Artist's Alley 2: ATOMIC ROBO's Scott Wegener

Want to check out the blueprint of a creative machine? Scott Wegener is no stranger to efficiency and precision, having worked with an indie hit automaton himself as the artist of Atomic Robo. Yet this creator wasn't always making the rounds of the blogosphere -- a self-made artist if there ever was one, Wegener took it upon himself to begin a rigorous "Artist Boot Camp" to teach him the ropes.

Since then, he's worked on characters ranging from Atomic Robo and Dr. Dinosaur, to the Punisher and even the Golden Age Human Torch. Curious as to how Wegener built himself up? Newsarama caught up with him for the second installment of Artist's Alley, as we discussed his influences, his approaches to expressiveness and his tenets for success.

Newsarama: Scott, just to start us off a bit -- how did you decide that drawing comics was what you wanted to do? Were there any epiphanies you had about yourself or your style that you had to learn before you made the professional leap?

Scott Wegener: Well, I woke up one day, realized that I was about to turn 30 and I was miserable. I'd always known that art was what truly made me happy. I just had to suck it up and accept the financial ruin that was going to accompany my happiness, haha!

Up to that point though it was nothing but a hobby, and I knew I would really have to improve my craft if anyone was going to take me seriously -- especially given my style. So I basically set up a little Artist Boot Camp for myself, made a list of the five most important things that I needed to improve first, (there were way more than five things, these were just the most important), and every night after work, dinner, and putting my daughter to bed I would dedicate four or five hours to honing my skills. I also had a reading list of books covering everything from perspective, to storyboarding, to film making.   

Nrama: Artist's Boot Camp? I guess I should ask, then, what were the five things you felt you needed to improve upon? How'd you go about doing that?

Wegener: Well, not having the time or the resources to go back to school, I needed to do something. The comic book equivalent of watching Bob Ross, I guess. Haha! So what I would do is spend a few hours a night reading about things I really needed to improve upon. I think the first list was something like -- perspective, backgrounds, facial expressions, hands, and clothes. Then I would practice for a few hours. Sometimes it was just sketching, other times I would draw actual comic book pages. One that was a lot of fun was a caricature of myself moving around the backyard of our house fighting lawn-gnome-ninjas. It was just two pages of nonsense, but it had everything in it that I needed to practice the things I'd been reading about. Basically I would just construct a scenario in my head and then draw it out, developing my storytelling ability as I did the work, and improving the specific skills that were on the list for that week, as I went.

I would post a lot of it to drawingboard.org, penciljack.com and other artist websites to get feedback. Most of it you had to take with a grain of salt, but some of it was very useful. I even got some very nice input from Mike Wieringo once. He was always offering encouragement to artists via the forums. I was hoping to meet him at a convention just to say thanks, but sadly, he passed away before I could do that.

This process continued well into the first volume of Atomic Robo and the mini-series I did with Chris Yost, Killer of Demons. Vol.1 and KOD were both a huge eye opener. They really showed me just how much I didn't know. Sitting alone in my studio (which was the laundry room until we moved a few weeks ago), I'd never say, "lets draw telephones, a strip joint, and some random office equipment. Working from other people's scripts meant that almost every day was a first of some kind -- my first car, my first White Castle, my first 1940's laboratory. I remember swearing and crying a lot . . .

It wasn't until the very first Atomic Robo FCBD story that Brian and I did -- the one with Crazy Ivan and the Combots -- that I finally felt that I was almost up to the task of what the comic was asking me to draw. There isn't a single page of Robo Vol.1 that doesn't make me cringe. But Crazy Ivan and his robot minions -- I can still look at that stuff. It's not great, but I can see my own growth along side the things that still need improvement.

Nrama: And you were talking about your reading list a little bit. Could you tell us about some of the highlights, the books that really helped solidify your skills?

Wegener: Oof! That's a tough one. As I mentioned we just moved and so many books are still in boxes. But at the top of the list I remember Dave Chelsea's Perspective for Comic Book Artists, a film school book called Setting Up Your Shots by a guy named Vineyard (I think), Mytch Byrd's Notes To Draw From (he's amazing!), and a book on pacing your scene's and placing your imaginary camera written by Don Bluth. There were other's, but those are all that I can remember off the top of my head. I basically jsut trolled the book stores and if something looked useful, I took it home.

Nrama: Did you have any particular influences, whether it's teachers, books, other artists, media that really informed your current style? In fact, can you tell us a little bit about how you adopted your present style?

Wegener: Within the realm of comics that's pretty easy to address; Eastman and Laird's TMNT, Masamune Shiro's Appleseed, Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, Carl Pott's work on Alien Legion, and Mike Golden's The 'Nam. Those were the books that cemented in my mind the idea that comic books were one of the most badass mediums for telling a story every invented. Later on guys like Mignola, Stuart Immonen, Guy Davis, Jeff Smith, Darwyn Cooke, Gene Ha, Chris Sprouse, and Juan Bobillo hammered that notion home in a very serious way.

