Sunday, September 24, 2006

I’m here with Mr. Thom Chiaramonte who was generous enough to let me interview him. His site alone has seen over 200,000+ hits, and it is little mystery why.

Sherry (S): Thank you very much for the interview. Let’s start with the basics: Why did you start to draw a comic style? From when were you interested in this medium?

Thom (T): I’ve been drawing superheroes for as long as I’ve been able to hold a scribble instrument. I have memories of drawing Superman and Spider-Man in chalk on the brick porch of my childhood home, which I think should prove I’m not JUST a Marvel zombie!

I drew pretty continuously throughout my youth, mostly old Marvel characters from the 70s, and elements pulled from the classic How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which was my bible until the Marvel Handbooks came out. I probably spent more time creating my own characters than drawing existing ones, though admittedly, mine were ciphers of my favorite published heroes. Once in school, I discovered an audience for my own comic creations. I finished my first full-color comic issue in 5th grade (Pentel pens on typing paper, stapled back to back, featuring some Voltron clone fighting a giant swarm of bees… serious auteur material, I know.) My first superhero comic creation, featuring some of my favorites from the already fairly large collection of personal creations, was called the Protectors, and was, you know, your typical origin story for a superteam…volcanoes in Central park, despotic warlord nemeses, and cheesecake. It was confiscated in class in 7th grade. I got most of it back, curiously disassembled by the teacher. Throughout Junior High and into High School, I began taking my own characters more seriously, developing more refined backstories for them, redrawing and updating some of the earlier designs, doing several more homegrown comic shorts that were destined to be made into an anthology for the reading pleasure of my seven friends. Though I never completed it, the seeds were being planted for collecting all of my creations and building a ‘shared universe’ around them, much the way legitimate publishers did, excepting of course, actually publishing anything. But to my friends and me, they were as established and contiguous as what we got in the comic shop, and once we began playing the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, the continuity, so to speak, of my characters began to grow through the adventures of my friends over several years of continuous campaigns. By the time I was in college, I knew I wanted to self-publish something, but didn’t really see a viable means to do so, as the internet was only starting to catch on, and the only real option seemed to be ashcans, which didn’t interest me. I had moved to computer colorization of my art, thanks to Mac Paint, and I visualized producing images and comics in color. It wasn’t very long before all of the basic building blocks for what I do today were in place: affordable scanner technology, my early Wacom tablet, my first full edition of Photoshop, and a web site. Jump forward to 2002-2003, and I made the push to put my creations on-line, initially to share with friends who’d moved to distant locales, but also just to get them out there. Once I built my site around my single brand identity for my comic work, I began to formalize the more casual commission art work I had been doing, and I’ve been doing a mix of commission art and my own projects ever since!

S: How do you start your day? I know some people get up really early, work a little bit, then maybe go for a run (or their full-time job), come back and start working again, while others prefer to sleep in and work later into the night.

T: When I was in maybe 10th grade, I was first learning about the realities of the comic industry: low pay, freelance risk, tough competition… and decided that what was most important to me was the process of drawing comics, specifically subjects I loved ie. My creator-owned characters, far more than the concept of actually trying to break into the traditional comic industry. I wanted a steady day job that would afford me the freedom to draw comics on my own time, for my own pleasure, and at my own pace. While I had dabbled with the special effects industry as a career option, and initially entered college as an architecture major in order to beef up my background knowledge for set design, along the way I realized that I wanted to work in Northern California, and actually be an architect after all. And so I did. That necessitates that my day is largely occupied by my professional career as an architect, rather than my moonlighting as an illustrator. So the day begins with the gym and the bike. But the night begins with a delicious cup of Iguacu instant coffee, my inexplicable pleasure, and I’m drawing as soon as possible. I used to be able to stay up pretty late, drawing until 1am or so… but these days, my window of productivity closes by 11pm…

S: Where did you get the name “Third Rail Design Lab” from? A pet project perhaps?

T: Actually, it’s an allusion derived from something pretty mundane, for those of us living in metropolitan cities with subways. I was on SF’s BART train and was admiring the placards warning against ‘touching the third rail’ with a pictograph of some guy with a lightning bold severing his thigh, and thought hey, creative spark, I get it. Third Rail Design Lab was born, and my creator-owned universe had a name. Then I got coffee.

S: Who are your influences?

