From the morally grey areas trafficked by teams like The Authority and the Ultimates to the large-scale action required from marquee Marvel Comics franchises like the Fantastic Four and Captain America, artist Bryan Hitch has carved his place in mainstream comics with big visuals on big stories. Hitch’s widescreen school of comic action and fiercely realistic cartooning have influenced a number of artists that followed him, and now he’s opening up his own process for the benefit of fans – or at least trying.
With “Bryan Hitch’s Ultimate Comics Studio” – a $24.99 art tome that’s in stores this month from Impact Books -Â the artist digs deep into the ins and outs of his own comic creating process. While not strictly meant as an instructional guide, “Ultimate Comics Studio” has plenty of tips for how Hitch achieves his personal effects on the page. Featuring chapters on drawing, inking and color, storytelling, covers and other comics basics, the book also boasts tips for making it in the business of comics as well as a forward by writer and director Joss Whedon.
Hitch spoke with CBR News about the book but also about the comics career he started as a self-taught teenager, how it didn’t quite equip him to write a “How-To” art book and how through work like “The Authority” he finally found his voice after over a decade in comics. Plus, the artist shares pages from inside the book, notes on the final segment where he put his own principals into practice with some original characters and early word on his next Marvel project where he’ll team with certain A-list writer.
CBR News: Bryan, tell me a little about how this book came together. Is it meant to be a comics art instruction book at all or more a look at you own Marvel work from the past few years?
Bryan Hitch: The UK wing of Impact is a company called David and Charles, and they produce high-end hardcover coffee table art books. They’ve done a couple on John Howe and his work on “Lord of the Rings” and fantasy book covers and so forth. But they approached me and said “Would you do a ‘How To Draw Comics’ book?” and I said “No, because I don’t know how.” Not that I didn’t know how to draw comics, but I didn’t know how to teach anyone to draw comics, quite honestly. I think something like that is a huge subject since you kind of have to teach people to draw anyway on top of panels, which is a fairly lengthy subject. To be an illustrator and then add storytelling and “comic book language”?
So I said, “I could tell you how I do it, but I couldn’t tell anybody else how they should do it.” They picked up on that and thought maybe a behind the scenes insight into how my process, such as it is, might be just as useful. To be honest, I didn’t really know if I had a process because I go into the office and start working, and with 25 years of drawing comics as a profession, it’s basically evolved into something that’s second nature. In actually trying to break down my own process into bite-sized chunks – I wrote a book that’s basically a starter book on the whole thing – you can only give a flavor of each aspect of how you go about producing a page or a drawing or a story. Breaking that down into some simple processes – which aren’t necessarily highly accurate to how I work day-to-day as much as a snapshot of it – that was an education for me in itself. Because honestly, I didn’t even feel like I worked the days I was apparently at work on it.
Well, it brings up something I wanted to ask you about going into your career as early as you did. What kind of art schooling did you have when you started pitching to Marvel UK?
I was waiting to go to the local art college – and there was a pretty good one where I lived. But you needed to be 17, and I had to wait until that November of 1987 because I would have been 17 in the April of that year. But it made me have to wait until the following school year to get onto the coursework I wanted to do. Earlier in the year, I’d sent samples to Richard Starking and Simon Furman at Marvel UK – in the spring of ’87 – and they gave me a strip on the spot. A five-page “Action Force” story. I think it was actually ten-pages in two part, but “Action Force” is the European version of “G.I. Joe” using some of those characters set in Britain. It just kept going. Come September or October, I was on my third assignment and was told it was going to be full-time.
So I just carried on drawing comics instead of going to college, which is I’m not sure the very best course because quite honestly, I don’t think I started to understand how to do it for another 12 years after that point. It’s not like it was a short leap to learning how to do comics well. I was certainly making money at it and doing what I wanted to do, but I don’t think I learned more than I would have at college. It’s hard to know, because some [other artists] have gone to college and said it was a wasted journey because they didn’t learn how to draw comics any better. Then again, 25 or 23 years ago comics were frowned upon as a commercial art, and when you went to art college, they hated commercial art. They didn’t teach commercial art. They taught fine art – drawing flocks of seagulls using a feathered quill because you could “imbue it with a sense of flight.” None of that is relative to commercial art, really. Although these days I think colleges are much more aware of that. The courses for commercial art are treating comics and animation as a little more prevalent.
I’ve looked through only parts of this book, but it seems you spend some time talking here about the profession side of it and how to making a living as an artist. Even if at Marvel UK you weren’t really hitting the creative side of it the way you wanted, did you do well learning how to get paid and stick on deadline as a freelancer?
Well, I don’t know if I learned how to get on deadline, but I certainly learned how to get paid. [Laughter] One thing that was good about that was that I was only 17, but then again Doug Braithwaite was 18, and we started at the same time. Simon Coleby was 18 or 19, and he started then. We had the likes of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and Liam Sharp; Richard Starkings was the senior editor there, and Simon Furman was writing “Transformers” and editing other books for them. While they seemed older to me at the time, they were still in their early to mid-20s. Rich was like 26 then. So it was all these young people. Everybody was learning to do it to some extent, and I think that really did help.
