My last shot rimmed out and just like that they were gone. My first appearance of Gambit (Uncanny X-Men #266!), my first appearance of Juggernaut (X-Men #12!!), and my third ever issue of X-Men (X-Men #3!!!!)—all thrown in the back of that dude’s hatchback with the rest of my comics before he peeled out of the parking lot like the most obnoxious Danny McBride character.
Me? I was left in the dust. The symbols of my childhood were gone. I was sixteen and devastated, worse, I only had myself to blame. Later that night, as I thought back on it, I came to two harsh conclusions:
1.) I had been hustled. That guy only acted like I could beat him in HORSE so I would foolishly put something up on the game. The world isn’t a kind place.
2.) Maybe I wasn’t as good at basketball as I thought. I needed to find something to which I was better suited.
As I exchanged emails with illustrator, Charlene Chua, this memory came back to me. I think it was because when I think about being a writer, I think about the decisions that helped me get here. I think it was because I still love comic books and basketball. I think it was because I am still very much inspired by people who can do things that I cannot.
Charlene has been a full-time illustrator for over ten years. Her work has appeared in the American Illustration, Spectrum and SILA’s Illustration West. She has illustrated multiple picture books, and, yes, even some comic stuff like the short comics ‘Eidolon‘ and 'Worn' for Image comic’s Liquid City anthology. Charlene is represented by Tracy Marchini of BookEnds Literary Agency.
Our exchange follows:
Dane wrote on 4/20/17 at 9:53am:
On the About section of your website, there is a mention that you enjoyed reading comics growing up. What comics first appealed to you? How did that influence your work as an illustrator?
Charlene replied on 4/27/17 at 12:04pm:
I remember finding a Conan comic in a supermarket when I was young. It was an issue illustrated by Ernie Chan, and that story featured Red Sonja and Valeria. I really like the idea of these strong warrior women who seemed to hold their own in the story. My mother didn't quite appreciate their somewhat skimpy attire though!
For better or worse, a lot of my self-taught human anatomy during my teens was largely influenced by comics such as Conan, X-Men, along with Bruce Timm's Batman cartoons and later, manga and anime. In all of these, I was attracted to the strong and sexy female characters and wanted to depict them in my own way. A lot of my early illustration work, I think, reflects that.
Over the years, my tastes and focus have changed; now I focus more on creating work for children and less on sexy warrior women. But I think if you look closely you can see the lasting influence of other aspects of comics in my work—the action, energy and storytelling, I think, can be traced back to that.
Dane replied on 4/28/17 at 11:32am:
That’s awesome. Comic books served as an early influence for me too. Probably because comics were the first stories I ever read on my own.
I remember that in the first issue of a new comic series, the artist would often have early sketches of the characters in the back pages. I liked that because it was cool to see the evolution of a character's appearance leading to the official look in the publication.
When you're working off another writer's script to do an illustration, do you often go through a few sketches of the characters? Is that something you collaborate with the author on?
Charlene replied on 5/1/17 at 12:52pm:
I think I missed the issues that had the character sketches at the back! Mostly I recall annoying partial stories at the back of Image comics back in the day—where the main story was something like 16 pages and then there was a 6 page 'mini story' for ANOTHER title at the back! I know now that that was really due to Image basically being bad with deadlines at the time...anyways, character sketches would have been nicer.
For picture books, yes, I do character sketches before starting work on the main book. Depending on how much time I have, I usually try several 'looks' for the main characters before settling on a design. With my first two books, I did work with the author quite a bit to determine the look of the characters. For my more recent books, I provide the sketches to the art director. I believe the art director shares the sketches with the author and if there are comments I work to try and incorporate those into the design.
I like working with the art director; they act as a bridge between the writing and the art, and their job is to help put together a final product that is best for the story. They are also more familiar with the language of visuals, and it makes it easier for me to understand what needs to be changed and where. I understand and respect that all writers have visions of their stories in their head; as an illustrator though, particularly for picture books, it may not be beneficial or even possible to translate those visions into real life.
