CCI: Spotlight on Ethan Van Sciver

"I want to sit and bang my shoe on the table as a gavel like Kruschev."

With those words, superstar Ethan Van Sciver made clear his intention to run his spotlight panel at 2008's Comic-Con International in San Diego his way. Without DC Comics Senior Editor and frequent panel host Ian Sattler around to lead the proceedings, Van Sciver turned his panel into a one-man show with the audience as moderators and his career, his upcoming projects like "The Flash: Rebirth" and "Green Lantern: Blackest Night," and his artistic philosophy itself on the table.

"I'm flying by the seat of my pants," said Van Sciver as things got underway, downplaying his abilities as a speaker before making fun of the promotional "Batman: R.I.P." pins DC had given out at other panels, on which characters like Robin, Nightwing and Damian are labeled with the phrase I AM BATMAN. "Dan DiDio is very silly," Van Sciver said of the pins.

Before opening the floor to questions, Van Sciver briefly mentioned his two big upcoming projects. He said he and writer Geoff Johns debated whether to call their Flash collaboration "Barry Allen: Rebirth" since there are other prominent Flashes besides the hero who just returned to life in "Final Crisis," but decided against it. "It should not be 'Barry Allen: Rebirth,' because our job is much bigger than that." Van Sciver said the project would serve the whole Flash franchise.

Van Sciver is also doing all the design work for Johns's "Blackest Night," which he said would entail "designing 7,200 Lanterns for every single Lantern Corps" - a slight exaggeration, most likely. "Then I have to design Black Lanterns representing the dead from every single planet in the entire universe." After that, "I'm sleeping."

The first audience member to step to the mic asked Van Sciver how he got into comics. Van Sciver attributed his career choice to seeing "Superman: The Movie" as a kid, which he found fascinating despite being traumatized by the scene in which Superman prevents a train crash by bridging the gap of a collapsed bridge with his body. Apparently, at that moment, a boulder roughly the size of a human head can be seen falling from the bridge abutment. "I thought the train decapitated Superman, and it gave me nightmares!" Van Sciver also recalled that Mego made a Superman lawn sprinkler with a Superman head - no costume, no cape, no "S" shield, just a head that spit water. "It could have been Cary Grant for all I know, spitting on people." When the kid next door broke it and replaced it with a Donald Duck lawn sprinkler, Van Sciver felt ripped off.

Van Sciver said he mostly just got comics for the pictures, until John Byrne's "Man of Steel" #1 in 1986, the first time he really started reading the books. Another major turning point was Chris Claremont and John Bogdanove's "Fantastic Four vs. X-Men." "I'm trying in my own comics to recreate the feeling I got from that four-issue miniseries." Van Sciver specifically cited a sequence depicting Franklin Richards's nightmares that included images Ben Grimm's rock panels knocked off of his body and the Human Torch gored on a spike. "I really thought then that horror and superheroes work together very, very well." He said this blend is now his niche, and that his cover to the "Sinestro Corps Special," featuring the Green Lanterns impaled in spikes, was a tribute to Bogdanove doing the same thing to the X-Men. This, he said, was the comic that made him want to discover more characters than the ones he already knew.

By age 15, Van Sciver said, "I sold my comics so I could date girls," though even then he knew he'd return to the medium. It didn't take long: At 19 he created "a horrible little character called Cyberfrog," and it's all been "a downhill slalom ever since."

Has Van Sciver influenced his frequent collaborator Geoff Johns? "I think I've had a very bad influence on Geoff Johns," he said, noting that after they hooked up, Johns went from the kid-friendly "Stars and STRIPE" to the dark "Flash: Iron Heights" - "our first superhero horror story." Van Sciver related how he came up with the idea of a murderer who couldn't stop confessing crimes, so he had to cut his own tongue out, prompting Johns to raise the stakes and suggest he sewed his mouth shut as well. Johns came up with the name Murmur, Van Sciver came up with the design, and the rest is Flash history.

