Supervillians, monsters and mutants. A look into the day-to-day of Pittsburgh-based artist Dave Wachter, an award-winning illustrator and comic book creator.
In his teenage years, Dave Wachter lost interest in comic books.
“I didn’t know anything except mostly just Marvel Comics. It was the mid-90s, and they were not at their peak, creatively speaking,” Wachter said. “And I think it was, at my age, you know, I just got more interested in getting my license and driving around and trying to go to parties and have a social life and girls and all that kind of stuff.”
TIME SPENT IN CHICAGO
When Dave Wachter attended the Chicago Art Institute, he studied subjects like film, video, drawing and painting. However, after college, he largely dropped pursuing his art. “I did for a little bit, but then it just kind of fell by the wayside,” he said.
For much of his 20s, he worked odd jobs. He worked as a carpenter at the Chicago Children’s Museum for some time, and made trade show displays, for example. At about age 28, he started to get back into reading comic books, something he hadn’t done since he was a teenager.
Now, he works full-time as a comic book artist with beloved creator-owned projects under his belt alongside mainstream work on licensed properties like “Godzilla” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
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Over the last 3 years I have illustrated 21 issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, beginning with the last few pages of issue 58 and then issue 59 in earnest. It’s been 23 issues if you include the TMNT Universe title. Today I just handed in my final page from issue 100. It has been incredibly challenging at times, but supremely rewarding. My fellow artists set a high bar in quality and I hope I lived up to those standards. Many thanks to everyone with whom I worked on this title: Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz, Ronda Pattison, Shawn Lee, and especially to my friend and editor Bobby Curnow for bringing me on the book and giving me what I needed to survive and succeed. I’ve been exhausted for weeks, but I feel pretty good right now, ready for whatever comes next.
Wachter, 44, resides with his wife and step-children in Forest Hills, an Allegheny County borough outside of the city. He first moved to the Pittsburgh area in 2009, residing in Mt. Lebanon and East Liberty before moving to his current home. He has worked professionally in comics for years, including the webcomic he drew called “The Guns of the Shadow Valley.” More recently, he’s worked on the current “TMNT” comic series, which recently hit 100 issues.
I met Wachter in his cozy neighborhood, then covered in leaves; the color of fall. A clean grey beard and glasses adorned his face as he chatted with me in his dining room located next to his living room and small home art studio.
Around the same time Wachter got back into reading comics, in the early 2000s, an old mentor reached out to him to see what he was doing. It was the headmaster of the fourth to eighth grade private school he attended, whom he hadn’t spoken with since his eighth grade graduation. His headmaster told him that in his 30 years of teaching, he had only contacted three graduates. One of them was Wachter.
“I got along with adults better than I did the other kids and stuff like that,” Wachter said. “I was very artistic. I was always the one who could draw.”
His headmaster got him thinking about a children’s book he did back in school, which his headmaster said was so good it could be published. He wasn’t able to find it, but he got to thinking that maybe he could get into making children’s books. He ultimately didn’t find that he didn’t fit into the world of children’s books, but he was starved for artistic expression. He took post-grad graphic design classes, which also didn’t work out – the dot comic bubble had just burst, making it a tough industry to crack.
He enjoyed getting back into reading comics, though. His brother gifted him subscriptions to “Amazing Spider-Man,” then written by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn by John Romita Jr., and “Daredevil,” then written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Alex Maleev. These were beloved runs on the characters, and Wachter loved them.
He found a practice script online and tried his hand at illustrating it. He then found online message boards of aspiring comic artists with which to share his work and chat. This was when such message boards were first becoming big, Wachter said.
Online, he found a writer, James Andrew Clark, who he began to make comics with. They created a series called “Scar Tissue,” which followed a girl who received a heart transplant from a supervillain.
“It was fine,” Wachter said. “Ya know, it was our first thing, so it was exciting. My art was not great. I had not drawn comics in years. I had not practiced that in many years. I hadn’t even practiced anatomy and drawing faces and all that kind of stuff. But my storytelling was decent.”
