Whatchamacomics #1: Dave McCaig

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Welcome to #1 in an ongoing interview series with comics creators, named Whatchamacomics. I hope this works.

The process of making comics is a collaborative one, but often many of the people who put their work into a book go unheard. The purpose of this series is to read the pulse of the creative climate in comics by chatting with comics makers who work in roles that often go uncredited or don’t really have access to a platform to voice their perspective of the world of comics.

Dave McCaig at NYCC:SE
Dave McCaig at NYCC:SE

Dave McCaig is an accomplished colorist who was been active since the late 90’s. Working for pretty much every major comics publisher over his career, he’s been a hidden force behind the curtain of comics making. He launched and continues to curate a forum for prospective comics makers called Gutterzombies, he has worked on multiple animated series; notably The Batman, and has recently been working in the games industry. He is the regular colorist of the lauded Vertigo series American Vampire and worked on the recent NY Times Best Seller Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell.

Zachary Clemente for Amazing Stories: So Dave, what do you think of the name “Whatchamacomics”? Cheesey, yeah?

Dave McCaig: I like that.

ASM: I was afraid people would find it too much but everyone I’ve talked to has been into it. Why do you think that works?

DM: It’s catchy!

ASM: When I was going through the Artist Alley list here (NYCC Special Edition), I recognized your name but couldn’t place it and after some looking, you’ve done the colors for numerous covers, but most recently you worked on [Black Canary and Zatanna:] Bloodspell with Joe Quinones and Paul Dini.

DM: Oh yeah, our multi-year, forever-project.

Art by Joe Quinones, Colors by Dave McCaig
Art by Joe Quinones, Colors by Dave McCaig

ASM: I remember looking that up a while back and thinking “this has been going on forever!”

DM: Yeah – it sounds funny, but I’ve only been associated with the project for 2 years. That tells you how long the project’s been gestating. I always end up on these projects that take forever. I remember I did Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk and because it was being written by the guy who was writing LOST – he just took a break half-way through. I think there was a 2-year break in between and I kept calling my editor and asking what was going on with it and I remember reading a news article online saying it was going to start back up again at some point. I read it and thought it was happening because the month lined up with the month that we were in, but really it was an article that was written a month in advance and was still way out of date. It still took us another 7 months to start on the project.

ASM: It’s kind of like seeing articles about Johnathan Hickman’s S.H.I.E.L.D. which has 2 issues left?

DM: Yeah, yeah. I mean maybe it’ll happen. It’s like Shaolin Cowboy [by Geof Darrow] for a while. Faith pays off after a while.

ASM: I saw that you were on the revival of Tech Jacket with Joe Keatinge and Khary Randolph.

DM: I am off that now.

ASM: Oh? Did you end up working on any of it or are you off of it fully?

DM: Oh, I’m completely off it now. I did the first 3 issues and the first 2 issues of the digital thing…I think they’re releasing it out of order. I then left the project because I’ve got too much stuff going on right now.

ASM: That makes sense. You’re the regular [colorist] on American Vampire [by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque]?

DM: Yeah, I’m doing some Multiversity 40-page thing for DC right now, and I’ve got a bunch of game stuff going on that I can’t talk about which takes up a lot of time. And that sucks because it doesn’t get my name out there as much as I’d like it to.

ASM: You can’t even mention who you’re working for, yeah?

DM: Yeah, it’s bad. Those NDAs are pretty limiting.

ASM: Hopefully it’s really cool stuff and I’d like to see it soon.

DM: One can hope.

ASM: When looking back, you’ve been active since 1999. You’ve done a little bit of writing, a little bit of illustrating, all parts of comics – but it’s mostly been coloring. I’m curious what got you to try out the other bits but stick with coloring?

DM: I also worked in animation – I did color design on the 2004 The Batman animated series. I stick with color because, basically, editorial likes my color – I’m fast and they like my work – and if you work in comics it’s very hard to break out of a niche. If you’re a colorist, it’s very difficult to get work doing anything else, because people like you doing the thing you’re reliable at doing. That’s the short answer. Also I like getting paid money, and if you start off in a new venture usually you have to tier-down your price and I don’t really want to do that.

I’m going to get to a point, you know, where I can cut back on my coloring work and do more of my own self-initiated stuff. That’s what I’m doing at this comic convention right now is selling just my own work.

ASM: Yeah, I really like the fun, cartoony feel to the work here.

DM: Yeah.

ASM: With Image and creator-owned being seen as something to be taken very seriously recently, do you think that’s an avenue or tool for you working on your own ventures?

