Originally from Roswell, New Mexico, Devin Kraft is an indie comics artist and illustrator from Cheshire Cat Studios (http://cheshirecatart.com/index.html). A transplant from the desert, he is currently based out of Dallas, Texas, which is just down the highway from me here in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. I first encountered Devin’s work while trawling the convention floor at Dallas Comic Con in 2012, grabbing a business card and heading home to follow his efforts online, keeping an eye on his projects and illustrations. Devin is currently hard at work on the third volume of his creator-owned comic Dragon Slayer, a dynamic blend of Eastern/Western fables and genre-mashing, resulting in an intriguing hunting epic. I had a chance to talk to Devin about comics, writing, the local indie comics scene, and a whole lot more.
Q. Your big project right now is your comic Dragon Slayer. What do you want people to know about it?
A. How much of a labor of love this comic is! It has been one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever done, and not just in terms of writing or illustrating, but promotion and distribution as well. Minus some much appreciated editorial help from my cousin Brooks and some graphic design help from his brother Matt, I’ve done Dragon Slayer primarily alone, which means I have to field every job at some point or another.
First I have to write, pencil, ink, tone and letter each issue, then I have to design the book, promote it, and distribute it. I self-publish, so I have to hand mail every copy sold through the Kickstarter, or sell them via comic conventions. It’s definitely a lot of work, but I love it.
I came up with the concept for the book in 2009, and I started working on the book late 2012. Usually I just sell comics at conventions, but I wanted to use Kickstarter hoping it would help get people interested in the comic. Kickstarter has been huge for me, as I have been able to engage my audience as well as get immediate feedback from issue to issue. Dragon Slayer is definitely a product of that collaboration with fans of the book, and that’s what I’ve always wanted from comicking.
Q. I’ve read a bit of Dragon Slayer so far and I really enjoy visual blend of Eastern fable with Western sci-fi/fantasy. That’s an aesthetic that I often see but isn’t always integrated successfully. What are some of your influences for this comic? Any particular homages?
A. I hope I pull the aesthetic off successfully! My favorite stories and art styles are hybrids of Eastern and Western culture. I love Japanese artists who pay attention to anatomy, and American or European artists who know when to let anatomy slide in favor of more expressionistic storytelling.
As far as specific examples go, the three biggest spiritual influences have been Katsuhiro Otomo (primarily in how lavishly he portrays destroyed cities in his work), Matsumoto Taiyou (for pacing, and allowing his stories to breathe), and Terada Katsuya (for his brilliant sense of design). All three were heavily influenced by Moebius, but I’d be hard pressed to think of any artists who have a more distinctly “Japanese” style.
As far as storytelling goes, my main influences for Dragon Slayer are Neil Gaiman, Aesop’s Fables, the Coen Brothers, and Quentin Tarantino. I’m hoping the end product will be a viable mix of traditional and contemporary storytelling resulting in something fresh and original.
Q. I know a lot of creators across many fields have mixed feelings about crowdfunding projects. Some love it, some despise it, and it always seem to be a well-debated topic all over the web. Having Kickstarted your comic twice now, how have your experiences with crowdfunding been so far?
A. I personally love crowdfunding, as that is what has allowed me to continue writing/drawing/producing Dragon Slayer. When I first went to the Dallas Comic Con in 2012, I printed up five comics I had drawn thinking I would sell through my stock. I quickly found out how difficult it is to pitch an original idea to people at a crowded convention, so I was worried about getting the comics I did finish into an audience’s hands.
Kickstarter was a great platform to present the idea to an audience as well as interact with people interested in the concept. There’s always a point in each issue where I burn out a bit because I’m fielding three people’s jobs or so, and having people who care about the story and are excited for the next issue is what keeps me going sometimes. I hang on to all the fanart people send me and I decorate my room with it as a reminder that people do actually care about what I’m doing.
