Leinil Yu: The Art of Superheroes

JUICE doesn’t do this often (or maybe at all?) but the guys here actually have pretty geeky interests, one of which is comic books. So when we were approached by Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention ’12 for an interview with international artist Leinil Yu, we can’t help but take the chance. Hailing from the Philippines, Leinil has been a Marvel and DC staple for more than 13 years, having worked on major titles such as X-Men, Superman, Hulk, New Avengers, and many more. He’s also a frequent collaborator of Hollywood’s current comic book it-guy, Mark Millar, with whom he has co-created Superior and Supercrooks. We spoke to him on the “dynamic pseudo-realism” of superhero art, perennial industry topic; creator rights, and his opinion on the last film of the Nolanverse Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.

How would you describe your own art style?
I think it’s in between realistic and cartoony, with a bias towards realism. I do draw most of my figures without photo-referencing (save for an expression and plot-required likeness here and there), and so it still ends up looking like a cartoon drawing drawn from memory.

But some describe your drawings as “dynamic pseudo-realism”, do you ever encounter the same kind of problem 3D animators do; the uncanny valley?
This is funny. I must confess, I coined that very term myself from a very old interview. Had I known it would stick, I would’ve proclaimed “the artistic voice of his generation” or “greatest artistic style ever” or something like that instead (laughs). But thinking about it, I still think it’s an appropriate description. My rendering leans towards realism but my drawings can be exaggerated at times. I think it’s a good mix and I’m lucky that it appeals to quite a substantial number of comic fans.

I also borrow from animation and manga for the hyper-intensity action when needed and that covers the dynamic part. It sounds pretty good too. I avoid the “uncanny valley of comic art” by not relying on photographs and 3D posers. If ever I use those, I’d use them loosely, only as a basis for shadows and unique facial angles.

I don’t trace or “eyeball” my figure drawings the way portrait artists do. I’m less stringent on backgrounds though where I mix hand drawings, 3D models and photos. Something manga artists have been doing for 2 decades. Having said that, using references sparingly is definitely a very good thing.

Do you feel like sometimes realism can get in the way of depicting the grandiosity of superheroes? Or does it enhance it?
It both enhances and limits. It enhances the image by grounding it to reality but too much realism sometimes impresses on us that these are just people in tight costumes. Cosplayers instead of super-heroes. Dynamic action also suffers if an artist is heavily reliant on photo-referencing. A huge chunk of comic fans are also put off by what is essentially a photo-collage.

There’s no real life reference you can use for superheroics – the kind of actions you see superheroes do – how do you manage to make them look so seamless in your illustrations? The problem with other artists who do hyper-realistic art is that they can look a bit awkward, which you’ve managed to avoid.
You just have to exaggerate and push certain elements here and there. You don’t have to draw accurate musculature and vein placements as long as it looks aesthetically pleasing. You don’t have to draw realistic drapes and capes all the time in favor of style.

How did you manage to break into the mainstream American comic industry? Any advice to give aspiring fellow South East Asia artists?
I broke in through Whilce Portacio’s Manila studio, so essentially I had an agent. But nowadays, sites like facebook, deviantart and tumblr provides every single artist with a scanner and internet connection a free avenue for spreading their art. If you are good, there is no way you won’t get noticed.

You just need the appropriate style to fit the books or genre that you want to be a part with. Artists can start small, working on smaller projects then later on ascend to bigger ones. Watch out for unscrupulous agencies who would ask you to sign contracts that span more than 3-4 years. You can do it on your own if you are good enough.