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A conversation with Canadian illustrator, animation designer and comic book artist/writer Paul Rivoche

By Jeffery Klaehn

Paul Rivoche is a freelance illustrator, animation designer and professional comic book artist/writer working out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. His career traces back to the early 1980s when he worked on Mister X, published by independent Canadian publisher Vortex Comics. He has produced art for Marvel and DC Comics as well as DC/Vertigo and ABC/Wildstorm, and has also worked as a background designer and storyboard artist for Warner Brothers Animation (BatmanBatman BeyondZetaJustice LeagueSuperman and the direct-to-DVD adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s Justice League: The New Frontier). At present his workload includes a range of advertising art projects as well as producing short comics for the second volume of the Canadian superhero anthology True Patriot: Heroes of the Great White North, in addition to various personal projects.

How did your career first begin? What types of projects have been most memorable for you, looking back?

I’ve always loved art and artwork of all kinds. As a child I became entranced by the process of seeing images in my mind, and then communicating them to others via the language of drawing and art. Growing up with the comic book art of Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, the science fiction paperback cover art of Chris Foss, and many other great influences from those days, I was inspired at the age of twenty to enter the commercial art field. My first published comics work had been a few years earlier, during high school, when I adapted Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction short story ‘Exile of the Aeons’ along with bpNichol, for publication in Andromeda magazine. Around that time I also did some game covers for a man named Lou Zocchi, Star Trek prints which were sold at SF conventions, and several similar projects which all whetted my appetite to become a professional.

Figure 1: Paul Rivoche, ‘Amok Time’ illustration from his ‘Star Trek Universe’ portfolio, published in 1976 (two years before the artist graduated from high school)

Moving to Toronto in 1978, I eventually ended up at Nelvana Animation, designing backgrounds, vehicles, and layouts for their feature ‘Rock and Rule.’ It was an intensive learning period, after which I left for a career as a full-time freelance artist. Since 1979 I’ve worked in many areas of commercial art, creating animation background designs, animation storyboards, comic book artwork, illustrations, children’s publishing artwork, advertising art, paperback covers, and more. I have to say, it’s been quite an indescribable adventure!

What initially drew you to the world of art and illustration?

Art, illustration, the comic book medium . . . for me, all of these are various ways of connecting to my root love, which is stories and storytelling. As a child I was captivated by stories and artwork, such as the Babar and Curious George books, Dr. Seuss, and many other classic children’s books. They were thrilling, intriguing; then, around the age of 5, I discovered an innate talent for drawing – it was just there, a door waiting to be opened. It broadened my connection to stories, since I could put my own visions on paper, and I’ve kept on going ever since.

Becoming a professional artist was a way of staying in touch with the world of storytelling, as an adult. Practical necessity has forced a number of detours along the road, but nothing has changed in terms of that basic interest in stories.

Do you remember the first comic you ever read?

Not precisely. Until about age 9, I grew up in Montreal, a city which was a kind of ‘intersection point’ of European and American influences. Located in Quebec, in the French part of Canada, Montreal therefore had all manner of imported European comics (mainly French and Belgian), but also had many British comics, while still racking the full range of American comics. For a boy in the 1960’s, it was a comics utopia!

So on one hand my earliest memories of comics are of being utterly absorbed by various DC Comics such as Wayne Boring’s version of Superman; other comics such as The Legion of Super-HeroesSuperboyAnthroThe Secret Six, and later Bat LashEnemy AceSgt. RockHawk and DoveThe Inferior Five, and so on; all sorts of eye-popping wonderful adventures. And then, on the other hand, I was also regularly exposed to the European comics which were in abundance: TintinBeanoAsterixSpirou, the Eagle annuals, the Air Ace and Battle Picture Library series of British digest-sized comics, and many others. Through these I was awed by such artists as Ian Kennedy, Alfred Bestall (Rupert), Frank Bellamy, Frank Hampson, Hergé, and many others whose names I never learned! Strangely, in those early days I didn’t take to Marvel Comics at all.

