The Gallery Henry Liao
by Evan Miller, Oct 31st 2009
Before we get started: last week's column mislabeled the Morning International Comic Contest as the "manga" contest, which is actually its old name. I apologize for the error, but this gives me an opportunity to stress something important: the contest now centers around the word comic, not manga. If this isn't an obvious hint for what Kodansha is really looking for, I don't know what is.
Have you ever had a week where things just seem to blow up in your face? Mine started off a little rough, mainly because I discovered the error I just mentioned after the column was published. Bad weeks happen to the best of us, but fortunately, it's Halloween. Trust me: nothing makes everything feel better quite like a large portion of "fun size" chocolate treats. It isn't healthy, but I'll take a sugar rush over a hangover any day of the week.
My guest for this week is a Californian artist who has worked on comics, illustrations, display art, and even his own character brand. His work has been featured on programming materials for Anime Expo, San Diego Comic Con, and others, but you might also be familiar with one of the many commercials or products he has helped design. Please welcome...
JC Penney Structure Design
At conventions these days, it isn't all that unusual to see artists selling more than just prints and commissions. Buttons, bookmarks, dolls, and other goods cover tables all over Artist Alley, and fans are more than happy to toss down a few dollars to buy a button with a Naruto sketch on it. Although there's a lot of creativity in the way such products are presented, the products themselves are usually dedicated to existing characters and properties. Fan art, it seems, is believed to be the only content which can make such products a success. Much like these artists, Henry Liao has plenty of experience with drawing fan art and doing commissions of commercial characters. However, after over a decade working in the art industry, he's an example of just how much one can do with their original art. In the past decade, Henry has done a whole lot more than comics and illustrations; he's worked on countless concept drawings for national advertising campaigns, designs sculptures for promotional events, and even developed his own character brand, Zybb. "When I see something that can be done a certain way with certain tools, it interests me," says Henry, who went from working primarily in print media to assisting with the design of merchandise and DVD covers for companies like Disney and Nickelodeon. "It's [an attitude towards art] I picked up working in the industry. You go with the way the market works. I knew in college that I needed to find more than freelance art gigs to survive financially." Although his work has been used in numerous commercial settings, Henry has still managed to stay connected to the fan community, drawing comics and providing illustrations for conventions like San Diego Comic Con and Anime Expo. He admits that doing art outside of work can be tough when deadlines pile up, but there is no doubt that he is happy with the line of work he picked.
Henry was born in Taiwan before relocating with his family to the San Francisco East Bay suburb of Walnut Creek. TV animation inspired young Henry to start doodling, and when his older cousins lent him some of their huge collection of Doraemon, he was hooked. In particular, Henry took a strong liking to the work of manga icon Osamu Tezuka, citing Astro Boy and Blackjack as strong influences on both his drawing style and mentality towards the industry. "[Tezuka's] character designs are very iconic; to make something so simple yet distinct is a gift," says Henry, who remains enamored with Tezuka's ability to create memorable characters without complicated character designs. "To design something that is effective but simple is tough; no one thinks Hello Kitty is hard to draw, but everyone recognizes who she is." Aside from the manga and anime his family exposed him to, Henry's drawing skills got a boost after he moved to the United States. "I couldn't take notes in class since my english knowledge was limited, so I drew instead," recalls Henry, who soon recognized in high school that art was the career path he wanted to follow. Around the same time, he started attending comic book conventions, meeting like-minded fans who were appreciative of the young artist. Of course, not everything was perfect; as a Wondercon attendee at the age of 14, Henry's anime-influenced style was ripped apart by a Marvel editor reviewing his portfolio. Instead of getting depressed about it, Henry trudged on ("I was a rebellious kid, so I yelled at him," he recalls), and although friends and classmates would often compare his work to Robotech and Star Blazers (the only truly well-known anime back then), he stuck with the style he liked. Despite his abilities in art, Henry's parents wanted him to get a "real job," which eventually landed him at UCLA majoring in Economics. However, he stayed true to what he wanted to do, loading up on art and animation classes in his elective hours. In the end, determination proved to be enough for Henry; while he was finishing up class work at UCLA, he landed a few art related internships with UCLA Student Publications, and an up-and-coming manga publication company and magazine called Mixx Zine. Life at Mixx - which later changed its name to Tokyopop - provided Henry with a chance to retouch manga for publication and learn the fundamentals of digital design programs like Photoshop. After spending a year with the company post-graduation, Henry decided that he wanted to try putting his skills to use elsewhere. Despite the challenges of applying to jobs in a crowded field, he was eventually hired to provide commercial art for use on DVD covers for Disney. His good fortune continued when an Art Director from Nickelodeon happened upon his Artist Alley table at San Diego Comic Con and contracted him to produce images for merchandise based on popular shows on the network, such as Avatar: The Last Airbender. Henry's work with product design and promotion would eventually foreshadow his current line of work. Currently, he works for an advertising agency, where he helps design and story board commercial ideas and concepts for national ad campaigns for companies like State Farm Insurance and Toyota.
