Conversing on Comics with Cully Hamner
The past decade has been good one for Cully Hamner. His creator-owned miniseries Red has served as inspiration for two hit feature films, and he’s found himself in the upper echelon of DC Comics’ talent roster as a cover and interior artist, as well as a character designer for the publisher’s New 52. Now the Alabama-born artist, who recently turned 45, is working on an undisclosed “big” project for DC that will allow him to both draw and co-write, something he’s been wanting to do for years. While he has penned stories for anthologies and one-shots, this will mark his first time writing on a larger scale.
I’ve talked with Hamner for years by email and at conventions, discussing trends in comics, his own work and our shared interest in superhero costume design. After several months of back and forth, I finally caught up with him for this conversation.
Chris Arrant: What are you working on today?
Cully Hamner: As we speak, I’m in the little nether-time between WonderCon and C2E2. It’s not really enough time to really focus on anything, and I rarely do back-to-back cons for just that reason. If I do more than one in a month’s time, it really knocks me off my rhythm. That said, right this second, I’m working on finishing up a cool Legends of the Dark Knight story for DC Digital with my pal Ron Marz.
For many people, especially a mainstream audience, your best-known work is Red. That three-issue series has gone on to be two hit movies with more in the offing. I’ve never had a movie made of something I’ve done (yet), but what’s it like having that? And going to the store and seeing a copy of the DVD out of the corner of your eye?
Well, that’s such a broad question, and there’s just no simple response. The basic answer is that it’s just extraordinarily cool, but hard to describe fully. Probably not as otherworldly as you might think, but I’d be a jerk if I claimed it wasn’t pretty neat. But honestly, it’s one of those things you appreciate and then file away as one of the cool things that’s happened to me so far. I’d be pretty shallow if it became the focus of my existence. I’ve got too many other goals and things to move onto. But yeah, I have a really full appreciation of the Red experience.
Are there any unexpected things from doing Red and its movie popularity that you’ve found interesting or quirky?
Oh, yeah, lots of stuff. I mean, it’s definitely put me on the radars of people that otherwise wouldn’t know me or pay attention to me, in and out of comics. I sign a lot of DVDs, Blu-Rays and posters these days — that’s new. It went from being probably my least-known credit to my definitive credit seven years after it came out, and it’ll be next to my name in parenthesis for the foreseeable future. And that’s all right with me! I’m still proud of it and think of it as a creative turning point for me, movie or not.
Red brings me to my next question – you writing comics. You wrote a story for the comics sequel to Red, Red: Eyes Only, as well as writing for 12 Gauge’s The Ride – and I even fondly remember the pin-ups and creative work you did for Marvel’s M one-shots back in 2000. Is writing something you want to do more of, either for yourself to draw or for others to draw?
For sure, no two ways about it. It’s definitely where I’m headed. I’ve been drawing comics professionally for 23 years. I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction out of it, especially the past decade or so. But if I continue to only do that, I think that there’s a high risk of stagnation. I have to broaden what I do, and I like to be involved in storytelling. Anyone who has worked with me will tell you that I always try to be part of that process or that conversation, rather than simply producing the art. So, yeah, it’s a path I’m just starting to take. And just starting to be brave enough to take!
One of your biggest projects outside Red is also something people haven’t ever really seen in full, directly – your redesigns for the New 52. Some of those have been released to the public, but I don’t think DC’s ever released the full extent of what you and Jim Lee did together. Can you describe that process, and give us a measure of just how much work that was?
Oh, it was a lot of work — a lot of work in a short few months. Mark Chiarello and Jim Lee brought me on for a couple of reasons. The first was because, they said, that Blue Beetle was probably the most successful character redesign at DC in quite a while. The second reason was because Jim and I have designing styles that would push and pull each other. He tends toward more complex designs, and I tend toward simplicity, so the idea was that we would check each other.
But the idea that we were the only designers on the project is a bit of a myth. We were the lead guys, for sure, but most of the creative teams and editorial staff were involved, and a lot of those artists contributed designs. Many of the final character looks came from them. Jim and I did do a lot of them, sometimes individually, sometimes passing ideas and sketches back and forth until we locked into something. It was a real team process, though, and I think the two of us at least touched almost everything during those months. In a lot of cases, my role was almost an editorial one — commenting, kibitzing and signing off on things. It was also a different perspective of making comics that a lot freelancers never get to see, where you have to take into account large groups of opinions and what the needs of an entire publishing line and the opinions of a large group of creative voices. It’s made me more empathetic to what an editorial department is up against. It’s certainly made me look at online fan debates totally differently!
I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I kind of loved it.
We’ve talked briefly about redesign in some conversations before, but how do you feel about that process of designing (and redesigning) superhero costumes? It seems like a very specialized kind of thing, with some big risks but also big rewards.
