Artist August: Kazu Kibuishi [Interview]

To kick off this year’s Artist August, I chatted with one of my absolute favorite artists: Kazu Kibuishi. Kazu is the artist of Scholastic’s “Amulet,” a graphic novel series for all-ages that truly is engaging to all-ages. Besides that, he’s also the cover artist on Scholastic’s new “Harry Potter” paperbacks (only the second artist ever to work on the series), the man behind the “Flight” and “Explorer” anthologies, and the creator of “Copper” and “Daisy Kutter.”

He’s an absolutely phenomenal artist, and we talk about his influences, his passion about comic art, creating the covers of “Flight,” “Harry Potter” and the excitement tied to that work, and a lot more. Thanks to Kazu, and please, check out our other articles – including an art feature and an art process piece – about him throughout the day. Also, check the bottom of this article for a video tour of Bolt City Productions, Kazu’s studio.

From what I read, you nearly went a different direction with your career but ended up in comics. Was there a real moment or memory that drove the desire to work in comics, or was it more of a natural progression of events that guided you to them?

Kibuishi: More of a natural progression of events. Nearly everyone I knew told me I would draw comics professionally, but I seemed to be the last person to really accept that. I wanted to be a filmmaker after losing respect for the comics industry as a child of the 1990’s comics speculation boom and bust. At the time, I decided I wanted to pursue a respectable career, and I had lost so much respect for the business of comics that I decided to walk away.

It wasn’t until years after working in other fields after college that I decided to refocus and stay focused on what I knew I did best – which is to draw and write stories. What helped me settle back on what should have been my natural career path was reading Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and studying the work of Osamu Tezuka. Scott’s work helped me to see the practical application of comics in our world, and studying books like Blackjack and Astro Boy by Tezuka helped me understand how effective comics in our society can be.

A Look at Kazu's studio

Who or what has influenced the development of your art the most? I’m especially curious if you feel there is any influence from Japan in your work, because to me, it often feels like there is both in natural imagery and from animation by people like Hayao Miyazaki.

Kibuishi: Hayao Miyazaki is very clearly my biggest inspiration for the work I do now, but earlier in my life, the artists of MAD Magazine – especially Mort Drucker, and comic strip artists like Jim Davis, had a big influence on me. Even though I did see My Neighbor Totoro during a trip to Japan when I was about 10 years old, it would not be until my last year or two of college that I would begin to really study and identify Miyazaki’s work. When I read Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind as a graphic novel I had a moment of clarity and decided I would have to do something like it at some point in my life.

Kibuishi's Cover to Flight Vol. 4

The first experience with your work I ever had was when I picked up the first volume of Flight on a whim because of the cover. Since then, I’ve bought prints of both the first cover and the fourth volume because frankly, they’re some of my absolute favorite art pieces around. Taking yourself back a ways, what were your inspirations when you were developing those pieces, and I have to wonder, do you wish you had provided the second cover as well so you would have had a clean sweep on the series?

Kibuishi: Oh, not at all. In fact, I am a little sad that I didn’t get to see more of the other artists creating covers for the series. Many of the artists just asked me to keep drawing the covers to keep people from arguing over who does them. So I was sort of pushed into that role as a mediator, where I was considering the stories, sensibilities and art styles of everyone in the book, and not just a particular segment or my own work. Being the editor of the book, I couldn’t imagine approaching the project any other way. Strangely enough, these covers led directly to painting the Harry Potter covers, and my experience as a sort of mediating presence on the Flight books really helped when painting and designing and speaking about the Harry Potter 15th Anniversary box set.

As for the inspiration for the covers, I would say that the work of Moebius, one of my favorite artists, had a huge impact. And perhaps the fact that Flight was also inspired by Heavy Metal had something to do with the similarities to Moebius’ Arzak imagery. I actually spent a day with Moebius once, and he really liked the covers! It was one of the great highlights in my life so far.

