Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Interview: Greg Smallwood

For its annual Halloween celebration, Omaha's Krypton Comics invited Dark Horse and Marvel artist Greg Smallwood to visit the shop and draw some spooky sketches for customers. Smallwood is the current artist of Marvel's Moon Knight, written by Brian Wood, and he is the artist and co-creator of Dream Thief, which is written by Jai Nitz and published through Dark Horse.

During a quiet moment in between sketches, I took the opportunity to talk to Greg about his art, his love of comics and what his next project might be:

Has anyone mentioned the fact that the writer of Moon Knight is Brian Wood and you’re Smallwood.

A few people have talked about it online, I’ve noticed. It didn’t occur to me until a few weeks until after I took the gig, and I thought, ‘Oh, wait a minute, on the cover it’s going to have “Wood” and “Smallwood” on it. That’s really bizarre.’ And then I thought, ‘Maybe my editor, Nick Lowe, maybe he considered that. Maybe he thought that would look good on the cover, a little bit of synergy going there.’

He’s the big wood and I’m the small wood.

Can you tell me a little about how you broke into comics?

The store in Lawrence, Astrokitty Comics, is pretty responsible for my breaking in. I did an entry for Zuda Comics, for one of their last competitions, I think it was December ‘09, if I remember right. I did a bunch of flyers and took them to area shops. And I took some flyers to Astrokitty, I had been there a couple times, and the store owner, Joel, put that flyer in front of Jai Nitz and said, ‘Hey, look at this guy’s work.’ And Jai was like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta work with him.’ And Jai sent me an email that day and said ‘hey, I have a pitch for you if you’re interested. It’s called Dream Thief. And he sent me a one-page synopsis and I loved it and I said ‘yeah, let’s do it.’

I was wondering if you had known Jai before, prior to Dream Thief

Yeah, no, we became friends working together. A lot of Leavenworth kids ended up going to Lawrence, just to get out of Leavenworth and go somewhere else. And so I had a lot of friends in Lawrence, and my sister lived there at the time.

I made the move, actually, after our first pitch of Dream Thief, which was not successful, then I moved out there. And I started hanging out with Jai more and we said, ‘let’s give it another shot,’ and so we did a second pitch for Dream Thief and that’s when Dark Horse picked it up. And during that time is when I really got to be friends with Jai.

I think that’s why our second pitch was a lot better, we had a little bit more synergy, we knew each other better. I realized we had similar sensibilities, so we kind of keyed in on that. Where as before Dream Thief was a little more broad, then it became more, kinda like, cultish, because we were making a lot of Miami Vice references and all kinds of crazy stuff, which wasn’t originally part of the plan.

Did you go to school for art or are you more self taught?

I guess you could say I’m self taught. I took art in high school, but they don’t really teach you anything that’s applicable to comic book art. College was the same. I went to community college, took some painting courses. I guess I learned a little bit, but not much. It was pretty much a waste of time. I just knew DC and Marvel, they don’t care whether you go to school or not. And that’s really what I wanted to do, just do comics, I didn’t have any interest in doing any other kind of art.

Where did the interest in comics come from?

It was my dad. My dad collected comics. He was into them for the art. While he was in Arizona in the ‘70s, he walked into a comic shop and he’d read a few comics when he was a kid, like the adaptations of classic novels and stuff like that. I think he got war comics.

Yeah, I just fell in love with the art. Of course that was the time Frazetta and Boris Vallejo were getting pretty big, and the Hildebrandt Brothers. And he kind of passed that love of comics down to me.

What were some of your favorite artists or influences?

When I was younger, my dad put a lot of comics in front of me that become pretty influential, Rocketeer and Xenozoic Tales. Dave Stevens and Mark Schultz were big favorites of mine. I see a lot of their influence in my work.

He was big into EC Comics, so a lot of that stuff was a big influence.

These days, I think Chris Samnee has probably had the most impact on my work, because he was sort of my gateway into Alex Toth. And that kind of changed my approach. Once I discovered that you could just lay down tons and tons of ink on a page and make it work, I really took to it. So guys like Sean Phillips, Chris Samnee are definitely probably big influences. I like Dave Johnson a lot, and Jason LaTour.

I guess a classic artist that I really like for his storytelling is José Luis García-López. Of course I had a lot of his art when I was a kid, because he did all the DC licensed art, so Super Powers action figures was all his art.

You can really see that sort of influence, especially on Moon Knight, and following Declan Shalvey … how did you get on the book?

The editor, Nick Lowe, he had come to Kansas City Planet Comicon one year and Jai and I met with him. It was after Dark Horse picked up Dream Thief, so we showed him a little bit of Dream Thief. He dug it and he said, ‘all right, keep in touch, guys.’

After Dream Thief came out, Nick contacted both of us and said, ‘hey, would you like to do a story in A+X?’ So we did a Dr. Strange/Beast story. And Nick said, ‘hey, I’m gonna keep you guys in mind for anything in the future.’

And I got an email from Nick one day, and he said, ‘hey, I think I’ve got something in mind for you. Give me a call.’ So I called up Nick and he just straight up offered me Moon Knight. He was like, ‘Brian Wood’s writing it, Jordie [Bellaire]’s is staying on for colors, what do you think, do you want to do it?’

Of course I immediately said yes. I got a little bit nervous afterwards. I started talking to people, saying, ‘man, I don’t know if this is the right move.’ I mean, everybody was in love with those first six issues, and following Declan, I knew that was going to be a big challenge. I knew a lot of people were so attached to his art.

They [Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey] kind of streamlined the character to the point where it became very much theirs. And I didn’t know if it was the right move to follow, but I mean, it would have been dumb of me, I’m not going to turn down a Marvel gig like that. Especially working with Brian and Jordie, and Nick is such a great editor. It’s pretty much a dream job. I always thought I’d have to do a lot of fill-in issues or something like that, to work my way up, but right away they just gave me a job on one of their big books and I’m really grateful for it.

DMZ, Demo and Local, those were big for me. That was a big deal when I was younger. His graphic design that he incorporated into his comics, that was a big influence. I love that. Even the Dream Thief logo, there’s a lot of Brian Wood in there. I think that’s definitely a lot of looking at his work. He did that Channel Zero, he did an art book you could download as a PDF from his website … his comics are really special.

What’s working with Brian Wood like?

He communicates mainly through the scripts. I sort of just get exactly what he’s going for. He’s always got some notes in there, to let me know the tone he’s going for. He’ll make references to a movie and say, ‘think of this when you’re drawing it.’

I do my thing and after the issue’s done, he’ll send me an email saying, ‘hey man, great work, thanks.’ He’s great. I like working with him. I love his scripts. I couldn’t be happier with him.

So after Moon Knight, what’s next? More Dream Thief with Jai?

Yeah, we’re working on volume 3 right now. We’re doing it a little bit different, we’re not going to do a miniseries, we’re gonna do some short stories. Dark Horse will probably announce that in a little while. We’ve got a pretty long story in mind. We like the idea of a finite ending, but we have a lot of stories we want to tell before we get to that point.

Have you thought about writing your own thing?

I think doing my own book is in my very near future. I have some stories that I want to tell. That might be next, I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. I’m open to more Marvel work, obviously, but that may not happen immediately. There’s definitely a story that I have in mind that I want to tell and that might be my next project.


To check out Greg's work, the first volume of Dream Thief is available now and Volume 2 comes out in January. His Moon Knight arc (issues 7-12) will be collected in a trade in April 2015. You can also find digital editions of Moon Knight via comiXology.com and Dream Thief at digital.darkhorse.com.

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