Somewhere in our fair city of Toronto, nestled between China Town and Little Italy, is a studio filled with some of the most talented illustrators in comics — and beyond. Welcome to RAID, or the Royal Academy of Illustration and Design, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.
Current studio members (alphabetically) are: Cary Nord, Francis Manapul, Ian Herring, Jason Laudadio, Kalman Andrasofszky, Marcus To, Paul Rivoche, Ramón K Pérez, Scott Hepburn and Willow Dawson, as well as several part-time hotelers like Nimit Malavia. Members have come and gone since RAID was founded in 2003 by Cameron Stewart, Kagan McLeod, Chip Zdarsky and Ben Shannon, with other past alumni including Karl Kerschl, Eric Kim and Andy Belanger. Impressed yet? You should be. Not only is the RAID studio jam packed with talent and creativity, the camaraderie between members gives it an ambiance completely unlike any traditional work space. Although breathtaking work is being done here on a daily basis, there’s also laughter, brainstorming/feedback sessions, naps, and even the occasional mini dance party.
Catching everyone in the studio at once isn’t always possible, but we did sit down to chat with Nord, Herring, Andrasofszky, To, Hepburn, and Dawson, and caught up with Manapul and Pérez at FEBTOR 2013. No matter who we spoke to, everyone had great things to say about their studio-mates, amidst friendly jabs. As one of the newest members of RAID, Cary Nord (artist on Valiant Comics’ XO-Manowar) gets his fair share of ribbing. “We act really nice to him, but we could turn on him on a dime” Hepburn quips, before Andrasofszky offers to spill some crazy stories featuring Nord.
All jokes aside, Nord seems thrilled to be a part of RAID: a good thing since he uprooted his life to get there. “Marcus asked if I was interested [but] I was living in Calgary at the time,” Nord explains. “I couldn’t just pack up and leave that quickly, so it took me about eight months to get down to Toronto. They luckily had a spot open still, so I jumped on that. I’d wanted to come to Toronto for my own sake anyway, get out of Calgary and get to a place where there’s more of an industry and more people in the industry/scene of comics in general.”
It may come as a surprise to some fans that Toronto is bursting with comic professionals, but Nord had that in mind all along. “One of my goals for coming to Toronto is to make more contacts in the industry and to develop a stronger work ethic. Both those things immediately happened once I moved here.” Nord attributes this outcome to his studio mates, “Everyone that they know, you get to know. Seeing these guys work 12 hours a day, you can’t help but work harder. Also, you look at how good everyone is in this studio and you’re forced to step your game up.” Beyond improving his skills, Nord reveals some other benefits of studio membership. “The social aspect is fantastic. You get to hang out with these people when you’re not working, which is always these odd hours. You go out at 11 o’clock on a Monday and everyone’s fine with that.” A large part of this social aspect is a feeling of acceptance amongst other creative professionals, “like minded people that you don’t have to explain why you’re not going to be home until 3 in the morning because there’s a deadline.”
This feeling of belonging is crucial to Andrasofszky (cover artist, X-Treme X-Men, X-23, Bloodshot), who worked solo for five years before joining RAID. “Finding like minded people to work and play with is important in anyone’s life,” he explains, “and not to go on about how special and unique we are — because we’re not — but statistically, we’re a smaller percentage of the population and it’s hard to find people who get it. If all you want to do is buy Ikea furniture, work until 6 pm, then come home, watch reality TV and have a beer, there’s lots of people you can make friends with very easily who also want to do that. It’s more difficult to find people who understand why you want to stay up until 3 am every day, stressed, agonizing, frustrated, and somehow that, to you, feels like a more valuable use of your time. Having this place where I make sense to them, they make sense to me, and the life we live is normal here, is huge.”
Working and being social with the same group of people also has other perks. “Collaboration does happen, [but] more often it’s a case of people hooking other people up with clients, gigs, or editors. Because we know each other’s work and work habits really well so [we have] a good sense of what would be a match.” Referrals can be crucial to landing a project, according to Andrasofszky. “If I have a good relationship with an editor and I say I have a guy in my studio, it’s totally different than the exact same artist emailing them samples cold.”
