Growing up in the Philippines, illustrator Irene Flores’ artistic inclinations were nourished by a steady diet of awesome Japanese and American cartoons, from Danger Mouse to She-Ra, Speed Racer and Voltron to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
The dual influences of anime and ’90s comic book aesthetics conspired to shape Irene’s signature “cute” and “adventurous” style, which you can thoroughly absorb on her website, www.beanclamchowder.com (there’s a story there).
Irene’s impressive portfolio includes the Fashion Art School series of lively instructional books, work with Marvel comics and BOOM! Studios, a graphic novel published by Tokyopop, illustrations for the serialized novel Dead Endings, and art for the 12-issue run of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Coronation.
Irene also puts the fan in fan art with portraits and illustrations inspired by her favorite pop culture properties, from Marvel, to Harry Potter, to Disney, to Game of Thrones, to Star Wars, to Final Fantasy. (Don’t get her started on her passion for FFXV! Seriously, though, it’s inspiring.) My personal favorite is a stunning portrait that captures the fierce poetry in motion of Black Panther’s Okoye.
You’re an illustrator who has done projects for Marvel, BOOM! Studios, and DC imprint Wildstorm. You also co-author and illustrate a series of really fun art instructional books. When did you first realize you wanted to make art your profession?
It was always the dream when I was a kid. I was maybe 4 or 5 when I first got my hands on some Filipino dime store comics and, a year or two later, found Archie, and a little bit after that discovered Wonder Woman. It was my answer when adults asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But it become more of a reality in my twenties, when I realized that an illustration career could be something I could really pursue.
Did you begin making art at a young age?
Yep! I think most kids tend to doodle anyway. I did the same, drawing random ideas and fan art from shows I watched. My dad influenced the drawing bug more, though. He was a graphic designer and in the mid to late ‘80s, that meant he largely hand drew everything. So we saw his artwork and he always had cool stuff … tech pens, templates, graphic tape and transfers. Tt seemed so neat to use.
You grew up in the Philippines and were “heavily influenced” by both Japanese animation and American comics. Can you tell me about some of your early influences in both these mediums?
Yeah, in between my Filipino shows, we got Danger Mouse, Inspector Gadget, Rainbow Brite (the best), Jem, She-Ra, He-Man, ThunderCats (my jam), Care Bears … damn, I watched a lot of cartoons … Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Voltron, Voltes V, Candy Candy, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
What most appealed to you about these two art forms?
Being a kid, you don’t really have that distinction between Japanese or American animation (I just knew they weren’t Filipino). Most of the shows were in English. Some of the Japanese (and Korean shows) were dubbed in Filipino. I just watched cartoons because that’s what you did as a kid, right? They were colorful and sometimes wacky, but you don’t care about nuance when you’re 6! People had amazing costumes! Flying horses with rainbow manes! Cute bears with caring powers! It was definitely more exciting than live-action shows.
What was it like to be a girl who was into these things?
Hmm, as a kid it didn’t matter. Our town had a few select channels, so all my classmates watched the same shows. You could talk to any of them about the Nickelodeon block that week, and try to do some Street Frogs raps. Or show off your brother’s Molecular (from SilverHawks) figure.
Your portfolio art is listed under two categories on your website. One is “Cute.” The other is “Adventurous.” Those two words are a good description of your style. How did you develop this unique personal style?
It started early. I had comics books drawn by Jim Lee, Brian Bolland, Whilce Portacio … like, that ‘90s comic book superhero aesthetic I tried to emulate. But I also loved a lot of cute stuff, watched a lot of shojo anime and the biggest influence was probably Sailor Moon. The style was already softer compared to American comics, but the characters often went chibi or “SD” (super-deformed). And they looked hella cute.
I feel like I’d always done the cute stuff, but always as an aside. Like, for a little bit of a cute intermission comic, or standalone art. The focus was more of that ‘90s comic art style, until about the late 2000s to 2010s, I think? As I got older and more exposed to new art styles and artists (thanks, dialup internet), I saw “cute” styles used in stories that I didn’t think they’d be used for. So I started developing that style as it’s own unique thing while still working on my “Adventurous” stuff.
As an illustrator, what materials, tools, and equipment do you use most?
I just got a brand new Galaxy Tab A with S pen. Game changer. For the longest time, I was doing analog sketching, inking with brush pen, scanning in and cleanup/colors in Photoshop, using a Wacom Intuos tablet. I’d never really had the “drawing on a tablet screen” experience before.
