In THE LIGHTBOX, a four-part series running all week, CBR speaks with some of comics’ biggest, most distinctive artists about their process and how they approach art and design in their work.
Bryan Hitch was already a well respected artist in comics, but in the span of a few short years his star went supernova when he drew two of the most iconic comics of the past two decades. “The Authority” written by Warren Ellis was an incredibly influential series as much for its narrative approach to superheroes as its expertly realized visuals. Hitch followed it up a few years later with “The Ultimates” with Mark Millar, a groundbreaking reinvention of Marvel Comics’ Avengers for the Ultimate Marvel U.
Hitch’s resume includes many other marquee comics including “JLA,” “Fantastic Four,” “Age of Ultron” and “America’s Got Powers.” Outside of comics he’s amassed a lengthy credits list as a designer and production artist spanning film and television projects like “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek.” His newest comics venture is “Real Heroes,” launching later this year, which sees Hitch make his writing debut in addition to drawing the Image Comics series.
In his LIGHTBOX interview, Hitch spoke at length about his approach to character design, much of which influenced the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s approach to the charaters he worked with in “Ultimates,” how that process differs in comics versus other media, the delicate balance between drawing and storytelling and how writing has always been something he’s wanted to do as well as why “Real Heroes” is the perfect project with which to finally take the leap.
CBR News: How do you think about comics and how has that changed over the time you’ve been working in comics?
Bryan Hitch: My priority with comics has always been story-first. It’s never been an art thing. Truth is, I don’t like drawing. It’s the work you have to do to tell the story. I force myself to learn to draw constantly because I want to improve my range of storytelling options, to service the story the best I can. That’s always the conscious choice. It’s never what I like drawing, what I like designing, how I approach design as an idea. It’s always story.
Given that, as an artist what do you look for in a project or collaborator?
Again, it’s the story. It’s not the idea that would be cool to draw, but that would be a cool story to tell. It’s never just cool images. I’m not a poster artist. I don’t really like drawing covers. There’s always a good reason for doing them, but my priority has always been responding to story.
When Mark [Millar] and I first started talking about “The Ultimates” thirteen years ago now, what we were going to do with the book before 9/11 was very different. It was much more Asgardian and a big scale superhero slugfest. It was more “Authority.” I think that’s what Marvel originally wanted. They wanted us to come do “The Authority” with The Avengers. That was the basic premise. Post-9/11 when we started thinking about all the real world stuff and phrases like super terrorism were being bandied about, we brought that into what we were thinking about.
There was this realization for me that I wasn’t going to draw all this fantasy stuff like Asgard, it was going to be built on real world places. That was the core of making it work, making it feel as real as possible. I hated drawing real world stuff. I hated drawing cars. I really wasn’t into drawing buildings. All the things I’m quite well known for these days were not things I ever liked to draw. I forced myself to learn a whole new school of drawing on the early issues of the “Ultimates,” tearing up pages, rethinking panels, constantly redrawing stuff until it felt the way “The Ultimates” needed to feel. I knew how I wanted it to feel, I just didn’t have the drawing ability at the time to pull it off. Nor really the interest in drawing that stuff. I didn’t want to draw airplanes and Captain America parachuting from it with a hundred other soldiers. That was of no interest, but the impact that had on the story was of huge interest. That always overcomes my initial reluctance to draw whatever I may not like drawing today.
What pushed you into writing?
It really wasn’t a push, it’s what I’ve wanted to do since day one in 1987. I’ve wanted to write, I’ve had chances to write, but somehow it just hasn’t happened. I wrote a six-issue “Ultimate Captain America” series at Marvel and six pages into drawing it, it got yanked for no reason other than it was “economically unviable at the time.” I wrote an issue of “The Authority” which we all mutually pulled because I was destroying New York when the planes hit the Twin Towers and we all agreed that wasn’t the best time to be releasing a story when half of New York is destroyed.
There’s always been a desire to write and I’ve never stopped thinking up stories or ideas. There are writers I’ve worked with — even ones I haven’t necessarily been the best collaborator for — but almost every writer I’ve worked with seemed to think I should end up writing. Maybe that’s because they got sick of writing for me, I don’t know. I’m in the closing bits of “Real Heroes” and I’m already writing the next project that’s going to be huge. It’s not like I won’t work with other writers. I’ve got something with Millar for next year, I’m already planning something with another writer for the year after, but writing stories is as natural an evolution for me as I could think of really.
