Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead.
Chris Samnee only ever wanted to draw. He grew up largely isolated with his family in a log cabin, keeping to himself and doodling “Sesame Street” characters on styrofoam cups. Having found success with both DC Comics and Marvel on titles like “The Adventures of Superman,”, “Thor: The Mighty Avenger” and now “Daredevil,” the artist remains doggedly devoted to family and craft, with little time for much else.
CBR News spoke to Samnee about his reclusive discipline and his misadventures beyond the cozy confines of his backyard studio.
CBR News: I know you’re a busy man, constantly working, but what’s keeping you entertained these days?
Chris Samnee: Oh, geez. Not a whole lot? I know that “True Detective” is supposed to be good, and there’s a whole bunch of things that I hear about, but I’m mostly just reading scripts from Mark [Waid]. I don’t even read comics very much these days. I bought a few the other day, but I don’t know when I’m going to read ’em. My to-read pile is as tall as I am. Some days while I’m inking I’ll put a podcast on, or an old ’60s episode of “Spider-Man” or “Fantastic Four” just for background noise, but these days it’s just about getting the work done, hanging out with the family whenever I can. That’s really about it. [Laughs] That’s super boring. That’s such a boring answer, but it’s the truth.
The story you’re telling in “Daredevil” seems like time well spent, but probably pretty taxing as well, given the subject matter. You’re visually charting Foggy Nelson’s battle with cancer. The time we spend reading those pages is fleeting compared to the time you spend rendering them.
If Mark gets me choked up in the script, I instantly write him an e-mail, like, “Fuck you, Mark! You did it again! I got choked up and now I’ve got to draw it.” I always know it’s going to be a really heartfelt scene. If it affected me, I know I can draw it well enough to affect the reader. It’s some heavy stuff.
Did you know that that’s what you were signing on for?
I guess about six months into my work on “Daredevil” when I’d become the regular artist on the book, I got a phone call from [Steve] Wacker, while he was still editor. He said, “We’ve got some big stuff coming. Just want to give you a heads up. Foggy’s gonna get cancer.” I was like, “That’s a really dark joke.” He said it wasn’t a joke. Wacker has this gallows sense of humor. But he said that, no, it wasn’t a joke. Foggy was going to get cancer in the book and was I cool with that? I don’t know if it was the same phone call of another one down the line when he said we’d be moving them to San Francisco as well. “What? Are you sure?” [Laughs] Okay. Sure?
When you realized he wasn’t joking, were you skeptical at all about those choices?
No, not at all. I knew that Mark could do it. Wacker also said they’d been talking to the National Cancer Society and they were going to do everything they could to help us with research. Mark went and talked to cancer survivors, and he’s used some of their stories as inspiration for Foggy. Everybody knows somebody who has cancer. We’re trying to make it as real as possible.
It strikes me that you’re chained to a desk each day, laboring over the the exploits of a hero who cannot see. At least not in the typical sense of the word. Art is your livelihood. Not to make light of it, but what if you could no longer see? What would you do if drawing was no longer an available avenue?
Oh, geez. That’s terrible. That’s like my worst nightmare. I have a cut on the thumb and middle finger of my drawing hand. It is painful. I’m still doing it because I have to get it done. I grit my teeth and get it done. I can’t imagine not being able to see a drawing board or hold a pen. It’s what I do for a living, but it’s also what I do for release, what I do for fun. I don’t have hobbies. I have my family, but I don’t have hobbies. I read comics if I can find the time. Outside of my family, this is what I do.
Did you ever want to be anything before or aside from being an artist?
No. I read a comic when I was five or six and that was it. “I don’t know how to do this, but people make this and that’s what I want to do.” In kindergarten they’d ask me what I wanted to do and I didn’t know what a comic book artist was. I just knew I wanted to make them. So I’d say, “I want to be a cop.” Because that was the closest to Batman I could be. Batman was friends with a police commissioner. I’ll just say cop. It cut out the middleman of having to explain what I really wanted to be.
I’d always say I wanted to be a chef, but only because I liked those hats. In reality, I’m the pickiest eater and can barely cook a frozen pizza without forgetting to remove the cardboard from underneath.
I just did that the other night! There was a piece of paper and I didn’t even realize it.
It’s not even on the instructions to remove the cardboard. Maybe it is. I just wing it though. For a while I wanted to be an artist, too. But my dad said that no one likes artists’ work until after they’re dead. Like Van Gogh, I guess.
[Laughs] That’s terrible!
He was mostly joking. But it’s a component of art worth talking about. Is it about the process or joy of drawing, or the end result for you? Do you prefer drawing or having drawn?
It’s got to be about the process, because once it’s done, I hate it.
I’m never happy with what I’ve done. Once I’m done, I can be proud of something. I can be proud of an issue, but all I see are the flaws. It’s a constant struggle to fight the me from a moment ago. I can finish a page and say, “Yay! I finished a page!” Then I see all the things that need to get fixed. I have to be better than the guy who did that page yesterday.
