Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Legends of the Guard Creator Spotlight: Alex Sheikman

David Petersen: You and I have already talked about this subject a bit over the phone, so I know your answer, but will you share how you felt working on your Legends story was different than working on something of your own like Robotika?

Alex Sheikman: There are a couple of nuances that made this very unique for me. First of all, because this is “legends” of Mouse Guard, rather than a story that is part of Mouse Guard continuity, I felt very free when I started thinking of possible storylines. Continuity can be the toughest part of any assignment (even when it’s your own creation), how to bring something new and fresh into an already established storyline…not having that in the mix, gave me all sorts of freedom.

Secondly, the fact that Mouse Guard is so totally different from anything I have ever drawn before (animal based vs. humanoid based universe) made it very exciting. I got to take the principles that I have been studying, of storytelling, design, drawing and rendering and apply them to something new. This was fascinating for me, I saw things from a fresh perspective and that was very inspiring and pushed me even more to experiment with design.

David: I think this is the first time you ever worked in the square format. How did you find it? Did it effect your panel arrangements or your go-to page layouts?

Alex: The format definitely affected my page compositions. I still followed what I believe is good storytelling, but because of the different space allowed, the pages have a very unique look. It was like playing music in a different key, it is similar enough so that if you know how to play you know what to do, but different enough because you have to adjust the whole piece to make it sound right.

I loved doing horizontal panels in this story. They really had a panoramic feel to them that was very cool. That is something that is very hard for me to capture when I work in the rectangular format.

David: I have already seen your artwork for Legends, but I think the question applies to your Robotika work as well. In some panels you draw intricate backgrounds with lots of details. In others you simplify the backgrounds, and in some you omit or use stylized marks. What, as an artist and storyteller gives you cues for when to use which level of detail? Is it simply a graphic decision? Or is the story and dialogue giving you the cues?

Alex: The backgrounds are the stage for the story and definitely have to serve the story and the storytelling. The reader should never be confused about the setting and the space through which the characters are moving.

Having said that, I will also admit that I am in love with the turn of the century illustration and artist like J.C. Leyendecker and Orson Lowell who were able to describe the backgrounds/environments with just a few suggestive shapes and a couple of pen strokes, are fascinating to me. I want to understand it and I want to practice that.

I have recently also been looking at syndicated strips by Al Williamson and some other great artists from the 60’s and I love how they were able to not only accurately depict the backgrounds, but also arrange everything to make each panel a very cool illustration. I want to understand that and practice that as well.

My goal has been to be mindful of my depiction of backgrounds and to try to create a rhythm from panel to panel of how the environment is presented to the reader…and hope to make it look cool at the same time. So at times when I need to establish a scene, I try very hard to provide enough information to set everything up for the reader to see and if I have done that properly, and maybe want to increase drama/tension a few panels down the line, I might do a close-up of a character with the backgrounds replaced by graphic shapes that draw attention to the character or his/her actions.

David: When you sent your Legends thumbnails over for me to look at, you had written in all the captions/dialogue. Did the words come with the pictures? Or did you figure out the text after thumb-nailing the story?

Alex: As I am doing layouts, I am always thinking of compositions and how they will interact with captions/dialogue. As you and I talked about before, comics are a unique medium that creates a wonderful marriage between pictures and words. As I work on thumbnails, I try to always be aware of both elements, to make sure that the story is being told well, and that I am smoothly transitioning between panels, scenes, and pages.

The text definitely got refined at the later stages, but the basics got put down at the same time as the initial scribbles.

David: Since I didn’t give you a page cap, how did you determine when the story was done in terms of page count?

Alex: This was something that I truly appreciated. With the freedom given, I just told the story the best way I thought it should be told. Turned into an oddball number of 9 pages, but I feel it’s just right.

I don’t think this happens very often, there is usually a page cap that one has to work towards, so this was fun.

David: When you are drawing, what types of materials are you using? Do you draw directly on the final page? If so, how closely do you follow your roughs/thumbnails?

Alex: My approach/technique is always changing. I have, in the past, drawn the different panels on separate pieces of paper and then re-traced everything onto one final board. I have also tried taking the roughs and blowing them up to trace on the final page. But I have felt that my drawings stiffen-up when I go through the tracing stage, so currently I use the roughs as a reference pined to my board and I simply start drawing right on the Bristol board.

