This coming Friday, a star-studded cast brings the Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner DC Comics/Wildstorm miniseries “RED” to the big screen. Anyone who has read the book knows that the Warner Bros. movie represents a significant departure from its source, a story in which retired government assassin Paul Moses is forced to take up his craft again when agents show up at his home with orders to take him out.
In anticipation of the film’s release, original series artist Cully Hamner and editor Ben Abernathy sat down on Saturday to discuss the comic, the film and the comic book prequels for both with a crowd of excited New York Comic-Con attendees. Read on for a complete transcript of the panel.
Cully, how did you come to work on “RED”?
Cully Hamner: I guess it was probably around 2002, 2003. Warren Ellis and I had sort of been dancing around the idea of working together on something. I guess I got tired of waiting for us to come up with something. [Laughs] So I sent him a pitch one day. Within about five minutes I got an e-mail back from him saying, “Actually, I was just about to send you this.” It was the pitch for “RED.” It was about a three-quarter page synopsis of what he had in mind and I said, “Great – sounds good!” I think within about a couple of weeks, we had it set up at Wildstorm and it kind of went from there. It was a blast to do and it’s kinda turned into something that people consider a little bit of a signature piece for me. So it’s always been a good thing for me.
Ben, how did you get involved in this project?
Ben Abernathy: When I came on board at Wildstorm in May 2002, “RED” was already underway at that point with [editor] John Layman, who had quit and become a freelance writer. So I got on board when I came on and was basically assigned all of Warren’s short [miniseries]. I think we had the first four or five pages inked at that point. It was a great experience, because it was a terrific book and it’s definitely worth checking out either in print or trade paperback or on Comixology. It also gave me the opportunity to work with some other terrific creators – John Costanza, who lettered it, as well as David Self.
Hamner: Speaking of John Costanza, that was the last time I ever worked on anything that was hand-lettered, because everything is digitally lettered now. It was kinda a great working with him because he lettered “Dark Knight” and a bunch of really great projects. In a way, it’s kinda sad to see that go, but it was great to have the experience of working with someone like him. He doesn’t get enough credit, I think.
Abernathy: I totally agree. And you’re right, as digital lettering has sort of taken over the craft, hand lettering has been forgotten. But it was just a terrific package. I was very blessed, coming in the door as an editor, to be involved with such a terrific property and such terrific creators. It was fun.
So the miniseries came out, it was well-received…
Hamner: It sold pretty well in its first run for a book of that type. It’s not a superhero book, it’s not a book featuring even a genre or apprentice or young character or anything like that. It’s this old fart who kills a lot of people, and it did pretty well. It’s had some legs, which is even better.
Talk to us a little bit about the cover and how it’s been carried over into the design for the movie.
Hamner: It’s kind of funny. What I wanted to on the original series is, I didn’t want to do a standard single image kind of a cover. One of the things that struck me about what Warren wrote was that it was very movement-oriented. I tried to carry that through in the art, so I wanted to bring that forward into the covers. Not just do a single image but do sequential images in blocks of three. I really kind of wanted to use the number three, in a way, as my design ethic. You’ve got three issues, you’ve got a title that’s got three letters, you’ve got three images on the cover that are sequential and you’ve got three colors that go with the three issues. Basically a stop light – you’ve got red, yellow and green. That was just something I did off the cuff and it’s really been pretty pleasing to see in the marketing of the film and the posters and everything you’re seeing in movie theaters. They really carried through the sort of three-tiered image system that I came up with.
When the time came to do the covers for these prequel books, it was almost like a return for me because they wanted me to do what they were doing on the movie posters, but sort of comic book-ized in a way. So it was weird for me to basically take my design and filter it through what they had done with it and bring it back to what I had tried to do originally. I basically had to do likenesses and that sort of thing, which was fun, trying to boil those guys down to black lines. It’s kind of gratifying to see how they carried that through with my original idea.
The image on the left [Hamner indicates a cover shown on the screen] is for a prequel comic that I’m writing and drawing called “RED: Eyes Only,” which is the story of how Paul Moses, who is the main character in the original miniseries, retired in the first place. So it takes place roughly somewhere between 15 to 20 years before the original miniseries, I would guess. Obviously he’s a bit younger, he’s got hair. Basically, you’re gonna find out why he’s in that house to begin with, why he’s not active at the beginning of the [original] miniseries. I have to step up and take a little bit of blame – this thing should’ve been out already, I’m a little bit late on it. I want to take the blame for that.
In addition to the prequel to the original miniseries, we’ve also arranged for four prequels to the characters you’ll see in the movie next week. Ben, would you explain the prequels?â€¨â€¨Abernathy: The prequels were kind of a cool opportunity to fill in the backstory for some of the characters in the film. I’m not going to get into any specifics or anything, but they’re definitely worth checking out and they’re sort of a primer for the events of the film, because the events in the comics are hopefully reflected. We had this opportunity to work with Summit [Entertainment] and the writers, John and Erich Hoeber, and they came up with these four standalone plots for these standard 22-page issues for each of the characters [with Cully doing the covers]: Victoria, Frank, Joe and Marvin. They’re set throughout the 1980s and you sort of get a sense of each character, what price they pay for their involvement with the CIA. It was a fun opportunity because I got to work with a variety of artists. The Hoebers each wrote one of the issues, great writing from Doug Wagner, and then Gregory Novack, who is the executive producer of the film, wrote one as well.
Hamner: I’ve read these things and they’re really very good. Again, not your standard comic licensing titles, I think. Everybody did a really nice job on these and they’ve been really well reviewed, if I’m not mistaken.
