Although there are some artists who can knock out an issue a month and always be seen on the comic shelves, there are others that take their time and put more time and focus into each piece of art they do. Compare it to actors like Daniel Day Lewis, who only crop up every couple years in a movie instead of being in every movie he can. In comics, there are creators who make a big mark on the minds of comics fans – not with the amount of work they do, but with the style and impact that their individual pieces bring. One of those artists is Joshua Middleton.Middleton broke onto the comic scene in 2000 with one of Crossgen’s launch titles, Meridian. After completing six issues, he handed it off to another future star – Steve McNiven – and joined the freelance world of comics. After doing some initial work on a creator-owned series called Sky Between Branches, he was snatched up by Marvel in 2002 to work on covers and to collaborate with then-Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada on a new series titled NYX. After getting that series off the ground, he jumped across town to DC and continued his dynamic cover work as well as an underrated series with Judd Winick called Superman/Shazam: First Thunder. After that he focused primarily on covers, with his chief gig being a fourteen-issue run on Supergirl. Then, he relatively disappeared from the comics scene.
As it turns out, he was hard at work at DC but in a different capacity – as an artist for Warner Brothers Animation. Middleton began working for WB Animation in October 2009 as a character designer, but was quickly promoted to be an art director for the upcoming Green Lantern: The Animated Series. There he worked hand-in-hand with Bruce Timm to carve out the look and feel of the series, Warner Brothers’ first CG television series. With all of the pre-production work done, Middleton decided in the fall of 2010 to leave animation and return to the freelance world.
And return to comics.
The Joshua Middleton of 2011 is much different than what he’s done before – after doing stints as an exclusive artist for both Marvel and DC and working as an animator for over a year, Middleton returns as more mature and more in-tune with the way the industry is and what he can contribute to it. He’s always been an in-demand artist – both Dan Didio and Joe Quesada hand-picked him to work with them on projects in the past – but now Middleton returns with a more mature perspective of what he wants to do – in comics, and in general.
Newsarama: Let's start with an easy one - what are you working on today, Joshua?
Joshua Middleton: At this very moment, I am working on cover illustrations for a few books and comics, and working on a story which I've been meaning to illustrate for a very long time. One cover in particular has me worked up about trying to paint traditionally, which I have never done but have thought about for many years. I admire and study traditional painters, but I learned to color on the computer, so I've kept my hands clean all of this time. The more obsessive part of me loves it, but I do get a little tired of the somewhat clinical experience of coloring on a computer and really want to cut loose with actual paint, even if I genuinely love the sort of brushless, perfect finish I can get in Photoshop. This particular cover is a dramatically lit portrait of a heroine, and it feels like a good opportunity to give it a shot. Right now, my studio is littered with several practice rounds and all sorts of painting materials. I have no idea if I will see it through or can pull it off, but I do enjoy the experimentation. Every other time I have done this, I pack all of the paints back on the shelf and decide that behind the keyboard is where I belong, but maybe this time will be different.
Nrama: In October 2009 you took up your first non-freelance job since Crossgen and signed on as a character designer for Warner Brothers Animation. This led to you withdrawing from comics - ending your cover run on Supergirl. Why'd you decide to sign up for a studio job after working on your own for so many years?
Middleton: I didn't know what to think when Warner Brothers contacted me, but after visiting the studio and meeting a lot of very kind folks, it seemed like something I should at least try. They were nice enough to let me come in for a month to see if it would work, and I wound up staying for a year. Some of it was purely practical, as the animation industry is unionized and provides good benefits to artists. I also felt like it might be nice to enjoy the relative security of working in a big studio, knowing what I would be doing from week to week, at least for a little while. I was working with some very good people, which was a huge part of why I decided to stick around for as long as I did.
Nrama: Around seven years old you wrote a paper saying what you wanted to be when you grow up, and you put ""Someday I want to be a Disney animator or work for Marvel Comics." Although it's Warner Bros. and not Disney, you seemed to have got your wish. Can you tell us about your time there?