Van Sciver also discussed their character Double Down, who forms lethal playing cards from his own flayed skin. The artist said he wants to see just how many cards the villain could make, conjuring the image of "a walking skeleton in Las Vegas with a million playing cards flying around him."

"Sinestro Corps War," Van Sciver said, was an extension of this approach: taking "well known, maybe well worn superhero concepts, make them scary, make them upsetting in some way." Citing Adolf Hitler as "the most upsetting symbol of hatred," Van Sciver portrayed a Sinestro "reimagined through the lens of fascism" based on the uniformly unsmiling public face of Hitler, "really dour, bleak, cold, and impossible to know." Reasoning that someone with the sociopathic personality of Hitler and the infinite power of his Yellow Ring is responsible for countless acts of genocide, Van Sciver said a key element of his portrayal of Sinestro was that he never be seen smiling, going so far as to render the character's one smiling moment in "Sinestro Corps War" - when he breaks the spirit of Kyle Rayner - in silhouette to "keep that character pure." He joked that he was surprised there was such a market for an intergalactic Hitler.

The next fan followed up on the statement Johns made during his spotlight panel that there were clues about the storyline hidden in Van Sciver's "Flash: Rebirth" promo image. "Yeah, Geoff said that. He always wants to keep you wondering." Van Sciver described the Flash as "one of these comic book characters in fact that exists in a much more pure fashion than you'd ever seen him drawn." He compared him to both Green Lantern and the X-Men's Phoenix. "The Phoenix that existed in my imagination was so interesting and had to come out on paper." The Flash, he said, is a guy who keeps the Speed Force in his ring in the form of his own costume. "I think that's the coolest thing ever. I just can't bring myself to draw a naked guy, painted red, running. I can't do it." His task for the series was to devise "inventive ways to demonstrate what it is to be the Flash." He promised that this will include a never-before-seen "real-time demonstration of what the Flash can do" in issue #6, a move that would "take Flash comics into a third dimension - and I don't mean putting on 3-D glasses."

Continuing, Van Sciver acknowledged that fans would be skeptical about the third Flash re-launch in three years, so he had to raise his game accordingly rather than doing another classic-style image of the Flash running right at us and signing it "After Carmine" in homage to Flash artist Carmine Infantino. Instead, he crafted an image of the Flash preparing to move rather than actually doing so. "We're getting ready to go running." The ambient energy indicates that the Flash is part of the Speed Force as he's "putting on those beautiful rubber boots that I wish I had a pair of."

Referring back to his signature collaboration with Johns, Van Sciver said "Flash and Green Lantern are similar characters - they're brother books that should be purchased together by the same fans."

Are there any changes in store for current Flash Wally West's costume? "I'm redesigning Wally West's costume right now, and it's terrifying." While Sinestro's costume, with its seemingly random blue color and "jester collar," was ready for a redesign in Van Sciver's eyes, "Wally West is the most perfectly designed costume ever, aside from Green Lantern's costume, in my opinion." Van Sciver said the challenge was to redo the costume without either making it less cool or more cool than Barry Allen's and thus implying that one character is better than the other.

Noting some audience member's skepticism about bringing Barry back at all, Van Sciver explained his motivation for doing so. "I want Barry to come back and be King Arthur. He's the most straight-laced, perfect Flash, rigid in his morality and his ethics," making the looser, cooler, more laid-back Wally a Lancelot figure. Van Sciver told the audience "Kick me in the ass if I fail."

Will the Flashes each have a different set of effects accompanying the use of their powers, as Van Sciver has done with the Green Lantern Corps? "Sort of. Not in the way you're thinking of." He said the Flashes are all different.

Van Sciver then turned the tables on the audience, asking the room if we were okay with Barry coming back. "It's not like Wally or Kyle aren't cool enough," Van Sciver said, referring to Barry Allen and Hal Jordan's replacements, adding that they didn't set out to move Kyle to the side so much as add Hal back into the franchise. Similarly, "There's room for Barry and Wally and Jay...and possibly Bart, you never know, somewhere down the road."

