Vietnam In Ink
by Michael Czobit
Cameron Stewart crawls on his hands and knees. It’s harder to breathe in the Viet Cong tunnel. There’s no light, just heat. Before Stewart descended into the darkness, he was told to follow the straight path out. On his way, he takes photos. One of himself shows a wide-eyed Stewart dripping with sweat, terrified.
Then he’s out from the hot tunnel into the hot sun. Soon, Stewart is paying $10 US to use an AK-47. He fires the ten-bullet-clip, which the assault rifle spits out in a flash. Stewart finds no thrill in shooting.
Stewart, 30, is a Toronto comic book artist on a research mission. He’s drawing a five-issue mini-series, The Other Side, set in 1968 and set in the Vietnam War.
The tunnel and the gun are part of Stewart’s trip to Vietnam that he took last summer.
Stewart drinks coffee at a Starbucks near his College Street art studio and talks about his new series, which Jason Aaron wrote. The Other Side leaves the mostly fictional worlds Stewart has depicted—his highest-profile gig was a 10-issue run on the Catwoman series—and has the artist drawing fiction in a real setting.
“When I’m drawing Batman and Gotham City, I can make it up, because there’s no real counterpart to it. So, nobody knows if it’s slightly wrong,” Stewart says. “But if I get the details of this wrong, if I get the type of gun that they’re carrying wrong, or the type of tank wrong, people will know.”
But crawling through a tunnel wasn’t about getting the details of a gun right. “I didn’t have to do that,” Stewart says, but “Google Image Search is only going to get me so far.” Stewart felt he needed to go to Vietnam to get connected to the story and the war it is about.
He spent two weeks in Vietnam taking photos, filming video and talking to people. Stewart went on military tours and visited military museums. And he found that connection, he says.
Six more months of drawing The Other Side await Stewart. “God, it sounds so daunting,” he says. But the art he’s completed for the series is the best of his professional career, which began in 2000.
The Other Side focuses on two soldiers on a seemingly parallel path. One is American; the other, Vietnamese. The artwork for the first issue broods on the horror and darkness of the story. The setting looks authentic and calls the reader in.
Stewart’s style has evolved from his previous work, but he isn’t sure how readers will respond. “The one thing I’m worrying about is that I’m getting too anal, ‘cause a lot of the appeal (for) Catwoman and stuff that I was doing (was) that it was very loose and very quick and not a lot of detail,” Stewart says. “And I’ve gone entirely the other direction now.
“I sometimes wonder, ‘Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I wasting time when I should be stripping down again?’”
When he drew Catwoman, Stewart could draw a generic cityscape background. For The Other Side, he’s taken a different philosophy: “I’m trying to think of (the background) as an environment and a real kind of three-dimensional space that the characters are a part of.”
Stewart has been part of the comic book industry since he drew an issue of the Scooby-Doo series. Then his aforementioned stint on Catwoman brought him widespread attention from comic book fans, says Don MacPherson, a comic book reviewer at TheFourthRail.com.
But when Stewart left that series, he was then able to show his true talent, MacPherson says. “It's Stewart's collaborations with writer Grant Morrison that enabled (him) to really stand out from the crowd.”
With Morrison, Stewart co-created the series Seaguy and worked on the series, Seven Soldiers: The Manhattan Guardian. “Stewart's style is a modern, dynamic and detailed one,” MacPherson says.
Fans and other reviewers have credited Stewart with the ability to make the strange and absurd look real. “I like striking that balance between convincing anatomy, convincing environment (and convincing) details,” Stewart says, “but then also just taking it a little bit into exaggerated, cartoonish kind of stuff.”
Cartooning is a skill that isn’t appreciated, Stewart adds. “People think that because something is cartooned, it’s therefore silly—for children.” But Stewart finds that cartooning makes his art more expressive.
His role as an artist isn’t to simply draw what’s in the script. “The script isn’t engraved in stone. It’s a blueprint. As long as I maintain the purpose of the scene, and I don’t change any of the dialogue or anything, as long as I’m keeping that intact, then I have freedom to play with it,” Stewart says. “It’s my job to push it over the top.”
Hitting the top doesn’t come easy to Stewart, says Chip Zdarsky, who shares Stewart’s studio. "I think like most artists he hits blocks where the page seems insurmountable. But then something clicks and he's on. Like, really on."
When Stewart is on it leads to "bursts of comic-making that only stop because he needs to sleep or eat," Zdarsky says. "He's immensely talented, but like all artists, never truly feels so, which makes him work harder and get even better."
A typical work day doesn’t exist for Stewart, he says. “I try and start early and get to work right away, but that’s always a total failure. That’s the one thing that’s typical in the cycle.” Stewart then draws into the night and tends to be nocturnal, he says.
During the last weekend of April, Stewart will be a guest at the Toronto Comicon held at the National Trade Centre on the CNE Grounds. He’ll be there to sketch and talk to fans.
Stewart’s most requested sketch has been of Catwoman, he says. And despite being known for drawing the character, Stewart doesn’t have a strong bond. “(Catwoman) is just a character that existed for 60 years before me and will likely go on for forever.
“I’ve drawn 400,000 drawings of Catwoman in my life,” Stewart adds wryly. “I would be happy to never have to do it again. But people want it, so I can’t really say no. I’m too soft.”
The Ryersonian link. I wasn't happy with their website presentation, so as you can see, I've posted it here sans the missing punctuation.