Like many readers encountering DC's Animal Man for the first time, I was mystified by how a novelty super-hero character could be imbued with so much emotional complexity as to make me care about his compounding existential crises. Superhero comics have very seldom produced an aesthetic response in me beyond an understanding of its plot mechanics or an appreciation of how close to the outer mythological limit characters can be taken without violating their genre principles; nevertheless, these narrow parameters were exactly why I found the form engaging to begin with.
I had chalked up my intense reaction to Animal Man to its writing, but with each reread, I became more enamored with the art of Chaz Truog, who pencilled most of the series. Truog’s work perfectly complimented the level of abstraction writer Grant Morrison was bringing to superhero comics, and I began to cede the importance I ascribed to the book to its two chief creators equally.
Truog’s art had both the elegant simplicity and dynamism of some of my favorite Golden Age artists like Howard Sherman or Stan Aschmeier, but he was more expressive too; he reminded me of the way that film actors over-emoted to become more symbolically effective at overcoming the technical limitations of silent film. When I looked into his previous work on Mike Baron’s Coyote and then his Animal Man follow-up, Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci, I began to understand the caliber of artist that Truog represented to me: his work was iconoclastic, experimentally wide-ranging, and wildly inventive when it came to using panelwork as a sophisticated pacing tool. It was everything I was invested in as a humble reader.
After eschewing corporate comics work in the late 1990s, Truog pursued independent work for the better part of two decades, and has had art credits on titles like Octobriana, Djustine, Geronimo, and the upcoming The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus with Steve Orlando. We corresponded via email to discuss his forty year career in comics, his complicated relationship with Animal Man, and his artistic legacy.
Jean Marc Ah-Sen: You studied graphic design at the Arts Institute International in Minneapolis. Did you know as a student that you wanted to make comics, or was it the first opportunity that came knocking among your varied creative pursuits? I know that you are a photographer and actor as well, and you have been sharing these large scale painting recreations and sculptures on social media lately.
Chaz Truog: Studying graphic design at AII came much later, when I realized I needed to have some computer skills. I studied Fine Art at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota, but I started drawing my first comics the summer I graduated high school in 1978. When I got to college, I started drawing a science fiction strip for the college newspaper. It was written by Bradd Mielke, who I later collaborated with on X-men, an X-Men parody. I fell in love with the medium of comics, but I was also painting and sculpting, and doing a bit of theater on the side. The same week I got the job penciling Animal Man in the fall of 1987, I also got hired as an actor for a prestigious local theater. If that first issue was a bit rough, it was because I was doing the show and trying to get the issue out. That was a very busy few months.
Your first published credit was on Mike Baron’s Capital Comics title Badger. Everyone I’ve spoken to on the subject has a slightly different variation on the “breaking into comics” story, so I was hoping you could shed some light on what the publishing environment was like in the early eighties when you were trying to get hired.
Actually, aside from my college newspaper strip, my first published work (unpaid) was for Charlton Comics' Bullseye, which ran a competition for aspiring cartoonists to have their work published. So Bradd Mielke wrote "Warhund - Warrior of a Forgotten World," and I drew it. This was in 1981.
In the early '80s, comics began to open up, as far as where you could live while also working for the big companies like Marvel and DC. It used to be you had to live in the New York area where the offices were. Courier companies like FedEx sprang up and made it possible for someone like me, living in Marshall, to collaborate with Steve Englehart, living in Oakland, California, to do work for Marvel/Epic in New York.
In 1983, I was less than a year out of college and going to comics conventions in Minneapolis, where I met the up-and-coming duo of Mike Baron and Steve Rude, who were beginning their run on Nexus. I showed Mike my work and he thought I might be a good fit to draw a backup story in a new book he was writing, The Badger. A few months later, he sent me the script. That was my first pro gig. It’s not great! Mike was friends with Englehart, who was looking for a new artist for Coyote, his book for Marvel’s new Epic line of comics. That’s how I got the gig. Then, as now, networking is important.