Walk us through how you draw a page and has this changed now that you’re writing?
The art side of it hasn’t changed at all. What has changed is because I don’t have an editor on this project — it’s not a company project where I have to seek approval — the line stops with me. I’m not writing full scripts. It’s a much more organic process of writing an outline for the series, doing thumbnails as I’m writing the outlines and then editing and shuffling and rethinking as I’m working on the thumbnails. Sometimes editing the art as I go. The basic process of how I put a page together in pictures, that’s relatively straightforward and hasn’t really changed much due to my writing. From outline to script to drawing to final scripted dialogue, it’s just another chance at editing the story.
I used to do sketches and then lightbox them. Over the past year that process has changed now where I do sometimes the thumbnails first, scan them in, re-size them on the computer and print them out blue line on the art boards. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work straight onto the page — probably because I’m writing, so I’m thinking about the page earlier than I normally would. The thumbnail process is never a tight thumbnail for me, it’s a way of thinking through the page when you’re reading the script. Because I’m writing the script, I’ve thought through it a lot. When I get to the page, so often I’m working directly onto the boards because I’m so sure of what I want to be there. It’s all very flexible and organic because it’s all to keep me interested and not be this mechanical process where it has to be done this first. That doesn’t work for me. Sometimes it’s really fast and sometimes you’ve got to find your way through a page. Finding your way through a page is quite slow. Knowing what you want is very fast.
For “Real Heroes” and other projects where you’re creating new characters and new worlds from the ground up, do you work any differently from when you’re working on established characters like in “Age of Ultron” or “The Ultimates?”
“The Ultimates” never felt like I was building off established stuff because we were kind of building something completely different from scratch. It’s different doing it from my own scripts because again I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time that by the time I get to draw it, I’ve thought through possibly every permutation of design and idea and how I want the world to feel. Fortunately I don’t have to get anybody’s approval so I don’t have to do lots of drawings for people to look at and explain myself visually. I can just sit there and think and that’s it. It’s a much easier process. [Laughs]
When it comes to the world building stuff, most of my projects have ended up being like that in some form. I’d argue that my most successful ones have been like that because I guess they get more investment from me. I think that’s because it’s of more interest to me to create stuff than it is just to dip into other people’s worlds and draw it the way they look. I suppose that’s why “The Ultimates” was the best of both worlds because we got to use Captain America and Hulk and Thor but they could look any way I wanted them to look.
We’ve been talking a lot about story, but you’ve designed or redesigned a whole host of characters. How do you approach that?
“The Ultimates” characters came out of the change in direction and tone of the book. I don’t think I would have looked to redesign those characters had we not decided on that ultra-real approach. Once you start thinking like that, I started thinking about how you would build a costume. Our premise genuinely was, ‘let’s make the first real Marvel movie’ because in those days they hadn’t made Marvel movies. It’s a good reason that “The Ultimates” served as a sort of proof of concept for the Marvel movies. It showed that this would work as a movie. We genuinely set out to do that and that changes the way you think about it. It doesn’t become painted bodies anymore. Superhero costumes are essentially naked painted bodies. We went back to the idea of how do you build a costume that looks functional? You start researching and looking at military gear, extreme sportswear, you see how they fit the seems on the costumes. It’s not really about reality, it’s about the feeling of reality. That verisimilitude. Those guys got redesigned to a degree because they needed to fit into a certain kind of reality we were creating and that changed the way I thought about the costumes. You look at “The Authority” and Apollo is clearly just wearing spray tan of varying colors. That’s great because that works for that character.
On TV shows you have your ideas, then you have what they can afford which is virtually nothing. That changes your whole approach right there because all these great things go out the window and you can have that but it’s made out of four coat hangers and three christmas lights. That will look great on camera for five pounds, fifty pence. [Laughs] We were designing the “Doctor Who” sets for Christopher Eccleston’s tenure there was a lot of talk about not actually having a TARDIS. He goes in the box and comes out and that’s all you need to know. It’s the device that gets him to where he’s going. Then they decided they wanted a set and they said, here’s the amount of money we’ve got and we all laughed hysterically. In the end Russell [T. Davies] said, “Go away and design the TARDIS you want us to see and let’s see if we can figure something out.” I designed the TARDIS set that we wanted, the structure of it anyway, and they decided they liked it so much that they spent a lot more than they were planning. That’s an instance where they went for the creativity instead of the restrictions.
