With their new “Astonishing” brand of miniseries, Marvel Comics is hoping to present in-continuity stories that can connect with an audience who may not be die hard superhero readers, whether that be by pairing up some of their biggest icons as in the new “Astonishing Spider-Man/Wolverine” or delivering all new stand alone tales. Riding the first wave of Astonishing releases out the gate is the latest iteration of the comic whose crossover success helped name and define the program: “Astonishing X-Men.”
In May’s “Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis,” writer Warren Ellis and artist Kaare Andrews present a fresh chapter in Ellis’ ongoing exploration of the science fiction side of the X-Universe with a five-part miniseries. And as Andrews explained to CBR, the comic will tell a new story of the mutant super team that should help condense down the core of what makes the X-Men property so potent.
“The one thing I’ve always said about the X-Men is that it’s the soap opera book of Marvel,” the artist said. “It’s full of mature love triangle and relationships and infidelities and romance. It’s all about being attracted to something you can never have whether that’s Wolverine and Jean Grey or Rogue…so I try to make my art a little more mature. Not sexual but definitely more adult. I think of Spider-Man as more about innocence. There’s a naivete, even if it’s [my futuristic] ‘Spider-Man: Reign’ where even if he’s an old man, there’s an innocence to him and a simplicity. With X-Men, it’s just adult. It’s all these adult feelings and issue like racism and fascism. It’s like Spider-Man is high school and X-Men is college.”
While Andrews has spent the past two years working mostly in the film world, he came back to full interiors with a wealth of new experiences to help shape the story of “Xenogenesis.” “There was a certain time near the end of my run on ‘Incredible Hulk’ covers where I got really interested in filmmaking and started spending a lot of my time and energy learning how to make films – writing and shooting shorts, trying to make commercials and music videos and things like that. It’s become a bigger part of my life in the last two years. I directed a TV pilot for Cartoon Network that was live action – a kind of ‘Heroes’ inspired kids show that didn’t get picked up but was a lot of fun. I’ve since filmed my first feature film. It’s called ‘Altitude,’ and we’re still in post-production on that now but should be wrapped in a few months.
“I feel like I’ve been working just as hard on comic books because my life if full of comic books every day, but my output has really slowed down considerably because I’m making films or writing scripts or meeting studios and those kinds of things.”
Ramping up his output for an “Astonishing” run meant digging deep into Ellis’ ideas about the series and finding his own classic take on the X-Men. “A question Warren is asking with this series is ‘What does it mean to be a mutant?'” the artist explained. “We’ve investigated that question however many times philosophically, but this is more like answering it biologically. What does it mean to be a mutant, and is that changing? And if it is changing, how would the X-Men react to those changes? Warren is such an idea man. You can turn off his ideas. They infect things, so I’m happy to play around with some of his big concepts.
“I ask myself, ‘What is my classic Storm? What is my classic Wolverine? How do I make them my own?'” Andrews said, noting that the team seen in his initial concept art gives a good feel for most of the players he’ll have on the page. “The cast won’t be too shocking. There are some core characters for me who define what the X-Men are. It’s a small group, and that was one of the mandates for the book: keeping the team small enough so it’s not a story with five teams sent out across the world to gather the different parts of whatever. It’s a core team and a smaller scale story in the sense that they’re sent out on a specific mission, and then events unfold.”
Of course, many of the players were previously a part of the last run of “Astonishing X-Men” stories by Ellis and Simone Bianchi, though Andrews admits to intentionally being less than up on their recent work. “It was a tricky balance. I wanted to bring something fresh to the process, and I had been following Warren’s run with Simone Bianchi, but I really didn’t want to be influenced by it. I wanted to give fresh sensibility, so I stopped reading that stuff and looked to just respond to the scripts and the work Warren was writing for me. In a selfish way, I wanted this to be a brand new thing. Simone’s so good that I didn’t want to be influenced by what he’s doing. So I’ve kind of deliberately put on some blinders so I could focus on what the weird mixture of Warren’s and my sensibility will be.”
