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.
In his first year at the Joe Kubert School, a professor praised Clayton Cowles for his hand at lettering. Though he typically exhibited miserable penmanship and never considered lettering as a profession, Cowles took his instructors’ advice and pursued the craft, ultimately securing a number of assignments from Marvel Comics, under the tutelage of lettering mainstay Chris Eliopoulos.
Cowles is currently lettering numerous Marvel projects, including “Original Sins,” “Savage Hulk,” and “Fantastic Four.” He also works on various Image Comics titles including like “Pretty Deadly,” “Zero,” and the upcoming “The Wicked + The Divine.”
CBR News spoke with Cowles about cats, the manga of Naoki Urasawa, esoteric Nickelodeon programming from the ’90s, and of course, the Roman alphabet.
CBR News: What is your favorite letter?
Clayton Cowles: I like ‘Q’ because I’m a Trekky, and it has that guy named Q in it.
Sure. John de Lancie.
Yeah! He’s the best. He really took me out of “Breaking Bad” when he appeared on “Breaking Bad.” I thought, This explains everything. This is how Walt got cancer.
[Laughs] That’s thematically appropriate though, because his whole little character arc centered on serendipity. Synchronicity. Chaos theory.
And Q is serendipity incarnate. And he has that great hat too. He should have worn that on the show. It’s not very Albuquerque though.
No. Unless it was solar powered. Or some kind of moisture evaporator device.
That’s where they get all their power, sitting by a star.
What’s the most ambitious or experimental thing you’ve tried in your work? What choice made you seasick over how it might be received?
When I started on “Young Avengers” and we went with that lettering style, I thought, I’m gonna get fired for this for sure. It was so different from anything else we’d done before. My boss was on vacation at the time and I started it before I knew I had his approval. We did the whole book with that circle style. They asked me to emulate Rus Wooton on that. I thought he was going to hate me, but we’re still friends. It’s all good.
How about in life? Are you a risk taker?
Not really. I’m a homebody. I almost bought a second cat one time.
[A cat meows as if on cue.]
That’s my first cat. First and only cat.
Did you plan that, or do you think he comprehends that you’re talking about taking on another roommate?
He knows his name. I’m not going to say it because it’s really embarrassing. Is this all going into the article?
I can redact it if you’d like. Just say the word.
No, I’d kind of like it if the cat stuff was in there. His name is Anakin. Like the Skywalker. You don’t have to redact that. I just like to make fun of him. He came with the name when we picked him up from the animal shelter.
Yeah, that’s right. We were going to name him something else, but “Episode II” had just come out, and this cat was so grumpy and so whiny that we decided it had to stick.
He was going around the neighborhood, slaughtering all the Tusken Raiders.
He would be if he weren’t afraid of the outdoors. He’s more of the meek, little kid Anakin who never grew up and never had to leave his mom to become mighty and tough.
What’s important to you in your work at this stage in your career?
Refusing to settle. And the same thing goes for life. I’m trying to work on more books that I just straight up enjoy as an artist. I’m also trying not to be complacent about any of them. I don’t want to do things on auto-pilot. Complacency breeds mediocrity. With all the independent books that I do now, I try to give those a little more TLC. That’s spreading into my Marvel work too.
Taking a look back at “Pretty Deadly,” it strikes me that, for a narrative so dark and lyrical, the lettering style is seemingly quite grounded. Not a lot of quivery lines and long, wispy tails on the balloons. Can you talk about the philosophy on that particular project?
Making it sort of musical was a conscious effort of Kelly Sue [DeConnick] and Emma [Rios] when we started, especially with the song in issue #1. They wanted the captions to read a certain way. Depending on how the lettering was stacked, that would affect the rhythm of how it was read. That was kept intact. I’d lettered Emma a few times before on different Marvel jobs, and so it was also my mission to bring order to chaos. Much like the Borg of our beloved “Star Trek.”
That carried over to “Pretty Deadly,” and it’s kind of how I’m used to working. I don’t mean to disrespect Emma at all; she’s so amazing, magical and cool and out there. That’s what’s great about her! Color choices and other stylistic things were pretty collaborative too. A lot of color choices were Jordie [Bellaire]’s idea. Death’s red drop shadows on his balloons, that was her. Molly Raven’s black word balloons with pink text, also Jordie’s idea. I’m going, I should have thought of that! Stupid Jordie and her greatness!
When’s the last time you had a religious experience with a piece of art, any medium? You can say “Star Trek” if you want.
