AMERICA’S NEXT TOP ARTIST
Now pushing their pencils for high-profile gigs, six artists prove they’re ready for superstardom
By Jake Rossen
Posted November 28, 2007 12:00 PM
TONY S. DANIEL
That’s the first thing that pops into Tony S. Daniel’s mind—at least, when he’s queried about his first illustrative subject. “My very first drawing was of a naked woman,” he laughs. “I remember drawing a stick figure-ish thing and drawing these gigantic boobs with this red crayon and just going over and over, making these huge circles. It looked kind of abstract, I guess.”
Mom didn’t like it, but Dad did (“he hung it on the refrigerator”). Public consensus seems to have sided with the latter, as the 37-year-old Daniel is getting raves for his work on DC’s flagship Batman title. The man who almost flunked kindergarten for being too “immature” (he tore up classmates’ Santa drawings when he deemed them mediocre) is now being hailed as a next-gen sensation with a flawless work ethic.
“He’s absolutely dedicated to every page he draws,” says Batman editor Mike Marts.
“His take is a nice mesh of classics like Jim Aparo and Neal Adams combined with modern versions like Jim Lee. And he’s extremely down to Earth.”
The words didn’t always flow as kindly for Daniel, who drew some critical reviews for his “cartoony” style during a 1990s tenure at Image that included work on Spawn and The Tenth. A self-imposed evolution on DC’s acclaimed Teen Titans followed in 2005. “It was a natural progression,” the artist says. “Drawing guys in capes was kind of new to me. There were so many growing pains. I remember my first day drawing several pages over and over again because I just didn’t like what was coming out.”
His polished Titans work led to his current Batman gig, one he has no intention of abandoning anytime soon. “I would love to be on it for four or five years. I lasted five years on The Tenth. We’ll see what happens.”
Penciling the book—Daniel aims for a page a day—is aided by the décor in his home studio. “Right above my drawing desk, I have two shelves filled with toys. I have a couple statues of Catwoman, Batgirl and the Paul Pope Batman. They help put Gotham City in my mind.”
When he’s not at the drafting table, Daniel is busy with a vocation he picked up during a self-imposed exile from comics a few years ago. “We had screenwriters coming on and basically messing up my [optioned] projects, so I figured I’d start screenwriting and mess it up on my own and get paid for it.” Daniel has recently hooked up with “The Cooler” producers Pierce-Williams to help get his “Hazard Pay” script to the screen. (“It’s about a con man who gets in over his head.”)
Daniel admits his writing résumé is yet to be as prolific as Tony Daniel, a sci-fi author who prompted the artist to add an “S” to his handle. “If people look for me on eBay, they get a whole bunch of Tony Daniel novels, including one called Warpath, which is one of the characters from [early Marvel assignment] X-Force. It’s easy for people to get confused.”
Including Daniel’s own wife. “When she first met me, she went and Googled my name and saw all these novels and thought it was me.
“And these are some weird novels.”
Upon hearing of their son’s plans to become an artist, Billy Tan’s parents had some extremely dubious career advice.
“You would never be able to survive as an artist,” Tan, now drawing Uncanny X-Men, recalls them scolding. “Only when you die, that’s when you make money.”
The teenage Tan, eager to be both successful and breathing, obeyed their wishes to depart Malaysia and attend business school at the University of Kentucky. But downtime was spent taking art classes and compiling a portfolio, which he sent off during one of Top Cow’s talent searches in 1994. “I sent in a sample and they give me some comments through letters,” Tan says. “They let me try out with trading cards. I sent that in and they liked it, so they flew me in to San Diego. They were cool enough to keep me.”
A die-hard fan of Image, Tan’s days were spent inking in the company of luminaries like J. Scott Campbell, Travis Charest and his idol Marc Silvestri. “When I first picked up [Silvestri’s] Cyberforce, I had no idea comics could have such an artistic factor. His stuff was mind-blowing to me.”
