This October, a tiny hero joins the ranks of Marvel’s costumed champions, well not exactly. By tiny we mean he can shrink his size at will and we use the term “hero” very loosely. He’s the star of “The Irredeemable Ant-Man,” a new ongoing series from writer Robert Kirkman and artist Phil Hester. CBR News spoke with Hester about his work on the book.
The chance to bring to life the adventures of the new Ant-Man arrived in an unexpected way for Hester and his frequent collaborator, inker Ande Parks. “Ande and I were still on ‘Nightwing’ when Robert sort of called us out of the blue,” Hester told CBR News. “‘Nightwing was coming up on a natural jumping off point for us with ‘Infinite Crisis,’ so it was good timing.”
When Kirkman called to offer Hester “The Irredeemable Ant-Man,” he took the assignment for two reasons. “The Marvel universe and Robert Kirkman,” Hester explained. “I was always a Marvel kid and didn’t want to pass up a chance at playing in that sandbox for an extended period. I just love drawing the characters I dreamed of drawing when I was a wee lad. Also, that Kirkman fellow is pretty talented. I’ve been very, very lucky in the quality of the writers I’ve worked with over the last five or six years and Robert is a welcome addition to that string of good fortune. I honestly get excited when I see one of his scripts for the first time.”
For Hester, Kirkman’s scripts are usually always filled with interesting and pleasant surprises. “He never fails to take the book in directions that would never occur to me,” Hester said. “I think that’s what he’s brought to comics as a whole – a completely new perspective on what seem like hidebound traditions. Also, his dialogue is very authentic. His twenty-something characters sound like they’re actually twenty-something.”
It’s the authentic sounding characters and the emotional journeys they go on that Hester really wants to emphasize when he brings Kirkman’s scripts to life. “Robert writes very human characters, for both good and ill,” Hester stated. “I’m striving to get across the range of emotion that his players express in the scripts. I also want to match visually the sense of experimentation that he’s established with the themes and format of the book. I think it will be unlike anything Marvel’s done to date.”
Hester and Park’s work on “Ant-Man” will bear some similarities to their past artistic collaborations, but they will be exploring some new artistic angles on the book. “Ande and I are trying to spot blacks in a new way,” Hester explained. “We’re using a technique that allows us to render inside a solid black area with white lines. Anyone that knows our work knows we love solid blacks and this is a way for us to use the power of an uncompromised black space, but still be able to impart a little information with some limited drawing inside that space. We’ll see how it pans out. Also, as with every job we do, we’re a little older and more confident in our skills. It’s the best work we’ve done, in my opinion.”
Hester says rendering pages which often call for 16 panel grids ain’t easy, but finds the work challenging and rewarding. “We’re trying to present a very dense story in a limited space, so we need to cram a ton of information into every page,” Hester said. “Making it readable, clear and exciting is my challenge. Luckily, Robert tosses us a bone by making sure something important or visually arresting happens on nearly every page. I’m taking a lot of inspiration from Steranko, and not just because the book begins in the environs of the SHIELD helicarrier, but because Jim thought a lot about how to present the page as a whole rather than simply a series of panels that tumble one after another. That having a sense of the page as a single unit is what Eisner calls the metapanel and it’s something I’ve been trying to explore my whole career. The sixteen panel grid is just another twist on that problem.
“The tough part is simply drawing small,” Hester continued. “It’s honestly a physical challenge to work so tiny. The real benefit comes when we want to explore several distinct aspects of a scene. For example, we can dissect what seems like a simple talking heads page into units so fine that they can describe something as minute as a micro-expression change on a character’s face between panels or even inside the same sentence being spoken, or even the slightest change in lighting or background that indicate something more may be going on under the surface. It seems constrictive, but it’s really a broad and varied palette to draw from.
“One of the immediately evident benefits of working in this style is the Miller ‘Dark Knight’-like pacing we can exploit. Nothing punches up the power of a two-page spread like having it both preceded and followed by several pages of tightly packed grids. The splash becomes bigger than life.”
The splash pages in “Ant-Man” will become bigger than life, but given the title character’s shrinking abilities, often the action itself is very tiny. This means that when he’s illustrating a scene Hester often has to pay very close attention to the scale and size of characters and objects. “There’s a lot of research,” he said. “You can’t fake a phone receiver when you’re three millimeters away from it. It’s tough getting across scale because I think readers subconsciously base the size of things they see on the scale of a human being, so when you see Ant-Man next to a penny you automatically think, ‘Look at that huge penny!’
“I think the challenge for me and Ande is to convey how much textures change when scale changes,” Hester continued. “Tough for me especially, since I admire the Toth less-is-more school of cartooning. I’ve been paring away unnecessary detail for so long in my career that it’s tough to switch gears and realize that what I would’ve regarded as superfluous detail in the past is actually a useful tool for me on this book.”
The primary tool of the new Ant-Man in “The Irredeemable Ant-Man” will be his costume, which Hester and Parks designed the look of. “First and foremost, we wanted to establish the fact that this was an all new character, so any design elements that survived from the Pym/Lang designs are by way of homage rather than continuity. The old costumes are classic and I wouldn’t muck with them, but this is a new character who needed his own look.
“The primary visual theme we wanted to get across was the, well… bug-like nature of his powers and even his behavior,” Hester continued. “He’s always skittering around, hiding under things, popping out to sting or punch an opponent from hiding… you know, like a bug. Also, since our guy is kind of a screw-up, the power is in the armor, not so much in him. It’s definitely a tool rather than a costume, so it had to look somewhat functional. Plus, it has all sorts of doohickeys and gadgets that he doesn’t really know how to run yet, so we’ll be discovering them along with him. I think it gets across the feeling of the book which can range from funny and goofy to outright bizarre, scary and even somber. I think that bug-like mask gets across that Spidey vibe of cute and creepy at the same time.”
A book like the “Irredeemable Ant-Man” that is jam packed with story and details requires a tremendous amount of pencil to paper time for Hester, but for him all the work involved is worth the chance to bring to life such a unique book. “I think we’re going to take Marvel readers to a new place with Ant-Man,” he said. “We need you. This is the kind of book that lives or dies on the intensity of fan support. I’d love to pull huge numbers, but realize that Ant-Man isn’t the box office draw that Spider-man or Wolverine is. If we can manage a consistent, dedicated readership the book will be around for a long time. And I think the longer it’s around, the better it will become.”
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