Interview with Ian Nichols, Creator of Hellena and Founder of Fat Cat Funnies

A little over a year ago, I attended the South Attleboro Comic, Card, & Toy Show in MA., and it was there where I first met artist Ian Nichols. The artwork he had on display and spread across his table caught my attention instantly. I also noticed that he was available for commissions at the show. I asked him if he was open to the idea of working on a commission piece for me and he said, “Sure! What do you have in mind?”

At the time, I was on the hunt for a respectable copy of the first appearance of Thanos (Iron-Man Vol.1 #55), but I wasn’t having any luck – none at all. Since I had Thanos on my mind, I asked Ian if he could draw him facing off against one of my favorite DC villains ever – Darkseid. While Ian was working on the commission, we shared a few laughs and even had a conversation about Minor League Baseball. Yeah, that’s right…Minor League Baseball. What are the odds of having a discussion about the Minor Leagues at a comic book show? Probably not high at all! That was certainly fun though, and of course, talking about comics in general, was also great.

Here is Ian’s incredibe Thanos vs. Darkseid commission:

A few months later, I caught up with Ian again. We shared even more laughs than before and I walked away with another commissioned art piece:

Al Mega shared Ian’s work on your very favorite website for pop culture, comic book reviews, news and interviews (comiccrusaders.com of course!) as well as on social media. Here are some of my comments that I wrote that day on Google + about Ian:

I have to admit, I am big fan of Ian Nichols’ work. This isn’t the first time that his artwork has found its way into my home. He has an uncanny ability to jump into your mind, see what it is you’re envisioning, and then top it. What more could you possibly ask for out of an artist? All I said to him was, “Ian, how about a Spider-Gwen?” This was the result. I truly admire and appreciate Ian’s work, and best of all, we had a great time while he was drawing this. What that really means to me is that Ian is all about the fan experience….

Ian has been hard at work with his own publishing label, Fat Cat Funnies, primarily focusing on a very promising comic book character named Hellena. Hellena’s number one issue is set to debut at this summer’s Boston Comic Con.

I’ve had the pleasure recently of catching up with Mr. Nichols to further discuss his comic label, his character Hellena, and to also talk about some of his achievements and experiences in the industry.

You and I have spoken about this before since we both actively collect comic books, but would you mind sharing with our readers what your very first comic book was and what did you take away from that experience?

The 1991 Marvel Holiday Special was my first comic book. It’s considered a throw-away in the minds readers and collectors alike. However, there are legitimate reasons why they’re wrong! The book featured the work of Art Adams on Fantastic Four, Ron Garney’s first Spider-Man work, Dave Cockrum’s return to The All-New, All-Different Uncanny X-Men, Ron Lim on Captain America, Howard Mackie and John Hebert on Ghost Rider, Walt and Louise Simonson, Joe Sinnott, Dan Panosian… this book was by some of the industry’s best creators. The book had great creators, complete stories, and a ton of pages for about two bucks; it was the perfect gateway drug.

Who was your first favorite comic book character and why? Are you still a fan of that character?

In the 1991 Marvel Holiday Special I discovered the X-Men, and I discovered Colossus. He has been my favorite X-man ever since. He’s an artist and a pacifist with great strength. I’ve always felt that he would opt to absorb a painful blow to protect someone rather than deliver a blow to harm someone. That, along with all of the things that made the X-Men appealing to young people, combined with the cool design, was more than enough. To this day, I still commission other artists to draw him for me at conventions.

When did you realize that you had a gift for drawing? What, or whom, inspired you to keep on doing so?

There was never really a time when I wasn’t drawing. I have no memory of discovering art; it was always just a part of my life. My parents were very supportive, and even as a young child they introduced me to their friends and our relatives that were artists—professional painters and artists like Marshall DuBock, Alvin Hull, and Betty (EB) Munier. They taught me things very early on, and I was selling paintings by the time I was 12, and I was published by 15.

What was your first published artwork and where could we find it? What went through your mind and how did you react when your artwork first went public?

My first published comic-related works were for a comic shop in Columbus, Ohio that also published small press comics called Midgard Comics. They had a book called Johnnie Zombie that my pal Nate Lovett did the art for. I started on backgrounds and eventually graduated to illustrating.

