Between the Panels: Artist Ryan Sook on the Power of Imagery, Having an Artistic Parent, and Alternate Universe Career Paths

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

When people talk about “fan favorite” comic artists, Ryan Sook is exactly the type of creator who’s earned that label. Whether it’s his high-profile team-ups with Grant Morrison on Seven Soldiers, Brian Bendis on Legion of Super-Heroes, Dan Jurgens on the recent Blue & Gold, or any of his many, many other projects over the years, Sook’s name in the credits is always a welcome sight.

First off, the basics…

Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: Central coast of California
Social Media
Instagram: @rsookart

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? What do you like about working in comics specifically over other artforms?

Ryan Sook: I found a love for comics at a very early age. I drifted in and out of the romance over my early years but came back to it in high school. I love art of all kinds — painting, graphic design, design, etc. — but comics had a unique language that I found I could speak. I poured my energy and effort into it in my late teens with the intent to make a career of it. Work began to come when I got my first gig at 18 and I never looked back.
KS: Let’s talk about when that comics love hit you. Did you have ready access to “floppies” as a kid?

RS: I had access to comics via back issues at the flea market for a quarter, as well as a spinner rack at my local 7-Eleven. Believe it or not, you could get issues of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Crisis, etc. right off the spinner rack. I couldn’t afford those ones, but my friends nearby had them and I just soaked them up any chance I got. Even if it was just lingering in the 7-Eleven all afternoon until I got kicked out for not buying anything.

KS: Besides those big titles, what types of books did you gravitate toward generally?

RS: [A]nything with strong art appealed. I was more drawn to the imagery and quality than any particular characters, titles or storylines. And looking back, my favorite stuff was the quarter books scored at the flea market. Many reprints of Wrightson and Dave Stevens and some Moebius books, Charles Vess, Ross Andru, Jackson Guice, Walt Simonson, and the like. Gold! I rarely read them — I just loved the art!
KS: It sounds like you were able to differentiate among various art styles early on. Did you used to follow certain names from project to project?

RS: I always followed artists. My dad is an artist and had a collection of cool art books and a few comics, so I was drawn to artists more than anything else and I could differentiate right from the start. I didn’t know why I liked what or who I liked, but I could distinguish them right away. Wrightson, Frazetta, Moebius, Simonson, Neal Adams. And I remember Arthur Adams having a huge impact on me as an 11-year-old or so when the “Asgardian Wars” and X-Men stuff was coming out. I was floored by that stuff and immediately had to see anything he did. Also Frank Miller’s groundbreaking stuff like Ronin and DKR. Lots of the Heavy Metal artists like Corben and Druillet. Oh, and I can’t forget Sienkiewicz! The list goes on but whoever did great work drew my eye.

KS: What kind of work did your dad do?

RS: My dad was an art director at our local TV station for about 30 years after having taught graphic design at San Jose State University for a few years and running a small magazine in Oregon for a few years as well — Southern Oregon Monthly.

KS: Were you able to watch him in action at all?

RS: I missed most of that since I was born later, but in my youth, frequently went to work with him at the TV station and watched him work on TV Guide ads, graphic headers for newscasts, as well as designing sets for the news and any other local programming sets that were made at the studio. He was always doing lots of other side projects like designing the logo for the Gilroy Garlic Festival or the anniversary displays for Mother’s Cookies. I learned a lot in those early days when I watched him at work, like understanding and using registration marks; trimming erasers with X-Acto blades to keep them clean and/or shape them for cleanup; and using blue line pencils for clean underdrawings for copy. As well as being exposed to very early digital software and digital art like the late eighties versions of Coral Draw and Photoshop. I still remember drawing Conan on the office computer at the station with a stylus and what, in my memory, was a huge pen tablet. He had a great collection of art books which focused mainly on fantasy and sci-fi artists, as well as some comics and a huge collection of Heavy Metal and OMNI mags that influenced my early appreciation of comic and fantasy art, as well. I still incorporate a lot of what I learned from him early on, though my interests always leaned more figuratively than design. But I think what he taught me informs the marriage of those two disciplines very well for comics. And I still run work past him for art direction or critique.  
KS: Even though you weren’t buying those comics for the stories back then, I wanted to ask if there was any particular story you recall having an impact on you.

