Drawing characters written by Stephen King and Peter Straub is no simple task for even the most experienced comic book artist, but for newcomer Tony Shasteen, it's the opportunity of a lifetime.
Beginning on November 18th, Del Rey will begin releasing the comic book adaptation of The Talisman, the 1984 fantasy novel co-written by King and Straub. Based on the idea that there is an alternate universe to this world where our "Twinners" live, The Talisman follows the story of a young boy named Jack who is trying to save his mother and ends up in a battle of good vs. evil.
The comic adaptation is written by Robin Furth, who once served as King's assistant and has collaborated with King on other comic adaptations. As she told Newsarama last month, The Talisman translates particularly well into a visual medium because of the other-worldly feel of the alternate universes. "You're really flipping between our world, with science, and the Territories, with magic," she explained.
Drawing those worlds will be Shasteen, whose work in the comics industry has been fairly limited, particularly on interiors. Newsarama talked to Shasteen to find out more about how he landed the job of drawing the worlds created by King and Straub and what we can expect from the artwork on The Talisman.
Newsarama: Tony, you've had a few comics projects here and there, but this is the first major work for you, isn't it?
Shasteen: It is. The bulk of my career I spent as a graphic designer. So I’ve actually only been in the comic industry for a relatively short amount of time. I did commercial illustration, things like that on the side. But probably eight years ago, I decided to start getting into comics. So I started going to the conventions and trying to get work, and that sort of thing. I built a portfolio and started doing cover work.
At the time, I didn’t know for sure if I wanted to do interior work because I didn’t think I was going to be fast enough. My style is extremely detailed. But over time, I kind of shifted into a style that would work for a monthly book.
Nrama: Where did you get your first interior work?
Shasteen: For my first work, I did the pencils, inks, colors, and everything for a comic called the Occult Crimes Task Force from Image Comics, a four-issue run. And I did the covers and everything for that.
And since then, I've just been doing little stuff here and there. I still did a lot of commercial illustration, some gaming work, and I did, let’s see, I did work on the Final Crisis: Secret Files book last year for DC. And I did a Halloween special for DC. And that was about it. So yeah, the books that I’ve done have been pretty limited.
Newsarama: How did you end up on a high-profile gig like The Talisman?
Shasteen: I guess they really liked my style and thought it would work well with this comic. I know they were looking at me along with some other people. And finally, they landed on me. But before they even considered it, they asked me if I would be able to commit to a two-year project, and if I could do a monthly book. And obviously, I was going to commit to a two-year project. I’ve been wanting to do a long-term project like that. And depending on the style they wanted, I could do a monthly book. So we went from there. And we got going, I guess in March, with character designs and what-not. And everything has gone really smoothly ever since.
Nrama: How would you describe your style?
Shasteen: It’s detailed. I mean, I personally wouldn’t call it photo-realistic because the commercial illustration work that I do is a lot more photo-realistic than the sequential work. So I think it’s stylized, but realistic, with a lot of detail. I have a lot of heavy blacks at the same time. I try to make it a good mix of both. It’s not, I guess, the typical comic book style, but I’m not really sure what the typical book style is nowadays, honestly. But even this particular project, I try to let the story itself dictate the style I don’t have just one style for everything.
The style kind of depends on the timeline and the project itself. And even within this project, as detailed as it is early on, it’s probably going to get a lot darker as it goes and a lot more black, and you know, just heavier shadows and that sort of thing because it’s going to change with the mood of the story. So it’s hard to describe one particular style of mine, because it kind of shifts, depending on what they need and what the story needs.
Nrama: Had you read The Talisman before you got this job?
Shasteen: Yeah, I read the book years ago. It was probably 10 or 12 years ago that I read the book initially. But I had to reread it after I had gotten the project because my memory is so horrible that I just, there was no way that I was going to remember all the details.
Nrama: For the character designs, after reading their words in the book, did you have a pretty good idea of what you wanted the characters to look like?
Shasteen: I did. I had the idea of it. But the thing I noticed too, when I went back and reread the novel, was that they didn’t describe the characters in a way that was just picture perfect, where everybody had the same idea of how they looked. And I had an idea of them in my head but it wasn't from a detailed description. It was more something I invented. I mean, it’s a good way to do things because you know, when you’re reading a novel, you want to make up what the character looks like in your head. But then, when I go back and I look for actual, like a description of the characters, they were kind of few and far between.
So I had a picture in my head, but then probably the longest part of the process, early on, was character designs and getting them to look the way everybody else wanted them to look. I mean, with Jack, the main character, I probably did, I don’t know, 14 different character designs. All variations on the theme. But I went through quite a few, because I had a different opinion of how he should look. Robin, Stephen King, Peter Straub, everybody had a different idea. And we had to land upon something that satisfied everyone.
