Back in October, the fifth issue in the comiXology Originals series Elephantmen 2261: The Death of Shorty was released online, and it marked the 50th Elephantmen cover by artist Boo Cook. To celebrate the milestone, Daily Dead was recently provided with a Q&A with Cook for our readers to enjoy. In his wide-spanning reflection on his work, Cook discusses the creative approach to his artwork, collaborating with writer Richard Starkings, and he selects his five favorite covers that he's done for the Elephantmen series.
"Boo, you've been the cover artist on Elephantmen for 50 issues now. What's that mean to you, having such consistency with a series?
Boo Cook: In all honesty, I was quite surprised to discover I’d notched up 50 covers for Elephantmen! Life as a freelancer is kind of a blur plunging from one job to the next, radically changing tack with each new cover or strip, but certainly doing the Elephantmen covers has been a blast. Knowing that I’ve done 50 feels great, confirmation that I do actually put stuff out into the world as opposed to just doodling in a vacuum, and it’s without doubt the most I’ve contributed to any creative body of work—part of my lifeblood! Elephantmen is such a monumental slab of story and I’m quite chuffed that I’ve helped that along in my small way, and it’s an honor to be included among such a superb clan of artists that have made the visual side of Elephantmen the kickass beast that it is.
Who are some of your artistic inspirations? Artists you admire, music you like?
Boo Cook: I’m a massive fan of the British weekly anthology comic 2000 AD, as is Richard Starkings, and I’ve been reading that regularly since I was nine, so many of my influences come from there. Artists such as the legendary Carlos Ezquerra, who sadly just passed away, Cam Kennedy, Mike McMahon, Brendan McCarthy, Brian Bolland, Henry Flint, Frank Quitely—I could go on for hours! The range of artists in 2000 AD is incredibly varied and bursting with imagination, and each of them rubs off on my own style to varying degrees.
Outside of British comics, I'm a massive fan of Moebius, Jack Kirby, José Ladrönn, as well as newer artists such as James Harren and Jakub Rebelka. Outside of comics, there are plenty of artists who’ve influenced me too, such as Austin Osman Spare, H.R. Giger and even film directors such as Lynch, Kubrick, and my current favorite, Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy). Star Wars might’ve had a slight impact on my entire existence, too… Working from home, I get through a ton of music each week and need regular top-ups—it’s the fuel that greases my creative wheels. Artists that can regularly be heard coming from my speakers are anything from Thee Oh Sees to Can, Black Sabbath to Beak, Killing Joke, Jean Michelle Jarre, Fantomas, Nuclear Whale, Suuns, Broadcast, Nick Drake, Goat, Fleet Foxes—an endless list! If anyone’s interested, I make sprawling two-hour eclectic mixes for working to called Memory Foam that can be listened to for free here: https://www.mixcloud.com/boo-cook/uploads/
Tell us a bit about your process. Do you read the script to get a vision? Do you discuss with writer Richard Starkings? Do you land on the idea pretty quickly—like with the first sketch—or are there several ideas and you have to narrow it down?
Boo Cook: Richard is a man who knows what he wants, so 99.9% of the time he will have a solid idea in his head before he comes to me, so I invariably try to envisage what he’s after and have a back and forth with various sketches or angles on the theme until he’s happy for me to proceed to pencils. Occasionally, I'll get to suggest an idea or sway the way things are going, but usually it’s pretty set. Quite a few of the covers have been homages to our collective influences, either directly in the case of issue #58’s Damien Hirst pastiche, or Nick Kellar’s ‘Beast Wars’ album cover on issue #65. Sometimes it’ll be more of a vibe from something, such as issue #16’s knowing Blade Runner nod. Most of the ideas are of course 100% Rich.
What are some of the techniques you use to produce the cover art? Do you sketch by hand? Draw electronically? Do you work in silence or binge watch TV?
