Kelly Williams, or Treebeerd as he’s affectionately known to friends and fans alike, is a freelance illustrator and comics creator that we’ve had the privilege to know for a few years. Kelly has done work for Dark Horse, Alterna Comics and Top Shelf but he’s best known for his creator-owned endeavors including: The Dark, The Cabinet, Cast Out and Loose Ends. As you’ll see, Kelly has a passion for horror but his artistic stylings impress regardless of the genre. I had the chance to sit down with Kelly to talk about his goals, inspirations and the candid experiences of being a freelance artist trying to find his place in an industry he’s loved for as long as he can remember.
Kelly, great talking to you, sir! I think we met four or five years ago now, at Heroes Con, right?
Always a pleasure. Four or five sounds about right. I believe we met on my second year doing Heroes Con. It’s funny, four years isn’t long at all but it feels like it’s been 10 years or something. The year before was my first year tabling at cons and Heroes was my first show.
Treebeerd…why? Is it is a play on the Lord of the Rings character? The band? Something else?
The easy answer is it is mostly due to Lord of the Rings. The more complicated answer is, I was throwing a party. As you’re aware, I have a sizable beard for such a little fella. I was walking out to our shed where some friends and I were playing music and the wind was blowing and leaves were falling. I opened the door and my buddy pointed at me and yelled “Treebeard!” I had this huge leaf just sitting on my beard. Like, a HUGE leaf. I was just walking around oblivious to it. At that time, I was a bit of (a lot of) a drinker. Beer being my life’s blood. So, that’s why the spelling is TreeBeerd. It really stuck once I got on Xbox Live and started playing UNO all the time.
Once I started getting more active on social media, the moniker Treebeerd just became my default thing. Now I’m sort of stuck with it. I joke that I can’t shave my beard because I’ll have to come up with a new name. On the other hand, I don’t drink anymore and still use the same spelling so, I make my own limitations, I suppose. So much so that if I try to create a username and “Treebeerd” is taken, I generally just add a Y and make it “Treebeerdy” (Like on Instagram). Because I’m lazy.
Fair enough! You call it lazy, I call it not messing with perfection.
I was an instant fan of your style. Spending a lot of time in Artist Alleys, I’m always looking for new artists that have distinctive visual voices. You certainly fit that bill. So give us your origin story, when did you discover comics?
You, sir, are too kind. I was just always into comics. Kind of in that same way some people may be now, you know? Like, I was probably a huge fan of Batman and Robin, Super Friends, Spider-Man, etc. before I ever touched a comic book because of the TV shows and movies. I remember being so obsessed with the live action Batman and Spider-Man TV shows in particular. God, that Spider-Man show… I even remember when a dude near where I lived got busted for trying to climb a building with suction cups or something dressed as Spider-Man!
I would get comics here and there when I was at the grocery store with various adults. A lot of the time I didn’t even care what they were, I was just excited to read a new story. The idea these stories would continue into the next issue never occurred to me early on. I think the first superhero comics that really got my interest were Daredevil and X-Men. I don’t know if it was just because I was younger or what but the ’80s were great because I could just get random comics or MAD magazines at the store and never be disappointed. It probably wasn’t until I ran into Swamp Thing that I got more serious about comics. Meaning, finally wanting to know more about them and follow specific titles, artists and so on.
I remember there was a point in 6th or 7th grade that my friends and I would go to the grocery store sometimes before school and stuff comics in skateboard magazines (we were all skaters, too) and either buy them and sneak the comics through or once or twice a month for a few months, wrap comics around my legs with rubber bands and walk out. I stole a lot of comics from that place. They were jerks so I don’t feel too bad about it now. Don’t steal, kids. Unless you’re stealing from jerks. Did you steal comics? You haven’t lived until you’ve stolen a comic from a jerky grocery store manager. I never stole from a comic shop though. I don’t think. It’s hard to remember with all that stealing.
Five finger discounts are no joking matter (except when they are).
When did you decide on becoming an illustrator, and was it always with an eye toward making comics?
Yeah, I always wanted to draw comics. I was doing my own mini comics throughout most of the ‘90s. I worked at a comic shop and the people there were super supportive and encouraging. I did a few superhero comics before I just totally dropped out of all mainstream comics. I got tired of what the major companies were doing and superheroes in general were just boring me. I’m sure some of it was just that change you go through in your teens and also the fact that I worked at a comics shop. So I got the full blast of the worst of the ’90s era comics. I found my way to indy and small press comics early on, as a result. I was mainly reading stuff from publishers like Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, Slave Labor, and early Top Shelf. I started making comics evocative of those books.
