Hailing from the Mattapan section of Boston, Massachusetts, Khary Randolph is pretty well known in comics these days from his work on Mosaic (Marvel), We Are Robin (DC), and Noble (Lion Forge), and his unforgettable collaboration on BLACK. The School of Visual Arts graduate has established himself as an artist who can move units simply by the way he designs covers. Now he’s working with Vita Ayala on Valiant’s newest series, Livewire. But he wasn’t always this busy.
Randolph talked to SYFY WIRE about his years outside the comic book industry drawing everything from storyboards and animation to game character design and trading cards. Unlike many other artists I’ve spoken to, he wasn’t initially influenced by Marvel and DC, but instead it was Image Comics that stole his heart. He even turned down the first two gigs he was offered with DC and Marvel, respectively. To find out Khary Randolph’s comic book origin story, read on.
(updated July 14, 23:00)
When did you read your first comic?
Khary Randolph: I've been reading comics basically as long as I've been alive, since I could read. My earliest memory of fandom is my mom taking me to see Return of the Jedi. That was the first Star Wars movie I'd ever seen. I think that was 1983, so I was like 4. I remember just being in love with it, and we went to a corner store maybe a couple of days later and I saw a Star Wars comic. So I'd asked her to bring home a copy. So it started like that, I'd always check for comic books, going to the store after that. It went on like that for years.
Later I saw a profile of Image Comics which had pictures of the covers Spawn No. 1 and Young Bloods. There was also Wildstorm and Cyberforce. The cover art for all the books just grabbed me. I'd never seen anything like it. I remember specifically that the art was dope, but the color is what really spoke to me. The color was so much more vibrant than anything I'd ever seen in a comic book, and it really moved me. So the next day I went to the local comic book shop and I picked up all those books. Cyberforce, all the Wildstorm, Cyberforce everything. Because I'd never seen anything like it.
The color and the energy made me obsessed with comics. It was like getting high for the first time, I needed to get more. So I went to the comic book shop the day after that, and I went and bought a whole bunch more stuff. Like Brigade and Storm Watch. Whatever Image Comics had out at the time, I bought all of them. At some point I became like a fiend and I was buying something like 20-30 comic books a month. I was spending all my allowance on comics.
So it wasn't really Marvel or DC. It was really Image that did it for you.
Yeah. It wasn't like that stuff wasn't cool, and I knew it was there. I had friends who lent me comics. So I knew about artists like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee, but it was really the Image stuff that got me into them. And then I went back and looked at their Marvel stuff after seeing their work at Image.
How did you get into the industry yourself?
The School of Visual Arts. I moved to New York from Boston to go to SVA, because they had a BFA program in cartooning and I knew at that point that I wanted to draw comic books for a living. So that was my main goal in life then, to draw comic books. By the summer between my junior and senior year of college, I got an internship at DC Comics, so I was on the editorial floor and I would intern for people like Joe Illidge, Heidi Macdonald, every editor that was there at the time. I did everything. I made copies for them, sent off mail, I would call the artists, harass publications, do corrections, everything they have an intern to do, I did it.
And that's how I met a bunch of editors who I'm still friends with to this day. In fact at the end of the internship, there was an editor there called Matt Idelson. And I'd be showing editors drawings, and one day Matt said, "We have this Cat Woman story that I'd like you to draw." I got home and started reading it, and at this point I was in maybe the first week of senior year at SVA, and I punked out. I felt I wasn’t good enough to do it. It was just all these things that they needed me to draw that I had never drawn before, and I just felt that there was no way I could get this thing done in 30 days with my schoolwork, plus I’d never drawn more than five pages at a time.
You had no reference for it. Sounds like you were overwhelmed.
I think I chickened out, honestly. I felt it was too much responsibility. So I turned it down. And then I didn't get another offer to draw anything for years. Eventually, I started going to conventions. I started meeting other artists online through message boards, like Mark Brooks and Skottie Young, Sean Galloway, Sean Murphy. Just a bunch of guys who are like big names now, but all of us were trying to break in around the same time. And we all started kind of like helping each other get better with our art. Like one person would say, "Hey, here is how you do perspective." And another person would show everyone how to draw a proper anatomy. And then someone might say, "Yo, I like the way you draw women. Can you show me how to do it that way?" And we'd help each other.
One day Scotty called me out of the blue and he told me he was working on this book for Marvel called Spider-Man: Legend of the Spider Clan. It was a Marvel manga Spiderman book. The last issue he wasn't going to be able to complete, because they wanted him to jump onto another book. And he was like, “I think you'd be perfect for this because your style is similar to mine and you could replicate it.” That way it wouldn't look crazy to the readers.
It wouldn't be a shock to the reader, and the transition couldn't be more seamless.
Right. And I thought about it for a second, and once again, I was like, “Nah, that's crazy. I have a full-time job, and I can't just take weeks off to work on a comic book and knock out 22 pages in 30 days." And I hung up the phone. Then my roommate goes, "Who was that?" And I explained to him the situation and he just looked at me and said, "What the f*** is wrong with you? This has literally been your dream; for like the last 10 years of your life you've been working towards this moment. Someone just gave you the opportunity to do what you do."
