David Nakayama Nerds Out About Jim Lee While Dissecting His Career
We chat with the artist about 'The Marvel Art of David Nakayama' and what it's like to revisit his older work.
Welcome to our Creator Corner, our new reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the comics industry. In this entry, we're conversing with David Nakayama about his new Kickstarter coffee table book, The Marvel Art of David Nakayama. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.
There's nothing quite like a great art book. They're these massive tomes dedicated to your favorite creators. They allow you to stew in their work, ruminate, and drift away from your surroundings for a bit. We've bought many over the years, and every time we get a new one, the shelves get a little tighter, but our hearts grow much larger.
We've been glued to David Nakayama's Twitter and Instagram feeds for quite some time now. He's a delightful follow and fellow, delivering jaw-dropping images to our eyes on a daily business. Over the years, we've watched in wonder as he took over cover after cover on the comics rack. We weren't the only ones.
Clover Press recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for The Marvel Art of David Nakayama. They're offering an impressive 200-page 9x12 high-end coffee table book and an 11x17 portfolio showcasing Nakayama's last ten years working within Marvel Comics. Certainly, you've seen a Nakayama cover or two, but we're betting you have yet to see everything. Clover asked Nakayama to dig through his archives and unearth some hidden gems. The artist provided with gusto.
We invited David Nakayama into our Zoom room for a chat. We discuss the vulnerable experience of putting it all out there with a coffee table book devoted to your growth. We discuss his many influences, including the living legend Jim Lee and the comic book cover that made him the artist he is today. What will the next ten years bring? You'll find a hint of it below.
Brad: So your Marvel Art of book, I mean, this is a huge showcase for you. This feels like a major event. Does it feel like a major event for you?
David Nakayama: Yeah, it really does because it's ... Maybe some folks know, some don't, but this is the first art book I've ever done of any kind. There has not been a convention sketchbook or a homemade art book, there's none of that. This is it. This is the first one. And not only that, but it collects over 10 years of stuff. So for those two big reasons, this feels like a big one, a bucket list one almost.
Brad: It's going to show your evolution as an artist, and that is a pretty vulnerable thing to put out there in the universe.
David Nakayama: You're right, yes. Having gone back through those 10 years plus of archives, I had to look at everything again for the first time in a long time in many cases. And sometimes you're pleasantly surprised and sometimes you're like, "Well, that's not going in the art book."
Brad: Take me through that experience a little bit. When you go back and you look through everything that you have accomplished, is it a nostalgic sense? Are there nerves involved? Is there disappointment involved? What's that like?
David Nakayama: It's all of those things. Sometimes you'll look back and you're like, "Wow, here's a piece that ... it's like how I draw now, but it happened eight years ago," and it took me eight more years to figure out how to do that consistently. So sometimes there's an element of surprise or maybe the reverse, maybe there's a more modern piece. You're like, "Wow, I really backslid on that one."
I found myself feeling all the emotions looking at it, but overall it brought a smile to my face. I did feel that nostalgia in a big way, and I couldn't help but wonder when I put something like this in front of people, I can't imagine most people are going to know even a fraction of what's in there. A lot of people probably if they heard of me, it was more recently. And so they'll be shocked to find out, "Oh, you did Rocket Raccoon covers. I had no idea."
Brad: Sure, sure. I'm curious if there is a piece in here that represents the David you are today, or where the David of today began?
David Nakayama: Yeah, there is, and that is a very insightful question. That moment for me was Deadpool Annual 2. It's the one where Deadpool is dressing up like Spider-Man, and it was one of the first covers I did where I did that purposeful heavy black outline around the character, but fully painted on purpose the inside. So it's that juxtaposition that I've stuck with and developed over the years, what I consider more my modern take on things. Before then I was kind of like, "Do I do some line art on the inside? How do I color the inside?" But when I started thinking about painted on the inside, lines on the outside, that is sort of the definition of my modern style, and I think it started there.
Brad: And how did you arrive on that? The painted on the inside, lines on the outside?
David Nakayama: The way I got there was weird and circuitous, and it involved a 12 year side trip through the video game industry. When my first kid was coming along, I was offered the chance to make a lot more money doing video games, and I was really torn. I was really not sure what to do because my goal, my whole life to that point, had been to do comic books, but I also liked video games and I also needed to put food on the table. So I agreed to do the video game thing. And the funny thing that happened along the way is about five years into the 12, I started missing comic books too badly to ignore it. And I went back to my old editors and said, "Hey, could I at least come back for some covers?"
And so while I was developing all these painted skills in games, because there's no such thing as a penciller in video game art, you got to learn how to digitally paint. So while I was doing that and also sort of feeding slowly back into comics, that little alchemy of different situations radically changed how I approached comic art. So I had been a penciller up until that time, but because of all the video game experience, it kind of merged, the two things merged together to get where I am now.
Brad: And when you did that cover, at what point in doing that cover do you go like, "This is the thing I now need to pursue"?
David Nakayama: I wish I had that clarity because like I was saying, there was some back and forth. I did it and I knew it looked cool, but I don't know if I understood why it looked cool. I hadn't put it out there yet to see if it worked for people. Because art is a conversation between you and the audience. You try something, you put it out there, people are going to like it or not like it. And it took me a while to figure out, "Oh, hey, people are responding to this thing. This is working better for me." Instagram comes along and gives me actual numbers, so I get to say, science is what's put me on this direction. But it took me a little while to figure out that that was the thing that was really working for people and the thing that I felt great working in. And we finally got there, but I can look back now and say, "Hey, that was the cover where I sort of first figured it out."