I got married and had a kid when I was 18 years old so life doing what life does, I slowly moved away from doing comics all the time. My buddy Mike West and I kept busy putting together anthology comics every couple of years. That turned into every 4 years and then…you get the idea.
I started playing in bands, too, which drew my attention away from comics. I wrote and drew one last 20-page comic called Reflections that was this weird, kind of dramatic Frankenstein “with a twist” thing, but I never published it. I think I still have it and may post it online, just for laughs. I didn’t draw any comics for a few years. I was disillusioned with drawing comics and one day I realized it was because I had spent so much time trying to draw like other people. I never really figured out how I draw. So I started doing a new web comic called Jungle Planet about an alien who crashes on a planet with nothing but his robot friend. I never finished it but it was during that time I started getting a bit more serious again. Around the same time, I drew a little bit of Caryn A. Tate’s western comic Red Plains on the Top Shelf 2.0 site.
Basically, it wasn’t until my mid 30’s that I started to focus on comics as a career. That’s also when the realization that the internet changed the playing field really set in. It was hard when I was younger because I was fairly poor and lived in a shitty little town in Arkansas. Now you can live in a ditch in Florida and, as long as you have an internet connection, you can find your way out to audiences. I actually owe a lot to Caryn as well as Christian Sager (who I did The Cabinet and much more with) for where I’m at. It was working with them that helped build my confidence and pushed me to find my own voice in my work.
I’m a fan of your blog, as you share your thoughts about life and the industry openly. It helps connect with you as an artist. Your most recent post was about the loss of Bernie Wrightson and his importance to you. Why did his work mean so much to you?
Well thanks, man. I wish I did more writing on there. I’d love to just sit and write opinion pieces about dumb shit all day! I like to try to be funny. Even if I fail and everyone has to watch uncomfortably. Which is, like, 98% of the time.
I don’t know if I can really tell you why Wrightson’s work spoke to me so much. I imagine for the same reasons any number of people would give. It is powerful, beautiful, terrifying, detailed, simplistic, charming, dark, visceral, playful and dramatic. The visual voice of Bernie Wrightson shined no matter if it was book illustration, comics, paintings, horror or comedy. You can feel the love and enjoyment going into it. When I read Swamp Thing #1 for the first time, that’s when comics spoke to me visually. That’s when I wanted to know about the people involved in comics. Up to that point I never even registered that some person somewhere sat down and drew those pages. There was something in Wrightson’s work that triggered that for the first time. There is also the fact that horror became my genre of choice. If you are going to get into horror anything, you have to be into Wrightson.
You said, “One of the biggest regrets of my life now will always be that while I was at a couple different shows with Bernie Wrightson and had multiple opportunities to talk to and gush at him… I didn’t.” David, Vince and I have made similar observations many times over the years and feel like this is great advice to fans. You just never know if the next time you meet someone will be the last. Who else are you going to be sure to show respects to the next time you meet them?
If I’m honest, probably no one, heh. I’m terrible about talking to people. Last year, I was tabled across from Mike Mignola and Geoff Darrow and just looked at them all weekend! I kept saying, “I should give Mignola a copy of some of my comics and tell him thanks.” But I never did. So I guess my answer to your question would be Mike Mignola? I don’t know, I’m not much of that type of fanboy. I don’t like to talk to people unless I know what I want to say. But I never know what I want to say. So I never talk to anyone. (haha)
The first time I met Gabriel Hardman is a good example of me being silly. We were already friendly from interacting online since we had mutual friends, not to mention he and Corinna (Bechko, Gabriel’s wife) were real supportive of The Cabinet and my other work. I was a huge fan of Gabriel’s stuff and one night at Heroes when we were all saying our farewells (after I had barely spoken the entire weekend), he said something along the lines of, “I like your work” to me and I stammered out something along the lines of “blah, you too!” and he was like “alright.” Haha, I remember feeling incredibly stupid for the next few days. I’m sure he doesn’t even remember that. That’s the thing, we get all worked up and nervous over an interaction that lasts two minutes. Granted this one was a little different. Luckily we’re friends now and I can get other chances to comfortably not blurt at him, haha. I guess conventions have made me a little braver, too, when it comes to talking to people.
