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Thoughts from the Land of Frost :
A Conversation With Bryan Hitch By Alexander Ness
If you're a comic book reader (and we assume you are), and you haven't heard of Bryan Hitch or noticed his many works with awe, let's just say you've been missing out on a highly talented creator. From Stormwatch to The Authority and JLA, Hitch has been thrilling readers from series to series. Marvel Comics certainly recognizes that. The publisher recently announced it had renewed Hitch's exclusive contract through 2006, where it will keep him busy on such books as The Ultimates with Mark Millar.
But without further ado, read on as Bryan discusses past, present, and future projects.
AN: Hello Bryan. Please tell my readers a little something about yourself. How old are you, are you married, where are from, where do you live, cats, dogs, muppets...?
BH: Hello Alex, nice to talk to you. I am somewhat over 21, slightly overweight, terribly overwrought and often overwhelmed. I am not married but live with my girlfriend Joanne and three children, though we plan to marry as soon as we feel up to it. I was born in the far northern reaches of England and am currently about 7950634th in line to the British throne.
AN: How might you say that you were trained in art? Did you attend university or trade school, or are you self taught?
BH: If I was trained then I have probably escaped and gone back into the wild. I had intended to go to art school but received my first commission from Marvel UK at the sweet age of sixteen and haven't looked back. Well, that's not strictly true: I have received treatment for many neck injuries sustained in looking over my shoulder, but the point is I have never been out of work, which is something
AN: What comic artists are your favorites and which are the greatest influences upon your own style?
BH: This would be a lengthy list indeed were I to mention all the artists and illustrators who have had some influences on my work: there is certainly something to be learned from anybody good, so I will just talk about a few. There are the obvious ones like Alan Davis and Kevin Nowlan, but there are others like Steve Parkhouse (of The Bojeffries Saga, which should be on everybody's shelves) who was the first professional comic artist I met and was living in my home town. To meet somebody who did such good work and knew all the pros whose work I thought amazing had such a profound effect on me that even now the memories are magical and help remind me of the youthful enthusiasm that fueled my single-minded approach to entering the comics field.
The work of Davis also led me into the likes of Adams and Kane, through them to Wally Wood, back through to Nowlan. Garcia-Lopez was the best kept secret in comics and one of the greatest draughtsmen the industry has ever had. I hadn't realised the influence his work had on me until recently, but I believe him to be arguably the best artist ever to have worked in comics. Throw in Kirby, Buscema, Perez, Byrne, Golden, Simonson, Mignola, Gillon, Charest and numerous others who have had a variety of effects and influences at various times and you have something approaching a list!
Paul Neary in his role as something of a mentor in his days as my editor at Marvel UK and later as a partner and colleague had a large influence in that he was an invaluable source of advice having had experience in just about every area of the field (so to speak) and was able to point me towards some of the industry's greatest talents throughout decades of comic book production. Some rubbish too, but he liked it...
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AN: What life experiences would you count as being the most influential upon your work?
BH: Well, I would have to count being born as the single greatest experience without which I doubt I would be drawing comics at all.
Actually, a fundamental turning point was the appalling events of Sept. 11. There seemed to be a blithe innocence to the way we approached the apparently escapist action of our work, and this frequently involved destruction on a massive scale. In a very tragic way the consequences of such events were made real, and this couldn't fail to have an effect. When one's work is attempting to be contemporary the world around and it's events can dictate the events and flavours of the stories one tells and in this case it caused us to completely rethink our approach to what was then to be the Ultimate Avengers. I also think it became a better book because of it.
AN: What was your first comic that you read that you remember and do you still own a copy of it?
BH: I don't have a copy but I do remember a Superman comic with the daily planet staff aware of his identity and threatening to reveal it to the world. It ended with one of them, Lois, Perry or Jimmy ripping over Clark's shirt and telling him to go save them from an impending meteor collision. I couldn't tell you the issue number but I bet Mark Waid could!
