Ryan Lee has been creating jaw-dropping work professionally and personally for decades. A lifelong comics nerd, Ryan went onto a successful advertising career after graduating with an illustration degree. As he and his wife started their family, he made the big leap from advertising executive to full-time cartoonist and freelance illustrator. I first met Ryan when a mutual friend — Skottie Young — suggested we connect because Ryan does amazing commissions and, well, I love buying amazing commissions. I’m glad Ryan and I finally got to sit down and talk about his lifelong passions for comics and illustration, and the candid realities of being a freelancer. Hopefully you’ll come away with an appreciation for one of the industry’s best-kept secrets.
Ryan, thanks for much for taking some time to chat, how have you been?
It’s a pleasure. Things are very good. I’m busy, which is how I like it. I hope all is excellent with yourself.
Things are great, thanks. The site is rocking and rolling, and I would argue the breadth of quality comics has never been better.
Let’s talk about your origin story; when did you first get into comics?
I started reading comics and humor magazines like CRACKED/Cracked Monster Party at a very young age (as far back as I can remember, probably before I could actually “read”). I was ALWAYS drawing, usually in Bic pen on scrap paper or on the blank inside covers of coloring books. I’d get comics at the local party stores, gas stations, and grocery stores when I’d tag along with my parents or other family members (my uncle, in particular, hooked my brother and me up).
So you were a young buck. Do you remember when you started buying your own comics?
In 6th grade, I’d ride my bike up to 7-11 [a regional convenience store chain], pound a Cherry Slurpee, eat one of those gnarly hot dogs on the heat rollers, play Gauntlet and get a comic. I specifically recall buying Marvel Comics Presents: Wolverine (by Sam Keith) and Uncanny X-Men 275 with the double spread cover there. Comics cost 75 cents then; those were the days. In my early teen years, my brother and I were given a small allowance for doing chores and helping out around the house. We’d pool our money together for weeks until we’d annoy our parents to the point where they’d drive us to the comic shop.
I distinctly remember buying a bunch of weird comics like Pre-Teen Dirty-Gene Kung-Fu Kangaroos because they looked hilarious and were in the cheapo bin. We could get a bunch of those with what little money we had. Our local shop was the first place I saw titles including The Tick, Cerebus, Flaming Carrot, Concrete, and TMNT. We were blown away by that whole bizarre, indie comic world. The black and white indie era felt so dangerous and edgy; it attracted me immediately. The strange and dark humor fit my sensibilities.
We got into comics around the same time. It’s amazing to think back at how lucky we were. We got the best of all worlds. Superhero comics were at a creative peak, but we also had the black and white revolution going on, not to mention ‘zines and humor magazines.
When did you start drawing? Was it coincident with your interest in reading comics, or did it come later?
Comics and drawing have been interwoven into all aspects of my life, forever. They’re synonymous with my relationships with my brother, family, and friends. My brother Shawn and I always drew together, shared our books with each other, copied the same characters, learned from each other. We had fake comic companies (e.g., Royal Comics, Omega Comics) and dumb characters (e.g., Squadron Stupidity, Dork Avengers) that were parodies of legitimately licensed characters. We mostly drew covers and created characters for them, but we’d bust out some pages on occasion when we felt ambitious. Looking back, we were inadvertently pushing each other to get better. We drew A LOT. I guess it paid off since he’s a top notch designer/letterer at IDW (and an incredible artist in his own right) and I’m doing interviews like this!
On a daily basis, we’d lie on our stomachs on the floor for hours looking at comics and cartoons while drawing on scrap computer paper. There are countless stories of the generosity of family and friends encouraging and enabling our artistic pursuits. My grandma would encourage us to draw; it was a huge motivator. I’m grateful for all the support everyone has given us. My parents’ unwavering faith in my brother and I from Day One is a gift I’ll never be able to repay. So hey, Mom and Dad, thanks for buying me that Strikeforce: Morituri comic on a whim at the party store that one time. It worked! In truth, a lot of the people in my life might not know how complicit they are in me doing this now for a living. Thanks to you too!
I’m all verklempt! I had no idea your brother was as heavily involved in the comics world as you are, that’s fantastic.
Like many of us, the 90s Image Revolution was a pivotal moment for your fandom, right? Looking back, what made those books special for you?
Absolutely! 90s comics are very important to my fandom and love of drawing. The revolution itself and all of the fanfare leading up to it was HUGE. It was also the first time I was tuned into particular mainstream creators. For ALL of these killer artists to unite and make this huge leap was pretty damn punk rock. I remember cutting all of the Youngblood images out of a comics magazine and pasting them all over my closet doors like some other kids would have done with a Lamborghini Countach or Detroit Bad Boys poster. I was the perfect age to be in the midst of that era.