DM: I don’t think it’s a tool for me because that’s not the direction I want to go. So, my wife is a fashion designer and has a background in industrial design and we want to start spinning these designs that I’m doing into products, children’s marketing, toys, and books, and things like that.

I mean, I really like comics but that’s not what I want to do with these [gesturing to his work] types of things.

ASM: So you’ve never fancied yourself trying to do something like writing a 6-issue miniseries and having your own story?

DM: I like that idea, but it would be a vanity project and it would make it very hard for me to pay the rent. It’s just that kid’s books don’t sell – they really don’t. Most of the people I know who’re working on kid’s books […] it would be impossible to live in Manhattan and work on a kid’s book. Unless you’re a writer, then it’s a little easier. I actually know a few writers working on kid’s books and they make me go “Yeah! I guess you can do that.”

But drawing it would make it hard.

ASM: You’ve worked on a few animated series, notably The Batman, and I haven’t been able to figure out your official title.

DM: Oh, it was “Color Supervisor”.

ASM: Do you had a background in color theory or some kind of experience?

DM: Right well, I was an advertising illustrator – so more experience.

ASM: Fair enough. What would you saw your methodology for working on a page or working on a book is?

DM: When I started in the industry, back in the late 90’s there was a real mindset of everything needed to be “comic book style” coloring which means you need to separate things out with the brightest colors you possibly could. This was in the era where Image Comics was doing that terrible and misguided teal on one side and pink on the other side highlighting on almost everything. If you pick up an issue of Cyberforce, it’ll just stab your face. It’s horrifying and I really wanted to get away from that and do more of a cinematography-style for comic books, things being lit to set a mood and to convey timing; things like that with color. […] Some people were doing it at that time but not enough. So I’d say cinematography, more filmic style of coloring is what I’m interested in.

ASM: Would you say that’s being allowed more now?

DM: Oh yeah, I used to really have to fight for it. I’m not going to name any projects or anything, but I used to really fight […] especially if you’re watching TV or movies now, there’s this real movement to doing teal and orange lighting on everything.

ASM: Just look at movie posters.

DM: Yeah! It’s on everything. But it’s really convenient because it’s a color version of black and white. You can use it to separate your foreground and your background and it makes it really easy for you to figure out where you’re supposed to be looking at in a scene. And that style of coloring, not that it needs to be teal and orange, but when you separate out your foreground and background colors into different color families – if your foreground guys are blue and your background stuff is green or red or what-have-you, it makes a lot easier for you to figure out where you’re supposed to focus.

It was really hard when I first started doing this stuff to convince editors that somebody could be blue.

“That guy’s blue, he’s not supposed to be blue! Why isn’t he flesh-colored?”

“Well because if everybody’s flesh-colored, then you don’t know where you’re supposed to be looking at on this page with 700 dudes in it! You don’t need those foreground guys, they’re not important. So if I make them all blue they’ll disappear.”

“People aren’t blue!”

“Well, that’s okay. People can’t fly either.”

[Laughter]

ASM: Jumping a bit, do you normally work with a flatter?

DM: I sometimes work with a flatter, most of the stuff I’m working on right now – like the stuff with Rafael […] he does these brush tones that […] I can’t really had that stuff off to a flatter because the flatter won’t understand where the breaks are.

You kind of have to think of it more like you are also the illustrator so it’s got to be a teamwork thing and I don’t trust other people to do it, so I just do it myself.

Art by Rafael Albuquerque, Colors by Dave McCaig
Art by Rafael Albuquerque, Colors by Dave McCaig

ASM: And how closely do you work with Rafael?

DM: Well, pretty closely actually. We don’t talk about the color design and stuff, but we’re talking about giving him a list of brush shapes to hand over to me so I can build custom brushes so that my coloring will merge better with his painting and tones technique.

It’s great. Working with someone like Rafael is a dream because he’s really open to that sort of thing.

ASM: So, like Rafael, are there people you consider the “pantheon” you love working with and you enjoy collaborating with on projects?

DM: Oh yeah, and all for different reasons. That’s one of the things I like about being a colorist is that I get to use a variety of different styles and different color pallets and I don’t get bored of it because Rafael’s work calls for more muted colors so they don’t fight with his inks. I can’t really do a lot of rendering with what he’s doing because he’s already done it all in his washes.

