By Sean Tuohy
Timothy Truman is a triple threat: comic book writer, artist, and musician. Truman's groundbreaking working on “Grimjack” is still one of the most outstanding comic books of the past 25 years. With a slick style and eye to the Wild West, Truman has also worked on several DC comic series and “Star Wars” as well. I got lucky enough to talk to the comic book great about his career and his future projects.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you were artist? Has it been since birth or was it something you discovered later in life?
Timothy Truman: I always remember doing it. My mother and sisters have always told me that I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. I haven't learned much in all these years, but it's something I've always done.
ST: Who were some of early influences growing up?
TT: I want through phases—still do, to a degree. Early on, I was influenced by whatever my cousins had in their comic book collections. However, I quickly developed an eye for spotting particular artists, like Sam Glanzman on “Kona” and Jack Kirby on the early Marvel stuff. Soon after, when I started collecting my own comics, I got into Joe Kubert's war books, Will Eisner in those early Harvey Comics “Spirit” reprints, Kirby's “Fighting American,” “Fantastic Four,” “Thor,” and “Captain America,” and things like that. In the 1970s, when I really started dreaming seriously about one day getting into comics, I became a big fan of Steranko, Jim Starlin and Paul Gulacy—especially Gulacy. I also loved Kubert's “Fire Hair,” “Tarzan," and "Enemy Ace." Soon after, I fell in love with the work of Bernie Wrightson, Michael Kaluta, Jeff Jones, and Barry Smith. Alberto Giolitti was another inspiration—the "Turok" comics. In the mid-1970s, the work of Michael Golden, Walt Simonson, and Marshall Rogers were huge influences on me.
A big change occurred when I entered my Warren comics and Underground comics years. I was a big fan of black and white books—still am, really. I prefer to look at black and white comics rather than color, because I like to study the rendering techniques and it's easier to see what guys are doing with compositions. In the Joe Kubert School, I really got into Russ Heath, John Severin, and Tony DeZuniga. I also discovered European comics—Moebius, Druillet, Hugo Pratt, and guys like that. I still love European stuff and draw most of my inspiration from European artists like Alfonso Font, Corrado Mastantuono, and Victor de la Fuente. The guys I hung out with at the Kubert School really inspired me, too—especially Tom Yeates, John Totleben, and Steve Bissette. These days I still learn much from Tom's work, as well as the work of folks like Mark Nelson, Geof Darrow, Mike Mignola, and Zach Howard.
As a writer, early influences were mainly novelists like Samuel Delany, Robert F. Jones, Michael Moorcock, George R. R. Martin, and, of course, Robert E. Howard. There are some comic writers in there, too—Doug Moench, Archie Goodwin, Harvey Kurzman, and Don MacGregor.
ST: How did you become a comic book artist? Had you been a comic book fan before?
TT: I was a huge comics fan, and I dreamed of doing comics, but I didn't think I could be a comic book artist until the Kubert School came about. I had no idea how one went about it. I was hillbilly kid from rural West Virginia and there were absolutely no sources of information as to how to go about it. The Kubert School was the place where I learned what I'd need to enter the business.
ST: You brought back "Creature Commandos" while at DC comics. I always loved this comic because it was like "Dirty Dozen" meets the old Universal Monster movies. How did you approach rebooting this project?
TT: As I recall, it actually began as a dare from my great friend and "Grimjack" partner John Ostrander. An editor at DC had called me up asking if I had any projects I wanted to do. They wanted to reboot some of their older, more obscure characters. I had no idea what to propose to them. John and I were talking on the phone one day and I asked what he thought, and he was, like, "Hah! ‘Creature Commandos!’ I dare you! You'd do a great job with that." When I thought about it, I was like "Hmmm...maybe so." So I came up with something and the editor loved it. It's still one of my favorite projects. I recently re-read it, and there are thing's I'd handle differently now, but it's still a hoot. And working with artist Scott Eaton was a blast. He was so great on that project. Really inspiring.
ST: Daniel Ford and I are both big “Star Wars” fans, you wrote the comic series for Dark Horse, can you explain how this project came to be and how did you, a western fan, approach the world of “Star Wars?”
