THE MISSION is a weekly column spotlighting diversity in comic books, graphic novels, and popular entertainment.
The interviews and editorials featured will focus on successful entrepreneurs, whose accomplishments serve the goal of creating an equally diverse creative and business landscape.
ChrisCross (born Christopher Williams) is a comic book illustrator, known mostly for his stints pencilling Milestone Comics’ “Blood Syndicate” and “Heroes,” Marvel Comics’ “Captain Marvel” and “Slingers,” and DC Comics’ “Firestorm.”
Williams attended New York City’s School of Visual Arts in the early 1990s. While doing so, he caught his big break doing work for DC’s Milestone Comics imprints, which sought to publish a line of comics aimed at attracting a more multicultural audience. His latest work has been for Valiant and DC Comics, both of which he still continues to produce for today.
Joseph Illidge: Your career in mainstream superhero comics began at Milestone Media, Inc., a comic book company owned by four Black men, in which you were the regular artist for “Blood Syndicate,” a book about a superpowered, multicultural gang engaged in power struggles for authority and respect.
Did working on such a groundbreaking book like “Blood Syndicate” with writer Ivan Velez Jr. set the tone for the rest of your career? Did it inspire you to want to deal with other stories that broke ground in subject matter and in the comics industry, in general?
ChrisCross: Oooooh. Yes. Not only did it set the tone for my career, but the way I engaged and involved myself in the intricacies of storytelling across the board. It shaped me technique-wise and my personal view of the five founders of Milestone Media… As in actual African-American Men, owners and artists in their own right… in a lot of ways taught and reshaped how business was done in the industry in my eyes. From the time I walked into the offices to the time and received my first script, I was being taught how things were done. From the script to the art… refining the way I had to transfer what Ivan would write to how I would try to top him by putting it into dynamic and flowing visuals.
When Denys Cowan pulled me aside to make me ask “why” I put something a certain way on a page, I realized that not only was I pushing against myself in storytelling, but I was pushing so far that people were losing grip on what my voice was saying through Ivan’s scripts. And that’s when I had to take a step back and think. Was I drawing for a bombastic applause or was I doing it to engage you with the story? It took a while before I got the hang of what real comic art was. Inspiration given to me from people who were in the Big Two and were doing this at a high level for dozens of years.
My tenure working with Ivan really showed me what happens when two newbies get together to jam on a project. A company says, “Here’s a gang with superpowers. No one has ever tried to do something like this before and not come off corny or campy. Do what you want, but within the confines of what we planned for the universe of the characters.” And in that we came up with characters that people still try to emulate now, along with characters that we added real life to. “Blood Syndicate” was about people having real problems with their environment because a major conglomerate messed up their neighborhoods for an experiment. It was that kind of insertion into the concept, that submergence of controlled extended chaos that these people, these characters had to live with, and it echoed global views. Even their accurate behavior in their cultures and lifestyles, one that can only take people from diverse cultures writing and drawing the books to achieve any believability. A special type of storytelling.
I still think like that today in my own endeavors, as well as how I draw the stories with major companies that hire me; to be a conduit that will channel the spirit of stories in a respectful and entertaining way that only I can do.
The second ongoing series you illustrated was a DC Comics book called “Xero.” Written by Christopher Priest, one of the original founders of Milestone Media, “Xero” was about a Black assassin for the United States government who, in his secret identity, was a basketball player for one of the worst teams in the league. Additionally, in his guise as Xero, he wore the face mask and skin prosthetics of a Caucasian blond male, to allow him to operate in circles where a Black man of stature would not be welcome.
Your designs of character and technology were crucial to the realization of Xero’s world.
Does working on such a unique idea and story with social resonance fire off different creative neurons for you than working on Superman or Spider-Man, both of which you have drawn in your career? Is there a way you were able to cut loose with Xero that an artist may not be able to with intellectual properties over 50 years old? Or do you approach both types of material in the same way?
There are always confines when working with iconic characters like Spider-Man and Superman. These are characters already drawn in a plethora of styles; a plethora of techniques that another new artist may add to his/her repertoire. The only real way to let loose is in action scenes or in my case, the ethnicity and acting prowess of the character. You can really lay down some innovation on Metropolis or parts of Manhattan, but it’s never the same as being asked to realize a concept from the ground up.
I was asked by Alisande Morales and Dan Thorsland, the editors in the crew at the time, if I was interested in working on a project where a basketball player was an assassin.
They didn’t have to ask me a second time.
As soon as I started reading the script, I was off into another world dreaming of something that hadn’t been thought of yet, knowing that what I put down would be immortalized forever. And everyone that read it would see how special the idea was. “Xero” was ahead of its time and we may have just caught up with it.
It was the same fervor that allowed me to get gritty in Milestone and working with Priest was at least Milestone adjacent. Priest let me dream. He let me play. The uniforms were all inspired by NASCAR race uniforms and the cars they drive. There was too much going on for this series not to be a success.
