Intro text and photos: Staci Layne Wilson Header photo: Suthi Piccotte
Artwork by: Terrance Zdunich
Terrance Zdunich, best-known to genre fans for his role as GraveRobber in the 2008 film Repo! The Genetic Opera (as well as being the story-creator and co-screenwriter), is also an accomplished artist. Viewers outside the considerable cult Repo! following are often surprised to learn that Terrance drew all of the comic-inserts for the film, and that he did the storyboards for high-profile films such as Sean Penn's Into The Wild.
We caught up with Terrance in Sacramento, CA., where he was giving a seminar on his creative process, focusing mainly on his graphic novel, The Molting. The dark coming-of-age tale, presented in 12 standalone issues, launched in August of 2009 and continues now in Chapter 4: Lethal Raids. In support of The Molting, he's recently unveiled an online art tutorial entitled THE TUTOR.
How did your own experiences growing up color the story of The Molting?
I grew up in Southern California in a city called Santa Ana, which is a neighboring city to Anaheim California, which of course is known for Disneyland. But even as a kid I remember looking at Anaheim and seeing this sort of paradox. In that is that it's a slum. It's a crappy neighborhood, and then right in the middle of it you have the Magic Kingdom. And I thought really what The Molting is a portrait of a dysfunctional American family. So I thought what better setting than Anaheim. Everyone heads out west seeking gold, fame, and fortune. Disneyland is there and you have the so-called happiest Place on Earth, but The Molting is from the perspective of family living in a house that's anything but happy and they are made to look out the windows and endure really condescending Disney advertisements. And so The Molting is their tale, living in the happiest Place on Earth. And they molt, they change just like everything in their neighborhood. There are cockroaches living in the walls of this house that they are in. And so you watch the roaches and some of the behavior of these roaches, which includes molting. They basically gulp in air and expand. When they get too big for their shells they break out of them and grow new ones. New armor. The family is doing very much the same thing.
So is this based on your own true-life experience?
Some elements. Just like any artistic work. I mean if you can't place yourself in your work, I would wonder whom you were making it for, and if you're being sincere as an artist. So yes, there are definitely aspects of my personality in The Molting. And there are certainly some characters that may be amalgams of various characters or personalities that I have encountered throughout my life.
How much comic work can you do in a day?
That's one of the myths of art, and being successful as an artist is everyone thinks of art as sort of a fun job, and it is. Sometimes. And it's certainly a job where you have a lot of passion and love and sometimes accolades, and you can sometimes have success like we do with REPO!. But ultimately, it's one of the hardest jobs on the planet, because you're in a dungeon and you're exposing elements of yourself. So you're vulnerable. I'm a workaholic. I know a lot of people who are artists or aspiring artists that treat their art like a hobby. They put much more energy into their bullshit day jobs than they do their art. And then wonder why they never have success. But in answer to your question, I try to do a page a day.
How many pages are there The Molting?
When it's all done, we will be at 450 full-color pages.
Do you do your own coloring as well?
I don't, no. I work with a colorist and a letterer, Brian Johnson and Oceano Ransford. But I act as producer/director. So even though I'm not directly coloring or lettering, I am delegating and communicating and directing all that stuff, which I'll actually show the process for in my presentation.
Have you worked in comics before?
You're sort of watching me get into the business. I graduated from Otis with a degree in art, but I've never done a comic before. My background is as an illustrator and I have worked as a storyboard artist for many years. So that's kind of comic-like, but I've gotten into the medium more as a fan, than a technician. I think that the works of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and pretty much anything by Alan Moore are some of the best literature out there, let alone art. So I'm inspired to hopefully compete in that league.
Is it true, you did all the drawings for REPO!, even the movie posters?