I can’t front, I had comics posters right next to Cindy Crawford bikini posters. Speak on why you loved the original Image books, if you don’t mind.
I loved that each of the Image founders had a definitive, unique style, and it felt rebellious and hip to be reading those books. I was neither rebellious nor hip at the time, so I lived vicariously through their exploits. Today, I see so much vitriol aimed at 90s comics, but the first Image books were so ridiculously bombastic. Those who weren’t there don’t get it, but the ripples the Image Revolution sent through the industry endure to this day, as you know! For a coming-of-age artist like myself, I related to this wild, gonzo aesthetic. I loved the attitude and pure decadence of it all. Even at that young age, I could recognize that this was a new era and that these books were quite different from the books of yesteryear; which I love too, for the record.
The comics industry was due for a shake-up. Let’s be honest, that era taught some hard lessons, but you can’t take away the enthusiasm and creativity on the pages of those books. I have so much nostalgic respect for what the Image founders created. I still love the artwork from those early books. At that time especially, it made me want to draw.
Based on your love for comics and drawing from earliest memory, it’s no surprise you studied illustration in college. Were you solely focused on becoming a cartoonist, or were you open to other artistic avenues?
In retrospect, my studies were highly comics-influenced, especially in my first two years. In theory, my final years at college were less comics-focused, or so I thought. Comics had a strange stigma at my college for some reason, an opinion held by instructors and students alike. I guess that’s been the snobby, erroneous perception of comics forever: lowbrow, childish, production art with little substance. As you know, that perception couldn’t be further from the truth.
While taking classes in my illustration major, I learned to paint and was attempting to do more artsy fartsy, conceptual work. I set my sights on being an editorial or caricature illustrator like Joe Sorren or Brad Holland. I still loved comics, but I took a shine to painting, and I was trying to emulate these incredible artists whose work was new and inspiring. I still use the techniques and lessons learned from studying those illustrators.
That said, no matter how hard I tried branching out artistically, my comic book sensibilities came through in everything I did. Everyone saw it, except me! Even when I painted, I would ALWAYS render in dark ink outlines on top of the paint. There were spotted blacks, hatching, and superhero/villain type characters all over the place. My figures’ faces were expressive and exaggerated and distorted. I was painting cartoons. Everyone would tell me my work was “comic booky.” I just couldn’t unlearn something that was deeply entrenched in my artistic DNA.
So, it’s fair to say you were wrestling with your natural instincts to draw comics, against what you thought you “should” be doing as a collegiate illustrator?
Yes. It was naive to think I was paving some brand new artistic path considering that cartooning was all I did every single day up until that point. I wasn’t dumping on comics; I was just so enthralled by the momentum of “illustration” art I didn’t think about doing proper comics at that phase. In retrospect, I should have followed my natural tendencies. I still drew in my sketchbooks incessantly then, which helped get me hired at my first job at the illustration studio. That stuff was comic booky: all line art, weird characters, word balloons, little one panel comic gags, some oddball superhero stuff, monsters.
Even though I’m doing comics now, that illustration experience taught me color theory, light/shadow, composition, anatomy, conceptual thinking, materials and techniques, and even a bit of sequential storytelling through storyboards. My year studying industrial design showed me I knew NOTHING about perspective and form. I wouldn’t be doing comics today if it wasn’t for that year of industrial design. You have to know how to build solid forms, even if you have a crazy, cartoony style.
Like many aspiring comic artists, you spent a bunch of years honing your chops in advertising before making the leap to freelancing. Did you enjoy your time in advertising?
Absolutely! I had an interesting path. I did storyboard illustration for two years and then moved into art direction and graphic design at an advertising agency. The agency was a jackpot of opportunity. I landed an art direction position within months. Doing my own storyboards led me to helping others out, which led to opportunities on bigger projects. I was lucky to have been surrounded by so many creative and patient powerhouses in the many different branches of the agency. The agency taught me how to use the Adobe Suite proficiently, conceptualize ideas and execute them, present concepts confidently, learn professionalism when dealing with clients and deadlines, craftsmanship, and how to self-critique. Things moved fast in advertising. The job was stressful and the hours could be crazy, but I was always up to the challenge.
When and how did you decide to make the push into comics full-time?
