Zach Howard first caught my eye as the artist of an Image Comics miniseries called Heaven's Devils. Over the years I've followed his career, from books like IDW's adaption of Shaun of the Dead to the recent Dark Horse Comics series Alien: More Than Human. He's pretty active on DeviantArt, an artist community much like Facebook or MySpace. You can check out his page here.
He just completed work on a series for IDW Publishing called The Cape, based on a Joe Hill short story. It's probably the most intense and messed up "real world" take on super powers I have seen in a very long time.
According to www.zachhoward.com, Zach has never intentionally killed a bunny.
What follows is a very candid interview with Zach on topics ranging from his start in the comic book industry to where he sees the future of the medium.
Steve Wilcox for Comics Bulletin: What inspired you to start drawing? Did you have any sort of formal training or are you self-taught?
Zach Howard: Just being by myself quite a bit when I was a kid kind of jump-started my drawing desire. When I lived in Germany, we really didn’t have any television, so we just played sports and drew stupid crap.
As for the formal training, almost none. I took one illustration class my senior year of college. So I would say that I’m mostly self-taught.
CB: For someone who had no formal training, you do quite well. I was blown away by the page you recently posted on DeviantArt — the cityscape splash page from The Cape. Amazing work.
Howard: Thank you. I really had a fun time having Eric fly around Boston. As for the "no formal training" comment, sometimes a person who doesn’t learn things in a strict school setting can have much more freedom in exploring their skill set. It can lead to some fun and original thinking. However, there is a weighty flip side to that coin — it often leads to a poor understanding of the fundamentals.
Most people lack the discipline to force themselves to learn and improve.
CB: What was your first professional work? And how did it come about?
Howard: I did an Image book titled Heaven’s Devils. I met an up and coming writer at a con and we put together a complete issue for submission. I had no clue what I was doing, and it was an embarrassingly bad book. However, I learned an obscene amount while doing it.
CB: I remember Heaven's Devils. You did the first three out of four issues, right? I liked the behind-the-scenes stuff in the back on the first couple of books that showed your process of working in grey tones.
Howard: Yeah, there were some scheduling issues that kept me from doing the entire series. We knocked out the first issue, and the writer was too busy to get me the second script right away. So I moved onto another Image series. When the script finally came, I could only commit to a limited amount of work for the rest of Heaven’s Devils. I have trouble looking at any of my Image work, so no big loss. I was a really shitty illustrator who didn’t know a damn thing about anything industry-wise.
CB: You've worked with Image, Dark Horse, Marvel and DC on a variety of projects, but you're moving away from the work-for-hire assignments and are working on more creator-owned books. What brought about this change in the type of assignments you take?
Howard: I grew very weary of having little control over the projects when I was usually the only person that gave a shit about how the final product read. Everyone likes to pretend that they care, but very few do. They just want to crank it out and hammer a check. And get their egos stroked by the fat man-children who read their schlock. And if you find yourself offended by this statement, you most likely are guilty of it, so go fuck yourself.
CB: Thankfully, I love the projects you're doing now. As much as I love seeing your work on a Hulk or Spider-Man book, I would much rather see you work on something YOU are passionate about.
Howard: In most work-for-hire gigs, I’m just a cog in the wheel, being forced to work with people just going through the motions. I was also forced to work with contract people who don’t really mesh with my work. Not bad people, but we just had no hope of getting on the same page creatively. That wore me down year after year.
So I decided to work for less money but get more creative control over the product. I’m much happier doing indie and creator owned books. IDW seems to be the perfect place for me right now. Stand or fall, it’s all me. It is extremely freeing.
Not to mention that I can blacklist myself with the stupid answers I give in an interview without the worry of being edited. Good times!
CB: Well, maybe no one will even read THIS interview, so no worries.
Howard: Honestly, I no longer care. Although I will always be doing comic books, I couldn’t give a floppy donkey dick about most of the industry. So keep digging away, Steve!
CB: Where do you see the state of the comic book industry in five to ten years with the big push to go digital lately?
Howard: Well, there will be less and less good paying comic book jobs. However, you’ll see a ton more creative works out there. You might have to wade through mountains of shit to find a good book, but there will be plenty of new diamonds in the rough. People that would have never had a chance to get their work published will suddenly have a worldwide audience without having to dole out the crazy amount of cash it takes to print and distribute a book. That is both positive and negative. However, I truly feel it’ll sort itself out after a while. People just need to relax and keep working.
CB: Well, I hope print books never stop because I can't handle reading comics on my laptop.
Howard: I’m right there with you. I need books to be in my hands. I need to flip pages. I like the tactile feel of a book. Hell, I even like the smell of them. Unfortunately though, there are generations of shit-bag kids that have been around computers all their lives. They don’t have any emotional attachment to traditional books. So people like us are pretty much doomed.
