Who would have guessed the road to Metropolis veers through Fayetteville? Well it does. It travels straight through the imagination, pencil and brush of local freelance artist Aaron Kuder.
Kuder, a native of Ithaca, N.Y. who has lived off and on in Northwest Arkansas since childhood, helps put Superman through his paces on a monthly basis by co-plotting and drawing the Man of Steel’s exploits for the venerable DC Comics title Action Comics.
Action Comics is the mother ship of super heroes, introducing the concept with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s watershed creation Superman in its first issue, cover-dated June 1938. A cornucopia of caped, cowled and spandex-tighted crusaders followed as the United States inched its way out of the Great Depression and onto the brink of World War II, but Superman was the first, the icon, and that fact is not lost on the 38-year-old artist, who has been working on the character since the fall of 2013 with writer Greg Pak.
“If you were born in a certain generation, you either wanted to be Batman or a Spider-Man,” Kuder said in a phone interview from his home studio in Fayetteville. “I was a Spider-Man kid. But before you are old enough to even consider if you like Spider-Man or Batman, every kid has put a towel around his neck and pretended to be Superman. He’s the image that comes to mind when you think of a super hero.”
Kuder believes the character’s ability to fly and his super strength plays into the primal fantasies of the young.
“Who doesn’t dream about flying or want to be strong?” Kuder said.
It’s an interesting observation, considering the character’s powers have been greatly diminished in a recent storyline entitled “Truth,” which began running in Action Comics Vol. 2, issue No. 41 and other Superman comics in June. While Superman remains stronger and more durable than regular men, he no longer flies or even leaps tall buildings in a single bound. For the time being, it might take two leaps for Superman to sail over the top of the Daily Planet building. Gone are the red cape and the spit curl that have become synonymous with the character. The Last Son of Krypton now wears jeans and a T-shirt. His hair is shorter and spiked in the front.
“I was listening to a podcast the other day, and the reviewer was really positive, but he couldn’t get over the haircut,” Kuder said.
Not only that, Lois Lane exposed Superman’s secret identity to the world in a story unspooling in Superman Comics, which also debuted in June.
“We’re taking a risk of alienating longtime fans,” Kuder said. “We hope they stay with us. We think it will be worth it.”
Kuder explained the creators are being anything but disrespectful with the character. The idea, generated last year at a meeting of all creators who regularly work on Superman comics, was to strip the character to his core in order to show that it’s Superman’s humanity that makes him a hero not just his powers.
The “Superman Summit” took place before DC Comics uprooted its New York offices to move all operations to Burbank, Calif., where parent company Warner Bros. is headquartered. In an attempt to revitalize its publishing line, DC released the reins and gave its creators the marching orders to come up with something different. The stories playing out in the comics today are the result of that meeting.
Kuder believes he and his fellow creators have a story that will be worth the patience of longtime readers as well as those checking out the Man of Steel for the first time.
“It’s awesome to do something that hasn’t been done with Superman before or at least not for a very long time,” Kuder said. “It’s really an homage to the earliest version of the character when he wasn’t all-powerful. We want to make it hard on him, to make him struggle… We’re playing with the concepts to get down to the core of his character.”
Kuder said the grind of producing a monthly comic keeps him at his drawing table 10 hours a day.
“Once you accept a monthly book as an assignment, you’re automatically behind,” Kuder said. “There are no days off, unless it’s a holiday or a birthday, but even then I’m in the studio early and late and between the celebration.”
Producing comics is an assembly-line process with multiple creators generally concentrating on a single aspect of the overall package. On his first 15 issues of Action Comics, Kuder performed two of those aspects, known as penciling and inking. A penciler draws the action of the comic as detailed by the writer in a script. The inker or embellisher uses a brush or pen with permanent ink to finish the art, often adding shadow and detail to the art as well as making corrections.
For the last three months, Kuder has been co-plotting each issue with his collaborator writer Greg Pak. The two discuss the story beats, the emotions they want highlighted, how the pages are laid out and how much space to allot each aspect of the story. Pak then writes the script from his notes.
“Co-plotting lets me be involved from the beginning of the process,” Kuder said. “It allows me to make suggestions for emotional impact and story.”
