The ABCs of Art With America's Best Artists
by Will Allred (11/22/1999)
America's Best Comics. That's something of a grandiose name for a comic book company when you think about it. When I was young, I was always taught not to brag or boast, but it really isn't boasting if it's the truth, now is it. In this case, it's a simple fact. Promethea, Tom Strong, Tomorrow Stories, and Top Ten are quite frankly some of the best comics on the stands.
America's Best Comics teams easily one of America's Best writers, Alan Moore, with a plethora of arguably some of America's Best artists, Zander Cannon, Chris Sprouse, Mick Gray, Gene Ha, Rick Veitch, J H Williams, III, Kevin Nowlan, Melinda Gebbie, and Jim Baikie. Several of these guys had a few minutes to sit down and talk about ABC, working with Alan Moore, and generally having a lot of fun telling some great stories.
Allred: How did each of you get involved with ABC, and what is your current project?
Chris Sprouse: I had been drawing Supreme with Alan for about six months, and when that went bust, I called him to tell him how much I enjoyed working on that particular book. Alan surprised me by saying that he had a new character in mind that he thought I'd be good for, and that character turned out to be Tom Strong, which is what I'm currently drawing.
Gene Ha: I work with Zander Cannon on Top Ten. I got the job by begging editors for an Alan Moore story for long enough. Alex Ross recommended that if I ever wanted to do an Alan Moore story, I should start bugging editors immediately. Awesome temporarily imploded before I could get a gig there, but Wildstorm seems to be doing just fine. Plus, it's kind of fun saying I work for the world's largest, most evil media conglomerate.
Zander Cannon: Well, I got involved with ABC through Gene, who was in the midst of finishing a Batman graphic novel when he moved to St. Paul, Minn. He had moved up there to work with an assistant, which didn't work out. Since I live in Minneapolis, and had kept in touch with Gene for the months that he had been here, I was nearby, available, and willing to work on the project. Right now, Gene and I are working on Top Ten, with me doing the layouts and Gene penciling and inking.
Rick Veitch: Like Chris, I'd been working with Alan on the Supreme series when Awesome went belly up. We were commiserating on the phone about how much fun that project had been, so when the ABC line fell into place at Wildstorm, he asked me if I'd like to take on the Greyshirt feature in Tomorrow Stories.
J H Williams, III: I am working on Promethea. I was recommended to Scott Dunbier by Alex Ross, which was quite a surprise for me since I didn't know Alex. I had no idea that he even knew my work. So, Scott showed my work to Alan and he was pleased with what he saw.
Mick Gray: I am J.H. Williams, III's exclusive inker, so wherever he goes, I go. Our current project, as J.H. just mentioned, is Promethea.
Allred: As artists, how much input did you have in designing the characters and settings?
Sprouse: In our initial discussions about Tom Strong, Alan asked me what I enjoyed drawing, what I've always wanted to draw, and what my favorite comics were. He then tried to incorporate some of these interests of mine into the book. For example, I told Alan I loved drawing gadgets and machinery (planes, spaceships, etc.), and Tom became a much more gadget-happy guy than he was in the original proposal. Essentially, the characters and situations were entirely created by Alan, but he tailored certain aspects to fit my own personal tastes. From there, I just tried to design the characters and settings in such a way that they would give Alan exactly what he wanted and they would be fun for me to draw.
Alan described Tom in great detail to me over the phone and in a proposal for the series, then I started sketching. The final design for Tom Strong himself is as close to what Alan wanted as I could get (with the exception of his hair--Alan wanted him to have long hair originally). As a matter of fact, all the characters are usually described in great detail in the scripts, then I sit down and do a finished pen-and-ink "model sheet" for each one. The only characters I haven't designed myself are some of the villains, such as Ingrid Weiss and the Pangean--I updated the designs created by the guys who drew the back-up stories featuring the introductions of those characters
For characters, I usually get a specific visual image in my head when I read the scripts--they're that vividly written--then I start sketching in a sketchbook until just the right face or figure takes shape. Sometimes it helps to sort of mentally cast actors or people I know in the roles if I'm stuck for a particular character's look. I then draw a finished "model sheet" for each character, featuring a full-figure shot of the person, plus one or more head-shots, plus any equipment they may use. Some of my initial design sheets for the Strong family were published in Tom Strong #1 and the America's Best Promo Comic we did (bagged with an issue of Wizard).
