Nathan, the first time I saw your work was in PIGEONS FROM HELL at Dark Horse. I’ve been a fan ever since; I keep telling people you’re “the next Paul Pope!” I loved the subversive nature of DARK REIGN: ZODIAC, and FLUORESCENT BLACK was particularly inspired. What’s it like jumping in and out of a series like DMZ where you’re not the exclusive artist?
Thanks, man. Really kind words. Flattered and glad you dug it all. Getting a chance to be a part of the series and then go back to DMZ was an honor. I was a fan of the series from issue one and was inspired by Brian and Riccardo’s work. So to get more than one chance to collaborate and contribute was an amazing opportunity. Sad to see it end, but excited for what’s to come and for what Brian has up his sleeve next.
How did your collaboration with Brian Wood come about? What’s he like to collaborate with?
I don’t recall if it was Brian or Will that called about the “Friendly Fire” arc, but when I found out what the project was for I was beyond on board. A bit before DMZ, I did cover #4 (I think) for Brian’s FIGHT FOR TOMORROW series. I hoped it might be a strong portfolio piece for more work in the future, but really had no clue what it would lead to. I was a fan of the series, had my geek/fanboy moment getting to work with Brian, but once we got started and the nerdom was over, I took it all pretty seriously. Working with Brian was smooth and painless. He’s a pretty quiet, passionate guy and a pleasure to work with. He gave me great notes and direction and then just backed off and let me run with it. We went through one or two versions of PFC Stevens, but by the time I nailed it we were pretty confident on where it was headed.
Why do you think your particular art style works as well in the DMZ as it does?
HA. I’m not totally sure what to say to that one, but the one thing I think I did know, or was aware of, was wanting to comment on what was going on in the world and wars at the time. Trying to put some of that in the series, and I felt confident in the characters I would be working with on Brian’s scripts. I’m not from New York originally, but we lived there from 2000 to 2005 or so, so I felt I had enough of a connection with the city and boroughs that I could pay some due respect to its inhabitants, to the characters and story we were telling. When we were in NY, it wasn’t the smoothest of existences back then as an illustrator starting out in editorial illustration, living in New York, and then suddenly diving face first into comics and sequential work. Ambitious, yes, but looking back – I was happily struggling and paying some heavy dues along the way, much like everyone else. It was rough, but worth every minute to say the least. No regrets and looking forward to moving back some day…
Your first work on DMZ was illustrating the flashback scenes for PFC Stevens during the “Friendly Fire” storyline. What can you tell us about that?
Creatively, it was a chance to comment on a lot of things, especially the Haditha Massacre. I usually end up acting most characters out or trying to get into character somehow along the way. Personally, I had my own feelings about the war in Iraq and tried to imagine what it would be like if I joined the military knowing I had no place soldiering in war. Stevens was a shell of a “man,” only beginning to grow into and fill the shoes of what a man like that should be. You could just see it in his eyes from reading the script or something. He didn’t even know who HE was, let alone have any place in the military fighting for something he THOUGHT he should do. It was a poor decision that could have, and would have, the potential to do real harm to himself or others if he wasn’t careful. In Brian’s script, he tried to be careful and responsible, to do the things he was supposed to do – the “right” things, but in the end his caution and the collective delirium of his unit’s actions would inevitably decide his fate for him. He didn’t “join in” the massacre – and because of that he became the weakest link, and then an outspoken threat – so in the end he would be forced to take the fall. My only rationale was to draw ”the right pansy at the wrong time.” I enjoyed destroying him from the inside out. I hated doing it, as I got pretty attached to him in the end, but I think I learned a lot from the challenge of my first real character design. Brian’s writing set it all up. I just got the opportunity to bring it to life. I’ve been fortunate to work with great writers, starting with him.
Thanks. Random Fire was a trip. I can’t remember if it was page 3 or 4, but I remember reading the script for the opening scene and turning to the intro page, almost a splash of Random Fire in his room. Looking down at him from above, waking up after a nightmare or something. The book opened with a fleeing stolen cop car chase. Two guys in gas masks. It ends badly and SNAP! – we’re thrust into a day-in-the-life of Random Fire’s life for the rest of the book. There’s a rival DJ/sell-out with an armored security detail, a club full of people trying to forget the war that’s literally raging outside the club’s front door (and eventually inside the club) and a sexy saboteur who uses DJ Random Fire as a pawn. As soon as I got the script, I was on the edge of my seat to work on the next page, then the next, and the next. It was a great learning experience on my end, story wise. The pace of that script was really challenging and I learned a lot in the process.
