Aaron Conley burst on the scene in 2013 when, along with his long-time friend and collaborator Damon Gentry, they released an astounding original graphic novel through Dark Horse Originals — Sabertooth Swordsman. I didn’t know Aaron at the time, but the preview art for the book drew me in and, upon reading it, I proclaimed it one of the best debut efforts in my comics-collecting lifetime. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Aaron personally over subsequent years and it’s been amazing to see his star rise. The only thing better than his cartooning is his good nature. Aaron and I had the chance to sit down and chat recently about his career, his influences, and his upcoming plans.
Aaron, my man! So, I first discovered your work a few years ago, when I picked up Sabertooth Swordsman by Dark Horse. As you know, I was BLOWN AWAY by the story and your cartooning and immediately reached out to buy some pages. Tell our listeners your origin story. How did Aaron Conley become “the co-creator of Sabertooth Swordsman?”
Jason, MY MAN!!! Well it’s kind of a long story. Damon (Gentry) and I had been friends since high school and had always been comic fans. I think we had hit a point where we realized it was do or die, so we started making a serious effort to make comics and get something going. We had a website where we were posting all kinds of crazy, different comics, and one day I started drawing my attempt at “Moebius-style art” of a man climbing a mountain to meet this cloud god guy, who starts changing him into different things before he hits his final form. I had no idea where to go from there, so Damon threw in his two cents and helped out with the ending and we had created the bare bones of what the Sabertooth Swordsman book would be based on.
Your style is wildly detailed and exaggerated, in the most awesome of ways. Who are your artistic inspirations? Your mentors?
Oh, too many to name. Michael Allred was a huge supporter from the beginning. He really made us feel like if one of our biggest inspirations liked our work, we might have a chance in this business. I mentioned Moebius as being a big inspiration on Swordsman, but some of the other artists who have made an impact on me are Geoff Darrow, John Kricfalusi, Jason Pearson, Dave Cooper, Steve Rude and Jamie Hernandez.
Are you a comic book fan? I get the sense you aren’t crazy about mainstream superhero comics, at least as a regular passion. Do I have that right? Was there ever a time you read superhero comics regularly?
You wouldn’t say that if you looked through my comic boxes, haha. As much as my work reflects a more indie style I actually really love superheroes. I’ve been a huge Spider-Man and Batman fan since I was young (and would love to work on both those guys one day). I love comics period, I’ll read anything with a great story or beautiful art. I do really try and read a few superhero books every month though. I’m currently digging Doctor Strange and Black Widow.
You and Damon recently released a new hardcover reprint of Swordsman, with 32 new pages of story. What can you tell us about the new pages?
Well the best thing in my opinion is that it collects all three of the color short stories that previously appeared in issues of Dark Horse Presents. I think those stories have some of my best artwork to date. I also think Damon and I did a few things in those stories that really flip comics-making on its head and show things you can do in comics that could never be done in any other format.
After spending years collaborating with Damon, what has it been like working with other writers? And since you’re now working with people like my buddy Skottie Young, is Damon free to see other cartoonists? In other words, do you two have an open artistic marriage?
Yeah, it’s way open! We both get around. Damon is currently working on some comics with two of my current favorite creators: Troy Nixey and Simon Roy. I couldn’t be out there partying and not expect him to do the same haha!
You won the Russ Manning Award in 2014 for best newcomer, yet you were 37 years old at the time if I have my math correct. Is it weird to be viewed as a “newbie” after 15+ years honing your craft?
No, not really, I feel like a newbie every day. There’s always something to learn. I was new to comics, I had never even drawn a 22-page comic before I drew the 105 pages of Sabertooth Swordsman. So yeah I was definitely a newbie. Maybe it helps that the guys I hang with in comics aren’t 19-year olds; if they were I might feel a little differently.
Since we first met, your star has risen. What challenges do you face now you might not have dealt with two years ago? How has the hustle evolved?
Every day is a struggle for me: Am I doing my best? Am I getting better? Does anyone care? Am I keeping up with my peers? Am I making the right choices? But at the same time I never had these struggles before when I didn’t make comics. I hit a point at the beginning of the year where I was supposed to start a big project that got pushed back and had no work and very little money, so I reached out to a few editors and got work almost immediately and also had to turn something down. It’s pretty exciting that I have somewhat learned how to play the game and that people dig my product enough to hire me. But like any ups and downs in life it helps to eat well, get some exercise and have a great lady!
Do you foresee yourself focusing more on creator-owned work going forward? If so, let our readers know what you have in store for us in the coming months.
I’m currently working on two books for existing characters. I’ve been slowly plugging away at Sabertooth Swordsman 2. The big project that got pushed back is a creator-owned thing that’s still supposed to happen. I also really want to make this comic that my lady Katrina and I came up with called ‘Trash Dogs’.
What’s your artistic process? I know you work traditionally, but have you started dabbling in digital yet? What are your favorite tools of the trade?
Yeah, I’m mostly traditional. I mean, I’m using Photoshop almost every day to tweak things and assemble pages. These days I usually do a few quick layouts, organize them on Photoshop, then do pretty tight pencils a little smaller, then I blow that up on some nice art paper and ink away. I love these Japanese brush pens I get from Jet Pens to ink!
Where can people follow your work? What’s the best way to get in contact with you for original art, commissions, or to send you a message full of awesome?
I post quite a bit on Facebook (Aaron M. Conley) and instagram (@aaronconley77). For commissions and original art hit my boy Felix up at www.felixcomicart.com!
No, thank you, my friend! I can’t wait to see you around the con circuit this year, and I’m sure our readers are going to race to pick up the new printing of Sabertooth Swordsman, available at stores everywhere!