Last year, Hodder & Stoughton acquired the rights to a graphic novel from Joe Sugg, best known for his channel ‘ThatcherJoe‘ on YouTube. The first Username: Evie tale – featuring art by the hugely-talented Amrit Birdi, coloured by Joaquin Pereyra and lettered by Mindy Lopkin – was a huge hit and, with a second story in its way son, we caught up with artist Amrit to talk to him about the project and his work…
Amrit Birdi: Yes, the reception to the book has been absolutely phenomenal. Joe is a big talent with big ideas, and helping deliver this project was very creatively rewarding. My involvement happened pretty organically and very quickly.
Briony Gowlett – Editorial Director at Hodder & Stoughton – got in touch having found my comic book illustration website. I was given an early written treatment of the narrative and knew immediately that this project was something special.
Within a week or so, I was onboard and drawing pages for an absolute dream project!
downthetubes: Were the publishers looking for a particular style of art, or did the direction come from Joe’s ideas and the script writer?
Amrit: I think there were a few factors at play when it came to the chosen artist and style.
For starters, this definitely was not a one-artist job and it really helped that I was able to tap into my network of artists to build a suitable team.
Joe, who has a very sharp eye for visuals, and the publisher had found my comic art online before calling me for an initial meeting. So I was pretty confident going in and talking through the work and how I could help bring the project to life.
But art and style is one thing, delivering a project is another. Username: Evie needed someone who could take charge beyond the role of the artist – someone who had made comics from start to finish, who had experience telling stories sequentially, who had a ready-to-go art team, who could be depended on for guidance and who could also meet challenging deadlines.
As with any project, trust is a large part of it. They trusted me with this task – and I embraced the challenge.
downthetubes: The book seems to have been created and published at quite a speed, given that it was only announced the previous February, was that ever daunting?
Amrit: A little daunting – but to be completely honest, it was exciting!
When I came onboard in February, we had just 16 short weeks to produce 181 complete sequential pages, fully coloured and lettered.
Joe, Matt Whyman and the publisher had done lots of heavy lifting before my involvement and delivered a very vivid, detail-rich script. That went a long way in aligning our visions and making the art team’s job as straight forward as it could be.
But even then, a twelve-page-a-week- schedule is a tall order for any comic book creator (five pages a week is considered the industry ‘standard’, to give some context.).
The key was in creating an art style that was an appropriate fit for the book, looked good, told the story clearly and could be produced efficiently. The team was superb, and colourist Joaquin Pereyra and letterer Mindy Lopkin really pulled out all the stops to help make this happen.
And as full-on as the schedule was, the speed of production really helped with the momentum of the project, energy within the artwork and refined our ability to make quick, intuitive storytelling decisions.
downthetubes: Did the project change in any major way as you were working on it or did you get a final script?
Amrit: Briony at Hodder & Stoughton is excellent at listening to and understanding the needs of an expert working on a longer-term project – a true professional and very personable. I needed a complete signed off script to start and that’s exactly what she made happen.
Along with Matt and Joe’s air-tight script formatting, there really were only a few minor changes as we went along – which were mainly dialogue-tweaking in response to the artwork pages.
The majority of the focus was really on the character designs and environments, which were conceptualised and then tweaked as necessary, based on Joe and the publisher’s feedback.
I think one of the best things about working on Username: Evie was the creative freedom.
There was no ‘house style’ or, blueprint, of how the book would look and it really allowed us to ‘do our thing’ quite naturally. It’s always good when a project doesn’t feel like work!
downthetubes: It certainly seems to have been well received, judging from online reviews – particularly by Joe’s fans. Are you pleased with the reaction?
Amrit: The book has been very well received and the support I’ve personally received from peers, fans of my work and Joe’s enormous fan base has been overwhelming at times – in a great way, of course.
Since the book’s release, I’ve been kept very busy drawing custom commissions inside Username: Evie copies, which has really shown me how fans have embraced world and characters we’ve created.
People seem to really be responding to making their copy as unique as possible. You can find out more about the interior book sketches here.
downthetubes: And now, of course, there’s another story on its way…That’s great news.
Amrit: Yes! The sequel book Username: Regenerated has finished the production phase.
The book sees the original creative teams get together again and take our characters on a new journey. The material has matured with our characters, who are now a little older and the story is a touch darker.
We really tried to up our game for the second book to ensure the artwork matured with the characters and narrative – whilst still producing at 10 pages per week.