Since I ink all of my own work, I don’t have to worry about indicating line weights in my pencils (I implement that when I ink), therefore I enjoy using mechanical pencils for penciling. I move my hand over the drawing area a lot (my penciling is more like doodling a ton of lines and then erasing the “wrong” ones) and with tough leads, mechanical pencils hardly leave anything to smudge.

David: Talk about your inking process. What do you use? (and when)? Do you work on contour lines first? Do you focus on composing your large black areas early or later?

Alex: Inking is a subject dear to me. It is one of the stages of black/white drawing that I truly enjoy. I don’t know if it is because it is very technical and I enjoy the whole “what tool to use for this sort of job” thinking process or because the inking stage is the last step before you can see a complete drawing.

A few years ago, I considered trying out for an inking position, but I found it hard to ink someone else’s pencils…I kept trying to “fix” the drawings (without even realizing it). In the end I learned some very valuable lessons, one of them being that I should stick to inking my own problematic pencils.

As far as my process goes, I try to be very open minded when it comes to tools and techniques. I have a variety of tools near by (brushes, markers, dip pens, tooth brushes, bath sponges, cotton tips…) each one capable of making different marks and based on the desired effect I choose the tool that I feel is right.

I usually try to finish all the penciling and figure out where my positive and negative spaces are, so when I start inking the basic design/composition/light-source is worked out and it is down to the mechanics of making ink marks/lines on paper. Because I am right handed and I try not to smudge wet ink, I almost always start at the upper left hand corner of a page/drawing and ink down diagonally or across to the right. I outline, but don’t fill in the black areas until the while page is done because I don’t want to wait for the ink to dry while I am still working on the page.

David: I think that you are a real student of comics and comic storytelling Alex. With Robotika, you played with the medium in ways that, I think even you, considered an experiment (vertical lettering, the 3 parallel narratives in the end or Robotika v.2) talk about your outlook on experimenting in comics for good or bad.

Alex: Thoughtful experimentation is always good. I try to be aware of how I tell stories and why, as a storyteller, I make the choices that I do. Staying aware throughout the whole process of what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it will be interpreted by your readers (who can’t see inside your head and can only judge the work by what is presented to them) is important AND a challenge.

The principles of storytelling in comics are similar to the storytelling principles in prose, cinema, music, dance, poetry, theater…each one is a unique medium with special needs and strengths. But in all of them, you can’t loose your audience just for the sake of an experiment in media…of course all rules are made to be broken, even that one.

David: Where can people find out more about Alex Sheikman and Robotika?

Alex: If anyone is willing to take a risk, I have a blog that I update a couple of times a week with pages from my sketchbook and any other news I might have at sheikman.blogspot.com. Or for Robotika info archaia.com

Alex's Legends story: Oleg the Wise appears in
Legends of the Guard issue #1 in stores June 2nd!


Unknown said...

These artists spotlights you've been doing have been great and it was a blast to listen to you on iFanboy as well!
Can't wait to read this on Thursday!

DPetersen said...

Glad you liked the interviews!

We will be going back to regular posts for a bit (Artwork, covers, news, process, fan art etc.), and then jumping over to interviews as we get closer to Legends #2 (With interviews with Gene Ha & Lowell Francis, Terry Moore, and Sean Rubin & Alex Kain)

morgen said...

I'm waiting until I've read the first issue before reading these interviews. I always feel I get better understanding of what the interviewee is trying to say.

Oh David not sure if you're aware of this but here is a link to some IBM/Muppets videos.


Also I must have the Fraggles cover you're doing as it looks awesome. Once again you're proving yourself to be the go-to guy for anything Henson related.

Anonymous said...

Hey David

Legends of the Guard was awesome!! Great job by everyone:) I was wondering if Alex Sheikman's original artwork from the book is for sale???


DPetersen said...

Morgen: Thanks! I had seen the IBM shorts already, but thank you. And I'm happy to be doing any covers related to Muppets & Henson!

Luis: I'm sure Alex will be willing to sell artwork. send him an email: asheikman -at- yahoo -dot- com

Blog Archive