Artist Nick Pitarra makes up one half of the team that is regularly conspiring to bring the world the Image Comics published “The Manhattan Projects — a bold, satirical re-imagining of the government project that created the atomic bomb. Armed with Jonathan Hickman’s scripts involving parallel dimensions, aliens, Russian wonder dogs, Nazi’s, and a masonic Harry Truman, Pitarra has crafted his graphic take on titanic minds like Einstein and a murderous Oppenheimer.
A New York Times bestseller and the 7th best comic of 2012 according to CBR’s own Top Comics of 2012 list, Hickman and Pitarra’s “Manhattan Projects” has undeniably made an impact on the comics industry.
In a candid talk with CBR News, Pitarra discusses the ins and outs of the acclaimed series, including working with Hickman’s busy schedule, his own evolution as an artist, the intricacies of his art style, why drawing on paper will never be replaced by illustrating digitally, the value of colorist Jordie Bellaire and the challenge and reward in making the series’ real-life characters his own.
CBR News: You were discovered thanks in large part to CBR’s Comic Book Idol competition. How did the pressures of that competition prepared you for life as a working artist?
Nick Pitarra: Yeah! It was really all thanks to CBR and Comic Book Idol actually. Jonathan, being a previous participant in the contest, was one of the guys picking portfolios to see who got to enter in the next competition. Unbeknownst to me, Jonathan saw my work and really liked it. God knows why, because it was pretty rough — it still is — but he forwarded it to his editor at Marvel.
The competition was really grueling. It taught me how to pencil and ink three or four pages in three or four days. To this day, I tell myself, “I know I can make this deadline; I’ve done it before.”
Before that, I’d only penciled and inked three pages between conventions for portfolio reviews. With Comic Book Idol, it was reviews every week.
Take me through the process of creating an issue as it occurs between you and Jonathan. How important is the rapport you’ve developed over time?
Early on, things were more tightly scripted. I have a natural tendency to change stuff — getting caught up in the art and visual gags and nuances of characters when I draw sequentials. Between me slightly changing stuff and driving Jon crazy and Jon and I becoming friends and developing a good sense of each others personalities, we’ve started trusting each other more and basically work Marvel style, now.
Jon’s good to guide me ,though. He reins me in if things get crazy with the art, but I also think I make things fun if things get too crazy/heady, so we balance each other out.
Beyond “Manhattan Projects,” Hickman keeps himself busy with his Marvel work along with “Secret” and the forthcoming “East of West” for Image. Are there challenges that come with working with a writer who is working on so many different titles at one time?
Man, there are like zero challenges that come with working with Jonathan. His schedule is another reason we’re working Marvel style more and more now, and I absolutely love it. The guy is an absolute workhorse. Just on “Manhattan Projects,” he does the covers, solicitation/promos, cleans up the art and the panel borders, scripts it, is the go-to man between the entire creative team, does the book design, the trade design and all the behind the scenes financials and what not.
He literally makes it as easy and fun as possible for me to make the best looking book possible. And yeah, he’s doing all those things that you mentioned, plus an original graphic novel coming out this year that he’s writing and drawing (“Feel Better Now”) and all those Marvel books he works on. I don’t know how the guy does it.
Honestly, he’s always there for me. I can pick up the phone and call him right now, and he’s just as attuned to “Manhattan Projects” as he is on scripting some crazy Marvel story arc. Hickman’s a beast.
A handsome beast.
Do you have an interest in writing?
Yeah, I think about it a lot. I have some original ideas, but they are all super campy and violent. I don’t think they are all that marketable.
I think the best part of working with Jonathan is that he takes all the crazy stuff I like to draw and it gets raised to a higher level because he’s so smart. If I were to do my own thing — which I will one day I imagine — it will basically be a formula that reads like “The Tick” times “The Authority” squared, plus butthole jokes.
Currently, you do the majority of your work old school-style with a pencil and paper. Do you think as time goes by you’ll come to use digital more for creation as opposed to just touch-ups and tweaks?
No, I really can’t. I bought a Cintiq from my buddy Joe Eisma (“Morning Glories”), and for the life of me I can’t do layouts on it. I just grab a marker and an 11″ by 17″ sheet of paper and start drawing. I’ll scan that in and print it out and ink, versus light boxing it, but that is as digital as I get — minus the standard art clean up and resizing you do in Photoshop.
I just need the friction of the page and the feel of it. Not even in an “artist up my own ass” way, but in an “I’m a dumb monkey, give me a crayon” way.
You said previously that you didn’t think that you had brought enough “life and character” to the faces of your characters in “Red Wing.” Do you think you’ve taken a leap forward in that area with “Manhattan Projects?”
Yeah. I actually spent about two months just building the characters in “Manhattan Projects” with Jonathan. I was focused on the distinct shapes of heads and noses and eye sockets — distinct silhouettes. I focused, not on the subtleties of features, but on working a little more on extremes. It’s much more of a true cartooning approach, I think, but I love subtleties in art.
