Robert Atkins: Bringing Comic Art Full Circle
Robert Atkins: Bringing Comic Art Full Circle
Story by Cindy Reid
Photography by Leidy Lester
G.I. Joe Transformers. Spider-man. X-Men. Fantastic Four. Shut your eyes and you can picture each one of these characters. That’s how deeply they are embedded in our imagination.
But where do the images, the details, the actual drawings come from? Obviously from an artist’s hand, but whose? In this case the artist is local resident and SCAD Professor Robert Atkins, who has been drawing these iconic characters for many years.
Born and raised in Jacksonville, Illinois, Robert earned his undergraduate degree from Illinois State in Fine Art before moving to Savannah to attend Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
“I was a real Midwest kid when I first came to Savannah, so it was a bit of a culture shock,” he says. “But that’s where I learned how to do comics.”
After he received his M.F.A. in Sequential Art from SCAD in 2005, Robert and his wife Laura relocated to North Carolina where he got his first introduction to professional work.
“Right out of school, a professor introduced me to professional contacts, and it was Randy Green from X-Men who gave me my start. I love comics and I love storytelling,” he says.
After getting his start with backgrounds, Robert moved quickly to penciling his own art.
“A penciller takes the script and decides how it will all look, from the characters to appropriate props,” he says. “For eight years, I worked full time with Marvel, DC, IDW drawing GI Joe, Transformers, Ninja turtles, all the 80s characters I grew up with. I was loving it and doing exactly what
I wanted to do.”
G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero
Many characters are called iconic, but few can match the long run of G.I. Joe, which has been both a comic strip and comic book in every decade since 1942. Robert’s long running relationship with G.I. Joe began when he accepted his first professional solo work illustrating “Snake Eyes: Declassified” for comic book publisher Devil’s Due.
Since then, he has illustrated 70 consecutive G.I. Joe related covers from 2008-2012 and more than 130 G.I. Joe related comic covers in total. Robert is the lead artist on Renegade Game Studios G.I. Joe board games and deck building games and a contributing artist for role playing games.
“I grew up on those characters,” Robert says. “They are both a passion and nostalgia for me. G.I. Joe has a huge fan base of soldiers and vets and for some it is the only comic they read. It’s important to me that it looks believable. I do my best to be true to the work.”
Robert subsequently became widely known for his penciling work on military action in superhero titles such as Amazing Spider-Man, Venom and Heroes for Hire.
Based on the highly successful PC game, the America’s Army comic series was the official comic book series from the United States Army. Published by IDW publication, it was available for free online and in print at Army bases and recruiting centers. Based on his success with G.I. Joe, Robert was asked to draw multiple issues for the series.
“The military wanted to produce a comic that was somewhat historical and also reflected soldiers’ real life,” Robert says. “Because it was for the Army, a Lt. Colonel was my boss and it had to be accurate, which meant many revisions. It was actually twice as hard as G.I. Joe.”
Using visual aids such as toy tanks, Robert reproduced the detail of equipment used by soldiers.
“I have great respect for soldiers, and I appreciate those that serve,” says Robert, “I have been honored to be a part of both G.I. Joe and America’s Army.”
After years of successful comic work, Robert wanted to challenge himself and create a business model that would build his brand as a freelancer.
“I wasn’t pushing myself artistically, so I began my blog and started drawing a daily sketch. For a full year I posted a new drawing every day,” he says.
The blog quickly built a fan base, which caught the attention of toy manufacturers Hasbro and Mattel and led to toy package artwork.
Robert says, “There are a lot of revisions in toy product illustration, which is very different from comics where you just want to meet the deadline.”
And unlike comics, there are no artist credits on toy package art. Robert has worked on more than 40 package art illustrations—including NERF, Star Wars: Black Series action figures, Marvel Legends, and many others—and says it has been a wonderful experience.
In addition to toy package art, Robert is a freelance illustrator for Playful Studios video games, RPG and board games for Renegade Game Studios LLC and other comic publishers.
“The last few years since beginning work at SCAD, I have spent more time doing concept art for video games and art for board games as that can fit into my schedule better,” he says.
Back to SCAD
While busy as a working artist, Robert also developed curriculum and taught online art courses for Comics Experience for seven years. When SCAD reached out to offer him a teaching position, Robert says it was an opportunity to achieve his longtime career goal to teach at the university level. While he and his family were living in Springfield, Illinois, and “fully expected to stay there forever,” he accepted the position and in January 2018 they moved to Guyton.
Robert is in the Sequential Art Department at SCAD, teaching comics, storyboards and concept art. He says his professional experiences make him a better professor.
“It is a great teaching environment and my experiences in comic, package, and video art mean I can teach my students the differences in my industry. I can teach the art and also the pitfalls so it’s helpful for students.”
“I am living my dream to be able to work in my industry and also pay it forward by following my students and helping them all the way through,” he says. “Stephen Sholty, is a SCAD student that I worked with and taught sequential classes both in Savannah and in the SCAD Lacoste Campus in France in 2019. He graduated later that year and we worked on refining his portfolio, character design and 3d modeling, which landed him a full time job designing toys for Hasbro on their Marvel Super Heroes and Dungeons and Dragons figures. It’s very cool when it all comes full circle.”
Faith & Family
Robert also serves as Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which meets at 903 Fort Howard Rd. in Rincon. The role is a non-paid position with the church, it’s all lay clergy—meaning it runs on service.
“It wasn’t a position I applied for or asked to do, I was brought in by our Stake President, or regional leadership, and asked to serve,” he says. “I’ve served as a counselor in three previous Bishoprics and now for two years as the Bishop here.” Robert stresses, “It’s not just me, I also have a lot of help in our church.”
He says when people are going through hard times, he tries to be a sounding board and a resource to give spiritual guidance and counsel whenever possible. He says, ”I want people to know you are not alone, you always have a Savior and a heavenly Father who loves you and who you can rely on.”
He and his wife Laura—a teacher at Sandhill Elementary School—have two teenage children, Connor and Emma. The family loves living in the Savannah area and enjoys being outdoors and exploring the state parks. As busy as they are, Robert says, “We are dedicated to eating dinner every night at our table as a family. It helps keep our family close and our children know we are there for them.”
Between art, teaching, faith and family, “Needless to say, I wear a lot of hats, but all of them are very fulfilling and teach me new insights into life each day.”