Talking Comics with Tim: Cully Hamner
Cully Hamner is an artist who never disappoints me. So I was immensely pleased that he and I were able to finalize this email interview in the chaos of the holiday season just in time for our one-year anniversary at Robot 6. We start the interview discussing his current collaboration with Greg Rucka on The Question co-feature in Detective Comics. From there, due to the film that is currently in production and the trade paperback collection that was released in mid-2009, we discussed his 2003/2004 Homage/Wildstorm collaboration with writer Warren Ellis, RED. There’s so many projects I could have discussed with Hamner, but I’m grateful he was willing to discuss RED to the degree he did. Hamner is clearly an artist who looks forward, not back–which makes me appreciate his indulging my RED interest in this discussion.
Tim O’Shea: How hard is it to convey emotion with the Question, the face is taken out of the dynamics, but you do still give a hint of her facial dynamics in certain scenes?
Cully Hamner: It’s a matter of considering that, even though you see no specific facial features, the planes of the face are still there and will react to light and shadow. It’s not a total blank, you know, Renee’s real face is under there, along with a range of expressions. So, when I look at it like that, it becomes a much simpler thing than you might think. So, what I do is just go ahead and draw an outline of the modeling on the face, and Dave McCaig (and before him Laura Martin) colors over that, and then drops my linework into a color. It’s not a full range of emotion like a detailed face would have, but I’ve been able to get across a few things well enough. Seems to work.
O’Shea: In the character’s original design and in the second part of the story, the Question wields a nasty nunchaku. Will that be part of her arsenal in future stories–or was that a prop you wanted to use in one issue?
Hamner: That was something Greg asked for, in keeping with her general bad-assedness. I’m sure it’ll pop up again, as will other weapons. But even empty-handed, she’s dangerous, right?
O’Shea: The real appeal to your work in the Question is how you so effectively choreograph the action in the pages. The Question’s story pacing is intensified and flows quite effectively thanks to your sense of layout. Do you go through a battery of thumbails on these scenes before you settle on a layout–or do you talk it out with Greg? What’s your approach?
Hamner: Well, first of all, thank you! All and any of the above, really—whatever feels right in the moment. For an action scene, I really only need to know where it begins and ends, where it needs to get us, and what it means to the story overall. Early on, Greg wrote much tighter action scenes, and I worked very hard to stay within what his scripts dictated, only veering here and there when I felt I had to. But we got in a groove together pretty quickly and developed a real trust in each other. So now, we’re much more likely to just hash things out on the phone and throw ideas at each other—so much so that I’ve gotten scripts where we get to an action scene that runs a couple or three pages, and it’ll just say “do what we talked about.” I love that! That’s real comics, man. It’s not quite what we used to call “Marvel-style,” but it’s way more fun than the full-script standard that is general practice today. We riff off of each other, and that is just the best, most fun way to do this job.
O’Shea: How many hats and costumes have you designed for Renee–and what is your thinking on the diversity of costumes (versus just having one costume)?
Hamner: See, the first thing you need to do is lose the very idea of a costume, and replace it with the idea of a look. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Green Lantern… they have costumes; they just aren’t those characters without them. But Indiana Jones, for example, has a look. He might lose his jacket, he might wear a tie, but as long as he has the hat, it’s Indy. Mr. Spock has worn a number of different uniforms and outfits, but the haircut and the ears make him Mr. Spock.
So, the Question has a look. As long as the face is blank, she’s the Question, no matter what she’s wearing. Now, she does have a few outfits that I will default to—a hat-and-coat combo, generally—But she could be in anything, really. I just put her in whatever suits the story to me. She’s functional when need be, stealthy, classy, sexy, butch, physical… it just depends on what vibe I’m getting from the script. Sometimes, Greg’s specific about it, and sometimes he just leaves it up to me.
O’Shea: Am I mistaken or is the Question logo the exact same one from the last ongoing series? Is that just a nod to the property’s rich history?
Hamner: It is, I’m pretty sure—that was DC’s call. It’s a great logo, very classic, and I don’t think there’s much reason to change it right now. Maybe if we did an ongoing down the line, we’d do something new. But it’s perfect for what we’re doing.
O’Shea: Is it me, or do you love having the Question kick down doors, she does it in the first issue and the fourth issue?
Hamner: I believe that, as a child, she was mugged by a gang of renegade doors at knifepoint. So, you know, do the math.
O’Shea: Will the supporting cast grow beyond Tot, or are you and Greg trying to keep the cast smaller in scale, due to the size of the stories?
