Tuesday, April 2, 2019


I can't believe how quickly time has passed since my last update... but when it comes to the art blog, no news is always good news! Between working freelance, directing at an animation studio and teaching comics from Kindergarten to College, its been a busy and exciting year. But I couldn't pass up the chance to talk about this latest project...

1ST LEGION OF UTOPIA is a comic written by my long-time collaborator James Davidge. It covers what has recently become a great source of fascination and inspiration for me: Canadian History! Americans have long had the knack for mythologizing their past, using stories to tell their history in engaging ways. Canadian History is equally fascinating, with plenty of lessons left for us to learn, and the best way to get the word out is through story.

This particular story tells the tale of the turbulent political times of 1930s Calgary Alberta, my hometown and current base of operations! It follows a character named Holly Burnside as she explores this rowdy place and meets Brian Mah, her guide through a city full of protesters, politicians, riots and dandy clubs!

On the last two Holly Burnside graphic novels, James worked with talented Edmonton cartoonist Bob Prodor. James wanted to maintain the visual consistency of her story here but Bob needed a hand with the art chores to ensure it was all wrapped up on time. So a very unique collaboration was born wherein Bob would layout the pages along with the figure pencils and inks. He would then mail the pages to me, old-school style, and I would fill in the blanks with historical Calgary locations and background figures, as well as colours. The letters would be handled by the one-and-only writer/letterer superstar, Ryan Ferrier!

I've never considered myself much of a background artist, preferring to spend time on figures and movement. But this offered me a challenge. I've never been a very technical artist either, so instead of focusing on perspective and realism, I created scenes that featured overlapping shapes and a strong Foreground, Midground and Background. My goal was to immerse the reader in these moments, to draw them in and bring the past to life. How can I lead the eye through a crowded protest scene without causing confusion? How can I use shapes and colour to create the chaotic nature of a riot? How do I use buildings and windows and figures to create a feeling of claustrophobia? 

While photo realism wasn't my goal, photo reference was a must-have, and I enjoyed pouring over old photos and searching for period furniture and decorations to adorn the world. 

In some of the pages, it is quite clear that two different artists are working together, but our intent as a team was never to have my style disappear as I copied Bob's look. It was a visual experiment of sorts, to see how our work would mesh and complement one another. I found the synthesis of our two styles to be an exciting, interesting look, that gives this book its own unique feel. The contrast between the thick brush strokes and tighter brush pen lines lend the page a lot of energy, while also bringing focus to the important characters in the midst of busy settings.

The above splash page is definitely one of my favourites. Finding a way to weave the images around the singing character was a challenge, but those musical notes and bars really helped to bring it all together. That simple colour palette was essential to keeping everything in harmony and balance...much like good music.

I love the way Bob drew the three characters in the middle panel, like they were posing for the album art of their first single. It's a fine example of that casual cool that Bob is so good at creating in figures. Check out his work on ROAD TO RUIN for more examples of that. And drawing the Legion was a lot of fun! Not to mention the Plaza theatre (see below.) Trains? Not so fun...

When working on historical subject matter, the temptation is there to do your colours in sepia, or monotone, or drowning in brown (horrible phrasing....) but you better believe this: they had just as many colours back in the 1930s as they do today. That time was full of rich texture and colour and emotion and colour is instrumental in conveying that. I was determined to activate these pages with lots of saturation and energy.

I knew I was on a tight schedule with this book, so I challenged myself to let a simple, restrained palette do the talking. Unlike my previous comic project THE V-CARD, which featured dozens of colours, layers of gradients and lighting adjustments, as well as complex shadows, I used flat colours, with barely any shading or gradients.  It was a challenge indeed, but I really learned a lot about colour, I'm very pleased with the results, and the book was finished on time (hell, a week earlier than I expected, haha!)

While I had a great collaborative team on this book, it was still a remarkable challenge to wrap up in the midst of everything. And it brings me great pleasure to say that this book was picked up by an amazing comic publisher, RENEGADE ARTS ENTERTAINMENT. They are the perfect fit for this story, because they have proven to be a publisher who truly values diverse stories from Canada's past. I greatly look forward to working on future projects with them.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this inside look at the unique process of 1st LEGION! We are launching the book at SHELF LIFE this month so if you're free on Saturday, April 20th, please join us for some laughs and some revealing insights. 

Not too revealing I hope...who am I kidding, I'm an open book!

ADDENDUM: Here's an informative little interview of James and I talking 1st LEGION with our good friend Chris Doucer of GNN! Enjoy!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

THE ROSICRUCIAN: Another Comic Tale Adrift in the Ether

SPORTS ANNOUNCER: ...and just before the buzzer, Johnson manages to sneak in one more blog update before 2017 comes to a crashing close!