For sets, I usually rely on Alan's descriptions (which are incredibly detailed), but I also have a huge reference library that I use when designing places or devices. If Alan calls for an Art Deco-looking building, I get out my Art Deco books and start sketching from them until something gels. Other sets are just straight out of my head, such as the Strong family's Volcano base--I just made it up in my sketchbook, with the only constraints being that it had to look high-tech and have big balconies and picture windows.
Williams, III: I designed the look for Promethea based on some descriptions from Alan along with a great deal of help from wife Wendy. I wanted her to have a very detailed design, but at the same time, something simple. At least, that's what we were aiming for. And, to be honest, I really feel like that that's what we achieved. We tried to put a lot of thought into Promethea's design. She is a combination of Greek and Egyptian influences based on the different gods that the first Promethea's father believed in. The version of New York that we are presenting is whatever we want it to be. It is how we would imagine the essence of it. Not the literal reality of it. So it has this sense of futurism as well as a sense of history. Some buildings are modern in appearance and some seem old. The important thing to me is that no matter how strange and unusual the city appears to be is that everything has practical functionality to it. Even if the reader doesn't know what the function of some of the things they see is they still can tell that these things are there for a reason. It gives our imagined New York a sense of believability and realness even though it is all made up.
Ha: I designed all of the main team of Top Ten. Zander has designed most of the speaking characters after that. So characters like Shock Headed Peter and Girl One are mine, but Meester Easter and Carl "Frenzy" Fischmann are Zander's. Most of these characters were originally conceived by Alan, of course. Now that I think about it, though, this project was very freeing for my character design. It was the first time every design didn't have to look cutting edge and cool, so I could just go crazy. Toybox's look is based on Minneapolis punks (but without tattoos and piercings... or at least visible ones). Shock Headed Peter was based on how I look when I wear long underwear (a necessity this far north). I didn't realize it when I designed him, but Jeff Smax looks like Tom Strong with the colors reversed.
Veitch: While I know that Alan did very detailed plot and character proposals for much of the ABC line, with Greyshirt, he said to me "Well, I've got an idea for a gentleman dandy adventurer named Greyshirt," and that was about it. We shmoozed a lot on the phone, tossing ideas back and forth, until some things began to gel in Alan's mind. Stuff like Greyshirt's chain mail longjohns and the gas-powered appliances of Indigo City seemed to work nicely. Then I sat down and did some rough character designs and a single finished illustration (the "Monsters Everywhere!" shot that was used on the trading card) in which the pieces began to fall into place. That's where I got the particular look of his arched eyebrows and the tilt of his hat that nailed him for us. Alan conjured up the robot apes and the newspaper title ("Indigo City Sunset") and headline that signaled the feel he was looking for, and we were off and running!
Cannon: I designed a few characters here and there: Doctor Gromolko, Ernesto Gograh, The Word, Charon, Marta 'Boots' Wesson, Large Marge, April Showers, some of the real second stringer heroes and villains in the backgrounds, but I have been doing less of that as my role in Top Ten has moved to being simply layouts (as opposed to layouts/some pencils/some inks as with the first three issues). I provide a very conservative first look at each character as I lay them out on the pages, and Gene is welcome to make any changes he sees as necessary. Same thing with the layouts; I provide a conservative, very readable structure that Gene is at liberty to alter entirely.