Don’t get me wrong, there will always be some printed books, but they will be extremely small print runs, and made solely for the handful of old school romantics like us. Maybe we’re just idiots who can’t get with the program. Who knows?
CB: Yeah, I totally get that. The s
mell of a comic just does so much to bring me back to my Saturday mornings as a kid and coming home from a trip to my local store with my dad.
Who were/are some of your main influences in art?
CB: Appropriate since your first published book was Heaven's Devils. Has worshiping Satan aiding in getting work from the Big Two?
Howard: You really are trying to get me blacklisted!
CB: As you know, I'm a huge fan of your work, probably one of the biggest — if not THE biggest — fans of your work. Do you have any advice for aspiring creators who look to you for their inspiration?
Howard: Learn to tell a story. So many young artists want to just go straight to the pin up. That will most likely lead to failure. If you want to draw comics, you need to know how to tell a story. So concentrate on telling stories. That means that you have to learn how to place your characters in their environments. While doing this, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to draw things correctly.
This might sound like I’m oversimplifying things, but when you boil the fat off the bones, these are the skills you need. You’ll learn anatomy, perspective, shape construction, lighting and eventually style. There is no way around it, and you won’t be able to hide your weaknesses as easily.
CB: Ha, says the guy who started at Image in the early 2000's… kidding. This is good advice, though. I used to admire the guys who did the big double-page splashes, but when the art is all flash you find that the story is all fluff most of the time. That's one of the reasons I've moved away from the superhero books and find myself buying more and more indie books.
Howard: Nothing is wrong with a two page splash. They can be wonderfully effective, and really punch the reader in the chest. However, if there is no lead up to it, it’s just masturbation.
Glad to hear that you are one of the 17 people that buy indie comics in this country, though…
CB: Now, you're just wrapping up work on Joe Hill's The Cape miniseries. Was it always intended to be a miniseries, or did the response from the one-shot that preceded it have an influence on the story continuing?
Howard: When I decided to do it, the book was just a one-shot. Near the end of me wrapping the gig up, Joe and Jason must have come up with the idea of doing a mini. They asked me to take part, and I jumped on it. Seldom in a career does an illustrator get a shot at a story as well done as The Cape.
CB: I see that they're doing another installment on The Cape, but you're only doing covers. While I think the book will be in capable hands with Nelson Daniel, it's going to be sad not seeing your work on the interiors. Was not doing the next book a matter of you wanting to get back to your creator-owned original graphic novel?
Howard: Yep. I loved working with the crew, but I felt that I had told my story already. This is a prequel about Eric’s father in Vietnam, and I felt that Nelson could take the lead on it while I worked on my own book. I promised myself that after I wrapped up The Cape, I would finish my CO book. I’ve been putting it off for years. It’s finally time to pull the trigger or quit whining about it. However, like you said, I’ll still be doing covers for the series. I could never leave that property entirely. I’m too close to it.
[Since finishing the interview, Zach Howard has said that he'll actually be contributing a little bit to the interiors as well.]
CB: A lot of attention was brought to the book because Joe Hill's name was in the title, but a lot of praise has to be given for Jason Ciaramella's scripting and adapting of the short story by Joe. What was your experience working with Jason? Did you have much contact with him at all?
Howard: Jason and I bounced emails quite a bit and did a show together. He did a wonderful job and is exceptionally easy to work with. He’s open to ideas, and he’s not afraid to edit himself. I was very fortunate to be paired up with him.
CB: Yeah, Jason seemed like he was a good match for your particular style — the over-the-top, satire type of violence. Any plans to work with him again?
Howard: I have a feeling that we’ll be doing more books in the future. We work pretty darn well together.
CB: What's next for you? Are you diving into Wild Blue Yonder, your OGN with Mike Raicht, or is there something else we can expect to see from you before that?
Howard: I’ll be doing quite a bit of cover work this year while working on WBY on the side. I’m going to knock out a few issues and then figure out what format and coloring scheme I’m doing with it. Covers will pay the bills while I stew in my own crap for a bit.
CB: Mmmm, crap stew… That should be your next project. Call it "Unconventional X-Crap Stew" and it'll sell a, well, shit load.
CB: And speaking of Wild Blue Yonder, what can you tell us about that?
Howard: It’s a post-apocalyptic tale with some fun characters. Think Mad Max but with retrofitted WWII aircraft. I can’t get too much into the details right now. Sorry about that! Stay tuned, though.
CB: Bastard! What? No hints or spoilers?
Howard: Soon! Keep your pants on.
CB: Well, I do look forward to the collected edition of The Cape when it comes out. Any idea what special features they may have for that?
Howard: We are currently putting together a really nice HC collection of the series. I think it comes out in April. And the TPB will follow shortly after.
There will be some nice extras — intro, pinups, etc. I think everyone should buy two.
CB: Looking forward to it, Zach, and thanks for taking the time to chat with us!