Damn, I was missing out. I bought the Tab A as a kind of cheap portable sketchbook thing. Ha! It’s basically my brand new workhorse. It’s just a much faster process than starting with analog. There’s deadlines to meet, you know?
Short version, I’m doing all my sketching, lines, and flats on the Samsung Galaxy Tab with S pen (ArtFlow app), and doing cleanup/colors on Photoshop CC, with my tiny, beat-up Wacom Intuos Small, on my equally beat up 2012 Macbook Pro (which needs more RAM).
Your website is www.beanclamchowder.com. That’s an intriguing name. What exactly does that mean?
Sometimes, I think about the origin of that and put my head in my hands and sigh. Time travel with me to 1999, where I was in high school and my friend (who had a Marine Biology class) was given a worksheet with different aquatic species on it. She then proceeded to give her friends nicknames from said worksheet and I was bestowed with “beanclam.” I got off easy (it was way catchier than “bristleworm”). I thought it was funny in a way only high schoolers think is funny. So I started using it as my username in the shiny, new world of internet forums.
I liked it enough (couldn’t think of an alternative) that I used it for my senior project in 2001. I coded (with basic HTML what an innocent time) an art website for myself, “beanclam.tripod.com.” And I started posting my art online. Even back then, I thought that name recognition was important when it came to art but I should NEVER reveal my real name on the internet.
So beanclam kind of stuck … for 17 years. But when I tried to buy a proper domain name, “beanclam.com” was already taken (disappointing, but the landing page is just a giant picture of a beanclam, so appropriate), so I went with the next best thing.
There are currently four books in the “Fashion Art School” series you co-write and illustrate for Impact Books. Titles include “Shojo Fashion Manga Art School” and “Sci-Fi Fashion Art School.” How did the idea for the series come about?
I have to thank Amy Reeder (Rocket Girl, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur) for that, actually. Impact Books had approached her to do a book on fashion and she didn’t have the time due to other projects, so she sent Impact my way. I was very enthusiastic about the idea, since I love creating character outfits anyway. They liked my stuff well enough to offer me the chance. The first book was pretty successful, enough that I got to make a few more.
Do you enjoy teaching budding artists through this series?
I was a bit nervous, since I feel like I’m still learning? Although that feeling will probably never go away, so I wasn’t sure if I was “qualified” to teach anything. But I just went off things I learned and presented it as straightforward as I could.
Have you received feedback from teens and older artists who use these how-to books?
Oh man, that part was (and is) very rewarding. Getting feedback online and in person from people who have used and loved my books is amazing. It’s super flattering to be told that my books were a big influence on their approach to drawing, especially when they seem to be seriously pursuing art.
You illustrated the three-volume graphic novel Mark of the Succubus, published by Tokyopop. As a comic book fan, that must have been exciting.
For sure. It was my first professional, published book and a bit of a trial by fire. As someone who had only done a page-a-week webcomic, Succubus was a full on 168-page graphic novel. It took a year to finish the first novel. It was a lot of very high moments — actually finishing and publishing a book, achieving the comic book artist dream — but there were lows too. The job did not pay well, and i felt burnt out to the point where drawing wasn’t enjoyable. So it was a very important experience for me and I learned a LOT with that first job.
You’ve also illustrated covers, variant covers, and short stories for Adventure Time and The Amazing World of Gumball comics. What was it like working with BOOM! Studios?
I honestly forgot how BOOM! found me. It might’ve been online or perhaps someone saw me tabling at a convention? But I’m glad they did. It’s been great fun working on various things for them. It keeps things interesting for me. I’ve gotten to do Adventure Time and The Gumball covers, and recently I’ve inked for Heavy Vinyl and Labyrinth Coronation. I’m stoked that the editors there know they can rely on me and the variety of style I can do.
Your art is featured in the serialized novel “Dead Endings” in online magazine Sparkler Monthly. Tell me more about this project.
Man, what a fun book. I love contemporary supernatural stuff in general, plus Jessica (Chavez) injects the story with this dark comedy vibe and I am here for it. Plus I love the characters, and I was very excited to have some input on their design. I draw an illustrated piece for each chapter, usually Jessica or our editors will suggest a few scenes to choose from. The illustrations are black and white and I usually try to have a detective/film noir, shadows and light vibe (it is a supernatural detective story after all), and on occasion use a single color as a highlight in the art for some emphasis.
Can you tell me about your work with Marvel?
