Artist's Alley 9: DV8ing From the Norm with REBEKAH ISAACS

Rebekah Isaacs, in many ways, is a true artist's artist.

After graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design — all the while discovering her love of sequential art — she's brought a methodical yet instinctive look to her work, working at publishers such as Wildstorm, Marvel, Devil's Due and 12 Gauge Comics. Known for clean lines and striking design, Isaacs is an artist on the rise for 2011.

Yet how do you go from a prospective career in animation and a love of manga to drawing Ms. Marvel and the kids of DV8? We caught up with Isaacs to answer all these questions and more for the ninth installment of Artist's Alley. In our in-depth chat with Isaacs, we discussed the use of reference photographs, how her process has been altered by iPad, how she brings the tricks of cinema to her comics pages, and her perspective of breaking in as a female artist in the comics industry.


Newsarama: Rebekah, just to start off with, how did you end up leaning towards comics? How did you figure out, "OK, this is what I want to do with my life"?

Rebekah Isaacs: Well, I guess as far as art goes, in general, I always knew I wanted to work in that, even when I was really young. I started leaning towards animation — I went to a Disney institute, an animation workshop when I was younger, I think it was like seventh or ninth grade. And I just got really exhausted with drawing the same art over and over again — I felt it just took the excitement out of telling a story for me. So getting into comics, though — I didn't really know that much about comics until I went to school at SCAD to learn how draw them. I went into the program without really knowing much about them or how they worked, but I knew I wanted to tell stories through pictures, and that was a medium that I had kind of heard a little bit about, so I thought I'd just give it a try. I knew I could switch majors if it wasn't really my thing, but it turns out that it was right up my alley.


Nrama: How about as far as influences and the like? Everybody talks about voice, and I'm sure that's something that translates visually. How would you say that you got, or approached your unique style or voice?

Isaacs: Well, that's a good question. I usually try to think about what sets my work apart from everybody else's, and I think the main thing that is like my trademark is that I'm really known for being really clean-lined and very easy to read, and realistic. Storytelling-wise, my focus is always on expressions, facial expressions, and the acting of the characters. I think that's something... that you really don't see a lot of these days in comics? Certain artists are really well-known for it, but it's not something that's emphasized that much, or a lot of importance isn't placed on really distinct facial characteristics, and making characters look like specific people, giving them a range of expression and a range of emotion.


That's something that came from my early influence in manga and anime, which is something that I was kind of embarrassed about for a while. I didn't really want to admit, when I started working professionally, that I had been influenced by those kinds of things. As editors tried to compliment me more on my facial features and my expressions, I started to realize that that came a lot from watching anime so much, like in middle school and in high school. That's always the main emphasis in manga and anime, backgrounds and everything else is kind of secondary to getting really close on that face and figuring out what the character is feeling through that expression.


Nrama: When you're looking at facial expressions and acting, what are the things you take into consideration to make sure that the expression feels authentic?

Isaacs: I draw everything from people that I know — I think about what kind of expressions they would look like. I also reference myself in almost every drawing that I make, especially for faces. I used to reference my poses from myself as well, but I've been doing less and less of that. But I still always will look at myself in the mirror, or I'll take a picture of myself with my webcam, making that face, and then I draw all my faces from that. Because even the best artists, no matter how long they've been drawing, you can never, there's such a gigantic range of nuances and expression and little muscles in your face that weigh lower when you're feeling depressed, versus anxious. Things like that. I always use photos — I think that really sets me apart.


Nrama: Was that something you picked up at SCAD?

Isaacs: No, actually I started doing that to learn how to draw faces better — it wasn't necessarily discouraged at SCAD, but it wasn't exactly encouraged specifically either. It certainly wasn't encouraged to do it for every single drawing. Depending on your style — not every artist will have to use reference photos for every drawing or every pose — but that was something I really wanted to focus on. While I was initially using it to learn how to draw faces better, I realized that when I was trying to draw faces straight out of my head, it looked good, but there was something — it looked a little flat, a little lifeless, the expression wasn't really specific. Like they might look generally upset — like, if I was drawing an angry character that was very emotionally angry, like on the verge of crying — if I drew it out of my head, they'd just have this generic, angry expression. Like, the eyebrows would furrow, and the brow wrinkle, but I couldn't really get the nuances of that particular expression or emotion that they were feeling unless I looked at a picture of myself doing that same face.


Nrama: Is it more of an expressiveness thing, or is this something you might utilize for full body drawings?

