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| Courtesy Jake Parker
Comic Con: Utah artist Jake Parker adventures into a gentler universe
Comic Con » The movies behind him, an artist influenced by Miyazaki, Bill Watterson and Mike Mignola loves being on his own.
First Published Sep 04 2014 01:30 pm • Last Updated Sep 05 2014 03:28 pm

Jake Parker figures fate put a comic shop next to his mother’s favorite fabric store.

"As soon as I stepped over the threshold, I knew I was home," Parker said. "That day, I discovered that there was way more to comics and to superheroes than just Superman, Batman and The Flash and Wonder Woman. What became apparent to me was there was entire universes that I never even knew about."

Through comic books and comic strips, the Utah artist fell in love with telling stories through art and has never gone back. After a career in the movie business, working with Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios on the likes of "Titan A.E.," "Epic," "Rio" and "Horton Hears a Who," Parker ventured out on his own to freelance and create his own universe. It was scary at first, with no promise of success. But 14 published works later, including children’s books and entries in the "Flight" comics anthology series like the beautiful "The Robot and the Sparrow," Parker has done well in his own world.

Before you catch him at his booth at Salt Lake Comic Con, we caught up with him to hear about why "Calvin and Hobbes" is so influential, the excitement of working freelance and the funny reason he turned away from more "hardcore" art in favor of a gentler touch.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What hooked you into comics, and what about the medium has engaged you as an artist?

That day [I first walked into the comic store] I ended up walking out with a copy of "Uncanny X-Men" and on the way home. I started reading the adventures of Wolverine, Storm and Cyclops, and I would say that is when I got hooked. I was probably 12 or 13 years old. So, reading those stories about mutants and cyborg SWAT teams and robot racing – because not only did I get into other American comics, like Marvel Comics and Dark Horse Comics, but I got into Japanese comics as well.

So I’m sitting here reading these stories, and of course I wanted to start drawing stories like that. And the appeal to me was, as an artist, my skill with the visual far surpassed my aptitude with the word. So I could draw a scene way better than I could describe it. So comics were the perfect fit for that.

What motivated you to go freelance after your stints with studios like Fox and Big Sky? Is it intimidating to be out on your own?

I would say it’s the drive to spend more time and creative energy on my own work that is ultimately what led me to leave the animation world. I just had so many projects and stories I wanted to tell and to work on, that really the desire to work on a small part of another big film just didn’t excite me at all. So I left. And at first, it was really scary. There were months where I didn’t have any income because clients or projects would just fall through. But since then, I’ve learned how to weather the storm. And actually now I quite like being on my toes. Every day, I wake up wanting to just run down to my studio and get started on working on the next thing.

I heard that you see "The Robot and the Sparrow" as your favorite comic. What about it are you proud of, and are there ways that you’re trying to build on that in your current work?

Yeah, I look at "The Robot and the Sparrow" as sort of a love letter to Bill Watterson, the creator of "Calvin and Hobbes." That was a huge, influential comic in my life growing up. Before I ever got into comic-book comics, I was reading newspaper comics all the time. And of course, "Calvin and Hobbes" really stuck out, because it was beautiful and it was witty and it was well written — and so I was just completely drawn to it. And when I was writing a story for "Flight" — this was the second volume of "Flight" that "Robot and the Sparrow" was in – I naturally gravitated toward the friendship and the love between two characters.

And I think at the time I didn’t realize I was being influenced by "Calvin and Hobbes," but I realized as I went through and I tried to pack in as much exposition and story and emotion that I could in those 10 short pages, that I really relied heavily on what Bill Watterson had done. He would only have four panels a day to get a point across, and on Sunday he would have just one block of images to tell a complete story. And here I was, working with 10 pages. And so I used a lot of the tricks and a lot of the techniques that he used to try to tell a lot of the story in a little amount of space. And the story is really about the loss of a loved one and how you deal with that loss, and so I guess on many levels it’s fun, it’s happy, it’s sad and it’s touching, and I don’t think I’ve created anything that touches on all those points since then, and done it so succinctly, and that’s why I look at it as my favorite comic. What’s kind of sad is I did that in 2003, and I think I’ve gotten to be a better artist and a better storyteller, but I don’t think that kind of story has quite come out of me since then.

