Artist Philip Tan talks candidly about working for DC Comics, his time drawing Uncanny X-Men, his influences, some key differences between working in manga and in American comics, and more in our exclusive interview.
Watching Philip Tan work the Fan Expo Vancouver sketch duel audience and the crowds at his convention table is a revelation. His overflowing enthusiasm for comics is evident in the way he talks about the art form, ideas racing past each other at the speed of thought, throwing off tangents and anecdotes in their wake. His movements, too, reflect this unremitting energy. The man never stops moving: He was constantly drawing—either for work or for personal distraction, I couldn’t tell—the numerous times I passed his table while covering the Expo floor, setting down his pen only long enough to talk to fans and provide aspiring artists with quick portfolio feedback.
The passion Tan expresses for his comics work should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with his personal history in comics, however. Born in 1978 in the Philippine capital of Manila, Philip was introduced at an early age by an older relative to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, and there was really no going back for him from there as he continued to discover other works such as Marvel’s Spider-Man and Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball. Tan did complete his studies in architecture at the University of Santo Tomas, but after six somewhat unhappy months working at an architectural firm designing kitchens and bathroom fixtures, he quit and decided to pursue his dream of becoming an internationally-published, professional comics artist. With fellow comics fan friends, Tan put together a comic, Taleweaver, that was picked up by Wildstorm and published by the DC Comics imprint as a miniseries in 2002. That exposure soon led to an assignment illustrating Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men, a lengthy stint on Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and Spawn: Godslayer, and numerous DC Comics gigs as an interior artist and cover artist. Eventually, Tan relocated from the Philippines to southern California.
This year’s Fan Expo Vancouver was Tan’s first, and hopefully not his last. The artist was gracious enough to take some time last Friday evening for an interview with the Comixverse and below is the transcript of that conversation.
Comixverse: You mentioned earlier in your sketch duel discussion that you came up under [Filipino-American comics artist and Image Comics co-founder] Whilce Portacio. Was this during the time when he was still running his studio-school in Manila?
Philip Tan: No, I [got to meet him] when there was no studio-school anymore. What happened was, he held a contest—he was launching Stone with Brian Haberlin—and it was a poster-drawing contest. It was just a show to get kids interested in art while promoting the book, stuff like that. I joined [the contest] and I think I was a runner-up and I got to meet Gilbert Monsanto who was teaching at a school back then, it was like a vocational school for art and comics…
CV: Monsanto did [Image Comics miniseries] Hellcop, right?
PT: Yeah, Hellcop, there you go. Anyway, I became friends with him, and started hanging out with him, but it wasn’t until later on that I got to know Whilce himself.
CV: You mentioned earlier that you come from an architecture background, and I suppose to the layperson, it’s all just drawing, but how did you make that move to a career drawing comics?
PT: Well yeah, it’s all drawing, but unless you like drawing bathrooms and faucets everyday… I think my first comic book was Astro Boy, and I eventually got to Spider-Man and Dragon Ball and all these other things, and as a kid, I started to wonder if I could also do this and I started imitating the art because I liked it so much. Obviously, when you’re a kid you don’t know how to gauge if you’re good or bad, but I’m sure for most artists, that’s how they get started. There are probably a few exceptions, guys who pick up art in their teens or in their twenties, but that’s probably very rare. I’m sure most artists started out because they encountered it in entertainment as a kid, liked it a lot, started drawing not because they wanted to get into the industry but because they enjoy doing it, and they eventually find out that “hey, I’m not cut out for this,” or they go “hey, I’m actually not bad and maybe I can do this for a living.”
CV: A lot of the artists who grew up in the Philippines, for various reasons, were largely unaware of the “First Wave” of Filipino comics artists who worked for DC and Marvel back in the 1970s. Were you exposed to these artists at all growing up?
PT: Not at all. I was mostly looking at Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Rob Liefeld because that was the time [the late 1980s/the early 1990s] that I grew up and started really getting into comic books. I eventually found out about guys like John Byrne and Barry Windsor-Smith but it wasn’t until Gerry Alanguilan, who I think is hands-down one of the most important figures in Filipino comics, that [I really started to take note of other Filipino comics artists]. Yeah, you’ve got all these other [Filipino comics] legends, but everyone else sees [comics] as a career. Gerry… his passion is on a different level. He really wants Filipino art to take off. I take my hat off to Gerry. Sure, you’ve got a lot of these big names and legends, the Alcalas and the Redondos, and they’re masters in their own right but I don’t think anyone has a bigger heart than Gerry when it comes to promoting [the Filipino comics] craft.
CV: Yeah, Alanguilan’s website, for the longest time, it was the only reliable online resource for the history of Philippine comics art.
