Artist Spotlight: Interview with Tony Guaraldi-Brown by Ryan King
Ryan King: Let's talk about your current art project The Rabid. Written by J.D. Arnold (BB Wolf and the Three LPs) and published by Action Lab Comics (Princeless, Double Jumpers), what more can you tell us about this comic series?
Tony Guaraldi-Brown: So though it looks like a zombie animal comic, it's not. The Rabid really is--the title I think basically explains the series in that. There is a virus that infects animals and while destroying their body stimulates everything else. It stimulates and destroys their body at the same time making them rabid and they like just go after anything they can get a hold of. For the first issue you come across the rats who will eat each other, eat people, eat animals, eat anything that's living. Everything becomes carnivorous after a couple days, at least for right now. They'll die out. And what it does is in the broad spectrum it destroys the ecosystem because rats bite other animals, other animals bite other animals, so on and so forth. And almost all the animals in the world will slowly die or become rabid. And it won't really effect the people as much as people will effect people when all their cattle die and all of a sudden they're like, "We don't have any more beef! AHHH." You know? [Laughter] And never mind that that cow is about to bite your face off it's, "What are we going to eat?"
So that's one side of it. In the small scope of it you have this farm family called the Michaels who really get inundated with the first infestation of rats. In the beginning of the book we've got the mom, Helen, beating the rat with a shovel, you know? And wondering this rat is a little weird and it won't seem to die. And by the end of the first book you see a full blown invasion of rats just attacking people. In the second book it starts to break out into dogs, cats, rabbits. In the third book you've got stags, cattle, monkeys. I think by the fifth one they've got full on steer that they have to deal with. Because they live on a farm in Iowa they're surrounded by animals [laughter]. There's just animals everywhere. And they're also a little isolated, even though they have television and whatnot. And the cellphones are still hard to always get communication about what's happening. So yeah, that's kind of the gist of the story right there.
RK: So how did you come to work with Arnold and the team at Action Lab?
TGB: I've known Johnnie for...oh my goodness, almost ten years. And he and I have tried to get projects off the ground before and either while pitching them companies just haven't been interested or, you know, either he's too busy or I'm too busy. But we've been really good friends for a long time and he called me up one day and was telling me (we were just checking in) that Dave is working with this--Dave Dwonch who is the--what is his title there? Artistic Director? Creative Consultant? I don't know. He's one of those [laughter].
RK: Creative Director.
TGB: That's right. He's Dave [laughter]. [Johnnie] said he just pitched his story to Dave and they're going to probably going to pick up this one and they also want to pick up The Rabid. And I said, 'Which one's The Rabid?' He's like, 'Remember that one about the animals? And they attack people? And they're kind of like zombies?' I was like, 'I want to draw zombie animals...' [laughter]. And so he's like, 'Yeah, I wanted you on the story but I know you're on The Showdown, which is the hot rod story I've been slowly working on. And he said, 'Call Dave. Here's his number. See what he can do.' I called Dave and he's like, 'Oh my god, I totally wanted you for this story but I thought you were busy.' And I was like, 'No, I'll stop that one man. If you guys are actually publishing this, I will do this.' And just knowing Dave for a long time because Dave and I used to work together at another vanity press a long time ago. He was a writer and I was an artist. That never worked out. So Johnnie and I, it all just--just right place, right time. Now I just have to get the book done [laughter].
RK: Judging from your flip-book preview and the teaser pics you post on your Facebook, The Rabid is shaping up to be an extremely gruesome tale. Do you have any problem creating the disturbing artwork for this project?
RK: Yeah, that goes into my next question that as an independent artist is there any subject matter you would refuse to touch?
TGB: You know, I probably wouldn't do pornography. I don't mind drawing something that arouses people but I don't want to do, for lack of a better term, like jerk-off material. But for this, I know Johnnie and I know what he writes and how he writes. And I know what kind of a person he is. He's a good guy, you know? He's a very kind person, a very nice person. He's a loving father just like I am. And I think that also brings a sensibility about how I can say, you know, if I'm going to have these rats eating this man' face off, I better do the best job I possible can to show them absolutely horrified. And I don't mean like typical, 'Oh my gosh...' but like genuinely like 'Oh-my-god-my-friend-is-being-eaten-alive.' And in the second issue there is this futile attempt where the father, Robert, tries to--his friend is being eaten--and he tries to get these rats off of him. They've got a fire extinguisher so he grabs the fire extinguisher and the rats are pretty much just like, 'Yeah, whatever. I'm going to keep eating.' And you can see him and he's just like, 'I don't know what to do here.' You know? And I think showing the futility of that situation combined with the gruesomeness of what's happening I think kind of heightens the idea of the artwork just better than blood, guts, and gore. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in the emotional impact of it.
RK: Another project you've had on the back burner for quite some time is the graphic novel called The Showdown, written by Russ Lippitt (Lion's Share). What can you tell us about this project?