T: I have several, though none I don’t think are particularly obvious. Masamune Shirow for technical illustration, Bryan Hitch for page layouts and pacing, Mike Mignola for composition and efficiency of line, author CJ Cherryh for character development, William Gibson for introducing me to hyper-imagery, Neal Stephenson for his ability to cross-weave stories across multiple contexts, leaving threads to be followed in any direction, Michael Mann, Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers, each for visual, compositional or stylistic cues that have salted my style today, and finally, my collaborator and friend, fellow artist Joao Marques, who frequently surprises me with new solutions to drawing issues that plague me regularly.

S: Do you have any comics that you’ve picked up lately that really made you think “Man, I just gotta draw that character?” If so, which?

T: That’s a good question. Thanks to the weekly drawing jam on my Third Rail Design Lab’s R3 Forum, we go through so many characters chosen at random from the requests of our forum members, that I have an opportunity to draw so many more characters than I have in the past. Commissions help on that front, too, as my clients often ask for fairly obscure characters. But I do keep a hitlist of to-draw characters that I hope to have time to illustrate, if they don’t come up in one of the other projects first. It goes back several years, sadly, but recent additions include Aisha from the criminally cancelled Losers title, many of the characters from the American Way mini-series, and the main characters from Byrd of Paradise, B. Clay Moore and Steven Griffin’s hard-boiled Hawaiian P.I. book. Oh, and I’ve recently been itching to draw some steampunkish contraption, having recently re-read Five Fists of Science by Fraction and Sanders.

S: I see that you draw a large variety of character, but who is your all time favorite character to draw?

T: I’ve drawn super heroes, ‘science heroes’, fantasy characters, metric tons of cyberpunk characters, obviously decades worth of iterations of my own characters… but from my pre-teen days to the present, nothing gets me going like drawing a suit of Iron Man armor. He was my first comic obsession, and the designs of the armors over the years were very influential on me. In fact, take one part Iron Man, with some Steve McNiven flavor, add one part Masamune Shirow Landmate and cyborg imagery, and a splash of bio-organic design logic, and you’ve got the essence of how I design and draw technological characters.

S: Who is your least?

T: Well, that’s a hard one to answer. I generally view undesirable character designs, much like I do unpleasant design issues in architecture, as problems seeking new design solutions. I think I have a hard time drawing characters designed in the late 80s and early 90s… the styles don’t speak to me. I’d probably point to early 90’s X-Men costumes with all of that inane, unnecessary belting and pouching and strapping all over them… in yellow. And to be honest, I’m not a big fan of drawing fur. I did manage a fairly decent ‘second-mutation’ Beast a few years ago, but generally, I see the furry art out there and marvel at how some artists accomplish the look of a fur hide without having to draw all the hair texture, a trick I haven’t resolved, myself.

S: Thank you very much for granting me this interview. It was a pleasure, and I can’t wait to see your next update!

T: It was my pleasure. This is an exciting year for Third Rail Design Lab. Some of my longer-term readers know that I’ve been working on a large sequential art project to be released online in serial format on the TRDL site. I hope to be able to start posting chapters soon, once I get a little further ahead of schedule, as self-published sequential art invariably takes an immense amount of time to complete, at least for me. But I’m very excited to bring the TRDL universe of my creator-owned characters to life a little more cohesively, as I begin to tell stories from this setting, beyond the fairly extensive catalog of original characters that have been published on the site. The timeline for the continuity of the TRDL universe will be told in a series of mixed-format projects that will tie the characters together, and set the stage for future sequential art projects set in the Third Rail Design Lab world, and the forward momentum on this is due, in large part, to something we’ve been cooking up behind the scenes for a little over six months now. I’m delighted to announce that Portuguese superstar Joao Marques has joined Third Rail Design Lab, and has been working with me for the majority of this year on a number of TRDL projects, including new characters, stories and more. We will be ramping up the publication of TRDL universe content on roughly a weekly basis, so there will be plenty of, well not spandex, but certainly neoprene, superhero fun to be had on the site. Hope to see you there!

You can visit his site, or visit his forums.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ms. Jenny Bannock was kind enough to grant me an interview session with her. Her work focuses on characters, and is very costume oriented. This helps to create a unique viewing experience.

The Interview:

Hello, Ms. Jenny Bannock, thank you very much for taking the time out to speak with me about your artwork.

