“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Fans probably most associate Nick Pitarra with being half of the duo — with writer Jonathan Hickman — behind The Manhattan Projects, but beyond that he’s worked for DC, Marvel, Oni, IDW, and others, always bringing a distinctive art style hard to mistake for anyone else’s. Now, Nick is venturing into creator-owned territory with the series, Ax-Wielder Jon.
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist/Writer
Your home base: Texas
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Let’s start with the big question upfront: Why comics? What is it about this as an artistic medium that attracts you to working in it?
Nick Pitarra: I first found comics when I was about 17 years old. Moebius has this great quote that says, “An artist encodes reality.” And I think that when you get someone at an Art Adams level, Frank Quitely level, Moebius level, their imaginations are so good and their drawing is so rich that they can hold your imagination in theirs. There’s that awakening when you see really great art. Then when you get involved with the story, you get to walk around essentially in that artist’s head and see how they see the world from so many different perspectives — through the character acting, through the environments. I think the great artists do hold your imagination within their own.
KS: If you discovered comics at 17, let’s start with the 16 years before that. What did your artistic life look like growing up, as far as what you were creating?
NP: I was a dabbler. I never took art in school. I played football from fourth grade to senior year. I was always about the third or fourth best artist in a class, is what I realized. In sixth grade, you had to do art, music, and speech for a year, and I had 1/3 of the year in art. There was a kid named Chris and a kid named Isaac Mardis in the sixth, seventh grade, and they were so good. I could doodle in the corners of my homework paper and stuff, but I never took it very seriously. And then my senior year in high school, what happened was I had enough credits to graduate. Back then, you could get away with 22 credits instead of the 24. I was in all honors classes, then I was like, well, I don’t know if I’m going to college or not. I come from a family of construction workers. So, I stopped turning in my work. I got a job, bought a Camaro, got a girlfriend, all that stuff. I ended up getting kicked out of my higher-level classes and got put into the intermediate, or lower just ‘cause of my schedule. And Chris was in one of those classes. He’s like, “Isaac’s still drawing. He’s amazing. And he’s going to this cartooning school.”
Isaac ended up being my best friend—he’s my best friend to this day. The cartooning school he was going to was the Kubert School. He was doing the correspondence courses and the class was pretty easy, so I was just like, “How do you draw?” It was like magic. He was drawing out of his head — he wasn’t looking at stuff. Then, we went to the comic shop, and I just didn’t get the art. I didn’t get crosshatching, these gradually paralleled, fading lines. It wasn’t my thing, you know? But I got really lucky at that time; I graduated in 2000 and The Authority was on the shelf. That book opened the door. Frank Quitely, who’s a Moebius guy, and Geoff Darrow kind of draw people lumpy and it feels a little more honest.
KS: Did you have much reference for the more classical style of American comic art, to recognize what someone like Quitely was doing differently?
NP: The best way I can describe it is, let’s say a classic Batman by Jim Lee — who’s fantastic — but it’s romanticized in a way. Think of the Captain Morgan pose with his leg up and the perfect abs, and he’s flexing and then he’s saying something. The words and the art didn’t connect for me, so I didn’t really believe what I was seeing in a way. But when I saw Quitely do it with Midnighter, when he got mad, he would just kind of turn his head. And I was like: That guy’s pissed off. What’s he gonna do next? What’s happening here? Oh my goodness. The stories on that Mark Millar/Quitely run, I didn’t know superheroes could kill people — I hadn’t read Watchmen or anything. These guys are drinking, the Batman and Superman [homages] are lovers, and they’re killing the bad guys… that was it for me. ”Whoa, comic books are awesome.” [laughter] I go back and read it now, I can see it was a little bit cheesy, but when you’re 17 years old and you see that for the first time? It hooked me in a way that just lit a fire under me, you know?
KS: Since you weren’t an artist and the idea of working in comics wasn’t even on your radar at that point, what did the path look like for you at the end of high school?
NP: My dad’s an electrician, my brothers are electricians, my uncle is a plumber, his kid’s a plumber. I just figured I was gonna do that. I enjoyed doing summer jobs and my dad had me hooked up with some cash under the table helping some of his buddies, moving the ladders or putting up 1,900 boxes or running conduit on the job site. My dad always provided for us and he busted his ass — I just thought that was a good living. But then when I got the bug for drawing, I was like, “All right, I’ll go to community college.” I ended up taking the entry exam to go to community college. My sister was already a teacher and I thought I could be an art teacher or something and do this on the side, but I’ve never been a moderate guy. When it comes to food, I overeat. I’d never smoked a cigarette once in my life, but someone gave me one and I was smoking a pack a day within a month. [laughter] Eventually, I had to stop — I’ve got kids — but it’s either on or off with me. I threw myself into the art, started buying the how-to books. It took me, like, 12 years to get through college. I kind of paid my way by doing side jobs and stuff as I went, but I got my teaching degree eventually. My thing was: Art is learnable. I ended up winning a scholarship at [University of Houston] for that teaching philosophy.
