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Close-Ups

Lamar Abrams, Storyboard Artist

Comics artist evolves into storyboard artist and voice actor for Steven Universe 

February 18, 2020

Comics artist Lamar Abrams, voice actor for Steven Universe

Step into an indie comics convention, and you might find someone like Lamar Abrams. Unlike the spectacle that San Diego Comic Con has become, indie comics remains a relatively small, tight-knit community where everyone knows your name, and the conventions themselves have remained cozy. The work you'll find is deeply personal — raw talent and emotional vulnerability reign supreme. The ‘zines, chapbooks, precious objects, and art prints you’ll see were likely assembled and stapled together with some friends on the floor of someone’s garage.

The unexpected and quirky offerings of the indie comics scene have been covertly lighting up screens silver and small. The people of interest at a convention like this are the artists whose self-published comics or graphic novels led to working on an animated show, getting to pitch one themselves, or a Netflix deal.

That’s how Lamar got his start. These days, he’s a storyboard artist on the beloved Cartoon Network show Steven Universe. This gig, on top of requiring quick, skillful draftsmanship, also entails writing, composing songs, and voice acting — far different from what a younger Abrams thought was a potential career path as a young artist in Washington D.C.

In this interview, Abrams talks with art director and artist Hannah K. Lee, tracing his unlikely path to showbiz from his origin story as a D.C. art nerd who found friendship through comics to landing at Cartoon Network. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Hannah K. Lee: So, why did you end up pursuing art professionally?

Lamar Abrams: Money. [Laughs] I always wanted to do something creative like drawing. But I grew up in Washington D.C., where it’s very politically focused. You go to the museums and you see paintings, but I didn’t see myself as a painter. I wanted to draw cartoon characters.

Once we moved to Maryland and I got to high school, I made some friends who were into comic books and stuff like that. My best friend would submit his work to Marvel or DC Comics for critique. I was, like, “Wow, you can do that?” That’s when I thought I should try storytelling with my own characters. It felt accessible, and those were the earliest moments of my considering that I could do this for a living.

Hannah: Having like-minded friends is so important to developing your voice.

Lamar: Yeah, we’d all draw and play video games and go to the comic book store on Wednesdays after school. It was a really nice environment to be around people who wanted to do the same things I did; we encouraged each other in those early days. These people were also my role models. I was in ninth grade, and all these friends were in tenth and eleventh grade. I wanted to emulate them, their hard work and forward thinking. They introduced me to a lot of anime and manga and helped me figure out and develop what I liked, which I’d never really broke down before.

Hannah: Your work doesn’t look like Marvel superhero comics. What were your more formative influences around anime and manga?

Lamar: It was in the mid-90s, so there wasn’t a ton of anime available, but I’d always played a lot of video games. A lot of the games I played — RPGs and stuff like that — were from Japan. That influenced me in how I wanted to tell stories and how I wanted to develop a look. When I realized that I really liked this anime, manga, whatever style, I started to look at it more.

Hannah: Any shows or comics in particular?

Lamar: I like a lot of different things but especially Dragon Ball and goofier shows like Doraemon. They stood out to me, because they looked so simple but were very effective. The emotions in those characters’ faces were always very apparent. They weren’t buried under excessive detail or understanding of anatomy. The character would just express joy or sadness in this exaggerated and cute way. The simpler, cuter designs and stories really stuck with me.

The emotions in those characters’ faces were always very apparent. They weren’t buried under excessive detail or understanding of anatomy.

 

Some of them got a little heavy. For example, Astro Boy dealt with the idea that robots are discriminated against in his world. The show has this cute exterior but with this deep, heavy story. This kind of contrast really stayed with me and came out in my comics work once I started finally making my own.

Hannah: Like Remake, your own comic about the adventures of a mischievous robot boy. Was this your first significant work?

Lamar: Yeah. I want to give a little bit more backstory to Remake. At the comic-book store, there was a guy — an artist named John Staton — and he did some work for Marvel and DC here and there. After we graduated in the late 90s, he took us under his wing, and we formed the Deadline Society. The goal was to draw eight pages of comics every month, and we would then get together and critique and give each other pointers. John would look over our work. We didn’t even pay him. He just wanted to foster our creativity and saw that we all had this potential. I got this free experience doing that while meeting deadlines.

We did that for a couple of years until it fizzled after I went to art school in 2001 and had less time. I studied animation, but I didn’t think I was going to get a job in this field, and I still really liked making comics. That’s when I started to work on or think about the ideas that are in Remake.

