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April 2, 2009

Art of the City: Behind the Creation of the Art for City of Dust

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In a relatively short period of time, Radical Publishing has burst on the scene, setting itself apart with its fully painted comics. Beginning with works like Hercules, Hotwire, Shrapnel, and Caliber, Radical immediately distinguished itself with its gorgeous interior and exterior art.
 

The recent series City of Dust: A Philip Khrome Story, a five issue miniseries written by Steve Niles (30 Days of Night), raises the bar even higher with incredible painted interior work by artists Zid and Brandon Ching. The series features hardened cop Philip Khrome, who patrols a bizarre future world where literary works of any kind, including children’s tales and religion, are strictly forbidden. Even stranger, and much more monstrous, surprises are waiting to be uncovered after Khrome dares to look inside a book.

The visual storytelling of City of Dust: A Philip Khrome Story is so amazingly rendered that we talked with Zid and Ching, as well as Jeremy Berger, the art director of Radical Publishing, and Edmund Shern, CEO of Storm Lion (a Singapore-based sister company of Radical), who was heavily involved in the initial art direction of City of Dust: A Philip Khrome Story), to find out what went into creating the distinctive art of the book. They shared their thoughts as well as some before-and-after page shots, so you can see how this futuristic world took shape.
 
Jeremy Berger: In every book that Radical publishes, we try to achieve a certain style of art that has branded our company into what it is today. This could be defined as a painted, cinematic, or atmospheric stylization. Since the beginning of the company, Barry Levine, president and publisher, has passed down to me his passion, experience, and vision for developing quality art and working closely with talent to achieve the finest images in the world.
 
It was an honor to be working on City of Dust with such a prolific writer, Steve Niles, as well as an amazing team of artists on both interiors and cover art. As art director, I was able to oversee the creation of this book as well as work with top talent in the industry, including Clint Langley, Arthur Suydam, JP Targete, Patrick Reilly, and Lucio Parrillo. The individual talents of each artist truly emerged through their work on the book, and this is clearly evidenced in the quality of each interior panel and rendering.
 
When I art direct

a cover, I try to be very specific on what I am looking for and work directly with them to achieve the final look of each piece. With some talent, it is best to inspire them with a preamble of what Barry is looking for and then allow them to come up with original ideas, since their minds might already have something conjur ed up. In those cases, I encourage them to sketch up their ideas, and once the sketch has been approved, the next stage involves moving forward to paints. After the first pass of paints come in, I give them notes, if there are any, and we move on to final ar t.
 
It is also my philosophy and intention to allow each artist I work with at least a month to illustrate their covers, as Radical maintains the mentality “Never rush to do a bad job.” That being said, I believe artists appreciate this kind of work ethic, as it diminishes the pressure of the deadline and allows them to really put their heart and soul into their work.

Visualizing the City
Edmund Shern, CEO of Storm Lion: My first meeting with Steve Niles and Barry Levine was in a very pretty and picturesque breakfast place in Los Angeles. It was fascinating to see a dark evil genius’ mind perfectly comfortable with his dark thoughts, even in a rather cheery breakfast place, comfortably discussing the horrors of his new horrific concept as we hovered over syrup-covered pancakes.
 
As soon as I heard Steve’s pitch, I knew exactly who the perfect lead artist would be. I had worked with Zid on a previous vampire comic and faced really challenging circumstances. In the course of doing it, however, I found out he was a fan of Steve Niles. Zid also had that very unique styling that seemed like a strange blend of Kent Williams’ fluid style and American comics. Perfect for this.
 
Needless to say, Zid didn’t need to be asked twice.
 
When Zid and I sat down to work out how the look and feel of the city should be, we imagined a city that Niles would be totally comfortable with. The idea of a dark city hidden from the light and choked into submission by its own pollution needed an architecture that wasn’t far-fetched but truly grounded in reality, and an ever so slight hint of gothicness. It was modern but twisted—and truly depressing. The ideal environment to drive someone to do something dark and desperate. It was a future just close enough to reality to make the events seem a little closer to home.
 
For the interior art style, Zid created a look that evoked the mood perfectly. A dusty and drab style meant that nothing was ever really “clean” or clear in the city. No one was free from its corruption and where the most beautiful things were the prostitutes in red shiny vinyl. The scratchy lines had a feel of quiet desperation that was hard to pin down.
 
As things got underway, Zid eventually gathered a small artist army to see his vision through. No small task considering how high the bar was set—but as soon as the reviews started appearing and the fan emails started flooding, we knew we had done it.
 
A city was born, and Philip Khrome has become real.
 
 
 
Preliminary Stage: Character Concepts and World Design
Zid: It begins with getting the basic description of the world and reference material for the treatment of the property. Among the perpetually named was Blade Runner. I presented a series of concept sketches of the key characters in City of Dust after sitting down for a movie marathon of cult films mentioned in the reference list. It was a tremendous pressure for me to come up with something dark and gritty, since my default body of works deal with bright and trippy colors! The sketches also include major items from vehicles to the tiniest of gadgets, such as portable devices. They had to be unique, for the story revolves around the future.
 
I designed the world by combining elements from gothic architecture and art deco designs for the lower part of the city. (If you read the book, you’ll find out that the city is made of two different levels separated by the thick dark smog.) It was also a challenge to come up with something fantastic yet also believable, since it was my first time drawing skyscrapers. The upper half, however, was much easier due to its futuristic nature and more open for geometric construction.
 
After several rounds of edits and approvals for the character and environment concept designs, work on the comic could commence.
 
Issue #1, Execution Stage: Panel to Panel
Zid: This process is pretty much conventional. We began by having the script at hand, and I would map out thumbnail sketches until the end of the book for approval before I started drawing the pages. The following step would be cleaning up the rough sketch and finalizing the line art. Again, after approval, I would paint the pages based on the agreed treatment in the concept stage. As artist and art director, I had creative license to a certain degree, but at every stage, pages would be sent to and reviewed by Radical’s editor-in-chief, Dave Elliott, who helped ensure that the artwork followed the script by Steve Niles as closely as possible.
 
Issues #2–5, Sharing and Collaboration
Brandon Chng: Due to time constraints, the work load for the remaining four issues for this volume was split up—Garrie Gastonny went to work on thumbs, while I did line art; colorists Buddy Jiang, Okita, and I would paint; and lastly, Zid did editing for overall consistency. Our designer, Lesmana Putra, would prepare the files for the letterer and eventually compile the artwork and lettering for final artwork.
 
Looking back at what Zid had established in issue #1, his line art was more angular and consistent in its line weight and was mostly drawn with the coloring in mind. This meant less hatching and toning at the line art stage. Based off these observations, I worked on issue #2 onward with the intention of keeping the line art style as similar as possible.
 
In the beginning, I frequently had to refer to the concept art Zid developed, but by the time I got to issue #4, I had familiarized myself with the characters and memorized how to draw them easily. At several points, though, there were new characters brought into the story, and there I was able to interpret them as I saw fit. As for paints, working alongside Zid, Budi, and Okita greatly improved my work process; they taught me techniques (e.g., how they made the art look textured) and shared with me the different Photoshop brushes they used, so that everything would be closer in result to issue #1. We also were very mindful about retaining the color palette throughout the series.
 
We also need to thank our project manager, Ling Yan, for managing schedules and splitting up the workload between the artists involved. The project wouldn’t have been realized if not for her ability to run a tight ship, communicating and coordinating between the many artists, the writer, letterer Chris Eliopoulos, and Dave Elliott, the editor-in-chief from Radical.