Axel-In-Charge: Facing the 'Divided' Marvel NOW! Future
It’s taken just over five years to get there, but Marvel’s The Twelve is finally nearing its conclusion. And no one could be more excited than artist Chris Weston. When Weston was approached in 2007 to draw J. Michael Straczynski’s story of a group of WW2 heroes lost in time until the modern day, it was a unique chance for the celebrated UK artist to create a time-spanning work on what would be the biggest stage in the industry. But between Straczynski and Weston’s commitments outside of comics, the production went through numerous stops and starts, which led to the 12-issue series taking nearly four years to complete. But with Weston finishing the art on the book last September, he celebrated the end of one chapter of his life and the beginning of a new one.
In the build-up to working on The Twelve, Weston expanded his horizons and began doing storyboards and concept designs for the movie The Book Of Eli. Over the course of The Twelve, and thanks in part to the delays the book had, Weston did extensive work on The Book of Eli as well as director Albert Hughes’ aborted remake of Akira. Currently working on Hughes’ next feature, Motor City, Weston plans to use the money he makes to fund his most ambitious project yet: writing and drawing his own comic series. Weston has done creator-owned work in the past with other writers and has also written smaller works on their own, but this new pursuit, both writing and drawing the material, could be one of the most risky and potentially most rewarding jobs of his career. 2012 will be a formidable time for the artist as he prepares for what comes next.
Chris Arrant: First off, can you tell us what you’re working on today?
Chris Weston: I am “between jobs” at the moment. I’m reluctant to take on anything substantial as I’m getting ready to work on Albert Hughes’ next movie, Motor City. I really want to avoid another situation where my film work coincides with my comic-book work. Unfortunately, that has meant turning down some pretty cool comic-book jobs. I’m not going to name them as it would be unfair to the artists who eventually accepted them. However, I’m keeping myself occupied by doing a few covers for 2000AD, some personal drawings, research and private commissions.
Arrant: Can you say what your projects on the horizon are this year in addition to Motor City?
Weston: Well, I can’t really see beyond Motor City yet. I’m hoping that I’ll make enough money on that film to finance my own creator-owned comic book projects. More recently, I have just completed a one-off Judge Dredd story called “The Death of DAN-E Cannon.” I poured heart and soul into that job. I wanted it to be a kind of “comeback” for me after the years I spent on The Twelve. This is “Full-Strength Weston”: script, art and colours all by myself, and hopefully it will remind people of what I do best: weird, black-humoured sci-fi.
Weston: I’m waiting to hear back from Tharg on that one. I think “Green Pedestrian Palm” is one of the strips that will be reprinted in 2000AD‘s Free Comic Book Day sampler.
Arrant: Hearing you talk about creator-owned projects is exciting – I believe the only big ones you’ve done were The Filth and Ministry of Space. For these new ones, would you be writing and drawing it yourself? Can you talk about these ideas at all?
Weston: Don’t forget Time Breakers! But yeah, The Filth and Ministry of Space are the big two. The last creator-owned IPs on the shelf, I call them! One day Hollywood will come sniffing round them, I’m sure. One day …!
In the meantime I do have plans to write and draw some of my own creator-owned projects. The plan is to work on Motor City and then use the money I make from that to finance the production of my own books. It’s all early days really. I have about three ideas for books, all of which are historical in nature… all of which will require vast amount of research. I don’t know why I’m being drawn toward “Period-set” books. However I do think there is a gap in the market for them. I’d love to do a Western at some point, that’s the genre that’s attracting me the most at the moment. I have no idea if the audience has any appetite for a Western, but that’s not even a consideration, to be honest. I want to produce the books that I think are missing from the market. The European comic-book market is a far more open to broader subject matters and I’ve got a sneaky suspicion that the American market is heading that way too. The sales of super-hero books aren’t holding up as well as they used to; maybe it’s time for something new to fill that vacuum.
Arrant: This all comes about after you finished your big comics project for the past few years, The Twelve. Not to diminish that series in any way, but what’s it like to finally move past that project?
Weston: It has come as a great relief. I love The Twelve; I think Joe Straczynski wrote a great script packed full of terrific characters… I couldn’t be more happy with the finished project… BUT it was an arduous and frustrating project to work on! I never signed up for such a major project; it was sold to me as a six-part series, possibly eight, and even then I was hesitant to sign up for such a long haul. However, the job soon started growing beyond even that… but by then I was committed and had to see it through. I’ll hold my hand up and admit that some of the delays on that book were my doing (whilst I worked on The Book of Eli and Akira), so I’m not going to start flinging muck at others. I’ll take my portion of the blame on the chin. I felt the readers’ frustration, and sometimes I shared it.
