Thursday night at Fan Expo in Toronto, Marvel Comics writer Jonathan Hickman and penciller Steve Epting joined painter and designer Marko Djurdjevic at the publisher’s Team Spirit panel to discuss the process of redefining the first family of Marvel, the Fantastic Four, in the wake of the death of Johnny Storm AKA the Human Torch. Djurdjevic, best known for his cover work for Marvel, told the room full of fans he terminated his exclusive contract with Marvel so he would no longer have to work with them on a monthly basis.
“Marko clearly is in the middle of a divorce [with Marvel.] I’m not — we’re still having sex,” Hickman eventually said during the proceedings while discussing the continuing adventures of the team in “FF.”
The panel began with Djurdjevic waiting patiently by his computer as Epting strolled in casually to join him after a long afternoon on the floor. The two were met promptly with computer problems — and a missing writer. Regardless, the panel was off to a start. Epting wondered aloud how long in advance Hickman had planned the redesign of the Fantastic Four. “From the beginning, maybe five years?” he mused.
Djurdjevic immediately referred to his position at Marvel in the past tense. Three minutes into the panel, the acclaimed cover artist was changing the tonal values in his voice to mock Marvel editors. “I did the redesign for the costumes,” Djurdjevic said. “They [Marvel] pulled me out of the middle of nowhere and were like, ‘Oh, we need new costumes.'”
Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s Executive Editor, came up with the idea to put the FF team in white costumes, to play up the scientist/astronaut aspects of Sue, Reed and Ben’s characters. “It was really easy to design around that and come up with a set of costumes that looks a little bit retro-futuristic and still has a certain charm for such well-established characters,” Djurdjevic said.
Epting spoke briefly on how he and Hickman work together through email and phone. Djurdjevic cut in to say, unlike Epting, he only worked through editors and not with writers or interior artists. Dominating the panel, Djurdjevic joked with the audience confidently, his voice booming. In contrast, Epting was soft spoken as he began to discuss how he felt about the character redesign, yet while mentioning Hickman’s easy-going nature, he was cut off again.
“Late! You’re late!” Djurdjevic said, pointing towards the door.
In a flurry, Hickman arrived about a quarter of the way through the panel. Apologetic, he immediately won the audience over, blaming his delayed flight for his late appearance. Almost breathless and cheeks glowing bright red, the writer jumped directly into the thick of the discussion, saying that rebranding the Fantastic Four wasn’t really his plan when he took over the title.
“Steve came on and book sales kind of jumped up. Then we had this big event with Johnny dying,” Hickman said. “Marketing saw a chance to rebrand the book, and so we decided to make a little bit more money and get a few more readers. It worked.”
Hickman said Epting is easy to work with, and right off the bat the two went back-and-forth, sitting knee-to-knee, joking and answering questions about their collaboration. “I was looking forward to drawing The Thing,” Epting said. “Yeah, and he was human for the first six issues,” Hickman responded, laughing.
Hickman confirmed, somewhat apologetically, that as long as he’s writing “FF,” at least two armies will be waging war, maybe more.
Then, about halfway through the panel, Hickman turned his attention to Djurdjevic and his decision not to re-sign with Marvel. “What’s your big plan? Somebody sent me that link — you said you were going to do some stuff, and I’m a big fan. I want to know what the hell you’re doing,” Hickman said.
“I’m very happy with my company Six More Vodka right now,” Djurdjevic said, referring to his Berlin-based outsourcing company. “I’m happy to be out of comics, for a while at least.”
Asked by Epting if he wished he did more interior work while with Marvel, Djurdjevic replied, “They never put me with any writers that I liked,” before launching into a tirade about Marvel and ripping into writer J. Michael Straczynski, whom he said writes “like toilet paper.”
The fan Q&A started shortly thereafter with the entire panel fielding questions about their favorite characters.
Hickman told the crowd that She-Hulk will be appearing in “FF” #10 and will be staying on for about six or seven issues. He also revealed that he “absolutely” has character deaths planned, but wouldn’t reveal any details.
Around this time, Djurdjevic received a cord for his MacBook, cut Hickman off and began to share variations on his Spider-Man redesign. Coming from a video game background, Djurdjevic said he usually bills hourly. “Not in comics.” Hickman said.
“Exactly — and you keep on doing it and doing it,” Djurdjevic replied. “I was fighting with the guys at Marvel about this. You can’t make people re-work your shit because you can’t decide what you want. Either pay or leave.”
Tension in the room mounted as Djurdjevic illustrated the problems between himself and Marvel editors, sharing with the audience numerous mock-ups of Lady Bullseye’s redesigned costume, citing it as an example of his problems with Marvel art direction.
“I did a couple color sketches, and it just went into revision mode for the face paint forever and ever,” he said, forever being about two weeks. “I think I made so many face variations for that character until they finally decided, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the one that people are going to recognize forever,'” Djurjevic recounted, mocking his editors in a high-pitched voice, yet again.
Hickman tried to alleviate some of the tension by telling a few jokes. “Marko, we need you to turn this into a gatefold cover with every character,” he said, imitating Marvel’s editors more playfully.
Djurdjevic was having none of it, replying, “When they would not interfere with my direction, they would get results that would amaze even me.” He called his work on “Blade,” “Thunderbolts” and “X-Men: First Class” his best.
As the panel wrapped, the overall tone shifted to one that was more positive, starting with Hickman recounting his career with the House of Ideas.
“When I started, they told me, ‘We will give you more work than you can handle, we will completely burn you out and use you up. It is your job to manage your career, that’s not what we do. We will pay you your rate and will let you write as many scripts as you want too until you die, but it is your job to know how much work you can handle and not get stretched too thin,'” Hickman said. “And that’s completely true.”
It was made clear that Hickman and Epting have a reciprocal, collaborative relationship which is both friendly and easy-going. The creators understand each other in terms of vision and have open lines of communication with each other and with Marvel editors.
Communication seemed to be Djurdjevic’s biggest problem with the publisher. Working with Marvel editors and art directors had become overwhelming for the artist, who created what Hickman estimated to be “1.2 million covers” over a period of five years.
“When I get hired for movie work or video game work, I get hired for my creativity,” Djurdjevic said. “At Marvel, I get hired for what they know sells. It’s really just a pigeon hole for an artist.”
When asked by Hickman if he would accept any further assignments from Marvel, Djurdjevic responded, “Right now, I’m just over it. I just really need a break.”
With that, Hickman assured fans of his happiness working at Marvel before he and Epting slipped out the door together, leaving Djurdjevic and his laptop behind.
CORRECTION: In our initial publication of this panel report, CBR News erroneously attributed Djurdjevic as speaking disparagingly about Duane Swierczynski. Djurdjevic was actually referring to writer J. Michael Straczynski. CBR apologizes to Mr. Swierczynski for the error.