I first became conscious of the work of designer Tom Muller when writer Ales Kot mentioned him while promoting his first ongoing series, ZERO. It made me perk my ears up, and when I was really taken aback by the sharpness and cleanness of the books design I immediately remembered Ales mentioning him. Since then I’ve learned that he’s done production design and logo work on books that I had read or was currently reading (and really liking), like TRILLIUM, VIKING, and COMIC BOOK TATTOO, but I wasn’t aware of who Tom was when I first picked those books up. Muller has an eye for aesthetic, and his style changes chameleon-like from project to project, doing what it needs to to assure that his work on that specific book is a sight to behold without calling too much attention to itself — he’s stylish without being showy, which is very difficult to pull off. Since I’ve become aware of his work I’ve picked up NOAH just because his name was on it (I ended up really enjoying it, but I bought it in the first place because of him), and I’m going to continue to make sure I check out his work.
Tom was kind enough to devote a huge chunk of his time (which I will forever appreciate) to chat via email with me about his history with comics and graphic design, as well NOAH and ZERO, two of his most recent projects.
Shea Hennum: How did you first get in to graphic design? Was it something you went to school for or something you studied independently?
Tom Muller: I grew up surrounded by design. Both my parents were interior architects so from a very young age I learned about design – from graphics to furniture, product and architecture. Additionally my father was a college professor, teaching design at the college I ended up studying. I tried my hand first at product design but switched to graphic and advertising design. So it’s a mix of both really. During my early days in college I really wanted to break into comics as an artist but I fell in love with graphic design instead, entering the comic industry from that angle.
SH: Is working more holistically, maybe providing interiors, in comics still something you want to or are interested in pursuing?
TM: Possibly. I wrote and illustrated a short story in the first issue of Mam Tor: EVENT HORIZON a few years ago which was well received, so it’s something that is still on the cards. How, what and when is to be seen.
SH: Was the art really something that got you into comics as a kid?
TM: Primarily, yes. I grew up on European comics and graphic novels, and when my dad bought me my first comic when I was 7 (a Ross Andru issue featuring the Rocket Racer) I was hooked; and have been reading them ever since.
SH: Was there a particular artist you felt drawn to or one from that formative, youthful period that you find remains a pretty driving force on your own work?
TM: Not in the sense that they would have an influence on my work today. I grew up with Sal Buscema on THE INCREDIBLE HULK, John Byrne and Paul Smith’s X-MEN, Michael Golden, Miller on DAREDEVIL and obviously later Art Adams’ LONGSHOT and X-MEN issues blew me away. But in terms of looking at art in a way that it inspired me as a designer or artist, that came later when I was already in college and really started to find my own voice, and was drawn (like so many art and design students) to Dave McKean. But I’m equally drawn to Europan art — Moebious, Caza, Liberatore to name a few, and a lot of manga, especially Otomo, Shirow, and Tony Tezuka — but I wouldn’t call them driving forces in my work, because I spend an equal amount of time immersed in the world of design and art.
SH: Do you find yourself then bringing mostly (as if it’s easy to quantify) fine art and design influences from other media into your comics?
TM: Definitely. I try to make a point of it wherever I can by injecting design sensibilities from other disciplines and areas of design into the comics I work on. I’ve always said that you should approach comics as any other commercial serial publication and accordingly design something that resonates with the audience of today, something that is relevant and modern — instead of repeating the same old tropes you see over and over again in comics.
SH: So what’s relevant and modern? Is it just…something? Like, something you can’t quite place but you know it when you see it? Or do you see a pervading style or trend in modern design that you’re trying to…not hitch your wagon to, but maybe…incorporate in ways?
TM: Well, when I say relevant and modern, it means that the design is of now — and by that I mean that I’m designing something that’s not outdated or too reverential of the past. I think this is especially prevalent in comics where the same visual language has been repeated over and over again without much innovation, and as a designer with one leg in the comics industry and the other in the design and advertising world those things are extra visible to me. When I approach a new comics project (whether it’s a logo design for DC Comics, or full publication design like ZERO or NOAH) I’m more inclined to veer towards the culture of the wider design industry for reference instead of comics. Does that make some sense?
SH: Yeah, I think that makes perfect sense.
SH: What was the extent of your involvement [on NOAH]? I know you designed the logo for this English edition, but what other aspects of the book were you responsible for?
TM: I was brought on board in November last year and tasked with the publication design of the NOAH graphic novel. This included first and foremost a new logo for the book. Darren, Ari and Niko wanted to move away from the logos used on the European releases which had a very classic design slant — and they wanted a more modern, timeless logo for this edition which they saw as the ‘original’ edition, since it’s the first time the story is published in English as it was originally intended. Next to the NOAH word mark and Ark icon I was responsible for the design of the book, designing the cover, the end papers and all interior pages that are not actual story (the title and masthead pages, chapter opening pages, separation pages, etc.). We decided to create two editions of the book, the standard hardcover edition which is in stores now and a special edition which comes with a cloth cover and slipcase and gold debossing, signed by all three creators — limited to 200 copies and available soon. Next to the book design I also assisted Image with the design of a retailer promo card and a set of advertising banners for online campaigns.
