Conversing on Comics with Ryan Stegman
It’s been a good week for Ryan Stegman, one marked by the premiere of the highest-profile series of his entire career: Wolverine. The Michigan artist, who’s been working steadily for Marvel since 2011, has been primed to become one of comics’ breakout stars, only waiting for the right project, the right writer and the right positioning. Wolverine just may be it.
Stegman’s squat and square-jawed Wolverine shows an artist who pays attention to characters beyond just their most recent depictions. He wears his fan credentials with pride, citing influences as far-ranging as Katsuhiro Otomo, Bill Sienkiewicz and Joe Madureira, but chief among them is Todd McFarlane. Stegman has done much to establish his own trademark style, but his ability to comprehend and be inspired by McFarlane’s fluid linework has added new facets to a nuanced style.
For this edition of “Conversing on Comics,” I spoke with Stegman about Wolverine, his artistic influences both for Logan and in general, and the long road that brought him here. In the interview, conducted just after Christmas, Stegman was open about his enthusiasm for Wolverine as well as his long-term goals for himself and his career.
Chris Arrant: Every artist’s work area is different. Can you describe how you’ve customized your workspace to make it perfect for you?
Ryan Stegman: First and foremost, I bought a standing desk! I am 6 feet 4 inches, and sitting after a while just kills my back. So I bought a GeekDesk, and it works great. I can stand most of the day, then it is able to adjust so that I can sit at the end of the day when I can’t take it any more.
Also, I have a nice couch in my studio. This is essential for when I want to nap and have nobody know.
I also have tons of art on my walls, as well as written things from my favorite artists: an article by Frank Miller called “When in Doubt Black it Out” and Wally Wood’s panels that always work, stuff like that. Lots of anatomical stuff, too.
And how has it evolved over the years from when you began professionally in 2005?
In ’05 I was working in my parents’ basement! So it’s evolved in that I now work from my own house, that’s probably the biggest difference. Along the way I picked up a Cintiq, and I do a lot of the digital work on there, and then the standing desk is pretty essential to my productivity as well.
When I started out it was mainly just a desk and a computer. And a scanner that I had to scan pages in two parts and piece them together in Photoshop. Now I have a full-size scanner. Makes my life much easier.
Speaking of those early years, you got your start in a very different place than Wolverine. It was over at Markosia with Tony Lee for the series Midnight Kiss. A lot of time has passed since you worked on that, and your style has matured in leaps and bounds. How do you look back on your older work such as Midnight Kiss?
There was a time when I wouldn’t have looked back on it favorably. But now I absolutely love it. It’s extremely flawed, I know. But there’s so much distance from it now that I see only the labor that went into it, and that I did the absolute best I could at the time. Rather than seeing the drawings, I see the struggle of my life at the time. I see the relationship that ended with a girlfriend because I wouldn’t stop chasing that dream. And conversely, I see the relationship that started with my now wife who supported me throughout the years where I was chasing a dream and making very little money. I see the 40 pounds that I lost because I was so focused on getting better at drawing that I wouldn’t even stop to eat anything more than handfuls of almonds.
That time in my life was an absolute struggle, but I look at it with great fondness. It is one of the “realest” things I’ve ever experienced. So in short, nothing but love for that book and what it represents.
With some very rare exceptions, since Midnight Kiss you’ve been primarily Marvel-only — since 2010 you’ve had an exclusive with them, in fact. Three years into that exclusive, how do you feel having the promise of work and an infrastructure to rely on has helped you?
I haven’t had to worry about having work in a long time, and that’s very comforting. The worrying about work can occupy your mind so much at times that it hampers creativity. But with the comfort of steady work I’ve been able to focus on the most important aspects of being a comic book storyteller.
How do you think things would have gone differently had you not found yourself at Marvel?
I don’t know! Ha. In all honesty, I never thought much about that because I was so bull-headed about what I was going to do. I refused to think about the alternatives. I guess there was a point where I didn’t know what was going to happen and I told my wife that I was thinking about getting a “real” job. She talked me out of that in a second because, as I mentioned before, she always believed in me.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t working in the comics industry?
This I have thought about because it’s so amusing to me. To be honest, I was bad at every job I had before. I tended to view work as a social event. So I’d probably middle out at some company because I was too busy having a good time.
That said, I do have an English degree, so maybe I’d teach. Before I started going into comics full speed ahead, I did apply for a job as a newspaper editor. I interviewed and didn’t get it, and immediately gave that up because I knew it wasn’t what I’d want to do.