Middleton: Well, I found out many years after writing that paper that the Marvel Comics and Disney Animation I wanted to work for no longer existed, if they ever really did. I am a huge fan of both classic Marvel Comics and Disney animation, but I think what I loved so much was the idea of all of these imaginative folks working together somewhere, dreaming up all of these wonderful things that spoke to me, like there was a chance I would grow up and swim to this creative island where everybody understood what was most important in life. I've come to the understanding that I have to inhabit my own little island, so to speak, but I am still very grateful for the experiences I have had working in the comics, film, and animation industries, as they exist in the real world.
Even though I knew going into Warner Brothers that the days of Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett were long gone, and in fact no actual animation was produced on these shores, I could still feel some history, and I enjoyed being part of it for a while. Nowadays, Warner Brothers has Bruce Timm as their creative backbone, and his work and aesthetic still informs most of what they do. Most of the character designers are students and fans of his approach to animation design. I admired Bruce's ability to maintain his creative voice within the confines of television animation production. I learned a lot about sometimes having to make the most out of very little, something Bruce is particularly good at, and balancing creative ideals with the reality of commercial animation, even if I ultimately learned that I suck at that balancing act and don't want to do it.
Nrama: At Warner Brothers Animation you went from a character designer for their DVD movies to being the lead artist & art director for the upcoming Green Lantern animated series. How did you skyrocket so fast to be the art director?
Middleton: I think my actual title was Lead Visual Development Artist, something they may have made up to fit my role on the show since we were kind of flying by the seat of our pants, trying to figure out how to make a CG series, a first for Warner Brothers. Typically, animation artists are very, very compartmentalized, meaning character designers only design characters. Somebody might only draw props and vehicles. Somebody draws a background, and somebody else paints it. Most of the time, the person who draws Superman never talks to the person who colors him. There are exceptions, but the production line has led to a lot of specialization, which can make for great stand-alone designers, but possibly a lack of overall design cohesiveness. Comics provided me with a great education in many areas of design, so when the Green Lantern series came along, it was an opportunity to bring more to the table than just line drawings of characters. I had already made it known that I was looking for a broader creative role, and had mixed things up a bit on the DVD movies by coloring my own stuff and poking my nose into backgrounds and such, so when Green Lantern was going into production, Bobbie Page, the VP of production and the woman who was kind enough to hire me in the first place, allowed me to go over there and drive everybody nuts for a while.Like I said, Green Lantern is a CG animated series, and there was this huge challenge of trying to capture a more dynamic, retro-future, pulp sci-fi style in a CG show, which was what Bruce was really pushing for. We were starting from scratch in a lot of ways, so it needed a lot of art direction in the beginning, and I was fortunate to be there at that moment. Eventually, it sort of became my mission to make the Green Lantern series as stylish as Bruce was hoping for, and I went crazy for several months doing all sorts of stuff, from basic character designs to backgrounds and matte paintings. I even wound up modeling several of the main characters in 3D, something I had absolutely no intention of ever learning how to do, but desperation, madness, and a program called ZBrush saw me through it. I would work on my 2D art all day at the studio, go home, and stay up all night teaching myself this ridiculous program. Looking back, it was crazy, but I have a hard time putting the brakes on once I get going.
Nrama: What was it like working in-house with a team of artists again like Crossgen?
Middleton: I wouldn't have made it past my first month if I wasn't lucky enough to be plopped into a room with a small group of artists I quickly became friends with. They made me feel at home, and we had a lot of fun in our little character design room. As the months wore on, I met and befriended more and more folks and was so impressed with how genuinely kind everybody was. Working in animation can be tedious and down right grueling some days, but despite that, everyone got along, save for the occasional threat of decapitation, but I really enjoyed my time there, primarily because of the quality of the folks I was working with.
Nrama: After working at Warner Brothers Animation for a little over a year and getting a promotion, you left in November 2010. Why was that?
Middleton: Despite the good people and stability of the job, it just wasn't the best creative fit. In my heart, I probably knew from day one that I couldn't make it a long-term career, but it was something I needed to do. It's mildly embarrassing to talk about a year at a job like it was a big deal, but to a guy who has worked completely alone for a decade, a year is an eternity.
Originally, I hoped I could somehow work at Warner Brothers, not invest myself too much, and come home and work on personal projects; the "day job" could bank roll my own creative endeavors. Somehow, despite all of my experience to the contrary of that concept, I did not realize how ridiculous this notion was at the time. Of course, my wife never believed it for a second, but that's how it goes. I'm always the last to know.