KS: The premise seems instinctive, but can you elaborate on that?
NP: What I realized is, when you deal with kids, they think it’s magic just like I did. But you can give them a quick lesson. Give me an hour with a kid. I can show you the basics of building figures with some basic boxes, and you will go from “I can’t draw” to being in the top three or four kids in your class. I [thought] I’d be a middle school teacher and I’d trick all these kids how to control so they all think they’re the best. I think a blessing for me was, even though my dad’s a construction worker and my mom for most of our life was a stay-at-home mom, they had us believing that we could run through a wall. I had no doubt that I could be a comic book artist. I just knew it, you know? There’s like that thing where you speak your reality and you believe it. I have two young daughters now, and my whole teaching philosophy with them or parenting philosophy is to let them try to build enough character to think that they can do anything.
KS: As far as stability, benefits, and steady pay, the career path you chose is pretty much at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the union jobs the rest of your family had. Aside from your parents making you guys believe you could do anything, did you get full support when you announced this plan?
NP: It was, “Hey, you know they’re hiring apprentices, right? I just turned out a guy who’s 42 years old who’s apprenticing.” They’re all in the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers]. My brother eventually got his Master’s and jumped over to the elevator union, and he’s always telling me they’re hiring to this day! [laughter]
KS: Talk us through the first steps as you set out on this path.
NP: Two things happened when my buddy went to the Kubert School. I went up there and I couldn’t afford it, but for a semester I lived in a house with a bunch of artists. I thought that was the coolest thing. They were kind of burned out ‘cause it was their third year in 2003, and they would let me do their homework assignments for fun. I ended up getting a fast food job for the four, five months I was up there. I wasn’t good, but I was willing to work. I’d had the benefit of seeing my dad’s work ethic every day, and it lets me know that I’m never doing enough. So, I just took it as work. You know, I don’t have to go sit in traffic, I don’t have to bust my hands up, I get to sit here and think and learn.
KS: Let’s pause for a hypothetical. Your time in that house was now 20 years ago. Imagine you had become an art teacher and the Nick from back then was a student of yours. What guidance would you give him?
NP: I still give lessons and what I would try to instill in him is, again, art is learnable. Do the work. The real thing is the sequentials. People will do the headshot and it kind of falls apart after the bust, so they just keep doing that one thing. What I learned is, there are little tricks to get the perspective down, and I really relied on my perspective to inform my shapes and inform the size of my figures. I’ll always draw the figure first, but there are little bits of that figure — the way the hips move, the way the shoulders are — that inform some of the horizon lines and some of the planes. Once you get that little rough down, build the whole room and then that room will start drawing your figures for you.
KS: Being a comic book artist is a job where you walk in and put your resume down, so we might say there’s a the balance of hustle as well as any kind of lucky break. What were the steps you took back in ‘03 or thereabouts to put yourself in position to make this happen?
NP: I would get jobs. Waiter jobs, construction work, I had an office shop for a little while. Everything about my life was about getting that gig. Now, do you know what that gig is? You do not. But you know that local convention in that hotel is coming in three months, so do three new pages. Those were, essentially, my first deadlines. Every time I thought “This is the page,” it never was. But I did have this one thing with my art that I could show to people — because it was intricate and detailed and the perspective was generally correct, people knew that I had something, there was something there. I’d get offered little gigs, like $40 a page, but I wouldn’t do it. I had a real job, too, you know? I made $12 an hour instead of spending 30 hours on a page or whatever it would take me at the time. So, what I did was just kept putting myself out there. The best advice I heard growing up was: Be willing to fail. Failure’s part of this process, you’re gonna get rejected. I’ve had so many friends, guys who were at the Kubert School at the time, they hear that first rejection and it kills ’em. They stop drawing and they get out of it. I had a bigger vision for my career than that failure. I’m competitive, so I’m like, “I’ll prove you wrong then.”
KS: Did you get any type of feedback on your art aside from your friends? How were able to assess your progress?