Sherry (S): Firstly, what made you interested in drawing? Some people start drawing when they are kids and they continue on from there, while others start to draw later on in life – which were you?

Jenny (J): I was one of those kids who drew from moment one. I used to draw nothing but horses and unicorns for years, until my parents challenged me to draw “something else for goodness’ sake” (read: “Don’t you ever draw people??”)

S: I read in your profile that you went to a small community college to get your AA in Fine Arts, and then to a state university for a BA in Theater Design (which was unfortunately left unfinished), did these schools help you much to define your craft? Did they teach you anything that you have found useful?

J: They both definitely helped; the good thing about the community college was that the classes were small and the professor believed in teaching techniques, which I needed. At the state uni, I got a really solid grounding in costume design, color and lighting from working in theater. As a result, when I started working on my current series, I was able to meld those aspects together.

S: For those of us who aren’t too clear on this, what exactly is an AA in Fine Arts? What does it entail - what sorts of jobs does it prepare you for?

J: AA is Associate of Arts. It’s a two-year degree that often serves as a stepping stone to a BA. Most companies looking for degrees from their employees will take an AA over someone with no degree, though it doesn’t hold up as well as a Bachelor’s. Basically, it shows that I did actually go to school, and that I did follow through with a course of study. Beyond that, it’s not very useful, I’m afraid. The community college that I attended had one professor who was the ENTIRE art department. Art was a kind of ‘side’ degree that was tacked on to Liberal Arts. Still, I definitely did the work, and I did take something away with me. The nice thing about having it is that it shows prospective employers and clients that I have some formal training. Talent can only take you so far, but some companies will be more inclined to hire someone who shows they’ve done more than ‘draw as a hobby’. It shows you took your art a little further.

S: Does you desire for creating costumes for plays and movies influence your work heavily? I’ve noticed in your work that there are a lot of very costume-driven characters, not to mention you say you a ‘love affair with Historic fashion and costume.’

J: Yes! I sew, knit, and crochet, and I’ve always loved creating working (not simply decorative) clothes for Renaissance faires, different periods of reenactment, and theater. Knowing how the garments are constructed, and the differences between one historic period and another, has helped me immensely when designing characters to draw. For instance, I have a trio of images that show three people in full court dress—two men and one woman. I was able to show their personalities through their clothing without resorting to over-the-top poses; Nemerenth is uncomfortable in his outfit, his brother Iyan is very much at ease, and Daene looks like she wants to be elsewhere. The way someone wears their clothing says a lot about them. So does the color and choice of accessories.

S: For your Merchant Road works, are you planning on combining the stories of Neelie, as well as the images into a book and selling them in that fashion?

J: I hope so. Neelie was a side character in one of the novel pieces that inspired the art series, but when I started Merchant Road, I wanted someone who I could explore in more detail. She wasn’t already heavily featured in the planned novel but I had a handle on her, and now she’s gone off and become a main character in her own right. I would love to assemble her tales and the images into a book; if I did, I would definitely rework the vignettes some more, though. I don’t think they’re complete enough in their current form.

S: On your website, you say that you are first and foremost a character artist, but, do you have any plans to start a comic for either Merchant Road or your up-coming project?

J: I actually started this because my comic attempts have been less than satisfactory. I don’t want to give up on the idea completely, but it’ll be far in the future if it ever happens at all. I’m not happy or comfortable with setting up dynamic panels; it’s one thing to do an action piece, but another thing entirely to do action over and over and over again. I have a LOT of respect for people who do it all the time. Since I keep ending up with talking heads anyway, I figure I’ll stay with the format I have now. :)

S: You say that you influences are American comics, Japanese manga and anime, as well as historical outfits and costumes, but who, or what comics/manga/anime have been major influences on your style?

J: Manga/Manwha/Kung-Fu: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Bleach; Aria; Rebirth; Alichino; Full Metal Alchemist; King of Hell; anything by Yu Watase or CLAMP. (Shut up! I like them. XD)
American Comics: Meridian; Sojourn; the new Drizzt series based on the books by RA Salvatore; Danger Girl (the old version, not the current one); Sandman. I also read a LOT of webcomics, and though they don’t directly inspire me, they help me look at new ideas and expressions.
Anime/Cartoons: Louie the Rune Soldier; Grenadier; Angel Links; Cowboy Bebop; Samurai Jack; Clone Wars; Record of Lodoss War.

