Getting to Know Black / Excellence with Khary Randolph
Khary Randolph is one of the hardest working comic book artists today. Having worked in the business for about 20 years, Randolph has worked for companies ranging from Marvel (Mosaic) to DC (We Are Robin) to Image (Tech Jacket). More recently he's been involved with Black Mask's smash hit BLACK and last year launched the new Image Comics hit with creator Brandon Thomas, Excellence. In time for his gallery opening September 26th at City Tech in NYC, Randolph took some time for an interview about his experience in comics, work ethic, his gallery opening, among other topics.
GREG ANDERSON ELYSÉE: So you wake up and start to get out of bed and you have some pages, commissions, and/or covers to do. What is the typical working day routine for Mr. Khary Randolph? Where does it begin and end?
KHARY RANDOLPH: Hmm, typical day. Well, first thing in the morning is coffee, if we're keeping it 100. Nothing happens before that. Once I get that sorted out I spend the first hour or so of the day on emails and social media. Then we get to the drawing somewhere around noon. I have a home studio and also a studio I share with a bunch of other artists in Gowanus, Brooklyn that I like to pop into 2-3 days out of the week. Draw all day with occasional breaks for the potty and sustenance. Eventually, I can't see straight anymore so if I finish all my work for the day I may jump on PSN and play some Destiny with the homies or kick back with (enter streaming platform of choice). Bedtime, repeat! Pretty simple system, but it works.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: How did you even stumble onto comic books and art? What brought you to this lifestyle of madness?
RANDOLPH: I was always into the nerdy stuff — comics, video games, cartoons/anime. Escapism was the name of the game when you lived in the neighborhood I grew up with. I didn't wanna be there so the next best thing was to initially get away via fiction, and then eventually start creating my own stories when my favorites fell by the wayside. Even as a kid I was always analyzing things and trying to come up with ways that I would do them differently.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Were there particular books or content that stood out the most against all the others?
RANDOLPH: I wasn't the typical comic book fan at first. I was aware of Marvel and DC but they didn't really connect with me until I was a teenager. My first comic book love was TMNT and I poured over those books until they were literally falling apart. All of the great mainstream books of the 80s I had to discover much, much later.
The real turning point for me, however, was Image Comics. The art and the production values on those early books, specifically the colors, hit me like a ton of bricks. Youngblood, Cyberforce, WildCATS, Spawn – It was like nothing I had seen before, like truly next-level stuff. And plus, the way Wizard covered those creators back in the early 90s made them seem like true rock stars. It was over after that. I wanted that life.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Maaan, you're right. Those Wizard coverages and top creators list made things seem so glamorous. Speaking of Spawn, you actually ended up working on Spawn, right? How was that? A bit of a dream come true?
RANDOLPH: It was amazing, obviously. One day you're just sitting there minding your own business and the next you're on the phone with Todd McFarlane and he's breaking down the plot of an issue to you. Oh, and he's telling you he wants to ink over your pencils? Can't nobody tell me nothing after that. It was a great experience.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: [Laughs] Nice. So we have McFarlane. What else inspires you and influences your art?
RANDOLPH: Mostly spite. Just kidding. My art is really just a gumbo of all the things I mentioned above – 90s comics, cartoons, anime/manga — with a dash of hip-hop swagger for good measure. The hip-hop influences comes in different ways, but mainly in the fact that I like old things and illustration styles and remixing them for the modern era. Whenever I wanna get inspired I've found the best thing to do is go back in time and peep how the masters did it. Lately, I've been going back to some of the older illustrators and designers that I discovered in my college days and been trying to break down what they did. Guys like Leyendecker, Coby Whitmore, Bob Peak, Saul Bass. I look at that stuff more than I look at comics these days.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Who are your fall back hip-hop cats that you gravitate to to get into that mental space?
RANDOLPH: I'd like to pretend I listen to a lotta new stuff, and I do try, but I'm still motivated by the classics I grew up with. Wu-Tang, Outkast, [A] Tribe Called Quest, Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, etcetera. The most modern stuff I listen to on a regular basis are Kanye, Drake, and Kendrick.
And just to paint the picture properly, I'm currently listening to J Dilla's Donuts album as I write this.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: My man got some good taste. Now you've worked on various comics, from indie to the Big 2. But you have a BFA in cartooning, having graduated from School of Visual Arts. Can you tell us about that? Are you still currently involved in cartooning?
RANDOLPH: Yep, my BFA is officially in Cartooning & Illustration. My time at SVA was incredible, I can't state enough how much I loved my art school experience. Best times of my life, hands down. But all the terms are meaningless to me, honestly. I consider myself an illustrator and a cartoonist. I do it all. I bet at some point everyone was all lumped in together in one class and then someone was like "but we're the REAL artists, those guys just draw comic books," so they split them up. The distinction is meaningless to me, however. I just draw cool stuff.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: How would you say cartooning has helped with your art style? There's a fluidity to your work that really stands out and leaps off the page.
RANDOLPH: Ah, you mean animation.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Animation. My fault.
RANDOLPH: I've always had a love affair for animation and most of my favorite movies tend to be cartoons. When I'm approaching my art I always tend to have a film rolling in my head and I'm usually just grabbing stills from it. There is nothing more boring to me than static, lifeless artwork, so I'm always doing everything I can to make every panel and every shot bursting with life. I worked in the animation industry for a couple years and the most important things I learned in that time were character design and how to keep a character looking consistent from panel to panel.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: I wanna talk about your current work, Excellence with co-creator and writer Brandon Thomas. Shout out as well to colorist Emilio Lopez and my boy, Deron Bennett of AndWorld Design on letters! It's has been blowing up on the scene and is a huge fan favorite.