RS: I was hypnotized by the artistry but didn’t discover the link between the pure drawing ability and style and storytelling until the high school days when I began to really study the craft beyond just the drawing. But early on when I was a pre-teen, I mostly loved the short story work you’d find in Warren’s black-and-white horror mags and the reprints found elsewhere and occasionally the short stories in Savage Sword of Conan or Epic magazines. Those I read because they were short enough. And they were outside of the continuity of mainstream comics which had no sway for me. And those short stories by Wrightson, Archie Goodwin, Alex Toth, etc… those stories gave me an instinctual appreciation for storytelling and for the power of a good story in the comic form. When I got into high school, it was a lot of the Vertigo material: Gaiman, Alan Moore, Giffen’s Lobo stuff, and Mignola’s Hellboy, Dracula, Aliens, and other works that had a huge impact on me storywise. Especially Mike’s Hellboy stuff because it had an appeal that hearkened back to that eighties and even seventies horror material that I loved when I was young, but it felt so fresh and lively. And still does! Mignola probably more than anyone at a formative age had the biggest influence.
KS:  Can you pinpoint why that type of material worked for you?

RS: I’ll dwell on Mignola’s work to narrow the field and will say that it appealed because of the supernatural, spiritual, and mystical attributes of the stories. Those universal themes that were drawn from fairy tales and legend appealed to me then and still do. And the art accomplished something that I was struggling to do in my own drawing but couldn’t seem to figure out how to do until I saw Mike’s work. That is, he succeeded in being graphic and bold and simple in his design and composition, but without losing the organic, loose quality that is so appealing about Frazetta or Wrightson or the like. Too often, high contrast and “graphic” stylings render images into a rigid or static expression, but Mike managed to avoid that despite the simple graphic nature of his drawings. The combination of those types of stories and Mike’s approach to drawing made that work paramount to anything that was available at the time.

KS: When did the idea of an art career come to you? Was there some sudden inspiration or was it a long-simmering plan?

RS: Without being too redundant, I’ve drawn all my life and sort of leaned into drawing like the comic artists I loved in my youth. But life and other interests pulled me away for different seasons. I was a semi-professional skateboarder for several years and then began to play drums in rock bands coming out of junior high and into high school. It was the girl really. My then girlfriend, now wife, worked at a comic shop in high school which drew me back to the art and scene. I drew her cards and gifts and such, and she encouraged me. Bought me one of those Christmastime Michael’s drafting tables for my 17th birthday — which I used until just a few years ago. Around that same time, when I was leaving my parents’ house to live with her,  I realized I had to decide what to do for a career. Skating had a short lifespan and I was never going to reach truly professional status. Being a rock star was something I could never totally sell out to. But drawing comics…? Well, at the time the passion for it and the longevity of its potential seemed like the best bet. It was tough for a few years trying to really make it happen, but I put my efforts there and after a few tough rejections and years of portfolio reviews at SDCC and other cons, well, it finally paid off!
KS: Did having an artistic dad mean you also got family support for that career path?
RS: Absolutely. I got nothing but encouragement from my parents and siblings to pursue any and all of my interests, and usually without any restraint if they recognized my passion for something. Whether I was jumping the cars in the driveway or building ramps for my skateboards. Having band practice in our garage — the grunge years — because I had the drum set. Or having set my mind at last on pressing full bore into becoming a comic book artist, my family was supportive in any way they could be and still are.

KS: With all those other early interests, what would have been an acceptable career plan B if art never happened?

RS: Grocery store clerk. Rock star. Hedge fund manager. Skateboarder. Truck driver. Fitness model. CalTrans road crew. Barber. Stunt man. Drifter. Fish monger. Mad Max?

KS: Do you remember the first time you ever got paid for a piece of art?

RS: I worked in a grocery store for a couple of years and in that time, while I was studying to be a comic artist and professing it as my goal, I was hired by two or three checkout girls and an assistant manager to create paintings for their homes. One was a triptych of a romantic couple amongst some birch trees in a style trying hard to emulate Jeff Jones paintings — except, you know, awful. Another was a cloaked beauty looming over my assistant manager’s vintage Firebird. Yeah. Those are the first paying jobs I can remember besides drawing some BMX bike logos for a kid in elementary school who paid me with pizza from the cafeteria.
KS: Once you had the idea of making comics, was there any creator you looked at as your “North Star?” Someone whose career and resume looked like a good model to follow?

RS: Mignola. Adam Hughes. Kevin Nowlan. I love the work and careers of so many and early on modeled myself after them as much as possible. It helped without question as far as getting work or having a career. But at some point it wasn’t enough to be able to emulate creators, many of whom I have become friendly with and or worked with. To rest on their problem-solving skills and technical prowess didn’t satisfy. I had to move away from the influences of their styles and even career moves and forge a path of my own. I can’t measure success any longer by comparison to someone else’s. My career, whether commercially prosperous, historically relevant, popular or otherwise, can only be satisfying when I draw some new constellation. Trust my own navigation.  
KS: Just to confirm, I believe your first pro job was an issue of Challengers of the Unknown back in the '90s?

