“East of West” takes place in an alternate-history American future where the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have arrived to spread their judgment on humanity. Make that the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse, since their brother Death has become a solo act for as-yet-unknown reasons. Throw in heavy servings of both the science fiction and Western genres, and you just begin to scratch the surface of the comic.
Dragotta sat down with CBR News at Image Expo to discuss how “East of West” landed at Image, the ways in which his working relationship with Jonathan Hickman is constantly evolving, explaining how he sees Image as the “future of comics,” and why we probably won’t see the Four Horsemen on horseback any time soon.
CBR News: Nick, how’s Image treating you so far?
Nick Dragotta: Awesome — I feel like this is the future of comics.
What do you mean by that?
Creators are getting more of an education in the whole process of making a comic book, from distribution and dealing with retailers to pre- and post-production. Image has just been an awesome education on what goes into making a comic book.
Also, how the money works and where it goes to. Most of it goes to our pockets.
So you’re seeing more of the behind-the-scenes process than when you were at Marvel Comics?
Oh, absolutely — which is a blessing and a curse. There’s just a lot more things to do. Luckily, my partner, Jonathan Hickman, is great at laying the books out and doing all the graphic design and extra things like that. When I was at Marvel, they would take care of stuff like that. There’s a lot more responsibility that goes into making a comic at Image, but the rewards are far greater.
How did “East of West” land at Image?
Actually, when Jonathan and I first worked together on “Fantastic Four” #588, I remember a few email exchanges where we said we should work together again sometime, maybe do a creator-owned book. That was kind of it. It gestated for a little while when we worked on “FF” and our relationship grew tighter. We met at the last Image Expo and sat down for lunch. He told me he had this great idea for a Western, and I said I wanted to draw science fiction. We merged it into a sci-fi Western, and that’s how the idea was born.
What was the original pitch he gave you?
It was as nutty as what the book is. He said the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are gonna come back. One isn’t part of the group anymore, and he’s gonna go assassinate the president. I was like, OK — I don’t quite get it. I wanted to draw spaceships. I had been reading a lot of manga and I wanted to make a comic that had a lot of movement. He was like, great let’s do it, and we merged the two. He’s always been supportive of what I wanted to do. I trust his plan.
It seems like Image is taking the reins from Vertigo a bit lately in terms of getting exciting new creators on original material.
I’m not familiar with the Vertigo deal, but I can’t imagine a better deal than Image. As a creator, like I said, I feel like this is the future of comics. I’ll always have love for Marvel because I loved those characters growing up, but when you talk about creator rights with films and stuff, the only way the industry’s really gonna change is by guys taking it upon themselves to make that change. Because the corporations aren’t.
What has the fan reaction been like for the first three issues of “East of West?”
All positive so far, from what I’ve seen. It’s been overwhelming; people really seem to like the book. That drives me to work harder and put more into it. Make it more bizarre and push it. It’s almost been too much. I like a little bit of negative feedback, I think I can learn from it. But [the feedback] has just been overwhelmingly positive so far.
How has your relationship with Hickman evolved since working with him on “Fantastic Four?”
It’s constantly evolving. The first three issues of “East of West” were full scripts, but with issue four, we knew it was just going to be an insane battle, so we decided to do that Marvel style to allow me to play with storytelling. One page has like 18 panels on it, or something. Normally, Jonathan would never write that many panels, but it gives me the ability to try the type of storytelling I want to. Now, this next one we’re going back to more of a full script. There’s certain key moments he wants to hit, and we’re gonna make sure we hit ’em. It’s a lot of back and forth and editing, but we’ve gotten a lot closer [working on “East of West.”]
When we were at Marvel, there’d be an email exchange here and there, but it was mostly just him delivering a script and me delivering art. With this, we’re on the phone once a week, discussing story and where it can go or who this character is. We’re fully invested in it. Creatively, that’s so satisfying. That’s what you strive for. I think it shows in the work.
Hickman famously ties his creator-owned books together visually through their layouts, typography and graphic design. How much collaboration is there between the two of you when it comes to the design and dressing of “East of West?”
That’s all him. He enjoys that, and to be perfectly honest, I just don’t have the time. There’s already enough to do just to keep up with the book and keep it monthly. I need to concentrate on the art and draw the best comic I can. Honestly, I have no interest in doing that, and Jonathan seems to love it. I have no idea how he does it. He writes all these books — and then does the graphic design and layouts. Some of the funnest parts of each book is when we get the initial PDF back and we really scrutinize the layout. How we can move word balloons around to different panels to really hit story beats and stuff. It’s great to have a guy like Jonathan, who has computer skills and can make all those changes himself. I don’t have to carry all that weight on my shoulders.
Are you drawing “East of West” digitally?
Yeah, I’m primarily doing everything digitally. A majority of the covers I’ve done on paper, and a few select pages I’ve done on boards, but other than that it’s pretty much all digital. It lets me move quickly and easily get a page done a day.
When you work digitally, is any thought given to the lost income from selling that original artwork?
That’s the worst part of it. I’ve noticed now that I’ve become more in demand that people want to buy my sketches and things like that. There are pages that I’ll sell prints of. I’ll print out a nice digital print on cardstock on 11″ by 17″ so it looks like an original, and I’ll sign it. People like those and I can sell them for ten bucks a pop. I kinda always valued the original artwork so much that I never liked selling it anyway.
