Comic Artist. Cartoonist. Visual Storyteller. Austin MacDonald, fresh from hosting a solo exhibition for his comic, Prodigal: The Sentinel’s Garden, chats with Aislin Magazine about all things comic related.
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Comic Artist and Visual Storyteller Austin MacDonald grew up in his hometown of Woodbridge, CT constantly drawing Dragon Ball Z and Super Smash Bros. characters in his notes and on his class worksheets. Although he had been drawing and reading comics for as long as he could remember, it wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he decided to focus on his art. He credits that decision, in part, to simply having to choose a major for college, and to the animated series, Adventure Time. “That had a very obtainable drawing style, I could copy the characters so easily.”
Today, MacDonald has ventured into album art, posters, t-shirt & logo designs, but he still always finds himself falling back into making comics. "I've always come back to comics, since 3rd grade. If I was left to my own devices and money was no issue, I would just tell weird stories with comics.” He recently had an exhibition for one of his latest comics, Prodigal: The Sentinel’s Garden, which is made almost entirely out of cut paper and depicts a carrot-smoking, motorcycle riding, desert living rabbit in search of his last carrot, which has been stolen from him. Aislin caught up with MacDonald to talk about anime vs. American comics, his love for science fiction, and his realization that he isn’t invincible.
You recently had an exhibition for your latest project, “Prodigal: The Sentinel’s Garden” for which you were awarded an IDEA Grant to create. What was that experience like?
That was a really good experience, even to just have practice with grant writing. Convincing somebody, who doesn’t even know art, that you have a good idea. And then just finishing such a big project like that, from start to finish and all the periods in between. Like that midway point, when you’ve done so much but you’re still so far from finishing. I also learned that my body isn’t invincible. With how much labor it took, my body suffered more than I anticipated. From doing things like not limiting how many hours I work each day, not working with a good posture, not having a good diet or getting enough sleep, I ended up kind of screwing myself with that repetitive strain. I would’ve had to learn that eventually, but we’re like, 20 something years old and don’t think anything of that. So doing a project that took so much time, I was able to learn that lesson pretty fast.
Did that injury stall you at all?
I started getting chronic muscle pains right at the end, not bad enough where I wasn’t able to finish or had to stop working, but enough where I just thought, this is annoying and I don’t want this to hurt anymore. So nothing serious, just annoying enough for me to want to address it.
How was the show?
The show was great, so many more people came than I imagined, and it seemed like everybody got it. I was worried that people wouldn’t because there are no words, so I’m definitely relying a lot on the visuals.
Well that leads into my next question, since Prodigal intentionally lacks any words or dialogue to guide the reader through the story. Was this your first time creating a comic that relies solely on the artwork?
It was not. I did a project for class where I created a 4 page comic without relying on words, and I liked the challenge of it. For this one, I was spending so much time on the artwork I wanted people to look at it! [laughs] Because I’m definitely guilty of, if there’s dialogue and it’s an exciting story, cranking through the dialogue and just glancing at the artwork. So by not having dialogue you have to really pay attention to the art if you want to understand what’s going on in the story.
Where did the idea for “Prodigal: The Sentinel’s Garden” come from?
It started with the character. Maybe a couple years ago, I wanted to put a character on the front of my sketchbook that I thought was my mascot. So that was the first drawing of him, and I knew that he was some type of Jedi/Samurai, and I knew that he lived in the desert, and that he had a cool motorcycle. You know, all the necessary things [laughs]. Then I thought, I should make a story about this guy, so I started writing a story two summers ago and got about 15 pages into a comic about him, all pen drawing with digital coloring. But I was just making the story up as I went along, didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it and started to lose interest, which told me if I’m losing interest then the audience is definitely going to lost interest. So I brought it to one of my professors and just asked what do you think of this. She said, this is cool but I think you can come up with something a little more original. At this point, I was also thinking about applying for the IDEA Grant and trying to figure out what I wanted to do for that. She told me, I’ve never seen a comic made out of cut paper, what if you tried that? So then I started messing around with cut paper, which I hadn’t really done much of before, and I stared writing a new story that was more ambiguous and mysterious. I didn’t want to just give the audience everything like I did with the first version of the story.
"If I was left to my own devices and money was no issue, I would just tell weird stories with comics."
Was it because you were applying to the IDEA Grant that made you want to make this comic almost entirely out of cut paper?
Yes, I knew that I should have something about it that gave them a reason to want to give me money. I didn’t want to say, oh I just want to make a cool comic book, I knew it should have something about it that set it apart. I’ve seen children's books, animations, and stand-alone illustrations done in this style, but I’ve never seen, and I couldn’t find, a comic that was totally done in this style so I thought it would be a good selling point for the grant. To say, hey, this has never really been done before.
Your portfolio contains a lot of comics, and I know that you were really into anime cartoons, but were you an avid comic book reader as a child? Was there anything besides manga that you liked to read?
