Russ Braun calls himself the Rodney Dangerfield of Comics; and he’s not wrong. In a world full of amazingly talented cartoonists, Russ’ expressive faces, pitch-perfect composition and penchant for humor should make him the envy of most. Yet, Russ is so down to Earth and self-effacing, he’s still one of the industry’s best-kept secrets three decades (and counting) into his career. I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know Russ personally in the last few years and all I can say is the only thing that stacks up with his good nature is his illustration ability. Fresh off yet another collaboration with Garth Ennis, and set to launch a creator-owned book at Aftershock, Russ sat down for a chat with me this week.
Russ, thanks for taking the time to chat today. As I was prepping for our conversation, I almost couldn’t believe how long you’ve been involved in the comics industry. Am I right that you have been working in the business for nearly 30 years?
Yes. My first job was for DC starting in 1989, doing research and designs for Joe Orlando on special projects. Joe was a Vice President at DC, and my teacher at the School of Visual Arts. I ended up drawing the last two issues of a prequel miniseries for the Andrew Dice Clay movie Ford Fairlane, over Carmine Infantino layouts with Don Heck and Frank Springer inks.
It looks like you took a reasonably long hiatus from comics, tell me about your journey and why you left the industry? And more importantly, what brought you back?
Yeah, so I had a good start. I went on to draw an issue of JLA, and then Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez inked the Batman issue, and he really taught me how to draw comics professionally just by seeing what he did with the pencils I gave him, as well as a few incredibly valuable sit down meetings at the DC offices. I then drew War of the Gods with George Perez. I was still finishing my masters at SVA at the time, and then I took an internship at Disney in Orlando to try to get into storyboarding for feature films. After that, I came back to New York and worked on a lot of books for a fledgling Vertigo including Swamp Thing and Animal Man, and I even published my own short story in Paradox Press’ Phobias. In spite of all that, by about 1996, I hadn’t felt like I’d really “broken out” in comics. A few projects fell through, and life wasn’t exactly running smoothly outside of comics. So when Disney called again, I took my “hiatus,” moved to Florida and worked in animation for seven years. I worked on Mulan, Tarzan, Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear. The Florida studio closed, so I moved back to New York. Comics was always my first love, it was really all I knew, and I was eager to get back into it, so I started all over again. It was a rather difficult climb back into the business.
You’ve collaborated with a ton of great writers of the years, but you seem to have a particular connection to Bill Willingham and Garth Ennis. How did you become connected to those two legendary creators?
Since I’ve been back I’ve been lucky to work with some great writers; mostly by chance and editorial suggestion. I’d been struggling to get a new foothold in comics after a long absence and always hated the hustling “got any work…?” aspect of the job. I still knew a few editors from my first go round, so I felt OK asking them. Axel Alonso gave me a miniseries at Marvel Max with Alexander Irvine –Hellstorm: Son of Satan. My Vertigo ties had me up for a couple of projects that all fell through. I gave it one last try with them and happened to contact Shelly Bond right as they needed someone to jump in on Jack of Fables. So I did a few rough sketches (of Jack and Snow White) and got the job. That’s how working with Bill (Willingham) started; by sheer happenstance. He approved my selection, and the rest was deadline-busting history. In a way, I ended up in a similar role to what I did when Vertigo started; I was fireman, fill-in guy, “Victor the Cleaner.” Willingham and Lilah Sturges had endless fun with Fables and Jack of Fables ideas, and I had plenty of work.
Now Garth Ennis is a different story. I met Garth in the early ‘90s (1993 to be exact) when he and Steve Dillon would visit New York for conventions and so forth. We’d all get together for a pint or two and ended up friends, but we never worked together. Preacher was the comic that kept me connected to the industry while I was at Disney, just as a fan. In 2004, when I got back to New York from Disney I met up with Garth again, and a group of us would get together for drinks every Friday to catch up. I wasn’t keen on working with Garth at first (even though I was looking for work), just because I didn’t want to risk doing a bad job and letting a friend down. But I agreed to work with him on Battlefields: Night Witches and had a good rapport and natural working relationship, and we’ve never looked back. No offense to any of the other great writers I’ve been lucky enough to work with, but Garth’s the best. I just click with the way he sets up a story, and do my best to rise to the challenges he sets forth.
Let’s take a step back for a second and hear about your origin story. Were you a comic book fan as a kid? What books were your favorites?
OK, back to the beginnings. I grew up in Queens, loved comics, cartoons, and horror and sci-fi movies. I was a Marvel kid, the Spider-Man ’67 cartoon and Mighty Marvel Superheroes were my gateway drugs to the actual comics, and then it was Spider-Man (i.e., the Kane, Romita, Andru era) all the way. Spider-Man was a kid from Queens who became a superhero with a guilt complex. I lived in Queens and was raised Catholic; it was a natural fit.
Do you still read a lot?
I’m ashamed to say I don’t read as many comics these days as I should. There’s so much out there, and so much high-quality stuff, but I just don’t have the time (and the access to comps used to help at least keeping apprised of things). I keep up with Saga and Paper Girls, follow whatever Eric Powell is working on, as well as whatever Mike Mignola, Alan Moore and Garth are writing. I’ve got to buy a bunch of trades and “binge watch” a lot more funny books. I kind of feel like my old favorites aren’t written for me anymore anyway. That’s fine, let them break new ground. But I do miss some of the old versions of my favorite superheroes.
I know you were very close with Steve Dillon – a friend and a contemporary – who we lost tragically last year. I would imagine Steve’s work inspired you, but who else would you say are your artistic inspirations?