A very early memory is my father taking me to a shop where I bought the Tintin album Red Rackham’s Treasure in English translation. I was staggered by it, and read it over and over, awed by its magic. The meticulous ‘ligne claire’ art; the precisely detailed backgrounds; the wonderful use of language; all of these made a powerful impression on me which lasts to this day. It showed me the possibilities of the comics medium; and again, the fact that I was simultaneously exposed to both US and European comics, forever gave me a sort of ‘hybrid mentality’ when it comes to comics. I like to think that I appreciate the best of both worlds, both approaches, after having been exposed to such a range of different sensibilities.

Figure 2: Paul Rivoche cover artwork from Brave Old World no. 1 (Feb 2000), published by DC Vertigo

How did you see European comics as being different from American comics?

Of course there has always been a huge range of ‘European’ comics, making it difficult to generalize, so I’ll confine my comments to my own experience growing up, to what I personally found in them. I remember being very taken with how many European comics (Asterix and Tintin come to mind particularly) were more careful about building a world behind the characters, even though the stories themselves were not always as wild and brazen as the American ones. In Tintin, meticulous research was done to ensure the consistency, accuracy, and believability of the ‘backdrop’ behind the characters performing at the ‘front of the stage.’ For example, when Hergé had his heroes go into space, in the album Explorers on the Moon, he designed the rockets according to the state of scientific knowledge at the time, and even made small models to draw from. He and his staff were thorough about background and detail, while never forgetting the foreground adventures nor overwhelming them. This gave an incredible conviction to his stories, something I found lacking in some American comics, at least when I got older and examined them more critically.

A few American comics did have this element, this ability to create the sense of a whole unique ‘world’ behind the characters, which was one reason why I was always so captured by Alex Toth’s art and stories, even though his work was more often centered in reality, not fantasy. In ‘Burma Sky’ (Our Fighting Forces no. 146, December/January 1973/74), you could see he really knew about the Pacific war, and when he drew a Gloster Gladiator (biplane), he drew it accurately! It’s the same reason, in the present day, I love everything by Hayao Miyazaki: he doesn’t ever skimp; his imagination does not begin and end with the characters alone. When he invents fantastical creatures, vehicles, houses, whatever it may be, he makes them real and believable. He intersects various real things, transforms, mutates, creates hybrids: you see something strange portrayed, yet you believe it has a real function, a real existence, and you always feel the hint of having seen it before, somewhere, sometime.

The storytelling was very different, too. Tintin and Asterix were not as film-influenced as the American comics, so you didn’t find as many wild ‘cuts’ and extreme camera angles and close-ups and so on. The euro stories used more panels and were staged more distantly than the American ones; they did not as much worry about creating an overall unified page design. It was more like a series of boxes with the characters presented at a much more fixed distance. Both approaches had pluses and minuses and something could be learned by comparing and contrasting these ways of presenting stories.

Figure 3: Paul Rivoche illustration (2006) for ‘The Romance of the Skies’ from Project: Romantic, published by AdHouse Books

What was it about superhero comics that first captured your imagination?

It changed as I got older, since ‘growing up’ encompasses many stages of growth and thought, many years, and many different comics. When I first began reading comics, somewhere around age 6 or 7, 1965 or 1966, what captured me were the typical fantasies of superpower and flight, notably embodied in Superman. Every child feels his relative powerlessness in a confusing, uncertain world, hence the enormous appeal of Superman, a being who can travel between worlds, survey the earth below him as he flies, has enormous strength, x-ray vision, and so on. You dearly wish you could be him! At the same time, Superman is made sympathetic and appealing by the fact that he is an alien, an orphan alone on Earth, misunderstood; a child can relate to that, often feeling himself an alien in the world of adults!

And then, a further aspect of Superman (and many other superheroes of that time) is not merely that he was powerful, but the use he made of this power: that he was a force for goodness and right, and thus somewhat God-like, a kind of beacon of justice and liberty. He was a true hero! That idea, in this dark age of mindless relativism and moral confusion, is of course now seen as hopelessly outdated and naïve and stupid by the self-anointed elites; but the strength of it still rings true to me today, just as it did then. Superman, superheroes, this to me was and is the embodiment of the idea of America: an entity of enormous power that strives to do good of its own volition. Despite making mistakes along the way, it still attempts to self-correct, to find the path of liberty and freedom for individual human beings. It could quite easily choose evil – Superman, like Christ, could have anointed himself the ruler of the whole world, but did not, despite the temptation. Instead, Superman chose to live in obscurity, as the hapless Clark Kent, never exposing his hidden powers, always striving to do good, while privately bearing the burden, the sorrows of an orphan longing for his vanished world and parents.