Frank Quitely is, obviously, a favorite of mine, and he’s a master at acute awareness. All these wonderfully subtle things are happening in his pages, from background details, to the way characters turn their heads, the slight differences in emotions — it’s mind boggling how good that guy is. On “Manhattan Projects,” I’m just not good enough to play it safe with the likenesses. The faces would change too much from shot to shot, so I hammed them up a bit, and I’m really happy with the results. Mostly.
I try and let the subtleties happen in the character’s movements and actions and backgrounds in “Manhattan Projects.”
On “Red Wing,” Jon saw, I think it was cover 3, and he named the characters and we were off. That first cover was my character sheet for the whole series! I wasn’t happy with the character consistency overall, there. Plus, they were all youngsters and it’s hard to put distinct detail down on young faces. So yeah, I wasn’t as happy with the character designs on “Red Wing.”
But, it was time travel, so you were going to be confused either way!
When you were first designing these characters, did you ever feel like a slave to the physical characteristics of the real men on which these characters are based? How have you found a way to make them your own, and do you have a favorite?
Great question! I like to play around with caricatures, but it’s such a deceptive skill. It’s a crazy difficult thing to learn. The way one person might see someone, someone else might not, so you have to deal in absolutes in regard to the features of their face. Just because I like the way someone snarls in their pictures, it doesn’t mean the public will understand what the hell I’m hinting at if I’m drawing that over and over again. I always ask myself, “How would someone I met off the street describe this person?”
Overall, it wasn’t too hard, though. Early on, I was so dead-set on being extreme that it wasn’t too much of an issue. Once I was done with the character sheets, I made it a goal not to go back and look at any of the characters real-life counterpart’s faces. I want them to become my own as much as possible.
It really is impossible to choose a favorite. I love them all. Jon did such a great job of making them unique. I will say that I’ve loved going crazy with Masonic Harry Truman. That was the beginning of the Marvel style process, where Jon just started writing “Go crazy” in the scripts.
I also love Harry (Daghlian) — the nicest guy of the entire group is an irradiated skull in a hazmat suit. You gotta love that. Jon helped there too, by the way. He drew that giant hat on Truman, and told me to make Groves big and strong versus his fat real-life counterpart. Once I saw that hat on Hickman’s Truman, all bets were off!
Mayhem was on the loose in “Manhattan Projects” #8 — what repercussions can we expect going forward, and will Helmutt ever reach his breaking point?
Man, issue #9 is crazy. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Hickman gets mad when I spoil stuff, so we’ll leave it there!
Hickman is a real asshole to [Helmutt].
You can see why readers want Helmutt to rise up, right? I imagine a part of you wants that too, or is it more fun to torture him?
Haha! I actually had Laika bite him in the balls in issue #8. That happened spontaneously as I was drawing the page, so maybe I enjoy bullying him, too. But yeah, I think with issue #6 highlighting him, and then the continuing torture of the poor guy, he is definitely going to have to club someone over the head or pull the plug on an experiment or unleash a monster or something to redeem himself.
Do you and Jonathan have an endgame in mind for “The Manhattan Projects?” Is this something you can see doing for years, or are you eager to fully pour your attentions into something else?
“Manhattan Projects” is an absolute dream gig. I told Jon, and I have told him over and over, this is the only thing I want to work on. I love it. I’ve passed on a few offers to do other things. I’m making decent money for the first time in my life with my art. I’m working with someone who has pushed to get me published and has been in my corner, nurturing my career in a sense. I’m getting to co-create and co-own an awesome property. We’ve got the best colorist in the business, Jordie Bellaire, and the best letterer in Rus Wooton, the coolest publisher in Image. And whenever I want an art break, I get to share “Manhattan Projects” with artists I dig. Ryan Browne of “God Hates Astronauts” has a killer one-shot coming up [in “Manhattan Projects” #10] that makes my art look so bad.
Jon definitely has plot points that we are building to, and specific things planned. We knew from day one how the first trade would end. Obviously, we knew about Einstein in the other realm, and he has some super crazy stuff planned coming up too.
With us working Marvel style, we get to take some winding roads to get there. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Speaking of Jordie Bellaire, can you tell us a little bit more about what she brings to the book?
Jordie is the absolute best. She was a total lifesaver for me and Jon on this book. Jon and I couldn’t agree on a colorist for the first two issues and, basically in a panic with issue 3 coming up, we just said we were going to try and throw a Hail Mary and get Dave Stewart. Somewhere in the shuffle, I believe Ed Brubaker sent Jordie’s samples to Jon — I might be making that up.
Anyway, Jordie turned in a one page “Manhattan Projects” sample, and it was absolutely perfect. Subtle textures, some faces were completely flat. She had such confidence in her color choice and understood that I make my art gross enough with my own rendering that she didn’t need to over-render stuff. It was mind-blowingly good. I think with clean line styles, colorists do the heavy lifting, and her colors on the book are everything.
Just look at the other books she’s coloring — they’re all gorgeous! I think you can safely say none of the artists have ever looked as good. She’s the best, a top 5 colorist in her first full year of coloring, watch out Dave Stewart!