Unsurprisingly, when Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen team up, good things happen. Last week brought the first chapter of their collaboration – the new sci-fi series at Image Comics, “Descender” – and it was nearly universally acclaimed, including a rather positive review from yours truly. With one issue down and galaxies of potential ahead of them (not to mention a lucrative movie deal with Sony), Lemire and Nguyen’s future looks bright with the book.
But how did they get there? I wanted to find out, so I reached out to Nguyen for our Artist Alley column to see how the book came to be, how he decided to leave DC and go creator-owned, and take a look at some of the key pages from the first issue with him to see how he made the creative decisions he did. Due to that latter element, I wouldn’t recommend reading this interview unless you’ve read the comic yet, but if you have, read up, and get some insight into how one of the industry’s best brought this book to life. Take a look, and thanks to Dustin for chatting.
You’ve long been a DC guy and a Batman fan in particular, even beyond working on the books. What made now the right time to move in a different direction, and what made Descender the book you wanted to do that with?
DN: For the Batman part, honestly, it got to a point where I felt like there was no longer a spot for me after I did “Lil Gotham.” I had been off the main canon for so long after last working with Paul Dini on “Streets of Gotham,” then the New 52 reboot, then spending the next few years in “Beyond,” that when I was finally back in, I just felt out of place. They were kind enough to offer me countless Batman gigs, but again, every time I got on the book, I just felt like I didn’t belong there or had anything worthwhile to contribute anymore. And it wasn’t entirely Batman and Gotham that had changed, it was also me. The closer and more comfortable I got with my own work, the more I felt like I had no business there.
It could sound like I’m coming off as an old pre New 52 fan complaining about the universe that was, but it’s anything but that. Working as a professional in comics, you have to understand things change all the time. It’s a business that constantly needs fresh and exciting events and ideas. That part I am 100% on board for. But the problem is that I was always a bigger Batman fan than I could ever be a professional Batman artist. To that extent, I was always happy doing what I felt was paid fan art. But when what I wanted to draw started changing, costumes and characters I loved no longer were there for me to draw, it became less fun and fulfilling. “Lil Gotham” came along and allowed me to divert a lot of that fun back into my art, but by that time, I started getting the itch to do something more.
I remember seeing my friend Sean Murphy launch “Punk Rock Jesus,” a book I’ve seen pages from as far back as 2005, and thinking, “this is what it means to work in comics. To be a creator creating new shit.” From there, I just couldn’t stop thinking of ways to break out, make something entirely new. Break out of the cold comfort i got too adjusted to.
One week, after going about my options – whether to write my own book or reach out to a few writers I know and have met in the past from cons and through friends – I decided to drop Jeff an email, seeing if he was busy, or had any interest in a creator-owned series. Since we were both DC/Vertigo guys, I felt he could probably relate with me pretty easily, making that big first jump outside the company. Funny thing: he emailed me first instead. From there, we threw back and forth a few ideas, and “Descender” came about…after about 100 name choices (laughs).
Oh, as for the DC guy part, I’ll always be a DC guy (laughs). I’m what they call a lifer. DC brought me up, and I’ll always be there if they need me, and I like to think they’ll always be there if I need them. I hate to even call it “DC” because it sounds like just any other company, I really break it down to the people that work there, each by name.
Jeff beyond being a really talented writer is a tremendous artist in his own right. Does that element ever come up when you’re working on the book or on a specific issue? When you were developing the book together, how closely did you work in creating the world and the characters?
DN: Now THAT was one of the more intimidating parts, because you’re basically working with a person who could just do it all himself, and amazingly so. We collaborated on a lot of the early character designs, shooting back and forth notes on what the tone of the book should be, the characteristics and how Tim and Bandit might behave. Even on how they walk and such. I found it really a lot easier to work with Jeff not only because he’s an artist, but because we also have the same visuals in our head when talking about something. We usually nail down ideas in one conversation, which helps out a TON on a monthly book. You wont have the time frame for development like an animation studio, so many things are designed on the page as you’re drawing.
