October 17, 2009

The Wacky Month of Zen Part V

The Wacky Month of Zen Part V
Dan Cote (co-creator/artist) Interview

Welcome back to another segment of the exclusive event, The Wacky Month of Zen! Today we sit down with Zen’s co-creator and original artist, Dan Cote, for a candid interview. So light some incense, paint your face blue, and bust out your photon stick as we take a journey with one of the great minds behind Zen Intergalactic Ninja!

vector-zen-09COMIC ATTACK: So let’s jump right into talking about Zen Intergalactic Ninja! How did the concept of him develop? You and writer Steve Stern consider yourselves co-creators of the character, but tell us how he went from being just a cool idea or concept to something tangible?

DAN COTE: I was a freelance graphic artist. Steve owned an ad agency. My Mom owned and ran a successful ice cream parlor. Steve approached her to handle her advertising. It was there that he noticed an illustration I’d done hanging on the wall of the shop. It was a fantastical piece done in pen and ink. He was intrigued enough to invite me over to show more of my work. He was quick to suggest we do a comic book together. I let him know that I was not all that interested in superheroes, but if he wanted to do a sci fi story, I was in. Little did I know that he had already intended to make that suggestion before I got there. He’d written a sci fi story years ago that he had long forgotten. If I recall, Steve had kind of put comic writing on the back burner, but the script literally popped out of an old suitcase, and then a few days later, he met me. Destiny had no intention of letting Steve put aside his love for writing comics, nor was destiny about to let me not explore my illustrating chops.

CA: What did some of your earlier Zen designs look like? Was he always blue? Did he have a mouth at some point in your sketches?

DC: The first Zen image was much like Steve’s original script. A forgotten doodle of a faceless assassin in a trench coat with a laser pistol up his sleeve. Since my art skills were pretty raw, I liked the idea of drawing a faceless guy. Yes, he was always blue.

CA: In Zen Intergalactic Ninja #1, you use a very unique medium for your art; an air brush. Why that choice and have you done other air brush work since then?

air-zenDC: That first story took me a year and a half to make. I’d just discovered the airbrush and was in love with it. Each page took over 40 hours to create. I felt that there was no better medium for creating unearthly settings, and I was pretty sure no other comics were done that way. I was never one to conform to norms. I had a ball developing new ways to create textures so that it didn’t look completely airbrushy. I would use all kinds of found objects as stencil materials. Fabrics, stretched out nylons, grapevines… pretty much anything that was semi flat was used for special effects. I stopped airbrushing when I discovered the computer. I’m having just as much fun with that. Both tools delivered surprises and are kind of like collaborators. The airbrush never had an undo button however.

CA: What was it like working with Steve? Was the process script first, plot first, or something totally different?

DC: We’ve tried it all different ways. That’s the beauty of independence, we would always experiment, and Steve is talented enough to just be flexible in his approach. This also lends itself to creative interpretation.

CA: You and Steve both formed Zen Comics, the publishing company. Tell us about what it was like starting your own business in the late 1980s.

DC: I was interested in only one thing. Making art. I wanted only to be empowered to continue to do that. Starting a business in the 1980’s was like starting one now. You are full of dreams and energy, and If you’d known how much work it would be, you’d be reluctant to do it. I’ve encountered many people with great ideas who sit on them until the concept is perfect, until the climate is right, until all the stars are aligned… in doing so, they are immobilized. With us, it was just go, make mistakes, and get better. By the time we looked around we’d come to see that people were inspired by our imperfections and accessibility. But more importantly, by our persistence, gumption and independence.

CA: His name is ‘Zen’ which is a term that is commonly associated with Buddhism. What does it mean to you personally and do you subscribe to any religious theories?

DC: I was raised a Catholic boy. Steve was raised a Jewish boy. We both were raised to be open minded.

CA: Do you have a favorite Zen story?

DC: Of course. The original story arc. Books 1 through 6. It was a free-flowing brainstorm which got diverted by circumstance.

CA: Is there a Zen story you’ve always wanted to write but haven’t had the opportunity to produce yet? Can you tell us a little about it?

DC: I prefer to always continue moving forward, but I do want to retool that original story arc and follow it through to places unknown.

CA: What’s your craziest moment with a fan (or non-fan) that you’ve experienced during a comic convention?

earth alienDC: I remember being invited to a Star Trek convention in NY. We had the opportunity to speak about our indy comic in front of a full house that was there to see the Alien 2 movie sequel. I knew they had no clue who we were, but they were so polite and responsive. I think they just admired that we were chasing our dream and creating something new and different. Then there was the 90 pound kid who made his own Zen costume. He wanted to help us promote Zen at a comic book signing in my hometown. Who were we to squelch his dream. Sure he was a rather, shall we say, a pretty wimpy looking alien hero, but he was having the time of his life. He’s probably grown up to be a massive muscle bound martial artist by now. Who knows, but inspiring kids is what comics is meant to do. It’s never been very crazy, but it really amazes me how multi generational Zens appeal is. Moms and Dads bring their kids around. The kids get jazzed, and the Dads and Moms get jazzed, because they remember Zen from when they were the same age.

CA: Ok, let’s shift gears and delve into who Dan Cote is when he’s not working on the most bad ass blue alien in the galaxy. So where are you from and how did you get into sequential art?

