Teaming with superstar writer Grant Morrison first for the second issue of the time travel epic “The Return of Bruce Wayne” and then for the recently completed “Batman And Robin Must Die!” story in “Batman And Robin,” Irving’s images have swung from mind-melting science fiction trappings to the cold, dark woods outside Gotham City and finally to the topsy turvy world of modern Batman adventures as the Joker led a campaign against secret series villain Doctor Hurt. But of course, the collaboration that brought some of the most acclaimed superhero comics of the year didn’t start with the Dark Knight’s world.
This week, CBR’s THE BAT SIGNAL digs deep into the Morrison/Irving partnership, looking back at the pair’s introductions through their first work as Irving tells CBR News how despite his best efforts, he hasn’t been able to escape drawing Puritans, the way in which Morrison’s loose scripting style has afforded him control over some of “Batman And Robin’s” most memorable images and how the partnership will carry on to “Multiversity” and perhaps a few points beyond.
CBR News: Frazer, the last time you spoke with CBR we went into your own personal history with Batman and what pieces of the Dark Knight’s history had an impact on you. This time out, I’d like to talk a little bit about your history with your Batman collaborator, Grant Morrison. I know you first worked together on Klarion, but how did you initially meet, and how did your knowing each other lead to that first miniseries?
Frazer Irving: The first time I met Grant was at a DC party at my first San Diego Comic-Con back in 2004 or 2005, I think. I’d managed to crash it thanks to Andy Diggle and Jock, and was standing chatting to Duncan Fegredo and Sean Phillips about stuff when Chris Weston butted in and asked if I’d met Grant. I said I hadn’t and then Weston whisked me away saying “Well, he wants to meet you,” which gave it the air of being summoned into a very exclusive audience at that time. I’d not read much of his work at that point, but I knew his reputation so it was nice to have my work noticed by the dude. When we he started talking it became very apparent that he was in fact as normal as anyone else there, except for the whole talking with gods thing. Luckily, I’m into that as well, so it was all cool, and he said he wanted to work with me on some stuff and I nodded my head. The party split into cliques as it always does, and by the end of it I was on my own again, smoking a cigarette with Brian Azzarello in the sparsely populated smokers corner. After that, I didn’t hear anything beyond one e-mail about some Marvel stuff that hadn’t happened, and then it was the e-mail about doing “Klarion” that was my next contact. From what I could gather at the time, he had me in mind for that for a while, though pretty much all the contact I had with him during that time was reading notes passed on from the editor.
“Klarion the Witchboy” was a project and character that seemed to fit your specific interests and style extremely well, and a lot of your comics from “Gutsville” through to “Return of Bruce Wayne” have also played with those kinds of Puritanical settler themes and imagery (a rarity for pulp/pop fiction to say the least). What’s the draw for those trappings for you as an artist, and what has Grant brought to his scripts that let you draw what you like best?
Well, I should clarify that the Puritan stuff is most definitely not an interest of mine. It’s been sheer coincidence that has led me to draw that subject matter all these times. I turned down a Solomon Kane gig at Dark horse specifically because I didn’t want to become labelled as “that British dude who draws Puritans,” and then up popped “The Return of Bruce Wayne” which was deeply ironic.
In terms of what Grant brings to scripts that I like, basically he brings a good dose of drama, with some excellent pacing, a dash of madness and most importantly the freedom to bend the storytelling to my strengths. My personal favorites have been Professor Pyg and the Joker, mainly because he writes them to be so funny yet so twisted, and that contrast is very easy to get acting in my head.
Of course, Klarion also stopped by “Robin” few years back, letting you bring the character and some of that visual flair on into Gotham – a comic setting built on mood and tone. What was that first experience playing in Batman’s world like for you, and what kept you coming back for projects like “Azrael” and the other Bat-covers you’ve done?
The “Robin” two-parter was less than a pit-stop in Gotham. I didn’t really see it as a Gotham story, more a drama about a young dude who has issues with his girlfriend, his butler, and this blue freak that showed up. Adam Beechen’s script was light and easy on the art muscle and that’s not what I associate with Gotham with all it’s madness, horror and dark, dark darkness.
“Azrael” came to me thanks to Mike Marts going insane for a few moments and thinking it’d be easy on his stress levels to hire me, but I was very glad because it did indeed have many elements which i responded to, plus it got me into Gotham a bit better. The covers are also all Mike’s fault. As an artist, I find it very hard to cater jobs to my personal tastes; firstly, I don’t get to demand the gigs I think I might want, and secondly, it’s always how others see my work that’s more important. There was a time when I thought I was a “good girl” artist, but clearly no-one else thought so, cos I never get to draw superheroines wearing thongs and microkinis, but I do get to draw freaks and monsters, so I guess that’s what everyone likes in my work. I’m assuming it’s what Marts likes, because it certainly isn’t my punctuality.
Originally, you had been slated to work on an earlier arc of “Batman and Robin” but ended up doing “Return” #2 as your initial return to Gotham with Grant. How did that issue, with its mix of the style and setting you’d worked with previously and the edge of reality sci-fi stuff strike you as a first gig back collaborating with Grant, and how did it help prepare you for “Batman and Robin Must Die!?”