The second opportunity to do what you've always wanted to do.
Yes. The second opportunity, and both opportunities weren't like small-time things, one was Marvel comics and the other DC. He told me, "You have to do this, you have to take the job." And he was right. So then I called my boss at the time and I told him the situation. To his credit he told me, "I know this is the thing you've been working on for years. All you do up in this office is draw these stupid characters, these superheroes, I know this is what you want. I'll give you the time off."
Wow. That's an amazing boss!
Yeah, he was. And so I went back to Scottie like 10 minutes later and told him I was in. So he called C.B. Cebulski, who was the editor at the time, and they all agreed to it. And so Spider-Man: Legend of the Spiderclan #5 was the first comic book I ever drew.
So after that the work started rolling in right after Spider-Man? Did you quit your job?
Yeah. No. Well, kinda. So literally I finished that book and I got it done more or less on time and it looked, it looked pretty decent. And then maybe like a week later Cebulski told me that they needed another artist on Peter Parker's Spider-Man, and he asked if I wanted to draw that. So I think I just quit my job at that point. So I did that book and I got it done more or less on time.
A few months later, Marvel offered me a three-issue run on New Mutants. I took that too. The book was way behind schedule [when I got it], and they told me if I got the series back on track, that I would get my own X-Men book when it relaunched in the fall as The New X-Men. “That'll be like your, your regular book.” they told me. So I got my three issues and I was cranking on that book.
You didn't leave your house.
Nope. I got the flu, everything, I powered through all of it. And I got them done in about three weeks apiece. I cranked them out. And then Marvel decided to give The New X-Men to another artist. And that was it. I was SOL. There was no more work after that. Honestly, for a long time. And eventually I had to like go back to my boss and ask him for my old job back.
And in general, there really wasn't much more work in comics for me like, period. Work just kind of dried up. So I basically left the industry and went into animation.
What year was that?
Later, in 2003, 2004. I started working on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The show.
Before it went to Nickelodeon?
Yeah. I was doing licensing for them at first. And then it kind of turns into a gig basically working in-house.
You were a freelance animator for them?
I'm not an animator per se, but I kind of fell into working with the animation industry. I could draw well. And they always need people that can turn around the storyboards and revisions and stuff. So I started working on TMNT, and then I worked on a season of Boondocks, and a little bit of Hellboy, and then I did a whole season of Wolverine and the X-Men.
I was just designing characters, and then I did a lot of odd jobs in and out of animation, designing trading card games, and video games, and stuff like that. And I just went back into that industry because they were throwing money at me. The money was actually way better than comics, and so I just kind of decided, "This is what I'm doing now." And that went all the way until 2009. I was still on the art staff of Ninja Turtles when the entire production shut down because Nickelodeon bought the license. They shut down what we were doing, and we were all basically out of job.
Because they brought in their own team.
Yeah. That was a huge turning point in my life. For years now, I'd been in a studio environment. Then suddenly I'm collecting unemployment. I had to figure out how to be a freelancer again. I hadn't done it in years, because I was full-time. And at that point I decided to give comic books another shot. Because my art skills had gotten a lot better. And I came up with this idea to work with my friend Emilio Lopez; he worked on TMNT with me as a colorist. I told him, "Here's the scheme. We're going to sell ourselves as a team. As an art package. We do everything. Line art, inking, color... everything." My thinking was, if we sold ourselves as a unit, maybe it would make us more attractive [to publishers].
That's really smart. Did it work?
It worked. I got offered two different books within a month of each other. I got offered Starborn from Boom! and Charismagic from Aspen Comics. I got a little greedy and stupidly I took both projects on at the same time. Because at that point, I had never had a full-time comic book job before, and I just felt I could do both. We got them done, but it was not pretty. I drew over 12 issues in less than a year. But... it got me in the door.
Wow. That's a lot of work.
What's been your favorite character to draw?
I kind of hate that question, only because it's probably going to sound like a copout answer, but every time I'm on a new project, that's my favorite. Whatever I'm working on at the time. It's my favorite. That has to do with the fact that I tend to get offered projects where I design everything.
Yes and no. It's a lot more work than just drawing Iron Man. I have to design worlds, every time I'm on a project. So from Starborn, Charismagic to Mosaic (Marvel) and We Are Robin (DC), these are all things I've had to co-create. I’m decent at designing characters, but it's also a LOT of work. As a result, I fall in love with all of the characters.
That's not a copout. That's a very good answer. What is your favorite arena to work in, indie or major?
This is a hard question, because they both have advantages and disadvantages, right? So working for the majors, financially speaking, is a nice check. Marvel and DC pay you some nice checks, and they come pretty regularly. But you don't have a lot of control over what to draw. They tell you what to draw, and that's what you draw.
