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Sunday, March 3, 2024

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Sandbox Spotlight: DON NGUYEN, Comic Creator/Artist

THE CONVENTION COLLECTIVE:Thank you for joining us in the Spotlight, Don! How did you get into writing and art and why did you want to become an writer and artist?

Don Nguyen: I’d say my aptitude as an artist prevails over my writing ability.  Writing is a requirement to implement my ideas if I’m not partnered with a writer. As an indie comic creator, you usually wear a lot of hats and work toward acquiring as many skills as possible. So, I never wanted to become a writer per se but I needed to fulfill that role in order to create some of the comics I wanted to create.

When it comes to drawing, I’ve been doing that since I was two. I started reading comics at about five or six years old. I really got into drawing and creating characters in my junior high days. 

TCC: What was the first work you completed, where you stepped back and thought, “Yes, y’know what, I can do this for a living!”?

Don: That’s an interesting question; especially, in this industry. I feel there are creators with the mentality that they will become superstars and good on them for that level of confidence. My mindset is more that I think I have a pretty good chance of putting out work people will enjoy and that I have a shot at making that happen. I’m of the general mantra “no one gets into comics to make money.” If you are able to, more power to you because ultimately we’d all love to turn a profit & live comfortably off our work. Usually, creators are doing what they can to subsist. That often means working other jobs. For almost every indie creator I meet, it really is a labor of love. I’m fortunate enough to have a super-supportive wife who was in a position to allow me to leave my job with the RAND Corporation to devote myself to this pursuit. All you can hope for is a little luck and some great opportunities that you can capitalize on. I’ve been producing t-shirt designs and creating art professionally since college but it’s always been a side gig. I knew I had ability and potential. I seriously delved back into art (specifically comic art) about ten years ago and my official Inktober project with Andy Nordvall from 2017 was a step in solidifying my career path when it became a Kindle #1 for science fiction and fantasy illustration in 2018. I’m still working at it but I think I’m on the right path.

TCC: Which artists inspire you? And they don’t have to be in the medium you work in, either…

Don: In our medium, I have many influences. In terms of comic art, I grew up with the Image founders so guys like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld & Todd McFarlane had a huge impact on me as a teen. I look to creators like Eastman and Laird, Jamie Hewlett, Mike Mignola, Frank Miller, & James O’Barr in terms of what they created and accomplished in indies. My discovery of comics started with Walt Simonson, Bill Finger, John Byrne, Harold Gray…and, can’t forget, the most influential book I have is by Stan Lee and John Buscema. I love looking at Jack Kirby and Alex Toth stuff. I will always talk about how Skottie Young, Humberto Ramos, and Chris Bachalo’s art drew me back into comics.

In the general category of Art, I take my influences from everywhere. There’s always something to learn. Some favorites are Franz Kline, Claes Oldenburg, Kara Walker, graffiti pieces from the street to more gallery recognized work by artists like Barry McGee, Doze Green, Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Ed Ruscha, Egon Schiele, Alphonse Mucha, Norman Rockwell, Édouard Manet, Marcel Duchamp, Murakami, Charles Ray, René Magritte, Dali, Bruce Conner…essentially, walk into a museum, gallery, bookshop or just on the street and I’m bound to find something or someone to inspire me

Success is really an inspiration. I don’t mean just financial success. For me, it’s that breakthrough moment. For example, while waiting to do portfolio reviews with Steve Epting at WonderCon years ago, I met Adriano DiBenedetto and Nathaniel Osollo. Nathaniel’s work really inspired me to lean more into blacks when inking (and I was a guy who looked at a lot of what Frank Miller was doing). Adriano was doing incredible brush inking: so old school but also crazy because of the super-fine lines. We talked a bit and I told him I thought his work was killer. He was already part of studio doing clean up and outsourced work for major pubs but now you see him inking at Marvel over RB Silva, Mike Hawthorne, and others: just inspiring! I look for those moments in people’s careers or journeys. I think that’s a part of why we appreciate people in any medium, like Spielberg, Lucas or Cameron in film or Ray Charles, Dr. Dre, Puff (Sean Combs), or Russell Simmons in music as some names that come to mind right away. Be open and receptive!

TCC: Can you tell us your greatest fan moment, interacting with a personal hero of yours where you may have gone a little weak at the knees?

Don: I’ve met quite a few heroes so far but the only one I couldn’t summon up courage to talk to was Joe Quesada. He was walking through the Marvel booth at SDCC one year and was looking at this phone so I didn’t want to bother him. Really just froze. I did tell him about that on Twitter and how he was one of two artists that returned autographed trading cards after I wrote to him and sent drawings. The other artist was Erik Larsen (whom I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet and would love to!). So thanks to the both of them! The other crazy moment was when Dustin Nguyen offered to do the variant cover for Pablo the Gorilla. I was dumbfounded.

