Comics by Design: An Interview with Neil Egan
Neil Egan is the lead designer behind the wildly inventive books at Abrams ComicArts. We talked to him to discuss his creative process and how he manages the many artistic struggles that go along with meeting these creative demands.
What was your background before coming to Abrams?
I started working for Abrams at the lowest rung of the design department ladder, as a part-time freelancer working on marketing materials and catalog layout. That was in the summer of 2004. I was trained in graphic design at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, but didn’t concentrate in print design. My BFA is in Visual Communication Design, with a concentration in digital imaging. At the time (the late 1990s), that concentration covered a lot of ground, and I exploited that by taking classes in everything that sounded interesting. I studied everything from alternative photography methods, 3D modeling and animation, stop-motion animation to motion graphics, in addition to intensive Photoshop study. I did basic coursework in typography and print design, but felt relatively underexposed in those areas. After school, I worked as a web designer, then doing on-air graphics for local television news shows. I had moved to New York City in 2004 doing that broadcast design stuff, and I also was fortunate enough to have a friend who was a designer on staff at Abrams. I needed some extra work, and she offered to introduce me and helped me get a foot in the door. All the work I had done professionally up to then had not felt like real career work. It was interesting to be exposed to those areas, and to learn some useful skills, but what I was generating with all my time and energy was of no lasting value to me. When I started working at Abrams, it was a radical shift in perspective. The people I worked with were laboring to make beautiful, permanent objects. The exact opposite of a television newsgraphic whose entire lifespan with the viewer is roughly 10-30 seconds.
The first few years working at Abrams were an intense learning period for me. I read extensively on typography and print design. I asked questions and pestered the design staff to figure out how they did what they did. It was a true apprenticeship, with many mentors. But the overall motivating factor for me was that this was a job that felt like a calling. Something with a purpose, and which could yield something meaningful in the end of the process, at least as compared to the other work that I had done up to that point.
After I was given the chance to start taking on book design assignments on my own, I had the chance to work with editor Charles Kochman. He had started at Abrams right after I did (coming from DC comics), but I wasn’t in a position to work with him on a book for several years. Once we did get paired up on a book (Wacky Packages, Vol. 1), it was the start of our friendship and collaboration, which has developed into my role as the lead designer on the Abrams ComicArts imprint. Charlie is now the executive editor of Abrams ComicArts.
How many books are you working on at any given time?
Well, our output for Abrams ComicArts is approximately five titles per list, two lists (or seasons) per year. While I’m not designing all those titles myself, I do manage the details on all our books, and design at least two of the books per season myself. And while we would like to be focusing on only one season’s list of titles at a time, in reality we are working on more like three: wrapping up later titles on the previous season and making sure they have the marketing and sales support they need, working full-bore on the current list to get them ready to print, and doing preliminary work to plan for the upcoming season. In addition to ComicArts, I also art direct and manage the design of Abrams’ calendar imprint, which is roughly 20-25 titles per year. That ends up being a pretty time-consuming exercise as well, so I find myself juggling lots of things all year round.
What have been some of your favorite books to design?
Wacky Packages would probably top that list, for being significant to my career, for kick-starting my working relationship with Charlie Kochman, for introducing me to photographer Geoff Spear (who shot the imagery for this book), and for being a very satisfying design experience to me in the end. I’m very proud of the book, and was very gratified by the response it got. As a result of it doing well, Abrams has since gone on to develop a large-scale partnership with Topps to be their publishing partner. We’re working on tons of titles with them across many of our imprints. There was a press release addressing that. Now my design was not what set that in motion, but the result of the book doing well was part of the equation. Another component is Charlie’s great relationship with the folks at Topps, as well as Abrams’ unique ability to produce these books and to sell them in the market. One of the first books to come out of this larger Topps collaboration is a book on Garbage Pail Kids, in the same format as Wacky Packages. Coming out in Spring 2012—I’m really excited about that one, and I’m working on it today as a matter of fact!
Other favorites have been Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow by Brian Fies, which was a true collaboration between the author/artist, me, the editor (Charlie), and also my art director at the time, Michelle Ishay. I was the one sitting at the computer to put the book together, but all those folks made equally important contributions to how beautifully that book came out.
The Horror! The Horror! is an example of a book that I didn’t design myself, but that I worked with an incredibly talented and like-minded freelance designer on. Jacob Covey is a former art director at Fantagraphics, and one of the best book designers around. Jacob designed the book, but again, it was a very successful collaborative process. It’s a really fun book with some truly outrageous vintage horror comics, and the design and physical properties of the book make a really amazing package.
One last example of a book I’m proud of designing is a book that will be available in stores soon (this fall). I have seen the finished book, but don’t even have a copy of it yet. The title is PS Magazine: The Best of the Preventive Maintenance Monthly, by Will Eisner. The material was selected and has an overview by Eddie Campbell, and it was a real joy to work on. Part of what made it so satisfying was just how damn interesting the material was. Basically, the book is an overview of the work that Will Eisner and his studio did for the Army for the many years between when he stopped working on The Spirit, and before he began creating his amazing graphic novels, beginning with A Contract with God. Getting to thumb through hundreds of original issues of PS Magazine, some from Eisner’s personal archive, was in itself a reward. I also feel that the format of the book, its design, and its content all work very well together and is one of the few projects that I would change very little about if I had to do it again.
What was the most difficult request from an author or editor you’ve had to incorporate into the design?
This is a hard question to answer. I try to forget all the negative stuff about old projects as soon as they’re done. I’m really good at forgetting things too, so it’s not hard. I have to try hard enough to keep all the things that I WANT to remember straight in my head. I’ve also been accused of being a diplomat.
