Sketchy Details: A conversation with illustrator Raffaele Ienco

Trevor Hogg chats with Raffaele Ienco about the creative challenges involved with creating comic books such as Devoid of Life, Epic Kill, and Manifestations…

“At age six, I remember walking around outside barefoot with my stack of about 30 comics consisting mainly of Scrooge McDuck and other Disney characters,” states Raffael Ienco.   “I’ve always had a fascination with them.  Daredevil #181 where Bullseye kills Elektra was my first copy of Daredevil and I fell in love with the art and storytelling.  I hunted down every copy I could.  Also Avengers Annual #10 which had a rushed cover [by Allen Milgrom] and the best interiors I had ever seen by Michael Golden.”  Other highlights during the early teenage years for the Toronto based writer and artist were Marvel Fanfare #1 and #47 as well as the work of Bill Sienkiewicz on Elektra Assassin and New Mutants. “They set the stage for an industry I wanted to enter and a style I wanted to emulate.”
Career aspirations influenced the academic studies of the emerging talent.   “Sheridan was so long ago,” remarks Ienco.  “All I can think now is I wish I had better instructors, and more hardcore teaching which was more focused on comics. The course didn’t have computers when I was there.  I think tuition for all three years amounted to less than $5,000. Yeah, can you believe that? Plus the wild college life was impacting my desire to learn to draw better, especially the first year. Still, it was better than nothing.  My ten years in the video game industry was vastly helpful to being able to create comics nowadays. The technology and programs I learned, I still use today.”
“I do all my layout work on computer,” reveals Raffael Ienco who writes, illustrates, letters and colours his own creations which include Devoid of Life, Epic Kill and Manifestations. “I print that out onto paper to finish details with a blue pencil and then ink with markers. That gets scanned back into the computer for colouring in Photoshop.”  Clear storytelling and exciting elements are essential when assembling an effective layout.  “My rule was if it’s boring to draw it will be boring to the reader so I would revise the page to make it exciting for me to illustrate. I like the wide panel that stretches the width of the page more than tall panels mainly because it’s more like a cinema screen. Four wide panels a page is my favorite layout rather than get all complicated with bizarre layouts that were big in the 90s.”  Successful narration avoids pointing out what is already being shown.  “Reveal character with dialogue.  Give insight to the characters innermost thoughts which may reflect how the reader feels in his/her everyday life so they form a connection.”

Science Fiction and Horror have had a major impact on the chosen subject matter.  “Personally, I love new ideas and new ways of thinking and conceptualizing our world and universe; that’s what Horror/Science-Fiction can accomplish,” states Raffaele Ienco.  “A lot of times new ideas and technology can be scary and used for frightening purposes. It gives us a hint of things to come. What’s the scariest place on earth? Maybe, it’s the future.”  Two cinematic experiences helped to inspire the debut collaboration between Ienco and Image Comics.  “I had the scariest moment, a real out of body reaction, when I saw The Ring [2002] in the theatre. I’ll never forget it. The denouncement was superb. It really got me. The same was for The Sixth Sense[1999] which had a once in a lifetime ending. Both served as something to strive for with Devoid of Life or any horror story I do. You’ll see elements and style of both films in the graphic novel.”  The conclusion to the story which revolves around the fatal discovery of a mysterious planet followed in the footsteps of its cinematic predecessors.  “I like my ending. Endings need to satisfy everything you’ve built up to that moment, sometimes in just a few pages. People need to feel like the ending was worth the journey and the effort, and not see it coming.”
Producing Devoid of Life was a breakthrough for Raffaele Ienco.  “The number one thing I learned is that I could actually do it. Pitch something to Image and get it greenlit then actually do all the production work myself for a huge project. If you keep pitching and never get a project going, even though your work is really top level stuff, that will destroy your enthusiasm and make you quit.”  When asked about how hard is it being responsible for every aspect, Ienco answers, “Not that difficult, if you can believe that. I didn’t want to be dependent on another party that could potentially throw a monkey wrench into the project by dropping out of the book. Also it’s hard to get top notch help for the little money the independents make sometimes. What I didn’t know I learned. A person can learn anything if they’re motivated enough.  There are so many tutorials on the internet. Currently I’m very open to working with a top level writer for a new project if anyone is interested. I’d like to see the dynamic we come up with.”
“You can probably tell that Epic Kill has a lot of influences, mainly Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, and The Bourne Identity[2002],” notes Raffaele Ienco when discussing the 10-part series about a lethal and genetically modified female protagonist name Song who seeks to avenge the murders of her family.  “Her yellow costume is actually influenced by the Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon [1973] but most people are more familiar with the Kill Bill [2003] costume worn by Uma Thurman.”  Unlike Devoid of Life, a lot of action movies such as Die Hard [1988], Salt [2010], Hanna [2011] and The Fugitive [1993] were referenced for the second creative partnership with Image Comics.  “I wanted the character to be constantly moving, either running down an opponent or being chased by them.”
A concerted effort was made to go beyond a wet dream fantasy figure.   “Our society values youth and beauty in both men and women,” states Raffaele Ienco.  “But we enjoy stories about people of all ages too. Comics especially are a visual medium so the reader’s attention must be fed with striking artwork. I tried to keep a balance with Song as being young and pretty but mature in mind.” Combining elements of drama, romance, humour and action are critical in order to produce a captivating story.  “I would say that only one element is the lead in your story and the others can take smaller backseat positions.  Epic Kill was an action tale and romance took a very small position in the story.”  Ienco is pleased with the moment when his main character is on the verge of dying. “The ending to issue nine is my favorite sequence in the series. It’s winter, snow everywhere. Song has been shot. Red blood stains the whiteness of the forest. Song’s yellow outfit and cape make her stand out. Crows, the symbol of oncoming death, are flying.”

