From Northlanders #11For artist Ryan Kelly, variety is the spice of life.
He’s gone from metaphysical adventure to giant-size robots, personal dramas to Vikings, and from that to a post-war New York. Through it all, the Minnesota-based artist has brought a unique brush and line style that reminds you of both Paul Pope and Joe Kubert, in the same breath.
Through most of his career his chief collaborator has been writer Brian Wood, and together the duo have worked on several series such as Local, New York 4 and recently on storyarcs for Wood’s Northlanders and DMZ series at Vertigo. The six issue Northlanders storyarc was just released in a collected edition subtitled Cross + Hammer, and the 3-issue stint on DMZ entitled “No Future” concludes with next month’s #44. We talked with Kelly about his recent works, working with Wood, teaching and more in this recent email interview.
Newsarama: Let’s start with an easy one, Ryan – what are you working on today?
Ryan Kelly: Today, at this very hour, I am working on DMZ: Issue #44 specifically. I'm only doing work for Vertigo for the time being. But previous to that, I illustrated short stories for two anthologies that went very well- "Winter" for Comic Book Tattoo with John Ney Rieber and "Torso" For Side B Anthology with Kat Vapid.
NRAMA: Your main work on shelves now is a three-issue arc in Brian Wood’s DMZ, beginning with the recently releases issue #42. How’d you get roped into this title, Ryan?
KELLY: Yes, Brian and I talked about me contributing to DMZ from time to time. But, I never felt it was my destiny to be a part of the DMZ world because the book belongs to series artist Riccardo Burchielli and all the fill-in artists were already doing such great work. I felt there was no reason for me to be there. I expressed a desire to draw Northlanders instead because I felt that would be a project I could pull off with some flare. Ultimately, it was at New York Con in February that Brian mentioned that they needed someone to draw this 3-issue story really fast on short-term notice. If I'm anything, I'm fast! So I jumped on and started the DMZ arc the day I handed in my last Northlanders page.
NRAMA: The subject matter of this story arc in particularly is about some rogue cops and firefighters who in the wake of the DMZ take law into their own hands. What was it about this story in particular that got you interested?
KELLY: Uh-huh, I get to draw another bleak, dark, gut-wrenching tale by Brian Wood!
NRAMA: [laughs] Surprisingly, he’s a very upbeat guy when you talk to him. But continue…
DMZ #43NRAMA: Holding the collection in my hands right now, you can really see that.
Switching gears, are you still currently on staff at MCAD? That seems interesting.
KELLY: Ah, yes, I went to Minneapolis College of Art and Design and started teaching there almost immediately after graduating in 1998. I don't think I've ever left the school! I've been teaching there a lot, but I've really scaled it back to focus on my own work. I was teaching there for long hours during a time when I should have been developing my own work. I still love being in the classroom. They run a 4-year accredited comic arts program and a lot of fantastic comic pros have sprung from the program. Nikki Cook went there and she's also drawing DMZ as well as a bunch of web comics and stuff. I like to pretend there is a modest Minneapolis scene to rival the fabled Portland and New York comic scenes.
NRAMA: Over the course of your career so far, you’re best known for working with two people – Peter Gross as his inker and Brian Wood as his frequent illustrator. Why do you think you’ve stuck with these two so much over time?
KELLY: Heh, yeah it does seem like I only know how to draw Brian Wood books. I'm afraid if I ever got a chance to work with any of my other dream writers I wouldn't know what to do and then I'd short circuit and curl up into a fetal position in the corner and cry. I'd like to see it as I'm the Johnny Depp to his Tim Burton. Only, I'm a little better looking than Johnny Depp.
NRAMA: [laughs] I’ll take your word for it. Now the fangirls will be hunting you down at cons.
KELLY: Seriously, I think I just "get" his scripts and we work well together. As the artist, I really have to get into the heads of his characters because there is so much emotional drama going on, even the subtle stuff. I always run the risk of falling into a routine so I stay flexible. I bring no ego with me, so I devour any edits and changes. He's a fantastic artist himself, so we exchange feedback. Maybe there's some writers that hand off the script and go to lunch but Brian's involved in every formal aspect of the book and it really makes a difference. The editors at Vertigo operate as co-writers as well, so I always feel like I'm working on a grade-A product.
NRAMA: And how about Peter? You really cut your teeth inking his work.
I'm friends with Peter Gross and we stay in touch all the time. I started out as his intern and then it evolved to a collaboration on Lucifer. He's helped me out a lot and he basically taught me how to tell a comic story. I'd like to see it as I'm The Obi Wan Kenobi to his Qui Gon Jin. He actually invited me to work on The Unwritten with him and Mike Carey, but my Northlandersthe Unwritten!
NRAMA: Sounds like an ideal collaboration.
Before I let you get back to you work, I had one more question: what are you planning on doing after you finish your three issues on DMZ?
KELLY: After DMZ, I'm hoping for a week off. I've been doing the monthly comic thing for a while and I haven't had a day off for over a year! But after that, I get right to work on a sequel to The New York 4 for DC. I'm very excited about that and I hope you are too!DMZ #43 is in stores now from DC Vertigo Comics