The Lurid Art of Robert Ullman

by | Jul 30, 2009 | ART

Robert Ullman is and comic book artist and illustrator based out of Richmond. Virginia. He first got major attention in Richmond with his juicy illustrations for the sex advice column “Savage Love” penned Dan Savage and featured in Punchline. His work light-hearted, clean line drawings have been featured in Nickelodeon, Richmond Magazine, Spin, Make, DC’s City Paper and Seattle’s free weekly alt publication The Stranger. Ullman contributed illustrations to several children’s books and text books and is an Addy Award nominated graphic designer.


Robert Ullman is and comic book artist and illustrator based out of Richmond. Virginia. He first got major attention in Richmond with his juicy illustrations for the sex advice column “Savage Love” penned Dan Savage and featured in Punchline. His work light-hearted, clean line drawings have been featured in Nickelodeon, Richmond Magazine, Spin, Make, DC’s City Paper and Seattle’s free weekly alt publication The Stranger. Ullman contributed illustrations to several children’s books and text books and is an Addy Award nominated graphic designer.

Lauren Vincelli: Where did you grow up and how did you end up in Richmond, VA?

Robert Ullman: I grew up in northeast Ohio. I spent my first 23 years there, went to college at Kent State. After dropping out in 1993, I continued to live and work in Kent, but when an opportunity to escape the tired scene and lousy weather introduced itself, I moved to Greensboro, NC to live in a big house with some friends who went to college there. After a few years in NC, I moved to Richmond with a friend to escape the emotional fallout of a bad relationship…only to end up moving back to Greensboro a couple years later when I couldn’t find a decent job here. But I never managed to get Richmond out of my system, and I completed my little game of back-and-forth in 2003 after getting married. My wife and I bought a house in Bellevue about a year later, and now, it seems I’m here for the duration!

Were comics a big part of your youth? What were your favorites as a kid? What are your favorites now?

A huge part of my youth. There’s literally nothing else I ever considered doing besides drawing comics. As a kid, I was always a DC guy—Aquaman was my favorite superhero (pause for laughs), but I loved Batman, the Justice League of America, G.I. Joe, all that stuff.

Now, it’s a lot more…discerning, I guess. I still buy and read a ton of comics, but I don’t buy many monthly comics, that’s for sure. I still love a good superhero yarn, but they seem to be few and far between. It seems like all the mainstream stuff I buy are reprints from 40 years ago by Jack Kirby. I’ll read anything with Darwyn Cooke’s name on it, and I’ve really enjoyed Adam Warren’s Empowered series whenever a book comes out. I also love all the usual suspects: Clowes, Ware, the Hernandez Bros.

How did you learn to draw?

Believe it or not, I’m mostly self-taught. I read a lot of books on the art of drawing, and have picked up a lot of tricks here and there.

You have an interesting style. Real clean lines, bold colors. It sort of reminds me of a combo of Chris Ware and Jaime Hernandez. How did you develop this style?

That is a massive compliment. Jaime Hernandez is in my “holy trinity” of cartoonists! I’ll be trying to approach his level of consistency and seeming effortlessness for the rest of my life! As to my style, bout ten years ago, I made the conscious decision to kinda take my inconsistent, all-over-the-place style in a more cartoony direction, and all at once everything seemed to come together.


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The subjects of your work play on pretty stereotypically macho themes. It often features curvy ladies and sports. More often than not they’re mixed together. Where does that come from?

I have NO idea. I’ve always loved to draw sexy women, ever since I was a kid. I was drawn to art by guys like Dave Stevens, Adam Hughes. Their ability to convey the tactile beauty of the female form was just an amazement to me. The sports thing kind of evolved out of the innate hotness of a girl wearing only a hockey jersey. I’ve always liked sports, hockey in particular, and this seemed like a convenient way to combine my two obsessions!

Despite the fact that your work features a lot of half-dressed ladies, it has a pretty wholesome feel to it. Are you ever worried that your work will be seen as derogatory or misogynistic?

I really hope not, because I certainly don’t consider myself to be a misogynist. I mean, no matter what you do, some people are gonna get their undies in a bunch. I make a pretty honest effort to keep things light and cute, never crossing the border into creepy. Honestly, my art seems to get almost as much attention from women as it does from men at conventions and so forth. People are attracted to the pinup aesthetic, I guess. I think it’s almost instinctual on some level.

Your work is often commissioned for magazines etc. Your work has been featured in the syndicated sex advice column “Savage Love” by Dan Savage, as well as Nickelodeon. What are the challenges of doing commissioned works like that? What are some of your favorite commissioned works?

Well, “Savage Love” is probably consistently my favorite job to do, because I’m given such free rein and am never art-directed in one direction or another. There’s just so much to draw from in that column, you end up with some really exciting and hilarious images. With other jobs, the challenge is always delivering what the client wants, really. Sometimes the art director will have a clear idea of what that is, and they convey that to you at the outset, which can be nice because it prevents you from having to take numerous stabs in the dark trying to read their mind. Other times, they seek you out, and have you bring forth your best ideas, which is great because it allows you to be more creative and bring your own sensibility to the piece. A nice balance between the two is optimal, really…some days, when the old brain isn’t really working too well on the conceptual level, you can just work on something a little more straightforward.