Q. How long do you plan for Dragon Slayer to run? Will it just be three volumes, or is there more story to tell?
Dragon Slayer is going to wrap up with the third issue, which will be about the size of the first two issues combined. I always thought of it as a self-contained story, but the more I played around in that world the more short stories I came up with. I might base a future comic in the same world as Dragon Slayer, for sure. If I could pass off the art duties to someone else, I’d love to do write some shorts fleshing out the world a little bit more.
Q. While digging through your older comics, I found myself very much intrigued by the imagery of many of your one-offs, specifically Devil and Dr. John. Do you find yourself drawn to one-offs more than serialized work, or vice versa? Do you prefer one format over another?
A. Being an independent comic artist, I don’t have the infrastructure that the average comic has. It takes a lot of work just to finish a single issue, and I usually do the short comics for myself keeping in mind they potentially may never reach an audience. Devil and Dr. John, for example, was written and illustrated while I was an exchange student in Japan when I was 21. I didn’t print it up until 2012, roughly five years after I had finished it. I put the pages up for free on Deviantart and Facebook, and I even had it translated into Japanese to submit to some manga contests when I was job hunting in Japan in 2009, but even with all of that I’d be surprised if more than ten people read it before it was physically printed.
In college I would draw comics instead of doodling in class, figuring it would be better (and more focused) practice than aimless scribbles. By drawing a page or so a day, I ended up completing twenty comics that I had no clue how to get to an audience. My first comic was a Chinese noir inspired riff on Alice in Wonderland that I finished about five issues of, and towards the end of college I finished five issues of a comic called Paradise about an omniscient horticulturist fighting an omnipresent murderer (trust me, it’s cooler than it sounds, and it had zombies before zombies got played to death).
I think you have so much more room to play with and subvert tropes with serialized storytelling, so as a writer I much prefer that, but it takes a colossal amount of effort to wear both hats, and without any audience backing you up drawing serialized stories can feel like a lot of effort for a potentially empty room, so that’s why I did one-offs back in the day.
I really just want stories to have a solid thesis statement and to stick to that, and sometimes serialized media can lose the plot over time. Alternatively, sometimes you need more room to properly explore your concept, so it becomes essential to tell it over several episodes.
Q. I noticed on your site you have a nicely cataloged visual resources page, which spares from me having to ask you where you draw inspiration from. I have to ask (as someone who’s far less fastidious in keeping track of her own resources): do you find that it helps to have all of your influential material organized and within reach? And where else do you mine for art-fuel?
A. I once heard that a good way to engage your audience was to create a learning environment, and that was one of the concepts behind my website. I wanted to educate fans and future artists about artists who they might not hear about anywhere else. There are widely known artists who work on Marvel and DC’s flagship titles, then there are the artist’s artists who have never gained mainstream attention for whatever reason. My goal was to at least present people with these artist’s works in hopes they would serve as an inspiration to aspiring artists as well.
Case in point it took me years to find out how awesome Moebius was. I actually had come across his book 40 Days in the Desert in a Japanese bookstore, but I never knew how influential he was to my favorite artists. I also spent the majority of my time in Japan hunting down obscure artbooks, and this exposed me to a lot of alternative Japanese illustrators, and I wanted to pass this knowledge on to any budding artists who were looking for something new.
For art fuel I find myself checking my Tumblr a lot. I’m really picky about who and what I follow on Tumblr, so my feed has become a great mix of comic illustration tips, fashion, high art, and photography that always serves to plow through any artists’ block I may be struggling with. Beyond that, I love going to Half Price Books or to comic shops and just checking through every single book on the shelf that I haven’t seen before. I can kill a good hour or two at a decent bookstore.
Q. You’re based out of Dallas, which is just down the highway from me. Most of the American indie creators I keep up with these days are stationed on either coast or in Austin. They all have unique communities that they engage with, unique venues, things like that. (Obviously the internet and social networking opens up the indie community as a whole, so it doesn’t even need mentioning anymore.) But, from one local to another, how would you describe the indie comics world for us here in north-central Texas?
