Interview by smoky man. Conducted in November 2008.
Originally printed in Italy on Scuola di Fumetto magazine (N. 65, February/March 2009, Coniglio Editore).
Presented here in English for the first time.
Above: Cover for Tom Strong Vol. Two.
Tom Strong published by DC Comics.
Chris Sprouse blog: sprousenet.blogspot.com
Right now you are in the comics biz from more than 20 years. How did it all started? Did you attend any artistic school or are you an autodidact?
Actually, this year is my 19th year in comics. I drew comics for myself all through childhood. I studied fine art and graphic design in a standard university, not art school, but all of my comic book abilities are self-taught.
Most of all, why making a living by drawing comics? Was it your dream as a child?
It was my dream as far back as I can remember. I wanted to do something creative for a living and I was able to draw and liked comic books, so it seemed like an obvious choice to me.
Which artists did influence you the most? Not only from comics but in Art in general… And why?
Herge was my first influence. We lived in India when I was a child and my parents bought us European albums to entertain us. Tintin was my favorite and is still my favorite comic today. I think I developed a "clean" style because I've read and re-read the Tintin albums my entire life. Later, my big American comic influences were Michael Golden, Frank Miller and Walt Simonson. Golden is a master of design and knows how to pick the perfect image or pose for every panel or cover he draws. Miller is the best visual storyteller in comics, and Simonson brings a sense of excitement and fun to his drawing that I can only marvel at and hope to understand one day.
Was it difficult for you to break in the biz? I think it could be said that your professional career in comics started at DC with Legionnaires in the ’80. What can you recall of that experience?
It was very easy to break in: I simply mailed sample pages to DC Comics and they called me two weeks later! I was very lucky! Legionnaires was my first big series and I loved drawing the book. It was also very exciting to be a part of that group of creators--Jason Pearson, Keith Giffen, Tom & Mary Bierbaum, Stuart Immonen--we all tried to do our best because we didn't want to disappoint anyone else. I would draw a Legion comic again in a second if they asked me!
Then you moved to the various Rob Liefeld’s Image studio incarnations in the 90ies. I remember you doing a couple of issues of New Men for him, a nice book. Then you were attached as the new regular artist of his flag-ship title, the Supreme’s run by Alan Moore. How did you get this assignment?
I drew three issues of New Men, then the series was cancelled. Coincidentally, the editor of Supreme was the writer of New Men, and he asked me to draw Supreme for one issue as a fill-in artist. That was issue #50, and they liked it enough that they hired me to be the regular artist.
Were you more excited or a bit “frightened” to work with Moore considering his writing status?
Both excited to be working with someone as good as Alan and frightened because I wanted my art to be as good as his stories and I didn't know if I was up to the task.
Drawing Supreme, had you any direct contact with him or did you work only on his scripts? I think at that time he had already finished his scripts for Awesome and had no contact with the company... What’s about the “quality” of his scripts? Were they as detailed as the legend says?
No, I had no contact with Alan while working on Supreme. The scripts were indeed detailed and very long, but they were so much fun to read! I've kept them all!
After Supreme you followed Moore on his ABC line co-creating Tom Strong. What’s about your contribution to this modern classic hero? Was is only limited to the visual aspect of the characters, the city (even if Millennium City IS a character in itself), mecha design and so on.. or did you also contributed to the story in any way?
At first, I supplied purely visual input, but supposedly Alan created all the ABC books with the specific creators in mind, or at least tailored the stories to fit each of our strengths and interests. Later, around issue #10, Alan and I did discuss stories very briefly and decided together to focus on the Strong family as a sort of homage to the family feel of the old Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, which we both loved. Otherwise, I was very content to let Alan write whatever he wanted to because it would always be interesting and fun to draw.
After Supreme and Tom Strong, how do you weight your collaboration with Moore? Do you consider it as the highest point of your career till now? Any "strange magical" anecdotes to share with us related to yr long professional relationship with him?
It was definitely my favorite time in comics. I don't know if I was always able to do the best I could have every single issue, but I'm very proud of the work I did on Tom Strong. No real magical anecdotes in the literal sense, but it was very magical to work with Alan. I'm honored to have had the chance.
There are rumors that a new Tom Strong series (without Moore on the writing) is upcoming. With you as penciler. Can you reveal us anything?
Peter Hogan and I are doing a new mini-series called Tom Strong and the Robots of Doom which should be published next year. It begins with Tesla and Val planning their wedding, but events soon go horribly wrong when Tom's illegitimate son Albrecht alters the time stream. That's all I'll say for now!
Let’s talk about your style and drawing approach. You use a really clean line, more light than shadow, I like to define it as “realistic cartoony”. What can you say about it? How did you develop it? It seems an easy style, at first look, but I know it takes tons of thoughts and time to draw a page. Like for Mignola’s style, which is at the opposite style of your spectrum considering all the blacks he puts on.
As I said earlier, I think my "clean line" style started because of my interest in Herge's work. Since reading Tintin as a child, I've always liked clean linework, and when I began to draw, what I had learned from reading Tintin and other similar comics came out in my drawing style. It's all intuitive though--I just know when a page or drawing feels "right" or "finished" to me and when to stop rendering so that I like the finished result. Too many lines looks too busy and too fussy to me.
