Artist's Alley 14: The Herculean Art of REILLY BROWN
Deadpool. Hercules. Spider-Man. Reilly Brown knows what makes these comic book class clowns work, and now he's going to share the secrets of his success with you.
Formerly an intern for Marvel Comics – he'll get to that in a minute – Brown has worked his way up as an artist for the House of Ideas, recently completing a two-part story with Christos Gage on Amazing Spider-Man, where the Webslinger acted as substitute teacher for the students of the Avengers Academy.
But what makes Reilly Brown tick? What are the challenges he's overcome to get where he's at today? For the latest edition of Artist's Alley, we sat down with Brown to talk about his process, his approach to design, and how new creators should tackle the hurdles of making a name for themselves.
Reilly Brown: You know, I don't know -- I just really liked drawing comics. I can always remember telling stories with pictures. That was the main thing. I guess when I was little, I was more into the newspaper comics, or the cartoons on TV, but neither of those seemed to be exactly what I wanted to do. When I was a little older, around 13 or so, I was getting into X-Men and Spider-Man, all the Marvel stuff. When I saw a Marvel comic, I was like, "okay, this is exactly what I want." Like, the cool robots and dinosaurs and monsters and mutants and all that stuff. I was like, "that's what I want to draw." So from there, that ended up being the goal.
Nrama: Where there any sort of big challenges that you had to face before you felt your work was really ready for prime-time?
Brown: Honestly, yeah. Even now it's hard to say my work is really ready for prime-time. Everything I've put out there -- every time I read one of my comics I think, "ooh, I wish I could go back in and correct that one thing," or, "I wish I could redraw this panel here!" I feel like I'm always improving, trying to make my work look better. It was more a matter of, was anyone willing to publish it or not? (Laughs)
Nrama: What was the thing you struggled with the most?
Brown: That's something that kind of comes and goes -- certain things I'll focus on more, but early on it was a real focus on anatomy and stuff like that, making sure that I knew how the human body functioned and how to draw it so it looks believable. And then it was more about perspective and learning the anatomy of an environment -- how does the perspective work, what kind of props and stuff do I want to put into a background to help tell the story. Now I think I'm focusing more on composition -- how to get the most energy out of composition, both on a panel and on a page, the best way to tell a story and move the eye from one panel to the next.
Brown: Practice -- it was just trial and error. A lot of error. (Laughs) I went to art school -- I went to VCU. Go Rams! And studied art there, learned anatomy -- a lot of figure drawing, stuff like that. That's what you do when you're going to schools like that, you learn the basics. I still have my anatomy books that I always turn to, and perspective is a whole other thing -- that's a pretty complex thing. I usually try to keep the two-point perspective, sometimes I'll throw in a three-point. I've never even touched curvilinear perspective or anything crazy like that -- maybe one day I'll try that.
Nrama: In terms of influences, were there any teachers, artists or media that you felt really informed your style?
Brown: Hm. That's a pretty good question. I was a huge Jim Lee fan in middle school and high school -- we'd buy Jim Lee comics, and I'd copy all of my favorite drawings from that. Especially his X-Men stuff. And I was a big fan of video game art -- especially Mega Man and Super Mario, which is like the total opposite of the spectrum than what was in the comics, it was really cartoony. I really loved that stuff, so I would take a lot of my video game instruction manuals and copy the art. So I think that my style still kind of falls between that -- I have the dramatic action, and things like that -- like people like Neal Adams and John Byrne. But then I also have the kind of expressive, cartoony Mega Man kind of thing that I try to put in there. Something about the characterization and the personalities of the characters. That's what I like to focus on.
Nrama: I understand that you once interned at Marvel? How did that end up affecting your career?
Brown: …Not very much. When I was there, I really wasn't proactive enough as far as like trying to meet editors -- I was just in the Bullpen, so I was with the Production crew. I did not do enough to promote myself to the people who might potentially hire me. By the time I moved in, I didn't understand how networking worked. It wasn't until right after Marvel hired me to start drawing for them, that's when I said, "oh yeah, I know guys who work there, I used to intern for them." They said, "what, really?" (Laughs) I said, "oh yeah, we met when I was an intern!" I don't know if they remembered me. But once you put it out there, people have to nod their heads and pretend that they remember you. (Laughs)
Nrama: As far as the here and now, for all the true process nerds out there, what tools do you use, and what made you pick these tools specifically?
