Bill Dawson is a graphic designer by trade. Corporate logos, fonts and brand design communications are his game, as creative director of XK9. But earlier this month, Dawson set his mind to a more personal project that allows him to have fun.
He calls it “Comics of Comedy.” His computer illustrations of stand-ups quickly got the attention of their subjects, as comedians such as Patton Owsalt, Dave Attell, Jim Gaffigan and Kathy Griffin have shared them via social media over the past week.
The Comic’s Comic asked Dawson about his latest project.
A quick look around XK9 reveals your bread-and-butter is logos and brand design enhancements —
…and motion graphic design. Check out the XK9 work on Vimeo.
Did you help with the reboot of the Spider-Man movies? (not to be confused by the even more recent reboot that’s happening now?).
I designed the typeface Megahertz that was used as the key art for The Amazing Spider-Man. It was also used in the G.I. Joe movies, Jay Z’s Rocawear logo, and (my personal favorite) the logo for Genndy Tartakovsky’s Star Wars “Clone Wars” series on Cartoon Network in the mid 00s.
You also have a daily cliche spotlight. I like it.
Thanks. Both Cliché-a-day and Comics of Comedy were projects I started to make somewhat constructive use of my downtime. The Clichés are my interpretation of those visual symbols that are so common, but too often poorly crafted. I just wanted to put an XK9 spin on them.
What spurred you to reimagine comedians as animated icons, and how have you picked the stand-ups you’ve illustrated so far?
They aren’t animated, per se. Not yet at least. I’ve talked a bit with my collaborator Milan Erceg about animating the Louis CK drawing. If he has the time he’s going to give it a shot. BTW, Milan animated the XK9 end tags on my Making videos.
The videos show a sped-up look at my process drawing these images in Adobe Illustrator. I have two monitors connected to my MacBook Pro. The Making videos reveal what happens on the right monitor. The left monitor has a Google Image search of videos of the person I’m drawing. I draw most of these from scratch, as opposed to sketching first. That is true so far of all of these except Joan Rivers. I mostly wanted to figure out how I would draw that hair helmet. RIP JR.
As far as the lineup and whom I will draw, it’s simply personal preference. Comedians I like and that I relate to. Dave Attell was a special request.
Marc Maron was first for a very good reason. His WTF podcast is an inspiration to me on many levels. I am a contemporary of Marc’s –meaning we are in the same demographic – children of the 60s who spent much of the 80s in Boston and now live in Los Angeles. I don’t know Marc personally, but his career trials certainly resonated with me. Professionally I am a graphic designer who has fought a battle with time and technology. The struggle is to remain relevant and create work that matters. Marc is all about that. But just like tech advances made Marc’s podcast possible, they have allowed me to share my work in new ways.
The rest of the list were off the top of my head. I’d like to think I’m a discerning connoisseur of comic talent, so not everyone will make the cut. SPOILER ALERT – the next three on my list are Kathy Griffin, Aziz Ansari, and Judah Friedlander. Kathy Griffin was a request from my wife Danielle as a follow-up to Joan Rivers. What I like most about Kathy is the fearless and shameless way she goes for it. Once, I saw her in LA and she took off her pants on stage. For other proof, watch her Ice Bucket Challenge video on YouTube or ask Anderson Cooper.
Coming up I want to do a series on hosts of late-night TV and some more comic angels – George Carlin, Robin Williams, and Jonathan Winters come to mind.
The illustrations are evolving as I do them. Women are harder to draw because they are softer. I want to redo Sarah Silverman at some point.
To anyone who might take issue with the white maleness of my list thus far I would counter that so far I’ve included a naked Jewess (Sarah), an Armenian (Dave Attell, I think), a redheaded Mexican (Louis CK), and a Hobbit (Patton Oswalt). I can say the H-word because I am one, too.
Have you always been a big comedy fan? Or is this something that has come to you later in, ahem, your midlife? (as you say you’re about Maron’s age) Do you remember the first show or comedian that turned you onto stand-up?
I will be 53 on April 18. (I am a very young 52.9). Like most kids of the 70s I had a few comedic touchstones. Monty Python used to play on PBS. I used to watch it on the black and white TV at our family home in upstate New York. I was a particular fan of CBS Saturday nights – Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, and Carol Burnett. Tim Conway is a truly underrated comedic genius, Dorf notwithstanding. George Carlin was required listening. I also loved Woody Allen movies, especially Sleeper.