Knowing studio-mates’ strengths is helpful but knowing his own has helped Andrasofszky shape his career. “I found that working on [interiors], I was often lost at sea after about page four or five. It felt like it didn’t matter how hard I worked for the next two weeks I would still be behind at the end. I was stressed out and miserable all the time and I didn’t like that,” he confesses. “I made a choice about three years ago to step away from interiors which is actual comics, and focus on covers, which looks a lot like comics except it’s a single image. There might be implied narrative but it’s not really about telling a story. It’s a bite sized chunk, pencil and colour one image and you get the pat on the head. The tension’s released and you can start again fresh, carry that momentum into the next thing.” By focusing only on covers, “the process became more comfortable. I loosened up a lot and started to be less attached to making everything perfect.” As a result, Andrasofszky was able to streamline his workflow, culminating in a result every artist struggles for. “I’ve started to conquer my deadline allergy, at least in terms of covers. In the last few years I’ve been early as much as I’ve been late.” He says with a laugh, before amending his statement. “Let’s say I’ve been early as much as I’ve been on time, and sometimes I’m late. That is a massive victory because it used to be late always and on time a little bit.”
Recently finishing the Dark Horse Orchid series (what he considers his biggest professional achievement), is Scott Hepburn, artist on the current “The Enemy Within” Captain Marvel storyline. “It’s good to have it all done,” he says of Orchid, his collaboration with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. “It’s in print, there’s no undoing it.” A RAID member since 2007, Hepburn jokes about the circumstances around joining the studio. “They jumped me in, gang style. I was working at an animation studio and I wanted to draw comic books full time. I was living with Andy Belanger and friends with Ramón. Eric Kim used to be in the studio, so when he left I kind of fell into his spot.”
Hepburn enjoyed working in animation but quickly realized its limitations. “It’s great when you’re starting out, but there’s a certain ceiling to what you can do individually. I was doing background designs on a show called Grossology and it was a fun job but you plateau pretty quickly. I wanted more than that. I’d joined the studio while I was still at the animation company and used my weekends and after hours to do portfolio pages.” Hepburn also drew from studio-mates knowledge during that time. “Karl Kerschl, Cameron Stewart, Ramón and Andy Belanger helped me put together 6 or 8 sample pages. It didn’t happen as cleanly as I’d hoped. I spent probably two months treading water without much work and then as I was almost out of money, Dark Horse called. So it’s all worked out so far.”
Although Hepburn’s achievements (like all RAID members’) stand on their own, he recognizes the impact the studio has had on his success. “Being in a collective like this has cut five years off the front end of my career trying to get in and get contacts. It’s a big deal,” he admits. “Anyone who’s trying to do it alone, you don’t even know what you don’t know. You know what I mean? You know what you want to be doing, but you don’t know what’s in between you and that: what you’re missing or how many steps away you are from getting a job at DC or Dark Horse. When you’re amongst other professionals and you see what the job is and what’s required, you at least know what you’re lacking and can measure your skill-set better— what you need to do to prepare.” Being prepared involves being social. “Comic books is a global industry but a small world professionally. There’s maybe five or six real publishers and what, a hundred editors maybe? For the whole industry. So it’s really about knowing people,” Hepburn concludes.
Knowing the right person is what led to Marcus To (Cyborg 009, Red Robin) joining RAID. “I moved to Toronto [about] three years ago and met Kalman through Francis. We started hanging out and when there was an opening at the studio, Kalman brought up my name to the guys. They agreed and Kalman was the one that brought me in.” Although To recently completed the massive Cyborg 009 graphic novel out this July, he doesn’t credit a specific project as his biggest achievement. “I’m most proud of the change in the way I look at how to work [and] the type of work that I’m doing now, even though I can’t see it yet. The mentality has changed from working alone to working with your friends because it has grown and pushed me to try harder than I once did. I don’t do well in competition normally but everyone here is good natured so it’s all about us succeeding as a group. It’s always good to be surrounded by successful people and we will be successful because of that.”