There are two esthetics at work in Top Ten; one being that of the aging super-hero, no longer in shape, still continuing to wear lycra and gaudy colors, and the other being that of a more science-fictiony world, pulling in concepts like pulp heroes, robots, politics, etc. that makes it less of a satire of the state of comic books and more of a satire the modern world at large, as is the case with much science fiction. I tried to make my characters ones that were less like vestiges of 1960s super-hero comics and more like science-fictional urban dwellers, if that makes any sense. I try to clothe the characters I create in a functional manner, with any machine additions or super-type enhancements/deformities adapted to by the clothing for comfort and accessibility rather than for showmanship. The Word has a hi-fi speaker for the lower half of his face, but other than that looks very much like a portly businessman in an expensive suit and bowler hat. Charon is a paraplegic medical examiner that hasn't much in the way of personal grooming, but simply straps himself into a bipedal examining exoskeleton that is outwardly sterile and works by manipulating levers and switches within the arms of the skeleton. Despite all this talk, I certainly understand that the super-hero in-joke is fun and creates a great number of storylines and I yield to it for the most part.
Allred: Could you each describe the creative process on your contribution to the ABC line?
Sprouse: Alan writes incredibly dense, detailed full scripts (which are incredibly fun to read--I consider it one of the perks of the job). I read through the script and make notes on reference I'll need, as well as characters or new "sets" I'll have to design. Once the design work is done, I do rough layouts for one week's worth of pages, then I get to work penciling the finished pages. I send the pages off to letterer Todd Klein, who sends them along to inker Al Gordon when he's finished with them.
There isn't a lot of give and take right now on Tom Strong because I'm just enjoying the heck out of drawing Alan's stories, and I have to say I'm a little intimidated about suggesting story ideas to Alan Moore! My input on the stories consists mainly of me saying that I might like to draw a solo Tesla adventure, or design a new headquarters--otherwise, I'm content to let Alan write what he wants to. I understand he likes collaboration, so in the future I may try to suggest some ideas.
Cannon: The script is entirely final when we get it; the only liberties I tend to take with it are small ones, switching up a panel layout here or there, changing the structure of a page to focus on one particular thing, but I try to keep the artwork from calling attention to itself, and make the reader focus on the characters and the story. We shoot ideas to Alan Moore now and again, but at this point it's kind of like asking an architect to put a couple of your hand-made I-beams into the skyscraper once it's already half-built. You know, if there's room for it.
When I began working with Gene, we decided that since I had been working in comics as long as he had, I couldn't really be his assistant, so what we began the series (after the first 13 pages, which Gene did alone or with his assistant) with was a more or less integrated style, consisting of my layouts, since I was faster at them and Gene hates them, Gene's penciling, and Gene's and my inking. Most of my inking consisted of spotting blacks here and there. But I began making my layouts more complicated and more complete in the hopes that Gene would then be able to focus on inks and be able to provide more in the way of backgrounds. Our styles didn't mesh as well as I had thought, and what ended up happening was that I felt like my layouts weren't being followed, and Gene thought (correctly) that I was not being quick enough. So we decided after issue three was finished, that I would simply do loose layouts and Gene would do the finished artwork using assistants, if necessary. This frees me up to do a number of other projects, including the Replacement God.
Ha: Alan always lets you make changes, but the scripts are always perfect and complete. Zander makes small changes such as changing a full figure shot to a half figure, or changing the pacing a bit. Currently, Zander does layouts (what I call the creative work) and I do the finishes (detailed pencils and the inks, or what I call the hack work). Zander will describe each job completely differently. He considers his job the technical work.
Essentially, the scripts are faxed by Alan to Zander, the layout artist, and to our editor Scott Dunbier. Zander draws a rough sketch with all the dialogue written in on cheap paper, and then traces it with a light table onto bristol board. Like I mentioned earlier, this is so easy and basic for Zander that he considers it technical work, while I consider it the creative part of storytelling.
Anyway, I pick up pages twice a week at his studio. At home, I draw the tight pencils on top of the layout. I figure out the technical anatomy, design the buildings and objects he's placed, and tighten up the perspective. Then, using a sable brush and a technical pen I ink the page. Zander thinks this is where the creative vision is expressed, but I find it easy. When the pages are done, I Airborne Express them to Scott.
Veitch: Alan and I will chat on the phone about various things. Sometimes a physics concept we read about, a dream we might have had, a comic book we liked when we were kids, or whatever, and play with ideas. Sometimes we'll pitch thoughts back and forth, and I can sense his mind mulling things, looking for a hook that interests him or that he hasn't tried before. What's amazing is that sometimes he'll say, "I got it!" and he'll have the whole story; beginning, middle and end, along with complete bits of dialogue which he'll start reciting. Its almost as if a door has opened in his mind and the story has arrived in a nearly complete package!
