From A Scanner Darkly to Secret Warriors, David Marquez has had some meteoric success as an artist. But — as regular readers of this column should know — he didn't get that way without a lot of work. But he finally cracked into the comics industry with Archaia's Syndrome (preview here), with a look that's reminiscent of Howard Porter at his prime.
But what kind of path did Marquez take from a rotoscoped Keanu Reeves flick to his first Marvel work on Secret Warriors, due out next week? How was he influenced style-wise, to land a job on Days Missing? For the eleventh edition of Artist's Alley, we caught up with this rising star, and talked about style, expressiveness and doing more with less lines.Newsarama: David, just to start off with, how did you fall into doing art professionally? What obstacles did you have to overcome to decide that you were ready for prime-time?
David Marquez: My way into the industry felt like much more of a long, arduous slog than falling in. I was probably 19 or 20 when I put together my first submissions portfolio, and very deservedly got my ass handed to me when I went to a portfolio review in Chicago. Between disincentives like that, pressures to go the straight route and get a “real job," and the sheer amount of time it took to get my first paying comics gig (at age 28), there were a lot of opportunities to give up. I only stuck with it thanks to the support of my close friends, family and especially my girlfriend, Tara.
But in terms of specific events that helped, a few that come to mind. Working on A Scanner Darkly convinced me that art was actually a viable career option, though it would take me several more years to finally get a serious comics gig. After several years of going to San Diego to no avail, I started promoting myself online, and eventually a writer by the name of R.J. Ryan (now a close friend) came across some art I had posted on Millarworld. Turns out he was in need of an artist, and that led to my first big project, Syndrome (a graphic novel from Archaia). That same year at SDCC I got a callback from a Top Cow portfolio review which eventually helped me land a gig in this last year's Pilot Season with The Asset [full issue here]. With those two projects as a foothold, things started taking off.
Nrama: Let's talk about influences for a second, and how you adopted your visual style. Obviously style is a very personal thing for artists, and things are often in the eye of the beholder. So to get it straight from the horse's mouth, how would you describe your style to someone, and how did you wind up taking this as "your" look?
Marquez: Hmm, that's a tough one I guess something along the lines of "precise, dynamic, stylized realism" might fit what I'm trying to do – I'll let the readers decide if I'm succeeding or not. There're a lot of great artists that made an impression on me early on: Jim Lee, Travis Charest, Adam Hughes, Kevin Nowlan, Frank Quitely, Bryan Hitch, J.G. Jones, to name a few. I'm a sucker for clean, precise lines and a realistic approach to anatomy and rendering. But I also think that motion and energy are really important, and I draw pretty heavily on manga (Blade of the Immortal being a personal favorite) when it comes to action scenes.
Nrama: As far as process goes, can you walk us through a bit how you approach a page? Do you have to have a certain element already laid out before you can continue, or is it more of a linear process based on the script?
Marquez: Storytelling is the most important part of drawing comics, from my perspective. It's something that I'm not sure really comes naturally to me and so I've made a very concerted effort to develop that aspect of the craft.
When approaching a page, I start by reading through the entire script — it's important to understand how each part relates the story as a whole. From there, I go through the story pretty linearly, scene by scene. As I read each scene, I thumbnail out the pages, trying to balance things like pacing, emphasis, speaking order, spatial relationships and overall composition. Once I think I have the whole thing laid out I dive into rough pencils/layouts for the pages. Since I ink my own work, these layouts are intended mostly to give my editors a sense of what the finished product will look like, and also to give me placeholders/skeletons for all the elements I'll need when it comes time to ink. I work fully digitally, so my inks are almost more like the traditional “tight pencils” stage, refining the figures using the layout as a basic guideline.
Nrama: And jumping off that last question a bit, could you tell us a bit about what tools you use, and what made you decide to choose these particular items?
Marquez: Well , I'm one of that new(ish) breed of philistines that works almost entirely digitally. While I trained myself using traditional media (pencil and brush), my experience working digitally on A Scanner Darkly really turned me on to just how versatile a digital toolset can be. And there is the added benefit of a much faster rate of production.
Specifically, I work in Photoshop CS4 with a 12" Wacom Cintiq (pressure-sensitive tablet screen).Nrama: Tell us a bit about your stint in animation. You worked on A Scanner Darkly, correct? How'd you get involved with that, and what did you pick up on the job that you've translated to comics? Marquez: During college I started going to a local sketch group where I met a bunch of folks who, like me, wanted to break into the art world (a mix of game design and comics). We'd meet every Sunday and the whole atmosphere of collaboration was exhilarating. Time came that the folks at Warner Independent Pictures began assembling their animation team for Scanner, and naturally the sketch group heard about it and a bunch of us tried out. I was still in my last year of college, and so I actually passed on this first audition to finish up my schoolwork. I kind of watched from the sidelines as several of my friends got jobs on the film and just as I was about to graduate, another slot opened up. I auditioned and got the gig.
