David: Dirk, Thank you for doing this interview and for contributing such a great epilogue to the Legends Volume 2 Hardcover! Let’s start with your background in art. Did you start showing an interest in art early? Any formal training?
Dirk: Dave, it's absolutely my pleasure! I've been a fan of yours for a while, and was stoked to do this.
I'm one of those "drawing back when tricycles were cool" types, and, being raised by wonderful grandparents who fostered my growth, having a half-sister 4 years older with a more consistent drawing style, along with other family and friends, I was often challenged to do more, which all just kept me interested, growing, and producing. Outside of the people who influenced me, cartoons, animated films, superhero comics, illustrated books, and my interest in the natural world all had quite the influence on my growth as a young artist. For the latter half of my public education, I was friends with another artist who was also big into comics, and simply put, was better than me, which pushed me to spend time on my work to create equally good art.
David: You are known for your scratchboard work- what drew you to this media for many of your illustrations?
Dirk: Jokingly, but perhaps not, I'd say my fear of painting and strength in value, focusing on the lights and darks. Although I love to view good artwork in color or black and white, my forté has leaned toward drawing than color. I'm improving that with myself, and maybe I'm not as bad at it as I think I am, but it's something I'm always conscious of.
In middle school I discovered how, in my opinion, good black and white art can be just as relevant and aesthetic as color. Black and white art often carries the stigma of existing due to being a cheaper vehicle over colored work, but when you place Wrightson's artwork from his Frankenstein book next to a Jeffrey Catherine Jones cover piece, Barry Moser's wood engravings or Stephen Gammell's art up to Eric Carle, or Franklin Booth next to Howard Pyle, they stand up! All four of those artists I'd been exposed to by middle school. Heck, Gammell's Scary Stories, which everyone is obligated to love, (I mean it), possibly initiated that interest at a younger age as my cousins and I incessantly stared at his illustrations while reading those stories. It's an honest, damned shame HC removed his illustrations for the 30th anniversary print of Scary Stories.
Unfortunately, I didn't really jump into executing true black and white until college, when I brought those influences back toward the front of my conscious, Barry Moser's work being the obvious beacon. At the same time, both he and Jae Lee were affecting my view of black and white art like no other artists during those years. I began to cut down on the abstract, cartoony, or ultra-muscled, double-bicep'ed characters, and began digging into mood and atmosphere, often more solemn and introspective. I had a black and white illustration class taught by illustrator/ writer Brian Kane, and this was the one class that I really had the chance to experiment with the scratchboard style. The first two pieces stank, but by the third, I knew I was capable of producing professional work. After graduation, I waited a couple of years before I did anything more with the medium, until I decided to create a little niche for myself at comic conventions. I created a series of Justice League portraits in scratchboard, which led to my first freelance projects with the medium.
David: This isn’t your first panel by panel comic work, but is this the first time doing a comic all in scratchboard?
Dirk: Multiple editors, publishers, and my own curiosity have been pushing me to do a comic in scratchboard, but I would often get sidetracked with other projects or freelance. When you approached me to do the story in the medium, it was an opportunity to finally jump at trying it out, no matter what size or restrictions the project might give.
David: For the epilogue story, I gave you a seed of it being about a printer who changes the course of mouse events with his humble trade, but you took it from there and put shape to the story with narration & images. How did you approach the writing portion?
Dirk: Ha, the high school kid who sucked at conceptual writing in me would respond with "um... in English, with paper, and a mechanical pencil."
But seriously, since these panels were done to imitate block printing, I wanted the story to be mostly void of dialogue. For much of block printing's history, and illustration in general, there wasn't dialogue placed over top of the image. I wanted to maintain some of that antiquity in my own way, (unique from say, the too-awesome for words Jeremy Bastian), so I focused my story on a narrative text, with emphasis on the visuals telling the story apart from the text. I've allowed the popular instruction that the art should be able to tell the general story without need of text to sink into my thought process for long enough now that I like to go and prove it sometimes.
David: For your script, you broke down the panels with descriptions and narration for each. Were you just visualizing the pages as you typed? or did you do some thumbnailing to figure out panel shapes or the number of panels per-page?
Dirk: For my own work, I jump into ideas akin to Kurtzman's style. I allow plot, script, and thumbnail sketches to work organically with one another to create the story- both the artist and storyteller inside work together to complete the work. If I get stuck with a sketch, I move onto writing in an attempt to fill the gap. Eventually, both thumbnails and rough script are finished almost simultaneously. Otherwise, my thumbnail sketches might be too messy to comprehend later, or the images in my head may disappear before I can record them in writing.
Once that script was written, what is your process for developing your roughs/pencils? And how do you transfer that work onto the scratchboard? Is each panel its own piece of scratchboard?
