Hi Robert! So I’m going to ask a few obligatory questions here, only because it’s always fascinating to hear what people have to say. How did you get into comics?
Well first off, I love talking about what I do, so don’t be surprised if I get long winded on some of these answers.
I went the route of going to school to learn the trade. I had an undergrad in Fine Arts at Illinois State University, then went on to get a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Sequential art. I won’t ever forget, on the first day of class there, one of the professors sat us all down and said, “Look, I know you all want to draw comics here, but seriously before you get your hopes up just know that there are more basketball players playing in the NBA than there are comic book artists.” Heh, so I realized pretty quickly that I needed to buckle down and focus on what I was doing if I had a prayer.
At S.C.A.D. I learned about storytelling and using the tools of the trade to pencil, ink and color comics. I was also learning about storyboarding for movies and animation, character design for the entertainment industry and so on. While in school I did work for a small press book called the Rift by GI Studios. Then a few months before I graduated I started working with Randy Green doing backgrounds and art assists on the New X-Men: Academy X re-launch for Marvel. After graduating, I moved to North Carolina and joined Tsunami-Studios. There, I continued to do assist for other artists in the studio and really getting hands on training from other artists.
In 2005 I did my first solo book for Devils Due Publishing on GI JOE Snake-Eyes: Declassified. Since then I’ve worked on various titles for Devils Due penciling, inking and coloring. Within the last year I’ve also started penciling work for Marvel, DC, and NBC on the Heroes TV show.
Wow, Heroes, that’s great to hear! Now tell me more about Tsunami Studios. How did you join them? Is it a physical studio that you guys work out of, or is it more like a guild? What’s a typical day like there?
I had already worked with Randy Green (X-Men, JLA, Cable, Withcblade) and met with the other studio members there in Greensboro while I helped with New X-Men. I met Rick Ketcham (Runaways, New Excaliber, New X-men, E.V.E Protomecha), Steve Bird (Hard Times, Robin, Blue Beetle) and John (Waki) Wycough (BloodRayne, Star Wars, Lone) while I was up there. These guys were all professionals, and me just coming out of school, I was pretty star struck to be honest. I would come up on the weekends, driving from Savannah, GA up to Greensboro, NC, 5 hours one way, to help with deadlines. We had some weekends where we cranked out 8-10 in a few days. I quickly grew to love the atmosphere of having comic professionals around and seeing the opportunity to learn as much as I could from them.
There is a physical office space/studio in downtown Greensboro, NC (side note, home of Orson Scott Card and Ender Wiggens, heh), where the studio mates all pitch in for the rent of the office space. The first few times I went up to the studio, I was like a kid walking into Toys R’ Us for the first time! Comics, statues, toys, life size movie stand-ups of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, comic and movie posters all lining the walls. All this great stuff was surrounding 4 individual artist stations/ work areas. It was a two-room office space. Randy and Rick worked on one side while Waki, and at the time, Eric Layton worked on in the other area. It just blew me away that people went to work in places like this.
After I graduated I moved with my wife to North Carolina, found a house and was able to officially join the studio. Randy had moved out of the physical studio to work at home and after some musical chairs I had my own corner of the studio space. I would typically go into the studio early and get right to work. Rick was there every day as well. We become quick friends, and I really enjoyed those years working up there with him. He really is a consummate professional, and became a mentor in a lot of ways. He’s been working as a comic inker for over 10 years and had a lot of advice from experience. I soaked it up and thoroughly enjoyed his company. Other artists were in and out a few times a week when they had time or weren’t working from home.
Tsunami Studios has been around for quite awhile, I believe even before 2000 there in Greensboro. Now there are 14 members around the country. Some live in NC other in Georgia, and I’m currently living in Illinois. We all keep in contact and have a mutual website. www.Tsunami-Studios.com.
The idea of an artist studio is both professional and social. As artists when we get work from editors, if asked if we know a penciler, inker or colorist who can step in and do a project, we look out for each other and suggest studio mates first. I’ve certainly gotten work through recommendations of other studio members and have used inkers in the studio on past and even current projects. Clayton Brown is a Tsunami-Studios member, and he is currently inking me on Forgotten Realms. I just finished an Iron Man story for Marvel that Rick Ketcham is inking now. So it gives a professional network to help provide work for each other.
Also, as a studio member, it’s just nice to have friends and colleagues in the industry that we can talk to and socialize with. For us not in the physical studio, I could call up any number of the studio members and chat and it helps not feel like a hermit locked away in my home studio without any art friends. You basically surround yourself with people who understand what it’s like to work in this industry; the joys and exciting moments that come with working in comics, along with the stress and frustration of the deadline work.
