Interview: Yanick Paquette

There are many talented artists working in comics today but none with the Quebecois charm, enthusiasm and sense of humour that Yanick Paquette has. Born in Saint-Hyacinthe and raised in Montreal, Paquette is quick to apologize for his heavy French accent, saying with a laugh, “It usually takes about twenty minutes for me to become bilingual… For real!” Apology not required as Paquette’s passion for the comic medium needs no translation, and turns a quick interview about Swamp Thing into an in-depth discussion about the comics industry, the art form and what it’s like to work with comic giants Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

The primary artist on Swamp Thing since the New 52’s launch, Paquette brought Scott Snyder’s interpretation of Alec Holland to life, making the series a fan favourite once more. The last time Swamp Thing was this popular, Alan Moore, Jon Totleben and Stephen Bissette were at the helm, ushering in a new psychedelic era in the 80’s. It was this run that drew Paquette to the character. “I’d grown up reading the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, which was a great fascination for me. It was really my first kick as far as being a reader and discovering what the American comic could do. Also as an artist, my first love in graphics was Bernie Wrightson.” Wrightson was the original artist on the very first run of Swamp Thing written and created by Len Wein. Paquette admits to emulating Wrightson’s style. “If you look at my early work— when I was a teenager and just trying to copy stuff— they all look kind of like Bernie Wrightson with the big brushy feathering all over the place. I fell in love with Bernie through Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing was there as my first love in graphic [novels] and in the possibilities of a story in comic books. So when the time came for me to be part of it, it was more personal than other books. It felt intimate from the start.”

Swamp Thing also appealed to another personal love of Paquette’s; the natural world. “I’m a big nature lover; I would collect insects and I planned to go into biology early on. So having the opportunity to really render nature a lot in a mainstream book was great. The way things turned out, I’ve mostly been drawing monsters and rotten creatures more than birds. But initially that was the plan, drawing plants and stuff like that. You can do a superhero [book] for years and years, and never really draw nature at all.” When reminded of an offhand remark in another interview about drawing frogs in Swamp Thing, Paquette laughs “I hope there’s at least one frog in there at some point.” You can rest easy Mr. Paquette, we count two on the cover of issue #1 alone.

Beyond the opportunity to draw forests and frogs, Paquette worked to incorporate “the Green” (the elemental community that connects all plant life on Earth) into all visual aspects, including layouts. “If you look at the panels themselves, sometimes there are flowers—though that’s rare— [the panels] feel like branches, but they’re not nature referenced branches. They’re more Art Nouveau style; the impression of branches.”

Bringing a psychedelic feel to Swamp Thing was also one of Paquette’s goals. “One of the things I really enjoyed in the Swamp Thing of Bissette, Totleben and other Alan Moore era artists, was their willingness to make weird, extreme storytelling a thing. For me it was important that the book itself has this experimental aspect. That was an element of what Swamp Thing is, not just the kind of story but the obligation to push the envelope in graphic storytelling. DC and Marvel, they’re offering almost the same thing in every book; guys in spandex with dramatic lives. Swamp Thing is almost another genre altogether, and some people exposed to very little diversity probably saw this as a breath of fresh air because it’s not the same as usual.”

Moore’s Swamp Thing was far from the average caped-crusader story, incorporating its share of mind-bending visuals— including a communal acid trip sex scene between Abby and Swamp Thing in the Green that Paquette found particularly memorable. “I was really primed to go into a very acid trippy world. Which, if you look at the script, it’s not really like that at all. Scott is using the Green as a storytelling device, for the plants to tell ‘This is how it is.’ It’s a lot more down to Earth, almost like [the Green] is this parallel universe and not this crazy place where you can go. We reached a compromise by me pushing the psychedelic level of things and him having his more down to earth story at the same time. In the end, I think it’s worked.”

Swamp Thing may have been the first time Snyder and Paquette collaborated on a book but they quickly adapted to each other’s process. “Scott takes care of the character development but as far as describing monsters or adding fight scenes, that was my job. I would experiment and do things, which led the scripts to be less descriptive. When there are battles, it’s more logical for me to create the illustration first.” Their collaboration extended both ways, with Paquette’s art influencing dialogue and events in the story, not common in every creative team. Issue #18, the last in their run, saw a significant amount of changes from Paquette. “In that particular case, I felt like there was still some tweaking to do in terms of rhythm so I just told the guys, can I take over this chunk of the story? That last issue is so tense in terms of emotional content. The pacing is very important when you go with huge emotion. You don’t want [people to say] ‘Oh, how come they’re that far into this emotional state’ because we haven’t spent enough time to building it up. Sometimes I prefer to take full charge of how to tell the story visually and then we reverse the role a bit. I’ve reshaped page 6-11 and Scott scripts the dialogue upon the drawing that I did. But usually the script is really well balanced and I don’t need to venture too much. We trust each other a lot.”

With his run was originally scheduled to end with issue #17 (which features a huge Lord of the Rings style battle drawn by Andy Belanger), Paquette opted to illustrate issue #18 instead. “There’s no way I could have skipped [issue #18]. This is the last issue with Scott that concludes and tie in so much that we’ve done. I designed some of the new elements that you guys will see in it, and discovered ways of making the longer arc tie the first chapter to the last one into a beautiful package. It’s something that looked like we planned everything way ahead of time, which is not exactly our thing,” he admits with a laugh. “But amazingly, that piece of the puzzle just fell into place. There was just no way I couldn’t have done that one.”

