An Interview with Brian Vander

I met Brian Vander a few years ago during New York Comic Con. Our friends Tony Ezmond and Marc Laming (a bad ass artist in his own right) brought Vander to the Houndstooth Pub to have a cocktail with us. We struck up a fast friendship because of a shared career in finance and a love for the same era of comics. Imagine my surprise when I come to find out Vander is an artist in his own right. Fast forward a few years and Brian has committed to making a push into comics professionally. I thought it would be interesting to talk to someone who’s at the earliest innings of their career in comics, but who has the unusual challenge of leaping into the profession after building a robust and financially lucrative career elsewhere. You can meet Brian and see his amazing artwork in person at New York Comic Con on October 5th through the 8th. He’ll be sharing Table N6 with Chris Wildgoose!

Thanks for taking the time to chat today, my friend.

Anytime Jason. Thanks for having me.

You’re just days away from a return trip to Artists Alley for New York Comic Con, do you get nervous before a show?

Not anymore, no. I’ve done enough conventions now to where I’m at ease when attending one. These days, I only get nervous when it’s quiet in my house, and all of a sudden my wife randomly shouts my name. In my head, I go through all of the things that I could have possibly done wrong or forgot to do in an attempt to prepare my defense.

Unlike most of the people I interview, you’re someone whose talent and passion for the comics business still hasn’t translated into making the professional leap. Let’s talk about your origin story. When did you first discover comics as a reader?

My two older brothers had a few Batman, Superman and Star Wars comics that I would read but didn’t fully grasp. I was probably 4 or 5 at the time. When I truly became passionate about comics was in 1989. I was in 7th grade, and my buddy Eric Walsh, a fellow EOC member, handed me a copy of Uncanny X-Men 242. I read it in class and was immediately hooked.

Were you immediately turned onto the art more? When did you first start associating particular creators with comics versus the characters and stories?

I’ve always been into art, so yes, the artwork jumped out at me. I remember sitting there in awe of Marc Silvestri’s artwork. I’d never seen anything like it, and the range of the X-Men characters blew my mind. No two heroes were the same, especially Colossus. That shining metallic frame and imposing physique. I’m a child of the 80’s, so Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies were in my blood. Colossus was basically Arnold covered in metal, so it was a match made in heaven.

Aside from Silvestri, who are your artistic inspirations?

Oh boy, Jim Lee, John Byrne, Arthur Adams, Alan Davis and John Buscema when I first started. Then it was Joe Madureira, J. Scott Campbell, and Greg Capullo. And today, I admire so many artists from Stuart Immonen, Pepe Larraz, Francis Manapul, Marc [Laming], Matteo Scalera, Sean Gordon Murphy, Ryan Ottley, Olivier Coipel…I could go on and on! But Silvestri, Adams, Byrne, Buscema and Lee are the founding fathers for me. They blew my mind as a kid. One thing I want to make clear is how much I have grown as a fan as I’ve aged. As a kid, if you fell outside of the Silvestri, Lee, Adams type, then your art didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t like the Bill Sienkiewicz style for example. But now, I fully appreciate that style of art.

I am in the same camp, as you know. As a kid someone like Frank Quitely or Eduardo Risso would’ve turned me off completely, but now they’re among my favorite creators of any era.

When did you start drawing?

My first masterpiece was on my bedroom wall in 1980. I was 4, and I drew a stunning, 3-foot tall Batman and Robin in Crayola crayons. My mom took a picture of it. She loved it. My dad, on the other hand, wasn’t as thrilled. But that was the start of it all. I’d been drawing nonstop since then. I drew mostly animals, tigers, and lions, etc. up until I experienced that issue of the X-Men I mentioned. It’s been tights and capes ever since.

You’re a finance professional by day, are your co-workers aware of your artistic talents and aspirations?

Yes, my secret identity has been unmasked. And now that it is public, my co-workers have hounded me for random drawings for their kids all the time. “Can you do a lifelike drawing of little Johnny holding a puppy in the park?” No, but I can make little Johnny look pretty awesome wearing a cape and flying through the air in a comic book style drawing!