TT: Another occasion where I got a surprise call from an editor, Peet Janes. They were doing all these single-issue comics in conjunction with the big Episode 1 movie launch. I did one of those and Dark Horse and the folks at Lucasfilm really loved the story. They also liked the fact that I did a lot of research and that my script needed no revisions. Soon after I got another call, to become the main writer for the regular “Star Wars” title. It was a really fun time. I liked “Star Wars” a lot, but I wasn't a die-hard fan, so I approached the stories in a very matter-of-fact way. I actually researched the material using techniques I'd developed when I was writing my historical books, "Wilderness" and "Straight Up To See the Sky."
I'd buy all these official “Star Wars” guide books and things and study them as though they were actual histories or anthropological volumes; reading them, marking them up, and taking notes in stacks of spiral bound notebooks.
The correlation between “Star Wars” and westerns came pretty easily for me, especially in the Tusken Raider stories I did and the episodes featuring Aurra Sing, the bounty hunter. Those were just sci-fi westerns. Most science fantasy is. For those arcs, I was inspired by a lot of actual historical and cultural material I'd come across while studying Apache life and traditions for "Scout" and frontier culture for "Wilderness" and the "Jonah Hex" books. You can come up with a lot of stories elements just from little bits and pieces that you can pull out of things you research. Sometimes you might not use the materials for years. Then one day you're doing a story about Tusken raiders and you'll remember some little bit of desert tribal trivia that you pulled out of a National Geographic article about the African Tauregs or from some book about the Apaches.
ST: When I started collecting comics and I would say I had never read "Grimjack" I always received strange stares and the same comment "How have you not read it?!?!" How did you get involved with "Grimjack?"
TT: When I was working at TSR Hobbies doing the Dungeons and Dragons stuff, I went with some friends to a Sunday comic convention in Chicago. They told me a new publisher was going to be there—First Comics—so I took my portfolio along. I showed the portfolio to Mike Gold who was editing the First books and Joe Staton who was First's art director. They really liked my work—especially the fact that my portfolio had a lot of very beat-up and grim looking science fiction mercenaries, which was pretty rare to see at the time. Mike and Joe looked at each other and smiled. Then Mike told me, "We have a new project in the works you might be perfect for. We'll call you in a couple of days." Sure enough, they called me and told me about "Grimjack" and asked if I'd like to work up some sample pages. I did so and landed the job, first with the backups in "Starslayer" and later as artist on the monthly title.
ST: Westerns play a big part in your work, where does this love of that genre come from?
TT: From watching western movies and western television shows in the 60's and 70's. I never liked Western novels, but I loved those old cowboy TV shows—"Branded," "Rifleman," "The Rebel," Paladin," “Cisco Kid," "Have Gun Will Travel," "High Chaparral," and the like. And movies like "The Good, the Bad and The Ugly," "Once Upon a Time In the West," "Chato's Land," "Bad Company," "The Cowboys," "Shane," "The Searchers," and "Major Dundee." Later on, I got into reading about old west history and studying the clothing, weapons, and stuff like that. I guess I made some sort of mark on the western comics genre with the stuff I've done. These days it seems that every third job I get offered is somehow western related.
ST: You have done a lot of work for the Grateful Dead how did that relationship happen? Were you a "deadhead?"
TT: I liked all San Francisco music when I was in high school and college—the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Kingfish, Santana, Malo, and the like. I loved the Dead, especially the 1969 to 1972 period. I wouldn't call myself a "Deadhead" though. I saw a little announcement in the Comic Buyer's Guide that Kitchen Sink Press was looking for submissions for "Grateful Dead Comix," which they were about to launch. I gave them a call. Dennis said "Great. Let me call their offices and I'll call you back tomorrow to let you know where to send the portfolio." Well, he called back 10 minutes later: "No need to send a portfolio. You're in. Jerry Garcia knows your work." As it turns out, Garcia was a huge comics fan and collector. I was in every issue of the Kitchen Sink "GD Comix" and it led to a long association with the band. I've done a ton of work for them over the years—comic stuff, t-shirts, CD covers. I'm currently working on art for their 50th anniversary special edition lithograph. An art director at Kitchen Sink once told me that when he and Garcia were looking at some of the first work I did for the comic, Jerry turned to him and said, "Wow. This guy draws what I see in my head when I'm singing the songs." One of the biggest compliments I've ever gotten.