Hamner: I’d guess that the cast will stay small, given the amount of room we have in a given issue. We really have to keep these things tight and low-fat. So, characters might move in and out of supporting status, but Renee and Tot are the mainstays. Greg would have a better idea of that, though.
O’Shea: Speaking of Tot, looking at your character designs–what motivates you to give some characters small attention like the fact he has a small bald spot?
Hamner: It’s just my way of making them real people, at least to me. Real people have idiosyncrasies and imperfections, and consequently are more fun to tell stories about. With Tot, I guess I wanted to show that he had aged some since Charlie’s death, and become more weary. He used to be a little thinner and more severe, with this flattop haircut. Now, he’s a little softer, more casual and professorial, less apt to shave or comb his hair. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I actually was sort of thinking of him as a version of Denny O’Neil, or at least my memories of seeing Denny at cons when I first started getting work at DC years and years ago. I’ve only met him a few times and don’t really know him at all, but I am a huge fan of his and Denys Cowan’s version of the character. So, in my mind, he’s Tot. Kind of my little tribute to him, I guess.
O’Shea: What’s the most enjoyable aspect of working with Renee–what sparks your interest (other than collaborating with Rucka of course)?
Hamner: Because she’s different, and yet the same. She can do all the same things that the previous versions of the character could do, but her reasons are different– she’s a such different person. Greg’s invested her with a lot of layers, and she allows us to say different things—or maybe just to say some of the same things differently.
That and she kicks ass.
O’Shea: Other than the understandable reasons (stability/benefits), what persuaded you to sign a DC exclusive in 2009?
Hamner: It’s just nice to stop jumping around for a while. I’ve worked for just about everybody over the last 20 years, give or take, and you wouldn’t believe how much time is about bringing your next job or project into focus. And I always seem to home-base at DC, anyway, so it was a pretty easy call that Dan DiDio was nice enough to oblige me on.
O’Shea: How gratifying was it when one of your designs was turned into a Halloween costume?
Hamner: Isn’t that the coolest? Yeah, I did get a huge kick out of that. Blue Beetle has turned into something of a signature design for me, and I’m nothing but delighted.
O’Shea: Your current work with Rucka on The Question; as well as Black Lightning earlier this year with Jen Van Meter–did you get legally adopted by that family?
Hamner: It does seem like that, doesn’t it? Hey, how many households have not one, but TWO great writers in the family? I’ll probably hang out long enough to see what their kids come up with for me to do…
O’Shea: You redesigned the Blue Beetle and the Question–mere coincidence or do you have an affinity for the Charlton universe?
Hamner: Total coincidence. Not only the Beetle and the Question, but Peacemaker, too! Funny how things work out like that. Other recurrent themes in my career are there, too, like characters who are minorities and books with a color in the title. Weird. It’s not on purpose.
O’Shea: How much are you in the loop or being consulted in the movie development of RED?
Hamner: Oh, not at all. Once they bought the option on it, they were pretty done with us—well, I can only speak for myself, but I’m not under the impression Warren is in the middle of things, either. But that’s their right, that’s what Summit paid us for. From what I know of the project, they have a very specific take on the material, and that’s perfectly fine with me. If anyone wants to experience the original book, DC’s made it available again in a new edition with a number of extras, so I’d say that people should go out and buy it. But the movie’s going to have its own identity, and my sense from the script is that it’s going to be good, but still pretty different from what Warren and I did.
O’Shea: Do you hope to visit the set at some point in 2010?
Hamner: Oh, yeah, I’d really like that. We’re looking into the possibility, so we’ll see if it’s something that can happen. But it’d be great, especially with the cast as it stands right now. Amazing group of actors.
O’Shea: With the release of RED in TPB earlier this year, were there any changes or revisions you or Ellis made to the story? (For me, I always wondered why in the scene where the CIA director is talking to Paul on the phone, why there was no sound effect of Paul knocking on the door…but I may be misunderstanding that scene) What aspects/extras were included in the TPB that you were pleased to see?
Hamner: No, the story is untouched, published now as it was published then—with the exception of two pages that were accidentally inverted in the original series. Other than that, it’s the same. Regarding the scene you describe—I think you are misunderstanding it, actually. There’s no knocking sound effect because a) there are no sound effects in the entire series, which was a conscious choice, and b) because he DOESN’T knock on the door—he can’t. He’s got a phone in one hand and a gun in the other. They notice him when he speaks. Also, why would he knock on an open door? Isn’t his intent to get the drop on possibly-armed men? Why warn them he’s coming into the room?
As far as extras go, yeah, there’s a fair bit. In RED: The New Edition, there’s Warren’s entire first-issue script along with all of my layouts from that issue. Not only that, there are concept and cover sketches. It’s much more what I’d have wanted the original TPB version of it to be. And a brand-new cover I did this year!