But it’s all water under the bridge now, and I don’t want to see the controversy obscure what will be a cracking good read once it’s collected as a graphic novel.
Arrant: One thing the unexpected delays did allow is time for you to spread your wings and engage in writing more comics. I believe your first published comics writing was the short in Event Horizon for Mam Tor, but your biggest one yet was the one-shot The Twelve: Spearhead. As a long-time comics artist, 23 years to be exact, what’s it like to be able to step in and dream up the ideas you’ll illustrate?
Weston: It seems quite natural. I’m a geek, I spend all day in solitude, my head filling up with ideas for stories and new characters. It comes as a great relief to get the opportunity to metaphorically “trepan” myself; to get these “demons” out of my skull and into the world. Over the years, I’ve worked with THE BEST: Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Joe Casey and Joe Straczynski. You can’t help but pick up a few tricks along on the way.
Weston: Not at all. I write all my scripts as if they are intended for another artist. In fact, the Terror Tale I wrote, “Counts As One Choice” was written for Frazer Irving to draw, but he was unavailable. I had Dave “The Governor” Gibbons in mind for “Whatever Happened to The Green Pedestrian Palm?” Whenever one thinks of paunchy super-heroes, Dave Gibbons will always come to mind! Heh! In fact, Dave once drew the comic-book adventures of “The Green Cross Code Man”, a super-hero devised by the UK National Road Safety Committee to teach kids how to cross the street without getting run over. Dave “Darth Vader” Prowse portrayed him on TV in a series of infomercials; you can see them on YouTube.
Anyway, getting back to the subject at hand: no, it doesn’t change my approach. It never crosses my mind to cheat, or make things easier for myself by giving myself familiar subject matters. Neither do I see it as an opportunity to provide myself with a series of splash pages that will net me a nice bonus payment once I come to sell the original art.
Arrant: I really enjoyed that Future Shock you just mentioned, “Whatever Happened To The Green Pedestrian Palm?” I’ve read that writing those shorts and fitting a story into that small page count can be laborious. How was it for you to not only do it, but do it both writing and drawing?
Weston: First of all, thanks. I’m a little bit reluctant to admit that I found the writing 2000AD stories quite easy. I’d been carrying those stories around in my head for years beforehand, so by the time I sat down to type them out the hard work was already done. The page count wasn’t a problem, as both those stories were basically one-line jokes. Both stemmed from personal bug-bears of mine: the first related my bad experiences with mail-order book companies. “Whatever Happened to the Green Pedestrian Palm” grew out of my frustration with advertising companies who think it would be impressive to create their own super-hero characters. It’s not a cool idea; it’s just really annoying. I had first hand experience of this: I was asked to draw this recycling-themed super-hero called “Captain Carbon.” I hated the idea, and instantly regretted agreeing to draw him. I’m not sure he ever saw the light of day. It got me wondering, though… what would Batman and Superman think of Captain Carbon or The Green Cross Code Man? I think they’d have a pretty low opinion of them.
Arrant:Another thing you got to do in the downtime during The Twelve was join the movie business, doing storyboards for the Hughes Bros. on both The Book of Eli and their take on the live-action Akira. What’s it like to get into this new kind of illustration?
Weston: I drew my first bit of art for The Book of Eli 14 months before The Twelve came out. If the film production hadn’t been delayed by the writer’s strike, if The Twelve had been its original length (and had the scripts been on time) I would have completed both jobs without any problems. However, shit happened and we ended up with a schedule clash.
I had a TERRIFYING first day on The Book of Eli! I drew about three incredibly large and detailed storyboards. I could see “Fire this asshole!” written all over the producer’s face, but Albert Hughes went out to bat for me and gave me time to speed up. It was a steep learning curve. I think everyone knows how much detail I put into my art, so it was quite daunting to scale it back a bit. Luckily, Albert Hughes seems to like my intricate style and was reluctant to see me loosen up too much. He calls me his “nuts and bolts guy” (amongst other less flattering but hopefully affectionate nicknames), ‘cos he likes the way I think through even the most incidental bit of detail.
The other terrifying part was having to abandon my reliance on photo reference. My comic-book work is very photo-ref heavy. On the storyboards I had to just go for it, and draw straight from my head onto a pad. That was scary… but I think i pulled it off okay. A new art style emerged from somewhere inside me; I quite liked it, too. But I’d be reluctant to bring that style back to comics with me. I’d probably make more money if I did, but I’d hate that feeling of doing “unfinished” art.
