Conversing on Comics with Pete Woods

In late 2011, when DC Comics relaunched its entire superhero line with the New 52, some characters were completely overhauled while others saw no changes at all. But with the debut last month of Justice League of America's Vibe, we saw writers Geoff Johns and Andrew Krisberg attempt to transform a D-list character -- a comic-book punchline -- into a new hero and a force to be reckoned with. The artist tapped to help make that happen was Pete Woods.

Beginning his career in the 1990s an intern at Wildstorm, Woods has quietly become a trusted artist in DC's stable. He's had extended runs on Robin and Catwoman, but his most celebrated work came when he partnered with writer Paul Cornell to give Lex Luthor a chance ot shine in Action Comics. Woods recently completed a run on Legion Lost, and split time doing brief stints on Aquaman as well as Marvel's Avengers Assemble while preparing for his current assignment on Vibe. He's an artist's artist, constantly refining his style and innovating in his approach. But he's also an editor's artists, consistently meeting deadlines.

I reached out to Woods to talk about his current gig, and discovered he's in the early days of switching up his style. After years of doing much of his work digitally, Woods decided to return to his roots and draw his pages the traditional way. The computer's still there for the odd task, but this 17-year comics veteran is going for a fresher, more organic style by doing it all by hand.

Chris Arrant: What are you working on today?

Pete Woods: Right now, I've got Justice League of America's Vibe on my desk. It's so much fun to draw!

What sold you on signing up for the project?

When DC pitched me Geoff and Andrew's outline, I fell in love. Vibe is good, old-fashioned comics: a young hero trying to learn the ropes, thrust into the national spotlight, problems at home, personal tragedy, and a bit of humor. It's everything I've ever wanted to do with superhero comics. Pure fun, with strong characters.

For this book, you’ve been able to redesign some characters. Can you tell us which ones you’ve put your stamp on?

Vibe's costume was designed by Jim [Lee]. So far I've only done Agent Gunn and Gypsy. Gypsy was a lot of fun. Once I had a good idea of the direction we were going I couldn't stop coming up with variations. I ended up with something like eight designs and we whittled it down, mixing and matching bits until we got her. I love being involved with the writers in character designs because the can bring elects of character to the table that I might not be aware of.

After years working exclusively for DC, I noticed you popped over to Marvel to do two issues of Avengers Assemble. Can you tell us what led to this, and is there an opportunity for you to play the field more in terms of who you work for in 2013?

The age of the exclusive contract for creators is fading, and in the end I think that will be a good thing for comics. There are so many great stories waiting to be told by great creators who haven't really had the opportunity before. In the end, it's the readers who are really going to benefit.

Marvel and I have spoken several times over the years about doing something, and the opportunity presented itself in the gap between Legion Lost and Vibe. Marvel's Tom Brevoort was kind enough to offer me a couple of issues of Avengers Assemble with the brilliant Kelly Sue DeConnick, and I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately that was the same time all our health issues came to a head, and I had to bow out halfway through Issue 2. Hopefully I get another opportunity there in the future!

I read on your Facebook page that you recently switched up your process for drawing by eliminating photo reference and the use of programs like Poser and SketchUp. That may not mean much to casual fans, but that seems monumental to me. How long have you been using those programs?

Well, I'm not eliminating those things completely, but I have changed my work process around a bit so that those are tools I go to as a last resort instead of the first step. It used to be that I would build background and vehicle models I would need after reading a script. Then I'd go through and do quick thumbnails of each page on Photoshop. After that I would shoot whatever photo reference I wanted and use Poser for shots that were impossible to capture on camera.

Now I do full sized layouts by hand. If a background is extremely complex I'll use a simple SketchUp model to establish the basics and build from there by hand. Now that I'm doing physical layouts rather than digital trying to work from a model is a lot more of a pain, so I try to avoid it. So far this week I haven't touched the digital process at all.

What led you to go back to basics?

I wasn't growing or learning anything. The work was losing its energy and expression. Trying to translate a photo is not what comics are supposed to be about. They're supposed to be showing you the impossible. They're supposed to be exciting. A photo simply can't capture the impossible and a 3D modeling program can't capture the pure energy of a hand drawn line.

What was it like in those first days without those tools?

Surprisingly easy. I expected to have a lot of trouble, but it was totally natural.

For readers, what would be the issue or page you’d pinpoint that fans can see you working with this freer hand?

Vibe #3 is the issue where I fully went back to basics.

Although you’re leaving some of your digital tools behind, I know you try to stay up to date on digital platforms for comic publishing such as DC’s digital-first book and the advent of companies like comiXology. As a professional and someone who knows the inside of these things, do you see new avenues opening up for comic professionals because of this?

I love doing work for DC Digital because I think they're being very smart about balancing digital and print. Also, they're just really nice people. I think comixology's new Submit program is brilliant and exactly what the digital side of comics publishing needs right now. It allows new creators and seasoned pros to do work that simply couldn't be supported by traditional print comics. For this industry to truly grow we have to start producing work that people who have no interest in superheroes would want to read. Digital provides a cheap way to make such things available to a large audience.

I stumbled upon an interesting fact while prepping for this interview: You’ve never had a late book, ever. On Facebook even, you jokingly say your job at DC is "deadline subduer." What is this strange magic you have, and how do you make something like that possible?

Honesty. Being truthful about how many pages I can complete in the time given and asking for help when I need it.

We've been dealing with a major health issue at home these past few months and they came to a head right when I had a bunch of work fall in my lap at once. I had to give up a lot of that work to take care of family, which is why in my books coming out in March you see I was only able to do half of the issues. Those calls where you have to admit you just can't get the work done before deadline are the hardest to make.

Also, I think I had at least one late book in my past. I must have. We've certainly been down to the wire more times than I like!

One of the high points of your work for me was those Lex Luthor-centric issues of Action Comics with Paul Cornell. Is it just me, or was that a big moment for you?

I loved that series so much. I got to work with Paul, who wrote three of the best Doctor Who episodes of the series. I also got to draw Robo-Lois, which was a stroke of brilliance on Paul's part and so much fun. The best part about the series though was being able to show Lex as a hero in a sense. I've always seen Lex as having the potential of being the greatest hero in the DC Universe, but his vanity keeps tripping him up. In the end that's what the "Black Ring" arc was all about.

Pulling back for a big picture before you go: What do you see as the key works of your career so far in comics?

Catwoman represented a big change for me who that holds a special place. The "Black Ring" arc of Action Comics because it was a good story and people loved it. I hope Vibe will be another one because I really believe the book is good comics.

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