With longtime friend Elliot Blake moderating his WonderCon spotlight panel, Cully Hamner — artist, storyteller and industry survivor — talked about his illustrious career and its myriad ups and downs.
“I always wanted to be a storyteller,” Hamner said. “Mignola, Byrne, Adams, Eisner. To me, it’s like the storytelling is the meaty part. I responded to character, I always responded to an interesting way to convey plot in character. When it came to the television I watched, I was very into that. Whatever skill I had as a storyteller, it came later, but the interest was always there.”
The retrospective began with “Green Lantern: Mosaic,” Hamner’s first published work. Prior to that, he’d drawn “The Chairman” for Dark Horse, which never saw print, and had done some coloring work with Alan Davis and Alan Moore.
“It came out the same month as ‘Youngblood,'” Hamner said of “Mosaic.” “It was #20 on the sales charts, first issue sold about 210,000, which was considered to be a good solid performance, but ‘Youngblood’ came out and sold one and a half million. Nowadays if you do something that sells 210,000, you’re more than solid. The sales were pretty much there the entire run, my last issue sold 80,000. I did 11-12 of them. The series ran 15 issues. As I was told at the time, it kind of didn’t fit in with the publishing plan. This was during the Image [Comics] revolution, that everybody wanted to do more flashy books, more superhero books. This was introspective. My art was not that kind of style. The way it was written, it was very odd and almost an English-style comic. I am kind of surprised how many of these I still sign. I’ve been signing them all weekend.”
RELATED: Talking “Red” with Cully Hamner
“I can [look at old art], I don’t denigrate it,” Hamner said of looking back at his work. “I look at it as something that was done by somebody who was 20 years-old. I didn’t know what I was doing, it was where I was, it was a step toward what I can do now. I don’t bag on it, but I certainly don’t look at it as what I can do now. I look at it as a kind of a continuum.”
The artist next spoke about his experiences at the Atlanta-based Gaijin Studios, where he was a member for eighteen years. “It was a studio in the sense that it wasn’t a business per se, we were simply a group of artist who shared office space every day. Kind of like the studio in New York in the ’70s; there’s a studio Francis Manapul and Cary Nord are a part of. Periscope [Studio] in portland, Steve Lieber and a lot of other guys. It’s a lot more like that. As far as the kind of studio that we were I don’t think anybody was around longer. If I’m wrong, I think somebody will point it out.”
Rattling off the names of some of his studio mates from across the years revealed a murderer’s row of top industry talent. “Brian Stelfreeze, Karl Story, Adam Hughes, Jason Pearson, Joe Phillips, Tony Harris, Steve Walsh, Dave Johnson, people came and went. Jason Martin, Rick Mays, Kelsey Shannon, Georges Jeanty, Laura Martin, Doug Wagner. At the time we were all young and full of ourselves, probably a little bit too much.
“Anytime you take a bunch of guys who were just out of their parents’ houses, they have no supervision, they stay up all night,” Hamner continued. “You get in trouble, you set off fireworks in the studios. None of us were heavy drinkers, we were just a bunch of goofy kids. Everybody was good at something that some of the other guys weren’t. Brian was good at a lot of things, he taught a lot of the rest of us. We all taught each other. We all learned a lot from each other. Like the good parts of school, a lot of the time. I got a skill set that I would have had a lot harder time developing on my own, got lifelong friends. Got a lot of drama I didn’t need. That’s life. I got tons out of it, all of us got to be a group to have pull that we wouldn’t have had by ourselves. Adam was the biggest name when we started. The fact that we were a group, a gang, opened some doors that might not have opened as early.”
Blake took time prior to the panel to get stories from Brian Stelfreeze with which to harangue Hamner, but said Stelfreeze’s biggest compliment was, “Cully drawns comics like Louis Armstrong played music,” which impressed the artist.
“We used jazz analogies a lot when we talked about storytelling and the best ways people collaborate,” Hamner said. “The foundation is there for you to learn it so you don’t have to think about it. It’s there to develop good habits so you’re not spending all your time worrying about it’s so it becomes second nature. I know that all of us in the studio got to the point where, now, after 25 years or so, any one of us could be sick and out of sorts and somehow not able to think very well and still do some basic storytelling. It’s a foundation you build on to get to more advanced storytelling with emotion. I credit Brian with a lot of that. When I got to the studio, I had no foundation, I was all style. Everybody gave me a little piece of the foundation I have now. A couple of the guys said what you did with what I did taught me something. I’d give everybody some credit with what I’m able to do nowadays.”
