James Stokoe draws like his hand is on fire. His pages crackle with creative energy, and the hyperactivity of his stories make many other works seem comparatively lazy in their convention. Every panel James Stokoe draws is an active assault on boring comics.
After making his initial splash on the comics' scene with work in the 24Seven and Popgun anthologies, Stokoe tackled the adventures in the culinary arts with his graphic novel series Wonton Soup, from Oni Press. Image Comics' Orc Stain is Stokoe's latest work, and his first in the traditional comicbook magazine format. The format is all that's traditional about the book, as the writer/ artist brings his trademark flair and style to tell the tales of orcs; fantasy's long-misunderstood brutes.
We caught up with James to chat about Orc Stain, his process, and his future creative goals.Click for a Preview of Orc Stain #1 Newsarama: So, Orcs- what was the draw to making them your newest subject? Were you raised in the wild by a pack of them or something?
James Stokoe: Close. I was raised in the wilds, yes, but by packs of roaming Canadians.
The origin story about how Orc Stain started is incredibly nerdy. It began with a rather heated argument about the unfair treatment of orcs in the “Lord of the Rings,” movies. I never bought that they were bloodthirsty shambling monsters 'just because,' so I did a ten page short about two orcs arguing about their lot in life in the middle of a battlefield. One took the classic stance, while the other started to pick piecemeal that they were a product of their environment and needed to change. Over the years, I kept going back to those two orc characters, and eventually it's snowballed into it's current incarnation.
Orcs have been staples in fantasy (and sci-fi, a lot of the time) forever now, but there's never really been a focus on them that really agreed with me. They're usually just the nameless thugs of some Dark Lord Whoshispickle who drool a lot and get killed by thespians with beards. That's never enough for me, so I started drawing a comic with the intent of cutting out any kind of human character and just focusing on the orc and orc culture. I'm most into the world building aspect of comics, so that more than anything draws me into really getting into an idea. I've spent a lot of time figuring out what would and would not work in an orc dominated universe, so I've set some solid story rules to work with. From an aesthetic standpoint, orcs are just plain fun to draw too. There's been tons of visual interpretations of orcs over the years, so it's cool to draw on those and hopefully bring something new to the table too.
Nrama: Your work has a definite energy to it, like there is a palpable sense of your own enjoyment on the page. What parts of this story were the most fun to draw? Were there parts that you had outlined that you couldn't wait to get to?
Stokoe: Issue three was really fun to draw. It's just a big long chase scene in a shanty town, and I get a kick out of those. I guess from a love-of-drawing stand point, anything action heavy I enjoy doing. There's a different kind of thinking involved in that which I find is easier for me. Drawing two characters sitting in a diner talking is so much harder to pull off in an interesting way. There's certain characters that I love drawing too. Recently, I started on an issue where a swamp witch shows up and I've been in love with her. I've probably spent more time drawing and figuring out what her room looks like than anything else in the book. That's the important stuff to me.
Nrama: I wanted to talk a little about you and the rest of the YOSH crew; in the past, you've cited that group, (you, Corey Lewis, Brandon Graham, Marley Zarcone, not sure if anyone else qualifies) as the primary influences on your work. How do you mean, exactly? Is it a game of one-upsmanship to see who can draw the craziest stuff? Is it a process thing, where you're just learning from what each other does?
Stokoe: There's that thing policemen talk about where when you're a cop, all your friends are cops too. I think, at least in my case, that's the same deal with comics. It's such a weird little secluded lifestyle, where you're constantly working at odd hours and scheming about ideas the rest of the day, that you kind of need someone in the same shoes to share that with you. I got lucky in that I admired all my rogue cop/artist friends long before I met them. As for the one-upmanship thing, I think there's a little bit of that, but more in a 'Gotta stay on top of your game' thing than anything else. Though, I do tend to tell Brandon [Graham] on a daily basis that once his work starts slipping and he starts drawing some droll about ice-fishing in Nebraska or something, that I'm going to turn on him like a wild hyena. I'd expect him to do the same for me.
Nrama: Hah, a true friend. Going off that, with your process, do you write first, a script or an outline, and then go from there? That's the general standard, but when reading your work there's an unpredictability that seems to suggest that even you might not know what's going to happen page to page- the story almost just builds off momentum. Do you give yourself a general direction and have fun with it page by page?
Stokoe: Orc Stain is quite a bit more thought out, in terms of story, than anything else I've ever done, but it's still not scripted or anything. The farthest I'll ever go is a general outline. I think scripting stagnates really fast and it makes working on a page feel a lot more like tracing than actual creating, even if you've written it yourself. As long as I know what story points I need to hit in a particular issue, then I can spend the rest of the time drawing exploding bear safes or whatever it is I do. My wife calls me a freak because I never thumbnail, I just start drawing at the top of the page and work my way down, so maybe that's where that feeling of unpredictability comes from. I can't work on anything completely set in stone without kicking my feet in the air and crying.
Nrama: Wonton Soup was a black and white book, and this is color. Any trepidation there? Are you more comfortable with one than the other?
Stokoe: A little bit at first, but I'm pretty much used to it now. I approach coloring the same way as toning, but add a little more flair that color affords. I only use about 4 or 5 specific colors and just blend them together... any more and I think it gets a little muddled on my work. Readability is more important to me than the actual aesthetic of it. I'd still like to do some B&W stuff in the future, though.
Nrama: Getting back to Orc Stain- is there any cooking in the story? Sex bears? Homeland Security send-ups? Maybe not, but what do you see as the similarities this story has with your previous works, and where do you see yourself branching out? What were the new challenges?
