Living in Gotham City: Talking to Dustin Nguyen

Talking to Dustin Nguyen

Nguyen's "No Man's Land" take

Artist Dustin Nguyen has been synonymous with Batman for the past several years, working on the character through three different titles including his current run on Detective Comics with writer Paul Dini. He's one of DC Comics' star artists, growing up through the company since his debut back in 2000.

Born in 1976, Nguyen started in comics in 2000 with an issue of Wildstorm's GenActive, following it up with the Jet miniseries before doing the critically acclaimed Wildcats 3.0 with Joe Casey. He followed that up with a twelve issue run on The Authority with Ed Bubaker, then shifted gears and went into DC Comics with runs on Batman, Superman/Batman and now Detective Comics.

As he finishes up the five issue "Heart of Hush" storyline in Detective Comics, we talked to Dustin about that and his career as a whole.

Newsarama: First of all Dustin, can you tell us what you're working on today?

Dustin Nguyen: I've just wrapped issue #850 of Batman: Detective Comics. It's a jumbo sized (36 pages) issue and completes the five issue " Heart of Hush" storyline written by Paul Dini. This weekend, we started on a 2 part story that starts in Detective and ends in Batman, that comes out early next year. Along side of that, Paul and I are also working on a short story for this year's DC Christmas Special. Super excited about that. Aside from those, I am slowly putting together a few personal projects in comics and some animation stuff in my spare time, very little is getting done so far.

NRAMA: In the announcement of the December 2008 titles, I notice you're not doing that month's Detective Comics. What do you have planned next?

DN: Yes, The Denny O’Neil issues will come in for two issues I believe, it'll actually give us some breathing time (11 issues straight!). After that, it's more Detective, and even more Batman for me. 2009 is going to have more "BAM!" and "POW!" than ever.

NRAMA: You've done a lot of work on Batman – you did an arc of Batman with Judd Winnick, an arc with Alan Burnett on Superman/Batman and most recently ten issues of Detective Comics with Paul Dini. Was it your choice to draw Batman, or did the editors at DC pitch it to you?

DN: It was entirely my choice, and DC has been nothing but supportive of it. At one point, Dan Didio just asked me "what do you want to draw Dustin?" and my answer was as simple as, " Batman, just Batman, all Batman!". He said okay, and for the past 2 years, I've done nothing but Batman. I also think it's their way of keeping me from the rest of the DC universe. [laughs]

The denizens of Gotham City

My Superman is not quite up to par yet.

NRAMA: For a long time you've been exclusive to DC & Wildstorm – since the beginning working for DC's Milk magazine if I'm correct. Have you ever thought about other companies for work though?

DN: Its kind of crazy when I think about it, I've been with DC and Wildstorm for almost 9 years, 7 of those years exclusively. Yet, it doesn't feel like I've really drawn that many books. But yeah, there are so many characters out there, for most artists like myself- it's not really a matter of what company, but more of what characters. I really like Batman, so I'm sort of comfortable at DC right now, but maybe in a few years, I'll see if anyone lets me draw Daredevil, or Punisher or something..

NRAMA: You had a long history with Wildstorm, doing several high-profile books including Wildcats and The Authority. You even debuted with them on a Jet story for the GenActive anthology. Although you're doing stuff for the DCU now, do you consider Wildstorm your stomping grounds so to speak?

DN: ah most definitely. I can honestly say I wouldn't be where I am today or even the artist I am today had i not kick start my career with Wildstorm. The comic industry may be a small community if you count the names and people involved, but it's a huge industry when you look at how much stuff is out there. It's very easy to get your work lost in there and fall in and out unnoticed, going from fill-in issue to fill-in issue. The best thing about Wildstorm when I came on, was that the editorial staff really took care of their own. They took chances in me that I doubt I could have gotten if I had gone directly thru the big 2, chances that allowed me to explore myself as an artist as well as a professional. I was only on staff for about 8 months, but after I left, they still to this day treat me like a Wildstorm guy.