It was a while back, one of my earlier jobs as well, that I have mixed feelings about. I was very excited about it, I was living the dream, getting a chance to work with a company I’d been a fan of for so long. The project was a four-issue mini of Cloak and Dagger. I was doing the art and inking. I finished the first issue, but the series was cancelled and Issue 1 was never published. It was pretty disappointing, but I learned that happens sometimes. But it hit me harder at the time since I was fairly new to working in comics.
You also created artwork for a volume of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: Coronation. That’s awesome! Are you a fan of Labyrinth? What was that experience like?
I’m so glad my editors have asked me to stay on for the 12-issue run. My friends and I are all fans of Labyrinth and, watching the movie ages ago, had all decided that we’d rather stay in the Labyrinth with the Goblin King and why was Sara trying to leave?! Working on the book has been fun and I think I’ve finally hit my stride. I’m mostly working on scenes that are familiar to me, the ones from the movie that focus on Bowie — I mean Jareth — and baby Toby. It’s been a really positive experience so far, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the run (we’re working on Issue 7 right now).
Your portfolio includes a lot of fan art and you sell geeky merchandise on Etsy and Storenvy. What do you enjoy about creating fandom-related art and merch?
It’s just so fun and enjoyable, especially sharing fan art with fellow fans. Won’t lie, I know that making fan merch can be pretty lucrative and I … uh … need money to live. The stuff I make is pretty much the stuff I’m a fan of, though. So maybe that’s why it feels ever more rewarding when people purchase things from me? Like, thank you for appreciating my stuff enough that you’ve bought things fromm me, and also you’re a fan of this show?! THANK YOU.
You’ve said you “just like nerdy in general.” When and how did you embrace your inner nerd?
I’ve embraced my inner and outer nerd for years. It’s just that my interests are “nerd” interests. I mean, I feel like sports fans can be gigantic nerds too … dressing up and painting their faces, memorizing stats and player training regimes and … I’m just gonna handwave sociocultural bias … whatever.
I like what I like, and a lot of those things are “nerdy.” RPGs, anime, games, being an indoor kid, not liking sports, etc. These things make me happy, why wouldn’t I embrace that?
Your website features art inspired by Marvel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Final Fantasy XV, Hetalia: Axis Powers, Disney, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars. One of my favorites is your illustration of Okoye from Black Panther. It’s very powerful. Tell me about your thought process in creating that piece.
Oh, man, that Okoye piece. I was still on a high after watching the movie and walking out of the theater, I immediately knew I wanted to draw THAT image. Okoye, on top of a car, in the red dress, lit by the neon lights in a high-speed chase on the streets of South Korea. The image was really vivid in my head and I finished it in a day. Although I did fiddle with the lighting and edits for another week, but that initial drawing and colors was so fast. I was inspired. I wish all my drawings were that easy to get out.
Many of your character portraits are of strong female characters, like Princess Leia, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, Agent Carter, even Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Do you think geek culture is making progress when it comes to female representation?
Yeah, for sure. It’s not just the characters but the creators and industry as well. And obviously I feel like progress was always being made, albeit slowly and more quietly. The conversation is out there now, due to social media and just the added voices and transparency brought on by the internet. Obviously, nothing is perfect, and there’s always room for more improvement, but progress is happening.
Let’s talk about some of your personal fandoms. You described yourself as “deeply entrenched” in Final Fantasy XV. You said you were surprised by how much you ended up loving it. How so?
When the initial promos came out, I was like, what is this? Some J-pop bros out on a road trip?! I mean, well, it IS. But I do love it anyway, ha! So off the bat, the game is beautiful and I appreciate my visuals. The combat is fun, with some cute perks (battle selfies anyone?), and the story is pretty straightforward, yeah?
The Kingdom of Lucis has been taken over by the empire of Niflheim, the crown city of Insomnia has fallen, and the Prince and his three friends/retainers are on a quest to take it back. But also you can hunt monsters, and race chocobos, and catch frogs, and take photos for a magazine publisher. And do about a million other side quests. And FISH. And learn new recipes.
But we played for MONTHS. And I kinda fell in love with the characters and the tragedy of the story. Yeah, the four main characters are young men in their early 20s. They say dumb stuff, and are kinda dorks, are bad with emotions, some have self-esteem issues and are saddled with duty and dad issues. But they’re trying to do good and the right thing and there’s duty and sacrifice and complicated relationships. And it’s a grand ol’ Shakespearean tragedy in the end.
It’s not perfect. Oh boy, it’s far from that. But I really fell for the characters in a way I hadn’t since FF6 (my next favorite casts are FF12 and FF10).
How many hours would you say you’ve spent playing FFXV?
