Artist's Alley 4: JOE EISMA's MORNING GLORIES Stories

Joe Eisma isn't just part of the Morning Glories — he's also a rising star.

Having worked on books such as Existence 2.0 and its sequel, Existence 3.0, he's now working on Image's Morning Glories, with frequent collaborator Nick Spencer. But how did Eisma go from dropping the art bug to becoming an indie hit? For our regular Artist's Alley, we chatted with Eisma on his film background, why he goes digital (and when he doesn't), and just how he approaches design, clothing and Hitchcock in his work.

Newsarama: All right, just to start off with — how'd you get started as an artist? What made you decide this was what you wanted to do professionally?

Joe Eisma: I've been drawing as long as I can remember. I used to draw on the back of worksheets in school, and kept up with it pretty regularly though high school. By the time I got to college, I wanted to study film and play guitar, so art took a backseat. A few years ago, though, the art bug bit me again, and I started refining my skills and entered a grad program for video game art. I've been pursuing art as a career in games and comics since I graduated in 2005.

Nrama: That's interesting about the losing the art bug — I guess I should ask, who do you feel your skill level changed when you "dropped" art, and after you picked it back up again?

Eisma: Definitely. Before I stopped, it was right around the initial Image 'boom,' and I was stylistically more influenced by the likes of J. Scott Campbell and Jim Lee. When I picked it back up, my tastes had changed and different styles were influencing me. I also had more patience to deal with how long it took to draw a page, which was one of the reasons I stopped in the first place.

Nrama: So you'd say patience was your big hurdle? Or was there anything else that really kept you from reaching what you considered to be "the next level"?

Eisma: I really do think it boiled down to patience and a general frustration with my skillset. As much as I liked (and still do like) guys like Campbell and Lee, I didn't want to just be another clone of their style. I needed to take a step back, but it just turned out to be more time away than I anticipated!

Nrama: Style is always something that's fascinated me. I should ask, how did you end up with your own personal style? How did you find your own visual "voice," so to speak?

Eisma: I guess I just sort of fell into it. I'm left handed, and I'm always smearing my pencils when I draw, and I wanted a way to clean up my line work. A classmate of mine had done some concept art on his Wacom tablet, and I figured why not try to draw comics with that? Using the tablet and programs like Photoshop and Manga studio helped me iron out the kinks in where I wanted my lines to be, and in a sort of backwards way, helped me learn to ink traditionally.

Nrama: Ah, gotcha! Outside of the smearing factor, as far as the digital tools go, are there any other opportunities you feel it gives you that standard pencils and ink wouldn't?

Eisma: Absolutely! Digital's nice because you can manipulate things more easily, and if you don't like something, you just delete it. No erasing. It also makes getting pages off to the publisher easier, since there's no scanning or cleanup. On the downside, you don't have an actual physical page to hold on to or to sell. Lately I've taken to setting aside time to actually traditionally ink as many pages as a deadline allows for that purpose.

Nrama: You were mentioning earlier about how going digital taught you about traditional inking. What were some of those lessons that you picked up? Any "a-ha" moments for you in the middle of that?

Eisma: The biggest was that not everything can be inked with a Micron! Mostly, I learned how to vary my lineweights. Before, I was just drawing to get a figure on paper, I didn't take the time to think about what was in the foreground, or that things closer to the ground necessitated a thicker line than those closer to the sky.

Nrama: As far as determining your lines, and really fleshing out your work, I guess I should go for the broad question: For you, how do you approach a page? Do you have a set process, a sort of anchor you have to have first, or is it more random than that? Or in other words, can you sort of walk us through how you attack this stuff?

Eisma: Sure thing! Everything has to start with a strong layout. I know a lot of artists say that, and it's because it's true! With a lot of my early work, I didn't spend much time on the layout and I think it hurt the art. These days, I'm much more methodical. I spend the majority of my time laying out the page, making sure I get all the shots right and getting feedback from my writer. Then, if I need any photo ref, I shoot it myself, or if I need a 3d model, I model it. Then I can start the actual drawing, which by comparison doesn't take as long as laying down the foundation.

Nrama: For you, what's the most important part in terms of page layout? Or the most difficult part? And how do you get your mind around that?