Brad: What is it that comics gives you that working in another field does not?
David Nakayama: Isn't that funny? You're very insightful. No one has ever asked me about that. Let me think. I guess part of it was ... For me, I had decided at a very young age that I wanted to be Jim Lee someday. That is still a thought in my head 30 years later, and I'm still chasing that dream. I mean, obviously other artists have come along since. J. Scott Campbell, I think, is the greatest of all time, the greatest who have ever done it. So in many ways I'm inspired by him too. But yeah, the one that got me started was Jim Lee, and I've been chasing that.
When I got to video games, I love those too. If you look at my wall right behind my desk, it's full of video games. So it's not that I don't love them, but what I found out working in video games is that it can be a lot of work for very little personal payoff, if this makes sense.
I guess, let me put it this way. I spent two or two or three years working on a video game. I posted about it very excitedly on Instagram when it was done, announcing, "Hey, I art directed this game. I'm really excited about it." And I got a smattering of likes. And then the very next day, I posted a random Spider-Man convention sketch that I did in maybe two hours, and it got more likes, a lot more likes, and I couldn't believe it. I was absolutely floored, "How can that be true?" The previous piece of art was a huge news story, was a big amount of work, a lot of love and care and a huge IP, and one of the best things I'd ever drawn. Everything I thought I was going for and there's just no interest. And I think what it is, my theory is that people cannot understand that human beings make video games. They think companies make video games.
Brad: That's interesting.
David Nakayama: You know what I mean?
Brad: I do know what you mean. I don't think I necessarily would've arrived on that thought, but now that you put it out there, that's fascinating.
David Nakayama: I think that's what happens. So if I announced a game that I worked on, I had a big deal in, people will go, "Oh, this is an ad." They don't respond to it. So that really bugged me. I did not enjoy spending multiple years of my life making something that got crickets at the end. Whereas with comics, I can make a piece one week, put it out maybe a week or two later, instant gratification. That's just addicting and fulfilling and I think I much enjoy it.
Brad: I've been reading comics since 1990. The first comic I ever bought was a GI Joe comic. But I have gone through phases like everybody does. And thanks a lot to my relationship with Lisa and this podcast, my obsession right now is comic books, it's the only thing I really even think about. I'll watch some TV, I'll watch a movie, but comics is just what's always on my brain. And I think one of the reasons why I gravitated to it so much is because creating a comic book is still a collaboration - there are multiple people that have to work together to put a comic book out there into the universe, but it's a much smaller group of people to produce a comic book. And I think when you read a comic, when you engage with a comic, your connection to that humanity is more intense than if I'm playing a video game or watching a movie.
David Nakayama: That's well said. I agree with you. When I collect a comic, it's because some specific human being that I really love wrote it or drew it. I am relating to the fact that it was hand-drawn. And so by the same token, I don't think I'm ever going to buy an AI comic. That's ... Never.
Brad: Never! Never!
David Nakayama: What's fun about it is that it's something that a person made.
Brad: Yes, yes. And so let's get back to a person. Let's get back to Jim Lee, your Jim Lee origin story. Do you remember the moment or the comic where you're like "That's the dude"?
David Nakayama: Yeah, I do. So if I can take you back to when I was about 12 or 13 years old. In the houses next door, there were two older boys I was friends with, and they both were reading comics and I wasn't quite there yet. I was an artistic kid. I liked Garfield, I liked Mega Man on 8-bit Nintendo -
Brad: Oh, yeah.
David Nakayama: Right? These things were sort of in my universe. And then one day, one of my friends across the street showed me his comic collection and he handed me one of the Jim Lee X-Tinction Agenda issues, the one where Havok is famously shooting his beam into the air and the Genoshan troops and walking tanks are behind him. Very famous iconic cover. I wish I could remember the number, but when I saw that, it just kind of broke my brain for a second.
I was like, "Wait, wait, comics can look like this?" Because I thought comics were Archie or Kirby or something like that, which is an acquired taste, and I do love very much now, but at the time it was sort of like I couldn't get it. But when I saw Jim Lee, I was like, "Oh my God, this is the coolest thing ever." And then the more I saw it, the more that those guys kept showing me those things, the more I was like, "Wow, this is amazing." And pretty soon I was on my way and I wanted to read more. I started going to comic shops. I started picking up different things and exploring, and that's that.
Brad: It was such a moment. I was right there at that moment too. That cover was Uncanny X-Men 270, by the way. I had to look it up.
David Nakayama: Nice.
Brad: An awesome cover.
David Nakayama: Yes, it is.
Brad: Well, David, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It's been a real delight. I love everything that you do, and I'm so excited that we got this book that's kind of like a totem dedicated to you and your growth. I love art books, they always feel like something truly special when you love a creator and the universe responds with its creation.
David Nakayama: Yeah, no, I'm really, really excited about it, and particularly that it's coming together this way. Clover Press is putting together a super high-quality hardcover coffee table book. This is a lot better than anything I could have ever imagined making on my own. It is part of a great series. You've already seen the David Mack version, the way they're graphic designing it and putting on all the bells and whistles. You saw what's in his campaign, the prints and all the other stuff that go with it. So not revealing what's in my campaign, but you can get a sense of maybe where we're going with this. That level of detail and thoughtfulness and multi-tieredness is very exciting for this launch. So yeah, thank you guys for being a part of it.
Brad: Absolutely. And we'll be one of your first backers. Like the moment it's up, we're on it. We're all over this book.
David Nakayama: You're the best. You're the best. Thank you. I appreciate it.