Interview with comic book illustrator Darick Robertson

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Darick W. Robertson is an American artist and comic book illustrator who co-created, most notably Transmetropolitan, Happy!, and The Boys.

He has illustrated hundreds of comics in his career. His work ranges from science fiction characters of his own creation to work on famous classic characters from Marvel and DC Comics. Robertson created his first comic “Space Beaver” a cute beaver running around shooting people, while still in school. His well know artwork Transmetropolitan, a cyberpunk transhumanist comic book series, was nominated for an Eisner Award. The Boys comic book series was written by Garth Ennis and co-created, designed, and illustrated by Darick Robertson, an allegory on absolute power that corrupts absolutely, was adapted by Amazon Studios into a television series that premiered on July 26, 2019, with showrunner Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. In 2012 Darick, with the writer Grant Morrison created the mini-series in four numbers HAPPY! On December 6, 2017, the adapted version from the comic become a live-action, adult animated black comedy-drama that premiered on Syfy. Darick also enjoys creating custom action figures, writing music, singing, and playing the guitar.

Official site

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Darick Robertson

You got into comics when you were around 10 years old. What are the best childhood memories related to comics?

It’s all a mixture of what I read before I was 10 and when I discovered comics as an artform. Growing up, I always had comics and animation in my life. My earliest memories are of Charles Schultz‘s Peanuts and Disney characters. The first thing I learned to draw well was Snoopy on his doghouse, that was when I was very young. I’ve always drawn though, ever since I could hold a writing tool of any kind and would entertain myself in church or in class by drawing. Got me in trouble a lot, but it was my safe space. I loved the sequential storytelling in comics. Later on, I came to see the distinct differences in art styles in comics and that led me to seek out artists like Neal Adams and Jose Garcia Lopez‘s work. It was a 1979 Jose Garcia Lopez Flash cover (#272) that grabbed my attention in a way that no other comic really had before, and Rich Buckler‘s interior art was so fluid that I could sense the motion he was depicting in the Flash’s Action, that I suddenly wanted to understand everything I was looking at, like seeing a magic trick so amazing, that you want to learn magic and be a magician. I began collecting the Flash, and later created my own comic and characters by stapling typing paper together and filling in the pages. I designed logos and drew all the little details, like the price and the cover copy, even a faux publisher name. I would go on to create 12 comics like this as a kid. I wanted so much to see my work in an actual published comic.

Have you been always clear about your career in the comics field since your childhood?

It was more of a desire than a clear path as a career. I didn’t even realize that people did this for a living until I was a teenager, and then I began noticing the credits and recognizing different artists from each other and that, of course, that this must be someone’s job. Around the seventh grade, I began to think about how I could get a job working in comics, although I initially thought I might go to law school. A friend of mine at the time laughed at that idea saying “I can see you now, defending someone on trial for murder, and you’d be drawing Superman on your yellow tablet!” and I realized, he was right! So I set my mind to learning to draw as best I could. In my school art classes, I’d be busy drawing my comics and the teachers would often leave me alone as the other kids were tracing their hands and painting in the shapes, my middle school art teacher graded me on my comics and was very supportive. That continued on through High School when I discovered comic book stores (whereas I’d been buying my comics at pharmacies and grocery stores) and my tastes evolved. I also fell in love with Heavy Metal magazine and for a while dreamed of being a fantasy painter like Frank Frazetta, Boris Valljo, Richard Corben, and Bernie Wrightson. So a lot of my early sketchbooks are filled with fantasy drawings that look like they belong on the sides of chevy vans or album covers. But I wasn’t a very good painter and I realized I needed to learn how to really draw, so my focus went there and I never really returned. I never really have had any formal training as my parents couldn’t afford to send me to art school, and I didn’t have the kinds of grades that would get me in, as all I wanted to do was draw, rather than do my homework and study. So I just learned on my own, through practice. I love sequential art, and telling a story is where I truly find my bliss for the work. I always want to draw well, but the story is what matters to me.

What about your work experience for Marvel and DC? From “Space Beaver” to “The Boys” and “HAPPY!”. How much of these experiences influenced you as a person and as an artist? How much it helped you to reach your goals and define your professional career?

