Joe Eisma didn’t exactly stumble into a career as a comic book artist (you probably could have predicted the 3-year-old reading the Marvel Star Wars comic was bound to lead a certain kind of life), but he may have walked into it backwards. Eisma, who grew up in West and now lives in North Texas, is a largely self-taught artist who studied film at Baylor and worked in video game design for several years before he became known as the co-creator of Morning Glories. The Image Comics title follows a group of students exploring the freaky, frequently supernatural underbelly of the Morning Glory Academy prep school, and has drawn comparisons to other mythology-heavy works like the TV show Lost.
The series, now coming up on its 50th issue, is a New York Times bestseller that has been nominated for several Eisner Awards (the Oscars of the comic book industry) and developed a rabid fan base hooked by Eisma’s art and writer Nick Spencer’s ‘labyrinthine’ plot.
Eisma is set to appear at Dallas Comic Con’s Fan Expo this weekend. Before the convention, we talked to Eisma about the “class reunion” aspect of comic book conventions, fan interaction in the 21st century, and the difficulty of adapting a comic for the big screen.
How did you get into doing comics?
I had a really wayward path to get where I am now. I went to Baylor University for film, with aspirations to be a director, writer and editor. I just got burnt out really quickly after college and ended up at a grad program at SMU in Plano to do art for video games. One of my professors, a comic book artist, kind of reignited my interest in comics. After graduating and working in games for a few years, I was not necessarily creatively fulfilled, and was looking for something else to do. So thought I’d try comics again.
Did you grow up as a big comic reader? What were some of your favorites, and what made you interested in the first place?
Yeah, definitely. I picked up comics before I could even read. The first comic I ever got was an old Marvel Star Wars — I couldn’t read, I was like three years old. I got it because I liked the art. ‘This is so cool, it’s like a book but it’s got all these pictures in it.’ From there, I got immediately hooked into the X-Men. That was my main thing growing up. From there it branched out into different characters, companies, and genres.
How has your experience in film and video games influenced the work you do for comics? What are some of your bigger influences?
On a platonic level, comics definitely influence me. At risk of sounding kind of pretentious, film and games do actually influence the way I work and the way I approach comics. I love film, especially the films of Ridley Scott, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick. Those are my go-tos. Watching their movies while I work, just studying how they set up shots and everything, definitely influences how I approach telling a story in a comic book. And games – there’s so much technique in game art, so many techniques I get from games.
So I haven’t read all of Morning Glories, but everything I’ve read has shown a pretty cool, convoluted plot, with a lot of narrative twists and turns. On your end, how does the visual element help communicate what’s going on in what can be particularly complicated scenes?
That’s always a major concern for me. You’re right, it’s a labyrinthine plot. The burden falls on me to provide clarity for the reader. I try to put a lot of attention into the way the characters act on the page, to properly convey mannerisms, expressions, stuff like that. I want them to be very unique. I want you to feel that they have personalities, and I want them to come across as much as they can through the art. My work is to translate that, to give some context to the crazy, strange, mythological twists that we throw at you. My job is to guide you through that.
Comic books have become sort of this mainstream phenomenon, with the popularity of all these Marvel movies and other adaptations. Has this new popularity in different mediums affected or changed the audience who buys comic books?
A week doesn’t go by where somebody doesn’t tweet at me and say they think Morning Glories should be a TV series. And I say, ‘Hey you’re preaching to the choir.’ I would love it. There’s been ups and downs in trying to make that happen. It’s something we are working towards. In today’s world of all these adaptations making it to the big screen — and TV as well — the audience comes into your comic sort of by default thinking, ‘Well, this will be a movie or a TV series eventually.’ In some senses that’s true. It’s something we want to do. And we get a lot of readers who want to see that happen.
Do you see any drawbacks to comic books being adapted so often?
One of my main concerns is the movie-going audience. People can be really fickle, and things can fall out of favor really quick. If there a string of box office failures that are comic book movies, people are going to write off the entire medium. There’s a wealth of great stories, tons of great comics, that haven’t been adapted to TV or wouldn’t work for TV or movies. A concern of mine that there may be over saturation. It’s a concern that’s on the back of my mind but not something I wake up thinking about.
Just looking at your social media presence, you do a lot of fan interaction. With all these conventions, and the proliferation of things like Facebook or Twitter, it seems easier than ever to get that stream of feedback from fans. Has that affected the way you work or the way you approach what you do?
For one thing, I am immensely grateful for all of the fans of Morning Glories. I am blown away every day by people that are so passionate about the book. I’m grateful for them and want them to know how much I appreciate them. There are times too that you interact with people who have a negative opinion of your work. Sometimes it’s wise to just let things go, but sometimes people will have a really well-informed opinion that I do kind of engage. There have been critiques about the book, and if it’s a well-warranted critique, we’ll listen. But in terms of what we do story-wise, we don’t let that affect us. It’s very well-set in where it’s going. But for the most part, if there’s a workable critique, I’m more than willing to listen and adapt.
What’s made you stick around here [in North Texas]? I guess you must be able to do most of your work online?
I can do my work pretty much anywhere. What keeps us here is essentially family. I have two little boys and all his grandparents live within minutes of us — we have built-in babysitters. We like the area up here. There’s so many different things about Dallas and the area we love — the Perot Museum, Deep Ellum, the Fort Worth Zoo. There’s a lot to like here, and it keeps us here.
Anything people should be excited about or anything to look forward to at this year’s convention?
This is my second time doing the Dallas Comic Con at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center. Last year was phenomenal. This year’s looking to be great too. I’m a big X-Files nut and I know they have Gillian Anderson, and Karen Gillan from Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy. A lot of great comics guests too. There are a lot of artists coming that I’m friends with, and I can’t wait to just reconnect. For comic creators it’s a lot like reunions, class reunions. When you make comics you’re on your own in your studio or office or whatever, and then during conventions you’re seeing seeing all your old friends again.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Dallas Comic Con: Fan Expo is Friday through Sunday at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center downtown.