This all made a strong impression on me, that with ultimate power comes ultimate responsibility, that personal sorrows need not prevent one from doing the right thing: these ideas and more, were the components of a true hero! Many other DC heroes of the time embodied similar ideals, and so I devoured Gil Kane’s rendition of Green Lantern, for example, and of course Batman, to mention only a few . . . it’s a profound irony that the comics of those days, despite to the superficial glance looking silly and trivial (and in enough cases, they were, when they indulged in silly story gimmicks), still had stronger moral underpinnings beneath their surfaces than many of the superficially slick and ‘adult’ comics published today, which inwardly are completely rotten through and through, often lacking in true themes, and boring to boot.

Back then, it was mind-stretching for a child to be exposed to all these fantastic settings and scenarios, even if they perhaps were not as carefully realized as some of the European comics – the Bottle City of Kandor, the idea of all sorts of alien superheroes all being ‘Green Lanterns’, bizarre stories such as the Batman script ‘Robin Dies at Dawn’ – it was all great fun!

Figure 4: Paul Rivoche design (2006) for the Batcave, 1950’s Rivet Tech style, from his work on the Justice League: The New Frontier animated superhero film

Somewhat later, never having been a Marvel comics reader (although I later caught up with their reprint series Marvel Greatest Comics), I was stunned by my first encounter with Jack Kirby’s work, on the New Gods, which is still by far my favourite work of his. Ten years old, I eagerly made a weekly trek to the spinner rack in the local drugstore in Kingston, Ontario, where we then lived after moving from Montreal, to try to keep up with each instalment of his multi-comic saga! Words cannot communicate the depth of excitement I felt. It was revolutionary, and relating it to your question about superhero comics, what captured me about the New Gods is that Kirby recast the superhero as a soldier—a soldier in a vast, cosmic war which was partly hidden from the view of normal earthlings. A few earthlings were drawn into this war, or were recruited, playing different roles; this made it even more exciting, because you could relate to these ‘everyman’ characters. Orion was a ‘soldier of the good,’ although he was born on the evil planet Apokolips: dedicating himself to his last breath to oppose the forces of evil, who sought ‘the anti-life equation.’ Kirby in one fell swoop bound together in the same tale (in order from small to large) his own personal story, America’s story, the religious story behind all true religions! An amazing achievement, and all for 12 cents!

Kirby’s hero Orion was fascinating, because in similar fashion to Superman, he also voluntarily chose goodness instead of evil. Moreover, he was the offspring of the villain, and had switched sides to fight for the good guys, all the while suppressing his evil and brutal ‘lower nature’, as symbolized by the occasional emergence of his true, ugly face; a face which was normally smoothed over by the high technology of the ‘Mother Box.’ So Orion had an even greater burden, and stuck to the path of goodness through strength of will, which made him fascinating to me: he chose the harder path because it was the right one. He did not do what was personally best or easiest for him for his individual existence. He fought for a greater ideal, the free society of ‘New Genesis.’

I remember the strong, shocking impression it made on me, that in one issue Orion actually killed his opponent, Slig, and rather brutally at that, beating him to a pulp and tossing his body off a cliff into the sea. Here, Kirby was making the point that war is brutal, that in the cause of good, brutal things may still have to be done in order to prevail. In later issues, Kirby also made clear through the character of Orion, and his evil side which had to be suppressed, that there was a danger in the fact that the good guys also had to employ violence in order to achieve victory. There was a temptation to succumb to the enjoyment of violence, against which heroes had to be vigilant, to not become that which they opposed, to not lose their ideals.

