Tumblin’: Steven Sugar, Illustrator and Designer
Neil Gaiman once noted that being told his comics were instead “graphic novels” made him feel “like someone who had been informed that she wasn’t a hooker, that in fact she was a lady of the evening.” His point is especially apt in the case of Steven Sugar, whose comic-form work is as experimental and nuanced as most so-called “graphic novels,” yet also maintains the kind of sharp, animated aesthetic associated with traditional comics. Sugar’s clear enthusiasm and love for the format are immediately visible in his non-comic projects, making his just-begun body of work truly unique and delightfully un-pigeonholed.
One need only peruse his Tumblr to confirm this. From stunningly original character design to the sweeping, evocative worlds of Magbot and Rocky Albatross, Sugar’s art and storytelling exceed the bounds of genre, as well as the more pejorative line separating “comics” and “graphic novels.” Simply put, Sugar’s work is a treat, and it was my nerdishly-enthused honor to ask him about his influences, plans for the future, and the joys of being an artistic polymath.
Your character designs navigate a really wide array of cultural iconography and aesthetics, including [I think] Greek, Indigenous American, and Babylonian styles. Are these influences self-chosen or based on project constraints? And which aspects of this kind of visual pastiche do you enjoy most?
A few months back I had a teacher who really pushed looking at non-western aesthetics for aesthetic inspiration. I ended up finding a handful of books in the school library on Mesopotamian artifacts and it really stuck with me.
Part of it is just the purely technical fun of playing with line density, really. Though whenever I can, I try to make the patterns and symbols really mean something in relation to the character, even if it’s something terribly contrived. I’d never really expect anyone to read that deeply into any of the designs, but there’s something nice about knowing there’s a purpose behind all those choices.
Similar to your character design, your illustrative work for comics has a kind of elastic, hard-to-pin-down style. Who do you count as a major (or minor) influence?
Oh geez, influences, that’s tricky. I started really reading comics with Hellboy, and I’ve looked at Mike Mignola and Guy Davis’ work on BPRD for inspiration more times than I can count. I just saw Spirited Away again a few weeks ago and it reminded me how much I love everything about Miyazaki’s movies.
I could really go on and on about my heroes, but I’ll try and keep it short. More than anything though, I’ve been influenced by my sister Rebecca and my friend Polly who I really sort of grew up with artistically. In the end, I think a good amount of what I make and who I am I owe to them.
The comics you’ve created (Rocky Albatross especially) often juxtapose enormous, sweeping environments and self-questioning or reluctant heroes. How intentional are those thematic connections?
I wish I could say there was some greater intention behind approaching that sort of story, but in all honesty I think it’s something much more accidental! That feeling of being isolated, overwhelmed and humbled by everything around you is something I just find rather relatable for some reason, so it finds its way into the stories I write.
You have [4? 5?] semi-distinct blogs, making your web presence simultaneously comprehensive and varied. What distinguishes each blog/site, and what particularly distinguishes your Tumblr from your other blogs?
Haha my Tumblr is distinguished by being the only one I have a chance to update anymore!
I can get a bit over-organized at times, and it seems that can lead to having multiple blogs! I try to keep up my Blogspot as a sort of archive of milestones and finished art. It’s a bit more personal, too – more likely to have posts about what’s going on in life. That was never the intention, but that’s just sort of what happened with it.
My second blogspot is just for updates on the development of Magbot, a magnet themed platformer I’ve been working on! I spent a handful of years trying to figure out how to approach making a game and failed so many times that I thought it would be worth making a blog about! So I write up all the mistakes I make and the things I learn, in the hope that maybe it’ll help some other artist looking to make a game with no idea where to start.
And lastly my Tumblr! Which is just for ideas, sketches, concepts, illustrations or whatever else I’m working on. The stuff on there is mostly just stuff I had fun with and wouldn’t really get posted anywhere else.
You attend one of the most prestigious art programs in the country (RISD), and have shared most of your work across your blogs. Is that openness motivated by any notion of wanting to share the experience of arts education, or is your impulse more portfolio-driven?
I’d love to think that there are younger artists who see the stuff I post online and learn something from it! I’ve learned a lot from my time at RISD (probably more than I even realize right now) and I’d instantly encourage anyone who’s really serious about building an art career to look into art schools that fit their interests.
No one absolutely needs to have any formal training to be amazing at any kind of art of course, but the people you meet and the experience you get from that art school sort of environment is really something special.
In addition to illustrating, you’ve produced a significant amount of painted work. Do you have any plans to focus more on painting/”traditional” art, or is your foreseeable focus going to be illustration and design?
I try not to worry too much about media and use whatever gets the job done and communicates the best. For the past couple years that’s mostly meant working digitally, though I’ve been really hoping to do a project soon that will let me paint and work traditionally again.
I think the importance of diversity in media is all up to the artist. Personally, I love the notion of switching up tools, though I wish I did it more than I do. It’s a great way to find new weaknesses to improve upon! It’s not just that fine art skills help inform comics or game art, but rather that every medium I’ve worked in has taught me things I’ve applied in every other medium.
So for example, my old acrylic paintings (and later oil paintings as well) pretty much match up with the techniques I learned from painting digitally. Then after oil painting for a year and doing some watercolor/acrylic work, I learned some skills that I started working back into my digital colors.
If you could return to or expand upon any project that you’ve currently left, what would it be? And what’s next?
I’ve been dying to continue Rocky Albatross ever since I finished the first issue two years ago. It was all set to be an ongoing story, but school and more immediate projects slowed it down to a stop. I’ll definitely be going back to it one day, hopefully not long after this summer!
As for what’s coming up – I’ve been working on Magbot with a great bunch of guys at Brown University. We’re a ways off from releasing, but I try to update our progress on the development blog when I can!
Beyond that, there are a few exciting small things that are in the works, which I’ll definitely talk more about once they’re ready!
Last question: if you could work with any writer, past or present, who would it be?
Oh man, I don’t even know. There are a few favorite writers that come to mind, but I think I’d prefer their stuff without me getting involved! But that’s a terrible answer! And since Hellboy was the first comic that really got me excited about comics, and I love Mike Mignola’s storytelling, I’ll go with that.
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