Kieron Dwyer was one of the industry's biggest artists in the late 1990s and early 2000s with his work on Captain America and Avengers, but since then he largely left the industry to work in advertising -- but now he's back, and he's doing comic books on his own terms.
On Wednesday, Dwyer announced his return to comic books with a new series titled West Portal. Working with Todd Rinker, Dwyer looks to use Kickstarter to raise $30,000 in capital to fund work on the creator-owned series in advance of publication with Image Comics later in the year.
West Portal is a dimension-hopping tale of a man Dex, but these dimensions aren't ones you'd expect. The dimensions of West Portal -- known as 'spheres' -- are based on various concepts and properties of popular fiction, with a Flash Gordon-esque sphere to a Garfield sphere and even one based on the works of Peter Max. Dwyer illustrates each sphere in the style of that fiction, giving West Portal the vibe of a sequential art smorgasbord as Dex has adventures across the ideascape.
Newsarama talked with Dwyer about West Portal and the creative challenges of this project, as well as talking about his storied comic industry which saw him debut on Batman and work on Captain America, Action Comics, Avengers and on to do LCD and creator-owned projects with Rick Remender. Dwyer comes clean on the displeasure which led him to leave the industryin the early 2000s, and what prompted him to mount a return in 2015.
Newsarama: Thanks for agreeing to do this, Kieron. First off – tell us what you’re working on today.
Kieron Dwyer: After a long time out of the comics biz, I am happy to say that I’m hard at work on a creator-owned comic series called West Portal, with my friend and fellow Portlander Todd Rinker. It’s an ongoing series about a man named Dexter Allen who can traverse a multitude of dimensions based on various forms of popular fiction. Or, he might just be losing his mind. For fans of my work who appreciate the different styles of art I like to employ, I think this one will be especially appealing, since I’ll be drawing tales in each of the different dimensions with art styles to match. People who enjoyed the IDW series Night Mary, which Rick Remender and I co-created, will particularly enjoy this one, I think.
Nrama: So when do you expect West Portal to debut?
Dwyer: It’s a little hard to say. The first issue is basically done, and we’ve got much of the rest of the series plotted and the first four scripts done.
Todd is a contract UI/UX designer, so we are both freelance people, and without a guaranteed paycheck there’s no easy way of balancing it with professional, paying work. We both have kids and mortgages, so we’re in a precarious position with this creative project. We need seed money, which the Kickstarter will hopefully provide, to help us not feel like we have to keep putting creative projects down to take paying work. At this point it’s taken quite a while to finish the first issue squeezing it between paying work.
Hopefully, the Kickstarter will help us get the full four issues done in a timely manner and turned into Image. That way when they solicit the book we’re not starting behind schedule. In the past, Rick Remender and I have usually started a creator-owned book with a healthy lead time, but due to the creative work in addition to the trafficking it caught up with us quickly, and we frequently struggled to keep up.
Nrama: In this trans-dimensional travelling Dexter is doing, what is he after?
Dwyer: Initially, he doesn’t have any clue what’s going on. A number of things happen to him in the first issue that sort of set the stage for whether or not this is a brain tumor-induced hallucination or if there’s some other force at work.
There’s a mystery to the overall story, so when he first starts experiencing these travels to other dimensions he’s caught by surprise and has no idea what’s going on. As the series progresses, he becomes more aware of what forces are at work and whether he has any ability to control things in these other dimensions. Changing things in these dimensions does have ramifications for his real world and his real life. When it starts he has no idea and no control, but over time he becomes adept in being an active and dynamic participant in what happens.
Nrama: Can you tell us about these dimensions?
Dwyer: We call these dimensions ‘spheres,’ and a lot of the spheres have areas of overlap. For instance, Indiana Jones as a character exists in a particular sphere of fiction, but because of the influences George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had when they created it, that sphere overlaps with other spheres that influenced it.
In the initial arc, there’s a Flash Gordon-type sphere, as well as a dimension based on those Jack Chick bible tracks.
Dwyer: There’s also dimensions based on newspaper comic strips like Garfield, Cathy and Dilbert, as well as some psychedelic Peter Max-influenced dimensions as well. There are a few more spheres introduced that are essential to the first arc of stories, but those I mentioned are the ones that come to mind first.
The interesting thing isn’t just what these spheres contain, but how Dex and others like him find entrance and exit points for them and what spheres they overlap with to allow movement. Some of those points may be seemingly unrelated from one sphere to another, so I find it pretty cool tying things like Flash Gordon and Garfield together.