The Image gigs—Tomb Raider, Codename: Strykeforce—were in short supply; Tan once spent an entire year painting a Tomb Raider cover, which wasn’t doing his bank account any favors. A friend facilitated a Marvel meet in 2004, which resulted in work on X-23 and Marvel Knights Spider Man. In 2006, Tan was granted the Holy Grail of illustration: a job on Uncanny X-Men with legendary scribe Chris Claremont. When the publisher called with the offer, Claremont was silently listening on the line. “I was sweating,” Tan laughs. “I was going, ‘That was Claremont on the phone. I think.’”
Uncanny editor Nick Lowe plucked Tan from a stack of possible recruits. “He’s one of the few artists who really makes characters look cool,” Lowe raves. “His characters are badass, plain and simple. They look like they can, and will, kick your ass. Some of the pages he’s finished have literally made my socks fly off.”
Tan’s dynamic style shines in fight sequences. “I think that’s my influence from the Hong Kong comics,” he says of the knuckle-ups. “Hong Kong comic fight scenes, the choreography is amazing. Very dynamic and aggressive in how they do it. It’s in your face.”
The 37-year-old artist’s alchemy has had fans returning to the X-books in droves, a fact that gives him a case of the warm fuzzies. “It’s really an honor when fans come up and say, ‘You made me come back to the book.’ That’s amazing. I try my best.”
Compliment Ontario’s Dale Eaglesham on a job well done on DC’s Justice Society of America and you’re likely to be met with a furrowed brow and forlorn expression. He’s failed you.
“If a reader picks up a comic and says, ‘Wow, that was great art,’ then I didn’t do my job because I distracted them from the story,” Eaglesham says. “If someone picks up one of my comics and says, ‘Wow, what a great story,’ and they enjoyed it, to me, that’s success.”
After seeing a Swamp Thing comic when he was just 6 years old that “blew my mind,” Eaglesham experimented with finger paints before graduating to pencils. Attending college for commercial art, he was drawn to comics. “Up until that point, I hadn’t been doing a whole lot of superhero stuff. I think my art was more like Archie, Peanuts, things like that.”
A fervent Conan fan, Eaglesham was beside himself when a friend passed along his art to Marvel and the company gave him pinup assignments for their Savage Sword of Conan series in the mid-1980s. The 1990s saw the artist bounce from job to job with Acclaim (Eternal Warriors), Dark Horse (The Creep), and back to Marvel (Punisher). (For a visual progression of Eaglesham’s work through the years, flip on over to p. 66.)
It wasn’t until 2002, over a decade into his career, that Eaglesham got regular book assignments with Green Lantern and the late, lamented H-E-R-O. (“The pages always looked amazing and he was always on time,” comments H-E-R-O editor Peter Tomasi. “He took great pride in his work and was constantly pushing himself.”)
Now deep into a JSA run with writer Geoff Johns and character designer Alex Ross, the 45-year-old Eaglesham’s only complaint is trying to adapt Ross’ painted work for the pencil-and-ink panels. “Drawing the Kingdom Come Superman is a real challenge. You’ve pretty much seen him only in a painted medium. I’m trying to translate that into a graphic medium. It’s not always easy to make those facial features appear graphically, especially when they’ve been painted before. That’s tough.”
Tough, but successful. If one were to take any comic with an Alex Ross cover, the reader expectation assumes that the interior artist won’t have the same level of quality. Eaglesham’s art not only keeps up with Ross’ contributions, but also tells a tight story. Which, as we know, would please him to know it’s all worth the trouble.
“I’ve been getting the right projects,” he says. “I feel like I’m just starting as an artist.”
Entering a contest that doesn’t technically exist would seem to lower one’s chances of winning, but don’t tell that to Steve Epting.
A lifelong fan of sequential art, in the mid-’80s the then-20-something aspiring artist got wind of First Comics holding a contest to find new talent; the winner would get their work published. Epting compiled a six-page Jonas the Hammer story, a regular feature in its marquee Nexus title. When he showed up to the Atlanta Fantasy Fair with the work, no one at the First booth had clue one about it.