Brown: I primarily use mechanical pencils -- I used to use the regular wooden pencils, but that changed pretty early on because the mechanical pencils usually have a rubber grip on them, and after drawing for so many hours, and I tend to grip the pencil pretty tight, I actually kind of messed up my hands for a few months. I gave myself some kind of nerve damage or something -- I was actually worried that I had permanently messed up my hand. So I had to start learning how to hold a pencil in weird ways. I recovered, but I realized that the wood was too hard on my hands, so I moved to mechanical pencils.
There are two pencils I use primarily -- 0.5mm with a 6H lead, and that's what I use for layouts and for like the initial rough drawing. I like to have my drawings really light, so I don't have to erase that later. Then I go back over that with a Pentel 0.3mm with a darker lead, usually HB and F4 or 2H -- depends on the weather, really, because humidity can affect how the graphic sticks to the paper. That's what I do primarily for drawing.
Nrama: When you've got a script in your hands and a blank page in front of you, what's your next step?
Brown: First thing I do is I usually print out the script and in the margins, as I'm reading, I'll make a few quick sketches, just my first impression of what I'm visualizing in each panel. Then, from there -- this is a new step I've put in, because I find it usually saves time -- I use Photoshop and draw a quick rough sketch of the page, to figure out the layout and the composition of where the panels are. I started doing that recently, because I realized how much time I spent just drawing and erasing on a page just to move something an inch, or to make them bigger or smaller or whatever to make it fit. So I said, "I could do this a lot faster in Photoshop."
So I do the layout in Photoshop, I print that out, and then I trace the basic layout onto a sheet of paper, and then I go from there. The first thing I'll do is take the 6H pencil and trace the layout, and then kind of just go back in and tighten up the anatomy, start figuring out the perspective, and try to figure out what else I want in the panel. Once I feel like I have a foundation that's really strong, I will take my HB pencil and go in and tighten it up further, pick out which lines I want to keep, erase the ones I don't, add more detail, shadows, so it looks like a finished page.
Nrama: Talking about the layout of the page, how do you go about breaking the story down on a panel-to-panel basis? What do you find your upper limit is as far as how many panels you feel comfortable putting on one page before you think that it's getting too cluttered?
Brown: That is something -- I don't know, it's kind of weird, more panels on a page doesn't necessarily mean that it's more work. A lot of times in a script they'll have a bunch of things happening at once in one panel -- I'll actually break it into two or three panels myself. It's just easier for me. Depending on what the relationship between the different characters and objects are in the panel, it sometimes can be easier to say, "okay, instead of having Finesse looking at Spider-Man and they're both making some sort of gesture or facial expression, and then we have to see a poster on the wall." It would be easier to have one picture of Finesse, one picture of Spider-Man, and then a picture of the poster on the wall. When I script my own stuff, I end up putting on more panels on a page than what writers usually put in.
Nrama: That's really interesting -- so for you, you don't particularly have a set limit where you say, "enough's enough"?
Brown: I usually stick to what the writer has in the script. If it's difficult, I just see that as a challenge that I try to undertake. The main thing on each page is I try to have at least at least one focal point -- what is the main action on the page, to kind of focus on that. The money shot, I suppose. And I work on the rest of the panels around that one. As long as every page has one particular moment that is especially cool to collaborate on, I'll tend to focus on that. That's all that I really need.
The problem comes from when there's a whole lot of panels that are of equal importance or have a whole lot of details that are important to them -- that can be a bit of struggle. How am I going to fit all this stuff? The foreground, the background, there's all this dialogue over here, but at the same time, I've got to create this panel over here that has a lot of impact. That can be a challenge.
Nrama: Jumping off of that, when you're looking through a script, what are some of the things that you're looking for as far as finding these really striking images?
Brown: It's usually whichever panel has the most impact -- whether that's a physical, action-oriented impact or an emotional impact. Sometimes the money shot is a close-up of somebody's face as they come to some kind of realization or something like that. Sometimes it'll be a guy as he gets hit in the face by his arch-enemy, or somebody getting surprised by somebody. You want to surprise the reader as much as you want to surprise the character.
Nrama: As far as character design goes, what you taking into consideration there? What do you think draws in a reader as far as design is concerned?
Brown: When a character already has a distinct design, I actually try to keep it as close to the original character design as possible -- just sort of tweak it in whatever way that fits my style and the way I want to draw it. Especially if it's something corny -- I try to keep all the corniness of it, but try to also make it look cool, or at least makes it fit, which is kind of cool sometimes.
