I get a lot of similar questions so in the interests of preserving inbox and sanity, here are some answers.
What led you to become a storyboard/comic artist?
Since I was a little kid I’ve drawn little sequential stories for myself, and loved to write. It was kind of a no-brainer to pursue art for a living (I have zero other marketable skills) and animation seemed like a practical way to combine storytelling, drawing, and a somewhat stable income. There is a lot of overlap between comics and storyboarding so it felt natural to bounce between the two.
How did you develop your style?
I drew pretty differently before animation school. I drew a lot more STUFF on everything – all the characters were covered in useless belts. Having to draw the same character a hundred times in sequence makes you really think about how useless those belts really are, though. You work out what you really need in a drawing to make it communicate. My drawings simplified a lot then and I still focus on clarity.
I love trying different art materials and obsess over new pens, inks, paint colors, etc. I started using a brush and ink instead of technical pens and that simplified my drawing even more, into a single efficient line instead of a bunch of strokes. In storyboarding and animation it’s important to work quickly and efficiently, and those practices carried over into my comic and illustration drawings too.
I’m always trying to keep in mind that the whole point of drawingfor me is to communicate something, and doing that with economy and clarity is important. I don’t spend very long on anything and try not to fuss. So I guess my “style” is the way I found to draw to get a clear, communicative drawing that I like in the easiest way possible.
What influenced you as a writer/artist?
I didn’t read a lot of comics growing up, except for Calvin & Hobbes, which I inhaled. I would also read X-Men in the supermarket sometimes while waiting for my mom but I was never allowed to buy any.
In my teens I got into anime/manga/japanese video games. I was majorly influenced by Rumiko Takahashi, especially Ranma 1/2. I loved how Takahashi’s stuff was kind of dirty and funny and energetic – it was something I wanted to do. Unfortunately all the CLAMP and Final Fantasy stuff led me down a path of useless belts on everything, but I shook that off eventually. Reading Takahashi now still feels really fresh and exciting to me.
I made a bunch of webcomics friends in high school, which led me to reading more independent comics like JTHM and Finder. I read Craig Thompson’s Blankets and that single-handedly made me pick up a brush and start inking with that. Some of my favorite cartoonists right now are Jillian Tamaki, Eleanor Davis, Drew Weing, and Kate Beaton.
How did you write/draw Anya’s Ghost?
Check this out. All the drawing secrets revealed.
As for writing, Anya started out as a character I came up with for the Belle and Sebastian anthology Image put out a few years ago. I wound up bailing on that story (it was not very good) but I really liked drawing that character with her fat little legs and cigarettes. She floated around nameless for a while, until I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and decided she ought to fall down a well. The rest was written like everything else gets written: pulled out of whatever weird space ideas come from, a weird mishmash of my own life and made-up stuff. A lot of it is based on my feelings about my Russian heritage as a young person.
How do you make your illustrations?
My digital ones are done entirely in Adobe Photoshop, using a Wacom Cintiq. Here is a video showing a start-to-finish digital drawing. I’ve been trying to stick to real media as much as possible these days, but you can’t beat digital for rough sketches.
My watercolors are almost always sketched on the Cintiq first, then printed out at the right size. I transfer them onto hot-press watercolor paper using an A3 Huion lightpad. I ink that with either a dip pen or a brush pen, and paint with a mix of Winsor & Newton, Daniel Smith, and Kremer watercolors.
How did you get your job at Laika?
I’d heard that Coraline was being made at Laika, and was a big fan of the book and of Henry Selick. I’d even met someone who was storyboarding on it, and it seemed like a dream job. I figured I had a snowball’s chance in hell of ever going anywhere near a project like that anytime in the next ten years, so I put it out of my head. Then I got an email out of the blue from the Laika recruiter saying that they’d seen my student film online, liked it, and would I be able to come out to Portland and interview.
I got really lucky with the timing and with Laika’s kind willingness to overlook my lack of professional boarding experience. I pretty much learned on the job and had a great ten years there.
Why did you leave Laika?
Super simple: I wanted to write my own stories, which I wasn’t able to do at the studio. I could’ve kept doing it in my free time but that was taking a toll on my body, so I decided to try to make a go of it full-time. It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I tried to line up two years of book projects to make it as safe as possible. I’m making about half as much money as I used to but the improvement in quality of life is worth it. I’m not ruling out returning to animation someday but at the moment I’m really enjoying the freedom of working on my own things every day.
How did you get your first book published?
I drew a webcomic called Return to Sender while I was in high school, which I never finished but it was good practice. That introduced me to a bunch of other people drawing comics who are still my friends to this day, and led to a trip to San Diego Comic-Con where I met Kazu Kibuishi who was just starting up the Flight Anthology. I did a short story for Flight to dip my toe back into comics. After drawing a few Flight stories I decided I was ready to tackle a full-length graphic novel, and worked up an idea for one and roughed out the first thirty pages.
The agent representing Flight, Judy Hansen, agreed to take a look at my proposal and then agreed to try and sell it for me, after I’d finished penciling the book (since I didn’t have a script I had to do it this way). She sold it to First Second Books, which was my first choice publisher, and that’s it! You can sell a graphic novel without an agent, but I strongly recommend one. I’m not great at asking for more money or negotiating contracts, and having someone on your side if something goes wrong during the project is amazing. Judy’s help in steering my career and thinking long-term has been invaluable.
Here is a list of literary agents that represent graphic novels. Make sure they accept unsolicited queries (some of them do not) and shoot them an email!
Do you recommend going to art school?
It’s not for everyone, and it’s optional. I know plenty of artists who didn’t go at all, or went to cheap schools, and are working right there alongside people with expensive degrees. If you or your parents can afford it and you are prepared to work really really hard you can get your money’s worth, but it can also be a huge waste of time and a source of crippling debt. I’ve seen schools really taking advantage of art students and it’s a huge bummer.
I went to a relatively inexpensive school (at the time it was 11k/year), for a 3-year diploma. I feel like I learned a lot and met some really good people but I’m not sure it would’ve been worth the 40-50k/year schools are charging nowadays. No one has ever asked to see my degree (I don't have one) and I wasn't hired at an Industry Day - I got work off the strength of a film I had online. But I made that film working hard at an art school.
The short answer: Go if you think you’ll have the willpower to work your ass off, and can afford it.
What advice do you have for someone starting out in illustration/animation/comics?
My own career path, outlined above, clearly does not show much in the way of premeditation. I got lucky as hell a number of times and tried to do my best with what I had, which was some ability to draw and access to the internet. No one’s going to replicate my life exactly – everyone’s going to be dealt a different hand and it’s your job to work hard and make good decisions. I did get very lucky with how I got my first job, but in order for that to have happened I had to put the time into finishing a film at school and getting as good at drawing as I could. Also into not being a total asshole during my interview.
If you’re friendly and your work is good and is the kind of work people can use, I like to think you’ll succeed. At least make sure you’re having fun the entire time.