NP: I remember Bart Sears was working at CrossGen at the time, and I had been at the school for four or five months and worked on, like, five sequentials. They were probably so stiff and terrible, but I waited in line for CrossGen, got to see Bart, and he was my only really bad review. It’s been 20 years, so I’ll just tell you, he kind of picked up my portfolio and thumbed through it. I was ready to take the hits. I want to hear the feedback. He goes, “That Frank Quitely guy gets away with it.” I said, “What?!” Frank to me was like a god. He was big by ‘03, but in 2000 when I liked him, I would show my buddies The Authority. All those guys loved the Kubert boys and Jim Lee, and they’d be like, “That guy draws like everyone’s made of mashed potatoes.” [laughter] Anyway, I asked Bart, “Do you have any advice?” He’s like, “I wouldn’t show your work to any professional until you draw 200 more pages.” Now, I’d just spent six months on six pages, so I’m thinking I’m not breaking in until I’m 60.
I would always take my portfolio — this is the advice — and show it to every professional. Don’t just ask that editor, go ask the professional artist. If any professional artist was there, I was hunting them down. I went to Dark Horse. They were doing reviews at that show. I go over to that line and I was down, like, 200 spaces. Even with my ego that my parents propped me up with, this still hurts. [Editor] Scott Allie was there and the big deal was to get a card at the time — there was no digital really. Nobody got the card. Scott saw my stuff and was like, “This is interesting. Send me some more.” I got the card, it was super cool. I never followed up with Scott. I’ve never pestered people for work. That’s one of my faults. I don’t like asking people for work, but if there was a contest or something like that, I would be entering. There was the Wildstorm Talent Search — you had to fly to LA or Philadelphia to enter that. I remember being on Digital Webbing, which was this aspiring pro board and everyone’s like, “Don’t waste your time.” But if everyone has that mindset of “don’t waste your time,” then that’s less people that show up, so I’ve got a better chance. I’ll always flip any negative to a positive. So in 2006, after three years and, ironically, about 200 more pages of sequentials, I ended up entering.
KS: What was the contest process like for you?
NP: You had to drop your portfolio off, then go back to the panel later. It was Jim Lee and Scott Dunbier and Ale Garza and Alex Sinclair. You had to sit and wait and they were gonna show ’em on the screen. They showed mine up there and they called me up and did an interview — my first panel, it was covered on CBR and for the first time ever, Nicholas Pitarra was mentioned. But I took my vacation time from work, flew out there, it cost me so much money just to get my name up. It didn’t mean anything, but it meant something to me. Then, the next year CBR had “Comic Book Idol” and there were over 200 entries. At that point, my confidence was building, and I was [thinking] my stuff is weird enough to where, maybe I’m the 30th best artist, but I’m in the top 10 weird and different. I felt like they were gonna pick me, and sure enough, they picked me.
The contest was a play on American Idol, essentially three to four pages a week you had to do. I was used to doing three or four pages every three or four months, [so] I’m taking my vacation time from work, getting my shifts covered, whatever I had to do. I was all in. Two nights a week, I would not sleep. I would sleep like five nights a week. And that was getting too much, you know? I remember going on a walk. It just felt great. I felt like I couldn’t keep winning because there were some really good artists left. It was pared down to some really good ones. It was at the beginning of a little bit of the social media stuff where you get your parents to go vote for you, and I had kind of tapped out my mom’s coworkers. My dad’s coworkers were useless. [laughter] My mom at that point was an office receptionist, so she was getting all of her office [to vote]. So, I remember going on a walk, not having slept. I got voted off by one vote. I was completely content with it.
KS: How long were you able to live in that headspace? Or maybe I should ask how long you had to live in it.
NP: I got an email from Marvel right after. Jonathan Hickman was privately one of the judges who selected the portfolios. Apparently, they had running bets, like, “That’s my horse, that’s my guy.” I had never submitted to Marvel, and here Marvel asked me to work on a Mojo story. Dream come true. It’s on now. Jonathan wasn’t a big name yet — The Nightly News was the only thing he had done. I got the editor to send me his phone number, called him up, and thanked him. He got me that gig and we hit it off and then luckily we kept working together as his career took off. Obviously, I rode his coattails for a long time and made a lot of money, so it’s worked out well.
KS: Was that your first paid gig?
