From collector to professional comic book artist — Marcus To is living many a fanboy’s dream, drawing superheroes for a living.
The 31-year-old Red Deer native has done artwork for Soulfire, Red Robin, The Flash, New Warriors and other titles.
“Even if I couldn’t do this for a living, I would do it for fun,” confessed To, who feels lucky to be working in a field he’s passionate about.
To started doodling when he was just a toddler, after watching his mom draw pictures for his amusement.
There was no end of subject matter to portray, since unfurling his imagination was easy in Red Deer, he said, noting this mid-sized city was perfect for “running wild, when left to your own devices. …
“I explored a lot, biked a lot, and did a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to do in a bigger city, because it wouldn’t have been safe. …”
The son of former Red Deer restaurateur Dobie To became known as the kid who could draw. He remembers being “bugged” by his friends to draw some of their favourite hockey players while at Notre Dame High School, before his family relocated to Calgary when he was in Grade 11.
When he wasn’t playing baseball or hockey, To would read about the exploits of Batman and Robin or The X-Men. He paid particular attention to how the stories unfolded, especially when drawn by his favourite comic book artists Jim Lee and Joe Madureira.
To couldn’t have known it, but a few years down the road, he would be paid to draw the Red Robin DC Comics series. The story line would feature Robin from the Batman comics searching for his presumed dead crime-fighting partner, Bruce Wayne.
“I was so excited! Getting the chance to draw characters I grew up reading was amazing!” To recalled.
But his art career didn’t immediately take off after he completed a one-year animation program at Vancouver’s Camosun College. To thought of various Plan Bs, but becoming a police officer or computer programmer didn’t seem as fun as being an artist.
At age 19, he moved to Los Angeles to work at a family friend’s photography studio. And while in California, he put a portfolio together and handed out samples of his drawings at the San Diego Comic-Con.
The feedback he got was terrific. To was thrilled to accept a job offer from small publisher Aspen Comics, which got him working on such projects as Fathom and Soulfire. He quickly learned each story line needed an individual approach. His renderings became based as much on the fans who will be reading the comic as the characters he was drawing. For instance, the buxom wenches and over-muscled heroes who appeal to 30-year-old male readers aren’t what most young female comic fans are looking for, he said, with a laugh.
This ability to tailor his depictions put To in good stead when DC Comic hired him to work on the Red Robin series.
Robin’s alter-ego, Tim Drake, isn’t a conventional superhero. To, who likened him to the teen character played by Zac Efron in High School Musical, drew Drake as a lanky, awkward teenager, with slightly goofy facial expressions.
“Girls liked him because he’s good looking, but he was terrible with girls. He didn’t know how to talk to them, so there was this nerd-boy kind of thing going on. …”
To visually created a brooding, relatable hero that adolescent girls could fall for — which was his aim, since most readers of the comic were young and female.
To stayed with Red Robin for two years — a long time to be connected to one title, since artists are usually changed after a few months, to refresh the look of a series.
He’s since worked on comic books for The Flash and Arrow TV serials and Marvel’s New Warriors. As a freelancer, To also drew for the Green Lantern video game, Huntress mini-series and Maze Runner movie.
The artist, who will appear at Fan Expo Canada, the country’s largest comic-con in Toronto from Sept. 3 to 6, believes opportunities in art abound. “Nowadays, there are so many options,” he said — including video games, TV and movies.
While he still prefers putting pencil to paper, the old-school way, To is also a big believer in continuing to challenge himself with new approaches and tools.
“With art, you only get better with age,” he said — which means his best work may be yet to come.
His latest project is the comic book Hacktivist, created by Milano, of Who’s the Boss?, Melrose Place and Charmed fame. Now in its second volume, it’s about young hackers who expose information and spark revolutions while trying to dodge capture by the CIA. The series, inspired by the real-life wikileaks and Sony hacking scandals, is popular enough to be carried by Chapters and Indigo stores.
Although To is now living in Toronto, amid a supportive artistic community, he often thinks back fondly to his Red Deer childhood, and is grateful that this city gave free rein to his youthful fancies.
“I still have a lot of good friends in Red Deer to this day. … Growing up in a (smaller) place gives you time to work on your imagination.”