Artist's Alley 12: Jamal Igle From Art School to ZATANNA
Jamal Igle, in many ways, is an artist's artist. Not just content to worry about page layout and design, Igle gets into his character's heads, drawing out emotion, personality and style.
And with a career stretching from comics to animation — and icons including Supergirl, Firestorm and most recently, Zatanna — it's clear that Igle is on to something. Just before he heads off to Chicago for this year's C2E2 convention, we caught up with Igle for the twelfth edition of Artist's Alley, where the artist spoke to us about his art school experiences, his technique for comic book composition, and just how character informs design.
Jamal Igle: To be honest, I think it was something I ultimately always wanted to do. I went to the High School of Art and Design in New York, and I was really sort of at a point — I was 14 years old, and I finally realized that you make a living doing comics. Even while I was still doing a little bit of acting on the side, my focus really was about drawing comics.
Nrama: In your experience at your high school, were there any big moments that helped inform you, as far as your art talent?
Igle: Well, I don't know if there was necessarily any "big" moments, per se. I think that ultimately it really was — it was one of those experiences that just the whole bowl of wax is kind of molded together. It was one of those things that it seemed like everything that was happening when I was there was sort of pointing me in the right direction.
Recently, I met Joe Jusko for the first time, because he was an alumni of my school, and we had this thing called the Spring Arts Festival — we still have it now, actually — and this was when Joe was steadily doing covers over at Marvel, and he had just did that Spider-Man poster that he did back in the '80s, the one where he's taking his shirt off. So the first time I met Joe, we had this hour-long conversation just about anatomy. [.]
And at the same time, I had all these opportunities, especially when I was working at DC, where I was meeting guys like Mark Badger — it was where I met Kyle Baker for the first time — Keith Giffen became a really good friend of mine. I was working with Andy Helfer and Kevin Dooley — I basically spent my afternoons hanging out in their offices while they were editing Justice League.
Igle: Well, I think it was the opportunity to see the process getting broken down. Because the way that Keith — whenever Keith is plotting, when he's plotting a story for himself, he literally never writes a word full-script. What he'll do is break down the story visually, and then he will give it to another artist to draw from. So the storytelling is there. I would look at these things, he would show me what he was doing, he would show me character direction, how to set up patterns in the pages, how to create beats, all this really great stuff.
And the same thing, being able not just with Keith, but sitting in and listening to Mike Mignola talking about comics and meeting Kevin Maguire and meeting Curt Swan and Art Nichols, and hanging out while all of these guys that I loved, basically sitting for awhile at Michael Eury's feet when he was still an editor at DC — it was probably in terms of comics, it was the most well-rounded education that I could possibly ask, as far as the face-time I got while I was working there.
Igle: [.] Oh man. Well. I think about it, and it wasn't big moments — it was all these little things. Like the first time I met Kevin Maguire was at a convention. And he was sitting there, it was him and it was Keith, and he was actually finishing one of the last pages of his Justice League run — I think it was the annual, where they're recruiting for Justice League Europe, and there's this one page where he's drawing all these faces, and there's all these Polaroids that they're looking at some of the members of Justice League Europe were going to be. And he was at a convention, drawing up this page, and I'm just standing there watching him. Just — he was doing these amazing expressions, just coming out of his head. No reference, just beautifully drawn faces. He was just sitting there, working all these things out. I was just… awed. I'm still awed by the man's technique.
There's all sorts of things. Oh God. Now that I'm thinking about it, all these memories are receding back into my head. Sitting in DC's production department at the time, with guys like Stephen Bove, and Gary Acerno and Bob La Rose, and all these older comic book guys — this was before Photoshop, this was before Illustrator, and any of those other programs. Watching these people letter, and color from guy guides and labeling things and shooting photo stacks, and creating logo type by hand — you don't get that anymore. There are very few people who have that technical skill anymore. So a lot of it was just absorbing all that information — I completely became a sponge. Which is why I can't say there was a "big moment" because there was always all these little things that I was taking in.
