Interview with Brandon McKinney: CoH Comic Book Artist

Since City of Heroes is an MMORPG in the superhero genre, it only makes sense that they would have a comic book title based on the game. The comic is published monthly and is a gimme with the subscription. It follows the heroes War Witch, Apex and Horus through their adventures in Paragon City and includes player characters at times.

The writer of the book, Rick Dakan, was one of the original developers of the MMORPG: City of Heroes and has done a lot of work on the background material for the game. UnSub, WarCry columnist, recently interviewed Rick.

It was pure chance, however, that Glow Girl, super-speeding to Atlas Park, passed a hero name she recognized from the CoH forums (no lie, it’s really how I ran into him). A few questions later revealed that the hero was, indeed, the artist for the comic book. Brandon McKinney graciously agreed to devote some rare free time to giving an interview.

Glow Girl: Did you read comics as a kid? If so, what did you read?

Brandon McKinney: It all started with Spider-Man and Star Wars comics! I bought them in convenience stores before comic shops were commonplace. I then discovered X-Men around issue #166 and was hooked. Now I like The Ultimates, Invincible, Astro City and whatever Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis write.

GG: Is there something that draws you to these stories? Do they have anything in common as you see them?

BM: Just really good writing. There’s something in these stories that reminds me of the comics of my youth, and something that I like rereading as an adult.

GG: Whom would you say you admire most as a comic book artist?

BM: Bryan Hitch, Alan Davis and Adam Hughes are my current favorites. Frank Miller is a brilliant storyteller. John Byrne and George Perez are who made me want to draw comics in the first place

GG: John Byrne has been a pretty hotly debated talent in the industry from just about the word “go.” Fans seem to fall along either “he’s outdated and boring” or “he’s the soul of what comics are.” I think this has to do with the different generations of readers. The first time the industry hit this wall was when Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee came on the scene. What are your thoughts on that? Is there a lasting place for both?

BM: I think Byrne’s best stuff was in the eighties and the fact that he’s still working in comics is a testament to his longevity. I grew up with his stuff and he could tell a story with both artwork and writing with the best in the industry. I think that comics are a transitory medium: Each issue is only on the shelves for weeks at a time, a month or two, tops. It’s the same thing with creators and readers. Each generation is going to put out a product influenced by the earlier generation, but there will be some new sensibilities added and it will appeal to these new readers in a way that the older generation can’t appreciate. Wow. Did that make sense? Yeah, Byrne’s controversial. And yes, the Image crew really represented a new era of comic books 🙂

GG: Do you have a drawing philosophy?

BM: My main philosophy is to tell a good story. My job is to make the writer’s words into pictures and put everything in each panel that the writer calls for in the clearest way possible. I want the reader to know where the characters are, what they’re thinking and what they’re doing. I love to make each panel as dynamic as possible which is difficult in some cases, especially during exposition, but that’s the challenge that makes drawing comics fun.

GG: What are your previous credits?

BM: Well, I’ve drawn a few bits of The New Warriors for Marvel, Godzilla for Dark Horse, Switchblade Honey and Planet of the Capes for AiT/PlanetLar. I had the longest run on many issues of Elfquest for Warp Graphics. I wrote and drew a 3 issue series of my own called “Journeyman” published by Image Comics. I’ve done quite a few illustrations for various Star Wars books and coloring books. I also have done storyboards for Warner Bros. On Batman Beyond and Static Shock. Finally, I worked on pre-production for Electronic Arts on the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King video game.

GG: Your book, Journeyman, had a lot of elements from Star Wars. It was in the same vein, but you had some really nice differences and went off in your own direction. Are there plans to do more?

BM: I hope to someday. It’s the only work published that was truly all my creation. I have outlines for two more series, it’s just difficult to produce them and still earn a living. Someday, there will be more Journeyman.

GG: How did you hook up with the City of Heroes comic book?