SH: And how do you usually approach projects like this–or this project in particular–where you are responsible for so much of the design? Is the logo a representation of the contents; what is the starting point for something as ground-up as this?
TM: I’ll focus only on my comic industry work, rather than my work in general outside of comics. The approach varies from project to project. When I’m working with DC Comics, I’m only delivering a stand-alone logo design, which then gets applied to covers by DC’s in-house design team. When I’m working on creator owned and independent comics I have more control over the deliverables and am usually involved in all stages of the creative process: from cover concepts and design, creation of the logo and how that is applied to covers. When I worked with Ivan Brandon on his books (24SEVEN and VIKING) I designed all the covers, when working on Tori Amos’ COMIC BOOK TATTOO anthology my wife and I designed and produced the complete book in all its editions and I was responsible for all the advertising collateral, and with ZERO I’m equally involved in the gestation of each issue. When starting on these projects, sometimes you have artwork or sketches to work with and set you up on a specific tangent, but often times you’re working from a name and an idea — so the type treatment and logo design, which distills the essence of the book, is usually the starting point which then informs a lot of the overall design approach. For NOAH, I obviously had a lot of material and references to fall back on, and had long conversations with Ari and Niko on which creative direction worked best. We went through a few rounds fine tuning the logo work mark, but the Ark icon was pretty much established from the first presentation of designs.
SH: And, for NOAH, the typeset for the logo was bespoke, right?
TM: Yeah, the NOAH logo is a custom typeface designed especially for the book. Most of the logos and trademarks I design for comics (or publishing in general) are built on bespoke typefaces, unless there is a perfect fit with an existing typeface (i.e. ZERO). The NOAH wordmark went through a few revisions to find the perfect balance between being classic and timeless enough but also carry a sense of modernity. This book still needs to look modern 10 years from now. To accompany the logo I chose the F37 Ginger font, designed by Rick Banks. A typeface only released a few months ago, but one that perfectly encapsulates the timelessness of a classic Swiss design with modern qualities.
SH: What is the technical process of designing–or, more accurately, what is your technical or artistic process–of augmenting a pre-existing logo?
TM: That’s quite an open question, to be honest, because there’s no clean cut answer to that. Every project demands a unique approach. It’s not so much as augmenting pre-existing logos though. The main issue is determining the appropriate approach for a book — if it warrants a custom typeface, or if an existing font is suitable. Once that decision is made, it comes down to finessing the design… If I’m working with an existing font, how can I customize it (if it needs customization in the first place)? Regardless of these decisions, every project starts with pen and paper — sketching ideas for type and cover layout before I even start to work digitally. It’s an important step in the process that frees you from the limitation of your computer. Once I have a solid idea and direction for a design I’ll start to build digitally, constantly tweaking the design along the way.
SH: And is that a job that’s made easier on something like NOAH, where you’re working heavily with the book’s creators and you do have a lot of reference materials for logos and typeface, with the movie and extant foreign editions? Or is that more constricting, creatively? Not that they’re mutually exclusive.
TM: The NOAH graphic novel was an interesting situation because of all these pre-existing elements. For one, Darren, Ari and Niko had started working on the book three years ago, and had found publishers in Europe to serialize the story as four albums (European format graphic novels), long before the film was even a reality. When I was brought on board, two volumes had already been released in Europe, and by now news of the film was everywhere. Luckily, they (Darren, Ari and Niko) were looking for a clean slate for the English edition, which they saw as the “director’s cut” as it were: publish the story as one volume. Even though they didn’t mind the masthead designs from the European editions, they (and I) felt it was too specific, hinting at mythology — even having a slight Egyptian slant in some cases. At the same time they wanted the book to be its own thing, have its own identity and not be a slave to the film branding. All this gave me the opportunity to create something brand new, whilst being mindful of the wider structures around the book and story Darren and Ari had written, and the world Niko had put on paper. The only element that links the book’s design to the film is the scripture typeface which was created for the film’s intro and end titles to add that connective tissue between both.
SH: And did you encounter those pre-existing versions of the book, logo, and typeface as something to inspire and drive you? Or was it more of challenge: something that needed to be overcome; a hurdle that needed to be jumped?
