Missed the Fan Expo Vancouver 2014 sketch duels? Click through to see pictures and read our accounts of some of the Expo’s most popular events.
If there is one can’t-miss series of events at Fan Expo Vancouver for the comics fan, it has to be the sketch duels between the featured comics artists. Sure, the prices for comics at the dealer booths are pretty decent and the opportunity to buy a piece of original art directly from the artist at his or her table, or even just talk to them about their work, is great, but those experiences can be reasonably approximated these days on the Internet: There is no shortage of cheap comics being sold on various web-based retail platforms, many artists now offer original art and commissions for sale online either directly or through their art reps, and many of those same artists will also occasionally engage fans in discussions on social media on a variety of topics.
By contrast, there is nothing quite like watching two or more of comics’ best artists sketch live in front of an audience, all while answering questions, relating personal and industry anecdotes, and engaging in good-natured, unscripted competitive banter. Maybe one of these days, a clip of the Expo sketch duels will make it to YouTube, but the video will surely pale in comparison to the live experience.
As in past years, the sketch duels were among the best-attended “non-ballroom” events of this year’s Fan Expo, with all the duels I attended packed to standing room-only capacity. As has been the practice in the first two Expos Vancouver, the artists were allotted approximately 45 minutes to do their work and the sketches were raffled off to members of the audience at the end of each duel.
The Fan Expo Vancouver programming schedule promised six sketch duels in all, but due to a confluence of factors, I was only able to attend four of them. Additionally, one of the sketch duels featured a revamped roster of participants different from the one listed in the schedule. All the duels I attended were expertly moderated by veteran Dallas-area convention promoter and organizer Mark Walters, whose depth of comics knowledge, rapport with the artists and the audience, and practiced, confident manner behind the mic kept the duels running smoothly through the occasional event management hiccups.
The first sketch duel of Fan Expo Vancouver weekend was scheduled for Friday evening, and it featured David Finch (Forever Evil, Batman: The Dark Knight) and Philip Tan (Spawn, The Outsiders) drawing the audience-nominated subject of Nightwing.
Asked about how they got their respective starts in the industry, Finch remarked that he came into the industry at a time—the mid-1990s comic boom—when the demand for artists was such that he was able to get in with “a skill set that wouldn’t get you in [the industry] today” and that he was afforded the opportunity to learn on the job at Marc Silvestri’s Top Cow Studios. Tan, on the other hand, quit his job as a junior partner in an architectural firm in the Philippines and, with a group of friends and the encouragement of Image Comics co-founder Whilce Portacio, put together a comic book that was eventually picked up for publication by DC/Wildstorm as a miniseries in 2002. It was his work on that comic, Taleweaver, that led to him being hired by Marvel to pencil and ink Uncanny X-Men, an assignment that Tan now looks on with a measure of regret as he feels that he wasn’t equipped with the skills at the time to do the book justice [check out our Philip Tan interview article for more on Tan's early career, his current work, and future projects].
The discussion eventually veered into a talk about what the artists least liked seeing in scripts, which they both agreed was the use of what Finch referred to as “leaps” or the script describing a figure doing more than one thing in a single panel. Pressed by an audience member to name their favorite character to draw or a character they want to work on in a future title, Finch mentioned Moon Knight (Finch actually drew the Moon Knight series for Marvel from 2006 to 2007) while Tan offered DC’s Azrael (an answer greeted by more than a few “huh?!”s from the audience), although he qualified his answer by saying that at this point in his career, he’s really more interested in focusing on his current creator-owned project, the details of which he is contractually restricted from divulging at this point in time. Both artists also talked about their preference for working with traditional tools and materials over working with digital illustration tools, although Finch did mention using the digital sculpting software zBrush as a reference, particularly for faces and rotations.
Due to a schedule conflict, I was only able to attend one of the two Saturday sketch duels but it was a truly memorable event pitting Fan Expo crowd-favorite Kaare Andrews against veteran Marvel comics illustrator Mark Bagley. Instead of doing one sketch each, Andrews and Bagley upped the difficulty level by choosing to draw three sketches each, completing one every fifteen minutes. Andrews also opted to work in ink wash instead of the usual pencil or pen.
Andrews has participated in sketch duels in every Fan Expo Vancouver since the beginning, and his animated, gregarious personality was a perfect complement to the older Bagley’s more reserved demeanor. The contrasting dynamic wasn’t as uproarious as the one in the Kaare Andrews-Esad Ribic sketch duel from 2012, but it had its share of moments.