S: A little along the same thread, but, do you have any particular comics, manga, or anime that you are currently reading? Any indy books catch your attention?

J: I’m reading the Drizzt graphic novels as they come out—it’s like a guilty pleasure, and I much prefer them to the original novels (couldn’t stand Salvatore’s prose. Ugh.). I don’t have as much connection to comic books as I used to, but I try to keep up with a few, mostly ones I listed above. For anime, I just finished watching the second season of Gantz, which was hideously violent but had some amazing character designs. One nice thing is that I have just recently been introduced to some indy comics—Monsterguy, Last Days of the Flare, Captain Drew and His Crew of Two and some others—through ConnectiCon, so I’m eagerly awaiting new episodes.

S: What about games?

J: Character designs in video games ALWAYS inspire me. Final Fantasy is a big one, though I’ve gotten away from using those games for inspiration simply because it’s evident in my work when I do use them. I’ve always drawn my tabletop roleplaying characters, and looking at the art done for Exalted and other RPG systems will give me ideas.

Most of all, the Suikoden video games were the final inspiration for Merchant Road. Each one features 108 playable characters, and each one has full illustrations for each character in various static but interesting poses. Considering that there are five games in the series, that’s 540 illustrations MINIMUM, and that’s not counting the non-playable characters who have also been illustrated. Each one is completely different! They’re all unique, identifiable as each character, and I don’t think any of the poses are completely replicated. That blows me away. I want to do something like that.

S: For historical costumes, what time period if your favorite? Me, I’m partial to the Ancient Grecian, and Victorian styles.

J: Definitely the Italian Renaissance, the English Tudor period, and pre-Civil War American West. I also love using Persian and Assyrian elements in my more exotic designs. I have made clothing for the European Middle Ages, Italian Ren, and early Victorian.

S: Can you tell us about your time at Connecticon? You seem to have had a lot of fun, but it must have been tiring being the Board of Directors, and secretary for the Art Colony!

J: It was a blast. I had never attended a convention before, so it was a real learning experience all around. I was exhausted by the end of the year, and got to the point where I just wanted the con to be OVER, but now I’m already thinking about how to work next year. :) I had a great opportunity to meet artists I respected (and found out there were some who respected ME, can you believe it??). Totally worth the blood, sweat and tears of planning it.

The funny thing is, I became the Art Colony Secretary by falling into it. I like being someone with some power but not ultimately in charge, and that role was perfect for me.

S: Could you tell us a little bit about your experience as a writer? What forms of prose interest you the most? What forms of prose wouldn’t you write if you had the choice?

J: I can’t decide if I’m an artist who writes or a writer who draws. They’re both equally important to me, and one feeds the other. I am currently trying to publish a space opera (sci-fi without the science) novel I wrote with a friend, as well as working on two of the stories set in the Merchant Road world. When writing, I tend to come up with fantasy more than anything. I will write (and have written) just about every genre, but I least like solid reality. Non-fiction is one thing, but for me, writing fiction grounded firmly in reality seems silly. We live it already; why go out of our way to create a story about ordinary things?

S: So, sorry, I have to ask, how did you come up with the name ‘ChocoboGoddess?’ Is this the same Chocobo that are in the Final Fantasy games? Personally, I’ve been wondering about that since I first watched you on deviantArt. How about ‘Divine Bird?’ This is a refashioned ‘ChocoboGoddess?’

J: Heh, you’re right on all counts. I chose “Chocobo Goddess” when I first needed a screen name for I like chocobos (my Final Fantasy Tactics game has an entire army of them) and I thought it would be cute and funny to be their goddess. The name has stuck all these years. However, when I started to work on things that I wanted to sell, I needed a name that wouldn’t contain a copyrighted or trademarked word. A friend once referred to me as “that divine bird, the Goddess of Chocobos” and I loved it. My logo is also a kind of stylized bird that is somewhat loosely based on the chocobo.

S: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions. It was a pleasure. I look forward to seeing where your work takes you in the future.

J: Anytime! It was fun thinking of the answers to your questions. :)

I would like to say thank you once again to Ms. Bannock for taking time out of her day to complete the interview. It is easily seen that her work will grow and mature into some very detailed characters, with amazing costumes. Her work can be found at, at, or the photo section of CommissionArtCentral’s page. Ms. Bannock is willing to accept commissions almost all the time. If you are interested, please check out her page for commission information.