Nick Dragotta previews ‘East of West’ 7, talks Death’s horse, Howtoons

Nov. 04, 2013 | 6:00 a.m.
adwhosnext07 dragotta 1 Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

Nick Dragotta, whose parents encouraged his interests by putting him in adult art classes at age 5, now draws for a living. He and writer Jonathan Hickman are the co-creators of the acclaimed hit Image series "East of West." (Image Comics)

eastofwest07 cover Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

The cover for "East of West" No. 7 shows part of a tentacled creature. The series' distinctive covers make stark use of white space, which has advantages beyond visual appeal: They're "easy to sign," Dragotta says with a laugh. "I don’t have to think where I’m going to sign, what pen I’m going to use." (Image Comics)

eastofwest07 p1 Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

A look at "East of West" No. 7, Page 1, by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta. The speakers are the young reincarnations of War, left, Famine and Conquest. (Image Comics)

eastofwest07 p2 Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

A look at "East of West" No. 7, Page 2, by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta. The young Horsemen are with President Antonia LaVey and Ezra, "the Keeper of the Message," now attached to a tentacled creature. (Image Comics)

eastofwest07 p3 Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

A look at "East of West" No. 7, Page 3, by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta. (Image Comics)

eastofwest03 finalpage Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

Death is seen astride his horse in "East of West" No. 3. Nick Dragotta recalls Jonathan Hickman suggesting a hover bike or robotic dragon for Death to ride. But Dragotta saw Death as a "Don Quixote-type figure." At first, he drew a skeletal horse, but then decided to keep with the book's high-tech look, so "I lopped the head off and put a big cannon on the front. It just looked really ominous." (Image Comics)

eastofwest 01 p29 Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

Nick Dragotta says the look of the White Tower (seen in No. 1), home to the president of the Union (one of the Seven Nations of America), is inspired by Katsuhiro Otomo's "Akira." "I just love these big, large buildings and really trying to sell the depth," Dragotta says. "When I draw a large cityscape or something like that, my whole goal is to make you feel like there’s space on the page and you can step into it and it’s believable." (Image Comics)

eastofwest6 p15 Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

This hovering Republic of Texas judge shows European sci-fi influences, Dragotta says, particularly Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Incal." (Image Comics)

eow5 page18 Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

This wired child, seen in "East of West" No. 5, is expected to be the Beast of the Apocalypse. "He's just being fed a ton of information and all that wiring going up through his body is flexing his muscles," Dragotta says. "He's learning everything, from the physical and the mental sides." The design is informed by Japanese influences such as Tsutomu Nihei's "Biomega," the artist says. (Image Comics)

howtoons Nick Dragotta previews East of West 7, talks Deaths horse, Howtoons

"Howtoons: The Possibilities Are Endless!" by Saul Griffith, Nick Dragotta and Joost Bonsen was released in 2007. (HarperCollins)

Where, exactly, is “East of West”? It’s somewhere far from the glass factory where Nick Dragotta used to do technical drawings.

The artist and co-creator, with writer Jonathan Hickman, of the apocalyptic supernatural sci-fi western Image series recalls thinking during his early ’90s gig: “‘This is really boring,’ and I would just draw cartoons.”

Now he’s drawing the not-at-all-boring story of the skull-clasp-bolo-tie-wearing, gun-slinging, shock-white Death, the human warrior woman who conquered his heart (pulling one of the Four Horsemen away from the other three) and their missing child. The complex tale is set in 2064, the first year of the apocalypse, and involves Seven Nations of America, the end-times religious mysteries of the Message, and three angry, kid-looking eternal Horsemen out to kill Death himself.

The amiable Dragotta schlepped a box of limited edition “East of West Volume 1: The Promise” hardcovers through a crowd and up a floor to the New York Comic Con press lounge last month after a busy signing with Hickman at the Image booth to discuss the series, his artistic development and influences, his Howtoons work and advice for aspiring artists with Hero Complex.

“East of West” No. 7 lands Wednesday, and Dragotta says this story arc will focus on the Chosen, a group of elites from the Seven Nations who are working to bring about the end of the world. In No. 6, the Keeper of the Message was shot while wielding a tentacled creature to root out a traitor among the Chosen, and the new issue will look at what happens to him – and his connection with those diabolical little Horsemen. (See preview pages in the gallery above or in larger versions by clicking on the links below.)

“East of West” No. 7: Cover | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

His association with Hickman (“Avengers,” “The Manhattan Projects”) began with “pure luck,” Dragotta says.

In 2010 he drew the silent story “Captain America: A Little Help,” part of a suicide prevention awareness effort. Over in “Fantastic Four,” Hickman would be writing a similarly no-caption-boxes-or-dialogue story showing characters mourning the Human Torch. Editor Lauren Sankovitch recommended Dragotta to the writer based on “A Little Help.”

“I was like a nobody, so following Steve Epting was a big deal for me,” says Dragotta, citing the notable artist (“Captain America: Winter Soldier”) he succeeded.

“Fantastic Four” No. 588, released in February 2011, was widely admired. A Comic Book Resources reviewer wrote that Dragotta showed moments of “literal genius” and “nails each and every furrowed brow, red eye, or thousand yard stare. It might be a wordless book but it will take you longer to read it properly than any text-dense title on the shelves.”

