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Guided by Batman: Dustin Nguyen Discusses His Life in Comics

Guided by Batman: Dustin Nguyen Discusses His Life in Comics

By Tim Beedle Thursday, May 13th, 2021

To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re shining the spotlight on a few of the talented AAPI writers and artists working for DC today. This week, we chat with Dustin Nguyen, the stylish artist behind American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares, Batman: Li'l Gotham and Secret Hero Society.

This week’s DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, which features the collective work of over thirty AAPI comic artists and writers, is a colorful testament to how deep the creative well truly is when it comes to gifted Asian and Pacific Islander talent. However, it’s easy to forget that while many of these creators have come to comics recently, a good number of them have been a part of the industry for quite some time.

Dustin Nguyen first emerged on the scene around the turn of the millennium, making an early impression with his work on Wildstorm books like Jet, The Authority and Wildcats. It wasn’t long before the Vietnamese-American artist made his way to DC proper, rendering the world of Batman and his rogues in his distinct visual style and collaborating with writer Paul Dini on books like Detective Comics and Batman: Streets of Gotham. From there, Nguyen took a memorable dive into the world of Vertigo with American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares before shifting his career in the opposite direction with a series of highly acclaimed—and fan favorite—comics aimed at younger readers. Batman: Li’l Gotham, a popular, imaginative digital first series that filtered the world of the Dark Knight through a playful, childlike lens ran for two years and spawned two graphic novels. It was followed by the bestselling Secret Hero Society series and the middle grade graphic novel, Batman Tales: Once Upon a Crime. All three series were cowritten with Nguyen’s frequent collaborator, Derek Fridolfs, and expanded Nguyen’s artistic appeal to include the youngest generation of superhero fans.

Today, Nguyen keeps busy with his Jeff Lemire-written creator-owned series, Descender, and its ongoing sequel, Ascender. However, he still had time to write and draw a short, wonderfully sweet Cassandra Cain tale for DC Festival of Heroes. The seeds of that story, which is only three pages long, were first planted back when Nguyen was drawing Li’l Gotham, reminding us that some ideas are truly worth waiting for.

It’s been a little while since we’ve gotten a new DC story from Nguyen, so we thought it was a good moment to chat with him a bit about his career as an artist, what he loves about drawing books for young readers and the unique relationship he had with Batman as a child.

Starting at the beginning, what age were you when you first discovered comics and at what point did you decide you wanted to draw them?

I got into comics around early middle school during the Batman: A Death in the Family era. I think it was in high school that I knew I wanted to actually draw comics, but I didn’t really pursue it until I hit my twenties.

Do you remember the first comic you ever drew? How old were you?

My first comic work was with DC, for the MILK magazine in the grocery store. I did a Batman-themed crossword puzzle. I was about 24, I think.

Some of your earliest professional work was with Wildstorm. How did you first get involved with them?

I followed the studio around Comic-Con. The San Diego one and Wizard World Chicago were the big two conventions at the time and Wildstorm would hold portfolio reviews. I did samples every few months before the summer and just kept bothering the editors until Scott Dunbier and John Layman from the studio gave me my first shot.

Most of your DC work has been on Batman titles. What is it about his world that you’re drawn to?

Batman sort of was the only way I connected to comics when I got older and the rest of the world altogether as a kid. I arrived in America as a refugee—no English, no clue. But the first thing my mom got me was a Batman figure and that was the coolest thing to me. In school, even without speaking the language, I was able to connect with the other kids though “talking” or drawing sketches of Batman.

From there, it kind of just grew on me, and I loved it more and more as I got older.

Recently, a lot of your work has been aimed at younger readers with books like Batman: Li’l Gotham, Secret Hero Society and Batman Tales: Once Upon a Crime. What brought that change about?

It was during the time where my own kids were reaching the age where I wanted to introduce them to Batman. So, it felt right to do something for not just my own, but for all kids to enjoy. Plus, it was a lot of fun for me as well.

You’ve also become known for your use of watercolor in your art. Do you create all your art traditionally? What do you enjoy about that?

I'd say about 90% of my work is still traditional. I just like the relaxation and the small nuances that come when I work this way. It feels less like work and I guess it brings me back to when I was drawing growing up and just having fun.

Your story in DC Festival of Heroes, “What’s in the Box?,” focuses on Cassandra Cain, who has once again taken on the mantle of Batgirl. Did you know right away that you wanted to write a Cass story? And if so, why?

I actually had my Festival of Heroes story in mind about ten years ago when I did Li’l Gotham. I was going to do it as a short for fun, but never had the time, so it was perfect. It was so clear in my head.

As someone who creates comics for kids, what would you like to see to ensure we get more people of AAPI heritage reading, writing and drawing comics?

I think with anything, an early introduction to it is always the best way. Create and make more material available for kids, introduce creativity courses into schools if possible, along with summer programs, etc. If it works for sports, it could work for comics.

Be sure to drop by all throughout May for more AAPI creator interviews. And don't forget to check out Dustin Nguyen's story, "What's in the Box?," in DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration, now available in stores and as a digital comic book.