Steve was a master storyteller and a good friend to me; the first one to make me feel like I was just one of the guys, no condescension. He patiently answered a lot of shop talk questions from me on the few occasions we had, and I learned a lot from him and will always be grateful. I was lucky to have great mentors early on. As I said, Joe Orlando gave me my start. Andy Helfer guided me into a career. Carmine Infantino and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez were the hands-on mentors I needed most. It’s hard to narrow it down to a few inspirational people, but I’ll give it a try. Gil Kane, John Romita, and John Buscema were my first inspirations. John Byrne and George Perez blew me away. When Frank Miller took over on Daredevil, I never missed an issue. Steve Bissette and John Totleben on Swamp Thing were astounding. The great Bernie Wrightson naturally came before that; when Joe Orlando showed me Wrightson’s Frankenstein, it very nearly ended my career early trying to live up to its level of mastery. David Mazzucchelli on Daredevil and Batman: Year One was incredible. Last, but certainly not least, Bill Sienkiewicz on everything his pen has ever touched. Seeing Elektra: Assassin in college cemented my decision to be a comic artist just at the point I was considering “putting childish things away.” One day I’ll thank him for it in person. I’m sure I’ve left out a lot of artists, but those are my main influences.
You’ve had the chance to draw some wild stuff in your career, but I’m sure there are still characters and concepts on your bucket list. What are your dream projects?
There are always bucket list characters and creators I guess, but I take what I’m given! Of course, I’d love to do an artistic, in-depth original Spider-Man miniseries, wouldn’t mind another crack at Swamp Thing, and a long-gestating follow-up to Batman: Venom with Jose. My top goal would be having the time and the freedom to do my own stuff. So we’ll see. I guess what I’m saying is, “what I’d really like is to direct.”
I think a lot of fans don’t fully understand what it’s like to be a freelance creator in an artistic field. What are the best things about your job? What are the toughest challenges?
The best things are the freedom and creativity; being able to do something you love for a living. That’s in its pure form. When you’re drawing, and you hit a kind of flow state, and just become one with the story, that’s about the best feeling on Earth to me. The worst parts of the job are practical deadline stress and “is it good enough?” angst. As a freelancer, we deal with the lack of health care benefits and steady, decent pay. There’s the knowledge and fear that every job you do may be your last in an industry that’s happy to throw away their old soldiers for the newer cheaper model. Thankfully, the joys beat out the fears most days.
As a veteran, what advice do you have for young creators looking to break into the industry?
My advice to young creators is simple: just do it. There are so many avenues for you to get your stuff out there now, not just the majors or even the independents. If you love it, do it. Tell a story. Post it on Instagram or Facebook or Deviantart or make up some new venue; put up printout pages at a coffee shop gallery if they do that kind of thing. DIY, and you’ll improve each time. The more time you spend trying to get it just right before you get it out there the more likely you are never to get it out there. And I have to follow my own advice there.
What’s your process? I know you work traditionally, but have you started dabbling in digital? What are your favorite tools of the trade?
My process is a weird combination of traditional and digital. I get the script and thumbnail in little boxes on the script pages. Then, I draw individual elements and panels in the sketchbook; I’ve always been most comfortable drawing in sketchbooks, so I do it that way. I scan all of my sketches into the Mac and build the layouts from them in Photoshop, zooming in, out, tilting things… Sometimes a full head sketch I did to get the right expression ends up in a face about the size of an actual thumbnail in a background, but it’s part of the process. I print the layouts out to size and draw everything in tight, rendered pencils on the light box. Then I scan those pages in and darken and clean things up back in Photoshop and those are my finished pages.
The page you own from Where Monsters Dwell is an example of the final traditional art stage that I scanned and made to look like ink in Photoshop; most people don’t know it’s not inked. I’d like to learn more digital tricks, and would love to play around with an iPad Pro or tablets. But for now, I’m too busy. I’ll stick with my unique system and my Ticonderoga #2.5 pencils.
You just wrapped up Sixpack and Dogwelder: Hard Travelin’ Heroz at DC Comics – a series that I know you had a blast doing. What’s next?
Sixpack and Dogwelder is being collected as we speak and my next gig is a creator-owned book with Garth called Jimmy’s Bastards for Aftershock. It’s a darkly humorous James Bond satire, wherein our protagonist – Jimmy Regent – has been jet setting and super spying around the word for decades, loving and leaving them and, unbeknownst to him, fathering hundreds of children who later gang up to get their deadbeat dad. The first issue comes out June 14th, just in time for Father’s Day.
Do you do a lot of conventions? How important are conventions for supplementing your income and/or networking for new opportunities?
I don’t do a lot of conventions; I usually only do New York Comic-Con and anything I might hear about locally. I enjoy it, meeting the fans and talking comics, but I’m usually too busy to travel to conventions and to be honest I’ve never been in huge demand, so I rarely hear about anything. I joke about being the Rodney Dangerfield of comics, but I’m cool with my status or lack thereof. I’ve got my small Facebook community. I do my “Image of the Day” every day (since September of 2013) with Frankenstein Friday (a drawing of some incarnation of Frankenstein every Friday for over two years) and just launched my website (russ-braun.com) to sell originals. Most of the time I just try to shut up and do my job. Not that you’d know it from this long-winded interview, haha!
Where are we going to see you this year?
As far as I know, I’ll be at NYCC again this year in October. I put in for my Artist Alley table, pay my way in every year and quietly go about my business. I guess I’ll hear soon whether they’ve accepted my table request or not. I’ll be doing some signings for Jimmy’s Bastards when it comes out, and I’d like to do some more, smaller, local conventions. And an Instagram account can’t be far off. So keep an eye out!
Thanks so much Russ, we’ll make sure our readers check out Jimmy’s Bastards next week and then we can all celebrate your newfound creator-owned riches in New York in October!
Haha, thanks Jason.