Spend any time listening to Stuart Sayger, and it becomes clear this is an artist who knows he stands on the shoulders of giants — not just comic greats of the past, but names from all across the art spectrum. His influences are worn proudly, yet synthesized into something uniquely him; a Sayger comic cover, for example, won’t be mistaken for anyone else.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: I’m a Midwest kinda guy!
Transformers ’84 variant covers [IDW]
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: First, the big question: Why comics? What attracts you to this specifically over other artforms?
Stuart Sayger: People often say they were a lifelong comic book fan; I’m not going to say I go much further back than about four years old. I think my first comic was a Charlton Popeye. I can tell you this, and it’s one thing that comics — at least when I was young — had going for them that I don’t know if it gets discussed so much these days: It was something that I felt was made for children. It wasn’t a stripped-down version of the adult thing. [A] comic book wasn’t a magazine that someone had translated, it wasn’t a novel — it was something made for us.
I grew up in a house that liked art. I always felt comfortable with comics, and when I was 13, I started working in a comic store after school. So, it’s just been in my blood.
KS: When did the idea of an artistic career enter into your thinking? Was it a lifelong ambition?
SS: It absolutely wasn’t. I didn’t go to art school; I’m self taught. I studied journalism in high school and college and drew for my school newspapers. I remember we had some sort of presentation to make in Spanish class; I wasn’t good at Spanish, but I could draw Pizaro. [Art] was this thing I could pull out when I needed it.
I went to Indiana University, which had a really strong journalism department. I walked in there as a freshman, and they kinda rolled their eyes at me. They asked, “What do you want to write?” and I said, "I’d rather draw than write." The senior editor just happened to be in earshot; they had some photos that didn’t come out. He interrupted and asked if I could make him something right now, and I said, “Uh, yeah. What do you need?” They were having a story about collegiate voters. I got out my backpack — I usually had art supplies with me — and made a piece for him in about 20 minutes.
KS: What was the piece?
SS: It was girl holding a flower. The center of it said, “Election,” and the petals alternated “Democrat” and “Republican.” [The editor] grabbed it really intently and said, “This looks great. Can you do more for tomorrow?” So for my four years there, I didn’t write a thing for the paper.
KS: Did you get any advice during your school years that was helpful going forward?
SS: My high school journalism department [was] using analog instead of digital — we burned our own plates, and we did a lot of darkroom photography. The gentleman who ran the press said, “When you’re drawing something for the paper, I want you to think about how it’s going to photograph and how it’s going to print. We do not care what your original looks like. That [original] is not the product.”
KS: Aside from working at the store during high school, was the comics business on your radar at all during this time?
SS: College is a lot of fun when you get to just go to your classes, but at some time it’s going to wrap up and real life is going to hit. Two of my friends took a path of English; one of them was my friend Matt who wanted to write comic books. I said, “Let’s go to Chicago. Let’s go to the convention and bring samples.” I remember making a set of Batman sample pages that were really… I grew up a big Neal Adams fan, and you could see I was channeling some Adams there. So, I took those to Chicago.
Very first thing when the [convention] doors opened, I had no idea what I was going to do or who I was going to show them to. I ended up talking to Gary Carlson who was promoting Big Bang Comics — which I remembered selling when I worked at the store. I showed him what was in my portfolio and he said, “I’ve got a character called Night Watchman. You ink these as Night Watchman and I’ll print it.”
KS: What did your life look like after that break?
SS: Even after that happened, it was kind of like radio silence. There’s this bizarre idea about breaking into the industry, as though it’s like signing a lease: “Here’s your key, you’re now in.” And it just doesn’t work that way. I got that thing published and then it’s like, what’s next? Well, what’s next is you do what you did before — get a second one under your belt, then a third.
There was a period after graduation when I was interested in making comic books. I was waiting tables at the place I’d worked during college, and I had this moment of clarity where I thought this plan I had presently wasn’t a very good one: “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know how I’m going to make money.” I called my parents and said, “I’d like to move back home if you’d let me.” There was nothing cool about that. [Laughter.] Before I let that notion hang in the air, I said to them, “Because I’d like to publish a comic book. Right now, I’m spending all my money on rent, and I’d like to save some to publish.”
KS: Any consideration of pursuing another line of work during that time?
SS: I did put together a portfolio and apply for a job at an advertising agency that I just hoped I wouldn’t get. I remember getting this rejection letter, and I was so relieved. I don’t know why I did that; my parents never asked me to. I just kind of felt like I was supposed to… because then if the comic book thing doesn’t work right, it’s not like I didn’t try a real path. [Laughter.]
KS: For a lot of up and coming artists in any field, there’s that helping hand that arrives at a key time. Did it happen for you?
SS: If you’ve never made a comic book, the funny thing about it is that your first is the hardest. By far. I was very fortunate because I still had good connections at the store I’d worked at. There was a commercial illustrator there, Brad McPhee — I’d know him since I was about 15 — and he said, “If you need any help, I’ve always wanted to make a comic.” I thought I didn’t need any help, but he said, “I know how to talk to printers, I know how to set up printer spreads, I know how to read a quote sheet.” And I thought, oh my God, I need lots of help! [Laughter.]
He gave me the confidence I could get [Shiver in the Dark] done. He looked at my pages and said — very fairly — that I had all these things wrong, but let’s worry about the egregious ones. I thought we should fix them all. This is the best piece of advice he gave me: “If we fix them all, this book’s never going to come out.”
For anybody trying to publish comics or break into this industry, get the first one done. Acknowledge it’s not going to be perfect. Then, the next one will be better.
