Artist August: Aaron Kuder (Interview)

By | August 21st, 2011
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

They always say that in business, it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. While today’s Artist August featured creator Aaron Kuder may have been helped in getting his Amory Wars art gig by Ten Ton Studios mate Chris Burnham, I can say wholeheartedly that he has thrived on that book and beyond thanks to his stellar art. Not because of who he knows.

We have an extensive conversation today with Aaron about the trials and tribulations of getting in the comic industry, accidental lunches with Kevin Maguire, what kind of critique methods Chris Burnham employs, and whole lot more.

Thanks to Aaron for talking with us, and look for an extensive look at his art here in an hour or two.

Can you look back on your life and recall the single moment that you knew you wanted to work in comics? Or was it more of a natural progression that led you here? 

I can’t say there is one particular moment. I’ve always drawn, and for the most part I’ve always drawn superhero/fantasy/otherworldly type things. One story in particular that stands out was from the first time I met the legendary Al Williamson. I had been helping out at my local-yokel comic convention. Al Williamson, Mark Schultz, and Roger Stern were the big name pulls for the con that year. I think I was 15 at the time, something like that anyway.

To make a long story short, Al looked at my sketch book (not even “professional” sample packs by any means), got about a quarter into it and looked me dead in the eyes and said “you got it kid”. After he finished looking through my book he handed it to Mark Schultz and said, “check this out Mark. This kid’s great.” Now, up unto this point I’d shown my drawings to a small number of people in the industry and for the most part they told me to work on this and that, without any real sense of positive commentary. Which is all well and good. You shouldn’t be dependent on positive reinforcement if you want to drawing anything for a living. But wow, to have someone like Al Williamson tell you “you’ve got it kid. (It) blew my socks off. There’s more to the story but that was one major pivotal memory that reaffirms that this is what I’m suppose to be doing with my life.

That’s amazing. I can’t even imagine how excited I would be about something like that – I am giddy just talking to some of these guys.

So growing up you were a comic fan…what were you reading? What was making you think “maybe this could be a fun job someday?” And what artists were the first ones that informed your own art?

I never really thought about getting comics as “collecting” until I was in my early 20’s (I’m 33 now). Before that I just liked comics and that’s what I wanted to spend my money on every week.  Hell, comics pretty much taught me to read. The stuff that I bought consistently were the books that all of the Image founders put out back when they did Marvel books: Jim Lee’s X-Men, Todd (McFarlane)’s Spider-Man, etc.

Art Adams + Man Thing

Then I found Art Adams.

I really think his work was the first thing I saw in a comic that made my jaw drop. Oddly enough, I’m not sure which issue it was that first caught my eye, but I know as soon as I found him, I went around and bought everything I could of his work. Even if he only did the cover, I’d snatch it up (to this day I don’t think there is another artist I’ve done that for). A few years down the road I found Adams’ influence Michael Golden and had a similar reaction. One person that I always try to mention when ever someone asks me stuff like this, is a Polish artist by the name of Grzegorz Rosinski. I found him when I was overseas visiting a friend. Rosinski drew a book called Thorgal. Beautiful, beautiful illustrated storytelling. Ha, come to think of it, I’ve never read any of his books, because I could only find them in Polish at the time…I’ll have to see if there are printing them in English these days.

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So you’ve got the interest in the industry and word from some legends that you’ve got chops. Your art is finding its influences and voice. What were your first steps to try and break into the industry?

Well, most of my freelance jobs came to me via word of mouth (I guess the same can be said for most of my comic jobs too). But as for “breaking in,” am I in? (laughs) I mean, there are so many really talented people out there…who’s to say when you reach that point of being “in?” I try not to think of it in terms like that. I draw stuff and put it out there, get feedback, and try to do better with each page/image. When you get to a point where other people see what you see in your work, people will start wanting you to draw their ideas, and hopefully you can start making an income from it.

The best thing that I have ever done for my career is to put myself out there…post in comic art forums, have art shows at coffee shops, go to conventions and get feedback, draw in public and when any one starts peeking over your shoulder ask them if they’d like to look through your book, etc. I was really lucky to become an officer at Ten Ton Studios. Out of a lot of the comic art forums out there, Ten Ton was always one of the best at giving great (and honest) feedback. That definitely helped my career and my artistic skills to improve.

Well, you are definitely making forward progress. The fact that you’ve got a regular job at Boom!, one of the bigger publishing houses in comics, is definitely indicative of that.

A page of Kuder’s work

Speaking of Ten Ton Studios, how did you get involved with that group and become an officer on their site? Is that how you landed the job on The Amory Wars, taking over for its previous artist Chris Burnham (who is also a Ten Ton member)?

I came across Ten Ton shortly after it was formed. Five years ago? Six?

Anyway, at the time I was bouncing from comic forum to comic forum entering drawing competitions. I have always really liked putting my art up against other peoples, not in a “I’m better then you” sort of way, but because, I feel like you get way better critiques that way.

