Welcome, X-Fans, to another uncanny edition of X-Men Monday at AIPT!
So, if you follow AIPT’s Twitter (and why wouldn’t you?), you were probably expecting answers to your questions about the original five X-Men from X-Men Senior Editor Jordan D. White. Unfortunately, Jordan had a full plate last week and had to delay those answers.
What’s a Chris to do?
Well, as I’ve said before–I remain committed to keeping the X-Men-flavored entertainment coming in the age of COVID-19 and asked myself, who could I contact that’d make for a fun X-Men Monday guest–who I haven’t already spoken to? My mind immediately raced to artist David Nakayama, who’s not only illustrated X-Men covers–but X-Men DVD and X-Men action figure packaging art! And, in addition to being ridiculously talented, he just seemed like an all-around good guy based on the times I passed by his always-packed New York Comic Con table this past November! Just as I assumed, David’s great and was more than happy to hop on Google Hangouts and chat with me about X-Men, art and quarantine life.
AIPT: Welcome to X-Men Monday, David! Now, based on your work to date, I’m going to assume you’re an X-Men fan. When did you first fall in love with Marvel’s mutants?
David: So for me, the way it happened was there were slightly older kids on my block and comics were in my orbit because of that. The kids were a year or two older and were reading Jim Lee’s run on X-Men. So the first thing that really caught my eye was the first episode of the X-Tinction Agenda series and I kind of did a double-take. I couldn’t believe that comics could even look like that. To me, comics were very old-timey and didn’t look cool, and when I saw that, I was like oh, this is what a comic could be–I’m intrigued. So it very, very quickly got me both into comics and into the idea of doing art. I mean, you might say it was life-changing because I never looked back. It’s been a very direct path trying to do comic art for a living ever since.
AIPT: Would you say Jim Lee is among the artists who have influenced your art style?
David: Yeah, I mean this was the early ’90s, of course, so the hot guys were Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld. I may have been 12 or 13. Me and all my friends–basically every boy I knew in school–was trying to be one of those guys. Maybe on Monday I was trying to be Jim Lee and Wednesday I was trying to be Rob Liefeld–just trying to copy that style and be that guy somehow.
AIPT: You have a very “animated” art style. Have you always done art that way?
David: I guess it depends on what you mean by “animated.” To me, my style is a weird synthesis of traditional comic book art–so the inspiration we were just talking about a minute ago–but also, I did a weird 12-year detour through video games and absorbed that way of working digitally. You know, Photoshop digital painting. So after, I missed comics, came back to them and my style had changed to sort of fuse the traditional way of approaching line art and then also this digital coloring style on top. But that’s how I think of my stuff. I don’t know if I think of it so much as “animated.”
AIPT: Well, by “animated,” I mean the smooth look that’s not as hyper-detailed as Liefeld pencils. Maybe it’s because I first saw your artwork on the X-Men: The Animated Series DVDs.
David: Now I totally get what you’re saying–the clean style is how a lot of artists talk about it. So there was another very formative moment I had in my evolution as an artist. I was trying to show my portfolio at San Diego Comic-Con one year and I had this very chance encounter at the DC booth. I happened to be walking through there and I immediately recognized Adam Hughes who, by that time, had become my all-time favorite artist–like the guy who I worshipped at the alter of. So I had this moment where I was trying to gather together the willpower to talk to this guy. I walk over there shyly and show him my portfolio of terrible pre-Joe Kubert School samples and he was so nice. He took like 20 minutes to talk to me. It was so kind of him. They always say don’t meet your heroes but this was one of those things I’ll never forget. The main thing he said was make sure you know what every single line is there for–what it’s doing. And when you think that way, it leads to very clean art. It’s not wrong to use a thousand lines to create an effect, but if you start thinking on the what-is-that-line-for approach, it leads you down a different path and I think that’s why I ended up with a very clean style.
AIPT: Very cool, thanks for sharing that story. So I have to ask: Who’s your favorite X-Men character and why?
David: Oh, that’s always such a hard question. I know there’s no wrong answer either. There are so many good ones I feel like it changes from day to day. I like Emma. I like Rogue. I like Cyclops. I like Wolverine. I like Jean. I like Psylocke.
AIPT: A very diplomatic answer.
David: Those are the ones I’m super happy forever to receive as a commission. For some reason, Rogue has been the one that people have asked for more than anybody else–like 10 times more Rogues than anybody else.
AIPT: Who has the coolest costume to draw?
David: Rogue is not a bad one. Throwing a jacket over a superhero outfit–I don’t remember that being done before and now it’s abused. But that was a very cool move at the time and remains so. I like the way that Emma can be reinterpreted in any way–she has the monochromatic white with little blue accents sometimes that looks good almost any way you do it. I think one bucket list thing for me would be to redesign her outfit in my own way, but it’s hard to go wrong.
AIPT: Do you have a favorite X-Men cover or piece of art you’ve illustrated?
David: It has to be the House of X and Powers of X covers…
AIPT: The Savage Land spread?