Marvel in the '80s was not the media giant it is today. I think for a while it was owned by Revlon. Epic was their answer to trying to cater to the growing creator-owned comics movement. I’m not sure how committed they were to the idea; they would rather have had characters they owned who could do guest appearances in Spider-Man or the Hulk.
Coyote was neither fish nor fowl; you were working for Marvel, but not in the Marvel Universe, and people at the Marvel offices didn’t seem to know what to do with the book. Since it’s creator-owned, is it work for hire? Should they do a back-end payment for work? While they worked that out, they still wanted pages drawn, since they were behind schedule. I drew my first issue and a half of the book as fast as I could, while trying to get paid. I’m not sure anymore how I survived since I had no money at all.
They ended up treating it as work for hire. Doing Coyote as literally my second pro gig—as one of Marvel’s Epic line of comics, Coyote was supposed to be a premium book printed on better paper stock—was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. But that’s not to say the experience didn’t go to my head a little, or a lot, depending on who you ask. I know I came across as a bit too cocky in those days, with not a lot to back it up. I got the gig before I was anywhere near ready for it.
You've sung the praises of Frank Thorne, the trail-blazing artist known for his runs on Red Sonja, Ghita of Alizzar, and Flash Gordon. What is it about Thorne's artistic legacy that appeals to you and allows you to engage with it after all these years?
In the summer of '78, I was buying comics at a local drugstore (back when that was a thing), and came across Red Sonja #10. The art was not the typical Marvel style, and that grabbed my attention. I plunked down my thirty-five cents, and was hooked. I picked up every issue of Sonja that he did. When he drew Sonja, the absurdity of the chainmail bikini seemed irrelevant. Soon after, he quit drawing Sonja and went on to write and draw (and letter!) Ghita of Alizarr—Frank unchained by the constraints of the Comics Code!
Violence, nudity, “tum-bumping” (sex—one of Frank’s clever little bits of language), all beautifully drawn and well-written. Frank was a helluva writer, too. I was a bit taken aback, initially, but it was sheer magic.
His first run on Ghita is his very best work. I wasted reams of paper and gallons of ink trying to imitate his style. Later, I began to correspond with him by letter, and later, emails and social media. In 2015, there was a retrospective show of his work at the Illustration House in New York, so I flew out there to meet him, after more than twenty years of corresponding (we had never actually met). Now, they say you should never meet your heroes, but Frank was an exception to that rule. The day after his show, he invited me out to his studio in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and we visited like old friends. He passed away at age ninety in 2021, six years to the day of the opening of his retrospective show. I miss his saucy Christmas cards. My take on Octobriana, a book I did with Steve Orlando, is my tribute to Frank’s art.
Grant Morrison has said something to the effect that when they were hired from the UK to work for DC Comics, they wanted the obscurest title to work on to try to make it a sales hit, which of course became the four-issue Animal Man miniseries turned ongoing monthly title that introduced your work to mainstream comics audiences. How were you paired with Grant, and was there a particular reason that you signed on at the outset?
I was at a convention once and after a few too many drinks with one of the editors at DC, he let slip that I was hired because they didn’t want someone who was too flashy and would over-shadow the scripts. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. I was in the running for work at DC because I knew DC’s art director Richard Bruning (a friend of Mike Baron’s who later married Karen Berger, the Animal Man editor and founder of Vertigo Comics).
It may simply have been that I was the first one to answer the phone or was available. Sometimes that’s how it works. A week after I got the call from Karen Berger, I was at work on Animal Man #1. I had never even heard of Animal Man before, and since he was such an obscure character, I didn’t really feel bound by the heavy tradition of art and story that a figure like Batman or Superman has. I could just draw.
How did you go about the period-defining redesign of the character, updating the look that was originally created by Carmine Infantino? Concept design is very different work from drawing interiors I imagine, and involves marrying different and possibly restrictive sensibilities from previous artists if you are not creating the character from scratch.
The only real change I made to the costume was the jacket—Grant had him in this denim jacket. I changed the style of it in the "Fox on the Run" issue. It was based on a jacket that I owned—nobody else that I know of draws him in that style of jacket. I modified the goggles somewhat, based on Brian Bolland’s covers.
