One of the more enigmatic creators of recent years is James Stokoe. His comics are a psychedelic assault of bright, saturated colours and incredible detail which range in topic from alien cook-offs, through monster-fighter baseball players, to safe-cracking orcs who use chopped-up penises for currency. When I ran into him in a rare public appearance at FanExpo Vancouver this year, I took the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about his work and fear of the outdoors.
-- Gavin Lees
Looking at your art, it doesn’t look remotely similar to anything else that’s coming out. I was wondering what your early influences were — what were the books that inspired you, what the art that inspired you was?
Early on, I was really into Joe Madureira, which is kind of weird now, but that’s what I started out liking. I liked the manga stuff that was in it, but I didn’t really realize that it was the manga stuff that I liked! Then I found the good manga, and I was like, “Oh, this is where it comes from — this is the good stuff!” so I’m not into it anymore. Then I got into Jamie Hewlett — he was good for a while — and I like Vaughan Bode and other really colourful, energetic stuff.
Yeah, I think that’s easy to see in your work. You tend to avoid earthy colour-palettes.
There’ll be no brown in Orc Stain!
Right — it’s Skittles, not chocolate. [Laughter] This would be in your teens when you were beginning to get into the more mature stuff, then?
Yeah, probably like 13, 14…
Is that when you decided that comics was what you wanted to do?
I kinda always figured-out that I wanted to draw comics. I was always drawing them before I was even that into reading them. I remember drawing comics when I was kid, before I had any Spider-Man issues. It was what I always wanted to do.
Did you go to art school — it seems like you haven’t had the creativity beaten out of you — or are you self-taught?
Yeah, I never went to school for it.
So, how did you go about developing your art, then? You have a really detailed style that doesn’t seem like it should lend itself that well to comics.
Yeah, it was through obsessive practice, I guess. I like British comics, the way they always pack so much stuff into one page and I think I got it from that. I got into Geof Darrow — he does it right! To me, it doesn’t even seem that detailed to me, when I’m drawing it. It’s just how I do it, and I guess it just comes out that way. I never do a thing where I’m like, “Oh, I have to draw six-billion little things going on here,” it just kinda happens.
The first work of yours that I was aware of was Wonton Soup — was that your first published work?
Yeah, that was my first book through a publisher. I did smaller works — like, I did a thing for a convention, convention comics and things like that. But that was my first big thing.
So, how did your relationship with Oni start?
I think I was supposed to — because I was living in Seattle with people like Brandon Graham and Corey Lewis — I was supposed to do a comic with Corey about… I can’t even remember what it was about now… something weird! [Laughter] But he ended up not doing it, so I had a comic I did for an anthology, which was the first 20 pages of Wonton Soup. So, I pitched it to Oni as a longer book. In the original story, he dies at the end, so I had to change that. It wasn’t even about space truckers or cooking or anything, it was just that he finds a fortune cookie and he eats it and he explodes. The fortune said something like, “You’re going to die today!” So, I turned that into a cooking thing… I don’t know why, I don’t cook or anything.
Well, that’s a very manga-like premise, to base a book on something mundane, yet creative, like cooking or baking.
Yeah, I think I was reading that Iron Wok Jan book and thought, “Yeah, that’s cool — I’m going to do that!”
Now, that series wrapped-up about four years ago. Have you got any plans to return to it, or have other projects taken over now?
I have one spin-off with one character that I did 80 pages of, but I have no plans to finish it at this point. I looked at it the other day and just thought, “Oh man, this is really old.” If I pick it up again, there’ll be a huge disparity between my art then and my art now.
Now, your current project is Orc Stain. To me, that seems like it would have been a bit of a hard sell — it’s basically a giant STD metaphor, meets Warhammer [Stokoe laughs]. Did you have to shop it around a lot before Image picked it up?
No, they just kind of took it. I think I was doing a book called Murder Bullets for them, or had pitched it anyway. Then I had drawn a bit of Orc Stain, just pencils, and said that I’d rather draw that for a monthly if I was going to do a monthly, since it was more fun than Murder Bullets. I don’t think they even looked very closely at the pages that I sent them [laughter] with all the dicks and stuff that was in it… and I never told them about that. I just sent it to them, and never heard back, so I just figured they were fine with it. I didn’t think they would go for it, but they did!
..and there’s never been any comeback from that? You haven’t had complaints about the content?
No, I’ve never heard anything from them. I did get a little letter a couple of month ago from an Episcopalian pastor. [Laughter] He sent me a little telegram and said like, “No, man, I really like Orc Stain!” So, if that guy’s saying it’s all right, then I guess it’s all right.
Maybe because that’s the only way for him to look at giant dicks without getting in trouble…
What are your plans for the series now, because after issue six, it just seemed like you were done and you disappeared. But, now that issue seven is out, it seems like your back on a regular schedule.
Well, I wouldn’t say that! I’m working on issue eight, but I don’t know that it’s going to be that regular until I’ve got the Godzilla books done, which is what I’ve got to concentrate on now. But, no, I’m going to keep going until it’s done. It’s definitely something I don’t want to leave half-done.
OK, because I had heard a rumour from a certain Seattle artist, who you know… he draws elephants —
— that you had just ditched the series and Image were pissed-off at you.
Marley Zarcone: Don’t listen to anything that guy has to say ever! He’s a liar!
JS: Oh, Justin… he’s a habitual liar.
MZ: He’s such a liar. He’ll tell you that he was born in France in 1943. [Laughter]
JS: So, yeah — it might take a while, but it’s definitely something I want to finish.
What was causing the delays during your hiatus, then? Was other work coming your way? I know you have Godzilla coming up, and that your work is very detailed, so that must take time.