For most of my time on Book of Eli I was based in Albert’s office, so I had a front row seat for all the movie-making action. I’d be sat there in the corner, behind my pad, and the likes of Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman would be ambling to chat with Albert. I’d be all: “Don’t look up, Chris. Don’t stare. Just keep drawing. And keep your mouth shut.” No easy feat, as anyone who knows me will attest. There were quite a few “How did I get here?” moments. Akira was different: the entirety of my work on that aborted film was completed here in my studio in Eastbourne.
Arrant: People have seen pieces here and there of your storyboard work. Any plans to do a print collection of your movie work down the road at some point? I’d love to see all of it, especially those three large storyboards you did first!
Weston: Oh yeah, definitely. I’m currently looking into it. I’ll be publishing it myself, too, so I’m in the process of finding a decent printer. I’ll probably wait until I get permission to show the Akira work, and then, fingers crossed , we’ll be good to go. Also, there has been mention of revealing some of my art for Motor City quite soon as form of advance publicity, which would be really cool. I’ve already drawn what will probably be the “money shot” of the movie and I can’t wait to see it realised on the big screen.
Arrant: I’ve known you to study and do a lot of research when drawing comics – what kind of study and research did you do to understand the format and storytelling approach of storyboarding movies?
Weston: I’m a movie fan; I’ve got loads of those Art of … books that occasionally accompany a big movie’s release, presenting the best of the concept art and storyboards. I’d done my homework, and knew roughly what was expected of me. It still took a bit of getting used to, but I was fortunate to have a champion in Albert Hughes who was very patient with me and explained the more obscure photographic terms.
Arrant: Can you talk about your collaboration with director Albert Hughes? How did you two meet up?
Weston: I met Albert through Gary Whitta, the screenwriter of Book of Eli. Yes, I’m afraid it’s one of those “not what you know, but who you know” stories that used to annoy me so much when it happened to other people! I had drawn Gary a picture of the Eli character to go with his script; Albert saw it and asked me to redraw it to look like Denzel Washington. This led to a further round of character designs which eventually became part of the presentation package that was shown to the actor. When Denzel agreed to be part of the movie, Albert gave me the job of storyboard artist as a thank you. I was fortunate to have found two very decent and honourable guys in Albert and Gary.
Arrant: And what’s your collaborative process like now that you’re on your third project together?
Weston: It hasn’t changed much. Most of it is done over Skype. I’m in my freezing studio in rainy England and he’s either in L.A. or Prague… far more glamorous surroundings. We talk at least once a day: he’ll describe a shot to me, and I’ll draw it up. This will then go through a sequence of re-draws until I get it exactly the way he sees it in his head. He’s quite perfectionist, but also very forthcoming with praise when I eventually “nail” it, which I appreciate being your archetypal, shallow praise-junkie… like most artists.
Arrant: Before I let you get back to it, one last question. I’ve got your cover to the upcoming 35th Anniversary of 2000AD as my desktop wallpaper. That’s a special piece and a special issue to be able to draw, so can you talk about drawing that cover?
Weston: Thanks again. That cover sprung from a conversation I had with my artistic hero, Brian Bolland. I mentioned to him that I would like to see him draw a new, up-to-date version of his classic cover for the 2000AD Monthly US reprint comic. That was drawn way back in 1983… nearly thirty years ago!
Since then so many great new characters have appeared in the Prog’s pages and I thought it would be a good idea to see Brian’s take on them, using the same layout as his original page. Brian liked my idea, but suggested I should do it instead of him.
I filed the idea away, but it took another conversation with a different colleague to actually galvanise me into action. This fellow suggested that The Galaxy’s Greatest Comic wasn’t as good as it used to be. Now I wouldn’t hit a man wearing rose-tinted spectacles , so instead I decided to channel my outrage into this drawing that showcased some of the more recent characters who have graced the pages of 2000ad. That unfortunately ruled out Nemesis and Rogue Trooper as I didn’t want this to be a nostalgia piece; I wanted it to be a love-letter to the last few years of the comic’s history, an era I think will be seen as a second golden age.
I completed my rough version and sent it to 2000ad “on spec”. Tharg, the editor, seemed delighted with it. Only later did I discover it was going to be used as the cover for the 35th anniversary issue. I wanted this to be my own loving tribute to 2000ad and I am delighted it’s been selected to grace the cover of such a landmark issue. My only regret is i didn’t make it a double-page spread and include some of the older characters like Rogue, Nemesis, Ro-Jaws, Sam Slade and Kano on the back cover. It did cross my mind but I talked myself out of it for economic reasons. I’ll save that version for the 50th anniversary issue. With the way the years are flying by and the speed I draw at, I’d better get started…!