AN: Why comics and not films or TV?
BH: I grew up wanting to draw comics from an early age. They captured my imagination more than other medium. I certainly watched TV and went to the cinema and enjoyed what I saw but I couldn't make a film or a TV programme, however I could draw and the escapism of Super heroes just seemed a perfect fit for a typically lonely nerd with glasses and bad social skills.
AN: What comic character do you consider your favorite?
BH: Superman, the first and best (and desperately in need of some fresh thinking). Looked at in the right way he can still make me feel like a child again. He is an icon and done well has a sense of wonder that no there comic character has ever had.
AN: Marvel UK was an imprint I enjoyed. You worked there on GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS. Did you find the experience there to be a training ground and did you work in an office with other Marvel UK staff or were you purely freelance, working out of your home?
BH: I was at Marvel UK twice, the first time in the later 80's where I worked on the Transformers and Action Force (GI Joe) weekly comics. During this time in my late teens I was still living with my parents and worked from home, when I returned there in 92 after Paul Neary took over I worked out of their office basement along with Liam Sharp, Andrew Currie and Andy Lanning, amongst others. Any work is a training ground as I don't believe the learning experience ever stops, but the second run at Marvel UK had the benefit of Paul Neary as I explained earlier.
AN: When you began working in the US you did some Marvel fill-ins and such... and you were labeled by some boneheads as being an Alan Davis clone. Do you see his influence in particular in those books and at that time? Or is this the case of pundits and critics using convenient labels to dismiss a newcomer?
BH: Well, labels are convenient, certainly. Everyone has their influences and these are especially noticeable in one's early work; Alan's very early Captain Britain shows the influence of Adams, Kane and Bellamy, and these influences are still visible depending on what he's drawing. Arthur Adams' early work comes from Michael Golden and Walter Simonson, Byrne shares Davis' influences, Jim Lee's early worked ranged through Mignola, Nowlan and Barry Smith. All of us retain these influences throughout our career and the same is true of any creative in any medium, the real growth comes where one can stop asking how they might handle any given problem and start asking how might they themselves approach it. We are armed with all we have learned from those we admire and can move beyond it. It is like being given a vocabulary and then learning to speak; for the first time we are able to express ourselves.
Alan Davis and Mark Farmer, for reasons of their own, at that time decided to single me out as though I was the only person in comics that had ever both been influenced and swiped from others in the field and made something of a fuss that continued long after it's use by date. Nothing exists in a vacuum and no one is exempt from the evolutionary process, except possibly God. It was all very silly and frankly best forgotten. I like to think for conveniences sake that my career really began with Stormwatch where, although my influences were still clearly being worn on my sleeve, my work began taking on a flavour of it's own and moving in a direction being determined by me.
AN: You landed on Stormwatch and did spectacular work. Did working with Warren Ellis in particular lead to a fabulous maturation of your story telling style or was it simply with having a regular book your style was able to bear fully its fruit?
BH: Probably a bit of everything really. Timing mostly, I should think. I had been making some progress in finding my own path for a probably a couple of years before Stormwatch came along. certainly Stormwatch was where it began to come together and that was certainly due in some part to working with a writer who had his own storytelling worked out as well as Warren had. Recently, just before I moved house, I cleared out the cupboard I had stored all the artwork that wasn't with my sales agent Rich (theartofcomics.com). As I looked through all the early stuff I had done, some of it over a decade ago, there were images that suggested the scale and decompression I would adopt in later life. I realised looking at those drawings, crude as they were, that the ideas were always in me, I just lacked the language to begin fully expressing them.