Yeah, it’s the money thing that’s the main thing. I couldn’t work on it because I wasn’t getting anything out of it, money-wise. Godzilla is something that I’ve wanted to do since I was five — and it’s paying me money, so it’s a double-bonus! But I keep working on Orc Stain... definitely once Godzilla is done, I’ll get back into it as much as I can.
Have you got any long-term plan for it, in terms of how long it will run — 40, 60…12 issues?
I’ve always said that if it’s more than six trade volumes’ worth, then I’ve done too much. I want to do six books at the most, but I’m thinking of doing side spin-off things here and there. I like the way that BPRD is set-up right now where they do little arcs which are their own thing. I’d like to do that and I think that would work better for the schedule, just to do five and have those out.
Getting to Godzilla, then — if this was interfering with Orc Stain, I take it that it’s been in the works for some time?
Yeah, I started it about a year ago, I guess. When IDW were doing the first series, which had Eric Powell on it, I think I tried out for that one. My assistant editor, Bobby, just emailed me. I had done that Godzilla fan-comic a couple of years ago and they liked that, and the editors liked Orc Stain, so they wanted me to do it. I was supposed to do one of the other series, but I ended up just pitching my own and they went for it!
You’re writing and drawing?
Yeah, it’s going to be just like Orc Stain — I’ll be writing and drawing it all. I’ve got an assistant for colours, who’s helping me out on it. I’m even lettering it, too.
I think that something that’s lost a lot in American comics – when it’s a factory line — you lose the cohesiveness of the art, and the authorial aesthetic. Is that something you’re trying to move against?
Well, sometimes it works — sometimes good comics have more than one person on them. But sometimes, I don’t know if those guys even talk to one another when they’re on the same book sometimes. It’s just such an assembly line, and that breaks the work down. I just do it by myself because I like doing it all by myself. I don’t trust other people! [Stokoe laughs]
Is this just a mini-series that you’re doing for Godzilla?
Yeah, it’s five issues. 22 pages in each. It’s definitely hard to go down from 32 in Orc Stain, especially when it’s Godzilla — I just want to draw those big panels all the time. So, it’s been hard to draw, but I’m enjoying it.
What plans do you have for the storyline? Is it going to be like a classic monster movie on paper — is he going to fight other big monsters?
It’s going to be classic Godzilla. A lot of the Godzilla books that have been out over the years have been really over the top, you know, Godzilla versus The Spanish Armada, Godzilla versus Charles Barkley and all this kinda stuff. I just want to do a regular Godzilla, because that’s what I like — just a monster who goes around destroying Tokyo every issue. My first issue takes place 10 years after the last issue, so it starts out in 1950 with the first Godzilla movie, and then every 10 years is a different issue, so it ends in 1997 or thereabouts. I just wanted to draw Godzilla throughout all the different time periods, I thought that’d be pretty cool.
Are there any particular Godzilla movies that you’re drawing from on this series — or any of the movies that are particular favourites?
Oh, I like them all! [Laughter] You can’t make me choose. The Godzilla I’m using is from the newer millennium series. I’ve always liked drawing that one — I like the way his big spines are spikier and more designed.
One thing that you’ve been teasing over the last year or so is Spider-‘Nam. Is this just your own Spider-Man fanfic?
Yeah, pretty much. I don’t think Marvel would ever, ever publish what I’m going to draw. When Spider-Man was created, he would have been 18 when the drafts were going on, so why the hell didn’t they have Spider-Man in Vietnam? Even the title — Spider-‘Nam — it’s right there! I’m on a huge ‘Nam kick right now — I’m reading about it a lot.
Is Vietnam going to come into Godzilla?
Oh, yeah — that’s issue two!
Now, getting to you, personally — you seem to be very reclusive as a creator. [Stokoe laughs] I think this is the first convention that you’ve been to?
No, I was at TCAF last year… that’s about it. I got kicked out of the States for five years, a couple of years ago, so that’s part of the reason. But I still don’t go outside anyway, so I don’t think that helps anything. I definitely stay inside and just draw all the time.
You don’t have any desire to network with other people?
No — other people scare me! I get out once in a while, but with comics, you have to stay in the house and raw all the time, otherwise you’ll never get anything done.
So, you think that your work speaks for itself, you don’t need to be a personality?
No, I don’t want my picture on the back of the books. I do like the work just speaking for itself, which is why I’m not doing this interview right now.
Well, I think I’ve only read one interview with you, which was for MTV Geek or something.
Yeah, that was for the Troll Hunter poster that I drew. I’ve done a couple lately, but I guess I come out of my hole every once in a while. But I usually dread it…but I’m enjoying this one.
Are you going to be doing any more illustration projects like Troll Hunter?
I guess that was just filling a gap — I can’t think of anything else that’s coming out. I used to do it a lot more than I do, but Godzilla’s been paying the rent recently.
There’s a great mental image! Has where you live had much influence on your work? I know you’re friends with Brandon Graham, who also lives here in Vancouver.
If you look at the first Wonton Soup, I was just riding on Brandon’s work. But, yeah, it’s a really good thing to have. Just having friends who draw with you and you can bounce ideas off of each other, and you can help each other’s work get out there. I wouldn’t be drawing anywhere near the level I’m at right now if I didn’t have good friends who drew better than me and who I can just rip-off. [Laughter]
What sparked your move here — you were down in Seattle, and you got kicked-out?
Yeah, I moved here after getting kicked-out because Brandon was living here anyways. I think he was going to move to Portland or something, but couldn’t get a visa, so we all ended up here.
Are you from Canada originally?
Yeah, I’m from Kelowna originally.
Oh, so was it visa issues that you had?
It was like four years ago. I can go back next year. They said I was working down there when I was crossing the border one time. You know, those enormous Oni cheques that I got! Taking all the American jobs drawing food comics. But it all worked out in the end.