For years, Dark Horse Comics has gone beyond just printing comics and graphic novels to cover and collect artwork in the larger world of illustration. In July, the publisher took on one of rock gig posters’ biggest stars, Brian Ewing. In the 112 page hardcover book Don’t Hold Your Breath, Ewing’s expansive work of posters, illustrations and album covers is brought under one roof. Ewing has worked for bands like Brand New, Metallica, Fallout Boy; magazines like The New Yorker; events like the Warped Tour; and has even worked in comics, doing covers for DC’s Detective Comics and Nightwing.Although Ewing’s work is primarily based outside of the world of comics, he wears his influences on his sleeve with heaps of comics in his life. The artist has worked several times with famed comics cover artist Dave Johnson, and even shared a studio with cartoonists Zander Cannon and Gene Ha several years ago. For many, comics were the gateway drug into the wide world of art – and Ewing counts himself amongst the converts.
Newsarama: Brian, before we get into the nitty gritty, can you tell us a bit about how you got started in the industry and when you feel you got your first big break?
Brian Ewing: I started out by doing flyers for my friends that were in bands while I was in high school in Milwaukee, WI. I kinda didn’t take it too serious until I was living in Minneapolis and working at a Kinko’s. The local venue would come in to get their posters copied – and well they sucked. So, I hit them up one day and asked if I could do some posters for them. I figured I couldn’t do any worse. (Now Minneapolis has so many great poster artists.) After a year of that, I moved to Los Angeles and was trying to get illustration work while I toiled away in porn. I worked for Hustler and a bunch of other Larry Flynt publications handling scheduling, corrections and weird shit I couldn’t tell my girlfriend about. During my lunch breaks, I’d freelance for the magazines by doing Photoshop work or illustrations. Stuff I probably won’t ever show people. Uh yeah... At the same time I started doing rock posters for the Troubadour and got paid in free tickets and booze. I got a ton of great response from the venue and the bands which led to more and more work. After getting permission, I started selling limited editions of the posters off my site and was making a couple of bucks from that.
After a few of years in porn, I quit. I just wasn’t going anywhere creatively like I had hoped. I had $200 bucks in my pocket and rent was due so I hit up everyone and anyone for freelance work. After a day, I landed a freelance job and haven’t been unemployed since.
I think the big break came when I designed a tour poster and background for the band Brand New. The band had just released an album and were about to get really big. I had no clue. I just liked them and the artwork I created really struck a chord with their fans. I went to see them play a few weeks after finishing the job and really didn’t know what to expect. I walked in and there was this huge 20’ x 20’ backdrop with my artwork on it and tons of kids running around holding the poster and shirt I designed. The band toured with that artwork for a few years and really put me out there to a lot of new people. All that led to doing work for the Warped Tour.
Nrama: How is it working with musicians for the look of the posters you draw for them? Are they pretty hands on?
Ewing: Usually it’s pretty simple. The bands like my work enough and trust me to do my thing. I either send them sketches or just a final image. The main concern is that I spell their name correctly and do a good job. They’re very appreciative when I interpret one of their songs into a poster. They know that I value them and want to do my best.
I try to not get too starstruck when working with some of the bands. But it’s difficult when it’s a band I’ve been listening to my whole life.
Nrama: You mentioned the instances where you depict a specific song in a band’s poster. What's that like to try to squeeze the music and lyrics into a standalone piece of art?
Ewing: I think it’s really important to make the artwork relate to the band. When I’m designing a poster, I think about what their fans want more than the client/band wants. Because their fans know more about the band (and the songs) than the band does. If done correctly then the poster can become part of that band’s canon. Everyone wins.
I treat a poster no different than an editorial illustration or book cover. The end goal is pretty much the same.
Nrama: Dave Johnson says you've cornered the market on drawing skulls, the same way Coop has made devil chicks his thing. Why do you think you ended up drawing skulls so much and being identified with them?
Ewing: I grew up on a steady diet of comic books, heavy metal, punk rock and skateboarding. I wanted to draw like Wrightson, Frazetta, Pushead, Ed Repka, Derek Riggs, Phil Hale and Jim Phillips. That stuff from my childhood and those artists really influenced me and what I wanted to do for a living. Toss in a strict Catholic upbringing to the mix and there you is.
Skulls are very universal. Everyone knows what they mean especially when related to bands. They’re cool. They’re evil. They get the point across quickly. They just fit for the bands I was doing posters for. The challenge was to make them interesting and identifiable with the band.
Dave Johnson and I have collaborated on some of his cover work (including some of the 100 Bullets covers) and on some of my posters. He was the first artist I met when I moved to LA and we’ve been friends for almost 10 years now. He’ll probably deny it because his memory ain’t what it used to be. Ask him about the time I saved his life at Jumbo’s Clown Lounge.
Nrama: Count on it. Who are some others in the band poster field whose work you admire?
Ewing: Well definitely the people that gave me quotes for the book. Frank Kozik, Coop, Tara McPherson, Jermaine Rogers, Leia Bell, MunkOne, Justin Hampton, Jay Ryan, Todd Slater, Mike King, Scrojo, Kevin Tong, Rich Kelly, Chuck Sperry and Tyler Stout. There are a ton of great poster artists on gigposters.com
Nrama: Besides rock posters, you've been doing more and more editorial illustrations. Can you tell us about that side of your career?