Covers of Remake, comic by Lamar Abrams, storyboard artist for Steven Universe. Credit: AdHouse

Credit: AdHouse

Hannah: You thought you’d never work in animation, but it turns out that you landed on one of the biggest animated shows ever: Steven Universe.

Lamar: Yeah, it’s crazy. When I was in school, 3-D modeling was becoming really important in the world of feature animation. There was this big push in the school I went to to phase out traditional, 2-D animation classes because computer-generated animation is going to be the way to go.

By the time the opportunity to work on Steven came around, I think there was an unexpected interest in traditionally drawn animation, which I didn’t think was going to happen. All my teachers said, “You’ve got to learn how to animate with 3-D modeling, because that’s where the jobs are.”

It was kind of a bummer to hear that, but through comics, I was able to stay in touch with those feelings of wanting to do drawings by hand and cartooning and think about the ways I like animation and the way it has affected me and put that back out into the world in a way.

Hannah: Big animation studios like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon were hiring a lot of indie cartoonists a few years ago. Did Cartoon Network find you through Remake?

Lamar: Yeah, pretty much. I remember by 2010 there were more and more indie comics folks and illustrators getting involved in animation. By that time, I had already become friends with Calvin [Wong, storyboard artist and producer] and Hellen [Jo, cartoonist and illustrator]. Calvin reached out to me, because he just started up on Regular Show. They found his work through the comics he used to make as well.

I had just put out Remake through AdHouse. It was my first officially published thing that wasn’t just me stapling the pages together. Calvin asked if I wanted to take a test for Regular Show, since J.G., the Regular Show creator, had seen my comics. I got the test, but at the time, my computer was really shitty, so I couldn’t even download it properly. But being asked to test made the prospect of working in animation seem real. I didn’t end up coming out here in 2010, but part of me was kind of glad because I don’t think I had my own voice as a creator yet.

I put out a couple more books through Ad House, and in 2012, Ian Jones-Quartey, the creator of OK K.O.!, reached out to me. We met at Small Press Expo [SPX] maybe a year prior, started following each other, and realized we had overlapping sensibilities and influences. We wanted to tell these fun, silly stories. He reached out to me for freelance character design work and backgrounds for his pilot.

This was the second thing that I had done in animation, like, ever. I was getting a little more confident, a little better at writing. I had some published books under my belt. It was really fun to work with him. He was, like, “You know, if the show gets picked up by the network, I’d love to have you on it.” I was, like, “Wow, okay. I’m just working retail and making comics.”

Hannah: That’s quite a big shift!

Lamar: I thought it would be great to have a career. During this time, I was still putting out my own comics, and I was living at home. There’s no money in comics. I was working on these comics during the recession, and I had two jobs: at a stationery store doing wedding invitations and at American Apparel. I was just trying to pay bills and student loans and pay for printing my work and trying to go to conventions in New York and wherever I could. It was a big hustle for I want to say . . . at least five years.

Hannah: Were you hoping that the comics alone would take off before all the animation came about?

Lamar: Yeah, definitely. This was around the time when Scott Pilgrim got optioned for a movie, and people were hoping their thing would get optioned. It was that period where entertainment, television, movies, animation were converging with independent comics. Big television studios were noticing us for knowing how to write and draw. It was interesting to be around at that time.

Hannah: It’s a big contrast between the sweaty indie comics scene and the glamor of showbiz.

Lamar: Ian’s show ultimately didn’t get picked up. He said, “My partner Rebecca is working on a show. We’d love to have you on that because it’s getting picked up.” I was, like, “What? Oh, I’ve got to see.” So, they sent me the show bible [a reference work that contains information like the history, characters, and storylines that establish and drive the show], and I thought, “Holy shit, I’d love to work on this.”

Art from Steven Universe. Credit: Cartoon Network

Credit: Cartoon Network

I actually met Rebecca Sugar at SPX before I met Ian, before I did work on OK K.O.!, and we traded mini comics. She had continued to follow my work up to when she made Steven Universe.

I think that if I had moved to California to work on Regular Show, my career would have gone in a very different direction. I don’t really think my sensibilities lined up with what Regular Show ended up being. The work I was doing on Remake was leaning more towards the cute, deeper emotional storytelling with some light jokes. By the time I got there with my work, I was more aligned with what Steven was going to be.

All that came about because I was tabling at small shows like SPX with other sweaty cartoonists trying to make cash and ended up connecting with people that aligned with me creatively, even though it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

The scene back then felt very serious. I wanted to make silly sci-fi/fantasy stuff, and most of the comics that were getting recognition were auto-bios of a certain tone. I wanted to get somewhere and make some money through comics, but with what was being focused on at the time, it didn’t feel like a possibility.

