In this interview series, I speak with other comic creators to learn about their work! Here, I have a discussion with Joe Gillespie of 4545 Creative and Night Ninja.
Travis Blair: Hi, Joe! Thanks for speaking with me. Your occupation is that of a graphic artist. What got you into creating comics?
Joe Gillespie: Thanks for taking a minute with me Travis.
I think comics and graphic design overlap on so many levels, but in a simple way, they are both just ways of communicating visually. Comics tell a story but so does an advertisement and when it really boils down to it, I just consider myself a storyteller.
As for getting into comics specifically, I am the youngest of six boys and one of my oldest brothers got me into comics. He and his friends were always hanging out in our basement reading comics, watching movies and playing RPGs. I guess I was just exposed to comics and that culture early in my life. I remember my brother had this Marvel RPG that included a workbook that helped you come up with costumes, powers, secret identities, etc. and I would create super heroes with it. Night Ninja is one of my oldest creations and I always wanted to do something with him. Once my son was born, I really wanted to recapture the nostalgia of creating comics again. Will helps me plot out the storyline, through a series of cards since he is only three, and I try to incorporate things from my childhood too. It has been a blast working with him.
Travis: Good point about being a storyteller. By the way, you reminded me of a book I read when I was in junior high, when a friend of mine was into Dungeons and Dragons. I didn’t care for the game, but I liked how the books were structured. I found the collaborations between writers and illustrators to be most entertaining.
I want to know more about how you create comics with your son, Will. I’ve created monsters with my daughter, but haven’t done something so structured as plotting storylines. How do these cards come into play? Talk about great bonding time!
Joe: Yea, I never really got into playing the games but I liked using their directions to make characters and stories.
So when I re-started Night Ninja in 2013, Will was only about 2 years old. He was too young to really understand what to do so I created a series of sketch cards with characters, weapons and places for him to choose from. I plotted out the beginning and end of the story but I allow Will to pick through some cards so their journey progresses. Since the Night Ninja brothers are sent out into their world to overcome 30 feats of fear, the system really works well.
With his first pick, Will pulled a robot and it was the very first feat the brothers faced. He then picked that crazy giant rabbit monster and they faced him after the robot. Will kinda threw me a curve ball when he picked out an ally, the Grey Cloak Warrior named Maeve. I hadn’t planned on introducing her into the story that early because she ties back to one of the Night Ninjas’ greatest enemies. So after he chose her it threw a wrench into the overall epic. But we will work it out and that is the fun of working with a 3 year old, right?
Travis: That’s an awesome idea, and a great way to do something fun and creative with your child! Not only is it a “wrench into the overall epic”, it makes me want to follow the story more. It having a random element makes it more fun to me. Sure, long-form comics with stories written in advance are fun for their preparation, but I like how there’s no telling where your story will go. What does Night Ninja challenge more: your writing or illustration capabilities?
Joe: I think storytelling comes natural to me. I have always been able to get my ideas out of my head in the written form. I definitely have more patience with the storytelling than I do with the illustration process. I will take the time to outline stories and rework things many times, especially when Will mucks it all up, haha! But when drawing, I often find myself rushing through the process.
Maybe because drawng is the last step to getting the story out to my readers, but it is definitely something I struggle with regularly. I even made a New Year’s resolution to slow down and sketch out pages for Night Ninja in more detail. I can really see the impact it has had on my pages too, so I am glad I am taking more time but between my graphic design business, my children’s book and the Lil’ Yellow comic strips, I am really finding it hard to get Night Ninja out regularly. I hate that it happens though because I have been drawing Night Ninja since I can remember, so I am really focusing on getting into a good routine so I can enjoy working on it. Drawing comics are supposed to be fun, right?
Travis: It’s all supposed to be fun! I think you’ve already made it more fun by introducing the way your son can effect the story. Why do you think you have different aspects in, at least from my point of view, in different priorities? You mentioned that drawing is done last. Why is this, exactly?
Joe: It is fun and it definitely is a blast working with Will. I hope that didn’t come across as complaining. I love drawing and making comics, I just need to do a better job of time management.
To answer your question, I guess I just work in a linear fashion. I outline the story, Will and I write it, I sketch out the pages, draw, ink, color and letter everything. I do the same with my design work as well. I get the project from the client, outline my notes, do thumbnail sketches, scan in whatever I am going to use and jump into my design software. I am use to having a plan and like to stick to it when possible.
Travis: Not at all! In fact, I’d like to see a blurb at the end of each comic, detailing the process you and your son take in creating the comic and your thoughts about it. That’s the type of stuff that parents could understand.
What’s fun about your comic process being intertwined with your work process, is you clearly state that you like to work with a plan. However, you also came up with a method that continually throws off your plan. It’s a matter of controlled chaos, which I’d like to try to a lesser extend with my children. I don’t illustrate, though I’d imagine working in a linear fashion would benefit other aspects of creation. Does working in such a way help your projection of deadlines when working with clients? Do you factor in a timeline when working this way?
Joe: That is a great idea, I may start doing that every week! I had some good videos of Will picking out characters on my old phone but I’m not sure I backed them up, I’ll have to dig around for them.
Haha, I definitely like working with a plan but we also all know that projects rarely going according to them. Whether it is a client changing their minds or working with a three year old, the jobs are constantly changing. I am sure that goes with most projects, maybe it’s just the nature of our world these days. I do like to start a project with my notes, sketches, etc. but that’s not to say it will continue that way. If I see something that inspires me to change directions, I go with it. If the project comes with this awesome picture or I want to use a specific action shot in Night Ninja, I will work around it to make it happen.
I guess am not a “locked-in” kind of guy either, it’s not problem for me to just go with the flow. No OCD here, I just like to start with a plan and see what happens.
Travis: I think I’m like you, in that I like to start by putting my best foot forward. There’s a Latin phrase, “amat victoria curam”, which roughly translates to “victory loves caution”. Our conversation has reminded me to maintain this. Is there anything you would like to keep in mind, to help you in your illustration pursuits?
Joe: I think just need to keep it simple and try to keep it fun. When I do those two things, the work usually turns out pretty solid.
Travis: Those are great things to keep in mind! Joe, I want to thank you for speaking with me.
Joe: Thanks, that was fun.