In part one of our week long Tony Harris showcase in conjunction with Desperado Publishing’s coming artbook, Tony Harris: Art & Skulduggery, due out in March, we talked with the artist about his early days. From high school doodles to cease-and-desist-inducing self-created works, Harris talked about how he got bit by the art bug.
In today’s installment, Harris talks about working and living with Cully Hamner, his start in work-for-hire, Marvel telling him exactly what they thought of his early work, and what artists he looks to as mentors. Oh, and a little book called Starman.Newsarama: Can you describe to us how you went from Blade to Elm Street? What was the phone call like when that happened?
Harris: Well, during that period, like I said, I had met a bunch of pros at the shows, like Brian Stelfreeze, Karl Story, Joe Phillips, a lot of those cats, and we were hanging out a lot in Atlanta. I was making, after I did Blade, and sort of getting some other work, I saved enough money to get my own apartment, and moved out of my folks' place. I had been going to Atlanta on the weekends, and hanging out with all those guys, and we all decided, "Hey, let's all get a studio together!" And from Brian Stelfreeze, I actually got that gig. He was doing some work for them already, and I think they contacted him, and I know he did some Nightmare stuff for them, that was just cover work, and I think they offered something to him, or he may have just suggested me to them. But at any rate, they asked me to do a sample page, and I did a fully pencil-rendered, shaded thing -- I wish I still had that, too -- and I turned that in, and then I got the job.
Nrama: The following few years, you were drawing characters ranging from Green Lantern to to the Hulk to the Green Hornet to the Re-Animator. What was it like for you during that period? Where you sort of pumping up your artistic muscles to get yourself up to that next level?Harris: Yeah, very shortly after I got the Nightmare gig, I started working on it while I was still in Macon, Ga., just living by myself. I was planning on making the move to Atlanta as soon as I had the cash and my lease was up. But as soon as I moved to Atlanta and moved to the studio there, I just hit the ground running. Again, I benefited from being in a studio environment, and knowing people like Brian, who had already had a presence in the business. There was phone calls coming in, and stuff happening all the time, and there were gigs being offered that people couldn't do, and being in that group of artists, I was saying "I'll do it, I'll do it! Tell them I'll do it! Look at my work!" And because of that, it was literally art, eat, sleep, art, eat, sleep, 24 hours a day, for, like, an entire year, the year I spent there as a founding member. And you're right, from everything from Green Hornet to the Shadow to Doc Savage to Nightmare on Elm Street, Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, the Re-Animator -- I got lucky, y'know, just by knowing the right guys, was able to jump in with both feet. Literally we'd get up at 11 or 12 in the afternoon -- and I know that sounds shitty, but listen closely --
Nrama: Heh, I feel ya, I feel ya.
Harris: We'd get something to eat on the way to work -- my roommate was Cully Hamner at the time -- we'd just go to the studio, and literally we'd just stay at the studio and live there basically until we just couldn't hold a pencil. Sometimes 2, 3, 4, 5 o'clock in the morning. Y'know, drive home, literally pass out from exhaustion. Sometimes we'd sleep at the studio, because we were backed up on deadlines, and y'know, all over again the next day, for an entire year. With that much work, and not having any kind of personal life, and the only thing you're doing is focusing on your craft, you can't help but get better.Nrama: It seems like you were really building up to this critical mass that really just exploded with Starman, with James Robinson. Could you tell us how that collaboration came to be? As a young artist, did you expect anything like the success Starman ended up achieving?
Harris: Oh, you can't. There's no way to predict that kind of thing. You never know what's going to resonate with people. But it was slow build, it kind of seemed like it came out of nowhere, but people had been following me since way been. You seem to know a lot, it was a little bit of slow build over the course of two years before I got that job. And I fucked up big-time, a bunch of times. I did some work at Marvel doing interiors first, for the big two. Over there I did one issue of Darkhold, Jimmy Palmiotti inked me on that, and then I did a couple issues of Nightbreed, and I did some inking over Joe Phillips on this Hulk thing, anything they would throw my way -- but I was terrible at meeting deadlines. Up until this point, I had been doing mainly just cover work for the independent companies, trying to build up a portfolio on the side, kind of working on my storytelling and my interior samples. And I had even showed samples at San Diego a couple of times, y'know, Punisher samples I had done, and I had Marvel editors tell me that, y'know, not only were they crap, but I'd never work in the business.
Nrama: ...Really? I guess you proved them wrong on that one.Harris: I would mention that editor's name, but I'm not going to do that, I'm going to be nice. But -- IN YOUR FACE!! (Laughs)
Nrama: You said you were really building up your storytelling abilities during that time. Were there any artists or influences that you looked up to, that helped you crack that nut for you?
Harris: Yeah, I think everybody has those guys. I feel lucky that, in a way, that I didn't grow up collecting and reading comics since I was able to read. Howard Chaykin said this one time in an interview, and it was so dead on. I'm not pointing fingers, 'cause I'm guilty of my share of screw-ups and being a silly ass, too, but our industry has a proliferation of hobbyists, that have made their hobby their profession. That can be a detriment, and that sounds poignant -- I can't take credit for saying that, that's totally Chaykin saying that, and he was so on with that. And I think that's why, that's missing deadlines and people not pulling their weight and turning stuff in when you should is a problem in the business, and I still have a problem with it occasionally, when I overcommit. But, uh...
...I forgot the whole point about what the f**k I was talking about.
Nrama: Artists as mentors?Harris: The artists! The artists, the artists. But I felt fortunate that I didn't grow up -- okay, now I digress -- I felt fortunate not growing up reading comics at an early age because I wasn't trying, or at least not consciously, not trying to emulate the generation or two before me, and just sort of be a copycat. My art background is all self-taught, I never went to college -- didn't have the money, or the grades -- so all I know about art is completely self-taught, so I gravitated in a natural progression towards American illustrators from around the turn of the century. So my favorite of all time is Howard Pyle. And of course your mainstays like Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Franklin Booth, and a wonderful portrait painter, John Singer Sargent was a huge inspiration to me. You name any turn-of-the-century American illustrator, and I have a book on that guy in my library, because I made it my business to teach myself everything I could about art, and specifically about the things about art that I liked. So I went about searching in libraries and book stores and book fairs to learn about what is it I do like about art? What is it I don't like? And I sort of gravitated towards that group of people.
When I got into the business, I started discovering people like Mike Mignola, and P. Craig Russell, and Kevin Nolan. Bernie Wrightson had a huge, huge impact on me, early on in my career. I think you can still see that, to this day. Because Bernie and I, actually -- not to put myself on the same level as him, that would be stupid -- but Bernie has a lot of the same influences that I did. Y'know, he comes from that same school of thought, the types of influences that marked him as a youngster. I don't have a lot of direct comic book influence, artistically, unless someone sees something I don't, but my work changed dramatically from when I was doing that early work at Marvel and even from Starman #0 to Starman #1, there was a massive leap there. Go back and look at it, it looks like two completely different artists.Come back tomorrow for part 3, which includes Harris's photo-staging process and much more