Interview: Gary O Donnell
Artist Gary O Donnell spoke with Canadian Dino Caruso about his career in comics...
Dino Caruso: Growing up in Ireland, were you a comic book fan as a child? Or did you come to the hobby later in life? Which titles/characters and creators do you remember being initially drawn to?
Gary O Donnell: I've been drawing for as long as I can remember. In primary school me and a friend would draw battle ships and planes while sitting beside each other and then proceed to blow each others drawings up with pencil rockets. My first real eye opener was when I was in hospital at the age of 12 and my father arrived in with some comics. One of them was a copy of 2000ad with a Brian Bolland cover and Ron Smith on interior art. I couldn't believe what these artists were achieving with pen and ink.I was hooked and bought it religiously from then on. I would sit for hours and copy (not trace) the amazing work of Mike Mc Mahon. Brian Bolland, Cliff Robinson, Glenn Fabry and then later artists like Simon Bisley. I was also lucky enough to have a cousin who had a great collection of American re-print comics but my favorites were always Batman and Daredevil.I would have to say that 2000ad is the reason I draw now ( As you can see in my art) As far as characters and creators are concerned ? Judge Dredd is my hero as are John Wagner, Alan Grant and Pat Mills who created Slaine and other amazing characters. In later years I found more amazing creators and artists but these guys made me want to do what I love to do...
DC: Now, this isn't really a comics question, but it's interested me since I've known you...Is it common for there not to be an apostrophe after the "O" in an Irish surname?
GO: I really don't know about the apostrophe after the O in Irish names. I do know that I am descended from Red Hugh O Donnell, who was the king of Ireland at one stage (or so I've been told) so if he doesn't need an apostrophe then why should I?..LOL
DC: Alright...back to the comics! When I was a kid, I first started buying comics from my local convenience store, and then, as I got older, I'd venture downtown to the local specialty shop to pick up my books. Were comics easy for you to obtain as a youth?
GO: There were no comic stores in Ireland when I was a kid (and there are only a few in certain cities right now) so we had to take what we could get. 2000AD, Eagle, Beno, etc. were available in newsagents so if someone went to London we would give them a shopping list..LOL. Forbidden Planet was, in our minds, a magical place where all your comic dreams would come true. When a friend would come home from his holidays with first issues of Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns it was like a religious experience. We would carefully pluck them from their plastic covers and pour over them for hours.
DC: Were comics the reason you developed an interest in illustration? Or did your family independently nudge you toward drawing?
GO: I always wanted to draw. My sister is an amazing artist and did portraits of my family when I was very young. It amazed me. But I have to say that it was comics that made me do what I do. My parents wanted me to do anything except art but when it's in you, you have no choice but to do it. As much as I love them they have no idea how it feels to sit in front of a blank sheet of paper and create people, places and stories. Parents don't understand but if it's in you then you should go for it!
DC: What was the process of developing your proficiency with illustration? Did you attend art classes and programs? Was there a particular focus on sequential art?
GO: Well from an early age I found myself drawing Bruce, the shark from Jaws, a lot! LOL. I would also draw the ships from Battle of the planets, V, and Space 1999. I was obsessed with them. As I said earlier copying art from 2000ad was a real help when I was younger. When I went to secondary school (high school for you guys I guess) I was extremely lucky to meet a friend named Len O Grady. Len is an amazing artist and he was making up his own characters! I never even thought of that!!..LOL. (Len is an amazing colorist now and works for Marvel, 2000AD and loads of other publishers) We also had a great art teacher who really enjoyed what we were doing. Later I tried to get in to Limerick art school, which is one of the best in the country. I failed first time but did another art course and eventually was accepted.
Unfortunately, at the time, the college had no illustration classes so I ended up doing fine print because you could do really detailed metal etchings which I loved. The teachers at the college HATED the illustrations I was doing. They said I was wasting my time and that the work I was spending hours on was not art. They would much prefer if I spent weeks drawing the feathers of a dead bird than a space captain saving a buxom blonde from a crashed ship! (there is no accounting for taste lol) The life drawing classes were great as were the art history classes where I was introduced to Caravaggio and Mucha, who I love but after two years of being put down I dropped out. I had enough of being told that three black splodges on an eight foot white canvas really showed the inner feelings of the artist. I only had three Aliens attacking a group of space marines.....but that's not art apparently...There was no interest in sequential art so I had to teach myself by pouring over the greats. I'm glad to say that I'm still learning every time I pick up a new comic.
DC: Tell us about your early attempts at comics and illustration. What type of projects did you work on?