Stokoe: The eating of food, sleeping, and relieving of bodily functions are the three things of paramount importance in my comics. They're the things that dictate how everybody goes about their day, so for my characters it's the same. I try to make those things a little more interesting than they actual are in life, and with food it's a lot easier than the other two... so there is a little bit of cooking in Orc Stain. Not nearly in the same way as in Wonton though, as it's not the focus. I do want to go into some orcish delicacies though. Lots of blood sausage and fish heads, I imagine. I think the main similarities between the books is the main character. One-Eye is kind of if Johnny Boyo had a really rotten childhood and was beaten down all the time. They both are trying to find their own way in the universe, it's just that One-Eye has become broken and doesn't know how or where to start. As for differences, there are plenty. Wonton is basically a series of set pieces loosely strung together at the spur of the moment, so it's setting reads like a bullet train. The world in Orc Stain on the other hand is much more fleshed out, and there are reasons for why things are the way they are. I think that's one of the most compelling differences between fantasy and science fiction... fantasy is much more localized and it reigns you in a bit with world building. In a given galaxy spanning space opera, you can go pretty much go anywhere in the universe and do anything without giving the reader a second thought, but with fantasy you've got a map and it almost compels you to stick to it. That's not an absolute, of course, just how my brain tackles both genres. Another difference is that Orc Stain is definitely less of a gag book than Wonton Soup, but it still pokes fun at itself. There's nothing worse than ultra-serious fantasy stories... if you can draw a half nude dryad with 3 foot antlers and keep a completely straight face then you are a different kind of animal.
Nrama: There are a lot of creative types with a far-reaching imagination, and there are a lot of artists who can draw well- but your strength seems to be a good handle on intermingling those two talents. Which do you think inspires the other? Which comes first? Is it, “I just thought of this insane thing, I've gotta put pen to paper!” or “I want to draw something totally out-there, what's the wackiest thing I can think of?” Are there examples like this from Orc Stain?
Stokoe: Honestly, I think the idea comes well before the pretty picture. If something looks amazing but is completely lacking in personality or even an attempt at original thought, then it's just bad glossy porno. But, if the idea is good, then it should inspire you to draw it better... there's really no reason to not try and improve and move forward with the technical aspect of drawing. As long as it doesn't dictate over the creativity, then we're cool and can be friends.There's never really any intention for me to try and do the most whackiest thing ever seen, I think it's just a by-product of the types of comics that I read. I'm mostly into the late 70's and early 80's side of comics where they weren't as worried about things making any kind of real world sense so much. Nowadays it seems like everything has to be explained and there's no room for any form of fantasy... it's like some weird 'cigarettes are poison' label has been thrown on comics and nothing can be taken for granted anymore. I think if Kirby's first issue of “OMAC,” came out today it would make peoples heads explode, but back then it was the norm.
Nrama: Well that's as good a segue to mainstream comics as one could hope for! A lot of comics' creators careers start out doing their own thing, then move on to commercial work-for-hire. Is that a track you're interested in? Do you have aspirations to work on licensed characters, or are you more comfortable doing your own thing? Are there other creators (maybe writers) you'd like to collaborate with?
Stokoe: I'd eventually like to take a stab at a couple of properties that I loved growing up, like “Aliens,” “Godzilla,” or maybe “Silver Surfer.” I think I could do a mean “Rogue Trooper” too. But for the most part, I'm much more interested in doing my own thing. I think for my comics to function properly I have to pretend that nobody is ever reading them, and that's much harder to do on something that has such an established fan base already. If you draw a THWIP wrong or misjudge a SNIKT, then you've pissed off half the continent and I imagine that's always on your mind when you're drawing it. I pretty much need a clean slate to make work that I'm happy with. For working with other creators, I think it'd rather do an artbook type thing than an actual comic. I like the thing that Moebius and Geof Darrow did where they each drew the same basic thing, but it came out in completely different ways. That'd be a cool thing to wrangle 3 or 4 different artists for.
Nrama: So the one-upsmanship may continue. What other comics' work do you have coming down the pipeline? Is there a Selfish Dolphin Surgeon ongoing in the works? Has there been any progress on the “Godzilla” front?
Stokoe: For those who do not know, Selfish Dolphin Surgeon is a short comic, based off a dolphin drawing by gentleman scholar Steve Rolston, about a dolphin neurosurgeon who is incredibly selfish. It involves him Segway-ing down hallways on patients in wheelchairs and accidentally sewing fudge into people's stomachs. There's no concrete plans for a full book, but I would like to do a Selfish Dolphin Annual at some point, and have it only ever come out once (and several months late too, 'cause he's that selfish). Also, I hear he has a Twitter.
“Godzilla” is kind of dead in the water. From what I've heard, no American publisher has the license for “Godzilla” because of the insane cost, and I'm fairly certain that no self respecting Japanese company would let a Westerner handle their national treasure after the incident in 1998. If I ruled the universe, I would take a year off and just make it an online fan comic, alas, I need to eat. For my other non-imaginary books, I have a new color Wonton Soup special planned with Oni, about the Mongolius Grahm character from the first book. It's about his time as a marine chef during the Geex Wars, where he has to escape in a living ship from an exploding planet by cooking and feeding the ship it's own organs for fuel. Then I have a baseball/horror/action romp mini series with fine Mr. Mark Andrew Smith coming out this spring, called Sullivan's Sluggers. Mark puts a lot of energy behind his stories so he's been a dream to work with. Rodrigo Aviles, who colored Mark's New Brighton Archeological Society, is coloring it too and he's been doing some great work. I'm also sitting on a graphic novel series called Murderbullets about a comic journalist in the 30th millenium who writes stories for the gods, but I have no clue about a schedule for that. Finally, way down the line I'm planning a compilation of short stories that have never seen the light of day.
Orc Stain #1 stormed the shelves January 6th from Image Comics. Click here for a preview.