Hannah: Those of us who know you can definitely pick up your voice and sense of humor on Steven Universe. What makes you laugh?

Lamar: Everything is funny. In first or second grade, there was a phase where I just thought feet were really funny. Every time I looked at someone’s feet, I would just laugh. I was told to stand outside because I couldn’t stop, and nobody was in on this joke with me. It was just me in my head, like, “Wow, feet.” [Laughs]

I think there’s so many things that are funny, just like visually, even if you’re not saying anything. It could be a character’s reaction to something or the way a line is delivered versus just a funnily written line. The way we get the episodes, we follow an outline from the writers, and it’s kind of, like, “Draw this in your own words.”

Sketches for Steven Universe. Credit: Cartoon Network

Credit: Cartoon Network

So, we’re coming up with the dialogue while we’re boarding. It might be something that says that Steven is at home making himself a sandwich when Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst come in, and they’re, like, “What’s up, Steven?” You kind of have to draw him doing this, making the sandwich. So, maybe he’s making the sandwich, and he’s squirting mayonnaise on it, and they come in, and he squirts too much mayonnaise on his sandwich.

Kind of taking something that can be passed over really quickly, like, he could just slap it together, or he could do it in a way that has a funny outcome within that broader description of him making a sandwich, and the Gems walk into the room and ask him what he’s doing.

But I really like that we get to do that with storyboarding on a show that is board-driven. Other shows have the dialogue written out, and everything is accounted for, so you basically have to draw around something that’s written for you. But Steven is a board-driven show, and I think that’s why my work seems to overlap with it from Rebecca’s perspective. She needed people to fill in those blanks of the characters.

Everybody has blind spots. You can’t account for every perspective and every kind of character by yourself.

 

You can have this big bible that describes what the characters are and who they are. She had all this lore and deep story already planned, but she didn’t write out all these little moments that give life to the characters. That’s what the boarders were there for. Of course, we would pitch those ideas to her, and she was very accepting of a lot of our ideas, and I think she involved some great people because there’s so many voices out there. Everybody has blind spots. You can’t account for every perspective and every kind of character by yourself.

That’s kind of a great thing about working in animation: that it’s such a big collaborative effort. I never feel, like, “Oh my God, it’s completely up to me to sell this character and make this perfect.”

Hannah: Could you break down the storyboarding process from the pitch to the execution?

Lamar: So, the boarders have five weeks to pitch and complete the outline. Once Rebecca has finalized the outline with the writers and board supervisor, the boarders get the outline, and they have a week to turn it in. There are two boarders per team. So, the two boarders have a week to turn in rough drawings of what the episode will be based on the outline. Once we pitch the rough drawings, we get notes to adjust things, and maybe we’ll come up with some other jokes or take some stuff out if it feels like we’re losing track of the overall story.

Then, the second week out of the five, we pitch again with the changes and then we get more notes. After that second round of notes, we have three weeks to clean everything up and add all the changes. That’s where the cleaner drawings are put in, and you kind of smooth out the rest of the story stuff. After the clean-up and we’ve turned it in, after those five weeks, it goes to the in-house clean-up artist. It takes nine months to make one episode.

Hannah: A lot of work goes into a single eleven-minute episode.

Lamar: Yeah. As a boarder, you’re kind of doing a lot of different things: layout, rough backgrounds, drawing the characters, writing. You might not be able to hit everything as well as you want, so you’re basically making a blueprint to go off of that the board supervisors look over and hand off to the clean-up artists or revisionists. That’s all before it gets sent out to one of the studios in Korea to do the actual animation on. That part, I believe, is what takes the longest.

We turn in an episode; get the next one. Do the roughs. Do the pitch. Clean up. Get the next episode. It’s, like, every five weeks is a new episode. We’re just constantly putting them out. By the time they’re ready to air, there’s all these episodes there. It’s not nine months and then we do another episode. There’s no gap. There’s always this overlapping episodes.

There’s also sound design. The composers have to do the music. Everything has to be timed out to make sure it’s going to fit into 11 minutes.

Storyboard panel from Steven Universe. Credit: Cartoon NetworkStoryboard panel. Credit: Cartoon Network

Hannah: I know that Rebecca and some of the boarders have other abilities besides drawing — for example, she’s a very talented musician and composer. Tell me about the songs you’ve written for the show and your voice acting.