Listen, I think a lot of people in the comics world can relate — creators and fans alike. I can’t tell you how many times we’ll have listeners of the show tell us they saw us at a convention but didn’t have the nerve to say hello in person. It’s crazy! We’re just three goofy comic nerds who talk on Skype for a few hours a week. I also vividly remember going to my first convention (Wizard World Philly) and literally wandering through Artist Alley in about 10 minutes flat, frozen in fear and praying no one made eye contact with me. Luckily I grew out of that and am probably outgoing to a fault (haha), but I totally get the feelings you’re articulating.
Getting back to your art, you’ve created a number of creator-owned comics including Loose Ends and Cast Out. If you had total control over the next five years of your career, would it be exclusively making your own stories, working for the big publishers, or some combination of the two?
Well, I’d certainly like to do a combination. I love playing around in existing stuff. But I really love creating my own stuff so much. Really, I just like telling stories, you know? I have lots of stuff in the works on the creator-owned front and collaborations with others. If I was to lay out what I really want in the next five or so years it would be: Finish the short horror anthology series The Dark I’ve been working on with a variety of writers, pitch something that gets picked by Image or Dark Horse and, I don’t know, let’s throw in a Man-Thing or a Hulk story where I can draw them in a classic Kirby style. Doing something in the BPRD or Hellboy realms would be cool, too. No matter what though, I would want my own things or things I created with other people to be a constant.
You’re working on a few projects right now, can you tell us about any of them?
I’m finishing up a graphic novel called A Letter To Jo right now. It’s written by Joe Sieracki and it’s based on a letter his grandfather sent his grandmother during WWII and the hardships they went through being young and in love when he was sent into war. You’ve probably been seeing me post a lot of in-progress war stuff over the last few months, those are from that. We’ll be talking more about it soon but, that’s all I’ve got for you now.
I’ve got a few pitches with a few other people in the works. I always have a project brewing with my constant, Christian Sager. I’m continuing The Dark through the rest of the year. The next story is written by Jim Gibbons followed by a few more from people like Corinna Bechko, Phil Hester and a lot more. There ae going to be some awesome, spooky stories in this short series.
I’ve also done a few covers and am working on some shorts and back up stories for some cool books. I just finished drawing a backup story for an issue of the Gwar series and I’m writing and drawing one for Spread too (if I can get it done in time!). I’m working on a few stories for a few different anthologies, too.
Do you still read comics? If so, what other creators inspire you?
I do! I’m insanely behind and read things kind of sporadically. So I might have a stack of one title sitting over here but get a new issue of something else and read it right away. The funny thing about making comics is sometimes you run out of time to read comics. Lately I’ve been really digging Christian DiBari’s stuff. He’s currently working on The Magdalena with Ryan Cady and Tini Howard (whose work I also dig). I love just about everything Chris Sebela writes and he always works with great artists. I love Ryan Cody‘s style. I really dig Tara O’Connor’s stuff. She has that recognizable style that is popular right now, bigger eyes, solid cartooning but there is something about her work that feels unique. She has a couple of higher profile books coming out this year and I think people are going to really take notice. That Daniel Warren Johnson kid is pretty nuts, as you know. Sometimes I wish he was a prick so I had a good reason to not like him. But he’s, like, the sweetest dude on top of being an insanely good comic creator. Geez, I could go on for hours. Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko are always winners. Brent Schoonover, Chris Samnee, Mitch Gerads, Evan Dorkin, Sam Keith, Jill Thompson, Kyle Baker, The Hernandez Brothers, Marc Laming, Peter Bagge, Dave Wachter are all fantastic. I could go on and on, man. That’s not even touching on all of the wonderful stuff like Wrightson, Richard Corben, Guy Davis, Wally Wood, Jack Davis, Katsuhiro Otomo, Hayao Miyazaki, Moebius…I don’t know, man I can’t name enough contemporary or not, friends or not! Like I’m all excited just trying to think of people to list. Everyone making comics is a bit of an inspiration, it isn’t always an easy thing to do. Making it to the end and having that thing in your hands, if you make it that far, you are kicking some sort of ass.
I love your honesty about the peaks and valleys of being a freelance illustrator. What honest advice can you give those who want to take a shot but haven’t yet made the leap? What’s the hardest thing about being a full-time freelancer? What’s the best part?
