At the Comic-Con in San Diego a couple of years ago, Dustin Nguyen sat at a drawing table in front of fans and knocked out sketches of the DC Comics characters he’s known for: Damian, Batman’s spiky-haired son. Batman himself. A pint-size Wonder Woman. A kid Riddler in a bowler hat with a question mark. One after another.
You can watch the session on YouTube. His pencil moves with a restless energy, and before long he has turned out sketches for every kid in the front row, and one extra, “just in case another kid shows up out of nowhere,” Nguyen says. It seems so effortless and intuitive; you might assume it’s the work of a gifted natural talent. Not according to him.
“Every level I was at, there was always someone better than me. I could just tell,” he says. “Even in high school. Everyone knew that I was an artist, not because I was good but because I kept doing it. I would just draw all day.”
The effort paid off. At DC Comics, he was paired with writer and industry legend Paul Dini on “Batman: Streets of Gotham” and other titles. With writer Derek Fridolfs, he created a hit series, “Batman: Li’l Gotham,” starring the DC superheroes as kids, and another featuring Bruce Wayne and friends as middle schoolers, which debuted as a bestseller on The New York Times list.
He has won two Eisner Awards, the Oscars of the comic world, for artwork in “Descender,” a series he created with Canadian writer Jeff Lemire. Along with its sequel series, “Ascender,” it follows the adventures of a boy robot called Tim-21 designed as a companion for a kid at a mining colony on a distant moon. This summer, Lark Productions, part of NBCUniversal International Studios, bought the TV rights for the books with plans for a live-action series.
A key to Nguyen’s success, according to Fridolfs, lies in a sentiment the illustrator has repeated so often it could be his motto: “It’s just comics.”
“It never feels like work. And we try not to take it too seriously,” Fridolfs says. “He makes it fun. If it’s something we like, then the audience will enjoy it, too. And I feel like that’s never failed us.”
He sure looks like he’s having fun in that Comic-Con video, drawing another kid character and poking fun at himself. “See, the secret’s gone. It’s one character over and over. I know you’re thinking it, too, while you’re watching this. This dude is just drawing the same thing. And he’s adding a star and it’s Wonder Woman.”
Even though the Hollywood spotlight is shining on his work, and his books reach a global audience with translations in every language from Italian to Russian to Korean, 44-year-old Nguyen comes across as unassuming and down-to-earth.
He works in a studio in his Fountain Valley home, a “very messy, very messy” place jam-packed with comics and toys, a TV, mismatched furniture, and two tables—one for drawing and the other for painting—which he built himself so that he can work standing up.
“It’s not like the kind of art studio that you imagine, ‘Oh, it’s got plants!’ It’s just madness,” he says, speaking over the phone since the pandemic has made it impossible to experience the madness in person.
It’s 4 in the afternoon on a Monday in June, but he hasn’t started his workday yet—another concession to the pandemic. “I get up around noon,” he says. “Sounds bad. But because of the lockdown, my kids are no longer in school. I used to get up at 8 and take (my daughter) to school, but now I don’t need to get up.” So now he starts at 9 or 10 p.m. and works undisturbed through the night.
With multiple deadlines, it’s a grinding regime; but he’s living his dream. “I’ve always liked comics. For the longest time I was trying to get into comics.”
Nguyen’s own backstory reads like an adventure tale suited for a graphic novel. Among the first wave of refugees who fled Vietnam by boat in the mid-1970s, he and his family were rescued at sea by the crew of a Swedish vessel. They shuttled from Taiwan to Indonesia to Singapore before relatives in Georgia sponsored their entry into the United States. He was raised in the South and in Southern California by a single mother who fostered his dream of becoming an artist.
“I grew up knowing that Asian parents always wanted a doctor or a lawyer. I’m sure my mom would have loved that. She was very supportive of my art. Also, she has five kids so she could spare one.”
He’d originally trained for a career in industrial design and 3-D engineering and was making headway by the mid-’90s. But his heart wasn’t in it. He kept comic scripts in his car, sketched during lunch breaks, and committed only to enough work to pay for necessities and to go to the comic conventions.
“Back then, the best thing to do was show up (at conventions) in person, carry your portfolio around, talk to editors, ‘Hey, take a look at my stuff.’ DC had portfolio reviews at conventions where you would need a raffle ticket to get in there. So I would go with my brother and a couple of my friends, and they’d all get raffle tickets to try to get me a portfolio review, and finally I got (one).
“You think you’re really great, then you walk into a room and there are 300 people who think they’re really great. It’s tough.”
He persevered, and eventually got a callback from an editor at WildStorm Productions, a studio in La Jolla headed by Jim Lee, the artist and writer who’s now publisher and chief creative officer of DC Comics.
“He called on a Friday and he said, ‘Can you come on Monday, and can you do some pages over the weekend? Are you a page-a-day guy?’ Which means you can draw a page in a day, which is kind of an industry standard for a monthly book.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ I couldn’t. It took me a month to do three pages. That weekend, I jammed and I actually did three pages over the weekend. They looked like crap.”
The talent spotters at WildStorm thought otherwise, and he got the job.
“A lot of artists come on trying to ape another artist’s style, but Dustin didn’t. Dustin was very distinct from the get-go,” says John Layman, then an editor at WildStorm who went on to create the Eisner-winning series “Chew.”