Fast-forward to the present day, and you’re in the middle of the biggest book of your career so far: relaunching Wolverine with Paul Cornell. What’s it like coming into such a big book, a huge character, and doing it as a #1 that Marvel is heavily promoting?
I guess first and foremost, it’s an honor. That Marvel would think highly enough of me to give me this opportunity on something that they want to promote like this is insane.
And, you know, it’s not like I turned down a bunch of other jobs because they weren’t the right fit. This is the one they offered and it just so happens that Wolverine is one of the characters I wanted to work on.
Spider-Man was always my guy when I was a kid, and all the samples I did to try and get work when I was 15 or 16 were of Spider-Man. So when I got the chance to draw him it all made perfect sense right away. But Wolverine, I hadn’t drawn him a lot. I had, drawn him, just not as much. So I didn’t expect to come into this book having a feel for it. I thought it’d take some time. But right off the bat I felt right at home. Drawing him made perfect sense to me. Short and kinda ugly, but still charming. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews how your rendition of Wolverine owes itself to earlier artists’ interpretations, like Joe Madureira and Marc Silvestri. Using Wolverine as an example, when you look at others’ art, what do you gravitate toward as you try to break it down into the nuts and bolts of it all?
I connect most with artists that portray movement really well. Whether it’s Madureira or McFarlane or Otomo … I have always been fascinated with the artists that can make a two-dimensional still image look like it’s breathing.
Wolverine seems to be a character that is best drawn by those guys that have a lot of kinetic energy in their art. So, I’ve tried to carry on that tradition. When it comes to breaking down their art to draw Wolverine … I want to understand what they brought to the table when they drew him, what worked, etc. But I definitely want this to be my own. I will make Wolverine look how I want him to look. But I will use some of the movements that they perfected as well as adding my own to the mix.
Another influence of yours, which I spotted during your Spider-Man run, is Todd McFarlane. Although McFarlane never did a run on Uncanny X-men or Wolverine, his limited amount of Wolverine work in other books is memorable. Can you talk about Todd’s influence on you?
Todd is flat-out the reason I draw comics. The first comics I remember being really obsessed with as a kid were McFarlane’s Spider-Man issues. Then I got out of comics and came back when I was 15 and got obsessed with Spawn. It took me a few months to realize that the Spawn guy was the same as the Spider-Man guy I had been so into. I was blown away. My entrance into comics was twice caused by the same guy, and I had no idea.
For a while after I got interested, it was only McFarlane. He was the guy that brought the energy and movement and drama that I loved. I expanded out from there and fell in love with artists, but Todd will always be the original for me. I pored over his art so much that I will never ever be able to not be influenced by him.
I may be projecting a little bit, but I also see a hint of early-1990s era Sam Kieth in your work, during his “superhero years,” including hat great run on Marvel Comics Presents. Am I seeing something that isn’t there, or is Keith somehow in the mix in your mind when drawing?
There’s definitely some there, but I wouldn’t count him as a chief influence. I do love his work, but I’m never consciously going for that. My introduction to The Maxx was when MTV animated the comic. That was awesome. I owned the VHS and watched it a zillion times, actually wore the VHS out. So there are actually probably a lot of things that I do that are ingrained in my head that I don’t even realize.
In preparing for this interview, I scanned through your archives on Tumblr and found a character design for something creator-owned you said you and your friends were making. I believe Midnight Kiss wasn’t creator-owned for you, but what are your thoughts on creator-owned work and you yourself doing it?
I grew up as an Image kid, other than my interest with Spider-Man. But the Spider-Man comics I read as a kid, I wasn’t necessarily cognizant of who the creators were or that it was somebody’s job. I guess I just assumed they were created through magic. But when I got back into comics at 15, I became very cognizant of creators and almost more a fan of them than the characters. And for me, the creators I was interested in were Image guys.
So from that I just assumed that creator-owned was the goal for everyone. And I think that’s healthy thinking. So from the time I started doing comics professionally, I have wanted to do creator owned work. And that is something that weighs heavily on me. When is the right time to do it? When the time hits, I absolutely will do it.
I think that creator-owned books selling well is the best possible thing for creators and the industry as a whole. I could go on about this all day!