The artist says he and Hickman started talking about working together again immediately after that issue. Before getting to a creator-owned book, Dragotta first joined Hickman for a run on the “Fantastic Four” sister series “FF.”

“East of West” bears a different look, one that shows more of Dragotta’s cross-cultural influences.

“Definitely ‘East of West’ is a merging of all my American influences of everything I did at Marvel – I was shaped into this like American comic book artist – but I’m so much more turned on by the stuff outside of America now, and I want to bring all of that into ‘East of West’ and make the book have that flavor,” Dragotta says.

The East Asia, science fiction and western genre elements in “East of West” give Dragotta ample opportunity to play with those influences, which include manga (especially Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira”), the European sci-fi comics of Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and spaghetti western films.

Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” is a movie he returns to again and again, and that bears on “East of West”: “Just that attitude, and getting that contrapposto of how a cowboy stands and shifts his weight and his gun slings out to the side.”

Death is seen astride his horse in "East of West" No. 3. Nick Dragotta recalls Jonathan Hickman suggesting a hover bike or robotic dragon for Death to ride. But Dragotta saw Death as a "Don Quixote-type figure." At first, he drew a skeletal horse, but then decided to keep with the book's hi-tech look, so "I lopped the head off and put a big cannon on the front. It just looked really ominous." (Image Comics)

Death is seen astride his horse in “East of West” No. 3. (Image Comics)

Of the many designs Dragotta has created for the strange world of “East of West,” his favorite is Death’s robotic horse. He recalls that Hickman had suggested the character might travel on a hover bike or robotic dragon, but “I like the idea of Death being this Don Quixote-type figure,” Dragotta says.

At first, he sketched out a skeletal horse but decided Death’s ride  should be more high tech to fit with the book’s look. So, “I lopped the head off and put a big cannon on the front. It just looked really ominous.”

Hickman and colorist Frank Martin agreed that was the way to go. (See Dragotta’s descriptions of some more “East of West” designs in the captions of the gallery above.)

The New Jersey native’s interest in art started early. His parents tell him he was drawing often at age 3, and at 5 they encouraged his interest – by putting him in an art class with adults, painting still lifes.

As a teenager, he read the “insane” 1991 miniseries “The Infinity Gauntlet,” in which Thanos takes on the Marvel Universe’s heroes, yet the habit didn’t quite hold at first. But after vocational school, where he specialized in drafting, he landed that glass factory job and began feeling the pull of comics – enough of a pull to run up the odometer to get them.

“It was the Image era,” he says. “So I loved Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, all those guys…. I would drive hours to go seek their comics. Where I grew up in South Jersey, they did not have comic shops. You had spinner racks at like a deli, but they never got any of the cool latest stuff…. There was a guy who opened up a little closet store in his parents’ pet store. It was a fish store. My [fraternal twin] brother had fish, so he’d go buy fish food and I’d go to this guy’s closet in his parents’ store and buy comic books. I loved it. I was passionate about it to drive two hours to North Jersey to find bigger comic shops, or into Delaware…. I was just like, ‘Man, this is what I want to do.’”

That led him to enroll at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, where he studied from 1994 to 1998 (and played some baseball as a walk-on). Later, in Boston, Dragotta met Saul Griffith (a 2007 MacArthur Fellow) and Joost Bonsen out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT pair had an idea for some instructional comics, and “I was adamant that we could integrate these instructions on how to build things into the storytelling of the comic, into the narrative,” Dragotta says.

In 2002, the team (later joined by Dragotta’s product designer wife, Ingrid) began producing Howtoons, a series of free online comics showing kids how to build toys, such as this kaleidoscope, using common household items.

"Howtoons: The Possibilities Are Endless!" by Saul Griffith, Nick Dragotta and Joost Bonsen was released in 2007. (HarperCollins)

“Howtoons: The Possibilities Are Endless!” by Saul Griffith, Nick Dragotta and Joost Bonsen was released in 2007. (HarperCollins)

The group released a book, “Howtoons: The Possibilities Are Endless!,” in 2007, and their work landed in the 2010 Triennial of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.

“They said they appreciated how we handled instructions, and they thought that was an interesting way of taking these complex ideas and integrating them into your comic and doing it for kids,” Dragotta says of the Triennial organizers. “It was an honor.”

Griffith and the Dragottas now live in the Bay Area and continue to work on Howtoons, but Dragotta’s “East of West” duties – 10 issues a year (with two books, each collecting a five-issue arc) – make it difficult to draw as much of Howtoons as he’d like. They have started expanding the project with other contributors, including Jeff Parker and Sandy Jarrell (who have teamed on “Batman ‘66”), who are creating a 20-page comic about how to build your own park.

To aspiring comic book artists, Dragotta says, “The best advice I can give is you just have to nail your ass to a chair and just get through it. There’s going to be hard days where you’re like, ‘I’m terrible at this.’ And you really just have to work through it.”

In addition to learning computer skills, he encourages artists to go to life drawing classes.

“Just tell stories,” he says. “Good comics are about good design. It’s not necessarily how well you draw, it’s how you can put that page together and design it. Just try and enjoy what you’re doing.”

– Blake Hennon | @BlakeHennon | @LATHeroComplex

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One Response to Nick Dragotta previews ‘East of West’ 7, talks Death’s horse, Howtoons

  1. PaulyC says:

    Great article! I enjoyed reading it immensely.

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