my life."
"If I wrote 'East of West,' it would be so one-dimensional. It would not be this big, layered, insane story," Dragotta said. "[Hickman] stokes my imagination. It's the merging of those ideas."
The last question asked what the "weirdest thing" the panelists have been asked to draw in their careers. Azaceta: A full-page splash of The Russian from "The Punisher," dressed completely in drag. Dragotta: "For me, it was 'Vengeance.' Lady Bullseye climbs atop Bullseye's corpse and suggests she's going to have sex with him." Burnham named another Joe Casey comic: "The first page of the 'Officer Downe' hardcover has the most violent cunnilingus you've ever seen." Craig: "The end of issue #2 of 'Deadly Class.'"