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Sheltered Artist Johnnie Christmas on Growing Up in Miami and His Top-Selling Comic

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Like a list of highest grossing movies, the week's top selling comic books are filled with familiar names: Batman, Spider-Man, X-men, Superman, Sheltered...

Wait, Sheltered?

There's not even a man at the end of its title, but the first issue of a creator-owned comic book about a separatist community recently managed to crack Bleeding Cool's top ten list this month. With its deft characterizations, cinematic pacing, and action packed cliffhanger of an ending, Sheltered drew as many comparisons to The Walking Dead as a work with zero zombies in it possibly could.

Days after a triumphant journey hobnobbing with fanboys at the San Diego Comic-Con and a week before the August 7 release date of Sheltered #2, New Times caught up with Sheltered artist and co-creator Johnnie Christmas from his Vancouver art studio as he reminisced about his South Florida childhood and how beer can serve as one's muse.

New Times: Where in Miami did you grow up?

Johnnie Christmas: I grew up in Opa-locka, 28th Avenue and 164th Terrace. Growing up there was a unique experience; the neighborhood was considered tough but on my block it was pretty peaceful, like an oasis.

I attended the art magnet program at South Miami Senior High; it used to be called the Center for Media Arts, but it's my understanding that it's called something different now. For college I divided time between the New World School of the Arts and Miami Dade College's North Campus. I had great instructors at both schools, Jon Kitner and Aramis O'Reilly among them. I then transferred to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and finished my BFA there.

Do you have fond memories of Miami, or scarring nightmares?

Ha ha, a little bit of both! Miami is a beautiful city bursting at the seams with potential. There have always been great local artists, like T. Elliot Mansa and Pablo Cano. But, when I lived there, there weren't a lot of professional artistic avenues, or perhaps they weren't open to me. So I know many artists who left Miami for places that fostered their development a bit more.

How did Miami shape your art?

Miami greatly influenced my sense of color and composition. I'm not talking about stuff you pick up in art class, I mean simply from walking around. Big open skies, hurricanes, waves. Not to mention all the great Caribbean and Latin American culture.

Before Sheltered what comics did you work on?

Most recently I worked on a graphic novel based on the Syfy TV show, Continuum. I've contributed to a crime series called Murder Book as well as some stories for the Cloudscape Society.

So tell us about Sheltered.

Sheltered is about a small community of survivalists who are preparing for the end of the world, in whatever form it comes in: War, global warming, pandemic, economic collapse, you name it. And what happens when the one threat they never anticipated presents itself in a completely jarring way. We deal a lot with the kids raised in this pressure cooker, in a constant state of paranoia, training to become the ultimate survivors.

How did you get involved with Sheltered?

My collaborator Ed Brisson and I had a pitch meeting, and over a couple of hours and a six pack of beer, we presented a handful of ideas to each other. Nothing was really sticking, so as we were wrapping up Ed kind of brought up his fascination with survivalists. We riffed on that for a bit and found an idea we thought would be quite intriguing. We pitched it to Image Comics and, fortunately, they thought it was intriguing too.

How does the collaboration with the writer of Sheltered work?

We have a "big picture" talk on the story arc and then Ed goes off to write the script. I'll shoot him any notes I have and when we're happy, I go off to do thumbnails (a rough draft) and then get Ed's notes on those. We go back and forth on all the stages, pencils, inks etc. It may sound like a lot of back and forth but it actually moves pretty quickly and quite smoothly, we're on the same page 90% of the time.

What is your day to day creative process?

Most days start with a cup of coffee as I stroll over to the studio, then I jump right into penciling a page. In the afternoon, I move onto inks. Nowadays I'm trying to squeeze a nap in between penciling and inking. I'm too much of a workaholic though, so naps usually don't happen.

What influences your art?

In terms of comic book artists, Jaime Hernandez from Love and Rockets, Otomo Katsuhiro who did Akira and Mike Mignola who does Hellboy are huge influences. In fine art I'm influenced by Marc Chagall, Gauguin, Rauschenberg, and Klimt. I also think a lot about Woody Allen's movies with Gordon Willis (his sometime cinematographer), they're incredible.

You just attended San Diego Comic-Con. Any interesting, amusing stories you can share about that experience?

San Diego is a big wild show; it's an exercise in extreme sensory overload! We had a great time meeting fans, we've gotten overwhelmingly positive feedback, readers and retailers are pretty excited about it. Other than that, meeting Dave Gibbons (the artist of Watchmen) and hearing his tales about the brawls between the mods and greasers in his 1960's England neighborhood, was really cool.

--David Rolland

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