What people have offered me for “East of West” art is higher than what they ever offered me for my Marvel work. I think I let that Marvel stuff go too cheap. It never felt worth selling to me, because I’d rather keep it.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are presented differently in “East of West” than we’ve ever seen them before. Where did you draw inspiration for their new looks?
For the kids, we liked the aesthetic of “Dune.” We liked the Harkonnen heavy leather and all that stuff, so we wanted the little kids to have that feel because it’s this rugged terrain. Everybody’s gonna want to wear leather and be protected.
Jonathan had very specific ideas for Death and the two avatars: the wolf and the crow. When I say specific, I mean his coloring. Death would be white now, but in his previous incarnation, he was all black. The avatars are one white and one black.
Pretty much from there I’m on my own, though. I’m a big fan of simplicity because I have to draw these characters over and over again. If you noticed, I haven’t laden anyone with a lot of detail. I just try to make it simple so I can act and draw them easily.
The Seven Nations are another visual hodgepodge of styles.
Honestly, we’re at the tip of the iceberg. We’ve only seen a few. We’ve only seen the Union, and we haven’t even seen much of it. Just these splash shots of these towers where the government lives. It’s fun to think about what they represent and then draw that. A big thing I try to show in my drawings are depth and space. I liken it to concept art films, those gorgeous landscapes you see digital paintings of. I kinda want to integrate that aesthetic more into my comics.
I should mention our colorist is Frank Martin, who I think is one of the top colorists in the world right now. He lends so much to what we’re trying to do. Frank is huge.
With so much biblical stuff happening in “East of West,” did you ever turn to any classic religious imagery for inspiration?
I’m not religious. I don’t know if Jonathan is or not, but I think it should all just come from my gut. That way, it’ll be different from anything that came before it.
Actually, I did look at the old etchings and paintings of the Four Horsemen but I was not about to draw horses. [Laughs] Like they’re all on horses or something. It goes back to simplifying things.
Was there ever a discussion on whether they should ride horses or not at some point?
Well, I guess we’re gonna have to show how the kids get around the country soon or later! [Laughs] There’s like speeder bikes and spaceships and stuff, though.
The one kid, Conquest, on the cover to issue #2, his mode of transportation is actually a human being. The cover of issue #2 is Conquest riding someone’s back, with handlebars in their mouth. It’s this concept that this kid will subjugate people to literally carry him around. There’s an issue coming up that they get all armed up. The kids, Conquest, War and Famine, are gonna get weapons and stuff. I probably shouldn’t have shared that but it was on the cover of issue #2! I guess nobody picked up on it. [Laughs]
Are you trying out any new artistic techniques on “East of West?”
I’m learning a lot. What I mean by that is exposing myself to all the comics I love and really trying to inject that into my work. I pretty much don’t read any American comics anymore. I read some, but I’ve been reading mostly manga to learn the storytelling sensibilities and techniques there. The way they depict motion and things like that. I’m trying really hard to not make my comics look static. I’m trying to push myself to grow and constantly improve.
So, knock on wood, “East of West” is shaping up to be a hit series. How long do you see the series running?
I know Jonathan says he’s got it for 50 issues. That would be five years, and I’m totally committed to that. I’d love that! That’d be so rad, to do a 50-issue run of something. We launched at such a [sales] number that I think we can sustain ourselves for 50 issues, even if it starts to decline in sales. I’m in it for the long haul.
You say 50 issues in five years. Does that mean there’s no extended breaks or hiatuses planned?
We do 10 issues a year. Five issues on, then a trade which serves as our reset. Then five issues on, then a trade the following month and so on. Not taking that month off, just using it to prepare ourselves for the next five-issue arc.
It’s comics, there’s no vacations. That’s the thing my wife is ready to kill me about!
What are your thoughts on Image’s digital storefront announcement?
Hopefully it’s just more exposure for creators. I always think of digital being more of a convenience buy. Something you might go online and buy when you’re bored. Hopefully more people will pick up “East of West,” but I think the right way to enjoy it is in print. That’s how I read my comics, but I think digital is the future and you can’t deny that. I’m excited. I love the new website and how you can browse titles and buy them on the spot.
How is your education comic book line “Howtoons” going?
Great! We’ve got an interesting project right now, actually, with Jeff Parker. He’s writing a “Howtoons” story about how kids can build their own playgrounds. It’ll probably go out to after-school programs and stuff — there probably won’t be any mass distribution or anything like that.
“Howtoons” chugs along. I’m still a part of it. I’m working on a book right now with Fred Van Lente, who wrote a five-part story about energy literacy. Each story deals with energy conservation and renewable energy. It teaches kids about problems we’re going to be facing in the future. Fred wrote a great script and now I just have to find time to draw it. It’s great though, I’ve done about 15 pages of it. It’s the best-looking “Howtoons” I’ve done. Sadly, “East of West” is taking up most of my time, but Howtoons is going great. My wife is my partner in that and runs the day to day on the website, and I’m still doing the one-page posters once a month.
As an artist, you really can’t do more than one. You just tie your ass to a chair and draw. Plus, I have two kids now: a three-year-old and a four month old. It’s like chaos. My life is chaos.
Have you gotten the three-year-old reading comics yet?
He was scared of Spider-Man at first because of the eyes. But the older kids at daycare dress up and all run around and pretend like they’re shooting webs and stuff, so he likes Spider-Man, now. Nothing competes with “Thomas the Tank Engine,” though!
He could always impress his classmates by dressing up as Death.
[Laughs] We can sit him on a pile of dead bodies — it’ll be great!
“East of West” #4 hits shelves July 10 from Image Comics.