Comic creator LeSean Thomas is a supervising character designer, and a co-director on Adult Swim’s critically acclaimed animated show The Boondocks, but we’re not actually here to talk about that…
Figure if you know what’s good for you, The Boondocks is something you’ve been following for the last several months, and that when the first season is released on DVD, uncensored and uncut, it will result in an automatic purchase. Drop date on that is June 13th by the way, with the second season debuting on Cartoon Network shortly after. Despite his very serious workload, LeSean is taking the time to release a comprehensive artbook of his various works, and answer some questions about his artistic beginnings, and his experiences working in both comics and animation. In addition, he’s allowing this column access to some of the artwork contained in the book, and to pages from his Cannon Busters series, which will be returning this fall as an original graphic novel. Click on every single one of the thumbnails to see the full effect.
It basically amounts to one of the best interviews this column has ever featured, and there’s no shame in admitting it has absolutely nothing to do with me.
Ladies and gentlemen, LeSean Thomas, and the premier of the very gorgeous and must-have collection Nervous Breakdowns…
LeSean Thomas: No doubt, man. I’ve been pretty much on smash with television for the last 2 years, and freelancing on various projects that included providing artwork for Play Magazine, and for Sony Pictures’ recent sci-fi action flick Ultraviolet, which was featured in the opening credits. I also participated in a couple comic projects like the much-publicized “BOTS”: a charity project that featured various artists, both indy and mainstream, to help promote research for children with Autism, and did a cover for Udon Studios’ Rival Schools. In between that, I’ve been busy penciling pages on my graphic novel Cannon Busters, while putting together my big ‘ol sketchbook, “Nervous Breakdowns.”
Brandon: So, what exactly is Nervous Breakdowns, and how long have you been working on it?
LeSean: Nervous Breakdowns: The Art of LeSean Thomas Vol.1 is a sketch bible that features various works of mine from 1995 to now. The bible will be over 370 pages, black and white with a full color wraparound cover, and consist of doodles, breakdown sketches, illustrations, thumbnails, pencil tests and tutorials I’ve done over the last decade, stuff I’ve been known for, and stuff that I felt never deserved to be shown, ha-ha. It will also feature a foreword by celebrated Warner Bros Producer/Art Director, Jeff Matsuda, which I’m pretty excited about.
Books like this are humbling experiences, because most art-guys I know usually showcase their best works only. But to me, “best” is entirely subjective when it comes to art, and that being said, as artists we always tend to be our own worst critics, so I figured I’d get it off my chest and show my range. It’s pretty much a nod to illustrator Claire Wendling, who released her old drawings next to her new drawings in her Iguana Bay books. It can be an ego blow, but at the same time show an honest view into the progression of an artist.
The name “Nervous Breakdowns” to me is self-explanatory, even the double meaning of the phrase, because as working professionals, we’ve all experienced nervous breakdowns at the drafting table, at some point in our careers. Y’all know: the 4am crunch to meet a deadline, and thinking, “this is the worst,” or the pressure of trying to outdo your last drawing.
This book is for the fans of sketchbooks in general, and also for the fans of my stuff. It’s also for the cats I get emails from everyday, currently in the hoods, who wanna shine drawing comics or animation, but peer pressure, lack of community support, and a lack of options steer them away. This is definitely for them too…that I’m living proof that it can be done, regardless of your upbringing. Get out there and do it if you’re hungry. The game is waiting for us to make noise.
LeSean: Well, it was pretty much just sitting down, with several pounds worth of my sketches, and filtering what I feel’s really good to me, and what is really bad, ha ha. Also, I put all the crappy stuff first, so that there’s a sort of natural progression quality-wise. Originally, I was going to section things off by year, but then I decided it’d be more intense if I just opted to make it one big, non-stop melee of sketches, something that you’ll have to thumb through back and forth.
As far as publishing goes, this is going to be my first self-publishing outing. After dealing with Diamond for so long, I figured I’d buckle down, and try my hand at it like my peers do at the conventions. Since it will also be for sale on my website, I’m hoping it will continue to sell well after the major convention season.
Brandon: What’s going to be the cost and format of the book, and is self-publishing something you’ve been waiting for a while to get into?
LeSean: The book will cost $40 bucks, and is nearly 400 pages and in a perfect bound format. It’s a pretty fair deal considering most sketchbooks at cons are about 15 pages for $15 bucks. Here, you’re getting over 100 pages of dopeness per every $10 bucks you spend, ha.
I’ve always wanted to try my hand at just putting something out, without Diamond and the publisher dippin’ into the portion. Granted, they are there because of their expenses/exposure, etc., but I like the control self-publishing gives me, and it’s really not unlike a known emcee droppin’ a mixtape.
Brandon: Backing up a bit to something you said earlier, about receiving e-mails from cats with a similar background to yours, not really feelin’ that comics are a field that’s very accessible to them. Do you think that’s one significant reason for the relative lack of large-scale minority representation in comics and animation, that it looks somewhat impossible to get into?
