“I Feel More Free And Brave Now As An Artist”: An Interview with Tyrell Cannon

Photo by Tina Cannon.

As a creator and artist, Tyrell Cannon brings an impressive range of tools to his work. Along with his formal training from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he has years of experience in illustration, character design and storyboarding. Work that, at a glance, appears heavily stylized, is actually undergirded by a confident application of anatomy and composition. As a storyteller, Cannon exudes a rare blend of self-possession and humility, in that he knows when to get out of the way of his own ideas and be carried by their momentum. This allows him to introduce big ideas and let them play out succinctly, without getting mired in the world-building conundrum that tends to plague creators working in the genre milieu. I interviewed Cannon via email in May of 2022 in the run-up to the release of the crowdfunded Beef Bros Behind Bars with writer Aubrey Sitterson.

-Ian Thomas

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IAN THOMAS: What are your earliest memories of comics?

TYRELL CANNON: My earliest earliest memories are definitely the Sunday comic strips. Calvin and Hobbes, Family Circus, Garfield and The Far Side are definitely the ones I'd read first as a kid.  My dad had grown up reading comics and told us all about the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Inhumans, etc. Around fourth or fifth grade, he took my two brothers and I to the local comic store, where I bought X-Men #5 and X-Force #9. I was immediately hooked and couldn't think about anything else. My parents also bought me How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way at some point around this time, which had a lasting impact on me. I had been drawing from a very early age, carrying around a notebook/sketchbook everywhere I went from first grade onward, but [that] was when comics became one of the bigger driving forces in my drawing.

How long have you resided in Chicago?

I've lived in Chicago more than any other place. I grew up in the suburbs (Elgin/Dundee area) until sixth grade, when my family moved to the small town of Rocky Ford, Colorado. I returned to Chicago after high school to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for four years. After that, I spent a short two years in Los Angeles before returning to Chicago in 2007. I've been here ever since!

Had you already made your mind up about pursuing comics when you began attending art school? Was SAIC a positive experience for you?

Towards the end of high school, I became less engaged with comics, and more engaged with film. As I entered college, I probably had more the idea I'd be making films or working on film in some fashion. At some point in my freshman year, however, I was rediscovering my love of comics, going to stores like Quimby's and finding incredible self-published work, along with mainstream comics' inclusion of artists like Frank Quitely and Seth Fisher. [It] reinvigorated my interest in making comics. As my studies progressed, I found ways to make comics while still exploring my filmmaking interests. I moved to LA after graduation, primarily to pursue filmmaking. It took that experience to solidify that making comics would be the most satisfying way for me to create.

Art school was a positive experience for me. I grew in my ability to discuss my work and fully experience other art forms. Finally, engaging with peers that shared my love of creating art was probably the aspect I most enjoyed about my time there.

What did your early comics efforts look like?

The first time I made comics was probably fifth grade.  My teacher, Mr. Buck, offered extra credit for creating comic stories, so I made up my own team of cyborgs called the X-ecutioners and another called Captain Crystal. I probably didn't get more than five pages done of either, though. I made comics in earnest starting my freshman year of college at SAIC. That's where I created a mouthless character called Simon, who was my avatar for exploring comics for the rest of my time in school. By the time I graduated, I had done maybe five "Simon" comics which I sold at Chicago Comics, Quimby's and Graham Crackers here in the city. Nothing beats that feeling of making a book, taking it to the store, and getting it on the shelves.

Do you feel a part of the Chicago comics scene?

Absolutely. Chicago is an incredible comics city. The independent/self-publishing scene has thrived for years and we also have a large number of mainstream creators here. At this point, I feel that I've made amazing friends within the community and met or engaged with the majority of creators here in one way or another. I am one of the organizers of the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (or CAKE), which is one of my favorite indie shows in the country. My involvement there expanded my exposure to even more amazing creators. All that being said, there have been times where engaging with the community was difficult. I still feel there is significant separation between the self-publishing community and the mainstream community. I'd love to see this gap close more as time goes on because we're all making comics.

Page from Simon: Pugilist, a 2013 "Simon" minicomic. Written by Logan Cannon.

Can you talk about your creative relationship with your brother, Logan, with whom you’ve collaborated on several works?