Isaacs: Yeah, I actually use a lot of full-body reference shots. I think body language is very similar. We'll generally have a general idea of what somebody looks like, if they're excited or depressed or anxious, but there's so many little things that unless you're drawing that particular pose thousands and thousands of times, you'll never be able to pull it out of your head. I'm not far along in my career to be able to do that.


Nrama: Is this something you're doing by yourself, or are you bringing in friends and directing them? How do you approach getting the "right shot," as far as reference goes?

Isaacs: I set aside the first part of my day to just take reference shots. But I used to use my boyfriend, but I found it was just too difficult to get someone to imagine just the kind of pose that you're imagining. And even though I thumbnail first — I don't photo reference, I could shoot someone by layout and say, "I want you to make this pose" — sometimes I decide in the middle of shooting my reference that that pose doesn't seem natural, and I want to change it. It's easier to do it myself, but obviously that requires a fairly detailed knowledge of anatomy, because if I'm drawing the Hulk — I obviously have to change a few things about my photo reference. (Laughs) And I found that once you have a basic knowledge of what things are, and the difference between a male and a female body, it's pretty easy just looking — you can look at any photo of any person, no matter what their body type or their gender, making that pose, and you can imagine how that looks on a different body type.


Nrama: Just going back a step, could you just walk us through — you've got the script, now can you walk us through how you approach attacking a page?

Isaacs: Sure. My approach is pretty typical, but some artists take it very differently. I will go through the script, I'll read it all one time through without doing anything or drawing anything. Then I'll read the script again and draw out the panel layouts — no sketches, or images in the panels, just how I want to break it down. I used to do thumbnails for my layouts on paper — I used to print out these templates for four small boxes that were the same proportion as the regular comics-sized page. I draw everything in pencil, then ink over that, erase my pencil lines, then scan and so forth.


Lately, though, I've been using my iPad, which I just acquired, with much blood money. I've been drawing straight onto that, with one of the sketch programs. That's been really great, because it allows me to send it straight to my computer without having to worry about erasing and scanning and cropping and all that. From there, once I have the individual thumbnail or layout, whatever you want to call that, once I have that on my computer in Photoshop, then I can do something they taught us to do at SCAD, which I thought was very helpful — I'll just take it, blow it up to full comic book size, 9.875 by 15.28, or whatever your publisher would require, and then I convert it to blueline, so it looks like every line is just set to cyan, like 20 percent cyan, nothing else, so it's all blue and white, and that's it. I print that out on a large-format art printer and put that on my art boards from DC or Marvel, and then I just draw on that, so I don't have to worry about lightboxing or tracing or anything like that. It works out really well and saves a lot of work in the middle of the process.


Nrama: When you're reading a script, how do you go about trying to create some really evocative moments or images? What's the thing that really stands out for you — is it character, action? What are you trying to look for to get a hook as far as to what the story's going to look like?

Isaacs: Yeah, it's definitely more about the character's reactions than actions — action is always secondary for me. And I feel like the pacing for a really cool action scene will only be memorable for max, a few minutes in a reader's mind — they'll look at it and think, "wow, that's really cool," but that panel's not going to stick with them for months or years down the road. The kind of panels that really stay with me, any panel that really strikes you as really getting into the character's head and what they're feeling and really feel it yourself. So I do have a lot of focus in facial expressions and body language and the rest.


Nrama: Talking about panels that really stick with you, are there any panels that off the top of your head spring to mind, that really withstood the test of time?

Isaacs: (Laughs) Ha, you're putting me on the spot! I can't think of any off the top of my head, but a lot of Y: The Last Man was like that for me. I thought about it before, but I read that while I was at SCAD, and I think that had a lot to do with me having those kind of interests. I hadn't given that a lot of thought, but that probably changed me a lot. Pia focuses so much on just the characters' faces, and there's a lot of talking heads, obviously, but you always have a strong feeling about what each character is thinking.


Nrama: Let's talk a little bit about "visual storytelling," a kind of nebulous term. How do you take a story that could be seen a sort of prose-type story, and how do you bring the visual side to it? How do you add past a script description that says, say, "Person X walks down the street"?

Isaacs: I... I... I've never really given too much thought to what I do. I always try to make it feel really cinematic, y'know? Backgrounds are really important, and I don't think they're really given as much emphasis as they should in visual storytelling. It's not just about tight crops and what kind of angles they use — you can tell so much about someone just based on the furniture they have in their apartment, and what kind of hairstyle they have... all the little things that the reader wouldn't specifically think about or notice, it's still registered somewhere in their subconscious. It tells something about a character or about an environment. But as far as storytelling goes, as far as visual storytelling goes for me, means shots and angles. I try to keep it just moving, y'know — I feel like I don't give it a lot of conscious thought besides that I just try to keep alternating between tight and far shots, and that creates the subconscious feeling of being moved along. It's a common cinematic trick that I think a lot of artists do.