RK: So how did you and Lippitt decide to work together?
RK: I know people have been waiting for probably more than a year but could you give us a rough estimate on when The Showdown might be finished?
TGB: I have to finish The Rabid first. And I should probably have The Rabid done by November or December. And then I'll probably have to juggle both. You know? I'll be doing the first five issues of The Rabid and then Larry Luna is going to be doing the next five. After that, just because of my full-time job it takes me awhile to do these, and in the meantime juggling getting The Showdown pages in and out... So probably--I hate giving estimates... I'd just say look for it in 2013. Probably the latter half of 2013.
RK: Tell us about your work on Silver Gryphon Games. When did you start doing commission work for them?
RK: Besides working on comics you're also employed as a high school teacher. In your position as an independent artist do you find it necessary to work on the side?
TGB: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, I don't have choice. I have a mortgage and I have kids and we have bills and I have to work. And I made that choice in my life to have a family first before my career just because of who I am and what I need in my life. And actually having kids has motivated me more and given me more confidence than I had when I was just out of school. I'm really, really hard on myself about my work and have a hard time being happy with work that I finish. Which I think sometimes slows me down but it also it took me a long time to show people my work and say, 'No, you're good enough.'
So with that said, I know I totally digressed, I have to work until I get enough money doing fine art stuff or illustration work. It's a slow building process. It usually takes five years to actually have a full on career. And that's okay. I'm patient, I'm good enough that that time will actually happen. In the meantime, teaching people is a wonderful way to beef up your skills because all the stuff that you're teachers teach you in school or that you pick up. You never have to really explain to anybody and then you understand why the color wheel is setup the way that it is, why these two colors work together, why this type of composition works this way but not that way. You know, the feelings that you get from this versus that and you learn technically how to speak about things which I think not a lot of people do, especially what I see at conventions. They'll come up and they'll look at art work and they can only talk about it in regards to the artists that they know from the comic books that they look at. I can go on about that, but I won't.
Well, here's my issue. As an artist, as a teacher, it's my job to teach people how to think critically. Not only about art but about the world so that they can better access how things are right or wrong and how to fix them. But also to be able to speak about it means you have to open your span of knowledge. So I have this friend Jason. He just finished up the Batman Endgame series for DC.
RK: This is?
TGB: Jason Shawn Alexander. I love his work and I think his work is absolutely amazing. He's a good friend and he's also a good person to look at artistically. He has the same sensibilities as Kent Williams but their work doesn't look--Jason is not ripping off Kent at all, they just have similar sensibilities in line and they way that they use composition. But because people's view points in comic books are so limited, Jason's work either looks like Kent Williams or it looks like Dave McKean or somebody else. There's only four people that they can really go back to and say it either looks like Kent Williams or it looks like Dave McKean, George Pratt, or Phil Hale. And it's like while Jason has looked at their work and studied them and is actually friends with several of them, his work is his own work. And I realized that this time at the San Diego convention where people have a very limited vocabulary. So what it does is pigeonholes artists so that--Joao Ruas got picked up on the Fables covers because his work was similar to James Jean. When you put the two together they look nothing alike. They're not the same at all. But of course immediately people look at the covers and go, 'Oh, that looks like James Jean.' It's like, well it looks like James Jean only because you know James Jean not because you don't understand that both of them come from Arthur Rackham, his illustration sensibilities or all the illustrators from the turn of the century--last century. Okay. [Laughter] Beef up your vocabulary people.
RK: Do any of your students know about your career outside of teaching?
TGB: Yeah, they always give me a hard time for teaching. They're like, 'What's wrong with you Mr. Brown? Why are you here? Why are you here? You should be doing this for a living, not teaching us.' And I was like, 'Got to pay the bills man. Till this pays the bills, I'll keep teaching you guys.'
RK: Have any of them stumbled over the art piece you did for the band NOFX?
TGB: No, but I've told them about it usually when we start talking about punk music and I'll actually say, 'Yeah, I did a piece for NOFX.' And they'll be like, 'What?' And then look it up online and be like, 'Oh, my God!' [Laughter] Yeah, my friend Elaine used to work for them, that's how I got that gig. That was fun. Once again it was drawing Fat Mike and the other guys as The Misfits and as zombies. So it was like perfect for me.
RK: Punk rock, horror, chicano culture, specifically Dia de los Muertos, are themes that appear throughout your work. Are these all subjects that interest you?