TCC: What is your favorite fandom? Who is your favorite comic book character/movie/tv character?

Don: I don’t know if I have a favorite fandom or character because I’m a fan of so many things. if you come to my house, you might deduce Star Wars, Spider-Man, Batman and X-Men. I love Star Wars toys and most of my comics are the three latter characters. Fandoms are tough when the toxic elements bubble up to the surface. It’s a shame really. I feel like for a lot of geeks (from my generation and before in particular), we got into comics, fantasy or sci-fi because we felt excluded/other/weird or what have you and we found some solace/escape in these genres and mediums. We found these idyllic protectors: characters to look up to. Now, geeks factionalize and look to perpetrate those feelings upon others and bully them? That seems to be sorely missing the point of those stories of heroism and acceptance at the core of what we love. I suppose that’s to be expected as people are people and our microcosm will reflect that to some degree.

For me, growing up in the 80s and 90s, comic, sci-fi and fantasy properties were rare. They came along every so often. I loved the idea of space exploration and jets, so any property in space or about flight was a go: be it Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Flash Gordon, the Last Starfighter, Starman (not from DC), Cocoon, Flight of the Navigator, Top Gun Independence Day, Men in Black, Close Encounters or Aliens. I love robots; so naturally, I was super into Transformers, Robotech/Macross/Mospeada, Robocop, etc. If it had swords and magic, I was there for that too, from Conan to the Bakshi Hobbit, Willow, Excalibur, and on and on. We are in an age of riches right now when it comes to these properties.

TCC: Outside of the ones you create for a living, what characters/stories do you like drawing the most in your spare time?

Don: I am working on drawing everything and anything to add to my repertoire. I often joke about taking a break from drawing to draw. I constantly think about. Sometimes I’ll copy a drawing quickly to see what I can learn from it, sometimes I just stare at people’s work. I like doing it and messing up so that I can learn from it. Art to me is just a great experiment. I’ve done sci-fi, horror, humor, drama, noir in comics and storyboards so far. Haven’t done a romance or fantasy story yet. There’s still a lot of road to travel. I do always gravitate back to doodling superheroes (which may explain where I find myself now).

TCCWhat’s your working routine? Do you work regular set hours and days, keeping certain days free for personal time, or do you find you create any time the muse takes you?

Don: Currently, I feel like I’m just constantly doing pages and commissions. I work everyday but try to make time for personal life and matters. Being a bit older and only in comics for a few years, I feel like I have to double-time it to catch up with these young upstarts. That’s part of the freelance grind right now. For me, it’s about working to gain an industry foothold by building a decent body of quality, recognizable work. You can’t rest on your laurels: I try to add and accomplish more than the preceding year. 

TCC: When you’re creating, what do you use for background noise? Some creators use music or podcasts, some use a TV show that they just can listen to in the background. What do you use? 

Don: Depending where I’m working or sitting, Spotify or Netflix is usually running. When it comes to shows or movies, I usually put familiar things on, as to not watch them. I still get sucked in sometimes. As for music, usually pop plays because I don’t pay attention to it but there are times I’ll put on songs I feel are upbeat and motivational.  

TCC: What was the first comic con that you remember attending? And, indeed, what was the last? 

Don: My first con ever was San Diego Comic Con 2007. My first time tabling at an artist alley was at Rose City Comic Con in 2018. My last con appearance was at Long Beach Comic Expo 2020, a few months before the pandemic brought everything to a crashing halt. That was a great experience. Shout out to Mike Wellman from Atomic Basement Comics and Martha Donato from the Long Beach Comic Con group for having me be a part of it.

TCCWhat’s your favourite element of a comic convention? And which bits could you easily leave behind? 

Don: My favorite element of cons is the enthusiasm and the part that should be checked at the door is lack thereof and being outright rude/disrespectfulCons can be stressful so why would you want to add to that? I love conventions, from both a creator and fan perspective. I love discovering new creators and projects, making new friends and connections, getting original art, finding treasures. I love going to panels to listen to people that I find inspiring or informative. I love when people discover my work and return with friends. I love seeing kids excited about comics because that’s the next generation of fans and creators. I love seeing crazy cosplays; particularly, the super creative ones made from found materials like carboard and duct tape. Man, I do really miss cons. 

TCC: At a convention, when you’re not behind your table or doing the things you have to do at a con, which corner of the show would we find you in?

Don: I do my best to support friends at their panels: I love informative panels. I will explore the floor and, if not those things, look for me at concessions. I am all about meals and snacks.