Logan is a year and a half younger than me, so we grew up together, sharing a room for years, rides to school and friend groups. Any movie or cartoon I watched, he probably watched too. We have an incredibly easy shorthand when it comes to creating stories, since we have many of the same reference points. Shortly after moving to Colorado, my father was in a motorcycle accident and suffered a severe brain injury, throwing my family's life into years of turmoil and hardship. My older siblings had already moved out by then, so Logan and I went through a lot of those difficult times together alone during our teenage years. I believe enduring that tumultuous time is core to our understanding of each other and the world. We didn't actually create any comics together until much later, after I was out of college. He had studied acting and writing in school, gaining a wonderful sense of character development, dialogue and creating narratives. I felt my work was weak in those regards, so I asked him to work with me on a couple "Simon" minis. It was a lot of fun, so I started bouncing ideas off him regularly, which led to him co-writing ERIS [a self-published SF series] with me. I'm hopeful we'll do another book together after ERIS is complete.

How did living through the hardships and turmoil around your father’s accident influence your creative life? I’m sorry that you had to go through that. It must have been difficult.

Thanks for saying that. It's only in the last few years that I have been able to truly see how those past struggles affected my life and creative process. I did a short comic for Inktober 2018 to kind of force myself to face the trauma more directly. It turned out to be quite a catharsis, which spurred me on to be more intentional in dealing with it. I also had a child a couple years ago and started therapy for the first time, and both pushed me to find better ways to cope with mental battles I've had my entire life. I'm still figuring it out, but that trauma definitely made me risk-averse and heightened previously existing anxiety and OCD tendencies. These traits were so strong that it held me back creatively and kept me from taking any leap to truly pursue comics full-time. I feel more free and brave now as an artist and hope to continue growing in those regards.

Image from Cannon's untitled Inktober 2018 comic, now a Risograph-printed minicomic available at his website.

Having worked with a number of writers at this point, can you talk about how the collaborative process with your brother may be similar or dissimilar to those other collaborations?

Most of the writers I've worked with are extremely collaborative and giving. They've encouraged me to have input on story ideas and been willing to adjust the writing to amplify aspects of the art. I've been very lucky so far.

Working with Logan is quite unique, as it's much more of a shared experience. We usually discuss things on the phone a lot as we work up a script. Then, we take turns going in and working up the issue, almost like a night shift/day shift, where he'll work on it while I'm away, then he'll leave it and I'll work on it, and so on. It feels very organic and conversational. If any parts of the process are more divided, I'd say I probably do more of the visual breakdowns and he does more of the dialogue. Actually, he practically does all the dialogue. He's much better at it than me!

In 2012, you did Gary, a graphic novel inspired by Gary Ridgway, the serial killer who came to be known as the Green River Killer. What attracted you to that story?

I've had an interest in serial killers and true crime ever since I was a teenager. I'd read books about them, watch documentaries, and find all the references to real crimes peppered throughout horror film history, so I knew I had to do a serial killer comic at some point. Gary Ridgway was the most interesting serial killer to me, not only for his disturbingly high body count and the number of years he was active, but also because he exemplified something different than what mainstream culture thinks of as a serial killer. 

Page from Cannon's Gary, self-published in collected form, 2015.

At the point in time I was working on the book, serial killers in television and film were increasingly portrayed in 'sexy' and almost mythical ways. Gary, on the other hand, was completely unremarkable in most aspects of his life. The majority of his interactions with the people around him were mundane and forgettable. He also had a wife and child during the time most of the murders occurred, which was striking to me, so I wanted to dig deeper into his story and find out what it could tell me about serial killers and human nature.

Was Gary your first longform work?

It was the first longform work I released publicly in any meaningful way. I had done a 80-ish page comic based on King David prior to that, but I never really released it. Gary turned out to be about 132 pages, released in three 44 page volumes initially, then collected into one volume later.

How did you land on the kaleidoscopic, shuffled time narrative that you ultimately used in Gary?

When my dad had his brain injury, one of the effects was that he lost nearly all of his memories from nine years old up to about six months after the accident. He didn't remember meeting my mom, or any of my siblings and I being born, let alone details of the times we spent together. Because of this, memory became something I obsessed over. One aspect that always amazes me about memory is that it's not experienced in a linear fashion or narrative in daily life. There are 'triggers' that will bring up a memory randomly as you progress through a given day and you experience it completely out of context. You may smell cinnamon on a train ride and think of a specific time you made oatmeal cookies as a child. You may hear a song at a bar and recall a singular moment of a car ride with a special someone. For most people, these links are innocuous the majority of the time, with the occasional bout of sadness or laughter as you recall it. For someone like Gary, I couldn't help but imagine the links between moments in his life. A picture of his son in his wallet would not only remind him of his son, but also of the times he showed that picture to victims to set their minds at ease and coax them into his car. A particular stretch of road to Gary wouldn't only remind him of his drive to work, but also where he may have dumped a body. This juxtaposition of the relatable parts of his memory with the horrible parts seemed a good way to show his humanity and inhumanity simultaneously. I confronted it with this method of matching memories and scenes throughout the entire work visually, using panel arrangements, layouts and repeating emotional progressions.

