If comics were easy to make, everyone would be doing it -- and one of the most important and time-intensive jobs in the business is the art. But with different styles and different processes, there's a whole world of information on this often-misunderstood side of comics -- and that's why we at Newsarama are bringing to you our latest column Artists' Alley, a regular feature and companion piece to Writer's Workshop.
And the first subject of our series is a man who helps give the Green Hornet his sting, helps give the Black Terror his punch. Dynamite's Jonathan Lau has been making his way through several licensed properties before his adventures with Britt Reid, Jr., including Battlestar Galactica, Red Sonja and Project Superpowers. We chatted with the artist about merging Eastern and Western styles, how he approaches pages (and fight scenes), and why simple is better when it comes to his own personal toolbox.
Newsarama: Jonathan, you're very much an artist on the rise, working on Dynamite's Green Hornet. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got to this point?
Jonathan Lau: I came by a talent agency called Glasshouse Graphics. For a long while I did a lot of layout work for other steady artists doing some popular titles and many obscure ones too. My entry into Dynamite's was working as a ghost artist for Nigel Raynor in Battlestar Galactica, when he was fully re-assigned to another title, I took over BG. Dynamite eventually allowed me some work on Xena, Red Sonja, covers for Project Superpowers, and Black Terror. It was a fun transition to finally get in the frontlines.
Nrama: What made you decide that comics art was the career for you?
Lau: I always enjoyed this medium. Like all kids, we'd doodle our favorite characters onto our textbooks in school, it makes carrying those tomes bearable. I remember saying 'hey, I can do that!' when I saw those attractive comics art. But the decision to be serious as a career wasn't concrete until I was offered to work in the sidelines for an art agency. Initially I was assigned to assist other artists who needed that extra push in their projects whether I be doing layouts, storyboarding, screentones, etc. I'm thankful to God regardless of where I was tasked to do behind the curtain; eventually it led me to where I am now. So true what people say about not taking small things for granted.
Nrama: In terms of influences and training, can you tell us a little bit about what's gotten you to the "Jonathan Lau" style of art? How did you get to the point where you had a "style"? And what sorts of things do you consume in order to keep growing as an artist?
Lau: Early in my career I was told to adapt western style because I was heavily influenced by reading a lot of Kung-Fu comics or Manhwa. Gradually the style changed, and now it's an amalgamation of east and western style. It's not Manga, please. As for inspiration, I like looking at concept art, whether it be furniture, vehicles, and even matte paintings. I'm awed at the works of people that are out of this world. Those geniuses make me want to think out of the box.
Nrama: Looking at the rest of the industry, are there any artists that you think are the gold standard? And what about them puts them at that point?
Lau: There're certainly a lot of them to mention. They're very blessed because of the combination of opportunity and hard work. I'm sure there are a lot of factors involved, and one point that helps a Penciller to standout is to have a unique style all their own. Where readers in a glance can say 'Ah, that's so-and-so.' Jim Lee is a good example, when a fan lets Jim drew on his iPod, that's die-hard gold standard artist there.
Nrama: How about as far as your tools go? I'm sure that the implements you choose give you lots of different options to choose from. What did you pick, and why?
Lau: Currently, its just simple pencil and eraser. I know others are exceptional working digitally and I'm sure it's efficient and convenient. Whereas I couldn't compel myself to live with it as far as my style goes, maybe someday; besides, those Wacom hardwares are expensive! Right now I'm happy I could own originals to sell and trade whereas digital artists do not.
Nrama: Can you walk us through how you typically approach a page? What do you have to have in order to get cracking?
Lau: After reading the script, I immediately work on the thumbnails for the entire issue. This is to put into paper my initial layout ideas, then I let it sit a long while and redo another round of thumbnail in differing perspectives as best as I could think of. Thereafter is the process of comparing, mixing or selecting the best. This usually takes an average of two days, and its incomprehensible for others to view them, (unfortunate for those who wishes to have a copy). I don't do big clean layouts for myself, I feel it's a waste of time. Then the real work begins. At this point my mind's in a tunnel. Working from 9am to 11pm, getting up only for meals and bathroom breaks. In addition, working in batches saves a tremendous lot of time.
Nrama: Now, you're working with Phil Hester on Green Hornet, where he's doing layouts and you're doing the pencils. It's an interesting pairing that you don't see too often anymore. Can you walk us through how you guys do that, and how you specifically approach Phil's notes?
Lau: It started that way but its more of a collaboration as it progresses. Phil sends the layouts while I revise some pages wherever I see the need to give some 'omph'. Some would only have minimal revisions like bending an elbow or tilt a head, while some I would change an entire page. Especially in action scenes, Phil would grant me the liberty by giving me an empty page. I enjoyed that very much.
Nrama: Let's talk a bit about storytelling, here. What's your thoughts on the artist's role in storytelling, and how do you, as an artist, go about enhancing and adding to the story that's been given to you?
Lau: In the beginning of this series, I was restless when I was informed that somebody else will be doing layouts for me. This is because I was the one doing layouts for others for a long time, and so often, especially for my current style executed in action scenes, some angles wouldn't work as effectively as it would had I followed a standard angle. Other than that, I follow as much as I can to the letter since Green Hornet is an adaptation, and readers should keep that in mind in step with pacing.
Nrama: I'm sure one thing that artists totally dig is the action sequences. For you, how do you approach knock-down, drag-out fights, both in your solo work as well as your work with Phil in Green Hornet?
Lau: I worked with Phil on Black Terror before this, so he's familiar with my style in regards to fighting scenes and would let me play free with it. I love working with Phil and I hope I could get back to Black Terror with him.
Oftentimes I would require more panels in action scenes, for example I would inform Phil that I added six panels on Page One for a guy throwing a punch. Earnestly, my approach to action is to show a play executed panel by panel. The typical punch shown in comics is all too familiar, that readers just skimmed through it; whereas I would show one or a combination of a 'before, during and an after' in a punch sequence, simply put. Like a Jackie Chan movie, actions should be entertaining in comics as well where readers can spend time viewing how a move or technique was done.
Nrama: Since you're fairly new in your career, let's talk about something that everyone has: Mistakes. What's the biggest mistake you think you've had in your career, and either how did you correct it, or what did you take away from it?
Lau: It used to be the fault of doing layouts providing for manga-type vertical dialogue balloons in mind. This gets the English letterer into trouble. I just have to be careful and constantly remind myself to provide horizontal spacing. I also wish the team could be working in one room collectively, we could be helping each other out with just a holler.
Nrama: As someone who's been working their way up the ranks and is now working on a flagship title for Dynamite, what is one thing new artists don't know that they should?
Lau: There're too many at stake to boil it down to one, but I'm sure everybody's familiar with the basic necessities of business management skills and conduct. From a penciller's viewpoint, one discipline to take is the dictum 'quality, quality, quality.' If it feels in need of revising, take the eraser and do it. If it feels wrong, change it. If it doesn't look right, chances are you have to edit it. We all err and many times as a penciller, we get stressed out in this line of work, but knowing that somebody out there is enjoying your work makes it worth the while.