TGB: Oh, yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. I grew up as a metal head next to the border of Mexico in Brawley, which is South east of San Diego, about thirty minutes from the border. And about an hour from the border of Arizona. So yeah, it's all chicano and mexican culture down there. And I didn't realize it. I was just a white kid growing up in a Mexican culture. Even though all the political aspects of that like all the white people own land, you know? And a large majority of the latinos work for those people. But when I came up here and started doing my own work, later on those things kept popping up in my head. I was very attracted to the Day of the Dead ideas as well as--well, the idea of death itself which I think the puritanical idea that you need to fear death and hold on to life as much as possible no matter what the cost I think is ridiculous. We're all going to die. But I think in the Mexican culture that death is just another--you know, where's Captain Hook--it's just another adventure! [Laughter] Death is the only real adventure. But the wisdom that's passed on from generation to generation that's what stays. That I felt is something I can speak about in my art work. Where in some ways as a teacher I have to be a total--I have to be a clown because I have to keep my students entertained. Which the painted faces, that's what we have in our culture. But then the wisdom of having to make these stupid jokes I'm parting nuggets of wisdom to them as well they'll get some aha moments. Those things heavily influenced me. Just growing up around a bunch of chollos and gang bangers and stuff like that. Yeah, that definitely influenced me.
RK: What about other artists and comic book creators. Does anyone else really inspire your work?
TGB: Yeah, definitely. So I just picked up the giant IDW Dave Mazzuchelli Daredevil and I'd say that run of Frank Miller, the 'Born Again' series of Daredevil, that run for me is probably the best comic book series I've ever read. Those six issues. Storytelling and art. Pacing, everything for me is like that's what I want my comics to be like. David Mazzuchelli's work is totally awesome. So him, Alex Toth--those two guys are like the master of simplicity and giving you as much information without giving you a bunch of crap. I look at Takehiko Inoue who does Vagabond. He does a bunch of other stuff, but Vagabond is about Musashi the swordsman and his work is just--his storytelling is absolutely amazing. I think he really understands martial arts and budo and the way of the sword. He really represents that probably the best that I've ever seen that in comics. It's not outlandish. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's tragic. But really it's a definite homage to the actual swordsman Musashi. Otomo for Akira--storytelling will influence me and technique will influence me. I look at a lot of Hall Foster if I'm doing pen and ink. How does he lay down simple lines or where does he add detail, where does he not add detail? And then Mike Mignola, that guy. Enough said about that dude. But then also, my friends. Like Jason influences me. I look at his work and he's someone I can learn from. He's further along the path of being an artist than I am and it's good to see what he does and he gives me tips and pointers every once in awhile. That is nice. Kent Williams is another person that I look at. And mostly like the Allen Spiegel fine arts guys. Allen is the rep for Kent, Dave, John J Muth, and Greg Ruth who is a good friend that I look at. I was actually looking at Greg's Freaks of the Heartland for this cover [motions to The Rabid #1] going like, 'How does Greg do a sunset? Shit.' You know? 'Alright. What am I going to do with this and not rip Greg off but get the same sensibility.' I ultimately like more realistic representational artists than--I've just become dissatisfied with a lot of comic book artwork. I think, if we want this medium to do better--sales wise and creatively--we have to stop being okay with mediocre art work and mediocre storytelling.
RK: If you don't mind me asking, what is your definition of 'mediocre' storytelling?
TGB: It's hard because I usually don't pick up those books. I don't pay attention to them. I'll flip through them and go, 'God! How did this guy get published?' Which of course if you flip through my book your going to see some of that too. Where you're going to be like, 'Jesus, he just phoned this one in.' I understand you're fighting a deadline which is indicative of a larger problem where editors and publishers don't care about quality as much as meeting their deadline, and making sure that they don't get their books returned from Diamond [Comic Distributors, Inc.]. It's like Diamond is the monopoly that in someways tightens the wrench on creativity. It's like, you have to be fast, you have to be speedy. I think if people would just slow down a bit and let artists actually do their work a little bit better. Which the Action Lab guys have been awesome about. Then all the artists or writers could produce a better quality which I think in the public view would make comic books even more valued than just super heroes.
But I got to say some of the '52' stuff that I saw online, I was incredibly disappointed with the misogyny of Starfire. Like okay, you took her from what is essentially a hippie type person who understands about peace and love and there aren't those weird psychosomatic boundaries that we set over sexuality and now you turned her into a total whore. It's just like, 'What did you do that for? So you could sell some more books? Good job.' You now just made another book that my daughter won't read.
RK: Or like the latest cover for Catwoman.
TGB: Well, the first issue of Catwoman is like, 'Come on, dude!' You don't see her face and all you see is her boobs and her butt. And it's like you totally just objectified, like she's not even a person anymore. She's just tits and ass. Until she jumps out the window. And I don't understand why the editor was okay with that and I don't understand why the artist was okay with doing that. I don't know if the writer wrote it that way but somebody should have said, 'Dude, Catwoman is a badass. She can go toe-to-toe with Batman for the most part.' Why are we doing this to that character? Why does Supergirl have a half-shirt? Like, do I need to see her midriff?
RK: Or how Powergirl's symbol is her boobs.
