The Illustrator's Practice: M. S. Corley
Image: M. S. Corley

Image: M. S. Corley


M.S. Corley designs, illustrates, and dabbles in all stories dark. Along with his friends Nashotobi and Alejandro Mirabal, Corley recently founded Hollow Owl, a small press comic book company with a penchant for the creepy. We recently squared up with Corley to learn more about his life as an illustrator, graphic designer, comic book purveyor, and patron of pancake art.

Here’s what strikes us first: Corley has a long, involved history with illustration and design, yet he never ceases to be amazed by all art can do.  I read a lot of folktales and ghost stories which are also a big inspiration for the work I do,” Corley said. And indeed, his eye for enthralling, timeless narrative spills over into his visual art. “[I got my start] mainly just by drawing all the time. The typical story of drawing non stop since being a kid,” Corley said. “When the internet rolled around I started posting my art on or DeviantArt, then branched out to other platforms and eventually got a following of people, and then clients came around in the end.” In his early years as an aspiring illustrator, he drew inspiration from other artists like Mike Mignola, Sam Bosma and Akihiko Yoshida. “All of them I wanted to be at some point in my career, I tried hard replicating each of their styles over the years, learning the hard way I never could quite capture the magic of their work,” he said. “I learned a lot from studying their work, though, which has influenced and evolved my style of the years.”


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As far as his creative process is concerned, Corley admits that his methods vary. “My process depends a lot upon the job that I'm working on. But with illustration I start by gathering (probably too many) reference images for the job,” Corley said. “Then I do a lot of loose sketches to start drawing a character or whatever it may be. Once I get a pose that I'm happy with I will do a loose pencil sketch over it in blue, this is where the bulk of the work comes in figuring out how everything should look. After that I do final line art in black tracing over my pencils and sprucing up things where need be then I add in color or greyscale painting to bring it to life.”


As a stay-at-home father of two, Corley works in every illustrator’s dream studio, a “small library of art books” that overlooks the thick, enchanting forest of Western Oregon, a backdrop that echoes the settings of all the lore and myth Corley holds so dear. “I get to look out into our backyard and see deer or other wildlife pass by, so while I'm essentially on the computer all day, I do get to feel like I'm seeing nature, which makes things less stiff,” Corley said.


In his picturesque studio, Corley works on his newest venture: Hollow Owl. “Hollow Owl  is simply a group of indie comic book creators each working on our own dark-themed stories, but since we are going for the same audience we joined together to make promoting our books and supporting each other easier,” Corley said. “After deciding on the name and creating the logo for Hollow Owl, we have been focusing our attention on working on our individual comics in any free time we can manage, we started an open Patreon for people to follow along on our projects and support us if they feel so inclined.”


Corley’s comic, Carnacki, Recorder of Things Strange, is a an adaptation and continuation of the story of Thomas Carnacki, fully inspired by the original stories written by William Hope Hodgson. “[It tells] the tale of Carnacki's pilgrimage through life per varios casus, encountering all things strange and unknown in an attempt to overcome a terrible burden that haunts him still. Told in short story format steeped in weird fiction, folklore, ghost stories, mythology and symbolism,” Corley said.

Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Corley has ventured into a world of gastronomical design: along with his two children, he creates weekly installments of pancake art. “Every Friday since my daughter was 2 years old (she's almost 7 now) we have "Flapjack Friday" where I create some sort of pancake art for her for breakfast. And now that my son is old enough to enjoy them I make him a picture too,” Corley said. “Usually they all revolve around something that has happened during the week, something we've been reading or learning about, or I make them thematically around the Holidays. It's a really fun tradition, and I take a photo of each one so I can remember what they looked like and it gives me a snapshot of our year and things that have happened to us that year.” We can only imagine that Corley and his children always have minds full of stories and bellies full of pancakes.


M.S. Corley is just one of those people who brings narrative, beauty, and a healthy touch of the macabre to a world that devalues flourish. And for his eye (and mind and deftness of hand) the world of book design is a little more wonderfully strange.

Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.