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EPISODE 6: BILLY TAN
0:00:07 Eli: Hi and welcome to A Little Bit of Genius, a podcast series run by Nord Anglia Education students. My name is Eli.
0:00:14 Alex: And my name is Alex and we are really excited to be hosting today's episode with our special guest Billy Tan.
0:00:20 Eli: Billy Tan is a comic book illustrator whose work can be seen across Marvel, Image and DC. He began working at Top Cow Productions in 1995 and by the mid-2000s he began working at Marvel Comics. some of his most notable work can be seen in Uncanny X-men, New Avengers and Green Lantern.
0:00:36 Alex: Thank you so much for joining Mr Tan, welcome.
0:00:39 Billy: Thank you, and I'm really honoured to be here.
0:00:42 Billy: So, to start us off, we're gonna open up with a quote which we'd like to discuss. The quote comes from Albert Einstein and it reads, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” So, we just like to have a discussion about this and get your initial reaction to it and discuss the quote.
0:00:57 Billy: My initial thought of it is that I totally agree with it. Creation should be fun, it's a fun process and that's why kids of, you know, four years old pick up crayons and doodle. However, I think creativity — in a grown-up world — may be a little bit different. I think there are other elements at play in the real world. You may create something fantastic but that, in the process, may not be fun. It may be stressful, actually. For example, an artist — they're given a very tight deadline to do a certain project and that could become a stressful thing for them. You still could reach a fantastic piece of artwork, but the process I think may or may not be fun. But I think we all should still try our best to, you know, have fun while doing creative work, because it's only when you're happy — that's when you do your best work.
0:01:50 Eli: Yeah, I think that's the segues really well into my next question, which would be: as someone who's field of work is very strongly tied to creativity, obviously, what does creativity mean to you? Like, what does it mean in terms of your life and how is it affected you’re whole career as well.
0:02:05 Billy: First of all, creativity means creating something new, something fresh, maybe something that somebody hasn't, you know, thought of before. But in our field I think that's rather difficult because, you know, whatever idea that you thought of, you know, most likely it's been taken. You know, we could come up with something that we thought is really fantastic just to find out later that it's been done before. So, I think, in our field, it's a new take or fresh look on an existing or old subject. It may be, you know, a plot point or maybe a new art style or, you know, a colouring or approach to it. It's could be a new approach to a certain thing.
0:02:48 Eli: I heard you say in some interviews — or maybe it was on one of your social media platforms — you talked about how your art style differed when you were working for say, Marvel and doing, like, X-Men, and when you're working for Top Cow, it was more of, like, a “hard-edged” style, whereas you're taking sort of something that's more similar to manga and some more “soft-edged”. So, I thought that was quite interesting. So how would you say that your work would differ between, like, in terms of your creative process and in terms of your illustration process, how does it differ between your different styles?
0:03:17 Billy: I think for the American or the western style it's a little bit more complicated. There's a lot more rendering. We place a lot of emphasis on structures and the lighting and shadows and, you know, buff up the muscles of the superheroes, and all those details that you put in. As for the Chinese style, where they sort of adopted it from the Japanese manga style, which is much simpler, I think the Chinese readers are more used to the manga style. They like things to be brighter and story-pacing-wise it's a bit slower. For example, let's say a fight scene in American comics, you know it could be done in a page or two. In Japanese or Chinese, it could drag out for maybe a whole issue or something. That's what’s different about our studio, the Tan Comics studio versus a lot of other studios in China, is that we have it a unique, you know, it's not so American and it's not wholly manga. It's sort of in between.
0:04:17 Alex: What difficulties did you encounter when you first started your company Tan Comics in China?
0:04:23 Billy: Well, first of all, the writers. They are not used to writing the comic script style, where they break down panels and pages—panels from panels. A lot of them, are from online graphic or fictional writers, so they sort of need to learn to tell the story artistically. Another challenge that I faced, even up to today, is how frequent a comic comes out in China. In America, normally, a comic would come out once a month — a 20-page comic book. But, in China, it's once a week. So, you're updating once a week, otherwise you're gonna lose readers or the readers will not give you a positive response. That's what they’re used to.
