Building a Bright Future: artist Olivier Coipel talks 'Legion'

When Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning took over the Legion of Superheroes franchise at DC Comics in 1999, they brought with them a relatively unknown artist named Olivier Coipel. His style of art, more moody and scratchy then many Legion fans were used to, instantly became a hot topic of discussion: some people loved it and some people hated it, but there was no doubt that it deeply affected the fans. After pencilling most of the "Legion Lost" 12 part series and pencilling a backup story in "Legion Worlds #1," Olivier geared up for the new "The Legion" ongoing comic book series and blew away fans when the first issue hit the shelf in October 2001. Bringing a distinct look to the 31st century's intergalactic defenders of justice in "The Legion," Coipel is undoubtedly partially responsible for the series' Harvey nomination for "best new series." For his second full length, online interview, Coipel spoke with CBR about the Legion, the need for diversification in the American comic book industry and how he got to be the penciller on one of DC's hottest series.

"There's nothing really interesting about how I first got into the comic book industry," says Coipel of his beginnings as a professional artist. "My first job was for Amblimation/Universal in England and I was an assistant animator on 'Balto.' Then of course, Dreamworks came to be and I was asked if I wanted to go to L.A to work with them, so I said 'Of course!' I lived there for four years, which included the time I spent on 'Prince of Egypt' and 'The Road to El Dorado,' after which I went to the San Diego Comic Con - where I got my big break with DC - and then went back home to France...that's my story!"

But while Coipel has worked heavily in the animation sector, he admits that his passion for comic books arose as a result of reading a little comic called "Uncanny X-Men." "I think that reading the 'X-Men' as a kid made me want to draw comic books," reveals Coipel. "I was so into it that I couldn't imagine myself doing anything other than comic books! Then I grew up and discovered animation, but when the opportunity came, I jumped into the comic book industry! It really offers more freedom than animation and you're more in control of work whereas animation involved a big team: each person works on a tiny part of the final product. Still, it's good to reunite with all the crew when the film is done because you feel really close. Mainly though, I feel when you're animating, you're not really drawing: you don't spend time finishing a drawing as much as you think more about movement. I wanted to draw, it's that simple! I like illustration too, though it is different, because you focus more on the drawing than in comics. You spend more time looking for some nice shapes, something you can't always do in comics: sometimes you need to stay simple in the drawings, the art shouldn't distract the reader from the story and each panel doesn't need the same amount of creative effort, though all panels demand quality." Whereas "Asterix and Obelix" along with "Uncanny X-Men" inspired Coipel, especially the Byrne and Silvestri work on the latter, he admits that his tastes are somewhat broader now. "Right now I'm really inspired by artists like Alberto Breccia and Sergio Toppi: I know this is old guys, but each time I look at their work I just saw 'WOW!' That is my goal: to reach their level of quality work. They put so much heart and effort into their drawings: they're artists with a Big 'A!'"

Coipel has alluded to his big break with DC and as he relates the story, one sees how his dedication and true love for the medium helped him earn his current job. "At the time I was living in L.A and working for Dreamworks," says Coipel, relating the story of how he became the "Legion" penciller. "Working in comic books seemed like just a dream until someone told me about the San Diego Comic-Con International, which prompted me to do some pages of art for a portfolio and try to meet DC at the convention during the next day. I came to this room where there were about 300 people waiting to come in! Then DC Editorial Art Director Mark Chiarello came to tell us that they would review only 20 people and I realized that I wasn't one of them. I was with Pascal Alixe, who would later work with me on 'Legion Lost,' and we were so desperate that we couldn't leave. Once everyone had left, Mark noticed us sitting in the room with our heads down, came to us while, checked if the room was empty and then looked at our portfolios: this is how we got our jobs at DC! Mark is absolutely awesome: it was so nice of him to let us show him our drawings even though weren't supposed to!"