“They were nice enough to review all of the entries and declared me and another artist the ‘winners,’” Epting recalls. “We met with First’s art director and through him I ended up getting my first professional assignment.”
When First became cash-strapped, Epting began shopping his talents around at Marvel. Then-editor Howard Mackie liked what he saw, and charged Epting with a high-profile gig in Avengers. Though his art was commended, the narrative was deemed a low point in the team’s history.
“It didn’t help that it was saddled with the usual ’90s gimmicks such as beard stubble, leather jackets and metallic embossed covers,” Epting, 43, says now. “I found most people either loved it or hated it, but the ones who loved it are definitely out there.”
After a brief stint at DC, where both he and writer Dan Jurgens were unable to save Aquaman from his umpteenth cancellation, Epting volleyed back to Marvel and duties on Ed Brubaker’s Captain America from its new launch in 2004, just in time for the character’s recent execution. “Cap should be right up there with the most iconic superheroes in comics. I hope that after our run, he’ll still be getting the exposure and attention the character deserves.”
Not that he plans to leave Cap anytime soon. When asked what his future holds, he wryly replies, “Cap, Cap and more Cap.”
A typical workday in Epting’s South Carolina studio includes “lots of caffeine” and admiring a replica Cap shield in his studio. Asked what he might be doing if not for comics, Epting replies, “If I didn’t make it as an artist, I probably would have gone into the family business—distributing heating and air conditioning equipment.”
That doesn’t look to be a possibility anytime soon. “Steve cares about the work he does to an extraordinary degree,” says Cap editor Tom Brevoort. “It’s not uncommon for him to finish, say, a cover image, decide that it’s not good enough, not what he wanted, and then for him to redo it completely from scratch. He’s deeply committed to the quality of his work.”
Crowd scenes? Pfft. Titanic battles with muscular he-men tossing buses and dodging falling stars? Done before lunch. But dogs?
Dogs could be a problem.
“Dogs’ back legs are a pain to draw,” sighs Mike Perkins, one of the pencilers currently in rotation on Captain America. “The front legs are fine, because they just go up and down. But the back leg is kind of bent all over the place. Especially when they kneel down—you don’t know which way they’re going.”
Canine anatomy issues aside, Perkins’ skill has netted him applause in industry circles as the Brit who has embraced the jingoistic Cap without a moment’s hesitation. That’s because the 37-year-old Tampa, Fla., resident grew up in the U.K. on a steady visual diet of Marvel reprints. “[Captain America] is in your consciousness anyway. It really doesn’t come into consideration that he’s such an American presence. I’ve grown up on those characters.”
“Mike is able to make an icon seem human without losing his iconic status,” says Perkins’ Union Jack writer Christos N. Gage. “You can relate to his Cap as a man without his role as the ‘Sentinel of Liberty’ being diminished in the least.”
As a teen, Perkins would illustrate his own riffs on characters like Judge Dredd and then sell them at lunchtime to schoolmates, baiting them with treats. (“I would put a fun-size Snickers or Mars Bar on the front of the cover, so people would pick them up when they were hungry.”) After a brief foundation course in art college, an agent netted him regular work for the popular U.K. anthology series 2000 A.D. in 1993; work in the U.S. for Caliber and CrossGen followed, including his well-received homage to James Bond, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
“It was how Bond would’ve been when he doesn’t take other people into consideration whatsoever,” laughs Perkins of his 2004 CrossGen hit.
When CrossGen closed shop, Perkins’ work visa was about to expire; Marvel stepped in with offers, which eventually led to his current Cap stint. He’s also ink-deep in the newly launched miniseries House of M: Avengers, a new book Perkins describes as something “for anyone who loves that comic. It’s a story where [writer] Christos Gage gets to work on all of the characters he loved when he was a kid. You’ve got Luke Cage in his yellow shirt and silver tiara, walking around 1970s New York.”