Pages from IDKFA, Cannon's Inktober 2019 tribute to the computer game DOOM, printed as a minicomic in 2020.

Gary contains what I believe to be your first use of first-person perspective, which you later employed to some acclaim in IDKFA. What do you find appealing about first-person? Do you feel that perspective is underused in comics?

For Gary, it was another method of putting the reader uncomfortably close to the experience of Gary. It's comforting for most of us to demonize a killer and focus on their terrible deeds, but when we experience a fuller gamut of their life from their perspective we must find a new way to frame them in our own minds. To be clear, I did not intend excuse or downplay Gary's murders of innocent people, only to confront the reader (and myself) with the complexity of his existence.

For IDKFA, it was more as an homage to the feeling of playing the classic first-person shooter video game DOOM, which the book is based on. When someone who's played the game sees that hand out in front of them and some exploding barrels in the scene, they are immediately struck with the memory of the first time they booted up the game. For me, it was a profound moment that is part of my artistic DNA, and I knew it would be for others too.

As far as its use in comics, it's always popping up here and there. It could be used more, but in comics (or even film) using it sparingly probably helps keep the impact potent. But now that I say that, I want to do a whole comic in first person. I think Ōtomo did a short that was, maybe I'll go look at that...

Did you work straight through on Gary? It seems like the source material may have been a lot to take in for an extended period of time.

Gary was done straight through, although I worked on it only on nights and weekends, as I had a day job at the time. It probably took about two years? I have read every book written about the murders and Gary, seen every documentary and film based on it, and read the entire transcript of the court case. I created numerous spreadsheets tracking timelines, people and places related to his life. Yeah, I got a bit obsessed. At this point, I know more about Gary Ridgway than anyone else, outside of his family and the detectives and lawyers involved in his case. And it was incredibly taxing, mentally and emotionally. By the time I finished, I was struck by how much time and energy I had spent depicting some of the most terrible acts a person can commit. Making the work changed my fundamental beliefs about murder, crime, punishment and human nature, but I’m not sure I could ever make something like it again.

How did you ultimately release it and what did you make of its reception?

It was released in three volumes during the time I made it, then eventually collected. Reception was mostly positive, in that readers and reviewers seemed to gain a lot from the work. It was one of the first books I created that got attention at a critical level on websites/podcasts. I did get a couple long emails from people who found it disturbing and irresponsible, which was difficult to hear, but good for my artistic growth. At conventions, I found lots of people shared my interest in serial killers, which led to some enlightening conversations.

From issue #4 of Cannon's self-published series Victus, 2016.

Following Gary, it seems that Victus was your next major work. Do you consider Victus complete at this point? It differs quite markedly in tone, structure and genre from Gary. How did you get from Gary to Victus?

Victus was my next work after Gary. I intentionally wanted to go somewhere completely different, setting it in a fictional reality with multiple characters and a world I could develop. Visually, I have been obsessed with Albrecht Dürer for years and wanted to channel that into comics and see what came forth. Thematically, I hoped to focus on human connection and religious experience. Unfortunately, I do not consider it complete.  I actually drew the fifth issue—four have been released and it was planned for six—but never released it. When I decided to leave my day job a few years back, I felt I had to explore other interests in my artistic style that might serve me better in my freelance journey.

What is the appeal of Albrecht Dürer’s work?

As a draftsman and technician, Dürer was unparalleled in his time. His use of line, hatching techniques and composition inspire me to this day. He also embraced new technologies and the idea of multiples/editions which relates directly to comics. I love his way of taking historical religious ideas and events and portraying them with details contemporary to his time. His print series based on the apocalyptic prophecies of the Bible is one of the most incredible illustrated series ever. His creation of an iconic signature to identify his works as they spread as prints is another vital addition to the world of art and I feel is a direct influence on comics artists having iconic signatures. Honestly, I never get tired of looking at Dürer's work and life.

Based on the work you shared, it seems that, beginning in 2014, you started to focus more on shorter pieces, such as the pieces that appeared in various volumes of the Speculative Relationships anthology, which you also edited. What did you learn from working in short form?