A little over seven years ago, I hit a pivotal moment in my career. Things weren’t going badly, quite the opposite. I was in a senior level position at the agency, I was doing cool work, had cool bosses, but it started to eat at me that I wasn’t drawing as much anymore. I felt a little hollow knowing how much effort and focus I was putting into something I knew wasn’t a reflection of my best skills. I’m not knocking the creative merits of the insanely talented folk in that industry, I just wanted and NEEDED to draw again. All the time.
I asked myself, “if I put all of the work ethic, time and lessons I learned from advertising into drawing, what type of art could I create?” My great pal and art beast, Guy Allen, got me back into comics and drawing more. This lead to both Guy and me deciding to make a run at comics. I started to regain some confidence posting work online and sharing it with Guy and my brother for critique. I was open to all forms of criticism. I wanted to get better as quickly as possible.
My daughter was born in the midst of this comics renaissance. My wife and I began having those “future bearing down on us” thoughts. If we were going to make a change, we needed to do it soon. Long story short, we DID make some moves, including a literal move. I resigned from advertising and started on my path to working in comics and freelancing. With the support of my amazing, patient wife, the plan started falling into place. At first, I was doing anything I could: art direction jobs, logo design, illustration work, and portfolio samples all while watching my baby daughter most days of the work week. I logged many really late nights.
That summer, I went to San Diego Comic-Con with Guy and my brother – who lived there –and had my first foray into portfolio reviews. It was equal parts intimidating and exciting. I ended up talking to a lot of creators, a few editors, and I even asked Mike Mignola – a personal hero – to look at my stuff. I learned some hard, but valuable lessons at that show. I was feeling a little dejected, but I took the feedback and moved forward. I knew breaking into comics wasn’t going to be easy, but I was fully committed to succeeding. Through the ups and downs, my wife has been incredibly supportive. Without her, nothing I’ve done so far in comics would have ever been possible.
You embody that time-tested expression, “behind every good man is a great woman.”
Let’s talk process. Do you use digital tools at all? If so, what are the advantages and disadvantages of digital versus traditional illustration?
I sure do. The Cintiq is a wonderful tool that changed my mind about drawing digitally. The predecessor Wacom tablets never worked for me outside of coloring or for quick jobs when I was traveling. Before the Cintiq, you didn’t look directly on the surface you were drawing; it was a weird disconnect. The Cintiq eliminated that disconnect, and it’s so responsive and intuitive.
To be clear, my process starts traditionally. I thumbnail traditionally, scan them in, and then clean up and tighten the thumbnails into loose pencils. Digitally, I can enlarge and move panels around with ease and make a page optimized for storytelling, flow, and design. I print out those images onto Bristol board via blue lines, and ink conventionally. I then scan the final images back into the digital environment. You could never replicate the toothiness and drag of the tools on actual paper by going entirely digital. That’s my sweet spot, where I feel I have the most fun and control.
It warms my heart to hear you have such a love for working traditionally. I have no problem with artists doing whatever process makes sense, but I 100% agree with you that it’s difficult if not impossible to get an organic look and feel from an entirely digital process.
What cartoonists inspire you?
Do you have all day? Different cartoonists inspire me in different ways, and I’m always finding new inspirations! I’m all over the place. Bill Sienkiewicz is one my all-time faves; he was always that bridge between illustration, fine art, and comics. My list includes Eduardo Risso, Stuart Immonen, Paul Pope, Mignola, Art Adams, Frank Miller, Frank Quitely, Eric Canete, Fiona Staples, Sam Keith, Guy Davis, Mike Huddleston, Moebius, Farel Dalrymple, Walt Simonson and Jack Kirby, of course. Jeff Lemire’s comics are so concise and heartbreaking. I’d love to do something one day that taps into even 5% of the raw emotion and honesty in his work. There are so many more creators who inspire me, but no one wants to read some exhausting list I’m sure. The most directly inspiring work is certainly the stuff I see from my friends – all exceptional cartoonists in their own rights – on a daily basis in our online chats. That probably sounds corny, but it’s true.
Corny? Hell no! That sense of community is why we all love this hobby.
We often glorify the idea of being a comic artist, but freelancing isn’t without its stresses. For aspiring creators, what advice and real-world perspective can you give them about life as a freelancer?