Yes. This is one of them and I'm going to kind of go through the process for getting this done. Funny note: when I work, it's a very intensive process. Usually I do it in utter silence, although once I have everything mapped out, and I'm basically just inking or shading, I am on autopilot. I find that I listen to science shows or crime shows, going back to the serial killer thing. And so I was listening to this neurologist talking about the components of a killer or a sociopath and he said, there's pretty much three elements that you see at any time that's a given any time someone goes berserk and starts hacking people up and they are: familial dysfunction, trauma, and mental illness. And I was thinking about that. And that sounded a lot to me like the makings of an artist, and certainly the makings of a lot of artwork and certainly what you see in REPO!. And in The Molting. We have familial dysfunction--there is an evil aunt and uncle in the first chapter of The Molting--trauma and mental illness. I think that perhaps this artist, and most artists, are composed of a mix of narcissism, intense dedication, and hot brunettes. And as you will see in this slideshow, it's a re-occurring thing in The Molting and REPO!. Vanity. Dedication. Hot brunettes. Or maybe it's a vain and intense dedication to hot brunettes.
There is actually a drawing that was cut from REPO!. I get a lot of questions about the scene/song "Needle Thru a Bug", which is one of my favorite songs and one that was ultimately cut from the movie. Everyone is always asking me how GraveRobber got tied up and upside-down and hanging there and who put him there. Here is a drawing that was cut from the film that answers most of those questions.
I'm going to show you something. Here is a photo of me in high school. Don't laugh. Somehow this creep turned into this other creep, GraveRobber. This is another scene that was drawn and cut from REPO!. Both GraveRobber and the creepy-looking guy with a buzz cut have always been artists. This slide of an old envelope is literally something I received two weeks ago, sadly due to a death in the family. But this is an envelope that I got when I won an art contest when I was 12. And this is a really old letter that it came in, and it had been buried in a chest until a week or so ago. That high school picture of me was in the envelope too. Basically the prize for winning the contest was--and I don't even remember what the drawing was, I had entered a lot of contests. I was always in my room drawing as a kid. The prize was a $100 US savings bonds that if you sat on for 10 years was supposed be worth $200. So I don't know if I would have sat on it for 10 years if it were not for the fact that I forgot about it and it just popped up. But this just kind to give you a sense on the fact that artists don't make money. I was an exceptionally gifted artist as a kid. I won a contest and I got $100 savings bond. I wait 10 years, I get $200, and because of the economy, it was $175. So I thought the envelope was more interesting than the actual prize.
Okay, so when conceiving of a story: I actually used to teach drawing, but I'm not going to get into the mechanics of perspective and technique now. I went to Otis, got a degree in illustration for technique, but this will be my public service announcement of the day: if any of you are artists and you are considering going to a private, fancy art school...Don't. The reason I say don't is: I have managed to make a meager living as an artist, which is more than most artists, but never once has anyone ever asked me for my resume. Never once did anyone ever asked me for a degree of where I went to school. And nor has anyone I know who works as an artist ever been asked to present their diploma. I say this not to be disparaging. The point is that your talent or your work and your dedication and your fondness for brunettes are really what is going to drive you forward as an artist. The school you attend will have nothing to do with your future success. A lot of people graduate from art school, including myself, with enormous debt. You really can avoid that by going to a community college, if you really want to obtain degree that's not going to cost you 60,000 or whatever.
Back on topic: when I think of a drawing or a story or even a picture, one of the first indicators to me, at least between a professional and an amateur artist, is the amateur, and I used to be this way, will always start with small details. And then work outward towards the big picture. For example, if you're going to draw a person in a room over a body by a river. Amateurs will start by drawing the eyelashes or the glint on the killer's eyes. The reality is that you get more and more comfortable as an artist, and experienced, you start with the big picture and work in. So you start with the room, for example, and then put the figures in the room. The glint in the eye will be the last thing you draw. If you need it at all. So I always start with the setting and the setting will inform what the characters are gonna look like, and what they'll be doing.
[changes slide] Here is an illustration. This was a conceptual piece that was done for REPO! that didn't make it into the movie. But it's kind of cool to look at it now because film's production designers pretty much took very specific things from this drawing and built them into the sets. I'm sure you'll see that this kind of resembles the alley from the "Zydrate Anatomy" scene. Here's another setting: Dead Marni's tomb. You can draw a million stories in there, right? And they'd immediately have a context.
