Artgerm Interview

Mike and I had the pleasure of sitting down with Stanley Lau, aka “Artgerm,” for an interview. (Thanks, Stanley!) You know him from his incredibly popular DC and Marvel covers, but he also works as a designer, concept artist, and illustrator, and is the co-founder and creative director of Imaginary Friends Studios. He is undeniably one of the most influential artists of the modern age, especially in the realm of Anime-style comic covers.

Okay, Mindy, take it away!

How did you first start getting involved with DC Comics?

Back in the day—I’m not sure how long ago, maybe a decade—I was deeply involved in game development and illustration outside of comics, but I’d been drawing fan art for quite a while. One day, an editor from DC approached me and asked me to draw something for them. My first entry into the comic world was illustrating comic covers for a book called “Great 10.” I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, but it’s about Chinese or Asian superheroes, and there are 10 of them. After that, things went really well, and soon after, another DC editor assigned me to do a cover run for Batgirl.

I’ve seen some of your tutorials and watched you paint in black and white, then turn it into colors. Was that a technique you developed yourself? It’s very impressive, by the way.

Oh, really? The funny thing is that’s not the approach I most often use with comic art. Most of the time, I sketch, then work on the linework, and then go straight into coloring. The black-and-white conversion is just one of the many techniques I use, depending on the subject matter. If the image has a more desaturated, gritty, or dark feel, I might use that approach. Sometimes I get tired of drawing lines, so I switch things up to keep things fresh for myself.

It seems there have been a lot of Artgerm copycats popping up over the past few years. What are your thoughts on this?

Haha, well, as my name suggests, right? A germ. The reason I call myself Artgerm is because I want my art to be contagious, to be infectious. So, if you inspire artists, there will be those who follow in your footsteps or try to imitate what you do. That’s exactly why I’m doing it. So it’s no problem at all. But I hope that eventually, those who try to copy my path will find their own identity and approach to art, and that’s totally fine.

What problems have you encountered in the industry regarding your artwork? Have you experienced any push-back from any covers you’ve put out?

Not really, but I didn’t come from the comic world—I came in with more experience in the anime approach, which has a stronger Asian flavor. If you’re a hardcore traditional comic art person or fan, you might find my art slightly out of place. But for the modern audience, people have been exposed to gaming, anime, and other media, so my art might appeal more to them. My goal in creating comic art is not to please existing comic collectors or fans; it’s to expand the comic fan base by bringing something new and relatable. There will be people who don’t like what I do, and there will be people who love it, and that’s okay. Just like there are some foods you don’t like to eat and others you do.

Are there any publishers that you prefer to work with over others?

So far, I’ve been really blessed with clients. My DC and Marvel clients are so easy to work with. Of course, like many other comic artists, I started with very defined instructions, but as time went on, I reached a point where the editors would just say, “Can you just draw half of a Wonder Woman?” I would usually ask, “What do you want me to draw?” And they would say, “Just do the Artgerm thing, and we’ll be okay.” So they give me a lot of room to play with, and I’m really appreciative of that.

How do you feel about the AI controversy?

This is a big topic. I’ve been talking about it every week with my students or young artists. It seems to be a growing concern. There’s the legal aspect, but I always tell my students that the reason we draw is because the creative process is so rewarding. In one of my classes, I ask my students to present their favorite artists to the class, and I explain that you need someone to analyze, appreciate, and be a fan of. If AI replaces that, it’s like losing that human connection.

I also talk about people who build model kits or Gundam models. The most fun part is the building process, not the finished product. Art is the same—it’s the creation process that’s so enjoyable. I don’t want anyone or any machine to take that away. Yes, AI is a growing concern, especially for those who want to take shortcuts, but I’m not against AI itself. I’m against the idea that someone might fool themselves into thinking what AI creates is their own work. As a professional artist, when a client gives me a prompt, they never claim it’s their creation. But with AI, people think a few keywords make something their own, which I find absurd.

Have you always been a visual artist?

Yes! Since I was young, I loved to draw, and I’m thankful that my parents supported my obsessions. By the age of 14 or 15, I had already decided to become an artist, though I had no idea how because there was no internet. I had to learn by borrowing books from the library and copying diagrams from classic artists like Andrew Loomis. It was a long, challenging journey, but it made me resilient.