I think it's important to post unsuccessful pitches online. They always hurt a little bit; taking so much precious time to create characters and a story that will never grow and mature and find their way into the hands of an eager readership. But there is oh-so-much to learn from every one!

The Rosicrucian was an intriguing concept written by my pal, and long-time collaborator, James Davidge. Filled with mystery, mysticism, romance and intrigue, it promised to be full of bizarre characters and mind-bending scenarios (i.e. the assassination of the Pope.) James went as far as to commission these pages from me, as well as the beautiful cover by Fiona Staples that graces the top of this post.

Was I intimidated at the thought of having some sweet Staples art in front of my cartoony doodles. Hell yes! But what greater incentive is there to do your very best?

Looking back on this 2014 pitch, I cringe at my lettering job, and the exploration with texture and colour, though the limited palette and lighting scheme of the first few pages carries into newer work. The apparent restraint in the figures and inks starts to loosen up towards the end, but doesn't quite achieve the buoyancy of some of my latest work.

I was so inspired by Jae Lee's storytelling for this one; clearly not in the art style itself, but in his widescreen approach. It was an interesting challenge with some cool results that I logged away for future use, specifically regarding composition and cropping.

I hope you enjoyed another story that never was! The great news is that this collaboration went well enough that James and I are forging ahead on a new comic for which we received a grant! So it's a done deal, it's going to happen! And it was this pitch that helped cement that relationship, which is just too cool for words. I'll be working on the new project this year and will release details as they appear!

It's looking like Hoth outside the animation studio today, so stay warm out there, and have a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

RAUCOUS CAUCUS: Experiments in Comic Book Stenography

When you're a freelance Illustrator, you have to find jobs wherever you can, invent jobs you didn't know existed, and leap head-first into interesting challenges, whether you've got your water wings on or not! One of my favourite jobs of this past year was as a "Comic Book Stenographer" for the emerging artist workshop Raucous Caucus, run by the wonderful Alberta Theatre Projects.

They thought it would be a great idea to have an embedded illustrator follow the participants throughout their day, attempting to capture the energy, emotion, and insight that is packed into this truly special event. I was so excited to be a part of it, I barely thought about the work that would be involved - the sheer amount of drawing to be done, and how the heck to assemble them afterwards - and I'll tell you: when this 12-hour day was done, I was so damn burnt out, but so damn inspired!

What follows are my on-site drawings and observations throughout this crazy day. I hope it gives you a glimpse into the manic energy and crazy talent of all those involved. Visit ATP for more info on their incredible programming!

If you're interested in the idea of comic book stenography/comic journalism/graphic recording, I highly recommend you check out Sam Hester's fantastic work. She's a local comic legend, a huge inspiration to Calgary comic types like myself, and probably the nicest person you're likely to meet. 

I was truly fortunate this year, as my 2017 was chock full of teaching, for the Catholic School Board, the Calgary Board of Education, Arts Commons and the Alberta College of Art + Design. All that combined with some truly awesome comic collaborations have made 2017 a banner year for me. I hope your year was equally awesome, and here's to a relaxing holiday and a Happy New Year!

Bring it, 2018. Bring. It.

Friday, December 1, 2017


About ten years ago, I was joking around with my good buddy Chad, saying: "If I ever release a collection of my comic short stories, I'm going to call it NICK JOHNSON: ALL OF ME, just like that FARRAH FAWCETT Playboy video. And I'm going to fill it with pinup photos of myself that homage the exact ones on the dvd box. Wouldn't that be HILARIOUS?"

Well, when I finally got around to collecting these shorts, I'd forgotten about this convo entirely! That was until aforementioned good buddy Chad piped up and said "Hey Nick, weren't you going to name it after that Farrah Fawcett video???"

I'm a man of my word.

Thankfully, I thought better of the photo pinups and decided to draw my cartoon self into the book instead. You're welcome!

So behold! NICK JOHNSON: ALL OF ME! 142 pages of comic stories drawn between 2005 and 2015! What started as a collection of my own work turned into a tribute to the wide array of insanely talented, and good-hearted folk I've worked with throughout the years!

While I did publish a very small print run of this big, very costly book, it is now available digitally on COMIXCENTRAL, a fantastic hub for indie comics!  I've got a Shop there now featuring my first mini-comic series, THE ART OF DODGING SHADOWS and the fan favourite WOLF HANDS! Here is a smattering of the many stories you will find inside:


Most of these stories have been out-of-print or otherwise unavailable for years, some of them have never been released before, so I was vehement that these stories get one more chance to shine.

Flipping through this book, and literally seeing my evolution as a comics storyteller, is pretty thrilling. And remembering all the great times I've had with the vibrant Alberta comics community warms my shrivelled little grape of a heart.

I hope you'll enjoy the ride!