A Look at Kazu's studio

While Flight has ended in 2011, but just last year you released a new Explorer Anthology. Collections of that sort are sadly few and far between these days, and the Flight books were excellent introductions to many talented creators. Is it your intent to work on publishing more anthologies, or has that experience run its course for you?

Kibuishi: We hope to continue making anthologies like Explorer, since there are so few platforms for young storytellers to show their work and to receive training in creating comics and graphic novels for all ages. I still think there is a place for the anthology, but I know it’s incredibly challenging to make one that works for publishers from a business perspective. I’m pretty stubborn, and I hate giving up, so I think watching Flight fade away made me pretty determined to go back and solve the problem of this particular format by making an anthology series that not only succeeds but sticks around for a while. Only time will tell if this one works, but so far so good. Explorer 2 is already at the printer, and we are currently working on Explorer 3.

Between Explorer and Amulet, you’ve established yourself as someone who creates excellent comics for all-ages readers. Was that something you consciously targeted, or was that just in line with the kinds of stories you want to tell as a creator?

Kibuishi: I think it’s a bit of both. Ever since I can remember, people considered me the “cartoon” guy, drawing cute and funny pictures. The simpler aesthetic that I preferred was naturally considered more appealing to kids, which is probably why my high school and college comics were so violent and full of profanity! I was really trying to break away from being labeled a “kids’ cartoonist”. Years later, after college, I began to see that there was a clear need for all-ages comics and realized my style suited the age group well. So I started phasing out the violence, profanity, and took on the act of drawing and writing a wiser but kid-friendly comic as a challenge for myself. I think Copper was the first instance of this.

Amulet was my second big challenge- drawing a comic that could empathize with both kids and parents while I was still only 25 years old. The first book was incredibly difficult because it was a big transition for me. Since then, I have become a married parent of two, and I have talked to so many kids, parents, and teachers that I’ve gained a much better understanding of how to engage my younger and older audiences.

A Look at Kazu's studio

Amulet as a book series is one you control each and every aspect of, and it’s a sprawling, beautiful series. I know the next book is slightly delayed. I have to ask: when you’re putting together such an elaborate project as that, taking on nearly all the roles yourself, how taxing both mentally and physically is such an endeavor? What drives you through the tough times with the book?

Kibuishi: Every aspect of the production is pretty draining, and each one requires a tremendous amount of discipline to do well. Fortunately, I have a full-time assistant, Jason Caffoe, who helps me with the backgrounds and colors, providing story editor notes, and helping to organize the production of the book when we have multiple artists working with us for a few months during the middle of production. While I do still have a hand in every stage of the production, I am learning to delegate more as the years go by. This allows me to put most of my focus on writing and drawing, as well as spend more time with my family, which I value more than anything. The more I can lean on my painters, the better the book is going to be, and the happier my family will be.

If I were to give another artist or writer advice on how to do this, I would tell them to have a good understanding of what you are NOT able to do. I know I can’t contain a whole book in my head, so I break it up and work on small chunks. I can’t spend time working on every background detail, so I leave space for Jason and the others to create extra stuff. I especially can NOT write great material if I only draft once, so I make sure to draw and write fast enough that I can create many drafts to choose from. I may not know how to make something good, but I certainly know good stuff when I see it, so I just prepare to do tons of redrafts. Knowing your limitations can be one of the biggest keys to creating a successful book.

Daisy Kutter was a book that you originally released in the mid-2000’s, but just last year, you funded a reprint of it through Kickstarter. Why the decision to go back and reprint the series, and could you see yourself going back and telling more tales of Daisy?

Kibuishi: The Kickstarter was born out of a frustration we had at the office from not having any more copies of Daisy Kutter: The Last Train. Every time someone asked if they could purchase a copy, it bothered me to know that they basically couldn’t, so Jason and I decided to print a small run of copies. While discussing how many we should print, we decided to let a Kickstarter determine that for us. If we had enough people who wanted the book, then we could make the book nicer and the print costs would go down. This is why our funding goal was so low ($2000) – we were going to do the project anyway, with our own money. The project ended up surpassing the goal by quite a large margin, reaching $52,000, and we spent a few months fulfilling orders and learning a lot about both printing and shipping books.