DC: Grew up and spent half my life in Maine.  My life was changed when I saw my first Disney movie when I was 5. It was Jungle Book. Blew my little mind, that a story made of drawings could be so intense. From then on, drawing was what I did all the time. Always doodling and making cartoons of my friends. I could make a doodle and form a whole story from it. Everything that I drew lived beyond what was there on that single sheet.

CA: Who were some of the major influences in your art style?

DC: When I was a teenager I was jolted by the Album art of Roger Dean. He designed all of the prog rock band; “YES,” album covers. He would combine things like insects and mechanics, houses made of fluid stone, and environments rendered in soothing colors. First I discovered the art, and then the music. The fact that they complimented each other so well was inspiring. Rogers otherworldly explorations and imagination inspired me to stretch my own. I was toying around with photography at the time, and started looking at the tiny universe at my feet. Specifically, macro photography. Macro photography is about putting your camera on the ground, and shooting subjects like mushroom forests, and sea shell caves. The tiny world at our feet, viewed from a macro lens, became big, inhabitable and otherworldly.

CA: Zen tales are classified as science fiction, so did you have any favorite sci-fi stories growing up? How about today?

DC: Sci fi was pretty cheesy when I was a kid, not to say it wasn’t impactful. Sci fi books however were another matter. Loved anything about alternative worlds. They sparked the brain synapses into overdrive. The first Alien movie, then Terminator, then Predator to me, where the most unique breakthroughs in sci fi story telling.

CA: If aliens visited you one night and offered to take you on a journey through the stars with them, but you could never return to Earth, would you go?

DC: You bet.

CA: What if they were malicious aliens?

DC: Depends if I was taken for a breeding program or to be used as a food cache.

CA: I notice you like to watch some quality TV shows; care to share with us what some of your favorites are?

DC: Lost. Fringe. X-files. Twin Peaks… unpredictable things…

CA: Do you have any theories on how Lost is going to end?

DC: Why? I am just enjoying the ride.

CA: What are some of your favorite bands or music genres?

eggDC: I used to have a radio show back in Maine. It was called the Alien Outreach Program. The premise was to show monitoring aliens that we humans are about more than just waging war on each other. Nothing does that better than music. Since it was a college radio station, I had access to the most eclectic collection of music you can imagine. It was heaven. Therefore it is hard for me to pin down a single genre. There is a special place in my heart for YES of course, and I’m a great admirer of well produced work like you find with Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd and ethereal stuff like that.

CA: Going back to comic books, what are some of the titles that you enjoy both past and present? Any favorite characters?

DC: Lone Wolf 2012 or 10 or whatever it was. Sorry for not being anal about that, I just know what I like. I also loved Nausica. It reminded me of that Roger Dean feel. I’m very visual first. First I look at the cover, and then if the guts of the book looks as cool, I’ll get it. I have to admit, much of the Asian books are the most creative out of the box stuff that grabs my attention. I also think that Johnny the Homicidal Maniac was genius. Even though I’m not really into massive amounts of violence, there is something twistedly charming and magical about that work. My collection is pretty big, but again, it’s as eclectic as my music collection. Most of the time i was studying style. If an artist was creating something that went beyond marvelesque, I would be impressed. Always looking for uniqueness.

CA: From an artists perspective, what do you think of Disney buying out Marvel Comics? Good? Bad? Something in-between?

DC: Well let’s face it. Both entities are non-humans. I don’t wrangle with those kind of giants. I’m the kind of guy that looks at the bright side of everything, so I will say that this bodes well for all characters Marvel. It means they will live forever and ever. Aliens will be excavating the planet in the year 6000 and find Marvel comics preserved in a theme park museum buried under a tectonic plate in a region similar to California’s current location.

CA: So the comic book gods talk to you one day and provide you with the opportunity to draw a story about any comic character(s) that you haven’t created yourself and haven’t worked on in the past; who would you pick and what would the story be about?

DC: I’ve always been a one man gig. I would like to work with a bunch of like minded creators on things yet unthought of. I really don’t like living in the past all that much. Also, I don’t think I’m skilled enough to do someone else’s characters effectively. Even my own stuff lacks real consistency. I guess that is part of the charm of my stuff, because it could be said that the art evolves from panel to panel. (justification for my own lack of discipline).

CA: What does the future hold for Zen Intergalactic Ninja?

earthday-annual-p13DC: I think a man needs a dog. I’ve designed the ultimate space dog that Zen will adopt in the near future. I really enjoy doing short stories and intend to produce lots of those. Even though we intended Zen to be a long running series in the beginning, that kind of fizzled due to our collective ADD. So now that Zen is 25, I think that short stories should be our modus operendi. Given also the fact that I always tend to choose the most labor intensive methods of illustrating… I would like to see the right team pick up and develop an ongoing Zen series too. At any rate, as long as I live and breathe I will be creating Zen stories and I intend to step up the pace.

CA: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us today Dan! Do you have a website people can visit to see more of your work?

DC: Like most indy artists, I have a day job. Not many people know this, but I design all of the game cards for the popular kids concept, Bakugan. Spinmaster toys is an awesome employer, and they give me much creative license to pepper the cards with some of my own illustrations of their characters. I also get to work with many other talented illustrators. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and they are a great bunch of people. Should I become independently wealthy, I would still keep working there. It’s that fun.

Don’t go anywhere ComicAttackers! We have much more in store for you with The Wacky Month of Zen event, including an interview with Zen’s other creator, Steve Stern!

Andy Liegl



  1. billy

    Good interview Andy. I like his airbrush technique but obviously 40 hours per page is kinda crazy.

  2. I know, right? Talk about intense!

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