I’ve been a fan of Mike Choi’s art for a long time, but I’m even more so a fan of his musings about art and comics. His Twitter account is a treasure trove of thoughts on the nature and business of comic book art. I was thrilled at the opportunity to ask him some questions and dig deeper into his thoughts and feelings about his own art, the comic book industry, and his recent turn as a teacher.
I believe I remember you saying that you weren’t a “natural” artist, that you had to work harder at it than most creators. Has that background impacted the way you view comic art?
When I say I’m not a natural comic book artist, I mean that drawing comics is not a need I have to constantly satiate. I’ve heard other artists say that they need to draw like they need to breathe. I think I need to draw comics like I need to eat pancakes. I like it, and sometimes I love it, and I can’t imagine living in a world where I can’t eat pancakes or draw, but I’ve gone weeks without drawing comics and the only thing that drew me back to my desk was needing the money.
How I view comic art is all over the place right now. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, which is a long time in some ways, but not in others, I suppose. I’m kind of disheartened by the whole thing really. Rates haven’t gone up the entire time I’ve been doing this, and they hadn’t for a while prior to my coming in either. There’s no incentive for growth once you find your schtick. I’ve come in with artists who’ve only gotten more efficient without any growth in approach or style, and that’s served them really well, because the fans have latched on. But then you see what often happens when a popular artist tries to do something creator-owned, or even just a different book from the one they became popular on, and they don’t see that popularity transfer over. To me that says that their art doesn’t really stand up on its own. I don’t want to be like that, but maybe that’s what every artist is doomed to. Even fine artists who become popular for drawing something really well, the interest dries up when they draw something else equally well.
I started in comics because I loved comics, not because I wanted to draw. I had a good job at IBM that I quit because I didn’t love it, and wanted to do something I loved. I didn’t love drawing or making art, or even know how at that point. I loved comics. And now I don’t love comics anymore. I get infatuated again every so often when I read something amazing like Tom King and Gabriel Walta’s The Vision series, or Bakuman, but man, that doesn’t happen very often at all anymore. I’ve been two pages into Mister Miracle for like two months now. But I liked those two pages.
You started your career at Top Cow, a publisher known for developing artists who become major names in the industry. What made Top Cow such a great place to learn how to draw comics?
Top Cow had an in-house studio of artists, where we learned from each other, all under the guidance of both Marc and a really solid editorial group led by Renae Geerlings that really wanted to see their artists grow and prosper, if only for the sake of their books. We got to feed off each other and learn through osmosis, not just from our studio mates, but also the artists who had gone through before us. That kind of environment doesn’t exist anymore, where artist studios are almost entirely company-run. It’s not cost effective. Instead, companies rely on artists learning on their own, at least just to the point of being competent, and then find them and funnel them through their books.
X-23 has changed a lot since you helped define the character. What do you think of the recent changes?
I don’t care anymore. I really don’t. Out of spite. I love the character. I loved what Craig and Chris established. I loved what Marjorie did, and what Tom did. But honestly, I’m so tired of people telling me what she’s supposed to be, and how I’ve gotten it wrong. And that I shouldn’t call her X-23. I don’t even care that you’re right, you’re being such assholes about it, that go fuck yourselves. She has a complex and convoluted history, some of which has been swept under a rug or written out. When I first drew her, her first appearance had just come out, and she was a New York City prostitute. Her actual for-real origin is that she was a prostitute with a pimp named Zebra Daddy. I’m not saying that a prostitute can’t be a good character, but legit that’s all she was with intentionally zero personality in her first appearance. I’d like to think that in some part my drawing her in Target X and X-Force went a long way in establishing her as a well-rounded, strong, extremely intelligent, emotional, realistically-flawed character with her own agency, and that trying to realistically portray a human being who’s trying to find out who and what she is but would do anything for her friends and family is part of why people love the character so much. But you’re telling me I don’t know her because I drew her with bare shoulders? Go fuck yourself. Telling anyone what a woman would or wouldn’t or should or shouldn’t wear makes you an asshole. Women like Laura do what they fucking feel like.
