Artist's Alley 3: TOM FEISTER, from Politics to Heroes
If there's one thing that seems to sum up Tom Feister's career, it's this -- the man is never satisfied.
Working on books ranging from Ex Machina to putting together dynamic covers for G.I. Joe: Origins, Feister has worked on some Real American Heroes. And as part of our Artist's Alley column, we sat down with Feister to talk about what brought him to the world of comics, how he deals with editors, how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to break into the industry, and -- most importantly -- how he always keeps pushing to improve.
Tom Feister: I guess it started pretty early for me. Some of my first memories are playing with my Megos on the floor of my livingroom as a small child. Superheroes have always been a big part of my life -- my parents divorced when I was pretty young and I was an only child, so I guess I found a lot of comfort in that world. My imagination, that is.
Nrama: Right. Now, as you've been building up your skills as an artist, were there any hurdles you had to overcome before you could think, "okay, I have a style in place"?
Feister: I'll let you know when it happens. I don't know that I have a style I'm comfortable with yet. The best description of what a style "is" that I've heard is that a style are just the mistakes you make most often. What I do think I have that is specific to me is a point of view.
Nrama: Can you elaborate a bit? How did you come across that point of view? What influences led you down that particular path?
Feister: This is tough to answer. I tend to be frustrated by my own work. I want to draw better. I want to color better. I want to have airtight concepts for covers. I feel like I get close a good part of the time, but then I still want and expect more of myself. My influences have changed a lot over the years. Right now I think Dave Johnson is about as close to genius as comics has right now.
Nrama: Just to get a sense of how you approach a page -- for you, is there anything you absolutely need to have as an anchor or a first step?
Feister: I don't do many pages -- I've been primarily a cover guy for the last two years. I'm not sure how that happened, but I'm not complaining. The guys I like the most seem to be the cover artists -- Adam Hughes, Dave Johnson.
Nrama: What about their work really strikes you?
Nrama: It's interesting, because there's a lot of different things you can do with a cover, whether it's teasing a story or boiling down a character to their essence. For you, where do you lean in terms of creating the concept for a cover?
Feister: What I shoot for is something I think I heard Dave say which is that you can sell the comic if you can't get people to pick up the book in the first place. My job is to make an image that makes you walk across the room and out of the other 100 or so books around you look at mine and pick it up. I like to start with reading the script. Usually I'lll find something in the story that will hit me the first time I read it. Something that will strike me as being a cool visual. I find that usually my first idea is my best. If I feel strongly enough about an image I'll only send in one sketch. Sometimes I don't have as strong of a "feel" for an image and I'll do more sketches. IDW has been just fantastic about letting my try things that I've never done before, or might be pretty out there from what past G.I. Joe covers have looked like.
Nrama: How do you end up coming up with these sorts of design choices? I'm looking at the cover gallery on your site right now, and you really pick dynamic stuff -- particularly the covers for #8 and #9.
Feister: Well I want to push myself. I'm competing for jobs with some people that draw better than I do, or paint better than I do, so what I'm left with is out thinking the other guy. Or at least trying to. I don't think anyone goes into comics with an idea that they are going to be rich. I'd love to be rich. But the moments I remember are things like having Mike Wieringo drop me a note telling me he liked a Supergirl thing I did a few years ago, or Dave Jonson telling me he liked something I did.Nrama: What would you say is the most difficult thing for you when you're putting an image together? And how do you overcome it?
Feister: The worst thing is when I have no ideas. It's like that wave thing -- I might come in and stare at a blank piece of paper and just have nothing going on. It's hell. So I try to just absorb as much information as I can.
One of the first guys who's work just knocked me on my ass was Steve Rude. That guy just soaks up styles of drawing and painting and has been able to regugitate them into something new and fresh. A friend of mine gave me a copy of World's Finest when I was in college and it just spun my head around.
Same with Rob Haynes. I wanted to draw like Adam Hughes in the worst way and it just wasn't me. I saw in Rob's work what was possible with just a few perfectly placed lines.
So the hardest part is coming up with that idea that I just know is the "one." The cover to #8 was a special case. I had turned in a sketch and it had been approved and I was starting to draw it. Andy Schmidt called me and said he had changed his mind and could I come up with something else instead. So I said "How about Snake-Eyes hanging upside-down, blasting away with a couple of uzi's and shells flying?" He said, "go." I got my [reference art] together and never even sent in a sketch. Andy trusted me, and that means a lot. I'd take a bullet for that guy. He saved my career when I was struggling with some tough stuff at home.