I probably draw more inspiration from film and animation than I do comics though. A pre-Disney, horribly edited, and totally illegal version of Naussica of The Valley of Wind (which was then called Warriors of The Wind, in English), was one of my favorite movies growing up. Raiders of the Lost Arc, Ninja Scroll, Ghostbusters, Robotech, Aliens, Secret of Nim, and Ghost In The Shell -- all huge for me. And at a time when I'd more or less given up on comics Bruce Timm's Batman was pure magic to me. Visually I found all these things very expressive, almost kinetic. They really turned me on, creatively.

Very early on, when I was trying to get a little experience, guys like Neil Vokes and Phil Hester let me hone my pretty miserable storytelling skills in their Image books, Wicked West 2 and Negative Burn. Mike Oeming introduced me to more people than I can remember the first year I was doing conventions. Zack Howard gave me lessons on making my panels more interesting over the phone one afternoon, and Sean Murphy let me hang out in his studio for an afternoon, where I learned more than I had in four months of self-study. These guys are all amazing to me. They've already forgotten more about making comics than I've learned.

As far as why I draw the way I do -- that's also sort of easy to answer. For most of my life drawing was nothing but a hobby, and not one I could devote a lot of time to. So I learned to dismantle my art until I could use the fewest number of lines to say the most, visually speaking. I leaned heavily on Timm and Mignola in that area. It taught me to express an emotion or describe an action as briefly as possible, and from that I derived pleasure from my art. Now that I do this all day, everyday, the challenge is no longer making it as simple as possible, but continually making my work more and more complex while maintaining the appearance of simplicity. Some days it works. Some days not so much.   

Nrama: In terms of your process, where do you usually start when you're approaching a page? Can you walk us through a little bit of how you go from the blank page to the finished product?

Wegener: It's pretty straightforward really. I read the script a couple of times -- mostly to see who Clevinger is going to screw me with some throw-away line that will take me six days to actually draw.

Then I do some quick thumbnails so that I know things will flow visually, and then I draw it all out with non-repro blue pencils. I used to ink my own work, but after a lot of soul searching I decided that it was okay for me to hate inking my work, and so now I "ink" with a regular graphite pencil. I keep things tight and clean, so that it's hard to tell I'm not inking it. All too often guys darken their sloppy pencils, pages get muddy, dark colors are tossed down to cover the mess up, and the reader is left with an indecipherable mess. I hate that. So I try very hard to not let that happen.

After that, I hit the page with some Aqua-Net, (Vinny Barbarino style!), to seal the pencils, scan it, and tweak the pages in Photoshop. For the most part this means adjusting the Curves for inks, or Levels for pencils, to remove any blueline that might have scanned in and to make the ink/pencil work a bit bolder than it really is in reality. Crop that page for the printer, pop it on their FTP, and move on to the next one.

During most days, at some random point in this process I can usually count on some sort of domestic interruption that requires me to do something unrelated to earning a living, for approximately 2-5 hours. Within the industry we call this, "Killing the Momentum,' and it's a critical step in the daily process of anyone who works from home.  

Nrama: Going back to that last question a bit -- what about the tools you use? What do you work with when you're drawing, and what options do the tools you've chosen afford you?

Wegener: Like I said, these days it's all pencils for me. While it means that there are some things I can't do well at all it does allow me to do what I love most, which is the sort of lose gestural drawings that are the trademark of great animators and artists like Don Bleuth and Ben Caldwell. The only real difference is that I like to wrap it all in a nice tight containment line. Oh, and those guys are way better artists than me. But otherwise? It's exactly the same.

Beyond the actual drawing implements, which is just a cheap set of Pentel Graphgear 500's, ranging from 0.05 up to 0.09, I am constantly using my Ames lettering guide, (awesome little straightedge!), a plastic triangle, and only two of my 20+ french curves -for reasons that I can't explain, these two in particular seem to contain 99.9% of all the contours I ever need.

It's really kind of boring when I type it out like that. =P

I sometimes use Google SketchUp -- I don't have a tablet to digitally drop stuff onto the page with it, but I sometimes find that downloading a helicopter or building and positioning at a certain angle is easier than finding a dozen photos on the Internet that don't quite represent the shot you want to draw. I'll also use a light-box sometimes if I want to repeat panels. I used to do that in Photoshop, but then you have a very ugly page when you're all done, with these big holes where art is supposed to be.

The longer I do this the more old-school I seem to get.  