A word about Bolland’s covers—early in 1988, I got a call from Karen Berger, who told me “We’ve decided we want someone else to do the covers for Animal Man. We’ve decided to go with Brian Bolland.” I loved his work on Judge Dredd and Camelot 3000, so that wasn’t a hard pill to swallow. His covers were always amazing; it was a huge treat to open the box of comps from DC and see his covers for the first time. I have the full-sized photocopy of his cover for #1 framed, and it hung over my drawing table for years.
Grant designed the black suit that appears late in the series as a kind of commentary of how a doom and gloom, action hero style suit (Dolph Lundgren buzz cut included) could look on an innocuous if amusing Silver Age character, right? Writers don’t usually have a cartooning background like Grant, and I’m curious if this enhanced the collaborating process, allowing you to develop kind of shorthand when working together?
Grant is a very visual writer, something that you’d think that more comic writers would be. You could tell that they'd thought about how the page would look drawn. Sometimes I wasn’t aware that they were doing a specific visual thing in a script until after I’d drawn it, then I’d have an "Aha!" moment.
I had no contact with Grant at all during their run on the series. Sometimes they would send designs for characters or page layouts that I was free to use or not. I sent them a letter early on (pre-internet, email, social media) and they didn’t respond. They were living in Glasgow, Scotland at the time. After a while, I assumed that they just didn’t like the work. I met them only once, six months or so after their last Animal Man story. This was at the San Diego Comic-Con, in 1990.
Here’s what happened. I arrived at the convention center, and met my Animal Man editor, Art Young, who said, “Grant is here signing autographs. You should go introduce yourself.” I walk over to where they're doing their signing. They're dressed all in black, wearing dark sunglasses, very pale. I introduce myself. They look up, and extend a limp white hand to shake. They say something that, because of their accent, the noise of the hall, and the fact that they weren't speaking very loud, took me a moment to translate: “At last we meet.” They withdrew their hand, and went back to their signing. That was all.
“Oh wow, this is so cool, they’ve never met before!” remarked one of the autograph seekers. I stood there awkwardly for a moment, then I walked away. I was furious. The next day, we were seated next to each other for an hour at the DC table, signing autographs. They didn’t speak to me or acknowledge me in any way. As the convention went on, stories were circulating of how they seemed to be cultivating a “I’m a weird British writer” act, which the fans loved, but wasn’t impressing anyone else. So it went.
In 2002, I was again at the San Diego Comic-Con. One day I was walking from my hotel to the Convention Center, and noticed a knot of people ahead of me clustered around a figure with a shaved head. As I passed, the person with the shaved head glanced at me, our eyes met for a moment, and I walked on. A half a block later, I realized that the person with the shaved head was Grant. I thought to myself, “I should go back and say hello.” And then I thought, “Naw.”
Your run on Animal Man has become something of an industry gold standard on how to approach modern superhero comics, imbuing them with a savvy, meta-existentialist vein that engaged a wider, maybe more erudite audience than had been previously done—Grant was citing John Broome, but also Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges as influences on the acclaimed run, after all. What are you opinions about whether superhero fare should appeal primarily to a youth audience, or if they should develop a mature sensibility so that they can appeal to an aging audience of loyal, weekly readers—the so-called “Wednesday Warrior”—whose habits and interests aren’t necessarily experiencing a renewal, generationally speaking? I can’t imagine hitting a moving target of an audience is easy, or desirable.
I think it’s mostly a huge mistake to try to retool stuff that’s for kids into some dark, gritty, violent story. There are exceptions, of course. It depends on how it’s done. The first real comic book that I read when I was six or seven was Casper the Friendly Ghost. If you give him a dark back story, which isn’t hard to imagine—Casper the Accident Prone Child, Casper the Missing Child Whose Body Turns Up in the River, Casper who Turns Up Dead in a Bitter Custody Battle (he is basically a dead child, after all)—what have you accomplished? Who are you appealing to? It’s perverse. Do comics for adults, and let kids have their own.
