Standing out as an artist in the comic book industry seems like a near impossibility. Not only does the medium have more artists than it needs but it can be difficult to develop a unique style when editors expect another rehash of muscle-bound superheroes and bosomy superheroines.
Robert Wilson IV of Carrollton has an interesting formula that has made him a rising star as a comic artist.
"Some artists can draw in a lot of different styles but I just kind of draw like I draw," Wilson says. "I think of it in the same terms as musicians or singers. I can adapt to some styles but it's always my voice."
Mark Walters, the founder of the Dallas Comic Show that kicks off this weekend at the Richardson Civic Center where Wilson will be one of the show's invited guests, remembers the first time he met Wilson and got an eyeful of his artwork. Wilson's portfolio didn't have the usual comic book fare.
"Robert had a really cool print he did for the Texas Theatre for John Carpenter's The Thing and he had a nice drawing of The Rocketeer," Walters says. "He had all this stuff on the outer fringe of the industry but it was stuff that I really personally appreciated and I thought maybe that can help him stand out."
That portfolio has led to some very unique titles that have earned critical acclaim, including a satirical slacker superhero story in Knuckleheads; a crowdfunded supernatural drama, Like a Virus, that deals with hefty psychological themes; the Eisner Award-nominated Bitch Planet; and a '70s-era romantic heist called Heartthrob, which was just published by Oni Press.
"I definitely wouldn't take a job I didn't feel like I was a good fit for, but with doing entertainment and art-oriented work, it's important not to get bored," Wilson says. "So I definitely like doing work that has new challenges and new things to get excited about. I try not to do things that are in the same or super similar genres back to back. I try to keep it fresh."
Wilson has always been an artist in some capacity, but he didn't start working on comics exclusively until three or four years ago when he left his graphic design job to pursue his passion, he says.
"The whole thing was a super slow and gradual transition," he says. "It's kind of like being a full-time entertainer of any sort. It takes awhile. It takes hours to get your craft where it needs to be and build a list of clients and fans."
Wilson describes his style as one that "leans a little bit more on the pop art side" without sacrificing his expressiveness. His work also has a "brushy" look of varying line sizes that makes his artwork more detailed and gives it real depth.
"My style is definitely a little bit more retro and a bit more referential of a classic American visual style of storytelling," he says. "I feel like for me and my peers who draw in kind of a similar style, it's becoming a much more popular style."
Walters says Wilson's drawing style uses every inch of the page but without filling it with so much ink that it interferes with the comic's ability to tell a story.
"He has what I call a somewhat bare-bones style, in the sense that there's not a lot of cross-hatching and detailed lines to muddy up the drawing," Walters says.
A comic artist has as much control over the direction and style of the story as the writer who lays out the plot and dialogue. The artist is basically the director who picks the camera angles and the lighting for each panel, and the style of the art heavily influences the emotional tone that's built, whether it's a funny story like Knuckleheads or a heavier drama such as Like a Virus, which Wilson created with Dallas writer Ken Lowery and described as "probably the most difficult thing I've ever drawn even though technically it was easy."
"It's kind of about suicide and it's something that if you're a person who has been around someone who has attempted suicide or succeeded, there's an awful lot of emotion tied up in that," Wilson says. "One of our mutual friends actually emailed us after reading it saying that reading the book convinced him he needed to seek out help and get into therapy because he attempted suicide. It's super heavy and I don't even know how to process it, but it is super gratifying."
Walters says Wilson's perfectionism and dedication to his work bleeds through on every page.
"He does good work and he’s motivated, and it shows," Walters says. "I just want to see him flourish and so far, I think he has been [flourishing].”
Wilson's dedication to his work seems to go beyond just artistic ambition. He wants to create genuine empathy for his characters. He talks about some of them — such as Callie, the main character in Heartthrob — as if they are real people who he wants to help. Callie turns to a life of crime following a life-saving heart transplant.
"There's a lot more world-building and research and stuff that goes into [Heartthrob], and the more you spend time with a character, the more invested you get with them," Walters says. "It's really interesting getting attached to characters that way, hopefully in the way that the audience gets to know her."
Check out Wilson's work this weekend at the Dallas Comic Show at the Richardson Civic Center, 411 W. Arapaho Road. The show hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $5-$65. More info at dallascomicshow.com.
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