RANDOLPH: I never would have thought working on a book could have meant so much to me. On the surface, Excellence is all about magicians with magic wands, good and evil, fight scenes, and action set pieces. And if it was only that I think it would still be a very good book. But there are things that we are trying to do with this thing that are so layered and nuanced, it's really made me reevaluate myself and the art I'd like to put forth going forward with my career. The father and son dynamics, the relationships between Spencer and his mother and grandmother, the gender and racial dynamics that come into play — I truly feel like when you get beyond the surface of what people *think* Excellence is, it's really a very unique story that hasn't been told before. Not in a context like this. I'm very proud of it.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Well it's definitely something fresh that isn't normally on the shelves. It feels very… BLACK, even though the "Black experience" is different among different people of different backgrounds and upbringing. Is that something you guys hope to cover as the series goes on?
RANDOLPH: Yeah, it's something we're very focused on. The black experience is not a monolith. There are common denominators but the way you grew up and the things that molded you could still be very different than my upbringing. Spencer, the main protagonist, has lived a very privileged life whereas Aaron has had to work for everything he's received. And even in that circumstance you see that privilege isn't everything because Aaron understands what it's taken to get where he's at whereas Spencer is constantly angry, always feels like he's not living up to his name and lineage. It's got layers, man.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: What's been your favorite part and most challenging of being on Excellence?
RANDOLPH: The best part is that people "get" it, [laughs]. I was a little worried about what the response would be, because there's nothing worse than working on something for a year straight and then people being like, "Meh, this is just okay." People are responding to both the big things and some of the smaller, more subtle touches we've been throwing in and it's got me overjoyed.
The hardest part is by far the deadlines. Making all this stuff up is hard work, and doing it on a schedule is taxing. My editors have been great about giving us the space to really explore and get things right, but no time is enough time.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: A lot of your work highlights themes like race, particularly Black culture? As an artist, what exactly are you aiming to reflect about these themes when it comes to your art and how do you represent them?
RANDOLPH: Ha, well generally speaking, as an artist I'm just trying to get it all done and make sure it doesn't look wack in the process, [laughs]. That's the MAIN goal. For the first part of my career that's really all I was concerned with. I never wanted to be recognized as a "black" artist, I just wanted to focus on being the best artist I could be, period. I think you can find greater narratives in my work just because your point of view is always going to come across in some way, but it wasn't really a conscious thing.
I can give an example: early on in my career, I did a book for Marvel. It was a short-lived book, but it had a great concept and some cool hooks and I was all in on it. But as I was working on it, I recognized very quickly that just about every character in the book was white. So I went to the writer and I said, "Hey man, can we make the main protagonist's girlfriend black?" I just needed to break up the racial monotony for my own sanity, and I've been doing little things like that my entire career. Like, "Why not an interracial relationship that's just in there for the hell of it? It doesn't even need to be a plot point?" Things like that probably go unnoticed by the reader but they meant a lot to me as a creator.
In this current stage of my career, it's a much more deliberate effort. It's not that I have any interest in shoving racial politics in people's faces with every line I draw. It's just some ol' Uncle Ben with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility stuff that comes with maturity. I am a black man with a platform, and for some reason people listen to the things I say. So as a result there is a responsibility to use that platform for good and not just for my own personal gain. I want to motivate the next generation of creators to push it much, much further than our generation was able to.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Speak that truth, man. You have a gallery exhibition at City Tech in Brooklyn coming up. What can we hope to see there?
RANDOLPH: The exhibition is called BLACK / EXCELLENCE. I've been a working professional for 20 years but this is my first solo exhibition, so I'm real excited about it. The name comes from the two books that have changed the course of my career in the last few years, BLACK (Black Mask Studios) and Excellence (Image Comics). They are two very different books, but they explore similar themes that I feel are very relevant to the times and that are equally relevant. It's been a real turning point working on these two books. And while the exhibition centers around those two properties, it's really more of a retrospective on my career to date. There will be some Black Panther, some Spider-man, some Static Shock, some video, some toy design. Like everything I do, it's a mash-up.
The venue itself is another thing that made me want to do this now. I've spoken at City Tech a few times and the faculty is fantastic. The student body is made up almost entirely of super-intelligent young women and men of color and every time I've interacted with them I've learned more about myself and my art. All of the art sales will go into the Commercial Design Department and enriching the education of these kids. So in a way, while it's a nice little ego boost for me, it's also a way of giving back and helping the next generation of artists to find their way. It's a win-win for everybody.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: That's beautiful! I'm definitely planning to go. The opening is actually this week, no? The 26th? Will you be there?
RANDOLPH: Yep, the opening is Sep. 26th from 5:30-8:30 PM. I will absolutely be there. Boy, can you imagine what kinda doofus I would be to not show up to my own opening? There will also be a panel discussion centered around the exhibition that we're currently putting together but the details on that one are still TBD.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: What are your proud pieces that people will see that you're most excited about?
RANDOLPH: Man, it's like picking your babies, I don't know if I have specific favorites. Maybe the Excellence and Black stuff because it's the newest and most different? I dunno. My hope is that people can just get a sense of my range and pick up on the progression of my artistic intent, you know? There's some art in there that dates back to 2007, so you're definitely gonna see me grow and evolve as an artist. Warts and all.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Man, this has been quite the interview. Wrapping it all up, what can we look forward to in the future? And any chance of seeing an all-out Khary book with you on concept, writing, and art?
RANDOLPH: No firm dates or announcements, but yeah, it's coming. Excellence is a first step in a new direction for my career and I'm looking forward to doing a lot more creator-owned protects. We just getting started.