These days, Henry's work in the world of art is split between the story boards that help pay his bills and the illustrations that reflect the manga and comics that got him into art in the first place. Regardless of the setting, Henry's design style has a few commonalities. "My blue ball point pen never leaves my hand," remarks Henry, who often starts a piece with a little sketch that he then maps onto a larger sketch pad. For his professional work, the creative process varies based on who Henry's client is - a requirement of the business that he admits has taken some getting used to. For example, after getting a call about doing a piece of merchandise art for Nickelodeon, the process is pretty straightforward - but can involve more revisions that one might imagine. "We'll talk about the piece, they'll confirm my contact info, and then they'll send me sample DVDs and other stuff for reference," says Henry, who is quick to praise Nickelodeon for paying attention to the ideas and concepts proposed by their artists. "I'll sketch concept art for them, they accept one, and then we go through rounds and rounds of revisions [to get the right look]," says Henry, admitting that the work can be taxing but ultimately worth it when it makes its way into the public eye. Although his work requires a lot of static poses, Henry's personal work reflects his passion for the flair of action scenes and other dramatic sequences. "I'm action oriented; I like to draw characters in motion," says Henry, adding, "I like to give my audience the sense that my artwork is moving." His personal work echoes his background accurately, intertwining facial features and characteristics from manga and asian art with the flair and hero-focused mentality behind American comics.
Outside of his professional work, Henry has a handful of his own projects that manage to occupy a large share of his time. He's worked on two versions of a comic series called Legion, which he was initially commissioned to create over ten years ago. "The Bay Area Animation Society introduced me to someone who goes to game conventions, and they hired me to do four 40-page issues of the comic," recalls Henry, who was surprised to hear from the same commissioner again in 2005, requesting that he release the series again. "I drew new pages, and redid the series," says Henry, who admitted that he wanted to redo Legion in his new style - and in his way. "I asked for full control over pages so that I could add more action," says Henry, who has since dabbled in other sequential work when he has the chance. However, his most recent project is a far cry from the world of comics. His idea for a character brand line called Zybb (pronounced "zee-bee") was born out of a desire to get his work seen beyond the common boundaries of comics. Inspired by pop culture icons like Hello Kitty, Henry decided that he would try to fulfill "every artist's dream" and bring his characters to life in merchandise."I wanted to draw something for kids to enjoy," says Henry of his creations, who he describes as "space aliens that have come to Earth and masquerade as octopuses." He also admits that Zybb is a tribute to some of his friends - a way to say thank you to the people who have taken care of him. Currently, Zybb can be found on t-shirts and buttons - some of which Henry has given out for promotional purposes to other artists at conventions.
These days, Henry is keeping busy in the world of advertising, but he hasn't lost sight of the art style that encouraged his own - and the possibilities that his own style holds. "My current desire is to simplify my lines - to experiment with some of the line work I've seen in the recent Batman comics," says Henry, who admits that working to pay the bills can drain a lot of energy out of the hands that would otherwise be working on other kinds of art. Despite the challenges, Henry still finds time to promote his own work, which has recently focused on getting Zybb into the public eye. "In the coming year or two, I want to focus on marketing my characters - perhaps creating single frame comics about Zybb's identity," says Henry, who is already working on designs for Zybb plush toys that would be produced overseas. In the meantime, he still attends conventions regularly and feels a sort of kinship with the artists there who are facing the same kind of struggles he faced when he was beginning his career. "I tell artists not to be discouraged by sales numbers," advises Henry. "Do your thing, and get creative when promoting your original work. Making money [from fan art] is one thing, but to keep doing your own work - that's noble, and I applaud the attitude of artists that keep at it." While it may be difficult to predict where Henry's work will next appear, it is safe to say his determination and willingness to experiment will bring his art into the public eye in many different places in the years to come.
Henry Liao: Funny you should ask about this particular page, because I actually didn't do that good of a job on this page. But since you asked about it, I can still give a general rundown of what went through my mind when working on it.
From a macro stand point, a page 4 sits on the left side of an open book, so when I sketch its layout, I would take what will be happening on page 5 into consideration, and plan the layout of the two pages together. In this particular case, page 4 marks the end of a flashback arc. Looking back, I think I should have done a better job at conveying the "transition back to present day" aspect, as opposed to leaving that to page 5.