Although you continued the title with Peter Milligan, Animal Man #26 served as Morrison’s final issue on the title. Grant staged a now famous metafictional intervention in Buddy Baker’s life by writing themselves into the story à la Julie Schwartz in Flash #179. This was done to explain why Animal Man’s alter ego had been subjected to such harrowing events over the course of several years with you two at the helm. What were your thoughts when you received the script, and did you share Grant’s vision for how the series would end? I recall reading that Karen Berger [Vertigo imprint’s executive editor] was somewhat nonplussed by the idea.
I wasn’t aware of the Julius Schwartz thing—Art Young used to comment that he could tell I wasn’t a FBG (Fan Boy Geek); some of that stuff went right over my head.
I remember commenting to someone after I’d read Grant’s final issue, “If this script were any more self-indulgent, the pages would be stuck together.” I couldn’t believe it. There’s a panel where Grant is talking, and Buddy is rolling his eyes in the background. He’s the proxy for me in that scene, thinking, “Are you kidding me with this crap?”
I had zero input into what Grant was doing. I’m going to emphasize here that I thought Grant’s scripts for Animal Man were brilliant. I remember the chill that went down my spine the first time I read "The Coyote Gospel." Their Animal Man stories were much more disciplined than their Doom Patrol stories, for example. However, as they got into the Arkham Asylum period, they seemed to get more full of themselves. I don’t remember specifically anymore what it was that gave me that impression. And then I got their final script… I did the best I could with it, but it really turned me off. It seemed like the whole thing was a big ego trip for them. And that, aside from the odd paragraph or word balloon, was the last thing by them that I read. When I moved out of my apartment several years later, I deliberately threw out all of their scripts.
I’ve always wondered if there were any discussions for you to appear in that story alongside Grant as yourself?
If there were, I wasn’t aware of them! It’s unlikely—Grant wanted the spotlight on them. I don’t think I would have been too keen on the idea. I’m not that much of a narcissist to want to draw myself page after page.
Can you tell me about this love that you have of Gian Caprotti da Oreno—better known as Salai, the low-born pickpocket and apprentice that Da Vinci took under his wing—which led to the Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo Da Vinci project at the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics? Mark Wheatley put you in touch with the late Pat McGreal and David Rawson with the notion of pairing the three of you for a dream project, and you were the one who introduced them to the existence of Salai as a historical personage. How did you enjoy collaborating with writers on an idea that was very much a passion project for you?
Growing up, one of my heroes was Leonardo da Vinci. When you study about Leonardo, Salai pops up. Salai is one of those mysterious figures in art history. He started as apprentice at the age of ten and remained as Leonardo’s assistant/servant the rest of Leonardo’s life. He seems to have had little talent as a painter, and his function seems to have been ornamental—he is described by one of Leonardo’s contemporaries as being “a very attractive youth of unusual grace and looks, with very beautiful hair." The few personal notations in Leonardo’s writings detail Salai’s misdeeds: what he stole, what he broke, how much it cost for his upkeep.
Recent scholarship suggests that in later life, Salai was an art dealer and a go-between for the King of France and the Medici. The assumption today is that Leonardo was homosexual and Salai was his lover—possible, but who knows? What evidence there is about either of the two ideas is circumstantial, even probable, but… that’s the easy, obvious story to do. The real jumping-off point for me about the relationship between Leonardo and Salai was E. L. Konigsberg’s young adult novel, The Second Mrs. Gioconda, which suggests that Leonardo kept Salai around because he made him laugh. My original concept of the character was an amoral, roguish figure who sees Leonardo, one of the great minds in history, as his meal ticket.
I couldn’t have written the story. I had only a vague idea of what to do with it—that’s where Pat and Dave came in. And they did a whale of a lot of research to make it happen. The beauty of the source material is that there isn’t a lot that needs to be invented. The story got darker than I would have liked it to, but as I say, I couldn’t have written it. Today, I would be a lot more comfortable and more explicit with the sexual aspects of it, but there were limits to what we could do or show.
