Miles Morales is on his way to reaching household name status after donning the webbed tights in Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Universe following the death of Peter Parker, and soon, the same may be true of the man now tasked with drawing his adventures. David Marquez has been working in the comic book industry for several years cutting his teeth at indie publishers including Top Cow and Archaia. He recently completed work on “Fantastic Four: Season One” for Marvel before gearing up for the biggest assignment of his career to date, “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.”
First published in 2000, “Ultimate Spider-Man” marked the debut of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe and the arrival of a then largely unknown writer by the name of Brian Michael Bendis. Teamed with longtime Spider-Man veteran Mark Bagley on art, the duo re-imagined Peter Parker and Spider-Man, making “Ultimate Spider-Man” one of Marvel’s biggest hits and the Ultimate line a force to be reckoned with. The duo worked on 110 consecutive issues before Bagley left the title, but the series continued on through #133 before being relaunched as “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.” Following the death of Peter Parker, the series began anew last September as Bendis teamed with artist Sara Pichelli to put Miles Morales, a biracial hero with a new costume, different powers and a familiar moniker, at the center of the title.
Starting with this week’s “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” #9, David Marquez steps in for Sara Pichelli for a three-issue arc, and will trade off arcs with Pichelli going forward. CBR News spoke in depth with Marquez about landing the assignment, breaking in, standing on the shoulders of giants and much more.
CBR News: Dave, we definitely want to touch on how you broke into comics, but let’s kick things off by talking about the elephant in the room. You’re just a few years into your comics career and you’re already working on “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.” The title has been a hit for years, and with the recent introduction of Miles Morales, it’s seeing a renewed interest. Given that you really came up through the ranks working with independent publishers like Top Cow and Archaia before arriving at Marvel and later landing this gig, how intimidating is stepping into the spotlight in a major way?
David Marquez: It’s been a pretty wild couple of years, definitely, and I feel very fortunate to have come this far since my first book,Â “Syndrome,” came out back in the fall of 2010. Starting work on “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” was a little daunting, but honestly, the excitement of drawing this book completely overwhelms any intimidation. I’ve wanted to draw superheroes since I was 7 and was always a Marvel kid growing up. I’ve tried to shape my career trajectory so I’d end up at one of the big two, and now that I’ve landed at Marvel I definitely intend to make the most of the opportunity!
Following that same train of thought, you’re working with Brian Michael Bendis, arguably the biggest name at Marvel (and possibly in all of comics). How do you step into that situation and not only not succumb to the pressure, but live up to Brian’s, the fans and your own expectations?
I really don’t have any choice butÂ to rise to the occasion. I look back at my early work and, while I’m very proud of it, I can also see that I’ve come a long way.Â I’ve always approached every job I’ve done as an opportunity to experiment and grow as an artist, and I’ve worked very hard to constantly improve. And this project is no different on that count: every new page is a chance to learn something new and push myself even harder. That said, it’s not lost on me that the stakes are high when working on such a visible project. There is definitely the pressure to perform — for the readers, for Brian, for Marvel — but that pressure is fuel for me. I’m pouring everything I have into this book, and into producing the best art I’m capable of. I’m really proud of how the pages are coming out and can’t wait for it to hit shelves.
How did you end up on “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” and how long can readers expect to see your work gracing the title?
Well, I think you’d have to ask [editor] Mark Paniccia and Brian for the full story, but from my end it was totally out of the blue. I had lined up a different gig at Marvel and was waiting for the script to come in when Mark shot me an email asking if I’d like to work on an arc of “USM.” So, after rereading the email a few times to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, I gave my other editor a call to make sure everything was squared away. Then I said “yes!” to the Ultimate crew and got to work on issue #9 that day.
Originally I was brought on to draw 3 issues, but after I turned the art for issue #9, Mark and Brian and the rest were apparently really happy with the way it turned out, and they asked me to stay on for a longer run. I don’t know that I can say exactly how long I will be on, but it’ll be for a solid run. As I understand it, the plan is for Sara and I to work on rotating arcs moving forward.
