Friday, 3 July 2015

An interview with James Stokoe: 'Need and career are two things that I've never felt strongly for' (exclusive)

Every comic fan has a few cartoonists/writers/artists whose work they will pick up on the basis of the involvement of the author alone. My two -the two who I don't even need to know the details of the project they're working on- are Christophe Blain and James Stokoe. I first came across Stokoe's work via Godzilla: The Half Century War. I was looking for a good monster comic, and had heard some positive mutterings about this one, so I bought it. And I was flabbergasted. How could somebody draw like that?! Why would somebody draw like that? So much detail packed in every nook and cranny. And colour like that?! The colours, especially, shouldn't work, aren't really appealing or attractive; they make your eyes hurt a bit. It's easy to say that Stokoe's hyper-detailed style derives from artists like Geof Darrow and Moebius, but his work is distinct and different- more frenetic, more alive. It's not just jaw-dropping to look at, either; that emphatic dynamism it has has evolved over time- Stokoe can tease a range of tones and nuances as good as anyone. A facet that often goes over-looked is how good his writing is- a trait that's most noticeable when he's working on characters other than his own- the Silver Surfer, The Avengers, Godzilla: he's able to get to the heart of what defines them- man, beast, or cosmic entity- and write the story feeding into and imbuing those characteristics, which makes for a better experience. So yeah, Wonton Soup, Orc Stain, Godzilla, Strange Tales, The Avengers, Sullivan's Sluggers-  I'm a fan. Stokoe's an excellent, quality cartoonist; I think he and his work are important to comics, and I look forward to whatever he chooses to do.

I can be a bit hesitant in approaching cartoonists for interviews, assuming they'll be madly busy, but James seemed interested in the idea, and so I went for it before he changed his mind! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Where did you grow up?
I was born and lived around Calgary until I was about 6 , but I grew up in Kelowna, which is a couple hours off from Vancouver. It's all mountains and lake there, so it's a pretty place. I will take nature over city any day.

At what point did you finish school/learning? Did you ever pursue any art-related courses?
I only ever made it to grade 10, and the idea of art school never really jived with me, so I don't have much going on in the formal education department. Though, the older I get, the more I'm toying with the idea of taking some history courses, just out of pure interest more than anything else.

Can you describe the evolution/progress of your relationship with comics? When you started reading them, what did you read, and at what point did you decide that making them was what you wanted to do?
I was definitely drawing them before I was reading them. Like, I knew from a young age what they were, but never owned any until I had met a friend with a collection. I used to tape a bunch of paper together and draw stories based off those Nerds candies, which is kind of strange looking back.

My parents used to buy me Marvel cards with all the character's power levels graphed out on the back, so when I finally did start reading comics it was mostly Marvel stuff. My first was a Ron Marz and Bart Sears Silver Surfer issue, which was really cool to me. It had Silver Surfer fighting Human Torch on the cover, Spider-Man on the first couple pages, and they eventually wound up on Monster Island, so that pretty much defined my taste as a kid. I really got into Dark Horse Aliens comics when I was a bit older, too. I still love those deeply.

I know you like quite a few 80's movies, but what texts/people would you say have had the most impact or influence on you and your work?
I tend to read a lot of sci fi novels, so that has a bit of influence on my work. Heinlein, Niven and Pournelle are some of my favorites. Frank Herbert's Dune books got me when I was a teenager, so those are a pretty big deal to me. I love how they're not so much about advanced future technology, but more about advanced future people. That idea has probably rubbed off in Orc Stain. Lately, I've been reading his non-Dune books, and have been mostly digging them. The Dosadi Experiment was really good, it's all frog aliens and body swapping plots.

I'm also lucky in that some of my favorite artists ended up being really good friends. Comics can be pretty isolated, so it's essential to have a community of artists that you can hang out with and look up to.

Also, Donnie Yen, cus he's in his mid 50's and can still suplex dudes better than anyone.

