Tony Harris is no machine, but when it comes to picking the right assignment to showcase his magnificent talent, he sure knows what buttons to push.
Had Harris quit his career in comics after having worked only on DC Comics’ “Starman,” he would always be remembered as one of the most unique talents to enter the comic book industry. He’d also still have only one Eisner award on his mantle.
The Macon, Georgia native parlayed his success on that title into a career that ranged from popular runs on “Doctor Strange” and “JSA: The Liberty File” to working on commercials for Chevrolet and production design on the 1999 blockbuster movie, “The Mummy.” (All of which can be explored further in the recently released retrospective of his career, “Tony Harris: Art and Skulduggery.”)
In 2004, Harris struck gold again by teaming with Brian K. Vaughan on “Ex Machina,” the Eisner Award winning series from WildStorm Publications. Over the past six years, “Ex Machina” has become one of the comic publishing world’s most critically acclaimed series and its trade paperback and hardcover collections are always amongst the top-seller lists.
With the series coming to a close in July, CBR News spoke with Harris to discuss his Norman Rockwell-inspired process, how he goes about ‘casting’ the characters in his books and how he feels about the upcoming end of “Ex Machina.”
CBR News: How did you originally hook up with Brian K. Vaughan on “Ex Machina”?
I was pitching a creator-owned series to WildStorm at the time called, “Roundeye,” which I’m still working on, but they didn’t think that it was commercial enough, at least not for WildStorm at that time. And the then-editor in chief Scott Dunbier, who I was very good friends with, he had been my art dealer years before he had gotten on as an editor, so we had a long-standing relationship, so he said, “If you ever have anything you want to pitch, just give me a call.”
So I pitched that and again, they said, “No. Not commercial enough for us but… we have all of these other creator-owned books that we’re developing, would you be interested in even looking at any of them, just to see if you might be into it?” I didn’t have a gig lined up at that timem so I said, “Sure. Let me see what you got. Can’t hurt.” They sent me two or three things by Warren Ellis, one of which was “Desolation Jones,” and I said, “No. Not my cup of tea.” And then they sent me “Ex Machina.” And I read that, and literally inside of 10 minutes, I called them back and said, “Oh, I have to have this. Please put me on this.” And that was that.
So you knew from the get-go that “Ex Machina” was something pretty special.
No, you can only hope. There is no way of knowing what’s going to resonate with people. You can put your best foot forward and feel like it’s the best work of your career on something and it can flop. You really have no idea what’s going to resonate with people and why. You just have to keep swinging away and hope that every time you swing you’re going to get a hit.
What do you think it was and is about “Ex Machina” that resonates with readers?
You know, you’d have to ask the readers. I mean, I know what makes it special to me. But what makes it special to me is completely different, because I’m a part of actually creating it, which is very different than reading it.
I think it’s the same thing as “Starman,” where I don’t know if you launched “Starman” from scratch, like right now in 2010, I don’t know that it would work. I’m not saying it wouldn’t. But it was launched at the right time. Look at all the books that they launched through “Zero Hour,” and we were the only one that survived. Every other one was canceled. All I can assume is that James’ ideas for the character and my take visually and I guess my art…it was time to be discovered by people, I suppose, because that book really put me on the map. So I have to assume that was just the right time for people to see something like my stuff.
And I think the same thing is true of James’ ideas at that time. It was fresh air. It was so different from anything that was going on at that point.
Your style is so unique, and we’ve seen in the trades and the collected works that you actually photograph people to set your stage, as it were. How did you develop that technique?
I used photo reference before “Ex Machina.” All the way back to “Starman,” actually. If you look at “Starman” #0, I actually pulled out the Omnibus the other day in preparation for this interview, because you forget, you do so much work and ultimately, it sounds sad but you just kind of forget over time. So, I’m looking at that stuff and I was actually using photo reference way back then. But not to the degree that I am now or that I was even by the time I did “Starman” #45. Because you can look at “Starman” #0, and if you saw any of the stuff that I did prior to that, you can see that I was using photo reference, “Here, here but not here.”
But honestly, if I had to point to one reason why I decided to do that and moved towards that, it would probably be Norman Rockwell – one of my biggest influences, if not the biggest. He was an absolutely brilliant illustrator. I don’t think I have to explain to anybody who the man is.
Let me Google him. It was Norman who?
[Laughs] A lot of people are not aware that he went to extraordinary pains in the design phase and the setup phase of each and every painting that he did. He would cast local people from his town for the different characters, and he would search out props and clothing that was period to the particular piece he wanted to do. He would bring all of that stuff into the studio and set up these painstaking photo shoots and put every single little prop in their hands that was going to be in the painting but he never shot his own photographs. He had a photographer that he hired. But Norman would be right there and would direct the shoot, just like a film.
I’ve read a lot of his books and I’m familiar with his work intimately, but I’m not really sure why he was uncomfortable with the camera or if he just wanted to make sure that the photos were everything they could be so he hired a pro. Rather than me, the novice or the hobbyist trying to take a professional photograph.
There is a new book out now that details all the pictures that he shot for the paintings, and it’s astonishing, absolutely astonishing. I have a bunch of his other books, too, that show his charcoal drawings that he did as preliminaries based on photographs. And if you look at his photographs, he’ll shoot one painting, like, 10 times. And you’ll see a hand from this picture and a foot from this picture and a set of eyes cut in a certain way from this photograph, and he’ll incorporate all of these different things and different elements from each photograph until he gets a final piece that he thinks works. And then sometime, he would even do multiple charcoal drawings before he would even pick up a paintbrush, so once I discovered all of this, I was like, “Wow. The possibilities here are absolutely limitless.”
