One of the surprising new books from DC Entertainment is Gotham Academy — unique because of its spooky school-based setting, but also because of its amazingly detailed artwork by Karl Kerschl.
Written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher, Gotham Academy has an art style that penciler Kerschl originally developed with his studio-mate Serge LaPointe and the now deceased French artist Stephane Peru. It mimics the anime Kerschl grew up with, pairing flatly colored characters with richly painted backgrounds.
Despite the time and energy required for this artistic approach on Gotham Academy, Kerschl and his creative team have been keeping to a monthly schedule — although the deadlines haven't been without their struggles.
With Gotham Academy #4 coming out this week, Newsarama talked to Kerschl to find out more about how the unique look comes together.
Newsarama: Karl, I know you've been developing the look we're seeing in Gotham Academy for awhile now. Can you share how you developed this style?
Karl Kerschl: Yeah, well, it goes pretty far back. I grew up watching a lot of anime and a lot of cartoons, like most people do, but I was always really inspired by Japanese anime. And I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to replicate that style, spending hours and hours drawing those characters and trying to understand what the process was — really, what the animation process was, because I think what appealed to me was the layered cel art on top of painted backgrounds. I just liked the way that flatly colored characters moved across painted landscapes.
And so as I slowly learned what the process as, I started trying to incorporate it into comic book art.
There were a few road blocks, one of which was that I was not a colorist, and the second of which was, I didn't really know anyone who could do that kind of work, who could paint backgrounds, especially on a monthly comic schedule.
So around 2004 or 2005, I joined a studio in Montreal with my friend Serge LaPointe, and met a guy named Stephane Peru, who had moved here from France. He could paint like this, and fairly quickly. So I got offered the job of doing a fill-in on an issue of The Flash, and I took that opportunity, in that studio environment, to try to pull off a style like that. And we did a whole issue with him painting the backgrounds. Serge was inking my characters, and Steph was painting over my penciled backgrounds, which I left kind of looser, with implied shadows and shading to indicate what I wanted, but leaving enough room for him to interpret and paint over.
So he would paint those backgrounds and then color Serge's inked characters in a flatter style.
We got what was, for me, the first approximation of the kind of style I'd been looking for since I was a kid. The same team went on to do some more work on The Flash, and then Teen Titans: Year One.
That was the project where we really refined the style. But tragically, Steph passed away partway through that project. And none of us really knew how to proceed or what to do.
It's not until now, working on Gotham Academy, that we've tried to pull this off again.
Nrama: It looks like it would take longer than the usual monthly schedule.
Kerschl: No, it's quite a job. It doesn't really lend itself to a monthly comic schedule.
Nrama: There've been a few colors involved. Romain Gashet and some other people?
Kerschl: Yeah, when we were working on Teen Titans: Year One, Stephane needed some help, so he brought in a guy he knew from France named Romain Gashet. And I've worked with him a couple times on really small things since then, but when we were starting Gotham Academy, and we knew we wanted to go for a style like this again, I emailed him and asked him if he'd be up for coming on as our full-time colorist, and to my surprise, he said yes. I was surprised partly because I know he works in video game design and development in France, and he also works on his own comics, on a much different schedule than we do here. But he came on board to do the colors on Gotham Academy.
There are other colorists credited, and the reason for that is because the backgrounds take so long to do. After an issue, we quickly ran into deadline problems.
I could give you a rundown of the entire roster of colorists we have now, but all those names are, like… we're kind of going through colorists the way Spinal Tap goes through drummers. It's a really demanding job and we keep having to scramble to find people who can do that kind of work on a schedule that we need.
Nrama: So you've refined this process, but do your pencils get inked anymore?
Kerschl: I no longer have an inker. Serge is still credited on the book, but now he's credited as a colorist. I'm drawing the pages entirely. I ink myself on the characters, and I still do my own penciled backgrounds. And then what happens is I give those pages to, well, first Romain and then now, Michele Assarasakron [credited as "MSSASYK"].
She paints all the backgrounds digitally, and then uploads the files again. And then Serge does all the character colors, in a flat coloring style, because we share a studio still, so he can just show me stuff directly and we can go over any changes I might need or ideas we might have, right there in the studio.
So yeah, there have been a bunch of different people on it, like John Rauch, and Dave McCaig was doing the character colors for a couple issues. Romain did most of issue #2, and I think he did eight pages of issue #3, and it just burned him out. I think it burns out most people.
Gotham Academy looks, stylistically, in terms of the background painting we're doing, looks like a French graphic album. And those albums typically are about 46 pages long and come out once a year. So asking them to do 20 pages of that every month is kind of demanding. It was something we knew was folly at the outset, but for whatever reason, we thought we could pull it off.
I'm extremely proud of Gotham Academy. I'm thrilled with what we've done so far. I just don't know how sustainable it is.
