The Back of the Art


I don’t really write much about working at Dark Horse, but now and again details jump out at me as something that pre-Dark Horse me would have found interesting, things that I’d never have even thought about before. Here’s one:

Today the artwork for the latest issue of Usagi Yojimbo came in from Stan Sakai, a nine or so times a year occurrence that always makes for the best days of my job. As the assistant editor on the series, my responsibility when Stan sends in artwork is to first make sure he’s erased all the pencils and erase myself whatever he’s missed, file away the FedEx slip so the shipment is properly billed, fill in Stan’s voucher for Usagi editor Diana Schutz’s signature, and make photocopies of the art for myself, Diana and a few others. Then, before I send the artwork upstairs to be scanned, I read the issue from Stan’s original art boards.

The days Stan’s art comes in is so exciting for several reasons. For one, not everyone sends in physical artwork. Home scanners and the ability to tweak art digitally have made receiving pages by e-mail or FTP increasingly common. Rarer still is getting art that’s lettered by hand and can be read directly from the boards. It doesn’t hurt, either, that I have been a big fan of Usagi Yojimbo for over ten years, beginning long before I worked on the series or in comics at all. Lastly, when I go through the artwork, I get to see something almost no one else sees: the back of the art.

I’ve never been a collector of original art, since I don’t have the money, so Dark Horse is the first place that I’ve had regular contact with original pages. What appeared in the margins or on the back literally never crossed my mind, so it was surprising to start dealing with pages and learn that there are in fact all kinds of things on the side of the paper that isn’t seen by readers. While artists are working, the nearest writing surface is the Bristol board they’re drawing on, so it’s not unusual to find to-do lists, phone numbers, shopping lists, even recipes on the flip side of the art, presumably scribbled when artists answer the phone at the drawing table or take a break to look something up.

The reverse side of Stan’s art boards also boast the occasional character design, thumbnail or, on some of the older art we have in-house for reprints, drawings by his kids. He also draws things to amuse or greet the Dark Horse editorial and production staffs, like the Thanksgiving wishes above. An office favorite was born out of a conversation between Stan and Usagi designer Cary Grazzini, who mentioned to Stan that he’d thought a recipe on the back of one of the pages was good. The next issue featured a back page in which Usagi accosted the “moron” Dark Horse guys who wasted time looking at the back of the pages when Stan had worked for a month on the art on the front. The following page featured a bashful Usagi apologizing, saying Stan was working him very hard in his latest adventures and that people at Dark Horse could look at the back of any page they wanted, even the blank ones.

In an art form usually experienced through mechanical reproductions, it’s always exciting to hold original artwork that is the product of human hands, and it’s especially rewarding to discover these additional signs of the artists behind them. Since starting at Dark Horse and handling the artwork of Stan and others, I’ve become curious about the things that appear in the marginalia and on the back of the art of other artists. Any collectors, editors or others care to chime in?

PS: There are a few reason I don’t write about Dark Horse, the main one being that it’s my job. I love working there, but I’m not really interested in getting home from work and then writing about work (the frequency of my posting should make it clear that even coming home and writing generally about comics takes motivation on my part). Writing about one’s workplace is also a bit fraught, what with office politics, NDAs, and the things people may read into reports that are too negative or too positive.

However, someone who has written well about working in comics is my friend and excellent coworker Rachel Edidin. Her column “InsideOut” is mainly about women’s issues and queer issues in comics, but she has also written smartly about the assistant editor game on a couple of occasions, including her “Day in the Life” of an assistant editor at Dark Horse. I recommend reading her for both subjects.


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8 Responses to “The Back of the Art”

  1. Stan Says:

    Sergio returned from a trip to Tahiti with his family years ago, and gave me the Groo pages he was working on there. On the backs were wonderful water color paintings of landscapes, sunsets, and the hut-over-the-water that they stayed in.

    Stan Sakai

  2. Maka Says:

    Thanks Brendan. It was really interesting to learn that most comic artist don’t submit original art any more. Thanks for taking the time to share your work stories. Peace, maka

  3. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Nov. 20, 2009: I work here too Says:

    […] [Commentary] The back of the art Link: Brendan Wright […]

  4. Brendan Wright Says:


    I don’t know that I’d say most artists don’t turn in originals, but digital delivery is becoming increasingly common. Actually, I just learned this morning that Sergio is among those who no longer sends in art boards, which means we’re missing whatever marginalia or paintings he’s including. Stan, the landscapes on those Groo pages from a few years back sound wonderful.


  5. snikt snakt Says:

    had no idea people still use the term “queers” anymore… :-O

  6. Brendan Wright Says:

    I’m definitely not the right person to explain this properly, but the short story is—they’re takin’ it back!

  7. Clint Hollingsworth Says:

    A few years ago, I bought one of the “Mad Smith” pages that Mr. Sakai did for SHI (I think). It had his mom’s recipe for Tsunemono…. :)

  8. Jeremy Barlow Says:

    I was Diana’s assistant for a couple years, and getting that FedEx box from Stan was always a highlight. He’s a gentlemen and a professional in every sense, and I wish comics had a hundred more like him.

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