And of course The Molting: this setting is a desert prairie. Bleak. Hot. You can almost start to imagine characters. I think it's the equivalent of a film script. You always start with a wide shot. Where are we? We are in the theater. What are we doing? We're watching me talk. And then you can zoom into the person not paying attention. Texting instead of listening to me. And start his or her story.
Then I build characters. These are the lineup for the first issue of The Molting, "Guilty Susie", which again is available now. I actually worked in animation for a couple of years and this drawing represents sort of a traditional approach to character design in animation. It's called a character model sheet. It's kind of like a police lineup. It's basically a map that tells you what the characters look like and how big they are in relationship to each other, which is really the most important thing. Again: thinking big and then zooming in. This is how I started with The Molting's characters.
Here are two of those characters put into a context. This is the line art. With The Molting and with REPO!, the drawings are done on 11" by 17" paper and then shrunk down to the size that they are going to be. This is an image from the first chapter of The Molting and two of the main characters. It's Susie and her older brother Tony, who have just become orphans.
The Molting is conceived as 12 parts. Like I said it's ultimately going to be about 450 pages. Before I drew a single picture, or before I sketched a character, or designed any of the landscapes, I wrote the entire story. I wrote it basically in a screenplay-like format where you have scene headers, descriptions of action, and dialogue. Of course with comics you sound effects, like "pow!" and "bang!". With a comic, one of the things that it offers that a movie does not--and this is particularly what I'm excited about--is that the viewer has more control. Even though I'm drawing the pages it and giving the characters voices, the viewer can read the book at their own pace. They can stop. They can go backwards. They can jump into the middle of the story of they want. One of the most exciting parts of storytelling with comics is the page turns. You think about comics, especially ones that are done well, you probably don't even realize this but each page turn is a lead up to something. It’s not just arbitrary. You don't suddenly have a major plot change right in the middle of a page. You save that. It's like... turn the page...Pow!.
This is an example of a chapter or an act of a chapter. I usually break each chapter into three acts. Each chapter is about 10 pages of script and it ends up being about 30 to 40 pages of illustrations. So when I go through it--you sort of see these earmarks--I mark out first where the page turns are going to be, where each page is and then I decide how many panels I am going to put for each page. You're getting some debut art from Chapter 2, albeit a bit blurry. Again: starting with the setting first. This takes place in Anaheim, so literally the script and caption begins with "Anaheim, California". That's the first thing you see, so I thought 'okay I have to put us into a world, into an environment. And I should show a city, the city of Anaheim.' In this scene, we are then introduced to the two main characters of this chapter, who are breaking into cars.
What I do next then is I piece it together. And this is a very crude plopping in of where the lettering and text will go which is then forwarded on to the letterer who makes it look much better. At the same time, I'm also communicating with my colorist. We went through a lot of phases before we came to this conclusion. By the way, the work you are seeing is about 90% done. So hopefully when the second chapter comes out, and I'm aiming for November 15, you guys will pick it up, and it will be slightly different than what you're seeing now. Hopefully better. Certainly more in focus.
So there is a dynamic that I need to set up immediately in the drawings. This is night in the city, and its dangerous ,and I think you get this just by glancing at the first page. We've got a dark, moonlit night, and we've got two figures. One is in red, and the other is in gray. The one in gray is a professional criminal. And you'll know this immediately because he is blending in with his environment. The one in red, is a fucking target, because he doesn't know what he's doing. He's wearing bright red and is standing out in the night. This is the comic spread, so it pulls open. And you are introduced into a world where It’s the city of Anaheim, and there is a crime happening.
Starting at the big picture and working small, and into the details: almost every page I do starts out with something like this: thumbnail sketches and a map of what I'm going to show and where the text will fall. I scan these thumbnails into Photoshop, and enlarge them to the actual size, which is 11" x 17", and plop that on a light table and then trace over it.
You probably have already noticed from the first chapter images that I showed you and the ones that I am showing you now, that the styles are very different. The two chapters represent two time periods: the past and the present. For the past, I wanted the look to be very fantasy-like. In contrast, the present is very heavy and real. Since I want chapter 2 to be heavy and real, I actually got photo models to pose as some of the characters. This boy in the photo here is actually one of my former art students. He is posing as the main character of this chapter, the car thief in red, "the target". I even involved REPO!'s fans in this process, a young lady named Alba that I had met in LA on the road tour stop. She struck me as being perfect for one of the characters named Sandra.