David: Yeah, that was such a wonderful project, I was really glad to get that. I put a ton of extra time into it. This is a Savage Land double cover that you can combine the two covers together and get an extra-large image. So it’s not every day you get to do that. There’s just so much more in that double cover than you would get in any single cover and it happens to have all the core X-Men that people care about and they’re all dressed in Savage Land shredded caveman gear–some of them for the first time dressed that way. So for being such a complete scene with the background and all the cool characters in a scene we’ve never seen before, it just has so much going for it it’s hard to beat that one for me.
AIPT: Could you talk a bit about how that piece came about?
David: I have to thank Jordan White for that one. Jordan has been a real help to me in my career. He was an assistant editor with Mark Paniccia when I was starting years and years ago and we worked together on Marvel Adventures, but I really remember working closely with him on Big Hero 6–the last little mini-series that Marvel did many years ago. Since then, he’s been kind to give me cool X-Men projects from time to time and that was how this one came about too. I definitely hope to work on more in the future but that was the latest one and a lucky break. I was glad to get that one.
AIPT: So, you’ve got Cable and Emma–Bishop riding a pterodactyl…
David: As you do.
AIPT: How did you land on those specific characters?
David: They’re so cool and easy to work with–they just said pick your favorite X-Men and go crazy and that’s always a good recipe for getting an artist excited about a project. Make it free-form and let them feel some agency for what’s in there. And on top of that, people always think that a big company like Marvel is going to be all over you with notes and corrections and that’s not the case. I did not have to change anything and expected to–but very rarely at Marvel do I have to change things on what I think is a finished cover. Other people I’ve worked with in the past–much smaller companies–have been guilty of asking for subjective and unuseful changes, but at Marvel, the editors have always been really cool about letting you do what you want and then not messing with the unimportant details at the end. So yes, this was a case where they said go to town, have anyone you like. So if you’re wondering why Cable and Emma are there, it’s because I like those characters.
AIPT: And I saw you snuck in Jean’s Age of Apocalypse face tattoo…
David: Yes! Thank you for noticing.
AIPT: Are there any other little Easter eggs hidden in there?
David: Well that was just me thinking, if I’m going to have tribal markings on all the X-Characters–hey wait a minute–Jean already kind of has one. Wouldn’t it be fun to reuse that? Everyone else is sort of made up but I kind of like the idea of Xs being everywhere, so I tried to put them in different places and kind of give them a tribe feeling by being united that way. And there’s sort of a thing–any time I get an X-Cover, I try to hide Xs in there. Maybe they’re not so subtle, but I like that there’s something in the composition that has a big X in it and I think of it the way McFarlane used to hide spiders in Spider-Man covers. Just another layer that people can invest in.
AIPT: You’ve done covers that relate to the story within the pages and variant covers with no connection to continuity. Do you find one more enjoyable than the other?
David: It really depends on the assignment. Covers come about in all different ways. Sometimes the editors have a specific vision of what they need, sometimes they don’t and they want you to pitch them and I’m very happy to work either way. For me, just playing with these toys is the fun part, so it’s always going to be fun for me. In the case of the Savage Land piece, it was very open-ended. In the case of the latest one, which was the Empyre promo featuring the X-Men and the Kree and Skrulls behind them, specifically, they wanted to have those characters and it was just more about how we show this alliance moment for those characters. I pitched them on a few and what they chose is the final one.
AIPT: And then you’ve got that Metal Phoenix and Polaris X-Factor cover. That looks like it was a ton of fun.
David: Oh yeah, what a gift. That whole theme is super fun. This is a very metal aesthetic-inspired look for the characters. You know, studs and spikes and black leather and bats and skulls and fire–all the metal stuff. So I got the assignment to do the one that would appear on the X-Factor cover. I could have done the whole team but for some reason, Rachel and Lorna made the most sense to me, partly because, you know, Rachel already has that vibe. Even as a Hound, going way back, she has that look with the spikes. And I thought it’d be a perfect match with Lorna beside her–red and green–that’s a good combo. I could do a vampire bat kind of aesthetic on her, so that’s kind of how those two got chosen and I guess I have a reputation for drawing ladies to some extent, so it wasn’t such a crazy idea to focus on the women. So that’s how I got there.
AIPT: I’d like to move from comics to toys and learn how your work with Hasbro and the amazing Marvel Legends line came about.
David: For me, there are these times when I’ll open my business email account and there’ll be a beautiful surprise–like an email from Hasbro. It was just like, “Hi, we’re Hasbro, would you like to work with us?” Uh, yeah. I love Hasbro, I love toys, I love the X-Men, this is a no-brainer. We started with Deadpool stuff and have branched out into many other things since then, but I absolutely love working with them. They’re super chill and it’s a joy to hold those toys in the end when they finally come out. I think at one point, I asked how’d you even hear of me. And it sounded like there may have been a referral from inside Marvel somewhere and I’d love to know who that was… because I owe them a beer. Whoever you are, thank you! I love working on these toys!
