A Black Sci-Fi Chat with…
Illustrator Frankie B. Washington
By Robert Jeffrey II July 20, 2011
Trading card sets have long been synonymous with comic books. Whether you’re a die hard collector, scouring conventions for hard-to-find sets, or someone who enjoys seeing their favorite hero or heroine featured on a card, collectible card sets are a must have for many comic book fans.
Commercial Illustrator Frankie B. Washington has provided fans with such pieces of art, with geek-favorite properties including “Voltron,” “Archie Comics,” “The Greatest American Hero,” “Lady Death” and a host of Marvel Comics mainstays. In his 20-year career, Washington has created a solid body of work, lending his artistic skills to political cartoons, animation studios, film productions, gaming companies, advertising agencies and trading card/comic book publishers such as Marvel, Upper Deck and 5Finity.
Washington explained that the drive to become a professional illustrator began with his first love: comics.
“It’s the classic story: I started when I was a young kid. My mother used to bring home groceries, and I would draw on the paper bags. I’ve always had an active imagination,” Washington recalls.
“I believe my first comic book was a Spiderman comic. When I saw that I just lost my mind. I thought this was incredible. So it’s progressed over the years. When I got to high school, I thought ‘I have this talent, this skill.’ So, at the time, I took advantage of every program that dealt with art.”
With this drive in tow, Washington kept at his love while working as a security guard, a job he’d held while attending college at the Butera School of Art. It was here that he took the first step to realize his dream of working as a commercial illustrator.
“What happened was I had one of those weird moments where I just said, ‘You know Lord, if there’s a job that comes, it’s art-related and I can actually get paid doing it, I’m going to jump ship off the security gig, and I’m going to go for it,” Washington says.
“A job popped up for a production company (Robbins Entertainment). I took it, and I haven’t looked back ever since. It’s now been almost 20 years freelancing.”
With Robbins Entertainment, Washington worked as storyboard artist for Miramax Films’ “Next Stop Wonderland” and “Squeeze.” With the gates open, he’s continued to become a widely respected artist, utilizing his skills in different arenas.
“What hurts many artists is that they pigeon-hole themselves into a particular corner of the art industry,” Washington asserts.
“Commercial illustrator means I can work within various aspects of the art industry. That means I can work in advertising, do storyboards, or even conceptual art. You want to say ‘I have my hand in a little bit here and there.’ And if the hard times hit then you know you can switch over. That’s the career you want.”
One section of Washington’s wide variety of work includes his contributions to various trading card sets, including the upcoming Dynamite Entertainment/Breygent Marketing, Alex Ross “Superpowers”series, 5Ifinity’s “Voltron,” and Marvel/Upper Decks “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “Thor: The Mighty Avenger,” “Marvel Beginnings” and the upcoming “Avengers: Kree/Skrull War” card sets.
“With the Thor set, what happened was Upper Deck/Marvel pretty much wanted us to do cards that would coincide with the film, but not really deal too much with the film,” Washington states. “Same thing with Captain America. They wanted the sketch cards to be more of the comic book universe, which was fine with me.”
With his adaptation of the fan favorite “Avengers: Kree/Skrull War” comic, Washington explains that he sought to tell the story in his own fashion.
“One of the things that I did after re-reading it was I wanted to make sure that the cards I did were to coincide with the actual story,” he continues. “So I numbered every one of my cards. If some person out there who happens to collect these cards, and winds up getting my cards, they’ll know that each card is numbered and sequenced.”
Though his work calls for focusing on some of Marvel’s biggest mainstays and defining events, Washington has sought to highlight the contributions of characters, who aren’t often featured prominently in trading card series.
“For me, just being [able] to…draw some of those Black characters and bringing them out there was awesome,” he expresses.
“I tried to put in as many of the Black characters that I thought were really interesting, and who I enjoyed a lot. I’m glad I got Misty Knight in there. She’s a very cool character that I love. For Captain America I’m glad I was able to get the Black Panther, and most definitely, the Falcon.”
“There are a lot of people who have seen the work, and they go ‘Wow, man. I can’t believe you put this character in’ or “I remember growing up and seeing that character.’ That’s what I wanted,” he professes.
“A lot of other people were trying to focus on the more recent characters like Deadpool. Those are cool characters. People love them. But the thing about it is that there are tons of other characters that existed way before these other characters.”
Washington further explains that putting the trading card sets together, involves a multi-stage process.
“With most of these sketch cards, what happens first is the company will tell you what the set will be,” Washington explains.
“For instance, I’m just wrapping up the “Avengers/Kree Skrull” set. I knew that I had to do stuff dealing with that particular storyline. So once I was given the task of doing the cards, I actually went out and purchased a graphic novel with the storyline and then reread it. For me, I don’t believe in copying something that’s already [been] laid out.
“Instead, and this comes from when I did work on film, it was almost as if I were a director and I could turn the camera around on various scenes and just tweak those scenes, just to give a sort of twist to it,” Washington explains.
With no signs of demand slowing down for his sketch card work, and that of other artists, Washington feels that the comic trading card industry is doing well.
“The people that are buying comic book-related cards are the people who collect comic books. There’s a huge fan base there,” he states.
“So many of the individuals who are doing that are clearly buying tons of cards that are based on comic book properties. Just as much as the sports cards... So I think that they rank up there pretty high.”
Keeping steady with his work output, Washington has a wide array of upcoming projects slated for the rest of the year.
They include work on a “King Kong” trading card set for 5Finity Productions, a back-up story for the “Penny Dreadful: Cauldron of Terror” comic book (scheduled for October release) and his personal project co-created with James Biggie, titled “Robot God: Akamatsu” (described as “a little bit Ultraman, a little bit Voltron, a little bit Force Five, and a mighty dollop of Shogun Warriors” by literary agency, Killing the Grizzly).
“The thing that I’ve told many artists, on Facebook or whatever, is I’ve been at this for 20 years. The art industry has changed dramatically since the early 90s. One of the things that stays consistent though is the hunger. You have to have the hunger in you that says ‘I cannot do anything else except draw,’” affirms Washington.
“That’s going to be the thing that’s going to get you through those hard times.”
Robert Jeffrey II is an award-winning Atlanta-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Ja Dore magazine, The Atlanta Voice newspaper, and Urban Voices In Comics. When he’s not ranting and raving about comic books, he’s actually writing them. Check out http://www.terminusmedia.com/ for his comic book story, Daddy’s Little Girl, featured in the anthology, Terminus Tales Presents #1: Platypus vs. Monkey.” Robert can also be found at http://robertspageofwriting.blogspot.com/.