Skipping forward: you can see that the drawing's not exactly like the photo reference. It just gives me a foundation. In these drawings "the target" is in a scary neighborhood and the crime goes wrong. Car alarms are set off. The danger has escalated. Car alarms? How do you draw car alarms? This is sort of an interesting exercise since I'm not a graphic designer, but with chapter 2 of The Molting, noise is a character. There is yelling and there are car alarms. So it's kind of a cool and creative exercise to personify that noise through text and illustration. The noise is always there, but it shouldn't overpowering the pictures or the story.
Ultimately these two boys set off a car alarm and take off running. They come upon a weary traveler who's driving through the neighborhood at night, sipping coffee. The boys run out saying, "Help us! Help us!" Anaheim is a largely Hispanic neighborhood. So I have the driver rocking out to a Spanish version of "Red River Valley". Again: just very basic drawings, and there's nothing too fancy about these compositions. It's really just about telling a story. The driver pulls over and the boys dupe him. They jump in the truck bed, and they drive away to safety. I then reveal that tat the driver is a security guard who's not very competent in his job obviously, because here are two teenagers running in the middle of the night in gloves and hoods and they're able to convince him that they need to be helped as opposed to arrested on sight. This is one of the themes of The Molting: the clueless nature of authority figures.
For those of you who haven't actually seen The Molting, hero worship is also a theme. In chapter 1, Susie idolizes her brother, Tony, and there are several pages where she says things like "My hero" in reference to Tony. So in this instance, the brother in red, who is out of his element, is hero-worshiping his older criminal brother. They are sitting in the back of the truck at night, driving away. They have just committed this crime. The criminal brother is pretty much just taking a nap. He is so comfortable with what he is doing that he'll take a nap. There they are chilling in the back of the security guards truck. They got away with their stolen bounty. The speech balloons read, "Robin Hood, Jesse James, my older brother, my hero." And that is act one of chapter 2 of The Molting. Act one is available now for $10. I'm independently publishing this and trying to get the word out by grass roots means, which is why I'm here. I hope that you were compelled enough by my presentation, and my work in REPO!, that you want to support my endeavors. So that's it for the slideshow.
Let's will do a Q. and A. if anyone has any questions.
Q.: Are you going to do a whole book soon?
A.: I'm working at a Korean sweatshop pace right now. Which I'm fine with. I'm a workaholic and you can't choose who you are. But even if I continue at this current pace and release one issue every two months, the full Molting will be a two-year journey. I would love to have this viewed as a full story all in one book. It's a necessity for now to release the store as a serial because I don't want to wait two years to share my progress with you. Plus, I need to sell issues to finance future issues. Ultimately I would love for this to be a hardbound book. Even just on a personal level. To see the full The Molting sitting on a shelf at a bookstore would be pretty cool, but I'm intentionally going the self-publishing route for now. I'm obviously in a very awesome place right career-wise because you guys are interested in what I'm doing. All that publisher would do is reach out to you, and I can do that myself for now. I'm traveling the world and meeting personally with fans, so it seems kind of silly to sell my idea away just to get distribution. And then have to make concessions about what the story is going to be, and if it's marketable. The Molting gets pretty dark and I like that. At the moment, I don't want to deal with the idea of pleasing somebody else. I want to please myself as an artist, and I think if you're true to yourself, there are enough like-minded weirdoes that will appreciate your work, and your honesty, and actually love it a lot more than if it were some neutered commercial project. The Molting is currently only available in person or through the website, which is TheMoltingComic.com.
Q. Are you working on anything else?
A.: Obviously, if something really cool came up, that was time-sensitive, I might consider putting The Molting on hold. Drawing pictures along in your studio is certainly not as flashy as performing as GraveRobber, but I think ultimately it's more fulfilling. For me. I think in 10 years from now, when I'm looking back, I'll be most proud of stuff like The Molting. Also, REPO! is just kind of taken off now. I think it's going to be five years from now when the real interest about REPO! is going to be out there in the mainstream. People will be saying 'how did we miss this?' And you guys will respond with, 'We've been living it for a decade mother fuckers!"