Before we talk about your background, let’s talk about the background of “Ultimate Spidey.” There’s a rich artistic history on the title starting with Mark Bagley and continuing forward with Stuart Immonen, David Lafuente, Sara Pichelli and Chris Samnee. Now it’s your turn to take the reins. What are you taking from their work on the title, and what are you doing to really define the Miles Morales era as your own?
Honestly, following in those footsteps has been the most intimidating part of the project. Sara and Chris have done such an amazing job on the book before I came on andÂ I’m staying very faithful to the character designs they established for the book. It’s really important to me that readers feel that my take on the world and characters feels like a continuation of what they’re familiar with, and I keep a stack of previous issues right next to my desk for reference.
That said, I’m not trying to ape their styles. I have my own way of breaking down a page, of approaching action and emotion and all the other little things that go into drawing a comic book, and I want to put as much of myself into this book as possible. I’m also constantly experimenting. In some ways this may bring me closer to Sara (like with my use of some of the same Zip-a-tone patterns she’s been using) or Chris (with some chiaroscuro-leaning night time shots), but just as often I’m doing things that pull me entirely in the other direction.
Will you change how any of Miles’ powers have depicted, and will you get the chance to design some of the new ones Bendis has teased in interviews?
I can’t speak too much to whatever new powers Miles may (or may not) have. But as far as his sting and invisibility powers, I’m basing them largely on what Sara has done in the early issues, but I’m also playing around with new ways of selling the effects. I work all digitally and that gives me a lot of freedom to mess around with opacity and texture. I really like what Sara does with the Zip-a-tone, and I’ve kind of taken that idea and run with it. I guess that’s one example of how I’ve tried to carry through certain artistic touches from the early issues to give a sense of continuity, but I’m also putting my own spin on it.
Your digital process is something I definitely want to discuss, but let’s jump back a bit and talk about how you broke into comics. Was it something you always wanted to do, or something you sort of fell into and just kept excelling once you got there?
Oh man, I’ve always wanted to draw comics. Just took a long time! I grew up reading comics and since I was 7 or so, drawing was “my thing.” I started submitting samples, going to conventions and doing portfolio reviews back around 2001 or so. I was still in college, studying History and Government at the University of Texas in Austin, and was really only doing it in my free time. Right after college (the week I graduated, actually) I took a chance by auditioning for an animation position on “A Scanner Darkly” [Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel] and was hired. I had never really thought of pursuing animation, but it was a great opportunity to get paid making art, and I dove in.
While I was on “Scanner” I went to my first San Diego Comic-Con with the rest of the animation crew. Starting that year, I really started focusing on drawing comics professionally. I spent the next four years working a day job as a test-prep instructor for The Princeton Review (which had flexible hours), drawing in my free time, and traveling to San Diego every year in the hopes of catching my big break.
But I really owe breaking in to my girlfriend, Tara, who encouraged me to become more active online. She made the point that no one can hire me if they haven’t seen my stuff, and San Diego only happens once a year and it’s so easy to be drowned out in all the craziness. So I started posting more on Millarworld, Penciljack and the like. Within a few months I was noticed by R.J. Ryan, one of the writers on “Syndrome,” and that led to my first paying gig.
So, long story short, I can’t say I really “fell into it.” It was a decade of doggedly pursuing the job, with a lot of let downs and disappointment along the way. But I stuck with it and worked my ass off, and things turned out pretty well!
I know there was a graphic novel adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly” released using art, or at least the art style, from the film. Did you work on the GN in any capacity?
[Laughs] In a way, yes! The graphic novel version was made by a crew of guys who came into the animation studio and adapted stills from the movie into a full comic. So not only was it done in the style of “Scanner,” it was made using our art! I’d have to look back through to point out which specific panels used art from my portions of the film, but there is certainly at least a frame or three.
That’s certainly an interesting way to get your first published work out there. As you mentioned, your work is entirely digital now. Can you tell us about what led to that decision and describe your process when working on a title like “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man?”