Blake asked about one Gaijin Studios story in particular involving a rite of passager for Hamner. “I have a well known aversion to seafood,” said Hamner. “When I first started hanging out with and desperately wanted to be part of the group, we had gone to some Japanese restaurant. We were all in a big room and they brought this big fried shrimp plate and it had the head in the center of it. Brian pretty much laid it out: ‘You can’t be part of the group if you don’t eat that shrimp,’ so my manhood had been challenged. I chomped down on it, the eyes exploded in my mouth, I chewed it trying to swallow it while I was crying.”
“Dave Johnson was the master of the prank,” Hamner recalled, segueing directly into another tale. “We used to go to this store down the street to get drinks and candy and fruit. I had gotten a bottle of fruit juice that had one of those pop-up tops. I hung onto this bottle and kept it filled with water. I would wait until I knew somebody was pulling up in the parking lot, stand in the bathroom with my back to the door, so there was this stream of water you’d see from behind. It would always freak people out. Rick Mays and his girlfriend had come down to talk about joining the studio, and Brian was sitting with their back to the door and Rick and his girlfriend were facing the door. Adam laid down on the floor and I ran over and stood over Adam, with my feet on either side of his head and squeezed this bottle of water into his mouth. It looked like I was urinating in his mouth. The two of them sat there and looked at it, I shook off and ran out of the room, [Adam] wiped his mouth and ran out of the room. They watched and went back to talking about bills.”
Hamner was complimentary of Adam Hughes and Jason Pearson in particular. “Style is where you’re not thinking about it very much and you’re covering mistakes,” said Hamner. “I do very contrasty art, I don’t do a lot of rendering because I don’t know how to render. I’ve never been able to teach myself. My stuff tends to be very simple because I’m covering a flaw. Everybody’s got their own experience.”
DC’s SVP of Integrated Publishing Hank Kanalz also had complimentary things to say about Hamner from their time working on “Firearm” at Malibu Comics. Hamner said, “I was transitioning from being someone of mostly style and not substance to doing stuff that was a little more solid and technical. It was a transitional job for me in that sense.”
Hamner’s friendship with the book’s writer, James Robinson, led to Robinson asking Hamner in on a pitch that Hamner “just didn’t get” and passed on. That book went on to become “Starman,” and Hamner thinks everything went as it should.
“I was not the kind of person who could have done 40 issues at that time,” Hamner admitted. “Tony [Harris]’s consistency on that book kind of made it what it was. James and I talked a lot about narrative, a lot about cinematic techniques and how possibly to apply them. I think that movies and comics are very different things. That’s something that’s gone a little too far. I did not work with him again until just a couple of years ago. I think James liked the fact I’d gotten good at doing architecture, my drafting skills took a giant leap. I liked the fact he was a pop culture garbage disposal, he came up with these beautiful tapestries of pop culture.”
The discussion then moved to Hamner’s time on “Blue Beetle,” during which he redesigned the DC Comics hero. “The major success of this character is not just in the comics. As a toy, as something that has been translated into other media, it’s been a huge success, and that’s gotten me a lot of play at DC. Dan DiDio is the one that targeted me for this book, he’s been a big supporter of mine. Dan asked me to think about doing this book and sent me the script. The direction they were thinking was something a lot more like a Japanese robot. I read it and that’s not what I saw at all. My take was that it was a style that was a little more Spider-Man-ish. Nobody’s gonna wanna draw that month after month, I didn’t wanna draw a mecha.”
The artist took a different approach, drawing from actual beetle’s instead of other superheroes. “The thing I noticed a lot was the pincers. I thought about how to apply that to a human figure, I wanted to draw a human figure with a shell on it. I don’t know how the idea of doing it as a backpack came about, but it was immediate. If you can, always try to give the character a distinctive silhouette. That was one of the first things I kind of drew. You want the character to be able to stand in a darkened doorway and know that’s Batman or Wolverine or Blue Beetle. The mask is a kind of Mexican wrestling riff, because the character came from a Mexican family in El Paso, Texas.