Often times the voting masses of whatever forum will post an overall response to the art, and when that happens people are more inclined to say something like “Oh, I liked your pic, but the hand was a bit off, so I voted for so and so.” Where as, a lot of times, you can start a thread of your art, get 100 hits, but only one or two dudes respond with “nice job” or “wow great,” which is great and all, but critiques are the Energon Cube to my artistic Transformer. Without them I turn into a second rate Gobot, “car-man-bot” or something like that.

Which is also the reason I fell in with the Ten Ton folks. Every week we do this Weekly Sketch Challenge, which may not sound very unique off-hand, except for the fact that all of the entries can not be modified digitally AND the winner gets to choose another entry as their prize. So if you lose, you may have to send your art to the person that won…which really ups the ante. All of that AND some of the best/most honest (leave your ego at the door) critiques around.

Ha, which kinda reminds me of the first time noticed Chris Burnham on the site. Burnham gives the best “hammer to crotch” critiques around, and I guess that day I left my sports cup at home, because boy, I could have sworn that the dude hated me or something. After a minute or two I snapped out of it and realized that he was doing me a huge favor. But anyway, yeah, Chris and I met through Ten Ton, apparently he really likes my work.

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Burnham called me up when I was at the post office, told me he was being offered the chance to do Batman and that he wouldn’t be able to do Amory Wars anymore. He asked if I’d be interested in trying out for the spot. About a month later and a number test run doodles, I got the gig. It still (puts) a huge smile on my face thinking about that phone call in the post office. I think half the people there were thinking “a grown man shouldn’t be that giddy” and the other half were thinking “is he doing the pee-pee dance?”

I can’t even imagine. If I found I had a job in comics, I would find the nearest mountaintop and share my happiness at the top of my lungs. There might be some Hammer dancing as well.

At that point in time, had you been attempting to break into the industry in other ways? If so, what were you doing?

Oh please tell me you would wear lederhosen at the same time. Hell, if you send me a picture of you doing the Hammer dance on a mountain top in lederhosen, I will draw you in the background of my new book Key of Z.

But I digress, to answer your question, no. I really hadn’t done a thing to get into the industry for a handful of years before. It’s kind of like I said before, most of my jobs have come to me via word-of-mouth. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely done my share of door knocking and path thumping, but for the three-ish years before I got onto (The) Amory Wars, I was one of the many people struggling to get by in a crappy economy. Back when I got the call from Burnham, I was working 50-60 hours a week as an electrical apprentice in Arkansas. Before that I was bouncing around Seattle, working at a coffee shop part-time struggling to make ends meet and trying to get a full-time job using my art in some capacity. Ha, I was trying everything, I even got turned down to design the decorative patterns on tombstones. Needless to say, trying to get into the comic industry is a job on it’s own.

Still, getting The Amory Wars is definitely a pretty major step and that story is a great one for any one trying to break in. And you may get your wish on the picture front…

A page from The Amory Wars

How has it been working on The Amory Wars? Have you tried to match Burnham’s look at all, or have you just been trying to give the book the Kuder touch through and through?

Working on Amory has been a complete blast. Incredibly challenging but a great one. Everyone at Boom! and Evil Ink have been extremely positive. It was a fanboys dream come true to work on a book with Peter David’s name on it. But I have to say, beyond having such a positive interaction with everyone involved, it was a totally wonderful experience on a much more personal level. Knowing you can draw a monthly book and actually drawing a monthly book are completely different things. And feeling that with each issue, I was able to push myself in new and different ways…what a great feeling.

As for Burnham’s style.. I definitely was influenced by what he had done with the book at first for a number of reasons I think. Burnham really has mastered his own “look,” and a lot of the reference material I had to work with was from the books he had drawn. That in combination with the fact that, personally, I hate it when a mini-series changes artist in mid-story.

So, at least in issue #8 (the first issue I drew), I didn’t fight being influenced by Burnham…I figured, the less jarring the visual transition, the easier it would be for the readers of the book. I’m still not sure if it mattered or not. I know a couple of critics referred to my work on that issue as a knock off Burnham style, but whatever. I know a number of fans of Amory were happy that there wasn’t a major shift in the art right away. And I feel like I was able to come back into a style that is entirely my own by the end of the series.

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I can say personally that it kills me when any series changes artists midway and the styles are drastically different. Trying to bridge your style to his aids the reader’s experience, and I personally wish more artists did that.

Another page from The Amory Wars

Speaking of critics…so if critiques are the Energon to your artistic Transformer, what does that make proper comic book reviews of Amory Wars? What has the overall response been like? Have the reviews you’ve read made you rethink any artistic choices you make?

Well, I should say the idea of trying bridge the gap between one and artist and the next is not an easy thing to do. I mean, beyond the question of if the next artist has the ability to blend their personal style with someone else’s; there’s still a question of if they should. If an artist doesn’t write the story, then the only thing he or she could be remembered for is their art. Which raises the question: is it smart to try to “bridge the gap,” as it were, when a reader might only see your hybrid work and not your own style? Who knows? I’m still on the fence about that one.