[Laughs] No. It was after that. I remember the first time I read “20th Century Boys.” Really blew my mind. That was a major book for me. I read as much of it as fast as I could. Something like fifteen volumes in three weeks. That was the same time as the big Borders closing. I was able to get most of it for really cheap. I also picked up “Pluto” at that time. Sebastian Gerner turned me onto those because I wanted to try some manga. It was both of those and all of “Runaways” and “Ex Machina” while Borders was closing. I must’ve spent $600 bucks all in one month there.
I had a similar experience. I was still lurking around in one Borders location when they’d started selling off the furniture and fixtures. Do I need a bookcase? It was exciting and deeply sad. I felt ghoulish, but I walked away laden with comics and crime novels.
I felt the same way.
What is it about “20th Century Boys?”
Man, what a great book. I really think it was the best book of the 2000s, even better than “Y: The Last Man.”
Yeah, I hold up “Pluto” pretty high, probably in that same regard. I’ve yet to invest in all of “20th Century Boys” though. Soon, for sure.
It’s a hefty investment, for sure. You could really tell it was Urasawa’s vision, the comic that he wanted to make. Yeah, he was using assistants and stuff, but it all just breathed Urasawa. He’s throwing in everything he wants to use, from childhood friendship, rock & roll, slice of life, as well as massive conspiracies. It’s incredible.
From talking to you, it sounds like you really tend to gravitate toward coming of age stories. You mentioned “The Wonder Years” earlier.
Yeah, when I do my own writing that I very rarely show people, because it’s not done yet, I find that I’m often lifting a lot from “The Wonder Years” and “The Adventures of Pete & Pete.”
“Pete & Pete” is phenomenal. That’s a major touchstone for me as well. I’ve looked back at my college writing only to discover I was unintentionally borrowing and lifting ideas from that and “Bottle Rocket.”
Have you watched it lately? “Pete & Pete?”
I have. A few months ago.
I watched it last night. I’m heartbroken that season three hasn’t come out on DVD yet. I hear they got made and they’re just sitting in a warehouse somewhere.
I think if they aired that series now, it’d win a lot of new audiences over. Kids and adults. For anyone who doesn’t already remember it fondly.
Especially now in the “Adventure Time” age. I watched the bowling one two nights ago. If you break that episode down, joke by joke, it’s just hysterical and so well structured.
My favorite is the one where the family goes to the beach and they’ve got the metal detector out. And they find an entire car.
And they find an entire car. Yeah.
And they drive it home.
Because it has gas in it, apparently. You can’t help but wonder what happened to the car they drove there.
It’s the same one with the guy from R.E.M.
Yeah, Michael Stipe. I tell all of my R.E.M. friends that they have to watch it, if only for Michael Stipe as a boardwalk ice cream man. They share a director with some of R.E.M.’s early music videos, and you can see that shared sensibility. Spinning globes in a dark room. Probably all shot in the same New Jersey neighborhoods. I used to live in New Jersey, and I figured out that the nearby highway, 287 North, was where they shot the road trip episode. I know that high voltage wire and that wall, that bridge where Artie was clinging.
I think everybody going bananas over the new “Twin Peaks” box set would do well to check out “Pete & Pete.” It’s that same oddness, unleashed on a live-action Nickelodeon series. That same ’90s spirit of independent filmmaking. How old are you, by the way?
So, a little bit younger than I am. We were in the right place and right time for that little cult gem. It was probably our introduction to magic realism. The world is absurd and magical, and that’s just accepted.
One thing I took away from that show is that all of the villains on that show, even though they’re really mundane, they’re treated like big cosmic threats. “Endless” Mike Hellstrom is treated like a force of nature. Looking at him as a kid, I viewed him much the same as I did Magneto or Doctor Doom or Mister Sinister. Where’s his trading card.
“Endless” Mike is a great example. He’s on “Justified” these days. In conversation, I would casually just refer to him as “Endless” Mike Hellstrom and not Rick Gomez. Friends a little older or a little younger had no idea what I was going on about. “Guy, he’s ‘Endless’ Mike Hellstrom, one of the great villains of our time!”
We need to do some kind of Kickstarter campaign though. “Reading Rainbow” that jam back into the zeitgeist.
Yeah, let’s go to Kickstarter and liberate Season Three from that warehouse. I’m sure Mike Maronna and Danny Tamberelli would be on board.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Cowles’ upcoming projects and follow him on Twitter at @ClaytonCowles