TM: Like I said, we set out to create a unique design for the book, so I didn’t feel bound by any of the other treatments that were out there, for the international editions of the book, and I consciously avoided being influenced by any of the film’s marketing or tone of voice. I had long discussions with Ari and Niko about the thematics of the book, which made it clear that the design would have to strike a balance between a modern, timeless sensibility and use the conventions of the old testament and religious publications to create something unique. Midway in the design development Darren suggested that we maybe incorporate the typeface from the film, and that added an extra layer to everything.
SH: I think you really nailed that timeless quality. When I was writing about the book I interpreted it as an almost sci-fi. Were those same influences of merging contemporary aesthetics and religious publications the ones that drove the book’s frontispiece? Because to me, that image reminded me heavily of those educational films where they show blood vessels, and I thought that opening this book with this really cool, almost clinically biological image was dope. Maybe I’m just projecting, but where did that imagery—of the interior covers—come from?
TM: Thanks! It was important to imbue the design with that timeless quality, because when you read the book there’s no clear indication if this story is set in the past or the future. You can interpret it both ways, so I felt that the design should at least reflect that. Those cover pages were created from marbled paper textures. I had read the full story before I started on the design, and I thought that this almost primordial ooze, or molten lava or however you want to interpret could be an interesting element to wrap around the story… everything started from this and the flood washes everything away to start anew. I presented textures that were much more drastic and out there which Darren liked, but weren’t a perfect match for the story; but I feel that this final design captures the essence really well. On a side note, having seen the film I noticed there’s another layer that can be added to those front pages, but I’ll leave that for the audience to discover. The idea of using those marbled paper textures also stems from the fact that it’s a very traditional way of book binding, often seen in bibles — another element that I wanted to bring into the design.
SH: How did you first get involved with Ales Kot and ZERO?
TM: Ah, that’s a funny story. A few years ago Ales and I hung out on Whitechapel, Warren Ellis’ forum at Avatar Press [that] he maintained when his FREAKANGELS web comic was running. Apart from knowing each other’s name on the forum and occasionally interacting in threads we didn’t really communicate that often, apart from the occasional tweet maybe. Somewhere around 2010 Ales emailed me, basically saying he’d love to work together if ever a project comes up. I completely forget to reply and I even blankly forgot about the email until a few months ago when I was looking for a message from Ales for a specific ZERO issue! Fast forward to last year when Ales released Wild Children, and got in touch (again) asking if I’d be interested in working on ZERO with him, designing the series. I said yes — and here we are!
SH: Haha I assume most projects don’t come together quite like that. Is it easier working with someone you have a pre-existing rapport with, or do you find yourself having to balance a personal and a business relationship?
TM: Well we didn’t know each other, really, before we started working together apart from being familiar with each other’s work… and the comic book industry being quite small means you always have friends and acquaintances in common so you’re never really strangers. But since we started working on ZERO I can say we’ve formed a good friendship, as well as with some of the other creators involved in the series. We properly met last year in November when Ales was in London (we did a signing together at Orbital Comics) and later we shared a table at the Thought Bubble con together with Jordie Bellaire and Christian Ward (who has done variant covers for the series) along with all our other friends in the industry. It’s always professional to a certain extent, but when your collaborator spends a few nights on your couch and we all spend a day at my dining table making comics that easily becomes a productive friendship.
SH: Well that’s good to hear. And it does let me transition to something I was curious about: on ZERO, which is a book with a lot of variant covers, what’s the process like of working with so many different artists. I know you’re the series designer, so what’s your collaboration with all these different artists like?
TM: We set the “rules” if you will, pretty early on. Remember, our initial idea was that I’d be the only series cover artist designer/artist so we’re keeping that dynamic in some sense, in that every artist will supply a black & white illustration for the cover, which I then incorporate in the design — rather than trying to fit the logo in a dead space (usually the top 1/3 of a cover) around the artwork. That way I can create a cover where the art, colours and design all go hand in hand to create a unique, cohesive image that stands out on the shelves. Before we send anything off we always share it within the group – Ales being the central figure – to make sure everyone is on board with the designs. It helps that we’re all fans of each other’s work, so there’s a good relationship where we push to get the best covers possible out there.
SH: So at what stage do you go about designing the logo? Because, so far, each arc has had a different one, right? Do you know the general plot of the arc or who the cover artists are going to be?