Actually, my initial "Simon" comics were all shorts. I would collect them in issues, but I think the longest story was only 12 pages and the shortest was 1 page. Short form comics remain my favorite way to create. They allow me to try new visual and technical elements and explore ideas without the strain of maintaining one massive work. So, if something works, I can incorporate it into a larger piece, but if something doesn't work, I can just leave it in the short. I wholeheartedly recommend every comic artist do short comics regularly. I try to do one short comic a year at least, as it's vital to my growth.

Page from Cannon's "Corridor C", a story in the first volume of Speculative Relationships, 2014. Lettered with Tina Chan.

Were the Speculative Relationships anthologies your first experience in an editorial capacity? How did this anthology project come together?

At the time, there weren't any sci-fi romance comics on the shelf that I knew of, and there certainly weren't any sci-fi romance anthologies (quite a few came after us). We were enamored with the idea of putting one together, and Scott [Kroll, editor with Cannon] was the one who really pushed for it to happen. We put together a group of artists we knew and loved like Daniel Warren Johnson, Rinko Endo, Isabella Rotman, and Mike Manomivibul and ran a Kickstarter. It did great, so we went on to do two more volumes, which allowed us to include more favorites, but also do an open call for entries and discover new creators we'd never heard of. I'm incredibly proud of the books, not only for their quality, but also because we were on the cutting edge of showcasing creators who proved to have bright futures.

Did your editorial role in Speculative Relationships teach you anything about your own storytelling and creative processes?

Working with all of the artists involved gave me valuable insight into various creative methods. We also made an effort to work with creators from many different backgrounds, which was wonderfully enlightening. Finding ways to fit the different types of stories together in one place taught me a lot about juxtaposition and context, which for sure influenced my work. It also helped me become braver in my own stylistic explorations. Seeing the stunning stories roll in from our artists was a rush, easily the best part of the project.

Spread from Cannon's "Amplifier", a story in the second volume of Speculative Relationships, 2015.

I think much of your work could fairly be described as high concept, whether structurally or narratively, but it rarely feels stifled by world-building stumbling blocks. Do you find it difficult to introduce that inventiveness without getting lost in the weeds of over-explanation?

I tend to gravitate toward work that is more ephemeral and open-ended. I truly believe that a lot of readers prefer to experience work that doesn't over-explain itself and allows for more of a personal interpretation. The last thing I ever want to release into the world is something easy to digest in one reading or that treats the audience like they are stupid.  People aren't stupid and they want to be challenged. I try to focus on the aspects that most interest me, whether it be the illustration technique, themes, research, or even the physical structure of the book. And if something is less interesting to me and doesn't bolster the main goals, I strip it away. No one should feel forced into one way of thinking about a piece of art or entertainment, which is what happens when the artist lays it all out from their limited perspective. The work should live in the world and change with each reading.

You have worked in a creative capacity in other realms of media. Can you speak to what forms that work has taken and how it has informed your approach to comics?

I've had the chance to work on a handful of television and short film projects, as well as video games. Mostly, I've done character design or storyboard work in those arenas. One of the biggest takeaways from my time doing those jobs was the realization of how much I really wanted to do comics. Not only for the ability to control a bit more of the final product, but also because I am absolutely enamored with the comics medium. The more I worked in film or games, the more the magic of those mediums actually fell away. Whereas, no matter how many comics I've done, I'm still captivated by the magic of the comics medium and driven to explore more.

On a more technical level, I will say that working in film/television forced me to be less precious with my work and see it as service to the final product. As a young artist, this was a great lesson to learn and helped break my ego a bit. Working on games helped me to think about my designs in three dimensions and in motion, which I carried back into my comics. Also, seeing my designs turned into 3-D models that run around and shoot the guns I made was a hoot!

Page from Weed Priests, a 2017 Risograph minicomic inspired by Dopesmoker, an album by the doom metal band Sleep.

Can you talk a little bit about the role of ritual in your work? I feel like characters are often approaching altars of different types, seeking higher enlightenment, or facing off against tulpas and doppelgängers? There is an undercurrent of religiosity and spirituality in my opinion.

Spirituality, enlightenment, or however one frames their relationship to consciousness, is of deep interest to me, so I'm glad that comes through in the work. I grew up in a fairly traditional Christian Baptist setting, and church was a place we went multiple times a week and prayers [were] offered up multiple times each day, so ritual was built into my upbringing. When I want to depict an alien culture or find the core of a group of characters, exploring their rituals is naturally one of my first thoughts. And by ritual, it could be the root farmers' worm ceremony in ERIS #2, or it could be the repeated patterns of Gary's actions in that book. Weed Priests and Ascend [2020] in particular grew out of music as a ritual act. I am a big doom metal fan and albums like Sleep's Dopesmoker or Om's Advaitic Songs were a revelation to me. Even though music has been a part of my life since I was young, this was some of the first music that truly felt spiritual to me. I strive to make comics that also have that effect, where one can read it and be pulled into meditating on their own existence. This might not always come across in every piece, I guess, but this is the stuff that fuels my creative engine for sure.