Can you talk about your colouring process? I remember first coming across your work as the first non-traditional coloured comic I'd read, and found it really difficult to adjust to the way it looked initially. It's very neon and raw and fleshy quite often, and then there's the gradients. You have work that's very bright and almost harsh and then more 'toned-down' schemes. How do you come to those choices; what's the thinking behind them (especially the gradients!)?
The gradients stem from my complete and utter lack of proper photoshop skills. Like, pencil, paintbucket, and magic wand are the only things that make sense to me. I used to only do really basic flats when I was starting out with digital coloring, and was totally dumbfounded as to how other people got their colors to magically blend.  A comic I did called Murderbullets was the first time I used gradients, I think? The coloring on it is still pretty basic, but I was trying to ape other colorists without ever learning how they actually do it. I still don't know how they do it, actually? Do they even use the gradient tool?

As for the tropical gummi-bear colors, I have no idea where I picked that up. I think it suits my usual style the most, I guess. I tend to stay away from earth tones, they're too fancy.

Do you have anything like a day-plan/a typical day? How does your day usually go?
Not so much. I tend to work in clumps, sometimes drawing all day, sometimes not at all. If I have stuff to ink or color, I can do that fairly mindlessly, but I really have to be in the mood when I'm pencilling.

How long does it take, to say, draw one page on average?
With pencils, inks, and colors, it usually takes about 2 or 3 days for me now. I used to be able to crank shit out, but I just can't anymore. My work's gotten a lot denser these last few years, so that probably has something to do with it, but I've become painfully slow.

Probably the foremost aspect of your style is the hyper detail; is that how you've always drawn, is it something you developed, or worked to develop? Is it more innate- just your style, the way you do things? 
Yeah, I definitely think it's just my natural way of drawing. Obviously, if I'm doing a two page spread of a big frenetic scene, I'll amp myself up and try and fill every nook and cranny for added impact, but for the most part I don't try to force details on myself. I look at artists like Yoshikazu Yasuhiko who can make these big scenes look so grandiose by implying lines and details, and I get a bit jealous, but I know that if I tried something similar it would feel flat to me.

What's your goal or ideology as an artist? Is it about making things because you need to, pursuing a career, enjoyment, money, a bit of everything? What do you want and get out of it?
I'd say need and career are two things that I've never felt strongly for... I could go a month without drawing and easily fill that time with other interests, and career implies some kind of upward momentum in the industry, which I don't really care about? But yeah, enjoyment and a bit of money is all I'm really asking for. I like to draw, and I like to eat!

You've done quite a bit of work for Marvel covers, one-off issues and stories, in addition to working on licensed properties like Godzilla, and your own original works such as Orc Stain and Wonton Soup. How do you approach those two different sides, in terms of what purpose they serve you as an artist and beyond?
I wasn't too worried about the Godzilla book, because I had been messing around with that idea years before IDW approached me, but yeah, the Avengers one-shot definitely gave me a bit of a pause. I'd been working on my own original stuff for so long, it was easy to get into that stigma of thinking that those types of comics are like an alien world, those comics on the other side of the fence, but they're also built into my core DNA as a reader, so I can never be outright dismissive of them. Like, working on a super hero series has never been my endgame, but I ended up falling into that Avengers story as comfortably as I did my more personal work like Orc Stain. I never felt like I was approaching it in a different way on a basic creative sense, it was just drawing from a different era of personal influence.

You're great at  working with properties: Godzilla, the Silver Surfer short, the Avengers issue; you have a real knack for getting to the heart of those characters. A lot of people see that kind of work as perhaps lucrative but a stepping stone? How do you view it?
I don't see it as a stepping stone, personally, but I can see other artists approaching it that way. It all depends on what you want to do, I guess? Like, if you're doing a comic based off of... Pogs or something, then you're probably just in it for a paycheck. And there's the old scheme where if you work on a Big Two book, the sales for your creator owned stuff will get a bump, but I have zero idea if that's actually true or not.  My brain isn't geared for that career side of comics. I've got no hustle.