I thought it was a wise choice – after all, it was all dark and darkness, with monsters, folks in tall hats etc, and I’d already proved myself in that arena, so I thought of all the stories in “ROBW,” issue #2 was the best fit for me. The superhero stuff threw me a bit. It’s hard to change gears in the middle of something like that, and I hadn’t drawn any spandex people for quite some time, so I focused on the weird cosmic aspects of those scenes more. It didn’t prepare me at all for “Batman and Robin,” though. Nothing could prepare one for that. I didn’t know what was going to happen, so each page of script was a surprise for me. If I had known, I may well have prepared a little differently.
Speaking of which, each artist who’s come on to “Batman and Robin,” from Frank Quietly on through to you, seems to have made a real effort to bring their own twist on their usual style that fits the book as a whole. What, if anything, did you change about your approach once you had the scripts in hand for this three-part arc?
Well at the start I was just trying to brighten my colors a little so that when i did the dark stuff there would be some contrast, but eventually instinct kicked in and what fell onto the page fell onto it naturally. I did revise my method in the middle, to tighten up the lines I was using as a lot of panels looked muddy to me, and I hate that. However, it became clear to me at some point that the pages were gloomy and thick because the mood required it…if I’d been given a different arc, lighter in tone, it may well have looked a lot different.
One thing I’ve noticed in your work is your attention to how color affects each scene and page. In “Return” #2 we got a lot of natural colors, from the fall foliage to the murky black of night stuff. With “Batman and Robin,” we’re seeing a lot more bright, sometimes neon pallets for the hyper sci-fi elements of the story. What does coloring your own stuff do for you as a storyteller? At what point does color come into your process of laying out and designing a page, and what considerations to you make while working up the digital “washes” for the backgrounds?
Color is like everything to storytelling – well, alongside form, composition, line and everything else. It’s not just a way to say “this is a tree” or “this is skin!,” it’s as powerful as lots of speed lines or heavy shadows – it says “this tree is warped” or “this man’s skin is sickly for he is evil” etc. I like color that creates mood more than realism, and that’s in the stuff I read as well as draw. It’s a key part of pacing a story to allocate a basic hue to each scene, so that (ideally) one can see the pages at a glance and see how the pages group together in scenes dictated by overall color scheme, and if one is using a specific hue for a particular location, then the color alone should act as a subconscious visual cue for each time we visit that place.
As I said earlier, if I had more advance knowledge of how the story plays out, then the color schemes can be worked out properly in advance. Recently I’ve started using color in my roughs, mainly because I was getting annoyed at finishing the b/w art and then staring at it for hours wondering what colors go where. It’s easier to sort that stuff out in the early stages as it’s all very basic at that point.
Your “Batman and Robin” art hit a wide spectrum of flavors from some very direct, emotional character and scene work to some pretty surreal and often scary imagery. Obviously a lot of this comes from Grant scripts, but what kind of room have you had to play with some of the signature visual moments from the Damian/Joker fight to Professor Pyg’s reverse crucifixion to Gordon’s fish-eye awakening on the stage at the Crime Alley theater?
Pyg’s crucifixion is pretty much what Grant wrote. It was such a simple image that I didn’t have to do anything to change it to suit my visual vocabulary. The fish eye thing with Gordon in the theatre was my idea, I am proud to say. Often the best scripts merely tell the story, such as “Gordon is strapped to a gurney, he’s all tripped out on the stage and the crowd are watching from shadows,” which gives me the info on character, plot and mood and yet leaves it open to a wide range of possible visual solutions to get the best impact. I have a strong dislike for scripts where a visual style is imposed because it’s often someone else’s strengths they’re playing to, sort of like giving sheet music for a soprano to Mick Jagger and expecting him to do the job the author has in their head. Grant’s good like that. He does indeed offer some very specific visual solutions, but the option is always there to modify it if I have an idea that suits what I’ve been building on already. And hey, comics that don’t experiment a bit are dreadfully dull to work on.
With the final issue in the arc just how hitting, I think saying too much on what happens with the Batman, Joker, Damian, Dr. Hurt and the rest would take the legs out of what’s going on for people still reading, but are there any specific images or elements to this last round of pages that have stood out to you from your work?
I’m particularly happy with the double page spread I just completed of Hurt and Joker holding hands at the picnic, with all the Robins dancing around the Maypole in the background as Batman hugs Superman wearing a miniskirt. Fo reals.
What’s next for you? Do you foresee more Batman work in the near future or more work with Grant?
Grant has reserved a small part of my soul already to do something called “Multiversity,” which sounds all rather excellent and right up my alley. I’m on the roster for some other Grant Batman stuff later apparently, but ’til that comes around I’m still doing the will-draw-for-food thing. I have one gig lined up for next year which is a *censored* series which is really cool cos I was a huge fan of the original, and possibly doing a *name omitted* series which could be exciting because I have no idea who the character is, but before any of that happens I’ll be returning to and completing the fondly missed “Gutsville” as of 21st October 2010. I expect that will take me about 3 months, so I am stocking up on lentils and cheap soya protein for the winter months.
While Irving wraps “Gutsville” and continues to play coy on his next major mainstream project, see his work on “Batman and Robin Must Die!” on sale now from DC Comics.