Movies are a little better about that because directors are always saying “Bigger! More! Taller!” That’s much more fun because it’s, how big can you get, how far can you think outside the box. For example I designed Spock’s spaceship for JJ [Abrams]’ first “Star Trek” movie. It never changed from my first sketch to what you saw on screen. It was exactly what I showed J.J. I made a twenty-minute sketch, I e-mailed him and he said, “That’s it.” That’s a rarity. They said think of something cool and I came up with one thing off the top of my head. You never know where that’s going to happen. There were no parameters to that, it just had to be a cool spaceship. The one thing I thought about was you never see moving parts on “Star Trek.” In “Star Wars” you’ve got X-wing fighters and stuff moves on the ships and they do barrel rolls but in “Star Trek” it’s always ships sailing left to right across the screen. I was very keen to make him think about space three dimensionally so the ship could be facing any way and the camera is not always facing the same way as the ship.
Also in design you’re often thinking about elements that look good but don’t necessarily make sense on some level or another.
So many designs in film and television and comics are usually impractical, but they look cool so you do them. The first principle of any design in comics is: Can you repeat it on panel 2? Because if it’s something you can only draw once because it’s so ridiculously over-detailed or can only be viewed from one angle because that’s the only way it works, then that’s not a successful design because you can’t repeat it easily. Comics, because you have to draw it by hand, you can’t just draw it once and then it’s there. It’s different from TV and movies where you do a few drawings and then it’s built. In comics you have to keep drawing it over and over and over. What you find is a lot of your ideas get simplified and streamlined to a few key thoughts or elements that get across the gist but are not necessarily as complex an idea as you originally had.
Is there a character you’ve designed that you like, thinks works well, stands out?
I think you’re asking the wrong person there because I’m so ridiculously critical. I really liked and responded immediately to what I did with Captain America in “The Ultimates.” It was a first pass and there was really no second thought to that. I really liked the way it looked in print and I liked it even more in the movies. It’s a look I feel suits the character well. It kept all the original ideas but updated it. I’m fond of “The Authority” characters, especially Apollo and Midnighter.
You’re asking the wrong person, I can’t answer it. I either like them all or I hate them all. I guess I’m always interested in the next one. What’s the next design problem to solve? That’s the fun part. You’re creating from nothing. You’ve got the blank sheet of paper and an idea but nothing exists. I guess that’s why it’s hard to go back with a critical eye, because it worked which is why I used it, but I’m not thinking about them the way I did at the time.
Name comic or character you think is well designed.
You’ll never get me arguing against Superman. The original, that is. There are three actually: Superman and Spider-man and Batman to that. Batman is an interesting design because you can push it in so many different ways and it survives almost every single one of them. Superman and Spider-man don’t. They’re just great the way they are. They’re perfect costumes as ideas. Yes you can tweak the length of the cape and move the belt buckle up and down a bit and polish the S emblem a bit, but as a general concept you can’t do a lot. It’s great the way it is. Batman I like for different reasons. You can do almost anything to that and it still looks like Batman as the movies and TV shows have shown. Adam West’s costume vs Christian Bale’s costume vs the “Arkham Origins” costume vs the current Jim Lee version vs Jim Lee’s version in “Hush.” Ben Affleck will be wearing something equally different. It’s a bloody good design. The core concept survives no matter how much change it’s put through. The cape, the ears, the belt, the bat. That’s all you need. You can do so many things to it.
I like Superman and Spider-man. I think they’re genius designs. I don’t think they’re as malleable as Batman but they’re just perfect designs. I think I’ve done my part to complicate costumes and I’m not necessarily saying that’s a good thing because I don’t think it necessarily is. What I like about Spider-man and Superman is that they’re inherently very simple. I think that’s the key to good comic book costume design. The simplicity of the idea. The complicated ones people don’t notice. It’s noise. Again we can talk about the detail in Captain America’s costume in “The Ultimates” but essentially it’s still the same basic design that Kirby came up with. It’s still the same core costume design, just pushed around a bit, like Batman was. The great designs are the ones that lasted. They keep on kicking.
That simplicity of design. Is that what you enjoy as a reader?
I guess so. You know when you see it working. I do enjoy good design in other people’s work whether the costume, how they handle lighting on a figure. I just read a script that Mark has written that hasn’t been drawn yet and again it’s a nicely designed script, the way it moves you around the world with elegance and simplicity. It’s the best thing he’s written, I think. It’s very very simple. It’s just elegantly so. That’s why I like it. Not a lot of bolts or unnecessary carbuncles. I guess I do like simple. But then look at my pages, they’re hardly simple.