At the same time, I can't lie and say it isn't lucrative, because licensed work tends to pay well, but most of the properties I've worked on I had already drawn fan comics of, so my interest was always there. I'm at a point where I can turn down work and not starve, so all the licensed books I've put out I've been pretty proud of, and have no problem holding them up alongside my personal projects.

Speaking of properties, Brandon Graham's always saying they should get you on an Aliens comic- if you could pick one license to work with, what would it be?
Aliens would be a big one, yeah. I've had a fan comic planned in my head for ages, but no time to do it. A Rogue Trooper comic is something I've always wanted to do as well, that has all the things I like to draw in it. I almost had a chance to do a mini series when IDW was putting them out, but the timing just wasn't right.

One of the things I love about your work is that it has substance to it, but it's fun and enjoyable. There's a general attitude where worth or weight is attributed to 'serious/brave/grim' issues more, they're seen as 'important' or 'meaningful.' Why do you think people see affirming work as 'lighter fare' or having less truth or meaning? Is it a cultural emphasis or something more?
Whenever this conversation comes up, I think of this perfect bit Bruce Lee does in Enter the Dragon. "We need emotional content. NOT ANGER!". Later on, he fights a dude with a claw hand in a mirror maze, and the quote still rings true. As long as the emotions are coming through, and they're not forced  and hollow, it doesn't matter if the story is filled with fight scenes or poop jokes. You don't have to go full Titus Andronicus every time to get your feelings across, not every pie is filled with human blood.

Are comics how you make a living? If yes, how difficult or easy has it been to get to that point where your work is your main source of income?
Yeah, comics and illustration side jobs keep my lights on. It was definitely pretty dire starting out, like I imagine it is for most artists. There was a while where my wife and I had a tiny apartment with only a jury rigged coffee machine and an air mattress patched up with duct tape and chewing gum, but that's as bad as it ever got.  My parents have always been very supportive, and socked away some money if I ever went to college, but once they realized that was never going to happen, they helped set me up when I moved out to Vancouver. I doubt I would've lasted long in comics if it wasn't for that, so I'm very lucky. I'm in a good place now, though. I can pick and choose the projects I want to work on, which is the ideal situation.

From what I can gather, you don't really table at conventions much and you're also not on the internet as a 'presence' in the way other comics people are. What (if any) is the thinking behind those choices?
I'm not really sure? I'm generally a private person, and tabling at conventions just seems like the most awkward way to meet people. It's what I imagine speed dating is like. Also, I don't get the opportunity to travel much, so when I do, I want it to be as less about comics as is humanly possible.
But I don't know... I tweet about martial arts movies sometimes? I have a Wordpress I update twice a year? I'm hip, I'm cool.

Recently, there's been a lot of discussion about the way in which comics needs to evolve and progress. What do you personally see as areas in which it's doing well, areas in which it's doing poorly, and areas in which you think it needs to improve?
I think the breadth of new creators coming up are really something special. There's so much work floating out there that's influenced by styles all over the world melting together, and it's really starting to come up in a big way. It's really exciting to step back and watch, because comics as a history hasn't really ever seen anything like this new wave of creators before.

But, on the flip side, so much of this work is unpublished! It's kind of infuriating sometimes. I know a lot of these creators are doing just fine putting out their work on their own, but it'd be nice to see some of the bigger publishers reach out and get this stuff out there to the brick and mortar crowd.
Creator diversity is another big issue that obviously needs a lot of work, but there's a ton of great critics out there that can go over that better than I ever could. I don't know how much the industry is seriously doing on that front besides the odd character revamp, but that just seems like band-aid diversity. Until more (sometimes any!) poc get hired to edit and work on books, there's not much cause to celebrate.