By the way, I personally would have called the new series The Indomitable Laura Kinney, or something like that. But I can’t blame Marvel for going with X-23. It’s an established brand. And they need to sell the book.
What prompted you to begin painting comics?
I think it started with simply wanting to finish a work of art. In comics, you often have these separations in the process where layouts, pencils, inks, and colors are all done individually, often by different artists. I’ve been fortunate to work with some very talented collaborative partners, but nowadays I want as much control over the entire process as I can get, as someone who has a vision in my head of how the artwork is going to look. It might not be as nice as if someone else colored it, but at least it’s my vision. I’ve had some works where I imagined a very specific tone, and the colors changed it. Or a certain Photoshop-rendering style made everything look super shiny, or a shadow put in by the colorist changed a facial expression. I get that the client might like the overall piece better, but it wasn’t my vision.
I recently had to turn down a cover gig at a Big Two company that I really wanted to do, because they wouldn’t let me paint it, because they don’t trust my color choices. I totally get it, but that just means I have to earn their trust as a colorist, and if that never happens, then it wasn’t meant to be. To be completely honest, I don’t know if I completely trust my color choices right now either when it comes to what the Big Two want on their books. I’m slightly red-green colorblind, as is a lot of the world’s population, including many artists and specifically colorists. But I’ve used that as an excuse for way too long. I’m not that colorblind, I can pick out ill-fitting colors just fine in context of others. The big thing is that I’m too experimental at the moment, and try too often to see how far I can push a muted palette because over-saturated superhero colors on the more realistic rendering that I like still looks a little weird to me. Alex Ross makes it work because his drawing is super realistic, but not his painting. No one has ever confused an Alex Ross painting for a photo. Maybe my art style as I see it being is just not meant for mainstream comics.
Next month it will be exactly three years since I started painting. Before then I didn’t know the difference between oil and acrylic, or what medium was, or any of the thought processes behind color, warms and cools, all of that. It’s kind of interesting to consider how much I’ve put into painting thus far based on why I started. I’ve pretty much devoted my entire life outside of my family to it.
Your style seemed really labor-intensive even before you started painting. Have you ever played around with a looser style?
Yes. But right now I really enjoy the labor aspect. Everything else just feels lazy, because looseness without intent is lazy. I haven’t figured out how to make the looseness or emptiness work for me. I’m a huge fan of artists that do though, like Josh Middleton, Adam Hughes, and Mike Oeming, whose lineart is so dynamic that over-rendering tends to weigh it down.
What was the appeal in going the teaching route?
It wasn’t so much the teaching route that appealed to me as the academic environment in general. I recently moved to San Antonio from Los Angeles after my son was born, because it’s cheaper and there’s way more space, and because my parents live here. The last two years or so that I was in LA, I was learning how to paint at an atelier as a full-time student. It’s why my output as a comic book artist sort of just stopped completely a few years ago. I put all my savings and continued earnings towards learning how to paint. And to be honest I’d probably still be a full-time academic if I hadn’t moved here. Every day I was painting and drawing for hours at a time with a mindset of wanting to learn as opposed to finishing a piece of art. I spent up to a hundred hours on a single cast pencil drawing over the course of a month, trying to make as believable an image as possible. That’s not something I ever had the luxury of doing drawing comic books.
Ideally, comic artists finish a page in 12-16 hours over one or two days, which is the equivalent of doing, on average, 4-6 finished illustrations, with figures, objects, and backgrounds. And that’s not even considering the other facets of comic book penciling that go unrecognized by people who only see lead mileage, so to speak. The acting, the design work, the cinematography, the “casting” of secondary characters. (Acting alone can make the difference between a successfully-told story and an unsuccessful one, and we know this to be true in film, but not in comics. We see awesome cross-hatching and iconic chest-puffing and call it amazing art, and leave the comic book feeling unfulfilled story-wise.) There’s no time for comic artists to devote significant amounts of time towards learning. Some try to learn new technologies for efficiency’s sake, but not towards learning how to better their craft, like actively learning anatomy by taking a gross anatomy course or learning color theory or sight-size by taking a week-long workshop. There’s just no time to do that when there’s a deadline looming.
