'80s ICON: Edwards talks "Marvel 1985"

Tommy Lee Edwards is of course no stranger to comic book readers. In addition to his recent "Daredevil" cover art for Marvel Comics, last year Edwards illustrated J. Michael Straczynski's "Bullet Points," and his work was also seen in DC's "The Question." As many fans know, Edwards also keeps rather busy outside comics, creating numerous Star Wars illustrations and contributing style guides and other artwork for films including "Superman Returns" "Batman Begins," and "Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith." Edwards is also a member of virtual artists' studio theBLVD, and created with Lucasfilm a new Star Wars lithograph to benefit the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation.

Naturally, Edwards is a longtime comic book reader, and this summer he'll release a new project made for longtime comic book readers, "1985." Written by Mark Millar and on sale in May, the the long-rumored, long-delayed series follows Toby, a 13-year-old fan of Marvel Comics. in Toby's world -- which is our world of the 1980s -- superheroes and supervillains don't exist except on the pages of comic books.. at least until they break into our reality and begin wrecking havoc. Told from the point of view of a child of the '80s and full of high-energy action, "1985" is said to be a spiritual sequel to Marvel's seminal (or infamous, depending on the reader's sensibilities) "Secret Wars."

While the series is touted as the comic equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, Edwards spoke with CBR News about "1985" on more personal terms.

When you first heard the title, "1985," what did you think of?

The first time I heard the title -- I think it was a ways back when I was mid-way through "Bullet Points" and (then editor) Ralph Macchio called to offer me the job. I think my first thought was of George Orwell's novel "1984." Then Ralph went on to explain the this comic's premise. It sounded interesting, so he sent me some of Mark Millar's plot outline and a bit of script. That's what sold me. I can't remember the last time I was so emotionally affected by a script. I was really really into it. Especially the end. The way the story wraps up -- Sounds silly, but I nearly cried. It's a very special story. From now on, I'll think of this story whenever I hear the 1985 date.

What comics were you reading in1985?

Woah -- Memory lane. I was twelve years old in 1985. I had recently moved to a new town in Michigan and was starting junior-high school. My relationship with my parents was getting worse. I got in fights at school. You know, the usual. And like a lot of kids that age, comics were becoming a larger and important escape from reality. I was mostly a Marvel reader back then, as my favorite titles were "X-Men," "New Mutants," "Thor," "G.I. Joe," "Daredevil," and "Transformers." I was also really into "American Flagg" by Howard Chaykin.

Soon after, comics really exploded for me with the release of Chaykin's "The Shadow," Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One," John Romita, Jr. on "Daredevil," and pretty much anything by Walter Simonson.

I started to stray from superhero books, and then eventually faded on comics by the early 1990s. By then, I was getting toward college, and was neck-deep in "traditional" illustration interests. But the mid-'80s had a huge impact on me as a person and as a professional illustrator. Comics and movies from that era really put me on the path to wanting to tell stories.

Millar refers to "1985" as a sequel to "Secret Wars."

Yeah, I've hear Mark refer to 1985 that way. I can see where he's coming from, because the story continuity falls-in right as the Marvel characters are coming off "Secret Wars." Our main character, Toby, is all about "Secret Wars." Most of us were at that time. I read it back in 1985, and browse through it quite often today for inspiration on "1985." That's how I see our book relating to "Secret Wars." For me, it's a "spiritual" sequel. An inspiration.

While "1985" is a mainstream superhero comic it's something of an oddity, given its high-concept. You drew "Bullet Points," which was another high-concept, "real world" superhero comic, following the trail of a Marvel history in which the creator of Captain America's super soldier serum was killed before it was given to Steve Rogers. Which book do you find more traditional? And were the experiences -- taking a real world approach -- at all similar?

I see "1985" as having a much higher concept. I have never read anything like it in comics. Mark really has a lot to say in this book. His story is a love-letter to the '80s comics and films he and I grew up on. It's an homage to them. But at the same time, Mark's story is able to combine 1985 pop culture elements into something truly fresh and inspiring for comics.

I can't speak for [Straczynski], but "Bullet Points" seemed to be all about fun. The "what-if" style concept was fun. It was about taking some of the classic Marvel heroes and mixing up the origins to see what would happen. We came out with some all new adventures that hopefully gave a respectful nod to the greats like Kirby, Lee, Ditko, and Heck.