Run away. That’s what I’m supposed to jokingly say, right? It’s not always easy. I basically decided to go all in when the uniform company I worked at for 10 years decided to sell to a competitor and they closed down. I got laid off and was just about to start drawing The Cabinet. My wife and I decided that it was time to give it a go. It was a now-or-never kind of thing. Our daughter is an adult now so that’s a little less to worry about and my wife is insanely supportive in terms of me doing what I want considering she knows me and how hopelessly neurotic I am. Being freelance, especially when you don’t have huge name recognition, can feel like an uphill battle. It’s good to have a supportive spouse or partner or landlord or whatever. It makes things a lot easier when you know that the person who is going in on this with you understands that today may be fine but tomorrow could be the worst. One year may see you not getting much work at all, the next you’re busier than you’ve ever been. You have the constant nagging feeling of guilt in the bad times. Well, I do anyway. It can wear you down mentally and emotionally at times. Worry, deadline stress, all of that. Working from home has its own follies that add to everything, as well. Distractions and errands. My advice is get rich and hire an assistant (haha). Or find some kid to do all that stuff who is fine being paid in cookies and comics you’ve already read. Sometimes, you might have to step away from the drawing table for “5 minutes” and the next thing you know, a whole day is gone.
I’m the worst person to give advice to anyone, especially when it comes to jobs! Try to have some sort of a schedule. Even if it only makes sense to you. I get up between 9 and 10, try to work until around 4 or 5, which is when my wife gets home. I might just hang out with her and my daughter in the evenings. When she goes to bed around 10 or so (this is weekdays) I usually go into the night shift and work until anywhere from midnight to 3. I always try to knock off and play a video game or something before I go to bed. Something to break up the monotony. I don’t always adhere to this but I try. Really, really hard. Some days I might work all day and night. The point I’m trying to make is if you are going to make a career of drawing comics, you have to do it because you love comics. Doing it for any other reason is sure to end badly once you get a taste of the realities of it. Most of us won’t be famous. We won’t be rich. You may never have a comic you worked on adapted into a movie or TV show. These things can and do happen, but not on a very wide scale. And that’s fine! Do it because you love telling stories in a visual medium. Make comics because you love comics.
The best part? You get to make comics! Make friends with other creators that support you and you them! Go to comic conventions and see thousands of Deadpools! Really though, I complain. A lot. But I’ve never been happier in a job than I am now.
You mentioned your daughter is an adult now, has she been bitten by the art bug?
Luna’s 22 now and while she draws and has an interest in art, she isn’t so much into it as a major part of her life or as a career. My wife (her mother) Mandy is also a pretty amazing artist though she doesn’t do much anymore. Luna works at a local print shop and is the one that handles all of my minis for stuff like The Dark or my sketchbooks. They are both interested in art in more of an enjoying it rather than a creating it way right now. If that makes sense.
You’re a gamer, as you noted, what video games are rocking your world these days?
Man, I don’t know. I play waaaaay too many games at the same time. Then with the making comics thing, there is less and less time. I traded in all of my Wii U stuff and got a Nintendo Switch for, like, 50 bucks. So I’ve been playing the new Zelda and Mario Kart. The Switch is great because I can go to bed and play something for a bit. I like to use it on nights I decide to not stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning working. I also got ahold of a PlayStation VR fairly recently. That stuff is pretty dope. Like, that Valkyrie space combat game is awesome. There’s a lot of little gems on that thing. Funny thing is I have to take Dramamine before playing some of them. I’ve never had motion sickness in my life… until VR. My upcoming goal once I finish this book I’m working on is to replay Resident Evil 7 in VR. Maybe.
Like I said, I play too much. Horizon: Zero Dawn, Outlast 2, NieR: Automata, Prey… are just some of what I’m split between right now. I love creative games, games that offer weird new twists, too. I’m big on story-driven narratives in my games, so RPGs are some of my favorites. There aren’t many genres I can’t get in to. I’m currently kind of excited for Injustice 2 coming out in a couple days. I’m being careful here…I could talk video games all day. I’m basically on all of the systems (under the same hyper-creative name of treebeerd).
I’ve had the pleasure of securing a number of fantastic commissions from you over the years, can you regale us with the craziest commission request you’ve ever gotten?
Hmm… I don’t know. I don’t think I get a ton of crazy ones. I also probably forget pretty quickly. I had a guy that wanted Spider-Man rescuing an unconscious Green Goblin from a burning house once. He never picked it up so I still have it; because that’s a pretty specific thing. I think he was a firefighter or something. I have been doing these quick, cheap, “Terrible shit happening to Trump” sketches at some shows this year and those bring on some colorful requests. I know I’m going to remember the perfect crazy request as soon as I’m done here.
How important are conventions in your mind? Both as a source of income and a means to network? To that end, what shows are you attending this year?