TCC: With the lack of conventions, a lot of artists are taking commissions online and mailing them out to people – is this something you’re doing? 

Don: Definitely! I am thankful a lot of people discover me and request commissions at shows, but I’m even more grateful for those that pick up a card and do post-con commissions. I’ve been very fortunate to have done logos, commissions, storyboards and more because of this. Since the pandemic, my Twitter handle now includes “Artist Alley 24/7” as a cheeky nod to when we include our Con/Table # right before and during shows. My Etsy shop actually started out with selling my needlefelt sculptures so it’s been active for quite awhile before it became solely geared toward my illustration work. Shout out to Cory Doctorow, and Bonnie Burton for featuring my Star Wars pieces back in the day.

TCC: A lot of creatives are also taking to crowdfunding – such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo – to generate income from their work. What’re your thoughts on that?

Don: I’m a huge fan of crowdfunding. For those who don’t know me and are just reading this, my creator owned title “Pablo the Gorilla” was funded and delivered through Kickstarter. I did it as a relative unknown. I was fortunate to have two-time Eisner winner Dustin Nguyen of Descender and Lil’ Gotham do a variant cover for the book. Now, I wasn’t able to make enough to live off of as funds went into production and I’m still hoping to introduce Pablo to the all the shows that were postponed due to COVID. For those that can make a living from it, that’s amazing. It can definitely be life-changing. Liam Sharp (of DC’s Wonder Woman and Green Lantern) recently ran a campaign and showed how his life was altered. As creatives (particularly freelance), we are a vulnerable population. Like I said earlier, many of us are just doing what we can to survive and strive in this endeavor. So, if you find any success- enjoy it and build upon it. I will say, as member and fan of the Kickstarter community, I do find it of the utmost importance to deliver. Can’t emphasize that enough. I did not start my campaign until the narrative portion of my comic was completely finished. All that was pending for print was Dustin’s cover, amazing pin ups from Marquis Phillips and Jacob Sweet and my thank you page.

TCC: What projects have you recently finished? What are you working on at the moment, what projects are coming up that you can talk about? 

Don: I finished pencils for Battle Grapple Rebel with Michael Tanner (Orcs in Space, Junior Braves of the Apocalypse) at the top of this year. We recently had a change to our team, so I’ll make time come fall for some finishing work. I am currently working on completing Retro with creator Aaron Lindenthaler. We originally debuted it as an animatic/motion comic at Dances with Films 2019 festival at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood. I am working on the comic side while Aaron and actor Reno Wilson (Mike and Molly, Good Girls) take care of the live action aspect. I think fans of properties like Looper, Sin City and Memento will really enjoy this project. As soon as that is completed, it’s back to Pablo the Gorilla with #2. I am plotting out #2 and doing thumbnails right now but hope to go further and complete his story arc. I have two anthologies I’m a part of as well, one of which is related to another project I was a part of last year that successfully funded and was delivered on Kickstarter. I hope to add more this menagerie to take me into the end of the year and into 2022.

TCC: How do you stay connected with fans? Do you use a mailing list or newsletters, are you active on social media?

Don: I can be found as @Nguyeningit on all major social media platforms. I’m probably most active on Twitter and Instagram. I love sharing work in progress. I’ve made more an effort to stream so you’ll find content on Twitch, YouTube and TikTok. Unfortunately, I don’t schedule streams. It’s all extemporaneous.

TCCWhere can people see an example of your art online and find out about your rates? 

Don: Nguyeningit.com and Instagram are your best bets to see my work. For original art rates, there’s a contact form on my website or simply reach out in DMs via Twitter or IG. If you tell me your budget I can tell you what to expect or what I can do for you. You can also buy items directly from my etsy store: Nguyening It by NguyeningIt on Etsy or shirt designs at NguyeningIt! | Official Merchandise of Don Nguyen | Bonfire
NguyeningIt! | Official Merchandise of Don Nguyen | BonfireStorefront of comic book artist & designer Don Nguyen, aka Nguyening It!

TCC: Thanks, Don, for your time! 

Don: Thank you for the time and opportunity, Dan! It is appreciated and I hope to see you again soon!

We at The Convention Collective want to showcase the very best in creative talent. Are you a creator who would like to be featured in our weekly Sandbox Spotlight? Leave a comment here, or reach out to us at admin@TheConventionCollective.com

Dan Berry
Dan Berry
Dan Berry is a man of mystery, an enigma that flits from convention to convention like a spectre, like a spirit. His interests range far and wide: he cannot be determined, he cannot be defined, he cannot be contained. He's like the wind. He also is a Sagittarius and enjoys a nice Italian.

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