So Kirby’s saga introduced many themes and ideas beneath a surface appearance of superheroes battling one another. It’s amazing to me how he worked in so many things: total war, the struggle which freedom always has to survive against totalitarianism, the nature of war, all manner of religious ideas, prejudice, racism, pacifism vs. the urge to fight; the holocaust, the creativity of the individual struggling against the rigid pressures of conformity, brainwashing; religious cultism; genetic manipulation; to name only a few. It wasn’t simply the typical bunch of muscled, empty costumes pointlessly beating each other senseless!

This was what Kirby was to me, and still is; so much more than the way he is often simplistically taken, as merely a cool designer of amazing machinery or dot-filled space vistas, an innovative stylist of muscle-squiggles and square-tipped fingers. He was all those things and more, of course, in the art department; but in my experience of his comics, he was a wonderful, thought-provoking writer, and that was the most important thing of all, the hidden source of his strength and staying power. I even loved his beautifully idiosyncratic dialogue. It fit perfectly with the artwork – his dialogue also has ‘square-tipped fingers’!

I agree completely – it’s astonishing, beyond the thousands of pages of pencil art that Jack Kirby drew, the thematic elements that he introduced in his work over the decades, both as artist and writer, amazes. As does his astonishing creativity, considering the dozens and dozens of characters that Kirby either created and/or co-created, in addition to the additive designs and concepts he developed, which continue to impact the Marvel and DC Comics narrative worlds, as well as Marvel’s cinematic universe. I’ve always felt that Jack Kirby was a creative genius —

Yes, a genius on many levels; it seems he was a thinker as well as someone who felt deeply. He was an amazing and prolific designer, but obviously thought a lot, read a lot, and poured it all into his comics. Clearly he was in touch with the movies and pop culture of his time. I found it all immensely attractive, and worthwhile, a counterpoint to the various books I was also reading in those years – a lot of science fiction, but also many history and aviation and war books. It had substance, and was thought-provoking, while at the same time being superficially great fun to read. Having been a working artist for almost thirty-five years now, I admire his achievements even more, because as you said, he churned out a constant stream of entertaining and astonishing designs and concepts and plot-lines. That’s not easy when you’re always working on deadline! Yet it didn’t seem to faze Jack Kirby; the stuff just flowed out in a seemingly unselfconscious way. He was ahead of his time; a shame that he was pioneering the ‘graphic novel’ years before the market and audience and distribution system was actually ready for it!

With Kirby, there is a hidden element that percolates up to the surface; something you feel behind all the work, something hard to name, but it has to do with his joy of creation. You can feel how much he loves his characters, his story, his ideas, the strength of his convictions; that enthusiasm bubbles through and infects you as you read it. There’s a joyful spontaneous improvisation which tumbles ahead at breakneck speed—the joy of a child in the spring sunshine, running weightlessly when he first takes off the heavy winter boots! It’s a kind of care; his strong individuality, his love, it gives a unique character, something you get addicted to, something which all the great creators have. I found the same thing in Alex Toth’s work; a joy in his own individualism and quirks, his own ways of approaching subjects, his searching for variety and unique expression. A far cry from the cookie-cutter production-line comics that were, and still are, all too prevalent now.

Did you read Kirby’s other DC work and/or The Eternals after he returned to Marvel?

I only read The Eternals years later, in reprints, and enjoyed it. I had severely dropped off comics somewhere around the middle of high school. I can’t now recall exactly why – perhaps it was a matter of economics, availability, and switching to other preoccupations. For example, I was very taken at that time with the science fiction paintings of British paperback cover artist Chris Foss, and left Kirby behind for a while as I struggled with the mysteries of self-taught airbrush painting. I later went back to Jack, and found all my original enthusiasm intact, and more!

As for Kirby’s other DC creations, I did read them for a while, although I grew increasingly disappointed with them and never really recovered from the shock of the New Gods being cancelled. With those other works, you could somehow sense when he was not one hundred percent behind the title, when he seemed to be doing it as a commercial job to be completed, but perhaps not with the complete visionary inspiration which he’d brought to the New Gods. I’m thinking here of titles such as Sandman or Dingbats of Danger Street and things of that sort. When it came to Kamandi and The Demon and Omac, I enjoyed those a lot, especially Kamandi; but again, something was lacking in comparison to the New Gods. It didn’t help that Mike Royer left and the inking went to D. Bruce Berry. I thought he missed a lot of what Royer was able to interpret in Kirby’s pencils. He did creditable work under what I am sure were difficult deadlines, but while serviceable, it didn’t have the life and snap of Royer’s inking.

