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 might lead.
Illustrator Kris Anka has quickly become an “overnight success” in comics, carving out a place for himself as one of the Big Two’s top cover artists with work on “Uncanny X-Force” and “All-New X-Men.” At the same time he’s become an in-demand character designer, re-envisioning the entire “Uncanny X-Force” team and also doing a series of well-received redesigns of various superhero characters for fun. That’s how I met Anka, through a blind submission the California-based artist did in 2011 through Project: Rooftop, which I also edit.
CBR News caught up with Anka as he prepares for a new chapter in his comics life — drawing actual comic books. After sitting on the sidelines for years working almost exclusively as a cover artist, Anka recently drew his first full-length comic book interiors on last month’s “All-New X-Men Special” #1, followed by a prestigious guest issue on writer Brian Michael Bendis’ “Uncanny X-Men” in December. With all of that, it’s surprising that comics is still an after-hours pursuit for Anka, whose days are spent as a prop designer for Nickelodeon’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated series.
CBR News: Kris, I’ve talked to you for years because of Project: Rooftop, but I — like many others — don’t know much about you except you do great costume design and great covers. Where’d you come from?
Kris Anka: Well let’s see, born and raised in Los Angeles. Upon graduating high school I interned at WB Animation, but because I wasn’t part of the union just yet, I wasn’t allowed to do any production work; mostly just copies and filing. After a summer of that, I went to CalArts for Animation for four years.
What was the time period you interned at WB Animation, and did you work with any notable names during that time?
I was an intern for both the summers of 2007 and 2008. The first summer I was just a general production intern on the “Tom & Jerry Show,” working under Bobbie Page. This was when I wasn’t able to do any actual art work because I was non-union. But it was still an excellent opportunity to actually see how a studio worked from day-to-day. I had just graduated from high school, and hadn’t yet started CalArts so it was good to actually see what I was getting in to. [Laughs] I was also able to meet Bruce Timm and Dave Johnson in a very small capacity, and actually got a portfolio review from Dave — although I doubt he remembers this at all. [Laughs] It was all very daunting for me as a fan of both their works. The second summer I worked for this division called T-Works where I was actually building flash websites for WB. I remember doing one for “The Batman” and “Baby Looney Tunes.” [Laughs]
Fast forward a couple years and you’re spending your days at Nickelodeon’s studio as prop designer for the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated series. Comic fans might just assume you do comics all day, but superheroes occupy your nights while turtles fill your days. I can’t leave you off the hook from explaining what a prop designer does in animation.
Normally a prop designer is someone who actually has to design all the non-character and non-background elements in the show. But my role more specifically on this show, because it is a computer-generated show, sometimes calls for actual artwork that needs to be put into the sets, i.e. television shows, posters, magazine covers, etc. So almost all of what I’ve drawn for this show will actually appear in some capacity in the actual show, which is nice because very few actual drawings are shown on a computer-generated animated series. I often also have to draw elements that need to be placed over the final renders such as effects, or one-off images that are too complicated to make a new render for.
Didn’t you also do some work for Sideshow Collectibles, the collectibles manufacturer? I remember seeing some packaging art you did for them.
I did! After my third year at CalArts I decided to take a year off and it just so happened one of my friends, David Igo, was the Senior Designer over there. So I was brought on as the main in-house concept designer, which mainly entailed me doing rough pose drawings. When a character has been picked to be turned into a statue, I’m the first line of attack. I would brainstorm the character and try to come up with various poses, costumes, items, etc. that we felt would be the direction to take the character. Often times they already had an idea for which version of the character to go with before i even come to it, or I would just have to design multiple versions of a character depending on how many costumes they wanted to go with, i.e. a green Hulk, a gladiator Hulk, a red Hulk, etc. So for products coming out now, and products that will be coming out for a few years, i basically had my hand in almost all of it.
One of the fun side effects of this was I had a bunch of properties that I had to tackle that I had no previous experience in; or at least, enough for me to be able to confidently make decisions about a character. For one whole day I had to watch all the “Predator” films so I could make designs that were character specific.
You were dug in like an Alabama tick, to borrow a line from Jesse Ventura in that first movie.
While I was there the company began an initiative to include original prints with the pieces they were making. So I did a few of those, which was a nice break for me because I was able to actually take a piece to completion myself. One of the downsides to the statue designs was that after I did the initial concept, the rest of the statue was out of my hands. It was a true team effort in that every step of they way [each artist] had a lot of power themselves. With these prints I was just able to stretch my legs, and it was also good practice for when I inevitably started doing covers. It was actually one of these pieces that got me hired at Marvel.