LeSean: Hmm, well, I’m not an expert on it, but I will say that in all fairness, there aren’t a lot of minorities in positions of power in Hollywood and comics, with the natural sensitivities to that audience, to get the types of representations that you or I would like to see in regards to comics and animation. The most that you’re going to see is an abundance of it in the independent outlets, but it really comes down to who’s in charge, and in the position to want to tell more stories featuring minorities. Ultimately, it’s the “powers that be” in today’s current mainstream networks, that dictate just how many “tokens” will pop up to try to please everyone.
In relation to the industry being “impossible” for minorities to get into, I can really only speak on what I’ve seen in my experience, but it’s just something I’ve seen come up more often than not, in my path as an artist back home comin’ up. So, to get emails from younger cats across the nations, who’re in similar scenarios regarding a lack of support, it says something.
I don’t think it’s just an issue of being on the block though. In general, being an artist is not looked upon as being a lucrative career move, but in the hoods specifically, based on my upbringing, and from those around me back then, and even today, there’s more pressure to be a rapper, or a basketball or football player, than there is being a graphic designer, a painter, illustrator, or a 2D or 3D animator.
It sounds cheesy as hell, but to me, nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it. You’re only limited by your hunger to do so. At one point, animation was something that we weren’t allowed to participate in on a major scale, but it’s definitely changed today, and there’s amazing opportunities, and better outlets to get content to the masses. All that are supported by a person’s drive.
Brandon: What made you just go for it, in the end?
LeSean: It was coming to the realization that my vertical jump was just about 1 inch, I didn’t have a wicked jump shot, and my rhyme skills were wack as hell, ha-ha. I wanted to play basketball, and I wanted to rhyme and dance, cause that’s what I was into back in the golden years of hip hop in the South Bronx, but after high school, I realized the things I was strongest at, were cartooning and illustration-related, and that I enjoyed doin’ it. Every kid draws at a young age, and it’s just that some kids keep doing it, while others move on. I’m one of the kids who just kept doin’ it.
Also, I saw it as a way to kind of break a mold, and see how far I could go with it. Being an NYC kid, I was exposed to a lotta things that the average small town kid wasn’t, different types of people and such, so I felt I had a well-rounded perspective on things. I also think that helped me analyze, and pick and choose what to do as well.
Brandon: Did you have anyone in your personal life that really encouraged you to keep pursuing a career as an illustrator?
LeSean: My mom at an early age, did a lot to help support my creative drive. She went out of her way to try and enroll me into an art-related high school, cause she knew that was something I really liked doing, even though I caused her all sorts of headaches. The funny thing was, I took the drawing test for an Art and Design High School in Manhattan and failed it, so I ended up getting admitted to Julia Richman HS, which had a much smaller art program. But I later got into a lot of knuckle-headed trouble, and lost focus. I think the catalyst for me being serious, was seeing other cats I grew up with stuck on the block. I saw my options and what results I got from bullshitting, and I knew that the street shit wasn’t for me, so I had to go a different route.
Brandon: Now, you’ve spent time doing both comics and animation, and what would you say are the major differences between the two industries?
LeSean: I’ve said this before, but production-wise, I think the major difference between the two is simply that animation is not comic books. I mean, there are comparisons, being that both jobs require the usage of your pencil, but it’s a completely different mind-state, focus and discipline. You have to forget falling in love with a single drawing, something that’s cherished among comic artists in the industry. You also have to check your ego at the door, something that’s not really regulated in comics either, ha-ha.
But the main difference is that you have to work with others more intimately, and be willing to conform to one style. In comics, I think people’s entire careers thrive on their individual styles and approach to drawing. In animation, however, you could have the slickest drawing in the world, but if it doesn’t fit with the other 23 drawings in a frame, it has to be omitted. It’s about making 24 drawings convey one second of movement, and it’s an entirely different approach.
The same goes for any other aspect of animation production, whether you’re talking character design, storyboards, layouts, background design, or color. You’d be surprised to learn that some comic illustrators, regardless of fame, probably cannot execute a 5-point turn on a model sheet in animation properly. No matter how great a comic illustrator you are, if you don’t know the camera rules, terminology, and techniques for film, to translate to an overseas studio that speaks another language, those pretty pictures are pretty much useless. It’s something that’s a LOT more collaborative, compared to the ‘do-it-yourself’ nature that comes with the comic creator culture.
Brandon: Is there ever an internal artistic “conflict” between having to work toward one very clear point, and trying to distinguish and mature your individual style?
LeSean: All of the time, and I’ve been fortunate enough to usually be in a scenario where a particular project fits my style. There are times when that’s not the case, but like I said, I consider myself a capable draftsman, that can adapt to styles in a reasonably fast way. I think the only major conflict I face is the difference in content, not style. Going from being in the black comedy/pop-culture mode, to a more Capcom/FLCL fantasy-type mode is challenging.
