Howard Russell: The Art of Persistence

Howard RussellSo, 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. ItThriller Tribute 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.

Johnny Popcorn“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 Vescell Promo Pinupsequential 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.”

Indego BlueHoward 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!


Howard’s Website:

Howard’s Facebook:


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


Meet Sean Tate

I’ve heard someone say before that if you can’t remember how you met a friend, you’re destined to be friends with them for life. I have no idea how that makes any logical sense, but I do know that I can barely remember how I met Sean Tate, and yet we’re still good friends to this day. We both attended the Art Institute in Philadelphia and got to know each other somewhere between watching random Youtube videos in the computer labs and debating about how Philly Hip Hop will always be inferior to New York Hip Hop.

Oops. I was never supposed to let those words leave my lips. It’s ok, though. I’m just joking. Kind of.

But that topic of conversation was all in fun and even after I came back home to New York, we stayed in touch and would make a point to hang out anytime I was in Philly. He encouraged me to be a little more public with the fact that I could rap, even when I wanted to keep it a big secret (and to some extent, I still do), and he introduced me to the best cheese steaks in the city – Max’s Steaks in North Philly. Matter of fact, that should be the new standard of friendship. If you can’t remember how you met a friend, but he treats you to a cheese steak from Max’s, you’re destined to be friends for life.

Yep. My friendship can be bought. With cheese steaks.

Sean showed me where he grew up in North Philly, a neighborhood that didn’t exactly have the best reputation, but that influenced him greatly as an artist all the same. “I find myself incorporating many of my life experiences in North Philly into my ideas, like character personalities, environments, and events,” he says. But the real trigger to Sean’s appetite for pursuing a career in animation was a popular Super Nintendo video game featuring work by another of his greatest influences: Akira Toriyama, the mastermind behind Dragon Ball. In case that incredibly corny hint didn’t jog your memory, or in case you’re just unfamiliar, the game was Chrono Trigger, an RPG developed by SquareSoft back in 1995. “Its pretty ironic but it wasn’t until I played a game called Chrono Trigger in middle school that I decided to do animation!” Sean says. “That game was so dope that I wanted it to be an animated movie or series, and I began coming up with cartoons similar to it.”

Oh Snap! is © Sean Tate

Drawing much of his inspiration from Japanese animation as well as creators such as Lesean Thomas, Aaron McGruder, and Don Bluth, Sean has developed a style of illustration that is immediately recognizable as his own. Even if you subtract all of Sean’s biggest influences, what you’re left with is a guy with a Wacom tablet and a colossal imagination. His web comic entitled Oh Snap!, produced under Ground Up Studios, features a sword-wielding pirate in slippers named Jazz and her band of thieves as they sail the world trying to sell hair care products. In some really weird way, it works. “Oh Snap! was originally designed to be an animated series, but the idea was so dope that we wanted to see how it would come out as a comic first,” Sean explains. “There are a number of concepts behind Jazz’s design. She is kind of made to resemble African and Japanese culture, 80’s pop America, and the hood! I wanted to take a ghetto-natured character and put her in a Final Fantasy-like universe. So that’s why the world and ideas behind Oh Snap! are so bizarre.” Sean pokes fun at the people he was around and things that he experienced growing up in North Philly, but as long as I’ve known him he has also been heavily influenced by Hip Hop, African culture, and black history.

4 is 4 is © Sean Tate

I saw many of those influences when I came to Philly and Sean showed me his concepts for his latest series entitled 4 is 4. “It’s planned to come out the middle of next year. It’s another one of my fantasy series based on ancient African culture with a little bit of Hip-hop influence in it,” Sean says. But it looks like the premise for this one is going to be kept under wraps until we’re a little closer to it’s release.

In the meant time, Sean is producing work with Ground Up Studios, a small Philadelphia based multimedia company specializing in 2D and 3D animation, VFX, Illustration, Comic Books, Graphic Design, and Concept Design. “Henry Wilson, one of Ground Up’s staff, was the one who pulled me in,” Sean says on how he became a part of the Ground Up crew. “I met Henry back when I was a student at the Art Institute. They had a comic book club, which Henry was a part of. He is someone who I respect and look up to as an artist, mentor, and friend.” Ground Up Studios will be the production team behind Sean’s Oh Snap! animated shorts to be released next year.

