The Process of Top Cow's TRACKER


Conceiving a world is no easy task -- but imagine bringing that world to life.

Add in a new take to the werewolf mythology, and there are few people more qualified than artist Francis Tsai, who is working on Top Cow and Heroes and Villains Entertainment's upcoming series, Tracker, which follows an FBI agent after he is infected with lycanthropy.

How does one take that sort of vision, and distill it onto the page? Tsai sat down with Newsarama to discuss his influences, his process, and his thoughts on his circituous becoming a comics artist.

Newsarama: Francis, for those who don't know about your background, could you tell us of your experience with architecture and design art? How does that impact your take on Tracker?

Francis Tsai: Well, my formal education is in architecture. Actually, I have an undergraduate degree in physical chemistry, but I rarely use that education these days. I received a masters degree from the University of Texas School of Architecture, and worked in Austin and San Diego for a few years before switching to video game design. There was fortunately quite an overlap between architecture and video game design, mainly in terms of design process. In both cases you’re looking at a set of conditions and figuring out a specific problem to solve. In video games of course you also work on characters and props, whereas in architecture it’s pretty much entirely environmental design.

TRACKER takes place in the present, in the world we know and are familiar with. The architecture and conceptual design stuff comes in handy in making things look ordinary, which can actually be difficult to do. Since the only fantastic element in the story is really just the werewolf aspect (and visually that’s actually played down compared to a lot of werewolf stuff in comics and movies), everything else needs to be kind of dialed down visually in terms of fantastic-ness, so that the world feels very real and believable. There are certain instances where there’s an opening to amp up stuff visually, like a high tech lab, or specialized equipment or something, and I try to take those opportunities when I can.

Nrama: In terms of your mindset, does the architecture and design help? Or are there parts of it you sort of have to "forget" to make your characters work?

Tsai: I wouldn’t say there are things I have to forget. It’s more like there are gaps in my education that I’ve had to try to fill in on my own. Character design, painting, anatomy, and stuff like that are things you don’t ordinarily cover in architecture school, and any one of those can take a lifetime to master. My background in architecture and conceptual design certainly help in doing the environments, and to a certain extent establishing the look of the characters. The brunt of the work though is the actual narrative component, laying out pages and being clear with the story telling. Fortunately I’m working from a full script, so a lot of the burden is on Jonathan Lincoln, the writer. I just have to make sure I’m getting across the points he’s trying to make, and hopefully that the artwork communicates the story to the reader.

Nrama: In terms of artistic influences, who are the types of artists you feel inform your work? In terms of continuing to feed your artistic "diet," where do you turn?

Tsai: Man, there are a lot. I’d say the earliest major influence on me drawing-wise is John Byrne, followed closely by Shirow Masamune. I like different artists for different things – I love looking at guys like Simon Bisley, Jim Murray and Dave Wilkins for the raw, over the top energy in their character work; Travis Charest, John Buscema, Adam Hughes, Kenneth Rocafort, John Byrne for the draftsmanship; there are some other 20th century commercial illustrator types who I often go back and look at – J.C Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Bob Peak… I’ve got this big book on Orientalist painters that is just awe inspiring. These questions are always difficult to answer, there are just too many artists that inspire me! In terms of feeding an artistic diet, really anything can inspire in some way.

Nrama: Every craftsman uses a different tool, a different touch, to get different results. I know you use both standard pen and paper as well as digital tools -- could you tell us specifically what kinds of tools or programs you used for Tracker, and why?

Tsai: For Tracker I’m using Photoshop CS4 exclusively. I’ve used pencil and paper for a long time, and I even still use a mechanical clutch lead holder from my architecture school days sometimes. For a long time Photoshop kind of fell short in terms of the control I had over line work. It’s always been great for painting and color work, but somehow drawing with a pencil has always just felt a little more natural. This latest version of Photoshop incorporates a canvas rotate feature which has been a major factor in my using it to create line art. It’s still not quite there compared to having a pencil in my hand, but it’s close, and all the other advantages of digital (undo, transform, flip, etc) just make it totally worthwhile time wise.

Nrama: Walk us through your process a little bit -- how do you start off with each of these characters? How do you get from Point A to Point B? Do you go in marathon sessions, or is this an incremental thing?

Tsai: I’ll usually read through the script as soon as I receive it, and maybe sketch out some really rudimentary thumbnails right on the page. That’s mainly to figure out how many panels are on a page and how they should stack up. After that I typically lay out the whole issue digitally in thumbnail form, black and white sketches with some gray tone work, and send those in to Top Cow. There’s usually some feedback at that point, so I adjust the thumbnails as necessary and work on finalizing the art. When it gets to maybe 95% done, I send in another batch of jpgs again to make sure everything’s going on track. Sometimes there are more revisions to be made, and I usually cross my fingers that they aren’t too extensive. I’m finding that as I work on it I’m developing a rhythm and it’s getting easier to crank out the pages. To answer your question, I would say it’s more of an incremental thing. I have a short attention span, so I tend to work on a page to a certain level and then move on to the next page, so that the pages all sort of develop at the same pace. That allows me to go back and edit if necessary as well.

Nrama: What's been the most difficult part about drawing Tracker for you? Are there any characters that are just difficult to get from your head to the page? Alternatively, are there any characters that just flow?

Tsai: You know I think the hardest part has been to learn a new visual language, which is this narrative aspect of drawing comics. I’ve done some storyboard work in the past, which is similar, but I’m finding that this job requires a whole set of skills that I haven’t had to develop much in the past. I have to say that so far I love doing the work; telling a story across multiple panels and pages offers a ton of opportunities that you don’t get with just a few (or even a single) image, like in conceptual design.

Nrama: If you had any motto about your style or your artistic career, what would it be? Are there any lessons you feel young artists can take from your path?

Tsai: I wouldn’t recommend taking the path I’ve taken – it was a really long, roundabout trip to get to where I am now. I spent a lot of time working on things I wasn’t necessarily all that interested in. I did learn some things along the way, but if art is what you want to do for a living, there are more efficient ways to get there than what I’ve done. One thing that seems to have become a constant in my career is change. I have never spent more than three years in any job – it was probably inevitable that I would eventually go freelance, and basically have a new job every few weeks or months.

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