The Truly Killer Art of Tim Lane

By Jason Thibault

Tim Lane blew me away earlier in the year with his hardcover collection of stories, Abandoned Cars which was published by Fantagraphics. His intricate linework married to gritty stories of loners, criminals and doomed lovers is a match made in heaven for those of us that like our tales to be a little harder. On top of that he uses his incredible draftsmanship for illustration work as well.

I was excited to land an interview with him for our Masters of Ink series. He was extremely helpful in getting me some new artwork and comic pages to present to you.

What inspired you to first start drawing? Did you struggle in your formative years or did it come easy to you?

It’s hard to say what first inspired me to draw. It was a long time ago. I suppose it was a kid’s desire to make something relatively real out of the internal, private world of the imagination.

First professional work (piece / year) and maybe a quick story behind it.

Although I make my living as an illustrator, I have rarely worked professionally on any comics that weren’t my own. Of the few I have done, my first was for Bob Callahan Studios in San Francisco. One of the first things in my adult life that re-attracted my attention to the power of comics was the graphic adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, published by Neon Lit. Callahan Studios was involved in that project, so I contacted him. I worked on the graphic adaptation of a short story by Zora Neale Hurston for a book of graphic short stories Callahan was putting together. I’ve never seen that book in print, but I got paid for it. I think I was twenty-four at the time.

Were you self-taught or formally educated? (or mixture of both, mentors etc…)

I guess you could say that I was both self-taught and formally educated. I didn’t go to college with the idea of becoming a comic artist, so most of my formal education wasn’t focused on the comics medium. I did, however, study fine arts and illustration, and plenty of that training crossed over into the work I do in comics. Most of what I know about comics is self-taught, though, and I’ve found that most of that education has come through studying the work of other comic artists. It seems the more diversity, the better – there is always something to learn from other comic artists, no matter how different their styles might be. As for mentors: I’d say that there have always been instructors who have made the educational process rewarding. I think the most critical and instrumental part of my formal art education could be tapered down to my first two years at Pratt Institute, which were concentrated very heavily on formal, traditional artistic practices: life drawing, anatomy; light, color and design, etc. Pratt was a great school for that, and the foundation instructors were exceptional. The experience left an indelible mark on me. But, speaking specifically in terms of mentors in the comics idiom, Glenn Head, the editor of Hotwire, has been an great influence and friend: He is a fountainhead of information. There’s never been a question I’ve had about anything pertaining to comics that he couldn’t answer. I’m very indebted to him for his interest in my work and his willingness to play an active roll in the evolution of my comic work.

Tools of the trade: Taking a quick glance over at your pens, brushes etc…what tools have you mainly been using over the last few years?

My tools are Micron pens, old-fashioned nibs, any kind of brushes, and acrylic white. I use 2B pencils and kneaded erasers. I also use whiteout, but try to stay away from it because I think you can always tell when it’s been used, especially with detailed work – the flow and flair of the line differs depending on your surface, and that always bugs me.

How has your toolbox evolved compared to when you first started out?

It hasn’t changed all that much. I’ve messed around with different types of paper, but not much else.

Favorite brand of ink:

Any ink, as long as it’s black.

Type of paper:

I have a weird relationship with paper. I’m really particular about what I want, and I’ve yet to find the perfect paper. I like an extremely smooth surface, but don’t like my finished work to be on Vellum. The best I’ve found for my needs is Strathmore smooth. But it seems like I cross my fingers with each new sheet – it’s never exactly the same as the last.

Which artists or creators do you return to for a quick boost of inspiration? Who are the masters of ink?