With theBLVD, you offer fans a chance to see your artistic explorations and growth. Has "1985" offered you, as an artist, more avenues for growth than usual?

Mark's "1985" script and [my artwork] are actually very well-suited. He writes a detailed full-script, and that's what I prefer to work from. The story primarily takes place in the "real world," and I enjoy drawing realistic people acting in a realistic way. I enjoy the research involved in illustrating a story in a certain time or place. I'm working in my traditional manner. I'm penciling and inking and coloring, with John Workman on the lettering. So in all these aspects, I am merely trying to deliver the best work I can and take this wonderful script to the next level.

The biggest challenge in this book, as you can imagine, is the fact that this story involves two completely separate worlds colliding. The "real" world and the Marvel universe. Conveying that idea visually is a huge part of this project. I am drawing and coloring each world with a different approach. The layouts are different. John's lettering and balloons are different. This is the place where we get to stretch our creative and technique muscles and hopefully see something new in an artistic vein.

What kind of research did you undertake for "1985?"

A fair amount. It's not like I'm having to research ancient history, draw feudal Japan, or render dinosaurs. However, there is more in nailing the time-period of 1985 than one would think. I am doing my best to make everything accurate, like clothes, cars, architecture, army gear, toys, weapons, and stuff. Marvel characters' costumes basically come from either my reading the "Secret Wars" TPB or from on-line research. There are reoccurring scenes that take place at Toby's local comic-shop in "1985." Those scenes will be especially fun for readers, I think, as I tried to be very meticulous as to what we see in those shots. I looked into which Marvel books had come out pre-March 1985. These are primarily what you see on the comic shop stands.

I emulated covers from my childhood. Stuff like "Cloak & Dagger," "Power Pack," "G.I. Joe," "Dazzler," and "Transformers." I stuck in old Godzilla toys. “Battlestar Galactica” ships that got recalled when I was small thanks to kids swallowing the toy projectile rockets. “Six Million Dollar Man.” I'm sure I probably missed a lot of stuff, but I went crazy with nostalgia on those scenes. It was a lot of work. Hopefully it will pay off with those handful of readers that don't speed-read "1985" and enjoy the environment Mark and I have tried to create.

Without getting too explicit, what are your favorites from the series so far -- both in terms of Millar's story and your art?

Tackling two different worlds merging is probably my favorite artistic aspect of the book. Drawing Marvel characters invading our world. Drawing people like us inhabiting the Marvel universe. Really fun stuff. Mark's story is just so inspiring. This is a comic I would actually buy and love to read. The main reason for that is Mark's characterization. All of the people in "1985" talk and act like real people. People that I know or have known.

Each time I read a script from Mark, I find myself inspired and hoping that I do the characters justice in my renditions of them. Especially our main character, Toby. I just love this kid. He's me at thirteen. He's Mark. He's most of us, dealing with growing up. Not just in 1985. In ANY year. Toby's got real issues that too many kids have to deal with. Troubles at school. His parents are divorced. He's got a step-dad and a new sibling on the way. He's confused. He's angry. He's seeing Marvel characters invade his universe.... You know, the regular kid stuff.

And this is all done without it seeming contrived. Just really smart stuff. A lot of love is going into this book.

I've just never really related to a comic before. I think a lot of readers will be saying this when they read "1985."

"1985" was originally going to be fumetti-style or "photo-comic" book. Did you think at all in those terms when conceiving your approach?

Yeah, Marvel told me about their attempt to handle the series that way when "1985" was first conceived. I purposefully stayed away from looking at what had been done before, as I didn't want it to affect my personal vision of the book. I've recently seen a few of the photo-style pages, and found them to be interesting. It's a great idea in theory. It actually works with Mark's premise.

"1985" is a comic book, however, and there is a language that only succeeds in this medium of sequential storytelling. I don't think that language really translated into what the photo-stuff was attempting to accomplish. Therefore, the pages looked a bit stiff, posed, and actually UNrealistic in my opinion. I think this photo-comic approach could theoretically work in a comic if the layouts were strong. The storytelling would have to be really tight. The camera angles. The cuts. The lighting. Then they would have to get some great actors and sets and costumes.

