At the time of my graduation, I was more interested in being a rock star than an illustrator, although the two interests often intersected. I did scores of posters for touring punk, hardcore, and alternative bands, and was sometimes rewarded with the opportunity to play shows with the likes of Hüsker Dü and Redd Kross. My “street cred” was pretty high at this point, but it wasn’t putting any money in my pocket, so I set off to New York to pursue an art career in earnest.
At first I had visions of taking the art world by storm, invading the galleries and becoming an international sensation, but it was clear that my tastes were not aligned with what passed for criticism in the pages of Art Forum. I resigned myself to being (sigh) a mere illustrator.
Things got off to a slow start. In the first few years, there were album covers for Kurtis Blow, Murphy’s Law, and Chubb Rock, a tour poster for Slayer that was rejected as too extreme (still trying to wrap my head around that one), and then finally what felt like the jackpot: a semi-regular gig drawing portraits of artists and musicians for The New Yorker. I loved the work, but there wasn’t quite enough of it, and I still felt that I needed to do “real” comics at some point, rather than just a few cartoons for punk ‘zines and anarchist newspapers on the side.
When an assignment for the in-house newsletter at Time-Warner brought me to Valiant Comics in search of a letterer, I was floored. There was a group of comics artists all drawing in the same room, joking with one another and feeding off each other’s energy. I knew I had to be part of this, so I applied for a job and was hired as a backgrounder. That was grueling work, and it barely paid enough to live on, but after six months I graduated to inker, sometime colorist, and finally penciller. I churned out an enormous number of pages in my time there. The company was hugely popular, and there was never any shortage of work. I collaborated with Sean Chen, Don Perlin, Bob Layton, Ralph Reese, Rudy Nebres, Stan Drake, and Dick Giordano. It was a dream job.
Then the bottom began to fall out of the comic book market. I soldiered on in spite of it all, turning in work for Jim Shooter at Broadway, Andy Helfer at Paradox Press, and Billy Tucci at Crusade, but it was obvious that comics were in trouble. That was when I had the opportunity to start working in advertising and commercial design.
The pressure and deadlines in comics were nothing compared to the world of advertising. I learned to draw with blinding speed and a degree of confidence I hadn’t realized was possible. The work involved a whole new skill-set; at times psychological insight is of greater value than artistic skill in advertising work. Decoding the cryptic scrawls of harried art directors became second nature. I’ve had the pleasure of working with every kind of client as a storyboard artist: Eminem, Darren Aronofsky, 50 Cent, General Motors, Samsung, and many more.
Incredibly, I haven’t ‘burned out” over time as so many do. I still love the work and delight in finding fresh new approaches, especially when it comes to digital production. Technology is constantly evolving, and staying on top of it is as invigorating as it is challenging. But it is a “feast or famine” business, and much of it takes place behind the scenes. There are no interviews, no fans clamoring for sketches. It pays the bills, but I find myself craving something more than that.
Now comics and fine art are starting to look appealing again. Mucking about with oil paint and clay and drawing stuff that makes kids happy sounds like a nice way to spend the day. And that guitar across the room looks pretty tempting, too…