It truly saddens me that “Xero” may never see the light of day again. It’s why I rarely think of it now. So to answer your question, yes. But the more creative the neurons, the more you fall in love with the concept, the more the desolation when it doesn’t work out.
You’ve drawn the High Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman while working on “Justice League of America” for DC Comics, as well as Spider-Man and The Punisher for Marvel. However, you’ve also drawn lesser known characters for Marvel Comics within the X-Men and Spider-Man groups of titles.
There was, and may still be, the belief that working on the most popular characters represents the summit of the comic book industry mountain.
Is it difficult as an artist in comics to not fall into that mindset? Or is it inevitable, but personal and professional maturation eventually leads you to believe otherwise, or believe a modified version of that viewpoint?
Yes, yes, yes. You grow up on reading these characters and find yourself saying that you want to be the guy that draws these characters until you die. You want to be considered the echelon along with the characters that grew famous from so many talented artists before you. And you want to emulate everything you’ve seen up until you’ve gotten a chance to work on it yourself because you want to measure up.
I think maturation occurs when you’ve been on a concept for a while and you start figuring things out technique-wise, and adding more of yourself and the art to the material. And I guess when you do that, like in acting, you can start to get typecasted. Even editors can only see you doing just that material until you expand on new material and show yourself excelling on that project. I would say that working on the most popular characters is probably the most-viewed way of making it to the next level in the fans’ eyes. If you can draw the legends, you can draw anything.
I remember Jim Lee in an article during his run with “The Punisher,” talking about being a touch perturbed with people digging his pages but no one recognizing that cool background he did in a panel. I so get that. But we’re quirky as artists so we want to excel at everything. How that translates into smaller material… we have a belief that if you’re worth your salt as an artist, you can rock any book. And that book will be on the market as long as we’re on it. The moment we take a hike, it’s on its own, but that book sold because of the hard work put into it from us. And if it failed once we’re off of it, well we did our part… hawhawhaw… But we’d never say that out loud. The lure to stay and keep things going, usually is because one can fall in love with the material to such an extent that you will never leave. And as an artist, you need constant new material in your way or you go stale.
And that’s the bullet shot in the head of every artist’s career. No one wants to get stale. Certainly not me. So while you’ll always appreciate the Supermen, Wonder Women, Green Lanterns, Flashes and Batmen, you’ll do yourself a solid with your own thing or a Two-Gun Kid, Blueberry, Star Wars/Trek, Doctor Who… or even a romance comedy. You just have to be brave and venture forth. And then come back with the new stuff you learned for Batman, Superman, WW and the others.
Comics are a visual medium, and character design is integral to the popularity potential of an intellectual property. You’re known to create unique and bold costume designs which popular artists such as the late Eduardo Barreto and Sean Chen can’t quite nail when they draw the same characters in your costumes. Specifically, the aforementioned Xero and Marvel character Moondragon, daughter of Drax the Destroyer from this year’s blockbuster film “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Do you feel a sense of ownership with your designs? To be more specific, do you create them with the mindset that your designs are specifically a ChrisCross production, and so intrinsically it could and should be difficult for another artist to make it look the way you do?
I guess it can be a bit of both. I never really thought about it that way. I just always assumed that artists can draw anything that other artists do so I just did my thing.I will say that at one point in my career I was stuck in this rut where I just did comic-related things. Then I got plugged into fashion and international art. It changed the way I thought of costumes. And, sure, I want to put my stamp on it, but sometimes I get in my own way where I can add too much or add such a quirky touch to a costume, people squint at the concept. But my inspirations can come from Alexander McQueen or Thierry Mugler — the runway work — who was the inspiration for the Moondragon costume. I’m also influenced by Kirby, Ditko, Steranko, Golden and Cockrum. Just in the vein of creating something iconoclast with the way I do design that says, even when someone else does it, that that’s ChrisCross. You’d look at the piece and be able to tell.
In order to set yourself apart from the herd, you have to do something that makes you unique. Unique gets you hired and gets you labeled as an expert and a genius. An expert with a special set of skills.
I do feel a sense of ownership over every design, but not so much that I can’t let it go and just move to the next design. I try not to repeat a nuance, but upgrade on the niche of the concept so it fits the spirit of the character and the concept. And I either fail or succeed. I feel like David Foster, the composer, who says he succeeds Monday, Wednesday, Friday and fails horribly on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday… And Sunday he just resets to do it all over again the next week.
You’re a man of faith, and this shows in various ways throughout your work. When you tackled the cosmic hero Captain Marvel for Marvel Comics with award-winning author Peter David, you seemed to take ownership of that character and really push his deity-like qualities.
Is all of that intentional on your part, or some of it a natural result of who you are as a person flowing out through your visualizations of characters?