For the next project a choice was made to make it exclusively available in the digital format.  “It was an experiment,” states Raffaele Ienco.  “Top Cow wanted to try this method so I was on board with the decision. The standard marketplace may not have embraced the book as much as we would have liked so we thought digital would be an option for us.”  The tale about a psychically gifted girl who brings back to life her sadistic father was developed before Epic Kill.  “Manifestationsis a supernatural thriller and is similar in mood to Devoid of Life.”  Ienco was influenced by his own family members.  “The little girl in Manifestations, who is brilliant, serious, and mature, was very similar to my niece at the same age. I also wanted to create mood and without a soundtrack it’s pretty tough.”  A particular sequence stands out.  “I still dig the refrigerator scene in Manifestations. If you want to read a creepy scene that is it.” The digital format has the ability to expand upon the reading experience.  “I could see Manifestations benefiting greatly from a soundtrack that only plays while you read the story. You have to keep in mind that reading a comic, watching a movie, reading a novel must always be effortless. Once you introduce workinto receiving your entertainment then you lose the reader or audience. That’s why video games may never be on the same level as film for entertainment value. My mother can watch a movie and enjoy it immensely; she cannot play a video game to save her life. One is effortless the other is not.”

Great pride is taken when designing the covers for the comic books.  “A retailer told me iconic covers always receive the most attention so that’s what I aim for in creating a cover,” explains Raffaele Ienco.  “Have the main character large on the cover in a symbolic situation rather than from an actual scene from the interior. With issue nine [of Epic Kill] Song has embraced her supreme killing skills but the twist is that she, like Superman even, can always be hurt by breaking her heart and hurting her loved ones.”  Ienco observes, “Over the course of my artistic career I’ve loved things I’ve done when I do them but that never lasts. I’ll look at the same piece a few months later and be disappointed with myself for not being better. Always happens. I guess a great illustration never gets tired. It holds your attention even though you’ve looked at it hundreds of times. Here’s a piece from Epic Kill #9 I still like several months later. One day I may see its many flaws though and not be able to look at it.”
“It’s always been difficult to make a living doing comics unless you’re in the top tier of the industry,” believes Raffaele Ienco.  “But at least with the Internet your exposure can be worldwide. You also have access to what others are doing thus you can see the standard you must meet in order to get published.”  Complicating matters is the cinematic box office.  “Since Image Comics can’t own any intellectual property, they don’t care that any proposed comic has excellent movie cross-over potential. In fact I think they steer away from them. Every other company does care though; they want to own a piece of the action, the next Men in Blackpossibly.”  Ienco remarks, “We’ve entered an age where digital imaging can bring the fantastic comic book world to life and now we’re seeing every major company character come to the silver screen. Over the next several decades you’ll see all the major characters get at least one feature.   You’ll see re-boot after re-boot because fans are used to changing creative teams and being surprised and pleased when a new direction is created for our beloved characters. But with every boom there is a bust so the makers of the films should beware.  Fans will not digest everything.”  Along with Hancock [2008], The Incredibles [2004] and Unbreakable[2000], movies featuring the famous New York City Wall-Crawler are cinematically noteworthy.  “I liked Spider-Man 1 [2002] and 2 [2004] with Toby Maguire [The Great Gatsby] and the new Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield [The Social Network]. I’ve never been big into the Batman movies even though I’ve seen them all. I enjoyed Superman 1 [1978] with Christopher Reeve [Deathtrap] and Blade 1 [1998]. I loved Iron Man 1 [2008], Robert Downey Jr. [Wonder Boys] can never be replaced.”

Devoid of Life, Epic Kill and Manifestations have also captured the attention of Hollywood.  “They are actively being shopped around Hollywood still. It may take a decade or more for a new concept to go from comic to screen,” states Raffaele Ienco.  “But my efforts are always put to creating exciting comics not to launch a movie franchise.” While the big screen adaptations are on hold, Ienco has been busy creatively.  “I have a project called ArtificialsI’m working on. It can be described as Hunger Games [2012] meets 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968].  The publisher has not been announced yet.”

As a further treat for Flickering Myth, Raffaele Ienco has assembled a personal gallery of images accompanied by his own words…

Raffaele Ienco Gallery
“Here’s some Marvel characters I did. Experimenting with a very thick brush. I normally use thin line markers for inking.”

“This piece was done entirely in Photoshop using their filters to get a painterly style.”

“Some DC pencil samples. Creating just pure pencils for someone else to ink seems to be more work than just creating enough pencils for me to ink myself.”

“The cover to issue ten was cut up in Photoshop and then reassembled to get a disjointed look. It received a lot of attention.”

“Another pic experiment done entirely in Photoshop.”

Images courtesy of Raffaele Ienco.

Many thanks to Raffaele Ienco for taking the time for this interview and make sure to visit him at DeviantArt, tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.  You can also read our review of Epic Kill #10.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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  • Raff Ienco

    Great job, Trevor! Thanks!