The other helpful part is also that Jeff is a crazy talented writer which makes all the difference. During my time at DC, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with pretty much the BEST writers in the business. Yes, I am bragging a bit. Here’s the thing I’ve learned about the really good writers: they are confident in their work, and from that confidence, they know that a story – their story – will work regardless of whether the art has to suffer through either deadlines, or switching of artists, or even being cut short on pages. I’m not completely sure if that’s confidence or professionalism, but you’ll notice the good ones…they have very few notes or ask for changes much. The really good writers can change an entire story with a few words, so a few missing or added panels never phase them. They’ll make it work in their favor.
Also…I was sitting with Jeff in Artist Alley in Canada banging through ideas for Bandit, and he eventually just shrugged, laughed, and said, “whatever, that’s your job.” So we also have that.
This is, I believe, your first experience working on a creator-owned book. How does that differ from working on previous projects, both from a freedom standpoint and a time consumption one? Do you find yourself taking your work in different directions than you wouldn’t normally because it’s your own baby?
DN: I did a creator-owned book under the Wildstorm Imprint years ago, but being under the scheduling and editorial of any company, it never felt like a creator-owned. With Image, it’s insane. This new experience is…I’m learning a lot. A lot about scheduling, pricing, marketing, promoting, choosing paper stock, contacting different talents, etc…it finally feels like we’re in control of something and it’ll make or break based on the decisions we make. It’s scary as hell, but it makes you more committed, and I think that brings out the best in you.
Time and scheduling wise, it’s the same. Get it in on time or fail (laughs). (A) great part about Jeff and I working at DC for longer than the past decade is that we both have been almost trained to be timely. We both trust each other to be reliable as far as deadlines, so that’s not a big issue.
We’ll talk a whole lot about washes and watercolors later on, I’m sure, but when it comes to an issue of Descender, what are your biggest tools in bringing this book to life? Are you all traditional mediums, or do you work digitally at all?
DN: For Descender, I watercolor all the pages, scan them in and do minor touch ups in Photoshop. I try to do as much as I can on the page before scanning them in because I really hate computers. I cant seem to ever be happy with anything I’ve done digitally, and for the most part, I can never tell if I’m done when I work in Photoshop. There’s just too many options and I cant decide. When I paint, good or bad, I’m freaking done. I cant do anymore and I’m okay with that.
My biggest tool though, is probably the pencil, drawing out Jeff’s sob stories in linework is the hardest part. (laughs)
Many artists talk about world building in their work, and that’s undoubtedly something everyone has to go through. However, the worlds of Descender require a LOT of world building, as very little of what we see in this book is based in any reality we know of. It’s a hell of a job I’m sure. Is that something that just comes from your imagination, or are you a research based artist who tries to find inspiration for the elements we see on the page?
DN: It really is a lot of both. Research for me usually is to make sure it’s not ridiculous and sometimes to make sure I’m not regurgitating something entirely familiar to what inspired it in the first place.
Designing from inspiration gets tough sometimes. With the amount of games, animation and books coming out each day, every artist or creator out there probably grew up on the same diet of comics, animations, and influences as you did. It’s almost certain you’ll all come up with something familiar. I think the best way to go about it is to try to dig into what I like to draw most and go from there. That way I’ll always have a good time drawing and not have to struggle every page. You can easily hate yourself if you create something forced, then have to repeatedly draw it every single panel.
When it comes to developing the look and feel of places like Niyrata, from the architecture to the ships and cars that travel its roads, how far down the rabbit hole do you go? I know some artists don’t want to just create a ship, they want to know how it works and apply logic to its design. When you were developing this book, did you dig into creating more elements to the worlds of Descender than just what we see in this first issue?
DN: I’d say I’m a better designer (maybe just in my head) than I am an artist who can execute it on page. Drawing is hard and admittedly, my watercolor skills are very entry level when it comes to certain themes (I hate painting trees and plants). Sometimes, I go too far into a design that I can’t see myself actually drawing it on the actual page in the end. I used to do 3D design for an engineering firm, and we’d have to focus on every single detail down to the structural fastener to an HVAC unit or something. I think that eventually made me TOO detail oriented.