But it turns out that Coipel hasn't always been a Legion fan and the Legion series wasn't even his first assignment. "At this time I did a small pin-up for 'Wildstorm' and that was it," explains Coipel. "Mike McAvennie called me to work on 'Legion,' so he sent me some of the series and I said 'yes.' I trained on the characters for a while and then I started on 'Legion of the Damned,' my initial Legion story, while I was still working with Dreamworks. But I didn't know much about this series because in France, the Legion is not well known: overseas it is Marvel that has the well-known comic books. This was a different experience for me but I really enjoyed it." Now that he is a big fan of the Legion, Coipel relates his goals for his "Legion" tenure, grinning and saying that, "I want to be famous! No...I want to make 'Legion' a top book: it'd be great if I had the same influence that John Byrne had on the X-Men! That's a dream! Seriously, I don't know where things will evolve to in the future, but I do hope that more and more people will come to enjoy the Legion: that is my TRUE goal!"

Coipel's passion for the "Legion" is infectious when you talk to him and one can see that same passion translating into his artwork. "I have a realistic view of the Legion (if that makes sense)," says Coipel of the visual feel he is trying to bring to the series. "I want things to be believable so that means a different visual feeling for different situations. 'Legion of the Damned' was different in that it was a dark story so darkness had to be predominant in the book. I was also a different artist at that time: now I know that I wouldn't stick to just one atmosphere for a big story since it would be more effective to change it according to the scenes! That's what I'm trying to do right now so maybe I've lost something, but I think that my new way of thinking suits the stories better." However, the specific visuals in the "Legion" do have specific inspirations, which Coipel is happy to share with readers. "For the characters, I'm definitely inspired by fashion magazines, though the advertisements can really inspiring - I wish I could do fake magazine covers with one 'sexy' Legionnaire on each covers! In terms of the backgrounds, I find that I'm inspired by anime, because when you see so much anime on TV when you're a kid, you have to be inspired by it! But once again, each story has different inspirations and for example, right now I'm trying to bring the fashion of the16th century into the 30th century to create a new visual feel. And I'm still inspired by Moebius, Silvestri, Mucha, Otomo and some others when it comes to my overall art style: they all teach me something different about storytelling, their way of approaching art and the finished look of the art piece."

Even if Coipel hadn't mentioned that he approached his artwork differently now, it is obvious that his work in "Legion #4" for example is much different from his work in 1999 on "Legion of the Damned." "It's not so much that I have new influences, as much as it is that the old influence has disappeared," explains Coipel. "The more I draw, the more I find my own way of telling a story: my goal is to have the same sense of ease that I have when I draw for myself. When I look back at my work, I always think its bad and needs improvement so that it tells the story better, to avoid any weaknesses in my work. I don't regret this because I think its good to go through this process. I know and hope that no matter how much pleasure I take in drawing something now, I'm going to criticize it tomorrow! I hope that my style's not going to stay the same, not that I don't like my anime/manga influenced style right now, its just that I don't want to be ever be stuck with a 'formula' of how to draw. Imagine yourself drawing an eye, for example, the same way all your life when you're supposed to be an artist! No, I want to be awake when I draw and be able to discover new ways of doing things."

Even each of the Legionnaires inspires different reactions from Coipel and he readily admits that because of the nature of the recent Legion stories, he really hasn't been able to "get to know" each of the heroes yet. "This is how I see the main Legionnaires," says Coipel. "Cosmic Boy is quite a square and not one of my current favorites because I have yet to find something fun in him: I know I wouldn't get along with him in real life! Now Ultra Boy, I like him a lot! He is really cool, someone who'd be easy to live with and a simple guy. And he's a big guy: it's fun drawing big guys like him. Umbra is one of my favorites too: I had a girlfriend like her before so it makes me think of my ex! I had a hard time trying to imagine Umbra at the beginning but once I found the right kind of old fashioned haircut for her, I began to understand the character better. We're pushing a contrast in her visual right now, focusing on a lot dark area, so we'll see how it goes. With Brainiac 5, the more I drew him, the more I got to know him so his look came more naturally. At the beginning he made me think of a nerd (in a good way), with the Alfalfa look coming on! When I redesigned Wildfire, I wasn't sure if people would react to him in a positive way but once I looked at my helmet design for him, I knew I he had the look he needed! I would like to see him more with Ultra Boy, since both big guys are so alike and I wonder if they'd get along as friends: it'd be interesting. M'onel is the third big guy and I really like the short hair he has now compared to the look from issue #1. I think I'd get along well with Chameleon. He is the one who'd make me laugh but still be serious when the situation called for that. Maybe he's not a joker in all the stories, but I so seem him as fun guy who is also very thin, but not too tall. People have asked about Kid Q's haircut and truth is, I couldn't draw the old one anymore! I like her new tough and sexy look, along with her costume, but it still isn't easy to show her powers at work! Saturn Girl is too stuff, like Cosmic boy, and she is too polished, too perfect: not a fun girl at all!"

