THE OTHER KIND OF PERFECT: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES STOKOE
James Stokoe is a hellova guy and a very fine cartoonist. His print debut, Wonton Soup, was put out by Oni back in 2007, but last year he blew up with his ongoing color Image series “Orc Stain,” which he writes, draws and colors himself. There was, however, the longest drought between issues 6 and 7: #6 debuted in April of last year, and #7 just dropped last week. Worth the wait yes, but man, were the streets hungry.
Of course, we here at NOVI felt it was necessary to call up Mr. Stokoe and ask him to account for his absence. Turns out that “Orc Stain” doesn’t quite pay the bills by itself, and Stokoe is in a constant state of involvement with various other projects. We talk about that, the fact that he doesn’t sketch (!) and his persona non grata status here in the States.
NOVI Magazine: You were just talking to me about side projects and stuff like that. You seem to have a lot of stuff developing at any one time, stuff for pay and stuff for personal satisfaction. Side projects “just cuz,” like that Spider-Man thing that got circulated around quite a bit. One of the questions I had was, do you even have sketch books?
James Stokoe: Yeah, I think that’s it. I never sketch, so… You know, you don’t want to just draw the same thing all the time. It’ll burn you out quick. When I do stuff like that, I kind of feel like I’m sketching, but I end up with finished pages. It’s probably not the best way of doing things, but it’s been working out fine for me.
NOVI: Ok. I guess I’d like for you to walk me though your process. When do you normally start working? Do you try to fool around with sketch— well, non-work pages first?
Stokoe: I’ll usually go on a bender. It’s not like I’m like “I’ve got to draw a Silver Surfer comic this week, so I can get my head around whatever.” It’s not like I wake up and think that I’ve got to do some panels of non-work pages first before I get onto “Orc Stain.” Usually when I do something [for myself] it’s it’s own thing for it’s own while.
NOVI: Well, I guess what I’m asking is if you pencil pages and ink them, color them first before you move onto something different?
Stokoe: Usually when I’m starting something, I’ll do the pencils first for a couple of pages. Then I’ll get the urge to ink and maybe color a few, but it’s not really a think I think about all that much. It’s like sketching. You just kind of do it when you have a need to.
NOVI: I guess one of the things that’s so wonderful about your work is that there seems to be so much of it. Like, almost ADD prolific. Like “Murderbullets,” which you dropped out of nowhere. We get it, and it’s like, “woah, where did all of this stuff come from?”
Stokoe: It was from many many years! Just building up. I’m not that fast; I do draw a lot, but never, never that fast. I just have a good stable of stuff I’ve already done. It’s lying around, and I feel like showing off a good once in a while.
“Murderbullets” I had done for a year, maybe a year and a half before I posted it. I didn’t want to print it, because it was the first part of a larger story, and I’m not going to work on that larger story anytime soon. So I figured that I would post that before it got too ugly to me to show people.
NOVI: I think that’s also a thing to a lot of cartoonists too. Because drawing is such a long process, I’ve heard of artists writing or plotting a story, even completely plotting out a story, but never getting a chance to work on them. How do you pick what projects you want to really persue?
Stokoe: It’s usually just mood. You know? [Laughs.] It’s all at the whim. I’m not sure what I want to work on until I start working on something, and then it’ll just build from there. I don’t know how to really explain it. Sorry!
NOVI: It’s fine! I was reading some blog post in your deviantart account that you had four books of “Murderbullets” plotted out in entirety. Is that right?
Stokoe: Well, I think I actually wrote scripts for that one. That’s something I usually don’t do, so I had a good amount of it figured out. But I never got around to drawing most of it. I’ve got a good part of the second issue drawn out already, but I kind of petered out of that. I think I just got started working on “Orc Stain” when that happened. I had just developed that first arc, and I’d figured out that I liked working on “Orc Stain” more. So I made that one the ongoing thing that I wanted to stick with.
NOVI: Can you talk at all about the Sullivan’s Sluggers project?
Stokoe: Yeah, it’s a book that Mark Andrew Smith is writing, and I’m staring at the last page that I’ve got to finish up right now. It’s right on the cusp of being done.
NOVI: Wow! Ok, well I remember that it was slated to come out in fall of last year. It disappeared completely into the ether.
Stokoe: It originally was going to be a smaller book. It’s like a hundred and ninety-some pages right now, so it’s turned into this big beast of it’s own. In fact, I’m slow on that too, I’m slow on everything. [Laughs.] I should have had that done sooner, but it’s going to be wrapped up this week. And hopefully off to printers sometime soon. I think Mark has some kind of special idea about it, something special that he wants to do. Put it out through Image, or do something else with it. I’m not sure. He’s still kinda feeling that out.
NOVI: Last I heard, it was still being solicited by Image as a 150 page book on Amazon.