Yeah, I’m 100% digital. I had trained myself with traditional media: 2-4H lead and a Series 7 brush. Inking myself early on was a decision more of necessity than anything else. I was working on an OGN project for a few years (one that never saw the light of day) and couldn’t find an inker that I was both (a) happy with and (b) would work for free, like I was. So, I decided to just ink it myself. And I did that for a solid 3 years or so and was reasonably happy with what I was able to produce.
But when I worked on “A Scanner Darkly,” I had become acclimated to drawing digitally on a Wacom tablet, and was already pretty comfortable in Photoshop. One Saturday while I was watching TV I decided to play around a little and ink an old submission sample digitally — and I was amazed with the how it turned out. It was fast, with identical, if not better, results. I really focus on tight, precise lines when inking and working digitally seems ideally suited to that approach. It was a watershed moment. The very next day I started working on all my stuff digitally.
I really attribute all the success I’ve had to date, especially the speed of my career advancement, to working digitally. I’m a hard worker and spend a lot of time at the drawing desk, but I’m able to produce high quality work considerably faster than if I were to work traditionally. I’ve established at least a limited reputation as a fast artist — I can consistently pump out a comic on a monthly basis, often working on more than one title at a time. Not two monthly books, mind you, but as a case in point: while working on “Fantastic Four: Season One,” I was also working on “The Magdalena” over at Top Cow, backing up regular artist (and great guy) Nelson Blake II. At one point in there I think I drew something like 32 or 34 fully-inked pages over roughly a four week span to nail the deadlines. This is something I would never have been able to do working traditionally — it’s just too time consuming.
For the heck of it, I traditionally inked one page from “Fantastic Four: Season One” (the splash of the Thing, if you’ve read the book). It came out really well — identical to my digital work — but it took freaking FOR-EV-ER. So yeah, I’m very happy with the decision to keep working digitally.
For process, I basically have two steps: layouts and finishes. My layouts are very loose — basically just figuring out the overall page composition and character placement. ForÂ most one-off environments I’ll just draw them from scratch, butÂ I also use 3D software to create re-usable environments and I’ll build those at this stage, and drop them into the panels. Once editorial signs off on the layouts, the meat of the work begins. My finishes are kind of a combination of tight pencils and inking — I don’t have to do quite as much construction work as I used to. I’m a lot more comfortable with anatomy now, so I’ll draw the finished linework right over the rough layout. Recently I’ve been playing around a whole bunch with texture, and I experiment a whole bunch at this stage.
When you landed this gig did you consider switching back to traditional media because of all the Spider-Man originals you could have at the end of the day?
The thought has occurred to me. Having a lack of originals is the one major drawback to working digitally. To date, it hasn’t really affected me much, though. Working digitally has led to pretty rapid career advancement, and that weighed against having originals that, if we’re being realistic, would have sold for maybe $20 or $50 a pop is a no-brainer. Now, would the Spidey pages possibly sell for more? Probably. I really don’t know. There’s also the fact that there is a ton of unsold art by really amazing, and popular, artists. There’s no guarantee that, just because you have the original, it will sell, much less for what you’d like it to sell for.
But more than that, going back to traditional would mean I sacrifice the largest benefit of working digitally: speed. For the time being, I’m sticking with digital, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Down the line I might start inking the occasional page traditionally, both to keep that itch scratched and yeah, to have the occasional original to sell.
Longtime “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” colorist Justin Ponsor backs you up on the title. What’s your working relationship like with him? Do you sit back and let the veteran do his thing, or do you two have an active dialogue and really push each other to be your best?
Man, I was floored to be working with Justin. He’s one of my all-time favorite colorists and the work he’s been doing is stunning. The man is a master and for the most part I just sit back and watch him work his magic. But we’ve started working a bit more closely — since I’m digital I can cater how the page is formatted to help him make the most of some of the stranger things I may do — textures, effects, a panel filled with shattered glass, whatever. It’s been a great experience so far!
In addition to your “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” team, you’ve worked with some great writers including Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Jonathan Hickman, Ron Marz and Phil Hester, to name a few. How does working with them contrast with working with Bendis? Is there anything different about how you approach his work — possibly because of his penchant for stylized dialogue — as opposed to the others?
