As an animation artist on movies like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6, Mingjue Helen Chen doesn't consider herself a career comic book artist. But that may change after her experience on the critical hit comic Gotham Academy.
Filling in for Karl Kerschl for a few issues at a time, Chen digitally paints her art on Gotham Academy, skipping inks (and sometimes even pencils). By working on comics, Chen has been enjoying the craft of storytelling that comic book art requires, and she appreciates the control it gives her over the finished monthly product.
Gotham Academy first launched in October 2014, telling the story of students at a prestigious private school in Batman's hometown. After the two-month Convergence break, June's Gotham Academy will be introducing Batman's son, Damian Wayne, into the school's student body (and the comic's cast of characters) beginning in June.
With Gotham Academy #7 previewed in this week's Convergence back-ups, Newsarama talked to Chen about her work on the title.
Newsarama: Helen, what's your background? Are you self-trained or schooled in art?
Mingjue Helen Chen: I went to the the Academy of Art University to study illustration with the hopes of landing a job in the entertainment field. Since graduating in 2010, I've worked almost exclusively in feature animation for film at a couple different animation studios, including Disney, Disney Animation, and Paramount Animation.
Nrama: What got you interested in comic book art?
Chen: I got interested in comic book art because it's an illustrator- and writer-driven form of story telling. My job in animation is very collaborative — there are a lot of moving parts, and what ends up on the screen, for audience consumption, is always several steps removed from where it started with my art.
In my limited experience with comics, the process has been a lot faster and direct, with a small team working together to get the final product into the hands of readers without having to dilute the content. It's been so amazing and fulfilling for me as an illustrator.
Nrama: How would describe your style, and what were your influences?
Chen: My style is very animation influenced. People often call out Disney when they see it, which is not surprising since I did spend four years working on the last couple of Disney movies, like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6.
I personally feel like the stronger (and longer standing) influence in my work has been Japanese animation, which is something I grew up on, rather than Western animation.
Nrama: Can you describe techniques you use to create the art for Gotham Academy? How much is digital? Do you use references?
Chen: I work almost exclusively in digital. I have the capability to maybe do pencil and ink, but because of the tight schedule and the fact that I tend to move into painting almost immediately after a scribble, I decided to do a painting-based style rather than a line/inked style. I use reference for things like hands and sometimes shoes.
Nrama: How would you describe the overall visual tone you're trying to achieve on Gotham Academy?
Chen: I always thought it would be neat to see a whole issue of a comic painted like cover art or something. Another thing that I love to use (or overuse) is expressive lighting. With the absence of line in Gotham Academy, it allows me to get much more cinematic lighting without those two different styles fighting each other.
My favorite comic book artists often balance line and color beautifully, and since I don't personally think my line work is strong enough to stand alone, I chose the painted approach instead.
Nrama: As you bring back Gotham Academy in June and July, working with the creative team and regular artist Karl Kerschl, is there anything else you want to tell readers about working on Gotham Academy?
Chen: That the team, Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Rebecca Taylor, Matt Humphries, and Mark Doyle is amazing. They allow for so much fun and had so much trust in me I didn't really know what to do with it. It was just kind of like, here's the script and go!
The process was quick and seamless, and I found myself really envying comic book artists who get to work with them on daily basis. It left me wondering if a career in comics is something I want to consider for the future.