One of the greatest sci-fi/horror flicks of all time is John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” The movie has everything going for it: A great story that’s superbly written, ground-breaking special effects (pre-CGI), talented actors and even a solid soundtrack (composed by Mr. Carpenter himself). If you haven’t seen it, treat yourself. I’m such a fan of this film that I instantly like other people who love this film too.
I ran into one of these folks earlier last year at Emerald City ComiCon. He was one of many artists there with tables set up to display and sell their art. I didn’t have to have a verbal interaction with this guy to find out he loved The Thing. He was selling his own custom movie poster of it.
“This poster is amazing! It reminds me of the Mondo series of movie posters.”
He replied with a bashful “Wow, thanks.” This artist was humble. I talked to him more and found out he was the one-and-only Brian Churilla. He’s done artwork for Marvel (“Avengers & The Infinity Gauntlet“), Dark Horse (“Dark Horse Presents“), and a plethora of other indie companies and titles. He’s currently the artist for “Big Trouble In Little China” (Boom! Studios), a comic book series that serves as a sequel to the 1983 film, and also the series “Hellbreak.”
I snagged Brian’s business card. The back of it listed his social media accounts, including Instagram (@brianchurilla) and Twitter (also @brianchurilla). I waste too much time on Instagram, double-tapping (“liking”) images of comic book characters and cute puppies, but I followed him anyway. Brian posts his creative process, showing his sketches in early development along with completed covers. It was there that I became intrigued by his graphic novel “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper,” that he both wrote and illustrated. I got myself a copy and was blown away. There were pages (especially cover art) that were suitable for framing (at least for a geek’s house). The concept is a great blend of historical fiction and sci-fi. D.B. Cooper was a real guy who hijacked a Boeing 727, received $200,000 in ransom, and parachuted out of the plane. His fate is still a mystery. Churilla’s story redefines him as a CIA agent who can shift into another dimension (a very colorful, surreal, and psychedelic one) to evade troubles in our “real” dimension. He uses this ability to not only escape the plane, but also do covert work against the Soviets.
I saw an Instagram post of yours with the text “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper, part 2” below it. Are you working on a sequel?
No! [laughs] I took that from one of the issues of Big Trouble In Little China. There’s a part where there’s two gangster guys and when I was drawing it I put… I always draw PI’s in suits like they’re ’60s mod suits, so I always draw in a certain way. Both guys look like D.B. Cooper, so I put sunglasses on them and just Instagrammed it to freak anybody out who might be interested or who even know what I’m talking about.
Do you have any plans for the future to do more writing?
Yeah, I’m actually working with a couple artists and doing some writing, actually putting together two pitches. D.B. Cooper is one of those books that was just on the back burner on my mind for years and I think I conceived it seven years before it actually came out. It was just a little bit of long back burner thing that I just think about every once in a while. I have other stuff that I don’t think I’m ever going to have time to get around to draw. As much fun as D.B. Cooper was to do, because I was writing and drawing it and coloring it, I think it took close to a year to finish. It was kind of a very long process for me. Now I can turn around an issue a month easily, so yeah, that was a little rough.
I’m guessing it ends up being more of a personal accomplishment than something that actually pays the bills. Maybe the work you’re doing on a consistent basis is a more reliable revenue stream.
Yeah, to create your own stuff, that’s the stuff that makes you feel fulfilled when you do it.
This is a hard thing for any artist to really fully describe, but where did the idea of the D.B. Cooper storyline germinate from?
I immediately visualize Robert Stack coming out of a fog.
Yeah, absolutely. Then that super-creepy police sketch. Let’s face it: 95% of all police sketches are horrifying. So that always kind of stuck in my mind, because in the Northwest (in Oregon), he’s kind of a folk hero. He’s like the modern Jesse James. He kind of stuck it to the man, a giant corporation, and nobody got hurt. So I was always aware of the story. I think maybe at some point, my experience with psychedelic drug use—in my late teens–kind of made its way in too. I always had an idea that I wanted to do a story involving that. I thought It’d be fun to do something trippy and psychedelic and also involve D.B. Cooper. It seems very oddball.
The storyline of him going back and forth between dimensions, and it impacting what’s going on in the “real world,” made me think of–and I don’t know if you’ve read it or know about it–Stephen King‘s and Peter Straub‘s “The Talisman.”
I’m aware of it, but I’ve never read it. Oddly I’ve been going through Stephen King’s whole catalogue on Audible. The Peter Straub stuff I haven’t done yet. Yeah, that sort of theme, that Jungian duality thing. It’s very common. You find it in literature everywhere. Everyone is struggling with duality in some form or another. I think that is a theme that’s always interesting. Duality of man.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
There’s different methods that writers have for how they construct their stories. How much had you outlined for yourself? The twist ending (so to say) of the red bear being his daughter, I thought was great. Was that something you had planned out ahead of time? How did that work out?
Yeah, because the red bear was supposed to be a red herring, so to speak. It’s just misdirection with the red bear and the Soviets and the sort of symbol. I did know… I don’t know, because that story has been through several different iterations over the years. For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with the story. I had this really vague idea, but the whole thing injecting some pathos interested me for a long time. She’s there the whole time and she’s just like a manifestation of his obsession with her. Anyway, the red bear is actually him chasing himself.I thought it was just one of those things that just dawns on you when you’re thinking about stuff. “Oh, that works… That works… That TOTALLY works.”
