The Matt Roach Experience

Artists for America, Bookery Fantasy, Fairborn, Ohio (9/29/01)

by Maureen S. O'Brien (mobrien at

I was on a mission from God.

You see, when you get out of Mass on Sunday morning and walk over to Rite Aid to buy some contact lens solution, you might see a flyer on the door for a benefit comic book signing. It would be odd, but you wouldn't be drawn to thoughts of the supernatural. But when you stop to read that flyer, and you see that one of the artists actually did storyboards for Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, and you happen to run a website for said cartoon....

Well, let's just say you might regard it as a Sign, straight from the Big Guy -- and I don't mean the one made outta titanium.

So I was on a mission from God that morning, as my younger brother Kevin and I entered Bookery Fantasy. The shop's been around a good twenty years -- in its current location for five or so -- and if they don't have a comic, you probably don't need it. It was a good thing that the place is on Fairborn's main drag (such as it is), because the street was parked up one side and down the other, including the spots in the median. The place wasn't crowded, just pleasantly full of comics fans of all ages, as well as a small petting-extorter dog. There was a young reporter from the Dayton Daily News asking actual intelligent questions about Artists for America.

The comics industry is still largely based in New York, and so it was natural for them to get together to raise money for the September 11th Fund. A benefit comic would be coming out soon, and almost everyone was going to have something in it. But it hadn't come out yet, and this would help in the meantime.

Three comics artists sat at the signing table: Kyle Hotz (The Hulk, The Agency, Mosaic, Carnage), Jason Moore (Crusades, Batman, Haunted Gotham) and Eric Powell (Star Wars Tales, Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Goon). They were signing comics, selling numbered prints of Captain America standing proud among the wreckage, drawing pictures of favorite characters, and generally interacting with the fans. There wasn't a line, per se; you just went up and talked to them. You threw your donation into the open cashbox sitting in the middle.

But there were three of them, not four. Where was Matt Roach?

I panicked and went looking for an employee. Not there yet, she told me. He was still driving down from Cleveland.

I sighed with relief and forced myself to go buy a copy of the latest Astro City collection along with Alan Moore's Tom Strong. It was my patriotic duty, after all.

After what seemed like an hour, Matt Roach arrived. He spoke in a very soft voice which made it difficult to hear, at least until later on when everybody at the table was starting to get silly and he joined in. I gathered that he doesn't do many signings, though, so I imagine that being a bit quiet is natural. He seemed to be younger than I am (I'm 31), but I didn't like to ask about personal stuff like that. (Makes you sound like a stalker, I always think.)

I did ask about how he got into art. He said he's been interested in drawing ever since he was a kid. He used to be very fond of Frank Frazetta and other action/sword and sorcery artists of the seventies and eighties. He collected Frazetta prints and tried to see how he did what he did. He also looked at other artists' work, including a lot of comics artists. He went to an art school (I think he said Cambridge, but maybe it was Bainbridge) for a year. Then he went back to teaching himself. But he said (and the other artists said he says it a lot) that it's very important to keep studying other artists and new techniques, even after you become a professional. You have to keep growing.

We also talked about the old pulp magazine artists. He remembered seeing a lot of old pulps in the local bookstore as a kid, back when they were cheaper, and regrets passing them up for Frazettas. He said that the old pulp illustrations were just amazing, and that the artists had great skills and could do things that people just can't today.

Action illustration has to have a feeling of movement, but also of weight and dimension. It can't be static. You can't just pick the easiest way to draw something all the time, even if other professionals sometimes do. You have to have a sense of design about what you draw and not just cram things into the picture.

We also talked about working for Sony/Columbia Tristar. I asked him what the hardest thing was about his job, and he said it was driving to work every day through the horrible traffic! The other hard thing is that you work very hard to draw and understand the characters in a show, but just as you get to know them the show ends. So far he has worked on Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot and the first season and 2nd season premiere of Jackie Chan Adventures. JCA was very interesting and a little frustrating for a guy as interested in action illustration as Matt is, because it's a martial arts show (the good news) but Standards and Practices won't allow much physical contact (the bad news).