Now who were/are your major influences?
My artistic influences are constantly changing, as I discover new artists or come across things I like. Constant on that list are some obvious comic artists like: Adam Hughes, Carlos Pacheco, Jim Cheung, Neal Adams, Alan Davis. Then there are the more rotating artists that do things particularly well that I appreciate like: Yanick Paquette, Ed Benes, Brandon Peterson, Randy Green and etc… I could go on for hours. It’s interesting coming into the business at this time too because I see other artists breaking in within the last few years that I’ve met at cons or went to school with, and I see them succeeding. I appreciate their skills and always find I have something to learn from them as well. Artists like Ryan Ottley on Invincible, Khoi Pham on the upcoming Mighty Avengers, Sean Murphy doing covers for Marvel, Chris Lie’s a school buddy doing Drafted for Devil’s Due and so on.
What was your favorite comic growing up?
I’ve always been partial to Marvel comics. I was introduced to comics through X-Men, but I really started collecting comic during the beginnings of the Image boom. I grew up with the superhero books, and like most readers I branch out into more indie titles and enjoy both ends of the spectrum now.
When did it hit you that drawing was something you wanted to do as a career?
I would say, in High School I knew I wanted to draw for a living. It seemed the most prominent thing I liked to do and was excelling in. It wasn’t until my Sophomore year in college that I knew I could make a living in comics.
And what was your first published work?
I count Snake-Eyes Declassified as my first work considering it had a print run large enough that anyone could find it and see I worked on it. There were a lot of smaller projects or art assists before that, but definitely GI JOE work was the beginning.
Maybe this is a little too early to ask in your career, but what work are you most proud of so far?
Yeah, I really don’t feel like I’ve hit a stride yet. I think most artists are their harshest critics. Pretty much I’ll finish a page and am happy with it, and by the time I scanned it in I’m seeing things I could’ve done better.
I am excited about all the work I’m doing now, it’s all the most recent, so by default it’s probably the best work you’ll see from me to date. The pencils on Forgotten Realms has been a lot of fun, especially considering the change in genre.
Well, there’s this guy named Mike O’Sullivan. He’s a great friend and astounding editor. I had been doing work with DDP since 2005, mostly fill-in issues and various covers. Last fall he called me up, and just asked if I’d be interested to come on as the regular artist on Forgotten Realms. I flipped. I had actually worked on Sojourn, Exiles, and Hafling’s Gem as an inker over Tim Seeley, so to get to pencil the book was exciting and familiar all at the same time.
I’d read the novels years ago, and reading through the scripts by Andrew Dabb really brought it back. He does a great job of condensing the material and doing the impossible job of pacing out a novel into 3 comics. I don’t know how he does it.
Have you met R.A Salvatore or gotten any feed back from him?
No, I’d read that when DDP first started the book with Tim Seeley, Salvatore was apprehensive, but once he saw the art and read through the adaptation was very pleasantly surprised. He thoroughly endorsed the book and has ever since as far as I know. I sincerely doubt he knows who I am though. Most people don’t, really.
Doing a book like Legacy is a lot of work with the heavy page count. How long did it take you to do the first issue?
I started the pages in late Nov. early Dec. 2007. So I came on with little to no lead-time. Luckily, there is a great art team on board that helps get the issue out on time with the coordination of Mike as the editor. Clayton Brown was right on my heels inking the pages as I turned them in. Wes really kept up as well and we were all able to turn it around. And both of them were able to keep a quality that really helped tell the story beautifully, even under pressure.
I was really feeling that page count around page 22 or 23. I was like, “man, shouldn’t I be done by now?”…but it just kept coming. I print out the script and do my thumbnails on it directly as I read through it. So as I finish drawing the comic page, I throw that page of script away. It helps me feel closer to being done as that enormous script starts dwindling down.
If you could work on any book, what would it be?
Captain America, Daredevil, or Nightwing. I like the characters that seem more human that super. They really interact with the people they protect, and you can focus on why they do what they do. I have always enjoyed drawing cityscapes and buildings in the background, so those characters really lend themselves to the rooftops.
What attracts you to books like Captain America and Daredevil? Is it the recent writer runs of Brubaker and Bendis, or something more?
While I’ve really enjoyed both of those writers, it’s more the essence of what the characters stand for. I think Brubaker is defiantly handling Cap in an amazing way, but Steve Rogers represented a genuine goodness, and I think that element is lost in the book now. I think these characters can be inspiring, that even when their life sucks, and even though they aren’t perfect people, they can go out and try to make the world better. There aren’t a lot of those types of role models in entertainment these days.