“The design you see there came to me pretty fully formed,” Hamner continued. “The only change they had was that the symbol on his chest was there. They asked me to do something on his chest to evoke the Ted Kord Blue Beetle, took ten seconds.”
That success led Hamner to a bigger challenge: helping Jim Lee redesign the New 52. At Emerald City ComiCon in 2010, Mark Chiarello, VP Art Direction & Design for DC, approached the artist with an NDA. “I signed it that night,” Hamnder said. Breakfast led to the revelation of the New 52 plan for relaunching all of DC’s titles, and they asked him to be involved since he’d done the “most successful redesign of a character in the last 20 years.”
Since many other artists designed characters for the launch, it became an editorial job. “I was commenting on a lot of other people’s drawings, including Jim’s. It was a really organic process, a really respectful process. It was very interesting being on that side of things, being given that sort of role that I had not experienced previously.”
Hamner said the collars were all Jim Lee’s idea. “I like it too,” Hamner said. “That is something that he brought to the Justice League characters. I think it’s sometimes a little boring to have a straight line across.” Hamner prefers the collar on Green Lantern but would have gone a different direction on Superman. He did like the red belt, because he thought the “Man of Steel” look was “unfinished.”
“I did a little bit of messing with things here and there,” Hamner said of his role. “As Jim himself will tell you, he tends to like designs that are a little bit more on the complicated side, I like simplicity. I was there to pull against him. That was the whole point of having me there.”
The topic turned to “Red,” Hamner’s collaboration with Warren Ellis. “Warren is the kind of person when he wants to work with someone, he will study their work and he will tailor to the way that person’s work is,” Hamner said. “He realized he didn’t need to give me that much. It wasn’t like an Alan Moore-style script, where you could get three pages for a panel of description. I just sort of ran with it. Sometimes I might break something he’d written as one shot into multiple shots, I might change an emotional beat to enhance subtext. It was fun to approach it as an actor, his stuff is very freeing like that.”
Ellis wrote in an e-mail, “Cully makes magic. He digs so deeply into the script that the images he produces are like mind reading.”
Some fans were less than inspired by Summit’s movie adaptation of “Red,” but Hamner said he was fine with it. “The bones of the story are there even if some of the emotional beats and the narrative beats are different. The genesis of the story is there. The first fifteen minutes of the film is pretty similar to the book,” Hamner explained. “There’s less anger to it, there’s not a lot of sentimentality. There’s almost a puppy doggish quality to it. In the comic, he’s done a lot of horrible things and compartmentalized it, they won’t leave him alone and it all comes back. They made it more about the unexploded bombs of the 20th Century. The characters are essentially ordnance that had been put out in the field. It’s just a different take on it. It’s a much more likable group of characters. I thought it was a reasonable take. Anybody who’s interested in the book, the book is there.”
“If there’s a book in my career I consider a turning point, it’s this one,” Hamner said of “Red.” “I became a better artist and a better storyteller. I had to highlight the contribution of David Self, the colorist. No one told him to make the scene that way. It’s not something that’s immediately obvious. The storytelling is aided by him.”
Hamner hinted at a big commitment coming in 2015, but he wouldn’t share more details.
“It has forced me to reassess how I approach writing something, more in structure like television,” Hamner said of doing more writing than drawing. “I’m 45 years-old, the idea of being 55 years old and being up at four in the morning to turn in pages does not have a giant appeal. I do wanna open up other avenues in my career, open up different corners of what I can do. I also want to continue to work with great writers.”
He said his new commitment would lead to him doing more creator-owned work. “I sat around for a year trying to write it,” Hamner said of a project he held near and dear. “I hadn’t discovered my writing process. The cool thing about this [commitment], it’s a work for hire job. I’m pouring myself into it but you can’t help but have a little distance from it. Now I could write an outline, it’s illuminated a process for me. After this, I will do some creator-owned things. Whatever comes down the pike first is what I’m gonna do.”
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Cully Hamner and his upcoming projects.