There’s an element to learning the business – that’s something I don’t think you hear a lot of on websites and so forth. People talk about how their process involves this and lightboxing that and inking the other, but apart from a couple of people on Twitter like C.B. Cebulski at Marvel, nobody talks about the business end of this coming up. The young guys, I think that’s what they need an education in as much as how to draw: how to get work, how to do business work, how to generate for or approach editors. It’s a tricky ground, I guess. If you’re talking to fans trying to figure out how to do this stuff, talking about that is as essential as what pencil to use.
After working in the UK for years and doing some U.S. comics work, I think the obvious sea change for you in terms of how your stuff looked and how many people noticed it was with “The Authority.” What opened that series up in terms of how you made comics? Was it something in Warren Elli’s scripting approach, or did things just start to click for you after so many pages drawn?
I think it was a combination of factors. It was certainly the point at which I felt I knew what I was doing. I don’t know. I think it was happening about a year before that because I’d spent the last year still at Marvel working on specials and mini series and going, “Oh, I just drew that without thinking about it. I wasn’t trying to figure out how someone else would solve the problem. I just solved it myself.” I think it was also the first time I’d worked with a writer who really knew what he was doing. With Warren and with Mark Millar too – maybe because of the whole cultural and age background we had, and a kind of cultural sensibility because we’re British – we certainly seemed to see the work in very much the same way. How to produce it. I think that gelled with my growing confidence. “Stormwatch” was one of those lucky accidents, but when we did it with “Authority” we were much more confident to do it our way because we knew what we were doing then. I do consider that the point where my career began. I had been working in comics for up to 12 years at that point.
The keystone to your change there is the “widescreen” style of storytelling. Looking over the photos in this book, you can see that you work really big on the page. Had you drawn at that size when those books came along?
Well, I mostly draw at a normal size. There was a period during “Fantastic Four” where for various reasons I started working twice-sized. That was the size at which Frank Cho worked, and Ditko did the original Spider-Man pages that way. The standard used to be that size. I thought it worked for “Fantastic Four” at that size, but my usual standard is the 11 X 17. I’m not sure what pages you were looking at, but there must be some of me working on the super-sized “FF” pages from then as well as the standard ones as it was around the time I was photographed for the book that I was making the transition back to 11 X 17 again.
But the choice to do it that was because I thought I’d been a bit neurotic about cramming everything into those “Ultimates” pages. I wanted something to allow me to open up and breath a bit more on the page. I just felt more comfortable working bigger at that point. Of course, it pissed off all the inkers because it was so much more work. [Laughter] But it was quicker for me at the time.
And we see here too a bit of that giant spread from “Ultimates 2’s” finale, where with the foldout I’m not even sure how many pages you’d drawn to wrap that five years of comics…
That last issue was about 42 or 48 pages, I think.
So as you had rounded out the project, what was your immediate goal? Did you want to give your hand a rest from drawing the same thing over and over?
There are certain things that draw you to different stories whether it be the writer, the story or the characters. But yeah, I guess I was looking for a different flavor in the work. I didn’t want to keep doing “Ultimates” style stuff all of the time. From “Ultimates” to “FF” and then with “Captain America: Reborn,” it wasn’t very “Ultimates”-like. Even the writing process was one where I’d get very different stuff from Ed [Brubaker] than I would from Mark [Millar]. All those things tend to have individual voices anyway, and that’s what you’re looking for – not just the characters but the individual voice of the project.
I knew I was going to be going on to “FF” with Mark well before I finished “Ultimates,” but really one strolled straight into the next one, and it was nice to get a change of pace. And the project I’m working on now is very different. So every day is a bit different from the one that came before. That’s what you look for, isn’t it? You don’t want to get bored or be typecast or draw the same stuff all the time. There’s only so many ways you can do the same thing. You change up by doing different things with the same tricks, but because it’s a different project with a different tone, the tricks don’t look so repetitive.
What stood out to me about your “FF” issues was that aside from a bit less of the very wide, across-the-page layouts, you were also using the negative space to make real panel borders rather than the thick, hard lines.
Well, I drew in panel borders at the start before sending them to Paul Mounts for coloring. I’d started this thing with the black panel borders on my work during “The Authority” because I really liked the way it held the very heavy coloring that computer coloring gives you inside the borders. What I didn’t like was whenever I drew a single-ruled panel border, it didn’t work to the color, so the black borders were a response to that. It’s so powerful. Then when I came to “Fantastic Four,” the black borders just didn’t seem to work on it. I had this eureka moment where I went, “I’ll just use white panel borders then.” So having Mounts lift out the ruled border after I’d drawn the page and he’d colored it, that made it look like a painted book. One of the things we’d had in mind was always Frank Bellamy’s “Thunderbirds” as a sort of coloring guide. Since so much of that stuff was hand-painted, the borders would be masked rather than ruled, and Frank didn’t want them on that anyway.