I also enjoy that they can’t fly or shoot energy blasts. They get tired, their muscles ache, they have to physically hop around buildings to get from one place to the next. Of course it would be impossible to do any of the things that even Daredevil or Captain America does, but still in comparison they are incredibly human, and still able to fight the good fight.
Well since we’re on the subject of great comic book writers, what comic writer would you really love to work with?
At this point in my career any writer who can tell a thought-provoking story using the characters I can enjoy. I’ve always loved superheroes, and what they represent. I like the visual aspect of placing fantastic characters in a representation of the real world. I would really like the opportunity to work with a writer and do a 6 issue story-arc that is a solid self-contained story that incorporates the things I’ve talked about.
What other projects do you have coming up?
Well, as I’ve been drawing Forgotten Realms I did a 16 page back-up story of Iron Man for Marvel. I’ve also started working with NBC as a rotating artist on the Heroes TV show’s online comic, and next month I’m doing an issue of Legion of Superheroes of the 31st Century for DC.
While working on all of this, I do my best to keep working on a co-created series called Elders of the RuneStone with my friend and writer Quinn Johnson (Tales of the TMNT). We went to school together at S.C.A.D. and we started up the RuneStone project. There is a preview on the website, and we are currently working on the first issue. We’ve got some movie interest in the works as well, which is incredibly exciting!
It sounds like your plate is pretty full right now with the amount of projects you’re on. How do you balance it all out?
It is very tough. As a freelancer, you have to not only keep your schedule full at the moment, but look months in advance and try to plan out steady work. It’s a juggling act that you try and keep steady and doable, but doesn’t always run so smoothly. Last Aug.- Nov. 2007, I didn’t have much to work on, just doing spot illustrations, fill- in inking and a few covers. So I worked mostly on a creator owned series.
Since December I’ve penciled well over 100 pages and 5 covers for 3 different companies in just over 3 months. The hardest part is gauging your limits. I have a family, and that is something very, very important to me. I do my best to limit my work so that I can be a good husband and father. Sometimes, like recently, I have to work more than I would like, and my wife has always been very understanding. So I don’t like to take on so much work that I’m penciling over a page a day 7 days a week if I can help it. That leaves no time for a life and is unfair to those I care about.
Also, it’s hard to say “NO” to work, and often when it rains it pours. You go from having nothing on your plate, to having to turn down really good paying work because you are already committed to something. I’m really learning first hand that if you try to do too much, deadlines get blown, and your work is even worse for it all because you couldn’t pass up that opportunity. Often being as honest as you can about what you can handle to editors is your best bet. They’ll appreciate that you didn’t take a job that puts them in a tight spot later, and remember that when you are available.
Being someone who’s relatively new to the industry, what advice to you have for aspiring artists?
Well, Im going to steal a quote from Walt Simonson. He came and did a class/lecture while I was at S.C.A.D. and said to us, “You need to have three things to break into comics: 1. a professional looking portfolio of work that’s good enough to be publishable, 2. you have to draw constantly to get better and faster to meet proper deadlines, then finally 3. ALL THE LUCK YOU CAN GET!”
There comes a moment when you’ve done everything you can to break in. You’ve gone to conventions and stood in all the portfolio lines, you’ve shown your work to other artists, you post your work online on a dozen forums for critiques, you mail submissions to publishers, and created a mini comic of your own story. Even by doing all that there still needs to be that moment of luck, or divine intervention where you happen to be in the right place at the right time when an editor needs an artist. Your best bet is to be that guy/girl by keeping your aspiring work out there.
I can guarantee that there are dozens and probably hundreds of better artists out there trying to break in that are loads better than me. And they deserve the work too. It’s just a tiny industry, and they haven’t gotten that break with an editor yet. Once you get work and can prove you can meet a deadline with an editor, they genuinely want to give you more. It’s in their best interests to give work to dependable and responsible artists. It makes them look good.
Now you really have to pay your dues as a new artist. Your first work will probably be a fill in issue. Typically the reason you need a fill in is because the book is behind and the editor needs the work done now. That means as a new artists your first work will be on a ridiculous schedule.
My first Marvel work was a 12 page story that needed turned around in 14 days. I wanted a month to make these pages the best I possibly could to prove what I could do. But the schedule never allows for that. So you meet the deadline. There are a lot of artists that can’t keep up with the stress of that deadline and fall by the wayside.
So really it’s important that you’re drawing everyday, so when you do get that call, you can jump right in warmed up and on pace to finish what they need.