Q.: When you pull inspiration for this is coming from your life, do also you pull inspiration from other people that you have met?
A.: Everywhere. You're not honest, if you're not borrowing from things. It's not a Repossession Mambo type of "borrowing", mind you! I've recently been getting into graphic novels a lot, because I like them and because I have a lot of reading time at airports as a travel. I also want to be educated as to what's out there so I don't unintentionally "Mambo" an idea. I had a scare once when I described The Molting to a pal and he said, "that sounds a lot like this graphic novel called The Exterminators". My jaw kind of dropped. "Yeah, it takes place in Southern California and has cockroaches." I almost had a heart attack. Thankfully I've since been reading The Exterminators--it's fantastic by the way, I highly recommend it--and aside from the fact that the story takes place in Southern California, and deals with bugs, it really is nothing like The Molting.
Q.: How hard is it getting a new project off the ground?
A.: For those of you that know the history of REPO!, it's a David versus Goliath story. It's a triumph of the will. No, not the Nazi version. It's proof that if you care about what you're doing and you really stick with it, anything can happen. REPO! took almost 10 years to get off the ground. It wasn't 10 years of sitting around waiting for somebody to pick up the project by the way. It was 10 years of making our dream a reality. Let's book a theatre. Let's figure out how to direct a play. Let's figure out how to hang lights. Let's figure out how to audition actors. Let's figure out how to raise money. And then let's do it again and again, and bigger and bigger. REPO!'s path was in no way traditional, or passive. I think that's the American dream...to do something that you love, and eventually get rewarded for your work. But it's not easy. I'm doing it all over again with The Molting. I'm putting the gloves on, lacing up my boots, and going back into battle, and I will win. Hopefully won't take 10 years this time.
Q.: But how do you compete in an over-saturated market?
A.: I think cream always rises to the top. It just may not happen immediately. I went to San Diego's Comic Con this year, for example. It was awesome and our screening of REPO! went over really well. But I was there mostly as a fan. I walked around and looked at a lot of artwork by other comics’ artists. Sadly, so much of it was uninspired. Even the stuff that's published by major labels. I didn't want to support it. And I doubt that other would. I think the trick more than anything is to be different, because the publishing industry is changing so much. I think Borders or Barnes & Noble's, one of the two major bookstores, a retailer that represents something like 40% of the book market, is going under. I think printed material, as we know it, is also going under. The model is changing. Who knows what it's going to become, but I think it's exciting that anyone can self-publish and distribute through the Internet. The downside: I have to warehouse thousands of units in my house and work around-the-clock. I'm a one-man shop. The sad thing, however, is that no one pays for anything anymore, especially online, and especially art. People will spend five bucks on a cup of coffee from Starbucks, but won't necessarily spend three bucks on a song or a comic. So I don't know what the answer is. I find that when I show up at places like this people buy my comics and they're happy. And they're getting more than just a comic. They're getting a one-on-one interaction with the artist. That's valuable. And I'm happy to do it. Will this dynamic will ever transition into something bigger? Like making a living through online sales? I'm still figuring it out.
Q: Will there ever be a REPO! comic?
A.: Darren Smith and I no longer own REPO! The property belongs to Lions Gate and they're not really interested in financing a comic book at the moment. So for me to take this on, knowing that it would belong to someone else, knowing that it would probably take at least a year to draw something like this, even if I were to do a direct adaptation of the film in comic book form, is something I have no interest in doing. I would rather do something different and do something like a new artistic expression of REPO!. Personally, both as the artist and the creator, I would rather see you guys, you artists in the audience, making REPO! The Comic. I would rather see young comic artists out there taking on the world of REPO!. Looking at that world and looking at that setting and making your own stories. It's already happening on stage with shadow casts. I've also seen a lot of amazing fan art.
That's all the time we have. Thank you for indulging me, I hope you enjoyed it.