I’ve talked about how my work is busy and there’s a lot of detail in it, but if you break it down my panel arrangements are very straightforward. There’s no breaking of the panel borders, no zig-zaggy panels. It’s very straight forward and the internal composition is very simple. You see exactly what I need you to see in the panels. It’s all laid out. I put a lot of noise in it, admittedly, but hopefully it doesn’t distract from the simple content of each shot. Maybe I do like simple.
The detail serves a purpose, even if just for you.
Yes my OCD tendencies. But that’s a purpose, right? [Laughs] But yes, in my case because I’ve chosen so many wide angled shots and that includes drawing the environment. You can have a very wide panel with two tiny figures, a very simple composition, but that wide panel needs a lot of detail and that detail needs to draw you to the central compositional element. I suppose there is purpose to the detail, but it’s a hell of a lot of work. I wish I hadn’t gone down that path fifteen years ago. [Laughs] I was looking at “The Authority” thinking, “Authority” or Bruce Timm? I chose the wrong one. [Laughs] Talk about simplicity. The design that went into the original Batman TV show. For them their purpose was making it as simple as possible so it didn’t get fucked up by the animation studios. It’s simplicity but it served a purpose and it was beautifully done, beautifully thought through and beautifully designed. That was hugely influential. It’s influenced animation and comics for years.
“The Authority” wasn’t the first comic to use that wide screen approach, but it’s the one that made the largest impact on comics.
It’s the one where people actually noticed. [Laughs]
That was hugely influential and has been since it came out.
I guess. It wasn’t a conscious thing. We weren’t setting out to create a new paradigm in comics. Same in “The Ultimates.” We didn’t set out to do what we ultimately achieved. You set out on a course and hope because it feels right to you, it will feel right to everyone else as well. “The Authority” was me finally finding my own voice. A lot of guys don’t realize this, but it’s so bizarre when you stop thinking — how would John Byrne handle this? How would Walt Simonson handle this? How would Michael Golden do it? — and you start thinking, how would I do it? That’s a really interesting change. I can still remember that happening on “The Authority.” I guess because the things Warren [Ellis] and I had discussed were things we hadn’t seen in other comics, so there wan’t anything else to look at. We had to look outside of comics and think about the way films use visuals to tell stories. I was looking at Paul Gillon, a French artist, and he was straight out of the Alex Raymond school. He died a few years into his eighties. They were brilliant. The sense of space he puts into these. I think George Lucas must have seen these because the way Gillon draws landscapes and aliens, so much of it looks like “Star Wars.” I discovered him just before “The Authority.” That and “Akira” were two books that completely changed how I thought about drawing comic pages. “Akira” for how you pace things and Gillon for how you allow the space and environment to help you move the story along. Nobody was doing that at the time. Image Comics was very big and bombastic and there was no background to speak of. The figure was everything. I liked that idea of the figure as everything but I also wanted to put that figure in a huge space as well. If you were drawing Superman lifting something up, it’s all good to do a close up with the huge muscles but then the second point is to pull back and show the enormity of what he’s lifting and how tiny he is against such a thing. That shows the strength too. That realization that you can use the space well just changed how I thought about laying out pages. That was a revelation.
While I was still working on “The Authority,” a friend of mine, Simon Furman and I went out for a drink. He was talking about how much he liked “The Authority” and then he pulled out of his bag this “Transformers” comic I had drawn for him that was my second ever job in 1987. I was saying it’s so horrible — and it really was horrible. He said, “But look at the panels and the way it’s laid out. You had this stuff right at the beginning. The way you think about story and using space and panel arrangements. You just got distracted by all this other stuff and trying to be all these other people, but what you do on ‘The Authority’ was there from the beginning.”
Maybe all you’re really doing is responding to things that fit a pre-determined idea of how you want to approach things and what works for you. What you read and watch things makes an impression and when your groping for your own approach there’s this idea in your head of how things ought to be. I’ve gone back and looked at stuff that influenced me when I was a kid and the remembrance of how it made me feel was more important than how it actually looks. It’s not necessarily that something else is right or wrong. It’s that for you, when you’re drawing it or designing it or writing it, it just works for you and you know that unconsciously.
“Real Heroes” #1 debuts March 26 from Image Comics. Stay tuned to CBR News for more on it and other upcoming projects from Hitch.