My high-school friends were all very funny people; we prided ourselves on our ability to make each other laugh. We were tuned in for the genesis of Saturday Night Live, we used to get together to watch it LIVE – East Coast!
Steve Martin was definitely my first true comic hero. Well, him and Thor. I had Steve’s records, his first book. I drew portraits of Steve as art class assignments. I saw him perform at the outdoor arena at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the summer of 1979. It was the second of two shows he that day. Some idiot came to both shows and heckled Steve, copying his jokes as he did them. I found out later that Steve actually was really thrown off by the moron. The jerk (not The Jerk) ruined it for thousands.
But something else happened that night. I went to the show dressed like the Steve on the cover of his book of absurdity “Cruel Shoes.” I was a 17-year-old comedy geek. I brought two drawings I had done of Steve, a caricature and a pencil portrait drawn from his Best Fishes head shot. I was able to get to get a young woman working the backstage door; she said she would try and get the drawings to Steve. The caricature was a gift. I asked that they ask Steve to sign the pencil portrait for me. She said she would try.
After the show it was much harder to get back to that stage door. The entire cast of Dazed and Confused and Fast Times at Ridgemont High seemed to be eagerly awaiting a glimpse of Steve leaving the arena. I’m not the tallest guy, but my straw fedora and jacket and tie stood out enough to get the young woman’s attention and she allowed me through the crowd. She handed me the drawing. I thanked her profusely, stuffed the drawing in my bag and turn to push out of the crowd.
Letterman was second. In college I was addicted to Late Night back in the days of Monkey Cam, Larry “Bud” Melman, and “They pelted us with rocks and garbage.” I even remember when Jay Leno was funny.
My most recent comedy show was Louis CK at The Forum here in LA. Todd Glass opened. Great show. I heart Louis.
What previous experience do you have with creating graphic images of people vs. logos/typefaces/motion design?
If you check out the work on my Vimeo page there are a couple of character-based pieces. But character work is a hard sell for most clients. I almost got Google to accept a cartoon protagonist for one of the videos I did for them. For my video for an adventure travel company called Kijubi, I created a duo of Fred and Mr. B – a man and his bird (I never figured out who was Fred and who was Mr. B).
Do you find comedians lend themselves better to this type of project because of the animated nature of their profession? 😉
I suppose that’s true. I think what I like most about doing these portraits, is to try and capture their persona and attitude as simply as I can, without resorting to really grotesque exaggeration. It’s funny because it’s very similar to how I approach logo design. I try and communicate the essence of an organization in a simple, memorable mark.
I know you said you’re going to redo Sarah Silverman. What kind of response have you received directly so far from the comedians you’ve drawn? Anyone ask you to make changes? Anyone else who hasn’t been drawn ask for one (besides Attell)? And how did the Attell request come about?
Phew. Lots of questions there. There are a couple portraits like Sarah that I want to do again. The style is evolving, particularly with the women. Like I said women are harder to draw for me. I like the bumps and curves, but they can be hard to simplify.
On the Dave Attell drawing I did him without the hat first. His friend Erin (Gigglechick) Bennett asked me to add the black cap if I could. The consensus seemed to be it looks more like Dave with the hat. Erin is a talented designer who has some impressive comedian clients. I was introduced to her by our mutual friend Neil Van Harte.
I have had only one direct request for a portrait. A comediante from Mexico City named Roberto Flores asked me very nicely if I would consider doing one of him. I asked friends with family in Mexico City if they knew of him, and they did not. I am flattered by the request, but I’m not sure when I will be able to get to his. After all this is not my day job – and unless Roberto or someone else starts paying my bills, I have to pick my projects wisely.
Of the 9 living comedians I’ve done so far, 4 have retweeted my drawings. Patton Oswalt was first – sorry about the Hobbit joke, Patton. Then Jim Gaffigan, Dave Attell, and Kathy Griffin. There has been a gratifying amount of appreciation and praise.
How do you choose who you’re going to draw next?
My criteria is that it has to be someone I think is funny…
Here’s a short list taken from my really long list of people I want to draw: Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman, Ron Funches, Lily Tomlin, Bill Murray, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin. Of course Steve Martin and David Letterman. My dream is a two-fer cover for The New Yorker of 1980s Dave and 2015 Dave. If anyone has connections at The New Yorker, tweet me. @XK9