Igle: Well… here's the thing — my personal belief is, style is inevitable. Everybody has a style, because you need a signature. If you really look at a lot of artists — and not just cartoonists, but illustrators and designers and fine artists — you tend to see is what happens it their style is established very early on, but it becomes refined over time. You very rarely get very radical departures unless it's something that the artist is trying to force on themselves, that they're trying to force this radically different direction.
For me, I tend to think I am a result of the people whose work that I love, and the stuff I was influenced by, and that tended to seep into my work. I'm sort of an amalgamation of all the comic book guys and illustrators that I loved when I was younger, and it just sort of melded together. I was a fan of Dave Stevens — I still am — I was the fan of Steve Rude, Brian Bolland, Boris Vallejo, Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent — the list is huge. When I was younger, when I was in school, I was always drawn to those cleaner styles. That definitely influenced me more than anything else, and I gravitated toward those styles.
Nrama: The other thing that goes hand-in-hand with style is process. You've got the blank page in front of you, you've got the script — now can you walk us through where you go from there in attacking a page?
I tend to be very methodical when I'm drawing. I usually read the script three or four times, to get a feeling for it, and I do what I like to think of as a "dress run" — I'll thumbnail an entire issue in one shot, just spend a couple of hours sitting down and just laying down everything so that I have a map for where I'm going. And the thumbnails are very quick — they're like 2 x 3, not big at all — and then once I have that worked out, then I will send those to the editor, whatever editor I'm working with. Sometimes they'll make suggestions, other times they won't.
When I first started working professionally, I used to start by drawing the layout at 11 x 17. [.] I got it down to 8 x 11, and then I cut it down to 4 x 7. I'm constantly trying to figure out how to get the layouts smaller, and to work out all the stuff that I need to work out.
Nrama: And you're going traditional pencils as opposed to digital.
Igle: Right, right, right. I keep thinking about making the jump to digital, but I really haven't made that step. I don't know — I like the feel of dragging a pencil across a sheet of paper. I like that tactile feel. Although I'm fully capable of doing digital work — I've got the set-up, I've got up-to-date equipment, I've got a Wacom tablet that I do a little bit of coloring with, a little bit of production work. All I'd have to do is buy a Cintiq and I'd be able to rock and roll with the best of them.
Nrama: Well, as far as traditional pencils go, what kind are you using right now?
Igle: I use a light blue pencil to do all the lightboxing, to block everything in. I go in after that with an HD pencil. If I'm inking, it's a combination of brush, Japanese sumi in. I'll use, for straight lines, fabric BIC pens or Copic markers. That's if I am inking myself — usually I'm just penciling, I only really get to ink myself on commissions and covers here and there.
Nrama: I know you were talking about shrinking down the layouts and really trying to streamline the process as much as possible for you. After that, what's next?
Igle: Well … because it's a speed issue more than anything else — like, I'd love to be doing some more covers, I really love doing covers — I'm trying to teach myself to color on Photoshop, also. But because of my schedule, it's very hard, unless you’re doing something that you're getting paid for, it's hard to squeeze that time in. Especially now — I'm married, I've got a 2-year-old — outside of my regular responsibilities, I've pretty much got just my weekends to myself, and then I'm a husband and father.
Nrama: You were talking about earlier that you read the scripts three or four times. For you, what are the things you're searching for in this script, to bring you images that will resonate?
Igle: The first thing that I'm really looking for is the character. Like, what is the motivation of the characters? How is the scene being set up? What's the mood? What characters need to interact with your lead? If it's an established character, especially if it's a new project, it's a lot about trying to get into that character's head, and figuring out how they move, how they react, and in some cases, how they speak. Does this character lift their hands when they talk? Are they stoic? Are they sullen? Are they sad?
I always start with the character first, and then I build each scene around the character. Then once they get to the point where we're at the actual scene, it becomes a combination of trying to find the right mood, and also trying to find the right reference to try to fit that scene. It's character first, then the scene, then I start to think about the actual storytelling. I start to think about how the page should be set up. Are there any beats in this script that has to be followed? Is there something specific that the writer is asking for, that I need to be sure is in there?
Nrama: As far as reference goes, how are you going about getting that? Is it a matter of going out and taking photos of specific gestures to get the right gestures and expressions? What are you looking for as far as that goes?