What other comic artists/creators, past and/or present, do you most admire?

Off the top of my head, a short sampling, by no means comprehensive: amongst Americans, Roy Crane, Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, Frank Robbins, John Buscema, Gil Kane, David Mazzuchelli, Frank Miller, Bill Watterson, and of course, Alex Toth. Examples of European artists I admire: Jean Giraud/Moebius, Serge Clerc, Alfred Bestall (Rupert), Hergé as I mentioned earlier, and a real favourite of mine, Yves Chaland. I’m also a fanatic admirer of Hayao Miyazaki, his manga as well as his films. I love his design sketches as reproduced in the ‘Art of’ series of his books on each of his films.

Figure 5: Paul Rivoche cover art for Iron Man no. 22 (2014), published by Marvel Comics (written by Keiron Gillen and edited by Mark Paniccia)

I’ve written about Alex Toth before, notably in the extended interview I did with him for Comic Book Artist magazine, but I’ll say a few more words here. His work had a real influence on me, and not simply in terms of his literal, surface style: his philosophy, the whole way he thought about what he did, made as deep an impression on me as did his rendering choices or what have you—all the more obvious elements. Enough has been said about him as a public and private curmudgeon, and some portion of that is undoubtedly true (although it seems most often repeated by those who never had any personal connection with him whatsoever). My own experience of him was that he was, with a few notable exceptions, very gracious and giving of his time and comments.

I first encountered his work in the DC war comics and was struck by the truth in his approach, his quest for real-life observation and accuracy – which I later understood was influenced by his own mentors, direct and indirect, such as Shelley Mayer, Noel Sickles, and so on. He had a determination to make each job better, to never skimp or take a formula way out, a way of drawing things honestly, yet succinctly; a marvelous confidence came through, a sense of honest reportage. He made you feel you were actually there, as if he was making sketches of a real scene he’d witnessed. A great example of that was the story he did for Warren, a personal favourite, Daddy and the Pie; I just love that story. Before he passed away, upon reviewing that story again, he expressed some self-criticisms of it, as seen on the ‘Tothfans’ web site. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of that story. I just see a consummate artist at work. He’s not a faker: if he draws an ear, it’s something he’s really observed and learned, not a formulaic set of lines copied from some other artist; if he draws a suit, he’s taken the time to really study how a suit is cut, how it bends. It all gives honesty. For a long time, in his postcards to me and published letters to others, when he would be self-critical and say that he was a lifetime student, not elevating himself, that one should never stop studying and learning, I always thought he might be adopting a pose of false modesty. Much later, I realized that he was confessing, being strictly truthful…that he really meant it, and practised it, and lived it! So when he had advised me to be a perpetual student, and try to keep on learning and growing and changing, he meant it.

Anyway, in his early postcard replies to my questions, he gave me various pieces of advice which I have ever since attempted to keep following, even in the whirlwind of completing jobs under pressure. I’ve tried to follow his lead and find the roadways to self-development, to triangulate the middle ground between smug self-satisfaction on one hand, and overly critical pointless self-flagellation on the other hand. Those two alternating extremes go nowhere; but the middle way, honest self-assessment and self-evaluation, which is far more difficult, that’s the golden route forward. But, it’s a kind of razor’s edge, hard to balance on, and difficult to stay on. I’m rarely satisfied with what I do, but I keep pressing on.

Figure 6: Paul Rivoche design idea (2007) for pan across Ferris Airbase, from his work on the Justice League: The New Frontier superhero film

I think Toth was misunderstood, and also before his time. He had higher standards than the times and the comics business in North America would allow. He predicted that comics as practised on this continent would have to be reformed, would crumble and rot from within, and to some extent that seems to be coming true. Thankfully there seems to be the growing acceptance of graphic novels, released by mainstream publishers in bookstores, which is a long-awaited and very promising development. Too bad he was not starting over again, in today’s climate.