There’s a gentleness to a lot of your work — did that predate having children, or did they influence that?

Having children is a huge impact on my work. Here’s a funny story: in my early 20s, I liked to draw a lot of really hardcore, awesome stuff — babes with big guns and dudes with large knives and I was into just really edgy, cool things. And the women were in very skin-tight clothing, and the men were very muscular, and it was all stuff that I was kind of into in my teens and sort of bleeding into my 20s. And I got an email one day from a kid who said ‘Dear Jake Parker, I love your work, I think it’s the coolest thing ever, but my mom says I’m not allowed to go to your website. She says it’s not very respectable to women and she’s raising me Mormon and she doesn’t want me going on websites like that. But I just wanted to let you know that I still love your work, regardless of what my mom says.’

That e-mail had a huge impact on me. I realized now that what I work on and what I draw actually has an impact on other people, and what is my story? What’s my narrative? Is it just about being cool and killing and sexiness, or do I have something bigger and something more personal to say?

So that’s when my work started shifting and also happened around the same time that I had kids, and do I want to create artwork that my kids respect, and are proud of and will actually be into, and not anything that I have to hide from my children?

About five years later, a good friend of mine, I was talking to him and he’s like "Jake, you used to draw real cool, edgy stuff. I miss that Jake Parker, what happened to him? How come you don’t do that anymore?" I said oh, I got this email that was kind of the catalyst of it all, and I told him about this email that I got from this kid. And my friend was silent. I’m like dude, what’s up? What’s wrong? And he said "Ah man, nothing." And I said come on tell me, what’s the deal? What does it have to do with anything?

He said "Jake, I sent you that email as a joke. I was just playing a trick on you, and I was just kidding around, and I never told you that I actually sent that email."

I was like what? You sent me that email? I was like dude, that e-mail had a huge impact on me, [and] if you don’t like the work I’m doing now, it’s your fault because you sent me that email. And so we always laugh at that.

I’ve read you approach drawing machines the same way you would drawing a character, which reminds me of the animism that I see in the Miyazaki, another one of your influences. Could you talk about the artists who have influenced you?

I would say there are four or five major influential artists in my life. Number one would be Bill Watterson … and what I get from him is a sense of playfulness and a sense of energy in drawing, and so I try to make sure my art has the energy that Bill Watterson’s has. Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, has a very, very cool style and a very strong sense of telling a story with sequential imagery. And so he’s influenced me primarily as far as composition, and how I compose an image, and also layout of the comic page — how I draw a reader’s eye from panel to panel, and from idea to idea.

These three artists I kind of group together: they’re Dave Johnson, who is an American comic book artist; Masamune Shiro, who is a Japanese comic book artist; and Ukito Kushiro, another Japanese one. Those three guys have a beautiful approach to drawing machinery, and … they’re my instructors and my schooling for how to draw machines. And so I just looked at what they did and I tried to apply it to my own stuff. So those five, and the sixth one would be [Hayao] Miyazaki as well, and I love the way that he approaches his work and his approach to creativity, and his ideas and his concepts I would say that they are thing I draw mostly from there.

Lastly, I remember seeing your booth before. What’s your take on Salt Lake Comic Con’s event? What do the attendees seem to be responding to the most, and what should they keep an eye out for at your booth?

Salt Lake Comic Con, it’s getting there. It’s a cool convention, and I think it’s still finding its legs – and by a cool convention, I mean the people who come out are really good fans, and I like that. The convention itself I think is still finding its spirit, its voice, trying to figure out what it’s going to provide to the community. I mean this is only its third time in its second year, so who’s to say? But I think it’s getting there. I’ve been to a bunch of conventions and they all kind of have their feel and their community, what they’re into, so I like the convention. And I’m actually excited to be attending it. I’m glad to have it in my backyard.

So I have a handful of new prints that I’ve created exclusive to this convention that I haven’t sold anywhere else, so I’d have people come out and check those out.

mmcfall@sltrib.com

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