Space Beaver was my first published comic that came out in 1986. Like my middle school experience, I was creating some of the work that made it into issue one in my senior high school art class, where the teacher was happy to let me create my comics stuff and grade me on that work, separate from the class assignments. Space Beaver was a joke, a parody of all the stuff that seemed to be popular that I was reading, with over-the-top melodrama and silly catchphrases and cute furry cartoon animals with blood and guts exploding during battles. I was just amusing myself with that and never imagined it actually getting published. But in the aftermath of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ arrival in mainstream media, with their Saturday morning cartoon show and best-selling toyline, it had anyone and everyone willing to find the next indie black and white funny animal comic and turn it into a series. So the market was glutted with these types of books, and I unknowingly wandered right into it with Space Beaver. Looking to catch the next big fish himself, and a believer in my work, the owner of my local comic shop, Tibor Sardy, saw the work I was creating and was willing to publish it himself. Being that I was a 16 year-old kid and had no idea what I was doing, I was just excited that I’d have a published book and so, Space Beaver was born.

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Space Beaver

I never made any real money from it, for numerous reasons, but I did 11 issues and retained my copyright. During that time I worked in different facets of the comics industry, including time behind the counter at Tibor’s shop, selling comics, and also unloading books on the eve of new comics Wednesday out at the Diamond Comics distributors warehouse, which led to a day job there, sorting and stocking books and cleaning up. I learned a lot about the inner-workings of the business which shaped how I approach my work even today. The best thing that Space Beaver did for me though, was that it created a reason for me to be invited to local comic cons and I began to meet more people in the industry, many whom I still see and know today, and that helped me learn the realities of the business as well as taking the negative feedback necessary to hone my skills and not get defeated by rejection, of which there was a lot.

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Darick Robertson at 17 years old promoting Space Beaver #1 at my first comic con in San Mateo, California in July of 1986 

Eventually, I got work at smaller publishers, notably Innovation Comics, and that work got me a job at DC comics on Justice League and that work led to my first Marvel job, Wolverine #54 with my friend and future New Warriors collaborator, Deadpool co-creator, Fabian Nicieza.

How do you feel about reviewing your work from the past?

I try not to. I’m already slipping into perfectionism with my current work (and that doesn’t mean I egotistically think my work is perfect, it means that I can’t let little things go and start obsessing on tiny details which slow me down) so when I look at old work I often see mistakes that I am helpless to correct and poor drawing that was a result of a very different mindset that I had when all I wanted to do was keep working and meet my deadlines. It was crucial to me to be as reliable as possible, and guys like me will always have work, but often in those days I would be the guy they’d call to finish another artist’s work who had gotten too far behind, and I’d be filling in. So I see a lot of compromise in my early work, and these days, I want to be crafting my stuff more. I used to exclusively pencil work on a number of different tiles, but I began pushing more and more to ink my own work, like my art heroes do, guys like Brian Bolland and David Mazzuchelli, in order to get the end result I want in my work. I could never have produced Transmetropolitan monthly without the great inking of my pal Rodney Ramos, but the desire to ink my own stuff was there. It wouldn’t be until Wolverine #1 with Greg Rucka and then later, The BOYS that I would start inking my own work on a regular basis.

Is there an artwork you have designed that you feel most attached to or particularly connected? Can you share with us the story behind it?

I guess I would say Transmetropolitan and the creation of Spider Jerusalem. Warren Ellis had approached me with the idea when we had worked together a bit on some Malibu Ultraverse stuff and then a book for the short-lived Acclaim comics, and his idea sparked all that joy in me that Heavy Metal magazine and that non superhero fantasy stuff, the punk rock stuff I loved. So my imagination was on fire from the very beginning. Ellis was open to my ideas and we’d build off each other’s ideas in a way that I thrived on. I created Spider’s glasses, and the cat, his shoulder bag, all as part of the original design piece. And in that Spider was almost instantaneously born. Other than he had a different name and I resisted drawing the tattoos all over his body (Because I knew what a pain that would be panel to panel) he looks almost exactly like he would be from the very first image I created of him.

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Robertson was living in San Francisco when Transmetropolitan was first proposed, but he moved to Florence, Italy, then lived in Europe for a year, and then moved to New York, where he finished the book. These experiences of visiting and living abroad helped and enriched him to see cities in a different way and from a different point of view and to see what they all have in common.