We’re alike in that we both work in structured, left-brained fields while our passions and hobbies tend to be artistic and creative (right brained). Have you always felt the push-pull of those sides of your persona?

Very much so. The financial market has no set agenda, so every day is its own animal. Some days can be fast paced, and you leave work feeling like you accomplished something. Most days are slow and mundane, and I find myself wanting to be at home, creating and drawing. Every year, I seem to inch myself closer and closer to throwing my hat in the comic world on a full-time basis, full well knowing how absurd that is from a lifestyle point of view (monetarily speaking) compared to what the financial industry can provide. But at some point, I’m going to crack.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you make a quantum leap in your cartooning in just a few years, is there anything more important than practice? Aside from (re)committing to drawing, what else has driven your leveling up in just a few years since first tabling at a convention?

You nailed it on the head. I mean, for anything in life, practice makes perfect. I don’t care if you’re a pole dancer, athlete or cartoonist, you’re only going to get better if you practice. That is also the frustrating part about my desire to draw. Due to my primary job and the fact that my insane attraction to my wife resulted in four kids of whom I try to spend as much time with as possible, it leaves me with very little time to draw on a consistent basis. I think I could get pretty good at this drawing thing if I would truly commit to it. Unfortunately, there is only so much time in the day to go around.

Going into the comics business can be lucrative for a select few, but usually, it’s a labor of love and not something that leads to fame and fortune. How does that reality impact your willingness to make the leap, if at all?

For me, it’s an itch that I’ll eventually have to scratch, or I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. As a kid, I had a few dreams. Be a major league baseball player, be an NFL quarterback. Well, neither of those panned out. Another dream of mine was to be a comic book artist, specifically an artist for the X-Men. Maybe I’m delusional, but I’m still holding out that it can be a reality and with that said, I have to see if I can do it. The kid in me still wants to do it, and the kid in me could care less about the fame and fortune that goes along with it. I told my wife that when that day comes, she better be ready to go back to work and be the bread maker…and I slept on the couch that evening.

Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four when he was 44 years old, remember that!

Dare to Dream Wood…Dare to Dream!

Let’s talk about the artistic process. What are your favorite tools of the trade?

A piece of paper and a pencil. Like many people, I used to be so enamored with finding what the pros use and believing that if I had their tools that I would be that much better in my artwork. I’ve since figured out that it really doesn’t matter. Some pros draw with a regular #2 pencil, some draw with mechanical pencils, some draw with blue lead pencils. I’ve experimented, and I’m still experimenting, and that’s part of the fun of it all. I’ve tried digital as well. The problem with digital art is the time commitment and steep learning curve. I’ll dive in for a few weeks and then step away and don’t get back to the Wacom/Photoshop/Manga Studio for a few months, and I forget all that I’ve learned. I’ll never master the digital world until the day drawing art becomes my full-time job. But the pencil and paper, that sticks with you. There are no shortcut buttons or digital brushes to tinker with. Simply sharpen that lead and have at it.

You’re a logical, disciplined person. What are your goals in the next 12/24/36 months?

After NYCC, I am going to be 100% invested in completing issue #3 of a comic called Operation Boom. My comic mentor and brother from another mother Marc Laming introduced me to a number of artists over the pond, including Chris Imber and Chris Jenkins. They asked me to contribute to their comic, Operation Boom, and I had a great time helping them out with issue #2 and now I am doing the line art for issue #3. That is my immediate goal. After that, I am going to be working on a personal project of sorts. I have written a short X-Men story that I’m going to illustrate and use as a sample. I have this grand vision of what I would like to pitch to Marvel as a new book for the X-Men universe that I believe could be unique and successful. This short story will be the start of it, and we’ll see what happens after that. Aim high.

I think you’ve become one of the best commission artists in the business, is doing commissions something you really love? Or do you view it more as a means to hone your craft to start doing sequential stories eventually?

Many thanks, Jason. I really enjoy doing commissions, as long as you’re not handcuffed into a drawing with no room for artistic creation. Most people will give you a character and maybe a favorite costume of that character and say, have at it. Those are incredibly enjoyable to do. Being able to challenge yourself to come up with something that is unique and eye-popping is the fun of it. Once in a while, someone will ask you to draw something that is very specific and leaves no room for interpretation. Those can be challenging and less enjoyable, but I still like doing them nonetheless. Sequential pages are an entirely different beast and skill set. I am still very raw in that department. There is so much to learn about storytelling and the details required for every panel. How to pace the story, how to convey the little things visually that can be easily written but are difficult actually to bring to life on the paper.