I might create a couple more thumbs to secure my confidence with the page layout. Once I'm satisfied, I'll create a larger sketch, often at print size. Or, I may skip that and go straight to final work size, which in the case of my scratchboards, is a hair larger than print- I don't want to work much larger than print size, lest I lose my smallest line detail.
I have a couple methods for transferring, depending what seems to be more convenient per image. I start out by drawing my panels on the board with either a tech pen or black colored pencil, and all the straight lines get ruled out. To transfer the drawing, I either 1.) draw it on with those same tools, 2.) trace the drawing onto the board with a ballpoint pen to leave a slight impression, or 3.) my favorite method- I take a little bit of Xylene (paint stripper that one can purchase at hardware stores), and with paper toweldipped in the xylene, lightly rub the back of a black and white laser copy, (reversed), onto the board. The Xylene melts the toner from the copy onto the board, leaving an image that's blacker than the ink of the scratchboard. This is preferred when I'm lazy and don't want to draw everything again onto the board. Watch it, though- too much Xylene and you begin to affect the scratchboard's ink; not enough, and you simply don't transfer the drawing, and it may affect the paper. It's fun, regardless, like silly putty for adults, but with more vapors entering the sinuses. I should probably caution about that part, but I won't.
I had large enough boards to design each page onto one board, with panels for the most part laid out as they were sequentially in the story.
David: What tools do you use to clear away the black of the scratchboard?
Dirk: I use the two standard scratchboard tools that you can get from Ampersand- their diamond blade and wide blade. They may have different names than what I just gave, but basically, there's one for small to medium lines, and I use the wide blade to scratch off much wider or areas, similar using a standard crow quill pen nib and a brush when inking. I also use a clay needle tool for my smallest lines. The diamond blade has the most versatility, while the other two take the line widths a little bit further in variety. Sometimes I'll use X-Acto blades, but I often resort back to the aforementioned, eventually. It's all decently cheap.
David: How long (on average) did it take to do the scratchboard work for a single panel?
Dirk: Longer than I thought, but not much so. Once drawn and transferred, I'd guess that each page took maybe 12-15 hours to complete, some panels requiring more or less time than others.
David: Creating tone in scratchboard is a trick of fooling the eye with optical mixes of line thickness and spacing. Do you have any mental process for how you want to approach making those tonal values as you work?
Dirk: Before I work on rendering an object in the drawing, I do some preliminary scratches on the side. It helps me to visualize the overall texture, to set the tone of the object, and to work out any kinks when it comes to the next adjacent object or specific part of the drawing. It's not as easy as one might think, because with any hatching where both values (or colors) vary in thickness to create the value or hue in-between, you may also create a variance in graphic appearance. If I create 10 bold black and white lines next to each other, they may produce a space of 50% gray. Placing 20 black and white lines next to each other in the same size space may create an overall similar value, but the former is going to have broader, more noticeable lines, while the other seems finer. That affects the style. I'm always conscious of that, and have a love/hate relationship with the medium as I make those tiny but important decisions.
David: What other projects do you have coming up?
Dirk: I just finished up a mural for a child grieving center. I'm about to dive head first into a couple architectural concept illustrations for an art space in York, PA; getting ready to start a comics-related art residency with a school in December. I'm preparing for my next season of classes at one of the art galleries near my hometown. All that, along with other, more boring freelance work- color this photo, create that packaging, clip out the giant bear mauling a human in the background of our lovely vacation photo. Oh, and plotting my next personal projects. The life of versatility!
David: Where can fans find out about you and your work and keep up with your projects?
Dirk: Awesome people can follow me on my Facebook page, ambitiously titled 'Dirk Shearer International Experience Of Visual Entertainment,' on my blog at 'Alone In The Dirkness,' or my Twitter account, '@DirkShearer'. I'll hopefully be getting a website back up in a couple of months, too. I misses it. Dirkshearer.com is now a Japanese food blog. I hear it's dirktastic. In the meantime, my online portfolio can viewed at www.coroflot.com/dirkshearer.
Dirk's story Just a Printer appears in the Hardcover of Legends of the Guard Volume 2 along with stories by Stan Sakai, Nick Tapalansky, Alex Eckman-Lawn, Ben Caldwell, Christian Slade, Rick Geary, Jemma Salume, Eric Canete, C.P. Wilson III, Cory Godbey, Bill Willingham, Jackson Sze, Justin Gerard, &Cliff Monear.
I encourage you to pick up the hardcover collection of this new anthology & all this wonderful work.
MSU Comics Forum: February 22
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Heroes Con: June 20-22
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NY Comic Con: Oct. 9-12