I often look at other people's work and ages and despite all the adages about it not being a race, get a bit twisted about comparisons or not being as good, or as far along. What are your thoughts on creative expectations- setting and managing them?
I know, right? All these beautiful babies draw so fucking good, and they know it! But no, it's hard to get mad at people for doing a good job, but getting a little bit jealous and pushing yourself never hurt anybody.  And I hope it's not a race cus I'm slow and my wrist hurts all the time now. If anything, in comics it's an endurance race. Like, it seems almost inevitable that if you work in comics for a long enough period of time you will either go broke or insane, and it's about fighting those two things off so that your work doesn't suffer.

I figure that if I can look back on pages that are a few months old and do my usual "Ew, that looks old", then I'm on the right track.

Do you read comics? I used to be pretty flabbergasted when I'd read interviews with comics artists/writers saying they don't read any, but I guess it's understandable. If yes, what have you read recently that's you've enjoyed, or been impressed by?
My comic reading has definitely dropped sharply as all the shops in my area  scare me, but I still get my hands on stuff from time to time. My wife brought back The Wrenchies from the last convention she went to, and it's hard to believe that a better book came out that year. Farel Dalrymple has always been amazing, but that one absolutely gutted me. So good!

I try to keep up with Michael Deforge's output, but he seems insistent on drawing comics faster than I can read them. I'm always amazed by what that guy can do. I just got Mickey Z's Rav collection in the mail as well, there's no way that won't be good.

Prophet has got the best ensemble of comics people in it, and Brandon Graham is my #1 homie so I'm honorbound to read his larder of work. I'll check out anything with Sloane Leong's name on it. Dan White sent me a pdf of his Cindy and Bisquit collection, which I haven't had a chance to read yet, but it looks stunning. There really is a ton of great stuff out there, I have no excuse. I'm terrible and should read more comics.

If you had to recommend only 3 comics to a person, what would they be?
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki is a comic you could give to just about anyone. You've got to be a hard bitten lump of coal to find much fault with that book. I binge read Liz Suburbia's Sacred Heart series online a while back, and I'd recommend that to anybody looking for some good slice of life teen drama. I think there's a printed collection of that coming out soon, too? If somebody read Orc Stain and wanted something of a similar vein, I'd recommend they track down a one volume manga called The Fishbone, by Akira Oyama. I've never read a translated version, but it's all about dinosaurs, forest ladies, and chopped off junk.

What did you think of the new Godzilla movie? Thoughts on: beefed up Godzilla, that roar, Ken Watanabe's face, Muto's design and effectiveness as new monsters, anything else.
I can't say it did much for me? It felt like it was trying to be a Jaws movie, which is a weird formula to follow when the draw is a group of 500 foot monsters blowing up cities. Godzilla looked alright though, minus his weird brontosaurus peg legs and bad animated nostrils. His roar was pretty mean, he looked liked a pissed off bear which was pretty great. I'm critiquing this movie like a nerd at this point, but yeah. There's 50 years worth of other Godzilla movies that I love, so one remake that I wasn't super into isn't going to destroy my world.

And by Ken Watanabe's face, I assume you mean the one that goes "HUUUUUUUHWHAAA?", if so I approve.

What I really liked about your Godzilla was that he was this whole completely different other being just doing his own thing, presumably acting within his nature- he and those other beasts battling it out. There was no relating point to him. Ota functions as the audience's placebo. That seems utterly real to me; that that's how that scenario would play out. I'd love to see more films and books play out like that. It's the reason I love the original Alien. What are your thoughts on making monsters/creatures human or empathetic? Do you think it's important to affix  them a point of entry for audiences?
Yeah, that goes back to Lovecraft's Old Gods, I think? It tends to be more unsettling when the monster is unknowable, and having an utterly human character try and unravel them and lose their minds in the process is always rewarding to watch.