I think increasingly that I would probably have matured more quickly had I not been so heavily influenced by Alan Davis. I learned a great deal from his work to be sure, but the influence was so strong it pushed me away from my more natural approach and encouraged me to think more like another. I think this came about because I was so very lacking in confidence and didn't have the conviction to follow my own ideas especially in the face of those whose work I knew to be better than mine. Even now I never think my work looks like a real comic when printed, and I constantly struggle with my inner demons and have to remind myself that, possibly, my work doesn't suck. Other professionals ranging from Neal Adams and Frank Miller to Alex Ross and Jim Lee have been highly complementary about my work, but flattering as that is (and it is flattering) I still have trouble believing I'm any good at this funny old game. This is actually quite odd as I know with conviction that I couldn't do what I'm doing to the level I am doing it unless I believed I am fully capable of doing it well.
AN: How important is it to work with a particular writer for your style? That is, how different is it to work with Warren Ellis than, say, Mark Millar?
BH: Well, their approaches aren't too dissimilar, they are certainly students from the same school I would say, as am I. It's very important to be in the same ball park as those you collaborate with as it leads to a better product. We are all part of the same orchestra trying to play the same tune so the last thing you want is somebody at the front playing Johnny come Marching Home in 3:4 when everyone else is giving a close harmony rendition of You Are My Sunshine in 4:4.
I have a fantastic working relationship with Millar, we not only have many things in common but an almost telepathic understanding when it comes to stories. We are constantly editing each other and pushing each other's boundaries always trying to keep what we do fresh. We have spent hours on the phone only recently discussing how we are approaching Volume 2 of Ultimates in order to make it work better, faster and stronger than volume one (apart from an increased frequency of publication). I truly hope our relationship continues for many, many years. I believe the results of our mutual collaborations are stronger than our individual works, and I believe comics history will reflect on his work in the first decade of this new century in the same positive way Alan Moore's work was regarded in the 80's. It is changing the way people understand comics storytelling, and I am just in my element.
AN: You followed the Stormwatch run with a groundbreaking work, The Authority, once again with Warren Ellis. With the violence, investigation of power and such does this collaboration mark a watershed for the late 90's in that what Watchmen addressed Authority practised?
BH: I don't think this is something that the creators of any project decide at the time, it is always something best judged in hindsight by others. All we set out to do was have some fun, amuse ourselves in whatever foul, depraved way we could and tell the biggest and best stories we had in us at the time. If that is how the series is judged now by commentators, so be it. One's perspective and intentions change over time. "The follies of or youth are, in retrospect, glorious", afterall.
I would say that any so called post-modern realistic take on super heroes owes its beginnings to Watchmen and Moore. Now that's a groundbreaking comic. Mind you, that's not to ascribe a true originality in it's actual meaning to Moore. His talent, like all the best, is an evolutionary one that builds skillfully on what has preceded him, in this case some wonderfully imaginative fifties and sixties science fiction from the pulps like Galaxy paperbacks. One could also argue that the realistic take on super heroes we have all embraced since books like Watchmen could be traced to Larry Niven's essay Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.
AN: What input into plots did you have on that title? And how is Ellis to work with from a perspective of collective storytelling? Would you ever return to the title if all things were right?
BH: Warren knows what he's doing. His scripts (regardless of any criticism anyone may level at his work) are very well paced and well worked out. They are not only specific regarding his wishes, but open is enough to allow the artist a great deal of latitude to interpret the visuals and much of the pacing his own way.
When Warren and I first came up with the idea of the Authority the three stories were worked out as just one line pitches: The Authority overthrow a tyrant armed with thousands of Supermen, The Authority repel an invasion from an alternate earth and The Authority Kill God. My input was more along the lines of asking for and describing things relating to the action, such as the dogfight over LA and having the invasion of The Carrier being on horseback. My input on Ultimates is far greater as the working relationship with Mighty Mark Millar is much closer.