Nrama: Wow. Can you talk a little bit about working with editors, and how you regroup if your initial idea is shot down or altered?
Feister: I've been very lucky. I've had almost no bad experiences with editors. My first steady gig was with Steve Wacker when he was the editor of L.E.G.I.O.N. at DC. He was always open and honest with me. I trusted his judgement and comments. I've been bugging him (pun intended) about working with him again. Spider-Man is hands down my all-time favorite character.
I started working with Andy Schmidt while he was Tom Brevoort's assistant at Marvel. I was working with Tony Harris at the time and we were assigned a bunch of covers and dealt with Andy and Tom on those. Andy and I became friendly and we stayed in touch even after he left Marvel. We both had young kids and I think were going stir crazy being stay-at-home dads. When I saw he joined up with IDW and was taking command over the G.I. Joe line I sent him an e-mail almost immediately.
And about a week later he called and offered me the gig.
Nrama: Heh. For you, how do you feel you built up that level of trust with the editors?
Feister: I have no idea. With and Andy, and I hope Carlos I think they know that I sweat blood to get a cover as good as I can possibly make it. I see something in every single one that given the chance I would go back and redo at least something on them. I hope that, and the effort I make to do covers that don't look like the other books on the stands are what give them some comfort. Does that makes sense? I take the trust they've put in me seriously and I wan to do good work not just for me, but for them too. Not to mention the fans of GI Joe.
Nrama: How about on the technical side of things? What kind of tools do you use when you're putting together covers and the like? What do they offer you in terms of options?
Feister: Whatever I can find. I'm always trying out new pens, brushes. I use an old lead holder to draw with. The air gets so humid here in Atlanta that I change the lead I use depending on the weather. I draw on Bristol Plate surface paper. I ink with a Sharff brush and Koh-I-Noor ink. I use rapidio-graph pens for tech stuff and Pitt pens for eveything else. After that I scan the whole deal in Photoshop. I use PS 7 -- I have CS but it makes my Wacom pen move a touch slower which annoys the @#$@ out of me so I never use it.
Feister: I worked as an animator for a few years and did a ton of inking then, and also inked the first 25 issues of Ex-Machina so I do have somewhat of a background in inking and I think I've develpoed a drawing style that works within my skill set as an inker. Most of the time the idea, the picture in my head is fully finished in color. That's what I'm aiming for. Now, how often to I get close to what's in my head, that's a tougher number. So I start drawing with the finished image in mind. Things I can paint in Photoshop I don't need to draw. I think of the drawings as the structure of a house. They are not the finished piece -- just a blueprint for the color.
Nrama: Was this process self-taught for you? Or how did you come up with this?
Feister: It was trial and error. A lot of it was born out of figuring it out when I was working with Tony Harris and JD Mettler. The idea had been there for awhile, but I didn't know how to make it happen. I remember in college taking a computer class and asking the Prof about computer coloring comics and he sat there for a minute, and moved the mouse around and then looked at me and said, "Gee, I don't know" and then got up and walked away."
Nrama: So as opposed to formal training or education in this, you really built yourself up from the ground level by sheer practice.
Feister: Yeah. I hesistate to say self taught because of the time I spent learning from other people, but at the end of the day it's the time you put in by yourself that gives you your skills.
Nrama: That's interesting that pretty much at the get-go you had walls put in front of you. So how'd you make the leap from your professor ditching you to your next step?
Feister: JD Mettler. My desk was next to JD and I watched him work. JD is a great colorist and he was incredibly generous with his time. Both he and Tony Harris were. I had this idea in my head of doing comics that looked like Edward Hopper paintings. Not so much about line art as they were about flat colors up against each other. Dave McCaig is the guy that had really mastered that. I think he the best around. He too has been very generous with his advice and comments. I've been fortunate to have known some really cool people that were kind enough to share their knowledge with me.
Nrama: Looking back at your career, for those who are looking to work their way up and become a triple-threat like you -- what DON'T they know, that they really should?
Feister: Good question ... How's this? Get into comics because you love it and you think you can bring something to to artform. The last few years I find a new artist nearly every day that makes me think "Ooooo, I want to know how they did that." I feel like I know less. When I was in college and showing off my samples I thought it was pretty hot stuff. Now I look and I think about how much I have left to learn. But that's not a bad thing. Rockwell was experimenting with his craft until he died. That's how I want to go out. I would tell people coming up to find people working in the biz and spend as much time with them as possible. Learn everything you can. Even if it's what not to do. Try and remember those lessons.