Hey, squirrels! In anticipation of Brushfire: Wave 2 coming out on July 4th, 2023, I reached out to artist Landon Shepherd (who was featured in the pages of Wave 1!) to see if he had any questions about the series or creating art in general.
Did he ever! He had such insightful inquiries and I’m going to do my best to answer them all here.
Landon: Where did you get the idea for Brushfire?
Dennis: That’s a perfect question to start! I have always been a big Disney fan (which is an understatement), and I love animals. I grew up on the Disney Afternoon block of TV shows, and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers was my favorite. I knew that someday I wanted to tell a story set in the world of wildlife. Squirrels are my favorite animal – which should come as no surprise now — so when I started putting the pieces together, I knew that I wanted squirrels at the center of it.
I have been involved in other people’s work over the years, and Brushfire came out of ideas I had for someone else’s project that they just weren’t interested in. The project itself was so different from what Brushfire became, but it definitely sparked something in me. That was in the summer of 2018; I was working on The Weirdos at the time, which is an adult comic book series, and I wanted to create something for all ages to enjoy. The first Wave of Brushfire didn’t come out until summer 2022, so it was about four years of work to get there.
L: Which of your characters do you see yourself the most in?
D: I think because all of my characters come from me, there is at least a little of myself in all of them — some more than others. There are five who I see myself in the most:
- Bay, the blue squirrel, from Brushfire.
- Ashley, the superhero known as the Flying Squirrel, from The Weirdos.
- Liam, from the Flip book series.
- Theia, from the book of the same name.
- Calef, from the novel Cold World.
There are several other characters who represent significant parts of me, or who represent who I want to be, like Idle (Them/Us), Axis (The Weirdos), Mittens (Theia), and Elle (Brushfire).
L: Do you have a favorite character in Brushfire? If yes, who?
D: Bay is my favorite character, but I could really tell you why I love each and every character in that world. Ava Marie is really special to me, because she’s based on my own mom, and even though Bay only has one sibling, Bri, she represents elements of all three of my sisters. A lot of the characters are inspired by people in my life.
L: What is your writing process?
D: I could also spend a whole day talking about my process! But I’ll keep it simple. Usually when I sit down to write a story, I know how it ends. It’s like running a marathon: you wouldn’t start running without knowing there was a finish line, and where it was. Sometimes that’s all I have: a beginning and an ending. And then I just write my way there, making discoveries as I go. Other times, I’ll break down each scene or chapter into a few sentences called an outline, so I know where I need to go one step at a time. That can be enormously helpful, especially when I want to make big progress every time I write.
In comics, I write a script. (I included a page in Brushfire: Wave 1 to take a look at.) I draw my own stories so, sometimes, like with The Weirdos, my scripts look like a storyboard in a notebook, using rough sketches and scribbled words to get my ideas across. With Brushfire, I typed a script, breaking down pages into individual panels and lines of dialogue.
L: How do you design your characters?
D: Very carefully! Characters often look simple, but the ones who stick with you have been designed with the utmost care, thought, and importance. The more you draw, and the more you design, and the more you pay attention to how other people create art and how other people design, the better you get at it.
The characters of Brushfire come from a long line of cute cartoon characters. I wanted to pay respect to their history but also create something new, something that only I could have put into the world. Over my lifetime, I’ve read a lot of art, design, drawing and animation books, and those were the seeds of my own artistic style. You use your taste to create your style. If you’re not a skilled enough artist to reach your tastes, that’s fine; you just have to work harder to get there.
L: How long does it take for you to come up with plot ideas?
D: I actually don’t get writer’s block very often; I’m always thinking about story, so I have a lot of stories to tell. It’s actually more difficult to figure out how I want to tell a story: is it a book, a comic, a play, a movie, a song, a poem? Usually, I try to imagine what the story would be like in those different shapes and hope that one feels more right than the others.
L: What is your favorite character that you’ve designed?
D: I think the design for the Sketch is brilliant. She’s just a stick figure with a bowtie. That sounds boring, but she’s a challenge, and her superpowers deal with the very idea of being in a comic book, which I think is so cool.
Coming up with consistent but distinct designs for all the squirrels of Brushfire was a different challenge, but one I loved tackling.
L: What got you into making comics?
D: I have been making comics since I could draw. Making them on a more professional level happened because I wanted to be part of this vibrant comic community. I spent a long time trying to find an artist to draw my comics, because I love collaboration. After a while, I just decided to do it myself, because I’m a decent artist, and I was tired of waiting. I’ve had to work extra hard for it, but it does feel really good to create characters and stories I’m so proud of.
L: Who is your favorite comic book artist? Besides yourself.
D: Ha ha, I am my least favorite artist! Honestly, I grew up with comic books, especially those made by Marvel and DC, but I’ve really started to realize how influenced I have been by newspaper comic strips. I grew up loving strips like Peanuts, Garfield, and Calvin & Hobbes, and I think that work influences what I do even more than, say, Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko for Marvel did. Animation is also a huge inspiration, and that is very apparent in the Disneyesque world of Brushfire.
L: Where do you get inspiration for your comic book ideas?
D: Everywhere! I agree with the notion that you should look outside your preferred art form to find ideas, meaning that if you love comic books, you should try looking everywhere outside of comic books to find new ideas for comic books. Learn about the real world, science and history, sports and pop culture; read romance or horror or detective novels if you prefer fantasy and science-fiction. Get outside of your box, talk to as many different people as you can, and really listen to them. Ideas are everywhere.
L: Do you prefer traditional or digital art?
D: I can finally see the value in both. Growing up, I always wanted to make a comic the traditional way: on paper, with pencils and ink. With The Weirdos, I did that. But to publish it, I had to scan all that paper, and I did the rest (colors, lettering, formatting) digitally. It was a ton of work and took up a lot of time, so for Brushfire, I wanted to see if I could learn how to digitally draw. I did! The truth of it all is that if you’re a good artist, it doesn’t matter which tool you use. It translates. Just like technology won’t magically turn a person into a great artist, it won’t stop a great artist from doing transcendent work, either. It’s all in how you use it. Make sure you have a vision — how you want something to be in the end — and go for it. Don’t stop until you either get there or learn something new.
Special thanks to Landon for his excellent questions!