Surrounding himself with successful people led to To collaborating a few times with studio-mates. “First chance I got was on The Flash with Francis: he was taking a couple issues break off drawing duties and asked if I wanted to draw two issues. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and in turn that started some ideas with Ian because they needed help with the colours as well. It was interesting working with Francis because he’s an artist and therefore has a vision. I try to stay faithful to that because it is his book and because when you work off of someone’s layouts, it can be a very interesting learning process— seeing how they do things as opposed to how you do things. I also worked with Ian on Cyborg 009 for Archaia and that’s been nothing but a really great opportunity. We can talk and plan how we want our books to look, which I’ve never had a chance to do with any other colourist. The fact that he’s in the studio, I can see the progress and also talk about my thoughts: if I just say a bunch of jumbled words, he’ll take that and incorporate it into what he was thinking. My colour theory is not very good, I just have a feel I want to portray, and he reads my description of that feeling quite well. Having someone to work with that can take that and make it his own, with my vague guidance, is really important for me.”
Ironically, the studio member who’s collaborated with almost everyone at RAID works in one of the industry’s most underrated vocations: colourist. Ian Herring’s background is illustration, but he’s become more well known for his colour work in comics. “I came on to help out on Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand and I turned into the main colourist. That was more or less a result of being in the studio,” he admits. The triple Eisner Award-winning adaptation may be Herring’s biggest achievement, but it’s just the tip of the collaborative iceberg. “First person I worked with was Andy [Belanger], he got me onto Kill Shakespeare which was the first professional work I got. Scott was the first person in the studio other than Andy to give me paid work. Then I worked for Kalman, then slowly I worked for Marcus, Francis and I’ve helped out Willow occasionally. That’s the nature of my work because I’m a colourist. If they need something done on Photoshop, I’m their guy.”
“I was never really interested in comics when I was growing up, I just fell into this.” Herring confesses, before explaining how colourists keep up with a seemingly heavier workload than artists. “It’s a lot of jumbling; you have to be good at time management. We don’t have to lay it out or do the storytelling. We contribute but it’s not as heavy a workload and we’re able to balance it easier. If the artist is behind we can pick up other things.” Recently wrapping colour work on Cyborg 009 and Splinter Cell: Echoes, Herring had been “bouncing back and forth” between those since October. “Cyborg is a little longer, over 100 pages and Splinter Cell is a little under 100 pages. It’s timed out really well, they [didn’t] overlap half the time. It’s worked out well.”
The only female member of the RAID studio, Willow Dawson (illustrator, Hyena in Petticoats, No Girls Allowed) has only great things to say about her studio mates. “I love that they’re like brothers! Because I’m the only girl at the studio, that puts me in a strange situation where I’m privy to all of their private conversations and the things that they don’t say in front of most girls, which is really cool. But I also get special treatment sometimes in some ways I’m sure,” she says with a laugh. “At the same time, they tease me like you would a girl on the playground in school, or a sister. So at the end of the day, the thing that I love the most is that I always feel super safe there; totally protected and even though there’s teasing, I know they always have my back. If anything bad were to happen, they would be there in a flash for me and that’s really cool.”
Although Dawson feels her biggest achievement is still to come through her current autobiographical projects, she may be underestimating the impact she’s already made on young readers across Canada. “I went to Prince Edward Island [as part of the TD Reads program] and was in and out of schools every day, [doing] 2-3 talks a day. It was amazing, meeting so many kids from so many different backgrounds. My goal is to get the three kids who are totally disengaged, [the ones] thinking ‘Ugh, they’re just going to lecture us again,’ and get them to look at me, to smile and actually focus — then I’ve won everything. It happened a couple of times on that trip. The principal at one school and the librarian at another said ‘I don’t know how you did that! Those two kids were asking questions on topic, which never happens.’ And I knew which ones they were when I walked into the room. There was one day when I went home and I was crying. ‘Holy shit that was so cool.’ I was that kid, so I feel it’s really important if I can speak from the heart and tell them my own experiences and difficult times. Maybe some of them will think, ‘Oh maybe I’m not as dumb as I thought I was!’ because that’s what I thought all through my childhood.”
