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.