GO: My early attempts are hilarious and will never see the light of day! I was heavily in to science fiction. Mad Max, cyberpunk, Bladerunner, etc. Len and I created an R.P.G we called Chainblade so I drew a lot of road warriors wielding chainsaw swords. Len and I printed a first issue of our own comic which was a mix of Lovecraft horror and science fiction with RPG campaigns mixed in. It was good fun but hard work and exams scuppered our second issue. I don't even have a copy of it now that I think about it...Another friend, Eoin Buckley, was writing a lovely story where artists like Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and others would meet up after their deaths. It would be a magical world made up from the lyrics of their songs. I did some work on that but we never finished anything. We were fourteen and there were girls in our school!...Nuff said..LOL
DC: Regarding your process...once you receive a script, what steps do you take to turn it into a finished comic book page?
GO: My process? Oh dear. I don't use the computer (tech hates me) so I'm very slow. I read through the script a few times to get a feel for what the writer is trying to say. I usually work on short stories so I check the first and last pages of the script to see if there is any visual element that starts and ends the story (sometimes this is a trick writers use as well you know lol) Then I do a panel count for each page (unless it's in the script) and note that down at the top of each page. Then I make small notes beside each panel description "large panel, room for dialogue, small close up, bird's eye view, worm's eye view etc." Then I grab a piece of A4 and start layouts. I'll scribble the whole story down and rearrange panels that just don't work. If there are complicated panels I will draw them out fully on another page at the size they will be on the page so I can get an idea of how they will look. This is simply because I don't trust my art too much and is a waste of time really but it helps me.
After that I sketch the pages in blue pencil and then pencil them in normal HB pencils. Blue does not come out on a photocopy so you can be as messy as you like. Then I photocopy my pencils in blue ink so that I can ink them and change things without having to worry about the under pencils. After that I sit back and realize that I hate everything I've just done but send em off anyway!..LOL
DC: Regarding the scripts you receive from writers...do you prefer many details included in the script, or a much looser approach, which gives you more freedom to interpret things as you prefer?
GO: I like detailed panel descriptions in a script because it gives me a great idea of what the writer is trying to achieve in each panel. Of course I will never be able to fit everything in but I can choose what to lose and still get the feeling across. For instance one writer had his main character with his back to us in a main panel but he described the look on the man's face..I thought it strange but the writer explained that if the artist knew how the man was feeling it may affect his body language, the way he was standing etc. I always trust the writer because when I write I know EXACTLY the way everything should look. If someone has spent the time thinking about and writing their story maybe two or three times then I want to give them back their vision. Of course your interpretation is important because you are creating the characters and environments. Another example is when I was drawing a science fiction story set in the bowels of a huge passenger ship. I made this slum level cold and dripping with water, filled with neon signs and people wearing multiple layers of clothes. The writer/artist contacted me saying that he would never have thought of that. He would have done the scene in a Star Trek way,just having the people on one of the loading bays. So sometimes you can surprise the writer and it's always great for me when that happens. Personally I think that writers and artists should stay in contact with each other swapping ideas etc. I would hate to think that there is a writer out there saying "Christ! Gary ruined my story"..That's not what I am trying to do..
DC: What role does research play in your process? Have you had any difficulties finding reference material for items in a script?
GO: Reference these days is easy. Google gives you everything you need. The thing is, as an artist, you look at things and remember them all the time. People will ask me "How can you just draw a tank like that?" My answer is "Because I saw it on the television" If you want to draw you have to pay attention to everything around you and take it in. The look on someone's face as they sneeze, an abandoned old car, an old train…everything is art gold!!...It's been said before but taking the bus and looking at the people around you is great too…just don't let your eyes linger on the good looking girl for too long...restraining orders are a pain in the ass!..LOL
DC: Who are your artistic influences and the artists that you admire and follow from project to project? And relatedly, when you look at comics that are drawn by other artists...are you looking at their work as a "fan", or with a more critical eye...to try and get an appreciation of how they approach their craft?
GO: My influences? Well in the comic world I would have to say Brian Bolland first blew my mind. Mike Mc Mahon, Glen Fabry, Simon Bisley, Dave Gibbons, Cam Kennedy, John Higgins, Moebius, ..There are too many. Gieger, Mucha, Caravaggio ..LOL. I'm 40 so I have a lot of influences. Oh Steve Dillon! I will grab anything drawn by these guys regardless of the writer. What I like to do is find the scripts these guys have worked on (which you can on line) and study how they saw the script as opposed to how I saw it. It's a great learning experience. I got my hands on the script book for the first issues of The Walking Dead and compared each panel description to Tony Moore's drawings. That was an eye opener. So yes. I study their craft. How they use light and shadow and compose their frames. If there are any young artists reading this then that is the most important thing you can learn.
