Even a brief email with artist Mitch Gerads is particularly telling, with his signature telling you all you need to know: "…because ray guns are just cooler."
That sci-fi/pulp streak hasn't stopped there. Coming from his independent roots with PopGunPulp Studios, Gerads has begun to make quite the name for himself, both as a colorist for books such as BOOM! Studios' Starborn to his artwork for the comic sketch site Comictwart.
As Gerads' career is on the rise with some upcoming work with Image Comics, we caught up with the creator for the thirteenth edition of Artist's Alley, where he discussed his influences, his philosophy on color and how to balance the busy life of freelancing.
Newsarama: Mitch, just to start off with, what made you decide that comics art was something you wanted to do for a living? What were some of the big challenges you had to overcome to get to your current level?
Mitch Gerads: I had been working as a graphic designer/illustrator for a design firm here in Minneapolis for close to five years straight out of college. I primarily worked on packaging illustration for kids cereals like Lucky Charms, Trix, Cookie Crisp, etc. and unfortunately/fortunately the company got hit by the economy and had a pretty massive round of layoffs which included me. It took me all of a day to get over it and realize that this was a perfect opportunity to give my passion of comic illustration a go and I never looked back.
Having that background in commercial graphic design really prepared me for a lot of the challenges this industry throws at you. Both worlds are pretty similar; they're both a LOT of hard work. This world is just way more fun!
Nrama: As far as influences or teachers go, were there ever any moments that really clicked with you, that sort of gave you a big "a-ha" moment? Or to be more broad, what were some of the things you consumed to really adopt your specific artistic voice?
Gerads: So Many.
My biggest artistic influence has always been Norman Rockwell. Because of him I very rarely ever illustrate someone striking a generic pose. I'm constantly compelled to tell a story with everything I do, it's why doing con sketches drives me into an acute psychosis. He's really taught me that anytime you illustrate something all you're really doing is capturing a slice-of-life of that character(s), so I better make it count.
My biggest direct industry influence comes from Mitch and Bettie Breitweiser who, beyond being the raddest people you will ever meet, really took me under their wing with personal critique, encouragement, and enthusiasm. My first few conversations with the Breitweisers were definitely my "a-ha!" moment.
The work of Stuart Immonen, Alex Toth, Adam Hughes, Tommy Lee Edwards, Bryan Hitch, Bettie Breitweiser, Daniel Acuna, Chris Sprouse, Steve Rude, Chris Samnee, Mike Allred (and, oh God, so many more) all directly influence how I approach all of my work. They all make me strive to pick better angles, use different colors, and ink better forms. Because of ALL the great artists in the industry I'm always changing up my game and doing something new on every project.
Nrama: Let's talk tools for a second — what tools do you use for your art, and what made you decide to use these products in particular?
Gerads: Because of the nature of my own work where I generally illustrate the whole thing from start to finish, the penciling process is rather thrown-together. I pencil a page using whatever scrap paper I have lying around one panel at a time. Sometimes just bits of panels on various sheets of paper. I then scan all the pencils in and compose the page in Photoshop.
Next I'll print that out as blue-line onto a board and ink over the top of the printed blue-line. I primarily ink with a Pentel Color Brush and various Copic Multiliner tech pens.
Then I scan that puppy back in and do my color work back in Photoshop!
Nrama: You're an interesting case, because you do penciling, inking and coloring. Just to get onto the coloring side of the spectrum, for you, what's your philosophy for colors? I know some people go for a darker palette, but you always seem to go for this really bright, Laura Martin-esque kind of color scheme. What's your thought process here?
Gerads: "Batman at night" to me doesn't say gray and desaturated. It says awesome blues and striking orange lamplights. You can pull these kinds of color choices off and still retain Gotham as being Gotham.
Obviously the palette should reflect the story that's being told, but I LOVE color; big, awesome, impressionist color. I feel with comics we have such a great opportunity to change the world as we see it, but just change it enough so it enhances our visual experience. I think it stems back to my obsession with Rockwell. He depicted these perfect American moments that didn't necessarily depict true reality, but just made reality more of a sensory experience and visual treat.
If you can't tell, coloring is something that really excites me and when I get to color my own linework it's even better because I can plan ahead and know what lines I can color-hold and how I can play with light and treat the whole page as a visual piece and not worry about stepping over anyone's toes.
I have a new series coming out later this year from Image Comics, with writer Nathan Edmondson of Who is Jake Ellis?, that's a very real world story that I'm trying to really romanticize the colors on and I'm really excited to bring that juxtaposition to the reader. I think people will dig it!
Nrama: When you are working on color, there's a lot you can do with mood and lighting, and I imagine that the style of the penciler — whether he's cartoony or more gritty — also throws something into the mix. For you, how do you approach the lighting of a scene, of figuring out exactly what should and shouldn't be seen?
Gerads: I generally come from an opposite place than most colorists. I tend to blow things out with light vs. hide things in shadow. I've learned to balance it out. When I first started they probably should have sold my books with sunglasses. It was pretty ridiculous. Remember that Zero Hour event from DC, where that light was consuming everyone? I would have been perfect for that, haha!
