Marvel's Ian Herring Is A Marvel

An interview with the artist, illustrator, colourist, and designer of the cover of my novella 'Adultescence'.

“A career in comic book illustration awaits you at the Royal Academy of Illustration and Design! Learn all the latest digital techniques and tricks on industry-standard software while making connections with publishers and authors in the comic book world. Start your education at RAID today! Just call (416) 555-…”

Feel like you’ve seen that ad on the subway, next to the Seneca and George Brown and Trebas Institute posters? Well, you haven’t. Because the Royal Academy of Illustration and Design (RAID) doesn’t exist—as a school. It does, however, exist a semi-secret design studio where some of the top illustrators in comic books today—think Marvel, think DC, think Dark Horse—work out of a converted loft space near Spadina and College.

One of them is Ian Herring, a local Ontario talent who has worked on titles as diverse as ‘Kill Shakespeare’, ‘A Tale of Sand’, ‘Hacktivist’, ‘The Amazing Spider-man’, ‘Silk’, 'E for Extinction', The New ‘Ms. Marvel’, the ‘All-New Hawkeye’, ‘Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons’, and his own book with Daniel MacIntyre ‘Junior Citizens’.

I met him at TCAF – the Toronto Comic Arts Festival – two years ago, while I was working on two table-top game projects (since set aside in favour of my writing) and looking out for potential illustrators. Ian’s work leapt out at me for its emphasis on relatively clean, even geometric lines, a high degree of stylization, and a flat graphic quality married to rich almost expressionistic textures and colours. It felt like a mix of comic books and German expressionist painting from the early part of the 20th century. I took his card, filed his name away in my head, and two years later, when I was looking for someone to do the cover for my novella, I thought he’d be a perfect fit. (And he was.)

Now I’m delighted to be able to share his work on ‘Adultescence’—in the form of a GIF that shows you each stage of the process—and to share his voice in the following short interview. He’s someone whose work you’ll definitely be seeing more of in the future.

Peter: Where did you grow up and go to school? Were you always a visual/creative kid, or did that develop along with your interest in comics?

Ian: “I grew up in Alliston (Ontario) and Baddeck (Nova Scotia) and went to college at Sheridan in Oakville. I had been drawing on and off for years, mostly mimicking things like Nintendo properties and TMNT [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles] toys. There was almost no access to comics, so I mostly grew up without them. But I was interested in the cartoons and movies that were spawned from them.”

What was the first story you fell in love with as a kid? (You've said in interviews you liked the Muppets, and you’ve done some work on Jim Henson projects as an adult.) Do the stories and characters you loved as a kid still resonate for you now?

“I loved the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and movies, I had no idea it was a comic beforehand. I think it was the way that the characters fit into certain roles that appealed to me: the leader, the tough guy, the brain, the fun guy. It was easy to follow at that age. I got into Star Wars, Mario Brothers and all things Nintendo soon after. My interest in some things fell away due to a lack of time, or I just didn’t like the direction they went in as I got older. Star Wars is a good example of that.”

Did you do art all the way through school? Other than drawing, what forms do you have experience with or an affinity for? (Photography? printmaking?) 

“As early as it was offered I took art while in school.  I enjoy website design, learning how to write HTML in the early days, but I didn’t keep up with it and now things are far beyond what I’m capable of.”

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I gather you're a 'digital native', though your style simulates a lot of traditional painterly effects…

“Yeah, I’ve been using digital art programs since before our family had a computer.  I’d borrow time on a friend’s or use the ones at the computer lab.  Early experiments with Microsoft Paint, Corel Draw, and Paintshop Pro before finally moving into Photoshop. I learned the most about using that application from talking to others at Sheridan and other types of professionals (Photographers, Designers). A lot of the traditional feel comes from custom brushes and sets from others that are available online, most recently from Kyle T. Webster (http://www.kyletwebster.com/). The rest are photo textures I’ve either found or scanned in from paper sources I’ve collected.”

Can you describe briefly the career path you've followed since graduating? What was your big break, and has working at RAID broadened the scope of what you are able to do?

“I graduated from Sheridan in 2008 and continued to work at Sobey’s. (I had worked at various locations since I was 15.) Then I moved into downtown Toronto and worked at an internship with Spafax, which does custom publishing. At the same time, I was recruited by one of the artists at RAID, Andy Belanger, to colour his new projects since we had done some work together while I was interning at RAID the summer before. 

“I picked up a lot of valuable knowledge at Spafax before the term ended and was able to quit Sobey’s and become a fulltime colourist with Andy on a book called ‘Kill Shakespeare’.  After that series had completed, I was asked to help out another member of RAID, Ramon Perez, to work on ‘A Tale of Sand’.  That went on to become an award-winning success and suddenly I was contacted out of the blue by a wide variety of people. I’ve been working non-stop ever since. So yeah, working out of RAID definitely brings work my way. And I get to work with an amazing group of people, rather than just being in front of a screen at home all day.”

You do roughly three kinds of work: cover illustrations, sequential illustrations, and colouring. What do you like about each and what is the biggest challenge of each?

“For cover Illustrations I look at a lot of poster design and try to make something as impactful as I can.  Sometimes settling on the best solution is tricky because there can be so many options to draw.

“In terms of sequential illustration, this is new to me so everything is tricky because I’m learning how to effectively tell a story by breaking it down into panels.

“As for colouring, I work with a lot of great artists that are supportive and a team of assistants who help to keep everything running smoothly. Time, or lack of it, is usually the trickiest part of this job when a deadline is looming.”