BM: I drew a comic called Switchblade Honey written by Warren Ellis and published by AiT/PlanetLar. Rick Dakan was looking for an artist for the book and asked Warren on his message board if he knew an artist he could recommend. Warren gave Rick my name and I got an email. I sent samples to Rick and got the job. I’d played console video games, but never a MMORPG since I had a Mac. So for the first few issues, I wasn’t even playing the game. I wish I had been because I totally enjoy it. I bought a PC just so I could play and am able to log on for “research” purposes.

GG: Statesman has made reference to keeping the game “comic-booky.” Considering the wide variety of experiences you’ve had in the field I think you’re qualified to answer this one. How do you think Statesman did in his quest?

BM: Well, let’s give Rick Dakan some credit here too — he was the FIRST lead designer on the game. I think they did an amazing job combining comic books and MMORPGs. It’s my first Massively Multiplayer game, but as far as I know, they did the genre good. And the mission storylines feel like episodic comics. I just dig the way any player or I can come in and create the character they’ve had in their head for years and bring them to digital life.

GG: Do you have formal training/education, etc?

BM: I got a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts from UCLA.

GG: Would you say it has been a great help? Does an artist need a formal education?

BM: I wouldn’t say that a comic artist NEEDS a formal education. There are a ton who have been successful without one, just as there are many formally educated artists out there that can’t get work. I took out of my degree what I could: figure drawing, sculpture, painting. I gained an immense appreciation for Renaissance and Baroque art as well as ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. I had the opportunity to meet and work with Gil Kane and Steve Rude during my college years. They were my informal professors of comic book art and animation.

GG: The comic has taken some heat in the forums and you’ve gotten on to respond. Is there anything you would like to say about that?

BM: I read the forums to see if anyone has anything to say about the book, positive or negative. For the first few months I just lurked, wanting to keep my anonymity. I forget which thread actually motivated me to log in and reply… I think it was one that was ripping the book and the writing/art. I wanted to defend the book a little bit and let the people know that their comments were being heard. This is the first project where I’ve been able to see feedback on such a consistent basis.

It’s interesting. Given the fact that people can write whatever they want and not worry about repercussions, the brutal honesty or sarcasm of some of the posts is incredible. Some people like to post snappy one-liners about how crappy the book is and see how many others will laugh at it. Others have come in with some nice words and thoughtful criticism on how the book could improve. I really like the well thought out posts like that. I figure that even if the poster hates the book, it affected them enough to log on and write about it.

GG: Is this your career plan, to be a comic book artist? Do you have other aspirations?

BM: Good question… When I decided to be an artist for a living, I knew I was in for a rough road. Comics are an extremely competitive and trendy business. I love comic books as an art form, but I don’t think I’ll be able to pay the rent with them. That’s why I’ve tried to spread out and do other work like book illustration and storyboards. Comic pages take so long to do that it becomes less cost-effective to draw them than it is to do other illustration work. I know I lucked into this City of Heroes gig and I’ve been having a lot of fun, and if there is more comic book work out there for me I’ll definitely do it. But now I have a family and job security is a big factor in my career-path decisions. I’m trying to learn 3-D animation to apply towards working in video games or movies. It’s tough, since all the kids (and I’m a dinosaur at 34) coming out of school these days have the training and know how and they get those jobs. I think in a year or two, I’ll be up to speed and will hopefully get a full-time position somewhere and won’t have to worry about the next job or paying health insurance premiums.

GG: You mentioned that you would do other comic work. What title would you most like to work with?

BM: I’ve always wanted to try a Spider-Man comic. Since he was the first hero I really got in to, I think it would be a blast. Superman would be great as well. EVERYONE knows who they are and it would be cool party conversation:
“So, what do you do?”
“I draw Spider-Man comic books.”

GG: Last question I have for you… I have this D&D character I’d like you to draw. I’m willing to pay a quarter for the full color version. Am I too late in the game?

BM: WOW! How did you know that’s how much I charged back in 1982? I hate to say that I’ve raised my price… it’s now a dollar.

GG: Thanks for taking time out to chat with the fans, Brandon.

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