What’s the biggest inspiration you studied from at the library?

I focused on learning how to draw anatomy, so I borrowed books from classic artists like Andrew Loomis. I would just open the books and copy every diagram, trying to figure out how things worked. It was a long process.

Do you have any secret projects you’re working on, maybe creator-owned? I heard about an original character of yours, Pepper. Any progress on a property involving her?

Oh, wow. Pepper is something I developed over a decade ago. I was working in a design company, and I wanted to create a character I could draw in my free time. That’s how Pepper came about. There was a time when I considered making a comic out of it, but I knew that once I committed, I’d have to push away all other projects, including comic covers. DC and Marvel also approached me to do some short stories or interior pages, but I eventually realized that I’m not really a storyteller through comic panels. I prefer to focus on making great covers to help comic artists sell their books.

Do you have any words of wisdom for up-and-coming artists or new artists? You mentioned becoming resilient to social media. Any other advice for them?

Yes. Social media has become a significant part of many young artists’ lives. Many use it to get likes and acknowledgment from fans, but I think it’s essential to focus on your art. Some of the top professionals in the industry, from DreamWorks to Pixar, don’t have many social media followers, yet they’re the most sought-after. So, focus on your art, not on making art solely to appeal to fans. Make sure it appeals to you first. Don’t be afraid to grow and change your style, even if it means losing some followers, because those who appreciate your art will stick around. It’s better to build quality fan engagement than focus on quantity.

How do you feel about the flourishing of Anime and Manga in the West? Are you aware of what’s happening here?

Yes, I believe the expansion of Anime in the West is mainly due to streaming services like Netflix. Shows like “One Punch Man,” “My Hero Academia,” and others are released simultaneously worldwide, creating a global conversation. This has led to more Asian artists entering the comic world and expanded the taste of audiences. It’s a good thing, creating a more diverse and interesting comic industry.

Jim Lee once said that if social media had been around when he started, he might never have made it as an artist. How do you handle critique and the pressure of maintaining a social media presence?

I don’t feel that kind of pressure. I didn’t grow up with social media, so it never was my priority. My focus is always on art, not on building numbers. I remember being at San Diego Comic-Con, and someone asked me, “What’s it like to be the top comic cover artist in the industry?” I said I had never thought about it. I don’t aim to be popular—I draw because I enjoy it. I make enough money to provide for my family, which lets me keep drawing (laughter). My only goal with money is to buy the freedom to draw.

What kind of pressures do you face regarding social media, and how do you handle critique online?

I don’t have that kind of pressure because social media wasn’t my focus. My priority is on the art because I find it enjoyable. Even my family sometimes asks why I work so hard, and I tell them, “I’m not even working!” The only time I feel

like I’m working is when I take care of my family on weekends. Otherwise, I’m just having fun. So, I don’t feel pressured to keep up with social media. My critical voice comes from within—trying to challenge myself and expand my skills, even if some people don’t respond well to my experiments.

Your recent Two-Face cover seemed darker than your usual work. What inspired you to take that approach?

It was a conscious effort to try something different. When drawing Two-Face, you usually see the half-and-half face, but I wanted to manifest the demon side into another person. It was a risk because it was outside my usual style, but I like to experiment to expand my comfort zone. Instead of stepping out of the comfort zone, I want to broaden it, so I’m comfortable with various styles.

What’s your favorite medium to work with?

I started as a traditional artist, but once I got a WACOM tablet 20 years ago, I transitioned to digital art. The first version of Photoshop I used was version 5, not CS5 (laughter). I’ve been a digital artist since then. However, when I started attending conventions, I saw other artists using Copics and other traditional media, so I began experimenting with them. Despite my shift to traditional mediums, my mindset is still that of a digital artist. I think in layers, even when drawing traditionally.

Any last words of advice for aspiring artists?

Yes. Always focus on the quality of your art, not on social media numbers. Develop a solid foundation, and don’t be afraid to try new things, even if it means losing some followers. It’s better to have a quality fan base that appreciates your work than a large number of followers who might not engage with you. And remember, it’s not about stepping out of your comfort zone, but about expanding it to encompass more styles and techniques.

Thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure talking with you. Have a great time at C2E2!

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