Fresh from Denver Comic Con, we met up with Denver comic book artist Zak Kinsella about his work, what inspired him as a kid, his views on how Denver is changing, and what’s next for him. Artist and writer on books like Midspace,” King Maul, and Outré Veil, Kinsella’s wit, expression and honesty is what draws readers to his work. He has also worked for the Westword and The New York Times and has some exciting news about where he might be headed next.
Hush Comics: What made you want to be an artist?
Zak Kinsella: I think it really popped into me in junior high. I was always drawing beforehand. My mom’s an artist… Mostly it was just getting back into comics when I was in junior high, like X-Men. That really popped for me. I thought, “I’m going to start drawing these things. These comic books.”
HC: Did you start with drawing those characters?
ZK: Yeah. I had been used to drawing before so drawing outside in the real world, like life drawing, [I thought] “well, let’s try drawing some muscly dudes.” And then I realized I love it.
HC: How did you get started doing that professionally?
ZK: I decided I wanted to. I started putting out my own books and before I was an illustrator— a pretty successful one, too— and I’m a pretty successful one right now, too, but you get to a point in the road where you think, “Man, illustration’s really cool and I’ve done cool work but it’s still not comic books.” They have this really weird grasp on you. They’re really the road less taken and they’re way more fun than drawing for Men’s Health or something like that or even New York Times, which I’ve done before. I mean, that’s big name stuff but it’s still not [as] fun [as] comics. I didn’t want to be one of those people that was stuck in what they hated doing.
HC: What about comics inspires you most? What about X-Men inspired you as a kid?
ZK: I moved around a lot as a kid, but we grew up in Texas and I don’t like football, I don’t play sports [except for] swim team… so that’s kind of like the outcast. If you’re not playing football, you’re not accepted. [Reading] the X-Men as a kid it was like, “These guys are always getting crapped on while they’re trying to do a good job at something.” And that was like, “I’m on the swim team!” “Oh, great job. You don’t play football. Let’s punch you…” A lot of those themes are repeated throughout the X-Men, plus, with those comics they’re exciting because they’re not like a lot of the other mainstream comics. They deal with a lot of progressive feminism and acceptance and love and stuff that’s just really cool while all at the same time [there’s] dudes in tights punching each other. It made progressive-ism accessible to a young man. It’s not your typical power struggle fantasy. It straddles those boundaries but if you look at their best character Storm. I mean, she was punk rock Storm.
HC: Is she your favorite character?
ZK: No, I was actually more of a Nightcrawler [fan] and more than anything else I was a Cyclops fan. Everyone’s like, “Okaaaay,” but I love that guy. He gets the job done. Everyone thinks he’s a tool but tools get the job done.
HC: You seem to illustrate for a lot of projects in the science fiction vein. What do you like most about that genre that keeps you coming back for more?
ZK: It’s what I grew up on. X-Files was a big thing for me, but also growing up as a kid I used to read these things called, Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown. They were just these dumb books about the outer limits. Twilight Zone was a big thing [for me and so was] In Search Of with Leonard Nimoy. All those things and then, a healthy dose of British science fiction on PBS. I lot of these things came from my mom, honestly. We’d watch Doctor Who thirty years before anyone followed it. [We thought,] “Oh, Doctor Who sounds pretty cool.” [I also liked] the obvious stuff like Star Wars. A lot of that stuff is influential. Science Fiction does such a great job of critiquing humanity while being like, “Hey, this takes places with robots in outer space.” It’s just cool.
I feel like [in my own work] I feel like I have much more of a creative license. I can make stuff up. “I have no idea what this planet would look like. Let’s just make it up. What the hell.” I also find space to be a very romantic backdrop. Like in The Final Frontier, there is so much space unexplored. You can’t even believe what we’re going to run into out there and that leaves infinite possibilities for storytelling.
HC: What’s it like working with a comic book writer? Can you explain that collaborative dynamic?
ZK: I’ve had a couple of good experiences and a couple of bad experiences. Sometimes their excitement can bleed into anxiousness and then they’re always bugging you…
HC: Kind of feels like they’re nagging you?
ZK: Yeah. I mean, it’s exciting and it’s something we’re both stoked to work on together, but I have to balance the book I’m working on right now with freelance work… But it has to be a collaboration or that sort of thing just sort of starts to grow like a cancer in a friendship and kills it. I had a really trying experience with that last year. I had to walk off a book, and I have no regrets about that. It was just too much for me.
HC: It’s a lot to deal with. You both are sort of demanding on each other.
ZK: Well, yeah because you want it to be the best and put your best foot forward, otherwise what’s the point? But, you have to set boundaries. I’ve left a couple of books like that where I’ve said, “Look, this isn’t working unless we figure this stuff out. We gotta put our big boy pants on and deal with this.” I generally like working with writers, but I’ve also come to realize that I’m pretty good at writing myself, so that’s why I’ve started branching out. I wouldn’t not recommend [working with a writer.] “Never work with a writer,” that’s dumb!