I feel very fortunate to have collaborated with such an amazing group of writers. All of them to date have written in more or less full script, so the experience of taking the story from written word to drawn page feels essentially the same. I go through the same steps, if that makes sense. But naturally, each writer has their own unique feel — a function of all the choices they make in terms of pacing and flow, word choice, etc. There’s a definite tone to each writer and each book and that’s typically the biggest shift I have to deal with when moving to a new project or working with a new writer.
I’m glad you mentioned altering your approach to each writer you work with, because there’s something I’ve noticed again and again in Bendis’ body of work and I’ve wanted to ask one of his collaborators this for years. Brian’s work, especially “Ultimate Spider-Man,” tends to feature non-traditional double-page spreads, with lots of long, horizontal panels spread across the fold and with a higher panel count than the more traditional DPS “splash” pages super hero comics usually employ. Is this something he calls for specifically in his scripts, and have you had to tackle any yet? Any secrets to making them look awesome?
Regarding working with Brian specifically, there are a few notable things that I’ve found myself having to adapt to. The most obvious change for me is the number of double-page spreads. I’ve done a few of these on previous books, but I could have counted them on one hand. Each issue of “Ultimate Spider-Man” has at least two or three spreads sprinkled throughout. These aren’t splashes (at least not yet), but multiple panels, often upward of 12, spread across two pages. It’s a compositional and storytelling challenge that I’ve had to put a lot of thought into. For instance: how do you compose a compelling page design while taking into account things like the page break? In a floppy comic, this isn’t that big a deal since the book can lay essentially flat, but when it’s collected for trade, that may not be the case (unless it’s in one of Marvel’s lay-flat omnibuses). And when you’re talking about digital, a whole other host of problems arise. Trusting that the guided-view/zoom function will let readers focus in on the small details, is the overall layout compelling, interesting and (most importantly) readable?
So, yeah, I think about this stuff a lot. And I’m learning as I go. I’m sure some of the spreads are more successful than others, but I’m constantly experimenting. Brian is using a really cool pacing/story beat device to end the issues I’m working on, and they’ve been really fun to play with, compositionally.
As far as Brian’s dialogue goes, characterization, acting and facial expressions are arguably the best part of drawing comics for me,Â so that’s a blast!
Your previous book at Marvel was the “Fantastic Four: Season One” OGN with writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. How different is it working on something long form and finite versus tackling the more open-ended, serialized “Ultimate Spider-Man?”
Well, in both cases I’ve been given the scripts as I go (for each issue for “USM,” and for each “chapter” for “FFSO”) — as I finish one script, I’m given the next. So in that sense, the experience is really similar. But I think the biggest difference is knowing that I’m just one part of a much bigger art team on this book. For “FFSO,” the book was all on my shoulders. Yes, I was drawing off of decades of amazing art for that book too, but for the 100-odd pages of “FFSO,” I knew that I would be the only one drawing these characters, these designs. For “USM,” not only am I working with other artists’ designs (and great ones at that) but I know that since it’s an ongoing, at some point I’ll be trading off art duties to someone else, and eventually move on to other projects while this story continues. I’m a little bit of a control freak, so there’s an element of that that’s scary for me. But on the other hand, it’s also freeing and humbling. Not only can I say that I’ve worked on a book drawn by amazing artists like Sara Pichelli and Chris Samnee, I’ve contributed to a project and a mythos that is much larger than just me. There’s a really cool sense of community to it.
What do you feel your greatest strength is as an artist, and how are you bringing that to the page here?
The thing I pride myself on, more than any specific artistic merit, is my work ethic. I work my freakin’ butt off on everything I do, and I hope it shows on the finished page. But beyond that, I really enjoy character work, as I’ve mentioned before, and I feel like I’m finally starting to get the hang of action sequences. I’ve had the opportunity to draw some killer action in these “USM” issues and I couldn’t be happier with the way they turned out.