Scott Dunbier, former executive editor at WildStorm, agrees that Nguyen’s style was unique: “He was definitely different. The weird thing about Dustin is, he’s one of the few guys that I look at their work but I can’t really see his influences. That’s unusual.”
The skyward arc of Nguyen’s career tracked a shift in comics, from a once-ridiculed genre to a major force in the entertainment industry. Comics or graphic novels are everywhere, inspiring blockbusters such as the “Batman” films and “Black Panther,” and TV series such as HBO’s “Watchmen” and Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy.” They fuel video games and fill the shelves in bookstore and library teen sections.
Nguyen has worked on his share of iconic superheroes, and he speculates he’s most closely associated with Batman, the character he’s most comfortable drawing. There’s something about the Caped Crusader.
“He’s not like Superman. Superman is great, I love Superman, but Batman— there’s something about him. He does good without having to say he’s good, and he doesn’t have to represent good while doing good. Also, there’s the whole mysterious thing, and every time you see him it looks like it’s 3 in the morning. You get that vibe from him.”
Nguyen’s work on Batman led directly to his “Li’l Gotham” series.
“I started doing it for fun. … I did a lot of stuff that was dark and gritty, and I would do signings and stuff and kids would come by, and once in a while you want to do drawings for kids. So I started drawing cartoon versions of Gotham characters like Batman. I’ve always liked that style because I was influenced by manga and Japanime stuff growing up. So I did my kind of fun TV version of that, and it took off. People liked it.”
He and Fridolfs recently published a spinoff, “Batman Tales: Once Upon a Crime,” reimagined classic children’s stories such as “The Adventures of Pinocchio” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
They’re also collaborating on “Half Past Peculiar,” about a brother and sister who find missing pets and get transported to other dimensions through a grandfather clock.
But perhaps more than any book or character, fans associate Nguyen with his signature look, a luminous watercolor style. While many artists apply color digitally, he uses pencil to sketch a piece and then applies watercolor paint to animate the characters and create beautiful, ethereal backdrops.
The technique yields a distinctive look, and it enables him to work quickly. It’s a default. When he uses the computer to color, he finds it hard to choose among all the options. “I just sit there forever: Oh, it looks good like this, it looks good like that. I think most painters can understand—when it’s done, it’s done.”
Of course, what’s style without characters and story? Nguyen is likely to contribute to them as well. At the start of a project, he’ll spitball ideas with the writer about what he’s interested in drawing.
“Sometimes it can be very specific; if he’s been working in one genre a lot, he’ll like to creatively flip it and do something visually different,” Fridolfs says. “Or maybe he hasn’t drawn a certain type of character, or vehicle, or creature that he’s just itching to have fun with. And sometimes he’ll come with a story beat or idea for a scene he’d like to include.
“It’s fun collaborating with someone as creative as Dustin, because it only fuels my mind imagining things he’ll draw, and also gives me spontaneous ideas as we craft it. … And there’s nothing better than to be surprised when I see the finished art, where Dustin might add some character or funny visual into the background that he’s cooked up, that I’m seeing for the first time.”
Nguyen recalls how his collaboration with Lemire on “Descender” and “Ascender” came about. They’d known each other for years since both worked for Vertigo, an imprint with DC Comics, and had met frequently at conventions. One day he got a call from the writer: “ ‘Let’s do something together.’ He’s like, ‘There’s this story I want to do having to do with kids, and this little boy and robots.’ I was like, ‘Dude, I love drawing robots; let’s do this.’ It was easy as that.”
Published by Image Comics, the story spins on Tim-21, the child companion robot, and his struggle to survive in a universe where robots are outlawed. The books are filled with androids of all sorts—the cute dog-like Bandit; Tim-21’s dim but powerful protector, Driller; giant robot invaders called Harvesters—but Nguyen believes the popularity of the series rests in its believably human drama.
“No matter what the story or setting is, I think ‘Descender’ sticks to being about family. It’s rooted in a very small emotional story, and it doesn’t matter how big the backdrop is. I think that’s what people enjoy about comics. That’s what I enjoy about them,” he says.
“I was never very big on things that are so epic. I enjoy superhero movies, but sometimes they’re just too epic. I can’t believe the world is going to end if this guy doesn’t get this tape to this destination. But something that’s about family and emotions, that grabs me.”
For example, there’s a sequence with Andy, the human boy Tim-21 has been programmed to befriend, and Andy’s mother, the chief engineer at the mining colony. When the colony comes under attack and a leak occurs in the mine, she rushes Andy to the launch of the last shuttle. He doesn’t realize until the last minute that she’s staying behind to try to fix the leak and save lives.
“It’s sad as hell! You have no idea. I read the scripts, and I go, ‘Oh, Jeff, what are you doing to me? Now I gotta draw this.’ ”
Wrenching, for sure, but it’s in service to a good cause. “We just want to make good books. We never really aim for an audience. Even with ‘Li’l Gotham,’ they wanted to make it a children’s book, but Derek and I said, if we want to make it all ages, let’s make it truly all ages where kids can enjoy it and older people can read it and it’ll still be entertaining. Let’s just make good books. That’s what we’ve always aimed for.”