How did the idea of “Happy The Horse” character come to life? How long did it take to get the final version?

Happy took a few rounds of back and forth before I got the inspiration to make him look like something I loved from my childhood. Initially, Grant saw him as a “My Little Pony” type character, and we went back and forth about the size of the character. At one point it was to be the size of a small dog with big wings. Eventually, I got to this version which we liked, but something in it was missing for me. So after thinking about it, it hit me that Happy was a little kid’s imaginary friend, and so I started realizing that Happy could be anything. So I imagined him as a donkey with long ears and a unicorn horn and Pegasus wings. I sent this off to Grant, and we agreed this was the beast that Happy was meant to be. As I worked on him, I started seeing the Looney Tunes aspect in him and began bringing that element into the character, so he would emote big and contrast with Nick Sax.

What is your relationship with “The Boys” characters?

Ennis had the initial idea for ‘The Boys’ around the time I was finishing my run on Transmetropolitan. We both lived in NYC at the time and had been doing a lot of work together for Marvel. I was always interested in creating an original book with him, as we collaborated really well in those days, but I was a new father and Marvel had offered me an exclusive contract to reboot Wolverine and the idea for the Boys was still in its infancy, so I let it go, imagining that Ennis would find another collaborator. After a year or so on Wolverine, I began to long for more creative freedom, and it was around then Ennis told me that he really wanted to create the title with me saying to me “It has to be you.” So I was excited that the opportunity had not passed, and I committed to taking on the title and co-creating it as my exclusive contract with Marvel was running out. We initially thought it might be a book like “Hitman” and interact within the DCU. We did a lot of back and forth on the characters, and I suggested the Female be Japanese and started drawing the team in sketches. When I couldn’t quite get a face I was happy with, I discovered Simon Pegg in “Spaced” and worked his likeness into the book for Wee Hughie. The Seven were meant to be allegories for all the big mainstream superheroes but we were making fun of the archetypes more than individual specific characters. We had a speedster, an underwater guy, a white patriotic-themed leader… and I hewed towards those propagandistic icons to bring out the sinister element at the root of the Seven in the Boys world, which in Ennis’ imagination, was meant to simply be our world as it is, no magical cities, no alien rockets from space with babies inside, but just the actual real world, if it had superpowered beings in it. He rightfully observed that they would likely be as perverted and screwed up as all the other rich, powerful, politically connected people in our world are today and just as scandal-ridden. Only the PR firms at Vought international know how to keep the scandals under the rug, using the big films, comics, and toys as the diversion. In that world, regular people seeking justice were where ‘the BOYS’ were created. The whole thing is really an allegory about the trappings of power and the resistance of the everyday person against the giant machinery of power and industry.

In 2008 The Boys was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series as well as a GLAAD Media Award. Hughie was based on the actor Simon Pegg

What were the biggest challenges in creating the various characters’ and costume design?

Mostly getting a workable design that stayed consistent and effective. Walking that line between ridiculous and believable. When I originally imagined the superheros, I imagined they would look like the characters in the old Batman 1966 TV show with real cloth costumes rather than the slick movie costumes. (You often see in the comics that the BOYs laugh at the Seven’s appearance).

What do you enjoy most about this project?

I liked the early days of collaboration and the amazing response that the comics got when it originally launched. I was working with editor Ben Abernathy and EIC Scott Dunbier, and that book was Wildstorm’s biggest hit in years. So those were heady days. I’m reliving some t of that feeling now seeing the Amazon Prime show getting such great recognition. Something almost surreal about knowing that President Barack Obama was enjoying it while he wrote his most recent memoir. Something that I co-created is on the former president’s watch list. It’s all so much bigger than me now, but I am enjoying having been a part of something that has blown up so huge in the zeitgeist. Seeing pictures of Homelander on the side of a building overlooking 42nd street in NYC and giant billboards over the Trevi Fountain in Rome… that’s pretty incredible for a self-taught kid who just hoped to draw real comics one day.

Notable fans of Transmetropolitan include Patrick Stewart and writer/director Darren Aronofsky.

You started in the analog era, what is your relationship with materials and tools? Do you still use traditional tools to create art?