Like on Hercules, he wears this goofy -- I don't know what it is. It's not a crown, and it's not a helmet, because it doesn't go over the top of his head, but you know what I'm saying? It's some sort of headband. Different people draw it in different ways -- I've tried to make it look more like a wrestler's headgear, like a padded type of thing. To me, that's what made the most sense and fit my drawing style.
When I'm coming up with a new character design, I think about a lot of things -- I think about the character's personality, and I think about how they've been depicted previously. If they have a color design that's been used previously, I try to incorporate it there, too. I try to think about how it'll fit within the story I'm telling.
For example, with Amadeus Cho, when we redesigned him for Prince of Power, the storyline was he went from slacker kid to being in charge of a multibillion-dollar corporation. So we put him in a suit, but we didn't want him to be too business-y -- we still wanted him to be this bratty teenager. So his shirt's untucked, his tie's not that tight around his neck. He's trying to look like he really doesn't care, he's trying to be cool, like a teenager.
Nrama: When you're looking at a character's personality, how does that end up affecting the design? You mentioned Amadeus's look, and I was curious if there were other means where you can convey personality across visually.
Brown: I think about people that I know, and what they wear. If I think that a certain character that I'm drawing would get along with a certain friend of mine -- or not get along with them -- I think about the way they dress. Obviously none of my friends dress like superheroes, but assuming they did, what kind of costume do they think would look good? Would they try to be edgy, would they try to be more traditional?
And with female characters, a lot of times you want to make them look sexy, but there's a lot of different kinds of sexy -- what one girl would wear, another girl would definitely not wear. She doesn't want to show off too much skin, she'd get embarrassed, whereas another girl would say that's being frumpy, so they'd dress a little bit more flashy, show off a little bit more. Things like that. I take a character's personality into mind when I design a costume for them -- I want to make it something that they would wear. You should be able to tell about a character's personality by the clothes that they're wearing, I guess.
Nrama: As far as the acting goes and this moment-to-moment expressiveness, how do you approach trying to get the right facial expressions for the right beat?
Brown: I look at a mirror. (Laughs) I have a mirror next to my desk, so I'll read the script and actually act it out. How would I react if that happened to me? And I'll just make faces in the mirror, and then I'll draw it from there.
Nrama: As far as adding your own spin to things, there's obviously what's been put in the script, but there's a lot of room for you to add things, as well. I was just curious -- when you're trying to sort of bring in your contributions to the story, what are the sorts of things you're trying to add in?
Brown: When I'm interpreting the script and trying to put my spin on things, one of the things I try to do is I try to make it I guess -- well, I think I'm unique in some ways. I don't think any two artists could give you the exact same story from the exact same script -- I try to put my own impression on things so that when the story's drawn by me, it has something that I've contributed that another artist might not have thought of.
A lot of times in the action scenes, I'll try to come up with some distinctive ways that a character would do a move -- like Street Fighter and those type of games, each character has a distinct set of moves. If I can, I'll try to add on a little bit of an extra spin to how characters will draw things. Like Spider-Man, anytime I can draw him upside-down, that's the right move for Spider-Man to be doing, because it shows how dynamic he is -- you can tell that in the middle of a flip. Hercules was much more running straightforward at things. You just have to go with the character's personality -- Deadpool has a lot of jumping, but not upside-down like Spider-Man.
Nrama: You mentioned it earlier, but you talked about working on backgrounds in addition to the character work. Can you tell us how you end up deciding to background, or not to background?
Brown: That's something I'm still kind of working with, to find that balance. Sometimes I'll go all-out and draw a full background because I don't know how else to do it -- I'll have this extra space, and I'll think, "there's got to be something to go in here." So do I draw a full background, do I draw a little bit in there and have it fade out? I usually start off with that in mind, and it doesn't look complete enough to me, so I'll draw in the whole thing. Sometimes I'll put in too much detail, so it ends up crowding out the whole page, so I'll have to start erasing things. That's something I'm still working out myself.
Nrama: People talk about visual storytelling, but it seems like that comes across as a bit of a catch-call phrase. For you, what does visual storytelling mean, and how do you implement that for your work?
Brown: It's kind of hard to break it down to simpler terms. You're basically telling a story with pictures, and getting from one picture to another in a way that makes sense and doesn't leave people scratching their heads. So they understand how you've gotten from Point A to Point B. That's the gist of it. How do you get from one scene to the next?
Nrama: What do you think is the smartest risk you've taken as an artist, and what do you think has been your biggest mistake?
