For Daniel Cooney, it began with Superperson. After spending his childhood doodling dinosaurs and imaginary creatures, Mr. Cooney took his first steps towards what would be his eventual career with the 120-issue comic featuring the “stick figure Superman.” He worked on the series from sixth grade right up through high school, penciling his friends and family into the action, and occasionally getting into trouble for drawing in class.
Today Mr. Cooney is still drawing in class, but as an instructor he’s no longer getting disapproving looks. For the past seven years, he’s taught at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Since moving to the Vineyard with his family in January 2011 — his wife, Carolina, grew up here — he’s kept up the teaching online.
Mr. Cooney is also the creator of the graphic novel series Valentine and The Atomic Yeti, and the author of two how-to books published by Barron’s. The most recent, The Complete Guide to Figure Drawing for Comics and Graphic Novels, was published in September. It is a companion to Mr. Cooney’s first instructional book, Writing and Illustrating the Graphic Novel. Most of the content in both books comes from previous lectures and lesson plans.
Mr. Cooney spends three days a week teaching his courses. He helped create a full comics program at the academy, which had only a couple of comic book classes when he started in 2005. The remaining days he works on freelance projects. His comic projects are all hand-drawn and hand-inked. He uses a computer for some coloring, while other pieces call for watercolor paints. Lettering is all done via computer.
“I feel very fortunate. My friends are like, ‘You went out and created your own full-time job with benefits,’” said Mr. Cooney in an interview Monday, seated in the basement studio of his home in West Tisbury. Outside the studio, his son’s blocks and toys are scattered beneath shelves filled with copies of Valentine collections and the how-to books. Comics permeate nearly every aspect of Mr. Cooney’s life. He even met Carolina at San Diego’s annual Comic-Con in 2006. The pair were married two years later, and have two children, Dashiell, almost three, and Dexter, eight months. Mr. Cooney turns 43 next month.
There were no comics stores in the town of Vacaville, Calif., where Mr. Cooney grew up, so he would find collections at stores in San Francisco or Sacramento when he visited those cities. High school counselors were stumped when he told them he wanted to draw comics for a living, suggesting that he get in touch with authors of newspaper strips, like Peanuts’ Charles Schulz.
“But they didn’t really have an answer for me for how to get into comics,” he said. “So I started asking the artists.” He went to a comic book show in Sacramento and “just started asking questions; How did you get here? I want to be on your side of the table.”
In 1995, after a stint in junior college, he transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York city.
“And I thought it was so cool, that you can actually get a degree [in that]. It was illustration-slash-sequential art, hence comic books, and some of my childhood idols were teaching there,” Mr. Cooney said. “That was intimidating, but exciting at the same time.”
In his senior year, Mr. Cooney interned for Marvel comics and completed a semester project under the supervision of Walt Simonson, the artist behind the Thor comics. That project to create a comic book from start to finish resulted in the first issue of Valentine.
The assassin Dana (Valentine) Vasquez is loosely based on the Emma Peel character from the Avengers, and is a direct response to the once-prevalent trend in comics of passive, sexualized female characters. She’s also the result of Mr. Cooney’s interest in comics that step outside the superhero mold, and focus on ordinary (relatively speaking) people.
“She’s just a female James Bond,” Mr. Cooney said. “The Valentine name kind of stuck from taking what people are familiar with and turning it on its head, and recreating the context of what a valentine is.”
“The thing that bothered me about the James Bond femme fatales is they were so shallow,” he said. “A woman in the spy genre . . . they’re already the underdog, so why not empower her not with sexuality but with the same smarts [as the men]?”
Mr. Cooney created one issue for his senior project with no real long-term plans for the character, but decided to submit the comic to a distributor over his winter break. The project was picked up.
“It did pretty well, so the trick was to come up with a couple more issues before I graduated,” he said. No small task, considering he was working two part-time jobs in addition to his Marvel internship and trying to figure out post-college plans. But Mr. Cooney did manage to get a few more stories into the world. The success was an eye-opener for him, as he realized he ultimately wasn’t interested in working for the big comic houses, like Marvel and DC, and drawing already-existing comic heros.
“After the Valentine book, [I thought] I want to draw my own characters,” he said. College had also introduced him to numerous independent and underground series. He cites lesser-known works such as David Lapham’s Stray Bullets, Terry Moore’s Strangers In Paradise (“basically a soap opera, there are no superpowers or anything”), the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets, and Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer as personal influences. “You start expecting more from your comic books,” he said. “I think that’s why they’re called graphic novels now. They’ve evolved into politics and social commentary. The thing I like about comics not only as an educator but as a practitioner is you’re always learning.”
And that’s the piece of advice he stresses most to his students: the education never ends. Whether it’s discovering the complex world of daily strips from the 1940s — Prince Valiant and the like — or researching what a marmot looks like for a freelance project, the world of comics is full of surprises.
“I see each page as a challenge,” he said. “I still feel like I have a long way to go. I tell my students, I’m just getting started and I’ve been doing this for 15 years. You can’t figure it out in a day.”
Daniel Cooney will be signing copies of his latest book, The Complete Guide to Figure Drawing for Comics and Graphic Novels, at Bunch of Grapes this evening, Nov. 23, at 7 p.m. He will also hold a drawing workshop.