Just to echo what Chris mentioned earlier, Alan's scripts are extremely detailed, although not quite as obsessively so as they were in his early days. A story he wrote for me that I did in Epic in 1986 has six single spaced typewritten pages describing the first panel! He usually apologizes for the detail, and tells me to do what I see as best, but I've learned that if I can give him what he is asking for, the story will be the better for it. With the Greyshirt stuff being sort of Spirit-like, the trick is to come up with a visual metaphor to make it look different and help carry the concept along in the reader's mind non-verbally. Sometimes, like with building in "The Way Things Work Out" Alan provides it and sometimes, like with the musical notes in "Doctor Crescendo", I come up with it.
Williams, III: Working with Alan is a dream come true for me. A dream that I didn't even realize I had because I never even thought it would be possible. I've been a big fan of his for a very long time. Working on his scripts is quite challenging but also a lot of fun do to the amount of creativity in them. His scripts can be very thick and a lot to read but it's all worth it. Even though he thoroughly has everything laid out, he tells me to do things the way I see them. He is really open to doing things differently so this allows me to have a lot of my own vision in the series, especially on a visual level.
Gray: As an inker, I don't have much to do with the collaborative process. But when it comes to tones and textures J.H. and I collaborate on that.
Allred: Is this the first time that each of you have worked with Alan Moore?
Veitch: I've been blessed to have worked with Alan since the very beginnings of his early appearances in American comics! My friend, Steve Bissette, was the penciller on Swamp Thing when Alan took over in the mid-eighties, and I assisted him quite a bit on those early issues beginning with "The Anatomy Lesson". I did a handful of fill-ins too, including the introduction of the John Constantine character, before I took over as penciller on the series. I also did a couple installments of Miracleman Man. Alan and I did the first graphic birth scene in comics in Miracle Man #9 which stirred things up a bit. We did a crackerjack team up story where Superman meets Swamp Thing that Al Williamson inked superbly. Alan, Steve and I did the 1963 series at Image in 1993. Then I was tapped as the designated 'retro' guy on the Supreme series, doing the faux Silver Age segments, which were a lot of fun until the rug got pulled.
Cannon: It is the first time I have worked with Alan Moore. How about that.
Ha: This is the first time I've worked with Alan. He's been a real gentleman. He is the most amazing writer I've ever worked with. He takes half baked ideas from me and cooks up something wonderful. Often times, I haven't realized that characters in the script are based on my ideas.
He's also the only writer I know who can be so prolific without burning out. I have this theory that he writes like the mythical beat genius: a constant stream of consciousness without needing corrections. He seems to see every page in his head perfect and complete before he starts to type. He knows where every character and word balloon should show up on the page.
Williams, III: This is the first time I've worked with Alan. I previously had done some Batman and other stuff over at DC. I also created Chase with D. Curtis Johnson which ran for ten issues before it got the ax and a little bit of work for Marvel.
Sprouse: I worked on Supreme for six issues with Alan at Awesome Comics (#'s 50, 53-57), as well as some smaller Awesome projects such as the Judgment Day miniseries. Supreme was lots of fun, but I'm enjoying Tom Strong more than anything else in my career.
Gray: This is the first time I've worked with Alan Moore. I am very honored because he's my favorite comic book writer! I've probably read more stuff by him than any other writer in the biz.
Allred: How long are you planning to work on your current ABC project?
Cannon: I have no contract with Wildstorm, but I intend to work with Top Ten, and others, for quite some time. The scheduling, and the manner of my job within each title, allows me a measure of time for other pursuits, so I am content to keep things as they are.
Williams, III: I will stay on Promethea as long as they will have me.
Gray: As long as they want us!!!
Ha: Till I burn out.
Sprouse: I'll just put it this way: I can't imagine working on anything else! As far as I'm concerned, I'm in it for as long as they print it!