Stepping outside that grind and devoting significant amounts of time and money towards learning allowed me to fall in love with the making of art. Just the craft of it. Painting as opposed to illustrating. Before I moved here I was working as an art handler three days a week at a prominent contemporary art gallery in LA. Aside from needing the money because I wasn’t drawing comics anymore, I took the job to find out more about the ins and outs of the gallery business, which I did, but mostly I just wanted to be able to look at the artwork close up, and touch the surface and feel the impasto application of the paint, and see how the best representational artists in the world today rendered form and light through paint. It was such a rich and priceless experience, but also one that showed me just how far I needed to go. Not just in terms of skill, but also name recognition. That’s definitely the side of the contemporary art world that I don’t like, the marketing side of it. It’s part of why I’m not mentioning the name of the gallery, although I didn’t keep it a secret when I had the job. Artists and collectors seem to look down on artists who had “menial” jobs like art handler, or worse, were commercial illustrators, tattoo artists, or the bottom of the barrel, comic artists. Unless you’re James Jean.
Teaching is just a continuation of my journey as a student, if that makes any sense. I still have just as much of myself devoted to the academic side of art, but now instead of only taking in information, I’m also funneling some of that information out as I continue to take it in. The lessons become trivial if they’re not constantly and consistently applied, and I think teaching them can just as effective a method of application as direct application is, when you consider just how often they can be applied in the day-to-day business of only being an artist working on a limited number of canvases at any time. Muscles atrophy and painters often find themselves getting rusty in certain principles if the opportunity to use those muscles don’t present themselves regularly enough, like a portrait painter not having to use perspective lines in painting after painting after painting. Having a curriculum allows a teaching artist to hone their training constantly and on a schedule.
Teaching often gives the professor a better understanding of the craft in addition to their students. Have you found that to be the case?
Aside from the constant honing that I mentioned earlier, I feel like it’s helped me to better compartmentalize and process the lessons I’ve picked up and continue to learn. Like as an example, earlier I distinguished between the way that Alex Ross draws, and the way he paints. It has nothing to do with medium but more with the labeling of particular skills that I use to teach my students. Drawing to me is establishing shapes, angles, lines, curves etc. 99% of creating a likeness or a model, or really making anything look like what it’s supposed to look like, is in the drawing. Rendering form and volume, mostly by clearly establishing light sources and darkness of shadows and bounced light through recognition and representation through application of values, and thus making things look really real, that’s painting to me. Color is just one part of it and a surprisingly small part of it. Having to verbalize these things definitely helps me better appreciate them, and when it comes to my own art, delineate all the different aspects of what goes into making an image, and concentrate on the things that require more work, as opposed to just making it shinier and not necessarily better.
Has anything surprised you as a teacher, either in the duties it entails or what you’ve learned about your students?
I went into teaching knowing that the skill levels and learning proficiencies of the students would vary, but I’m always surprised by how much the motivations and their levels vary so wildly from student to student. I teach at two different institutions that serve different functions. I teach two figure drawing classes at The University of the Incarnate Word, which is a respected, medium-sized, four-year college in San Antonio. The classes I teach are required classes for a bachelor’s degree from the School of Design and Media. Basically, they have to take the classes to get a much more general degree, for a job in which they may never use the skills I try to teach them. So some of the students come in with the mindset to do the bare minimum to pass. But others are there to genuinely learn how to draw, and in the end, it’s, at the very least, almost a good bar trick to know to know how to draw a person convincingly. It’s impressive. So they try to do a good job. At the end of the day, it’s up to me to get the students to learn, and how I do that is to maximize their enthusiasm in the subject and even just the process of learning. A lot of times it comes from just treating them with respect and getting that respect in turn.