The highlight of that time period was getting to ink a story by Darryl Banks when I was 18. Darryl had just come off the longest run on Green Lantern since Gil Kane! I did my best, but I was so nervous. On some of the pages I absolutely destroyed the integrity of Darryl’s work (sorry bud!). For the most part, I stayed out of the way enough to not harm the storytelling. To add insult to injury, I penciled and inked the backup story of that issue, and some of the art is abhorrent. At that time, I made Fletcher Hanks look like Norman Rockwell.

The books don’t really exist in print, but you can see the pages of Darryl’s pencils that I inked in my CAF gallery:

Darryl Banks Gallery: http://comicartfans.com/galleryroom.asp?gsub=125618

Main Gallery/Art Collection: http://comicartfans.com/gallerydetail.asp?gcat=17007

To see the stuff actually printed was an absolute thrill that I still feel every time my work is published. Then, after I look at it too much, I completely tear apart my own work, and I find reasons that my contribution to ‘project X’ is no longer representative of my best work.

When did you decide that you wanted to create your own comics?

I worked for Midgard until my sophomore year of college. After that, I did other comic gigs for beer money for independents, newspapers, and the like. At that time, I was doing more fine art exhibitions of my paintings and drawings. In the summer that I graduated from Curry College, I did a solo fine art exhibition at the Whaling Museum on Nantucket. Lots of people came, I made money selling the art, but it just didn’t sit right with me. It wasn’t my crowd, and I really wasn’t engaged in the subject matter of popular and profitable fine art. That exhibit also showed me that Fine Art is for the wealthy, and I believe that Art should be for everyone. With comics, you get a whole exhibition that fits in your pocket for a few bucks: portraits, landscapes, seascapes, and a myriad of other pieces that come together to create a story.

In response to that, I made a comic called “Small Town Type,” and that fall I did my first Boston Comic Con. I worked at a print shop then, so I wrote, drew, printed, folded, stapled… it was as small press as it gets.

What’s Fat Cat Funnies and how did that come to fruition?

Fat Cat Funnies is my self-publishing comic book label that was named after my late cat, Fatty, in the basement apartment that I had in Quincy, MA. My buddy, Jay Kennedy and I have done most of the books that the label has produced to this point.

You have collaborated with a number of established creators in the industry. Would you mind naming a few of them and list some of the projects that were worked on?

In Hellena, I have been extremely blessed to have an incredible group of creators agree to work on the book and support the project. Some of them are done with their art, others I am still awaiting.

Ralph Reese, Joe St. Pierre, Rich Buckler, Mike Vosburg, Pat Broderick, Tony Salmons, Hannibal King, Alan Weiss, Fred Hembeck, Ernie Colon, Joe Rubinstein, Bob Almond, Darryl Banks, and my old pal Nate Lovett. I also brought in people that I think are legitimately talented folks that haven’t yet worked for the big two. I feel they do excellent work: Chris Campana, Tony Sedani, Frankie Washington, Paul Gould, Scott Hamilton, Jeff McClelland and Derek Adnams.

Outside of Hellena, I’ve worked with Darryl Banks (as stated above); I worked with Bobby Curnow at IDW on a con-exclusive TMNT cover a couple of years ago. I also did a book called Imaginary Drugs for IDW with Jeff McClelland. That’s a guy people should watch, he can write well and he can do something that is even harder: He can write comedy well. We’ve also done some work on The Tick for NEC together.

Who is Hellena?

Hellena is the lead character of my latest book of the same name. She wields a haunted axe on adventures in a fantastical world where monsters and mythical creatures dwell.

Could you supply 13 personality traits that best describe Hellena?

She is strong, combative, impulsive, shrewd, angry, short, unkempt, impatient, cunning, determined, loyal, curious, and fictional.

IMPRESSIVE!

Can you walk us through the creative process with your Hellena book?