He took the comic to conventions. He and folks he met online would throw in money together to share booth spaces to mitigate the intimidating cost. It took two years to complete five issues of this series because of their day jobs, but they stuck with it. Later, they got the idea of “The Guns of Shadow Valley,” which they did together as a webcomic. This series was nominated for an Eisner award in 2010 and a Harvey award in 2011.
“It did pretty well, but it was a web-comic and, you know, there’s no money in it,” Wachter said. “I was just giving it away for free. It’s still online, the whole thing.”
Eventually, they did make some money on it, through a successful Kickstarter campaign to print the book, which raised $43,834 from 950 backers. The goal was $24,000. Dark Horse published a retail version of this hardcover so more than just Kickstarter backers could get their hands on it.
From then on, Wachter started to quickly rack up work. He drew the three-issue miniseries “Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem,” written by Steve Niles and published by Dark Horse.
“It’s got a little kid and his grandpa and a village and some nazis and a big Golem,” Wachter said. “Flipping tanks over, crushing nazi skulls and stuff. So, it’s fun.”
MONSTERS AND MUTANTS
He had already filled in an issue on a “Godzilla” series, but Wachter’s first big “Godzilla” project was “Godzilla: Cataclysm,” a five-issue miniseries published by IDW that ran from August to December in 2014.
“Drawing Godzilla is tremendous fun,” Wachter said. “I like drawing monsters. I like the scale of things. I like the destruction. Drawing cities can be a pain in the ass, but I don’t mind it if they’re half destroyed, and Cataclysm was great because it was post-apocalyptic.”
The following year, he wrote and drew the last issue of the series “Godzilla in Hell.” A different creator or creative team did each issue, which followed a different part of a trip in Hell. Wachter physically painted the colors for this issue, and the end result is stunning. His detailed line work brings some horrific creatures to life, and his page layouts and colors get across a great sense of scale.
This was a labor of love for Wachter. Primarily, he works digitally, using an iPad Pro.
“I like working digitally a lot as well. I like the experimentation I can do,” Wachter said. “Sort of like, working digitally gives you a net for you to do anything. If you don’t like it, you can always just throw it away and start over. Whereas, you can’t do that with physical work. You’d have to start over over.”
For the past two or three years, he has been primarily preoccupied with drawing “TMNT” comics. He recently completed the artwork for issue #100 of the current series, which has run since 2011. He did all of the art for issues #59 though #64. Then, Wachter did batches of issues here and there until, most recently, issues #99 and #100.
When I met him, he had just recently completed issue #100.
“It’s almost been a week. It was exhausting,” Wachter said. “For at least three weeks I was sleeping 4 hours a night. You know, staying up late and waking up early just trying to get it done in time.”
Most days, Wachter will get up around 6 a.m. If his step-daughter, who just started high school, is around, he’ll help get her off to school, and then he’ll get himself ready. At around 7:30 or 8 a.m., he begins drawing and will take a break around 5 or 5:30 p.m. Then, he’ll often make dinner. Around 7 or 7:30 p.m., he’ll get back to drawing. If he’s not on a strict deadline, he’ll stop around 11 p.m. If he is, he’ll work until 2 a.m. If he’s on a tight deadline, he’ll work on the weekends. If he isn’t, he may take off.
In addition to drawing comics, Wachter draws commissions for fans, sells his original comic artwork and goes to conventions. To make a decent living, he has to do all of this, he said.
The iPad he works on is easily portable, so he’ll often come out of his studio and hang out on the couch with his wife, who he met in 2015, as she watches something on television like “Criminal Minds.”
Years and years ago, Wachter was studying film, not comics. I asked him why that didn’t work out, and he told me his heart wasn’t totally in it. He likes narratives, but it takes a lot of people, cooperation and money to tell stories using film, he said.
“I didn’t want to manage people,” Wachter said. “I didn’t want to try and direct people what to do… in one way, you’re sort of controlling people and in another way you’re under their control… I didn’t want to deal with that.”
Comics fit him.
“When I got back into comics, it’s something that I can just work on over here, and it’s just me,” he said. “And the only person that I am beholden to is me and the only person that I need to depend on is myself and the only person who can let me down is me. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to doing comics art.”
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Header image courtesy of Matt Petras