You mean the implications of redesign? That’s an interesting question. I’m often asked about the process itself, but reasoning and risks of even doing it in the first place are just as important. I think the most successful, long-running characters are the ones that resist radical redesign the most. They’re so iconic already — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are ingrained in the public consciousness, so red trunks notwithstanding, those characters have to stay identifiable as those characters. You can play around with some specific elements, but in a general sense, those characters look the way they have for decades. And all of the Justice League characters, the bread-and-butter characters, are still in the neighborhood of their traditional looks.
The rules become a little grayer with lower-tier characters. Blue Beetle is a great example: That was a top-to-bottom reimagining, and it took hold in a way that earlier versions of the character just hadn’t. There are always going to be the diehards, but people have accepted not only a new look for Blue beetle, but a new concept.
And I think that idea carried over into the New 52. There’s a definite range from very soft redesigns all the way to dramatic reimaginings where the name and basic idea stay the same, but the concept is radically different.
But the bottom line is that DC Comics has been publishing these characters over the course of seven decades, and periodically they need to be spruced up and redefined for new audiences. There’s no way to do it that will please every fan, and particulars will be argued over and over in fan circles, but it’s just evolution. If you can’t stop evolution, you might as well try and be involved in it. I’d rather be on the team and have some effect, rather than just be someone complaining about the team and have no effect.
You can skip this question if you want, but ever since I saw the designs for Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 I think of your design for Black Lightning a few years back. I’m not trying to call anyone out or anything, but have you been made aware of it and do you have any thoughts on the similarities?
Well … you know, I don’t know. First, coincidences happen all the time. That said, yeah, it’s been repeatedly pointed out to me that it’s an uncannily similar look — a lightning-powered African-American male in a hoodie, with blue light emanating from inside the hood, and both of them seem to be kind of pre-looks to the costumed versions of the characters. Now, I’m not saying the production did anything wrong. I know how these things work, and sure, it’s possible some of what I did on that series ended up in some stylistic reference clip book in the art department somewhere. Or … not, you know? My main reaction is basically a shrug.
Since 2009 you’ve been primarily known for your DC work because of your exclusive. But in recent months I’ve seen you pop up doing covers on things like Kick-Ass 3 for Marvel/Icon, a Regular Show cover for BOOM! and some great covers for Dark Horse’s Bloodhound: Crowbar Medicine. Where are you at right now. Are you exclusive, working freelance, or something else?
Yeah, although it may not totally look like it ‘cause my buddies at DC have been keeping me way busy, but my exclusive contract ended last year. I’m free to accepting a gig from anyone, as long as I have the time. So, yeah, I’ve been doing a few covers here and there. It’s been fun to branch out a little. I’ve been considering a lot of things, actually, but I have a project that I’ll be starting directly after Legends of the Dark Knight that will keep me pretty busy through 2015. Past that, I have some itches that I would definitely like to scratch …
There are lots of things yet to do. As I’ve said, I’ve recently made a commitment to myself to doing more writing, and to making it a more substantial part of my life. There are also lots of characters I’d love to do (or at least to get a better shot at than I have in the past), still.
But on the other hand, I have a huge folder of ideas for creator-owned projects. And there are still a metric ton of writers I’d like to work with out there on my ideas or theirs, or some combination somehow. It seems to be mainly a matter of syncing up schedules. It’s a little frustrating sometimes how hard it seems to get these things going with other busy people, but I have faith that some of these match-ups are going to happen.
And speaking broader, what are your goals – what are the challenges you still have for yourself as a working artist and comic creator?
Not to sound too New-Age-y, or anything, but my main goal these last several years has been work on projects I believe in — or more specifically, to find something to believe in in every project I do. There have been plenty of times I’ve felt no connection to a character at the beginning of a project, only to feel a deep one by the end.
That’s the secret I’ve discovered — that if you dig deep enough into the layers, you’ll almost always find something interesting for yourself to be creative with. And if you dig deep and only find an empty space, that’s just an opportunity to leave something of your own invention behind. And the people I work with have never been more important to me.
I just want to do good work, man. I want to do it on fascinating projects with interesting people. That’s it.
News broke that during MegaCon you mentioned writing and drawing “something big” for DC. Can you touch on that at all?
Well … OK, yes, I’m writing and drawing a project for DC. I can’t say what it is, as it won’t be announced for a while. My writing partner and I are still in-process with it, incorporating notes from editorial and such, and I won’t start drawing it until sometime this summer, I imagine. It’s early days.
And I should clarify that when I said “something big,” I really was only referring to the sheer size and scope of the project as it relates to anything I’ve done before. I didn’t mean “big,” in terms of how it relates to anything else DC publishes, or in terms of fan reaction. I mean, I hope people get excited about it! I think it’s pretty cool, and I’m really excites to be doing it. But I only meant that I’ve written and drawn short-stories and a one-shot up to now, and this will be much more work than anything I’ve done before. So, it’s big to me.