I think a lot of companies here in China, they could do it. But, when I started, that's not what I wanted to do, because I really wanted to tell a good story and have good quality art to go with it. So it's always been a challenge.
0:05:22 Eli: In terms of timing constraints, I've always been really curious — let's start off with the Western system and then you can tell me more about how you would do it, say, with Tan Comics and how it's done in China — how does the process go? Does the illustration team start with the writing team? Is there like a storyboarding process? And also, as a penciler, how much communication do you have with the colouring team?
0:05:43 Billy: For the Western system, if I was a penciler, probably I would just receive a finished script and I will go from there. I'll be working from there. I’d rarely be involved in script writing. For Tan Comics we do brainstorming, where somebody's got an idea and then we would sit around with the writers, have a brainstorm and see where we could go from there. And if it’s good enough, we'll do a layout of it and then we'll break it down into issues. And then the penciler will go to the colourist and then fill in the (speech) bubbles.
Say for Marvel, normally they work with freelance artists where they are all over the world. We rarely see each other — maybe in a convention we'll meet each other and say hi. So, the communication, all the communication that we do is basically through email. For Tan Comics, we have an in-house studio where all the artists, all the colourists, and the writers, we are in one studio so you know we can communicate as much or as often as you want, and so that you know that sort of increases the efficiency of doing things.
0:06:49 Eli: Another time related question I have would be, like, how much a, would the time spent on a panel vary, like if you're doing like a small headshot panel versus like a big two full-page spread kind of thing. How much time would you put into each? And how does it differ?
0:07:07 Billy: It depends. Like say a panel, say a simple panel, with a headshot, it could be anywhere between 10 minutes to 30 minutes. I think you'll come down to about a page and maybe two pages a day. That's the sort of the normal speed, unless really a tight deadline is calling for more, and we'll step it up. For a double page spread, it also depends on how complicated the pages are. You could be spending three or four hours, or you could be spending days, two or three days, on a very complicated double page spread.
0:07:42 Alex: So, what do you do want you or your team feel you might be running out of ideas, or like the deadlines are just really tight, and you feel really stressed. So, what do and your team do?
0:07:53 Billy: That’s one of the things that a comic book artists is a bit different from, say, a fine artist, where they sort of require a lot of time, not always, for inspiration to do things, but comic artists, we sort of have—we've trained to draw so much— and we sort of soak up a lot of things in your mind when you read a script. So, you should have a rough idea of how the panel is going to be drawn or how it's gonna go: where's the angle going to be and all that. But sometimes, we still do hit a wall. That's another good thing about having an in-house studio is that we could help each other they. They could be asking me in, you know, “What about this panel? What could I do better?” and I could, provide them, if I know how, some advice. And it's the same as, if I could, you know, if I hit a wall, I could ask them. We're both students and teachers, basically, helping each other out.
0:08:59 Eli: Going on to sort of a new topic: what age would you say that you started showing an interest in illustration? And at what point did you realize that you were gonna turn it into a career? Because I believe you went to school for business, right?
0:09:10 Billy: Yes, I did. Man, as young as I could remember I would pick up a chalk and just scribble all over my dad's hardware store. I would say I was probably around 3 or 4. I was pretty cool, you know, I was the little kid that had the biggest canvas in the village.
For a career, I think I saw it as a career possibility when I was in the last year of college, I think. That's when a company called Image Comics it was founded, and it was founded by this six of the top, most popular artists at that time from Marvel. They came out and they formed their own company and it's called Image Comics.
That was when Photoshop was first introduced to colour comic books, so it was pretty new and I was blown away I went to a comic store, I picked up a comic and I saw what they could do with comics, and I was totally blown away. I could imagine how a comic book could be so artistically done. I've always liked fine art, but I've never imagined in a comic could be done like that, so I was it really piqued my interest, and that's when I figured maybe I should give it a try and see what happens, and I did.