And then I like working with guys like Ed McGuinness over here [gestures over his shoulder down the row] who leaves a lot of space open for the colorist and guys like Cully Hamner who have a real geometry in the way that they form their characters. If you can figure out what geometries they use to make their characters look three-dimensional, you can work it through to the other dimensions in color, if that makes any sense. So if somebody draws a ball as just a circle, you make that look like a sphere – figuring out the lighting and the planes of the object – it’s fun! Doing stuff like that’s fun.

ASM: Would you say your animation experience helps you with parsing out how you want to color a panel?

DM: Actually I’d say it went the other way. We ended up doing a lot of city scenes and we had to work out a way to make it efficient and make the backgrounds go fast because we did all of the key background scenes in LA, working on each episode. We’d only have a week per episode to do all the backgrounds – and we’re talking hundreds of backgrounds per episode. We had to work out a way so the backgrounds were all basically comic book stuff, and the reason was because we could do it quickly and make it look good. As much as I would have liked to work on a show where it was all meticulously painted backgrounds, because that looks awesome, we just didn’t have the time.

ASM: Have been seeing the Legend of Korra series with their backgrounds?

DM: Yeah, that’s great. I don’t know how they spend the time to get all that done. Having working in animation…before that I didn’t realize what the timeline was on it but oh man.

ASM: We sort of touched on this before, but in contemporary coloring, even outside of comics, are there tenets that you find really attractive and some that you find not so great?

DM: Yeah, getting back to the whole separation of color planes, that’s one of the best things […] when I was working at Warner Bros. I got look through all of the original backgrounds for The Iron Giant. They were gigantic, like 2’ by 6’, they were just monstrous, manual paintings and they were awesome. They all used really excellent separation of planes with shapes and colors and it was really inspiring.

ASM: It built a real simplistic tone to the movie.

DM: Yeah. Smart, classic. Great world-building stuff too, you got this real depth and that’s what I really like in comics. Being able to set a mood and create depth of field, focal points, and things like that – that’s what I love.

What I don’t love in comics that’s getting more and more popular is, because video games are competing with comics and because film is because becoming too complicated with its special effects and it’s lighting, comic book publishers seem to feel that comics should also follow those rules and become more complex, and they shouldn’t because it gets in the way of the storytelling. So if you’ve got characters running around and fighting ninjas or what-have-you and somebody’s got a belt buckle that you’ve left flat as a colorist – who cares it’s a belt buckle? An editor will get back to you going “That belt buckle should really shine, I don’t really feel that’s a metal belt buckle, and I really want to know that you’re really adding your 110%, and making this look as shiny and awesome as you can.”

They are forgetting the fact that you shouldn’t draw every hair on the guy’s arm, you shouldn’t draw every pore on that guy’s face, and you shouldn’t have every belt buckle shine because every little detail you add like that pulls away from the punch – pulls away from the action and slows everything down. That’s one of my big problems in comics right now, it’s that more and more comics seem to be leaning heavily on really heavy-duty production and it ends up being a real nightmare for everybody involved with; the pencillers, the inkers, the colorists, everybody. It’s really grueling and difficult to get that kind of work done in the time you’re allotted and I don’t think it does any service to the reader.

People argue with me all the time about this because comics are now $4 or whatever and I say “It shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to read a comic,” and people respond “I want to get my money’s worth!” I feel like they are getting their money’s worth in a 10-minute long story, and if the story is compelling and they like it, that’s great. That’s my feeling.

A TV show is only half an hour long, just accept that.

ASM: Or in the case of Adventure Time, which as 11-minute episodes which are treating like high art.

DM: I know!

ASM: And often they are!

DM: Right? That’s what I’m saying!

ASM: I think it’s fantastic that shows like that with good stories and simple themes are being made more often now.

DM: What really gets me about that is I think a lot of people lose sight of the fact that you’re supposed to fill in the blanks between panels in comics – you should also be filling in the blanks with details for the characters so you’re more invested in who these characters are so you’re more connected to them. The less detail you add to a character the more you as a reader need to fill in the blanks.

ASM: It’s a fascinating approach and it seems like more show are being able to do that.

DM: Oh yeah, like Rick and Morty is really difficult to look at, but it’s such a great show. I wouldn’t want to see a live-action Rick and Morty because I don’t need to see an old man with barf all over his face chaperoning a small child around but as an animated feature it really works.

ASM: One of the more interesting production formats, like with Adventure Time is that they write basic outline for an episode and from that the storyboard artists will basically make a comic.

DM: It’s a really good way to do that style of show. A lot of shows of its sort are done that way, where you get a loose outline. I know Spongebob’s done that before. I mean, if you’re drawing sight-gags and things like that, you can’t script a sight-gag, you gotta just do it.