I personally wouldn't want to read a comic like that. I may as well watch a movie or look at photos or something. I don't know. I have an aversion to illustrations that are overly realistic, though. For some reason, people associate quality with realism. "Wow -- look at the detail... It's so real..." I just find it boring. Even when I'm working on a realistic job like "1985" or a movie or book cover or something. Even when I have to paint an actor's likeness. I always try and get away from "real" as much as possible and still stay realistic. I use a lot of reference in my work. Anybody can use reference material. It's the way someone uses it that I find interesting. There are just too many opportunities to enhance the storytelling with a bit of stylization, color, composition, and lighting. Why trap yourself in and try to be "realistic."

Your comic work usually has different styles and different techniques to it. "Bullet Points" is very different from "The Question," for instance. What was your approach to "1985?"

I'm painting the covers mostly with acrylics, colored pencil, ink, and gouache. The interior art is all ink with Photoshop color. One place where the styles differ is in the way I handle the "real" world differently from the "Marvel" world. The Marvel world is being done with no full-bleeds or inset (overlapping) panels. John's lettering is more in the vein of the traditional classic work he's done on books like 'Cosmic Odyssey" or "Thor."

The real-world stuff is lettered with airy freehand balloons and different tails. I'm drawing those sequences completely with a brush and lots of blacks. The Marvel Universe stuff is very "open" and more line-driven. It's perhaps closer to what I did on DC's "The Question" a couple years ago, except a bit more dynamic and "cartoony".

Millar once described "1985" as "Marvel's 'Narnia.'"

I can see the 'Narnia" comparison. I see "1985" as a comic that Ray Bradbury would have written. Or maybe Stephen King. Think "Something Wicked This Way Comes." The whole thing is so appropriately 1980s in tone. I see this project fitting right in with "Monster Squad" or "Goonies." My nine year old son said that "1985" reminded him of Disney's "Enchanted." It's definitely in the vein of all these things.

It's about kids and adventure and comics and all that cool stuff. Like I said, it's a really touching story. But it's also scary as hell. It doesn't pull punches like the "family films" of today. That's another reason I think of 1980s cinema. Kids acted like kids in those stories. And the badguys were so damn evil!

"The Monster Squad" and "The Goonies" are seen as summing up the experience of being a kid in the 1980s. (Fighting Dracula, of course, not the school and hanging out stuff). Do you think, in five or ten years, people will be talking about "1985" in the same way?

I think so. I know so. "1985" will find that audience the way that 'Monster Squad" did. I saw "Monster Squad" way back and loved it. Now my kids love it. A local revival house out here in North Carolina recently had a 35mm screening of "Monster Squad", and it was presented by a few of the actors. It was really cool to be in a packed theater of people who love that movie and others like it. And with DVDs and screenings like this, movies like "Monster Squad" live on through new fans. "1985" will definitely have that kind of fan base. Especially when the entire story is read and looked-back on.

Who's your favorite Marvel character to draw?

I usually say Daredevil. When I was a kid, it was Spider-Man or Thor. I'd say today that my favorite Marvel character to draw is Toby from "1985."

Are there any Marvel characters you didn't get to draw in "1985" that you really wanted to?

Well, I'm just starting issue #4, so I'm not sure yet. I'm looking forward to handling Spider-Man in the black costume. I was such a huge Spidey fan back in '85. I absolutely loved the black costume. I wanted to be Peter Parker so bad. And I wanted Black Cat to be my girlfriend, and to have her call me "lover." Remember that? Damn, that was good stuff. Anyway...

With "1985," you're obviously excited and particularly invested in the work. Do you find yourself, more than usual, hoping readers will connect with it?

I haven't been this proud of a comic since Rick Veitch and I did "The Question." So yes, I'm really hoping that readers connect with "1985." Actually -- I know they will find it very fun and moving if they give the series a proper read.

Do you think 13-year-olds in 2008 will "get" the comic?

They'll get it more than anybody. It's done in a 13-year-old perspective. Oh, definitely.



Now discuss this story in CBR's Marvel Comics forum.

Tags: marvel comics, mark millar, tommy lee edwards, marvel 1985

Abrams' Spider-Man Comic Reveals a Tragic End for the Avengers

More in Comics

Covering the hottest movie and TV topics that fans want. Covering the hottest movie and TV topics that fans want. A one-stop shop for all things video games.