Telling stories in the comic world

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Today, we take you behind the scenes of the comic world. Read how one incredibly successful artist uses English to transform words into timeless illustrations.

Since getting his first gig with world-renowned comic book artist Jim Lee in 1994, Pop Mhan has been an illustrator creating comic art for numerous titles for comic houses such as Marvel, DC Comic and top-notch international brands, such as Adidas, Nintendo, and Microsoft. He’s also a Lucasfilm Ltd., Certified Artist since 2001 and was part of the creative team to create the Star Wars: Jedi Quest graphic novel.

With more than 20 years of experience in the U.S. comic industry, he shares his secrets to thrive in the comic world; the techniques for turning the written English narratives into illustrations – a universal language, and his advice for parents whose kid wants to move into the vulnerable career path.

Q: How did you first get into the comic industry?

  • “Almost by accident, I was impressed by the work of Jim Lee. Since then I always set the bar high to be level with him. After I saw his earlier work when I was in high school, I knew right away what I wanted to do in life is to pursue drawing in the U.S. comic industry. At the Chicago Comic Con in 1994, after two years of non-stop drawings, Jim discovered me at the event. Almost instantly I got the first gig in the comic industry. It was being Hoang Nguyen’s assistant creating illustration works on Lawdog/Grimrod for Marvel’s Eclipse; I was in my early twenties at the time.”

Q: Do you think people nowadays should let their work speak for itself or should they proactively find ways to sell themselves and become noticed? 

  • “Yes, you should let your works speak for itself. But if you want to really get into the industry faster – you also need to be the best salesman. You need to let the company know that you have something to sell. Something good that people really want to buy – you maybe the best salesman but if what you’re selling is crap then it’s not going to get you anywhere.”

Q: What should one do to impress a scout looking for creative talent?

  • “Having a solid body of work. Be prepared, always improving your portfolio—the testament that you’re making progress. Be personable – learn how to talk to the editor, practicing your crafts, and know how to make appropriate jokes with the people inside and outside the industry is crucial. Inside joke is what you use to impress people inside the industry; it shows that you understand the true nature of the industry and you’ll be more likely to get ahead.”

Q: What makes the best storytelling for a comic book?

  • “Storytelling for comic books is unique and – unlike writing – it uses visualization as the main engine for telling a story. Good establishing shot – the drawing in the first panel on the first page – functioned like a hook in every beginning of a book or a good article. Every so often, they were carefully described in the script by the writer, like the punch line in every beginning of a book or a magazine article. Knowing the English language is especially helpful because having a command of the language is the only way to capture and understand the nuances the writer intends for the story and as the visual storyteller, you need to provide as much detail as possible to the audience.”

Q: Comic book is a composition of writing and drawing.  What are your strategies to interpret the scripts the studios or writers create and turn them into drawings? 

  • “First I try to understand the narrative of the script from the writer – they look like screenplay for movies, but the difference is that they have specific number of panel per page, panel description, number of bubble dialogs, description about what’s happening in the scene, the camera angle and time. Artists don’t get to mess around with them. You have to be able to comprehend the written narrative and reflect them into your drawing. You don’t want any details to get lost in translation so having good English comprehension is going to be very beneficial.”

Q: What are your techniques to avoid creative differences when working along side writers or the studios?  

  • “Writers were assigned tasks from the editors on a higher up level. We as illustrators have to follow the directions quite strictly to maintain a healthy relationship between them and us. Follow the script, do pretty much what the script requires. Don’t try to stray away too much. I strike up the dialog with the writers if I have a chance or ring them and chat to gain more insight.”

Q: Sometimes culturally the artist is being perceived as vulnerable. As a father—and a successful comic illustrator—what would be your advice for parents whose kids want to become artist?

  • “I would say you should nurture the kid’s spirit. Getting positive reinforcement help them realise that you’re going to support them, no matter what they wanted to become, in the early stage of their lives. If they eventually want to take the venerable artist path I would preparing them for pitfalls and let them know about a lot of bad situation that would occur that they are going to do a lot of works because there is no shortcut for perfection except practice and improving your craft.”
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