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Interview:Kotzebue brothers

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Jordan and travis.JPG

On August 3, 2007, RyanGibsonStewart conducted an interview via phone with graphic artists Travis and Jordan Kotzebue.

Ryan Stewart: So, what have you been working on lately?

Jordan Kotzebue: I'm working at a video game company right now.

Really? Which one?

They're called Loose Cannon Studios. It's a pretty young, new company. I was working at a place called PlexiPixel before, and doing contract work on the side. But I left there about two months ago and I'm at this place now.

So you're doing animation for videos? Is that different than doing animation for comic books?

Yeah. Well, I'm working on concept artwork, so I'm still drawing a lot. But I'm also doing UI design--getting menus and things like that.

What's UI?

It's like starter menus and buttons and things like that.

So it's a lot of still work, and not so much animation then.

Yeah, not yet. But like I said, it's a pretty new company, so we're just getting started on some games and stuff.

Pretty cool. Keeps you busy, doesn't it?

Oh yeah, big time.

You've got to go NOW.JPG

How long have you been drawing?

I've been drawing for as long as I know, really. I mean, Travis and I have been drawing superheroes since we were kids, and we kind of knew right off the bat what we were wanting to do our whole lives. I remember in first grade, kids were always calling me the artist of the class. So that's the way I wanted to go, pretty much from the get-go.

Travis is older than you, correct?

Yeah, he's about four and a half years older.

So did you learn together, or did he start first?

Well, he definitely started first. I doodled a lot and he'd always give me pointers here and there. Then, when we got serious, he would always look at my stuff, and we would look at each other's artwork. We'd just draw together and work together.

[Travis joins us]

Hey, Travis. I was just asking Jordan about how you guys got into comics in the first place. He said he's been drawing since he can remember. Travis, is that the same for you?

Travis Kotzebue: Yeah, yeah, pretty much. We just grew up drawing comics and just being big fans.

Do you guys work together on a lot of stuff?

Drunk Kotzebues.jpg

Yeah, quite a bit of stuff, actually. We sort of bill ourselves as "The Kotzebue Brothers"--as a studio partnership. Jordan and I usually find ourselves taking on certain roles. I'll generally do more pencils and Jordan will do more ink and paint and color. But in the case of Heroes, they had the two-part story. I only had time to do the first part, so we got Jordan to do the second one. He penciled that as I penciled the first one. They wanted it to be in a similar style, since it was the second part. So, since we worked so closely together, it was somewhat easy to manage that.

We get real close to working almost exclusively together, when there are project where we can do that. So we're working together all the time.

You guys have a very similar style--is that purposeful, or just a happy coincidence?

I think it just comes from drawing together so much since we were kids. You know, we definitely have sort of different disciplines and different hands when it comes to drawing. But there are just certain similarities that are sort of innate to our hand. I think it comes from drawing together all the time. We get each other to critique each other's work a lot, as well.

Yeah, and also, we definitely sort of see the similar styles, but our methods are so different that we see the differences a lot more, actually. For instance, Travis is a much tighter penciler, and his work is just--I mean, each stroke is meaningful. I'm much looser. I kind of have to find my strokes a lot more. You know, I went to school as an illustrator, so I paint a bit more. I have to work my way through it and work real soft until I get into something a bit tighter.

Yeah, I think for lack of a better description, Jordan comes from a bit more classical training background. He did four years at the Rocky Mountain Academy of Art and Design, so he works definitely more from a painter's perspective doing underpaintings and things like that. I come from a lot more of a cartooning and animation [background].

You guys are very complimentary of each other. I think it's really great that you're able to critique each other and help each other out. I bet a lot of other artists would appreciate having somebody so close so they can get advice like you get.

Yeah, I think it's really important for an artist to do that. We have a bigger group of artist friends we've worked with here in Seattle for years now. That's kind of how we work with our buddies, as well. We've just kind of always done it historically. So when Jordan moved out to Seattle from Denver almost four years ago, it just seemed like the natural way to do things. And of course, we've always done it to a certain extent with each other. But when Jordan graduated college and moved out here, it just sort of took on a more professional role.

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It's nice having the "Kotzebue Brothers" hook--that's not something you see everyday from an artist. Does anybody else in your family draw?

Our younger sister, actually, yeah. Charis.