You have the distinction of illustrating the final issue (#56) with Wilson, who became a fan favorite character. Were you cognizant of that task, did you alter your approach at all considering it was the last Wilson story?
Yeah, most definitely. Wilson was easily one of my own “fan favorites” too, and I really wanted to up my game on the issue. Give the man props, etc. Just before I started working on it, I got a chance to shoot reference for the issue on a visit back to NYC. I walked Chinatown, found the streets and restaurants I wanted to shoot for the issue, and started to plot it all out in my head and thumbnails. It was hard, as sappy as it may be, for me at least, to close the curtain on Wilson, and something I’m still not used to – killing off or leaving characters you get attached to. Especially the ones you get attached to. As a fan and reader, it’s hard enough to see a favorite go, but illustrating it was a weird and funky “joy of a bummer.” An honor and a blast to work on, but a bummer nonetheless. I have to admit that it definitely took a bit longer to finish the book because of it. Anyway, knowing that the end was coming, I wanted to send him off in style. I was hoping to amp up the flashback and nostalgia and was working on some ink wash work on the side at the time, and that style fit Wilson’s younger, freer days like a glove. I don’t remember what page it was, but that shot of him on the roof with the automatic rifle and cigarette did it for me. Reading the script the first time, that scene/panel really struck a chord, along with the bowing scene on the street towards the end – it hooked me right off the bat. Hopefully I did him justice and am looking forward to revisiting the series as the collected editions wrap up.
That image of young Wilson sitting in his designer furniture has really stuck with me. The end result was this washed out watercolor effect that lended a nice aesthetic nostalgia to the whole affair. Can you discuss how you, Brian, and colorist Jeremy Cox created that sequence?
Brian had laid out the scene and flashbacks script wise, but Jeromy and I were left to tackle its execution on our own. We had talked a bit about what I was thinking of in terms of how to approach it in ink wash, and he was more than up for it so we just kind of ran with it. It felt, not so much like that “life flashing before your eyes” thing just before you think you’re going to die, but more like an epic “looking back on better days” kind of affair. With Wilson, being the anchor and supporting cast member that he was, it just felt like it really needed some power, some silkiness and flow as he looked back on those days in the book. I just wanted to portray it in a way that would harken back to that sense of nostalgia. Brian knew what he was doing, and in the DMZ, Wilson made no illusions that the end would always come. He couldn’t run from it, and in the end Wilson chose, and was written to be, The Ghost Protector of Chinatown. His hands were far from clean, but Wilson chose to go out in style… having sampled everything on the menu. Inevitably, someone’s got to pay the bill.
Was the possibility of you providing art for an entire arc ever discussed?
Do you have a favorite panel or moment, an issue you’re particularly proud of, that you’d like to comment on?
I do. That Wilson panel I mentioned above is one. But in all honesty, my favorite moments and issues belong to the other contributors and collaborators on the series. I can not tell you how rad it was to be part of this series. So far, there are only a few books I’ve been a fan of or really known about before I worked on them. Working on DMZ was like dropping a hungry chubby kid with a sketchbook in a specialty candy store. It was a blast. Fanboy, artist, and all.
What do you attribute the success of DMZ to?
Originality, the characters, the art, and relevance to current events. The last 10 years have been pretty heavy and difficult for some, and horrifying for most – both here and abroad. I think DMZ, as a reader and fan, started out as a side view and commentary, satire in fiction, on what it might be like if the US suffered through a lot of what the real world was going through at the time – in real time – in one of the most populated, popular cities in the world. “Never here in the US,” I heard a lot when the series first came out. It was too close, so close to home and unapologetic in every way that people’s reaction was in awe of something so unimaginable. I think Brian and Riccardo tapped into that vibe and were able to address a lot of real world issues and identify with a lot of their readers through the series. There is no happy ending and there are no REAL answers. I would say that the unveiled parallel of the series and real world events gave a lot of us a vent or a direction to aim those issues, and page by page, a reflection of current events with very little censorship or disguising. It’s still a work of fiction and we read it for the characters, writing, and art. But historically, I think the satire and commentary on humanity, government, and the legacy of established order, especially in a few major arcs and fill-in issues in the series, will remain as important original works in comics, and mean a great deal more to most people who read it than just an entertaining story about war and New York City under siege. As time ticks on, I’m sure it will lose some of that weight and relevance, post-wars and conflicts, for future generations and readers, but it’s importance in the history of original comics I am sure will stand the test of time.