While Andy Ristaino 97 FAV continues to wrestle with the work of writing comics, it’s in drawing them that he “can cut loose and have fun.”
Whether storyboarding for the cult phenomenon Adventure Time on Cartoon Network or making crazy comic books, Andy Ristaino 97 FAV creates wonderfully surrealistic worlds bursting with hyperkinetic creatures. But as his process has evolved, so, too, has his imagination—and that has led him to infuse his work with increasingly more clarity and meaning.
“When I was at RISD and the first few years after I graduated, my goal was always to make the craziest thing possible,” Ristaino recalls. “But as I get older I want my work to be more controlled. And I want the most bang for my time.”
In 2013 the artist earned an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation for his character design work on Puhoy, an episode of Adventure Time that hardcore fans consider among the best ever. He went on to devote four more years to the production team as a storyboarder for the show, which is in its ninth and final season.
After he wrapped up his work on Adventure Time in late spring of 2017, Ristaino shifted gears to focus on personal projects for the first time since he got involved with the series in 2010. In addition to an animated pilot and an art book, he began working on several comics—a medium that has always afforded him the expressive freedom he prefers.
“I love that you can make comic books all on your own and control the entire process,” says the Los Angeles-based artist. “I can be completely unrestricted in how I work, and that’s almost like leisure time for me—when what I’m making is as close to uncompromised as possible.”
For Ristaino drawing has been his main form of recreation since he was a kid, when allergies and asthma kept the Massachusetts native from participating in sports and other typical outdoor play. “Luckily I was also completely obsessed with making art,” he says with a laugh, recalling afternoons spent drawing massive battle scenes across 10 pieces of paper or poring over issues of Mad magazine, X-Men and, as he got older, manga and indie comics. “In high school I was the kid who drew at parties. I would talk to people, but I was drawing the entire time.”
As a Film/Animation/Video major at RISD, Ristaino felt right at home with other students whose joyous dedication to making art matched his own. “I was a complete workaholic at school,” he remembers, “and for my friends and me, our socializing was just hanging out and drawing—and maybe watching Star Trek.”
In addition to making work on assignment for studio courses, Ristaino was usually working on multiple comic books at any given time—a process he still prefers 20 years later. “I like juggling projects, working on something until I get sick of it and then moving onto the next thing for a while.”
Though he makes it look effortless, Ristaino is the first to admit that not everything about making comics comes easily to him. “Writing is hard work for me. It’s tough to quiet down my brain, wrangle my ideas and get into a zone,” he says, “whereas once I get to draw, then I can cut loose and have fun.”
When working on his own material, Ristaino “assigns” himself projects that appeal to him personally as a way to maximize the space he has to play. “I’ll set part of a story in a spooky forest because I want to draw weird, gnarly trees or I’ll just add some aliens into the mix so I can get to draw them.” And even though he spends more effort nowadays preplanning or editing down stories, he definitely doesn’t think that spontaneity and intentionality are mutually exclusive.
“I still want things to feel funky and weird,” he says, “but that can happen as long as I’m doing my job right.” In work like The Babysitter (2008)—which he pitches to readers as “a depiction of modern Japan that only a completely uninformed and rather stupid American could make”—and the sci-fi/horror/comedy (“with a Twilight Zone twist”) of Night of the Living Vidiots (2013), he aims to make art that “feels like it just exists,” ready for audiences to discover and appreciate.
“I want what I do to feel like the work of an individual, not some cleverly designed thing that is made to manipulate people,” he says, alluding to much of what goes on in the American entertainment industry. It’s something that he and his Adventure Time collaborators prided themselves on—the desire to keep the surreal, post-apocalyptic adventures of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human smart and sincere rather than calculatedly “kid-friendly.”
Remembering their own childhood experiences, Ristaino and the rest of the creative team “liked the things that we did as kids because they didn't insult our intelligence—they were interesting and thought-provoking and hit you in a place that made you say ‘wow.’” And when the show’s creative team got corporate pushback on their ideas, they usually took it as a problem to solve—a restriction to subvert. “As an artist [working in the entertainment industry] you need something to hold on to and fight for. You need to feel like you’re making something with a point to it.”
Although the creative ethos at Adventure Time synced up nicely with his own, Ristaino admits that the sheer volume of drawings he had to produce as a storyboard artist was at times overwhelming. “Storyboarding is the most heartbreaking job I’ve ever had,” he says. “Sketching out every second of an entire episode is so much work and takes up all of your time… and then someone comes in and tears what you’ve done apart. But that’s just the way it has to be,” he concedes, when the illustrators have six weeks to write, sketch, revise and turn each episode over to the show’s animators. “There’s no time to mess around. You have to let go of the ideas that you like because a lot of the time that stuff is getting cut.”
As time allowed during his seven years on the show, Ristaino kept his own work going with one-panel comics and sketches of “weird creature clumps.” But it’s really only since production on Adventure Time ended last April that he has been able to think more clearly about next steps (among them a YouTube channel called Drawing with Andy that he launched last summer). And, he concedes, “I’m still struggling to get to the point where I'm getting things exactly how I want them to be. I’ve been doing this a long time and it’s funny to think that I haven’t gotten there by now. But I feel like I’m still on this journey to get to the ideal place where I’m making things exactly as I see them in my mind.”
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