I took the job and almost immediately became deeply involved in whatever I was working on, and anything else went right out the window. This has always been a problem for me, and it is often an excuse for never having produced art of much personal value. I was genuinely enthused about the Green Lantern show, mostly because I really enjoy a lot of the wonderful classic sci-fi art that served as inspiration for the series and I was going crazy with all of the new challenges of CG, but eventually my own creative aspirations came creeping back, and I knew it was time to go.
I enjoyed the year quite a bit and learned a lot, and I worked with a lot of folks on Green Lantern who are sincerely dedicated to making the show the best it can be. The show is looking great and Green Lantern fans are going to go nuts when it airs, regardless of what that movie does.
Nrama: Now back on your own, you said on your blog earlier you'll be doing "a lot of drawing in 2011". Is it going to be comics, or something else?
Middleton: I will be illustrating book covers, comic book covers, possibly designing a few things here and there for film, and some sequential illustration. Most of which I have done many times in the past, but I seem to be approaching the work with a renewed enthusiasm lately. I was reminded of how important all of this stuff is to me, and to never take for granted the opportunity to create whatever I can. I want to do this right, so I have to do it a lot to get to the place I want to be.
I'll try to keep my blog updated regularly in case anybody wants to know what I am up to. In the next few months, I'll also give more specifics about the stuff I am working on.
Nrama: Just a couple days ago you posted some new art on your blog that we’re sharing in this article - things that were new, or from things I didn't recognize . Are those from your upcoming projects, or just sketches?
Middleton: Most of the sketches I post are just from practice sessions, but sometimes I am trying to work out a character, and even when I am just sketching to learn something, the characters are often related to some story idea I have in the back of my head. I have always had a really hard time just drawing a character or scene without some context. I seem to make up loose fragments of backstory just to get my pencil moving, even if it’s just for a quick sketch. That might be why I was drawn to comics and storybooks so much in the first place. I love the story behind the characters, or at least the feeling that there is something more there than just a drawing of a pretty girl or whatever. That's probably why I also struggle at times to draw characters I know nothing about.When I used to attend a lot of conventions, I would sometimes sketch for folks, and of course everyone has their favorite characters, so they naturally want to see my take on that, but man, I was never very good at it. I don't know enough about enough characters to pull it off. I recently attended the Long Beach Comicon after several years away from shows, and really enjoyed sitting down and talking with comic fans and artists, but wasn't much better at sketching. My wife told some people waiting for a sketch that if they wanted a good one, they should ask for a fairy or some type of fantasy thing, because that is what I like to draw. I think she saw the disappoint in the eyes of a fellow who watched me spend quite a bit of time on a free sketch of a fairy princess for a little girl who was there with her dad, and then he got Zatanna or something and it looked like hell. So that may be the secret to getting a good drawing out of me.
Nrama: Speaking of Zatanna, for your upcoming comics work will it be going back to Marvel or DC or perhaps striking out with something else?
Middleton: DC has been great to work with. I came to them under a two-year exclusive, but that ran out like five years ago and I just had no reason to go anywhere. I've really only worked with a handful of editors, and mostly on covers, but they've always been very down to earth and genuine, so I deal with the fact that I grew up with Marvel and hated the Metal Men coloring book my grandma once gave me. I still like a lot of the Marvel characters, at least as they were when gods like John Buscema were still cranking them out, but I can relate to the DC universe better now, and I like the characters best when they are unapologetically pure, primary color superheroes. I have a shelf full of Super Powers toys (with truly awesome Jose Luis García-López packaging art) behind me to prove it.
But all of that said, I'm not exclusive to anybody, and my only real goal is to take on work that I can really enjoy so that I can push my art further. There are a ton of characters and universes where that can happen, and I might seek a few of them out, so we'll see where I pop up.
My biggest commitment will always be to create something of my own, and I have written some stories that I would very much like to illustrate. I don't know when, where, or how anything will be published, but I figure I am just going to work on stuff whenever I can, and I'll figure out what to do with it later. I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to illustrate for big publishers now and again, which buys me time to occasionally draw a little something for myself. Needless to say, I'd like to see my own work become my bread and butter, but first I have to make it.