Real talk. I “played” the game at home with my wife. I have stuff to draw, so I’d sit at my laptop and work in front of the TV while she played. We’ve clocked over 300 hours. I would never get anything drawn if I had the controller in my hands.
When and how did you first begin gaming? What do you like about it?
We had little handheld games, friends with consoles and there were gaming cafes in the Philippines, so my brother and I got into console games and were later exposed to arcades. We started out playing Tetris, Donkey Kong, Super Mario, Golden Axe, just a lot of side scrollers and puzzle games. And I loved them! The graphics were very low res, but it was kind of like being in a cartoon but able to control the characters which was amazing.
And then in high school, we got a Super Nintendo. And I played Chrono Trigger. And I had feelings. And then my brother told me, “You should play this game, I think you’ll like it.” It was Final Fantasy 6. I uh … I cried a lot. It kind of changed the direction of what I loved in games. I fell in love with the characters, and this expansive narrative, and it gave me so many feels (in a time where the translation was not great and localization was probably not really a thing).
I love a lot of game types, but that started my lifelong love of RPGs and my love/hate (mostly love) relationship with Final Fantasy. Some of my recent faves have been Undertale, Fran Bow, The Last of Us, Fire Emblem series and, god, I love resource management games … Sims, Civilization, Don’t Starve, etc., etc.
You’re also very into Marvel — the comics and the movies. What are some of your favorite titles in the comics and the films?
Oh man … got to whittle it down. The first Avengers film was a game changer and is still one of my faves. Captain America: Winter Soldier is probably my fave Marvel movie. Black Panther, oh my god. Spiderman: Homecoming, yes, please. Also Season 1 of Daredevil and Season 1 of Jessica Jones, a revelation. Those are personal faves.
Books? Sophie Campbell on Jem was aesthetic goals, Ms. Marvel (I love Kamala, bless her fanfic-writing heart.), Young Avengers Volume 2, the entirety of Kid Loki’s story arc (mostly in Journey into Mystery), Hawkeye (Fraction and Aja), and a bit of a flashback, but Generation X.
What are some of your other fandoms?
Recently, Steven Universe, Voltron, Detroit: Become Human, Undertale, Game of Thrones. Oldies but goodies? Avatar: The last Airbender (I will love it forever.), Harry Potter, Star Wars, plenty of old-ass games and anime (Death Note, Hetalia, Bleach, One Piece, Full Metal Alchemist). Why are there so many?!
You seem enthusiastic about the upcoming animated She-Ra series from Netflix.
Yes! I enjoyed the original version as a kid. But honestly, a lot of those old shows were terrible. But I liked the character designs, and what I mostly remember was loving the idea that He-Man (which I watched first) had a twin sister who also had a “secret” hero identity and was a princess that had a cool sword and a rainbow pegasus (flying horses were very important to me as a child). And I was indifferent when I first heard about the reboot, but learning who the creative team was behind the show, I got more excited (I’ve been a fan of Noelle Stevenson since Nimona.).
The tagline on your website says “Irene Flores … illustrator + karaoke aficionado + caffeine addict. What are some of your go-to karaoke songs?
Oh, damn. “Sweet Child of Mine.” ALWAYS. Disney songs are always great to get other people singing, although the BEST one is “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” And “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror is always a good time.
What’s your caffeine delivery system of choice?
Summer here in California is kicking my ass, so right now, I’m living off Trader Joe’s cold brew.
You exhibit your art and merchandise at conventions. What’s your next scheduled appearance?
I took a bit of a break from cons this year (I was a bit burnt out after four years of steady convention tabling), so my last convention for the year is SacAnime (in Sacramento) at the end of August. But I’m excited to get back into it in 2019. I already know I’ll be at WonderCon 2019, and I’m super excited to do Emerald City Comic Con. I won’t know about other cons until a bit later.
According to your website “About” section, your future goals include “creating another graphic novel and eating a Monte Cristo sandwich.” Can you tell me anything about this future graphic novel?
Oh man, I’ve been wanting to do some personal projects for a while and felt I didn’t have time due to client work. But I’m trying to my fix my schedule to accommodate it. There are a couple of ideas I’m working on with Ashly (my wife and writing partner). We’ve been kicking around ideas, but the forefront is really a cute book featuring birds. We have five parakeets and three cockatiels and I’ve been doing some art and short comics featuring them. But we want to do some longer format stories featuring them on adventures.
How are things going with the Monte Cristo?
My genetics and terrible eating habits have caught up with me and I am pre-diabetic, so that Monte Cristo will have to stay a distant dream.