What are your thoughts on the great black and white vs. color debate?

I think each of them has their place…I mean, if you’ve got the skills to do it well, you can almost convey more in black and white. Jaime Hernandez is a great example of this. Still, as doing comics in color gets cheaper (or in the case of web comics, free), I think you’ll see less and less black and white stuff.

What are some of your influences?

Boy, I feel like I’ve already named most of ’em. Charles, Schulz, Dan Decarlo, Bruce Timm, Dave Stevens, Adam Hughes, Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes would probably be the names I’d list as most influential, but I’m sure I could come up with at least two dozen others!

Tell me about your new book Atom Bomb Bikini.

Atom-Bomb Bikini is a hardcover, 64-page collection of all my non-comics art, with most of the images in full color and focusing on the so-called “fairer sex”. Lots of scandalous illustrations from places like Savage Love and my edgier clients. There’s a good section devoted to the ever-popular pin-up girls in sports jerseys aesthetic and a sketchbook section, with lots of pencil drawings and thumbnails that gives a little peek into my process. I think it’s a fun package!

I think the last time we talked you had just finished Lunch Hour Comix. I believe the idea came from you and a friend pledging to draw comics daily on your lunch hour. Have you kept that project going?

Not really, and it’s too bad, because there’s been a lot of stuff going on in both our lives! Having kids (not that anyone necessarily wants to read a “my kid is SO cute strip”), getting older, that type of thing. I did start running a similar cartoon on the Richmond Magazine website…it’s called Traffic and Weather, and it’s autobiographical, just as Lunch-Hour Comix was…I just spend a little more time on ’em now!

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You recently returned from Comicon in San Diego. How was that experience?

San Diego Comic-Con was a mind-blower. I’ve been promising myself I’d go every year since about 1994, but this is the first time I finally took the plunge. It was just immense on every level, from the size of the crowd to the sheer duration of the thing. I do a good number of conventions, and usually they’re two days long, occasionally three, but this thing was four and a half days, with long hours each day to boot. Plus, it’s so big, that it’s easy to get lost in the sea of talent, and this being my first trip, that’s exactly what happened. Sales-wise, it was disappointing, but the spectacle kinda made up for it. I finally got to meet a few artists that I’ve admired for years, and I got to spend an extended weekend hanging out with some of my favorite comics pals, even though we were too tired to do much besides sit around a hotel room and drink!

This year you’re traveling to a few other conventions as well; tell me what those events are like for an artist. What do you think is the importance of those kinds of events for artists and fans?

They’re great. I really, truly love going to conventions and meeting fans, seeing the same folks every year. It’s a little (okay, a lot) demoralizing when you sit there all day and no one comes up to speak with you but I have to remember my own advice, which is “Keep at it, go year after year, and sooner than later they’ll come around”. It’s a maxim that bears rewards. So much of this work is kinda done in a vacuum, in the solitary loneliness of your own workspace, that it’s really fun and rewarding to get out, shake some hands and speak with people who are appreciating your hard work.

How do you think comics have changed since you were a kid?

They have, no question…to some extent, I think that mainstream superhero comics, which were aimed at me when I was 14, are still aimed at me, as a 37-year-old. I don’t think comics are as accessible to kids as they were when I was one.

You’ve done some work with Team 8, tell me about how you hooked up with those guys and gals and what you’re working on with them.

We all frequent the same comics shop, Velocity Comics, and social circles…and they’re just an absolute dream to work with. I love the discipline of screen printing, but every time I’ve attempted it on my own, it’s been an unmitigated disaster. So, I’m always amazed when I shoot Spencer (Hansen) an art file, and then go over to his house a few days later to see it all stretched on the screen and ready to print. I’ve done several art prints and comic covers with those boys, and it’s always just a wonderful and gratifying experience.

Tell me about your other projects.

I’m working on a longer graphic novel called Sellout, about a guy who sells his soul to the devil and has it all turn out great for him. I’m trying to combine all the things I do well…thirty-something hipster ennui and smoking hot devil girls…into one can’t-miss package. Its slow going, but I’d like for it to see the light of day before too much longer.
Otherwise, I’m gonna keep doing the things I do best… Pin-up art and weekly autobiographical strips! I love comics, and I love drawing them, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop.

His newest book, Atom-Bomb Bikini: The Lurid Art of Robert Ullman (Brand Studio Press) hits shelves in all the comic book hot spots this month. Be sure to check out the release party and book signing on August 1, at Stir Crazy, 4015 MacArthur Ave. from 7-10pm. Richmond’s pop/rock band of musical gurus, Maki, will make a rare appearance for your musical entertainment. See more of Ullman’s work at www.atombombbikini.net.

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RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.




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