While his tenure on Cap has no immediate finish line, Perkins isn’t the restless type. “I’d like to do a really long run, like a 50-issue run on Wolverine. I think that would be incredibly fun to do. And the perfect collaborator for that would be [Cap writer] Ed Brubaker.”
That kind of enthusiasm for the medium is no surprise to Gage, who sees Perkins as a genuine fan of the industry. “I remember Mike telling me once he doesn’t understand comics professionals who complain about the business, because he feels so lucky to work in a field that’s so much fun.
“The sky’s the limit for Mike.”
Shane Davis completists take note: The artist isn’t exactly eager to help you round out your collection.
“I don’t really want to talk about my debut,” Davis says of his fill-in work on Robin #110. “It was really bad. The inker that took the job flaked. He never inked anything after that for years. It barely made it to the printer. There was no time to color it. Atrocious.”
These days, Davis’ work—found on DC’s Superman/Batman—is all anyone can talk about, and “atrocious” is the last adjective tossed around. After an eye-opening stint on DC’s Mystery in Space from 2006-07, the 28-year-old New Jersey resident is a few issues deep into a Batman/Superman run with “Heroes” TV writer Michael Green and enjoying the kind of accolades normally reserved for veterans.
“I was blown away,” says Space writer Jim Starlin of glimpsing his early pages. “He’s got a great sense of design, the lighting he utilizes.”
Davis honed those techniques at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art; after a brief stint checking DVDs for scratches at a Blockbuster Video, his circulating portfolio nabbed him work that went from a trickle to a full-blown career. “Before I knew it, there was one point where I did a job for Marvel, DC licensing and Upper Deck, all in one week.”
Davis’ work for character T-shirts and assorted props—he designed the handle to the Batman knife recently advertised in these pages—landed him an exclusive contract with DC and a regular gig on Batman/Superman, one he perpetuates with 12-hour workdays and influences ranging from Japanese anime to sculptor Randy Bowen.
“The Superman in [recent fill-in gig] JLA isn’t going to be the Superman I draw in Superman/Batman,” Davis says of putting his own stamp on the dual icons. “And when Batman’s cape is down, it has more of a batwing texture to it, veiny. Superman is more about little things, like his hair. I want less of the matted-down look.
“But,” he promises, “no mullet.”
I've always been a fan of Tony Daniel, Billy Tan and Steve Epting, ever since I saw their work. Tony Daniel did some fantastic stuff on one of the Marvel X-titles...can't remember which, but it might have been either X-Force or Excalibur, then he translated that fantastic artwork to the newly-named titles when they entered the Age of Apocalypse storyarc. His work on creator-owned Silke and F5 was just brilliant as well. And now he draws Batman, which I don't collect. How I'm missing out on his brilliant work.
I think the first issue of Billy Tan's work that I own is one of those Cyberforce spin-off one-shots. His work was very stylised, like a combination of Mark Silvestri and Jim Lee's pencils. But it was brilliant, and I think he moved on to Spirit of the Tao of which I THINK I have the first issue. He sort of followed the same path that David Finch did, starting off at Top Cow Productions under Mark Silvestri, getting his own title to illustrate, then moving onto Marvel Comics. David Finch is the bigger star with the higher profile, but I'm sure with Billy Tan's stint on Uncanny X-Men, he'll soon be up there too.
And I've ALWAYS been a fan of Steve Epting's work, ever since I saw his pencils on Avengers in the early to mid 90s. I always thought Epting wasn't given his due and it WAS one of the WORST times in Avengers history, with poorly written stories, bad characterisation and whatnot. But he had a very gritty style that I enjoyed looking at...fantastic that he's been given a high profile gig now on Captain America.
Dale Eaglesham has great talent as well. His Villains United series was illustrated so beautifully, and I was wondering why DC hadn't elevated him to a bigger gig or title! Justice Society of America isn't QUITE a big gig...he really needs to get onto a Superman, Batman or Justice League title...or even one of the massive DC crossovers like Countdown or 52 to further elevate his profile. Or hopefully Marvel Comics can just lure him over to illustrate some title! :p