It's getting difficult these days for comic sketchers and illustrators to make a name for themselves in a field where new names are popping up every day. The fact that Deviant Art hasn't collapsed in on itself with the amount of new material being uploaded over the past year is astonishing. But new names always find a way of gaining an audience and the awesome ones will constantly stick out. Today we're looking at one of the successful names coming out of Utah, Norman Shurtliff of Normo Comics fame. We chat about his career and the work he's created for his own projects and others around the globe. (All pictures courtesy of Normo Comics.
Gavin: Hey Norman, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself?
Well, I’m originally from Northern British Columbia in Canada. My wife and I moved here so I could study animation at the Art Institute of Salt Lake. Now that school’s over, I’m working on a few freelance gigs as a video producer and also as a concept artist. Both have been great, but I really live for working on my own projects, which usually means goofy indie comics. My wife and I love hiking and we play a ton of board games. We also have one little guy that we hang out with—a lot. I also collect retro video games, comics and plastic bags.
Gavin: What initially got you interested in comics as a kid?
I was introduced to Calvin and Hobbes
in around Grade 4 and I was blown away by the art, humor and storytelling. From that day on I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up. By Grade 6, my brain was flooding over with comic strip ideas, and in fear of forgetting any, I began carrying around notepads to jot them down.
Gavin: Did you start out drawing your favorite characters, or were you more into creating your own?
I’ve always drawn my own characters, but early on, when it came to practicing drawing I would try to mimic my vast collection of Marvel trading cards. I’d try to redraw each card as closely to the original as possible—without tracing, of course. I had drawn quite a few and started going door to door trying to sell them for a dime a piece. I wasn’t very successful, though; even my own uncle refused to buy one.
Gavin: At what point did you decide you wanted to pursue this as a career?
Somewhere along the line, I learned how hard being a newspaper cartoonist can be. It dawned on me that maybe I’d have more luck as an animator. Haha, turns out both professions are extremely competitive. I’ve done a lot of different things professionally since then, with comics always taking a second stage. Then my wife challenged me to go back to school so I could focus on what I really loved. Without her intervention, I’d never be where I am today.
Gavin: You mentioned earlier that you attended The Art Institute of Salt Lake City. What was their program like?
Their program was great! All of their faculty are/were professionals working in the industry, which has given me incredible networking opportunities. Their experience and real work knowledge was awesome. Unfortunately, earlier this year the school announced that they will be closing their doors. Super sad to see such a great program go the way of the dodo.
Gavin: What was it like branching out and working as a professional artist?
Crazy. It’s been crazy. And fulfilling. I love drawing and creating, and doing it every-day-all-day is certainly a dream come true. I’m not making a living off my own ideas and comics yet, but working in related fields is super cool. It feels good to use your talents and be part of larger scale projects.
Gavin: At one point you started Norma Games out of British Columbia. What was that experience like, and why did you close the doors after 3 years?
Funny story: The company was meant to be named after me, but when we registered the name, the official documents came back with the “Norma” typo. We never changed it because a corporate name change is fairly pricey. The company operated two video game retail outlets in Canada. The business was a ton of fun, but also a lot of work. With many gamers moving to a digital download-controlled mobile market, things are quite difficult for small-scale video game retailers. Though I loved selling video games, it just simply became an unsustainable business.
Gavin: What made you decide to start creating your own comics under Normo Comics?
I needed a single banner for all my comic projects to fly under, but I was concerned with what that banner and my comics would represent. I couldn’t call it Shurtliff Bros. Comics, because what if there was a member of the family that didn’t approve of a certain storyline or subject matter? I felt that my comics could really only represent myself and what I thought was cool. It’s funny that both my companies have been variations of my name with different vowels at the end. Maybe my next business will be a line of French-inspired perfumes called Normé.
Gavin: Why did you decide to go with online releases instead of doing printed works?
Online is a great place for engaging and building an audience. And, quite frankly, a lot of people are reading comics digitally nowadays. I think if you don’t have some sort of online presence, then you’re missing out on a lot of potential readers. I’ve really enjoyed posting comics on Tumblr because it’s free, and I like thinking that it’s accessible by the millions of Tumblr users. I’ve found that visitors who really like your stuff will stick around. And they’re the readers you really want to reach anyways. For me, it’s all about understanding my market and audience so that I can make informed decisions when it comes time to take my comics to print. When people follow my work, I know who my fans are and who will be most likely to buy my comics. This makes fronting the cash for a print run way less risky. Eventually all my comics make it to printed books or collections. There’s actually more pages of "Norman’s Day at Work" in print than available online, and I’ve been selling mini-comics of segments from "Dragon Chaser" at past Salt Lake Comic Cons. I think both print and digital comics can coexist, and I really think both contribute to the other’s success.
Gavin: What's the process like for you in creating a new comic or strip?