Abernathy: They are being well-reviewed, and everybody is saying basically the same thing; it’s not a sort of marketing gimmick. They’re very dark, harsh stories set in the Cold War.
How much involvement did you have in the making of the movie?â€¨â€¨Hamner: Personally, not a whole lot. Once they bought it, they bought it, and they had their own ideas of what they wanted to do with it. I got to see a little bit of stuff here and there as they were making it, I got to make a set visit. I’ve been a little more involved in terms of promotion than I have with [production]. One thing that was really cool was that when I was on set in New Orleans, there were copies of the book everywhere. They didn’t just buy the book and put it in a drawer somewhere and make the movie that they wanted to make. There are a lot of tonal changes, there are obviously new characters [and] they expanded the story, but they did make this in mind with what we did and they were looking at it while they were making the movie. So that did impress me. But as far as my personal involvement, there really wasn’t much. I’m trying to help promote it as much as I can because I believe in it, but I wasn’t there for the making of the film.
Do you think cinematically when you draw your comics?
Hamner: Yes and no. Because I don’t think in terms of, “I’m gonna do this expressly so they turn it into a movie.” But when I do my work, I tend to think in the language of cinema a little bit. Movies and comics are two different things, but there’s a commonality between some of the things you do in comics and some of the things you do in movies. A lot of times I will try to replicate, even unconsciously, what I perceive in movies, the kind of storytelling I see, kind of control how fast you read something [or] how slow you read something, the pacing that you see in movies. But I’ve never expressly tried to do something with the thought, “Hopefully they’ll pick this up and make it into a movie.” I’m a comic book artist. That’s what I love to do, that’s what I’m into. I’m always trying to make the best comic that I can. If somebody sees something in it that makes them think, “Hey, this would be a great movie,” then so much the better. But it’s not my goal to do something like that. Having said that, I guess I have a certain cinematic sensibility to what I do, but that’s who I am. I do comics. I do ’em to look like comics and read like comics.
Were there any surprises in terms of the actors they picked for the movie?
Hamner: Well, they were all surprising to me because they were all so huge, these giant, big-name actors. The thing that’s funny about Bruce Willis is he’s not somebody I saw in my head when I was drawing the book, but when I heard that he was at least interested in it, I went “Yeah, I can see that.” Now it’s hard for me to see somebody else doing it. It was a surprise, but it was a welcome surprise. All of the other actors were just really lofty names that you would never expect to be involved in a movie like this. They just seemed like they wanted to have fun, and they did, and it shows in the movie.
I know director Robert Schwentke is really into comics. I was just wondering if you’d talked to him.
Hamner: I did. He was very busy. When I was [on set] I tried to stay out of people’s faces, because the last thing I want to do is interrupt them or get in the middle of their work. It’s a pretty stressful environment. The most common word I heard the entire time I was there was “Robert.” Everybody wanted Robert’s attention. The couple of times I managed to have a chat with him, we didn’t get into the specifics of a lot of storytelling talk, but it was obvious he had read the book, that he really liked the book. Yes, they were doing something a little different with it, but he was very respectful of what I did, which was very complimentary. It was obvious he’s into comics. Even the storytelling you’ll see, [it] has got a real comics sensibility to it. Whether or not the tone of it is different from the comic, he’s got a real comic book bent to what he does. I think this is going to be a breakout thing for him, I’m already seeing his name now more than I ever did before he did this movie.
For the prequel to the original comic that you’re working on, did you look at all to Bruce Willis’ work in the movie to guide your writing?
Hamner: I actually have to say I sort of avoided that. We’ve already got four movie prequels that are out and are directly tied to the movie. I wanted to do something that was recognizably what we did before. So I had to tamp down that temptation to [look at the movie for inspiration]. I really just wanted to tell the story of how our version of the character came to be. I didn’t want to subtly try to make him look more like Bruce Willis. Also, I haven’t seen the movie yet, and it’s actually been a good thing because I haven’t really found myself being influenced by it quite so much. It’s very much recognizably what we did before. It’s very much a reflection. There are certain things that happen in the plot that are consciously reflective of the original miniseries. Facially, he’s recognizably the same character, only a little younger.
When you were doing the original miniseries, did you have someone in mind?â€¨â€¨Hamner: It’s funny – when Warren first sent me this, if I remember correctly, he had said that he had had dinner with Patrick Stewart. He said he was impressed by the fact that Patrick Stewart is an older guy, a bald guy, all that, but he was just as hard as a rock, you know, in really good shape. I sort of started with that. I kind of went for a cross between maybe [Stewart] and Sean Connery, with these big, caterpillar eyebrows. I wanted to make him look kind of like a thug, so he’s got sort of a flattened nose and his features are a little harsh. But there are moments where he can actually show a little bit of kindness through his face. I tried to pull that off, but I wanted him to look like somebody who can just be really scary if he wanted to be. I was thinking about melding a couple of different actors, but nobody super-specific. I always try to start with a type if I’m designing a character of some sort. I’ll try to start with someone I’m aware of, either a friend or somebody famous or an actor or somebody I just think is interesting looking and fits the character. Usually, I end up afield from that, so it’s not a flat-out rip of somebody who’s a real person. That’s what happened with this – he became his own thing, but I did start with someone in mind. If you ever saw some of the earlier sketches that I did of the character – one of the earlier sketches looked a lot more like Patrick Stewart than what he ended up looking like.
Did Warren give you any feedback for the prequel?â€¨
Hamner: He did, actually. I sent him the plot after I wrote it and there were a couple of bits that he commented on that he really liked, that he thought were fun bits. He seemed generally pretty pleased about the whole thing. It’s just interesting because I don’t necessarily think it’s what he would’ve done, but he was totally cool with it.