The Comic Man from Mo-Town
You may find it hard to believe that New York Times best selling-artist Ethen Beavers is from Modesto. He’s worked on Samurai Jack, the Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Little Golden book, and of course, The New York Times bestselling series, N.E.R.D.S. So how did this creative powerhouse get his start?
“I think I started out playing with clay,” Beavers recalled. “That was what I liked when I was a kid. I don’t know why. My mother must have bought it for my brother and I for Christmas — Playdough and things like that. I liked playing with that stuff. I liked making cowboy dinosaurs. Dinosaurs with six guns and cowboy hats.”
After the clay ended up ground into the rug, Beavers said his father put a quick stop to it. With that outlet of creative energy gone, Beavers’ brother began to draw. And, for a reason he couldn’t explain, Beavers began to draw, too. And in no time at all, their skill started to show through.
“I think we both have showed some aptitude since we were Kindergarden age,” said Beavers. “So we were 4 or 5. By the time I was 6, I loved drawing. It was fun for me. It wasn’t like somebody had to tell me to pick up a pencil or paper, that was something I did for my own pleasure. And ever since then, I’ve been doing it basically for the same reason.”
And what did he draw when he started drawing for pleasure?
“Cowboy dinosaurs,” Beavers said simply.
Nowadays, Beavers generally gets to draw things that he finds fun — like Batman or Obi Wan Kenobi. They’re fun characters and settings that he enjoys drawing. But the highlight of his career? No doubt, the bestselling N.E.R.D.S series.
“I illustrated a New York Times Bestseller, which is not something that I had on my list of goals when I decided to become a professional,” said Beavers. “It just sort of worked out for me that I had a lot of really good final projects to work on. A lot of the projects I work on are fun and I get paid to do it, so that’s better than flipping burgers.”
But being an artist isn’t all rainbows. Beavers admits that self-motivation is the hardest part. He even postulates that one of the things separating artists who are successful from those that aren’t is their ability to self-motivate. There are some artists that could be vastly successful based on their talent, but they’re just not able to manage their own schedule that way.
“When you don’t have to show up at a 9-to-5 and you don’t have to be in your spot, and be working,” said Beavers, “when you’re your own boss, it can be difficult sometimes to motivate yourself because you’d rather eat cheetos or go fishing or whatever — you know, normal human laziness.”
In spite of the difficulties, however, Beavers recognizes the bright side. He takes pride in having illustrated a New York Times Bestseller — as most would. It was a job he didn’t see coming, and he recalls that he got the job in a very strange way.
“I didn’t work in children’s books at that time,” said Beavers. “I worked only in comics and I got an email one day from this publisher and the editor, this guy named Chad Beckerman, said he’d been down at the comic book store with this writer, Michael Buckley, and they had an idea for a new children’s book and they wanted a comic book type of look and they looked through a bunch of children’s comics that they’d seen.”
After seeing Beavers’ work, they decided he was the best fit.
“They literally pulled me out of a hat,” Beavers laughed. “They asked me if I’d be interested in working on it, I needed the money so I said yes.”
Buckley was a well-known writer, even before N.E.R.D.S. He had another New York Times Bestselling series called The Sisters Grimm. Then N.E.R.D.S. started, a series about a superhero spy team of middle school kids. Buckley, according to Beavers, is a former stand-up comedian, so the books have a humor that’s consistently on point.
“That was my big break into children’s books,” said Beavers. “Ever since then, I haven’t really wanted for work. I’m now more of a children’s book illustrator than I am a comic book illustrator, although I still do both.”
Amongst publishers, it was recognized. And because of that, he had people calling him, emailing him, just because he was the illustrator of N.E.R.D.S., for no other reason. So that helped his career out immensely. In fact, even before N.E.R.D.S., he saw every project as an audition for the next job, and did his best to knock it as far out of the park as he could. It’s a technique that’d benefit most if not all artists.
And speaking of techniques, Beavers has one that’s deceptively simple in terms of how he creates his pieces. He starts out with a number 2 pencil, sometimes opting for a non-photo blue or red pencil, and the picture goes through a number of iterations. If he’s opted for the red or blue pencils, he’ll draw graphite over the drawing to refine it, then scan it into Adobe Photoshop and remove the red and blue.
“So at the beginning of my process, my drawings look terrible,” said Beavers. “They look like an utter mess because they’ve been drawn over. Do I want the leg here? Do I want the arm there? Do I want the background here, there? So you’ll have sometimes three or four drawings that are almost the same, drawn right over the top of each other and to remove the confusion, I use Photoshop to suck out the blue and the red.”
Then he’ll move onto inks, then scan that drawing after it’s finished, open it in Adobe Photoshop and color it with his 21-inch Wacom Cintiq tablet. But these tips aren’t all Beaver recommends to hobbyists.
“I’d say two things: One, if you want to get instruction, go get some,” Beavers said. “And two: if you don’t want instruction, then just do what makes you happy. I know that a lot of writers, a lot of artists — that’s what they do. They write and draw for themselves. Don’t burden yourself with what other people think. You can worry about that once you become a professional.”
And what if you want to become a professional? Beavers has advice for that, too. He recommends all the instruction that you can get. There are a plethora of specialized art schools these days, and even if they’re expensive, he assures that they’re worth the investment. He also recalls an interview he read while on the subject of succeeding as an artist.
“A comic book artist and publisher named Eric Larson who draws a comic book called Savage Dragon was giving an interview, and to paraphrase what he said, he said anybody who wants to be big in comics needs three things,” said Beavers. “Basically, they need to be ‘cool,’ for lack of a better term. They need to be somebody who can interact with other people in a stimulating way. They need to have some sort of personality.”
You also need to be professional and — most importantly — you need to be talented.
“There’s a bar in comics where you have to be mostly above this bar to get work,” Beavers said. “He said, anyone who possesses two of those attributes will get work. And anyone who possesses three will go far.”
And Beavers said these three rules can be true of anything. He pushes inexperienced artists to take a look at the art on the covers of children’s books or novels and think about their own personal talent. Can they do something like this? Can they try? Can they approximate it? And if they can, then why not jump right in?
In the end, it all comes down to what you know.
“I would say don’t let anything stop you. Those schools are expensive, but in the long term, the investment in yourself will pay off,” said Beavers. “Go to school. Bite the bullet, pay the tuition. Go to school and do what they tell you. That’s what I’d say.”