I think accommodating an author’s request, or a publisher’s, or a packager’s, or even a designer’s, can be difficult when it appears to do the book or its content a disservice, but in most cases, it’s all subjective. And also, strange or confusing requests often just take more time and energy to figure out, which is often what’s most frustrating. I wish I could give you a more concrete example.
One of my favorite books, design-wise, from Abrams is Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, because of its use of different types of paper and its ability to capture the feel of multiple decades all in one book. How difficult was that book to produce?
Oh, thanks! As I mentioned above, that was a real collaborative effort. I should have also mentioned our production department, who helped us work out all the logistics of using those special papers and materials for the book. It has a pretty unusual die-cut half jacket on uncoated paper that reveals a slick, shiny, futuristic doppelganger scenario on the cover beneath. This sets up the concept of this father and son moving through time in a way that’s not strictly realistic, but which is part of the poetic license that the narrative takes to tell the story. In addition to the binding and jacket, it switches from a typical modern coated paper to a pulpy newsprint at regular intervals throughout the story, where the son character is literally reading a comic within a comic book. The combination of the paper switch, and the very convincing adjustment to the art to evoke vintage pulp comics printing methods that Brian Fies made, results in a pretty exciting and jolting effect. And more than just an effect for wow-factor, it really services the story in a meaningful way. But because of the way that books are bound in regular signatures of equal page amounts, the paper switching had to be very carefully considered and planned for from an early stage. Not an easy task.
This book was nominated for an Eisner in the publication design category, and Brian and I shared the design credit, as it was as much his vision (or more) as it was mine. Also deserving tons of credit are editor Charlie Kochman, my art director Michelle Ishay, and the production team at Abrams headed by Anet Sirna-Bruder.
The Shazam! book is another great example of your good work. Was that a fun book to put together? How did you and Chip Kidd work together to achieve the final product?
Thank you again—that’s another book that I’m incredibly proud to have worked on, and one that is good to explain to people. That project came to ComicArts as a very fully formed design proposal from Chip Kidd. He had a physical dummy, which he had put together by hand, that showed how the cover with the die-cut lightning bolt would reveal the word Shazam!, and also included sample interior pages that showed almost exactly what the final book looks like now.
Because Chip is such an experienced pro, he knew what the book would be and how it needed to be done well before it came across my desk at Abrams.
However, with that said, I definitely pitched in to make sure that the vision Chip (and photographer Geoff Spear) had for the book would be executed correctly. With Chip doing all the writing, art sequencing, and page layout, my job came to be technical support, managing all the hundreds and hundreds of image files that needed to be in the right place and properly delivered to the printer, as well as extensive retouching work that I did to the cover image, and help in executing the back cover. The cover image of our book comes from the cover of a vintage Captain Marvel comic annual, and it had a huge silver lightning bolt running almost exactly through the space that our die-cut lightning bolt would be. So I meticulously retouched it out. It took many, many hours, as with old comic printing, the large ben-day dots require an almost dot-by-dot reconstruction to not ruin the illusion of the retouching. One of the best parts of working on the book was basically absorbing the material, and learning all kinds of stuff I never knew about Captain Marvel, and that period of Golden Age comics publishing and merchandizing. In fact, that’s one of the best parts about my job, period. I’m far from an expert on comics and their history, but I get a wonderful opportunity to learn more about them every day, and actually get paid to do it. Hard to beat!
Are there any books you look at and wish you could have another stab at them?
There are very few projects of mine that I can look at and not be more focused on the things I would like to change or improve, than on the things that I’m satisfied with. Luckily, I have enough work to keep me constantly focused on what’s next, rather than on the things I’d like to change about books I’ve already finished. I try to learn what I can, and move on to the next urgent deadlines!
Are there any books from other publishers you wish you could have worked on?
Hmm. There are so many great books out there...
Well, I’m a huge Hellboy fan, and I recently purchased the first two of their deluxe cloth-bound hardcover collections that reprint the entire run of the story. I have complete respect for the Dark Horse team, and love the design of those books, and the entire Hellboy series. I don’t think I could do it better, but it would be so fun to get to work on high-end Hellboy books. I think Mike Mignola is himself a truly great designer in the graphic artist sense.
What new titles are you working on and what can we expect to see in them?
As I mentioned before, I’m working on the Garbage Pail Kids book, which will be really cool. As with the two Wacky Packages books we did previously, one of the best things about them is that we were able to get super high-quality scans of the original paintings that were commissioned for the cards, so fans will get to see the original art at a reproduction quality they’ve never seen before. If you’re someone who collected them as a kid (like I did), seeing them is an instant blast of nostalgia, followed up by amazement at the craft and skill that went into creating such a disposable, low-brow, yet satirical part of our culture.
And to radically switch gears, I’m also working on a graphic novel memoir called My Friend Dahmer, by Derf Backderf. It’s an amazing piece of work by the cartoonist Derf, documenting his experience in grade school and high school as one of the few people who knew and was friends with the notorious serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. My first reaction to the idea when it came up in discussion was “I don’t know why we would do this book.” I’m not interested in lurid details of serial killers’ crimes and lives. But once I read the story, I realized that this was an amazing story told from the vantage point of someone who was present to witness the beginning and middle points in a life that went horribly, horribly wrong. This book isn’t about Dahmer’s eventual crimes. It’s about the person who became the monster. My Friend Dahmer will be a significant book, and I’m proud to be working on it with Derf.