Lamar: I do the mayor’s son, Buck Dewey. That happened by accident. This character was new, and I was the first person to board them into an episode. Then I pitched him as kind of laid-back and monotone, and Rebecca liked the way I did my read so asked if I would do the voice.

Later in the series, he joins a band, and there’s an episode where they’re trying to come up with a new sound. I wrote a small, goofy, weird song that Buck comes up with. That’s the only musical writing I’ve done. It was a ten-second song. It wasn’t even a full song, but I got credited as the songwriter. It’s really weird because I guess they just want to make sure everyone gets credit for what they create. It’s, like, the professional value here. Everybody’s got to get paid for what they contribute.

Hannah: I know you also voice Suitcase Sam and Garbanzo. Where does this performative drive come from?

Lamar: I don’t know. I’m an only child, and whenever I make friends, I always want to make them laugh. I always want to be entertaining in a way. I think if I was encouraged to, I totally would have been a theater kid, but that didn’t happen. I feel like voice acting now is me tapping into that energy from when I was younger to be a little entertaining.

It’s a lot of fun. It can be tiring sometimes. When I did the voice for Wy-Six, one of the Zoomans, he’s got this kind of intense, higher pitched voice. He’s a really intense extrovert, and he exclaims a lot. I remember doing that voice and being, like, “Oh my God, how do people do this all day?” [Laughs]

. . . if I was encouraged to, I totally would have been a theater kid, but that didn’t happen . . . voice acting now is me tapping into that energy from when I was younger

 

I think I recorded for maybe 30 minutes, maybe an hour. But I was just wiped out from all that intensity to my reads. It was a lot of fun. I guess it shows that I have some range.

Some people record voices all day in a voice that isn’t naturally theirs. So, I have a lot of respect for people that do this, who strain their voices and have to drink special potions to make sure they sound good. It’s a lot of work, taking care of your voice and making sure that you’re going to sound like the character that you’re supposed to read for.

Hannah: How do you navigate Steven Universe’s passionate fanbase?

Lamar: I remember being at this Steven Universe art show at a gallery out here in L.A., and someone taps me on the shoulder, and they’re, like, “Lamar?” I turned around thinking it’s someone I know, but it’s someone who knows my work on Twitter and is a fan of the show. That was a nice kind of interaction that would happen here and there, and I realized that people were paying attention to me, to things I say on Twitter, to what episodes I’d boarded on.

After a few years, there was more intensity in the fandom. Some people took issue with how certain characters were handled. There’s a whole section of Tumblr that breaks down the episodes and discusses what’s wrong with them. People have board artists they like and don’t like. There are screenshots with comments like, “This person shouldn’t be working on this show,” because they caught an in-between frame where the drawing or perspective seemed off, or the character’s sizes seem inconsistent.

It was something that I had to adjust to over the years, realizing that I’m in the spotlight, and maybe people look up to me.

 

After a while, I wasn’t on social media as much, and I felt much better about life. It was weird, having come from being a comic artist with just a handful of fans that really appreciate the work that I do. I’d see them at conventions, sign their book, and they’d get my jokes, and we’d talk about stuff. You see the same people around; you become familiar with them. With animation, it reaches way more people because it’s on TV and the Internet. It’s distributed by a big corporation. It was something that I had to adjust to over the years, realizing that I’m in the spotlight, and maybe people look up to me. I’ve got to kind of curate my online presence now, which is weird.

Hannah: What are you working on now? Any new comics?

Lamar: Comics, I feel like I’ve kind of left behind in a way. The last comic I did was a fan comic based on a video game I liked a lot growing up and still like. The comic is called Endless World, and it’s about Dragon Quest. I think I did that in 2014. But, because the way anime schedule works and the amount of drawing I do, I found it really hard to keep up with the comics and trying to make new work for this or that convention.

I kind of felt, like, “Well, I’m making good money. I can take care of myself. I have health insurance. Maybe it’s okay if comics takes a back seat for now.” I started missing SPX, and as time went on, I would just beat myself up less and less about it.

Of course, now we have stuff like CALA out here in LA, which kind of makes it up for me. I have a hometown convention that I can go to and see people and see new work and still be involved in that way. But, as far as new comic stuff, I think my comics time has passed, and I’m doing fine with that.

Hannah K. Lee is a multidisciplinary artist whose churchgoing Korean immigrant parents settled their family in the suburbs of Los Angeles. In 2017, she published Language Barrier<\i>, a monograph of zines, comics, and drawings, with Koyama Press, and her work has been collected by the Libraries of the MoMA, SF MoMA, and the Library of Congress.
Read more by Hannah K. Lee