Conversing on Comics with Marko Djurdjević

Marko Djurdjević arrived on the comics scene in 2007 from video games, quickly becoming one of the most in-demand cover artists and character designers. Marvel signed the German artist to an exclusive agreement despite his lack of comics experience, but over the next four years he created covers for virtually every major franchise and tapped to design and redesign characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Lady Bullseye, Quasar and the rogue's gallery for the 2011 event series Fear Itself.  But after four years producing three to five coversa month and interior work on a select basis, Djurdjević decided to take a break from comics and return to gaming.

Fast-forward three years, and Djurdjević is the founder of a highly sought-after creative services studio called SIXMOREVODKA, which provides character design, concept art, illustrations and more for high-end video games like Batman: Arkham Origins and Killzone as well as RPGs, movies and art books. With a staff of 11 working side by side with 11 other artists in their Berlin offices, SIXMOREVODKA is firmly established and thriving enough for Djurdjević to begin plotting a return to comics on his own terms, working on his own creations.

I spoke with Djurdjević by phone about his comics work, his decision to leave the exclusive deal he had with Marvel. Although Djurdjević remains tight-lipped about the exact nature of his creator-owned comics venture, this interview provides an inside look at an artist you may only know by his covers.

Chris Arrant: You left mainstream comics in 2011, and originally this interview was intended to catch people up on where you’ve been. However, it's turned into teasing your return. Before we get to that, can you talk about SIXMOREVODKA and the work you’ve been doing in video games?

Marko Djurdjević: My main priority (even before I left Marvel) was to start my own company. The last year I was at Marvel, I was also building my company. I always wanted to be my own boss and do work that had a broader range of topics than just comic books. After five years of doing covers for comics, I felt almost burnt out on it. Each one had the same basic premise and the same basic characters, and the challenges were the same – make sure there was room for logo placement and always make room for a certain kind of action for the character in the cover. It started to really feel like a day job and I needed a break from that. I wanted to go back to doing what I was doing before: designing characters, creating new ideas and coming up with fresh approaches to things. I began to clearly see the limitations of doing comic covers as a day job and I didn’t want to keep repeating that never-ending path.

Then came an opportunity to get back into video games – which is what I was doing before Marvel – and I jumped right back into it. With SIXMOREVODKA, I was able to build an art team that inspires me and who I can help as well. We became a really good outsourcing studio for video game companies, and from there it just grew. I never planned on it being as big as it is now, but it grew organically to this size. We’ve managed to pull in a few really good gigs and we’ve been doing this for about three years now.

Of this work you’ve done since Marvel, what are you most proud of?

Well, Batman: Arkham Origins was just released, and we did a majority of the character work in that game. A lot of games we have worked on have tight non-disclosure agreements, so in some cases I can’t tell the projects we worked on. And some aren’t even out yet; some of the work we did in 2011 is just now being released. The period of time between pre-production and a final release is far different in video games than comics. We do things two to three years in advance in video games and we can’t talk about the projects until they’re released.

But yeah, the newest thing is Batman: Arkham Origins and we also did a lot for Killzone Shadow Fall as well.

For many comics fans, you came onto the scene out of nowhere in late 2006. I remember just before that you did some redesigns of the X-Men for fun – is that what broke you into comics?

Yes. It all started with those infamous X-Men redesigns that I did for fun. I did them in my spare time and uploaded them to the Internet, and they were seen by Joe Quesada at Marvel. He immediately told Marvel’s former head of talent management, Chris Allo, to get me on board. Basically saying, “Why is this guy not working for us?” That’s how I got to Marvel.

That particular moment in time was a transitional period for me: I was living in San Francisco, but I was thinking about moving back to Europe. My job was in San Francisco and I couldn’t just leave, so the Marvel deal around at a perfect time; it gave me steady work I could on my own so I could move back to Europe.

You became one of the most prevalent cover artists in comics by the time 2008 and 2009 hit, but you also did a number of superhero designs and redesigns – the Fantastic Four but also new characters like Wraith and Lady Bullseye. How would you describe your approach to superhero costume design?

There are so many approaches you can take. The question for me is how realistic it can be in comparison to how fantastic it can be. Certain jobs ask for different approaches. When I designed Lady Bullseye, I was approaching it completely differently than how I approached Wraith or the villains from Fear Itself. It literally comes down to what you’re trying to tell as a story. With Lady Bullseye, I wanted it to look iconic; to function like a logo that you can instantly remember even if she’s just a small figure in one panel on a page. For the Fear Itself villains, I wanted them to be larger than life, somewhat reminiscent of religious deities that come to Earth. I am of course influenced by design aspects from video games but also by old-school Jack Kirby designs. When you’re designing a character with a hope it’ll last, there are a lot of choices you have to make that come down to either adding or leaving things behind in pursuit of that final design. On one hand it can’t be too complicated because someone else will have to draw it hundreds of times in individual panels in comics, but on the other hand it can’t bee too simplistic either, as it will become boring to the eye fast. Many things play a role in deciding the final look of the character, along with making them recognizable.

Inventing characters for comics can be hard. In video games you don’t have any actual constraints except for animation. There, a character is modeled and thus it can be placed, posed and put into any type of environment. In comics each movement of a character has to be physically drawn by hand; if it’s too complicated, too intricate, too shapeless, too organic it can be hard to draw.

Do you have a favorite design you did during your time at Marvel?

My favorite times were when I felt like I could really add something new to the Marvel Universe. But it wasn’t specific jobs I remember as strongly as the time periods doing it. But if I had to answer, I think I enjoyed doing the more obscure characters. Not the famous ones like the Avengers or Spider-Man; tons of artist have already done the best work on them and there’s not much I can add to something like that. With more obscure characters, its fun because they haven’t been explored in full yet. For example, my very first Blade covers were fun, as was my run on Daredevil in featuring some of his ensemble cast and villains. I especially enjoyed the more grounded characters.

Do you have a favorite design that someone else has done in comics?

I don’t look at it from that perspective. When I look at characters, I tend to look at what could be done better.

Like you’re always working!

[laughs] Yes. It’s like asking a cook what is favorite dish is; it’s a terrifying question. When I look at characters, be it ones I designed or someone else’s, I’m always looking at possibilities of "what could be done to it; what could be added, what could be taken away … what could be done to make the character better."

OK then – what about inspiration? Who do you look for or where to you draw from for inspiration?

I’m inspired most by working alongside other artists. It’s the main reason I wanted to start SIXMOREVODKA in the first place. I get the most inspiration by being in a room, working together with people. At the end of the day we’re all monkeys: If you see other monkeys doing it, you do it.

I’ve worked from home before and I’m not good at it. I need other artists around; I need the feedback, I need to see other people drawing. I need to be inspired, to catch fire and to do my best work. It’s really tough to work from a basement or a living room or in a small office.

Most artists who work in a studio setting still have a home office of some sort – do you?

Not at all. I don’t work from home at all. When I need to work, I come here. I work 18-hour days with these guys and then go home and relax.

You seem to be having a good time with SIXMOREVODKA doing work on video games, but do you have plans to do a project of your own – that you own – either in video games, comics, animation, or something?

I’m definitely working on something. It’s a passion project of mine but I don’t want to spoil too much of it at this point. But I can say this – it is comics.

The main thing about coming back to comics is returning with a story I feel like I have the need to tell – something not related to existing franchises. I’ve done enough of that in my life. I’ve been telling stories and doing art for other people’s franchises for almost 18 years. It’s time I use what I’ve learned on my own stories, my own plots, my own ideas.

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