Since his art began to seriously change, around "Legion Lost #1" in 2000, Coipel's work has been described by many as "sexy" and very "hot." Some may think that perhaps Coipel is pushing too sexualized an image of the Legion purposely, but the talented artist says that he sees an inherent sex appeal in the Legion. "Do I like drawing sexy characters or is it my natural style? We are talking about superheroes in TIGHT costumes: that's sexy! I can only imagine these young super girls and super guys in a sexy way! You can give me any character in briefs and I'm going to try to make him/her as sexy as I can! I guess that sometimes I don't draw with my brain but with my..." Coipel pauses to laugh and continues by saying, "I don't think that what I do is T&A (I hope not), even though sometimes I draw 'detailed' breasts, I'm never going to do anything that disturbs readers or disrupts the story. By the way, in issue #7 I did a Shikari pose with her legs spread that I hope isn't too much! Let me know guys! But sex appeal doesn't have to be an artist's #1 priority: just look at Frank Quitely's art! He's a top artist who attracts a lot of readers and you can't define his style as 'sexy!' There's more important things than characters looking sexy! And I hope I do more than just drawing sexy characters!"

Despite Coipel's strong ideas on how he'd like to draw and how he envisions characters, he doesn't have a favorite type of story to illustrate, at least not specifically beyond one with a quality script. "I don't have a special type of story that I like to work on, not yet at least," says Coipel. "As long as it's a good story and well told (it doesn't need action scenes) I can find pleasure in illustrating it! I would love to draw a humorous story, since I've never drawn anything like that and I love those kinds of stories, which is good because it'd be a good exercise to have to work on that kind of storytelling and those kind of expressions. Andy Lanning and I once talked on the phone about doing an 'adults only' story, to just do for the fun of it. That's the thing that bothers me a bit with the superhero type story: they don't have any sexuality! It doesn't have to a sexual act, but at least provide some clues."

One problem that has dogged Coipel since he began working on the "Legion" has been meeting deadlines. While Coipel acknowledges that he'd love to be able to meet the monthly deadline, he also explains that his working conditions and his mental approach to the work may affect his timing. "Ha! That is a problem I need to fix," says Coipel of missing his monthly deadline every so often. "I don't consider myself 'slow' though. I think - I can't be sure and it's not an excuse - that my problem is related to the conditions I'm working in. I don't have a proper working area: I'm looking for a studio to share with some other artist (not comic book artists especially) so in the meantime I'm working at home. Now I know that a lot of artists work that way but for me it is an environment I don't like being in when I'm trying to draw: being on my own the whole day is not really motivating and having people around to talk to would help amp up my creative energies. I think that with a bit of organization I can work faster: we'll see how it changes when I have my own studio. Maybe there's another reason: each time I read a scene I immediately have some images that come to mind, but I don't want to draw those unless they are exceptional ideas! I want to find a different, more unique and interesting way to illustrate the scene, which takes more time I guess. The hardest aspect of this job is the deadline, but I do believe that if I organized myself then I might be able to fix this problem. When you're in a rush and you have to draw 14 characters, then it becomes real hard to keep up the quality! But there is one more problem: I can't say I'm happy when I have to make all the characters look at someone. I always have to count them twice to check if I didn't lose a kid in the nature! The easiest aspect of the job is actually the fact that I didn't know the characters before I came to the series, which makes it easier for me to change things or cool around with the characters. For example, when I changed the look of Brainiac, it wasn't a 'change' for me: I've never seen this character before outside of the references that Mike [McAvennie, the editor of Legion] gave me and the fact that I didn't grow up with the characters allows me to take more liberties (as opposed to how I'd begin on 'X-Men' or 'Batman'). And when you think about it, I haven't even drawn half the team yet, so I'll get another boost of creativity when I meet all these new people and translate their personalities into their final looks! That is really exciting for me!"