Nrama: When drawing these spheres, are you trying to imitate those styles – of an Alex Raymond, Jim Davis, or what have you?
Dwyer: I’m definitely not just straight up imitating. A lot of people have done that kind of thing, some to great effect. I’ve always been a fan of Dan Clowes and Eightball, Ivan Brunetti and Schizo, and how some artists are very capable of drawing in the exact style of, say, Charles Schulz or Hank Ketcham. Those things are pretty funny and entertaining, but in West Portal I’m trying to distill the feel and dynamics of those particular things in my own way, without simply lifting someone else’s style.
For instance, our Flash Gordon-type character will clearly be drawing on Alex Raymond’s style, but it’s not me aping Raymond. I don’t know that I could pull that off. As you can see from the artwork, I’m just trying to get the general vibe of Raymond, along with Al Williamson and those types of guys. Those pages and panels will be colored accordingly, but then when we’re within the Garfield-style sphere or Jack Chick-style sphere the coloring and presentation will be very different, as suits the source material.
Basically, when inside a sphere like Garfield or Cathy, we’re bound by the specific laws and rules of that sphere. If you look at the way newspaper comic strips are laid out, it’s a very static way of presenting comics. There’s not a lot of dimension in those, compared with something like Calvin & Hobbes. If I was doing a Calvin & Hobbes’ sphere, you’d see a lot more dimension to the layouts and the way it appears.
Everything we do in each sphere is somewhat dictated by the rules and conventions of that sphere, and we’ll employ those conventions to make the most of them for our comic book.
Nrama: In addition to talking about your return to the comics industry, I wanted to talk about what you’ve been up to in the past – recently with advertising and back in the beginning.
Besides West Portal, what have you been working on recently art-wise?
Dwyer: Yes, it’s true that for the last bunch of years, I’ve been working mostly in the field of advertising, largely at Portland-based agency Wieden + Kennedy. In that time, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of working on a lot of really fun, funny, and creative ad campaigns for products like Old Spice (virtually every Old Spice spot since 2006, in fact) and brands like Nike, Target, Heineken, Coca-Cola (notably the polar bear Super Bowl campaign from a few years back) and many others. Recently I’ve done a bunch of Old Spice work and an animated spot for Energy Trust of Oregon.
Nrama: When I initially reached out to you for an interview I didn’t know you were plotting a return to comic books with West Portal. I reached out to you do this because you’ve always been top on my list as one of those creators who were made favorite on the shelves but you’ve largely left the industry these days. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you stopped doing comics full-time around 2003 right when you finished up your Avengers run and the great Last of the Independents book. Is that right?
Dwyer: Largely true. I finishedRemains with Steve Niles in mid-2004, right before my son Liam was born. In fact, I literally drew one of the final pages of Remains in the hospital room between the time my wife was admitted and the time that she delivered him. I scaled back my comics work gradually after my son was born, opting to take on more advertising work since it generally pays better than comics, as far as the time-to-money ratio. But Rick and I actually did do a bunch of our best work together in the following three years, as we were sharing office space together in San Francisco and then in Portland, as part of Periscope Studios. So that was when we created Night Mary, Sea of Red, and XXXombies. I also drew a bunch of stuff for him on his creator owned booksStrange Girl and Fear Agent, mostly helping fill in the gaps for some of his regular series artists.
Nrama: Can you tell us what led to your decision to step back from comics in that time?
Dwyer: Primarily financial, as I mentioned, but also a personal choice. I had become burned out on mainstream comics work already when I started turning to self-publishing or small publishing houses like Image, IDW and AiT-PlanetLar. The trade-off for more personal control and creative leeway, of course, is generally less money. Or no money at all. With a young child and the rising cost of living in San Francisco, the decision was pretty easy to make. I did a few Marvel and DC jobs to help fill the gaps, but I found that the ad work was a better fit for me overall.
One of the main reasons I choose any given project is to flex different art muscles, because I have what I refer to as “artistic ADD,” and I have found that I get bored quickly doing the same thing for any length of time. So doing a monthly superhero book is absolutely out of the question for me at this point in my life. I’m not disparaging the genre at all, and my hats off to those who can maintain that, but it’s just not possible for me anymore. The advertising work, especially the stuff I’ve done at W+K, suits me because it’s rarely the same thing twice, and the fact that it’s all being done on an aggressive timeframe means no job lasts very long. And I like the fact that I can work in a looser more sketchy fashion a lot of the time. Folks familiar with my work onLOTI, Remains and XXXombies, in particular, probably recognize that I had been making a deliberate effort to get my finished work to feel loose and sketchy and more immediate. Not rushed or sloppy, hopefully, but more dynamic and visceral because it wasn’t being labored over ad infinitum. This was a conscious decision on my part, because I had always been frustrated by a feeling that my sketchbook drawings and rough page layouts had a more exciting and energetic quality than my “finished” work, especially in the mainstream comics work for Marvel and DC, where I felt constrained by the idea of a more traditional/acceptable “house style.”