0:10:23 Eli: Now, related to that, when you were growing up did you feel any kind of pressure that would force you towards more of an academic path, more than a creative path? And how did you balance your interest in illustration versus your academics?
0:10:37 Billy: I've never seen, I've never felt that I was in a situation where I need to pick one or the other. I think, I've said it's more like art—the creativity—accompanied me throughout my academic life.
0:10:56 Eli: Would you say that your creativity acted as maybe an outlet for any stress that you might have? Would drawing be a way to take your mind off things? Or was it just a hobby that you had?
0:11:06 Billy: No, I think that's definitely true. I think that's true for a lot of artists. It's a way of releasing your stresses, almost like you're in your own comfort zone — you're in the world of your fantasy. You can totally forget about the troubles that you have until you put down the pencil, I guess. Yeah, I think it does serve as a stress relief.
0:11:29 Alex: So, Mr Tan, is there a favourite type of character that you like to draw or a favourite scene that you just enjoy drawing?
0:11:36 Billy: A favourite character that I like to draw? I've drawn so many of them that I'm really honoured to get a chance to draw. You know, it's always on a path of exploring to draw new characters, basically, to find one character to draw. I think no matter how fond of you are to a character, after drawing it for a little while you're gonna get burn out. That’s why artists always need new things— new ideas—to draw, and to be stepping up to new stuff. That's what I always strive for.
0:12:12 Eli: When developing a new character, what places do you look forward to get inspiration from? Do you have a particular—if you're looking to build a new character, you're looking to draw a new character—is there any, where do you start? Where's the jump off point?
0:12:26 Billy: Now a lot of times, we have that idea first and then we come up with the characters. It could go the other way as well. We could have come up with a really cool character and say, “Hey, I've designed really great character. Let's make a story around him!” And the other way of coming up with a character is by exploring an existing character, a non-copyrighted, say the traditional, let’s say “Sun Wukong”. Everybody knows Sun Wukong, the Monkey King.
0:12:54 Eli: Oh yea, Monkey King, I know him.
0:12:56 Billy: What could you do new to have a new take on him? So, it’s a character that’s already popular. You could make use of that character or you could create a brand-new character. But you do have to do a little research on their background and their culture. Say we are doing an idea of a book which involves samurais in Japan. So, you do have to read a little bit of history and background to get them correct.
0:13:25 Eli: When you put your comics out there you talked about doing your research, have you ever had people come up and criticize and be, like, “Hey that's not period-correct!” “Hey that's not exactly how that works!” Does that happen often?
0:13:38 Billy: Not really, but it happens. It's okay, because it's comics. You know, comics are meant to be fictional. It shouldn't be real. If it’s real, then people will you know be reading nonfiction.
0:13:53 Host: You're listening to A Little Bit of Genius. If you like what you hear don't forget to subscribe. Tune in next week to hear from Ebbe Sand, who holds the world record for scoring in just 16 seconds after coming on the pitch at the FIFA World Cup.
0:14:07 Ebbe Sand: It's about hard work. It's about to push yourself. I’m good, but, that being said, why should it not be possible to be even better. So that's what I mean with pushing yourself not to be satisfied.
0:14:22 Alex: So, as technology has been developing — when you just started drawing comics, it might be just on paper, and now it's more about online comics. So, what’s your thoughts about that?
0:14:34 Billy: Yeah, it's definitely a big shift to online comics, especially, you know, in China now they mostly read their comics on the phone. There's two different formats: one is still digital but it's “page comics” and the other one is “scroll comics”, where you could just use your thumb and scroll with one hand and read your comics that way.
So yeah, we are keeping up with basically the technology of the way readers are reading their comics these days. I myself, I've been drawing with pencil and paper, but lately I've been trying to do it on tablet as well, and I find it really challenging for me because I’m a little bit old for it. But the technology is amazing how much you could fix things, just by changing something that you don't think is right. It takes second to just rearrange the whole panel or a face or whatever that you want to fix. Technology definitely helps out. Right now, in our studio, everybody is using tablets to draw.