In one issue, the editors had no problem with the main character getting raped in an alley, but were strangely prudish about showing female breasts. You never knew what they’d want or object to. Some of the editorial input was useful and necessary, some of it was a pain in the ass. We went through three editors in the course of the ten-issue run, and each had their own style. One of them was more difficult to deal with and demanding than the other two, and I don’t want to name names, but it made doing my job very difficult. As my grandmother would have said, “There are too many cooks in the kitchen!” At my initial meeting with that editor in San Diego, the editor insisting on arm wrestling! Little did I know that it was going to be indicative of our whole working relationship.
It was probably a mistake to use chiaroscuro (the Italian painting term for light and shadow) for a title—unfamiliar, difficult to pronounce, obscure. It didn’t help our chances for success (I think of Diane Chambers in Cheers, and the pretentious title for her novel— Jocasta’s Conundrum. Huh?). But it fit, and Pat, Dave, and I couldn’t think of anything else (initially, the working title was Renaissance Man). Editor Alisa Kwitney tacked on the rather soap-opera subtitle "The Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci." I’m not sure it helped.
Chiaroscuro broke my heart. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on. There was never a point, in the three years it took to draw it, where you could just relax and draw. One of the problems with a story set five hundred years ago is that no matter how much visual research you do—and this was pre-Google—it’s never enough.
What does a doorknob look like in Renaissance Italy? What are they using to eat with? Do they have scissors? Eyeglasses? I couldn’t find a decent reference shot of the doorway of the Palazzo Vecchio. Things like that. If you make it up, someone notices.
I have a friend who makes period armor. I showed him a page I had drawn of a character in armor, and he remarked, “You made that up, didn’t you?” I had. Anyway, Chiaroscuro ended up showing me all the things I thought I could do, but didn’t have the skill for, drawing-wise. I remember realizing after I’d finished the final issue, that I had learned what I needed to learn to do the project, if that makes sense. But it was too late!
As a dumb side story, I was at my table at the Chicago Comic Book Convention in 1994, when someone came up for an autograph, asking what I was working on. I showed her photocopies of the pencils for Chiaroscuro, and started to talk about the premise of the book.
She interrupts: “You know that Leonardo was gay, right?”
“Well, he may have been, but—"
“Well he was, my art teacher said so.” A light goes on in her head. “You know, AIDS is a big problem in the gay community. Since Leonardo was gay, you should have something in your book about AIDS, and help get the word out.”
“This book is set five hundred years ago—AIDS didn’t exist back then.”
“Yes it did! That’s what they want you to think!” She launched into a tirade about AIDS and activism, and I suddenly became the enemy, trying to suppress information about the epidemic. She finished her spiel and left, and I thought, “What the hell was that?” It was so random.
I finished Chiaroscuro in 1997 or so, and I had an idea for a story that would have filled in one of the gaps in the story. It would have been about the painting of The Last Supper. I wrote the first issue, and in the course of doing research, ran across the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which asserts that Leonardo was the member and leader of a mysterious, secret society, and which lead to the shady world of the Holy Grail, Mary Magdalene, the Shroud of Turin. Somehow, Leonardo was involved in all this. I thought it was interesting but pretty farfetched. How to work it into a story? I tossed it around for a while, but it proved beyond my meager talents as a writer, so I eventually gave up.
Of course, a few years later, Dan Brown wove all those elements into The Da Vinci Code, and the rest is history. The only upshot of that for me was persuading DC to release Chiaroscuro as a trade paperback, in a shameless bid to cash in on Dan Brown’s success. Why not?
You noted at the time of the book’s release that historical fiction was not something that was in high demand, nor what North American comics audiences were really conversant in. Books like Ho Che Anderson’s King and Art Spiegelman’s Maus do in that respect seem like anomalous exceptions to the rule, but you contrasted this state of affairs in a Vertigo "On the Ledge" column with the rich European tradition of this kind of work, particularly singling out Hermann’s The Towers of Bois-Maury and Milo Manara’s Indian Summer as notable examples. How do you think Chiaroscuro helped push awareness of this form, and do you think today’s readers have a strong appetite for it?
It’s part of what I felt comics should do—appeal to different tastes, be more grown-up. It's hard to do when you’re working with a big company like DC, whose bread-and-butter is superhero comics. Mike Carlin at DC commented, when I told him about Chiaroscuro, “Yeah, that’ll just fly off the shelves!” Of course, he was right—it was never going to get "The Death of Superman" sales.
