Learn by doing

For St. John’s illustrator Paul Tucker, comics are slowly becoming more than just a private obsession.

Having published only a few short comic stories before this year, he was selected by Texas company Viper Comics to do the art for a horror/adventure script they had on hand called Underworld Railroad.

Now, a year later, the 112-page book is ready to launch.

It’s an epic story of Heaven vs. Hell, full of zombies, guns, and plenty of action-movie inspired dialogue. The story is good, but Paul’s art really shines.

Elling Lien sat down with him to talk about how he developed his love of comics, and how he got caught up in the business of comics.

Your training was a Fine Arts degree from Grenfell in Corner Brook?
Yes, I did their four year program, and it was awesome.

How long ago was that?
I graduated in 2003. Around the end of that time I really started getting back into comics again. …Actually 30 Days of Night—a movie that’s just coming out which was originally a comic book—I picked that up around the end of school year and I really loved the artwork.

It was one of the books that made me say “I’m definitely doing comics again.”

What about it?
I wish I could show it to you. It’s kind of painterly and really moody.

It was also inspiring because it was an indie book that became super-huge. And it was a different art style.

It seems like more indie comic books are breaking through by way of film…
Yeah, it’s not just super hero movies that are being made. It’s a good time to be into comics. There’s a lot of enthusiasm about graphic novels and comics in general.

It still seems like a weird business to get into. How did you get into comics first of all?
I’ve wanted to do it since I was a kid.

Did you collect them?
Yeah, but I was never a hard-core collector. I never got every issue or anything. I got into comics when I was around nine or ten, right around when Image Comics just came out. I was a little bit interested in comics and then when I got my first Image comic off the stand I was just like “oh my god.”

Which one was that?
Savage Dragon, Issue #3! Savage Dragon is the only title I’ll still pick up. It’s mostly a nostalgia thing, and because Erik Larsen, the original artist and writer, is still doing it.

I just thought it was funny and intense, and the colour was so different. In the back of the book he’d talk about the characters he created when he was a kid that he’s using in the books, and I thought “he created these when he was a kid? That’s so cool!”

I’ve never had much desire to work on other people’s properties. It’s always more fun to tell your own stories.

Of course, it’s hard to do that though, business-wise.

A lot of creators will do the Marvel and DC stuff to actually get [paid well for their work.] The only way I’m going to survive as a comic artist, really, is if I get some sort of exclusive contract with DC in their Vertigo line. Which, you know, that’s what everybody like me wants. You get a page rate and security and everything like that.

It’s funny you bring up Erik Larsen. He was sketchier and more abstract than a lot of other people working in superhero comics in the early 90s… and I can see a similar kind of sketchiness and abstraction in your illustration.
I wouldn’t be surprised. Like when I was a kid, I used to copy Savage Dragon poses with my own characters. I still like his art now, but back then, reading the Letters page, and knowing he was able to keep doing it—it was pretty inspiring.

He’s the publisher of Image Comics now.

So when you were going into the Grenfell program were you thinking at all about comics?
Oh yeah.

Was comic art the goal?
There was a while where I wasn’t thinking I would be a comic book artist. But I never ever stopped working on them, and a lot of my projects ended up tinged with comics. It might have annoyed some of the professors, but that made me think carefully about it all, which was good.

Did you do any comic work as a project?

Yeah, basically. Fourth year was independent work, and in the second semester I worked on a graphic novel.
It’s fun. You can have a blank piece of paper, right? You make a story and you don’t need anybody else.

I need a writer. I learned after that graphic novel from art school, six months after looking at it. …It doesn’t make any sense, reading it now. But with two people you can produce a complete story. It’s fun.

It’s a hard medium because it involves everything… It’s visual, it’s storytelling…
You have to do environment design, costume design, you have to have a world for everyone to live in. You have to think about colour, colour theory, lighting. And whether or not a comic works often comes down to those little decisions.

A writer might just say “he’s in an old car.” So then you’ve got to look at the character and think “what kind of car would he have?” “Where is he?” “How old would the car be?” There’s a lot to think about.

You’d have to decide the brand of car… “do they have anything suspended from the rear view mirror?”

How did you get into the business of comics?
The first thing I published was a short story. In 2004 it came out with a company called AiT/Planet Lar. I was friends with the publisher, Larry Young. He was putting out scripts through this comic website and whoever wanted could take a stab at them. That was between finishing art school and working at [local film production company] Pope Productions. I had some time off for a while, so I put my hat in for all of the scripts he put up.

He put up five of them and I did all of them. I had two weeks to do them, each. It was good for portfolio-building, a good chance to try a variety of styles.

How many pages were they?
They were twelve pages each.

Is two weeks fast for twelve pages?
Yeah, that’s kind of fast. Industry standard is a page a day. That’s generally considered to be one penciled page. I was penciling and inking.

One of the stories I did he chose to publish in the book. So that was pretty cool. Then after that it was mostly just short stuff, as well as some self published things with writers in the States who I met online.

I didn’t really have an I-must-be-published plan at all. I moved to Japan [for two years] and really enjoyed the art supplies there. I continued doing short things. In 2006 I just wanted to do a hundred black-and-white pages. I was just trying to work in black and white because I find that really challenging.

But then Viper Comics [a company based in Dallas, Texas] put a talent-search on their website. It asked people to submit a five-page noir story to be published in the back of writer Jason Burns’ series A Dummy’s Guide to Danger.

My girlfriend’s mother was visiting us in Japan at the time, and we were in a really long line up at Disney Sea—like ridiculously long—and I was thinking about that talent search and an idea that I had a few months prior… I write my ideas just in text on my computer. And I said “screw it, I’ve got a bit of time.” So as I was waiting I thumbnailed five pages. A couple of weeks later I drew it up and coloured it.

They didn’t want to publish what I did, but they said they had a graphic novel [Underworld Railroad] for me! So I was like “wow, that’s way better!” I was a little bit hesitant because I wanted to work on my black and white pages, I just wanted to develop my skills.

I didn’t want to worry too much about my work being published and out there, you know?

But I kept thinking about it, and I decided it was a really good opportunity. I really admired Viper and their books. They have a really high production value. …So I was like, “Screw it! I’ll do it!”

How long did Underworld Railroad take you?
That was a year working on it—while I was in Japan. It took about one year. There was a lot of preliminary character design, the look and feel of the book, going back and forth with the publisher on ideas of how it should look.
I’m glad I did it and I think it is good to see your work in print as you go along.

It must be so exciting! Especially to see it all printed and bound and in shops…

I think there is an Erik Larsen quote that says it’s really exciting to show young creators how things look on a printed page; that you learn a lot from seeing your work in print.

Yeah, I’m excited and nervous.

You can catch the local launch of Underworld Railroad on Saturday, October 27th, from 2–5 pm at Downtown Comics (Duckworth Street.) Paul will be there to talk comics, sign books, or do sketches. Wine and cheese will be on hand, and horror music from the 80s will be blaring.


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  1. Allison · April 25, 2008

    I think it’s really great to see a local artist, and comic book artist at that, drawing this kind of attention and achieving sucess. Way to go Paul Tucker!

  2. jonathan · April 25, 2008

    Cheers to Paul Tucker … and I drink to the prospect of more crazy kids making comic books in St. John’s and NL. We already have enough ungraphic novelists. Words is make too many headaches. I more likey the pictures.

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