At his the start of his panel at Wizard World Chicago, Matt Wagner jumped right into discussing his creative process through different projects after giving some of his life’s background: His mother was an English teacher and always encouraged him to read, even if it was comics, and she assumed that he would grow out of them eventually. Instead, Wagner, as a kid, decided he wanted to create comics (except for the one year when he wanted to be an astronaunt). He started out wanting to be a writer, since, he assumed, that the same person that writes comics also draw them.
He’s 45 now and has 25 years of working in comics under his belt. Some of Wagner’s works include writing Vertigo’s “Sandman Mystery Theater” and writing and drawing DC Comics’ “Trinity” as well as two recent Batman miniseries, but he’s best known for his own creations “Mage” and “Grendel” (the latter celebrating its 25th anniversary this year). His next works are a new Grendel miniseries titled “Behold the Devil” starting in November and “Madame Xanadu,” an ongoing Vertigo series with artist Amy Hadley.
Wagner enthusiastically discussed his cover work, with a series of slides displaying unpublished sketches and alternate versions of well-known covers. He talked about his most popular covers, “Green Arrow” written by Kevin Smith, who asked specifically for Wagner to create the covers. Wagner does not tend to submit more than one cover idea or sketch since it’s usually the case that, when faced with more than one cover idea, the editor will usually pick the artist’s least favorite version. Wagner and Smith knew the series would be dark and mysterious and moody, and Wagner’s original idea for the first cover reflected that, showing Oliver Queen as he came back from the dead in a roughed-up, dirty state.
However, it was decided that this gave away too much of the story, so that cover got switched to the second issue. Wagner also admitted that the cover didn’t come out as dark and mysterious and moody as he had intended. For the cover of the actual “Green Arrow” #1, Wagner sent a few sketches, concentrating on the arrows and “quiver” (the title of the story arc), but the most striking image was the close-up of Green Arrows eye and the tip of the arrow. Wagner sent in the ideas but knew which one they would pick and, indeed, he was correct.
Some of the other sketches Wagner submitted became the covers of #4 and #6, and at one point he had to ask to be sure that Oliver Queen had green eyes. It was Smith’s goal to take a lower tier DC character and make him into DC’s best book, and the project succeeded. It was obvious in the panel that Wagner was proud of the work he had done.
Going on about his cover process, Wagner said he does not usually get a script, though he did read the first issue of “Green Arrow” before he did the work. Normally Wagner gets a brief description of the book from the writer or editor (in the case of “Green Arrow”, the editor was Bob Schreck). Wagner told the story of creating the cover for “Green Arrow” #10, which came with the note to depict both Green Arrows, Oliver Queen and Connor Hawke, back-to-back. Wagner realized there was no way he could make an image of two archers in such a stance to be effective on the cover of a comic book. He placed both archers side-by-side, aiming past each other, but he had no idea what was necessary for the background. Wagner tried contacting Smith over a number of days but, as Smith was busy doing junkets for a new movie, he didn’t get back to Wagner and the artist decided to put a building and a tree and a blue sky in the background. The very next day he was told that in that issuem, the Green Arrows were in a dungeon surrounded by demons so he changed the background to show swirling, yellow demons, and that’s what was eventually published. However, DC liked the version with the blue sky so they bought it and it later appeared in a “Secret Files” issue and Wagner was paid for both.
Wagner said his favorite “Green Arrow” cover was the one with Onomatopoeia, and said Kevin Smith had agreed it was his favorite as well. Wagner likes the crazy background and the fact that the only green on the cover was the arrow being broken by the villain, as well as the tiny sliver bits from the arrow popping up from the break.
Wagner assumed he was going to move off “Green Arrow” when Kevin Smith left, but Brad Meltzer, Smith’s follow-up, begged Wagner to stay. While Smith would provide fragments of ideas for the covers, Meltzer had a lot more specific ideas, most notably the Solomon Grundy cover for #18 and how he wanted it to be a close-up of Grundy, riddled with arrows. Over dinner, Wagner tossed out the idea of having Grundy pulling an arrow out of his eye. DC bristled at the violent image but eventually went with the cover and it turned out to be one of the most popular ones.
When turning in a cover, Wagner always considers the logo and DC bullet and plays around to make them fit. He hates the current “Batman” logo, which has a silhouette of the Batman figure included in the title graphic, since it means that Batman’s image appears twice on the cover, and he said that many cover artists agree with him.
Wagner’s process for a cover is to trace the logo and DC bullet and use a light table to draw it onto a page, then makes copies and draw sketches for cover ideas on those blanks, so he has an idea of how much space he has with the necessary cover elements. Once the idea is approved, he traces the various indicia onto Bristol board and uses the original sketch as a model.
Asked what kind of paints he uses, Wagner said he uses acrylic, because they dry fast and he can add water to make the color thinner if it’s necessary for an effect.
For the covers for the “War Games” storyline in the “Batman” title, editor Bob Schreck had an idea for issue #631’s cover to have Batman’s hand drawing on a chalkboard. Wagner thought this was a horrible idea and did his own sketch; a striking image of Batman in daylight, surrounded by guns pointing at him. Schreck still wanted his own idea, so Wagner went ahead with it and it turned out to be one of his favorites. Wagner also related a similar story about “Batman” #633, thinking his original idea of a triumphant Batman was not quite what the editor wanted and they went with a rougher image. The key, Wagner said, was that Batman’s ear was broken off in the image.
Wagner then talked about the covers he created for “Batman” during the Judd Winick run, and displayed a sketch for a cover featuring who he thought was the Red Hood, but was later told after doing it that it was now different a resurrected Jason Todd. DC bought the cover to use for the cover the “Batman: Under the Hood” trade paperback. DC also asked for an unmasking of Red Hood on the cover of “Batman” #638, but when the issue sold out they went to do a second printing and asked Wagner to do a new cover, a reverse of the original, with Jason Todd/Red Hood and Batman in the reflection of the helmet, which Wagner thought was a great idea — until DC said they needed it done in 24 hours. Wagner ably complied but he said that usually a cover takes him two to three days.