Yeah, I was way into Yu-Gi-Oh!, I just thought it was the dopest thing [laughs], but I did not have any interest in American comics. Mainstream, you know, Marvel and DC, the big two, you can’t just jump into even something like Spiderman #1 because at that point, there’s still so much that has happened. Somehow, they’ll start a new series and there’s still all of this background knowledge that you need to know and I had no interest in that. But with a manga, you can just pick it up and that’s #1, you don’t have to know anything else. I also liked that the genre could be anything, it wasn’t just superheroes. In middle school I was reading One Piece and Naruto, and then I kind of lost interest for a couple years but in my junior year of high school I read Watchmen and that was just crazy. I thought, oh, I didn’t know American comics could be like this.
Were you always interested in creating comics? Or was there ever a different path you were tempted to take?
I've always come back to comics, since 3rd grade. If I was left to my own devices and money was no issue, I would just tell weird stories with comics. But I like doing album covers and posters, I like working with bands a lot, and I would like to do editorials. I like doing stand-alone illustrations, and painting, stuff like that, but comics are what I always find myself slipping back to.
What was your go-to thing to draw when you were growing up?
Definitely my favorite characters from whatever I was into. For a while it was Yu-Gi-Oh! and I was drawing Blue-Eyes White Dragon and all of the crazy monsters from that. Then I was really into video games as a kid, specifically Nintendo video games, so I was always drawing Super Smash Bros. characters. Later on in high school, I was drawing more psychedelic/surreal things.
I’ve noticed a lot of animals in your work. Is that a theme or just a coincidence?
I definitely draw a lot of animals. I never had pets as a kid, and I think having really adorable animals doing badass things is just really funny to me [laughs].
Your comics also tend to have a futuristic or sci-fi/dystopian setting to them.
Yeah, I really like how sci-fi is just speculative fiction. It’s like, who knows, maybe this could happen, if you can just suspend your disbelief. And there are so many variations - light science fiction which is like Star Wars where they have magic and light sabers, but then there’s hard science fiction like Star Trek where it’s very serious and mathematical. There’s such a wide range and so many different paths you can take with it, it’s a very liberating genre.
What kind of gadgets would you want to find if you could travel to the future?
Oh that’s a good question. I want a hoverboard like Back to the Future, that’s the number one thing.
Yeah [laughs]. No, I don’t know. Maybe a hover bike. I just like going really fast and I think flying is cool, so, anything that’ll help me fly.
Can you tell me about your Spectral Temple comic?
When my grandpa was in the Korean War, he was coming back from a mission, one thing lead to another and he couldn’t land back on the aircraft carrier so he had to crash his plane into the ocean. He washed up in Korea and he didn’t know if he was in North or South Korea. These fisherman found him and were parading him through their village, and he didn’t know if he was going to become a prisoner of war or something. Luckily he found out that he was in South Korea so he was able to get rescued and it ended up working out, but it’s such a crazy story and it’s apart of my family history. That was the inspiration for this comic, but of course I put a science fiction twist on it by changing the island that the pilot washes up on from Korea to this weird, alien island, just to exaggerate what it must’ve been like to be in this totally foreign place. After that, I just wanted to make it very strange and bizarre, so he finds this temple that, I know was left by aliens, but it’s this weird temple with a statue inside.
He touches this crystal the statue is holding, these light beams shoot out of his eyes, and then he wakes up on a rescue helicopter. The pilot is asking him what happened, he found him washed up on the beach, and the main character looks out the window and we see what he sees, realizing that he can see beyond now. I was going for a war story with this, that was the aesthetic, so I was watching Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, all of these insane war movies. Something that I got really obsessed with was the thousand-yard stare, which is when soldiers get disassociated from the terrible, terrible things they’ve seen. That blank stare, looking off into the distance, I started thinking what are they looking at? What crazy things has war let them see? It’s such an abstract concept to me, the idea of war seems like it’s outside of reality almost, so I thought wouldn’t it be nuts if he could see these things that nobody else can see after having this really wild experience in a foreign place?
On your website, the last page of that comic is animated. Do you see yourself doing more animations in the future?
I’m actually animating all of the pages, that was just the only one that I had finished. I was applying for some jobs so I just put that one there for when they look at my portfolio. I could see myself doing simple animations like that, gif-esque things, but I’m not sure about working at an animation studio necessarily.
How do you know when a certain project or piece of art is done?
I don’t know, I just have this inner compass or something, where I feel like I’m pretty good at deciding, yeah this is done.
You just know.
Yeah, it’s pretty straightforward for me. That’s not one of the things I struggle with as an artist, luckily.
What are your plans for the summer? Can we expect to see more work from you in the upcoming months?
For the summer, I definitely just want to relax after the whole college thing and take a breather. I love making short comics, I really like the short story format because it has to tell everything that a novel does but in less time. You can read the whole story just sitting here, 30 seconds and that’s it, you got it. Long novels and long graphic novels are awesome and there’s a place for that, but I just think there’s something to be said about just sitting down, reading something in a couple minutes and getting the whole thing in that short amount of time. So definitely more mini comics like [Spectral Temple], and I want to start doing comic conventions and trying to sell these. Bruno [Perosino, graphic designer/illustrator] and I are doing two coming up, we’re tabling together. So yeah, hopefully more of those in the future.