At Washington DC’s recent Awesome Con I attended a panel where writer/artist Skottie Young discussed his career in comic books. He began with initial inspirations (Joe Madureira, Sam Kieth) and his experience advertising his talent at conventions. Young acknowledged that he required a period of working through these influences (Young was pretty biting about his early endeavors), before he could find his own voice. As with everything, there is a learning curve. He talked about how when he was younger he lacked a grasp of how the industry worked, for example the business model differences between The Big Two and Image. He simply assumed that he would get a chance to draw his characters at any of those companies. As his younger self saw it, someone else was already illustrating Spider-Man, so why hire him to do it? Yet, that is exactly what happened resulting in a string of gigs at Marvel on increasingly high-profile books. Then they offered him an Oz adaptation and he turned it down.
Initially, Young was reluctant to tackle the Oz project, viewing it as a step back in his career. He believed that the key to success was securing more of those popular Marvel superhero books. At the time (2007), there was nothing prestigious about doing a children’s book. Cartoon was “a four letter word” and kids’ series did not sell. In the end, though, Young could not resist the chance to collaborate with Oz expert Eric Shanower who would be scripting the adaptation. Some of Young’s favorite movies are The Never Ending Story and Labyrinth, while he is a big fan of the novels of Ronald Dahl. Through these sources, he possessed a natural disposition for the fantastic and sometimes dark elements of L. Frank Baum’s original books.
From there he revisited the movie to avoid what had been done (& copyrighted) already. In the process, he embraced his own distinct style of illustrating. As Young explained it, he does not see figures in terms of naturalistic anatomy. Instead he sees shapes in motion. (“Assign me Kingpin and I’ll draw a large box with a round head on it.”) Part of this is practical, easing his ability to draw Dorothy 600some times over the course of the Oz project. However, it also reflects his own sensibility. Finally, it allowed him and Shanower to shake up what Young viewed as the very stogy genre of classic literature adaptation. Young considered Marvel’s then line of illustrated classics as staid, safe and ultimately unfaithful to their sources (“those books had some of the most muscular, fit pirates ever.”). Instead his art could capture better Baum’s own sensibilities.
The catch was Young never expected it to do well. In fact, even after he accepted the assignment, he assumed that it would sideline his career. It might be artistically fulfilling but would not pay the rent. Thus, he asked Marvel for a regular cover gig, so that he could keep a presence in the Marvel Universe. This led to what is arguably his most recognizable achievement: the Marvel baby variants. Young commented that when he designs one of these covers, he approaches the job more like writer than an artist. For him, it is all about the gag. He compared it to Gary Larson’s Far Side or Sergio Aragones’ contributions Mad magazine, where the cartoonist had to convey the jokes clearly through a single panel. When someone first reads a Far Side cartoon it is for the joke, admiring the art is secondary.
Key to the covers was also a willingness to embrace the ridiculous. Young explained how he sees the covers as part of the ongoing conversation between fans. The humor only works because everyone gets the reference. For this reason, the hardest variants to do are the ones for newer characters, who lack widely recognized iconic elements. In the end, these variants celebrate the silly side of a medium, which at times takes itself too seriously.
Despite expectations, Oz along with the variant covers, made Young a huge success in the industry. Afterwards, he wanted to just write something, focus on being a storyteller. He did not want any traditional superheroes, as he saw less comedy potential in them. Now the spacefaring adventures of a talking raccoon, sounded more like what he was looking to do.
At present, however, he is wrapping up his run on Rocket Raccoon and focusing on his Image book I Hate Fairyland. He discussed the freedom of working on a creator owned title, instead of Marvel. For #3 he had planned a gag where the (anti-)heroine Gert would fall off a cliff and be unconscious, then a page turn and she is up and running (& killing) again. When Young sat down to draw this, he found it rather flat. So, he added details, such as her companion Lenny the cricket trying to wake her. That failing, he builds a makeshift shelter from the rain. Time passes and he builds a more permanent house. Adds an extension. Meets a lady cricket. Has kid crickets. Watches wife and children leave him. Gets drunk and burns the house down. All the while Gert is still laying in the foreground, beard growing in thick green curls matching her hair. Eventually Gert wakes up and the narrative resumes as if nothing happened.
This sequence is a perfect example of the mixture of humor and artistic detail which makes Fairyland such a delightful read. For Young it is a reminder of how free he is to expand a one page joke into an 8 page sequence without having to phone in for editorial approval, while also rejiggering the rest of the issue to make everything stay within a twenty-two page count.
Given this current high level of creative control, it is no wonder that he has been turning his recent work has been so strong.
I Hate Fairyland #6, which starts the second arc, was released today by Image Comics