So that was probably the most time-consuming part of getting it right early on. And we only did that with the main characters. The secondary characters, we took a lot less time.
Nrama: Was there one character that you just knew what they looked like and everybody agreed as soon as they saw it?
Shasteen: Yeah, Morgan Sloat was one. He's the main bad guy in the story. He was the one that I only did one character design and he was approved right away. Everybody liked it. Speedy was another one. But the main family, the Sawyer family, was the one that took a little bit longer.
Nrama: Once you got the characters down, what is it like to go through the approval process for the pages? Is it much easier once you’ve got the character’s design?
Shasteen: Yeah, it actually is. Everybody has to see it. You know, Stephen King, Peter Straub, they have to see it, and Robin has to see it and the editors. So there are quite a lot of people to approve it. But of course, I want them to sign off on everything, and it's been great so far. I mean, for the most part, there have minor changes here and there, but ultimately that’s been a pretty smooth process.
Robin has been great to work with. She gives me just enough detail and direction from what she has done in the script, and it seems to work really well with the vision that Peter and Stephen have.
Nrama: Are you doing inks and colors for this as well, or just pencils?
Shasteen: I’m doing pencils and inks for this, but not the colors. It just didn’t work with the timeline, so we brought somebody else on for that.
Nrama: Doesn't that take a lot longer? Are you guys concerned about staying monthly?
Shasteen: It takes about three weeks to do half an issue, depending on how long the actual issue is. So it turns out it’s not fully a monthly thing for me. But it’s still fairly quick. And we started way ahead. And I’m pretty sure that there might be a break after the first volume is collected, maybe after the fifth issue, sixth issue. But I’m going to keep going. And as far as I know, we're right on schedule.
Nrama: Is it all hand drawn or are you doing some computer artwork?
Shasteen: It’s kind of a weird mix of both. I do my layouts traditionally in pencil. I scan those in and I draw. I use Cintiq, so I draw directly on screen for my pencils. And depending on the page, and depending on what I can get when I draw in Photoshop, a lot of times, I’ll then print them back out, blue line and ink them traditionally. So a lot of the work, a lot of the pencil work, instead of working in pencil, I’ll work digitally.
Nrama: What’s the advantage of doing pencils that way?
Shasteen: It can be a timesaving technique, if I need it to be. And for me, it’s just a lot cleaner. I can work directly on pencils and it’s quick. It’s a quicker process. Plus, you know, digitally, there is no undo. So if I mess up, you know, I can shift panels around. I can move things. There is nothing completely final when you’re working digitally like that. So I can make sure that everything is the way that I want it, before I either send it off to be published, or print it out and add more texture to it.
Nrama: Is there a certain character that you’re enjoying drawing a lot?
Shasteen: Yeah, Jack, the main character. I have two kids myself. I have an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old, so drawing the main character is a lot of fun for me, just because, you know, I see a lot of my kids in that character.
As far as the story goes, that’s probably my favorite character, but I like drawing the ugly characters myself. I mean, any of the bad guys, any of the nasty, hairy people – the more ugly the better.
Nrama: What do you do to make them people look different when it's the same character, but just the "Twinner" version of that character?
Shasteen: Well, take for example Morgan. In this world, he’s a bigger guy. He’s more overweight, balding. But in the Territories, it’s essentially the same character, but almost morphed some way. I mean, if you take the same person and you either stretch them, make them taller, or you give them more hair or whatever, then it works well for portraying the differences in their personality or their position in life here vs. there. I mean, maybe their bone structure is the same, but they’re just twisted a little bit here and there. So I try to draw it where you can still the character, maybe their eyes are the same or maybe some of the facial expressions or features are the same, but they’re twisted just enough to where you know that they’re different.
Nrama: What character was more of a challenge for you?
Shasteen: Jack's mother is definitely a challenge because she has to look like an old movie star, but she’s dying now. So she has to be pretty, but at the same time, she has to look like she’s dying from cancer. So there’s a weird balance that you have to have there. It’s always more difficult to draw someone pretty than draw someone ugly. And with her being sick, that’s always a challenge.
Nrama: How does it feel to have landed this job, and now that you’re into it, to be part of it?
Shasteen: It feels great. It felt like I hit the jackpot because at the time, I was looking for regular sequential work. I hate to say this fell in my lap because I don’t think it did. I mean, I had people fighting for me. I would always send out promotional mailers and things like that because I was doing commercial illustrations. So, you know, I got my work out there, but when it happened, it was a complete shock. And there are no complaints by me. I mean, I have a family and I’m the sole income for my family, and to have a project that I could commit this amount of time to was just, you know, it was amazing.
I was extremely lucky. And I’m sure there are a lot of comic artists that hate me out there because I really didn’t do that much sequential work prior to this and then landed on this project. I’m grateful, extremely grateful.