Nrama: You’ve done work here and there in comics since 2004 – co-creating Sea of Red and Night Mary with Rick Remender, then the XXXombies series in 2007 and even did two one-shots for DC that slipped under people’s radar – Shadowpact in 2008 and something called Nightmaster:Monsters of Rock in 2011 I’m still trying to track down. How do you see comics now as a place to work?
Dwyer: I’m excited by what I’ve seen in the medium over the last several years, both in mainstream comics and at other smaller publishers. I find a lot of the books at Image, in particular, to be very inspiring. The widening of the audience through a much broader range of subject matter is pleasing and gives me a lot of hope for the continuing health and growth of the industry, not just as a feeder for movies and TV, but as a legitimate and respected medium all of its own. That said, I enjoy a lot of what I’ve seen as far as translations from comics to other media, and now that my son is almost 11, It’s a treat to be able to watch a lot of that stuff with him and see how it inspires him (he’s becoming quite the artist himself). One of the reasons I felt a desire to get back into comics myself was to have something that I could share with him, since so much of my non-mainstream work from the past is not really age appropriate for him yet. That frustrates him sometimes, so I’m glad that West Portal is a series that he’ll be able to read and hopefully connect with. Todd has a daughter the same age as my son (they were in the same kindergarten class, which is how we met), so we both felt that we wanted to do a book that could appeal to people their age and above. Some of the subject matter may be a bit esoteric for younger kids, and there’s some adult language, but it’s not a gory or gratuitous book and the fantasy, sci-fi, pop culture nature of the stories should appeal to them.
Nrama: You got your start in comics in the late 80s on some relatively major books – Batman then Captain America and also doing shorts with Chris Claremont for Classic X-Men. Getting to start out on such big titles so early in your career, did that diminish the luster those titles had later on in your career? I see some artist pining of for the chance to draw those books someday, but you got them in your first year or so in the business.
Dwyer: Yeah, I suppose I was spoiled from the outset. Working on a book like Captain America was both daunting and super thrilling. Doing that fill-in on Batman as my first professional gig was scary as hell, I have to say. So intimidating. And I look at it now and see how stiff my drawing was and it makes me cringe a bit, but I remember how much I wanted to hit my first job out of the park and kickstart my career. Working on Cap was a good place to start my real career, though, because the monthly grind is a great training ground. The series was not a top seller, so the pressure wasn’t as big as it could have been, and it was fun to be part of a storyline that was playing with the status quo, and it was gratifying to see the sales pick up as a result of our work. Working with Mark Gruenwald was a special thing, too, especially given his untimely death. He was so enthusiastic and fun and funny, his spirit was just totally infectious. At first, I’ll admit, I found his scripts difficult to crack because they were dense and he was cramming so much in, in terms of storylines, characters, etc. The first few issues were rough for me and I considered moving on to something else, but I decided to hang in and I’m glad I did. Once we found our rhythm, I felt like we clicked into something solid and fun and memorable on the title. The Bloodstone Hunt issues are a particular favorite chunk of stories from that series for me, and even though we were doing more issues of that in a shorter period of time, I felt like I finally hit my stride on the book during that period, as well as having more of a hand in co-plotting the stuff with Mark.
After leaving Cap, I didn’t know what to do but I knew I couldn’t go back to a monthly book for a while, if ever. So I settled in on a few standalone issues here and there and limited series or story arcs, like the Dark Knight, Dark City 3-issue arc on Batman with Peter Milligan, which many people still cite as being one of their favorite Batman stories. I did a year’s stint as penciller on Action Comics in the period post-Death of Superman, which was fun. I’m also particularly proud of a few Elseworlds prestige format projects that I co-created with John Francis Moore, Elseworlds Finest and Superman: The Dark Side. They made some action figures from the latter one, and that was a kick. And unlike Marvel, DC actually sent me several copies of each of the toys. Marvel is the worst when it comes to that stuff, just incredibly, insultingly penurious. Until I learned that Rumlow/Crossbones was going to be in the Winter Soldier movie, I didn’t even know that they’d already made several versions of Crossbones action figures and stuff over the years, nor had I been paid anything for those things. That said, I’m really excited to see Crossbones being a key character in the next Cap movie. I know Gruenwald would have been out of his mind jazzed about that kind of thing.