TGB: Yeah, totally! And it's not like, 'Well, I wanted to put the Superman emblem on there but I decided not to draw it.' It's like, really dude? You just wanted open cleavage. Let's be honest. Like I said, I don't pay attention to the books that I don't like. I pay attention to the books that I do like. And so the artists that I mentioned before, good storytellers. Good art. And they care about what they're doing.
RK: Do you have a method to creating your artwork? A schedule or a preference to what time of the day to work?
TGB: Yeah, I have to work at night. I like working during the day because I'm not as tiered, you know? But during the year when I'm teaching, it's like I teach, I come home. I help the wife and the kids with whatever and then put them to bed and then I come out here [to the studio] and draw for as long as I can until I'm tiered and I'm going to be a total asshole tomorrow at the classroom so I better go to bed. Art wise, I will sketch something out in my sketchbook sometimes. Sometimes I just sketch it out on some scrap paper until I get the idea generally down. I'll do a larger mock up because my pages are so big. I draw my pages at 13'' by 20.5''. Normal conventional size I think 10'' by 15''. I just cannot draw that small so it has to be bigger. I will do a larger mock up. If it's in color, I'll get some color ideas down. Then I'll shoot my reference and do the reference photos so I get hands in correctly, posteur, whatnot. And I'm still trying to figure some things out too. I still have learning that have to do. I can just draw using the ink and I'm okay with it and other times it's like, 'No, you need to go back and really draw this tightly. When dealing with color it's like well maybe I should lay down the color first and then the black on top of that. I like inking more than I like painting. Those are usually the stages. But normally I need to have reference to pull from or else it just looks like mashed potatoes. It's like, 'That's not a hand holding a gun. That's a clump of mud! What the hell?' [Laughter].
RK: Do you have any words of advice for independent artists beginning the comic medium?
TGB: You mean me? [Laughter] Even though I haven't been published, I've been around for awhile. I've done this for a long time just waiting for the right project. Don't be afraid to show people your work and when you show them your work do not put yourself down immediately. I see a lot of people hand me a portfolio--even my students will do this. I'll go to critique their work and immediately they will start saying things that they think are bad because they want to deflect that personal injury of somebody critiquing them. If you can find somebody who gives you good criticism than you will understand that they're not critiquing you as a person but the way you apply your technique and skills onto the page and the canvas. Don't put yourself down because then they'll start looking for those things. Just go in and say, 'This is my portfolio. Could you give me some advice about it.' And then just keep your mouth shut unless they ask you about it. Listen to what they have to say. Show your portfolio to as many people as you can. Don't do those god damn portfolio reviews at the cons. Go and hunt down the editors. Because those reviews, one percent out of the people get a job at one of those. And really those guys just go in with a pad answer of, 'You need to work on your anatomy. You need to work on your storytelling. You need to work on blah, blah, blah. Work on your hands. Well, you just need to stick out a little bit more.' What they're really saying is, 'Dude, I got one more hour of this shit, then I'm going back to the Hyatt and I'm going to drink. This is my job.' Every once in awhile they'll find somebody and go, 'Hey, you got potential.' But the portfolio reviews, I would say probably thirty percent of the time. Really, you go to the other booths. You should look at other artists, you should hunt down other artists, talk to other artists. Ask who their editors are, go talk to their editors. Mail stuff out. Just don't be afraid to talk to people. Nobody is going to notice your work. No one is going to come to you. You have to go to it. Which took me a long time to understand. I thought, 'Well, my work is good enough. People will see it and I will get jobs.' No, it really is about who you know. Really, yeah.
RK: What about any final comments? Are there any other projects in the works after The Rabid or The Showdown are completed?
TGB: Sweet Jesus, no! I got to finish that stuff, man! I got like years of work lined up! No, right now those are what I'm working on. Russ is working on trying to get The Showdown made into a movie. He's actually out in Chicago and then New York pitching it. He's going to do like a little animated trailer with the artwork that I've done. Johnnie and I are going to finish this book up--this arc right now--in December, and then Larry Luna will take over for that. I'm excited for that. Larry's an awesome inker and a good artist and I'm excited to see what he'll bring to the table. And, hey thanks for hunting me down and doing this interview.
RK: No problem. I appreciate you letting me do this.
TGB: Oh, I forgot to say when you mentioned artists that I look at--Eliza Frye. I don't know if you know her but she's just an indie artist. She was nominated for an Eisner a couple years ago and she has a really, really good storytelling sensibility and I just picked up her book at cons last year and just thought I'd give a shout out about that. But beyond that, no man, thank you.
RK: No problem. Thanks for doing this again.
For more information about Tony, check out his website here. ***Artist Spotlight is a monthly column featured on Go Suck a Comic that focuses on the promotion of talented and promising independent artists. For more information on how to schedule an interview, please send an email to email@example.com***