I want to talk about your work at Marvel, but before that can you talk a bit more about some highlights from your time at Sideshow? There’s some great work there.
During my time, Sideshow was able to land the DC Comics license, which was a huge deal because before this only DC Direct was doing anything with the characters. So I was part of the first wave of attack with a lot of the pieces that’ll be coming out, at least in terms of the 1/4 scale figures.
Out of the gate, the two biggest characters to tackle (and to probably no surprise to literally no one) were Batman and Superman. With these characters especially, this was a test in finding something that we felt was a truly iconic pose, while also being something producible. As you can see with my Batman design, I wanted a giant cape, [Laughs], which was not something that could be produced cost-effectively or something that would be able to be packaged easily as well. Action poses are fun and allow for multiple productions of a character (Hulks), because this was a launch of a line, and such important characters, we felt going down a direction that felt more “god-like” was going to work better, especially for these two — as well as another truly iconic character, which I’m having a lot of input on her and I’m very proud of how it’s coming along.
Iconic DC character who is female and is third in line after Batman and Superman but you can’t say specifically who… I get you, Kris, I get you.
[Laughs] When we started on the line, we were also trying to figure out if prints were going to be included with these statues, like the Marvel line, so myself along with fellow artist Fabian Schlaga worked on a Superman print as a pitch.
Looking forward to that. As I said earlier, I came to know you through the great redesigns you’ve done of comic characters — first done for fun, and then employed for actual work such as the recent redesigns for “Uncanny X-Force.” Can you tell us your thoughts, in general, on costumes for superheroes and their depiction in comics?
I feel that a successful costume design has two key factors. The first: Context. The design must be largely determined by what the usage of this costume is, what the costume is saying about the character at the time, why is the costume change happening, etc. The more and more that the costume has a “reason,” the stronger the costume comes across despite the viewer’s taste towards said costume. A design that is birthed out of just what the artist considers “cool” has a much harder climb to make to stand the test of time.
The second: Love. As corny as it may sound, I feel fundamentally that the designer must care for the character in some capacity. Ideally, the designer truly is a fan for the character, or at the very least the designer understands the character. When a designer just throws generic designs at a character, the audience can tell. The reason I’d be so apprehensive toward doing any “official” DC designs, as I’ve heard some people suggest that I should, is because I feel I am missing this inherent love for the universe. I would just end up making designs that I thought looked cool, but I’d have no idea if they worked with the character or not. The only character that I’d feel any confidence in handling would be Wonder Woman.
Do you see any big trends in superhero costume design now — or maybe coming up in the future?
Man, that’s a hard question to answer. It’s hard to generalize because there is such a variety of designers. I guess as a large generalization I tend to find there is a movement to simplify costumes, whether that be literal or figurative. There seems to be an almost “boiling-down” approach that’s being applied to costumes, getting back to the character’s roots. Hank Pym now has this sort of excellent mash-up of his Giant-Man and Ant-Man personas into one cohesive look. Scarlet Witch and Kate Bishop are almost reverting to what is a fresh, sleek and striking. I sort of feel we may be on the cusp of entering a resurgence of Golden Age-esque costumes.
Are there any past designs by others you particularly enjoy and could talk about?
God, where would I start. Literally everything by Cory Walker, Jordan Gibson, and Olivier Coipel. John Cassaday’s Wolverine and Cyclops to this day are my favorite look to those characters ever. All the Jack Kirby “New Gods” designs.
As intense a follower as I am of your work, I notice you rarely do interior work — once filling in on the last issue of Robert Kirkman’s “Guarding The Globe” in 2011 and your debut in the first installment of 2007’s “PopGun.” You did interiors in a short for “A+X” #10 and just released full interiors for the “All-New X-Men Special” #1 in October, and “Uncanny X-Men” #15.INH goes on sale next week. Can you tell us about your reticence to do it in the past and what changed here?
Comics have always been this sort of sacred medium to me because it was one of the few things I was actually in to as a kid, so my apprehension toward doing interiors was that I never wanted to ruin the illusion for me. I never felt worthy enough to contribute to something that held such a strong place with my childhood. I tried my hands at a short story for popgun back when I was still in high school as just an experiment. I didn’t really try my hand at any other sequential work until the fill-in issue on “Guarding The Globe,” which again was an experiment for me. I wanted to see how well I adapted to doing sequentials all these years later. Also, working on an issue for a [Robert] Kirkman series is a hard offer to pass up.