Since that’s how they make their money, can you blame them for not wanting do something else? But I think of Sam Glanzman’s Marvel graphic novel A Sailor’s Story, which is about his experiences in the Navy during World War II. That’s something my Dad would have loved. There’s no reason that comics can’t appeal to grown-up tastes.
I think the book has endured and will stand the test of time—I remember being told by many comic enthusiasts that the titles that were instrumental in the recognition of comics as serious art form in America in the nineties were Sandman, The Invisibles, and Chiaroscuro—but I’m curious what you think of its status within popular culture.
That’s very flattering. It’s so hard for me to look at it objectively. I see all the flaws and things I wish I’d done better. If I could, I’d completely redraw it.
For better or for worse, the relationship between penciller and inker strikes me as one of the most direct and sensitive forms of artistic collaboration. You’ve worked with Doug Hazlewood, Peter Gross, Rafael Kayanan, and Frank Springer over the years, among others. Can you describe this alchemical relationship, and maybe talk about how you view your role as penciller? Do you under-render for example, when paired with a trusted inker you work well with, or do you do practice runs beforehand with a new collaborator if the exigencies of publishing allow for it?
Usually, it’s like a shotgun wedding, or at best an arranged marriage. I really lucked out with Doug Hazlewood on Animal Man. I think my first reaction to Doug’s inks on my pencils was that it looked like how it would look if I inked it myself. I liked it a lot. The highest compliment I can give him is that he made me lazy, or at least complacent. He seemed to know what I wanted to see—and he definitely saved my ass more than once on the book. I was excited when Mark Farmer took over inks on later issues of Animal Man because I liked his work, but our styles didn’t mesh very well—that happens. So instead of doing looser pencils like I was used to doing with Doug, I had to be a lot tighter.
Regarding Rafael Kayanan, I'll say at the outset that I think he’s a very good artist, otherwise we wouldn’t have picked him to ink Chiaroscuro. Unfortunately, our styles didn’t work very well together, and didn’t really begin to mesh until issue seven or eight—when that’s issue eight of a ten-issue series, that’s not a good thing. It was part of the frustration of doing that series, but not necessarily Rafael’s fault as an artist. I really had to tighten my pencils up to get what I wanted from him.
With Frank Springer, he was brought on to replace Bob Wiacek on Coyote. In my one conversation with him, he was very condescending. He was a seasoned, established pro, and I was this upstart kid in his mid-twenties. I had a lot to learn! At one point in the conversation, he told me “You can’t draw!” He was right. That early stuff was pretty rough. I bit my tongue and took it; there was no point in arguing. Dealing with Wiacek and Springer earned me a bad rep at Marvel (I’m also one the few people on the planet who didn’t get along with Archie Goodwin, known as one of the nicest guys in comics).
That being said, I hated Springer’s inks. But seeing anyone else’s inks on your pencils always looks like a weird copy of your work, and tends to magnify any flaws in the drawing.
Peter Gross had the misfortune of inking my fill-in issue of Doctor Fate, one of the worst books I’ve ever turned in. It’s the only deadline I totally blew because I was sick with the mother of all colds and working on another freelance project at the same time. The pencils were barely more than breakdowns. A bit of a disaster due to bad timing.
The lesson about inkers that took me a long time to learn is that you do the work the best you can and let it go, especially the work for hire stuff. You always hope for the best. I would have loved to work with Klaus Janson, Terry Austin, or Rudy Nebres. Nebres’ brush work is so lush and beautiful. A good inker is worth his or her weight in gold. The same can be said for letterers and colorists like John Costanza, Tom Orzechowski, Petra Scotese, and Tatjana Wood. Inking, lettering, and coloring my own work makes me appreciate those jobs a lot more.
Your latest project is a self-funded collaboration with Steve Orlando called The Passion of Sergius & Bacchus. Will this project be a historical reworking of clandestine Christian martyrdom in the Roman Empire? I know that Steve has described it as a passion play influenced by silent film.