O’Shea: What was the most enjoyable or surreal aspect of looking at your work from six years ago or more–with the release of the TPB?
Hamner: Probably just noticing how different my stuff is to me now. A lot of what I’m talking about is probably beneath most people’s notice. It was a stylistic turning point for me, though. It was about then that I began to ink my own stuff on a regular basis. My control of the look I can see in my head became a lot more consistent. Everything I do now was informed by working on RED, now that I think about it. It was really odd to go back and do that new cover, too, and try to remember where my head was then.
O’Shea: The latter third of RED had some flashbacks to what Paul Moses did while working for the CIA–was there ever any urge on yours or Ellis’ part to do a prequel to RED?
Hamner: Actually, yeah—but only on my part. Warren doesn’t seem to be much interested in sequels or prequels. I think he told the story he wanted to tell and moved on. Now, I had a blast doing it, and I do remember saying at the time that I thought it would have been cool to do a prequel, to see Moses in his prime. I always thought it would have been interesting to do two prequels—on focusing on the beginning of his career, and one that deals with what led him to retire. But honestly, that was just me and wishful thinking. It’s not something that I think Warren is much interested in, and I’m cool with that. I’d never say never, though.
O’Shea: Re-reading the story, I’m reminded of how surprised and pleased I was that so much of the middle section of RED was devoted to non-action–namely Paul’s talking to Sally. That’s quite a switch from most “action” stories–do you recollect any editorial pushback for that narrative decision?
Hamner: Honestly? That’s always been my favorite part of the book. Warren wrote it so beautifully, and yet still left me the room to underline things if I wanted. It’s a really nice, sweet scene, with an undercurrent of dread, in which Moses takes stock of what he’s about to leave behind, and Sally slowly realizing what he really is, and where he’s going. It’s a nice breather, bookended by extreme violence.
O’Shea: How hard of a sell (to editorial) was the story given that it was three issues, instead of the more traditional four-issue mini. Was this a creative luxury the team was afforded because of Ellis’ selling power?
Hamner: Hmmm. I’ll just say “not at all,” and “yes.”
O’Shea: Back when this was published in 2003, the number of folks that might mock then-President Bush were not many. Were you hesitant to do the opening scene which featured an addled-looking (my interpretation, admittedly) portrait of the president?
Hamner: Nope. Portraits of the President are common in federal and military installations. Did I caricature him a little? Sure, but there’s a heavy element of caricature and cartooniness running through the whole thing. That was a stylistic choice that had far more to do contrasting against some pretty harsh violence. That throwaway portrait in the background was in no way a political statement, but rather staying stylistically consistent. If I did it today, President Obama’s portrait would have a long face and big ears, trust me.
O’Shea: I really appreciated your use of silhouette in RED, was this the first time you used that visual device to such successful effect–or had you dabbled effectively with that device before?
Hamner: Whether I was successful at it is pretty subjective—I’d like to think so, but others are more apt to judge that. Again, that was a stylistic choice that had a lot to with the violence. I wasn’t comfortable showing EVERYTHING—hard to believe, I know, given what WAS seen on panel. I did it wherever I felt I could be oblique with the bad stuff that was happening and still not sacrifice clarity. And hey, it allowed me to utilize a recurrent visual motif.
O’Shea: Judging by this post, RED editor Ben Abernathy clearly had an affinity for the project. In what ways do you remember Abernathy helping to make the story stronger?
Hamner: Well, he came in while the book was in progress, actually—John Layman was the editor on the book just previous to him. Both of them were great about just trusting us and giving us breathing room. Warren got that because he was a proven seller, a proven pro storyteller. They knew that HE knew what he was doing. I got it, I think, because both those guys maybe saw that I was putting a lot of thought into what I was doing, and that I had a very specific take. Sometimes a good editor, as has been said many times before, just lets you do what you do. They both put a lot of faith in us.
O’Shea: You and Warren clearly make a great writer/artist team–any chance you guys will find another story to tackle down the road?
Hamner: Sure. We have done a couple of other things here and there—a Jack Hawksmoor story that can be found in AUTHORITY: EARTH INFERNO & OTHER STORIES collection, and a mini for Top Cow called DOWN. I’d love to work with him again sometime. It may be a while, as I’m DC-exclusive, and he’s Marvel-exclusive. But I’m all for it, if he is.
O’Shea: What’s on the creative horizon for you?
Hamner: For the time being, I’m going to continue with Greg and The Question until we hit the finish line, whenever that may be. Things have been floated for the future, but nothing definite, and nothing I can really talk about.