HC: What’s your favorite type of collaboration? What dynamic do you prefer?
ZK: Last year when I worked on King Maul I worked with a guy who used to be an editor for Marvel and it was a great experience because he knew when to lay off and when to put the pressure on… Someone who knows what they want to do and is free to let me experiment a little and find my own voice in the mix [is what I prefer] because I find that if it starts off as collaboration and then ends up with me just getting told what to do then it’s like, “Well this kind of sucks. I don’t have control over how the story’s going to look. I’m not trying to change plot parts of it really, but I like to have some sort of input into where it’s going.” That’s really the best part of it. If you’re just going to be a gun for hire, then I don’t see the point. You need to have room to spread your wings. I’ve known a lot of guys who get in there and do big books for big companies and it just leaves them emotionally drained and they’re like, ‘I want time to do my own book but I can’t afford that,’ so they kind of paint themselves into a corner. But it’s changing, so that’s good.
HC: How do you feel like it’s changing?
ZK: I can kind of trace it to Image [Comics], really. All that Walking Dead money? They’re like, “Yeah, let’s put out some cool stuff and get some real big creators in to do it.”
HC: They do a lot of indie stuff.
ZK: [Laughing] But not like “sad-bastard-depressed indie.” To put it subtly. That kind of indie is good too, but… They’re like a television station that’s not like Syfy… You’ve got a variety of things.
HC: There’s an Image comic for everyone.
ZK: I’d say so.
HC: You say on your website that you sketch and ink by hand and color digitally. Why do you prefer that method?
ZK: I like to make a mess. No Wacom stylus is ever going to give me the same feeling that a brush does. Really with art, whatever tool works for you, good, you know? If you’re going to use Manga Studios to make your comics, cool. That’s awesome. It’s just not for me… I use a lead holder and that helps give me brush lines with my pencil. My pencils aren’t too tight anymore, either. The brushes do the heavy lifting. I would have to change my pencil style if I ever got an inker. I just love the feel of the brush. That’s honestly all it is. With coloring digitally, I’ve been using a lot of watercolor lately and ink wash and graphite. You can manipulate those in different ways to get different types of texture with your digital coloring as well… Digital also allows me a physical piece I can sell to someone afterwards and I do sell a pretty decent amount of work at conventions and online.
HC: I love your “Disappearing Denver” piece. What struck you personally about Five Points that inspired you to draw that?
ZK: When I first moved there a couple of years ago it was still pretty grim and gritty, if I can relate it to comic book terminology. But the thing about that place is it had so much class. A lot of the buildings are just beautiful. It reminded me a living in the South.
HC: How so?
ZK: Just the architecture style and the fact that’s it’s not all white washed [but] now it’s becoming gentrified.
HC: I really hate a lot of modern architecture.
ZK: I do as well. I find it to be absolutely ugly, lego, Chipotle architecture with only mutual colors. I think a bigger part of it is people come in and they don’t respect the culture of the area. I chose that neighborhood because the rent wasn’t too expensive at the time and… I used to go to a lot of warehouse shows and Larimer Lounge shows. Monkey Mania was over there. That place was cool. I was so sick of being in Highlands Ranch or Littleton and the only person of color you’d see if mowing a lawn, you know? It’s like, “Dude this place f***ing sucks, man.”
Now…it’s just a breeding ground for violence with people coming out of the Rockies games drunk… My neighbor’s been there since 1942. His family has been in that house next door and some of the stories he has of the neighborhood changing over the last 60 years is just gonzo. So, you start to lose that sense of history and love and culture. That’s what brought it around for me. I just thought it was sad… And that’s the cool part about comics is that I can make a comic about that and have it speak as loud as anything else out there… Art should be a pipe bomb… A lot of people who complimented that strip said, “Wow, this is what’s going on. This is exactly what’s going on.”
HC: I read an article in Westword that mentioned your involvement with a comedy show called “Picture This.” Can you talk a little bit about that collaboration?
ZK: It was really cool. They’re a touring comedy troupe. They’ll do a set of standup comedians and have an artist pair up with each of them and they animate their set live. I did really quick sketches. I had the opportunity to work with Adam Cayton-Holland… I love standup. It’s awesome. I think comic book artists and comedians share some of the same— not saying great qualities but— we love this and it doesn’t pay a lot… but it’s what we’re going to do… A comedian has a totally different set of tools [than I do] and they have to be up in front of people doing it, which is…[ He shakes his head, his eyes wide with faux fear.] Nope, nope, nope…. Adam did like ten minutes of standup while I was drawing right behind him to kind of mimic that. We were rifting off each other. It was pretty cool. We have very similar senses of humor and tastes…
HC: Was that nerve-racking to be in front of people?