Nrama: What was it like though, starting out on such high profile books when comics were nearing a peak, but you’re a creator still absorbing as much as you can around you?
Dwyer: When I started out in the industry on Captain America, there wasn’t much outside of the superhero mainstream; there’d been the first wave of black & white independent stuff, but when I got started I didn’t have much a hint of that. By and large, my early years were right during that speculator bubble and the initial formation of Image Comics. I sort of experienced, as everybody who was in the business at that time, a rush of demand. When things kind of went bust, there were fewer jobs to be had in the mainstream. By the time things had settled down after the bubble burst, I was pretty burned out with comic books. I went over to do advertising work and web animation.
Nrama: As you said, when you first started in the business the field was a far different place, with Marvel and DC dominating much more than they do today. What was that like for you, as a comic creator?
Dwyer: When I started, the only thing to aspire to was working for Marvel or DC. Most people, growing up, only read Marvel or DC. So everything we loved and were inspired by to do our own thing was sort of a pale imitation of that.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a special opportunity to work on some of my favorite characters from childhood and had a hand in shaping Captain America during my two years on that title, which was very gratifying to me as a kid in his early 20’s. But once I had done a substantial amount of work for DC and Marvel, it became clear to me that to create any kind of lasting legacy of my own I would have to step outside of Marvel and DC.
Nrama: You mentioned once in an interview that John Byrne was your step-father for a time, and that always stuck with me. I know Byrne and your mom Andrea Braun have since divorced, but can you tell us about your relationship with Byrne? You did a short for his Danger Unlimited book back in the mid-90s I recall.
Dwyer: John was one of my favorite artists leading up to the time when he met my mother at the Chicago Comic Con in early 1980, so it was truly surreal when they married and he moved in with us. As it happened, though, a few months after he moved in, I moved out and went to live with my dad in California, so I didn’t grow up with him and didn’t really have a relationship with him. It wasn’t until after high school was done and I moved in with him and my mom and sister in Connecticut that I got to know him for real. We had a cordial relationship and I’d say a mutually respectful one, but we were not close. I think he respected my drawing ability and he was certainly helpful as I made my way into the comics business, for which I have always been thankful. When he asked me to do the Torch of Liberty stuff in Danger Unlimited, I looked at it as a nice gesture on his part, and I thought it sounded fun to try a new art style more reminiscent of old war comics from EC and DC, like the stuff Toth, Kubert and others had done. I was quite happy with the end result, and he seemed to be as well. But I believe that Torch stuff was our last real connection, because not long after it saw print, he and my mom split (amicably, I should add. They remain close). Since then, we have had virtually no contact and I don’t expect anything to change in that regard.
Nrama: Another guy who you spent a lot of time with is Rick Remender, your one-time inker who turned into one of the top comics writers today. What do you think about his career shift from art to writing and going so far with it?
Dwyer: Rick is one of my best friends, and I’ve been happy to be a partner with him in all sorts of fun, funny and mentally exhausting ventures, both in and out of comics. The stuff we did together in the years following our Avengers run is still my favorite comics work, especially what we did in Night Mary and XXXombies. I’ve always been in awe of Rick’s energy and his will to make things happen. He is a force to be reckoned with, and I’ve watched with pride and amazement, but not surprise, as he’s built an awesome career as a writer. He’s always been a seemingly inexhaustible source of ideas, but even knowing that, I am still amazed at the sheer volume of work he produces and at such a high level of quality. I honestly don’t know if or when he “phones it in,” because it never shows if he does. I couldn’t be happier for his successes in comics, video games, etc., and I do hope that we’ll get some more chances to work together in the future. We still chat about a few of the funny ideas we had when we were studio mates, and I can say without any doubt that if/when we work together, it will be on a humorous project. Both of us are keen to make some balls-out funny stuff again.
Nrama: I wanted to ask about Last of the Independents – it was one of the first books that made Matt Fraction a name in comics, and to me I still hold it up high on my top books ever. But sadly it’s long out of print. Can you tell us about that experience? It wasn’t your first independent work as you did Lowest Comic Denominator, but it was pretty big at the time.
