2014 has been a whirlwind year for California artist Russell Dauterman; at the beginning of the year he was working on a small independent title, and now he’s drawing of one of biggest titles in the comic book industry: Thor. This recently relaunched title with an all-new Thor has seized upon the artists long-held interest in strong, female characters in fiction, combined with his love for fantasy ranging from He-Man to Game of Thrones. Dauterman, who graduated from Boston College and has a masters from UCLA, has a keen sense of art and has made a name for himself with expressive storytelling, a firm grasp of costume and character design, and his ability to draw action and emphasize it with panelwork and special effects.
With Thor #3 coming on stands December 10, Newsarama talked with Dauterman about what he brings to the table for the mysterious Mjolnir-bearer, his diverse background including children’s books and costume design, and why he’s happy to have a goddess of Thunder for Thor.
Newsarama: This year has been quite a whirlwind for you, Russell. Last December, you were doing Supurbia for Boom! And now you’re drawing a high profile relaunch of Thor. What’s it like for you, two issues in now with a third on its way?
Russell Dauterman: Yeah, this past year has been super crazy! I had an artist alley table at New York Comic Con for the first time about a year ago. I'd just finished Supurbia, really didn't know what the next project was going to be, and was worried about even being able to break into more mainstream superhero work. I put a lot of pressure on that convention. Things clicked at that show, though, and took off from there.
I just did New York Comic Con again this year and was wonderfully overwhelmed by all the Thor love. I've been pretty constantly mind-blown for the past six months, really. I didn't expect to be taken off Cyclops so soon, especially not to be put on something like Thor, but I've been so thrilled to be on this book. Working with Jason Aaron, Matt Wilson, and everyone at Marvel has been fantastic. And the fan support has been incredible.
Nrama: You broke into the industry just over three years ago. How did your expectations for working in comics match up with how it’s played out for you?
Dauterman: My expectations have been all over the place. [laughs]
Initially, I was pretty naive. Once I decided to really pursue comics as a career, I prepared a portfolio for that year's Comic-Con International: San Diego. I got a portfolio review with Marvel and met editor Nick Lowe, who was very encouraging. I think I expected to get hired the next week, which was insane, in hindsight. After that didn't happen, I figured I'd need to put in a lot more work.
I kept trying to get better, kept going to shows, doing reviews, and emailing editors. I would adjust my expectations for breaking in with each response I got and with the more I learned about the industry. Once I got the job at BOOM!, and eventually started doing Valiant covers and the small Nightwing gig, I thought I had figured out more realistic career goals and a trajectory for myself. Then Nick emailed last year -- a few years after that first review -- about doing something at Marvel. I figured it would be a fill-in gig, something similar to what I'd just done on Nightwing, but he had me in mind for the new Cyclops series.
So, basically, I've been wrong most of the time I've tried to assume things about the industry! [Laughs]
Right now I'm just trying to keep improving and to hopefully do good work.
Nrama: You’re drawing Thor at a time where a new Thor is in place here. What’s it like being told – “We want you to do Thor…. But not the Thor you know.”?
Dauterman: I was excited about it! Ever since I was a kid, my favorite characters in comics or movies or television have almost always been the strong, female characters. So getting the chance to draw one who is part of such a big legacy is really exciting and something I'm proud of.
Also, I was a little relieved that the star of this book would be a new Thor... Original Recipe Thor has had an amazing roster of artists drawing him. I'm a huge fan of Jason and Esad Ribic's Thor: God of Thunder. The thought of following up that run with more or less the same status quo would have been incredibly daunting. I'm happy to have the focus mostly be on the Goddess of Thunder.
Nrama: These first few issues have been heavy on the ice giants – what’s it like drawing them in both snow and inside buildings like we saw at the end of Thor #2?
Dauterman: I've been loving the Frost Giants. I've always loved fantasy -- Disney, fairy tales, He-Man, now Game of Thrones -- so getting to draw things like dark elves and the giants is a real treat. And, maybe this is gross, but I've really had a lot of fun drawing their gnarly toenails and crazy ice barnacles.
Jason wanted the Frost Giants in the new series to be pretty massive, so one of the first things I did was to work out their height in relation to Thor. The environments they build themselves, like the ice staircase in #2, fit their size but work to show just how small Thor is in comparison. Once the giants invade Roxxon, they start crowding the space more (although I've still been trying to design rooms that they somewhat fit in, just so the action can stay fluid).
One of my favorite pages from the series so far is the first page of issue #3, which features a big wig Frost Giant, lots of snow, and has a fantasy twist to the layout. Matt has been absolutely killing it on the colors for this book, but his colors on that page are especially awesome. I'm excited for people to see it.