Is there any particular area of the craft that you feel you’re repeatedly fighting with?
All of them?
That sounds so bad and self-loathing, but I think that’s the only way to get better, is to never be happy. Never settle. Like a shark. You gotta keep moving!
Be a shark. So, are you as fearless as Daredevil?
Oh, hardly. I used to be afraid of heights, and then I became a cable guy. You have to climb telephone poles all day, and I got over that. I don’t like driving. I’m not crazy about talking on the phone.
[Laughs] No, no, it’s fine! It’s just something you have to get over. I used to work at Boston Market and I wouldn’t do the headset. But I would handle knives all day. Talking to people was always too much for me. I grew up back in the woods in a log cabin. I would just draw all day. I didn’t hang out with other kids until high school, so I didn’t have a lot of practice with other people and everyday life. Then I worked retail. And you get over it. You either pretend well enough so people don’t know, or you just get over it.
Fake it ’til you make it. So, you escaped the headset?
I never ended up having to do it. My friend made sure I was never on that duty. I said I’d make mashed potatoes until the sun came up, but don’t make me do that. I did have to deal with customer service with the cable job though, making house calls.
Ever have to go into any really disturbing houses you’d otherwise avoid?
Yeah. I mean, yeah. There was a lady who had like thirty cats. You could smell them as soon as you pulled up into the driveway. God awful. I’ve got some horror stories. But most of my horror stories from being a cable guy are my own fault. The humidity in St. Louis is awful on a 100-degree day. There was a problem inside the house with their cable line. It wasn’t the telephone pole. It wasn’t the box. It was somewhere in between. The cable line ran through their attic, so I had to climb up there. On a day that hot, the attic can go up to 120. I’m digging around up there, not realizing how hot I was, and I passed out. I fell through the ceiling.
You fell through the ceiling?
I fell through their ceiling and into their living room, with my foot hooked onto one of the beams.
Was this your last day on that job?
No, no! A few months later, one of the guys in the internet side said, “We hear you’re doing some great stuff out on repairs.” “Are you serious? Are you messing with me?” “Not at all. Do you want to come do installs on PC stuff?” I didn’t know anything about computers, and that was like a promotion. Then, my brother did work there, so–
What did the family say when you fell through their ceiling?
Oh, well I had a guy with me. He dusted me off and apologized for me. I called my boss and he said, “Oh, we’ll have Loss Prevention get in touch with them.” So, some time after I left, the cable company paid for the repairs. I drank a bunch of water and Gatorade and I was good. I never really got hurt. I slammed my hand in the sliding door of the van once. I had a couple of car wrecks in the work van. I side-swept a guy. I backed into a guy.
How are you still alive?
I told you, I don’t like driving!
I think you made a wise decision restricting yourself to that studio in your backyard, because I don’t think you’d do well out in the wild. There are probably even more cars now.
I told you, I have a cut on my thumb and my finger. It’s a paper cut, but part of it is from doing dishes. I’m accident prone.
You don’t even do well there in your isolation hut. How did you survive in the woods for all those years?
Because I didn’t leave the cabin.
You’d think there’d have been some kind of hunting accident.
Well. My dad didn’t really have guns. He had birds.
He was a falconer. He had a kestrel and he had a Peregrine falcon, and an owl.
Why didn’t we lead with this?
He’s a master falconer now, so he can breed them. He’s got birds out the wazoo. Growing up, if he wanted to hunt, he had birds. So there really wasn’t any worry with me and birds, except for getting pooped on.
Did you get along with the birds?
I guess? There’s pictures of me as a kid, holding them. You know, with the leather glove. I guess I got along with them. They were sort of the little brother I didn’t like. “Ugh, the birds are in the house again?” I still don’t really like birds to this day. They don’t do anything to me. I just don’t like the sound of them. I don’t like looking at them. They had names, most I can’t really remember. There was an owl named Hoot. Very clever. My family was very smart. They had llamas. My mom liked to name them after royalty. There was Ferdinand and Isabella. When you live in the woods, you kind of do whatever. No one can judge you. We had chickens and ducks. There were quail and rats as food for the hawks. It’s all a blur. My dad did his thing and I did my thing. There were always strange birds coming in and out of the house. I didn’t know if they were his or his friends’. I used to be able to tell a red-tailed from a sharp-shinned.
You’re the second person I’ve met whose father is a falconer. It seems so mystical to me. Like it’d be something that’s passed down through the generations, a sacred calling.
But it wasn’t for you?
[In an imperious, Christopher Lee voice] Oh, to be a falconer, with a big white beard. [Regular voice] Yeah, it’s either something you’re into or you’re not. Since my dad was into it, I wasn’t. If my parents liked something, I couldn’t like it. “Oh, my dad likes Gallagher. I can’t like Gallagher.”
Stay tuned to CBR News for more coverage of Chris Samnee’s work on “Daredevil” and follow him on Twitter at @ChrisSamnee.