I’m envious of anyone who gets a significant, creatively electrifying collaboration going with a fellow artist. Writers working with visual artists to achieve something that is both entertaining and staggering in its uniqueness never fails to dazzle me.
Joan Cooke has been working with Dante Shepard on the comic series PHD Unknown for a little while now. It’s a great weekly series, to be sure, and the contributions from Cooke play a crucial role in how much singular personality the series possesses. It is very much a collaboration, but Cooke’s incredible talent for facial expressions, for matching Shepard’s exceptional work with hyperactive-yet-brilliantly-wry depictions of reality, points to an artist who definitely needs to go solo at some point.
But again, that’s not a knock on the collaboration. PHD Unknown is unquestionably the best webcomic you haven’t read yet. It’s absurd, but instantly relatable, and charming in how it marries those two concepts. The series currently has a Patreon listing that you should consider kicking some money towards.
As the series gains more momentum, and as Shepard and Cooke both have an even larger, even more enthusiastic audience to contend with then they do now, PHD Unknown is only going to get better and better.
And Joan Cooke, who isn’t even close to her 30th birthday, is going to get bigger and bigger opportunities to showcase creative sensibilities that do not exist anywhere else.
How in the hell has it been a full decade since we first met? Do you remember it at all?
It’s unbelievable how fast time has swept by. I remember the day we met, in the hotel lobby for Anime Mid-Atlantic. You were volunteering and I was hyped up on all of the new socialization. The whole convention culture was still very shiny and new to me then.
Everything after that is a blur of nerdy conversations and slinging morbid insults at each other.
Morbid is a sweet way to put it, yeah. Do you still manage to go to Anime conventions? Did that scene have any influence on your development as an artist?
I’ve switched over to comic book conventions instead, but several years of attending Anime cons helped me learn a lot about what I wanted to be as an artist. The very first piece of art I sold was at an anime convention (I can’t even recall which one it was now.) I was 17 years old and sharing an art table with my friend Kat in the artist alley. Nothing can teach you more about trying to get people to look at your art than just diving in and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It made me realize how important being able to communicate is to being successful as an artist, even in a nerdy scene.
I’m sure you can tell me the exact moment in which you decided to become an artist.
There was no one moment. There’s been many days throughout that I need to re-decide that this is what I truly want to be.
But I did realize that I found drawing rewarding pretty young. In elementary school, I had gotten a How to Draw The Simpsons book. I drew what I thought of as an okay rendition of Bart, copying it out of this book. A kid in my class looked over my shoulder, and started asking in amazement if I had done that. “How cool, I could never do that!” As a shy kid, I just sat there blushing and smiling. That feeling really pushed me to keep drawing. Feels just as warm and fuzzy when people compliment my work now.
Which I know is pretty often, especially these days. But comic books? I’ve seen you work with a number of different styles, and you’re pretty fantastic with all of them, but the comic book medium remains the one you come back to time and time again. Why do you think that is?
Making comics gives the artist a whole lot of possibilities. The only limitation is the imagination. It’s sounds corny, but it’s so true. Comics can encompass a lot of influences from other works in a way that makes them accessible to the reader. Cinema, illustration, graphic design, abstract paintings, they can all become a narrative element in a comic book. My artistic interests have always been all over the place, so it’s great to be able to combine them in a way that other people can understand.
At this point, I would say PHD Unknown is your most significant release to date. It’s an incredible collaboration between yourself and Dante Shepherd. I’ve always meant to ask you how that thing got started. I feel like it just kind of appeared overnight.
The collaboration actually started as a piece of fan art. I’ve been an avid reader of Dante’s other webcomic, Surviving the World, for a long time. I saw that he had out up a call for guest comics because his daughter was going to be born soon. I sent him a comic, my own rendition of his lab-coat clad persona in front of a chalkboard. He liked it so much, he posted it at the start of his paternity leave, and we started coming up with ideas for collaborative projects from there. Before PhD started, we did another project called The Oxford English Fictionary. It was just silly fun to draw those illustrations.
I know you’ve also worked on comics in a solo capacity. Do you have a preference between that and working with someone else?
I honestly prefer working with someone else over working alone. Sometimes I get too focused on the small details about a project, and having someone else’s input keeps the story in a better scope. I take the step back I need to see the bigger picture. I keep a better work pace because I have other people reminding me what is possible.
Even when I work on a solo project, I’ll still want to bounce ideas off of friends, ask what they think of sketches and jokes I come up with, before I consider a page completely complete.
You’re a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design, considered to be one of the best art schools in the United States. How did you feel when you were accepted? How do you feel about having gone to art school now, having graduated a couple of years ago?
I was ecstatic when I got the acceptance letter. I knew art was for me, but I’m not sure if my art would be enough for them. I’m still filled with pride every time I look at my diploma. (It’s hung up between a poster of Doctor Doom and a poster that reads “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded” which I found oddly appropriate.) Going to that college pushed me harder than anything I had done before that point. Artistically and personally. I learned a lot, and I’m still inspired to keep learning. But there is the reality of the student loans that I’ll still be paying off for a while. I can’t pretend that isn’t a huge sacrifice in itself.
How essential has SCAD been to your development as an artist? Can you envision the path you might have gone on, had you not attended?
I don’t think I would be the same type of artist. A lot of my influences now are artists that were suggested to me by professors or fellow students at SCAD. Bill Sienkiewicz, Moebius, Art Speigelman, these were all the kinds of art I was looking for but couldn’t have found on my own.
I also used to be pretty stubborn in who I would listen to when it came to teaching art techniques. I finally figured out that everyone can teach you something, if you’re patient enough to watch and listen.
That’s not to say that going to an art college is for everybody. I could have stayed in Maryland, there is a community of artists here that are very passionate too. I might have been a more traditional fine artist if I stayed, it seems like painting and sculpture are the more popular mediums here.
You’ve started picking up a lot of modeling gigs over the past couple of years. Where does that interest come from?
I’ve had a lot of friends that enjoy photography over the years. Sometimes it’s nice to be the subject instead of the creator. It just seemed like a natural transition, and a way to support other people that make art. Although now PhD updates weekly, so modeling is going to have to go on the back burner.
Beyond PHD Unknown, what should we look for from you?
Dante and I have been working on another project together, quietly in the background. Keep your eye out for announcements about it! As soon as we can share info about it, we will.
Let’s say a SCAD rolls out the welcome mat for you, showcases your best work, and invites you to speak to a room full of the biggest and brightest kids in the school. What is the first you would want to tell them? What would the last thing be?
First thing I would want to tell them is that networking is everything. Talk to your professors, talk to your classmates, keep in touch with as many people in your department as you can. It will help your career and your self-esteem reach higher levels. It’s better to make mistakes and keep trying than to never get out of your shell. It’s surprisingly easy to forget this part of the experience with the amount of work you’ll be trying to get done.
The last thing I would say is that you can always keep evolving. The amount of information being made available online is astounding, especially within the art community. You can always find new places to get critique, new methods to try, new influences. And every new thing you learn will add to your skills and your individuality.
Are there any projects that have been on the burner for a really long time that you’re desperate to get off the ground?
The first one that always comes to mind is the short story you gave me a long while ago, God Is On Your Side. The surreal action and the distinct characters really made some visuals burst into my mind immediately. It would be a good excuse to really stretch my style and see how weird it can get.
When in the hell are we going to work on a comic book together?
When fate gives us enough time to work on it. PhD has really taken off in a way I didn’t expect at first. I’m happy it’s eating up my time, but I’m sure that God Is On Your Side will turn into some kind of sequential art eventually.
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