Zuniko is © Sean Tate

I guess if you could break down Sean’s experience with animation and comics into a randomly invented analogy, comics would be the vacation spot, but animation is what he calls home. “I enjoy doing animation more than comics. Although animation requires a series of frames for one scene, from my experience of producing comics, I learned that there are a lot of things that goes into a comic to make those still images look good,” Sean says.

However, his experiences in producing work as a freelance animator have not always been easy. “One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced was producing an enormous project within a short deadline,” Sean says. He worked on an animated commercial for Pastry Pop Stars, a division of Vanessa and Angela Simmons’ Pastry shoe line for children. “It was kind of crazy because I pretty much produced that project as a one man army!” Sean says of the experience. “In fact, Kia, don’t be surprised if I contact you for some animation work in the future!” he laughs.

To which I give a firm no thanks! 

Nu and Star are © Ground Up Studios

But Sean has clearly proven that he can handle the pressure of producing animation as a one man battalion or as part of a creative team. I definitely wouldn’t mind collaborating with him on a project in the future. For right now, though, he has his own goals of seeing his creator-owned properties produced for television. If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that you will see Sean’s work in some form, whether it’s behind the scenes bringing his concepts to life, or right in your face on the big screen. After interviewing him and gaining more insight into his life as an artist, there was only one possible question left:

When can you treat me to another cheese steak?

Thanks for reading as always. Until next time!



Sean Tate is a freelance animator and illustrator who is currently an integral part of the Ground Up Studios team. He is open for commissions and freelance work for animation, concept design, logos, and more. You can contact Sean with the info below:




Sean’s email:

Studio email:

Shawn Alleyne

“ Planting Artmada flags on foreign lands with smoking hands. Our light spans, fantastic 4-ever like comic emissions, By the time the beams hit your vision, our past is your present position.. ” – M.D Geist

It was a cold, brisk night in the city of Philadelphia and flurries of snow were already kissing the ground…

Actually, that’s a lie. I really don’t remember what day it was that I met Shawn Alleyne, let alone what the weather was like. I do remember walking near Broad and Chestnut in Philly with another friend of mine (also named Sean) when we bumped into Shawn A. and his wife, Monique. Introductions were given and somewhere along the line I landed at a one year anniversary function for Shawn’s comic book group, Xion. The rest is a blur of comic book conventions, rap battles, and playful insults where, somehow, a friendship was born.

Art by Shawn Alleyne with colors by Ashley Woods

It wasn’t until I saw some of Shawn’s work that I was truly blown away. No, seriously. The pictures I post here do his work no justice until you see it in person, in carefully constructed portfolios with hot piece after hot piece. And don’t think I’m exaggerating just because I want to make this article sound good, or just because I consider Shawn a friend. Actually, I’ll be the first to tell you that he’s more like a friendly nemesis that I happen to talk to on a regular basis. Still, you’ll hear no exaggerations on my part as I share with you the story of Shawn’s life, one that I think will resonate with artists anywhere.

It was a cold, brisk night on the island of Barbados…

Yeah, I don’t know what kind of night it was there either. I do know that Shawn was born, raised, and fell in love with comics there. “My father was the one who got me into comics,” says Shawn. “He used to dabble with art and was the one who sat me down with a Daredevil comic and made me watch him draw.” Clearly, that one moment opened a path that would define the rest of Shawn’s life. Coupled with another, reading his first Spider-man issue, Shawn’s love for comics was destined to grow as he started grabbing any that he could get his hands on.

Art by Shawn Alleyne with colors by Blair Smith

Shawn credits his upbringing in Barbados for giving him a unique range of cultural and economical experiences that he now tries to incorporate into his stories. Shortly after moving to the states with those memories, Shawn knew that he wanted to draw forever. But the reality of the comic book industry haunted him like it did most comic book artists just starting out. “Everyone said there was no money in comics—they said be an architect…a garbage man…ANYTHING besides a comic artist,” Shawn says. “But the glorious days of the late nineties of Image were too alluring, and with everyone and their mother putting a book out, I realized it was specifically comic art I wanted to invest in.”

