Thursday, 14 March 2013

Exclusive Interview with Ninjago Artist Jolyon Yates

The LEGO Ninjago comic book series has been breaking records with exciting stories based on the popular theme. Regular artist Jolyon Yates has been bringing the series to life since #4, and he kindly took the time to talk about how his career began, being part of the Ninjago world and the process of bringing these characters to life. Read on for a fascinating interview that makes clear why Jolyon is such a qualified person to be providing the artwork for Ninjago, and for an exclusive sneak peek at #7 – “Stone Cold”.

How did your career in comics begin?

I've still got the first comic page I ever drew, when I was 4 years old. It's a Western epic. In secondary school [around 6th-7th gradein the USA] I started drawing comics with my friend Stephen, mostly parodies of Superhero comics and whatever films we'd watched on television recently. That turned into publishing our own parody school magazine which outsold the official one, and we were made the editors of that one too.

Tried the Royal Navy for a few years but decided it wasn't for me. At Art College I started drawing and writing for Horror movie magazine Samhain, but there was no money in it. During my Illustration course I was invited to be the guinea pig for an exchange scheme with a Japanese Art College, all expenses paid. I'd been a notorious Japanophile since childhood and studied in Sapporo. Whilst there I wrote articles on anime for Samhain and met Yumiko Kayukawa, who now lives in Seattle [check out her art at].

Revvvelations Cover - "definitely not for children"
My graduation in England coincided with recession kicking in so despite many interviews there was hardly any work. I painted some backdrops for the Glastonbury Festival, and did some comics for Mangazine (Antarctic Press) but most income was from pretty grotty jobs. So I looked into working abroad and ended up going on the Japan Exchange Teaching programme for three years, two of those in Sapporo. I also did comics and articles for magazines in Japan and Helen McCarthy's Anime FX. Also met a lovely Japanese-American named Emily so spent the next several years going through immigration hell to the States.

I started doing translations for releases of Japanese soundtracks, starting with Silva Screen's The Best of Godzilla. Did more day jobs until Emily got her career going, and by night did storyboards for local film makers, a comic series for G-Fan magazine and a web comic called Revvvelations for Stan Yan (definitely not for children, the comic that is, not Stan). I became a full time illustrator a couple of years ago. It wasn't safe to quit the day job but I had experience and contacts and Emily could see how depressed I was. It's been hard and I make less than I would have at the day job but thanks to people like the good folks at Papercutz I might be able to make a living at this stuff.

How did you come to work on the LEGO Ninjago series for Papercutz?

Several years ago I read on a comics news site that Papercutz was trying to get the rights to do a comic based on Pirates of the Caribbean. I enjoyed the movies and two of my ancestors were hanged as pirates, so I contacted the magnificent Jim Salicrup and he graciously checked out my website [check it out here]. I sent drawings of the characters every week and at some point was given a go at a page scripted by Steve Englehart, which was another thrill as he'd written my favourite run on Dr Strange

Pencils for Ninjago #7 - "Stone Cold"
This all seemed to come to nothing as several companies were trying for the pirates but Disney did their own comic (not that my efforts were the best entry). Then in February 2012, when I'd just been through one of the saddest months of my life, I got an e-mail from Mr Salicrup asking if I'd like to do Ninjago. I immediately said "YES!" – and then looked up what Ninjago was!

What is your process when it comes to illustrating a comic book?

Inked panel for Ninjago #7 - "Stone Cold"
After notes from LEGO, Sensei Wu now wears his hat in the bath.
First, read the script. Then read it again and make notes on stuff like what needs to be set up for pay-offs later, what research is needed, thumbnail ideas of scenes and so on. Then gather research and go through each page doing roughs. So far all the drawing and script is on computer, to save paper really, but you can do things like adjust compositions easily and do layers of roughs on top of each other. The roughs are all laid out on the page format provided by Papercutz. I print them out about 150% of the book size and lightly trace them on to art board with a hard lead. Then I get the perspective done. Then I use increasingly soft leads to finish the drawings.

After that I use nib pens to rule in straight lines, and technical pens for ellipses like the characters' eyes. Then I try to ink as much as possible with a brush, hopefully so there's a lively line to the figures, although I have to use small nib pens for some of the tiny costume details. Once that's dry I erase the pencil marks, scan the pages, do adjustments and corrections and then fit them to the page format.

Then the pages get inspected by people at Papercutz and LEGO and they send me lists of changes - I cry and do them.

Pencils for Ninjago #7 - "Stone Cold"
How do you find working in the already established world of Ninjago?