She's really amazing, too.

Yeah, she's about three years younger than me. She's really into watercolors and doing inkwork.

She does a lot of portraiture and sculpture, as well.

Her style is real different from us, too. I always say she's got the most natural talent because she didn't go to school for anything, and her work is beautiful.

She took a lot of art in school, but she really didn't need to go to art school. [laughs] She's pretty damn natural. Especially with the watercolor. She's amazing.

Yeah, Charis is great.

Now I'm curious--with the Heroes work, how did come into contact with NBC? Did NBC find you, or did you solicit them?

The way we did it was at Comic Con, last year, actually. I went down, and we decided to share a portfolio rather than sell ourselves as individual artists selling our portfolios.

That's how the Kotzebue Brothers Studio started.

Yeah, we combined our portfolio and went out there. I just started giving out portfolios to whoever would take them, and chat up anybody I could. It wasn't actually NBC, it was Aspen Comics.

Originally, the contact was made by Vince Hernandez from Aspen Comics. I did a sample for Vince--I believe it was a four-page Fathom story. They dug that and then handed us over to Frank [Mastromauro], who was editing the Heroes graphic novels. We worked with him almost exclusively for the remaining graphic novels.

Travis, they asked you to do Fathers & Daughters first, right?

Yeah, they did. Actually I did that, with another artist who had already done some stories with them--Micah Gunnell. He's also got an Aspen book out there that's really cool. He had done a few [other graphic novels for Heroes]. For whatever reason, they needed a backup artist for this one story. That's how I got in. I did three out of five pages for that story. That was really cool because Mr. Bennet was one of the coolest characters. That was around the time when we were starting to figure out on the show that maybe he wasn't such a villain exactly. He was a bit more complex. That was around the time they were really starting to explore him. He was kind of one of my favorite characters, so it was really cool to draw him.


And you got to draw Eden's father.

Yeah. [laughs]

You kind of made him a schlub--it was a great characterization.

Yeah, that was based on Micah's [work], because Micah did the first two pages, and so he had already loosely designed Eden's father, so I just went off that. He designed Eden's dad, and I got those two pages to make sure everything would synch up.

And then they asked you to do the How Do You Stop an Exploding Man? series?

Yeah, that was the next one. Originally, they asked me to do the two-part story. By that time we were getting a bunch of clients from Jordan's work down in San Diego promoting us. Timewise, I could really only take on the first one. The natural way to do it was to bring Jordan in to finish the second part of the story.

I thought it was a very seamless transition. Were there any challenges in taking over Travis's work, Jordan?

Yeah--the main thing was trying to keep the consistency when I took on the project. One of the reasons our styles probably seemed pretty similar in this book is, since it was a two-part story, I wanted to keep it as consistent as possible. So I went off Travis's style a little bit more, probably, than I would do usually. And that was a slight challenge because getting Travis's style down perfect is a little harder for somebody else.

Yeah, it was an interesting exercise.

Exploding transport car.JPG

That was the main challenge. The good part about it was that going in to it, even though we agreed that I was penciling it, Travis would work as art director for it, since he was already invested in the project.

That was a suggestion Frank was definitely into. It's pretty easy for us to do that because we live just about five blocks away from each other. We both have our offices set up in our homes, so whenever we need to sit down face-to-face, it's just a breeze.

That's very convenient.

[Travis and Jordan together]:Yeah, it's awesome.

Now, the Exploding Man series, that was written by Jesse Alexander and Aron Coleite. Did they give you any direction of what they wanted from you? What kinds of things did they tell you?

Basically, at least on my part, I got the script and just went. You have about a week to push it out, and I'm assuming they just go on to the next story as quickly as possible because it's under a tight schedule.

There were actually times when the Heroes show production was so tight that we'd have to keep that schedule in mind, as well. So scripts would come pretty late in the game.

Excuse me.jpg

Did NBC give you any notes about your work?

You know, they dug the work. They dug the characterization of the actors, which was my biggest concern initially--capturing Jack Coleman in a way which didn't look like a photo-realistic rendering of the actor, because I didn't want to do that. I wanted to put more of my own comic style into it, but still make it definitely recognizable as Mr. Bennet. NBC dug it right off the bat. There were no changes as far as character likenesses go, so that was really cool. The only notes they ever gave us were character model stuff. For instance, the little tranquilizer guns that have the dual needles that leave the two little marks in the neck--those had not been seen yet in the show. The first one I drew was off model. So at the eleventh hour, they would say, "Oh, this is what the tranquilizer thing looks like."