Andrews and Bagley’s subjects for their three sketches were Winter Soldier, She-Hulk, and Spider-Man. While sketching and at the prompting of host Walters and the audience, they talked about their favorite current artists (Bagley: “Stuart Immonen,” Andrews: “Mark Bagley”), their current favorite comics to re-read (Bagley: Warren Ellis’ Planetary, Andrews: Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel), and their opinion on motion comics (Bagley: “I have no opinion on motion comics,” Andrews: “I like the idea of motion comics, but I don’t like how they’re done… it looks like bad animation”).
Andrews and Bagley also discussed at length their thoughts on detailed, “illustrative”-style comics rendering. Bagley agreed with Andrews that more often than not, the visual storytelling seems to suffer the more an artist focuses on being more illustrative and detailed in his or her rendering, with Bagley offering Adam Hughes and Art Adams and Andrews bringing up Travis Charest as examples of top-notch artists whom they admire for their skills as illustrators, but who will also make concessions in the storytelling department in the service of showcasing their illustrative skills.
Bagley also spent time discussing the “comics boom” of the early/mid-1990s, and how the market has contracted since then. The long-time Amazing Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man artist also talked about getting a little choked up drawing a particular sequence that appeared in Ultimate Fallout #1, in the aftermath of the “Death of Ultimate Spider-Man” storyline that ran through Marvel’s Ultimate Comics line a few years back.
Sunday saw a head-to-head match-up between 2002 Eisner Award winner for Best Cover Artist Dave Johnson and 2013 Shuster Award winner for Best Cover Artist Mike Del Mundo [see our Mike Del Mundo interview article for more on the artist].
The audience-suggested subject for their exercise was Venom and as with prior duels, the accompanying discussion covered a variety of topics. Johnson talked about how a chance encounter with the legendary Jim Steranko inspired him to make a full-time career in comics, while Del Mundo recounted how meeting Whilce Portacio at a New York comics convention was similarly inspirational for him. Johnson mentioned his run as the cover artist of DC/Vertigo’s 100 Bullets as the single body of work he is most proud of while Del Mundo brought up his cover for Untold Tales of the Punisher MAX #5 as his favorite single work whilst maintaining that he is never truly satisfied with the quality of his art and that it is only the pressure of the deadline that can make him “let go” of a work.
Asked about their favorite current artists, Dave Johnson mentioned Croation artist Goran Parlov (a Comixverse favorite) with Mike Del Mundo empathically nodding in agreement. Del Mundo also spoke of Kaare Andrew’s recent work on Iron Fist: The Living Weapon as among his favorites in contemporary comics. In addition, Johnson professed to being a big fan of the Adventure Time cartoons, which was met with more nods from Del Mundo.
The final sketch duel of Fan Expo Vancouver 2014 was supposed to feature renowned comics painter Bill Sienkiewicz against Tony Moore of The Walking Dead and Fear Agent fame, but the former was unable to attend due to what event coordinator Tiziano De Santis chalked up to Sienkiewicz’s difficulties adjusting to the time zone differential, to the voiced disappointment of Sienkiewicz fans in the audience (signed Sienkiewicz lithographs were added to the pool of raffle prizes, however). Pinch-hitting for Sienkiewicz were Kaare Andrews and Stephen Platt, resulting in the Expo’s only three-way duel.
Andrews, Moore, and Platt were tasked with drawing Dr. Strange, although Andrews volunteered to draw an extra sketch of a subject of his own choosing. As in his duel with Bagley, Andrews again played the role of the comedian and agitator, lightheartedly needling Moore and opening himself up to rejoinders. Besides the repartee, the artists also took the time to talk about the current books they enjoy reading: Moore went to bat for Jason Aaron’s Scalped while both Platt and Andrews expressed their admiration for Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga.
Platt also talked about a personal “fan fiction” comic he drew for himself, inspired by the news that Disney had bought Lucasfilm. The comic features the Jedi learning to embrace the dark side of The Force as they counter the threat of Galactus. Platt’s description of the comic had the audience in awe and led to calls for him to post the comic online.
A common theme that kept coming up in the final sketch duel was that an artist should only go into comics full-time if he or she really, really, really loves the medium, as the material benefits are much less compared to work in other artistic fields. Tony Moore described a career as a comics artist as being akin to “being in an abusive relationship,” where he just keeps crawling back to the industry no matter how poorly it treats him. Andrews and Platt suggested that artists explore their options in the video game, film, television, animation, and fine arts industries before committing to a career in comics. It was sobering advice to be sure, and a reminder of the frequently harsh economic reality of a career in the sequential arts.