Nrama: Talking a bit about drawing cinematically — especially that last trick you just mentioned — are there any other tricks from the cinematic playbook that you find yourself using as far as in your art?

Isaacs: I do think more about focus — I do a lot of silhouettes and basic shapes in my backgrounds. I'm not one of those artists that's very picky about getting every detail of the background in, actually, if it's not essential to what's being shown in the panel. I think I get that a lot from watching movies, because when you think about a shot that's really closely-focused, where there's a character reacting to something, or a character doing something in the foreground or the middle ground, you're probably not focusing on the background, and it'll probably be out of focus on the lens anyway. And using really large foreground elements to fill up space, to make scenes feel crowded and alive. I use a lot of Dutch angles, which I know some new artists are encouraged to not use, because they tend to overuse them, but I don't think you can underestimate how much just tilting a panel to the right creates a sense of speed and acceleration through a scene — and conversely, tilting it to the left, if you want to make a reader feel really uncomfortable or uneasy, or make it really clear that a character feels uneasy, turning it to the left is such a really effective tool.


Nrama: You were talking about things that resonate with people's subconsciousness, and I figured this would be a good place to talk about character design. For you, what's going on in your head when you're trying to define a character's look?

Isaacs: Most of the character design I've done had been on DV8, I haven't done much besides that. That was eight characters, so that took a lot of work trying to make each one distinct. Brian and I talked a lot about practicality, and about how it wouldn't really make sense for those characters to have costumes made for them, because they were really a ragtag symbol of weird kids. It would make sense for them to have created costumes from things they could pick up in stores and modify. So I had to think about what kind of clothes each of those kids would get, that would match their personalities, what would they gravitate towards.


For some, it would obviously be more about form and less about function, while others would be really practical and not about how cool or badass they looked, they just. Say Jocelyn in DV8, I gave her probably the most normal, practical outfit of the whole crew — she just has a really comfortable tracksuit on, because she's definitely the most unassuming character. She doesn't really have a big, loud personality, her power involves math and probability, so it just wouldn't make sense for a character like that to want a really outrageous, loud, bombastic costume. And that's something that I think a lot of superhero comics are starting to think about — when you look back to the original costumes of the '80s and '90s costume designs I don't think there was a lot of thought given to those kinds of things. It's cool to see that more now, more practical things, more practical designs that more people would actually choose to wear.


Nrama: When you are looking at these more practical designs, where are you getting inspiration from? Is it just based on what you see people wearing on the streets, or are you checking out designers, magazines or catalogues?

Isaacs: Yeah, I check out what people would actually wear — I don't feel like the average person really pays too much attention as far as fashion designers when they choose what they're going to wear any day. And the DV8 teenagers, they were just teenagers, I don't think they — some of them came from money, but quite a few of them were from off the streets, or from bad backgrounds, so they would have just worn what they could find, but something that still complimented their personality. So I just thought about what actual teenagers, just being left their own devices and not having any rules about what they could and could not wear.


Nrama: What would you say is the toughest part about your job?

Isaacs: Oh man... that's a tough question! I think the toughest part is just staying inspired everyday and not falling into a rut, you know? It's easy to use the same tricks everyday, and use the same angles on every page, and use the same layouts on every page, and I've been having to fight that a lot lately. Those things work, and they definitely tell the story well enough, and I don't think anybody would really complain, but at the same time, I don't think any artist wants to be that guy, or that girl, that was good enough, kept getting work, but never really was remembered? We all want to leave our mark, we all want to do something new, and one way to do that is to start each day with a blank slate, and I'm going to do something different than I did the day before, I'm going to try something different than I did the day before.

That's the hardest part. You see your friends working 9-to-5 jobs, and sometimes it's really easy to be attracted to that — the idea that you could just do the same thing, everyday, and go home, and leave your job at the office, and not be so emotionally invested in it. But if artists did that, I think for a few weeks, they'd just be dead inside. But it is tough to constantly wake up everyday and remind yourself of that and really stick to it.

Nrama: Since you were mentioning that, I think my next question might tie into this — which is, how do you keep improving yourself, and your skills? How do you keep yourself inspired — and when you do have a block, how do you get around it?

