Breaking into the comic book industry is no walk in the park, but then, would you expect it to be when guys like Caanan White set the bar so high for aspiring artists? After getting his start doing cover illustrations for fantasy novels, Caanan has given the comic book world some of its most surreal and breathtakingly beautiful artwork in books like “The Harlem Hellfighters” and the “Uber” series.
Caanan’s latest work as an artist is in the newly released graphic novel “Son of Shaolin“, which he illustrates with such dynamic skill and craftsmanship, both in the overall artistry and in its martial arts sequences specifically, that the book’s upcoming film adaptation practically has no need for storyboards whatsoever!
Today, Caanan sits down with KFK to share his story of getting started in the comic book industry and the process of bringing the modern-day kung fu fable “Son of Shaolin” to life!
Hi Caanan, thank you for taking some time out with us today, hope you’re well?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great and thanks for having me here on Kung Fu Kingdom!
Awesome! Well, why don’t we begin with how you first got started in your career as a comic book artist?
It started back in 2003 when I was flipping through “Wizard Magazine”. At the time, they were really big and kind of like what sites like Bleeding Cool are today, and they listed a lot of different websites where you could post your artwork if you were really interested in breaking into the comics industry.
So after I started doing that, I got the attention of a few indie companies that liked my stuff, and I got my first gig doing artwork for a fantasy novel for called “Ptolus” that Monte Cook, one of the writers of the “Dungeons and Dragons” games, wrote for Marvel when they were expanding into some new things. Then, in 2008, I started doing artwork for Avatar Press on two of their books, “Uber”, which was written by Kieron Gillen, and “The Harlem Hellfighters”, which was written by Max Brooks, and everything just took off from there.
Nice! illustrating for “World War Z” author Max Brooks must’ve been a dream job! So, what advice would you give to aspiring comic book artists or people hoping to work in the comic book industry?
Definitely make sure it’s something you want to do, for starters. If it’s more than just a hobby and you want it to be a career, you need to draw everyday like it’s your job already. It’s like being a pilot, they won’t let you touch the controls until you’ve logged so many hours of flight time. You should also find an artist whose style you really like and study it, how they do different structures, muscles, light, shadows, etc.
Then from there, draw from things you see around you in your life. It could even be someone you see on a bus or train, but try not to be creepy about it. (Both laugh) Then, combine the two, and you’ll start to see your own style develop. You may have to work for pennies when you’re starting out, but know your worth too, and you’ll earn your place at the table with the Jim Lee’s and Rob Liefeld’s of the world.
Well said! On that note, what can you tell us about getting involved with “Son of Shaolin”?
Well, Ryan Kalil saw my work on “The Harlem Hellfighters” and was really impressed, so he contacted me about illustrating the book. To me, the story is everything and the artist’s job is to make the story shine. I really liked the way that Jay wrote “Son of Shaolin”, because at its core, it’s about Kyrie discovering that there’s more to him than meets the eye, and when you see him in the first twenty or so pages, when he’s confronted with who he really is, he runs.
He’s a lot like Spider-Man, in that when you peel everything away, he’s just a kid from Queens who got bitten by a spider, and Kyrie’s just a kid from Harlem who finds out he’s part of this lineage of Shaolin warriors. So, it was definitely a great book to illustrate.
And your artwork is absolutely astonishing! So, what can you share about the process of creating the artwork for a graphic novel like “Son of Shaolin”?
We really wanted the book to represent New York, and I always want the reader to feel like they’re in the environment of the book, so we really studied the look of New York to make it feel authentic. We also used Jaden Smith as the model for Kyrie. A lot of times, even black artists give a bit of a generic look to ethnic characters and in Kyrie’s case, he’s both African-American and Asian. So there’s a lot of studying references ensuring that that aspect is reflected in his look. As far as the process, I try give each panel a cinematic feel. If you think of creating a comic book like filming a movie, that changes your whole approach.
I can see it now, definitely. So, how does the artist of a comic book such as yourself collaborate with the writer to achieve a common vision for the project; what’s the process of illustrating martial arts techniques in a comic book like?
Well, when you have a good one-on-one collaboration with a writer like Jay, it takes away a lot of the backtracking and second-guessing. For the most part, he gave me a lot of liberty, so I could jump in and say, “Hey, it’d be cool to break this up into three pages and then a splash page”, which is how the fight between Master Fong and Red Fist ended up playing out. Jay would also send me a lot of visual references of different martial arts and training techniques that monks do in the Shaolin Temple and that formed the basis of the fight scenes and training scenes in the book.
Work of art, literally. So, what other projects do you have coming up after the release of “Son of Shaolin”?
I have one in the works that’s a bit of a swashbuckling adventure in an African setting. There’s also two more books in the “Son of Shaolin” series, and Jay and I also have a few coming up that we’ve collaborated on that are really different. We’re excited for people to see them.
We definitely look forward to seeing those. Thank you so much for the privilege of this interview Caanan!
My pleasure, very happy to have the chance to speak to you guys at Kung Fu Kingdom!