TM: Yes, I do know the general plot and direction of the series and the individual issues when I’m working on the design. When we commenced on design development for the 1st issue I knew it was set in the Gaza Strip, so I researched drone cam footage, satellite imagery of the area and so forth to use as the basis for the cover design. I had chosen the main typefaces as well: ITC Machine for the title (or logo) and Founders Grotesk for all other design and typesetting. ITC Machine, to me, was a logical choice because it has an interesting design and has been around for a while — you can find it in title and one-sheet designs of classic 80s action cinema, which I thought was a nice reference — and has that rigid, militaristic, rhythm to it which suits the series perfectly. With those two aspects sorted I then adapt the base logo for each issue according to the setting of the story: the cover for issue one is an amped up version of Edward Zero being looked at through the lens of a drone/military cam; issue two is set around the IRA so we took inspiration from IRA pamphlets, the 3rd issue is set in Shanghai — so I researched Chinese lifestyle and fashion magazines or that cover. Issue 4 is made to look like favela graffiti, the theme of issue 5 is interrogation so I made it to look like a bad camera feed and so forth. Especially when I design the first round of covers (for the solicitations in Previews) I work on a very brief outline from Ales to get a cover image ready. In many cases I then go and revisit that design and fine-tune it when it’s time to send the issue to print.
SH: So it sounds like the influences are shifting from issue to issue, then.
TM: Exactly. The general idea is that each issue stands on its own, design wise, from the rest. We’re definitely not the first to do so — Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s PLANETARY comes to mind, obviously — but whereas PLANETARY was (heavily) referencing comics and pulp fiction culture, ZERO is more design-led. I want the covers to be contemporary and relevant to current design aesthetics, and not look like a comic per se.
SH: How do you ensure a consistency between not just the design elements of the covers but of the art as well?
TM: I think it’s there that the consistency lies when you look at all issues together — the disparity becomes the recognizable repetition. Whenever a single issue has variant covers I make a point of it that all covers for that issue are treated the same, so in that sense the artwork becomes secondary to the design. This way, the covers are immediately recognizable, and you reinforce the ZERO “brand” if you will. Another, rather important, reason for doing this is to signal to people browsing the shelves is that those covers belong to a certain issue, so you build up sets.
SH: So do you then get involved with precisely who is doing covers, or for what issues you feel they should be doing covers for?
TM: I don’t. Ales is the central figure on the series, so picks the artists he would like to work with on ZERO, including commissioning artists for variants. I do know who he has lined up for future issues, but Ales knows best where the story is headed and which artist is best suited to illustrate it. However, every (cover) artist is briefed that I’ll be designing the covers (and colouring/manipulating the art).
SH: Oh, I wasn’t aware that you colored the covers as well.
TM: Yeah I do. I basically work with black & white art supplied by the artist.
SH: Are you involved in the printing process, then, or do you get a say in, like, the paper stock used?
TM: No we have no input in the print process as far as single issues go because that’s all standardized anyway. However we can always request special paper or inks or printing techniques, but those have an impact on production costs (and eventually profit). For example, even the trade collection is a fairly standardized process, but we had the choice between a gloss and matte varnish cover (we chose matte varnish). A few years back when I was working on VIKING with Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein, Ivan had the comics printed in a golden age format on a thick paper stock with cardstock covers and a spot varnish, just to say the options are there if you want. Similarly, [the] NOAH graphic novel however was a different thing altogether since it was a one-off hardcover book so we were able to choose the paper stock, and spot gloss varnishes on the cover. For the special edition we designed a cloth-bound slipcase and cover with debossing on the logo and had gold foil blocking on a few elements. In theory everything can be done, but you need to stay realistic on what’s financially viable. Image is fantastic in that regard, advising you every step of the way before,
SH: You’re obviously very knowledgeable different aspects of the printing process and techniques and tools. Do you think that those things—the kinds of paper you use and whatnot—are important for a book, as a physical object?
TM: Of course. With the NOAH special edition (and COMIC BOOK TATTOO a few years ago) we made a conscious effort to turn the book into an object… something that’s equally at home on your coffee table as your bookshelf. The tactile difference you get by using a thicker paper stock, a foil block or a fluorescent ink all influence how you perceive the product. With the NOAH special edition we aimed at making it into a very austere bible-esque object, with only the faintest hint of iconography. It’s the same reason why die-cut holofoil glow-in-the-dark covers were so popular. It adds something to the product, but it can also make a mess of things if you don’t control it. In the end, any kind of extra flourish in design or material has to be in service of the product, in this case the story and the art.
SH: So you approach every project as its own thing, with the physicality of the object being another extension of the story?
TM: I do. You have to, because no project is the same — even when I’m only designing an isolated logo. The physicality of the object rarely comes into play when I’m working on running series and am designing what you can consider “standard” single issues, although there are exceptions: Ivan Brandon pushed the format and paper stock of VIKING to break the traditional singles format. More often than not the physicality of the book comes into play when it is a special publication where the timing and budgets allow for it.
A veteran of comics retailing, Shea Hennum is a Texas-based writer whose criticism has appeared at Bleeding Cool, Comical Musings, and The Comics Alternative. His fiction has appeared in places like Loser City, The Fringe Magazine, and Schlock, and his writing about comics will be featured in upcoming issues of Keatinge & Del Duca's Shutter from Image Comics.
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