I do. I still enjoy creating physical artwork with pencils and ink pens on paper. I use digital means via photoshop to drop in effects and tones once my original art is scanned, but I still like having a physical piece of art and dirty hands at the end of the day. My father was a mechanic and if my hands aren’t dirty, I don’t really feel like I’ve worked.

What is the main difference between work using digital and traditional tools?

I can’t really tell you as I haven’t had extensive experience working on a tablet digitally. I suspect I’ll quite enjoy it, as a lot of the physical problems I encounter with wet ink and such would be eliminated; Pencils would no longer need sharpening, caps on pens won’t get lost, nothing gets smeared or dripped upon… But there’s something special about a physical piece of artwork that you can hold when completed. I found some work from back in the ’90s and looking at the stuff, the lines, the eraser marks, the underlying pencil work that doesn’t show up in the printed versions, is a bit like looking at a time capsule. Often I’ll remember where I was and what I was doing in my everyday life when I see certain pieces of artwork, almost like reading a diary with a secret language that only I understand.

Digital and spectacular effects in TV series have reached high-quality levels. From your experience and point of view, do they meet the expectations of your design? Have you ever run into the limits of digital effects?

Well drawing someone flying is very different than making a live-action audience believe what they’re seeing. Effects have gotten so amazingly good that seeing what they can achieve on the BOYS, with their comparably limited schedule and budget compared to the big feature films, and on other shows like The Flash, is pretty incredible. I feel like I’m in a golden era of onscreen superhero stuff, considering that a decade ago a show like the BOYS would never have been made.

Power doesn’t coincide with greater moral values, at the same time a social outcast doesn’t coincide with a lack of moral values. Can a superhero with no moral values still be called a superhero?

I don’t think so and I think that’s what The BOYS has explored at length. I often bristle when people have a knee-jerk reaction to The SEVEN as just parodies of the Justice League. Yes, they fill those archetypes, and also match up with the Avengers in some ways, but that’s the point. They AREN’T those characters. To me, Superman is a very defined character, and one I still cherish. Superman would never do the things Homelander does, because Clark Kent is not the kind of man whoever Homelander is, when he’s not being Homelander, (and the show studies this aspect brilliantly). Anyone can put on a Superman costume, it doesn’t make you Superman. And furthermore, it’s not about having power it’s what you do with that power once you have it.

Science and technology are bringing humans closer to some realities narrated in the world of comics and Sci-fi stories (neuromusculoskeletal prostheses, brain chips, the mission to Mars, etc …) Do you believe society is ready for these changes, or will the mismanagement of power, social inequalities and the lack of rights continue to create rifts making science an exclusive privilege for elites?

That’s a very good question. I imagine we’ll muddle through the changes as humans always have. These disparities aren’t new. Every leap forward in education and technology has come with a backlash of those in our species that have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the realities of the future. My biggest worry is that we’ll run out of time regarding the climate, due to greed and ignorance, before we can achieve the kind of life that makes things more equitable for all. I believe in hard work and self-reliance, but I also believe in a fair playing field. The rich are never going to cede power voluntarily. History shows us that. So necessity is going to call the shots as far as I can foresee.

How has the relation with comics changed since your beginning? Do you think nowadays comics hold more influence on society? Are people ready to watch beyond the surface?

Yes, I think things have changed a lot in that comics and superheroes have become ever more mainstream, and a lot of that has to do with the kids from my generation that grew up with a respect for the more ground breaking stuff that happened in comics in the ’80s and are now the adults who are making the adaptations and creating comics for the next generation. When you watch Jon Favreau‘s ‘The Mandalorian‘, for example, his love for the Star Wars universe is clear. The same with Joss Whedon‘s Avengers movies. But if you go back to the ’90s, you’ll find a lot of people wanting to take the essential elements out of the comics characters they’re adapting and showing a clear ignorance for what makes those characters appealing.

What’s your next project?

I just wrapped up HellBlazer Rise & Fall with writer Tom Taylor for DC Comics’ Black Label. Also, this past year Gary Whitta and I released our co-creator owned comic “OLIVER” as a collection of issues 1 – 4, and I hope to complete the next 4 issues in 2021.

Images courtesy of Darick Robertson

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