I’ll limit my answer to comic artists for the sake of brevity. As I mentioned, I try to take all that I can from all the comics I get my hands on, but, if there is one comic artist I continually return to for inspiration, it’s Will Eisner, specifically the Spirit, and even more specifically the work he did on the Spirit in the late 1940’s. I constantly find renewed influence in his work. Other artists include the work Jack Cole produced for True Crime comics; all of the EC artists, but especially Johnny Craig and Al Feldstein. I’m very influenced by comics of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s – both in tone and look. I’m also very attracted to artists who I think of as extraordinary cartoonists, but whose styles are based less in realism, but have a strange energy about it. I’m thinking of Chester Gould and Fletcher Hanks. I often find myself pouring over their stuff again and again. I find Dick Tracy from its inception in the early 1930’s through the 1950’s especially enigmatic and imaginative. It goes off the deep end for me in the 60’s – I’m not so much into the space adventures. But those early villains and their appeal remain with me like few other comic characters do.

More current influences include Charles Burns, who I think is one of the great stylists of all time; Daniel Clowes, who I think is an incredible writer; Kim Deitch, Spain Rodriquez, The Hernandez brothers, Adriane Tomine…the usual suspects, you might say.

Once a client has handed off an illustration job to you, how do you first tackle the job. Could you give us a quick overview of your process?

Again, the only freelance work I do is as an illustrator. Personally, I can’t imagine making a living out of putting the time and energy it takes to produce comics into work that isn’t my own. I’ve done it, but have never really liked it much. Nothing against artists who do: A lot of that work I admire – I loved David Mazzuchelli’s work on Batman with Frank Miller, for example; and I’m knocked out by Lee Bermejo’s work on Batman, as well. I can also understand the attraction to working on a pre-established character and developing it into something new or even personal. Actually, I’ll contradict myself here: Come to think of it, I illustrated a Bizarro World story about the Justice League for DC once, and thought it was great fun drawing famous characters like Batman and Superman – these iconic heroes that had been around since the beginning of the superhero comic. But I couldn’t do that on a regular basis.

As for illustration jobs, my process is pretty standard: Once a client contacts me, I work out a series of concept sketches and send them off to be considered. Once I get the go-ahead on one of the concepts, I move to final art. The nice thing about freelancing as an illustrator is that, no matter how big the job, it never takes as long (for me) to finish an illustration as it does a comic story or, much more, a graphic novel. If you factor in all of the research, the scripting, the concepting, the penciling and finally inking that goes into a graphic short story, it’s incredibly time consuming. You can be working on a story for months. Freelance jobs don’t take that much time, and I find it a nice break to produce something more quickly to counter-balance the more time consuming comic work.

What’s currently sitting in your mp3 / CD player / turntable?

Right now I’m listening to a lot of Motown and Doo-Wop. I always move in circles through music and return to things. Right now I’m circling those two. I’m also listening to a lot of old radio dramas, This American Life, and Coast-to-Coast AM, streamed through the Internet. All three of those are very entertaining and often fodder for new story ideas. Two constants that remain for me, and have heavily influenced my work, are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Springsteen’s album “Nebraska” played a very big role in turning me on to the possibility of writing graphic short stories that, when placed together in a volume, speak of a larger story. Nebraska is a very stripped down acoustic album that he produced on a 4-track in his bedroom. It’s a collection of beautiful stories that, as a whole, paint a picture of one side of the American experience. To my mind, it’s one of the greatest albums ever made. He’s done the same sort of things on the other “folk” albums he’s produced: Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust. But Nebraska is my favorite. The characters in the songs on that album really stay with me. When you’re a fan of a musician who is a storyteller, you stick with them and become an enthusiastic observer of the world they create through their music.

What’s hanging on your walls and what is your favorite piece of art that you own (not created by you)?

I own an original cover illustration by Glenn Head for an anthology called Rosetta, and an illustration by Danny Hellman for the back cover of his anthology, Legal Action Comics. I also have an early painting by the artist Royden Watson, who I think is one of the great young painters working today. Other than that, I have posters of a young Bob Dylan during his Highway 61 Revisited days, Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson in the movie, The Hustler; and a poster of James Dean. I also have a poster of a picture by Robert Doisneau.

What’s the last novel you read and last movie that you saw that you’d recommend? Which movies and books do you always return to?

