When Mark Irwin attended his first San Diego Comic-Con as a 12-year-old, he knew he would be back.
But he had no idea he would come back as an artist autographing some of the same comic book series he admired.
Irwin stuck to his dream of becoming a comic book artist. Working out of his Solana Beach home, Irwin has left his creative mark on hundreds of popular characters, including Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, Aliens and the Justice League of America.
For the past two decades, he has freelanced for big companies, including Marvel, Dark Horse and DC Comics, while holding day jobs at Upper Deck Entertainment, Wildstorm and Heavy Metal magazine.
Now Irwin is putting his creativity to the test in a different way. He is creating his own young adult series, called “Jack Secret,” which he plans to reveal in a sneak preview in July at Comic-Con International.
“The story is about a boy’s journey from being nothing to becoming a hero,” Irwin said. “It’s like ‘Jonny Quest’ and ‘Harry Potter’ with adventure and magic.”
Los Angeles-based comic book artist Dan Panosian, a colleague of Irwin’s, is illustrating the series. The work has already prompted interest from Hollywood producers.
The reason Irwin started “Jack Secret” is simple: “I love to create.”
That urge made Irwin stick to his dream of becoming an artist. Although his parents wanted him to go to business school, Irwin held out. Eventually, he attended The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in New Jersey. “He knew what he wanted to do and never lost focus,” said his wife, Amber Irwin.
Even before Irwin graduated, he landed his first freelance job as an inker with Marvel Comics in the early 1990s. Inking involves taking the penciled sketches and turning them into final art with depth and dimension.
“Comic artists draw all kinds of stuff — not just superheroes, but regular people and everything from streetcars and fire hydrants to spaceships, all at the drop of the hat to make deadline,” Irwin said.
Each artist has his or her own style.
“There’s a flourish in a brush line that is much like a signature,” Panosian said. “I am a firm believer that you see a bit of the artist in their work, and Mark’s ability to transfer his love for the medium sets him apart from his contemporaries.”
Irwin’s dedication sometimes keeps him working all night drawing a comic by hand.
“He’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve met, and he has a unique creative vision,” said Ted Adams, CEO of San Diego-based IDW Publishing.
One of Irwin’s proudest accomplishments was working with comic book artist Zach Howard on an “Aliens” miniseries for Dark Horse Comics.
“Great illustrating and great storytelling are what make comic books amazing,” Irwin said. “People don’t think of comics as high art, but I do.”
Referring to the millennia-old pictographs in caves, Irwin pointed out that comic art is the oldest form of visual storytelling. “I think it’s even more exciting than the sculptures in front of City Hall.”
Of course, Irwin is careful to draw the line there, because his wife is known for her sculpture “The Sunburst of Color” at the Coastal Rail Trail next to Highway 101 in Solana Beach.
“There are hundreds of comic book artists, but each has his own storytelling methodology,” Mark Irwin said.
When Irwin is signing his comics at the Comic-Con, young artists often ask for advice. “I say, ‘Believe in your vision, but continue to learn and try to improve.’ ”
Linda McIntosh is a freelance writer from San Diego.