To achieve this, we’ve added two additional artists – an assistant inking artist who helped me fill areas of black which left me free to focus on the details. Also, we brought on board an assistant colourist who aided Joaquin in ‘flatting’ the pages with block colour ready for rendering and lighting.
Username: Regenerated will be out on 22nd September 2016. If you would like to learn more about our creative processes, updates and material will be posted in our case studies later this year: Username Regenerated case study.
downthetubes: What are you working on right now and when is it out?
Amrit: Many, many things 🙂
Aside from Username: Regenerated, I’ve been working with Netflix to produce custom illustrative social content during the launches of their Marvel shows.
And most recently, I’ve produced a short comic adaptation for Jeff Nichol’s film – Midnight Special.
One of my personal favourites of this year, it was an absolute pleasure to take a part of this film and transform it into an illustrated format. The artwork has been released exclusively on Digital Spy to promote the film’s upcoming Blu-ray release.
I also have many other comic projects out later this year, including TV storyboarding for the clients such as 4Music, PR event live draw sessions for brands such as Disney, social content production for Netflix and much more.
downthetubes: As a creator, how do you plan your day?
Amrit: As a creator and artist, the day to day can vary vastly.
Between projects, I may be reading scripts, reviewing contracts or focussing on self-promotion. During long-term projects, I’ll predominantly lock myself away and focus on the task at hand: illustrating.
I try to always do some form of exercise (cardio, weights, stretching) to counteract being hunched over a drawing board for up to 12 hours a day.
Although recently, the demand for comic book art has increased in a big way and I’ve had to grow the ‘me’ to a ‘we’ to accommodate this influx of work.
So as well as regular co-creators Joaquin Pereyra and Mindy Lopkin, I’m now working with an assistant artist, Lisa-Maria Laxholm, and various other inkers, colourists, writers and editors around the world to help me produce this volume of work.
So a lot of my time in between drawing lately has been spent building infrastructures and defining processes on more of an and agency-style approach to creative campaigns, sequential projects and telling stories visually.
I’m finding that brands and agencies trust my vision, ability to pair creative teams with clients, and oversee the projects to fruition – particularly on projects that will benefit from a different ‘finish’ from an art and style perspective.
Everyone has a capacity and that’s okay. But working in this team-based approach, I am able to produce semi-detailed layouts to ensure the story is told clearly and ‘my way’, with a finishing artist to apply the final detailed lines, and a colourist and letterer involved as per usual.
Alongside the 30-odd pages per month I personally produce of course.
downthetubes: What’s the best thing about being a comic creator?
Amrit: That moment when you step back from what you’ve just drawn is amazing and you can’t quite believe you did it.
downthetubes: And the worst?
Amrit: Looking over the same piece of artwork the next day with the realisation that it’s the worst thing you’ve ever drawn!
Every artist is their own worst critic. Objectivity can be lost and the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of the art is purely down to interpretation and taste of each individual.
So I focus on my instinct, what feels natural. I’m always learning from other artists and I let my clients and fans decide if my work is good, adapting where necessary.
downthetubes: What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Amrit: Emails. Lots and lots of emails! But as the team is constantly growing, things are levelling out so I can focus on the drawing and art direction side of things.
downthetubes: Do you think it’s easier or harder for young comic creators to get published today?
Amrit: Honestly, I don’t think it’s easier or harder – it’s relative. It’s easier because the broad scope of the internet gives access to more opportunities. But it’s harder because everyone has those opportunities available to them, so there is more competition.
In my opinion, it’s down to personal drive, belief and not giving up. One person may not like your work, but it doesn’t mean the next won’t. Embrace rejection and look beyond it – there is usually a great nugget of advice at the centre of any critical feedback that can help you improve.
downthetubes: Which one comic creator would you most like to meet, and why?
Amrit: Growing up, I was a huge Michael Turner fan (Fathom, Witchblade). He was a big inspiration to me, but unfortunately he passed away far too early in his journey. I would have really liked to meet him and pass on my thanks for making me want to do this as a job.
John Romita Jr was a massive one for me too – his epic Spider-man runs really drew me in to Marvel comics as a kid.
There really are so many I don’t dare list them for fear of missing anyone out! But growing up and getting to know people in the industry has enabled me to meet many legendary and contemporary personal inspirations.
downthetubes: What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the comics industry?
Amrit: Don’t give up, congratulate yourself for a job well done when you hit a personal milestone but move on quickly. Always look forward not backward, and the most important one: when in doubt, draw.
downthetubes: Amrit, thank you very much for your time and the very best of luck in all your projects