For the artist, making any new book his own is essential whether he’s simply drawing it or writing it as well. “I love art making. I love trying new things and investigating new techniques,” Andrews said. “Some of the things I drew on for this X-book were that I wanted it to be clean. I wanted it to be more clean than my more sloppy stuff in the past. I wanted open lines and textured colors. I wanted it to be brighter. It’s taking place in the African city of Mbangwi – a make-believe part of the continent. So it uses sunshine and brighter colors. It’s kind of influenced by the John Byrne stuff from back in the day or the Paul Smith stuff but more with a forward, modern way of coloring. I want the colors to be clean but textured. I just want to create something that stands on its own as unique. I’m excited how it’s turning out.” He added of the African X-Man’s central Storm’s in both the story and his new design sense.” I’m excited to draw her, and you’ll see there’s a bit of a throwback with her visually I’m doing. She’s getting a haircut.”
Overall, Andrews is following the lead set by his writer, and enjoying the process. “When I signed on to do the book, Warren asked me, ‘What do you want to draw? What do you now want to draw?’ and I said, ‘Hey man, this is your book. I’m just excited to be on the ride,'” he said. “I think because I write for myself, I really want to respect the writer. I’ve got more freedom here to just follow their direction because I know I can always do my own thing later. It’s exciting to give myself over to Warren and think of what he wants out of this.”
The artist added of why he came on to “Astonishing” specifically, “I had just finished writing a project for Marvel which I had already started to draw, and at the same time they were like, ‘Hey, we know you’re working on your own project, but would you be interested in first drawing a little run on “Astonishing X-Men”?’ And I really like Warren’s work and like working with cool writers. I consider myself an okay writer, but I love working with guys like Mark Millar, and I would love to work with Brian Bendis. I think Zeb Wells is one of the coolest writers working in comics, and I loved working with him. It just seemed like a great opportunity to work on characters I love with a great writer, and my own stuff is already written, so I can just jump back to it whenever I need.”
Asked what that solo project might entail, Andrews only said, “No, I can’t say what it is yet. It’s top secret, but it’s another big character and another bit ‘Reign’ style project set in the future.”
In the meantime, fans of the creator can prepare themselves for “Altitude,” which should wrap its post-production phase in May and hopefully see a wide release sometime in 2010. “It’s a very classic, ‘Twilight Zone’ inspired genre movie – a sci-fi thriller where you take a bunch of characters, put them in a supernatural pressure cooker and watch their personalities boil up,” he explained, noting there would be some surprises for comic readers in there. “There’s a comic book in the movie that I had to draw. It’s a significant story item. So I took a break from comics to direct a movie, but once I got there, I ended up drawing comic books. I could get away from it! But it made me feel at home having a character who was a comic book collector. It was cool, and I was proud that that would be my first movie where I could bring my passion for comics to filmmaking and combine the two.
“The challenging part of this movie was that most of it takes place on a seven-seater airplane. You can’t even really stand up in it, so it was like shooting a movie in a mini van. It was very challenging to figure it out. How would I not make the audience feel like they were stuck in a plane for an hour and a half? I ended up treating each different section of the plane as a different set, so I could cut in between all three,” he explained. “The other big challenge was the amount of visual effects I had to do. We were shooting in a green screen environment with this practical plane set, so every shot had a green screen element in it. We were a small movie, but we had over 600 visual effects shots. There’s at least a storm in the sky in each shot if not like a crazy creature. It was very challenging, but I’m proud of what we did.”
And Andrews is enjoying the ability to shift between comics work and independently directing his own films, a business practice that’s not quite as hard as it might sound. “The new way to make films today, even larger budget films, is to put them together independently and then take them to the studio. The hedge funds are gone, and the studios don’t want to put out a bunch of money up front. But this way, everyone makes more money. Both for this film that’s a small little $3 or 4 million film and my follow up film, which Gale Anne Hurd is producing who did ‘Terminator’ and ‘Hulk,’ are based on that model. For the new one, we’re just approaching the cast and finding our star, and while it’s a much larger-scale film it’s that same independent model. We’re putting it together ourselves, and we get more control and make more money.”
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