Literary fiction and film are as inspirational to me as comics. In the process of developing and refining my skills as a graphic storyteller, there are endless sources of influence out there that are beyond the confines of comics proper. Film and fiction are two of those. I take in as many books and films as I can. It’s tough, of course: I find that the greatest amount of time necessarily goes into the actual drawing of many, many pictures in little sequential boxes. But, for me, the writing, research, and the collecting of reference material plays a big role, too. Right now I’m reading the short stories of T.C. Boyle – “Without a Hero” and “Tooth and Claw”. I’ve been focusing on the short story for about the last year, really trying to learn all I can about what makes for a compelling short piece. In this capacity, I’ve returned to Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff quite a bit, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

I’m a nut about movies. I love actors and the craft or art of acting. The last movies I’ve watched are Al Pacino’s The Panic in Needle Park and Dog Day Afternoon, as well as James Cagney’s White Heat and The Public Enemy. I’ve been interested in Pacino’s early films and Cagney’s gangster movies. I’m interested in film and comics as art, as well as reflections of a particular cultural place and time. Movies that I often return to, though, are harder to nail down. It depends on my mood. I watch a lot of black and white movies because I find them so aesthetically beautiful. I return to Paul Newman and Marlon Brando movies quite a bit – movies like the Hustler and On the Waterfront. I’ll watch the last thirty minutes of Last Tango in Paris once a week or so just because I’m so awestruck by incredible Brando’s performance – I think it’s the best acting I’ve ever seen. Also Humphrey Bogart movies. I love movies like Dead Reckoning and The Big Sleep. I watch Midnight Cowboy about once every two weeks; Dustin Hoffman is incredible in as Ratzo Rizzo. On the other hand, if I’m in the mood for comedy, I watch a lot of Woody Allen, the movies of Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers. I watch way too many movies.

Current and upcoming projects?

I’m working on FOLKTALES, the next book of short graphic stories following ABANDONED CARS. I’m also producing stories for HOTWIRE #3, MOME, and an anthology called PLEASANT DREAMS, edited by Peter Wild. all of these stories are eventually meant for FOLKTALES.

What would you tell an aspiring artist who is working his ass off but still needs and wants to break through to the next level?

In some ways, I don’t think that anybody who is really bent on succeeding – whatever that means to them exactly – in an artistic endeavor really needs any advice. By that, I mean the toughest seem to survive one way or another, no matter what, burning on their own steam. One thing I would suggest is to remember this phrase, because it’s helped me: Learn to breathe underwater. I’m not trying to sound like a smart-ass, and obviously I’m speaking figuratively. But this phrase, coined by a friend of mine a long time ago, makes a lot of sense to me, especially when you are starting out. It took me over ten years before I was able to publish a graphic novel. I had worked on various ideas – mainly ideas meant for comic book serialization (or what, I guess, are now called pamphlets) and received nothing but rejection letters. I had much better luck freelance illustrating than I ever did in comics, but comics meant the most to me, so I kept going. Slowly – largely thanks to Danny Hellman – my work started appearing in a few anthologies, while at the same time I was producing and self-publishing my own comic book, Happy Hour in America. It reminds me a little of Chester Gould’s experience trying to get the Chicago Tribune interested in his work. Fantagraphics is my equivalent to Gould’s Chicago Tribune – the publisher I wanted the most, whose artists I admired the most, etc. It took Gould a decade before he came up with Dick Tracy – originally called Plainclothesman Tracy – and God only knows why anybody sticks with anything so long with very little positive reinforcement. You do what seems the impossible and most absurd: you learn to breathe underwater, and revel in it. Get drunk on the water in your lungs. Cultivate a functional level of positive insanity. And develop tough skin. Stick with it if only because your reasons are inexplicable. I really think there’s something to the idea that an artist doesn’t choose his/her medium so much as the medium chooses the artist. And God only knows what tomorrow will bring. So stick with it, don’t get discouraged, and delight in your successes with humility and live in the present as much as possible when you have success; live for tomorrow when you’re dealing with failure. If you aren’t an overnight success or ever become regarded as a genius in your lifetime, you’re in very good company, historically speaking. Hopefully this will sustain your lean years. The main thing is that you believe in what you’re doing. That’s, to me, what is most important.

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