One day at a flea market, you come across a magic lamp. It grants you one wish related to the comics industry. What’s your wish?

To control time. Is that cheating? If so, then how about this one. I wish Marvel would give me carte blanche on a Colossus series. I have a story arc; I have the side players and guest appearances. I’ve wanted to tell this story since I was 17 years old. The six-page sample I mentioned is the beginning of the story.

Colossus, yes! Rasputin hasn’t had his magnum opus yet, you could really make a mark there. Are you open to drawing for another writer, or is your ultimate goal to write and draw your own stuff?

My end game is to either create an entity on my own, or to collaborate with people on a fresh new book. I have so many ideas in my head that I would love to put on paper. A friend of mine, who happens to be in our line of work, is into comics as well and he deems himself a writer. We go back and forth with ideas and we talk about our desire to collaborate on a book. So with that said, I would have no problem drawing for another writer. But it would all depend on the quality of the script and the working relationship. I don’t think I would do well with someone who’s writing style is very hands on. Meaning, ultra-detailed from panel to panel. To me that would feel shallow and boring. I like the creative freedom to elaborate or to alter certain panels or add/reduce panels in order to optimally tell the story.

Now regarding the Colossus story, yes, I have my own that I will do. After I finish my commitment on the Operation Boom issue, I’m going to work on that story. After I get that done, you and me Wood, we are going to do an awesome Domino/Fantomex mini one shot! Am I right?

Haha, we shall see. We shall see. 

What do you think about the state of comics? Are you still, as a reader, able to get excited in the same way we got excited in the 80s and 90s?

Unfortunately not. I still get excited, but not like I did when I was a kid. This is more of an hour-long discussion at the bar post-NYCC evening, but I think the industry has changed, and I think we’ve changed. When we were younger, the excitement and anticipation of the next issue of Uncanny X-Men consumed my week. I would sit and re-read the current issue over and over and outline what I thought would happen next in the story. As a kid, we didn’t have a whole lot to worry about in life. Mom and Dad handled everything. We enjoyed being kids. Now, I’m the Dad; you’re the Dad. We have so much more going on in our day-to-day lives. I know you’re like me, in that you have stacks of issues that go unread for weeks and it’s harder now to keep the storylines fresh. I also think the dynamics of how the stories are constructed are so much different now. I miss the days of cohesive teams on series. You had a sense that the creative team had an emotional investment in the characters and story. With the artists constantly changing, I think it leaves a void. But I still love my comics, and I still appreciate the hard work these creators put into these books.

Since we agree it’s hard to recapture that feeling we had when we first discovered comics, what’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

I read most of the X-Men books, Star Wars and dabble in some Batman here and there. I also read a lot of Image Books including Low, East of West, Tokyo Ghost and Invincible. I tend to follow artists that I like, and read whatever book they are on. One of the more surprising books that I read this past year was Uncanny Avengers by Gerry Duggan and Pepe Larraz. I was introduced to Larraz’s artwork on social media and that led me to checking out the book. I ended up being blown away. Larraz’s artwork was stunning and Duggan has a knack for those characters. He scripted a fun and energetic story that made this series arc a slam dunk.

Aside from NYCC, what shows are you eyeing up in the next year?

The plan is to do C2E2 (Chicago), Indiana Comic Con (Indianapolis), and Heroes Con (Charlotte). I’ve been trying to fit in additional conventions, but nothing has worked, due to my schedule. I’d like to eventually get to Boston, Emerald City, Phoenix, Denver, and Mega Con at some point in the future. We’ll see what happens.

You’re speaking my language! As you know we roll to C2E2 and Heroes most years, I can’t recommend those shows enough. Alright, time to get back to spending quality time with the family so we won’t feel guilty about doing our thing in New York next week. Thanks for the time, Brian.

See you next week, and thanks to you, Jason!