PT: That’s only a small chunk of what he does, and it’s not like he plugs or brags about it. He’s just doing it one step at a time, and all he wants is to get Filipino art out there. Anyway, to answer your original question, it wasn’t until Gerry came around that I was introduced to Nestor Redondo, Alfredo Alcala, and Alex Niño. My personal favorite is Francisco Coching. And all these artists I wouldn’t have known if not for Gerry. I met Mang Tony [the late artist and Jonah Hex co-creator Tony DeZuniga], Mang Ernie [the late, long-time Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan artist Ernie Chan, a.k.a. Ernie Chua], and Mang Alex [Niño] over [in the States] and they’re amazing artists, amazing people but the initial exposure was through Gerry.
I think it’s because of Gerry that these legends are no longer alien to a lot of today’s young Filipino artists. [As far as the promotion of older Filipino comics art,] when I was growing up, wala eh, wala ["there was absolutely nothing"], kung ano lang yung meron ["we had to settle for what we could get."]. And then I finally saw their work and I was all “Wow, they were that good!”
Unfortunately, these artists and their work [had to be "imported" back to the Philippines] before Filipinos started paying attention to them. I hate to say it, but that’s the mentality in the country. It’s hard for local artists to stand up for their own work and be rewarded for it. It’s a vicious cycle where a lot of local artists end up thinking “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
It was Gerry who made everyone realize that the Philippines produced all these master artists back in the day.
CV: Let’s talk about your art influences. Who are the artists who inspire you to do your best work?
PT: That’s a tough one. A lot of artists will agree that we haven’t done our best work yet. We’re always striving to get to that point where we’ll be completely happy with our work, even if we know we’ll probably never get there. It’s good to always have that fire in you to get better.
As for my influences, there’s just so many. I don’t think any artist can just list one. I initially grew up reading manga, the kung-fu comics from back in the day, and then I eventually started reading American comic books, and then as I mentioned I very much later found out about Filipino artists working in American comic books. Right now I still read [Masashi Kishimoto's] Naruto and [Eiichiro Oda's] One Piece and All-New X-Men and all these characters I enjoy, but if I have to look back, it would have to be the [comics art of the] ’90s.
And when I say the ’90s, I’m not just talking about American comic books, your Jim Lees, Whilce Portacios, and Todd McFarlanes. I’m also talking about Akira Toriyama on Dragon Ball, Takehiko Inoue on Slam Dunk and Vagabond, and then there was Hiroaki Samura who did Blade of the Immortal.
I enjoyed their work, a lot, and that shaped me. There are a lot of artists who came before and after them who are better, but these were the artists whom I was exposed to during my formative years when I was trying to absorb everything I could.
PT: Really? I actually started Taleweaver before I discovered Blade of the Immortal but thank you very much, that is very kind of you to say so.
Blade of the Immortal recently ended, and I think Samura is taking a break right now. He does a lot of artsy nudity—it’s not pornographic—but he loves getting reactions from readers…
CV: Yeah, I think he did this one bondage-themed book called Hitodenashi no Koi…
PT: Yeah I think that was a one-shot. But he loves getting reactions from readers, whether it’s from scandalous subject material or art that makes you cringe… ah sorry, we’ve gone off-topic. I love talking about art.
PT: Oh, I’m so embarrassed about it. I was still learning, I was a kid, I was greedy, I agreed to something that I couldn’t do, I really bit off more than I could chew, more than I could swallow, and I was choking on it.
CV: Still, though, the fact that you were on Uncanny X-Men, that must have meant a lot. During the 1980s and the 1990s, Uncanny X-Men was THE book.
PT: Oh yeah, but in hindsight, I feel so bad because I could have done so much better, you know? It was just the wrong timing. They were asking me to do two books a month and I had to ink them, too, and I’d never really inked before. I should have said no, but as a kid, you make so many mistakes and now I’m trying to learn from it and recover from the consequences.
PT: Seriously? Oh, you mean the ones I did with [DC Comics co-publisher] Dan [DiDio]! This is a funny story. This is how me and Dan would do Outsiders: Dan lives in New York, but pretty soon DC will be moving to Burbank, but anyway, he goes to Burbank—which is close to where I live—twice a month because of whatever business he’s got going on there. So we’d go to a diner, I’d have maybe three or five sentences in my notebook—that’s my script—and he’d act out what else should happen in The Outsiders. I get to kind of dictate where the theme goes, but Dan does make final decisions on what’s going to happen to a certain character or how many pages it will take to show [a certain sequence] and he does the final dialogue. But I did get to co-plot and co-write those stories.