In the most recent issue of Action Comics, No. 43, Kuder suggested a double-page spread using the entirety of two pages for one dramatic, detailed panel. In another sequence, he suggested no dialogue, letting the art do all the work. Working out such ideas in advance generates more cohesive storytelling in the medium that relies on collaboration and coordination.
While working on a monthly book is grueling and pressure-packed, Kuder sees it is the best way to hone his craft at this point in his career. He also enjoys playing with and being the custodian of DC’s characters. However, he realizes the schedule of a monthly book keeps him from doing his absolute best work.
“I could spend hours more on each page,” Kuder said. “The schedule doesn’t allow it.”
At some point in the future, Kuder plans to bring his own ideas to life on the page through creator-owned work where he will have more time and complete control.
“I do want to tell my own stories at the right time,” Kuder said. “Those are the stories that really beat in my chest.”
As a freelancer, Kuder is able to work primarily out of his home studio, where he lives with his wife Aprille. He met Aprille 13 years ago, while working at the University of Arkansas during the day and as a bartender at night.
“We met at the art supply department of the UA bookstore,” Kuder said, “but we became friends at Chester’s.”
Over time, their friendship obviously developed into more despite him moving outside of the area for a number of years. Kuder moved back in 2013, and they were married the following year. They now live in Fayetteville with their two cats and three dogs.
Kuder, whose mother Denise Dodson also lives in Fayetteville, attended Westwood Elementary and Southwest Junior High in Springdale. Family and the natural beauty of the area kept drawing him back to Fayetteville.
“I’ve lived all over,” Kuder said, “out west, Colorado and Iowa, New Jersey, Michigan, Philly, but spent a lot of time in upstate New York. When I mention New York, most people think of the city, but the geography of upstate New York is much like Northwest Arkansas. There’s a lot of natural beauty in both places, waterfalls and the hills. I really enjoy the greenery in the city and the temperate climate. The people are really great, particularly in Fayetteville. I love the community-based atmosphere. That’s wholly important to me.”
Kuder, who was born in Michigan, grew up with a pencil in hand and knew from an early age that art was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
“I’ve always drawn,” the self-taught artist said. “I was the guy in school who was always doodling instead of taking notes. Drawing, I guess, has always been a part of my D.N.A. What got me into drawing comics professionally is that no matter what I was doing to pay the bills, I never stopped drawing. I kept working at it.”
The Internet also helped him create friendships that eventually paid off with a gig drawing The Amory Wars: In Keeping Secrets of the Silent Earth: 3. Kuder became active on the online Ten Ton Studios Forum where he engaged in art competitions with soon-to-be comic professionals like Khoi Pham (Avengers, Spider-Man), Reilly Brown (Deadpool, Lobo) and Chris Burnham (Batman) to hone his skills.
While Kuder was working as an electrician in Fayetteville, Burnham contacted him about picking up his duties on The Amory Wars, since Burnham was moving on to work on a monthly Batman title with comic industry giant Grant Morrison. After a bit of deliberation, Kuder gave up the security of his electrician job to put his artistic skills to good use as a freelancer.
“It was a big step, but it’s turned out to be the right one,” Kuder said.
Freelance comic book artists live from assignment to assignment, but after getting his foot in the door, Kuder has worked steadily. The four-issue Key of Z mini series followed Amory Wars, which in turn led to an assignment on DC’s Legion Lost series. His next step was to work on Spider-Man for industry behemoth Marvel Comics. After completing his work on Spider-Man, DC courted Kuder to work on a Green Lantern title as well as doing some Batman work. He opted not to take Batman work.
“I really got some great advice from Tom DeFalco [noted writer and one-time editor of Marvel Comics in the 1990s],” Kuder said. “He was great to work with. He told me that if I was offered an assignment that I wasn’t comfortable with to pass it up. He said assignments would come, but that I should only take ones that would let me shine.
“I didn’t think I could shine on Batman,” Kuder said. “I want to do work I’m proud of, and I want to do work that I think is worth the price that’s on that comic.”
Incidentally Kuder said he has recently worked out his issues with drawing Batman and would enjoy a shot at drawing the character in the future as well as revisiting Spider-Man and other Marvel characters. But at the moment he is happy shining each month plotting and drawing Superman in Action Comics.