But you’re right that something as simple as that will change the flavor of it. Color choices will change the flavor. The colors there were much less somber than they were in “Ultimates.” Those were much earthier and military-based. When you’re looking at “Fantastic Four,” you’re dealing with so much blue because of the costumes and dealing in so much daylight rather than nighttime, it automatically gives you a different flavor. You’re playing with different values, colors, designs…that alters it as much as the tone of the writing.
As you went over the course of drawing that run and making notes for the book, how much did you learn about what you yourself do? Did you find in having to explain your work to someone that you’d go “Oh, I guess this is what I do when drawing”?
Yeah, that happened all the time on this book, really. The writing process on the book was different in that I wrote different outlines for the various chapters on my laptop, but then the editor Emily would come here with a tape recorder and we’d just waffle about process. She’d ask me questions about what I was doing and how I was doing it, and then she’d edited it down to something I could check the copy on. There were various times when she’d as “How do you do this?” and I’d say, “I don’t know.” [Laughter] Then we’d have to work through a process of “This is how I actually draw a figure.” I mean, what I do is I just pick up a pencil and draw a figure. There’s no conscious process to it at all. Or if there is, it’s very very fleeting. “If the leg is here, the arm has to go here, and I’ll twist the body this way.” That’s an entirely natural process. I think that’s true of anybody who’s been doing this a long time. Trying to break that down was as much an education for me as it was anybody else. Now I know how I work, which is very enlightening.
While, like we said, the book has segments from when you’ve been working on a specific Marvel book, there’s a few chapters where you create some characters and put them into a strip. Was that a more conceptual exercise or to show soup-to-nuts how a single project comes together?
Really what it was that rather than using a bunch of clip art [from completed work], I’d put the money where the mouth is and put into practice some of the principals about how to use an establishing shot, how to draw people in a natural environment and in a more fantastical one. So I just came up with a little scene, and I had to use my own characters I’d created because in a book like this you can’t use licensed characters for advertising and covers without paying a fee. There was a budget on the book to stick to, so it made sense to use on the cover, character archetypes of my own creation who were then reused in the scene to illustrate the things discussed.
Marvel has been more than generous in allowing the use of their artwork, but at the same time there were limits. They couldn’t let us use their characters to advertise their book, because that isn’t how it works. So there are rather practical licensing reasons for this rather than using Spider-Man or the Ultimates on the cover behind the creation of the characters. That isn’t the best answer in the world, I suppose, but there was a need to a demonstration at the end summing up everything we’d discussed. It seemed to make sense to use the good and bad guys on the cover.
And it helps cover the business end of what we talk about in the portfolio section. You need to be able to say, “Hey, I can draw comic books!” in your samples. And that’s got to be – apart from a grounding in storytelling – that you can draw people doing anything. Establishing shots. Real-world environments. Naturalistic behavior. Superhero stuff. Action shots. Male and Females. Children. Robot. Aliens – I think those pages really do cover a lot of the basics. It’s three solid sample pages. I think if I was an editor and somebody brought three pages with that level of material, regardless of the quality of the drawing, you’d think they worked hard to get here and knew what they were doing. Then you could judge the drawings for their own qualities.
Now that all the ideas are out on the page and the books is completed, how do you feel about? Is this just the first in the “Bryan Hitch Library”?
You know, the way I saw it as it was coming to a conclusion was that it really only scratched the surface of the process of drawing. Quite honestly, each one of the chapters could be a book unto itself – a book on storytelling techniques or how you move the images in the space on a page to move the reader’s eye around. Drawing figures is a book in itself. God know there’s enough of those around, so I’m not saying there’s a need for another one. But I’m certainly sure there’s room for a series coving inking techniques and coloring techniques and business practices. If it does do well, I think I’d consider doing more in-depth breakdowns of that stuff. I mean, the Famous Artist’s course, which was done by the likes of Norman Rockwell and Albert Dorne and Robert Fawcett in the ’60s, was an incredible project, but it was also about six volumes the size of an encyclopedia each. And that was just how to do an illustration – not on how to tell a story or graphic narrative or business practices. It was purely on drawing techniques. So there’s always going to be material for more books.
What is next for you? You’ve got some “Chaos War” covers for Marvel? Do you know what your next interior gig is?
I’m working on something with Bendis for the moment, and I’ve been writing something which I’ll be drawing next year for Marvel. Mark and I talk about various things at various times, and we just put together an Icon project we’d like to have out for Marvel next year. so there’s a lot of stuff on the table right now. I can’t tell you exactly what it is because noting is announced officially. But I’ve been very, very busy, and I did about 30 covers for Marvel over the summer, so you’ll be seeing them pop up. But it’s headlong into this Bendis project is the next thing until the end of the year. It might end up being a five-issue series. It was supposed to be a 32-page one-shot, and Bendis just got a bit carried away and expanded. [Laughs] I’m supposed to be the one that does that. I’ve got the reputation for expansion around here, but this started expanding itself.
“Ultimate Comics Studio” is on sale this month from Impact Books. For more, visit www.BryanHitchBook.com