The angry art of superhero artist David Finch

Bert B. Sulat Jr.

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His drawings may teem with fury, yet David Finch is actually a jolly good fellow

Photo by Hub Pacheco-Fully Booked

MANILA, Philippines — Canadian comic book artist-writer David Finch was in Metro Manila over the weekend on the invitation of Fully Booked—the swanky store that sells much of Finch’s published work, namely some of the biggest superhero titles released by DC Comics and Marvel Comics in the last few years.

Finch may not be a familiar name to the general public, but for those who are ardent fans and buyers of comic books or graphic novels starring The Avengers, the X-Men and Batman, he is a bona fide idol.

At 39 years old, Finch now has 18 years’ worth of comic-illustration experience and a good measure of writing to his credit, dating to when he joined the independent label Image Comics and working on one of the company’s own signature draws, the superhero team called Cyberforce.

He went on to work with Marvel, particularly on such titles as The Avengers Disassembled and Ultimatum, which sought to rock superhero history to its core by killing off several of its established icons.

Soon, in a move that fanboys likened to a tectonic shift, Finch moved to DC, reigniting one of the publishing behemoth’s legends via the 2010 series Batman: The Dark Knight-Golden Dawn, for which Finch was writer and artist, and the 2011 reboot Batman: The Dark Knight, for which he was both penciller and co-plotter.

Finch, a left-handed native of Windsor, Ontario, spent a whirlwind weekend at Fully Booked’s Bonifacio High Street branch—conducting a combined art demo and talk to an audience of local artists and comics fans, signing volumes or single copies of comics bearing his dark, detail-rich artwork and brooding writing, and giving brief interviews with Philippine media.

What follows is Rappler’s own 15-minute Q&A with the man last March 18, 2012.

When did it occur to you that you wanted to be an artist?

I have always loved to read books, but I didn’t read comics as a kid. It was my big sister Lesley who used to read comics. One time she had a trade paperback book of John Byrne’s X-Men: The Dark Phoenix saga and since it’s a “book,” I thought I’d read it. And it just grabbed me.

Apart from doodling back when I was a kid, it didn’t occur to me that I could draw or make a living drawing. I didn’t know what I was gonna do [for a career] and eventually I dropped out of high school. No one around me thought drawing would be a career option.

But then I kept reading comic books and I became a fan of the work of Alan Davis and Marc Silvestri, who later became my boss [at Image Comics’ Top Cow imprint]. When I saw Mark’s stuff with inker Dan Green, with his brushy, fluid style, I thought, I could do that. So I got a sketchbook and started drawing and it felt right. I’m very lucky I found it.

Many have said that your illustrations are rich in physical detail, but I notice that it’s also rich in emotional detail. Where do you draw such emotion from, apart from what a given story calls for?

It does come from both personal experience and empathy for the characters. I probably have a certain amount of anger bottled up and I think it comes out in my artwork, which is why darker, angrier, visceral art appeals to me. It’s release-drawing. I just pour it onto the page. I feel comfortable that way. I’m not an angry guy per se, but it’s an outlet.

Brightest Day (DC), Batman-The Dark Knight (DC), Ultimatum (Marvel) Drawn by David Finch

Considering that you’ve become a success story yourself, how can you stay ‘angry’?

I really relate to superheroes. The best ones are misunderstood, a little bit outcast. They’re basically weak and their superhero alter ego is an escape from their weakness, like Spider-Man.

I’ve been bald my whole life due to alopecia and in public school that was tough. I got beat up a lot, I had trouble making friends. I still live that out and it stays with me, still influences my work a lot.

My comic work has been an expression of my own childhood anger. I have more difficulty drawing people laughing or smiling, which is terrible. I have a real hard time with it. It’s not natural for me.

You’ve written comics stories, too.

I’ve loved books and liked English class, it was something I was comfortable with. Writing is always a struggle but feels natural. I don’t even think I’ve gotten remotely close to accomplishing what I can as a writer.

Truthfully, jumping into writing with Batman, I think, was a mistake for me. I’d been better off creating my own character or doing something that doesn’t have 70 years of history to it. It’s a job that requires a professional and I feel that I wasn’t that as a writer at that point.