But once Marvel editor Nick Lowe reached out to me, wanting to hire me to do work for him at Marvel, he was very persistent about getting me to do interiors. [Laughs] Doing covers was more a consolation gig because I wasn’t ready to work on pages just yet. Although, ever since then Nick has been very accommodating to me with my schedule and my apprehension about doing interiors–
He, like most people, probably didn’t realize that working on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” is your day job.
Right, but that didn’t stop him from trying. [Laughs] He offered me that “A+X” story first just so I could have something to get my feet wet with, as well as a month to get 10 pages done. Given the fact that I’d be doing this on top of a 9-to-5 design job, he understood that I wanted to take it slow. After I wrapped that up, which I had a wonderful time with, he called me and asked if I wanted to work on an “All-New X-Men” stand alone story with the “All-New X-Men Special.” Given how popular that book is, and the characters, it was nearly impossible for me to say no, and then he said I’d also get to draw Spider-man and the Hulk. Then, to just add the cherry on top, he told me that my good friend Jake Wyatt would be doing the second issue of this story in “Indestructible Hulk Special” #1. Nick also gave me an incredible lead time so I could juggle doing these pages on top of my day job, so that was a lovely incentive as well. What I especially loved about the issue was that the script pretty much put me through my paces with all the various super hero elements: New York, interiors, science tech, web-slinging, mutants and a hulk. It was sort of crash course for me in all things Marvel Comics.
You began your career in comics writing and drawing a story in 2007’s inaugural “PopGun” anthology, which we mentioned briefly. You haven’t written professionally, comics-wise, since, but I’ve seen you have some very specific — and excellent — ideas for teams and stories such as the all-female DC team for which I threw out the name Justice. Is writing something you want to do more of in comics?
Ideally, yes. There are stories of my own that I want to do one day, but I’d be very nervous about handling any Marvel or DC characters. Maybe one day when I’ve written more and I feel I could get a grasp on characters voices better. But there are definitely characters and teams I’d love to handle from Marvel. I’d love to write a short story involving Magneto, Namor, Doom, and Iron Fist on a cross country van roadtrip. Or an all-female agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. book.
Well, you have plenty of time to get there. Speaking of time, in just a short amount of time you have become one of the more prominent cover artists in comics; right now you’re doing covers for “Uncanny X-Force” and “Uncanny X-Men,” and recently did covers for everything from “New Mutants” and “Age of Apocalypse” to Image’s “Glory” and even the BOOM! series “The Hypernaturals.” In general, do these people find you or are you actively pitching to do these kinds of things?
With all of these, with the exception of “Glory,” they were brought to me. When I was hired at Marvel I was placed on “New Mutants” as my first gig, on which I did a 5-issue run on. When that finished, I was actually off books for a little bit I think, until I was offered the “Age of Apocalypse” gig. The “Glory” covers actually came from when I heard the Ross Campbell interview on the “3 Chicks Review Comics” podcast, and he was remarking how time consuming covers were for him. So, with no shame at all. [Laughs] I shot him an e-mail saying I’d love to do some.
“Uncanny X-Force” was actually a curious circumstance in that my initial role was solely just to do the designs. Olivier Coipel was going to be the cover artist on this, as he was on that first issue, but from my understanding it was with the offer for him to draw the new “X-Men” title written by Brian Wood that he had to step off from doing the “Uncanny X-Force” covers. Additionally, my cover for issue 2 was originally going to just be a variant, but I’m assuming that Nick Lowe liked the cover enough that he put me on the book officially — I had no complaints with how any of this went down. [Laughs]
Before we wrap up, I wanted to bring this all together and talk about a superhero team design you did — not for Marvel and not fan-art — but for a team of LGBT heroes in the independent series “The Pride.” Not many people know about that yet, but they should.
Yes. So “The Pride” is a comic book that was created by Joe Glass that follows a team of LBGT superheroes who form their own team after growing tired of not being treated equally from other superheroes. Joe approached me a few years ago as he was trying to get this comic off the ground and wanted a cover from me. It was such a personal project for him that I just really wanted to help him out. So far I’ve done 3 covers for him and a design. There are plans for me to do some more work for him, but that’s dependent on time and all that. It’s just nice to do some work for someone who truly loves their characters and for the project to have an actual purpose in what it’s trying to say. I don’t do side work for personal projects like this too often just because I rarely have enough time in my schedule for it, but I just couldn’t pass this up, and it’s been incredibly fun.