I imagine, depending on the client, collaborating on things like the cover you did for me can be an interesting and maybe a difficult challenge?

“The collaboration level definitely varies a lot depending on the time available and the distance between me and the client. It helps when a client knows what they want, and you referenced my own work so hopefully I’m familiar with that. [Laughter] And you’re local, so it was easy to meet at different stages to make sure we were on the right track.”

Yeah, when we were working on the ‘Adultescence’ cover, I worried that I was overwhelming you with too much feedback, but you took it very well. Obviously, I don’t work in the industry, so I had no idea what to expect, but you walked me through the process in a really easy-to-understand way.

“Taking time to communicate the steps—from thumbnails, to roughs, to finished work—helps a lot. And editors and other people usually know what to expect from each of those steps, while offering suggestions along the way if needed.”

It was an interesting process for me because writing is so solitary and you might work on a piece for years without showing it to anybody. In the end, though, I got what I felt was 100% what I wanted and 100% your work, which was really nice and sort of surprising to me. Anyway, I’m really happy with the result!

“Yeah, me too. It was a fun project.”

In conversations we’ve had, you said that you weren't always comfortable with colour. On 'Hacktivist', however, you've used colour to signal changes of location in a way that’s similar to the film ‘Traffic’. How did you get comfortable with colour over time? Any pro-tips for people having similar difficulties with colour?

“Before I was comfortable with it, I would go through art that I liked, figure out the palette and just try to copy it. I would stick with basic colour theory, like complementary colours, before slowly branching out into more complex schemes. Starting simple and building from there is a good rule of thumb.”

What are some of the other visual sources that inform your approach to illustration?

“I look at a lot of Art Nouveau and Soviet era posters.  The way they break down shape and colour is very appealing.”

I can really see that in a piece like 'Dirigible', which you did for a snowboard company. [Note: In fact, it was that piece that I referenced when Ian and I first sat down to talk about what I wanted for the cover.--Peter] Did it take you a long time to develop your current style? You seem to be experimenting with ever more abstract expressionistic effects. Is that a direction that interests you?

“I started to play with this style after I graduated and have pushed it more from there.  A lot of my work as a colourist has come back into my work as an illustrator and I’ve removed the line-work from some newer pieces to focus on just making shapes with just colour. Hopefully I can keep pushing this.”

You do a book with Daniel MacIntyre called ‘Junior Citizens’ which is a sci-fi Cold War series. What appealed to you about that era thematically and visually and how do you try to bring that to the illustrations?—which are great, by the way—very evocative and cinematic. 

“Thanks. My friend Dan and I really loved the idea of the future that never was.  He has been reading a lot of Cyber Punk, and I was reading some old science fiction from the 19th Century which took place in the fantastic world of the year 2000! There is a large amount of work in the early Cold War era depicting each side’s view of the future and it’s been a lot of fun to draw on that.”

In interviews about ‘Hacktivist’ (a project conceived by actress and writer Alyssa Milano and brought to life by Herring, Marcus To, Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly) the issue of genre comes up, because it's not a traditional superhero comic. Do you find genre a useful marketing tool, or do you think genre-expectations make it difficult to find an audience at times?  

(In book publishing, for example, although people think nothing of reading 800-page fantasy or mystery novels--the ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ series come to mind--it’s really hard to get those same people to read even a 400 or 500 page book of 'literary' fiction.) 

“I think genre can be useful shorthand for some things, but it can take more creativity to sell something that blends genres or sits outside popular tastes.” 

Along similar lines, you and I have both spent time in Japan, where there's a more ecumenical comics culture. Everyone reads them, adults and kids, and superheroes are a negligible part of it. They have manga about everything under the sun. Whereas here, I feel like there is still a stigma against adults reading 'comics'. Do you think it is changing here, and if not, what might it take to bridge that gap?

“I think the success of comic book movies has helped increase the acceptance of comics for adult audiences. I hear a lot of people say now that they want to check out Comic-Con, when a few years ago it would only be something die-hard fans would take part in.”

Are there any new projects coming up that you are excited about, or current ones that present interesting challenges? What are you looking forward to in 2016?

“I’m looking forward to the free time I have after lightening my schedule to finish off a few illustrations and work on my comic [‘Junior Citizens’]. Work stalled on it after the first issue because of a glut of colouring work this summer/fall. Issue #2 is coming along nicely, though, and we’re looking at six issues in total before moving on to something else.

“As far as colouring goes, I really enjoy the titles I’m doing now, and I’m excited to see where the writers/artists take the characters in the New Year. I’d also like to strike more of a balance with covers, sequential work and colouring in the future. 

Do you see yourself doing more writing, as well as illustrating? What would you like to write about?

“I co-write ‘Junior Citizens’ with my friend Dan so we’ll see how I feel after that’s complete, if I want to write more going forward.”

You mentioned being a Star Wars fan. What did you think of the new Star Wars movie?

“The new characters were a lot of fun, I just wish they had something new to do…”

I’m sure many fans feel the same way. Luckily, Ian Herring doesn’t have to worry about finding new things to do. He’s built a robust and exciting body of work that will keep him busy with offers for a long time to come. Can’t wait to see what he produces next!

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Follow Ian on twitter @TweetIanHerring and on TumblrFor more images and samples of his work, visit: 156thmongoose.com To see a video of Ian and Stacey Lee signing copies of ‘Silk’ and giving advice to a would-be comics creator, click here.