The oddest thing that happened was that BG&R originally had different lyrics to its theme song, which scanned more easily to the music. However, they were apparently not politically correct enough and were abruptly changed. I asked if he could remember them and he said no (not surprising, given the passage of time). I said that maybe I should write to Mr. Capizzi, and he said that "Duane" would probably be fine with that.

When a show begins, the artists have to work very hard to learn how to draw the characters and the style of the show. Geof Darrow's designs were very beautiful, but they also had lots of lines. Animation art has to be very quick and clean, just by the nature of the business, and if they'd kept exactly to Darrow's designs, people would've quit! The hardest character to learn how to draw was Rusty, because his head is very oddly shaped. (Matt said something very technical about a deep floating circle, which I wish I could remember.)

Being a storyboard artist requires you to draw very quickly and very sketchily. He had drawn some ideas for sketches the night before, and in an hour or so had come up with at least ten small sketches of various Big Guy and Rusty scenes on the back of a piece of 8" x 14" paper.

(I wish I had a picture of this, because each one was amazingly lively and also really popped out of the paper at you. Big Guy in particular looked very rounded. His fist was round. His arms and legs were cylinders, not sticks on the page. I don't know why this impressed me so much, but I know that 3D immediacy isn't something one tends to see these days in even well-known artists.)

Then he showed me the front of the 8" x 14" paper. It was the kind of paper they use for storyboards: just a piece of legal-sized copy paper, with three squares, each about 4 inches wide, running across it longways in a row. Under each square were lines to write in when and where this scene was in the script. Each storyboard artist is assigned certain scenes or parts of scenes. The script tells them what to draw and certain things about camera angles, but they choose how to draw it.

Some storyboards can get very tricky. Matt did the entire fight at the end of "Harddrive", and he is very proud of it. It took him several days and a lot of overtime at home. Another tricky sequence he remembered was the airplane fight scene in the Jackie Chan Adventures episode "El Toro Fuerte". This was so complicated that the director shipped it to a guy who lived in Guatemala -- and so far out in the boonies that the guy had to collect and turn in his story at a landing strip! But the sequence turned out very well (as can be seen in the episode!), so it was worth it

The artists then turn in their storyboards and the papers are scanned into the computer. The scanned pictures are run all together, creating what's called an animatic. This lets the director see if the scene is working well. If it's not, or if the director decides to try something else, the artist has to redraw the storyboards.

(Btw, he thinks the software they use for this is just Photoshop or something similar, but he doesn't know for sure.)

When everyone has turned in all their storyboards for an episode, there is a pile of paper as thick as a big city phonebook. The papers are shipped to the overseas animation company, which is supposed to use them as a guide for their own drawings. However, some companies (the bad ones) apparently just photocopy the storyboards and color them in.

The Powers That Be don't give the artists tapes of the episodes (which doesn't surprise me, because we learned over on the SH22 page that the writers don't usually get tapes of shows, either). So when the show finally comes on television months afterward, Matt tapes the shows he's worked on just like we do. He really loved how BG&R came out. He is a true fan of the show, and we had a good talk about it. (He even has the Taco Bell/Carl Jr. toys at home.)

Apparently Fox didn't just run out of time for BG&R; they sold back the rights to Sony. (Which leads one to wonder about the post-Saban financial health of Fox Kids, frankly.) There have been rumors about BG&R going back into production, as Godzilla: The Animated Series apparently is, but nothing definite. (Matt just works there, folks.)

As I said previously, I printed out a good chunk of our fan art (something from everybody!) and gave it to Matt, along with the URLs for our message board and fan page. He was very gracious and interested in looking at everyone's stuff. The sketches were particularly interesting to him, since he essentially does that stuff for a living!

Matt will probably be working on Sony's upcoming Stuart Little animated series. He's thought about doing comics. He would like to do some painting as well, and perhaps sell things at art shows (at conventions and otherwise). I told him I thought that would be a good idea.

And it is. Matt drew me a really beautiful picture for the website (yes, I got his permission) and I would love to see what he could do with more time and color.

So that was how my mission from God turned out. Wish you'd been there! Please support Artists for America.


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