NP: Yeah, it’s kinda crazy. I was 25 and everyone’s always worried about that 30 mark or that 35 mark breaking in. But I was gonna do it no matter what. It was just like 40-something pages in Astonishing Tales, but it was the right amount of work for me because I had not been doing long-form anything. Even that deadline was tight for me at the time. If you give me any amount of time, I’m gonna use every bit of the time. At Image, I missed some deadlines, but I’ve never to this day, on covers for Marvel or DC or any freelance work where it’s not the thing I own, I’ve never missed a deadline. Have I made editors’ turn hair gray? Yes.
KS: You and Hickman certainly sustained a partnership over a long period. What do you think makes you two good collaborators?
NP: I’ll give you a general thing: Hickman sees big picture. He sees long term, he sees plot points. He won’t concern himself with character moments as much because he says, “If I’m drawing Wolverine or if I’m writing Wolverine, do I need to stop and ground him? Because you already know who Wolverine is. You’ve already got your favorite story. I’m telling this big epic.” For me, I love character moments. I love human interaction. Hickman was a collegiate soccer player, very high end. You’ve gotta look at the whole field. And soccer’s boring to me. I don’t like soccer, but I was eighth ranked in Texas as a super heavyweight arm wrestler. You can’t get any more intimate and close up to another person. I think systems have a whole and a point. You know, there are guys that walk in a room and read the room. There are guys that are like the charming guy that’s interacting. I’m that point. I have literally a point on the end of my pencil and I’m drawing these characters and I live in that panel where Hickman can give me these plot points. We realized very early we were gonna work Marvel style, where we sat down and plotted out some of the turns for 20 issues, and then he would just say, “Okay, we’re doing that issue.”
I’m really proud of the first 20 Manhattan Projects. After 20, it wavered — John was too busy, and I was kind of out of it. I think people who like the character moments got that richness from my art, but also they got the big heavy sci-fi stuff from Hickman ‘cause he sees the whole picture. In your head, you’ve got this whole system, but you’ve gotta eventually decide and have a point of action. There’s an arm and a brain. Hickman’s the brain and I was the arm.
That’s the best way I can explain it.
KS: On Ax-Wielder Jon, you’re now both artist and writer. Was there ever a thought of trying to recruit a writer to write that and you would draw it, or was it always going to be your baby?
NP: It was always gonna be my baby. I’ll give Hickman credit for this. He had always made me feel confident that I could write and draw, and he tries to push his collaborators to venture out on their own and be more. What I want for my career, and I’m doing this intentionally, is I want an avatar that represents me in the comic book field. If you think Hellboy, Shaolin Cowboy, Madman, The Goon, all of those characters represent that creator. With Ax-Wielder, I was a new father and my daughter got sick. She was in critical condition. We had to live at the Ronald McDonald House. When I was doing that, waiting around for her to get healthy — she’s healthy now — I would doodle and there was just this big, bulky man who had this big mustache. Here I am, this arm wrestler guy. I think I’m a tough man. I come from blue collar Texas and the symbol of masculinity is a big mustache, like Tom Selleck or whatever. And I was like, I’m gonna break that in half and cut his face in half. That’ll represent his broken machismo and his broken ego. Alan Moore says that to spell magically is simply to spell. And I said to myself that to draw is simply to draw and I’m gonna draw people in. And what better fishing lure than a big ax with brains and guts on it? Because I love The Authority, right? So, I’m gonna cover my dude in as many fish hooks as possible. That’s how he was built. I love the book Flex Mentallo. It’s probably one of my favorites. In Flex, Wally Sage draws Flex and then he comes back to save him in that meta way. Here I am, my kid’s sick, I’m a new dad, and this character came to me. I’ve got stuff I wanna say about the men in my life and what I’m going through, and I’m gonna take that as an allegory and put it on Jon.
I’ve been wanting to write. I’ve written some stories, but none were that commercial for comics; some of ’em were self-reflections or slice-of-life, and I didn’t think they were commercial enough. But John looks cool and it’s a cool design and it’s a manly, bloody comic that I would like. It was like, for me, I had a personal conversation with God and it’s like this: “You’re an artist. Are you gonna keep drawing scripts or are you gonna be an artist? Say something. Say something about your dad, say something about the men in your life that you want to honor, say something about your situation.” For me, that was big.
KS: How does writer Nick work with artist Nick?
NP: One thing I battle is, remember you’re working with Nick Pitarra and you’ve gotta put him to work on the detailed stuff, too. There’s a lot of sweet moments in Jon, as bombastic as it is. I love those. To me, the big stuff is just theater and aesthetics — bombastic selling points. You know, it’s also cool. That’s the stuff I would’ve flipped out for at 17, but at 40 I don’t. I’m really proud of [the fact that] I knew the ending before I started. I brainstormed it for almost two years before I wrote the first script. It was just time to bet on myself.