Steve’s inspiration for the book comes from the silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which is an unusual movie in that it’s almost entirely close-ups of the actors. So Sergius & Bacchus is a lot of close-ups, a challenge in drawing. I did the adaptation of the source material, so in order to tell the story more clearly, I had to cheat a bit and sneak in some establishing shots. It’s a little frustrating because I love Ancient Rome as much as I love Renaissance Italy. I would have loved to have opened things up with big vistas showing forums and temples and statuary, but we were on a strict nine-panel grid for pages with a format of lots of close-ups. Adapting the legend of Sergius and Bacchus is really the first writing I’ve done in comics (Steve is doing captions and dialogue) while also penciling and inking. It’s a story of persecution of two Christian lovers by the Romans (persecuted for their religion, not their sexuality). It’s a brutal story, and I didn’t pretty it up.
Why did you decide to release this OGN yourselves, as opposed to going through more traditional publishing outlets or even the subscription-based patronage models that are proving popular avenues for making comics today?
That’s Steve's decision. He has a better grasp of the current market than I do.
As I’m sure is common with most comic creators, shelved or cancelled projects is an annoyance that you have to contend with from time to time. The Brother Power the Geek book you were working on with writer Stefan Petrucha actually saw you pencil almost three issues before it was scrapped entirely. Can you walk me through this nightmare? Is there any chance this project will ever see the light of day, if not with DC, then with another publisher?
I really wish I’d kept some sort of journal from that period, detailing that train wreck. In 1991, I had been working on Forgotten Realms with editor Kim Yale. Kim was a very nice person, but not a very effective editor. I was trying to get a miniseries of Hercules Unbound going with her, and she was all for it, but didn’t do anything with it for whatever reason. I would get a message to call her to talk about it, and she would talk about anything else. It was pretty frustrating.
She was also trying to negotiate the rights to Interview with the Vampire, which I would have drawn, but that went nowhere. Then, she came up with the Brother Power the Geek series. Stefan Petrucha had a pitch, three or four finished scripts, and a series outline, which she sent to me. I read them, and they were brilliant. They rivaled anything that Alan Moore or Grant Morrison had written. I was sold. I signed the contract, I did character designs, I started to work. I was penciling and inking, got the first two issues drawn, was working on the third, and—something happened.
As best I remember, it was some internal office politics at DC; Kim had overstepped her bounds, didn’t really have to go-ahead to use the character or something. I was given the order to stop working while they figured it out. So I sat for two weeks, waiting. Finally, I got a call from Dick Giordano’s secretary. At that time, Dick was the Vice President of the company, besides being a legendary inker.
It was like getting a phone call from God. He apologized for the mix-up over the series, but didn’t say much else. Later, I got a call from Kim, telling me the whole project had been canceled, and I was going to be paid a "kill fee" to compensate for my two-week hiatus.
At this time, I was also developing Chiaroscuro with Pat and Dave for the fledgling Vertigo line, so it was time to get it off the back burner. I called Karen Berger as soon as I got off the phone with Kim and told her I was ready to go ahead with the series. The date was April 15, 1992–coincidentally, April 15 was Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday. It seemed like an omen.
I was very angry over the Brother Power project for a long time. Will it ever see the light of day? Unlikely, since we don’t own the character.
You tend to work with different writers across projects, but you have collaborated a few times with Steve Englehart, working together on Epic Comics’ Coyote and Topps Comics’ Jurassic Park series. What was it about your dynamic and his writing that made you want to continue working with him?
Steve really gave me my first big break on Coyote. His scripts were in the Marvel style—page breakdowns, with him adding dialogue and captions later. It’s a pretty easy way to work, and he did enough description to make it work well.
My first issue of Coyote was #4, and there was a climax that took place at Hoover Dam. I couldn’t for the life of me find any visual reference in the local library, and this was bad since Hoover Dam has a very Art Deco look to it—pretty specific. I did the best I could. That first issue was a trial by fire in a lot of ways.