Well. Like the other projects before it, it was a challenge that was eagerly met. Jim Starlin had already introduced a spiritual element to Captain Marvel in the past and I was pretty intimidated. I literally had to get childlike on this project. I had to just do it willing to fail. What made things a lot easier, believe it or not, was the way Peter did his scripts. When I realized it wasn’t going to be the type of cosmic that Starlin dealt, it got easier to draw, and easier to enter my wheelhouse: Acting. I got to make the characters act. My faith powers the way I draw and it helps me connect with characters on an ethereal level — I know they’re not real, but it’s truly my job to make you think they are. Even for an hour, 30 minutes, however long it takes to read the book and get your imagination on. If I can get you there, then I’ve done my job.
There was an issue of the second volume where I used finished pencils instead of having someone ink it. — probably the only one in which I was working the level of art to what people do on their computers. Gray washes and gray tones, mostly graphite. There was a scene where Genis/Captain Marvel is slowly going mad and hashing it out with his father, the original Mar-Vell, for a few pages — and I used multiple images to create movement in each panel of fight, playing with captured timing within seconds of each other in a single panel, and finally Genis hits Mar-vell with this haymaker of a punch, blood spraying everywhere.
The acting had to come in and really play off the building anger of having to deal with the cosmic awareness of everyone in existence, as well as dealing with apparitions plaguing him. And I had to build it up into one mighty scream. But the one image just before that — I had Genis balloon his lips as if he’s using all his might to the point of crossing his eyes, holding in all that rage and chaos. And then the scream that had his whole body exuded. Literally. Mouths all over his body letting out a scream no man could ever survive screaming. And you can only get to pull something off like that if you can study the measure of a man going through high intensity stress. I know of that stress. And it can only be faith that keeps people from touching the spirit like that and not getting absorbed in the rage. I had to dig deep and display it. And throw it away.
You have to be able to drink the Kool-Aid to pull that off. And then shed it. I remember being angry all night after drawing that scene.
I had to watch Japanese anime just to break my concentration on those books.
Your career in comic books spans 20-plus years, from the independent companies like Valiant and IDW to the power hitters of the industry, Marvel and DC Comics.
How have you managed the sustention of your career and presence in the business?
What does it take to survive editorial regime changes and not get kicked to the curb by up-and-comers looking to make their mark?
One day, one week, one month at a time. Following my little voice on where to go, how long to stay and when to make the unpopular move to leave. It’s about constantly getting information on industry changes and seeing when and if you can fit in, and never taking no for an answer. One company is full, you look for whomever will give you work. Not being particular. And making a mark where you’re at, to bring up the importance of the company you’re with. Trying to be an invaluable asset. You have to make deadlines, of course, and I’ve made more than I’ve missed. You have to really knock it out of the park storytelling-wise — not necessarily art-wise — and make the effort to constantly add something new and relevant to your work day by day. Jpegs, tiffs, DVDs, books, posters, fashion catalogs, scouring the internet for whatever I need to get that oomph to keep me loose, and maverick for anything that will bring that story alive in your mind constantly.
During your time working on graphic novels for the European publisher, Humanoids Publishing, you stepped out of the superhero genre to illustrate a story centered around Egyptian culture and mythology.
What different aspects of format and storytelling for a global audience did you like and, or find challenging? Do you foresee producing more non-superhero stories for the international market?
Well, I was working with a great man from France who was an editor at Humanoids Publishing named Nicolas Forsans. And he really kicked my butt. See, all they care about in Europe is how great you draw and can tell stories. All of their books are illustration-driven. So if you’re slacking, they’ll know. The pace is different and the pay is slower depending on how fast you can get pages done, but do not use the word “crank.” And you won’t get away with figures with little or no backgrounds there. So you’ve got to have massive amounts of research material because a plethora, I dare say almost all, of their material is set in a place that’s not America, or in this time period. And you’d better be on your Ps and Qs, and you’d better come with it in that market just to get recognized. You’re pretty much handling most of your art chores and if you can color, that’s a plus. The great thing about stepping out of the American sensibilities of the superhero format is that you’re forced to draw upon research to make whatever time period you’re bringing to life believable. And when you’re creating such a world, you can’t cheat.
In superhero-driven books, especially with those using powers, you can cover up half a page with a laser beam and no one, even maybe the editor, would question it. Working with European companies and graphic novels abroad is very marathon, not about speed, very open yet regimented and can be tedious depending what you’re laying out there.
Remember, at this point you’re on a world stage and you want to compete for shelf space with artists there who are literally drawing and painting on top of already gorgeous work. In a lot of ways, if you’re not doing that yourself, they’re light years ahead of you. So you have major ground to cover. When I worked on “Neferites L’Embaumeur” (Neferites the Embalmer), the things I had to research alone was like trying out for a directing role in an Egyptian movie. Tons of reference isn’t something one needs in superhero comics unless they’re just starting out the concept, and most times, the artist is creating his/her own world or the world has already been established.