Brown Hm. The smartest risk I ever took. Honestly, I'll be able to answer both of those questions in about six months, because I'm about to take some time off from Marvel for a creator-owned project. We'll see if that risk pays off or not -- it might be the smartest thing I ever do, it might be my biggest mistake, I don't know! (Laughs)
In the meantime, the smartest risk I ever took was -- well, two things. Really early in my illustration career, before I started working at Marvel, the smartest thing I did was after college, I moved back to my parents' place for three years and just waited tables and saved up funds. Everyone talks about the starving artist -- a lot of my friends moved out into the city and moved into these apartments that they had a hard time paying rent for, so they'd just take whatever first job that they could, working retail or whatever. When they did that, they just didn't have enough time to work on their artwork, and whatever job they got, they got a promotion, and they just couldn't -- they stopped having the time to work on their portfolio, to go out and meet people. They kind of fall out of art that way.
So I just saved the money -- I'm generally pretty thrifty anyway, so I wouldn't be buying extreme TV or expensive video games of whatever. And once I felt like I had a decent amount, I moved up -- I live in New Jersey now, but I moved up to the tri-state area of New York, for publishing. That's where the art scene is. Because I had that little cushion of money, I was never desperate to take the first job that came by -- I could pick my jobs a little bit better.
The biggest mistake I made was also early in my career -- some of the projects I picked to work on, I didn't pick that well. When you're first starting out, you don't really know what a good deal sounds like and what a bad deal sounds like. So early on in my career, I attached myself to a couple of projects that were a little overly ambitious. And when you're starting, you don't have a track record, nobody knows anything about you, so we did a couple of stories that we put together -- we couldn't find a publisher, and then the decision was "okay, the pitch didn't work."
At that point you should just quit, and try to put together another pitch for the publisher. But you work on something for a certain amount of time, you get kind of attached to it, and you want to just finish it. "Oh, it's just 40 more pages, and then it'll be done and we can do whatever we want with it." Well, looking back at it, 40 pages is an awful lot when you're just starting out. And no one wanted to publish it anyway. So the pitches that nobody picked up turned into projects that never got finished, so it was kind of a waste of time. I should have just focused my energy. I also did things because I thought they would be a good opportunity more than I thought it would be a good story. I should have done something that I was really excited about, and was more along the lines of something I wanted to do -- it would have been a better portfolio piece, at least.
Nrama: Since you mentioned you were going to be diving into creator-owned work, do you feel there's a different mindset at play than when you're doing work-for-hire?
Brown: It's a big difference -- like the mindset is much different. One of the things is that all the characters and stories and stuff, I own them, and I can do anything I want with them. If I want to make a poster and print it somewhere or whatever, I don't have to ask permission from an editor or anything like that. I can actually speak for the characters or whatever -- it's just freedom. I can do whatever I want with these characters and not have Mommy and Daddy looking over my shoulder to say what's okay to do or not to do.
Also, it's a different mindset as far as money and stuff like that -- essentially, I'm hiring myself. There's no other source of money until it actually gets out there and sells itself on its own. That's kind of scary, but it's also a motivating factor, because I know I don't have an editor calling me up when I'm getting behind on deadline -- but I do have the landlord, who needs his rent every month. That's the new deadline to make sure I get things done, and still have money come in.
Nrama: For people who do want to break into the industry as artists, what do you think they need to know about the job that they just don't?
Brown: That's a good question. I'd say the business side of things in general -- a lot of young artists don't know much about that, and that's understandable. When you're just starting out, you've got to focus a lot on your skill and your ability -- you don't have much time to learn the business side of things. Just the amount of work you're going to have to do is crazy. The way you're working on portfolio stuff, you can spend a week on a page, just to get it perfect. When you're working on deadline, you've got to get that page out, you've got to get a comic out by the end of the month -- you can't spend a week working on that page! (Laughs) You really have to pick up the pace and keep up the quality at the same time.
Another thing that people probably don't realize is how much time you are alone -- most artists work from like a studio in their own house or something like that. They don't have a whole lot of interaction with a whole lot of people. That's something that will drive you crazy after awhile. Right now I'm sharing a studio with a bunch of other artists in Brooklyn, and that makes a big difference -- just being able to get out and talk to other artists and see what they're doing. And there's a lot of opportunities there, too -- if somebody's too busy for a job, they can pass it on. So there's a social component that you don't have -- you kind of have to build it yourself.
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