Scanner was hands-down the most influential event leading to my current approach to drawing comics. I learned a lot just working with so many amazing artists, many of whom came from a comics background. Additionally, it was on Scanner that I first started seriously working in a digital environment, something that would end up playing a major role in landing my first paying gig.Nrama: For you, what would you say is the most difficult part about comics art? How do you overcome this?
Marquez: Comics require you to be able to draw anything, and every day you end up drawing something you've never had to draw before. At the same time, especially in terms of facial expressions and dialogue, you end up drawing the same things over and over again. So, how do you balance making all the new stuff convincing (especially if there's no direct reference), while not falling into a rut on the stuff you draw all the time? I think both challenges require developing a keen attention to detail, both in terms of observing the world around you, as well as being acutely aware of what you draw, and how.
A building, whether in Japan, New York or on Mars, ultimately has the same basic elements, but it's the inclusion of tiny variations in detail that make it convincing as Japanese or American or Martian. On the other end of things, I can't tell you how many times I've had to draw a character wheeling about surprise or screaming in anger. Keeping these kinds of shots fresh is an ongoing challenge. We all develop shortcuts and standard go-to shots/expressions, but there's the danger of one's art growing stagnant if you never try to innovate – even if it's only a matter of moving the camera a few degrees.Asset cover. Nrama: Over the years since you've started drawing, how do you feel that your style has changed, if at all? What have you learned through trial-and-error as far as your art career has gone? Marquez: There are countless technical improvements that come slowly with time and effort: eliminating stiffness in characters, composing exciting backgrounds, more accurate anatomy, perspective. I feel like I've seen some progress here, but naturally it's an ongoing process.
One of the biggest areas I've had to focus on is composition – both within individual panels and for the page as a whole. This is something that most definitely did NOT come naturally to me and I really had to study what the big guns were doing, and try to reverse engineer some system that would work consistently for me. I still have a long way to go, but I feel as if I'm finally in a place now where I'm starting to get a decent balance.
But in terms of style, I think I'm developing a much greater appreciation for simplicity and efficiency. I'm certainly no minimalist, but I'm learning to do to more with fewer lines.Nrama: You've got a particularly expressive quality to a lot of your characters, and I wanted to ask what you do in order to ensure that the character is "acting" to really sell an emotion?
Marquez: I guess it all starts when I'm reading the script. I tend to play out the scenes in my head as I read, complete with facial expressions, hand gestures and intonation. From there its just a matter of superimposing that acting onto the characters on the page. And come to think of it, during especially emotional scenes I do tend to “get into the mood” as I draw. It's kind of a feedback loop: if I can get myself into the right emotional frame of reference, that tends to be reflected in my drawing, which I then (hopefully) respond to and the cycle repeats.
At the end of the day, I really do draw for myself, and if I'm not getting any emotional resonance from the characters I don't feel satisfied, and chances are neither will the readers.
Nrama: One thing that always interests me about comics is the use of lighting — some artists drench their pages in shadow, whereas you seem to have a more open style that focuses on clarity of image. For you, what's the advantage to that approach? How do you approach lighting and mood?
Marquez: To a certain degree, it's just a matter of aesthetics – I like the way a more “open” style looks. But also, this ties into my earlier comments on trying to simplify my style. In the past I'd use black much more heavily to establish volume and form, but this also contributed to extreme over-rendering (still an issue at times). There are some who find a balance (Mike Mignola comes to mind), but perhaps I'm just not at the stage where I can make it work.
Nrama: Let's talk about how you've built up your skills a bit. Have you had any exercises that you've done in order to hone your skills, or look at things from a different angle?
Marquez: There are a couple things – not really specific exercises, but things I try to constantly work on:
(1) Draw all the time. It takes time and effort to develop any skill.
(2) Constantly observe, and note details. I think this ties really closely to the last point: the more time I spend drawing, the more I catch myself examining things I see in everyday life.
(3) As much as possible, try to avoid drawing the same thing, the same way, twice. This has helped me catch some bad habits I was falling into, as well as target weak areas. By forcing myself to draw things differently, I force myself out of my comfort zone and (hopefully) grow a little bit as an artist.
My need to pay rent takes care of (1). (2) and (3) are a work in progress.
Nrama: Finally, for those who are trying to break into the industry as you have, what would you suggest young artists do? What do people not know about this field that they should?
Marquez: For those wanting to break in — Never stop drawing, and never stop learning. It's fine to look to from artists you admire, but try not to just ape their style. Try to see past WHAT they are drawing to see WHY they draw that way, and apply that knowledge to your own art.
As far as comics as a job — drawing for a living is very different from drawing as a hobby. It requires discipline, patience and (just like in any other career) you have to learn to work well with others. Drawing comics can be a lonely and challenging job, but it's also an innately collaborative industry — you aren't going to get anywhere on your own.