Nrama: Can you go into any more detail on the kinds of things you want to do in comics now, and how maybe your time away might have coalesced more your ideas on what you want to do – and don’t want to do?
Middleton: I have a lot of thoughts about the state of sequential art, how it wound up like this, and what needs to happen to preserve and promote the art form, but that is a very big subject, and really, it all comes down to the work, anyway. I think most folks know the score. The method of delivery will change, one genre's dominance will end, and we'll see what we have. I simply hope to draw some characters and stories that I enjoy and believe in, and hopefully an audience can identify with. That's it, really. Sequential art has always been much bigger than comic books.
Nrama: To get an idea of the comics you want to do, can you tell us the comics and animation work you like yourself?
Middleton: Boy, I like a lot of stuff, but honestly, I really love the concepts as much or more than specific characters. Anyway, I'm going to look at the shelves directly behind my drawing table right now and list a few things in no particular order: everything Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have ever done, all Walt-era Disney animation, about a dozen Mike Mignola trades, Jeff Smith's Bone saga and beautiful Rose miniseries with Charles Vess, all six stunning volumes of Akira and a lot of other manga, Buscema comics, Alex Toth comics, Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier and The Spirit, a lot of Studio Gainax anime as well as others, Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz Daredevil and Elektra books. And so on.
But that's really only a couple shelves. All the rest are filled with art books, books on folklore, and a few classic fantasy novels. So what should I work on? Booster Gold?
Nrama: You said it, not me.
Right after you left Crossgen in 2001, you announced work on a creator-owned series called Sky Between Branches. A teaser comic was released, but not much else - although you've kept it alive with new art from it occasionally on your site. What's your take on it now, both in what readers can expect and your own goals in finishing it?
Middleton: Sky Between Branches was my first idea for a fantasy story. Really, all I wanted to do was draw an earthy, fairytale-world and do it all myself. I had a lot of big ideas, probably too big for my abilities, and not a lot worked out. After I did the preview book, I found myself in constant fits of false starts and agonizing over the story. I'd go work for Marvel or whatever and figure I'd come back to Sky Between Branches when the time was right. But I kept writing down ideas. I literally filled from cover to cover two large books with hand-scrawled notes. There's probably enough in them for twenty years' worth of work. But it isn't that I had been building this super-complex, epic tale, or anything. I was just trying to find the heart of a little fable about lost love and wanting to believe there is something more than this. So it's just a ton of fragments. I was desperate to cram every beautiful thing I have ever wanted to draw in there, like I had this one chance to do it all. Eventually, I drew about a dozen pages for a proper first issue, but long ago abandoned them and decided I wasn't good enough to do it the way it needed to be done.So, I've been practicing and editing over the years, and I have a few characters and a little story I want to draw. It should be animated, really. When I close my eyes, everything is moving. Music swells and light shines. I've written a bit of the score, and have been teaching myself to animate, just so that I might make a few minutes to finally see it on screen the way I see it in my mind, but that's for another time. For now, I decided I just need to make the storybook based on the imaginary film, even if it seems I had to work out the imaginary film in its entirety first. I know this all sounds ridiculous and just shows that I am an amateur, but I'm a nut, and that's just how it's been.
Whenever I do get something out there, fans can expect the very best work I can produce. I'm too close to it to know if the story is worth a damn, but it's an honest attempt at creating characters that mean something to me, and I hope folks will feel something for them when they read their story. I'll be posting about it more in the future over on my blog.
Nrama: Earlier you mentioned that you went to a convention – your first con appearance in years in fact -- at the recent Long Beach Comic Con. Since you got your first comic job via a con, how do you view conventions as
part of your career?
Middleton: Conventions were a huge part of my career. I will always look back fondly on 1999, when my future wife and I traveled around the country hitting the major cons to show my work and hope somebody would notice. Can you believe we flew out to San Diego without any hotel reservations? I told my wife we could just find one once we got there. I was that naive. The only convention I had been to before then was at a Holiday Inn off the highway near York, PA. I think the total attendance could have fit in the Middleton family station wagon. That was a nice two hours in the San Diego airport calling every hotel in the phonebook. We wound up at the Maryland Hotel, which I think might be a parking lot now, probably close to midnight, in a bed that was honestly the most worn out I have ever slept in. It was a hammock. But it was worth it, and I loved it.