Veitch: I signed a 12 issue contract with WILDSTORM before they were bought by DC. I've got some long standing issues with DC that will have to be addressed if they want me beyond the original contract. Since it involves the Swamp Thing #88 controversy, I'm figuring DC will not be lifting a finger to resolve the issues and, sadly, I'll be doing something else.
Allred: What does the future hold for our favorite ABC characters?
Cannon: Well, what's that they say about team books--one member has to die sooner or later? Also, there's some interesting drug running going on, some intrigue...but you'll really have to ask the architect on this one.
Williams, III: All I know at this point is that the battles and conflicts that Promethea faces in the near future will become grander in scale. She will also be learning more about Prometheas of the past and what her role in the present will be. She has a lot ahead of her. Of course I don't want to give away details and spoil all the fun for everyone.
Ha: Keep in mind that Alan loves to tell a good story, but he also likes to surprise. He doesn't end a story the way we expect. I know Alan has a specific ending for the first story arc, but even he doesn't know the exact road he'll take to get there.
Sprouse: I can't tell you! There's a huge surprise coming up in Tom Strong, but I don't want to ruin it for anyone!
Gray: Their own Saturday morning TV shows and big-time movie deals (hopefully).
Veitch: I think the ABC characters might hold the future of comics! The old super-hero thing has been done to death and I think these books are the breath of fresh air comics needs to reclaim their audience.
Allred: Do any of you have any other projects are you currently working on?
Cannon: I'm writing and drawing The Replacement God to be published through a self-publishers co-op handled through the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I'm just plugging along through Book Two, getting close to the middle of the story.
Williams, III: I have an Elseworlds hardcover coming out called Son Of Superman. I worked on that with Howard Chaykin. Right now, I'm just trying to concentrate on Promethea.
Ha: Nothing else at the moment.
Gray: Like J.H., I'm waiting for Son of Superman to come out.
Sprouse: Tom Strong takes up all of my time(and then some), so I'm not currently working on anything else.
Veitch: I'm also writing Cy-Gor, a monthly monster title for Todd McFarlane Productions. And, I'm working every day on the Comicon.com web site. Its a comic book convention on-line and we've been meeting with great success in the year since we launched. We have about 150 exhibitors now, our message boards are one of the main watering holes for the comics fans and pros alike, and our daily news site, The Splash, is reporting on all aspects of the world's most popular artform (especially the parts that no one else seems to want to report on!). My self publishing of Rare Bit Fiends and the King Hell Heroica is on hold until the monopoly distribution system either opens up or is replaced by a new on-line market for comics. While I do enjoy doing mainstream entertainment work (especially collaborating with Alan), my heart really lies with doing more art comics, like Rare Bit Fiends. I see a vast untapped potential for what the form of comics can be. The challenge is to create an audience of readers who can relate to deeper ideas and nuanced graphics beyond what we've seen for the last 60 years in American comics.
Allred: Any final comments?
Cannon: I greatly enjoy working with ABC; I feel like Alan Moore has created something very rich with possibilities, particularly with Tomorrow Stories. When Kevin Nowlan leaves Jack B Quick for a time, there will be a feature, the name of which escapes me, about a character made of ink that can form himself into anything he likes, a story that is tailor-made to the artist, Hilary Barta. Alan Moore has an incredibly fertile imagination, and if there is the opportunity for artists with recognizable styles to co-create a feature that will last for four or so eight page features, this could lead to something big. Readers will be invited to ask, "What character would Alan Moore create with Matt Wagner? Adam Hughes? Adam Warren? Chester Brown? David Lapham? Jason Lutes? J Scott Campbell? Etc. I look forward to being associated with ABC for a great while.
Williams, III: I feel that Promethea and all the other ABC titles give the readers something fresh and unique. They are all visually interesting, fun, exciting, and thoughtful from issue to issue. If fans stick with these titles for the journey, they will be happy that they have done so. Alan always has something enjoyable to convey with his stories.
Rick Veitch's amazing Comicon.com site can be found at http://www.comicon.com/ and J. H. Williams, III and Mick Gray maintain a web site at http://members.aol.com/JHnMick/comics.html. Wildstorm, publisher of America's Best Comics can also be found on the web at http://www.wildstorm.com/