Ewing: That work came from doing the rock posters. Michael Wright at DC Comics had seen some of my poster work and sent me an email wondering if I’d ever want to do comic book covers. Through him, I got to do a cover for Detective Comics ands a few covers for Nightwing. That blew me away.
At the same time my work was being published in various art books. I was getting a lot of exposure and being published adds a lot of credibility to what you do. From there I started doing illustrations for the New Yorker. Which then led to other non-rock poster jobs—like the Metallica bus.
I just designed my own signature watch through Vannen and signature sunglasses through Anarchy Eyewear. I’ve also designed a few belts for Lowlife that will come out next year.
The rock posters are big-assed business cards and have helped put my work in front of a lot of new clients. I’m hoping this book does the same.
Nrama: Who were your icons when you were starting out?
Aside from the artists I’ve already mentioned - Mostly comic book artists. When I was a kid I worked at a comic book store while I was in High School. Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, Jeff Jones, Barry Windsor-Smith, Mike Mignola, Jim Lee, Adam Hughes, Karl Story, Brian Stelfreeze, Todd McFarlane, Tony Harris, Chris Warner, Tim Truman, Alex Toth, Jack Davis, Bill Reinhold, Mark Schultz, Dave Stevens, Moebius, Kevin Nowlan, Katsuhiro Otomo, Kolo Moser, Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt, Jules Cheret, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Jay Ryan, Coop, Frank Kozik and a bunch more. I could be here all day rattling off artists from my bookshelves.
Nrama: Who are the people you look up to now?
Ewing: I dunno, I’m only 5’ 7” so there’s quite a few. Definitely the Drink & Draw guys – Dave Johnson, Jeff Johnson & Dan Panosian, Katsuya Terada, Range Murata, Buff Monster, Mike Sutfin, James Jean, Tomer Hanuka, John Dyer Baizley, Mike Mitchell, Mike Giant, Aaron Horkey, Bob Peak, Ryan Sook, Jeff Miracola, Rene Gruau, Andrew Bawidamann, Alex Pardee, Drew Millward, Ragnar, Kaws, Jamie Hewlett, Americana Tattoos, Ashley Wood, Woodrow Hinton and many more. I’ve been inspired by more than comic book or poster artists lately.
And I’ve just started to understand the importance of guys like Gil Kane and Jack Kirby. I know, I know. Sorry. My excuse is that those guys were like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin to me when I was listening to the Misfits and Metallica. A few generations before me. In the past couple of years I’ve begun to understand their importance and definitely can see their influence over the past 50 years. Just like Zeppelin and Floyd.
Nrama: Although Dark Horse does more than just comics, comics are a large part of their output. You've done some covers for DC before and shared a studio with comic artist Gene Ha – have you considered doing more comics work, maybe even interiors?
Ewing: I’d like to...coughDarkHorsecoughiremecoughcough. But I know my strengths. I’m best suited for cover work. I hope that the book will get seen by a few more editors and art directors and they see the potential of working with me. And look beyond just the skull work. CoughcoughDarkHorsecough.
I met Gene Ha when I had a studio next to Zander Cannon in Minneapolis. Gene was moving there and started helping Zander work on Alan Moore’s Top 10 book. I learned a lot from Gene in the little time we shared a studio. I ended up moving to LA 8 months or so after he moved in. I wish I had the brush control that Gene has. It was also weird to answer the studio phone and have it be Alan Moore on the other end asking for Gene!
Nrama: What are the big projects on your plate right now?
Ewing: I’m planning a book tour to help promote the book. I’m doing a release party in NYC, October 14th with the Royal Flush Film Festival at the Brooklyn Bowl and another in September with 1Louder in LA. Now I’m just trying to line up shops to do signings and find couches to crash on throughout the US and Europe. I hope to be able to lecture at some of the local art schools too.
After this last San Diego Comic Con, I walked away with some projects but can’t talk about them until I’m allowed to. Definitely stuff I haven’t done before. I hope it pans out.
Right now I’m working on a series of Geisha art prints that will be screen printed on a press once owned and used by Andy Warhol. I’m excited for that because the printer normally does high-end art prints. I’m going to learn a lot about printing on this project.
I’ve also been collaborating with other artists to produce art prints. The most recent one was with Buff Monster. I’ve been talking to Dave Johnson, Johnny Crap, Jermaine Rogers, Jeff Miracola and a few other people for future projects.
Nrama: You've done a lot in your career – but you're still a young guy. What are the big goals for your career right now?
Ewing: Looks can be deceiving - I’m in my 80s.
I keed, I keed.
Aside from taking over the world and paying my rent on time? I just want to continue working as an artist. It’d be nice to have a volume 2 of the book in a few years. I’ve been painting more this year, so I’d like to do more of that. Maybe some crazy new projects under my belt. I have a big nerd list I need to check off for all the projects I want to do.What comic should Ewing draw?