The other place I teach at is The Coppini Academy of Fine Art, which is an atelier here, an environment very similar to where I learned how to paint, but without offering a full-time program. We don’t offer a degree, all we do is teach you how to become a better artist. Here I only take three or four students at a time, so I can devote as much specificity in the teaching to cater to their specific goals. Even then the motivation levels vary. I boxed for several years before my son was born, and something that always struck me was that what people would say, and how they acted in the gym, none of that mattered in how long they lasted in the sport. Everyone comes in talking a good game, but sometimes all it took was a hard punch to the face for them to realize that it wasn’t for them. Learning how to be an artist as a way to make a living requires an investment and sacrifice that a lot of people aren’t ready to make. It can’t just be a hobby. You have to push yourself to do it when there’s no fun or money in it.
You’ve mentioned that drawing comics isn’t an economically viable option currently, but do you have ideas for creator-owned books or a dream project at the Big Two?
Oh, you can make a living drawing comics, that’s not what I meant. I was referring to the news that Stuart Immonen had retired from drawing comics, and I meant to say that it’s extremely rare that an artist can just retire from comics after a long career without the involvement of some other medium, and the speculation was that Stuart was able to because of the Millarworld Netflix deal. Whether that’s true or not, it’s sad that it’s the most likely explanation. Comics don’t take care of their creators. To start off with, like I said, page rates haven’t gone up in literally decades. The creators on popular books do well from royalties, absolutely, but your average writer or artist doing your average book isn’t making very much money over a long period. It’s not even that the page rates are low, it’s that it’s an unceasing grind trying to find projects that both suit you and you suit, and that you can rely on for income for any significant amount of time. Whether it’s publishers doing the math and seeing that their profit margins are razor thin and therefore can’t pay above a certain amount, or they think that paying creators more money isn’t worth the return, or simply that there’s a constant stream of creators willing to work for less and are replaceable if they ask for more, it’s a difficult living.
We’re freelancers. If we’re not married to partners with corporate jobs, we pay for health insurance out of pocket when we can afford to, and many of us can’t. The premium for my family is as much as my rent right now. I’m doing some art as we speak to donate to the Hero Initiative, and while I’d love to say that I’m doing it out of the goodness of my heart, a part of me is definitely doing it for karma points in case I need their help myself in the future, the odds of which are not low. And the onus is not on publishers to provide for freelancers and ex-freelancers in need. We’re not going to create a union. Trying to get enough of us together to even establish a guild of any kind is impossible. Whether it’s by design or just an unfortunate side-effect, we’re solitary creatures and don’t talk to each other often. Publishers discourage collaborators from talking directly to each other without funneling information through them. We get together as friends and socialize at comic conventions sure, but talking business, not collaborations or project wish-lists, but actual business like page rates or establishing any kind of leverage by representation, we’re like drowning rats in a cage. We’re stupid. We romanticize working till the day we die, without considering the simple impossibility of maintaining interest levels like that over a lifetime, not to mention the reality of page rates not going up at all, let alone keeping up with decades of inflation.
I definitely have ideas for creator-owned books, but don’t see them as any way of changing my “economic viability” when it comes to my career in comics. There’s just way too much stuff on the stands that aren’t very good or attractive, and I’m realistic enough to say that anything I do has as much chance of being the same thing to readers as well, no matter how much I love it. The Image books that people just skim over in the catalogs or on the shelves, that’s someone’s magnum opus. Someone’s very ample talents and hopes went into that thing, and most people don’t even consider it as being worth four bucks. I’m realistic enough to say that maybe I’m not any different. So I have ideas that I want to do because I love the idea and designs and I want to draw them, but totally recognize that I better be okay drawing it for free, because that’s what it might end up being. It’s no longer the case that you can do a creator-owned book or two to set yourself up for retirement. It probably never was. But yes, I definitely have some ideas I want to do because I think they’re awesome and want to see them come to life.