DC: I'm curious about how opportunities present themselves to artists in the world of comics. How have your last few gigs materialized for you?
GO: My opportunities came about because of my face book art page. As I've said earlier I hate computers so my good friend Richard Lynch set it up for me and then people started to contact me and send me scripts. I was very surprised and took on more work than I should have but I didn't want to turn anything down. I've never sent a portfolio off to anyone yet I'm still being sent scripts. (no money involved unfortunately but ..) So, again, to any young artists. Get your work up on Face Book or Deviant art no matter how much you hate it (and we all hate our own work)..Get it up there and show everyone what you can do!!...
DC: What can you tell me about “I LOVE LIMERICK”, and your involvement with it?
GO: "I Love Limerick" was the brainchild of my good friend Richard Lynch. Rich had spent 15 years living in New York and had his own cable access show where he would interview artist, performers etc. He moved home to look after his ailing mother and was horrified at the bad press that our city was getting in the newspapers and nightly news. (Limerick has a fairly high crime rate for it's size) He decided to show a different side of the city. The artists,bands,charity groups…Everything that was positive about Limerick. I started just helping haul gear etc. before moving on to work on sound and then as a camera man and editor for the on line show. It was hard work but we had a great time interviewing people like Sam Jackson, Hugh Grant, Michael Douglas…and we met some amazingly talented people. Limerick is a great city and I am very proud of its people and it's history.
DC: Let’s get specific with one or two of your stories…and if it’s ok with you, I’m going to focus on the ones that we’ve worked on together. The two of us have a project that’s called HOPE, which appeared in the “Survival Stories” anthology. The first thing that strikes me about it is the awesome way you used the soccer ball in the title. Did that come to you immediately? And can you give us any insights on how you include word art and sound effects into your sequentials?
GO: Hope terrified me LOL. It was my second story that I knew would be published and I thought I had done such a bad job on my first I really wanted to get it right. I'm not a football/soccer fan but I understood the importance of soccer in the story so when I was designing the logo the ball as the "O" just seemed obvious. I'm not a letterer or graphic designer by any means but some things just make sense when you scribble them down. It was also my second time lettering on the computer which my friend Tom helped me with. I always try to make sure that there is enough room for dialogue and sound effects but don't draw the effects in the panels unless I think it really needs them.
Lettering is an art onto itself. Years ago I would painstakingly write all the speech balloons and draw the bubbles, then cut them out and stick them to my pages. I soon realized that I was not very good at it. These days I always make sure there is a letterer working on a story before I take it on. Bad lettering can really take a reader out of the story and none of us want that. For example sometimes when I read a comic with "Diary pages" on the panels with beautiful quill pen writing that I just can't read I soon lose interest. I leave it to the professionals.
DC: When you’re creating characters out of whole cloth, do you base them on people you know? For example, how did you come up with the looks of the (unnamed) main character and the guidance counselor?
GO: Creating characters is a lot of fun .I find that if you read your script enough times you will get a feel for how the people should look. Your soccer player was obviously a courageous and healthy man so I thought Slaine (a barbarian from 2000AD) The Guidance Counselor is easy. I've seen enough American shows which portray these people as ex hippy types so I just went with that LOL Also a lot of artists have a mirror in front of our drawing boards so there is always a bit of us in the main characters. Then you just draw the face from as many angles as you can until you are comfortable with him/her
DC: Hopefully you didn’t base the look of the aliens from someone you know, but where did that design come from?
GO: The aliens were tough. I did tons of designs where they were like spiders or scorpions but when I thought about the panel count on each page and what we were trying to say I decided that they should be humanoid. It's fine if you want to design an amazingly detailed and complicated alien but if you have to draw them on every page then it's going to take you forever. Orcs popped in to my mind for their jaw and then I added some dreadlocks to give them a bit of movement when they were angry (who doesn't love Stan Winston's Predator?)..Some of the designs were hilarious and have been binned..LOL. I was also thinking (what if Dino's boy had to take them on in a game of soccer? They would have to be humanoid right?)..
DC: Do you ever add Easter Eggs in your art? Perhaps for your own amusement, or perhaps to add some detail to the story?
GO: I do sometimes add Easter eggs to my work. Usually, if I'm doing an urban scene with lots of graffiti I will put in friends names or my nephew's names etc. It's just for fun and it's funny to get a call when they say "My name is on that page!" I get a kick out of it.