It’s common for fill in artists to lend a hand if a comic’s main artist falls behind, or their contract stipulates a certain number of issues per year (the latter is the case with Paquette). “This is part of the frustration of not being able to do monthly books. I’m not a monthly guy,” he admits. “I ended up doing only two issues, and then a fill in, and then two issues, and another fill in. An issue for me is a big personal investment and it’s not because I’m lazy, it’s because my graphic language just takes me too much time. I can only do seven issues a year. For all this energy and this sacrifice, the story has just evolved a little bit. It’s incomplete and somebody is just going to patch this small other hole. It’s tough as an artist to see your work being fractured like this. That’s why I’m trying to avoid monthly at all costs. To avoid creating a piece of art that has a hole in it.”

In an industry where new issues come out monthly (or even bi-weekly sometimes), this schedule is not ideal for artists like Paquette. “As you do comics, it takes up so much time in your life. It’s so much an act of love. You really want to put out a product that makes sense. [There] is a problem with the rhythm of these publications: what fans are now expecting in terms of graphics have changed but not the publication mentality and the rhythm of it.” Paquette cites Greg Capullo as an example of an artist who can meet the monthly schedule set by publishers. “On Batman, that guy is un-killable. He’s a machine, he will deliver the stuff and he has developed a graphic language to allow this. Guys like J.H.Williams III surely cannot and it’s not because J.H.Williams III is not working enough compared to Capullo. He’s offering a different kind of graphic language, which I love but which obviously requires some planning. That’s the problem; because I’m spending so much energy and attention on what I’m doing, I like to think about comics as art form. But they’re not.” Paquette admits with chuckle.

“From a publisher’s point of view these books support ads. If you look at these comics, at the back cover…” He shuffles through a stack of comics as he elaborates. “Ooh Resident Evil Operation Raccoon City at the back of my Green Lantern New Guardians #7. What you want is a pretext, to put in the hands of a very specific demographic a piece of paper that will carry stuff like this Resident Evil at a very specific date. Hopefully you’ll get enough quality so people will keep buying the [book], but what you really want is to get these pieces of paper into the hands of the demographic. What’s frustrating for me is that if you plan stuff in advance, asked me two years ago to draw 7 issues, you can now put it out every week if you want to, or every day. I don’t mind, it’s your product to sell. If you’re the editor or the publisher, you can do whatever you want with it and that only requires you to ask me way in advance and everybody’s happy. But they are not doing it.” It certainly seems to be an approach that would keep fans of artists like Paquette happy.

That being said, publishers have gotten better at releasing mini-series on schedules that work better for those creators. “So many people are making graphic language that are just not compatible with any of this and it’s good because there are more and more special projects that allow these people to fully express themselves. Like Lee Bermejo or J.G. Jones, there are a lot of guys out there that are just not doing monthly; nobody is asking them to do it, and they still exist. To me, I feel it’s a much more logical career path for the kind of thing I’m doing.”

Along Paquette’s career path are rumours of another collaboration with Grant Morrison to come in 2013, but nothing has been officially announced yet. Though unable to discuss future projects with Morrison, Paquette did provide some insight on what it’s like to work with the Scottish Bard of Comics. “My first work with Grant was the Bulleteer stuff that was part of the Seven Soldiers. I’d just come out of two years of Alan Moore ‘super thick scripts with everything on it which leave no doubt about what’s going on’. Alan will not describe the specifics of the panel but he’ll give you many options for a single panel; there really is no ambiguity. I remember the last issue of Terra Obscura, which was set around Pharaohs and Egyptian gods, half the script is just mythology. Stuff that didn’t make it into the book but just putting in context of ‘We’re going to use this guy because he’s from this dynasty’; almost a master class of Egyptian history. Grant will give you none of that,” he confesses with a laugh.

“With Bulleteer, I got my script and it was SO tiny compared to Alan’s. I became very insecure because a lot of it, I had to figure out for myself. ‘Where am I going with this?’ Now I know that as an artist, when you get the script in your hand and you’re drawing on it, the book is yet to be done. It’s just another stone in which Grant will build the actual book. He’ll give you a script, which still has a lot of things to figure out in terms of the action. I do what I can and if I go wrong or venture in an unexpected way, I think Grant liked it and built a dialogue in the story about it. Sometimes I’ll read the comic when it comes out and I’m surprised. I was not expecting the story to be this.”

That will surely come as a surprise to readers, how much these creators’ influenced each other before issues of Bulleteer and Batman Inc. made it to print. Paquette explains, “[During] the last pass, when he goes back to look at the pages and see what I’ve done, he has his master plan but since I’m not aware of all of it, I’m creating random accidents that he’ll use to feed his creativity. So his stuff is always a work in progress, even when I’ve finished pencilling and inking the thing, it’s still up for grabs; things can change. He’s never asking me to redraw things; he’ll just build upon it. It keeps the stuff fresh until the last minute.” Paquette likens it to one of his own habits to keep his art vibrant. “When I draw stuff, if I do a very, very tight layout and ink it, I lose the energy of it. So I try to render my first layout very loose, so when I ink I’m still making active, intellectual decisions to solve problems at the inking stage and give something more… alive, somehow?”

“I think that’s why Grant will work with very few people in the business” Paquette muses. “He will choose people that are proactive in terms of storytelling, people that will feed him at the last stage which will build upon it even more. It gives a great diversity within the same writer. When he works with [Frank] Quitely, it gives something totally different than when he works with me, and when he worked with J.H. Williams III it gave something totally different again. The stage where the artist is included in the process forces us to give a bit of our own personality to the mix.”

We’re excited to see what parts of Paquette’s personality make it into his next collaboration with Morrison, whenever and whatever that ends up being.

Swamp Thing #18 is in stores on March 6th. Find Yanick Paquette on DeviantArt and Twitter.