Technically a part-time hoteler at RAID, as Nimit Malavia (cover artist, Wolverine and Jubilee) explains “It’s actually kind of been an ongoing thing for the last two years or so. I met Kalman at Fan Expo in 2010 or 2011, I think? He introduced me to a lot of people, [including] some at Marvel and got my first few gigs there. When they moved [the studio] into this bigger space, they came out with part-time positions and I jumped on board. I’ve been ‘part-timing’ it for a little while.” With a laugh, he leans in to the microphone. “Those are air quotes [for ‘part-timing’] in case you forget.”
“The draw is mostly the guys here.” Malavia starts off saying, when asked about the environment in the studio. “They all have their own experiences and backgrounds that lend to it. I feel like I’m very much the youngest guy when I’m here, so I can draw upon their experiences and sort of just feed off of things that they know. It’s a working machine; everybody’s here and they have their day to day routines that they’ve established over years of working.” Some of Malavia’s most recent comic work includes variant covers of Kill Shakespeare: The Tide of Blood arc. “I think its issue #4? Anthony’s [Del Col, co-writer of Kill Shakespeare] marketing background comes into play when he’s trying to be stern but he doesn’t realize that even though we can socialize, speak and be jovial, my ego is this delicate bird.” Somewhat surprising to hear, considering Malavia’s past projects include concept and production design for Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.
Ramón Pérez (artist, Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand, Wolverine and the X-Men) and Francis Manapul (writer/artist, The Flash) talked about collaborating during the FEBTOR 2013 event. “You can’t help but by osmosis be affected by each other’s art and do different things.” Pérez explained, describing the studio environment as “creativity on tap that helps break through roadblock.” Citing his experience in web comics as how he learned pacing and “how to create moments in storytelling,” Pérez used this knowledge towards one of his biggest achievements: adapting muppet-master Jim Henson’s unproduced screenplay Tale of Sand. “His life is dictated by the surrounding events,” Pérez said of Tale of Sand’s protagonist. “He is an empty vessel for readers to put themselves into the story.” Pérez used several unique visual elements (e.g. actual script pages during early panels in the story) to break thefourth wall. “Sometimes the writing is on the wall and you ignore it, but sometimes you see it,” he said with a chuckle.
Manapul’s time on The Flash allowed him to hone his storytelling abilities, and pass along some things he’s learned. “Story is about your characters wants and needs. When you grow as an artist you become a better storyteller. The dirty secret [in comics] is that characters cannot grow. [You can] give readers the illusion of change by changing the story around an unchanged man or woman. The best way to tell that story is to let the character be who they are but constantly challenge their principles.” It seems art can imitate life, as Manapul described the environment at RAID. “It challenges you to do better, sometimes subconsciously, [and it can] make you more conscious of certain things,” he said, before getting a bit sentimental. “Our studio is a lot like a family; all roads lead back to home. Aside from the physical space, we share a common goal. When you’re doing a job which is meant to be a solitary thing, we choose to be together, which helps.”
Although a studio environment may not be the best fit for every artist, the perks (e.g. increasing industry networking contacts, skills improvement, collaboration, etc.) are worth considering. The studio’s hours accomodate both early risers and night-owls, accessible to members from 10am until 2am as needed, with no set schedule except the ones artists impose on themselves. There are dozens of comic focused studios across North America today bringing peers together in this way — including Chicago based 44 Flood, Portland’s Periscope Studio or Montreal’s Studio Lounak (which features a few RAID alumni as members). Guests at RAID, whether artists, editors or other comic industry professionals, consistently comment on the great dynamic between the group and how rare that is to find. After only a few hours at the studio, it’s clear that this is a space unlike any other, thanks to the people that inhabit it.
During a group chat at RAID, Kalman tells a story that resonates with his studio mates. “I remember reading an interview with Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, and Howard Chaykin when I was a kid wanting to do comics. They had a studio in New York and it blew my mind that that could happen. I thought every artist was a solitary unit to themselves. Then I could see it in the way they drew, and it made sense. I thought ‘Oh my god maybe one day I’m going to do this and I’ll have a studio!’ and I had this romantic notion of what it would be like.” He pauses for effect. “This is way better than what I had in my head. That’s pretty awesome.”
Thanks to the RAID crew for their patience during this lengthy interview process! Please visit the RAID site if you have questions regarding membership or hoteling at the studio.