Another aspect that complicates the life of almost any comic book creator is the online comic book community, who have been quite critical of Coipel in the past but seem to be lauding more praise on his work now with every issue. "For real, I don't think I have more fans then when I started!" exclaims Coipel. "The ones that hated my work don't talk about the art in the series anymore! Yes, I go to the DC Legion message board often, so when I read some of the compliments I'm pleased and it helps me keep the faith! Most of the people are enjoying my stuff and it feels great and weird at the same time to see people reacting to the work you're doing! The weird part comes when people talk about a detail you drew and you don't remember it, which is scary and makes me think, ' I need to be really careful about every detail I draw.' But now I do see good reactions to my work so thanks to everyone who has been supportive of me! It wasn't like that all the time, which caused me to stop going too the message board because I was reading to many bad comments about my style. I remember that the first time I went to the board, there was some guy who said something like, 'this guy sucks, even my little brother can draw better than him.' Ouch, that was a bad one! But it doesn't affect me much anymore and if it does, it just pushes me to do better the next time in order to prove that they are wrong (or that the guys who came to my defense are right) about my ability to do good work. If it is constructive criticism, I can take it no problem but frankly, I cannot do anything about my style. I also like it when readers catch on to the little details I put on purpose in the artwork because it's cool that someone paid that much attention to my work!"

As much as Coipel is proud of the work he's done, when asked about the highlights of his work on various Legion comics, he says that he looks back on his work with a very critical mindset. "It is a bit sad (or maybe good, you choose) to say, but each time I go back and look at my work I only see bad things: oh this face looks like crap! That shot is awful! I could have done this one another way to make it look better! Etc...but this is all done in a way that pushes me to do better the next time I draw! Looking back, I can see all the pages that I did in a rush and it is a shame because 1) readers will think I can't draw this and 2) I want people to think that they chose a comic book that has real quality in it! Really, each time I draw the book I think of people who are going to look at it, I don't want them to think I'm a lazy guy who doesn't give a damn about what he draws. I take my job seriously and when I have to rush to finish a page or an issue, it is hard: I have to do it, but I'm left with a bad feeling. I always try to make it up to readers later on by doing a REALLY nice page! And you know, the stories deserves quality art: when I read an issue and love the script, I want the art to deserve the story!"

Coipel feels that "The Legion" isn't a series that can be described as best suiting one group of people; in his experience, Legion fandom is as diverse as the fictional team itself. "I really don't think that 'Legion' is just for one type of reader," contends Coipel. "I also think that it would be an error to do this book just for one small group of people. When I first went to the DC Legion message board and discovered that readers ranged from age 20 to 40, I was surprised: I don't think all these people buy the same comics, but they all enjoy 'Legion.' I think that 'Legion' is supposed to be a comic book for everyone, like 'X-Men' was I think."