KS: Staying on Shiver in the Dark, imagine the current Stuart as an art instructor and your student is the kid who made that comic. What’s a tip or piece of guidance you would give him?
SS: I’d say, “Your hard nature of pursuing one very specific goal is keeping you from all these other things.” I didn’t want to do anything painterly. I didn’t try much with color. I’d tell that person to drink out of as many cups as you can — there are 31 flavors and you won’t know what your favorite is until you’ve done them all.
KS: Back when you first started being able to identify different artists, who were your earliest favorites?
SS: Growing up, “The House That Haunted Batman” [Detective Comics #408] was my favorite. I got it when I was about five years old, and I could tell that the art was better. Adams and Dick Giordano were the art team. By virtue of my parents being antique dealers, we went to a lot of estate sales and flea markets; a lot of kid just had the spinner rack to go to. Almost all my life, I’ve been able to get older comics for less money than new ones.
I was [also] acutely aware of Jim Aparo on The Brave and the Bold. I could identify him and Neal by the time I was seven years old. I got the Steranko History of Comics when I was pretty young. I didn’t read many Marvel comics, but I had to admit Micronauts was awesome. Michael Golden was great.
I learned who John Byrne was when I was about ten, and he had sort of this Neal Adams-y thing going for him in some of his X-Men run. If you liked Adams, you could see why you’d like this other thing — [Byrne] was the Milky Way to my Snickers.
KS: How about any artists you didn’t respond to back then but who you can appreciate more as a professional?
SS: The best way I can answer this goes back to my [college] art history classes. I really liked Baroque art… Neoclassical… Rococo. But when we got up to the Impressionists, I was harshly rejecting it. I had to study this stuff to graduate. At some point I said, “I have a choice. I can either decide why I don’t like this and why it’s not valid, or I can accept that the whole world says it’s wonderful and try to see what they’re seeing.” That, I think, is a great watershed moment. If you can put yourself in a position where it’s all valid as long as you’re willing to look at it on its terms, then the whole thing opens up.
There are still three names I don’t respond to very well, and this is going to break the interview. Are you ready?
KS: Hit me.
SS: I’m not a big Steve Ditko fan, I’m not a big Will Eisner fan, and I’m not a big Jack Kirby fan. Now, there are some caveats to this! I absolutely love Kirby’s photo collages. I don’t like the way he draws noses. I often feel like he blasts foreshortening. His draftsmanship is really flawed. And everybody says, “That’s not what it’s about.” Well, that’s what I see! The trick of it is to accept Kirby on his terms, and I’ve warmed up to him a lot.
I haven’t been able to get there on Ditko yet. I like some of his monster stories, but I don’t think they’re particularly better because Ditko drew them. And Eisner’s such a weird thing, because I can look at what he does and see it’s well done, really smart — but I just don’t happen to like it.
KS: Do you see anyone’s specific influence on your own work?
SS: After Gary Carlson published the Night Watchman pages, he asked if I wanted to do another one. To be honest, I felt like my art had plateaued. A lot of people who draw will tell you they have these growth curves, then they’ll plateau, then they spike again. I didn’t feel like I was getting better or enjoying it to the extent I should have; I wanted to do something different when Gary approached me [the second time].
I remember I stumbled across a Vampirella, and Esteban Maroto drew it. Esteban was doing some really cool stuff with silhouettes. This sounds so simple, but he drew this girl in silhouette and instead of being black on a white background, she was white on a black background. That was great breath of fresh air — it doesn’t have to all be this lockstep Giordano/Garcia-Lopez/Adams thing.
I took a deep breath, looked around, and suddenly realized [Bill] Sienkiewicz was really good like everybody said. [Mark] Texeira was really good. Mark Beachum was great. I could see all these guys with looser, more expressive styles; literally, my learning curve just took off. The trick was just getting your brain open enough to do it.
KS: You’re known today for your striking covers on comics like ROM, Bionicles, KISS, Dejah Thoris, and others. When you’re looking at a rack of comics, what cover elements catch your eye?
SS: If I feel like I haven’t seen it before, you’re already ahead of the game. Let’s face it:Wwe do judge a book by its cover. You need that hook in my mouth. If it’s pretty, I’ll pick it up. If it’s jarring, I’ll pick it up. I’ve picked up books just because I thought they were incredibly colored — I was blown away by [Greg Tocchini’s] coloring on Low.
KS: Finally, what would you consider to be the apex of comics as an artform?
SS: One is someone making something that’s very personal for someone else. I’ve drawn pictures of my fiancé having a hard day at work, and when you give that to somebody they know that you understand them. When you talk about the highest form of the craft, it’s when one person wrote it, drew it, and they’re trying to say something specific. They can say it in a way that’s different from a letter, different from a photograph or a song — and it can dig very deep, very efficiently if you can marry the art and the words together.
The second answer I have skews the question a bit. I often think of this magical time in comics: 1985-89. Frankly, the comic book industry was in a big decline and had been for decades; Marvel’s doing the best but no one’s doing what they used to be doing. When expectations are low and no one’s paying attention, you can do some incredible things. That was when Fantagraphics really gets rolling. Eightball and Hate got going around then. We’re allowed to have Elektra: Assassin, Watchmen, Dark Knight. You can do crazy things like Big Numbers. Moebius is starting to come over. Judge Dredd. Comic books are seen as this cool, dangerous, maybe even counterculture thing. The only people who are doing it are the people who really want to be doing it. That moment is an example of what the industry can be.