Underground bases, fiery corpses, spaceship graveyards; to us, these things seem fantastic, but they're all part of a day’s work for Simone Bianchi, the illustrator of Marvel Comics' “Astonishing X-Men.” CBR News spoke with the acclaimed Italian artist about his work on the series, working with writer Warren Ellis, and what's it like bringing to life a book featuring such iconic characters.
Bianchi is no stranger to the world of the X-Men, having recently produced “Wolverine: Evolution” with writer Jeph Loeb, but “Astonishing X-Men” does represent a first for the artist; the book marks the first time Bianchi’s tackled a superhero team book. When he began working on the title with issue August’s issue #25, he knew drawing a book with six main characters would be a lot of work, and with this week’s “Astonishing X-Men” #27, the artist says he’s just beginning to get a handle on how much work is involved.
“Everybody at Marvel warned me that this was going to be a lot more work than what I was used to doing on a solo book and I thought they were just kind of exaggerating. I realized they weren't when I started working on pages,” Bianchi told CBR News. “In a solo book like 'Wolverine' or ‘Green Lantern,' you just have to focus on the facial expressions and body movements of one main character, but in this case you have to deal with a lot of characters at the same time which means a hell of a lot more work than what I was used to. But it's like 'Wolverine' in that I just needed some time to get familiar with the characters. Right now, I'm enjoying working on new pages a lot more than when I first started, and part of the reason why is I'm getting familiar with the characters and their costumes.”
Naturally, when Bianchi began work on “Astonishing X-Men,” Wolverine was the character he knew best. The artist still loves to draw the adamantium-enhanced mutant, but as he became acquainted with the rest of the X-Men, he discovered a new favorite character. “I especially love drawing Beast,” Bianchi said. “I have a very realistic, almost photographic style, but drawing Beast means I have to take a different approach because he's a different character. In my head I see Beast as some sort of cross between a gorilla and a lion, but even though he has those animal-like features I still want him to look human and I want to convey the fact that he's a brilliant scientist with a very clever mind. I want people to realize the brightness of the character from his expressions, especially his facial ones. I always try to use both facial expressions and body movements and Beast of course has a huge body. So as a consequence, he has a very heavy way of moving his body. But at the same time I want his face to express and convey very human emotions like surprise, happiness, sadness and concentration.”
The character Bianchi has the toughest time drawing is the newest X-Man, Hisako Ichiki, a.k.a. Armor. “She's a teenager, so you always have to be careful in the way you draw her. I don't want her to look too old or move in too elegant of a way. I want her to move in a very realistic, natural way,” Bianchi explained. “It's not easy to handle her as a character or her facial expressions and movements but the biggest complexity in drawing her is her armor. I have to draw the character and then I have to add the armor upon her. It's a lot of work because I have to draw everything in pencil than redraw everything with a tight white correction to give the illusion of these light lines covering her entire body.”
Storm isn't as time consuming for Bianchi to draw, but depicting the weather-manipulating Queen of Wakanda has challenged the artist in other ways. “She's a big challenge because she's supposed to look beautiful and powerful at the same time,” he said. “People don't realize how tough it can be to depict her face. You want to convey those two main parts of her character at the same time: beauty and sheer offensive power. If you unbalance one of those things you run the risk of drawing her with too much beauty and not enough character or drawing her too powerful and losing her beauty. It's tough for me to balance these two sides of the character and draw her the way I want her to look.”
Bianchi hasn't had much trouble bringing to life the X-Men's leader, Cyclops, but his paramour, Emma Frost, has proven to be somewhat of a cipher for the artist. “Emma is the character I was the least familiar with when I started drawing the book, so I think I still need to find my own way to depict her,” he said. “It's too easy to draw a beautiful woman and not give them specific characteristics or something recognizable. I want to draw beautiful women to make myself and everyone else happy, but at the same time I want to give them character. And Emma is tough. She's stubborn and even a little arrogant. She seems to have a conflict with Storm. It's like two chickens in the same place [laughs]. And it seems like she's struggling to establish her position on the team.
“I have to keep in mind all of these things when it comes to sit down and draw my pages. It's too easy to just draw a generic beautiful blond women in her thirties. For me, there has to be something more in the way I draw both Emma and Storm besides the way they look and how beautiful they are.”
In addition to redesigning the costumes of the core cast, Bianchi also redid the outfits of Colossus, Nightcrawler, Dazzler, and Archangel. “The main characters like Cyclops and Wolverine really have recognizable and defining costumes already, so I just had to do little nip and tuck adjustments on them,” Bianchi explained. “We all decided to move the ‘X’ in their costumes from the belt to the chest, and I think that was a very smart move. I think placing the ‘X’ on their hearts has a pretty strong meaning, as [editor] Axel Alonso explained in the text part of the 'Astonishing X-Men Sketchbook.'
“As for the other characters, I mainly added the tubular elements on the sides of their bodies. That's a common element to all of them, but again I mainly tried to just do a nip and tuck operation based on what already existed in previous costumes,” Bianchi continued. “I think the two I almost redid completely were Beast's and Colossus's. Beast has a full 'X' on his body; [previous ‘Astonishing’ artist] John Cassaday had it only on Beast's lower half. And Axel Alonso asked me to cover up Colossus's legs almost completely. I did that, but I also just redrew a lot of different elements in different ways all over his costume.”
Bianchi knew his redesigns would get fans talking, and that some of it would be negative. “Every time you change something it's a hell of a risk, but I'm glad I did it,” he stated. “What I did was mostly minor adjustments to the costumes, but these minor adjustments looked like the right thing to do to me and so far I'm enjoying drawing these costumes a lot. I know that a lot of other artists might be cursing me because of the complexity of these costumes, especially Colossus, but that's just the way I think about costumes. If I had the chance to go back and redraw something I think I would just redo everything I did the same way.”