On a long airplane ride to visit my parents, I sketched out what would become the character Hellena, and I came up with the name. I thought of a basic story, then I did an outline—basically ‘X’ happens, therefore this, then this, therefore this, etc. It’s a method that forces me to move things along and make sure plot points have some purpose, rather than just showing a series of meaningless actions. Then, I did a series of thumbnails (small quick sketches that show panel layout, pacing, and action), and as I’m fleshing out visuals, I come up with most of the dialog. I am not a natural writer, so I act out scenes physically. I waive my arms around like a crazy person, and I do the voices of the characters. Many of the characters sound like the villains from the Spider-Man cartoon from the 60’s or The Super Friends. After this, I do full-sized 11×17 preliminary drawings, scan them into the computer, then print out a blueline copy that I pencil and apply ink. I scan those in, digitally color it in photoshop, and then I letter in Illustrator.

What can the fans expect from the Hellena series and where is it available?

Fans can expect high adventure with an angry short woman who wields a haunted axe on a quest to free her parents from damnation, alongside her brother and mage companion. There will be tons of monsters, exotic locations, and action (with a touch of humor). Anyone who is interested in exploring new fantasy stories should give it a chance, but it should especially appeal to comic readers who enjoyed Bronze Age (1970’s) fantasy books like Savage Sword of Conan, Kull, Beowulf, Claw, Voltar, etc.

This is my first book geared for a mature audience. Some of my colleagues have asked why I’m not making books that are appropriate for kids all the time. My reason for doing this is: I’m not going to limit myself to a PG-rated story if it would be better as an R-rated story. I don’t believe that it’s in the best interest of a story to first sit down and make a list of words that you can’t use before you start writing.

I’m handling the main story and art chores. I’ll be bringing in the best talent that I can afford and is interested in growing the characters with backup stories and pinups. I’m always looking for folks, so hit up the website if you are a writer or an artist. I would like to note that I am in dire need of more women creators. I want more diverse stories, so I need more diverse creators.

Hellena #1 will debut at the 2015 Boston Comic Con. It will be available at convention appearances and store signings. I’ll be distributing the books to comic shops all over MA, CT, and NH beginning with New England Comics, JP Comics, Rubber Chicken Comics, Friendly Neighborhood Comics, Hub Comics, Bedrock, Comicopia, and Million Year Picnic. I will post a complete list of shops that carry the books on fatcatfunnies.com (If anyone has a local comic shop that supports self-published books, please let me know, I’d be happy to send them samples to see if Hellena is something that they would like to carry). I will be submitting it to Comixology, and there will be a print-on-demand option for folks outside of New England that want a printed copy. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter to keep up-to-date.

What’s on the horizon for Fat Cat Funnies?

It grows slowly and steadily each year. This year, I’ve invested in hiring other creators to produce new work, and to see how the market reacts to their efforts. Should that prove financially viable, I can see the lines continuing to expand. Our comics will be available digitally later this year. Pending results, I will be exploring the possibility of approaching Diamond distributors. That’s assuming that Hellena continues to be self-published. I am entirely open to working with a bigger publisher like IDW, Dark Horse, Image, Action Lab, etc.

Because this the 13th question and I am the 13th Crusader, that means there is a chance that I’m going to ask you something that might not be so easy to answer – Which commissioned art piece was the most difficult for you to draw and why? Please don’t say it’s any of the ones you drew for me!

The hardest ones for me are actually pretty common requests. If I have the time needed, I can draw pretty much anything. It’s when people ask for their likenesses put into superhero identities at conventions. “Can you draw my kid as Superboy?” “Can you draw my girlfriend as Wonder Woman?” Likenesses take me a painstakingly long time, and generally people want these pieces in the same amount of time (and money) as any other convention sketch. I would prefer a request for Spider-Man in Times Square on New Year’s Eve 1,000 times over a family portrait as the Justice League at a show.

Ian, thank you for taking the time to answer my 13 questions! Very much appreciated!

Don’t forget to check out the Advance Review of Hellena #1, in our reviews section!

For more info about Fat Cat Funnies, go to http://www.fatcatfunnies.com/

For a preliminary version of the 13th Crusader’s latest commissioned art piece by Ian Nichols, look no further! Batman vs. Ninjak!

 

Until next time Crusaders!

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