I try to replicate the discipline I learned working in advertising. It’s more casual than that, but some semblance of structure is good. You technically don’t have a boss outside of the editors and collaborators relying on you. No one is hovering over you holding you accountable. Deadlines are your boss. So, making a schedule for yourself, in some capacity, is essential. I went through my night owl phase when I first started working freelance, but have transitioned. I have young children who demand a more traditional, regimented schedule. I think another good thing to do as a freelancer is to get dressed and shower every morning at the VERY LEAST. It’s so easy to just roll out of bed in your Snuggie, grab a coffee and then sit down in your chair and get to work. I find there’s a bit of a mental switch that clicks when you take a few minutes to clean yourself up and mentally prepare for the day. I also recommend writing out your schedule the day. I have an app to keep track of all of my projects. My biggest piece of advice is to get a core group of trusted professional pals to bounce ideas and work off of daily. Drawing is a solitary existence and having a crew is beneficial socially. Someone once told me that “being a freelancer is basically being unemployed.” It’s a cynical view, but there is truth to it. You have to keep lining things up, but always be open and honest with your collaborators and editors about your workload. Be realistic. A few more tactical tips: Drink good coffee, get a decent chair, try to get out of the house every day to regain perspective and set realistic, daily goals.
You’ve worked a lot with Valiant Entertainment, a publisher we hear nothing but great things about from other pros. What makes Valiant a great company to work with?
The rumors are true, they rule. I think it starts with CEO Dinesh Shamdasani and builds from there. He’s a genuine fan of the comics, smart as a whip, and is infectiously enthusiastic. He appreciates and supports the books, the characters, the creators, and the FANS. Valiant fans are hardcore, as you know, and the most passionate, supportive, and friendly cheerleaders you can find. EIC Warren Simons and his editorial staff are buttoned up beyond comparison. I owe a debt of gratitude to Warren, who found me while strolling through C2E2 Artist Alley a few years back. I had no idea who he was at the time, and he quietly and slowly looked through my entire portfolio. He then handed me a card and told me to get in touch with him.
That’s so dope! If that was all it took to be a great Editor-in-Chief, I’m tailor made for the role, haha.
Yeah, that was a great moment. How many Editors-In-Chief are walking around conventions looking at random people’s portfolios for prospective artists? Probably not many. It speaks to his love for fostering talent and his passion for art. I have had nothing but exceptional experiences with Valiant in every regard. I think it comes through in their work. They produce quality books with great creative teams. They’ve kept me very busy doing covers, sequentials, and lots of character designs.
As you know, I’m a huge fan of your art and am proud to own a few commissioned pieces from you. How important are commissions to supplementing your income? What about conventions, are they invaluable as you look to further your career?
Aww thanks, I really do appreciate the kind words and support! You’ve been an incredible patron and champion for so many artists. Well, yeah, commissions are interesting in a few good ways. One, they definitely help supplement my income. It’s also a chance to experiment a little and draw characters I haven’t drawn. I try to put a fresh spin on each piece. No matter how many times it happens, it’s always flattering to get a commission request. People mount these on their walls and show them off to their friends. I know both sides of this, because I have a growing collection of commissions from my favorite artists, too.
As for conventions, they’re essential. I have different objectives at different conventions, but I always want to financially break even at the very least. That includes the cost of my table, travel, food and lodging. Some shows are great for supplementing income, some are ideal for meeting up with friends, artists, peers, and editors, some are great for exposure and to be “seen” I guess, some are awesome to meet fans and other passionate comics-related people. Naturally, the best shows allow for all those things at once. Something cool happens at every show. You’re automatically putting yourself in a position for more project opportunities and to make new friends.
I know we can all make friends on social media, have pleasant email exchanges, but having real life interactions is still king. Nothing beats it. Talking to as many creators as possible to get a comprehensive perspective is a good use of convention time, too. Being at a convention allows you up-close access to some of the most talented people in the world. I can’t express how inspiring it is to have artists’ original art or a writer’s book in front of you to study, and then being able to discuss the work instantaneously.
Do you foresee yourself pursuing creator-owned projects in the future? Do you have ideas in mind?
ABSOLUTELY, YES! It’s already happening. I have something I’ve been developing with Frank Barbiere (Five Ghosts, Violent Love) and W. Maxwell Prince (One Week in the Library, Electric Sublime) for some time. I’m also working on a horror story pitch with John Lees (…And Then Emily Was Gone, Sink), and a little secret something with some friends. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop on these projects. I’m so pleased with how these are turning out so I’m hoping these can get into readers hands very soon. I wish I could share more!
Well, you know where to find us when you’re ready to unveil the surprise. While we’re on the subject of conventions, what shows do you have queued up for the rest of 2017?
I’m doing Motor City, Cherry Capital Comic Con, and hopefully NYCC in the fall. I also just applied for ECCC in 2018, wish me luck!
Good luck, and we’ll see you in New York, hopefully. Last question, what’s the best way for our readers to get in touch with you about commissions?
Right on! Thanks a lot, Ryan.
Thank YOU, Jason!