Brandon: Touching a little bit on your most current gig as lead character designer on The Boondocks, what does the success of that show really mean for the animation industry?
LeSean: I don’t really know, and I’m not sure I’m even qualified to answer a question like that, especially since I believe that the success of a show isn’t measured by its numbers. There’s a new “hit” show every season, but I think a show’s success is measured by the affects it has on the industry AFTER it’s long gone. Will it create a whole new market? Kick a door open? I’m hoping it does, but then, Hollywood has been embracing minorities as leads, albeit seldom, for some time now. Even in animation, things like Static Shock, The Proud Family, etc., prove the possibilities are endless.
Brandon: How do you think The Boondocks has, or ultimately will, influence your upcoming comics work?
LeSean: Well, I’ve storyboarded for Kim Possible and animated on Disney’s Lizzie McGuire, which are 2 completely different styles, not only from each other, but also from the work I’ve done on Arkanium, TMNT: Animated, to the styles I showcased with Street Fighter, and my Cannon Busters work. I think it’s safe to say I’m a chameleon, and as a professional, my job is to adapt to different styles. Aesthetically, that’s what keeps me challenged, and ultimately will keep me growing as an artist.
Brandon: You said that your very first gig in animation taught you to “be fast and work well with others.” What did you learn from doing Arkanium (the first comic gig) that you’ve taken into other projects and situations?
LeSean: I learned that “there’s always the next issue,” and learned to pace myself, and not kill myself, and make a book late, just cause I wanna do the best work ever. Sometimes, you have to know when to back off from a page. Sometimes, you have to say “Okay, maybe this isn’t my strongest, but I’ll do better next page.” It’s about progression, and I learned right away on that very first issue, to respect anyone in this game drawing 22 pages a month and doing GOOD work. Comic books are hard work, dog, and I ain’t no punk about mines, but your artistic integrity is always compromised because you’re up against the clock. Quality vs. quantity.
It’s a never ending struggle, and some of these aspiring comic kids out there, who talk a good game (I was one of them) about this artist is a hack, or slacking off, or this, that and the third, are often the ones who will fold on their first book.
Brandon: Since you mentioned it again (and because I have all of this very beautiful artwork from it) let the people know when they’re going to see Cannon Busters return in OGN form, and who’s going to be publishing it. Might be cool to hit ’em with a little refresher course on the series too…
LeSean: Cannon Busters is the story of Samberry, a robot who’s trying to get back home. She’s never experienced interaction outside her kingdom’s walls, but that all changes when she’s violently separated from it, after an attack from a mysterious and powerful sorcerer, during a time where magic is supposed to be extinct. Along her journey, she comes across the paths of three other individuals, who also wish to get to where she’s headed, but for their own reasons. You can basically call it a tripped out version of The Wizard of Oz. The spine of the story is very high concept, but it’s the journey and the characters that will be unique.
The concept was something I’d been working on shortly after I wrapped up season 2 of Lizzie McGuire. Pat Lee, of the late Dream Wave Productions, caught wind of it in 2001 online and wanted it as part of his new line up of projects, but instead landed my first comic gig Arkanium.
It’s coming very, very soon and it’s looking really cool. I won’t promote it until it’s completely done, but I’ve got some really nice surprises lined up for the graphic novel, and I’m sure when it drops, people will see why I took my time with it.
As far as a publisher goes, I’m still with Udon Comics, who’s currently doing a lot with Capcom, and still pumping out those great-looking books. Since their split with Devil’s Due, Erik Ko has been very supportive of my path, and is patiently waiting for me to wrap it up, so he can give it the push it needs.
Brandon: Anymore original properties you want to get out there in the next 6-9 months?
LeSean: YES! I have another project I’ve been developing for a while called “Drama Kings,” which I’d like to get started on immediately after Vol. 1 of CB is released. I’ve been working on it slowly, and am finally starting to gear it up for rough outlines. Look out for it, because it’s definitely gonna change the game, I think, design-wise and action-wise.
I’d like to thank Silver Bullet Comics and you, B, for letting me chat a little. I’d also like to give a shout out to my comic brethren, Mad Twinz, the Artxilla guys, Jeff Matsuda, and manga sensation, Felipe Smith, who’s easily the best American/manga comic artist breathing.
Also be sure to pick up NERVOUS BREAKDOWNS: THE ART OF LESEAN THOMAS VOL.1 at http://www.leseanthomas.com, where you can pick up other goodies in the store as well. I’ll be attending the Sci-Fi and Comic Book Convention this Sunday the 30th, at The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Free sketches, some chatting, and books for sale. Come through and politic if you in the area on that day.
Brandon: No thanks necessary my brother, it was definitely my pleasure.
Should be back in about two weeks’ time, probably with some commentary on the end of Infinite Crisis, and the beginning of Marvel’s Civil War. Props to LeSean for answering every single one of my questions, even though I kept sending ’em, long after I promised to stop 🙂 … ya’ll take it easy…