Nrama: Are there any particular "rules" you've picked up over the years, any lessons you've sworn by over the course of your career?

Wegener: Not really, no. Rules imply some sort of absolute. I'm constantly growing as I work and learn new things, and thus how I go about my work is constantly changing. I guess if there is a rule I try to follow it's to never get complacent and always challenge yourself. Deadlines or my mood don't always allow for this, but in general, and in spite of my very loud bitching about it, I enjoy having to figure out how to draw something today that yesterday I'd never even considered. It forces me flex my creative muscles and grow as an artist.

The other day I was talking to a guy and he was telling me all about his art. Telling me that while he wasn't the greatest artists out there he was pretty good, and he was happy with his art the way it was -- he saw no reason to push himself to be better. To my mind that's a huge red flag and I mentally punched out of that conversation. Clevinger will back me up on this -- I hate almost everything I create. Well, not hate exactly. But I'm never happy with it. All I can ever see is how it could be improved upon and how I want to tackle things like that in the future.

I'm perfectly happy to say, "Yeah, that worked out. I like what I did here." But that always has to be tempered with honest self-critique. How am I going to do it better the next time?

I hope that's not too pretentious.   

Nrama: Pssh, nah. Now, there's something about Atomic Robo that just has fans enthralled -- and I wanted to talk with you about how you approached the design of the character. How did you decide that this was the image you really wanted for your hero? For you, what's important to you in terms of character design?

Wegener: It's probably basic knowledge in Character Design 101 that your character's personality should be apparent in their physical characteristics, the way they move, and how they carry themselves. At least I assume that's what they teach in Character Design 101. If they don't, then they should.

An added factor with Robo was that he needed to reflect the era in which he was created, and yet still fit in as we moved throughout the 20th and early 21st Centuries. I was hugely intimidated by the idea. For one thing, I couldn't draw robots to save my life! I designed no less than two dozen robots. More than a hundred heads. And we settled on a final design for Robo no fewer than three times. In the end, what you see in the comic is both a series of compromises and a work in progress that is still subtly evolving. Go look at Robo's shoulders, elbows, and eyes in Volume 1 and compare them to Volume 4. The fins and cut-outs on his head, arms, and chest are a nod to the art deco styling of the 1920's, while his too-long arms and stout proportions tell you that he's tough, physical, and not afraid to get his hands dirty. Despite being from the 1920's he's more inspired by the cars of the 1950's. But hey, I guess it works.

To answer the first part of your question Robo is the best I could do three years ago when asked to design a tough-as-nails brawler of a robot. I wanted him to be better than he was, but I just didn't have the ability. From out here in The Future I look back and see a dozen little things that I would do differently, but I can't, so what you end up with on the page is me doing the most that I can with what some hack artists from three years ago gave me to work with. I'd like to build a time machine just so I could go back to 2006 and punch myself in the grundle sometimes.

To answer the second part, I think the most important thing when designing a character is that the overall design is consistent. Robo Mark-1 had big screws where his elbows are, and his neck was a bundle of wires and tubes that looked like tendons. None of that fit with the otherwise smooth lines of his body. He's supposed to be short, but even Robo Mark 2 had the same proportions as a regular man would, so you could only tell he was short if you stood him next to someone who was not. Now you look at him and he's shaped like a barrel, and the circles of his eyes are mirrored in his chest, shoulders, and arms. The fins on his head are also on his arms. The black bands on his biceps are repeated on his legs. Its all the seemingly incidental design work that is actually holding him together and creating the illusion of a believable character.  

Nrama: Stemming off that a little bit, let's talk a bit about emoting and expressiveness. You have an interesting challenge with Robo, but I wanted to ask, how do you go about making sure that the acting and expressiveness is there, even on a character with no facial features?

Wegener: I come from a family of extremely sarcastic, yet utterly uncommunicative people. Uncommunicative in the verbal sense that is. My father was the master of the leer, the scowl, and the hairy eyeball. No one can raise an eyebrow or cock their head in a way that just screams, "You are clearly more stupid than a bag full of hammers", like my mom can. It took me a while to learn how to translate all that into Robo's body language and eye-shutter expressions.

Lets just call it a gift.

That's what my therapist says I should do.  

Nrama: One thing I think a lot of people don't realize is that Atomic Robo isn't your only baby -- you've done stuff including the Punisher, the Human Torch 70th Anniversary Special... for you, how do you make the shift mentally to work on comparatively darker fare?

Oh I love dark. Dark is good. As much as I love a good adventure I love them even more when you can enjoy a good dark episode. Doctor Who does this wonderfully. Its wall to wall absurdity almost all of the time and it's a fantastic ride, but every so often they'll hit on something serious, something scary, or maybe even something just downright evil. And it's all the more potent for being juxtaposed with the silly banter and wild action. It just punches you in the face. On the flip side, who take's Wolverine seriously? He's always being this grim and gritty douche-nozzle. It's his schtick. It's tiresome and boring. But when you let it out in small doses, hidden in all the silliness, it can be hugely effective.