ST: You mentioned guitarist Carlos Santana. Carlos is also a big fan of your work. How did it feel to learn that?
TT: Pretty amazing, as you might imagine. I was even a bigger follower of Santana than the Dead. When Rock-it Comics was doing their series of rock musician bios in the mid-1990s, the publisher called me up to say that they'd spoken with Carlos about doing a comic about his life and career and Carlos told them, "Sure, if you get Tim Truman to draw it." Some guys from the American Indian Movement had shown him some of my "Scout" comics some years before and he'd become a big fan. I'd named the lead character, Emanuel Santana, after Carlos.
ST: What is your creative process?
TT: It sort of varies from job to job. For comic art, in the old days I'd read a script, do little thumbnail layouts in the margins or on typing paper, then start doing full sized roughs on 11x17 tracing paper. I'd tighten up the roughs on tracing paper then use a light box to trace my finals to bristol board for penciling and inking. If I was in a rush, I'd do my roughs on the reverse side of a sheet of 11x17 bristol, flip the board over, and do tighter pencils from that. I usually ink my own stuff so my pencils don't have much rendering to them—just outlines, really.
In recent years, I build mannequin figures digitally with a program called DAZ Studio and use those for my models. The DAZ program is fantastic, because I create all my own models individually. I then pose them any way I want, try different camera angles, pan in and out, and basically visualize any concept I see in my head. It's just like having live models, but you don't have to pay them or feed them lunch and they'll come to the house any time I need them. After I get the poses and shots I need I arrange them into panels and pages with the Comic Life program and print them out. Then I re-draw the pages using my old tracing paper and light box technique.
It's a godsend. It's really freed me up creatively and helped my figure drawing, which has never been one of my strengths. Plus I can visualize the most difficult scenes that I can possibly imagine.
When it comes to writing, that also depends on each job. Generally, though, if I'm creating a tale from whole cloth rather than, say, adapting something like a Robert E. Howard short story for one of the "Conan" books, I'll come up with an overall situation that I think of or some them that I want to work with. Then I put a cast of characters in place and have them react to the situation or theme. Their interaction with the situation usually results in a story. Their reactions are based on their personalities—the type of people they are. I like to say that the best stories are the ones where you've developed the characters so completely and know them so well that they end up telling you the story. They tell you what to do.
ST: What advice would you give to an up and coming artist?
TT: I'd tell then what Joe Kubert taught me: 1. Comics are communication. 2. Learn how to use reference. 3. Make sure your work looks consistent from panel-to-panel, page-to-page. And 4. Keep your deadlines. Jack Kirby also had a good adage that I'll paraphrase: "Why draw a slingshot when you can draw a cannon?" And I always like to pass along something that Will Eisner once told us at a Kubert School seminar: Comics are the most sophisticated art form that a single artist can engage in. So if you're drawn towards comics as a means of self-expression, don't ever let anyone in any other discipline put you down.
ST: If you could be the sidekick to any comic book hero who would it be?
TT: Comic hero? Hmmm…I'd probably run around with the kids from Boy's Ranch. They seemed to have it pretty good. Or maybe the Spirit. He had "Ebony," so I'd probably be "Ivory,” I suppose. But if I were to hang out with anyone, it probably wouldn't have been a comic hero. I'd do some time traveling and be a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
TT: Something surprising for a guy that has written and drawn all the "He-Man" action-adventure stuff that I've done: I'm a big fan of bunny rabbits! Over the last year, I've become infamously devoted to two cottontails that hang out in our back yard. I sort of rescued them one day last spring while I was mowing. I started looking out for them, making sure they had enough ground cover and food and such. Now when I go to the backyard and call for them they hear my voice and come running over to see me, like two little pets. It's really pretty cool. I love the little guys. I call them "Jasper" and "Bigger." So there. My secret is out.
To learn more about Timothy Truman, visit his official website.