RS: You got it. My first assignment, filling in for the inimitable JP Leon, was actually Challengers of the Unknown #15 by Steven Grant and inked by the great Bill Reinhold. I was hired at eighteen, the book was due on my 19th birthday. I met the deadline, which I usually did every time in my first few years of work. My second job was a short story in Young Justice Annual with Chuck Dixon writing, and then a short five pager in a Tangent Green Lantern book that I think John Ostrander wrote? Definitely that job was inked and even lined up by one of the best inkers in comic history, Mick Gray. Then, Dark Horse began to keep me busy enough that I could quit my day job for good.
[Author’s Note: Ryan’s recall is correct about Ostrander. For more on inker Mick Gray, see our chat here.]

KS: Imagine yourself as an art teacher today and the Ryan who first broke in back then is a student in your class. What type of guidance would you offer him about his work?

RS: Don’t hold back. Now is the time to let your work grow and form without restraint or bias based on the work of others. Whatever moves you, inspires you, challenges you to grow… do that!

KS: While artists are always evolving, was there a period in your career — or even a particular project — when you feel like you really “found your voice” as a creator? Where the different books you’d worked on before ultimately crystallized into something uniquely YOU?

RS: Not yet. But I learned to let go and draw on a project called Arkham Asylum: Living Hell which was written by Dan Slott. He challenged me with almost an entire issue that was drawn in a fairy tale style and had to look distinctly different from the rest of the series. In doing so, he challenged me to let go of all the problem-solving tricks I’d learned from my mentors and do something new. I did. And by the time I was done with the third issue, I completely redrew the first two issues. They had been lettered and were in need of inks. I took weeks in entirely redrawing, cutting and pasting, and making far better issues than I had initially turned in. I still haven’t found my “voice” as it were. But that job and most since have taught me how to listen for it.

KS: These days, what might we hear on the RS playlist while you’re working?

RS: [M]ore often audio books in recent years, and TV or a movie is almost always running in the background just to keep me awake. Music: Arcade Fire, Tycho, The Kinks, The Who, Cat Stevens, Enya, Dragon Force, Voivod, Blind Willie Johnson.  Books: Richard Stark, Ross MacDonald, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Charles Willeford. Film: Better Call Saul, Columbo, The Office, Perry Mason, Rockford Files, film noir, Soderbergh, Coens, Fincher.
KS: Because many of our readers are aspiring or just-starting-out comic creators, is there a certain trait you can identify as important for being successful in this business?

RS: I guess the one trait I see as absolutely essential to being successful in comics or any career is perseverance. If you are passionate about what you are doing, pursue it with all the intensity and drive you can muster. If you cannot abide rejection, struggle, and difficulty, you may have already forfeited your opportunity. You need perseverance to endure the study, observation, practice, self-doubt, and even the victories that can sometimes derail a creative for a season. Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” That is as true a statement about working as an artist as I’ve heard. He’s not denying or disregarding inspiration, he’s just saying if you don’t work, you’ll never have the skill to execute it when it strikes. In the meantime, you persevere. That, to me, is what will achieve a career and maintain it.

KS: What’s a passion or hobby of yours totally unrelated to art or comics? Something that gets you away from the drawing board.

RS: The Bible. But I have a hard time separating it from art or comics or anything else. Since first reading it, I have found that its wisdom and truths permeate so many of the things I love in life. Because knowing and studying it is a passion for me, I find it influences my work, hobbies, etc.
KS: You cited some iconic titles earlier, but as we wrap up, please give us a book from any era that you look at as comics at its highest form.

RS: I think I’d have to fall to the works Charles Schulz or Windsor McKay. Because the simple beauty, coupled with universal appeal, lasting resonance, as well as the fact that their work provides a historical context for the state of a nation and society in their respective times. That is profound. It’s art. It’s comics. It’s philosophy. It is comics in its form, executed elegantly and skillfully, appealing to fans of comics. But the language of those works transcends the simple medium they exist in. People who have no interest whatsoever in a comic book or its form might well love those strips as much as someone who is passionate about the form. It’s pinnacle material.

KS: Finally, tell us what you’re working on now and what we should look out for the rest of 2022.

RS: I can say now to look out for my upcoming issue of Dark Crisis: Worlds Without a Justice LeagueBatman from DC Comics out later this year. Written by the amazing Si Spurrier, it goes places we’ve not seen Batman go before. The exciting and bigger project I am working on after that, also for DC, is yet to be announced, but I’ll let you know when I am able!


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