Boo Cook: Doing covers is always a great opportunity to change things up and experiment a bit, but largely the Elephantmen covers have fallen into the heavily tonal pencil/Photoshop paint category, and I think this is largely due to the subject matter. Elephantmen is a very gritty and cinematic strip, so a more realistic, grimy, textural approach seems to fit much better than say a clean, inked graphic approach, but of course this can change completely from cover to cover. As my method is often incredibly detailed and labor-intensive, I send progress of the pencil stage to Richard at several intervals as things get increasingly harder to amend as the process goes on. I’ll start off very roughly with a 2H pencil and send a compositional rough to check everything is in the right place. Once that’s tightened up, I’ll do an extra check that everything is ticking the right boxes before the next stage.
Once the basics are approved, I bring out the big guns: my 8B solid graphite "bullet" pencil. I use this on its side to generate the tones and it’s great for texture, it even creates interesting textural highlights on areas where the page is indented from erasing mistakes. After that, the page is looking pretty ugly and unrefined, so I go in with an HB technical pencil to sharpen up and enhance all the lines and bring everything into balance. Once Richard is happy with the finished pencils, I scan them in and color them in Photoshop, building up layers of graduated fills, shadow blocks, lighting, and tones. There might be a few tweaks from Richard after completion, but generally the process takes about a week from start to finish.
As I mentioned earlier, the entire process is fueled by very loud music, which I’ll usually change to suit the mood of the cover I’m working on, e.g. Sabbath for a full on gritty battle scene or some Moon Gangs for more spacey contemplative hi-tech imagery. I know some people watch films and stuff while they work, whereas I don’t have enough brain RAM to draw, listen, AND watch. If I’m writing, I can’t listen to anything with words, but I can’t have silence either, so SomaFM’s Drone Zone channel is perfect for that. Music is very important to me and a big part of my creative output, too. I play drums and various instruments with fellow 2000 AD artist Simon Davis in the folk horror influenced band Forktail, as well as drumming in the experimental electronic band Motherbox, which are both on the Menk Recordings record label, of which I’m one of the co-owners, all of which can be found here: https://menkrecordings.bandcamp.com
How has the process from beginning to end changed over the years? Are you more confident to take chances? Is there less back and forth with the team now that you know these characters so well?
Boo Cook: The process hasn’t changed hugely since the start. There’s still as much back and forth between Richard and myself as there ever was. My first cover (War Toys #1) was possibly the toughest, as I was following directly on from one of the finest living artists on the planet, José Ladrönn, which was kinda tough. These days I prefer to push for a more conceptual or simple graphic approach, but Rich was forged in the fires of pulp and that clearly shows in the narrative action-packed approach to many Elephantmen cover concepts, but I’m happy to oblige. As far as interacting with the rest of the team goes, the covers will sometimes be commissioned months in advance of the strip even being written, so a new character or vehicle will crop up for me to design, and poor Axel Medellin will have to draw my excruciatingly detailed ‘space hem’ clothes or fiddly hi-tech gear thousands of times within the strip. Sorry Axel…
Now that you've completed 50 Elephantmen covers, would you pick 5 of your favorites?
Boo Cook: That’s a very tough call! Off the top of my head, I’d probably go for #58, the aforementioned Damien Hirst homage, just for its downright crazy gruesomeness. #77, as it’s one of the rare times where i got to use my real (non-digital) painting skills on a cover and the concept from Rich was spot-on: massive lion, in your face, ICHINEN! I’m also quite fond of the cover for #37, featuring the character Razorback, the front-on boar skull was a solid iconic thing for me to work from, and it’s another simple, in-your-face concept. Although it doesn’t crop up much, I have a soft spot for cover #31. Again, it’s a very simple, easy-to-process concept, and it reminds me of why I’m a vegetarian. Out of the recent bunch of covers for the Comixology "Death Of Shorty" run, I think my fave might be the cover for #2—there’s a lot of pathos in the character of Shorty, and I tried to channel that here, also (by my standards) it was quite a technical beast with the perspective, multiple light sources, and robo-detail, which I didn’t really consider at the time, but I look back on it and don’t equate myself with that level of patience—I guess I got in the zone. Here’s to the next 50!"