I’m working now with Gregg Hurwitz, a professional writer. I have a book I’m planning and I’m writing it myself, trying to funnel that creative energy into something a little more manageable than Batman.

What are your creative crutches or little artistic preferences for when you work?

I’m a real loner and I like to be able to retreat. I have three kids so the house can be a little loud and I like to retreat to the farthest corner of the house to work, and that’s the basement. My wife doesn’t like to come down there, which I guess is part of its appeal. (laughs)

I need to have all my tools whenever I work. And I always have a mirror through which I can look at my work backwards. Of course I can also look at the work against the light in reverse, but I can’t get over the mirror thing. All of us artists are a little crazy. I’m not superstitious, but I definitely am very habitual.

[At his art demo after this interview, Finch drew the Marvel character Moon Knight and in the process demonstrated (1) a preference for 2H lead pencils, because “they don’t smudge as much,” and (2) that he always starts with the head when drawing a character and always with the character’s left eye first.]

Timewise, my work is predicated on family. I wake up in the morning, get the kids to school with my wife, work from 9 am ’til about 4 in the afternoon, when the kids are back from school. Once our youngest is in bed around 8 in the evening, I continue working ’til I’m finished at about 1 or 2 a.m.

[At the talk, he said that he finishes an average of three pages in 2 days.]

If you were not in comics, what might you be up to?

I’m pretty obsessive and goal-oriented, so I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t have done anything.

If I were to leave comics right now or couldn’t do comics for whatever reason, I would most likely work in video games. I’m a huge video game fan and I’d probably find a gaming company to take a staff job at. I’m into 3D modeling and lettering as a hobby, doing it while I work. I’m really into Maya and Cinema 4d, so video games would be a natural fit for me.

What are your thoughts on the growing dominance of digital media versus print media vis-à-vis the comics industry?

Print is going through a tough time. It’s not a growth industry right now, and it’s a little scary.

Theoretically, maybe in 10 years, it’ll have shrunk to the point where it would not be enough to sustain us. I think everyone in the business is hopeful that digital media would bridge the gap between us and fans. And if artists can continue to reach fans, I’m happy.

Any plans on developing a brand new character?

Yes, absolutely. I’m working on it now. It’s gonna be set a hundred years into the future. That’s because I’m a huge fan of Syd Mead, who designed Blade Runner, which for me is the greatest movie of all time.

It’ll be like a dark, dystopian Robin Hood story, essentially. The lead character will be wearing a volto mask, like in the Victorian times—an archetypical mask with a big cloak, cool costume.

I’m excited about it. It might be out in two years. I’m dedicated to Batman, my DC work. I’m doing the new book about four pages per month or so, when I can find the time. After I’m done with three upcoming DC issues, I’ll take a break and maybe I’ll work on six issues of the new book.

 David Finch signs for Andrew E. as Fully Booked's Jaime Daez looks on, photo by Hub Pacheco

What advice can you give to aspiring comic book illustrators and writers?

For illustrators: The art comes first.

Breaking in is tough, yet it’s easy if you bear in mind that this is an entertainment medium and that what editors want to see are what fans want to see. Paul Pope is one example of an artist who went his own way, does beautiful work and the fans love it. It’s tough to be creative and still connect with fans. If you do that, you’re golden.

But first and foremost, you have to do work that’s commercial. Work on the basics, work on the foundation, and work on the actual art. When I started out, I remember so many artists worrying about what book or project they were working on. The most important thing you have to worry about is the art itself.

For writers, it’s a tough road getting into comics, but the upside is huge.

Writers do better than artists because they can write movies and can have more influence on major projects. But to get into comics as a writer, you really need to be either a novelist or already work in television. Or probably, the most accessible route is to create your own book and put it out on a small scale, something that can be a digital download through which you can build an audience and get noticed.

A postscript

After this interview, as Finch autographed some comic books for us in the presence of Fully Booked managing director Jaime Daez and my brother Ike, he says this:

“I’ve done comic interviews for years and years and that is THE first time I’ve ever talked about being bald as a kid and how that might have influenced my work. Nobody ever asked me questions like that. Those were great questions.” –

(Photos by Hub Pacheco-Fully Booked and Ike Sulat)

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