Stokoe: Yeah, it was originally. I’m not sure. I think Mark changed his mind on something, because he wants to do something special with the internet with it. He’s still figuring it out.
NOVI: Oooh, I’m always excited when someone “wants to do something special with the internet.”
Stokoe: That book’s his baby, so he can do what he wants with it.
NOVI: So how did you two meet and get working on that? Because I don’t believe you had illustrated someone else’s story previous to this.
Stokoe: I think we just met through the internet, a couple of years ago. I did a pin-up for his Amazing Joy Buzzards book, way back in the day. And he did “Popgun,” and I was in the first volume. So we had know each other for a while.
NOVI: Well, it just didn’t at first look like the sort of project that you would pick up. Was it mostly about what mood you were in?
Stokoe: Yeah, definitely.
NOVI: Well, how about the other way around? You said that you have a few projects written out, that you have the story and the plot completely figured out on. Would you ever consider doing what Brandon Graham’s doing now and chucking that over to another artist? And collaborating with another artist?
Stokoe: I don’t know if I could actually ever do that. I don’t think that my writing is that strong, by itself. For me to actually tell someone else what to do with that. I kind of need to draw it, for me to figure it out for myself. When I write stuff I figure out most of it on the way, while I’m drawing it. All the little things. I can get the big story beats down by myself pretty well, but I think the stuff that actually makes it my own is when I’m drawing it. On the page.
NOVI: I like the new “Prophet,” because it’s totally in Brandon’s “oh, here’s a million weird things coming at you per second” maximalistic aesthetic.
Stokoe: I’ve just gotten the first two, and they’re really good. He’s working with a great artist too, and he’s really good. He’s friends with all of them, so they can bounce back and forth with each other pretty well. And I’m sure that Simon Roy was doing a lot with the creation part of the book. A lot of those ideas are probably his.
NOVI: How long have you been coloring digitally?
Stokoe: A couple years now. I used to… Well, Wonton Soup was all grey tones. I think “Murderbullets” was the first thing I did that had that “Gradients everywhere!” sort of style I’ve got going on right now. I didn’t go to school or anything, so I have no idea about color theory or anything like that. Photoshop to me consists of the paintbucket tool and a gradient. [Laughter. Marley Zarcone, Stokoe’s wife and also a cartoonist, can be heard cracking up in the background.]
NOVI: I know how technologically minded you are. I saw on twitter you were hitting people up for copies of Photoshop 7!
Stokoe: That’s the only one I need! I tried CS2 or 3 a while ago, and I went, “There’s too many buttons! I can’t handle it!” I almost need just MS Paint, just a gradient tool and MS Paint and I would probably be fine.
Marley Zarcone: [In background.] A 26 year-old old man.
[At this point our skype call got dropped. When we reconnect, I make fun of his lackluster canuck internet. Stokoe here admits his envy of our “Freedom internet,” which has roots in fiber optic wiring and isn’t run through a system of genteelly falling streams and beaver dams]
NOVI: So what kind of things were you looking at when you were developing that style? I’ve seen your earlier work on deviantart and the stuff you were doing with the entervoid people. There were solid colors there.
Stokoe: Well, I’m not entirely sure. Probably a lot of it is Vaughn Bode coloring. But I try to do that in a computer so I can save myself some grief from working with whatever the hell he worked with. I’m not sure what he used to color that stuff, probably some kind of marker. But it’s pretty much Vaughn Bode coloring, from what I’m looking at.
NOVI: I’m actually fairly ignorant of Bode’s work. What did he do?
Stokoe: He did “Cheech Wizard,” and those “Erotica” books. He did little strips and College strips. Very bright colors and little lizard dudes. Even the orcs in “Orc Stain” kind of talk like Vaughn Bode characters, so I think I owe him a lot.
NOVI: One thing that I’ve personally wanted to ask someone about: I’ve been looking at the entervoid website for a while, and I still don’t really know what’s up with those guys. Who are they? How did that get started?
Stokoe: That’s where I got my roots on the internet. I met a lot of the friends that I know right now through the site. It started out as something like Street Fighter for comic artists. You’d make your own character, and then someone else makes a character and you’d do a comic battle. People vote on it and the best one wins. It’s had some really good artists come through its lifetime. It’s pretty old right now, maybe growing on 7 years now.
NOVI: That would make you near the very beginning of the site. I looked at your deviant art, and the entervoid stuff went back into at least 2006.
Stokoe: Yeah, I joined that site when I was probably seventeen or eighteen. Something like that. That was ages ago. I’m an old man now. [Laughs.]
NOVI: I don’t think seven years quite turns you into an old man, but yeah.
Stokoe: Ah, I’m long in the tooth!
NOVI: Another thing I wanted to ask: are those variant covers you posted on your blog when “Orc Stain” was just starting up still happening?