DC: You use your Facebook page as your online portfolio, and it’s tons of fun to go through the work and read your commentary on the pieces (as well as the comments of others). What’s your philosophy on presenting your work online? Do you have a “hard copy” portfolio as well? How do you structure it?
GO: Yes my Face Book page is what I mainly use. I have a Deviant art page but I dislike computers so much that filling out all the questions that you have to do for each post just wrecks my head so I don't bother with it. (A HUGE mistake on my part I must admit) My philosophy? Well I love to see artists’ works in progress. I really like seeing their scribbles turn in to finished pages or pieces so that's what I do with my page. You can really learn a lot from seeing the changes they make from layouts to pencils to inks (I'm not saying anyone will learn from me but you know what I mean) Also, in the case of Beta, I posted panels etc. because I knew you would see them on Twitter and it would keep you up to date with the project so I killed two birds with one stone lol. Stupidly I have not backed up yet or organised an up to date portfolio. While running pubs in London for many years I almost stopped drawing altogether so I'm only now building up a body of work that I think is good enough to be collected. I have to say that I don't really structure it. I will realize one afternoon that I have not posted in ages so to keep people interested I will whip out some head studies or a quick inked piece, drawing as fast as I can, and post them up. I like to post works in progress also but not give the game away so to speak.
DC: Do you attend cons much, as either a fan or a pro? Have you ever gone for feedback from an editor or to present your portfolio? Any interesting convention stories?
GO: The answer to all of the above is...No..lol. I have never attended a con or had my portfolio looked at because I simply never thought my stuff was good enough. This was a huge mistake because the feedback I would have received would have helped me greatly. I never liked my work but I've snapped out of that now. My advice to young artists is to beg borrow and steal to get your work seen by the greats in the industry. They will not laugh at your work but will tell you what needs improving. They want you to succeed. During the time I wasn't drawing was the time I could afford to travel to cons but I had nothing to show. Oh irony can be so ironic sometimes lol.
DC: In our most recent project, STILL IN BETA, the story called for a lot of fighting and undead-type-characters? Does this kind of story require a different process than others you’ve worked on?
GO: Fighting and undead stories are the ultimate in good fun to draw. These stories are just pure imagination and you can go crazy on the page. "A gun that's bigger than the guys leg?" why the hell not? "A guy with no jaw and his guts spilling out trying to chew on a dog?" Okey dokey! Just great fun. The serious stories mean research, research, research. While this is not a bad thing I just can't get excited about drawing men and women in suits and summer dresses.I did a story recently which was four pages set in an interrogation room with three characters..I really don't know why I took it on because it's really not me (and I have never heard back from the comic company that asked for it so they must not like it lol). I've read that Brian Bolland has the same problem and,after years of drawing Dredd, he had forgotten how to draw shoulders, elbows and knees! So yes the process is different and SOOOO much better!!
DC: Have you written your own stories and scripts for yourself or others to illustrate? When you write for yourself, do you actually write a traditional script, or have you developed your own personal format?
GO: I have written my own stories. I like to start writing stories and they are always popping in to my head but I find it impossible to tell them in five or even ten pages. Mine are usually dark serial killer type tales. I am a stickler for back story and I have at least seventy journals filled with unfinished ideas. My problem is that I don't come up with a decent ending and then work back. I think that's very important for any story. I'll write and write and get to,say,twenty five pages and then sit back and think "Where the hell am I going?".or "Why did my killer decide to go to the movies with a body in his trunk when he knows the cops have a photo fit of him?".. Then I just get annoyed and drag my drawing pad back instead. My drawings do as they are told!
I do write full script because I write longhand and I simply love the act of writing. I have already mentioned my hatred of computers a number of times so if I were to type them I would never write! (this alone has taken me nine hours to type lol). But I know I'm writing for myself so if I introduce a character like a hard boiled cop,for instance, I'll write "Hartigan from Sin City" or, because I know I'll be designing the characters I'll just tell myself to refer to my sketchbook. I can always see the people in my head so I don't have to describe them. Another funny thing. As I've said I don't like drawing characters in normal clothes so I'm always trying to come up with science fiction serial killer type stories but I get bogged down in the science of it all. Personal tagging, retina identification etc. How could you get away with it on a small colony dammit!?..lol. I'll figure it out one day!
DC: So, what is it about comics that keeps you coming back for more? Both as a reader and a creator?