ZK: No, I was off in the corner. He would point out to me and he’d ask me [something] and I’d draw in response. It’s so cool because [Holland] has a TV show on True TV now… and he’s from here. It’s freaking awesome… That was a lot of fun. I can’t wait to do it again, actually. It was a little nerve-racking but at the same time it was pretty cool. I just worked at Rock Comic Con drawing live in front of crowds so that doesn’t bother me anymore. [It’s the] same thing with conventions. I’ll do commissions while talking to people. I have no problem drawing anywhere at any time anymore.
HC: Why do you think most of your audience is female?
ZK: I’m not afraid to talk to people without that judgmental tone, like “You haven’t read Superman #238 where he rides a robot?” Like, who cares?
HC: I feel like a lot of nerds try to play gatekeeper. Like, “shut up. There was a time when you didn’t know anything about this, that or the other thing.”
ZK: Right, and that’s the thing with gatekeepers… [There was] that kid who had [a] Doctor Strange thing who was saying, ‘Oh man! They’re making a Doctor Strange movie! Awesome!’ and the dealer kicked him out of his booth because he didn’t know anything. Like, what kind of a short sighted dipshit are you to say [that?] Instead, “Oh, you want to know more about him? I’ve got 40,000 books about Doctor Strange. Dip in on this, bro.” [He said something like,] “Ugh. Get out of my booth you unworthy maggot!”… If I was at that convention I would have gone and taken a dump in that guy’s booth. “F*** your elitism.” Right? I won’t deal with it.
HC: I’ve been told you have some exciting news. What’s next for you?
ZK: [He hesitates.]
HC: Are you not allowed to give away any big news yet?
ZK: I guess I can talk about my experiences with what I’m working on right now. I went to Emerald City Comic Con and Vertigo was giving out appointment times. They were like, “Hey, come pitch to us. We’re looking for new people,” basically. I got one by the end of the show and at the end of the show I went there and I pitched something that I’m working on right now called Outré Veil… and they liked it a lot so they gave me their card to follow up with them. For the last three months you can go through a workshop process with the pitch. Ends up Vertigo decided not to do Science Fiction. They were like, “We’re going to pass on this. However, we might want to use you as an artist here soon, and we’re open to more ideas from you.” So I’m working on another one with them right now. But I’ve got some buddies who want to do some books for me as well, too so I’m working on a pitch for another company right now and that one I definitely can’t talk about. That one’s pretty exciting. It’s going to be really cool.
I just want to get Outré Veil done and I’m working on a book about my uncle, too… I had never done comics [that are] autobiographical because I was like, “This is a bunch of sad sack of shit.” I respect it, but it’s not for me. And then I went through- it wasn’t a bad breakup but it was really tough because it kind of came out of nowhere. I was like, “This sucks.” So, I started going to Denver Drink and Draw and one of my buddies there was like, “Why don’t you make a comic out of this?” and it just came out of [that.] I love that group because we challenge each other. And it’s always an open environment. There’s no real shaming [or] judging… So I put out a short comic just trying to work out my feelings and it went over really well. If you think putting your artwork out there that’s about chimpanzees in space… it’s nothing compared to putting something out about someone you have a breakup with… It was a huge, huge thing to do. But when I put it out, I got a lot of, “Wow, this is awesome. What’s next?”
And then it just kind of hit me, “Man, I should make a book about [my uncle] Dan.” You’re just trying to suss out your feelings about things. Growing up, he had a lot of issues like ADHD and drug addiction, you know? And finally, as he was cleaning up his life- spoiler alert- he dies in a motorcycle accident. He died instantly, which was kind of nice. I always decided to do it in a sketchbook format. It’s tiny. I come here [to City ‘o City] and I work with Noah Van Sciver a lot. He’s been doing all his comics that size so I thought, ‘Why don’t I do them like that?’ It’s been really good.
HC: I feel like creative non-fiction affords a lot to both the author and the reader.
ZK: Yeah. I’ve been thinking of doing more personal ones not so much about death as well but dating right now is such a shit show with all the apps and being broken up with over text and stuff like that. Are you all just devolving? What’s going on? I’m trying to make it so it’s not whiney and awful.
HC: Honest but not “Woe is me!”
ZK: Right, because you read so many comics that are like that on the alternative press. It would be nice to have something that’s indicative of the times right now that someone can look at 50 or 40 years back and think “Alright. That’s how it was.” Separating the ego from the artist can be an uphill battle. It’s like reading a Hemingway novel. It can be like walking through mud, reading that guy’s prose. It’s just tough.
HC: A lot of literature romanticizes pain. A lot of authors don’t have a bullshit detector. That’s why I like stuff like The Fault in Our Stars or Juno. It talks about heavy stuff but it doesn’t romanticize it.
ZK: There’s nothing romantic about this. It just kind of sucks. How do you make this point of “this is hurting. This sucks,” but also to be optimistic? To be like, “Look, it’s not always like this,” and I’m having a lot of fun [drawing about pain] but holy shit, this can be draining. And that’s how comics are. This is tough, man.
All art and photos belong to Zak Kinsella.