Going back to your early days, what was the earliest point that you started drawing and enjoying it?
I think it was more obsessively drawing, like an OCD thing. I was really young. It continues on to this day, where I just want to draw. I’ve always been that way. It’s a form of meditation and I think I figured this out from a really young age. “Oh, this is really enjoyable. I’m going to spend all my time, all my time, doing it.” As for a specific age, I couldn’t tell you. But it’s just always been that way and I’ve always been drawn to the cartoon image, specifically. Whether it’s a Mickey Mouse poster in my room or the American bald eagle cartoon mascot in the ’84 Olympics. That’s actually one of my earliest memories of the cartoon was being very taken by a cartoon drawing of the mascot for the Summer Olympics in ’84. It’s always been that way.
At what point, post-high school, did drawing become a career?
Well, after high school I just did lots of drugs and didn’t do much with anything. I knew I could draw, but I didn’t have any sort of ambition about it. Spent several years just being an idiot. I think when I was my late 20s–mid to late 20s–I was like, “I want to do something,” because I was working. I had some miserable jobs, one in retail. I worked for all sorts of those jobs for over 10 years while I just figured out what I wanted to do. At some point, I just made a commitment. Well, comics seemed like something. I love comics and I could probably do it. I kind of made a commitment to it and made a portfolio and went to Seattle. I committed to it and just started doing samples and never got a job, so I just decided to make my own comic. The Engineer, was kind of how I got started.
How did that come about?
I ended up befriending Jeremy Shepard who colored and co-wrote the book and we just started coming up with an idea.
Did you guys self-publish that?
No, Archaia did it after Archaia was not Boom!/Archaia, but this was a while ago. I think seven years ago, something like that.
Do you have any current comic books that you’re a fan of right now?
What are your pet peeves in comic books?
Oh, jeez. When they take themselves too seriously.
As a freelance artist, how do you prioritize your day since you don’t have a structure that is provided to you?
I kind of have to work with what I get because I have kids and I work from eight in the morning to 12:15. Pick up the boy, feed him, let him take a nap, and then I go pick up my daughter at 3:30. So it’s like I have that chunk in the morning. And then I come back to it around nine o’clock at night and then I work until about three in the morning. Not a lot of sleep because that’s why I’m kind of out of it in these interviews. But yeah, it’s like four hours of sleep at night, at best. My life dictates my schedule and I have to work with what I get.
Was your family supportive of your move into making comic books a career?
You know, that’s not even applicable. I don’t think my mom, who’s my only family, has much interest. I’m kind of on my own, it doesn’t matter. Whatever I did, I did.
Do you have any recommendations for artists who are interested in going into the industry?
Don’t expect to get paid any time soon unless you’re amazing, which 90% of us are not and I include myself in that 90%. Then it’s just a hard-go, and if you really want to do comics you kind of have to be a sadomasochist. That’s where you hurt yourself. You have to be willing to just kill yourself to do it. It’s really hard. Looking back, I can’t believe that I actually have… This is my job, but it’s like… Jesus, could I have picked a dumber, more ridiculous profession? I don’t think I could have. Seriously, it’s like the pressure, the stress, I mean.. Jesus Christ… and unprofessional people you have to deal with all the time. It’s crazy. I always joke with people that comics is a broke-dick industry and they’re like, “Broke-dick, what does that mean?” It’s dick is broken: You cannot fuck, it does not know what it’s doing. It’s the worst. I always joke comics is the worst, but I’m grateful for having a job doing it because it sure beats working.
You say “unprofessional people.” Is that something you commonly find?
If you’ve never heard of it, I should probably keep my mouth shut. No, it’s just… I don’t know. You’re constantly just dealing with people that should be more professional. I probably shouldn’t say more than that. You assholes, if you hear this, you know who I’m freaking talking about.
Were there any specific artists when you were growing up that you were inspired by?
You know in the ’90s, Jim Lee. Which I draw just like him now as you can tell. [sarcastic tone] The whole ’90s boom with Silvestri. Then before that, probably John Buscema. I was really into that Wolverine re-launch they did in the mid ’80s when I was a kid. That’s what I think of when I think of drawing comics and who influenced me in the formative years.
How about current artists? Is there anybody right now that you’re just blown away by?
Yeah, James Harren. He’s done a lot of BPRD stuff. Mignola is probably my favorite living comic book artist. I have to look at my Instagram for the artists that I like. “Doc” Shaner I really like, and Dan Brereton.
There was an interview of yours I watched on YouTube where you mentioned how your very first comic book was Spider-Man. You said you weren’t sure if it really existed or not, and that your only memory was of the cover art. It had Spider-Man lying on his back, a guy with a Mohawk standing over him with an axe, and the tagline “Scared To Suicide.” Did anyone ever help you find that?
Yeah, somebody did and then I lost the link. It was like “What up?!”… great. I knew what it was for about 10 minutes and I don’t have the history saved. It was like number 71 or something. Now it’s just one of my big failures. I finally got the answer that I sought. I finally met with the mystic and he gave me all the secrets of the universe, and then I fell and hit my head on a rock on the way down the mountain and it’s all gone. Then the mystic had a heart attack.