I admire Yves Chaland’s work greatly, for its impeccable balance and design amongst many other things. That’s one of the virtues I most studied in his art. I also use him as an example of self-development. In his early work, he did a sort of poor-man’s Alex Raymond; but within a few short years had blossomed into the amazing stylist he became. It was bold, it showed that some artists find the way to unlock their own creative gates and plunge forwards, upwards. As with Toth, I notice an honesty, a truthfulness to life, filtered into his own style.

Interestingly, again like Toth, and like many creators who find the way to develop, he seemed to be restless and self-critical. I met Chaland in the summer of 1989, the year before he died in a car accident. Visiting Europe, I phoned him, and was invited to his studio apartment in Paris. I recall it vividly: he showed me his atelier at the back, looking down over an inner courtyard. On his desk were pages in progress from his last album, F-52. Now I wish I had asked him even more about it all! But, to be fair to myself, we were hampered by language. Since my very-poor French was better than his almost non-existent English, we were limited to French. We passed a couple of hours discussing comics, mainly his work. Since I was and still am supremely impressed by his work, I had expected to find someone brimming with confidence, but that was not the impression he gave me. Wiry, hunched over his coffee table, I remember his intensity as he confessed to being frustrated with his own limitations. The gist of it seemed to be this: that his reach exceeded his grasp. He wanted to tell more subtle stories than he felt his drawing style was allowing him to do. One example he used was Holiday in Budapest. As far as I gathered, he felt that the cartooniness of his art resulted in his audience, as well as reviewers of his work, glossing over the seriousness of his intent and subject matter.

Looking back, in line with what I’m saying about Toth, it was another example that the real ‘greats’ never think they are great, they just continue on, trying to get one rung higher up the ladder. A worthwhile thing to remember, in this age of massive-overhyping-of-everything! So many of the over-hyped ‘tyros’ (to use Toth’s word for beginners) of today’s superheated social-media inferno, would not be fit to even sharpen pencils in Will Eisner’s studio, if one looks dispassionately at their actual craft/skill level and compares to that seen in yesteryear. Perhaps harsh, but true. Although, to be fair about it, while some of this ‘overhype’ comes from themselves, a great deal comes from all the new legions of self-appointed blog-pundits and their relentless quest for new and shiny flavours to tout.

To sum up, I admire all these artist/creators (and many others outside the comic/cartoon field) for different things; overall, they are the kind of creators whose work stands the test of time. You can return to their art and find new things each time you go back; it does not immediately wear thin and become distasteful. If you study it, you are repaid by the discovery of hidden treasures, deeper layers.

When you think definitive Superman artists, what names immediately come to mind?

I’m not really someone who’s comprehensively, completely up on comics, in the way some fans are; the ones who seem to have read most of the comics which ever came out in North America and know all the costumes and characters and plot-lines and so on. But, I fondly recall Wayne Boring’s Superman and the strange, strong impression it made on me as a child. There was something about the way he drew that barrel-chested Superman, that just stayed with me ever since. Without drawing lots of bulgy weightlifter-muscles, Boring put him across as an icon of strength and confidence, a true hero, as I mentioned earlier. I never really took to Curt Swan’s version of Superman. I’m sure he has many admirers, but I found his style too bland, not quirky enough, to really pique my interest. I like stylization, quirkiness, individuality of expression – after all, it’s cartooning, not ‘tracing-of-reality’!

From your perspective, as someone who has worked professionally in the comic industry for decades, what elements make for a great superhero costume?

It should be iconic, easily recognizable at various sizes (distances) and angles, should have a strong silhouette. It should express the character. For the poor artist who has to draw it over and over, it shouldn’t be excessively complicated . . . as is the case with many of today’s costumes, the ones made for new or updated designs. They often have too many itty-bitty shapes and counterintuitive placements of elements, all making them enormously difficult to draw as quickly and efficiently as comics deadlines require.

This just came back to memory, a bit of mental detritus associated with that, but it relates to costumes: I remember reading – must have been somewhere about 1969 or so – what must have been a reprint issue of Jack Kirby’s Fighting American. I loved it – that costume, with its chest emblem of American-flag-as-wings, made such an impact, as did the violence, which seemed shocking to me then . . . how times have changed! There’s even more violence of course, less patriotism, and more amorality.

