BLACK SHIP BOOKS: Your line work and use of shadows reminds me of the works of Mike Mignola. Can you tell us about some of your artistic influences?
MATTHEW HORAK: Mike Mignola, Art Adams, and Michael Golden all had a huge impact on me as a young comic artist. Before that it was Herge’s Tintin that first drew me into comics after falling in love with drawing at a young age.
My earliest influence though would be the Ed Emberley drawing books, especially Make a World, which kind of unlocks using basic shapes to stylize everything you can imagine. Other stuff–Ron Wilson on Marvel Two-in-One and Thing, Otomo, Moebius, and Kirby, Gaijin Studios, Lego, The Coen brothers, Stanley Kubrick, Paul Verhoeven, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Brian Chippendale, Rob Liefeld, and on and on and on…
BSB: You’re a bit of a mystery man. I’ve researched your career online and you seem to have leapt from relative obscurity into the limelight over the last few years. Since 2014, you’ve worked on The Covenant, The Paybacks, Octo Skull and now The Punisher. It’s an impressive CV for such a short time. Tell us more about your journey as a comic book professional.
MATTHEW: Classic 30 year overnight success. I basically started trying to get a job in comics as soon as I knew that was a thing people did. Starting around age 13 I started showing my portfolio around at conventions, meeting people, and mailing copies to publishers. This was all pre-internet.
Years of bad sample scripts, shitty jobs, and false start comics projects finally led to Rob Liefeld giving me a shot on The Covenant after I showed him a Thundarr mini-comic I had done. That was my first real, paid, published gig. I also worked on Space Stepdad with Donny Cates and Eliot Rahal and co-created Doctor Crowe with writer Corey Fryia around this time. I followed that up with writing and drawing the adventures of Octo Skull based on the names of our guitar pedals here at EarthQuaker Devices. Each project fed the next and helped me get better and learn how to do the actual J-O-B of drawing comics for a living.
All along I had built some relationships with some folks at Marvel who liked my work and when Steve Dillon passed I was given the opportunity to draw the Punisher. Despite the daunting task I dove in and have been working on it since. All of that is a long way to say that I just kept making comics until people started paying attention.
BSB: You write and illustrate the webcomic Octo Skull. What are the some of the challenges when it comes to working on a webcomic and promoting it as opposed to working on a comic backed by the resources of a publishing house?
Matthew Horak: EarthQuaker Devices is a well established company with tons of fans and followers online and IRL, so getting the comic out there is taken care of by the amazing team here at EQD. I do think it’s different for us than for most webcomics in that Octo Skull represents a guitar pedal company that has nothing to do with comics except that comics are awesome and we like to make awesome stuff. So we have the resources of a publishing house but in a different market. Octo Skull is kind of like the California Raisins or the Geico cavemen.
For me the challenge was handling all the the logistics of producing a comic book. As the “comics guy” at EQD I basically became the editor and publisher of the project and had to learn on the fly how to build a comic from scratch. Thankfully I had a bunch of great collaborators that made things easy on me in a lot of respects. Big shout-outs to our “rising star” colorist Chris O’Halloran, our “red giant” letterer Crank!, and our “planetary nebula” graphic designer Geoff Crowe for making the book look as good as it does.
BSB: Do you find it easier illustrating your own scripts or do you prefer to work with a writer?
MATTHEW: I don’t know that either way of working is “easier” exactly. Writing for myself can be tough because there are limitless options. On the other hand working from another writer’s script can be difficult because of a lack of options. Writing for myself is probably more fun overall though, since I can write in scenes that take place at the bottom of a pitch black ocean that are super easy to draw and don’t have to worry about some writer asking for a 500 person tandem bicycle race through 1800s Paris or some nonsense. Although I did write myself an upcoming Doctor Crowe story that I drew which featured the Nuckalavee, a skinless human/horse hybrid monster that proved to be an absolute nightmare to draw, no pun intended.
BSB: What’s your artistic background? Would you describe yourself as having formal training, are you largely self-taught or is it a mixture of both?