With critics though, there is a difference between getting an artistic critique and having your book reviewed. For example, you’re more likely to hear specific advice in an artistic critique. And in a review, it’s more of a P.H. Test of how your work stands up against the rest of the art in the industry. Both have valid points to make and I try to pay attention to all, but in many ways they’re like apples and oranges. Similar in that they are both modes of of constructively criticizing said artwork but different in more ways then they’re similar. One of the biggest ways that they’re different is that a critique is, for the most part, directed specifically to the artist, and a review is more like one part critique, three parts entertainment. That being said most of my reviews have been good. There have been a couple that can be said were luke warm, but no one said anything I didn’t expect for my first run on a series.

Yeah, I think on any one’s first work you will get a range of responses strictly because of the unknown factor. That’s how people are I think.

So as someone finding you way in this niche medium that we love, have your friends and family been pretty supportive of you making it as an artist?

(laughs) Yeah. There’s always someone in any one’s life that will give you there “sober” advice…someone that will think about the downside of every silver lining. And in this case I was fortunate to only have one person like that. And they were having a bad month anyway. So their opinion was tainted a bit. With everyone else I was like “should I go for it?” and everyone looked at me with this “duh!” look on their face.

That is the way it needs to be – the duh! face, not the bad month – and it’s good you get support from everyone as you pursue your passion.

Speaking of that, you’re a big fan of comics too. As a newcomer, have you met anyone or talked to anyone that you just have totally geeked out over while trying to maintain your professional composure (and yes, I am including working with Peter David – which is amazing!)? Is it a little mind blowing to start crossing that boundary from fan to creator? 

I totally geeked out when I got the chance to hangout with Kevin Maguire. It was after the last C2E2 show. A bunch of the Ten Ton Studios guys and a handful of other folks went out to eat. I sat down across from this name who said his name was Kevin. We all had a nice time. Later on in the night I found out his last name. I’m kinda glad I didn’t know exactly who he was when we were eating. Although, he is one of the few that I would geek out over. I simply love his storytelling. But for the most part I haven’t been all fanboy for a while. The only other time I can think of was when I met Walt and “Weezie” Simonson. Much like the time I met Al Williamson they both looked at my work and liked it a lot…this was maybe ten years ago. And they were both incredibly nice.

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Here’s the ultimate question for you: what is your dream project? You can get anything off the ground with whoever else on it…what would it be?

Dream project…man my brain goes into overload every time I think about this idea. Ask a dreamer what’s his favorite dream… Sheesh.

Ultimately my dream project would be one of my own stories. But that’s every one’s answer, right? Your ideas are always more interesting then anything anyone else has come up with yet.

Lila Cheney

If I refrained myself to the contemporary characters everyone knows and loves… ha… I still have more then a few. One of the projects that I think could actually happen someday is a revamp of Marvel’s character Lila Cheney. (A) space traveling, teleporting, rock star, morally questionable, bad ass woman.

Need I say more? Why hasn’t this already happened? And why haven’t I already drawn it?!? (laughs) Joss Whedon and I would co-write it (hey, this is my dream right?) and I’d pencil, ink, and color it. Okay the more I go on the less likely it seems, but, in some form, I could still see it happening. With or without Joss.

I would buy the hell out of that Lila Cheney book! She is very underrated and awesome, but I might be biased because I think we grew up reading the same books.

Okay, next question: who are your absolute favorite artists working in comics today?

Hmmm, honestly that’s something I don’t really think about very often. I mean, for me the art is the reflection of the story…so the art can be great but if the story sucks, I’m not going into it. It’s about the overall experience for me…which is also a reason I’m much more of an advocate of the “Marvel style” (or at least the old school Lee/Kirby method) of telling stories, where the writer and artist work together to create the story. Anyway…

I guess I can easily say I really love the art of all the folks at Ten Ton…which isn’t just a shameless promotion. I wouldn’t be a part of them if I didn’t have a deep respect for their work. Outside of them, John Cassaday and Frank Quitely are the first two that pop into my mind of two guys that are changing the industry with their styles. Sean Murphy is another name that pops into my mind. Really love his stuff.

Alright, last question for you, and it’s a desert island question. One book, one comic, one album and one movie…what comes with you if you are stuck on a desert island?

And your Lila Cheney book with Whedon doesn’t count!

The complete works of Shakespeare (not that I’m a huge Shakespeare buff or anything, but it would kill a lot of time…and in my moments of crazy islander solitude I could play out all the rolls with my self).
A Lazy Sunday: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Only because he touches on all the themes of sci-fi and fantasy that I like. And on a desert island, it’ll be nice to remember all of them, and I bet I could use a good laugh at times.

Album?… That’s a tough one… Can’t I just bring my iPod? Maybe Blue Valentine by Tom Waits.. Maybe.

Movie, probably something like City of Lost Children by Marc Caro and Jean Pierre Jeunet, because it’s in French and maybe I could learn a new language while I’m waiting to starve to death (laughs).

What other projects do you have coming up?

Well this October I have a book coming out called Key of Z. Written by Claudio and Chandra Sanchez. Take NYC, add a gang-like power struggle, throw in a dash of ice cold revenge, and stir in a large pot filled with zombies. Put it on the stove, and wait for it to boil over. Then serve. It’s going to be a blast.

David Harper

David 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).