There aren’t really any dream projects at the big two. This is going to sound weird, but let’s say there was a book I’m dying to be a part of because I’m such a fan of that book. Working on a project is so very different from enjoying that book as a reader. I’ve read scripts that made me laugh or brought me to tears before I drew them, but working on them makes it a job. And I can’t later appreciate it as a fan. So that’s one reason. The other thing is, once you’re too close to the sausage-making process, it’s just different. You’re part of a much bigger machine than just telling a story. You can’t work on half of the book yet until this other tie-in book is finished. This or that costume design has to be approved by this or that marketing department. (And that’s the beauty of working on a standalone, “alternate universe”-type of book that isn’t so strictly adherent to continuity. You don’t get bogged down in anything other than the story itself, and if you come up with ideas that are awesome, the publisher will try to magically make them a part of the continuity anyway.) And there’s always a monkey-paw catch when it comes to working on your dream project. You want to draw Wolverine? Here you go, but he’s never in costume. You want to draw Batman? You can, but it’s not Bruce Wayne.
My dream project is a really amazing script, that’s fun to draw and asks a lot of my skills, not fucking mileage. Don’t ask me to draw a hundred spaceships killing a million aliens, ask me to draw a couple reacting to their child dying or a person falling in love, or having their heart broken. Tell me to draw something that requires hours of thought, not hours of noodling. My favorite thing I’ve ever drawn in comics is still probably the shot of X-23’s facial expression as she’s just realizing that she was going to die because a vial of Legacy Virus just broke inside her stomach after a guy in an exo-suit put it there with a huge power drill. The beauty of Big Two comics is that they have such huge and wild ideas propped up by amazingly imaginative character designs both written and drawn, but they don’t mean anything if they don’t make us feel something. I feel like in that drawing I made you care that X-23 realized she was about to die, and it made her sad because she was just starting to realize that she was actually Laura Kinney. Without that, none of the double-page splashes and fight scenes mean shit.
What are some ways the comics industry has changed since you broke in over a decade ago?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me who’s changed. I mean, I know it is. I’ve gotten jaded about the comics industry. It’s not a recent thing either. I haven’t drawn comics full time since 2011 when I got a job at a video game company (which by the way coincidentally just got bought by Electronic Arts just a few days ago, even after only having released the one game I was the lead concept designer on.) Which means that the majority of my career as a comic book artist has been spent not drawing comics full-time.
My heart’s a little broken. I’m a huge fan of the universes and characters in comic books, but realizing that working in those toy boxes means having next to little control over your career was an extremely tough pill to swallow. Ironically it started very early in my career when I was asked if I would like to continue working on Witchblade, or if I’d like to draw a book for Marvel with Wolverine, but, like the teenaged female version of Wolverine. I picked Witchblade because Ron and I had put a lot of ourselves into the title’s relaunch and re-branding, and felt like we’d only just gotten started. A couple weeks later I read an article on Newsarama heralding the new art team on Witchblade and that I was off to do an X-23 book for Marvel.
Even with more experience and popularity, I’ve found that turning down a book can be dangerous to a freelancer’s career with a publisher. Sometimes it’s out of sight, out of mind, and it makes sense. I feel like the value of the comic creator has been diminished, in that publishers, other than for a handful of writers, seem to think that they can be unplugged and plugged into different projects like pieces on a game board. Artists get put on projects ill-suited for them and have difficulty finding a groove leading to a late book, so timely but equally ill-suiting artists get put on more books, and it doesn’t even look as good. Timeliness seems to be valued above everything, which is why I honestly don’t know why editors don’t dock the pay of freelancers for late work, instead of hiring fast but ill-suiting artists. Like I said, we’re kind of stupid. Sometimes we’re so myopic that we can’t see past the board that we’re working on at that moment. If you want us to do anything, sometimes you have to hit us where it hurts to get us to pay attention before it’s too late. That includes writers too. There’s a popular writer that I will never work with because I ended up waiting for a script without getting paid for eight months.