NRAMA: Maybe I'm just showing my fandom, but it seems like Wildcats was a real turning point for your career. How would you describe that experience as a whole?

DN: It really was the turning point for me. Half-way thru the series, my work ethic and mentality towards comics changed drastically (in a great way) and it affected my style as well. Before Wildcats, I had only done a four issue arc of Jet and a few fill ins here and there. I didn't come from an art background, I never knew anyone in comics to tell me what's good, right, or expected. If you lack those, most artist at least come with knowledge of comics/artists past and present. All I really knew was what was on newsstands at the time and the few I read and loved when I was younger, I was pretty much drawing blindly, drawing any way I could, no real direction where I wanted to take my work.

Hellboy

I believe a big part of it was working with the new Wildcats team and from Joe Casey's scripts. They weren't always "in your face, flying out the window into a building" type action. The stories flowed so smoothly, every act in the plot was well placed, and the characters were given time to develop. This actually gave me time to think about things like layout, pacing, and actually telling a story rather than just doing a splash every other page. It got me to go out and seek old books I read that flowed well to me, , try and look for new ( to me anyway) artists and techniques in paneling and storytelling to make a scene with just two guys talking in a dark room more interesting. That wealth of knowledge was a crazy rush for me at the time, and it's still just growing more and more today on every book I work on. And again, my editor at Wildstorm gave me the space to explore without ever questioning or doubting me.

NRAMA: I've discovered that you have a couple characters of your own called Kozmo and Rerun. I see them several times in your gallery --- is there more to them?

DN: Yes! They are actually modeled after my son and our dog Rocket, he was a rat terrier I had when I was living in Toledo, Ohio. A simple boy and his dog type deal, but I am slowly developing it into more.

NRAMA: We'll be looking forward to that. What's been your favorite project to work on so far?

DN: Very lame and cheesy answer, but my favorite project is always going to be my next one I think. It's not to say that I dislike any of my past work, but I feel you have to go into every book you draw with an enthusiasm that it's your first gig, give it your all and make it the best. And you'll always treat your favorite the best. Ask my kids. [laughs]

NRAMA: You've been in comics for several years, with each project being bigger than the last – but inside, do you have a dream project of your own you want to do?

DN: The artist in me says my dream project would be something completely my own, written and drawn exactly the way I want, with the deadline I want. Most likely not superhero… or very mainstream. The fan in me, wants to do one thick ass Batman hardcover to go on the shelves with my Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, and Killing Joke.

NRAMA: Prior to comics, you worked for several engineering companies. Can you tell us what this is like and how it might have helped you drawing comics?

DN: They were great gigs, I worked a lot in CAD and 3D, designing HVAC systems for different facilities. It paid amazingly well (about 4 times more than my first comics gig!), and at the end of the day, I wasn't too creatively drained to draw with a real pencil and paper. I remember I'd make up sample scripts for myself while sitting in traffic for hours every morning ( the 405 in southern CA blows), jot some stuff down. Then on lunch break or whenever I had time at my cubical, I'd do these little thumbnails/ panel breakdowns and get really excited about them and couldn't wait to get home to draw them. Then the rest of the night was spent drawing the actual samples, getting ready for comic-con or something.

Nguyen's view of many mini Marvels

NRAMA: You also worked for Stan Lee at Media Inc. What was that like?

DN: It was too awesome - I had gotten my first gig in comics with Wildstorm (a 10 pager in GenActive) and I got to work in Stan the man's office. How cool was that? I got to meet tons of artists I would have never gotten to meet working just in comics at the time ( alone, at my table, at home). I also got to pick the brains of many great talents, not just their skills, but their life experience as well. Although I loved it there, it wasn't comics… and at the time ( and still today), comics were all I wanted to do. Eventually Wildstorm was able to give me more work so I left Stan Lee Media. It was good times and the same folks I worked with there are still some of my best friends in the industry today. Stan still calls me Anthony for some reason.

NRAMA: Switching things up for your traditional pencil work in comics, you've begun doing watercolor pieces as covers. Why'd you decide to do this, and how is it different for you than your regular pencil work?

