For the past few years, 2000AD have held a talent competition at Thought Bubble, with the winner getting the opportunity to illustrate a story for publication in the prog itself. Last year saw Will Morris take the victory, as part of his sweep of 2012/2013 which saw him ultimately win the British Comic Award for Best Emerging Talent.
This year, Tom Foster rose up after coming second for two years in a row, and finally claimed the blessed crown of Tharg for himself. As a result, next year his work will be appearing in 2000AD. To celebrate the victory – and to talk about his three year battle for glory – I spoke to Tom about his art, his progression, and his advice for anybody else looking to make their first moves into the industry.
Steve: What made you decide to enter the competition? Have you always been a fan of 2000AD?
Tom: First time around, I just entered to bring myself to their attention and to see how I fared against other aspiring comics artists. Obviously, when you’re scouting for work, you’re in competition with a lot of people, but you can only really assess how you’re doing based on whether or not you get hired. This way, I could get a real sense of how realistic my ambitions were. Coming second was very encouraging.
Then, the following year – when they introduced the top prize of a paid, published strip in 2000AD – I was determined to go for it again. Guaranteed high-profile work is virtually unheard of in comics, so that prize seemed the most obvious way to break in. I’m surprised more people don’t enter every year!
As for my credibility as a fan, I’ve always enjoyed 2000AD, but I’d probably get my arse kicked in a trivia quiz. I’m a bit of a fair-weather fan, I’m afraid.
Steve: You’ve been taking part in this contest for the last three years – how do you feel your art has improved or changed over that time?
Tom: I think a lot of it, aptly enough, was to do with judgement – the decisions I made before I even put pencil to paper. Issues of composition and page layout plagued a lot of my stuff up until just recently, and still do a bit. I searched through as many instructional books as possible and asked artists at all the big conventions to try and find out what I was doing wrong. Piece by piece, I started to remedy a lot of the mistakes. Plus, learning to build my backgrounds in 3-D made a huge difference.
Steve: Who are your artistic influences? Your art reminds me a little of Brian Bolland…?
Tom: Wow, cheers. Yeah, he’s a big influence, probably the biggest in terms of style. Mark Bagley was my first big influence though. His 90s Spider-Man stuff is what made me decide to pursue this as a career. What he did with anatomy and action just amazed me. There’s a bunch of others who’ve had a major impact too. A few too many to name them all, but Chris Weston, Lee Weeks, Mike Deodato Jr., Michael Lark, David Finch and Kevin Nowlan all made me realise that I really needed to up my game.
Steve: How did you tailor your submission this time round? Do you think coming second for two years before this win has pushed you to change the way you plan and draft and sequence your pages?
Tom: Well, part of it was about taking less risks. Last year’s script was half set in flashback and, since I work mostly in black and white, I wanted to show a real distinction between the flashback panels and the ‘present day’ ones. So I used ink washes for the flashbacks – a technique in which I wasn’t hugely proficient.
So I guess I learnt to play to my strengths and only take that kind of risk when I have a bit more elbow room. Plus, I was up against Will Morris last year, which is never going to be easy.
Steve: What advice would you give to people who are similarly making and pitching art, or prepping portfolios, trying to get into the comics industry?
Tom: I don’t know how qualified I am to give advice, but I can tell you a few things that helped me a lot:
Show work to everyone at conventions who‘re willing to look at it, including big-name artists – they’re the ones who can tell you where you’re going wrong. An editor will give you some idea, but it’s the artists who know the process inside-out. Obviously, do portfolio reviews with editors too though. That’s how you actually get work!
Work from actual scripts – it’s almost become a truism to say that editors want to see pages, not pin-ups, but it’s also about refining your process. Find scripts that highlight your strengths, but don’t shy away from the tricky stuff within those scripts. Use photo reference, 3-D modelling, whatever you need to make the page work. Once you find a way of nailing the tough stuff, the whole process becomes 10 times easier, more enjoyable and produces better results.
Possibly most importantly, study anatomy. Knowing some of the major muscle groups doesn’t mean you can draw a good figure any more than knowing roughly where the facial features are means you can draw a good portrait. Life drawing and photo reference are your friends – buy them a metaphorical drink once in a while.
Steve: Do you know any of the details about the story you’ll be pencilling for 2000AD? Can you tell us anything about it?
Tom: Nope, don’t know anything yet. I think the guys at Rebellion probably have enough on their plate getting the last few titles of the year ready, so they can get a wee break over Christmas. Looking forward to it though.
Steve: What else do you have coming up in the immediate future? Where can we find you online?
Tom: At the moment, I’m mostly working on speculative stuff, private commissions and stuff for non-comics companies. Although, there’s an insert in the subscribers-only editions of Mojo And Uncut that I did the cover for. It’s quite Judge Dredd-esque. I think it’s coming out over Christmas. Or maybe it’s already out.
So, that thing you chucked in the bin a couple of weeks ago – I did that!
Many thanks to Tom for his time! Expect to see more from him in 2014! Thanks also to Michael Molcher at 2000AD for arranging the interview.