There's a bit of that in older sources, like the Graeco-Roman gods, but they're definitely have more pettiness and human-like qualities. My favorite is the one story about Dionysos, where he gets kidnapped by pirates. As it goes on, the ship turns into almost a haunted house, until finally Dionysos transforms into a bear, chasing the pirates off the ship where they all turn into dolphins. I've been trying to adapt that into a horror comic, because of the way Dionysos is described in the poem... he just sits there silently, with a malevolent smile. It's still a very human story, but it has this tinge of unsettling horror to it.

I just wrapped up my issue for Godzilla in Hell, and that one is all monster, no human viewpoint, so it's pretty much silent. It's like a GON comic, the more I think about it.  20 pages is an ideal length for something like that... I don't think a long form story would work as well, so yeah, a certain amount of human interaction is needed. It helps to have somebody try and discover the meaning of the monster, even if they are utterly wrong.

Which comic have you enjoyed working on most? Which has been the most personally satisfying?
Probably Orc Stain. I tend to throw whatever influences are clicking with me at that particular time into that book, so it's always a nice, selfish feeling drawing those pages. I have all these notes written on my desk for future scenes that I'm aching to draw after I wrap up other commitments. There's one I want to do up like a David Attenborough nature special about orc wizard dudes who grow poisonous watermelons in small garden plots they carry on their backs, and they eat them and go into vomitting seizure spasms.

What are you working on right now? I read that you've been working on getting a few issues of Orc-Stain under the belt before you begin publishing- any idea when can we expect them?  
This week, I'm finishing up a Silver Surfer ten pager. It's Norrin Radd in ancient Egypt, and he fights a big Fin Fang Foom crocodile monster with the Juggernaut, who plays a Hercules stand in. After that, I'm finishing another 10 pager, which I don't think I'm allowed to talk about yet? After that, it's back to Orc Stain. I've got almost all of #8 finished, minus a handful of pages to color, and roughly half of #9 in the bank. I'm holding off on releasing them until I get #10 finished, which will complete the second trade paperback. Those three issues all have crazy good guest covers by Brandon Graham, Michael Deforge, and Mickey Z, which they drew for me in the late Cretaceous period, and I'm a chump for not getting those issues done sooner.

Do you have a plan for Orc Stain: length or ending in mind? 
I think I've planned for 5 or 6 more volumes, but that's just guesswork. I know how the story ends, but I've left the way it gets there pretty open. I've got a couple side stories planned as well, that'll break off from the main plot and focus on different characters.

Favourite kaiju: Besides Godzilla, of course, it's a toss up between Ebirah (because he's a giant shrimp) and Space Godzilla (because he's a Godzilla from space). There's also this watermelon kaiju from a show called Giant Robot Mikazuki who has one of the coolest monster designs ever.
Favourite pizza topping: Black olives, they make every pizza better.
Alien or Predator? Alien, it has a tendency to wear less fishnet body suits than Predator.
If you could bring back one dinosaur what would it be? If the movies have taught us anything, it's that we should never bring back dinosaurs, but I've always liked the Stegosaurus, they had the most style.
Favourite video game? I like the Fallout games a lot. City building games like the Anno series are good stress relievers too. There's an older game called Planescape: Torment that's probably my favorite. It's basically a glorified text adventure game, but you could argue people out of existence, so it's really great.
Tintin or Asterix? Tough call, but I'll go with Asterix. 
Vin Diesel or the Rock: I haven't seen Fast & Furious 7 yet, so this is impossible to answer.

Click through past the jump for a look at a 15-page excerpt of new Orc Stain!


  1. SICK!! Amazing skill.

  2. "As long as the emotions are coming through, and they're not forced and hollow, it doesn't matter if the story is filled with fight scenes or poop jokes."

    yes yes

  3. omg what a bountiful amount of stokoe content :0

  4. Absolutely stellar interview...enlightening, even...and more Orc Stain makes me very giddy with joy :)

  5. I recently finished reading Orc Stain and I need see how this concludes with exceptional art and story of James.

  6. Holy smacks! Great interview and I'm jumping with joy like a little school girl in my mind... Orc Stain in the works!