For my pages of Jon, every panel’s on its own 11×17 board. I did that wanting to be better because I was gonna bet on myself, but I also knew that in the art collecting world, if you’re an art fan or a comic fan, how do you not want to see what insanity I put myself through to build it?
All these things were marketing. I’m learning all that and I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m willing to try and fail the same way I was when I was going to the Kubert School, when I wasn’t supposed to be there. My wife is a writer. Chris Stevens is a writer, who’s my editor. Jonathan Hickman gave me notes. I don’t have an ego when it comes to the writing. I put down what I want and then I workshop it with friends, get it polished by my wife or whoever. Fortunately, when it takes as long as it does for me to draw a three-and-a-half-foot tall page, I’ve got a lot of time to think about the dialogue and how to hide the exposition.
KS: Now that you’ve got experience on both sides, do you think you’d rather be the artist on a script by a great writer of your choice, or write a script to be illustrated by a great artist of your choice?
NP: Ooh, that’s so tough. I’ll tell you my favorite writer right now, and just because it’s so commercially good, is Saga and Brian K. Vaughan. I would love to work with Brian. I’m also getting to write stuff on Ax-Wielder where I’m paying Das Pastoras a lot of money to draw and that is such a high, because he paints and he does stuff I can’t do. I’m pretty good, I’m serviceable, but there’s a part of me that feels guilty even tying up someone as good as Das.
KS: As such a big fan, could you write a story that plays to Frank Quitely’s strengths?
NP: No. I think it would be a shame if he wasted a second illustrating something that I wrote. I would just make him do a knock off of a knock off, you know? Do that same thing again. But working with Brian or someone at that level? I think Jeff Lemire is great at the small moments — he’s someone that I always say I would like to work with. What Brian does so well is, those characters live in his head for a while because when they start talking, they are real. Even if they’ve got a TV for a head, they’re real. That’s something I aspire to as a writer. I think we could do something cool together. That’s my answer, universe, but for now, I’m gonna keep working on Ax-Wielder.
KS: Next up, I can hook you up to a machine like in The Matrix where I can download instant expert level at any skill that you do not currently have. It doesn’t have to be art, it can be literally anything. What would you pick?
NP: It’d be watercolor. I practice sometimes just for fun and it’s a nightmare. I can’t do it. I’ll do the whole drawing and it looks great. And I’m like, “I’m gonna watercolor it.” Make it trash. If I could just paint, man, I could really do the whole package. I know how hard it is to write. I know how hard it is to draw and how long that journey takes, and I don’t have it in me to put 10 years in [learning watercolor]. Dude, I would do anything to have that skill without working for it.
KS: If you got a plaque for an imaginary Comic Book Hall of Fame, what would you put in as your example of the best this medium has achieved?
NP: I’m gonna put one moment as my plaque. The best singular moment I’ve seen in a comic is in a book called I Killed Adolf Hitler by Jason. It’s about an assassin who is about to retire and he’s gonna do one more job. His employer built a time machine and they want him to kill Hitler. His girlfriend’s been on him about like, “It’s time to quit this,” and he’s like, “This is it. Last job. We’re gonna retire.” He comes back but the time machine’s messed up. He’s an old man, she’s a young woman. She’s ready to have her life. She looks at him and she’s miserable. She lies down in bed and he lies down next to her, over the covers, and she opens her eyes and closes her eyes. I thought that was one of the most powerful moments. Jason does this thing where he draws these very simple figures and the more simple, the more you hear the message, the more you project yourself into an icon. He doesn’t use many words. He just lets the art be the art.
KS: Lastly, I’ll turn the floor over to you. Your Zoop campaign will be done by the time readers see this, so please let everyone know where to look for Ax-Wielder Jon.
NP: I’m over ordering, like, a thousand copies of the book. Right now, axwielderjon.com links to the page, but after that, my wife is gonna be really mad about how many books I ordered to sell. I will have some kind of web store to ship it out directly to fans if you miss the campaign. If it’s a freelance gig, I’m at the whims of the editors telling me, “You can’t tweet that out,” “You can’t show that,” “You can’t do that.” This is a new property. I own it. I get to say what I want. I need to show this thing as a brand and not just an idea — as a complete thing that feels substantial.
This interview was edited for length.