-Written by Kevin de Vlaming
Michael Cho is a pretty awesome guy.
After pondering how to write an introductory statement about the Toronto-based illustrator and cartoonist for several minutes, this is what I’ve come up with. And it probably fits better than anything else I could have started with.
Speaking to him for just thirty or so minutes, his energy and optimistic outlook become readily apparent and, in fact, contagious. A new Dad and a fantastically gifted illustrator, between these two things and his successful foray into online comics, it’s not difficult to see why Cho is smiling in most of his gouache-and-ink self portraits.
Michael Cho has made name for himself in webcomics with the beautifully drawn Papercut, which presents a series of short comic stories each uniquely separate from the other. A Papercut story could come in any form, from historic non-fiction to a poetically-told lament on giving up smoking.
He is also a member of the Transmission X collective of webcomic creators, and has a frequently-updated sketchbook blog which showcases his comic art as well as some of the work he does in his day job as a professional illustrator.
Cho, who has been working as a full time illustrator for over ten years, didn’t always imagine he would find himself in this line of work.
In fact, after graduating from the Ontario College of Art, he tried his hand at a variety of different professions – each of which he describes as being ‘blazing failures’. Some of these ventures into the wonderful world of post-art-school careers included a storyboarding stint, post-production work for special effects companies, and painting ten foot by ten foot wall paintings that didn’t seem to be selling as well as Cho would’ve liked.
He was able, however, to make some money mural painting – a profession which required climbing scaffoldings at night to paint giant pictures on the sides of walls.
“I basically hated all of those careers,” says Cho, laughing, “Then one day a friend of mine asked me to apply at a theatre company that was looking for an illustrator. They wanted someone to do designs for the backdrops that were going to be projected onto the stage. So I went in and did some drawings, and I had a pretty good time doing the job. Then they gave me tickets to the show, and I remember being just floored because they had taken some of the drawings I had done in gouache and they had painted them onto the set. I used to be the guy who had to do that. I used to be the guy on scaffolding painting according to the plans given to me by the designer, and instead now I was on the other side doing the little drawings on paper.”
Cho says that was the point where he realized professional illustration was something he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Fans of Cho’s work will note that his illustrative style is very uniquely identifiable. He works primarily with gouache and ink, using the two to create fundamental, two-tone images which possess a high impact, almost retro sort of feel.
“I’ve been doing two-tone gouache and ink drawings more or less since the beginning,” he says, ” One of the very, very first illustration assignments I did was for an autobiographical book that a friend of mine had written to be published through a small press in Toronto. Because he was a friend of mine, he gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted, and so I ended up doing fifty drawings in gouache and ink over the course of a month, and those were done in two-tone with those basic elements. Also when I came out of school, gouache was one of the few things I had going for me. These days when you go to art school they don’t teach you fundamentals, they teach you concepts. ”
Though Cho has been using gouache and ink throughout his career as an illustrator, Cho acknowledges that his style has definitely matured with time. He points out that back when he first started, he focused heavily on line art and used gouache primarily as tone, whereas nowadays the line art emphasis is gone and it’s more of a painterly process.
When asked about his top artistic influences, Cho is hesitant to narrow them down. Reluctantly, he manages to whittle the wide range of artists who have inspired his work down to just three: Noel Sickles, Roy Crane, and Jaime Hernandez.
“Noel Sickles is definitely number one. He’s the guy who invented the comic book style. Way before Kirby, way before Will Eisner or anybody else, the comic book artists all learned their crafts from looking at the comic strip artists – and the comic strip artists learned their craft from Noel Sickles. He pioneered this high contrast, chiaroscuro style of putting down black brilliantly on a page to make his drawings pop. For me, Sickles was really important because when I was trying to figure out how to do lighting and how to spot black properly, he was the guy I learned the majority of my stuff from.”
Samples of Cho’s work can be found in abundance on his sketchbook blog, which he has been updating regularly for three and a half years. Cho credits his online sketchbook (also known as a sketchblog) as being hugely helpful in bringing in exposure for his work.