As you’re certainly aware, the headquarters for the two largest North American comic book publishers, DC and Marvel Comics, are in New York. What’s it been like, working in the comic book industry while living in Canada?

The geography has never made a huge difference, even less so in the present day, with the internet making it easy to deliver work, and before that Fedex doing the same thing. I couldn’t honestly claim to have ever have fully ‘worked in the comics industry’ in the true sense of that phrase, in terms of being a full-time artist. I’ve done a number of different things for comics, some stories, some covers, but purposely never fully committed to the US comics industry. I’ve spent much more of my career working in various areas of commercial art, notably animation design and, more recently, advertising art.

Why did you never fully commit? Was it just that you were interested in doing other types of work?

Partly it was out of a need for variety, for challenge, also because of economics. Mainly, I just never could reconcile becoming a part of the rigid production line of mainstream North American comics, with its division of labour and its politics and so on. As a beginner, if you were lucky, you might be paired with someone really creative, someone with whom you had good chemistry. If things clicked like that you might make good progress, have good sales, and progress to a position where you could get some creative control, write your own material, carve out your own niche. A number of people have done that. But you have to commit to that industry, put your fate in its hands, resign yourself to being under the thumb of various editors and writers and forces, often arbitrary and whimsical forces at that, such as the vagaries of ‘fashion’ and what’s so-called ‘hot’. . . today’s hot, is tomorrow’s cold, unfortunately, as many worthy writers and artists have found over the years.

I was never willing to trust my work and career to that process. Besides, the scripts and heroes (who nowadays mostly aren’t heroic at all!) bored me. I was never the guy whose sole ambition in life was to become the latest penciller for X-Men. I wanted to be more individual, to develop in my own way. The kind of commercial comics offered to me, the role in the production line of being a penciller or inker, that was not true comics to me, more a way of making a living, of hiring out my talent. It never had the glamorous aura in my eyes that many find in it. And when it comes to hiring my wrist out, to be honest, there are so many more lucrative ways to do it.

I’ve learned a lot working in all sorts of different areas of commercial art: animation design and storyboarding, children’s illustration, advertising. At the end of the day, they’re all work-for-hire, I don’t deceive myself about that: it’s not my own personal creative vision that’s wanted, as much as craftsmanship and solving the particular problem at hand. In recent years, attempting to express and satisfy my own personal visions, I’ve done my own comics stories. There are more opportunities opening up now with the advent of digital delivery of comics, too. But as far as the rest of it goes, you do your best on each job, but it’s all work owned and overseen by someone else. I remind myself that it all ends up lining the bottom of the parrot cage. It’s better not to delude yourself: you might think that all that extra work you did inking issue #4,381 of SuperClot is your ticket to immortality, but most likely, it won’t be. It is a job to be done, and done well: but not the be-all and end-all some make it out to be. I realize that to some this attitude may sound cynical or blasphemous, not obeying the gospel of comics idolatry, but to me it’s the kind of practical, realistic attitude often lacking these days.

Another reason for not committing back then to being a full-time comic artist, was that I also was acutely aware of my own limitations artistically, still am, and wanted to find a path to development, not get caught in a rut, while still making a good living. The comic industry didn’t satisfy those conditions. The role of ‘starving artist’ never held any attraction for me, no virtue, it just seems stupid: there is nothing noble or ‘more artistic’ about being poor, and you can easily end up poor working exclusively in comics, unless you crank out the pages. Anyway, comics seemed too limiting, if working in ‘comics’ meant me filling a pre-assigned role, decided by someone else, of having to be just a penciller, or just an inker, interminably pencilling out some dreary script, never dealing with or controlling the color or lettering or all the rest of the elements. Drawing comics is a lot of work, and if you’re stuck drawing out someone else’s visions, they’d better be interesting and well-crafted, because you have to live inside them for a good long while. But in my admittedly limited experiences with production-line comics, most scripts I was handed weren’t that well-crafted. Some, such as Alan Moore’s of course, were . . . they were a joy to work on, professional; he understands what an artist needs, even if his scene descriptions do tend to go on at great length!