Further asked about what hours he keeps, Wagner said he’s a daytime person and keeps business hours; that he can’t focus late in the day and has to be done with work so he can make dinner for his family because his wife can’t cook. (He also noted that while he’s gone to the convention, his kids are eating out a lot.)
Talking about Jason Todd coming back as the Red Hood, Wagner wondered why there are Christians in the DC Universe since there are so many people that come back from the dead, rendering Jesus’ resurrection as not out of the ordinary.
Wagner then went into discussing his interior work. He does not do tight pencils for layouts and tries to keep the work sloppy so he can keep it fresh at every stage, from layouts to pencils to inks. He does not like to write full script because when he does his own work it’s not necessary, and when writing for other artists he likes to keep the project as much of a collaboration as possible and not use the artist as just another pair of hands. Wagner likes to write a plot for the artist so he or she can control the pacing, and writes the script when he can look at the finished art.
Talking more about his process, Wagner said that he does texture work with a Prism colored pencil. He also said that he rarely uses photo reference except for cars or machines because they’re particularly difficult for him to draw. He is also a big fan of Eisner-winning colorist Dave Stewart, who has worked on many of his recent projects.
Wagner gave his “Trinity” miniseries the codename of “DC3” (for Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all of whom who star in it) and included that designation on the cover of the first issue (on the building that the three characters are standing on) but DC didn’t like it so they took it out. DC sent Wagner a number of logos for that series and said all were horrible except for the one they went with. As for the tale inside, Wagner liked the idea of moving each story to each character’s environments so each issue started with a splash-page of each character’s city.
Wagner finished his planned portion of the panel by talking about his new “Grendel” series, which he is drawing and writing. He is creating covers in a non-traditional format, keeping the logo off the top of the page and putting it on the left side of the page. He is also going to change the style for each issue, “just because they’ll look cool.” He did not care to make the #0 cover look like the rest of the series. Story-wise, the series will concern a section of original Grendel Hunter Rose’s journal that was lost and Christine Spar, the subsequent Grendel, trying to solve the mystery of why it is missing. The first issue will also be a great — and visually striking — introduction to the character and the Grendel universe for new readers.
Later, Wagner opened the floor to questions. One fan asked about Wagner’s writing process and Wagner said that by now, after so many years of working, he writes by instinct, working things out as he goes along and does not take notes; usually coming up with an ending and then working out the steps to get there. By “ending” Wagner usually means the dramatic climax and most explosive part. He wants to make the story relatable to the reader but also exciting, which he said some writers don’t understand or know how to do. Even with his own work, Wagner writes dialogue after completing the art.
When writing for other people, Wagner does not differ so much except that he has to describe the story instead of drawing it himself, and does not always know what an artist is capable of. He said that when he was starting out he would draw a series of rectangles on a piece of paper, like a chart, and would make notations in each panel as to what is meant to be happening. Wagner told a story from years ago, about how Alan Moore used much the same method except the rectangles would be for each character and there would be hundreds upon hundreds of them. Moore’s scripts were “the antithesis of mine,” said Wagner.
Wagner gave advice to young artists by way of a story of some early Image artists that were great at drawing but had to ask him how to actually tell a story. Wagner told them to draw a bunch of two-inch by three-inch squares and, when drawing their layouts in those, if they couldn’t fit everything then they were trying to cram in too much information. From those little bits of thumbnails, he said, you can blow it up and put all the detail and Image-stuff in the pencils.
“Mage” was created in a different process that Wagner pretty much made it up as he went along. Wagner said he had read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” for the first time after he finished “Mage” and found that it was point-by-point what he had done for his series.
Wagner said that after his layout sketches –but before the actual writing– he will block in captions and words balloons with a Sharpie to see how much room he has, and once he does the writing he will let it sit and go back to it after lunch and read it again, to punch it up or condense. He was also asked if he has many requests by editors to do a lot of rewrites and he said that he does not but that “most writing is in rewriting.”
For “Grendel: Black, White & Red,” the Hunter Rose anthology which featured work by dozens of artists, Wagner asked them what they were most excited to draw or what they liked about Grendel, and he tailored the stories to those specifications. Chris Sprouse asked to draw architecture, which Wagner said is rare for artists. Andi Watson had given Wagner a gift of a drawing of Grendel on a horse, which was so striking that Wagner felt compelled to write a story to include it, which was much of the inspiration behind that now famous title.
Most of the “Black, White & Red” stories were metaphorical, which, Wagner said, explains why Hunter Rose would ever get on a horse. The story Wagner gave Tim Sale included in the plot a naked, headless woman, which Sale said he couldn’t draw on moral grounds. Wagner gave that story to John Paul Leon, who Wagner said did a fantastic job, and the alternate story Wagner wrote for Sale, about Grendel’s lawyer, won an Eisner.
Wagner also said that he likes using color for dramatic effect and often suggests the color pallet for projects. He was very pleased with recent “Grendel” stories being colored only in black, white, and red and said it works best for the character — black and white for the character’s tux, red for blood — and that all future Grendel stories will use only those colors.
The last question was, appropriately, what Wagner’s future projects are. In addition to the “Grendel” series and “Madame Xanadu,” he is also creating covers and concepts for the “Zorro” series from Dynamite Entertainment, an assignment he asked them for when he heard they were going to be publishing new Zorro comics. Wagner also said he is probably going to write a new “Grendel Prime” story that will feature the popular cybernetic ninja.
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