Actually, that’s not even true. I worked on a book he later wrote at a different company (the other company) just because I didn’t want to turn down a project and garner any ill will with the editorial staff. That was a difficult choice that I lost a lot of self-respect over. But that seems to be nature of the game. I’ve never been asked to work with an editor again after I turned down a project with them.
The landscape between people making comics and people reading them seems to have changed too. I’m not doing conventions anymore. I just stopped having fun working at conventions, although I continue to love going to them as a fan with my family. It just takes one negative customer interaction to ruin the weekend for me, which is probably why I can’t work retail. On the other hand, I also didn’t like having a rep or agent speak to customers on my behalf either, because I felt like that defeated the point of working a convention in the first place. But while the overwhelming majority of fans I met were positive and great and I’m so grateful for them, I’ve just had too many negative experiences here and there from people at conventions. People who say that I owe them a free sketch because they pay my salary. They don’t. Publishers pay my salary. What I owe the fans is my very best work that I can produce to create a story worth their money and their time and their fandom. But that’s where the transaction ends. They don’t owe me the price of a comic book if I do shitty work, so why do I owe them extra stuff beyond the book that they paid for?
I think comic book creators are the unwanted stepchildren of the creative world. But we bring it upon ourselves too. We draw and @ filmmakers and TV stars on social media in the hopes that senpai notices us, and it comes off like we don’t recognize that we worked just as hard at our craft as they did, or that our piece of art is as valid as theirs. We go crazy and regram when an actor mentions a comic artist in an interview, or we see that some building in the blurry background of a movie is named after a comic writer, or when the name of a comic creator who created the character and story that the whole movie is based on shows up twenty minutes into the credits in the same sized font as the caterers, that we only stayed for to see the post-credits scene. We think this is fine. And that’s why fans complain when we charge for autographs at conventions like film and TV people always have. They complain because they’re not getting something for free, the very thing that they have no problem turning around to spend $40 to get authenticated and slabbed. And like assholes, some of us throw others under the bus when they hear of charging for signatures, saying that they would never charge their fans for a simple signature, that it’s the least they can do. Well, that’s nice. Tell a doctor that when you ask her to check out your mole.
Something I started doing and telling people to do was to sign free autographs if they’re personalized, but charge if the fan insists that they not be personalized. And to definitely charge if they’re being authenticated. You can blame me if that ends up catching on. I would remarque and write poetry on comic books and happily sign fifty books from a single fan for free when they asked for them to be personalized. Because then you know they’re a fan. I’m not saying that the people who didn’t want them personalized weren’t just as big fans, but they clearly want to commoditize the signed book. Whether or not they plan on selling the book or being buried with it, they still want the signed book to be a commodity and not just a piece of memorabilia. And that commodity should be worth money. Not what it goes for on eBay. Fuck eBay. I don’t care what it goes for or doesn’t go for on eBay. That’s a different marketplace. Charge what you think you should charge for it using microeconomics. What does the person in front of you think that it’s worth? Charge a dollar. Five dollars. Fifty dollars. Give it to charity at the end of the day if you want. But know your worth. If there’s something I’ve learned from the life of Steve Ditko, it’s that knowing your worth is going to piss off a lot of people, but it’s going to help you sleep better at night.
Art is worth what it’s worth. If Jim Lee wants to charge $1000 for a five-minute sketch, good for Jim Lee. People will gladly pay that much because of what he’s done over thirty years, not five minutes, and charging less is leaving earned money on the table. And publishers who plead poverty, if you can’t pay an artist what they’re worth to make a comic book, you can’t afford to make comic books. And artists, when someone slaps down a bagged and taped comic with a hole in the bag for you to put your signature without getting your greasy hands on the cover so that the CGC rep peering over their shoulder can take it to the graders and give it a 9.8, don’t just think of the five bucks they paid for the book. Think of the countless hours you spent working on your craft just to get the chance to do the book you’re about to sign, not to mention the all-nighters you pulled to draw the last few pages in the thing, only to have it slabbed so that no one ever reads your work anyway. Know your fucking worth. Your health insurance premium is due on the first.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at [email protected].