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Part 4 of the Romano Molenaar Interview: Entrepreneurialism, contracts & the strain on family life

So this is it. The last part of my four-part creator spotlight interview with Dutch comic artist extraordinaire Romano Molenaar! While he was working on Birds of Prey issue 23, page 16, I asked him about the business side of things and how his extremely busy work schedule impacts his family life. Let this be a lesson, from one 15 year comic industry veteran to all aspiring artists: Drawing comics is all fun and stuff, but it also asks for some mayor sacrifices if you want to do this for a living…

Art from Storm #25 (Published by Don Lawrence Collection), pencils by Romano Molenaar, colours by Jorg de Vos.

Art from Storm #25 (Published by Don Lawrence Collection), pencils by Romano Molenaar, colours by Jorg de Vos.

When you look at a lot of big name artists, they are often also smart entrepreneurs…
Yes, that’s something that sometimes seems to be missing in the Netherlands. One artist has a lot of plans, but is not there yet qualitatively, while there are also people who really do top work and who go: “Gee, I can draw, now what do I do?” And I’m always trying to see with the projects I have on standby and in the Art Kings studio, what else can I do with them and what would be interesting now. That’s part of the business side of the trade. Finding a comic to draw is great fun, but what can I do with the name that I have built during the last fifteen years? How do I improve my chances of getting my foot in the door at video game companies? If I tell them I’m currently working for DC that opens a few doors. That’s why I regularly keep myself busy with the business side of things.

Talking about the business side of things, does DC allow you royalty rights?
Yes, I think with DC, when you sell 75.000 units, you get royalties. Only Birds of Prey sells about 17.000 a month, so we’ve still got a long way to go… However, I did receive an amount of royalties from the digital sales of Birds of Prey. That arrived rather unexpectedly, but it was a nice surprise of course. It wasn’t a staggering amount of money. But it does work, DC is very well aware of the sales numbers and it’s further incentive to the creators.

Is my assumption correct that the addition of royalty rights into freelancer contracts reflects an improvement in the way creator rights are handled by the ‘big two’ compared to the nineties?
Even for my Marvel work [in the nineties] I once received a royalty. For my Top Cow work I didn’t because they weren’t big sellers. But they had a similar type of construction. I believe that nowadays every contract has some kind of construction that when you sell above a certain threshold you receive royalties.

So, were you in a position to negotiate hard about your contract with DC?
Of course you’ll make a price agreement for the page rate. And you agree or you don’t. In my case, I was like: I have a studio here, I’ve got Storm,  so I won’t let this opportunity pass. As an artist, you can choose not to go for the top rate -I can tell you, the top rate ain’t bad- but instead do it to build your name. That way you’re investing in your résumé, and the money will come later, when you can sell yourself at a better price.

Storm Molenaar de Vos

When we began talking Romano told me he works from nine in the morning till twelve at night. Only interspersed by driving the kids to and from school and dinner. I asked him how his work schedule influences his family life?
It means it’s pretty hectic and there are some things I just don’t do very often. I don’t watch movies, I don’t watch TV -or I watch the news at half past one in the morning. Now that I work from home I see more of my children than ever before, and my wife of course. So that in itself became a win-win situation. The hard part of this is that I am home but not readily available. With children that’s sometimes difficult: When they want you to play or when they ask you to come play football outside… Then it all depends on my workload and schedule, whether or not I’m able to play with them. Sometimes, it’s not possible. On the other hand: if I’d just go to work in the morning, I would definitely not be able to. That’s tricky sometimes, when they do see their father but he cannot come along.

How old are your children?
I have identical twins, 10 years of age. They are now at an age that they are very curious and want to learn a lot. Of course I’ll answer them, but then I go: “Sorry, I have to continue working.” Being kids, they don’t always understand. But I have a spacious studio, so they occasionally come and play with me or make some music –I’ve also got some instruments in my studio- and sometimes they draw or colour along with me. That’s always a good time. So, that’s nice enough, no complaints there. Only other things… [exhales] ….like, parties… …If I really want to go to a party, I must really plan ahead in my schedule to decide if I can make it. It sounds harsh, but then the party really has to be worth it, to make the time. That’s sometimes difficult for people to understand: I’m constantly under a whole lot of pressure, because of my work.

What’s your general outlook? Is the time you’re currently putting in a temporary situation?
I’ve been doing it like this for something like fifteen years… So it’s become a bit ingrained. But now that I get older –and especially having children- I look at the hours I’ve put in and sometimes wonder whether it’s worth it. How do my career and the things I’m allowed to do relate to the time I spend working and the things I’m constantly giving up? That’s something you have to think about, now and then. This thinking usually leads me to conclude that I’m still having super much fun. Also, my wife doesn’t know any better, she understands that this is my passion. So the general idea is that I can do what I want with my drawings and she’s supportive of that. That support is very important to me. When I find out she’s no longer 100% supportive, we’re going to sit down and have a good conversation. Because to me, it’s not worth turning my personal life upside down. I’ll go pretty far, but we check in now and again to see if we’re still enjoying the ride. Occasionally this leads to the consideration: “Am I going to do this or not?”