Recently DC and Wildstorm in the form of Dan Didio and Scott Dunbier approached Warren and I to return and do an original graphic novel of The Authority. Way back after we first left as I was off to do JLA we were asked to do a JLA/Authority in the treasury format. This was scuppered by JLA editor Dan Rasplar who took exception to the story and believed the JLA should change the Authority and show them the errors of their ways leaving them vowing never to hurt anybody again and help cats stuck up in trees. Naturally warren and felt in all conscience that Dan should fuck the hell off and stop being such a moron and we consequently decided against the project. It would have provided a nice segue into the JLA regular book, but alas was not to be. In the wake of Rasplar's overdue departure from DC (not his own choice, I add) it was felt that Warren and I would be up for another shot at the gig. I wasn't interested in the crossover, nor was I available to do any project at that time, but he and I agreed that we wouldn't be opposed to another Authority project if the stars aligned the way we would want.
AN: Your work on JLA was good but rather less confident in its storytelling than on Authority and since on Ultimates. Were you not a fan of the characters or was it hard to work with writer Mark Waid? (I love his writing so I imagine it must be something else).
BH: You know it's like I said earlier, you all have to be singing from the same song sheet. On paper it was a great fit. I had loved Waid's work on Flash and especially Kingdom Come and he was apparently an admirer of my own contributions to Authority. As we discussed how we wanted to work on the book we would as two lovers of these great characters become utterly enthused and excited by what we had planned. Unfortunately it just didn't happen. We really had two opposing approaches which, while equally valid on their own merits didn't mesh at all. It had its moments, but they were few and far between.
It's been said that the problems could be boiled down to Waid not writing great action or me not being interested in character-driven stories, but that's clearly not true since Ultimates is more character driven than Authority and Kingdom Come had some great action stuff in it that left our JLA work way behind. I would love to have another crack at the book in a few years when I can figure out how I could best approach the material. Meanwhile I have plenty to keep me busy...
AN: I came to the ULTIMATES rather late and really only became a convert thanks to some enlightenment and evangelizing by Mark Millar. It's not a hard work to appreciate as a stand-alone product, but of course, is a reimagining of an ongoing property.
But moving on, how did you choose the visual identities of the assembled cast and did your choices bother anyone like Samuel Jackson or anyone similarly borrowed?
BH: I understand from those who know that Sam Jackson is flattered. He's the only one really based on someone real, though it does occasionally help to visualise somebody playing the characters just to get a feel for how they would act. Samuel Jackson was and is the perfect Nick Fury, better than Mark's original choice of Bette Midler anyway.
AN: Do you have any particular issues with the adult content in the books and does it matter? Would you draw them in any event?
BH: I don't see the material in Ultimates as being particularly adult, intelligent, certainly, but not necessarily adult. Mark's Authority was much more adult. Anyway, I am far more depraved than Millar and the poor daft Scots Bastard couldn't hope to keep up.
AN: And what character would you like to see Marvel address in an ULTIMATES fashion that it hasn't done yet?
BH: Any as long as the new approach was sound and benefited from the rethink. Mark and I are bringing in some new ones in Volume 2 of Ultimates, and there are some further plans beyond that. The new approach for Ultimate FF is exciting, and like the Ultimates is different enough to stand on its own without the need to compare it with the earlier incarnation in the MU, but is also familiar enough to appeal to long-time fans. I had a great time doing the designs, and Adam Kubert is to be the regular artist with Bendis and Millar co-writing. Everything seems to be working out very nicely, and you can see the results in DEC!
AN: What comics do you pick up to read?
BH: Not to be glib, but any that interest me, and that can change regularly.
AN: Sounds like me in that regard. If you weren't a fabulously talented artist drawing comics what would you would be doing?
BH: Studying very hard to try and become a fabulously talented artist working in comics whilst doing time in San Quentin.
AN: Why no Bryan Hitch website?
BH: Coming soon...
AN: What are your upcoming projects outside ULTIMATES?
BH: All ultra secret, and very exciting!
AN: Thanks so much, you are a prince.
BH: You are very Welcome, Alex, you old Queen.
AN: I AM NOT A QUEEN. I like women.
All comic publishers and creative talent are welcome to submit items to be reviewed. Send items, to be considered for review, to:
Alexander Ness Land of Frost Box 142 Rockford MN 55373-0142