AIPT: So how do you approach the assignments? We talked about her earlier and she’s got a new figure coming–Age of Apocalypse Jean. What’s the process there?
David: Here’s the fascinating thing I don’t know if people know, but a lot of the times when they contact the illustrator, the toy is–if not already an existing prototype–at the very least a computer model of it, so you have a very good idea of what the toy looks like before you start. And that’s really good because how awkward would it be to buy the toy and the picture on the side doesn’t match? So I know what the toy looks like right upfront. And in a lot of cases, their artists have already gone through the process.
In the case of Jean, many different artists have drawn that version of Jean and they are different–one from the next, you know? How she’s proportioned and how that costume cuts on her body is different, so their artists have gone and done the ultimate version. The evergreen perennial version of what that costume should look like for the mass market, and they know exactly where they’re going, so before I even start, it’s pretty well set.
Then, when I come aboard, I have this very tall, narrow template to work with most of the time and the challenge is figuring out different ways of framing the body that will be exciting. It would be very easy to fall into the trap of having them stand straight up and down and that is the death of excitement and action. Jim Lee has said in the past it’s all about the centers of mass and moving them apart. So the more horizontal the figure, the more exciting. And when you’re locked into a vertical composition, how do you get around that? It’s literally the thing Jim Lee says not to do. So I feel like my job is to try and trick you into feeling the character has action and motion even though the character has to be upright.
AIPT: I’ve seen pictures of upcoming figures for Sunspot, Warpath, Strong Guy… is it safe to assume you have more package work coming?
David: Definitely, yeah, there’s quite a bit more in the X-vein coming soon. There are some classic ones. They did show at Toy Fair some of the New Mutants and X-Force-type characters you mentioned. Strong Guy’s the build-a-figure, so he doesn’t have an illustration, but Sunspot does, so that’s a group to look forward to. So there’s that wave, there’s some retro stuff and there’s a really, really exciting collection that no one will see coming and I cannot wait to show you–but stay tuned. The coolest Hasbro-Marvel-X-Men thing that you could possibly imagine is coming. I just can’t talk about it yet.
AIPT: Damn. We’ll need to do a follow-up interview when that’s revealed! OK, how has quarantine life been for you in Hawaii?
David: Well, you know, it’s not like we can go to the beach. The word is don’t leave the house unless you absolutely have to, so we’re trying to be good. And my work has always been at home, so in the first couple of weeks, I was like, oh this is great, this is what I do anyway and the world is the same and this is no problem for me. But the reality has been–and I think all of us have been feeling this–when you really can’t leave your house and break up the monotony and the kids are stuck at home and you have to take care of their school, it’s really hard to stay productive and to feel normal. So I, like everyone else out there, am doing my best. Take one day at a time, get what you can done and try to keep the world rolling on as much as you can. Try to support the comic shops–we’re doing that #Creators4Comics charity, trying to do my small part with that and just looking forward to getting things back to normal as soon as we can. And I think it hinges on staying home, which I don’t think is a huge ask. I think we can all as a country do that.
— David Nakayama (@DavidNakayama) April 18, 2020
AIPT: I saw that you auctioned off a Hellboy sketch. Do you have anything else in the works for #Creators4Comics?
David: I’m considering a couple of other things. I really like this charity and what it stands for, and I owe the comic stores something for sure with my career.
AIPT: And how have things been on the work front?
David: I’m working on something X-Men-related right now, but that is the last Marvel thing for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, I do have a lot of other stuff. It was going to be a really crowded month anyway and it’s turned into a less-crowded month, but still busy. So if this is what life is going to be like for the next couple months, I’m really fortunate. I’m very lucky I can keep working as normal. I know that’s not the case for everyone else out there, so I’m really grateful for that situation and I’m not taking it for granted at all.
AIPT: On a lighter note, what’s something you’ve been doing for fun during quarantine?
David: For me, it’s been video games. I mentioned I’d done some video game work in the past. Growing up, I was as big a video game fan as a comics fan. One casualty of working so hard in comics has been the time to sit down and watch a lot of television and play a lot of games, so I had to let a lot of that go the last few years. But during quarantine, when you have nothing else to do but be at home, that means I have a few more hours of games than I did before, so time to crack open that Zelda: Breath of the Wild game that I’ve been sitting on for a year!
AIPT: OK, well before I let you get back to Zelda, what has your favorite Dawn of X series been as an X-Fan?
David: Oh, it’s definitely X-Men–the core X-Men comic–because there is no bigger fan of Jonathan Hickman than me. I absolutely loved his Fantastic Four, Avengers, SHIELD. But they’re all really strong. Jordan and Annalise and their team are so good at putting these together and casting these books. They’re all good to read, it’s just Jonathan Hickman is amazing and there’s no one like him, so that’s my favorite.
AIPT: Yeah, he’s pretty good at writing. David, thanks again for taking the time to talk about your work–and I wish you all the best beating Zelda!
That’s all for this edition of X-Men Monday, X-Fans. As always, please stay smart, safe and have an eXceptional week!