Thanks so much again to MR Molenaar for taking time out of his schedule to talk to me. If you missed part one, part two, or three  you can always listen to the whole interview (in Dutch) through the Open Your Geek Mouth podcast, or find a paper version in the Dutch comic magazine Strips2Go. That’s it for now… I’m already busy with my next interrogation victim Boykoesh, of Captain Ultimate fame!

The Romano Molenaar Interview Part 2. Fruitful collaborations, designing DC characters & career goals

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand here’s part two of my Romano Molenaar extravaganza. If you missed any of the earlier stuff, here’s part one and here’s the podcast of our talk.

Can you give an idea of collaborations that worked really well?
Let’s see… …I’m not really that great with names… When I worked at Top Cow, I worked with… …What was his name. I’m sorry, the name escapes me now…
Phil Hester?
Yes, exactly! Phil’s a very good writer, who can also draw particularly well, which is always an advantage. I must also say, that I… …Did I mention I’m not very good with names? [Both laugh] When you work at Top Cow, you often find out who inks your work, after the fact. And they’ve got inkers like Joe Weems who are really great. There are other names as well, but that’s a tricky subject for me as you can tell… Also, I must say that the team I’m working with now, Jonathan Glapeon and Chris Sotomayer, is a dream team. In fact, I used to do more freelance assignments, each six to seven issues and then on to the next thing… But now that I’ve had a year working for DC, those names stick in my head because I’m working with them for longer periods of time. I think that when you work together for so long, you’re going to appreciate their work better and your own work improves because of how great they are. As such, these guys are currently the names that pop up in my head when you ask about great collaborators. That makes it difficult for me to think of other less recent names.

Are there any names in the industry that you would like to work with in the future?
I’d really like to do something with Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee of course. If Jim Lee would like to draw layouts for a new Superman book for me to fill, I would not mind that at all… [laughs] Also, here’s the interesting thing: I’m now entering an area, where my contacts aren’t exclusively horizontal anymore, I may just end up working with someone higher up the chain in the comic industry! Though, overall I don’t tend to look over my shoulder too much, I’m much more interested in the future. Which is why I have to say: I’d like to work with anyone who knows what they’re doing and who can simply excite me with their story. I know, I know, that’s a very politically correct answer…. To me, the names are a little less important. But if you succeed in affecting me with you script, inks, or colours then I’d definitely like to work with you –whether it’s at Marvel, or Dark Horse, or wherever.

Art by Romano Molenaar

Art by Romano Molenaar

Did you ever receive any pro-feedback of big industry names that has been of particular value to you?
The other day I got some from Jim Lee! Jonathan [Glapion] had sent the cover ​​for issue 22 of Birds of Prey to Jim. Later Jonathan showed me Jim’s reply, along the lines of: “Very nice, it looks super good.” At that point you’re like: “Okay. We’re definitely getting closer to the fire.” You also see that a guy like Jim Lee is only human. Jim has obviously done a lot for the industry and achieved a lot. As an artist, that’s the guy you want to get feedback from, so you know you’re on the right track. And that’s something you have to do yourself, you need to strive to get the idea out of your head and onto the page as good as possible. But when a celebrity like Jim Lee says that, or Marc Silvestri ‘likes’ your art on Facebook, you think: “Okay, apparently I’m considered a good artist.” And it’s the same with big names like David Finch, sitting next to you at a convention, or Barry Kitson. When they see you drawing a Lara Croft commission and say: “Wow, that looks very good,” to hear it from their mouths is invaluable. Those are very nice experiences.

Have you done any design work for DC characters?

Yes, I designed a character named Condor for Birds of Prey. You get a description from the writer saying: “There will be a new character, that’s like this and this… …he only needs to be designed.” After that they basically tell you to go for it… Also, the cover of issue 22 shows a new team of villains I designed too. That is insanely cool to do. You get basic information, like one of them is a guy with electric powers, the other one is a big guy. Then you have to figure out how to visually fit these characters in the fictional world and make sure you’re actually designing something new… You have to give them your own twist. And that goes back to the experiences of my younger years, designing my own superheroes as a kid. You actually take some of that with you when you’re designing new characters. Like, when I was about twelve, I drew this guy… You know what; why not give this new character HIS coat? So sometimes you take a ride in the wayback machine, only this time it’s for real. That realisation is super cool.

Please, tell me more about what went into the design of Condor:
The suit was open, so to speak. I wasn’t told to do this or that. But he’s called Condor, so it should somehow have a bird motif. Designing the suit basically took a single sketch. The helmet however… I had given him a helmet that looked too much like Hawkman. Then Jim Lee made ​​a quick sketch of a Roman helmet, one of those things with an eye slit in it. After that, I finalized it in one or two sketches. I also created a number of colour variations in Photoshop and they chose the red, white and grey version.
Uh… I thought the helmet was purple and wanted to say he reminded me of Marvel villain The Wizard a bit:
Does he have a purple helmet? I think he has a red helmet. I often only see my pages back in black and white though. Let’s see… Yes, officially he should be red… It may be that the colourist put a layer of lighting on it, making it purplish… It’s supposed to be a little bit like burgundy.
Okay, never mind… What’s far more interesting, is that Condor is a visual co-creation of you and Jim Lee…
That’s right, I didn’t get to talk to him. But apparently he went around the office with the designs and received a lot of positive reactions… There was just the thing with the helmet, which makes you think: “Okay, that’s very cool. My design is going to my hero, my role model.” I’m actually creating characters that are for ever part of the DC legacy. That makes me think I’m doing something right.