Igle: A lot of reference that I'll shoot is physical reference, for a location or a particular kind of car, if I can't find it on the Internet and if I can't find it one of the books I have in my library. When it comes to characters, I have a really good memory — and when it comes to people, I tend to think of my training as an actor, so I've become a pretty good judge of body language. I always look at people, and try to figure out how that person is, based on their body language. I try to incorporate that into whatever it is that I'm doing.
Nrama: With body language, do you think it's emotion, then gesture, or the other way around?
Nrama: Talking about your acting background a bit, and your background in animation, could you tell us a little bit about your experiences in these fields? What kinds of things did these industries teach you to look out for?
Igle: The big thing about acting that I was taught was that you have to take, whenever you're playing a character, you have to find a trigger for whatever emotion that you want to bring forth. The deeper that you face and the more experiences you can draw from as a person, that's what makes you a more effective actor. If you find something within yourself — a real experience, not "I'm going to be sad" — because you can always tell when somebody is making up the emotion they've never actually experienced, or trying to fill a scene with an emotion they've never had any actual experience with.
One of the stories that I've told before was when we were doing Supergirl #36, there's a scene with the death of Zor-El. I actually used, emotionally, that I had a friend who was murdered by someone that we both knew. I ended up waiting with his body for several hours until the coroner came and picked him up. When you sit there and listen to strangers talk about your best friend, trying to grasp for whatever reason — "he's a 17-year-old kid, he must have been dealing drugs," or whatever — you're sitting there and listening, and all you want to do is scream at them, "no, you stupid motherfuckers, you have no idea what you're talking about!" And I was able to draw on that — and I think it made the scene work, and I was able to get all that emotion out on the page. It also made it a very difficult scene for me to draw, because I was drawing all that up again.
Nrama: Wow — that's pretty incredible. You know, you were discussing earlier about body language, and setting up a scene. I know you've got plenty more to take into consideration as well, particularly lighting and mood. Can you tell us a bit about how you build up a scene using these other tools?
Nrama: I have totally never heard of that before. [.] "The Potato Sack." That is totally awesome.
Igle: Chuck Jones started it, I think. When I was working at Sony, there used to be a Simpsons style guide that every animator I knew was trying to get a copy of, and it was in there as well. [.]
Igle: Oh, absolutely. I like to call my time working at Sony as "Storytelling Boot Camp." It was the easiest job that I probably ever had as an artist, but it was the most complicated at the same time. I was basically working on these shows — I didn't have to work on finished art, but what I was doing is we'd be drawing all our boards using 2 x 2 Post-It notes. So you would have to draw 15 pages of boards a day at the time. So I'd be drawing 15 pages of boards a day, handing them to the art director, and the director would just wipe away an entire scene and tell me to start over. So you'd learn the expediency of being able to think on the fly and come up with new ideas on how to tell the same scene, because sometimes you were limited by the budget of the show and what the animators were able to do.
Igle: The key thing was, one of the things that it taught me was character direction. Basically the idea behind character direction is, you know that comic book storytelling is supposed to move in a Z-formation, right? So character direction, the idea is, your lead character leads the reader through the story. Your lead character is always moving from the left-hand side of the page to the right-hand side of the page, and the last panel of that page to the first panel of the page that follows it.
So the entire time, you're actually moving your character through the story, and moving the reader along through the story with the character, and every other character that comes into contact with your lead character, as he's moving to the right-hand side of the story, is actually coming from the right-hand side to the left-hand side. That automatically, subconsciously creates a sense of tension. It doesn't really matter whether the tension is arguing or talking or fighting with your lead, as long as your lead is always leading readers off to the end of your story.
Nrama: The other thing I was going to ask about the jump from animation to comics — character design. Character design in animation is important, because you've got to balance between being iconic and being easy to animate. When you’re looking at comics and design, what are some of the things you take into consideration to make a character stand out visually?