Most people will agree in principle, but I think in practice, people are understandably protective over their stories and it's easy to get carried away over an art concern. Art directors are great in helping to manage expectations and facilitating communication between the different parties, in addition to being great designers as well.
Dane replied on 5/2/17 at 10:42am:
Thank you for the insight into the relationship between author and illustrator for picture books. I have always wondered about that.
Ah, Image Comics, I remember when they started out. I used to have a bunch of old Spawn, WildC.A.T.S., and Youngblood comics, but I lost them all when I bet my comic book collection on a game of basketball when I was sixteen. One of the worst decisions I have ever made. It makes me wince now when I think about it.
I still dig some Image stuff like Saga and Papergirls though. Are you still interested in comics? Have you ever thought about writing/illustrating your own graphic novel?
Charlene replied on 5/6/17 at 8:40am:
Oh dear—sorry to hear about your collection! You can have mine if you like. Although I'm not quite certain if I still have them—I think they are in a box somewhere. My sad collection of 'limited edition variant covers' from the 90s. Ugh.
I really wanted to do comics when I started out, but over the years the interest has waned. It's a LOT of work to draw comics. It's very competitive too, and the pay is comparatively low considering the amount of effort it takes to do a page. Honestly, I think you have to really, really love comics to survive as a comic book artist, and I think I've came to terms with the fact that that is just not me. I've tried to do my own stuff over the years but I've never completed anything. Think I got 50 pages into one and then called it quits. My poor husband has written me scripts over the years that never get finished.
Dane replied on 5/7/17 at 6:46pm:
Haha, thank you. My comic collection has surpassed what it used to be by now. It just took me a couple of years to make up what I lost. There was no recovering X-Men issue 3 that I found at a garage sale when I was 9 though. Oh, well.
That's understandable. I've always been jealous of illustrators as I would love to be able to write/illustrate my own graphic novel. However, if I were to attempt it now it would just be a lot of stick figures talking to one another in misshapen boxes with the Charlotte Hornets logo making an occasional appearance as I got really good at doodling that in fifth grade.
No doubt I'm sure it's easier said than done, but if you ever revisit those fifty pages, or take on one of your husband's scripts, I will gladly be among the first to buy a copy.
You've been working as a full time illustrator for over ten years, what are some lessons you've learned that you didn't know when you started out?
Charlene replied on 5/8/17 at 1:07pm:
Hm. Don't panic? Have enough savings? File your taxes? Beware backache? I suppose I could go on and on...
The easiest one to quantify I guess is to figure out how much you need to survive. Unless you're a pretty good farmer or hunter who also happens to live off the grid, you need money to buy stuff. So you got to figure out how much you need first, then figure out how you're going to go about getting that.
THEN figure out how to make a living off your art. People always want to jump into an art career, and then get scared off or frustrated when they realize they're not making loads of cash from their paintings. 99% of the time, an art career doesn't happen overnight. It takes years of building up clients and portfolio, and even then there's no guarantee.
Truth is that many successful artists also started off working in some other kind of job until they could sustain their art careers (or have very supportive family to help out while they build up their business).
Dane replied on 5/9/17 at 9:52am:
Thanks, Charlene. That’s great advice. That’s valuable to anyone going into any creative field. I’m lucky that I have a solid, consistent job right now as I also pursue a writing career. It’s a trick to balance between the two, but I’m thankful that I don’t have to stress about being able to pay my bills with my writing, because that wouldn’t be possible at this point. Though, I one day hope to be able to do that. That’s a goal that I’ll keep striving for as long as I can.
What’s a goal of yours as an illustrator that you’re still working towards?
Charlene replied on 5/9/17 at 1:13pm:
I'm still trying to develop my art style to be better suited for picture books. Picture book art is really deceptive—a lot of great picture books feature art that SEEMS simple and sometimes even naive looking (i.e 'my child could draw that!'). But getting that free and easy quality, while still maintaining the fun factor and storytelling consistently over 20-30 pages, can be very difficult.
I'm used to working with magazines and the education market, which, while also targeting children, have more rigid needs than a picture book. I've been working towards loosening up my art over the last few years; it's an ongoing process of evolution that I think will continue to keep me busy for the near future!