Nrama: You mentioned that you do the pencils on the backgrounds. How does that work on some of these pages that are so heavily painted? For example, in issue #3, you had a beautiful scene where the characters are sitting by the water. Is that all left to the background artist? Or are you drawing where and how you want them to color?
Kerschl: In that case, I drew a feel of water, and then indications of where the reflections would be. And the panel borders were also reflection-types shapes.
But the actual coloring of the water, I left…. I mean, I'll make color notes on the pages, but it's mostly left up to whatever the colorist wants to do. I'll give notes about what time of day it is, what kind of light it might be.
And in that case, I mentioned that, maybe rather than have true reflections, we would just use graphic shapes, like negative white shapes or black shapes to just give the impressions of reflections in the water.
But no, that was all them. And the interesting thing about that page was, wow, I guess you guys never saw… but because we were sort of testing colorists at the time, I've got three different versions of that page from three different colorists. And they're all different. And they're all really beautiful. And Romain's is, I believe, the one we went with.
Nrama: Are your pencils all done digitally?
Kerschl: Yeah, all digitally. I'm using a Wacom Cintiq tablet for everything. And I'm using a program called Manga Studio, which has very traditional tools. It has digital tools, obviously, but they come very close to mimicking traditional media.
I actually use pencil tools for everything, even the so-called inking part. I use, like, a darker pencil tool to ink all the characters. If you zoom in, if you get really close, you can still see it has kind of a pencil grain kind of tooth to it, because I like that look from older animation, that kind of Xeroxed pencil animation that you used to see.
And the backgrounds are done in a combination of tools, so it gives it a softer, looser feel. And I encourage the colorists to, with all those backgrounds, I encourage them to really just eradicate anything that I've done, if they want to, and just use those pencil drawings as a guideline for architecture and color, but really paint over it to whatever extent seems possible or reasonable. I'd be happy for all those lines to be gone and replaced by paint. But the reality is that the lines provide the backbone for the image and the color provides the texture and lighting.
Nrama: Your inks are different colors in different places, depending on the shadow.
Kershcl: Yeah, that's called a color hold or line hold. You see that in 2D animation, in a lot of Disney stuff, like if you look at Pocahontas. All the stuff is inked in black, but when Serge is coloring the characters, rather than leave the lines surrounding the skin black, he'll use a darker version of whatever the skin color is. Or lighter versions for the hair in the case of, maybe, a dark-haired character. The only lines we leave pure black are around the eyes.
Nrama: I assume you all have talked about color palettes for these pages?
Kerschl: Yeah, to some extent. I'll usually make notes, like, "This is the interior of the headmaster's office, and it needs to be creepy. So just pretend you're coloring a scene out of Dracula."
For the first issue or two, I did a lot of color tweaking on my end, just so we all could see what we're going to. I mean, everyone's a professional, and it doesn't take long for us all to be on the same page.
Nrama: You've provided some art for us to share. Can you walk us through the pages we're seeing here for that Page 7 and 8 from Gotham Academy #3, which shows the characters sitting on a dock?
Kerschl: First, my rough work for page 7. Basic layouts to get the story across and establish the setting. Done digitally in Manga Studio.
Next, my finished line art. Characters are drawn in clean, black lines (I use a 6B pencil tool rather than an India ink tool because I like the toothy, organic feel of the line). Backgrounds are drawn in 2B/2H pencil. I indicate some lighting, reflections, etcetera, but I encourage the colorist to paint over all of it.
Nrama: And then you provided several colored pages. What's the orange-tinted page?
Kerschl: The color test that Michele Assarasakorn did when we asked her to try out for the book. It's beautiful. Much warmer than what we went with in the end, but clearly she's amazing and we hired her immediately.
Nrama: And then the colored blue/green page, that's only got the background painting?
Kerschl: That's Romain Gaschet's fully painted page. He went with a colder blue/green for the whole page, which I think better suits the tone of the conversation they're having here (and also Gotham in general). See how he adds vague shapes and colors — stuff I never intended? So good.
And then Serge LaPointe colors all of the characters, including the line art, to make it feel like an animated cel-shaded film. I also asked him to warm up the scene with some sunlight, which he did beautifully. Serge is a magician.
And then it gets lettered by Steve Wands and we have a finished, heart-wrenching page of teenage romance.
And then here's the page 8 progress for you to see, too. That's right, sometimes you can just write 'hazy painted background' and it will all just work out!
Nrama: I know you said earlier that you're very proud of it, but you've also got to be enjoying the world you've created for this book.
Kerschl: Yeah, it's a real treat to be able to do this.
I know it's Gotham, and there's a look that goes along with Gotham, which is nice, because it informs the tone of the book in general. But it's a treat to be able to make up stuff as you need it on the page. We adhere to a certain kind of atmosphere, but other than that, it's kind of a free-for-all, whatever we want to do that will add to the sense of character and history of the place and of the people.