Igle: Usually, I always start from a place of believability. If I'm redesigning a character or designing a character I like to think in terms of whether or not if I were to transfer the character to a live person, would it be plausible? For example, when I redesigned Firestorm, the idea was to make the costume a functional costume, one that could be taken off in pieces. Now even though he transforms into Firestorm he merges with somebody else, the idea in my head was that he'd be able to take the gauntlets off, he'd be able to take the boots off, he'd be able to take the helmet off if he needed to, and still be able to stay in costume.
I was thinking about that idea, and it was the same thing when I redesigned Vigilante, which was a story looking into actual military hardware, to see what I could incorporate into the costume. Or theoretical stuff from the time, like artificial spider silk. Spider silk, ceramic plates, ballistic gel housings, stuff like that. I start with whether or not this could be plausible. It really depends on the character.
If I'm creating a character that's supposed to be alien, magical or whatever, I tend to think of things like synergy — I tend to think about what would serve the character best. You look at the idea behind the character, you figure out what that character is supposed to be. If the writer's able to give me a general description of who that character is supposed to be, personality-wise, that always helps guide me in terms of design, as well.
Nrama: Do you have any examples in mind of when you've really dug into what a character's been really about? And when you're talking about what they're "about," are you talking personality, high concept, their greater place in the comics industry?
Igle: It's more about who the character is, personality-wise. You always have to build from the personality of the character — you can't even think about the high concept stuff. For me, the high concept isn't as important because you can have a character with a great concept, but it can still be a flat character. You have to give it a lot more thought about who this character is as a person, or as a being, what is their motivation? If they're after something, what is it they're after? What drives them? You have to think about that first. That sort of forms your ideas more than anything else. Or at least it forms my ideas more than anything else, because I'm always thinking about characters first.
Igle: Well, with Supergirl, the thing about Kara is, Kara, to me, is carrying the weight of being thrust into the family business. She crash-landed on Earth, she was confused, she got into a few fights — she got better, and then suddenly they threw this costume on her and called her "Supergirl." They didn't ask her if she wanted to do that, they just assumed she was going to do it. Ever since then, at first she was trying to ignore it and try to be as normal as she could be in terms of having these powers, to ultimately, when we were working on her, starting to accept that this was what her life was.
While it was kind of thrust on both of these characters, each kind of came at it from different perspectives. With Firestorm, it was thrust upon him, but it started off as more of a power fantasy for him. Because Jason Rusch, when he was introduced, he read comics, he went to conventions — he was a nerd! He was one of us. But he was also coming from an abusive background, so suddenly he had the power to push back.
At first he started to revel in it, and then the Justice League started showing up, and Ronnie came back during my run for a couple of issues, and all that sort of showed him that if you're going to do this, you're going to have to do this the right way, and really take this seriously. So I think, for a very long time, Jason became much more serious than Kara did about it. And he's still very much more, the way they're writing him in Brightest Day, he's the much more serious half of the Firestorm duo. Ronnie's more about trying to get his old life back, and Jason's become much more somber about it.
Nrama: As far as establishing these conflicts, what do you think is the most effective method you've used as far as showing that this character has this specific problem? Is it a matter of expressiveness? Or is this the body language you were mentioning earlier?
Igle: It's a combination. Because comics are such a visual medium, you've got to be able to get across in the story. I mean, there's only so much you can do body language-wise in 22 or 20 pages. So that has to be there — it has to have that energy, you have to have good writing and good art together. You can have good writing and so-so art, but that won't draw the casual comic book readers to a book. You can have great art and bad writing, and that will only carry a book for so long.
Nrama: You mentioned that you've only got so much space in a book, so I'm going to do what I hope will be a service to other writers and artists out there — for you, how much is too much as far as a per-page basis? How many panels do you think you can pack into one page before you think it's losing clarity?
Igle: I think I'm the wrong person to ask that question, because I drew a double-page spread of the French Army fighting three Kryptonians in front of the Eiffel Tower. [.] I, unfortunately, tend to fall into the George Perez and Geoff Darrow school of "everything you can get in, get it in."
Igle: Well, I think it really depends on what you're doing. I think for a superhero book, I think the max should be six panels per page, because you need to have that space visually. But I've done different types of projects, also — I did these two albums for Humanoids years ago, that were printed in France, and the average panel cuts were nine panels per page. That was the average layout — it was between nine and 13 panels per page. And you were still able to squeeze in all the information that you had to, because you weren't worried about having the kinetic energy that you would in a superhero book. So it really depends on the story.
