For those fans well acquainted with DC's mature Vertigo imprint, the name Peter Gross is quite familiar and well respected. But for those fans who are newer to comic books and to Vertigo, it is more likely you know the name from the hit series "Lucifer," on which Gross tackles the visual duties, rather than the "Books of Magic" series where he made his mark a few years back. CBR News recently caught up with the busy artist to talk with him about his latest successful endeavors and get up to speed on his career.
"I grew up reading comics," explains Gross. "I learned how to draw from them and I always wanted to be a comic book artist. I sent my first samples to Marvel when I was 15 and they sent me back a letter that said something like 'please put your age on each page of samples next time'- I don't know what that meant exactly, but I can imagine them hoping for my sake that I wasn't an adult. It makes me laugh now. I went to a liberal arts college where I was an art major and grad school where I did painting and printmaking. Though I was going into fine arts, I always did intend to dabble in comics someday but after I got out of grad school, I had to face the reality of making enough money to survive, and comics looked more attractive. I spent a couple of years going to the Chicago convention, showing my stuff to editors and artists, I recall talking to Bob Schreck and Diana Schutz over a couple of those years. Frank Miller gave me my first break and introduced me to one of his editors, telling him I had something good going on in my pages. Jim Shooter actually gave me my first paying assignment, a short Vision story that they would give to artists they liked. I didn't get anything from it, but I did get paid $60 per page or something like that. The editor who reviewed it more or less trashed it and I remember his prophetic critique that it suffered from 'whacky DC style storytelling'. Eventually I created and self-published a black and white series Empire Lanes, which got a lot of good reaction, and offers from people who had rejected the series the year before.. I did 'Empire Lanes' for four issues until the end of the black & white boom of the late eighties and then several issues through an imprint of Comico just before they went bankrupt. My last editor there was a young Shelly Roeberg (now Bond) who would end up working for Vertigo years later. Somewhere near the end of the Comico days [editor] Karen Berger had talked to me about doing some stuff for DC, so I switched over there and started doing some inking, penciling, and eventually writing. Originally, I think Karen had talked to me about doing writing and penciling, but I began doing fill-in inking jobs and I've been mainly at DC ever since.
"There's something about words and pictures- the combination of those to tell a story- that's always appealed to me. I'm a very good storyteller. I'm not a good prose writer. I'm more of a visual thinker than I am a literary thinker."
As mentioned previously, Gross' latest hot project is Vertigo's "Lucifer," where his distinct art style and uncanny knack for melding the fantastic with reality has struck a chord with fans. He explains that the appeal of the project originated with the pitch from series writer Mike Carey, whom Gross respects greatly. "I was finishing up my run writing and drawing 'Books of Magic,' when [editor] Shelley Bond gave me a call about seeing if I'd be interested in 'Lucifer' after Chris Weston left the book. At first I didn't think it fit my style, which is a bit more cartoony in some ways, perhaps light-hearted is a better term. But I had read the 'Sandman Presents: Lucifer' series, which impressed me and after reading Mike's original proposal for the ongoing series I was intrigued. At this time I'd also decided I didn't want to write and draw anything I didn't own, whereas I don't have a problem writing something I don't own or drawing something I don't own, but with all the effort that goes into doing both, I'd rather it be a creator owned project. So I was open to doing 'Lucifer,' I did some sample pages and I really liked it- what I think works really well is that my visual storytelling compliments Mike's storytelling style, we're a good combination."
"Everything I draw, I approach like I wrote it, I try to take ownership of it in some way- I think I'm very loyal to the story, but when I write my own stuff even, I don't throw any possibilities out. I try to figure out the story that Mike's trying to tell, he's a great storyteller but I should be a better visual storyteller than him, so I should be able to come up with better visuals than he might suggest. I try to think beyond what he suggests to create maybe more of a second storyline to compliment his storyline or something that resonates with his, sort of adding another layer to the story that adds to his work. You don't need to tell the same story with the pictures that you do with the words- you can tell the same story, but just show different aspects. It's really challenging with Lucifer because he's cold, he doesn't let a lot of emotions show on his face, so it's got to be subtle stuff and it's harder when you deal with subtle stuff in comics. Mike's a very subtle guy."
It is his experience as a writer that really helps Gross feel like he's brought that added layer of personality to his work and as he explains, his own perspective on the character of Lucifer can't help but creep into the art itself, which he adds will be getting even more detailed in future issues. "The first thing I ever drew in 'The House of Windowless Rooms' when he's walking across the desert represented a decision to show that Lucifer is the most dangerous when he's naked, when he's stripped down to his essence and that anything he wears is just like window dressing that lessens him in a way. I think that Mike picked up on that and so we've got this idea going where Lucifer doesn't need anything to be a threat, just himself and he's completely self-reliant. I see Lucifer as so self-contained, so in control and as the ultimate- not a power freak, but incredibly-I'm not sure if self-absorbed would be correct-self-contained because to him he's the only being that matters other than his relationship with God. I think that Mike thinks along the same lines- I don't think of Lucifer as evil at all, just someone whose needs are so paramount he's willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, which is perhaps a especially insidious form of evil in itself."
