Talking Comics with Tim | Nick Dragotta
If you were one of those folks who not heard of artist Nick Dragotta before this year, it’s quite feasible you learned about the storyteller after his work on Fantastic Four 588 (the silent mourning for Johnny Storm issue). If Dragotta’s next project is half as successful as I expect it to be, even more folks will know and like his art. That project? He and writer Joe Casey’s six-issue Marvel miniseries, Vengeance [set to be released July 6]. As described by Marvel: “When MAGNETO of the X-Men tries to rescue a young Mutant on the run, he accidently kicks off a series of events that will shake the very Marvel Universe to it’s core! Who are the new TEEN BRIGADE?! Who are the Brotherhood and what do they want with the YOUNG MASTERS OF EVIL?! And how is the RED SKULL pulling the strings from beyond the grave?” My thanks to Dragotta for the interview (and for the above preview art from the first issue). Once you’ve read this interview, be sure to also read Timothy Callahan’s When Words Collide column/Joe Casey interview.
Tim O’Shea: Back in early April, when you and Vengeance collaborator Joe Casey discussed the project with CBR, you said you had designed 17 characters so far for the project. How many do you estimate you ended up designing for the whole miniseries?
Nick Dragotta: I’ve lost count at this point, and by the time it’s done I have no idea how many we’ll do. I’ve been drawing with a Vengeance! What???
O’Shea: Writer Casey is one of the more unique creators to work at Marvel, would you say it was the story he wanted to tell with you, or the opportunity to work with him that was the greater attraction?
Dragotta: For me it’s both: Joe and his story. What I’m learning with Joe is that not only do you get a great writer whose passion runs very deep, but also a writer who really wants to collaborate. From the very beginning he called me up by phone and just laid this insane idea of comic on me. We then had a Vengeance retreat in San Francisco, hammering out character designs and thoughts about the book visually. Since I’ve been working in the business, I’ve never had a writer get so involved, and I love it.
O’Shea: Who came up with the idea to work a homeless shelter (among other quirky settings) into the miniseries?
Dragotta: Joe did. It’s more like a flophouse, with a rec. room. The places where down and out old men play ping-pong, watch TV, and hold court. Sounds like a great place to disappear.
O’Shea: A miniseries that explores villainy in the manner that Vengeance does, did it end up allowing you to see the whole good versus evil in a different light to some extent?
Dragotta: I only have the first issue’s script, so to put the first issue into the context of your question… I’d say it doesn’t put good versus evil in a different light yet, but more so put a spotlight on what villainy has become in the Marvel U. The first issue is setting the stage, and Magneto is the first one up. Comicbook villains have kind of been neutered by reality. From Bin Laden to tsunamis to our politicians, never in my life did I think I’d see atrocities worse than what I could read in a comicbook or imagine. In turn our comics have become more realistic, and the villains more grey. Bad guys are good, good guys are bad. Vengeance is not that, it’s… well you’ll just have to read it.
O’Shea: In that recent CBR interview, you said “”I think there’s a few new characters here are total breakouts.” Care to be more specific?
Dragotta: Sure, there’s a few. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around the Ultimate Nullifier. I was like, “Joe, you really want me to draw tribal tattoos?” But then as I read the script, I got it. This kid would totally have those sleeves. He’s that guy! When you first meet him, you’re like what a total douche, but then you start to get to know him and realize he has heart.
I also love the new Black Knight. I won’t say more about this character, but I think the idea is fresh and has a ton of possibilities.
Miss America Chavez might be the best of them all though. She’s taken up the mantle of the old Miss America–who last time I drew was in X-Statix Presents: Deadgirl, then she was a dead, out-of-touch racist. Now our Miss America represents a new America, a youthful one. She can shake it like Shakira, but also kick your ass.
What I love about all these characters is that they’re young and cocky. When Joe was explaining it to me he said, “These teens are completely idealistic, yet so unrealistic. They think they can change the world, and who knows they just might.” This goes for the good ones and bad, for better or worse.
Has anyone mentioned this book has a new Teen Brigade? What a great Kirby/Lee creation. Imagine what a modern Teen Brigade can do with today’s mobile devices and the internet. No more ham radios.
O’Shea: You and Casey are describing this as an epic tale. How hard is it to achieve epic proportions within a six-issue miniseries?
Dragotta: I hope when it’s all said and done it feels epic. For me the most epic comic I ever read was Akira. That story fills 6 phone books and took almost 10 years to do. Katsuhiro Otomo is in my opinion one of the best. Will we match that? Hell no! But we’re inspired to try and do our best to make something big, and at six issues we’ll have to cram a lot more panels than the typical 4-6 a page.
O’Shea: It used to be, an artist working in the middle of the night, may feel pretty isolated. But I think another benefit to social media, is that one can find a kindred spirit, as you and friend/fellow artist Shawn Crystal recently did, with this tweet exchange. Also, I was struck, how fellow artists seek feedback (as with this exchange with Andy Diggle). Is social media a great way to get and give moral support among your peers?