CV: One one level though, you could say that you’re still doing the storytelling, regardless of whether you actually contribute to the writing…
PT: I think a really good illustrator would not do comic books, because he would want to spend time perfecting the details of his work. If you look at Todd McFarlane’s work or all these other guys’ work, if you look at it under a magnifying glass, it’s not perfect or it’s not the most “realistic” or the best drawn, but it’s the most dynamic and it tells the story flawlessly. And that’s the most important thing about being a comic book artist. If you just want to concentrate on illustrations, just do fine art. I’m not saying you shouldn’t or you can’t [be a good visual storyteller if your primary focus is illustration], because there are exceptions like Alex Ross, but there’s a reason why he’s the exception.
CV: Are there any other properties you’re looking to work on in the future?
PT: My favorite DC character is Azrael. I still hope to one day draw an Azrael series. And maybe even write it, too. But you always get an itch wanting to do certain characters. I haven’t worked with Marvel in a long time, but I would love to do a bunch of Marvel characters for covers and whatnot. To do a comic on a monthly basis, though? I’d rather do my own thing.
DC has been the most amazing thing for me. They’ve treated me very well, albeit there are all these crazy horror stories that everyone talks about. I personally think DC is amazing. It might be my bias, but it also might be that… I’m not the kind of guy who feels entitled to things. A lot of other people might feel they’re entitled to certain things and they feel that DC has wronged them, and maybe DC has wronged them, I don’t know. All I can say is that they’ve been very fair to me and they’ve taken care of me through good and harsh times and it’s been a great experience.
But if there’s a monthly title I want to work on, it would have to be my own work from now on.
CV: At the sketch duel earlier today, you mentioned that you have a creator-owned title coming out in Japan in the near future…
PT: Yeah, it won’t be for a while, and unfortunately, I’m not really allowed to give you any more details about it right now… sorry.
CV: No problem. In North America though, have you thought about bringing a creator-owned project to a publisher like Image Comics or Dark Horse Comics?
PT: I’ve thought about it, but like I said earlier, my first comics were manga, and its been my dream to get into the manga industry especially since it’s so much harder to break in there. I’ve been persevering hard enough the last two years that I was able to get in…
CV: Wow. Yeah, to hear about it, it’s very, very hard for a foreign-born comics creator to break into the manga industry…
PT: Don’t get me wrong… I’m barely starting my career [in manga] because my book’s not out yet. Over there I’m just a newbie, a nobody, they probably don’t even know that I’ve done Batman or Green Lantern or whatever.
PT: That, I don’t know. They’re big Spawn fans [at the manga publisher that picked up my work] so that ended up working in my favor. I can feel that within [the organization] they treat me very professionally. There’s a certain level of respect that they give you: They know that I’ve done work for other companies, but they make sure I know that I’m the new guy, and I do have to prove myself. That being said, they respect me as a creator.
CV: Hey, you know what they say, game recognizes game…
PT: It’s an amazing thing, because I didn’t get that in America as much. But yeah, right now, it’s mostly just covers for DC, and then I’m helping Dan out with this book that’s coming out. Aside from that, there’s [the creator-owned manga project I'm not allowed to talk about yet], I’m still writing stories for myself, and it’s still a possibility that one of those stories gets published first in America. Image Comics has been good to me. They’ve been cheering me on and asking about maybe going to them with a book… [Image has] been selling very well, but it’s really just Saga and The Walking Dead.
CV: So, any parting words for our readers? Anything in particular you want to plug?
PT: Well, I guess I can’t really talk about [my creator-owned manga project], but hopefully when it comes out you guys can help spread the word and support the product. I’m also on Twitter (@philipsytan) so go check it out.
- Leaving Proof 14 | Filipino Art in American comics: From Komiks to Comics (or “Mr. DeZuniga Goes to New York”)
- Leaving Proof 15 | Filipino Art in American Comics: Nestor Redondo
- Leaving Proof 16 | Filipino Art in American Comics: Alfredo Alcala
- Leaving Proof 18 | Filipino Art in American Comics: Alex Niño
- Leaving Proof 21 | Filipino Art in American Comics: Romeo Tanghal
- Leaving Proof 41 | Filipino Art in American Comics: My Whilce Portacio Experience (Part 1)
- Leaving Proof 42 | Filipino Art in American Comics: My Whilce Portacio Experience (Part 2)
- Leaving Proof 43 | Filipino Art in American Comics: My Whilce Portacio Experience (Part 3)
- Leaving Proof 79 | In Search of the Filipino Artist in Contemporary American Comics
- Leaving Proof 108 | A Conversation with Whilce Portacio
- Tony DeZuniga, 08 November, 1932–11 May, 2012
- Leaving Proof 168 | The art of eskrima in comics and comic book-based films
- Leaving Proof 177 | Will Steve Gan Finally Receive His Due?
- Leaving Proof 183 | Shang-Chi, Rudy Nebres, and The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu
- Leaving Proof 207 | State of the Art: Thoughts on the work of Leinil Yu and other Filipino artists working in today’s American comics