Also, after you’ve gotten started, just by keeping a regular dialog with other creators and editors, they will be more likely to recommend you to for other projects. I have acquired more work this way without really pursuing work. They will know you are responsible and they will be willing to put your name out there.
What’s the toughest part of your job?
Hands down it’s the deadlines. Every job starts exciting, then you have to really push through some dull drums to finish it up on time and with the same quality that you started at.
Plus life just gets in the way. There are family emergencies, birthdays, anniversaries, house projects etc…. You can’t draw 24/7…heh I’ve come close, but it just can’t happen. Also lack of sleep is killing me now. I have a young son and work mostly through the night. I’m just short of hooking up an IV of Mountain Dew to my drawing table.
Have you done a lot of conventions? What’s your experience been like?
Oh Man! I could go on for hours about convention stories! As an artist there, it’s just the best time. I look forward to going to as many as possible each year, and I can’t wait for the convention season to roll around.
I typically go to Wizard World Chicago, and will be there this year. I also go to Heroes in Charlotte, NC most years. I’ve been to the Philadelphia show, Pittsburgh, Houston, San Diego, and Mega Con in Orlando so far. Some cons more than others. Each show is different and have varying benefits for artists. I could go on and on about each show and how you can expect to sell original art at one, sketchbooks and prints at another, or just do dozens of sketches all weekend long in the next. There are a lot of ways to make money at the shows, you just have to know what to expect and plan ahead.
But the shows aren’t just about making money, that just seems to be a bonus. I love meeting fans and especially the kids who are really into comics. I really enjoy hanging out with other comic creators that I only get to see at the shows. They aren’t vacations, but you can’t beat hanging out all night at the hotel lobby or someone’s room and there are 5-10 other artists all sitting around drawing sketches for the next day.
Now there are horror stories of course, that can’t be helped when you get that many comic fans and artists congregating in one location. But its all part of the fun.
Is there a particular sketch or commission of a character that people request most?
It always depends on what you’re working on and what the fans see. If you’re working on GI JOE or say Spider-Man you become the guy to go to for those characters. I can’t imagine how many Spider-Man requests Mark Bagley gets at a con. I worked on Snake-Eyes Declassified, and probably 7 out of 10 sketches that con season were Snake-Eyes. Also, working the con circuit you learn very quickly how to draw female comic characters. That’s just the way it is…sometimes the requests can get a little…weird.
There is a guy that goes to cons and really likes to have female comic characters drawn wearing antique scuba diving gear??? He has all the reference provided, and I’m talking that huge brass helmut and suit. You just know when he’s coming down the isle what your gonna draw. We call him “Scooba-Doo”.
I hear you’re into podcasts. And I have to admit, I’m really addicted to them as well (especially the comic related ones). What do you listen to regularly?
Yeah, I’ve just recently discovered how incredibly awesome these are! It’s a great way for me to focus on what I’m working on (as opposed to having a movie or the TV on) and I get to hear about anything and everything. I mostly listen to comic podcasts, in that I’m not physically in a studio anymore and can’t talk about the latest comic buzz or books that are coming out. Often you get to know the guys hosting the shows by listening, and it can be funny and interesting to hear someone else’s opinion about a given topic.
I started by listening to Comic Geek Speak, then through their links and comprehensive forum, found other podcasts that I enjoy. Uncanny X-Cast, iFanboy, Quiet Panelologists at work, Word Balloon, Around Comics, and others.
I really enjoy the interviews with creators, and get a look into their process and thoughts on the projects they are working on.
In closing, is there anything you’d like to say to your fans?
“My fans”, heh. I think that would assume there is more than one. I don’t know, just to keep an eye out for me at the cons, and keep coming to my website to see what I’m up to www.RobertAtkinsArt.com .
Also to check out the Tsunami-Studios website, www.Tsunami-Studios.com , there is a forum there where you can post your art and get critiques from the studio members, or chat about comics, movies, or anything you want. We just launched the site, so I think it’s a great opportunity to talk with comic professionals and get advice on breaking in, an inside look at what the industry is like, or just get to know us beyond the name in the credits.
Finally, to be on the look out for all things RuneStone! www.RuneStoneComic.com This co-created series we are working on is a total blast, and a very character driven story. These kids go through life with serious issues, and there are some genuinely beautiful moments when they talk about what they are going through. Plus when you throw in ninjas, superpowers, megalomaniacs and all around butt kicking, you can’t go wrong! We are currently shopping it around to publishers, but we are taking our time to get the art done well and keep a high level of production value for the upcoming books. Also we are exploring the movie avenues that are currently underway and opening up for us.