When commended for his work with Grant Morrison on "New X-Men," Van Sciver expressed both thanks and skepticism. "That was no fun for me." He explained that his career had been going great prior to his move from DC to Marvel, and that he had planned to do a four-issue X-Men project with Geoff Johns, who came to the company along with him, as part of his contractually mandated six issues a year. But when his "fill-in" gig for Frank Quitely on "New X-Men" ballooned from two issues a year to four, Marvel told him that this was his primary responsibility, so the mini with Johns had to fall by the wayside. According to the artist, Marvel was soon asking for ten "New X-Men" issues a year, and his response was simple: "Oh my god, I can't do that!" Marvel then brought in a third "regular" artist Igor Kordey to the title, after which Van Sciver said the series "became a variety show."

Van Sciver acknowledged one advantage he had during his "New X-Men" run. "I spoke to Frank [Quitely] a lot. I picked his brain and tried to follow closely what he did." But this too was a problem in that Van Sciver had to subjugate his style to Quitely's, a problem he'd earlier faced when filling in for Humberto Ramos on "Impulse." "I'm drawing this story about a little boy, and I want to have animals maul him!" While Van Sciver thought Quitely's European-influenced style was "really cool," he believes that trying to stay in line with it adversely affected his output.

While happy with his covers and his depiction of Jean Grey, Van Sciver said, "My Wolverine was terrible!" He said he would have preferred to do Adam Kubert's "bedsheet version" of Wolverine rather than trying to do Quitely's. "I was out of there as soon as I could be - except I hid "sex" in every page in issue #18 as a way of sticking up the middle finger on my way out," Van Sciver said as the audience laughed.

Van Sciver seized a lull in the questioning to issue something of a manifesto about his approach to drawing superheroes. "Do your own style." While it's tempting to draw like Neal Adams or another artistic hero of yours, Van Sciver said it's best to "keep blinders on" and bring your own ideas to a book. "Sometimes you'll fall on your face, other times you'll come up with something really cool that will stick and the next generation will follow you." He worried that "we are so enamored with the past that we can't see the future."

As a case in point, Van Sciver cited Batman, a character whom criminals frequently mistake for a giant bat, yet is clearly a man in a costume. "I'd have to have macular degeneration to confuse Batman with a bat. What I'm seeing and what I'm reading - there's a lie somewhere here being told - let me fix it. If Batman's supposed to be confused for a bat in the dark, we need to see less of muscle guy with a cape and more of guy trying to disguise himself as something he's not." When drawing Batman, Van Sciver tweaks his cape to look and function more like bat wings, so that a criminal who sees him leaping down from a rooftop might actually think he's a giant bat. "I think it's what Bill Finger and Bob Kane meant but weren't able to completely sell in their own work, and it got Xeroxed and Xeroxed until it became Adam West in the 1960s." In order to get back to the core idea of the character, Van Sciver said it was necessary to completely rethink how to depict it.

Similarly, Van Sciver tried to reevaluate the look of the Green Lanterns when he began drawing them. "Why are they Lanterns? They give light." This led to his choice to show less of Hal Jordan flying through deserts in broad daylight and more of him in the darkest corners of outer space Less of Hal flying around in the desert on earth in the daytime, and more of him in the darkest corners of outer space. "They light 'em up and police the universe. They shine the light and the cockroaches scamper. It's never been done that way before."

According to Van Sciver, it was this kind of re-thinking that led directly to the creation of all the new Lantern Corps that has dominated the franchise since "The Sinestro Corps War." While sitting drawing Green Lantern, Van Sciver got to thinking about how Green and Yellow rings had always been converging. "Guy [Gardner] had a yellow ring, Sinestro was a Green Lantern, Hal became Parallax." It occurred to him that this was like yellow blending with green on the spectrum. Meanwhile, Star Sapphire seemed to have a violet energy down at the bottom of the spectrum. Van Sciver said he called Geoff Johns and told him, "There's something really big here that nobody else has noticed: ROYGBIV." In other words, why would the universe just have Green and Yellow and Violet energies?

