So, at the time of writing this it’s 90 degrees outside, which in the tightly packed concrete oven of NYC, means it feels like I’m baking ever so slowly. As I’m drawing, and quite possibly falling into a heat coma, my phone chimes, cutting through the sound of Clear Soul Forces playing in the background. Howard Russell has just hit my inbox, the first artist I’ve approached as I try to get back on the blogging wagon. Allow me to introduce.
Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Howard attributes his biggest influences to Saturday morning cartoons, Disney, and animation legends like Hanna Barbera and Chuck Jones, as well as comic book artists Khary Randolph, Jack Kirby, Mike Manley, and character designer/producer, Bruce Timm. The evidence is there in every drawing, but Howard manages to take those influences and create a style all his own; one that is unique to him and is instantly recognizable. It wasn’t until his 11th grade year in high school that he realized cartoon and comic book art was something he wanted to do as a career.
“A friend of mine and I would often crack jokes during class about a character who always got into bad situations, and at one point I started to draw single panel images of the jokes that we thought were just hilarious,” he says. “Around 2004, I took a comic and cartoon class at a local art college in Wilmington, Delaware and met a fantastic comic/cartoon artist named Mike Manley. Being in that class opened my eyes a bit more and really solidified what it was that I wanted to do.”
Fast forward to present day, and Howard is actively pursuing the life of an artist, holding down two jobs, and freelancing on the side. It hasn’t been an easy or simple journey by any means, proving that the rewards and frustrations are just opposing sides of the same coin. Two things that Howard has plenty of, however – things that are arguably some of the most important skills that artists in any discipline will eventually need to develop – is persistence, and a thick skin. And in order to do that, you have to go through the fire.
“The hardest thing to deal with as an artist is, one, reflecting on your work knowing that you need to improve and keep working harder,” Howard says. “The second: rejection notices. I’ve been rejected nine times and every one of them were disappointing. That said, they were also motivation to keep pushing myself to work even harder.”
Howard continues to do just that, having worked with Philly Hip-Hop artist, Hezekiah, and producer Tone Whitfield who together make up the duo, Johnny Popcorn. Starting out as a fake name that Hezekiah and Tone would use at open mics, Johnny Popcorn was truly born when the two decided to use it as an alter-ego, allowing Hezekiah to return to his funk/soul roots, and serving as a side departure from his normal Hip-Hop projects. Howard is the mastermind behind the look of Johnny Popcorn, providing everything from character designs to album artwork, comic strips, and promotional material.
“Hezekiah and I go way back. And I mean waaay back, since high school when he lived in Delaware. We both would draw in class, on the bus, wherever,” Howard says. “But with his deeper passion for music, and mine for comic art, eventually he went into his direction and moved to Philly, and I went into mine. Years rolled by, and it wasn’t until four or so years ago that I ran into him on Facebook. He was working on the early stages of Johnny Popcorn, knew of my artistic skill, and asked if I was interested in creating the look for the band. I couldn’t say no, and the rest is history.”
Because the band had such a different vibe from Hezekiah’s solo Hip-Hop projects, Howard needed to capture the feeling of that soul/funk sound, while maintaining the combination of personalities that made up Johnny Popcorn.
“I personally love the vibe that Johnny Popcorn brings to the table, and have much respect for the risk and daringness that Hez and Tone took in going in that direction with the music. Personally, I think there just needs to be more of it,” Howard says. “That said, I didn’t want to create some hip-hop looking characters since that wouldn’t fit the mold of what Johnny Popcorn was about. I had to create something that fit that rock/funk/soul sound, and what came out is what you see now. They certainly developed over time, because the first characters ever drawn up aren’t what you see today. But I’m pretty pleased with the outcome and feel they really portray the vibe of Johnny Popcorn really well.”
Howard went on to produce artwork for more independent artists like Joey Moon, Rocky Montana, and Primo Nellz. He’s been the sequential artist behind El Negro Poncho and did pin-up work for Vescell, published through Image Comics. It’s clear that Howard’s persistence, even in the face of some of the most difficult rejection of his life, is taking him in the right direction.
He has a pretty big plate, and no shortage of work and personal obligations filling every square inch. I wondered if there was any room on it for his creator-owned projects, namely a comic he did years ago called Indego Blue, about a soldier living in a bleak future who becomes the victim of a gene splicing experiment at the hands of a corrupt government. Back in 2009, Howard released one issue from the series through Indy Planet, after which the book hit a hiatus.
“Artistically, I just felt that it was flat out horrible,” he says. “I wanted to really improve on my skill and get stronger, before I go and put out another issue, so I stopped.”
Fast-forward a few years later, and it seems like Indego Blue hasn’t left Howard’s mind.
“I’ve been working on the side for a new storyline and gearing up to self publish a rebirth of the series. The comic as a whole is getting chopped up and redone,” he says. He still has a sense of humor about the first issue, laughing about it in hindsight. “I still look back at the first issue and nearly cry as to how bad I feel that visually looked. The cover is probably the only highlight of it,” he says. “Visually, I feel I improved dramatically since then. Getting a better directing sense with character placement, taking time to learn more about anatomy and perspectives, and studying the processes it takes to do a comic page has been vital overall. This will create a much better product for Indego Blue than ever before.”
Howard is constantly working, tweaking, refining, and studying his craft. He’s walking the same road as many artists with his own set of challenges and obstacles to overcome, and a relentless perseverance through it all to become better. If studying the fundamentals are the building blocks of a great artist, then persistence is the other side of that coin – the building block of great character even in the face of harsh rejection, and the struggle to find the balance between personal obligations and your dreams.
“Balancing life in between artwork and my two jobs has its moments of frustration for sure, so I usually just take the battles I can win, which are mostly my days off, “ Howard says on trying to find this exact balance. “Life is so unpredictable, you really just have to have that moment when you are just on your A game and you ride that wave until you drop.”
Couldn’t have said it better.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and cool down by eating more ice cream than should be humanly allowed. Make sure you guys check Howard out at the links below.
Until next time!
The legal stuff: All images and characters posted within this article are © Howard Russell and/or their respective owners. This article is © Takeia Dunlop and was written exclusively for spraypaintandinkpens.com.