Eisma: The most important part is making sure the reader can follow what's going on. I'm always asking myself 'Does this read okay?' Storytelling's important to me, and I'd rather make sure that's given the most emphasis over any kind of flash and flair. In Morning Glories, things can get difficult in scenes where I'm dealing with all six of the main cast — making sure I remember where everyone's placed and that they're not looking static. I usually have to put little notes above their heads so I remember where everyone is.

Nrama: You said you had studied film, and that sounds just like editing film continuity to me. Do you think you took anything from that education that you brought with you to comics?

Eisma: It really did help! Especially these days, with widescreen comic panels being so popular with writers. I look at each panel as a frame of film, and always think back to those lessons on how to set up shots in a camera.

Nrama: Do you have any particular favorite movies that really made an impact on you, as far as style goes?

Eisma: Akira Kurosawa's films are probably the biggest influence. I used to rewatch Rashomon, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai all the time, just studying the shots. Hitchcock and Kubrick were also pretty big influences as well.

Nrama: What about these movies did you really dig, as far as visuals and storytelling goes?

Eisma: Those guys really made the most out of each frame of film. Every shot looked like it was methodically planned to emphasize whatever elements were important to the story. I mean, I love that Rear Window primarily takes place from a guy's apartment, but it's not boring.

Nrama: Can you tell us about any of those "Hitchcock" moments you've have in any of the work you've done, and how you got to that point?

Eisma: There are a lot of the ways Hitchcock used the camera that I try to emulate. He really made the viewer uneasy in Vertigo with how he set up shots and the angles he filmed things at. Certain sequences in Morning Glories I've tried to take a similar approach because it really does emphasize the drama, I think.

Nrama: Since we're on the subject of Morning Glories, I wanted to touch base about character design and the like. Particularly when you've got "uniforms" for this school, how do you go about making different characters look unique?

Eisma: Yeah, that's a tough one. We all kind of agreed that the main cast would be part of a new group of students, so they'd have slightly unique uniforms. Then there's all the other students, though, and it's really just down to accentuating them slightly. I just think about how kids at that age will always try to express themselves as individuals, even in the slightest manner. So I'll add/take away accessories, put some in neckties, pop some collars and what have you.

Nrama: Since you're dealing with this on a regular basis now with Morning Glories, do you think clothing and style impacts or reflects character? If so, how do you go about that?

Eisma: I'm probably the most unhip person in the world, so thankfully there's Google and the Abercombie & Fitch website! In all seriousness, though, style definitely affects the characters. Each one of the cast I approach differently. Ike I view as extremely preppy and snobbish, whereas Hunter is a lot more laid-back and geeky. Jade is probably the most fun to draw with her 'Emo' look. She tends to cry a lot, making the massive eyeliner she wears smear.

Nrama: I know you've done a decent amount of work across genres, whether it's Existence or Morning Glories or even the stuff you were doing at Dynamo 5. How do you switch gears between genres and the like?

Eisma: Yeah, with each project, I try to alter my style ever so slightly to fit whatever genre it's in. The stuff I've done with Jay Faerber, I've used real clean lines and exaggerated angles for that bombastic superhero feel. With Existence, I tried to go darker and moodier, since that fit the story more. In the end, I just try to best serve the story!

Nrama: Now that you're really getting some buzz, what's been the most difficult thing for you? Or the most surprising?

Eisma: The most surprising to me is how many people are reading my books now! Everything I've done before has been on a much smaller scale and lots of folks couldn't even find what I'd worked on, unless they got it from me at a convention. It's nice to finally go into a store and see my book on the shelves. The most difficult thing is holding art back online so I don't spoil any of the storylines I'm working on!

Nrama: For those who are trying to get into comics, what do you think they don't know? What do you think they need to know?

Eisma: I think what's not emphasized enough is networking. Yes, you definitely need skills to draw or write comics, but networking really is key. Lots of people have a presence online, but they need to go out and promote themselves and meet other like-minded creators. Every gig I've gotten has been the result of networking. I got the first book I ever did by answering a MySpace bulletin, and Nick Spencer and I were both posters on a message board when he pitched me Morning Glories. And don't burn any bridges, either. Comics is a very small business, and people will talk. Always be a professional!

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