Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Meet a Local Cartoonist: Jason Axtell

 I met Jason Axtell at the Big Planet Comics launch party for Magic Bullet #4. Axtell had just finished coloring Matt Dembicki's Mr. Big story for its reissue this summer, and Matt made a point of introducing us. I'm glad he did as Jason's put quite a bit of thought into answering my usual questions. I personally look forward to catching him at a con so I can buy a set of his comics, as seen on the right...

Mike Rhode: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

Jason Axtell: I'm generally all over the place. It's whatever I am feeling at the moment. I wouldn't call myself a traditional comic artist by any means, and by traditional I mean the kind of thing you would see in DC/Marvel or anything mainstream. I'm trained as an illustrator and heavily influenced by a number of styles and forms of art and try to incorporate my wide range of influences into my work.

How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

I do enjoy the pen and ink, or more appropriately, brush and ink. I've always leaned towards anything that resembles painting.

When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

1978. Jersey, originally.

Why are you in the Washington sphere now?  What neighborhood or area do you live in?

I moved here after spending nine years in the south, primarily Savannah, Georgia. After a failed relationship, a layoff and my general distaste for the southern "hospitality" I decided I had enough and needed to get out of there. When the Art Institute of Washington (in Arlington and Sterling) hired me on as a full-time instructor three years ago, that was all I needed to hightail it out of the south. Though I still like to visit some friends down there, I don't regret leaving it. The DC area is more to my liking. I live in the Vienna/Oakton area.

What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

I earned a BFA in Illustration from VCU and an MFA in Sequential Art from SCAD. Neither really focused on 'cartooning.' VCU trained me in traditional as well as digital media, and mainly as an illustrator. But since I started out trying to be a cartoonist and comic artist, a carry-over from my high school days, much of my early work yielded a mix of both cartoony and painterly aspects. SCAD trained me as a visual story-teller, allowing me the chance to hone my illustration techniques while also applying them to a comic format.

Who are your influences?

Too many. Primarily my Uncle Dick (not a joke) and my good friend Ben Phillips. I've known both since about the age of 6 or 7. For years I didn't know much about my Uncle except that he was a teacher and a painter. He taught at University of Memphis for 30+ years. When I was young he gave my parents a few of his paintings, which my parents proudly framed and hung in our dining room. Every night I would look at them and try to decipher them. He was an abstract artist that experimented with line, color and shape, frequently going through different phases and evolutions in his art. My favorites as a kid dealt with his attempt at capturing the effect of light and color in water. It wasn't until I was older and in the midst of earning my MFA that I began to delve a little deeper into what he was all about. Other people in my family have demonstrated terrific artistic and creative talents but for some reason I'm the one that pursued it to the similar lengths that he did. It wasn't until the last few years of his life that I really tried to figure out where he was coming from as an artist. It took a few visits and recommendations (Kandinsky, Rothko, Matisse and Guston) before I became aware of how he saw the world and what he was trying to do with his art. It was a profound discovery and a tremendous influence that I would not have made had it not been for him.

Ben Phillips lived across the street from me when we were kids. From the start he had this way about him, this means to influence his beliefs and ideas on me that at times could be frustrating but also illuminating. We shared many of the same likes and dislikes, primarily in music and movies. If it hadn't been for him I might never have really picked up a comic in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I was always curious. Superman, the 1978 film, was and still is one of my all time favorites but every time I picked up a Superman comic it would lose me. Ben introduced me to what comics were really all about and through him I was able to appreciate just what it took to make them. In high school we were part of a comic collective in which we would have meetings, share feedback and drink lots of Dr. Perky (Food Lion's answer to Dr. Pepper). It was there that I learned that I had no idea what I was doing and what I wanted to do...not just with art, but with my life. I met all these interesting and very influential people but didn't know what I wanted. I followed my instincts and joined Ben for art school at VCU and SCAD, probably because I didn't know what else I was going to do. I succeeding greatly at both schools and with my education under my belt I finally felt like I had direction. That being said, with art, I'm always discovering that I don't know enough. It's enough to keep me looking and searching for anything new or interesting. For me, art is a never ending progression of discovery and experiment. I wouldn't have found that without Ben or my Uncle.
For a more simple answer to my influences:
Edgar Degas 
Frank Frazetta
Egon Schiele
Maxfield Parrish
Phil Hale
Jules Feiffer
Norman Rockwell
David Lapham
Juan Jose Guarnido
Sam Keith
Alan Moore
and likely many many more.

If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

Expand my boundaries a bit outside of the 2D art. It appears that 3D art, software and graphics are the thing which pits me with the Neanderthals of the art world.

What work are you best-known for?

Not sure. I worked on the Family Guy comic but you wouldn't know me from the billion other artists that worked on that book. My first publication, "The Strange Fungus in Mr. Winslow" always catches people's eyes at cons (almost literally - the cover was billed by my late friend Jeremy Mullins, "The best cover EVER!"). "Reasons I Should Not Be On A Talk Show" is another con favorite. My last real publication (before this summer's colorized version of Matt Dembicki's "Mr. Big") is a comic strip called "Strays 'N Gates."

What work are you most proud of?

A portrait of my Uncle Dick I completed after his death. You can see it on my web site in the "Illustration" section.

Also, every comic I've produced has always taken me a step forward. "Strange Fungus..." was my first book, fully painted and written by myself and that took me 2 years to complete. "Strays 'N Gates" was the first time I had to really hunker down and bust out one strip per week. The fact I did that for eleven months without missing one was a huge feat. "Mr. Big" was my first graphic novel, and it had a deadline to top, and I made that deadline beautifully. 

What would you like to do or work on in the future?

Every so often I think about how much fun it would be to create my own interpretation of Ghostbusters and MegaMan. There's so many crappy manga versions of MM out there that I feel it, like much of the comics universe, needs a facelift. And while I have a few of my own stories on the backburner I, for some reason, have a really clear image of TC Boyle's Drop City in my mind. Done in the right style and format, I think that would be a great book!

 What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

Get out of the house. Get some fresh air. Watch a movie. Get some sleep. Bejeweled. Or just draw something else.

What do you think will be the future of your field?

Hard to tell. It's already changed so much since I went to school that I feel obsolete in so many ways. I'd like to think the digital revolution that we are still experiencing won't kill off the old fashioned book, that people will still paint and draw with pencils and brushes. That there will still be room for doing something that doesn't involve a computer. But then again, I've spent the last week almost completely glued to my computer for various purposes, so my hopes are dwindling.

What's your favorite thing about DC?

The museums and extensive list of restaurants and places to visit. I didn't get that in Savannah. Here, it seems that there's always somewhere we've never heard of that peaks my interest.

Least favorite?

The f*ck*ng traffic. What else?

What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?

As much as I love the National Gallery of Art and National Portrait Gallery, I always seem to take friends and family to the Natural History Museum instead. I don't mind. It is quite fun there.

Favorite restaurant?

Do you really want another list? It's probably start with Tara Thai or The Melting Pot.

Do you have a website or blog?

jasoneaxtell.com -I update it with a lot of my experimental figure work but occasionally you'll see some comic or illustration work as well.

1 comment:

Mike Rhode said...

I got a set of his books at SPX yesterday. The ComicsDC local cartoonist bookshelf grows ever larger.