Perhaps there were "religions that we haven't seen," or even ones we had seen but hadn't recognized as such, as when "Black Hand accidentally found this horrific energy." Van Sciver also noted that just as green is in the center of the spectrum, the source of the Green Lantern's power, willpower, isn't positive or negative, "but fear is negative," as are hate - the force behind the Red Lanterns - and avarice - the power of the Orange Lanterns. Van Sciver said that while the book has been calling this array of powers "the emotional spectrum, "It's not about emotions, it's about motivations, reasons to get things done and accomplish them."

For example, the yellow rings get things done by instilling fear, which is why they select the ugliest beings in the universe. Once Van Sciver thought of it that way, he reasoned that the opposite color of the spectrum from yellow would represent the opposite of fear, so that the Blue Lanterns would instill hope. Red Lanterns, for their part, run on hatred and revenge, but the fact that these emotions are so obviously negative has caused some fans to say, "Why would I take one?" Van Sciver said, "If someone did something horrible to you or your family and there was nothing you could do about it, the ring comes, you make that stupid choice, and you're vomiting red energy and bile until you're just a walking animal that spits hatred everywhere. Whoops, you made a mistake, but that's how it happens." What about an Orange ring? "'I'm not greedy!' But the ring comes down and the ring gives you everything your heart desires: 'I'm Aladdin's magic lamp.'" Its opposite is the Indigo ring, representing "compassion, self-denial, the desire to help your fellow man." While Van Sciver admitted "That's a ring I'm less interested in," he said "the most noble creatures would get that kind of ring and renounce worldly goods."

In closing, Van Sciver directed fans to reexamine the two-page spread in "Green Lantern" #25 that introduced the other Lantern Corps. "All through it there are clues to this. It all makes sense together. It's not just about separation - everything merges together." He reiterated that this was something nobody had thought of before, and it stemmed from him and Johns rethinking the concepts without worrying about what had come before. "The best bits will come from that inspiration."

Next, audience questions resumed as a fan asked Van Sciver if Johns used him as a sounding board for his other books. Van Sciver said that while the writer talks to him about them, he doesn't ask for his opinion - which Van Sciver is hesitant to give anyway "because I think what I tell him might be dumb. He's an intellect about these things." One exception, Van Sciver said, was an idea he recently contributed to Johns and Scott Kolins's "Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge," when he thought a particular aspect of the story was the wrong approach. Van Sciver said Johns just told him he'd changed it to Van Sciver's preference here at San Diego. In general, Van Sciver's attitude is "Let the other guys contribute!" He said he doesn't doubt that people like Gary Frank, Johns's partner on "Action Comics," contribute plenty.

Would other DC characters be offered other power rings, as happened with Batman and Scarecrow and the Yellow Rings? Booster Orange, for example? "It would be a shame not to do that." Van Sciver said he'd love to do a fantasy version that's not in continuity - "Let's give the rings out to everybody and just have big fights! Because that's what I want to do." He noted how much fun it is that the rings changes their recipients' costumes, and mentioned a sketch of Spider-Man with a Green Lantern fighting "the Yellow Goblin" in his con sketchbook "Manifesto" as an example.

This line of questioning prompted Van Sciver to say, "I've got something so cool I wish I could tell you" brewing with Geoff Johns, "another horror story for the DCU." He then said that seeing how much fans connected with the idea of the different rings, right down to buying T-shirts with their logos, was a great demonstration of how well the idea was working. He then asked any artists in the audience to show him their drawings of characters dressed as bearers of other rings.

The final question concerned "Flash: Rebirth" - Would the DCU's other major characters welcome him back? Van Sciver said yes, and that the storyline would "be like 'Green Lantern: Rebirth' in terms of the way it's going to be presented." The main "Flash" series is going to stop for "Rebirth," and we'll see just how Barry Allen rejoins his former colleagues.

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