Over the years, though, I’ve found for my work in comics, it’s better to focus on more atmospheric elements on a page and let the designs go from there. For “Descender,” Jeff created this amazing bible of sorts that describes the lifestyle, transportation, trade, economy, etc. of each planet. This is really important because all those things dictate how the people there would look, live, and what sort of terrain and architecture I’ll need to design. From there, you just dig into real world societies/culture and merge it with the make believe world of comics…then hope you don’t create something stupid (laughs).
Is developing worlds like this exciting, maddening or a healthy mix of both?
DN: It’s exciting as hell when you have the time to spend on it. Who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend designing their perfect ideal spacecraft complete with escape pods for every crew member + refugees that might have been picked up along the way. But…it’s maddening when you realize you only have a few hours because that’s just one panel on a page inside a 20-30 page book.
It’s not a healthy mix I think (laughs).
This is the first reveal of one of the Harvesters, the mysterious bringers of doom that trigger the drama of Descender. Obviously, they’re an enormous part of the book. I’m curious, when it came to designing these characters, what were you looking to say with their look? I’m sure that there was much more than meets the eye that we’ll find out later, but I’m curious as to what went into their design, and perhaps what inspired you as you designed these beings?
DN: From the start, Jeff already knew what he wanted them to look like. These gigantic robotic beings like the Celestials created by Jack Kirby and sent me clips of them and stuff. I loved it. Something about their stance and posture, the way Kirby drew them just made them feel larger than anything, even if there were nothing around to compare them to. I wanted to capture that feeling, like the giant Moai on Easter Island, where they stand static, probably slow moving, but because of their size, the slightest movement can be very threatening.
The main thing I wanted to convey from first looking at them was that of course they were mechanical, but also that they were machines that couldn’t have possibly been built by human hands, so they shouldn’t have parts and pieces you’d find in our robots. They should be otherworldly, and very, very old. Ancient metals and relics were the big inspiration for the finish on the shell of these things. I get the feeling the age and exposure to the different worlds it goes in and out of would definitely create this beautiful patina on its surface.
I really love the coloring here and the attention to detail you bring to the page with it. When it comes to coloring though, everyone has a different take on what they’re going for. Some are very literal colorists, playing everything pretty straight. Some are very feel oriented, using colors for emotional texture. When you’re coloring, which seems like it happens early in the process for you with your watercolors rather than later like it does for most, what do you use color to convey on the page?
DN: With color, I try to get the reader to capture a feeling when looking at the panel, whether it be just a simple thing like cold or hot and sweaty. Sometimes, with the right shot, panic, or maybe lonely and isolated, etc.
For big reveals and splashes, I usually like to go for atmosphere and let the image work as a whole rather than a bunch of tiny details unless the story calls for it. A lot of that obviously is influenced by having to work within a deadline, so focusing on every single aspect of a crowd scene or an establishing shot in a book would kill me. Also, as much as I love watercolor, I’m still very limited to what I can establish without overworking the paper. Lots and lots of thrown away pieces when there’s no undo button I tell yah.
When it comes to actual page layouts, I’m pretty used to very clean gutters that seem either computer generated or something else with precision. Your gutters in this book seem to be drawn by hand and be a bit thicker than usual, as if you did them with a thicker ink brush. I love it, it adds some tension to the story I feel, but why did you decide to go that route? Was there a particular reason you went that direction – if you did and presuming I’m not crazy – instead of one of the old standard methods?
DN: Hey, glad you noticed! It’s such a little thing, but I obsess on little details. I’ve mentioned it before, but one thing i’ve always liked about any book Jeff has drawn before was he had a very organic, handmade feel to it, and I absolutely love it. I felt “Descender” should be no different, and this is one thing I could do to try to bring that feeling to a book he’s created, even if not drawing it. Also, I usually have a ton of left over paint when I’m done- cant let it go to waste!
One thing I like about the book is the diversity of the cast. The worlds shown in the book aren’t just one type of person, they’re all types of people, which only makes sense both in our world and when you’re dealing with a more intergalactic story like this. Was that something you and Jeff deemed important from the start when you were working on this book, or was it just a natural byproduct of the creative process?
DN: I don’t think we ever made it a point to fill a quota of any certain types. I felt the story dictated what characters were needed and it went from there. So yeah, I never though of it that way, but it really is a natural byproduct that worked out really great.