ASM: So with the work you have going on in video games, is it more concept art or more on the character design and animation?

DM: I’m not exactly sure what they’re going to do with it. Its iOS stuff mostly, so I’m really not sure what’s going to happen with it – a lot of character stuff.

ASM: And are you currently working on animation projects or trying to get something like that started?

DM: You know, it’s really hard to work in comics and animation at the same time and I don’t want to stop working in comics. When I worked on The Batman I also colored two books at the same time and that was a mistake I do not want to repeat. I don’t really want to take a break from doing American Vampire so I don’t want to get too deep into animation stuff.

As much as I love working in animation, it’s too grueling – and I’ve got a 2-year old right now, so I can’t. I need my weekends and evenings free.

ASM: Would you say that being out of the animation or comics industry for too long would be a detriment to you?

DM: I think people sort of forget who you are in comics in 15 minutes, so that’s always been my fear and I think that’s the fear of most freelancers in any industry. People will forget who you are the minute you walk out the door. So people tend to take on more work than they should or whatever.

But with animation […] I’ve had people offer me jobs in animation recently and I just don’t have time to do it.

ASM: Recently there’s been a lot of discussion on the “creative climate” of comics – treating creators better, treating readers better with an overall sense of understanding. Do you have any “words of wisdom”…

DM: Do you want me to soapbox for a second? I got a soapbox topic for you.

I can’t for the life of me figure out why publishers don’t promote colorists. It makes absolutely no sense. I can understand that writers and pencillers are, without question – they’re the reason people buy comics.

But it’s like in film, cinematographers; people some cinematographers because they get promoted and they should be because they help the look of the film. They’re not directing it and they’re not writing it but they’re still essential for the finished product.

The thing that really gets me about colorists is: comic sales are going into the toilet right now and comic publishers should be doing anything they can to increase quality and increase readership. So if you are a comic publisher and you promote the colorists, you’re promoting another name for people to follow from project to project. You’re creating another avenue for your creators to get more interest in their projects. Because if you’re being promoted, you take self-interest in the project. If you’re a company like DC Comics and you’re paying royalties to your creators [colorists] like Marvel does, then you’re getting them invested in making sure the book sells enough issues to justify royalties – because there’s a minimum cutoff.

So, I don’t really get it. It literally costs them no money to promote colorists. If a colorist’s name is on the cover of a book at DC Comics, it would cost them no money, but it would be free promotion for an asset that they just don’t choose to promote – it doesn’t make any sense. It’s win-win for everybody! It’s a win for the creators, it’s a win for the publisher, it’s a win for everybody’s wallet; it’s just very confusing.

ASM: One could say this problem is also extending to letterers as well.

DM: Yeah sure, I might be a little politically incorrect, but if you go ahead and find me a letterer who agrees with that. Find a letterer who agrees that it’s equal participation between the colorist and the letterer and I’ll be willing to have a conversation with that person. I’m not going to slight the work of the letterer, but seriously. Find that letterer and you’ve got a conversation.

ASM: I’ll get on that.

DM: I mean it’s a slippery slope argument or whatever the proper argumentative term is. You’d think having been on the internet for this number of years, I’d remember exactly what the name of each of those breakdown style of arguments were – when you’re basically dealing with trolls.

ASM: Running Gutterzombie, you’d probably have experienced a lot of that.

DM: Yeah. Oh, straw man, it’s the straw man argument.

ASM: On that note, when did you launch Gutterzombie?

DM: 2003. And now it’s basically just an untended field full of weeds. It really had a good place before Twitter and Facebook, but now comic creators are so busy promoting themselves and chatting with each other on Twitter and Facebook, I don’t know there’s really a need for Gutterzombie except for young kids who want to show their stuff and get critiques and I just don’t have the time right now to redevelop Gutterzombie into what it really needs to be: a tutorial forum or news page that also has forums that people can share their information.

ASM: And that’s something you’d want to do in the future?

DM: Oh yeah, I really do want to do it. I’ve got plans to do it and I’ve got a hard drive full of designs for it. It’s just launching it is time-consuming and costs money. You know, I don’t make money with Gutterzombie, I just did it because I wanted to help people. It has served its purpose very well and I’ve been very happy with the fact that a lot of colorists got their start out of Gutterzombie, and that’s great. It makes me feel really good. I’d like to turn it into something new but I don’t think message boards work in the same way that they used to.

ASM: Yeah, only a few really big comic sites have kept their message boards active.

