Making a Comic Book like a Movie — an Interview with artist James Zark about Occult Generation

In which we discover more about the process of creating the world’s first queer-fi graphic novel. You can discover more about the project on our other Medium post here. Also, follow our ongoing fictional prequel sagas here!

Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

The quality of the art makes or breaks a comic book.

That’s why Occult Generation, the independent graphic novel project we’re kickstarting, has made perfecting its aesthetic sensibilities a top priority.

Storyboarder and illustrator James Zark knew that it would take time. He knew that making a comic book like you would a movie might be one of the most creatively liberating experiences of his life. And you know what? He was right.

Since James is such a huge part of the Occult Generation, I asked him to take time off of his busy production schedule to chat about his perspective on the project and how the process has been so far.

Just a taste of Zark’s work so far.

Let’s start off by talking about your background as an artist.

For the most part, I’m a self taught hack. When I was a child I was often drawing whatever I was into: Star Wars, dinosaurs, wizards, Transformers. In high school, I got into comic books and manga and drank deep from those waters. Once I graduated, I attended Columbia College in Chicago with a focus on film animation. After a couple of years, I decided to leave and other than self publishing a single comic book in 1999, that was about it. Several years later I was able to get a Cintiq drawing tablet for my computer and that kind of blew the doors off the hinges. I’ve been working fairly steadily ever since.

How did you get started with the Occult Generation project?

Ryan Fukuda and I met in a meditation class a few years ago and realized we both had a lot in common. We agreed on a lot as far as storytelling sensibilities go.

Ryan Fukuda (left) and James Zark (right) have a jam session.

About two years later, Ryan presented me with a project that came to be called Homosapiens. It was a century-spanning epic about several generations of psychic misfits bucking the system and fighting evil. After some discussion, the story got boiled down to a distinct number of volumes and each volume had a number of chapters. We got to this point where we solidified the first volume into six distinct chapters and renamed the project Occult Generation.

What’s your personal vision for Occult Generation? What does it mean to you?

Basically, Occult Generation is a big playground for me. Pushing the esoteric/mystical elements to to the forefront but in a very restrained manner is a lot of fun. Working with a style that brings a very specific aesthetic to the story (i.e. working with character models for every panel) is a real challenge and brings excitement to this project. Anything I work on for OG is going to end up being something that I want to see exist that I haven’t seen yet. So the diverse cast, style of storytelling and distinct look of OG is very personal.

How a storyboard grows up to be a page

What’s your process like for making the art for Occult Generation?

The process for creating the art of OG is fairly structured.

We start off with script pages. From those pages, I create thumbnail illustrations which are easy to edit and rearrange so we can create a good flow for the storytelling. From there, I’ll make a shot list to accompany the thumbnails.

Then Ryan will do his thing and get all these actors/models, photographers, hair & make-up and studio space together. Then we dress the people up as the characters. I run around and yell at them about making these exaggerated poses under hot lights. Then I take the 1500 photos, sort through them and cherry pick the best ones that sync up to the thumbnails. A lot of cutting and pasting happens after that. More photography for the locations/backgrounds. More cutting/pasting.

Then, I can finally draw the damn thing.

Zark and his trusty steed, Cintiq.

What are some of the tools (hardware, software) you’re using to draw this?

Even though everything you’ll see on the page is hand drawn and colored, it’s all created digitally. The illustration is entirely hand drawn on the Cintiq in Photoshop (no vectors for me). I run it off of a very taxed Mac laptop. This makes the “studio” fairly portable which is incredibly helpful since we’ve done shoots in two different cities now. So far, everything’s been put together in Photoshop. It’s hard to find something Photoshop can’t do and at this point it’s become fairly intuitive for me.

How do you like working with models and actors to come up with character designs and panel art?

The photo shoots have been one of my favorite aspects of the creative process for OG. Typically, when I’m working on something — a comic, storyboards, posters, whatever — I’m holed up in my room or studio working for hours in the dark with my headphones on. And that’s lovely.

But to have this giant studio space and fill it with all these enthusiastic talents is a tremendous boost of energy and really opens things up creatively. People have these crazy new ideas they bring to the table. Everyone has added something to the character they play that wasn’t necessarily there before. Plus, having a killer hair and makeup person is a real boon to the process.

From my perspective, something that makes this art project unique is the collaborative effort. Having worked on films and commercials before I’m certainly used to that level of collaboration, but that’s kind of me being a cog in the machine. OG has rolled out much more organically with all the surprises that’ve come up and been incorporated into the story and art.

What’s your priority as a comic artist?

My priority as a comic artist is probably the same as all comic artists: tell a good story. I think everyone naturally has their own style of illustration and storytelling. My question is always if it suits the story being told right now. The style in which I doodle or have produced work in before is not like the pages I’m drawing for OG. This was a very conscious decision made to have this specific aesthetic and then setting everything up so we can achieve the look we want.

What are some of your influences?

My influences for OG are largely from some legendary comic artists. Tim Bradstreet is a primary influence, with his photo-realistic illustrations and slick yet textured feel. Alex Maleev and David Mack for sure. But Tim’s stuff is definitely in the forefront of my brain for a lot of the inking I’m doing.

As far as the coloring goes, John Higgins coloring on Watchmen is still some of the greatest in any comic book and, I’m sure, the launchpad for so many colorist ideas since. It’s hard not to reference Dave Stewart’s work on books like Hellboy too. His palettes are sensational.

Influences and stuff.

How does the Occult Generation speak to you?

Usually by grabbing me by the throat until the next page is done. OG speaks to the outsider in me, the stranger. We’re entering a world that’s entirely populated by beautiful misfits and mystics. There’s no middle ground there, it’s this shadowy realm full of extremes. But this is what makes everyone there feel at home. There’s an acceptance of who you really are. The only characters in OG who aren’t like that are the villains. But if you live as the perversion of nature you are, you’re free to be a hero.

Become a part of the Occult Generation.

Support the first ever queer-fi graphic novel that’s made like a movie. Become a backer today.

While investigating the murder of a notorious drag performer, a private investigator uncovers a secret war between remnants of the confederacy equipped with strange technology and a secret society in Harlem that fights for justice through magic.

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Read our ongoing prequel sagas on Medium.

Get to know the characters who will rewrite history as you knew it.

Leon’s Story — “The Empty Witch” (a weird mystery) parts one, two and three.

Gladys’ Story — “Widow Zone” parts one and two.

Stay tuned…

Like what you’ve read? Be sure to Follow Stephen Harber for more on Occult Generation, and Panel & Frame for more emerging voices in Comics, Literature, Art, and Film! And don’t forget to recommend!