As for the continuation of Daisy’s story, I definitely have at least two more books waiting in the wings. I even have the story for the second book pretty much ready to go. It’s something I wrote before I started working on Amulet. Finding the time to produce it will be the real challenge.

Kazu's just revealed final Harry Potter cover

You’re providing the covers for the new Harry Potter paperbacks at Scholastic. First off, congratulations! Second off, how did that come together for you, and as an artist, how mind blowing is it to follow Mary GrandPre and her legendary covers?

Kibuishi: Thanks! The project came together over several months. David Saylor, creative director at Scholastic – and head of Graphix, the imprint that publishes Amulet – is the original designer of the US editions of Harry Potter. He asked me if I would submit samples to see if I could illustrate and redesign the covers. This initially took me by surprise because I love the originals and thought they shouldn’t really touch those, but then I began to realize that many of the kids reading my books weren’t old enough to be Harry Potter readers (something I confirmed on recent visits to elementary schools and libraries). They are just beginning to read longer and more complex works of fiction, and what better set of books to introduce than Harry Potter?

Normally, for a side project of this scale, I would stick to my mantra of “you do what you do”, politely refrain, and stay focused on Amulet, but I felt this was a special case. Amulet would – quite literally – not exist without Harry Potter. On this project, I felt a bit like Hagrid on his motorcycle carrying Harry out to the world, on a secret mission from Dumbledore himself. This is pretty much one of the only projects I can imagine pushing Amulet back nearly a year, but I think my readers will forgive me when they see the covers! I feel I owe Harry, J.K. Rowling, and everyone involved with these books for the life I have now, so I made sure to give this project more than a one hundred percent effort, and I absolutely loved doing it.

I read in an interview that you’re a real film nerd and once thought you’d be a director. Do you find that those interests influence your storytelling and art at all?

Kibuishi: Definitely. Most of my research involves watching movies and analyzing them. Movie watching is still the most popular method of experiencing mythology in the modern age, so nearly any form of entertainment these days is measured against a good movie.

One of the things I think is incredibly cool about the work you do is how encouraging of the success of artists of all varieties you are, between putting together the anthologies like Flight and Explorer and also the workshops on art you’ve put together all over. What is it that drives you to help cultivate and support fellow artists like that?

Kibuishi: When I was young, I left the comics world because I thought it was falling apart. This was mostly due to all the negativity I heard from creators I respected and admired, many of whom quit the business to pursue careers in other forms of entertainment like movies or games. What I didn’t realize when I was younger was that it is far more rewarding to take something good that’s a bit broken and make it better, than to pursue a dream fueled by the promise of financial success or rock stardom.

My biggest heroes are the people who look at ways to take something and improve on it, and I see a lot of potential to work with in comics. I want to be very much a part of its resurgence, and I know that if my present-day colleagues and I are to be truly successful in bringing comics back to mainstream prominence, we won’t be able to do it alone.

About The AuthorDavid HarperDavid Harper mainly focuses on original content, interviews, co-hosting our 4 Color News and Brews video podcast, and being half of the Mignolaversity and Valiant (Re)visions team. He runs Multiversity's Twitter and Facebook pages, and personally tweets (rarely) @slicedfriedgold. By day, he works in an ad agency in Anchorage, Alaska, and he loves his wife, traveling and biscuits & gravy (ordered most to least, which is still a lot).

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User's Comments
  • Eliian

    Thank you for featuring this artist!! I would not have learned about him otherwise. He sounds like a really great and talented guy. Is one even. His art is gorgeous. I’m quite interested in his work now.

    • David Harper

      Hey Ellian, no problem at all! Kazu is truly one of the best, and he’s a tremendously nice guy to boot. Amulet is an incredible series, and it is an all-ages book that works for absolutely any age. It’s like Bone in that regard. We strongly recommend it.

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