You'd think they would've given you that information a bit earlier!

Well, they're so busy on the show, so...

And when we first got the script, they hadn't even hired the actor for Mr. Thompson yet--Eric Roberts. So I was halfway through designing my thumbnails, and I hadn't even gotten anything for him yet. It was really at the last minute that we got pictures of him. They said, "This is the actor. You need to make it look like him." So...

Yeah, the same thing happened with Hana, because Hana had not been seen yet. So we got pictures of the actress who played Hana quite late.

You did some very nice likenesses. Is that difficult to accomplish?

It can be a bit challenging, but it's more fun than anything. It's a great springboard for making the character more lively, more believable.

It was real fun with Ted because he had a lot of character, and he was just so stressed out.

[laughs] Yeah, he was a bit stressed out.

Yeah, and he was always so pissed off, it was fun to draw his face.

He wasn't so pissed off as he was just barely holding it together. [laughs]

That series was a very fun one to read. I like how it traveled a lot. It started out in LA and the desert, and then went up to Montana. It was neat to see how it jumped all over the place. Was that a challenge to draw all those places?

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Jordan, you can probably speak to this, too, since your chapter in the story jumped around more than mine. But it can be challenging to sell the concept of jumping around to different locations within such a short production. If you only have five pages to sell essentially four or five locations, that means you have to jump around multiple times on a page, quite often. So you'll have the desert, and then the lab. They're completely different areas. It can be somewhat challenging to sell those... [chuckles] It just means more backgrounds.

Yeah, definitely. One of the harder pages for me was when they put the trackers on the lion in the flashback. I was drawing it, and I was like, "Why am I drawing a Africa?" [everybody laughs] It took a couple of shots to convey that that was something Ted didn't experience, but that he was being told about instead.

Yeah, the rumor is that the lion is going to play a serious role in Season Two. [everybody laughs]

Thanks for that spoiler--much appreciated!

Yeah, I think the fans will dig that.

"That lion is back! He's more powerful than a dinosaur!"

That's great!... Are there any plans for you guys to do any more work on Heroes?

We've sort of kept the door open with Aspen. I'm not sure that we have something coming up in the near future, but time permitting, we'd love to do more.

Yeah, they said they'd like to work with us again, and eventually we'd like to work together again. We've just got to get some of the projects out of the way. [chuckles]

It's a matter of time and scheduling--that's part of the freelance challenge.

We'd love to see more from you guys. My last question--Travis, you told me that the gun salesman was Walter from The Big Lebowski. That was a great little cameo. Was there anything else hidden like that in the novels?

Gun salesman.JPG

Hidden stuff? Nah, most everything was pretty straightforward. I mean, the script just said, "Ted buys supplies from an army surplus guy." You know, I drew a generic army surplus guy, and I think most artists would tell you that drawing generic, throwaway characters is never that fun because you're always concentrating on really cool characters, like Ted. So I was like, "Man, this character just looks generic." So oftentimes, I'll try to use a friend or somebody that I know as a likeness to make it more believable. In this case, it just seemed fun. And, sometimes when you're working the long hours, you're just trying to amuse yourself. You know, I honestly didn't think that anybody would catch it.

Oh, we caught it! [everybody laughs]

That was a situation where it worked perfectly. Sometimes when you try to throw something funny in there, it may not work. That was a situation where it just worked completely perfectly.

That's great. Well, thank you guys for your comments and your time. We really appreciate it.

No problem. We're big into the fan community. We're huge fans ourselves.

That, and we're hoping Season Two is as good as Season One.

Here's hoping the same thing!

Interviews edit

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Graphic Novel Crew

Robert AtkinsMicah GunnellR.D. HallJoe KellyChuck KimKotzebue brothersRyan OdagawaJG RoshellMark Sable

Specific Works

BlackoutDark Mattersdirectors / writerDestinyEvs DropperGolden HandshakeInto the WildiStory (follow up) • Nowhere Mandirectors / writersThe RecruitRoot and BranchSlow Burn

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