Nrama: You mentioned that you do your own inking with commissions, and you've been flexing your muscles with coloring. I know that coloring can really make or break a book, so how are you looking at color in the context of your pages?
Igle: I think for me, personally, having worked with so many colorists, and having seen so many different techniques over my style, I tend to not like a lot of heavier airbrushing techniques over my work. I like a subtler palette, a smoother palette. There's a lot of colorists out there who aren't painters, so they don't really know how to follow lighting — or if you set up lighting on a page, they tend to ignore it and go in a different direction because they think they know better than what you may have set up. So when I look at color, I tend to look for someone who has good color balance, who's able to do things subtly, and not have a lot of shiny effects hide and obscure things.
Nrama: As far as looking over your career, what do you think is the smartest or riskiest move you've ever done — and what do you think has been your biggest mistake?
Igle: Ooh. [.] I can answer what my biggest mistake probably has been. Very early on in my career, I had a tendency to be very, very stubborn — almost inflexible, actually. I had a little bit of an attitude — I was seeing myself as this comics purist, almost, you know? [.] That didn't win me a lot of friends when I was a kid, because I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was.
I think what really helped in that case was when I went to work at Sony. When I was working with Sony, and then ended up working over at Marvel, I was living in California, I didn't really know anybody, I was miserable. I was working for all this stuff for a company in New York, and I couldn't walk into the office and look at an editor eye to eye. And because artists are the way that they are, I tended to imagine things that were worse in my own head than they actually were in real life. [.]
So when I came back to New York, I was going to pick one artist and model my career after theirs. So I picked Jose Garcia-Lopez. And I said to myself, it's just going to be about the work — it wasn't about being famous, or at the time trying to get into Wizard or get on the top ten of whoever's list, it was about having fun with the work. And hopefully still working — I'm 38 now, and I'd like to still be drawing comics when I'm 68 or 78. I'd like to have the kind of career longevity that he had, or Eisner had, or Kirby, you know?
Nrama: As far as that longevity goes, what do you do to keep honing your skills and keep yourself inspired?
Igle: As far as honing my skills — I think there's only two days out of the week where I'm not drawing, and that's the weekend. And even then, today, I was painting a mural at a high school. [.] So I'm constantly drawing. One of the things I've found that I think kinds of kills the potential that an artist has, especially working in comics, is when they don't look at other people's artwork. I get inspired when I look at other people's stuff — I think, "wow, why am I not doing this?" And that doesn't necessarily mean copying what they're doing, but letting that work sort of soak in and inspire you.
There's other things, too — I look at a lot of movies, I look at a lot of animation. For a while, before my daughter was born, I was taking life-drawing classes — I'm still taking life-drawing classes. When I was teaching, we'd do life drawing in the morning, and comics in the afternoon, so I would draw with the students whenever we had a live model. I'm probably going to try to do that again as soon as my two-year-old daughter stops trying to break out of the house. [.]
Nrama: Finally, to wrap this all up — what do you think that people should know about being an artist in the comics industry, that they just don't?
Igle: I think a lot of people don't really get that it's a lot of work. To be a comic book artist in this industry is not easy. Take it to the point where you can draw a piece or two a day and make it look really, really good, it's a marathon. I could be working up to 16 hours a day for weeks at a time, and that's just the way it is. That's the job.
There's a certain level of technical skill and a certain level of refinement that seems to be required right now, so that takes time. That takes a serious commitment. I don't know a single comic book artist who has time to actually sit down and watch a movie. I took today off, because of a mural painting — it was my first day in weeks and sat down with my wife and watched television. But I've learned to accept that.
I take my free time when I can, and I'm lucky to have a wife who is extremely patient with me, if I do have to stay up till 4 o'clock in the morning trying to get pages done. The thing is, after all this time, I've been in the business for 21 years now, all this stuff is pretty matter-of-fact for me. I love what I do. Sometimes its a job, sometimes its a colossal pain in the ass, but I wouldn't trade it.