A couple weeks back you tweeted about trying to draw realistically and then having everything run through an unconscious, stylized filter in your brain when it actually reaches the page. Can you tell us a little more about that? How does that work to your advantage (or against you) when you need to use reference for a character or location?
Well, those are kind of two separate issues. In terms of my Twitter comment, that dealt specifically with this weird phenomenon where I sometimes will look at my art and have this crazy reaction of, “Wait, that’s how I draw?” It’s a weird thing, man. When I’m drawing, I’m actively trying to put my understanding of real-world anatomy and perspective to work on the page, but it comes out so much cartoonier than “the way I imagine it.” It’s never how I pictured it in my head. Perhaps some artists draw exactly what they wanted, but that’s not my experience.
And it works this way whether I use reference or not. Now, I suppose I should make the point pretty quickly that I don’t use direct photo reference. I do have a huge file of reference for anatomy, clothing, all kinds of things. But I use that to supplement my understanding of, as an example, how certain muscle groups move when a character is, say, jumping or kicking — I don’t try to recreate the reference image on the page. But however it happens, when I draw all that understanding goes through this crazy translation as my hand moves across the page. I guess it’s similar to speaking in a foreign language — you’re aiming for a certain sound but your mouth is used to creating the sounds of your native language, so it comes out sounding not quite right. It’s recognizable, but it’s not a perfect representation of what you’re trying to say.
Let’s finish out by talking about Miles Morales. He’s the new kid on the block, with new powers and a new costume, but behind the Spider-Man mask, he’s still just a kid. Like all teenagers, he’s dealing with the problems of youth, tackling them from a biracial background. What’s your take on Miles as a character, and do you bring any of your own ethnic heritage to bear when approaching him?
Miles is a powerful symbol. He’s a character that represents a reality of today’s America: that we’re not all the same. I’m not speaking literally about his biracial background (though that has its own important resonance) but rather that he represents, to me anyway, the idea that America is defined much more by the coexistence of different cultures, viewpoints and experiences than by any single shared value or quality. (Though I guess you could say that the coexistence, uneasy as it may be, is a shared quality… anyway). Don’t get me wrong, there is a strong vein of traditionally “American” values that run strong throughout almost all of the U.S., but you don’t need to look very far to see how divided we are as a people about even the simplest things. Vegetarians, vegans, meateaters, paleos. Baseball, Football, Soccer. Yankees, Red Sox. Republicans, democrats, libertarians, socialists, anarchosyndicalists. Main Street, Wall Street.Â College-educated, street smart. Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Self. Black, Brown, Yellow,Â White.
You get the idea. But my point is that, in spite of all the division — acrimonious or otherwise — America works. Imperfectly, perhaps. but we work. And I think Miles is a powerful representation of that. If Peter Parker is the “familiar face” we’re used to, then Miles is the “new face” of a much more complex, varied and textured American experience. But, most importantly, he’s still a kid who we can identify with in a very personal way. Perhaps it’s only me, but I find it very compelling.
Regarding my own background, that’s a tough one to answer. I’m of mixed cultural heritage, but not quite the one most people think. My dad was born in Phllly and raised in California. He was a bit of a mix himself: Irish, German and Spanish (the Spanish by way of Mexico City, and direct from Spain the generation before). My mom is Irish — born and raised on a farm in rural County Cavan. So while I get the broadened perspective a multicultural background can give, it’s far different than the experience of someone like Miles would have. But I think that’s why the character resonates: he’s not like me, but I get him. The cooler thing, though, is that for a lot of kids out there, Miles is the familiar face, and that makes me feel like we’re all sharing in a really special thing.
Lastly, we’ve talked a lot about your background and approach to the book, but let’s close things out by talking about the story. Solicits for your first issue tease a fight between Prowler and the Scorpion, but more importantly, it teases that the police have their sights set on Miles, and that his secret may be out. What can readers expect from your first issue and your first arc?
Lots of action, lots of drama, lots of night-time scenes and lots of Miles in his new Spider-Man costume!
“Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” by Brian Michael Bendis, David Marquez and Justin Ponsor is on sale April 4. For more on Marquez including digital tutorials visit davidmarquez.com.