Then there's the page layout itself. The two things I focused on are "framing" and "direction of travel". To break it down simply, I wanted drive the readers attention to the center of the page and then gradually move towards the lower left. So naturally, I had the main subject in the center of the page. He is "framed" with the giant pipeline he's holding up on the top and the crowd of people on the left and right. The framing is then further reinforced by the smoke around the trim of the page. Then I soften the attention to direct the view to the lower right by popping a large, supportive character in the foreground.
There was a strict deadline for this short project. I really do wish I could go back and redraw certain elements of this page. But, at the end of the day, the client was happy with the work, and that's what matters - at least most of the time.
Avatar character sketches
ANN: You're currently producing a line of character goods based on your characters, Zybb. What made you want to produce products like these, and what kind of aspirations do you have for Zybb?
Henry: I think that it's every artist's desire to get more people to see his/her work. It's also every artist's interest to see his/her creation come to life through merchandising. With manga, you're going to alienate a good percentage of people for whatever reason. As I'm inevitably getting older, I find that a lot of kids are looking up to my work. So a few years ago, I started to cater my artwork to be more kid-friendly, because whether I like it or not, I'm a role model in some sense. The idea of ZB came to me one day when I was out scouting for inspirations and researching on what type of work appeal to an younger audience. During one of the window-shopping/researching breaks, my girlfriend at the time and I bought and shared an ice cream cone. The scoop of the ice cream melting somehow made me thought of an octopus with short legs, and that was pretty much it. I guess you can say that ZB is created as a "thank you" to the girls that loved and supported me, and it will continue on as an extension of my desire to bring smiles to those who I care about. The creation is leaning toward a girl audience for now, but it won't be limited to girls only.
ANN: As someone who has worked with both comic and anime fandom extensively and worked with convention staff for both fandoms, how do you think the divide between the groups has changed in the past ten years? What do you think each group could – or should – learn from the other?
Henry: There are the hardcore fans that, on the western end, swear to accept nothing but characters running around in tights, and just hate everything outside of "great-power-great-responsibility." Then there are the hardcore anime fans, who curse any Japanese franchise that gets localized with an English dub. But as an audience, we have to be thankful to those companies that provided bad voice dubbing and localization of many hit anime titles. It's because of those companies that many Americans discovered anime/manga. And it's because those demands were heard that we have such an abundance of anime/manga to read. As an artist that has a style influenced by Japan, I am grateful that the demand for anime has forced many western companies to recognize, accept and include anime-influenced styles in their publication line up. It isn't a one way street, either, as we gradually see anime and manga titles that are created with the western markets in mind, which can expand the audience base even further. So for all the criticism from the hardcare fans of both sides of the spectrum, I hope they can understand that it's because of this exchange across the Pacific Ocean that we're able to see gems from different parts of the world, and new makeovers to the classical characters we love.
Story board for Toyota Ad
ANN: Tell us about your work storyboarding for commercials. What is the planning process like for work like this, and what are some of the challenges you run into that you might not face in sequential comic work?
Henry: The biggest difference in commercial storyboarding compared to sequential art is that commercial storyboarding is relatively boring. In commercials, you don't sell a story. You sell a product, sometimes wrapped in a thin story. Your work isn't evaluated based on how good the story or artwork is. All the clients really care about is how many shots their products are seen within the couple seconds of the spot.
ANN: You are kind of like an art renaissance man; you've worked in numerous fields in a short amount of time. What advice would you give to recent art school grads who want to work in the kinds of fields you call home? What kind of knowledge and abilities should these students spend extra time studying or practicing?
Henry: Be flexible to the changing times. Survival as a pop culture artist requires the ability to adapt. As Bruce Lee once said, "Believe in yourself. Have faith in yourself. Do not look for an outside entity and replicate it." Express yourself honestly. Those are the words I live by. With a lot of hard work and a little luck, success will be just around the corner.
If you would like to check out more of Henry's work, here's where to go:
For starters, check out his homepage here. The page includes a collection of illustrations, story boards, and other projects that he has been involved with. If you're interested in seeing some of Henry's new stuff and his more "fan art" focused gallery, visit his Deviant Art page.
Are you an aspiring manga artist looking for some extra page views? Do you have a friend or loved one who draws extremely good original manga but needs a boost? Don't just sit there! Submit two links to your work, including one original piece (no file attachments please! File attachments will be spayed or neutered to control the pet population), to evan [at] animenewsnetwork dot com, and you could be featured in a future Gallery column!
All works © Henry Liao.
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