Dwyer: Well, when Larry Young sent me the first ten pages of script (which I think was all that Matt had written for it at that point), I read it quickly and had an immediate connection with the material and Matt’s writing, so I told Larry right away, “Let’s do this,” and drew up a quick piece of art to send Matt for his birthday. Because the upfront money was very small, I had to draw the book very fast and keep to a super strict schedule, which suited me fine and served the material. Working with Matt was easy as you could imagine. I was super proud of the way the book came out, and the landscape format we chose and the crafty way we devised to package it so the book could be racked upright (using a slipcase sleeve). Matt and I have been discussing how to get the book back in print at Image as a hardcover. I think it will eventually happen and I’ll be happy to have the material available again to a whole new audience of people. It’s funny, because so many people cite the book as a favorite one, yet the total sales on it were pretty low. I’d love to see it reach a larger audience after all this time.
Similarly, I have plans to collect the best work from LCD: Lowest Comic Denominator into a trade paperback at Image some time in the near future. It’s one of those backburner projects that keep staying on the backburner due to a demanding work schedule in advertising. I’m always waiting for a lull to move forward on some of that stuff, but they keep me pretty busy and when I’m done, I need to rest and recharge my batteries, so the other stuff keeps getting pushed into the “Someday” category. I’ve got all the material, basically, and a great Garth Ennis Intro piece, but I need to figure out a worthy cover for the book and collect all the material. One of these days...
Nrama: Speaking of LCD, I followed that court battle with Starbucks closely as a fan at the time. You ultimately decided to settle out of court – but how did that battle with Starbucks change the way you view comics and art?
Dwyer: I think I’m a bit tapped out on the whole Starbucks thing at this point, without much more to say about it. There’s plenty of material on it that people can dig up on google if so inclined. Suffice to say it was simultaneously one of the worst and best experiences I had during my years in comics. Because I had a great lawyer (Andy Gold) working largely for free (with the exception of some money he got from the CBLDF), the settlement with the greedy green mermaid didn’t end up bankrupting me, not that they would have cared if it had. Although my original parody wasn’t meant as any larger political statement, the case did open my eyes to the reach of corporations and the completely unlevel playing field we have in this country, particularly the whole “Corporations are people” Supreme Court fiasco. It definitely raised my awareness of other first amendment cases and gave me a new appreciation for any artists out on the forefront, pushing boundaries and fighting corporate greed. And I’ve never purchased another thing from Starbucks, nor will I ever.
Nrama: Did your work on the LCD comic book and what happened with Starbucks affect how you saw comics?
Dwyer: LCD started as me needing to do something 180 degrees different than Marvel or DC. I’ve always found that if I don’t change up what I’m doing periodically, I get bored. I don’t want that to affect my work, and I don’t want that to affect my professional standing. I want my work to feel fresh, alive and dynamic. No matter what I end up drawing, I want it to be something I care about as to something I’m doing to get paid.
When I was doing stuff for Marvel and DC, for better or worse I was drawing in their house style. I can do that, but there are lots of other art styles that appeal to me. My mind was blown with Moebius’ work; if you look at his Blueberry, Metabarons, etc., he was just a masterful guy in so many ways. Bill Sienkiewicz impacted me heavily as well.
For me, it became a matter of finding projects that allowed me to spread my wings creatively, so to speak, and not just do a house style.
In the end, though, LCD came from a place that was always inside me but had no outlet, except in the company of my friends and peers with similar senses of humor. We would laugh and joke about wholly inappropriate but hilarious stuff, and it would kind of end there. I had no desire to do stand up comedy or animation, per se, so it just seemed natural to vent it in comics form. When I did the first ashcan and brought it to San Diego Comic Con as a lark, I had no idea what a chord it would strike. Honestly, without my friend Marie Javins handing a copy to Garth Ennis at a bar one night, the whole thing might have ended there. But he and Steve Dillon and John McCrea and others got hold of it and the next thing I knew, it was a little mini-phenomenon that Con. And it was entirely gratifying and fun, to find a bunch of like minded people in the comics business and a place for something so completely different than what people had come to expect from, or assume about, me.
Speaking of creative expectations and surprises, I do hope people will feel a connection to the work Todd and I are doing with West Portal. It is both a personal story for us, because of the ways in which we identify with our main character Dex and his small everyday struggles, as well as a broad world spanning story about the nature of creativity and the mysterious places where fiction and reality meet, overlap, and influence each other. I hope people pick it up and give it a read.
And any support for the Kickstarter launch will be immensely appreciated by both of us. Thanks for this opportunity.