Stokoe: Oh yeah, definitely. I think Brandon Graham’s is the next one, #8. Then Michael Deforge is after that, then Mickey Z[accilli]. That’s a crazy one. I think everyone drew all of theirs before issue one even came out!
NOVI: I don’t know if you’ve looked at our site, but we’re working with Mickey on our first issue. I was super excited when he got onboard the NOVI project.
Stokoe: Yeah, it sounds like a great idea, but watch out: Mickey’s not a guy, she’s a woman.
NOVI: Really? Oh man, I had no idea! Well, I guess I’ve fucked up. It’s on record now. [Laughter.]
Stokoe: I’m pretty sure that you’re not the only one. You know, I actually met her on the entervoid site, and one of the running gags was that everyone thought she was a guy. But, no, she’s all woman!
NOVI: Yeah, that’s great! Well, that’s all the questions I had prepared. Is there anything good that you’re reading? Is there anyone you’d like to give a shoutout to, or any upcoming projects you want to talk about?
Stokoe: Well, “Prophet” is coming out, but everyone knows about that. You know those artist editions that IDW is putting out?
NOVI: You got the Wally Wood?
Stokoe: Oh, have you seen that? It’s gorgeous! Yeah, I was over at Robin “Inkstuds” McConnell’s the other day, and I just stared at it. It’s so gorgeous. I kind of wish that every comic was printed at that size back in the day, just so it would be the norm now. Huge comics. I don’t even know how big it was. I draw on 11” by 17” and only have to pull down a little bit. But he was working on painting canvases!
NOVI: Anything you’ve got coming out or your friends have coming out?
Stokoe: I don’t have anything at the moment. Well, I have some things, but I’m not really supposed to talk about it. It’s going to be announced at Emerald City, I think.
NOVI: Are you going to be at Emerald City?
Stokoe: No, I’ve got one year left on my United States Ban.
NOVI: What? I haven’t heard about this.
Stokoe: Well, a couple years ago I was living in Seattle, and I was coming across the Border and they busted me for working down there. So I got kicked out for five years.
NOVI: Holy shit! What were you doing? Just being a cartoonist?
Stokoe: Yeah, I think I was working on Wonton Soup Vol. 2 at the time. They accused me of stealing American jobs or something. [Laughter.]
NOVI: Those poor American cartoonists! Put out of a job by a dirty, illegal foreigner!
Stokoe: Yeah, I wish I had my Oni Press paystub so I could show them how much money I was making! It was nuts. But I got one more year left before I’m back in.
NOVI: Anything that Marley’s got coming out?
Stokoe: Yeah, she’s got an “Elephantmen” issue that Marian Churchland wrote. Marian’s coloring it right now, so it should be out pretty soon. Probably this year, sometime.
NOVI: Last thing: One of the things that you’re known for in the community is your ceaseless love of drawing. A lot of that comes from, again, the large amount of stuff you’ve put online in the last couple of years. In doing some research I saw a blog post on deviantart from a long while back, where you posted this:
I honestly believe in all seriousness that someday we will be able to produce the best, most loving, amazing comics in the world. We will strive for nothing short of being the undisputed ‘MEMORABLES’ of this new comics generation or we will die trying!!! I’m not talking about most ‘technically’ astounding comics, because amazing perfection of technical skill has much of anything to do with great comics, I think that its the HEART. You can tell when someone gushes and pours their soul into their pages, and when someone just draws perfect linework with the most spot on perspective and anatomy but doesnt seem to care WHAT its about, rather just how ‘perfect’ it looks.
I like the other kind of perfect, where you can see the technical flaws and the filth and the fury. That doesn’t give you an excuse to SUCK but an excuse to fucking vomit all your ambition and love onto the page! Just at least know that you can get better!
Stokoe: I don’t remember writing that! [Laughs.] I’ve probably changed a lot since then. I’m probably a lot more bitter.
NOVI: You’re just doing it all for the paychecks.
Stokoe: Sweet, sweet “Orc Stain” paychecks. [Laughs.] Yeah, I still think that. I still think that you’ve got to care about what you’re doing to make good comics. You can’t just wing it. Well, you can, but it’s not going to be good. That’s the whole thing. There’s a lot of people who I don’t think do it for the right reasons: to get a movie deal and all that stuff. It shows in the work. You’ve got to have passion for what you’re doing, or why even bother? There’s better money in things that aren’t comics!
James Stokoe’s blog is http://orcstain.wordpress.com/, where he’s uploaded a lot of his work. Orc Stain Vol. 1 is currently out of print, but Stokoe assures me that a second printing is coming down the pipes.amazing joy buzzards ao james stokoe joy buzzers mark andrew smith novi orc stain spider-nam sullivan's sluggers wonton soup marley zarcone
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