DM: And on a lot of them, it’s buried. You have to click to get onto it and it’s often not connected to the main article. I think everybody’s sort of aware that message boards are […] people don’t know what to do with them. I certainly don’t know what do with it. They’re perfect for customer service at Apple – they’ve got a place there.

Again, Twitter and Facebook have taken over for most of what Gutterzombie was intended to do. Twitter especially is great because you can have the same conversations you were having on Gutterzombie, but now you’re amassing followers and hopefully those followers will go to your website and buy some crap or something.

ASM: Or they could be the next collaborator you’re looking for.

DM: Yeah, It’s great. If you’re doing it on message boards, it’s a closed circuit. Twitter is like the most public private conversation though. It’s like yelling at each other with megaphones across the convention floor, just sit back and enjoy the show.

ASM: Getting close to wrapping up, do you ever feel like you have a sense of authorial ownership over a work or project?

DM: No, none. I know it’s a common thing for colorists to sell prints of work that they’ve done collaboratively with pencillers – I refuse to do it. Because A) it violates the copyright of the rights holder and B) I didn’t draw it and if I didn’t draw it, I shouldn’t be selling it. And that’s a personal thing, its fine it other people do it, but it’s just me – I won’t do it. So I’d rather promote my own stuff.

If I were a penciller, I think I’d get pretty pissed off if I’d walk by a colorist’s table and see they were making money off of my art. And I’ve had pencillers ask me for colored work that I’ve worked on with them. I ask them “Oh are you going to make a con print for that?” and they go “Yeah yeah, it’s going to be great, I’m going to make a lot of money!” “No…you’re not. No, you’re going to sell it like a print of your black and white copy because why would I give you my work like that?”

ASM: Unless they’re going to give you a cut?

DM: Yeah, right. That’s not going to happen. At one point, I was in negotiations with a partner to make individual one-off prints of comic covers and things like that that we could sell at conventions. Marvel approved it and it was all going ahead and it ended up falling apart because of internal politics and this and that. It was a shame because it was a great thing. We could’ve sold these covers for megabucks and it would’ve been the only way that colorists make money at cons, but you know, whatever.

Marvel’s got some sort of system in place now that they’ve replaced our idea with and it’s really not very good. They print their own copies of covers and things and you can buy them from Marvel and they’ve got a bad border, it’s on crap paper, and it’s got a big Marvel logo on it.

ASM: Kind of similar to the sketch covers?

DM: No, if you’re a colorist for Marvel, you can order prints of your covers but they add their livery on the cover – it kinda looks cheap. It looks like a standard Kinko’s con print. I want to sell a really nice frame-able print that somebody can hang next to the original art. I don’t want to sell a $10 crappy-looking print.

I guess my feeling is that it sort of devalues the colorist’s contribution if somebody is willing to go and buy a $3,000 original piece of art for a cover and then they’re buying the $15 Kinko’s print of the color to hand next to it – I don’t know, I think I’m worth more than that. I’d rather have a high-quality […] museum-quality, print on really nice acid-free paper with a 9-color ink printer and charge accordingly. That’s my opinion.

ASM: Do you think a con like this is the right scene for that kind of print?

DM: It is! I actually was selling prints like crazy when I made them. The company was Color Master Prints and when I made these prints, I was working on Nextwave [Agents of H.A.T.E.] and I was selling double-page spreads for $400 or something. It worked.

Art by Stuart Immonen, Colors by Dave McCaig
Art by Stuart Immonen, Colors by Dave McCaig

ASM: I’m not too surprised, Nextwave was really great.

DM: Oh yeah, no question. I wish we could do more of it…oh, well.

ASM: Finishing up, are there any artists out there who you’d really enjoy working with?

DM: I am! That’s it, I’ve been working with them! I’m pretty happy. Honestly, I’m sure there are other people out there that I’d like to work with, but right now I am literally working with everybody I want to work with. I’m sure if you said “Oh work with so-and-so” I’d be “Hooray, more awesome!” but right now I’m honestly working with everyone I want to. It’s a good place to be.

ASM: Thank you very much.

DM: Thank you.

Interviewer’s Note: DC recently released a letter to all freelancers informing them of changing pay rates and “royalty” tiers for colorists starting soon. I have followed up with Dave and will add his thoughts on the matter here. Dave McCaig is a renown colorist, winner of the 2008 Joe Shuster award for Best Colorist who currently lives in New York. Along with the extensive list of comics he’s worked on, Dave has worked in animation and the games industry as an artist. His latest work is in the NY Times Bestseller Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell, published by DC Comics.

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