No matter what project I work on, as soon as I get a character description from the writer, I can physically typecast this stuff and cast it like a film. I can bring in actors and give them their lines and we can rehearse the whole thing like a stage play. I can set up my tripod with my camera and we can block the whole thing out. I can bring in as many or as few props as I want, including clothes, hats, what not. And I can actually shoot this thing like a film and really push my actors to marry themselves to the character they’re playing and give me that emotion that I want in the face and the acting. I think that’s where a lot of my work really resonates with people. Because it does with me, in the acting. Because I really do approach it like a film. If I am ever lucky enough to translate a move towards something towards that medium, I think I might be a little bit more comfortable than some people, just because I’ve worked like that for so long.
On books like “Starman” and “Ex Machina,” I also benefitted from doing extended runs on the books where I had the same actor portray each of these characters for me for years. The longer these jobs went on, the more comfortable these “actors” became with the characters they portrayed. Ultimately, they would be doing a shoot or a run-through or rehearsal and they would actually give me suggestions. And that, to me, is special. It brings an additional element to the work that I think is lacking in a lot of comics.
I’m not saying my way is the right way or theirs is the wrong way, but this is the way that works for me. I don’t think my work would resonate with people the way it does if I didn’t go through all of that effort. When I get to the point where I actually take pencil to a piece of paper at that point, it’s just execution.
I’ve rehearsed. I’ve had my actors run through it. I’ve shot the photographs. I’ve put the photographs into Photoshop. I’ve manipulated them. I’ve lit the scene. I have my actors in the right costumes and I have the right props and we’re on the right set, so by the time I get to that last part, I can really just focus on every line being special and not worry, “Will I get this facial expression, correct?” Because it’s there.
In “Ex Machina,” nine out of every ten pages, if not 31 out of every 32, is a guy in a business suit. How have you made Mitchell Hundred look like a superhero? Is it his facial expressions? His posture?
I think I was lucking in the casting. Again, I physically typecast every character in the book. They are literally my neighbors and my friends. When I got the job, I knew I wanted to do this. I knew I wanted to cast the entire book and have an ensemble cast of actors reprise their roles monthly and do it that way. So I went to a Christmas party in my neighborhood that year and I purposely walked around with the intention of casting the book at this party. I wanted to have people that were close by and I knew would be willing to donate their time and effort and not have to chase people down.
Mitchell was the first character that I cast. I was walking through the party, and I had the descriptions from Brian, so I knew what they were supposed to look like, now let me find these people. I literally turned the corner at this party and I saw Jimmy Hill. He just leaped right out of the room. It was like everything and everybody else in the room went to white noise. The weird part and the hard part is approaching people [Laughs].
“I’m not a weirdo, but here’s what I want to do.”
Most people are pretty cool, but I have had my experiences over 21 years where women and even guys have been like, “Are you some kind of fucking creep?”
So what does Jimmy Hill do for his day job?
He’s an accountant.
I guess Mitchell kind of looks like an accountant.
Maybe. But he’s a really good looking guy, and his wife, Marne, played Journal Moore for me in the series. My wife and I joke all the time that they’re the most sickeningly gorgeous couple that we’ve ever seen in our whole life. They look every bit as gorgeous as I draw them.
We were talking about his business suit, but how about the Great Machine’s costume? How did you land on that particular design? Did BKV have a specific idea in mind for what the Great Machine should look like?
Actually, in the original pitch he just said that the Great Machine should be a dude with tights and a cape. But when I got brought on the book, my first inclination was, “What’s the guy’s power? What’s his ability? What can he do?” And Brian said, “He can control machines – the more complex the machine, the more power he has over it. The more simple the machine, the less power he has over it.”
So I’m like, “OK. If this guy can control machines, then I think he should have a very mechanical makeup. He should rely on machines for part of visage, basically.” But it had to be something – and this is just my take on things no matter what I do – grounded in reality. When I’m designing a costume, I want it to look like something that you or I could walk into a military surplus store and buy this shit. Or go to a flea market and pick up stuff. You know, something that we could put together without being a seamstress [laughs]. Or without having an extraordinarily large bank account. That’s what I based his costume on, so his helmet is kind of an amalgamation of three or four different things, like a helicopter pilot, a fighter pilot helmet, which I bought at a drug store for $10. His leather outfit seemed like those full-body suits that motorcycle riders buy and wet gear from the military and combat boots. Just stuff that you can find anywhere. I just throw it together and jazz it up and make it interesting.
“Ex Machina” #49 just hit last week. Have you completed your work on #50?
No. I’m about two-thirds of the way through it.
Have you shed a tear over any pages or panels, or have you had enough of Mitchell Hundred?
It’s a little of both. There are times where I felt a little burnt out on the political drama and that kind of thing – the quiet stuff and the conversation and lack of action. And then there are other times when I’m drawing a page and I’m like, “My God. I’m going to miss this book so much when it’s gone.”
But I find with every page I’m working on in #50, the closer I get to finishing the series, the more I’m kind of lamenting it being gone. This has been my life for six years and I’m so close to these characters. Not because I’m drawing them all, but I know the people who are playing them, so it’s hard. But I’m also very excited to move onto some new material and sort of stretch my wings because the next stuff I’m doing is so different from anything I did on “Machina.” It’s like night and day.
Next up for Harris is his next creator-owned series from WildStorm, “The Further Adventures of the Whistling Skull,” which he’ll be working on with B. Clay Moore.
“Ex Machina” #50 is scheduled to be released on July 28.