In 1994, I ran into Steve at a Convention in Chicago, and he needed an artist to draw a few issues for the Jurassic Park series, which was behind schedule. We were in a lull on Chiaroscuro, in between editors, so I said yes. Since they were way behind schedule, I had to draw as fast as I could, sometimes three pages a day (usually I draw only a page a day). Then I had to drive the pages out to the inker Paul Fricke to save time. I would have loved to have taken my time on it and drawn really cool dinosaurs, but no dice.
Steve was doing full scripts, broken down panel by panel, with caption and dialogue, but it was a comfortable feeling, like putting on an old shoe.
You spent a lot of time working in DC's playpen of properties—you have credits on Green Lantern Corps Quarterly, Doctor Fate, and Starman—but left the capes and costumes work for creator-owned or independent projects and haven’t really looked back. Were you tired of this sort of fare? Were there any other properties you wanted to explore and leave your mark on, with DC or other publishers?
It really wasn’t my decision. My finishing Chiaroscuro at the end of 1995 coincided with a huge slump in the industry. I would have been happy to have gotten another monthly book after Chiaroscuro, however I was really burned out after finishing the series. I said that Chiaroscuro broke my heart, and that’s true. It was reflected in the samples I was submitting to editors; my heart wasn’t in it. There weren’t that many new projects anyway, and established books were being cancelled left and right.
Another aspect of that is that I had made a decision early on in Animal Man to not try to draw like everyone else, to do my own thing. My examples in this were Steve Rude and Frank Thorne, drawing in a more naturalistic style. In the mid-nineties, there was huge pressure to imitate Todd McFarlane and the Image guys.
At one point, an editor at Marvel asked me, “Can you draw like Todd McFarlane?”
“Why, I taught him everything he knows!” I joked (Todd started out drawing a back-up series in Coyote).
I didn’t get the gig. So that decision bit me in the ass in the short term, because I wasn’t drawing in the popular style. And another strange thing happened with trying to get work; I would approach Marvel or DC, and an editor would say, “We don’t think you’re right for a superhero book because you’re not known as a superhero artist.”
“But I drew Animal Man."
“That’s not really a superhero book.”
Really? This was kind of a backlash against Vertigo and the British Invasion represented by Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison. Their work wasn’t mainstream enough for the purists, despite their successes. Or you’d approach an indie company and they’d say, “We don’t think you’re right for the books we’re doing because you’re known as a superhero artist.” Again, from drawing Animal Man. You couldn’t win.
Or, you’d get an editor interested and they’d get you drawing sample pages: “Why don’t you draw some Stupendous Man samples?”
You draw the pages on spec—unpaid. You send them in.
“We don’t really need a Stupendous Man artist right now. Why don't you do some Dark Avenger sample pages?”
You do the samples and send them in.
“We don’t really need a Dark Avenger artist right now. Why don’t you draw–"
In theory, you could do this indefinitely. Editor on a power trip.
Or you might be told, “We just don’t have anything that fits your style right now.”
Whether true or a brush-off, there’s no way to know. So I did other things, eventually going back to school to learn computer graphics, Illustrator, Photoshop, etc. I have a title for an Animal Man story I’ve never written: “Adapt, Move On, or Die."
I would have loved to have done a Sandman story with Neil Gaiman. In those days, he was living over the border in Wisconsin. I would still love to do a Conan or Red Sonja story, the latter because of Frank Thorne. I didn’t grow up reading superhero books, so I wasn’t one of those guys who dreamed of drawing Spider-Man or Batman since they were ten. When I came to comics, in my mid-teens, I was reading Savage Sword of Conan, Marvel’s black and white Planet of the Apes magazine, John Carter Warlord of Mars (with those wonderful Nebres inks), Heavy Metal (my intro to Moebius, Corben, and Milo Manara), and the Warren black and whites (with the reprinted Frazetta covers).
Your former editor Karen Berger is often touted as being instrumental in bringing a talent-centered approach to the corporate culture of comics emerging in the '80s, having championed creator rights in the wake of the attention Jack Kirby and Neal Adams brought to the subject. How do you view the way that creators and their rights are prioritized in the current climate of comics publishing?
It’s always a good thing. We’re the idea people.