What’s the process behind your page? What kind of tools do you use? Any digital support?
I start by drawing quick thumbnails with a soft blue or black pencil on standard copy paper while reading the script. Then I either draw large full-size layouts on 11"X17" cheap paper or I draw the layouts directly on the final Bristol Board paper. The finished product from this step is all the "under-drawing" and construction work--I've worked out all the poses and anatomy and perspective. Next I put the layout on my lightbox on my drawing table and make a very clean-line tracing (with black H or HB lead) of just the necessary elements. Finally I do any shading and fill in black areas before giving the pages over to Karl story for inking.
What’s about your studio? Do you work at home? Any digital support?
I do work at home, in a studio full of reference books and models and props that I use for maintaining accuracy when drawing. I use a computer to shrink or enlarge sketches when needed, and for altering artwork for specific effects.
I think it’s correct to say you are basically a penciler and your clean pages are created (I suppose) keeping in mind that they have to be inked. You worked with inkers like Al Gordon and Karl Story, who are regular collaborators. What’s about your teamwork with the inker? I mean it is a kind of a matter of trust… Do you prefer they stay faithful to your lines or… for example I remember a great team-up with “embellisher” Kevin Nowlan (who’s also a penciler on his own)…
I really do prefer that the inker is faithful to the pencil artwork. It's heartbreaking to create a page you love only to see it changed by someone else. I work very hard on getting just the right expressions on faces or making sure technical details are correct, and these two things can be destroyed very carelessly by bad inkers. Luckily, for many years I've been able to work with good inkers I do trust. I prefer Karl Story over anyone else and we've worked together so long that I think we both know what the other expects or what the other will do. Being inked by Kevin Nowlan was amazing! He was very faithful, yet occasionally his own spirit would show through on certain details.
Why don’t you ink yourself? Is it just a matter of deadline? In Europe, comics artists draw and ink their own stuff which is quite unusual in the USA market, especially in the “superhero” field…
It's very much a matter of deadline. And since I haven't inked very much of my own work, I haven't been able to practice my inking skills and am not very good at it! The US publishers just don't seem to want to give creators the time to create longer stories in an album format--it's all about the monthly treadmill over here!
Do you prefer a fully detailed script or something more like Marvel-style script?
I think I prefer a detailed script. At the very least I prefer to know the dialogue when drawing expressions and poses. I recently had the chance to work "Marvel-style" with Walt Simonson on a Spirit story and it was a challenge!
Any desire to write your own comics?
Not at all! I love to draw and am happy doing just that.
Your sci-fi Ocean miniseries written by Warren Ellis has been optioned for a movie adaptation. Any news about it? Are you involved in it in any way?
I'm not involved in any way. I'm very excited about it--I love science fiction movies and to have created something which will one day be a science fiction movie is amazing to me. I just learned that the script is finished and it should go to the studio for casting and budgeting soon.
What’s your opinion about the strong relationship between the comics industry and Hollywood? There is for example a big hype around a couple of comics movies such as Spirit, Sin City 2 and of course Watchmen… Is it good for comics in itself or not?
I'm not sure if it is good. I suppose that good Hollywood movies based on comics has helped to make comics more legitimate in the eyes of the general American public. When I was in school, you could be ridiculed and even beaten up for liking comics, but now it's very accepted among all age groups and I think it may be partially because of the movies. No one has been able to say conclusively if the movies have helped generate more comic sales, but I don't think they have. I don't know. I can only speak for myself: I didn't get into the comics business to make movies--I just want to draw good comics and if someone wants to make a movie out of one of my comics, that's great, but it's not my ultimate goal.
What do you think about the graphic novel phenomenon?
I'm happy that there are more US graphic novels now! I would love to see even more.
Your last work is the Number of the Beast miniseries set in the Wildstorm Universe. What can reveal about this story?
Number of the Beast is about a group of superheroes form the 1940's and 1950's who have been kept in suspended animation. Now they are waking up and will quite possibly cause the end of civilization! That's the basic premise. I was attracted to the series because of the 1940's-50's characters. I designed nearly 30 characters for the series and I loved every minute of it. It was very hard work ultimately, but I enjoyed the series.
You are also working on some Superman covers even if you said in the past “I don’t think I can’t draw him well”…
I just finished my second cover an hour ago! Originally, I was supposed to draw a two-part Superman story, but plans fell through and DC decided to abandon it. I don't know what happened, but I was ready and willing. I'd resisted doing Superman for years because I never liked how I drew him at conventions, but I did a cover for one of Brad Meltzer's JLA comics featuring Superman and it looked okay, so I thought I could do it. I drew another cover this year in preparation for my two issues and I loved it, so I thought it would all go perfectly. Oh, well...maybe someday. For now, I'll be drawing a total of four Superman-related covers: two for Superman, one for Supergirl, and one for Action Comics.
Which comics do you currently read? Because you READ comics, don’t you? (It seems that many comics artists don’t do that…)
I regularly read Ex Machina, Hellboy, anything by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen's Ultimate Spider-Man, and Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch's Fantastic Four.