It truly builds up your knowledge, stamina, and global vision when you come back to the States to tackle more open genres. And it will show in your work, technique and storytelling-wise.
Eternal Kick, LLC, is the production company founded by you and launched through your website.
What was the impetus for creating Eternal Kick, and how will your books differ from those of other companies?
Eternal Kick is a transmedia company that for now primarily will publish graphic novels in the American Market. It will eventually grow to use various forms of other products and media cues to continue to grow the transmedia model and EK brand.
What I want to do with Eternal Kick is bring a style of storytelling that is not only beautiful to look at, is deeply, creatively realized and well thought-out, but has as much spirit to the stories and characters that people feel something. Over the years I developed a style of storytelling that would fit any genre. It’s called Biblical sci-fi fantasy. And it can fit in any concept. Space operas, westerns, noir, Golden Age sensibilities, romance; to name a few. The stories I present will have Biblical core, with sci-fi ingredients and fantastic behavior.
With that kind of stretch you can do great works like “Star Wars,” “Sleepy Hollow” the series, Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” works, Jonathan Hickman’s “S.H.I.E.L.D.”… and so on. With deep rich material like that and creating tons of stories that will fit in the Biblical sci-fi fantasy model, we can create truly meaningful stories that will bring fans on an amazing ride. Something with my sense of imagination driving the concept vehicle.
I am the president/CEO/co-owner and Vito Delsante is the VP/Head Writer, who has also brought a myriad of concepts to bear with Eternal Kick. We have a ton of material we’re still sifting through and we’re hoping to get them all realized as we get our stories out there.
That first project to be realized will be a concept named “Haiku.” The preview story is already written and I’m getting the art done on the preview, so it’ll be ready in early 2015 for Kickstarter. The way we’ll be presenting the formatting of series will be as a series of minis. We just feel it’ll be better for the present staff to do it this way and it will be easier to package and to encapsulate stories for further marketing and other ventures. You’ll never see Haiku #25 or #100, even if the count of books we put out gets to be that voluminous.
We’ll most likely be rotating concepts/projects as one wraps up. So when one set of stories are done, we’ll have another project ready to go. We’re looking for a digital publisher that will meet our needs to have a great outreach, so it’ll also be planned to be in hard copy so people who still collect physical issues can do so as usual. We’re trying to procure certain avenues of bringing in a constant flow of new readers, new fans, and we would welcome cosplayers to help Eternal Kick push our brand in cons. We know it’s an arduous task to get new blood in the door to read, but it never hurts to follow up with ways to truly inject the comic industry with new life.
Elina Nulman is our Talent Manager, who keeps me and Vito informed with various connections she discovers in places where Vito and I may not have time to reach or find, as well as a bit of
time-trafficking to make sure things come out on time.
Mitch Gross is our Social Media/PR Manager who gets the word out. He’s been in the video game market for a long time, so he can bring an invaluable amount of knowledge to bring people to us and get our wares to them.
Patrick Rogan is our IT/Web guy. He built the site and will be helping us maintain and add upgrades in the future.
An honorable mention to Snakebite Cortez who really put his Odd Nerdrum all over the color work of the characters, and soon some of the projects I’m painstakingly developing.
I am blessed with a team of people who really believe in what I want to do, and are making moves to ensure it.
With the changes in styles, subject matter, and diversity politics you’ve observed between the start of your career and now, are you satisfied with the mark you’ve made in mainstream superhero comics? In addition to breaking new ground with your company, are you still as excited to do so with popular heroes? Are there some well-known characters you want to get your hands on?
Tons. But at some point, unless it’s presented, you just have to make the decision to upgrade your life. Not many people get to be George Perez, or John Byrne, or Jose Luis GarcÃa-LÃ³pez, or Jack Kirby and have the chance to draw every superhero and villain in the DC and Marvel catalog.
So I’m working on major books for the Big Two, mainly DC Comics as we go… and I have a chance to be in the forefront of a new way of telling these stories. I get to do my part. Slowly. I will get to have the chance to look on my wall, my bookcase, and see material I helped to bring into being. I get to take people’s minds off of a humdrum day for a couple of minutes and hopefully inspire them to dream, the way I dreamed when I was in my early teens. Creating comics in my bedroom and showing them to my friends to read as I was reading theirs. I know I can never give up on that. In whatever capacity, my purpose in this world is to tell stories and to fulfill a mandate I promised my God I would do.
And enjoy the journey.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment (www.verge.tv), a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and videogame developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, videogames, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.
Joseph has been a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and politics at Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books,” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
His latest project is “The Ren,” a 200-page graphic novel about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. “The Ren” will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
[“The Mission” banner designed by Gavin Motnyk.]
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