So what did Shawn do? In an economy that was going straight to hell in a nicely decorated hand basket, Shawn decided to quit his day job and do art full-time. Sound crazy? Not really. What’s crazy is that he’s finding a way to make it work when everyone told him otherwise.

…Not without some pitfalls and hard-learned lessons, though. “It’s been a helluva challenge, and continues to be in some way or another,” Shawn admits. “What people sometimes forget is that this is still a business. So what I had to do to survive was try to learn something new from every experience and adapt.” And he did just that. When Shawn started out, he attended as many conventions as he could, large and small, to get his art out there and network with other people. It didn’t happen overnight, but soon the clients started rolling in and business started to pick up.

Pencils by Stanley Weaver Jr., Inks by Shawn Alleyne, Colors by James Mason

As a result, Shawn currently has an inventory of projects longer than Santa’s naughty list. I asked him if he just curls up in the fetal position every night and cries himself to sleep. The answer is yes. Yes, he does. “But it comes down to learning to say no to some stuff, communicating with clients, long nights, and barreling through,” he says. “All of which I’m still in the process of learning slowly but surely.”

Shawn has admitted to me in many phone conversations that he learns something new after every convention that can help him step his game up as a business-man. He says the biggest challenge about conventions is, “making sure you stick out amongst all the competition that’s out there. There are some really talented people at these shows, especially the bigger ones, and to succeed there has to be that balance of a good product, good marketing, and good people skills.” The biggest piece of advice he has to give to anyone who is just getting started in the convention arena is to be honest with yourself. “If you know in your heart your product may not be ready, don’t go to the shows. Once you’ve passed that hurdle, start with a couple of smaller cons and work your way up. This will help you learn how to work under pressure; learn how to deal with people; seeing firsthand what people like or don’t like; expand your fan base and allow you to build a network with fellow creators. In a nutshell the best way to maximize your potential at these shows is simple: be friendly and draw pretty stuff.”

Art by Shawn Alleyne with colors by James Mason

Pretty good advice, if you ask me, and all pointers he uses as he works on one of his newest properties, Street Team. A “team-up” book that is a collaboration with four other creators, Street Team combines their respective independently published characters into one gritty, urban-vigilante type book in the vein of Batman and Daredevil. Shawn adds his talents as co-writer, editor, and inker on the first book.

He has also worked as Art Director on a property called Knight Seeker with writer Eric Cooper and artist, Blair Smith, as co-creator of Surian Seed with Raheem Mander, and Artmada, a collaborative sketch book with artists Tremaine Worrell, Will Jamaison, and Kamau Mshale.

And I have one more bit of juicy info for you. If you guys didn’t know, Shawn is like a secret underground rap prodigy. When he’s not drawing, he’s eating emcees for brunch. Those bars I inserted as a tag-line under the title of this article? He wrote that, right around the time he was contributing to the Artmada sketchbook. Likening his style to the raw, intricate lyrics of Canibus and the street poet, story-telling abilities of Nas, Shawn is honing his skills in another artistic form besides drawing that is just as ridiculous. I should know. I battled him, lost, and then had to spend the night at his house.

Yeah, it went something like that.

But who knows, I might let you guys in on the upcoming re-match.

Check Shawn out at one of the many links below, and if you’re attending, be sure to check him out at the New York Comic Con (Oct. 13 – 16).

Later folks.



Shawn Alleyne is a freelance illustrator, comic book artist, and self-proclaimed lyrical wordsmith genius. He is currently open for commissions and freelance work. Shawn is also the founder of the Xion Network, a comic book group that started in Philadelphia and has now expanded to New York City (of which I am the branch Co-Manager along with branch Manager, Sha-Nee Williams). To join the mailing list, please contact us at the email listed below.

Shawn’s Personal Information

He can also be reached at

The Xion Network

Philadelphia Branch: (ATTN: Shawn Alleyne)

NYC Branch: (ATTN: Sha-Nee Williams or Takeia Dunlop)