DN: Covers I enjoy doing a great deal, so whenever the chance comes up, I try to put everything aside and give it my all. With watercolor, I have complete control of everything from line weights to colors and textures. So if the book and subject matter allows it, I will choose to go traditional over something that looks like a splash page from my interior. Plus it's just more relaxing than having to draw it, scan, then flat it, then worry about all the technical details of it. It's sort of like what penciling is to me, just myself and the paper. I've gotten to the point recently where if it's not fun, I probably won't even attempt it. My approach to it is completely different from an interior page, though, so sometimes, I have to get myself out of the mindset of relying on the inker, the colorist, and worrying about translation. This is difficult sometimes when I am cramming thru a page a day for weeks and mostly thinking in black and white. But when I finally do sit down with the brush before a huge piece of paper, it's really like a break from the rush because it is very fun.

Kozmo & Rerun

NRAMA: Here's an idea – doing a complete book in watercolor. Could you ever see yourself doing that?

DN: Totally, in that thick ass hardcover I was telling you about!

NRAMA: A hardcover Batman book done in watercolor. Let's call Dan DiDio and get it set up. [laughs]

DN: Really though, I'd love to as soon as I can slow down a bit. I greatly enjoy working on the monthly books right now, so its all a matter of scheduling and time. With the painted work, I really cannot do it monthly or rushed. I am looking at something in that channel after the new year as side project, though. So we'll just have to see.

NRAMA: Looking at your blog, I see artwork you do outside of your comics for DC – the recent Hellboy piece you did for fun really stood out. Can you tell us more about the art you do for fun?

DN: A lot of it is just goofy doodles and mean nothing, some are birthday and thank you cards I make for friends and family. I have scraps of paper on my desk, and once in a while, I just stray off my page while working and start sketching something else. Either its from a song I'm listening to, or I'm just tired of rendering rocks at the moment. After I wrap up my real work for the night, I throw some paint on the sketch and it's pretty much my side exercise for the day.

NRAMA: Another thing that stood out is the plethora of mini-superhero drawings you've done, especially the Batman family piece. Manga fans refer to this style as 'chibi', and is a popular style in Japan. What led you to do these, and why do you enjoy doing it so much?

DN: Again, just goofy doodles, stuff that came out of drawing too many cards for my wife when we were going out. The style- I grew up playing a lot of street fighter, and way back then ( the 90's!), the guys that were designing all the characters for the game ( Bengus and Shoei were my favorite) did a ton of these super deformed versions of the characters. I thought they were the coolest things ever. The biggest draw for me was that they're so simple to do ( though very easy to mess up). They used the simplest techniques- just single line weight and bits of watercolor. It's a fun challenge to me to see how much character I can put in something with the least amount of work. [laughs]

That, plus I am horrible at drawing a likeness, so why even try- just go the extreme opposite.

NRAMA: What's your home studio like?

the table

DN: It is a horrible mess. We are in between places right now, so I am literally sitting on boxes here and there. The good part is comics only require a space of 11 x 17 to work. I do most of my layouts and paneling on the couch or floor instead. The actual finished work though, I have to be at my table, or it'll never get done. Here's a picture of what I can show…

NRAMA: Comics can be a lonely business to work in – most creators work by themselves at home – only a relative few work in studios or in-house at a comics company. Do you ever work with other comics creators or talk to them on the phone while you work?

DN: I keep in touch with other artists and we talk art all the time, but I rarely talk to anyone while i am actually drawing. I'm really easily distracted, so I like to be alone. It's part of the reason why I left working in the actual Wildstorm Studio to work at home. Its sad, but I know I am not alone in this.

NRAMA: And lastly, who would you say are your closest friends in comics?

DN: I'd have to say mostly all the people I've worked with up to this day. Even though I don't see them everyday, I know they're all relying on me and I on them. The comic biz is great man, thank you again for the opportunity to talk a bit.

For more on Dustin's work, visit his website at www.duss005.com.

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