U Decide: Condor's helmet: Purple or Burgundy??? Art by Romano Molenaar, from Birds of Prey #13 (DC comics).

U Decide: Condor’s helmet: Purple or Burgundy? Art by Romano Molenaar, from Birds of Prey #13 (DC comics).

Would you consider working for the Big Two to be your ultimate career goal in comics?
I’ve always been a big fan of Marc Silvestri and Image comics, so that’s where I initially leaned more to. But I’ve never thought: “Now it’s time for me to work for Marvel or DC.” I did say it’d be cool to work for them some time. But I think more along the line of: If it’s a cool character, or a cool story I don’t really care for which company I work. And now that I’m working for DC, I notice that –for me- there is no difference compared to working for Top Cow or Chaos Comics. To me, it’s all the same… Of course, with DC and Batman you have a slightly larger audience, which admittedly is an advantage. But if I stopped working for DC and started working for a smaller studio, I would do it with the same passion. I have to admit though: Working for DC doesn’t hurt your résumé.

And how does this relate to your European comic work?
You know, Storm is also something we have inherited from Don Lawrence. That will never be mine or Jorg’s. So I relate to Storm in the same way as my DC work. Fortunately, the fans are responding very well. We’re positively accepted as the new team at Storm. But it will never be our own thing. That’s the same with Birds of Prey. With Condor for example, it feels like that is actually my character, but it is –and always will be- the publishers’. So I can never say that Storm is closer to me than the comics, because in principle they exist at the same distance from me.

Besides working on Birds of Prey and Storm, Molenaar also runs the Art King studio, where he works on video game designs and other forms of audio-visual entertainment. I asked him if working for the Art King studio gave him more sense of fulfilment:
Yes, there are some projects in there that are our own initiative. When we design our own videogame characters we’re credited as the designers. That’s a big difference. The copyrights of those characters are also ours. Look, I will never get any rights on Condor. I can only say that I’m responsible for his visual design. And that’s okay, it’s good to know that I’ve contributed with my design. That’s more for myself, I won’t say: “Look, that is my character!” To me it’s just a milestone, and I take pride in it.

So, am I correct in assuming you have some creator owned ambitions in the comic field then?
Yes, I have. But because of my workload over the last 10-15 years, I haven’t had time to do a lot with that. But there are certainly a dozen ideas on the computer that I occasionally pick up again. These projects advance slowly, gradually, step by step… And if there’s ever time or an opportunity, these projects will certainly proceed. It’s just that my workload right now… …If I’d currently continue work on these projects I’d get in some serious deadline trouble. Because making your own production -creating and publishing it- that takes a lot of time and energy. But I’m always working with people, just throwing out lines. That’s also a precautionary strategy, for if DC calls it quits. I want to have some things standing by. In that respect, I’m always thinking ahead.

Come back soon for more Romano as we discuss his creative process, technological aids & making it as an unschooled artist

Open Your Geek Mouth! Aflevering 1 – Romano Molenaar

geek mouth 500px

Voor wie op het Kamper Stripspektakel of in het nieuwe blad Strips2Go nog geen genoeg van Romano Molenaar kan krijgen, bied ik nu ook de optie om Romano in je oren te stoppen:

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Gedeeltelijke Shownotes:

40:00 over het ontwerp van Condor in Birds of Prey
41:00 Paars of Bordeaux rood, wie is er kleuren blind? Gerard, Romano of de inkleurder?!?!
43:09 Werken voor the Big Two, het summum?
44:36 Ligt Storm dichter bij je?
47:00: Creator Owned plannen?
48:16: Verdient het Amerikaanse werk ook beter?
49:29: “Je kunt het zelf zo lucratief maken als je wilt”
51:07: Ontvang je ook royalties op basis van de verkoop van Birds of Prey?
53:14: Hard onderhandeld over het contract met DC?
55:15: Hoe ziet jouw werkproces eruit?
57:44: Werk je ook op digitale media?
60:00: Herken je de ontevredenheid van Paul Jenkins naar DC editorial toe?
62:02: Welk personage teken je het allerliefst?
65:00: Over de voorkeur voor de mannelijke anatomie en het stoeien met de vrouwelijke…
76:10: Favoriete voorwerp om te tekenen
77:00: Gotham City en spannende camera hoeken
1:08:54: Wat teken je liever niet?
1:09:28: Paarden tekenen
1:10:02: Tip voor aspirant tekenaars
1:10:31: Hoe heb je het jezelf allemaal eigen gemaakt?
1:12:22: En hoe heb je jezelf de sequential story telling eigen gemaakt?
1:14:24: Effect van jouw werkdruk op je gezinsleven?
1:18:47: Zijn er ook schrijfambities?
1:19:58: Wat doe je nog naast de comics?