A. I’m from Roswell, New Mexico, originally, and it’s such a small town that it’d be really difficult to live solely off of such a niche form of art (comicking). Coming to Dallas, I started attending conventions having only read about them in magazines when I was a kid. It wasn’t long before I decided I was ready to exhibit at some of these conventions, and doing that has allowed me to connect with a bunch of awesome and talented people, both in the form of peers and in the form of fans.
Dallas has some phenomenal local talent that would be snatched up by the bigger companies immediately if they had headquarters here. The artists I know here all employ vastly different styles from each other based on vastly different influences, so there’s a lot of diversity. It’s always a lot of fun at the big conventions to browse the booths, as every booth has such a totally different style from the next.
I’m guaranteed to forget someone in this list, but a few of my local favorites are: The Space Gun Studios guys, Robert Wilson IV, Chad Thomas, Evan Bryce Cranston, the Ghostwerks comics crew, Sho-Nuff Studios, Jose Ramirez, Jose Esquivel, and Kristian Donaldson, among others.
Q. Outside of comics, you do a lot of illustrations and commission work. I know you’ve had some success with your Studio Ghibli series in particular. Are there any favorites or highlights you’d like to share?
A. When I need to take a break from creator owned stuff, I do fanart, and I always try to have fun with it. Until recently, I never really designed posters for conventions specifically-I’d draw them more for myself than anything. It’s always fun to see which prints con goers gravitate towards at a convention, and at Sci-Fi Expo people really seemed to love my recent Sherlock print. My Tardis design usually sells out pretty quickly, so I suspect people just love the BBC (as they should).
When I’m not working on sequentials, I’ll usually have one or two new poster concepts to post on my Etsy store (https://www.etsy.com/shop/cheshirecatart) each week. I’ve been focusing on finishing off Dragon Slayer, but once that’s finished I’ll probably relax with some fanart for a few weeks.
Q. Your work draws from and incorporates a lot of different genres, which makes for some fun comics. Is there a particular genre you love more than the others? Is there a genre you’d like to tackle but haven’t yet?
A. It’s really tough for me because I love slice of life alternative comics as well as deep philosophical comics, but my art style is kinetic and lends itself to action, so I always feel like there’s a gulf between the stories I would like to write and the stories I would like to draw. I’d love to write personal pensive stories like Craig Thompson, Daniel Clowes, or Adrian Tomine, but I would go nuts drawing talking heads all the time. Maybe when I’m older and more comfortable with my style as well as more versatile I’ll grow up into the storyteller I want to be.
I’d love to dabble in each genre. I think horror would be a blast to do. Junji Ito’s Uzumaki got me really inspired to do something in that vein. I’d also love to write stories about relationships, but again, I’d hate drawing them. I could probably have a field day with the action genre since I grew up on Chinese noir films when I was a kid.
Q. Before we wrap this up, are there any other projects coming up that you’d like to plug? Any upcoming convention appearances you want to highlight?
A. The collected edition of Dragon Slayer will be available on Kickstarter either April or May, depending on when I get all the pages wrapped up and the book designed. The Space Gun Studios team is coloring the book, so it’s going to look amazing once all is said and done. I’m already working on the comic after Dragon Slayer mentally, so that’s going to be fun to dive into.
As far as conventions, I’ll be doing Staple! March 1st-2nd in Austin, and then I’ll be doing The Heart of Texas Comicon in Waco March 7th-8th. I’ll definitely be at Dallas Comicon in May as well, hopefully with finished copies of Dragon Slayer!
As far as social media goes, I’m on just about everything. I kind of have to be, but I’m pretty active on each platform, so if anyone messages I’ll catch it pretty fast.
Thanks so much to Devin for talking the time to talk to me. Be sure to follow his work at Cheshire Cat Studios (http://cheshirecatart.com/index.html) and stop by his Etsy store for more (https://www.etsy.com/shop/cheshirecatart). I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.
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