“I originally set up a website for myself as an illustrator in like 1995, and I coded it myself,” says Cho, “But back then if you wanted to update it, it would take forever – you’d have to write the code, and you had to wait for the images to upload, and all this junk. So I left that website static for like six years, with a message saying one day I would update it – because I just didn’t want to do it, man. Then one day I was checking out the blog of buddy J. Bone, who’s also a very talented artist, and I wanted to leave a comment on one of his posts. Blogger at the time wouldn’t let you make a post on someone else’s blog unless you had one of your own, so I created one and it took five minutes – it was the perfect solution to the problem I’d had where I wanted to update regularly, without it taking forever to do.”
In addition to maintaining a regular sketchblog, Cho also utilizes Twitter to stay connected with fans and peers in the comic book and illustration industry. He acknowledges that social media is something that many contemporary comic artists have jumped on as a useful tool in building a name for themselves in the industry.
“We’re, like, total internet hoes,” he jokes, “I think social media has become a big thing especially for Canadian artists, because we’re so spread out. It’s a little different with Toronto, which I bet if you mapped out would have more comic creators per capita than almost any other city out there.”
You could say that Michael Cho has more than a passing familiarity with the Canadian comic community, between his sketchblog, webcomic, and membership in the widely successful webcomic collective Transmission X. Transmission X is in itself a unique example of Canadians finding new ways to come together in an era when digital media is fast becoming the standard for modern artists to promote their work within.
Cho agrees that the progressive attitude of Canadian artists in this regard is one factor that has led to the current popularity of many Canuck webcomics across North America. He is quick, however, to add that there are many other significant reasons behind this trend.
“In terms of comics, Canadians are confident in their own voice,” says Cho, “They’re not afraid to do their own thing and put it out there. Canadians are also very diverse in the comics that they read, and that shows up in their approach to webcomics as well. For example, everybody at Transmission X works on different kinds of stories – my stories are very different from, say, Ramon’s stuff, which is very different from McLachlan’s stuff. But when we were starting up, when we were initially showing each other the mock-ups and the layouts for our work everybody was able to critique and contribute ideas in a very balanced way.
You get the stereotype sometimes where the guy who likes superheroes looks at indie stuff and goes, ‘I don’t get it man, why do you want to write this crap’, and the indie guy goes ‘well screw you superhero guy, life isn’t all about punching lizard men!’ I’m always gratified that the guys at Transmission X all read a wide variety of comics, and they can appreciate good quality work regardless of what genre it’s in.”
Cho originally became involved with Transmission X as a means to create an outlet for his own creative illustration which would be purely whatever he wanted it to be, with no real thought towards making money from it.
“When I made Papercut for Transmission X, it was for me to create the stories I wanted to create and put them out there to see if other people would like them,” says Cho, “It was never about turning it into merchandise, or hoping to one day option it as a film. Webcomics for me was not really an alternate publishing route to owning my material and gaining a bigger slice of the profit pie. Webcomics for me was just a natural extension of me doing zines as a kid – instead of going to Kinko’s and photocopying a comic and going around distributing it, I could put it online and get feedback on it right away.”
If you’ve been to check out Papercut recently, you probably noticed that Cho is currently on hiatus from the webcomic. The reason for this was an important development in his personal life – last year, Michael Cho became a Dad.
“Being a Dad has been an adventure, man,” says Cho, “I had to go on hiatus because I just couldn’t devote the time needed to a webcomic with a new baby daughter. It’s kind of like being in the best army of all time, in that you get more done by 7am than most people get done in their entire day. It’s been a wonderful, awe-inspiring, and at times, a little bit frightening of an experience. The best quote I’ve heard about being a Dad is that having a baby girl will give you a reason to smile every day, and it’s absolutely true. It just gives you a hell of a lot of perspective.”
Cho is planning on ending the hiatus sometime early next year. He’s currently working on building several stories in whatever free time he can scrounge in between spending time with his daughter, and doing the illustrative work he does for profit.
For more from Michael Cho, you can visit his sketchblog, Twitter feed, Illoz portfolio, and the Papercut webcomic.