Similarly, I stumbled upon doom metal, particularly Sleep and Om, at a strange time in my life, and did find a much-needed spiritual component in it. Metal in general and doom in particular seems to traffic in an insular vernacular in a variety of aesthetic ways. Do you think this might appeal to you in the same way that concept design and comics appeal to you, in that you are creating within a set of aesthetic and structural guidelines? I’m not sure if this makes sense, exactly.

That's so cool to hear! And I think your observation is very astute. There is a freedom that comes from operating within a specific visual and thematic realm. It's fun to look at the 'rules' or tropes within a world like doom metal or superhero comics and evolve them through my own perceptions and connections. One piece of advice I have for anyone who's new to making comics is to give themselves limits. They can be conceptual or technical limits, but either way the work will be much more rewarding and successful if it operates in a structure rather than chaos.

Page from Beef Bros, a 2021 crowdfunded comic created by Cannon & Aubrey Sitterson. Colored by Raciel Silva & Fico Ossio, lettered by Taylor Esposito, written by Sitterson. A sequel, Beef Bros Behind Bars, has just been released.

I feel like your illustration style has had a few major shifts. Your 2017 releases, Weed Priests and Strategies of Symbiotic Species, saw the introduction of finer, more delicate line work. Conversely, works like ERIS, IDKFA and Beef Bros saw bulkier figure work. Do you think you are still searching for an illustrative voice or do you think all of these expressions are equally yours?

For me, each project is an opportunity to explore something different. This probably isn't good for crafting a "brand", but it's the only way I know how to engage with creating. Much of what you're seeing is just me trying new things out. Usually I pick a few aspects I want to explore or improve on when I take on a new project. With ERIS, for example, I was pushing to find new and interesting ways to depict motion, sequential action, and environmental effects. On Weed Priests, I did very minimal penciling and tried drawing straight to ink to gain more confidence in my lines. For Beef Bros, I wanted to improve my characters' facial expressions. And find a way to draw giant muscle guys who still seemed friendly. I don't know if I'd say I'm searching for A style, as much as I want to try lots of styles! I hope that when I have a new book coming out, people are excited to see what it will look like, not excited because they know what it will look like. If that makes sense?

Another recurring motif I noticed is the care you take with letter forms. A lot of your alien languages resemble stylized graffiti lettering. I thought I noticed something similar in the depiction of spacecrafts and distinctive sound effects, as in 2015’s "Amplifier" from the second Speculative Relationships. Has graffiti or graffiti aesthetics played much of a role for you over the years?

Graffiti is a big inspiration for me, from high school onward. There is so much energy, motion, expression and depth created within the limited arena of letters. It blows my mind. Additionally, the hand-drawn logos for heavy metal bands are something I look at frequently. Again, they depict emotion and build worlds all within the confines of a word or two. Specifically, in "Amplifier", the goal was to illustrate graffiti that was the music. I took inspiration from letter forms, although there are no actual words in those SFX, then focused on the repeated patterns in music and sound waves. More broadly, nothing beats a hand-drawn logo in my opinion. It potentially carries the same weight and inherent value as the lines of the illustrations. Creating a word icon that not only represents the book but hopefully adds to it is a fun challenge. I hope I can keep improving at it and make my own logos for the majority of my projects.

Finally, in sharing your body of work, you also shared some pitch packages with me. As a working artist, how have you honed your sense of what projects to carry forward and what projects to drop? It seems like you won’t be completing Victus anytime soon, for example.

It's tough. Comics are a time-consuming endeavor and many times do not turn out to be as lucrative as they need to be to sustain themselves. With a pitch, generally I think of it as something I'd only do if it gets picked up, so I've made that peace with it before sending it out. With a more personal project, like Victus, the decision is much more difficult. Sometimes it comes down to time and money. Other times, it's due to personal growth or new interests. Victus turned out to be a combination of things. I wanted to explore different art styles and influences, and also create something that was hopefully more engaging to a larger audience and narratively stronger. I always thought I'd come back to Victus, but I'm pretty far removed from that place creatively now, so it's hard to say. Most times though, I keep the personal projects short, so I can assure that they are completed.