Working with Khary Randolph on Stan Lee's Starborn at BOOM! Studios is incredibly fun. His linework begs for a kinetic animated approach to the colors and I kind of developed a style to support that. It turns out that same approach can be applied to the other, maybe less animated, work that I color. Juxtaposition, if handled properly, can be the key to making a book sing.
I have an amazing color assistant/flatter, Kyle Latino, that I work with on everything I do and we've really developed a solid process that's really working for us. I'm really fortunate to work with the people that I do.
Nrama: A lot of people probably know you as well from ComicTwart.com. That Madman sketch in particular was pretty slick. For you, when you're dealing with a single splash image like this, what's your approach towards trying to get it to tell a little bit of a narrative, or to set up a specific vibe?
Gerads: Hey, thanks! ComicTWART continues to be the single most fun/rewarding/teaching/great thing I've ever been a part of. I call all those guys my dear friends and am constantly humbled by their talent. Believe me, we must like each other because nobody e-mails that much to people they don't like. In the time I've responded to this question, they've probably already written three group e-mails.
With Madman it was all about how great and fun that character is. That piece was all about me really wanting a Batman/Madman crossover. C'mon, the guy has hung out with every other character in comics, why not Bats? So my approach literally is me sitting on my couch and imagining that meeting and playing the story out in my head then picking a moment from that and drawing it. So, of course, Frank and Joe take a vacation to Gotham and have a picnic atop a towering gothic spire. It's like bird-watching but…with...bats…
Nrama: To get into the more technical side of things here, how are you going about actually constructing your pages, in terms of character placement versus the environment around them? How do you make sure that your figures look natural in the setting, without getting the perspective, lighting or anatomy off?
Gerads: I take a lot of thoroughly embarrassing photo reference with the camera on my computer or my iPhone. I'm constantly cracking my editors up with photos of five "me's" interacting with each other. My insane cat photo-bombs every one of them.
Something I try to keep in mind with every scene I draw, whether the script calls for it or not, is that people are always doing something. Even if they're just having a conversation, nobody just stands with their arms at their side talking. So I try and make sure everyone always has something to do like pouring a glass of water, scratching an itch, pounding their fist on the table. It all helps sell the story and keeps the reader from detaching. The same goes for environments with leaves rustling, birds flying, dust in the air, etc. Bryan Hitch is a master at this, pay attention to the next Hitch book you read and you'll see.
Nrama: You've done independent comics work such as Johnny Recon, and I wanted to ask a bit about how you structure the panel layout to get the flow you're looking for. What do you look for in a script to really anchor the rest of the page?
Gerads: It's all about reading a script and seeing that panel in your head. The problem then is having all those perfect panels in your head fit on the comic book page together. Sometimes that perfect shot has to be changed so another perfect shot can live on. The other tough part is after that whole process you still have to make the page live as interesting in itself. I shouldn't really call these problems because it's the best part of the process.
Nrama: Something else I'd ask, just to hopefully lighten your load in the future — when you're looking at a script and you see it's particularly verbose, how do you end up taking that into account, in terms of leaving space for word balloons and captions? And on the flip side of that, in terms of number of panels and balloons, how much is too much for you? When you feel that you're just trying to pack too much into one page?
Gerads: Without naming names, I currently am working with two writers who couldn't be any more different in this regard. One writer has multiple characters delivering lots of dialogue with 6-7 panels a page and the other delivers scripts where there will often be pages of silence with 3-5 panels per page. I am VERY fortunate that both of them allow me to take their pages and alter them however I see fit by combining, adding or deleting panels or even adding or deleting whole pages. Both writers trust that I know what's best to visually interpret what they have written and I can generally just go ahead and do it. Again, I'm VERY fortunate in this regard. Alan Moore would hate working with me.
Nrama: Just looking at your career thus far, what do you think is the smartest thing you've ever done, and what do you think has been your biggest mistake?
Gerads: I would say it has to be starting ComicTWART with the guys, but it goes farther back. The smartest thing was joining Twitter. Seriously. Social networking is networking. Plain and simple. I've made so many business connections through Twitter and Facebook, not to mention made so many new real world friends all from just saying "hey" to people on Twitter. Every comics job I've gotten has originated in some form from Twitter or Facebook, no joke! Plus, as a freelancer, I work from home. Twitter allows me to interact with other artists and creatives. It's like being part of a studio, only I don't have to wear pants!
The biggest mistake I've made has more to do with how unstructured I was at the beginning of my freelancing career. I was very unproductive because I would either be distracted, or work so much that I would burn out. Once I set up a basic workday, including a weekly cheat day, my productivity shot way up. Freelancing schedules are just like a workout/diet schedule: you should budget in rewards so all the hard work has some immediate payoffs. Just "winging" a project schedule is a bad, bad idea.
Nrama: Finally, for those who are trying to break into the comics industry as artists, what would you say that they should know about the gig that they just don't?
Gerads: I like to say, "learn to draw what you can't before you choose to draw what you can." A writer will not change something just because you don't know how to draw it.
I don't ever want to scare someone from attempting their dream. I hate when I hear people using that tactic. It's irresponsible mentoring. Just be realistic about where you're at and always be looking to improve. If Jeff Parker tells you that your monkeys need more work, go home and work on your damn monkeys!