One of the most popular aspects of "Lucifer" is that it's a cerebral comic book and this means the series does not lend itself to huge "splash" pages of art, but Gross says he doesn't feel in any way creatively restrained by Carey's approach to writing; in fact, Carey has often said that he believes there is nothing that Gross can't handle. "Mike does give big splashes actually, but more with backgrounds, like the creation of the tower of the Basanos and I think he likes to throw odd environments at us. I think there's a lot of modified two-page spreads, where there'll be three of four panels around the big thing but they're not the super heroic spread. But I don't mind that- I like creating the world and quite frankly, the action stuff kind of bores me. I think in some ways, when Mike does write the action in, I de-emphasize it, because it doesn't seem like he needs it to get the point across so I go the other way. With every issue, I try to find a few pages where I just know that if I draw this page the way it's written, it'll be lousy-not because of the way that Mike wrote it but more the way my style will make it look ordinary-so I'll throw out the panel descriptions, keep the dialogue and send something back to Mike that's different than what he asked for. It's fun to try to go sideways around what he's written, it's always fun to figure out which pages to spend extra time on and make even more fun than they were originally."
Gross says that he also enjoys the fact that he is able to impact the creative direction of the series, even though he doesn't impact the plotting directly. "I'll see a breakdown of the next major storyline and I'll give a suggestion here or there, but that's pretty early in the process and Shelly is bombarding Mike with feedback at that point. I feel like I really have free input once I get the script. Shelly always says I'm like another editor on the book.-I wonder if she means that in a good way? I've had a lot of experience when it comes to writing and working with good writers and when I get the script I read it, poke holes in it as much as possible, try to be extremely hard on it, isolate things that aren't crystal clear for me so I can ask Mike what he is going after and I'll even make an annoyance of myself if I think something doesn't work. I think that in every case where that has happened it was just that I didn't understand exactly what Mike wanted. I'm always going after the story the writer wants and as long as you're doing that, everyone should give you all the freedom you want since you're staying close to the core of the story. Some artists want to veer away from the story too much- they'll want to, for example, just insert dinosaurs in the story because they love drawing dinosaurs. I'm not the sort of artist who would ever put what I want to draw over the needs of the story. The reality is that I spend more time with drawing an issue of Lucifer than Mike does writing it, so I notice things that Mike or Shelly miss-things that I completely miss when I first read the script-there are things you never see until you get to that drawing stage. Good writers aren't threatened when you want to change something. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. I'd rather spend my time with that goal rather than searching for the perfect panel to add a brontosaurus."
This creative synergy between Carey and Gross is also part of what allows the artist to feel so at ease working with such a high-profile writer, when others might feel intimidated or overshadowed. "No, I don't worry about any pressure- I'm really just happy for him! The more success he gets, the better 'Lucifer' does and the first thing I thought when [Carey] went exclusive with DC was 'great, I've got a job for a couple of years.' I hope that Mike does well at a ton of stuff and that he's the next Neil Gaiman."
While Gross is a successful artist, he's also a successful teacher in Minneapolis and he enjoys sharing his .passions with the up-and-coming stars of tomorrow. "About 6 years ago I started teaching at the 'Minneapolis College of Art & Design,' helping to set up the comic art program and I think there are only 4-5 schools in the country with comic art degrees, and this is the only school with a comic program in the Mid-West here, which is great. My collaborator on 'Lucifer,' Ryan Kelly, was one of my students, an illustration major who took a lot of comic classes, one of the best students in the entire school, and it was great getting him to come work on the series. The comic art program is growing and it's been great for me to teach- I was self-taught and I didn't know what I was going to teach, so it was interesting to have to articulate everything I've learned to a bunch of students. You never think about all the things you've learned, you just do it, and it was fun to rationalize it for these newcomers, and you really become better as a result. The more you break down your own work, the more insight you get into what you do."
The other artist on "Lucifer," Ryan Kelly, has a unique creative relationship with Gross that allows the two of them to give the series it's stylized visual feel. "I do all the layouts- I basically draw the book out on 8.5x11" sheets and do all the panel to panel stuff, it's like a rough quick, two or three day process. They get it all lettered from that and we blow up those marker layouts up to full-page size (11x17"). I do all the main figures and Ryan pencils & inks all the background, he does a lot of the secondary characters, like all the Basanos, but the look of the book is definitely a blend- the storytelling is mine, and the skeleton of it is definitely me but it really is hard to say how much of the final look is Ryan's and how much is mine's because we work in my studio and the pages fly back and forth all month long. I know I wouldn't have been able to do this book without Ryan and he's done an exemplary job on it."
With Gross' involvement in the education system, it should come as no surprise that he is an advocate of seeing comic books used to a greater degree in the classroom as a teaching tool. "I think it's a huge, untapped area, overflowing with potential and I'm involved with a startup company with some educators that are looking to bring comics into the classrooms, for kids as young as fourth and fifth graders. Comics are a lot bigger medium than the comics business, which is run so horribly- kids don't get comics like they used to because they don't get them at the grocery store or the spinner racks like I could when I was a boy. I think that comic book companies should be creating textbooks and similar tools, it's a great medium for teaching when you considering the clarity of expression and how interesting it makes material, and the other bonus is that it'd get kids interested in comics. As schools struggle and the educational system struggles, comics could be a really useful medium and in turn benefit us a lot: it's a win-win situation."
When all is said and done, Gross says he looks forward to every new script on "Lucifer" and he can't really pick a favorite issue. "I always like what I'm currently working on best, but I've really enjoyed all of the issues I've done. It doesn't seem like there's been a clunker in the lot yet" says Gross of his time on "Lucifer." "I think the series is getting better all the time- it's nice to work on something that is growing."