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When you talk about “Hawkman” or the upcoming DC Comics mega-crossover “Identity Crisis,” you hear the usual names: Geoff Johns, Rags Morales and Brad Meltzer. One name you don’t often hear is that of penciller turned inker Michael Bair, who any of the three aforementioned creators will tell is an important contributor to their books. With “Identity Crisis” set to hit the shelves in June, CBR News caught up with the series’ inker to learn more about one of comics’ unsung heroes.
“I can’t tell you any more and I can definitely tell you a lot less than everybody else,” laughs Bair when asked for some deals on the hush-hush “Identity Crisis.” “In comic books there is now a secrecy issue because companies want to keep things quiet and things get leaked much faster now- even when I was working on ‘JSA’ there were plotline leaks and I had to bear the brunt of people looking at me, wondering if I had said something. Hey look, I don’t even have a computer! [laughs] You can’t blame me for Internet leaks. But yeah, DC is being very tight lipped about this project and even at the first meeting, Mike Carlin was emphatic and explicit about no leaks, don’t tell anyone anything- don’t tell your friends, don’t tell your wife! Mike never said what he’d do if someone told, but the unspoken is always more frightening. I made a point of saying I didn’t want to get the next scripts so that way I wouldn’t be in the chain of leaks. And this is a mystery story, so I’m happy to read each script as I get to it, because it’s a real surprise!
“I’ve been very lucky with DC- between ‘Identity Crisis’ and ‘Hawkman,’ ‘JSA’ and before that, ‘JLA: Year One,’ it’s been a good 5-6 years.”
As astute fans will notice, Bair has been pencilling the covers to the recent “JSA” trade paperback collections and it all comes back to his beginnings at DC. “My first brush with DC was the ‘Huntress’ backup in ‘Wonder Woman’ and then ‘JSA Vs America,’ all of this was pencilling. The first ten years of my career was all pencilling- I didn’t know how to ink. I remember when I first got in the industry almost twenty years ago and showed some samples to Jim Shooter, he said ‘those pencils look pretty good’ and then when I showed him my inking, he said, ‘but stay away from the inks.’ [laughs] It felt like a personal challenge, so on my own I worked on my inks and creators like Mark Texiera, who I worked with in the past, strongly influenced how I approached inking. The more I learned about inks, the more I wanted to ink my own work- there’s a reason why you don’t see too many people pencilling and inking their own work- it’s just too much to do on a monthly schedule. Look at some of the best runs in comics- Frank Miller or Neal Adams for example- there’s just so much you can do before you burn out and dry up the well.”
These days you most often see Bair as part of DC’s dynamic duo, inking the intricate pencils of Rags Morales and though the team has the synergy of old friends, they’ve only worked together for a few years. “I was working on ‘JSA’ and Rags did a ‘half’ fill-in. [Editor Pete] Tomasi got experimental, with the bottom of the book done by Buzz and the top by Rags & I for the intro to Hawkman, “JSA #22″- it was such a blast working with Rags that when Pete had talked about who would be a good penciller for ‘Hawkman’ I knew once I saw page one from Rags that he was the guy.”
Morales is also a perfect collaborator for Bair because of another big reason. “I think that Rags is such a strong penciller and he’s not afraid to have a strong inker. Some artists are a little fragile in that regard and I understand that, which is one of the reasons I started inking my own work, but you know Rags is able to understand that it’s the printed page that counts and the pencils, no matter how tight, are only part of what counts for the finished product. He doesn’t mind occasionally having a little extra style added. Rags is sort of an amalgamation of the best of the traditional American cartoonists like Nick Foster with a little Wally Wood thrown in plus contemporaries like Michael Golden and Garcia Lopez.”
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It was announced a few months ago that Morales and Bair were leaving “Hawkman,” but it wasn’t the case of one making the decision and dragging the other- they both seemed to realize they’d done all they wanted for the time being. “We decided early on that we liked working together as a team. When I left ‘JSA’ to work on ‘Hawkman’ it was sort of a natural progression- I think Rags and I are more alike than we like to admit. I have about a two year top average on a book, I only stayed two years on ‘JSA’ and two years on ‘Hawkman’- that’s still better than those Image artists with four or five issues [laughs].”
One thing that Bair wishes he could have completed was the covers for the “Princes of Darkness” storyline in “JSA”- he had been scheduled to do the wrap around cover for issue #50, but was moved off once Carlos Pacheco was signed for the covers. “In one form or another, I’ve been associated with the JSA for my entire career- from ‘Infinity Inc’ to ‘JSA vs America,’ so it would have been nice to do those covers. For the first few years, if I can slip this in, I used my legal name which is Michael Hernandez. I chose to change to Bair because it’s my mother’s maiden name and you have to understand, there are a lot of Hernandez’s in comics- I’ve even got chided over it [laughs]. It was simple to go with Bair- there are no other Bairs in comics- though I did get a call from Mike Barr over it [laughs]. Another plus is when I do a convention- my name is very much near the top.”
Bair’s career really started in ’82 and through that time he’s seen a lot of changes, from increased royalties to the opening of the direct market, but one thing that concerns him is the lack of knowledge some have about comic book history. “I think the problem with a lot of artists today is they think the industry started with Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane- with Image Comics. I think that separates a lot of the young guys from the guys my age- guys my age tend to know about Foster, Raymond and who Stan Drake was, a number of illustrators who aren’t ‘new.'”
He’s also seen a lot of criticism of inking and the one comment that irks him the most is that, “Inking doesn’t exist,” laughs Bair. “Most people think the inker is the colorist and don’t understand the role that inker’s play in the work. I think every inker would like five or ten minutes alone with Kevin Smith [laughs].”
While Bair is happy to gush about the creators he’s worked with, there’s a couple of editors to whom he feels he owes a few kinds words. “Working with Pete Tomasi, it sounds kiss ass, but it’s not, because he took a chance on me when DC wasn’t completely enthused about hiring me. He’s one of the rare DC editors who actually dictates the feel of his books- they all have a character you can’t deny, even the ones he inherited from Archie Goodwin. I also have to say it’s funny that I’ve never worked with Mike Carlin in the whole time I’ve been at DC and it is really great to be working with him.”
In the end, while Bair would like to work on Captain America or Spider-Man, he’s worked on the greatest heroes of all time- the JSA. “I love the characters. They set the bar for the ‘what if’ characters and they are the originals. I remember my dad looking at the comics in the mid-Sixties and looking at Green Lantern, saying, ‘that’s not what Green Lantern looks like. Green Lantern has a cape!’ and he would show me what the old ones looked like. I remember the first two crossovers at the time with the JLA and it was a shock to know I wasn’t reading the real deal. The idea that there were two Supermans or two Batmans just tickled me- and even when DC kept the JSA on the backburner, the team came back because they’re such a great concept and set of characters. Even when we started the book no one, no one had any faith ‘JSA’ would do any well, but David, James and then Geoff kept hitting a home run.”