Figure 7: Paul Rivoche (2014) cover artwork for the 294-page graphic novel adaptation of Amity Shlaes’ New York Times bestseller The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression which he illustrated, published by Harper Perennial

Your work on Mister X – what stands out most in your memory now?

It was period of intense learning. I was struggling to assemble myself artistically as quickly as possible. I was experimenting with different art styles, not sure of which way to go. I described a lot of this in an interview done for Comic Book Artist magazine several years ago. It didn’t all work out that well, but it was what it was. That whole period for me, a beginner commercial artist who’d moved to the big city from a smaller one, was like some sort of topsy-turvy kaleidoscope, a struggle to survive. It was a time of discovery and experimentation. I had a really good response to the posters I did for Mister X; every so often an art director still remembers them, which was one example which showed me that the work you truly put your heart into is that work that turns out best, that people remember.

Everything then was done in kind of battlefield conditions; in the go-go 1980’s, I shared a studio in the ancient ‘Darling Building’, but there was nothing all that darling about it. It had a creaky, tiny elevator and steam radiators which were on full blast in winter, resulting in the aspiring artist being baked; in summer, we still baked, because there wasn’t air conditioning in this old building. I recall that working on one poster, I had problems because it was so humid that the paper was too wet to airbrush properly . . . that kind of gives the flavour of the times.

Do you see a creative renaissance underway currently in which sensibilities commonly associated with the Silver Age are returning center stage to mainstream superhero comics today?

I’ve never been that focused on superheroes, despite loving Kirby’s work, or enjoying Neal Adams, for example, on the X-Men. In the present day I don’t see much to excite me in the mainstream superhero books. The true renaissance I see underway, which greatly interests me, is that of the rapid recent development of the graphic novel and digital comics market. Jeff Smith’s Bone as published in color by Scholastic; the Flight books; and many others along those lines, those excite me, since they herald the acceptance of comics as a format by the mainstream audience, and by the book publishers. This could be the long-awaited revitalization of comics, more in the manner of the Europeans, a rejection of the stuffy, hidebound traditions paralyzing the older, cloistered comics publishers with their moribund rosters of superheroes.

In the new graphic novels, as well as web-comics and digital comics portals, there are an exciting array of styles and subjects, and no shoehorning-in of endless reams of boring ‘backstory’ used to hamper free writing. No compartmentalized, sterile production-line methods imposed on the creators, sapping the vitality of the work. There are many new storytellers, excited to tell their own personal tales, in their own individual ways. I see this new energy afoot, despite some craft limitations which I mentioned a bit earlier. That new energy, that unexpectedness brings excitement. It’s what I found as a kid in the sixties comics, running breathlessly to the spinner rack to make new discoveries. True entertainment! One day I’d discover Steranko’s story ‘At The Stroke of Midnight’ (published in Tower of Shadows) and be terrified; then Barry Smith’s version of Conan; another time it would be an issue of Bat Lash as brilliantly told by Nick Cardy; or Kubert’s Enemy Ace; Ditko’s Creeper; on and on. It was a different world, with real experimentation, not the fearful repetition-of-the-same as we mostly see from the traditional North American comics publishers.

Something of that earlier spirit is emerging again, which is exciting, but it’s emerging outside of the comics industry, in this new graphic novel market! I’ll take a quirky, unpolished, but original talent any day, over the inbred repetitious non-storytelling of many of the current, overdone superhero comics.

Any final thoughts?

I’m moving towards the future as a writer/artist one step at a time, and with great enthusiasm — I’m working on my own stories and characters, as published in the stories I did for Chris Pitzer’s ‘Project’ series of anthologies. It’s very freeing and wonderful to create stuff for oneself, without worrying about pleasing an editor. Strangely enough, you often please the audience more by being honest to yourself and entertaining oneself, as compared to striving too hard to do what you think the audience wants. The real trick is to fit this in amongst making a daily living and supporting my family, managing to stay in touch with it and not lose the thread of one’s personal inspirations.

Author’s note: Paul Rivoche’s comics, animation, concept, illustrations, and sketchination art can be viewed at and to see an online portfolio of his storyboard frames, comp renderings, animatics and print art please visit

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