You work for the independents, you have a lot more freedom, but the checks tend to be smaller. So that's hard. I don't know. I really don't know. I think long-term, I would say it's better to own what you do. So independent, when it comes to making a name for yourself. I mean come on, having a platform like Marvel or DC certainly does not hurt.
When BLACK came along, why did you decide to get involved? Was it the perfect opportunity for you, or did you have your doubts?
To be honest with you, BLACK just seemed like a cool project to work on with my friends. It became much bigger than what I thought it was going to be. Everyone was already on board. I was, I was the last person to come on board. I'd known Kwanzaa Osayjeyfo for years, I'd known Tim Smith III for a while, I'd known Jamal Igle for a while, I'd known Sara Litt for a while. These people were already my friends, and the opportunity to work with people who are professionals and also my friends was amazing. And I knew like the money wasn't going to be funny. Sometimes you work on projects and it's like even if it sounds cool, if the money doesn't sound right, I can't do it.
Of course. Because New York is expensive.
It's expensive as hell. And no matter how cool your little project is, paying me out of the proceeds of sales on your project does not compute in my world. Because a lot of great small projects don't make any money. But with the Kickstarter, I knew the money was going to be there, and I knew I could trust these guys. Plus the premise behind BLACK was intriguing enough that I knew I could do something cool with it.
How did the Valiant Livewire project come about? You mentioned that you interned at DC with Joe Illidge, did he bring you on board?
100 percent. So for all you inspiring artists out there reading this, it's important that the connections you make, you keep. I have known Joe Illidge for over a decade. Almost 20 years. So we've worked together on small things that people don't know about. You know, we've worked on TV and movie pitches and things. Also when he became the editor of Catalyst Prime over at Lion Forge, he told me that they were doing some different things and brought me on board. I trust him because I think he's a smart dude. So I did a number of things for Lion Forge. The week that he got into Valiant he gave me a phone call.
I didn't grow up reading a lot of Valiant. So it was all new to me. But the thing that sold me on the [Livewire book], besides Joe Illidge, was that Vita Ayala was writing. Vita is my homie. I drew their first comic out of DC, an 8-page Wonder Woman standalone. And I loved working on that with them. So we've been talking about working on stuff together for a long time. These are people I respect. In an industry like this where there's a lot of personalities, you want to work with people that you respect and trust. So that's a big thing for me. Sometimes I care about that more than the characters I draw. I care about working with people that I like.
Why did you switch to working on covers mostly?
I still work on interiors occasionally. But I came to a realization after working on a lot of these books: I don't think I'm a great artist for books that you have to turn around in like four weeks. I don't think I'm that fast of an artist anymore. I used to be fast, but at some point I decided that quality was more important to me than quantity. And I am not that fast. I mean, I'm not saying I would never do monthly books again, but it's got to be the right fit. I have to have enough time to do it properly. But covers are a different thing, because I feel like I have a sense of design, from my licensing background, because like I feel I know what sells on a cover. I know what it takes to sell something off the shelf. Plus, I can bang out covers pretty quickly, and honestly, I have a real short attention span. I don't know if I would want to draw certain characters for 30 days straight. But a cover, I still end up looking like the man.
You are hilarious.
I'll be the first to tell you, sometimes I get a lot of credit, and all I drew was the cover. I'm honest. I tell people and it's really unfair to the interior artist. Because I get a lot of credit for other folks' work. I mean, credit is important. When you draw covers, your name is often the first they might see on a book. Often the cover artist sets the tone and is the reason why a book is picked up or not picked up. And for whatever reasons, whatever I'm doing, it's solid enough that they keep throwing stuff at me.
What is the character that you would really love to get your stylus around?
I definitely have a wish list of books I'd like to work on, but my number one would probably be Teen Titans, mainly because it's a series that is known around the world by children. And yes, there is a TV show that is about to come out. And it's assumed that speaks to children. But I look at the comic book sometimes and I feel like it's not a kid's book. I feel like that is one of those properties that should be a top-ten book. I felt the same way about Static Shock. When you have things that have a built-in audience already, it should be easy to promote and get out there. But I feel like these companies don't take advantage of the existing fan base, and they're making books for a different audience.
When I draw, I’m drawing things for my 13-year-old self. That's the audience that I'm thinking about when I draw comic books. That's the audience that it should be for. I'm not drawing it for a bunch of people in their forties. I respect those people at work, but I care about the next generation, and so the things that I work on are things that I want a new generation of comic book readers to read. So I'd like get my hands on Teen Titans or Cloak and Dagger. Or even Power Pack.
I feel like the big books, like Spider-Man, Wolverine, X-Men, Justice League, and I love those things, but those things are covered already. I feel I like characters that haven’t found their audience yet. I like helping to find that audience and helping to make that happen.
What will you be doing at San Diego Comic-Con next week?
You should look for me at the pool. At the the Marriott with my daiquiri or my piña colada. I'll be taking all of my meetings there. If you want anything signed, I'll sign it right by the pool all four days. It might be a little wet, but it'll add authenticity.
(all images illustrated by Khary Randolph)