I think how important conventions are varies from person to person. Like, for me, right now, I still kind of like doing conventions. I’m also someone who could do with some networking. The funny thing is every show, I say I’m going to talk to more editors or publishers or whatever and I don’t. So I can’t really say how well networking really works, heh. Cons are also a pretty decent source of income sometimes. I don’t ever make a killing. But I’ve had shows that really helped out when money was a little tighter than usual. Largely, the money I make at shows pretty much just goes into traveling to the next show. I’ve been doing a ton of shows the last few years. I’ll probably slow down a bit next year. I say that every year but, this time, man, I might maybe mean it.
I feel like the growth in pop culture conventions and the fact that every state has 1,000 shows (I know that’s an exaggeration. It feels like that though) has us hurtling towards the bubble popping eventually. There are now so many shows that are just carbon copies of other shows. Plus, it can feel like a weird game of telephone where the organizers put together a weird hodgepodge of a show reminiscent of a convention they went to once before. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I do like that there are smaller conventions popping up in more rural areas and places that never got that kind of stuff in the past. That’s great for kids and fans that can’t get away for bigger shows. I enjoy doing some of those shows. I do a lot of smaller shows throughout the year. Eventually though, things will have to scale back. I think that’s just the natural order of things. I mean, Wizard World is a crazy thing, right? Knowing a lot of con organizers now, my hat’s off to them. So much goes into that stuff then you have the drama of “talent” plus the stress of making all the people happy none of the time, haha. Comic people vs. print wall people vs. knick-knack people vs. celebrities; it’s got to be easier to run a circus sometimes. Then factor in all of the overhead and stress of putting on a show that makes a profit. I think a lot of people would cave to the yearlong stress marathon that is putting on a comic convention. I know I would. But, yeah, sometimes I get really annoyed while at shows. Some do better than others. Ultimately though, they are mostly enjoyable for some reason or another.
I still have a few shows to look forward to this year including: Heroes, Memphis Comic Expo, Art Pop, Air Capital Comic Con, Crypticon KC, and a handful of smaller shows. And maybe just maybe, New York Comic-Con.
I agree with your assessment on the convention scene getting oversaturated, but does it work in artists’ favor until it bursts? Isn’t the increased competition leading to more all-expense paid invitations to shows?
Well, it might be leading to more all expense paid invitations for someone, I can’t speak to that though. (haha) Seriously though, there is something to that. I have actually had a couple of shows this year invite me as a guest, all expenses covered. I’m practically a nobody in the grand scheme of things, you know? I also think that some of my invitations are from doing the shows for a few years and getting to know the organizers. But I certainly get invites to attend totally new shows. I worry that we’ll see more and more falling out between shows over scheduling conflicts. Situations where two or more decent-sized shows on the same weekend in different places competing to bring creators in. Sometimes it’s better for creators to do new shows instead of a regular appearance to extend the reach of their work or, in the cases of bigger names, to give more fans a chance to meet them. It can be difficult to be a creator in the middle of that, having to pick between two shows. I want to do every show that wants to have me but there are so many it’s difficult to please everyone. Keep in mind this is someone at my level saying that; imagine how it probably is for bigger names. I don’t know, I don’t like to say NO to people. So this stuff probably eats at me a little more than some.
Let’s talk about your artistic process. I know you do a lot of your work traditionally, but have you worked digitally, as well? Do you have a preference? What are your tools of the trade?
I have done a lot of digital work. Actually, I work digitally on just about everything. Just about all of my thumb nailing and penciling for pages are done digitally, then I print them out and light box them to ink. Then I add watercolor or rescan and color digitally. I drew Metaphase 100% digitally. I did the same with Cast Out, almost all of that is digital except a few pages. I mostly work traditionally because I just love it. Also, because I’ve been doing watercolor or ink wash on most of my recent projects. It’s hard for me to emulate that same effect digitally. I do occasionally color work digitally, too. I’m mostly an ink, brush and watercolor guy a the end of the day.
Well, whatever your process, it certainly works for me. What’s the best way for our readers to get in touch with you and follow your work? And, are you currently open for commissions?
I’m currently a little backed up with some pieces that I still need to do. People can contact me to get an idea of when I will be taking new ones or go ahead and get in if they are cool with waiting a bit. Mostly at the moment I’m focused on preorders for Heroes. I still have a few spots open for that.
People can find me on Twitter where I spend most of my time as @treebeerd, and I’m @treebeerdy on Instagram, or they can visit my site www.treebeerdstuff.com. Or do all of that. They can also email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks so much Kelly, we’ll see you at Heroes!