With such a fresh perspective, it is no surprise that Coipel gets along great with Abnett and Lanning, though he does admit to talking to Lanning more because he inks 'Legion' as well, and he is happy with the amount of creative input he has on the plots. "For now I don't have any real major input on the plots," concedes Coipel. "Of course, they ask me all the time if I don't like something, what I think about something and the like, but mainly I never have any issues with the stories. But for an example of when I did impact the story, just look at 'Legion of the Damned:' I proposed that there be a talking scene inbetween some jumps between actions scenes because these heroes needed to rest. I think it was actually the scene with Chameleon and XS hugging each other. In general, I will change some stuff for the fight scenes and usually Andy tells me to do so if I want to do something special, so it all works out pretty easy. Last time I talked to Andy, we were planning to reunite all of the creative team so that we can talk about our ideas for the series, because they are some things I'd like to see in the book, but the fact that we are all so spread out (Andy & Dan in England, DC in America, me in France) makes it hard."

In terms of plans for future of the series' visuals, Coipel admits to not planning anything special and just doing what he's been doing all along. "Well, I don't have anything special planned because I don't think in that way," explains Coipel. "I'm just trying to do my best on each issue. I receive the scripts sometimes 2 weeks before I start on it, so there's no real plan. I really want to work on the action, to have more of a dynamic feel to the scenes, to have more one-on-one fights and a feeling of teamwork where we really see a character helping another, Something that I really want to do is get away from the traditional comic book style of story telling and I'm gonna try to work slowly on that: sometimes splash pages for big surprises are too obvious because you can see it coming! But like I said, it's not something I really thought about as a linear plan: it's more like some ideas I have in the back of my head while I draw."

Just as he gets along with the writers, Coipel says he has a great relationship with DC and adds that, "I don't have any problem working with DC! This is my first job so I can't compare it to other places, but I think that I'm lucky to be working with a guy like Mike McAvennie! I'm really bad at phone calls, so I guess for Mike and Andy I can be a pain in the ass! When they need to talk to me, they have to leave ten messages for me to answer!"

For those who have noticed the trend of top DC talent leaving the company for different opportunities, Coipel's enthusiasm about the series should allay any fears of a premature departure from "The Legion." "I don't have any plans right now and I'm going to keep working on 'The Legion" as long as I like doing it. Like I said, the team I'm working with is great! They are all really nice with me and it is important for me to work with guys I get along with such as Mike, who is always trying to make things easier for me when I'm in trouble (like on a deadline for example). And then there's the universe of the Legion, which offers no limits for creativity: I can draw space ships, monsters, alien worlds and all kinds of machines: that's all good for me! 'Legion' has a big visual potential and I think that there are still plenty of things to do on all these characters. I want to work on their costumes and haircuts: they seem like little details, but I enjoy trying to work on the look of characters! As a kid, I remember that it was really exciting to see my heroes with new costumes because it was like a new perspective on them, a breath of fresh air! And I think that the Legionnaires need fresh air!"

Coipel also believes that the industry itself needs some fresh air and joins the growing number of professionals who cry out for more diversity in the marketplace. "American comic books are mostly superheroes and in Europe there aren't as many people who like those types of comics. I remember at school that they thought that these body-building guys in tights were ridiculous - I had to fight them! I think that more types of American comics will move into the 'mainstream' and this diversity is a good thing. When you look at Japanese manga or European comics, they really do a lot of different types of stories. The difference is that in America it is an 'industry' with 'majors' whereas overseas it is all about creator-owned projects: just look at France, Spain, Italy, Belgium etc. But for the last few years we've seen the creator-owned phenomenon get bigger in America and it is really a good thing!"

In between drawing "Legion" issues and doing his own personal illustrating, Coipel does read a few American comic books. "I don't read many comic books now, but I just bought the 'New X-Men' comic book because of Frank Quitely. I also buy everything by Fegredo and Mahnke! Mostly I do buy comics because of the art I admit." Coipel also finds time to be inspired by other mediums, sating that, "Like all artists, all the mediums can inspire me: painting, fashion, books, etc....for example, when I had to draw a character named Gear in 'Legion #3,' I got inspired by a video I saw a while ago from Chris Cunningam (I think that's his name) for Bjork! She was a robot getting built by machines! That is great!"

As the interview ends, Coipel grins when asked to send a message to fans of his work and the Legion in general. The young artist laughs and says, "Please don't be too hard on me!"

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