MATTHEW: I went to Cleveland Institute of Art for one year after high school and followed that with a few years at the University of Akron’s art school but didn’t graduate. At the time, capital ‘A’ Art Institues didn’t really consider comics to be real art and there were no instructors at either school with a background in sequential art so the majority of my comics training has been self-taught. This was back in 1993-98 and there weren’t a ton of options available as far as comics higher education was concerned. Nowadays there are comics degrees and courses available at a number of schools around the country and the internet has made finding info on making comics much easier to find.
Most of my comics education came from Comics Journal and TwoMorrows magazines and showing my work to creators at conventions. Aspiring comics creators! If you see Brian Stelfreeze at a convention, ask if he’ll look at your work, listen to everything he says, and take notes! I learned more about the nuts and bolts of comics storytelling in one 20 minute critique than in any college class I ever took. And every time I’ve stopped by his table since I’ve learned something else. Bob McLeod too. Artist’s Alley was my comics school.
BSB: You worked with Rob Liefeld on The Covenant, a historical epic. That’s very different from The Punisher and certainly shows range. Do you have a genre you prefer to illustrate or do you find every genre comes with its own challenges and pleasures?
MATTHEW: I always default to the Mike Mignola answer, “I just want to draw monsters.” Of course the most of the monsters in Covenant and Punisher are of the human variety, which is probably why Octo Skull is so chock full of weirdness. That said, it is one of the great things about comics that genre and content are only limited by your imagination. Even slice of life auto-bio comics can be wildly visual and fantasy stories can be intimate and personal.
BSB: The Punisher is a character with a great deal of history. He’s had numerous iterations and been interpreted by a variety of artists. What did you want to bring to your portrayal of this antihero?
MATTHEW: Like much of the Marvel Universe, the Punisher has an impressive history of stories and creators. I’ve been a fan of the character since I was a kid and I was both excited and terrified to be not only working on such a storied title but also following in the footsteps of one of the definitive Punisher artists, Steve Dillon. I try to live up to that legacy as best I can and hopefully contribute a run on the character that will at least not be an embarrassing failure and at best be looked at as another solid run in the character’s history. Thankfully, Becky Cloonan is writing some classic Punisher jams and in a lot of ways has made it easy for me to look good. I think some stuff we have coming up might just add an awesome new piece to Punisher lore that future creators can build upon.
BSB: Can you please take us through the process of creating a finished page from receiving the script to delivering the final product?
MATTHEW: Once I get the script I print it out and read it through a few times until I start to get a pretty good idea of what I want to do with the pages. Then I print out a template I made with 20 little pages on it that I can layout the entire issue in very rough stick figure form just to figure out the panel layouts and basic flow of the issue. Next I flesh out the layouts on another template with four pages on a 8.5×11 sheet. At this stage I figure out the poses, environments, and action as well as sometimes re-arranging layouts if needed. I then scan those and take them into Photoshop where I enlarge them onto a 11×17 comics page template. With PS I then put in any perspective grids and reference I may need, blue line it, and add panel borders in black. I then print it out on 11×17 boards to be penciled and inked. After it’s inked I scan it and use PS to clean it up, make the blacks and whites tight, save, and upload to Marvel.
I have gotten into the habit of doing every step from script, to layout, to pencils, to inks, to finished page in order. From panel one page one to the last panel of the book. It makes me finish each page and panel before I move on to the next, even if the next drawing is the really fun one I want to do first. Plus, I don’t want to get stuck having nothing left but the boring bits.
BSB: Most comic book professionals can recall the moment in their childhood when they realized that they wanted to work in this medium. What was your moment?
MATTHEW: Overall I think the comics industry is in a good place, and hopefully the variety and volume of work being produced continues. I think tablets were born for comics reading and making and comics movies continue to boost the profile of the art form. The direct market and corporate comics have their issues but if you take them for what they are there is still a lot of beautiful work being done.
As for my career, I’d like to be wildly popular and respected, have a gaggle of assistants to answer email and draw boring/hard stuff, and get paid the most amount of money while being allowed total creative freedom. And no deadlines.