Dragotta: Totally. Making comics is a lonely road if you’re not with a studio. I love Alex Toth’s line about drawing comics and how it’s a cruel mistress. When in the throes of a deadline, it consumes you. Takes you away from everything. Especially when you draw comics, at least writers get to talk to editors on the phone and go on retreats. But now with twitter, I’m less socially retarded. At it’s best you’re sharing a virtual studio. Shawn and I, will share pages and push one another to be better. I’ve seen Shawn’s new Deadpool Max pages and they’re gorgeous! He lives in Georgia and me in California, it’s great! Another advantage to twitter is that I spend way less time surfing the internet. So many of the people I follow lead me right to all the good stuff. But in the end, it doesn’t replace a real studio. The wiffle ball games at Zylonol Studio were epic.
O’Shea: Who is coloring you on Vengeance–and are they challenging you to push yourself? Why I ask is, I was struck in a recent Omega Level interview, where you praised longtime friend and collaborator Brad Simpson for his coloring of your work (“We constantly crit our work and push one another to be better,” really struck me)
Dragotta: Brad Simpson is coloring Vengeance. He’s a friend from back in my art school days and now we live just a few blocks from one another. Brad’s training is in fine arts, he’s a traditional landscape painter, his hero is Thomas Cole, and he loves comics. I value his opinion on art and so it’s great to have an extra set of eyes on the work that you trust. When he colors my stuff I get to be much more hands on and I can draw things with him in mind, and know how he might handle it. Come to think of it, I’ve been very spoiled in comics when it comes to colorists: Laura Allred, Lee Loughridge, Paul Mounts, and now Brad.
O’Shea: I really cannot finish this interview without asking a few non-Vengeance questions–do you think you are well on your way to being known more for your mainstream comics work than your creator-owned Howtoons? I mean not many mainstream comic artists can say they were once a guest on Martha Stewart’s show.
Dragotta: I’ve got to say Howtoons! With Howtoons, I’ve been: on The Martha Stewart Show, inducted into the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum, been invited to the most insane places to speak, like MIT, Stanford, and IDEO, and got to do a national book tour all over the US. In the greater world of comics I’m a relative unknown, but in the world of educational comics and Howtoons, it’s been surreal. None of that would be possible without my partners: Saul Griffith and my wife Ingrid. It’s a great team. Saul’s a modern day Tony Stark and Ingrid is a toy designer. Together we make a potent team. I doubt many, if anyone who reads this is even aware of Howtoons. Thanks for asking about it. Maybe we should do a piece just on Howtoons? For those interested, Howtoons is an educational comic that integrates instructions into the storytelling, showing kids how to build things using everyday household goods. You can check it at http://www.howtoons.com/
O’Shea: What was the biggest challenge to working with Jonathan Hickman‘s silent script on Fantastic Four 588? On the flipside, what were some of the creative freedoms you gained doing a silent story?
Dragotta: That book was tough, I had a few stressful nights with that one. Jonathan wrote an amazing script and I did my best not to screw it up. Are you familiar with Jay-Z’s Song Cry? I wanted to make that comic cry. At least that’s what I set out to do. Whether or not I succeeded, I’ll leave for the readers. I also wanted it to have a Kirby presence yet be modern. A real challenge was to not over act it, try and get the reader to inject themselves into the cartoons to feel more for the characters. Draw good cartoon eyes to allow for that, inject yourself into the story. One place I know I failed was drawing Sue’s hair.
As for creative freedom, not much, maybe just adding a panel here or there. Jonathan’s script was so good. To try and add to it or deviate from it would have been a mistake. I also want to say the colorist Paul Mounts was a huge part of that work. He really brought my work to another level, and set a mood throughout. Paul’s colors and seps rule.
O’Shea: I’m a longtime fan of writer Roger Stern, your collaborator on last year’s Captain America: Forever Allies. When working with veteran writers like Stern, I’m curious what kind of storytelling lessons/tips an artist like yourself takes away from the experience?
Dragotta: I’d learned quite a bit working with Roger. He’s a real pro and he takes care of his artist. He was in constant contact and gave me a ton of visual reference for each and very issue. So does Joe Casey btw. That’s really helpful. When I say a ton I mean lots and lots of jpegs! So right there he’s helping my storytelling. By giving me that reference, I can use that to make the story more believable. Just his style in general will make anyone a better storyteller. He always strongly establishes a scene and the characters in it. There’s no clutter or confusion, just good ole’ straightforward storytelling.
Roger gave me some nice career advice. He’s a good dude, always encouraging. He also works in the old Marvel style of scripting, and it was fun to just do that. Hopefully, we’ll get to work together again someday.
O’Shea: Now to totally shift gears, how did Nick Spencer convince you to channel your inner Wally Wood for your recent involvement in DC’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents?
Dragotta: I have no idea how Spencer and Moss got me to do TA? After Fantastic Four 588, I was pretty popular for about a week and I got a few offers of work. But it was Wil Moss [DC editorial] who crafted the most beautiful, enticing email I ever read. He really took my mind.
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents with Nick Spencer, cool story, and all of it referencing Wally Wood??? No brainer. Although, doing my 5 pages of that, along with my 22 pages of Vengeance a month has made me start to regret it. Aren’t we new breed of comic artist such a bunch of pussies?
O’Shea: Anything we should discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Dragotta: Yeah, let’s give Tom Brennan a shout out. He’s our editor and silent partner on Vengeance, and I fear we’re driving him nuts. He’s largely responsible for the recent success I’ve had at Marvel and keeps me busy. Thanks Tom!