War is Hell

Zombies, Vietnam and a load of ’60s nostalgia: How Nat Jones and Kyle Charles are taking the comic-book world by storm.

Photographed on location at Vacancy Hall.
Photography by Adam Goudreau & Dwayne Martineau

Kyle Charles first met Nat Jones in 2010, during the annual, industry-wide celebration of independent comics retailers better known as Free Comic Book Day. The old Happy Harbor Comics location on Jasper Avenue was celebrating with in-store appearances from several local artists, and Charles, an aspiring illustrator, decided to head down and take in the festivities. 

One of those local artists was Jones. To Charles, Jones was, without question, the “big dog” in the room – a creator who’d worked with everyone from director Guillermo Del Toro to Spawn creator Todd McFarlane to fantasy legend Frank Frazetta, and who’d recently relocated to Edmonton from Los Angeles to start a family. On a whim, Charles decided to show Jones his portfolio.

“Kyle had some good foundational skills,” Jones remembers now, his arms crossed thoughtfully, dreadlocks spilling down his back. “A lot of passion.” 

For his part, Charles already knew his existing talents were limited. His sketchbook was overflowing with detailed sketches and illustrations. But he had no experience with painting or digital work. No eye for colour, either. “And my inking,” Charles says, “was” – but Jones, sitting on the other side of his protg’s drawing table, has already started laughing. “Non-existent,” Charles finishes, a little sheepishly. His tool of the trade used to be a Bic pen.

After talking for a few minutes in the store, Jones told Charles about the program he was in the process of starting at Guru Digital Arts College, which would provide full-service training for up-and-coming visual artists. The program was to be called Digital Illustration and Sequential Art (DISA, for short). Art schools had turned down Charles in the past, but he decided to apply anyway, and got in.

But the program’s 10 months of study weren’t enough for Charles. So, after graduation, he called Jones on the phone, to ask if Jones would become his personal mentor. 

 “I approached it like having a Samurai master,” Charles says. “You have to put your sword down in front of him and say, ‘Teach me.’ And not just on the page. As a professional. How not to be flaky. How to keep your deadlines.”

That mentorship has now paid off handsomely. Last year, Jones recruited his protg to help take over pencil and ink duties on ’68, a stable of award-winning zombie comics set during the Vietnam War. It’s released by Image, the third-largest comics company in North America, behind Marvel and DC. Image is partly owned by Todd McFarlane, a former member of the Edmonton Investors’ Group that owned the Oilers.

As well, McFarlane designed the Oilers’ dark blue-and-silver superhero-ish third jersey that they wore in the early 2000s. Image’s other titles include Saga, illustrated by Calgary’s Fiona Staples, and another zombie comic, The Walking Dead, which, in addition to its runaway hit television adaptation for AMC, had the highest-selling single issue for all of 2013. 

Writer Mark Kidwell conceived the idea for ’68 in 2004, when he decided to create a comic that would tie into the world of the classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead. Famously, due to a technical snafu on the parts of creators George A. Romero and John A. Russo, that movie was accidentally released into theatres without any copyright information – and therefore into the public domain – back in (you guessed it) 1968. This means that artists and corporations alike have free access to the film and its characters.

When Jones came across Kidwell’s script, however, he wasn’t keen on taking advantage of Romero and Russo’s intellectual property, which he’d loved for years. More importantly, he was convinced that Kidwell’s work was good enough to stand on its own. Along with fellow artist Jay Fotos, Jones and Kidwell spun off the idea into a standalone one-shot that Image published in 2006. More one-shots, as well as three four-part mini-series, have followed since then.

Zombies are undoubtedly having a moment in pop culture these days, but what distinguishes ’68 is its commitment to its setting. When Jones conceived the visual world of the comic, he wanted it to feel as murky and inelegant as the war itself. “It’s about being dirty,” he says. “Nothing is new. Nothing is clean. Nothing is perfect. That’s how I feel about life in general. No two houses sit perfectly in line with each other. Everything is off angle.” There was also a commitment to detail and historical accuracy, but only to a point: Jones and Kidwell wanted veterans, for instance, to feel the book was true-to-life (relatively, anyway, given all the brain-eaters lurching around), but they also didn’t want to lose weeks at a time obsessing over how many screws are supposed to be on an M16 rifle.

To the creators’ relief, fans don’t seem to have spent much time counting those M16 screws, either. At the 2013 Horror Comic Awards, ’68 annihilated the competition, winning five of the six awards it was up for, including writer, artist and colourist of the year. Hallowed Ground, the first issue in the ’68 series that Charles pencilled and inked, was named the best one-shot of the year – not bad for his very first professional work.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider that Charles wasn’t supposed to get the assignment in the first place. As Jones got busier teaching at Guru, and, later, taking on a position as art director at local video-game outfit Beamdog Studios, he had to hand off more and more of his duties on ’68 to other artists. One of them was Josh Medors, an American who agreed to draw Hallowed Ground despite having been diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer in 2008. Up until then, he’d shown a remarkable resilience, living well past his doctor’s best-case scenarios. “Every time he would fight it, and he would be back,” Jones says. “He always came back. Then he didn’t come back.” Medors passed away in November 2012, having completed just six page layouts and part of a cover for the new ’68 book.

That’s when Charles got the call – and if it’s nerve-wracking to begin your career with such a high-profile assignment, that goes double when you have to finish the work started by a beloved artist like Medors. “I had not met Josh,” says Charles, who recently served as Happy Harbor’s artist-in-residence, “but I knew how important it was to the rest of the crew to make sure the book honoured his memory properly.” The awards have helped with that, as has the approval of his mentor. “I think Josh would be really happy with how it turned out,” Jones says.

These days, with a new ’68 mini-series called Homefront on the horizon, Charles’s to-do list is only growing longer. When I visit him, his tasks for the week include more comic illustration work, as well as tattoos, the credits sequence for a film out of Vancouver and the logo for a local basketball team. “The other freelance gigs are definitely starting to come easier,” he says. “Since I’ve gotten the comic book gig, my rsum is far more sexy than ‘I graduated.'”

Charles is still learning from his mentor, though they’re now at a point where they can also compare notes and talk shop as peers. When it comes to research, for instance, Charles says that he’s taken to re-watching season six of Mad Men, itself set in 1968, for inspiration. (“Man, there’s a lot of sideburns,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.) One character in Hallowed Ground, meanwhile, is wearing an outfit taken directly from a vintage Sears catalogue – at which point Jones jumps in and says the woman he drew on a recent cover was, in turn, inspired by a photo of 1960s cheerleaders.

They’re even using their home turf as artistic inspiration. Thanks to an idea from Jones, when it hits stores this summer, the U.S.-set Homeland will see the ’68 zombies cross the border in order to feast on some Albertan brains for a change. With Charles and his mentor at the helm, mad cow disease has nothing on the undead hordes.

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