GO: I cannot get enough of comics. As a fan there are a bazillion stories out there to enjoy. I'm a huge movie fan but some of the stories you can find in comics would NEVER be made into movies. The imagination and dedication that people put in to their work is astounding! The story telling is unique also. There are things that you can do in comics that will not work in other mediums. Granted there have been some great comic book movies made and it's great to see our fave characters walk and talk but they all came from comics. For example-Sin City. I had NEVER seen anything like that before (The Spirit was an obvious influence but still). The movie was great but could not have existed without Frank's amazing imagination. Comics can take you ANYWHERE you would like to go and there is something out there for anyone of any age. As a creator? Well I can't stop drawing lol. If I had a bunch of money I would be directing movies but that's not going to happen so my movies happen on the page. There is no budget, no studio telling you what to do! Granted no artist wants to draw a thousand aliens attacking cavemen on giant elephants but if I needed to I could! It's all about imagination. And it's not just about monsters and star ships. Real issues can be addressed in comics. Bullies, divorce, mental problems, drugs...any message that a writer wants to talk about could reach an audience that a film or documentary might not. Comics are totally versatile and global...I love them.
DC: Where do you stand on the current digital revolution that's happening? Again...both as a reader and a creator?
GO: There are great things going on in the digital realm right now. The Madefire app with creators Liam Sharp and artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Ben Wolstenholme, Len O Grady, Dave Gibbons among others, are doing amazing things with comic storytelling. Personally, as I've mentioned again and again, I'm not a fan of tech so I would rather hold the book in my hand, and flick through the pages. If the digital comics get new fans excited about comics then fantastic, we really need new fans, but give me a nice heavy black and white graphic novel any old day!
DC: I know you've mixed some of your advice into previous answers, but are there any final comments or suggestions you'd like to give to aspiring creators?
GO: Advice? Well all I can really say is that if you have a story to tell then tell it. Write all the time if you are hoping to be a writer. Write something every day even if it's just idea notes (I have journals full of them). Stephen King said that if you are writing and you think that the story is rubbish or going nowhere then you should finish it. It's a good lesson. Never think that your idea is bad. It's your idea and unique to you. Same for artists. Draw something every day, anything! And always SEE things. Also the danger with younger comic book artists (and me lol) is aspiring to be as good as their fave artists. Put your comics away when you draw. Find your own style. Study life drawing and perspective. This may seem boring but it is a huge help. The most important thing, I think, is to enjoy yourself. We can't all draw like Bisley or Jim Lee but this is comics! Go mad on the page and draw for yourself. If you can sit back and look at your page or piece and think "I nailed that"..Job done chief.
DC: I think all of the artists in the crowd would throw tomatoes at me if I didn't ask you some technical type questions...so...what kind of tools do you use to create a finished comic book page?
GO: Creating a page. ..I do my layouts on typing paper (it's cheap) Then I sketch out my pages on Bristol board using Staedtler or Supracolor blue pencils. Then I pencil using Staedtler HB pencils (these are my faves). I photocopy my pencils in blue and then I ink using Faber-Castell felt tips of different sizes with Sharpies and India ink...I'm the Fred Flinstone of comic artists! LOL. An important thing to remember is that it doesn't really matter what you use to create your art. Years ago I would read an interview like this with one of the artists I admired and I would hunt down a certain pen or pencil thinking that it would make my art better! It won’t. I'm stealing a line from someone but you can draw with a burnt match and some muddy water if you want to. Try everything! Brushes, sponges, spray your ink with an old toothbrush if you don't have an air brush! Anything will do the job. As I've said earlier enjoy yourself. Tell the writer's story but have fun doing it. If you are doing your own story then just go mental! LOL. Check out Stefano Cardoselli for instance! A complete maniac and Brilliant artist :-) I would LOVE to be as free as he is.
DC: What's coming up for you? Any interesting projects on your drawing board or waiting on the runway?
GO: New projects. Well there is your new one which I am sketching for (I swear lol) Also I'm a member of a number of collectives on Face Book such as The Comic Book Alliance and Connecting Comic Book artists and writers who are trying to get some projects together so I have some scripts from them to look over. I would love to do some of my own stuff so maybe if I send you some scripts you could do some editing on them for me chief?? LOL
DC: Absolutely…send them over!
DC: Gary, thanks so much for your time. You gave a lot of wonderful insight into the process, the products and the projects! Where can we find you on the internets?
GO: Well thanks for taking the time to listen to my rants. You can find me on Face Book www.facebook.com/garyodart1 and my Deviant art page. Right! Don't I have some strange things to draw right now Dino?..Of course I do. I work with you! Cheers ---G---