After breaking in, conventions continued to be a big part of my career. Often times, that's the only place you actually see an editor, or meet your boss. And I genuinely enjoy talking with friends and fans, and discovering new art and cool stuff at shows. After six or seven years of setting up in artist alleys myself, I decided to take a bit of a break from exhibiting, but I still attended several shows as a fan, including San Diego every year, usually with my pal Kaare Andrews, who takes time from his jet-setting lifestyle to hang out with a bunch of nerds like me for a few days. This year, I will once again be exhibiting at some conventions, starting with Seattle's Emerald City Comicon, March 4-6. If anybody is planning on going, please do stop by and say hello, and you artists bring your portfolios!
Nrama: On your blog awhile back you made a very astute observation on the colors of heroes. Since you colored your own covers, you noticed that the DC heroes seem to, as you say, "beg" for very saturated, pure colors. Seeing as how you've done cover work for both Marvel and DC, can you compare and contrast the two sets of heroes and what you see as their differences from a purely visual standpoint?
Middleton: Like I said earlier, I have always seen DC as the big, red, yellow, and blue heroes, with Batman thrown in there for contrast. Not that Marvel's guys are super-subtle, but Marvel's designs do seem to be somehow more...down to earth. I don't want to say realistic, because I don't like realism, especially the way it has sort of wrecked superheroes for me nowadays, but the colors and textures tend to be a bit more varied and less saturated. Marvel characters just have that edge, and DC characters have that Crayola purity. I know that folks will say that DC is much "grittier" and realistic now, but I actually prefer the do-gooding crayons. I hate the dark tone, ugly colors, and repugnant characterization of a lot of modern superhero comics. I know that I sound like an old man, but I genuinely think a lot of folks have missed the point. Making everything ugly and characters petty doesn't make it any more "real" to me, it just weakens the ideas they represent. I want something more than what I can see on any television channel any day of the week. And remember, these guys are still wearing capes and tights, so quit it with the street level nonsense. It only shines a light on the absurdity of the whole thing at the expense of what could have been a grand story. I want heroes that are bigger than life, and DC's characters with their crazy colors can excel at that.
On the subject of "gritty" heroes, I remember reading a great piece by David Mazzucchelli in the back of the Batman: Year One trade that really summed it up. I would encourage folks to check it out.
Nrama: Your artwork is immediately recognizable for your line-work but also how you normally prefer shading with colors rather than spotted blacks or excessive rendering. But I remember one project where you did spotted
blacks, which gave your work a very different style. What are your thoughts on shading with colors and your spotted black work?
Middleton: I think I might revisit some spotted blacks again on the right project, and I often sketch with spotted blacks just for fun. Some of that stuff can be seen on the blog and in the galleries on my site, too. When I work in my usual open-line style, the color shading is really very similar to spotting blacks. In fact, when I start coloring a piece, I usually work out most of the shadows first by painting with a fairly dark color to work out the forms and see that the composition of light and shadow works. I then go in with color and back the shadows down from there.
When I started out, I thought you had to draw comics a certain way, so I tried to render like John Buscema. Up until then, my biggest influence was animation, so I never thought about hatching or anything. When I shaded my pencil drawings, it was always with soft gray tones, trying to emulate Alan Lee or Frank Frazetta's pencils. I never colored anything as a kid, so I never thought about rendering shadows with color. While I loved Buscema, I couldn't draw like him. I just didn't see it that way. Eventually, I was able to spot some blacks in more of a graphic, cel-shaded sort of way, but I soon discovered Mike Mignola and realized he destroyed everybody at that game, so I best keep moving along. Eventually, I dropped out everything and went with a clean line, which is what I loved the most, anyway. When I was able to take control of my colors, I was able to fill in the forms just as I'd like. The truth is, if the contour line is in the right place, the mind fills in all of the details. That's why a masterful animation artist can imply so much volume with so few lines. That's still what I aspire to when I draw with the clean line, but some stuff just needs heavy blacks, so I might work on something like that eventually to help empty out all of these ink jars I bought over the years, trying to be Buscema or Mignola and failing.