Designing and bringing to life an issue of “Astonishing X-Men” is a time intensive process for Bianchi. “The issue we just finished, we did in about four and a half weeks. We really had to run because I didn't want the book to be too late. On average, when we’re working with a bit more calm and concentration it can take between six and seven weeks to do an issue.
“The process is pretty much the same one I used for other things like 'Wolverine' or 'Shining Knight.' When I get the script, I read it as deeply as possible; trying to memorize things like dialog. Then I put the script aside and I draw everything I remember especially trying to keep the dialog closely in mind.
“Then I start doing breakdowns, layouts. I use a regular 11x17-inch page and I put four regular pages on each of those. So as you can imagine, they're very tiny layouts. This is where I decide a lot of things, like how I want to shape the different panels and layout of the page, what the characters are doing, what movements they're making, and what expressions they have. So when I take reference photographs I know exactly what I want to photograph and I know the way I want the light to be for each shot.”
Taking reference photographs usually takes Bianchi about a day and a half. After he finishes with that, step he starts penciling. “They are very tight so you'll have everything you're going to see in the final comic book. It's there already,” he said. “Then I have my assistant, Andrea Silvestri, start to do the very first layer of ink, doing shades. Then I re-ink all the pages doing all the faces, hands, and other details trying to make everything look consistent. Then when the pages are done I scan them and send them to my colorist, Simone Peruzzi, who is doing an amazing job. I think, right now, Simone is my favorite colorist in the whole business and I'd love to work with just him, but of course he's a very busy guy. Again, he's doing an amazing job, in a very European way. I know the book doesn't look very American but we have to take things one step further and sometimes that means taking some chances and risks.”
The way Bianchi lays out panels on a page gives his artwork a signature feel. “I was just tired of using the same old page layout; the strict panels with no inserts. So I started to experiment with different shapes and I'm still experimenting with new layouts, but I don't have a precise formula or set of rules that I follow,” the artist explained. “After I read the script, the very first thing I do before I start drawing the characters is draw the shape of the panels. Then when I'm done with the shapes of the panels and happy with the way they look and interact with each other, I'll start drawing the characters inside the panels and adding everything right up until the end of the process.
“I try to keep a straight layout for dialog sequences,” Bianchi said. “Eight or nine times out of ten, I'll use straight layouts for dialog sequences and I'll use more lean and dynamic layouts for action sequences, but that's not rigid and can change every now and then. Sometimes I'll use crazy, different layouts and shapes for dialog sequences too.”
For Bianchi, bringing to life Warren Ellis’s “Astonishing X-Men” scripts has been both a helpful and enjoyable experience. “I think Warren is very concerned with and focused on storytelling. So his scripts are a little less visual and a little more story-oriented, but it’s been a great experience for me because it’s helping me a lot in improving my story telling skills,” Bianchi remarked. “And I particularly love the dialog Warren has written. He’s writing every single character as if they each have their own voice, which is a very difficult thing to do sometimes when writing characters.”
When Axel Alonso offered Bianchi “Astonishing X-Men,” the editor didn’t have to do much in the way of convincing the artist to accept the assignment. “I’ve been an X-Men fan since the early ‘90s. My first serious exposure to team was back when Chris Claremont and Jim Lee were doing their run on the newly launched adjective-less ‘X-Men’ title and selling a gazillion copies,” Bianchi said. “Since then, I’ve tried to catch up as much as I could on what’s going on in the book. I was a huge fan of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s run on ‘Astonishing X-Men’ but I’ve also tried to keep up with ‘Uncanny X-Men’ and all the other X-books.”
Whedon and Cassaday’s best-selling run on “Astonishing” was another reason why Bianchi wanted a chance to work on the title. “Joss and John established a great tradition of respect based of what they did on the title. So it was a great challenge for me and a great challenge for Warren I guess to live up to what those two guys did before us,” Bianchi said. “So the first thing that got me excited was trying to keep up with what was done before us.”
The large cast of characters makes “Astonishing X-Men” a very time-intensive book to work on, but it’s also one of the things Bianchi enjoys most about the title. “The best part is being able to deal with six different characters at the same time. Warren is giving them their own voices and I’m trying to not only give them their own facial expressions but their own movements as well,” Bianchi explained. “I’m always concerned with the way characters move. Storm moves her body in a very regal way. Wolverine is more heavy and tense, and Cyclops is the leader of the group so he has to move his body in a more elegant, leader-like way. I think dealing with all these elements in six different characters is the thing I enjoy the most even if it means a lot of work.”
When he finishes his run on “Astonishing X-Men,” Bianchi will have completed the most work he’s ever produced for an American comic book. “Warren is going to be on the book for 24 issues. My goal is to stay on the book for 12 or maybe 18 issues; I’m not sure. My first priority is to get those 12 issues done,” the artist revealed. “The day I feel some kind of tiredness drawing these characters is the day that I think I’m going to move on to another new and challenging project. Again, 12 issues is my goal and I’m doing my best to do 18 issues but I don’t think I’ll be able to stay on the book for 24 issues. That might kill me! There’s too much work and too much detail on every single page and panel to keep up this kind of crazy work for 24 issues. 12 issues is going to be a record for me.”
Regardless of how long he stays on “Astonishing X-Men,” Bianchi is going out of his way to make sure each new issue of his run looks better than the last. “I want to insure every X-Fan that I’m going to do my best to improve the visual quality of the book the best that I can. I want people to know that I’m putting a tremendous effort into this,” Bianchi said. “I’m working day and night to make this book look the best that I can. As Axel Alonso always says about me, I never take shortcuts and I always put everything I can into the pages, covers, and everything else that I’m doing for this book.”