Isaacs: Looking at other artists always helped me. Going back and looking at my older artwork constantly, and seeing some of the kinds of things that didn't work back then and thinking how I might change them. Mostly just taking time off — I don't think there's any better cure than just taking a few days off and not drawing anything, but just observing what other people are doing — either going through other artists, or going through TV or cinema. There's nothing like forcing yourself not to draw to make yourself really want to draw.

Nrama: Just looking at how you've grown over your career, I'm curious — what do you think is the smartest thing you've ever done?

Isaacs: The smartest thing? There was a time that I was trying to get work between Devil's Due and Marvel, and I wasn't really getting any jobs. I considered briefly using a pen name, so no one would know that I was female, because I had this idea that people were expecting a certain kind of art from me, as a female artist. I think there was a time that might have been true, where editors expected more of a manga style from female artists, just more "slice-of-life" type art, being able to draw people in normal situations, but not superheroes, not being able to draw action, etc.

I found out very quickly, luckily, that that's definitely not the case anymore. I think the best decision that I made was to decide not to do that, and just really open about who I was, and not to change my art to feel more masculine. I don't think I necessarily have a "feminine" style art, either — usually somewhere in between, it's usually pretty difficult for people to identify if it's a male or a female artist — but that really helped, because the industry really does want to hire female artists now, and now matter how you draw, they want to include females because they want females to read comics. So they need to reach out to that sector, and one of the only ways to do that is to make them believe that people who understand them are making the books that they're essentially going to be reading.

Nrama: For people who are trying to get their start, what do you think that people should know about being an artist in the comics industry, that they don't?

Isaacs: About actually being an artist, or actually getting work?

Nrama: Either/or!

Isaacs: As far as getting work goes, I found that people think there's some sort of trick you have to know, or some person that you have to know, or that there's a best convention to go to to get work. There's a lot of people who think they haven't gotten work because they haven't done this one specific thing or gone to this one specific place or met with this one specific person. And the point that it comes down to is that they're just not good enough yet. That's not to say that you won't be someday, but if you're good enough, somebody is going to hire you. As long as you're out there, obviously, as long as you are sending your stuff out to people. But any convention that you go to to get your stuff shown, as long as you're actually talking to publishers, or even just writers — even talking to writers is helpful. As long as you're just getting out there as much as you can, somebody's going to bite if you're good enough. I got work from talking to editors who really couldn't give me work on their books, because the style might not have fit what they were working on, but everybody's connected in the industry — talk to anybody you can, and even if they can't use your work, they might be able to talk to somebody who can. It's just a matter of drawing more and getting better.

Nrama: And once you have broken in the industry — what should people know?

Isaacs: Hmmmm. Let's see. (Laughs) I think, I see — well, I don't necessarily see, but I hear — about a lot of new artists who are just not ready, they don't really understand the position that they're in. I hear a lot about deadlines being missed, and just prima donna-ish behavior. I think one of the most important things to understand is that you're in a place that so many people want to be in, and you have to put the work in to get appreciated for what you do. Nobody's going to know about what a great artist you are if you're late on every single page — if your book doesn't get published, then that work really doesn't matter. So I don't think you can ever underestimate the value of being on time. Being able to understand that this is a commercial industry is the bottom line, and being on time, and your editor's job depends on whether they can get that book published on time. We are artists, but the most important thing at the end of the day is making sure that book gets into readers' hands. Because if nobody else is able to read it, then it doesn't matter. It is an industry at the end of the day.

Nrama: Is there anything else you think that would be good to add that I haven't asked?

Isaacs: I'm assuming that a lot of people who read this interview will be aspiring artists. Something that's helped me over the past few years to help me improve and understand what I'm doing for a living, and what other people around me are doing for a living, is I've been inking and coloring my own stuff as much as I can. I've started inking my own work professionally now — I'm not nearly good enough or fast enough to color my own work professionally, as well. Being able to do all parts of the process, even if you don't do them for money, helps so much in understanding what everyone else around you is going through. It also helps to understand your art better, and how to improve it. Because before I really learned how to color, I sometimes would get color pages back, and I'd think, "oh, I don't know why they colored it this way," or I'd think it wouldn't look that great, and I'd think it'd be the colorist's fault. But since I've learned how to color, looking back, I just didn't give them enough information to work with. A colorist, even if it's an amazing colorist, they can only do so much with a badly drawn background or a badly drawn figure. They can't re-sculpt a face that's poorly drawn.

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