I really enjoy how you play with characters and set pieces to see them stretch and contort to the needs of the panel at hand – like Chuck Jones meets Jack Kirby, or something. People call it “cartoony.” But what’s it like for you to do that, and to weigh exaggerating the human form too much, or not doing it enough? And where would you say your natural style leans towards when you’re not doing paid work, but art for yourself?
First off, Chuck Jones meets Jack Kirby! I’m fairly certain that is the highest possible compliment ever bestowed upon me!
When I think about comic art, and I’m stealing this from Bill Sienkiewicz, but I think about it more as a stage play than a movie. I think that in order to convey an emotion or movement, you have to over-sell and exaggerate movements, especially in American comics. In manga, stories are so decompressed that you can have five panels conveying one emotion. But most of the time we get one panel and so, to bring back the theater analogy, you have to sell it to the back row.
I also make the conscious decision to always over-exaggerate rather than under-exaggerate. If you under-exaggerate, your information runs the risk of not being conveyed at all, which pulls the reader out of the story and makes them curious as to what they’re supposed to be seeing. When you over-exaggerate, the drawing may look a little funny, but the information is still conveyed in an instant and you can move onto the next panel. As a reader, nothing frustrates me more than having to look at a panel again to figure out what was happening. I want my panels to be read instantaneously, and that is achieved through exaggeration.
When I draw for myself, there is definitely a different thing that comes out. I don’t know what it is about doing superhero comics that changes my mindset, but I actually try every day to bridge the gap between how I draw for myself and how I draw for superhero comics. I’d like them to become one and the same. It’s a weird psychological battle, though. I just hope I’m winning.
Another interesting find on your Tumblr is what appears to be you doing some brushwork for some head sketches and such. I see your work as very deliberate and thin-lined, but those brushwork sketches look amazing as well. Is doing more brushwork something you’re thinking about doing professionally, or just something you dabble in?
It is something that I want to do for my own stories. So much is expected of artists these days. We have gotten closer and closer to full-on illustration. So pages take longer and longer and most artists can’t maintain a monthly schedule, including me.
So I’m trying to work on a style that I can do very, very fast. A style that won’t be as pleasing to the average comic book fan, but will be able to be done very quickly and that will still convey all the necessary information.
Brushes are great for this, as if you’re using it right, one brush stroke can tell a story. it’s like a magic wand.
I plan on using this style for personal stories that I’d like to write on the side. Stuff that doesn’t have to be pretty, where the message will be more important than the art.
But never fear, I won’t be doing that style on superhero comics. Superhero comics require a different level of detail and I enjoy that as well. I just have other things I’d like to do, too.
Speaking of the brush, for Wolverine you have inker Mark Morales joining you. You’ve worked with a number of talented inkers, and even inked yourself for much of your Spider-Man work. It’s hard for the general fan to realize how important an inker is to the final product, so can you talk about you experience with changing inkers and what’s it like now having Mark Morales working on your boards?
Mark is the ultimate inker. He takes my stuff and gives it a polish that I would never, ever have the patience or skill to provide. He’s a true inker in the sense that he embellishes the art and takes it to a place that I hadn’t even seen as possible.
He also makes the art extremely commercial, which I love. Superhero comics are a commercial art and we are aiming for mass appeal. I do enjoy inking, and I think I can do some pretty cool things, but ultimately I ink for me. I ink in a way that brings me a lot of joy, but I’m not sure it is for everybody.
I plan on doing more of it in the future, just on my own stuff. Right now I’m loving what Mark is doing and it’s a great honor that he’d even consider inking me. I believe he’s one of the top three guys in the business. And the top three are neck and neck for No. 1. So to have him bringing that level of skill to the table is a huge bonus.
You’ve done a lot in your relatively short time in comics, but I see a lot more you could do. What do you want to be doing comic-wise five or 10 years from now?
I want to be writing and drawing and doing creator-owned. If I do creator-owned work, maybe it’ll be with a writer, but I’d still like to write my own stuff on the side. But I’d like to expand out and be an all-around comic book creator.
When I was really young, I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I drew and wrote constantly as a kid. It was just as I got older I started to get really into drawing. I even thought one time, “Well, writers can write multiple books, and artists can only draw one, so there’ll be more jobs drawing. So I’ll pursue that and use that as a springboard into writing.” So far I’ve got the drawing thing going, but I gotta convince myself to write something once and for all. Which is muuuuuuch easier said than done!
But yeah. That’s what I want to do. Write and draw and create awesome stuff.