Nrama: In re-readings of the first two Thor issues so far, the hand-lettering for the sound effects really grabbed me – and in a good way. Taking nothing away from the letterer, but what does doing the sound effects – and ingraining them in the art – add for you?
Dauterman: Thanks! I've had a lot of fun with those. I dabbled a couple times with doing the special effects in Supurbia and had been wanting to do more.
Seems like sound effects have been a big fixture of Thor comics for a long time - I love how they're integrated into Walt Simonson's run and more recently in Esad's. Joe Sabino, our letterer, has been doing an awesome job with the book - his lettering for when the giants yell is so great. But, I knew from the start that I wanted to do the effects myself to make them more of an extension of the art.
I hope the integrated effects help emphasize movement and action or serve as graphic design elements. I try to consider the whole page as a single composition - drawing in the special effects myself makes them a part of the layout from the start. Plus, then Matt gets to incorporate them into his color scheme for the page. In issue #2, he did a few effects in these warm oranges and yellows that bounce off the cold blue backgrounds - he really made them pop.
Nrama: I noticed that Jorge Molina is listed as drawing Thor #5, but on your Tumblr you said you’ll be back. What’s your commitment to Thor?
Dauterman: I'm committed for as long as Marvel will have me! Because of the way the scheduling works I can't do every issue, but the plan is for me to do as many as I can. Jorge Molina is drawing #5 and I'll be back after that. Just saw some of Jorge's pencils for that issue and I think it's going to be great - he's awesome.
Nrama: I really enjoyed your character design work in Supurbia – are you getting the chance to do that here in Thor, currently or coming up?
Dauterman: Thank you! Designing the Supurbia cast was really exciting to do, especially with all the different faces and body types and clothing styles. I've gotten to do a bit of design with Thor, but not on that scale so far. Esad did the Thor and Odinson redesigns, which I think look fantastic. I personalized them a little bit, but most of the design work I've been doing has been for the expanded cast, like tweaking the Frost Giants’ look.
I did give Freyja an overhaul - tried to add a distinctive silhouette with her headdress and shoulder pads. And then the giant hair puts her at an equal height to Odin. I also got to update Malektih's design, which is really just a more modern take on the Simonson look. That silhouette he designed with the Roman-style skirt and big hair is so great. I kept that but tried to modernize the details with an elf-ish flare to the armor and piping, shorter sleeves, and a tweaked color scheme. And I've been playing up the hair. I really like hair. [laughs]
My favorite design bit I've done so far, though, has been Malekith's Odinson-arm-boa, for sure.
Nrama: It’s a fashion statement.
In addition to Thor and your other comic book work, you have also done several children’s books – both for others and one you wrote yourself, Terry, The Awkward Turtle. Can you tell us about this side of your work, and your thoughts on doing it in balance with your superhero comic book work?
Dauterman: Yeah, I wrote and illustrated Terry during my senior year of college. He's a turtle who was born with his shell on his stomach instead of his back, and is shy and alienated because of that. I really enjoyed doing it - condensing the story into a handful of single images is a fun challenge, and I like how loose and free you can be with the rendering style.
I kept going back and forth between different types of art careers while at school. Wasn't sure which would be the most feasible. I started out doing comics stuff and even interned at Marvel, but ended up studying costume design in grad school and continuing to do children's books during that.
Everything really kept coming back to comics for me, though. And I realized that all the storytelling work in children's books and the character analysis in costume design went hand-in-hand with comic book making. Comics feels like the best mix of all the sorts of art I like to do.
Nrama: Do you have plans to do more children’s books in the future?
Dauterman: No plans right now, but I do like the medium and think it would be cool to do more of that sort of work down the line.
Nrama: You also for a post-grad at UCLA created an illustrated history of costume. As a costume connoisseur, that sounds fascinating – can you tell us about that, and how doing that effects you now when you’re working in comics full time?
Dauterman: That project was my thesis for grad school and what I spent most of my time on while I was at UCLA. I illustrated what men and women looked like and wore in the western world from the Stone Age up through the 1990s. I was researching clothing, hairstyles, general body types and faces across different social classes, and was learning about the reasoning behind those clothing choices.
That project was really helpful in terms of getting familiar with clothes and how fabric works. And, it gave me a new framework to think about character design and the choices behind clothes that I think about now when doing comics. Plus, I have it as a guide that I use for reference. On the drawing side, it had me drawing every day, drawing different types of people and all sorts of clothing. After doing all that I felt like my drawing had come a long way. I still had a ways to go, though! [laughs] But, it definitely helped.
Nrama: Are there any plans to publish this?
Dauterman: For a couple years, UCLA published a working version of the book as a course companion for their costume history course. Not sure if they still are. I'd love to publish it for real at some point. Although, looking back on it now, I'd want to re-draw everything first!