The closest projects were video game character designs, where there was a similar process of drawing each character over and over until everyone was happy with it. I jumped in at the deep end on book 4 and had a lot of catch-up to do. When you sign on you get two manuals on what you must and mustn't draw. Book 5 onward has been a lot easier and I've gotten away with most of the designs of new characters so far. I already had a lot of material on ninja and Japan in general so that made research easier, but I run into trouble when I draw authentically Japanese instead of authentically LEGO.

The biggest difference with Ninjago is how popular it is. Hopefully not all of Ninjago's fans will not be put off comics by my efforts!

Which of the LEGO Ninja do you relate to the most?

I took to Zane. He's the quietest one, he shows consideration for creatures, he thinks outside of the box.

Inked page for Ninjago #7 - "Stone Cold"
What extra challenges are there when your characters have dots for eyes?

I'm allowed much less flexibility with the characters than in the animated series. They can't bend their legs or straighten their arms. Sensei Wu can't reach his own hat and so on. 

I can tweak their expressions. Also if you think of dramas using masks, like No theatre, feelings can be expressed by the overall body language and the way the mask interacts with lighting. My favourite television series is Thunderbirds, where you have puppets with little facial movement. But there are so many storytelling elements which I can apply to Ninjago like composition, angles, editing and environments. And there are all the abstract bits of comic language you can use to show movement and emotion.

Greg Farshtey does the heavy lifting anyway, I'm just trying to help get his story across to the reader. Jim Salicrup and Michael Petranek have been great at training me to keep my storytelling clear. This was especially useful in Book 7 which burrows into Sensei Wu's brain; things get really mysterious and at a climactic moment I got the feeling we were supposed to question if Wu was saying the right thing, so hopefully despite all that the story's not too confusing.

Which issue of the series are you currently working on?

I just finished book seven, and this morning I'll finish the four page preview of book eight which will be included in the back.

Comic Con Exclusive Poster
Where did you get the inspiration for the Enter the Dragon style poster?

I must watch that movie at least once a year. So when I saw the book title "Enter The Serpentine" what else could I do? 

Originally, Papercutz wanted a few black & white photocopied drawings to give away to retailers. I did the poster in colour so the values would match the original (by Bob Peak), and included a colour version with the photocopies as a gift to Papercutz, but they liked it so much they had large full colour posters printed which we handed out at San Diego. We also met the creators of the television series and one of the LEGO creators from Denmark who told us they have the poster on their office walls.

Can you give any hints as to what fans can expect next in the series?

Kai ZX
As mentioned Book 7 focuses on Wu and what led up to him recruiting the four ninja. There is a bunch of villains we've not seen before and a couple of them really mess with Wu's mind.

And I have to ask, has working on the Ninjago series led to you doing any LEGO building?

The only figure I have is Kai ZX. He models for all the characters. My little brother had basic LEGO sets when I was a nipper. When I do get free time I spend it with the family, reading and watching films.

A big thanks to Jolyon Yates for taking the time to talk about his work on the LEGO Ninjago comic book series, and to Jesse at Papercutz for arranging the interview. LEGO Ninjago #6 “Warriors of Stone” is available now, and #7 “Stone Cold” will be released on 28th May 2013. 

1 comment:

  1. Awesome interview! I've loved seeing some of Jolyon Yates's illustrations on deviantART as well as reading the graphic novels themselevs with the finished speech bubbles and colors. It's fun to compare the two experiences: seeing the original pencils or inks lets you appreciate the nuance of the artwork, while the colors and captions let you properly immerse yourself in the story and understand each page's narrative context.

    The past two comics in particular have been remarkable because we've been able to see just how many unique settings and characters Yates can create without having actual LEGO figures as reference. Back in the days of BIONICLE, I'm sure many people would have loved if Greg Farshtey had the freedom to include so many non-toy characters in that theme's comics, or if the illustrators had been more capable of making the non-toy characters look authentically LEGO. Though of course, that's a lot harder to do in a theme with so much detail. Minifigures are a bit like mannequins in that you can dress them up in different clothes, but they have one uniform body type.

    I also admire his ability to make the characters so expressive while keeping the minifigure look so authentic. To be honest, I hadn't even noticed that they had less of a range of movement than the ones in the show — that's how natural Yates was able to make their body language even with those limitations! They still do, of course, have more movement than the toys, but that too is an achievement since it doesn't end up looking off-model.

    Anyway, very much looking forward to the eighth graphic novel coming out this October! It sounds like the story will be very fun and I'm sure Jolyon Yates will make it just as visually compelling as the last three!