It's kind of sad. I mean, it's good in a way, but it's a bit sad as well because, growing up, using pencils, you want to touch the comics. That how the paper feels when you read comics. But you’ve just got to go with the flow at the same time.
0:15:52 Alex: I have another question related to technology. Nowadays, especially in China, a lot of the comics have been turning into cartoons—so short videos with lots of episodes. Have you ever thought about turning any of your comics into cartoons?
0:16:09 Billy: Yeah, we always—that's a reason—that's always in the back of our minds. But before you do that, I think the comic has to reach a certain popularity before you can do that, I think. Comics alone, it's just the beginning I think, a testing of how an intellectual property would be like, and the next step would be adapting it into different media, like animation or, say, a TV series, or a movie or something like that. But before you get a certain popularity, you just have to just keep doing what you're doing.
0:16:47 Eli: And another question would be: How does copyright law work with characters? Like, obviously, you couldn't just stick one of your X-Men characters into one of your Tan Comics, because that wouldn't work. But if you were to post fan art on your own page, where you're not monetizing it, I'm assuming that's okay? So, where do they draw the line and how do they determine whether something is someone's intellectual property or not?
0:17:09 Billy: Well I think, you know, if it is fan art it's okay, as long as you don't try to make money out of somebody's characters. I think they are pretty much okay with it. Also, I think some of the characters—I think, I may have to check with a lawyer—but, say, characters like Thor or Loki, you could have your own take on it because it has existed, you know, for thousands of years in mythology.
0:17:34 Eli: You said, I think, in a YouTube interview I saw of you, that you said that comic book illustration relies more on observation than inspiration, obviously because you're working off a script. And I know you answered that before in terms of working off the script while you were working for, say, Marvel. And then for your own comics, for Tan Comics, you're working more along the writing process. So how would your approach differ when you were drawing something from a script and when you were doing something original? I know you already kind of answered this but I'm curious as to how, like, the process of developing something—obviously you have an idea when you when you see a script in your head—but I'm just wondering how that that breakdown works.
0:18:17 Billy: When you're doing panels, it’s more of a sequential art. It's more like you're telling a story from panel to panel. What technical thing that you can do to tell a better story from panels to panels, you know, you're considering the camera angle, the perspective—what kind of shots you're using to tell a good story—versus, let's say, a standalone piece, like a poster or a cover. But you have to, say, for a cover, you have to read a whole book to know what's going on, sort of summarizing it into one piece. You're still telling a story, but with just one piece, making a point, the main point of the story. You're still telling the story but you're doing one beautiful art piece versus sequential art.
0:19:04 Alex: When you come up with a story where, like, when you're updating a comic, for example your comic Hero and Shiro, that's still updating right now — do these already have the whole story written out? Or do you just improvise as you go along?
0:19:17 Billy: Actually, it's one of my writers that's writing the story. We do have a sort of outline of what the story direction is going to go. It's just a matter of pacing, which issue is going to happen and what. So, we do have an outline and the ending of what's gonna happen.
0:19:36 Eli: What would you say to people who are looking to find a career in comic book illustration? What sort of paths should they follow? What work should they do outside of their academics and what should they do even in their academics?
0:19:46 Billy: Well, in their academics, they definitely should take some art classes, I guess. They should have a basic knowledge of how things work. Like, say, perspective and human anatomy and how they work. Being a comic book artist, I think, it’s basically an artist unlike many other artists because you need to learn to draw basically everything.
Say I need the scene to be in a barbershop with three people sitting on the side and one is trimming their hair. So, you need to have the picture of that. So now what camera angle do I use? And who is talking first? And what sort of expression do they have? That's why you need to have the knowledge of perspective first, getting the perspective right, and the relativity of understanding the human and the things that's around them. Say the door, or the human, if you draw the door a bit bigger than the human, it's gonna look off.