My process has evolved over the years, but nowadays I work exclusively digital in Manga Studio using a Wacom Cintiq tablet. Occasionally I’ll vary my process if I want something different for a given project. Manga Studio is great for an indy comic artist like myself because it allows me to do everything in one file, which makes for a super-efficient pipeline. Back in the day I was really bottle-necking at the scan-artwork stage. There’s still pages of "Norman’s Day at Work" from 2008 that have never seen the scanner. Process-wise, I start with a page layout, based on a script or improvised gag, and then add in all my dialogue and text. I start with the words so I don’t forget to leave space for them as I draw. Next is some rough drawing followed by the finished artwork. I’ll toggle the lettering on and off as I go. Last I’ll color the page, if, of course, the comic will be in color. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Manga Studio lets you do it all in one package, which is super handy. If anyone is interested, I wrote a more detailed process on Deviantart
Gavin: How much of the story do you flesh out before drawing it out, and how much is created as you draw?
My approach really changes with the project. Most of "Norman’s Day At Work" is improvisation with a hint of a continuous plot line in the background that’s just as improvised day-to-day as the gags themselves. "Dragon Chaser," on the other hand, is fully scripted, or at least the dialogue is. We sat on the Chapter 1 script for four years, and it went through seven major iterations before I actually started drawing it. That said, since most of the script was just the dialogue, there were plenty of opportunities for me to improvise jokes or elaborate on setting and pacing. With "Dragon Chaser," I work closely with Aaron Smith, of Ravania Entertainment. We’ve been friends for a long time, and we’ve spent most of that friendship bouncing ideas back and forth. Writing an issue of "Dragon Chaser" is like a really long game of ping-pong. I bring a lot of crazy ideas that Aaron has to trim down for them to work within his Genesis Project universe in which "Dragon Chaser" is set. We’re actually writing Chapters 2 and 3 at the same time right now. Those issues cover flashbacks of each character, and we want everything to flow seamlessly. That section of the story will likely be the most solidified segment of the storyline.
Gavin: What was it like starting off and trying to build an audience through the site?
It’s a lot of work! Posting on a regular schedule, and responding to readers, takes a lot of time and work. I found that I really had to be a master of time management. I had to use my downtime for non-drawing related stuff. In order to maintain my release schedule, I was constantly trying to create more drawing time for myself. I found that people are most interested in your work when you deliver it on a regular basis. Drawing comics really had to become the thing I wanted to do, because it can be so demanding.
Gavin: What have been some of your favorite comics or pieces you've created to date?
"Norman’s Day at Work" has always been my favorite series to go back and reread. I drew most of it during my lunch breaks a few years ago. Most pages were done in under an hour, hence the more rugged look. My favorite strip is one where my paycheck comes in the mail and I torch it thinking money is evil. Oh yeah, and then there’s this one where a monkey tries to steal my job. The whole series is full of goofiness and situations like that. I sneak a lot of fun stuff into "Dragon Chaser" too, like the Great POG Caper of page 26. That’s easily my favorite page in the story so far. That’s been a cool project to work on. I was originally asked to do the comic to promote the Genesis Project series of novels by my friend Aaron Smith. But he gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted within the limits of his universe. I picked the stuff I thought was most interesting about his series (ie. Dragons flying through space) and created this hectic story of misunderstanding around that.
Gavin: What advice do you have for anyone looking to do this as a career?
Oh man. I think the hardest thing about making comics/art a career is getting noticed by people who will pay you to create for them. It’s the same with any industry really; every job I’ve ever had was through someone I already knew. Even my paper route when I was 10
was handed down to me from a friend moving out of town. There’s
two ways to accomplish this. First, having positive encounters in-real-life with working professionals, or second, building a following online that stretches out to include working professionals. If you’ve got people working in the industry talking about your work, eventually they’ll mention you to someone that is about to spend money on you. It’s all about networking! If you really love art or comics then I think you’ll naturally be doing everything else that’s required, like perfecting your craft. The tricky part then is connecting with people that love your stuff enough to trade you money for it.
Gavin: What are you currently working on that people can check out?
If people want to follow my comics work, "Dragon Chaser
" is the best place to do that right now. I’m wrapping up some other projects that have kept me from scheduled updates, so the comic is soon to come out of hiatus, which is an exciting time for any webcomic. And chapter two is just around the corner. I also post sketches and other randomness on my DeviantArt page. That gets funneled to my Facebook and Tumblr. Those are all great ways to see what I’m currently working on. My website
is a springboard with links to all my social network profiles.
Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of 2015?
I’ve always got a bunch of projects on the go. What I’m most excited about in 2015 is an upcoming video game from Carrara. (They’re a new game studio here in Utah launching their first game soon.) I’ve been doing concept design work for them and I’ll also be involved with the cutscene artwork. I’m pretty stoked about where this game is going! I can’t tell you a whole lot, but I can say they’re excited to be using my particular art style. We’re planning to roll out a marketing campaign soon via social networks and crowdfunding sites. If you’re into video games with animated comics for cutscenes you should totally keep your eyes peeled for that. There’s no website for the game yet, but if you follow any of my pages, I’ll certainly keep you informed.