Fraction's Punisher was equal parts goof ball and gritty. Human Torch had a mountain of optimism mixed in with the fear and what amounted to robot racism.

Nrama: Comics are a collaborative medium, and in your case, you're working with a writer and a colorist. What sorts of things do you do in order to accommodate their work? And in terms of collaborating with the writers, what sorts of things do you to add depth, humor and characterization to the finished product?

Wegener: Every project is different. I've done some work where I never spoke to anyone other than the writer or the editor. On a book like Robo though, I am in regular contact with Ronda Pattison (colors) and Jeff Powell (design, lettering), and in daily, sometimes constant, contact with Brian.

Ronda and I go through phases with the coloring. Most of the time she just does her own thing and my comments are limited to, "Super, but can we make that car blue, rather than red?" You don't really fuck with an Eisner-nominated colorist if you know what's good for you. Especially if she was nominated for making your crappy artwork look better than it has a right to. Once a year or so we go through what amounts to an artistic lover's tiff, with me saying, "Lets try THIS," and Ronda replying, "What, you want me to do THIS?" And I go, "No not THAT, do THIS!" But because she's working on a Mac and I'm on a cheap laptop we don't even see the color green the same way, so eventually we just go back to her doing what she does, and me feeling like I know what's going on because I can get her to make the red car blue.

Where Jeff is concerned my major worry is did I leave him enough space in that panel for Clevinger's dialog, and what sort of cool sound effect will he design for that robotic face-cannon I just drew? It's actually a very real concern though, because how he positions the dialog effects the flow of the story just as much as what Brian wrote or what I drew. But being a good letterer is all about making sure no one even noticed that you were there. And Jeff's one of the best in the biz.

With Clevinger things are different. We are basically editing the story right up until we send it off to the printer. I see his scripts more like suggestions, rather than hard and fast rules. That's not meant as a slight against Brian -there is no one I would rather be working with. He's pretty amazing. But every artist will tell you that if there is a constant among comic book writers it's that not a single one of them can visualize the pages they write any more than my dog can drive my car. It's a flaw in the very fabric of their beings, that is every bit as true as the fact that there isn't an artist alive who isn't a giant fucking space cadet who couldn't stay on task, (much less deadline), if you held a revolver to their heads.

Point is, if I see the chance to improve or expand upon something Brian writes, I take it. Often times what I draw will spark something for Brian and he'll rewrite a bit of the script, and something that he writes will hit me in a way that he didn't quite intend and I'll go off on a new path with it. It's very much like a musical duet. But with more emotional abuse.   

Nrama: What sorts of misconceptions or mistakes do you typically see for people who are trying to get their start as an artist? Or, to take a different tack -- what have you learned over the course of your career that they need to?

Wegener: One very simple misconception: that it's easy. I've had a lot of jobs, but this is the only one where loving what I do is a critical part of getting the work done. The hours are awful, the money is miserable, and most people on the street follow up the "What do you do?" question with, "No, I mean what do you do for work?"

But if that sounds like a great life to you, then cool, hop on in. But did I mention it's going to take a ton of work? It's a tiny industry and there are 50 people for every job available with the publishers and 99% of all creator-owned books are going to fail to be anything more than glorified vanity projects. To say that success is a long shot is a massive understatement. So you're going to need to work harder than you have ever worked at anything before to even have a chance of making it.

And most people aren't willing to do that. They don't want to come home from their jobs and put in another full day's work at the computer honing their writing, artistic, or whatever, skills. Why bother when the TV is right there, and that's easy. And my reaction to that is -- Great! That's less competition for me. That may sound horrible, but it's true. And I think for those people who are going to put in the work and take a shot at this kind of career that's a good thing to motivate yourself with. Because while you have to put in a ton of work early on, things get less ridiculous once you're doing it full-time. The hours are still long, but it's fun work. And yeah, there are days you'll sit down to do your thing and drawing Fantastic Robot Guy will actually be the last thing in the world that you feel like doing. But you put on your Professional Hat and you don't do what you want, but rather you do your job, and the page gets done, and tomorrow you're excited to be doing it again. Hopefully.

Then a little while later you'll be sitting at your table at a con listening to That Guy tell you all about the comic he's going to do some day, maybe, or That Lady is yammering on about some story that she might write when she has time, and you'll just be thinking to yourself; Nope. No you won't. And you'll be really glad that you didn't come home from the meat packing plant and play XBox all night thinking about maybe some day drawing your own comic.

You've got to want it more than anything else in the world.

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