During the course of his decades-spanning career, Adam Hughes has penciled numerous comics for a number of publishers, from “Maze Agency” and “WildC.A.T.S./X-Men” to “Justice League America” and “Ghost.” In recent years, he’s devoted much of his time and energy to cover art, specifically focusing on work for DC Comics. There, he has spent long runs providing the covers for “Catwoman” and “Wonder Woman” along with dozens of other covers for a variety of miniseries like “Serenity” and “Rose and Thorn” and short runs on ongoing titles like “Power Girl.” This, of course doesn’t get into all the promotional, advertising, design and pin-up work that Hughes does.
Recently, DC published “Cover Run: The DC Comics Art of Adam Hughes,” an oversized coffee table book that details much of the work that Hughes has done for the publisher. Hughes himself spoke with CBR News about the book and his personal approach to cover art.
CBR News: You continue to do interior artwork as you’ve done throughout your career but it seems as if more and more, what we see from you is covers. What do you enjoy about cover art and in what ways do you find it limiting?
Adam Hughes: Cover art is enjoyable because it’s, by necessity, a dynamic image of some kind, intended to attract reader interest and attention. Drawing big dynamic imagery and telling a story of some kind in a single image is challenging and rewarding.Â Its limitation is that its entirety is confined to a single image, taken in at a single glance. You can’t build to a moment the way you can on the insides.
What do you think the ideal relationship should be like between the cover and the story inside the comic?
The ideal relationship is commercial. The sole job of the cover, be it comic, periodical, literary, whatever, is advertising. A comic cover is the last line in advertising, trying to get a potential reader to pick up the book. A cover stands on the street like a barker and entices people to come check out the show. It can also be the first line in storytelling, but that’s a bonus. It really doesn’t do anyone any good if a cover starts telling the story contained inside if no one is interested in picking the book up and trying to explore it.
What are the benefits and what do you enjoy about long runs as a cover artist like you did on “Catwoman” or “Wonder Woman?”
The benefits include having an address where the fans can find you. Your die-hard fans (God bless ’em) will hunt your work down wherever it lies. But your casual fans who only buy your work when they stumble across it? You’re 3 steps closer to that sale if they know where to find you every month. What I personally enjoy is getting to explore a character, the same as the folks doing the insides. It’s just explored differently.
Do you have any favorite characters you’ve worked on?
Definitely Catwoman. I could draw Selina all day.
Are there any creators who stand out for you as far as your working relationship and how you like to work with the writer or artist on a book?
Nope, and that’s on purpose. I don’t read the comics I do covers for, as a rule (beyond the script that gives my cover ideas). Invariably, the people working on the inside will ask me what they thought of the issue, and rightly so: they worked damn hard on it. But I’ve sometimes found myself in the tricky situation of doing the cover to a comic that’s not really that good (and, no, I’m not naming names). What do you say when someone who’s worked their ass off on a comic that you personally didn’t enjoy asks you what you thought? You either tell the truth and hurt their feelings, or you lie to their face. I hate being in that position, so I decided a long time ago that I don’t read the final comic.
What’s the specific challenge of working on female characters? There are some artists who draw women who are anatomically impossible, who overemphasize sexuality or go to absurd lengths to tone it down. What’s the key for you as far as balancing these elements and do you think that’s more complex than balancing elements with male superheroes?
I think portraying female superheroes well carries more challenges, surely. No one complains that Superman’s impossible physique distorts the self-image of young boys. And yet, young girls are apparently very, very fragile, I’m told. If you glamorize female characters the same way male ones are glamorized, you (along with Madison Avenue) are apparently driving little women into boob jobs they shouldn’t get. Is this true? I don’t know. All the women I know are pretty tough characters, and any self-consciousness they have about their personal appearances is their own hand-crafted baggage – they don’t blame Barbie for their insecurities. Blaming society or big business for an individual’s personal peccadilloes is an easy attack, and its over-use as a rhetorical tactic has weakened the argument (and hurt the case of the few who actually have been so affected). Most women are stronger than society gives them credit for, and what does it say about an individual who’s emotionally threatened by a cartoon drawing? I’m not built like Batman, but I don’t bitch about it. Life’s rough – get a helmet.
That being said, the challenge for me, personally, is making sure there’s an actual character under the breasts and behind the eyes. Yes, I draw women as pretty as I possibly can, but I try to make sure there’s the sense of a real person floating around in there somewhere. Selina Kyle is far more interesting to me because of her character traits than her looks. “Then why don’t you draw real looking women, Adam?” I get asked, usually by real-looking women who don’t actually buy comics. The answer is: things sell better when they are wrapped in pretty packages. We buy the cars that look nice, we listen to ideas that worded and presented interestingly, and we like our icons to be attractive. 4 out of 5 times, that attraction is physical beauty and/or handsomeness.
You have some great images on your deviantart page of Mina Murray, where there’s also a cover to the Voodoo miniseries back in 90s. They have a very different style than much of your work. Is this you just playing around with different elements?
Those images you mention are just my experimental forays into Art Nouveau, nothing more. The Art Nouveau movement is probably my favorite thing, eyeball-wise; it’s great fun to draw.
Just as an example because it’s so recent, you did a cover for “Wonder Woman” #600 and you also drew a pin-up page for the issue. I’m curious, do you approach a cover vs a pin-up differently in how you think about them and compose them?
No, not really. Since a pinup is on the inside, there’s less of a demand on catching the potential reader’s eye, so you can probably play around with more esoteric ideas.
Whose idea was it to assemble “Cover Run” and what did you want to include in the book?
Well, I’ve wanted a coffee table book of my work for a long time, and we finally broke DC’s resolve. What did I want to include in the book? everything. But we were locked into 208 pages from the onset, so we had to kill a few of the kids, as they say.
Finally, would you please take us through your process of putting together a cover?
When I’m given an assignment, I am either given a lot of editorial direction, or none at all. “Go do that voodoo that you do so well!”
I’ll do some concept sketches, and try to give the editor or art director what they want. Sometimes the sketch process is one of elimination. Many editors and art directors and clients don’t know what they want, just what they don’t want.
Once an idea is settled upon, I’ll start drawing for real. Lots of pencils and even more erasers. I make many mistakes on the way to a final piece of art. My style is based on drawing myself into corners and then creatively finding an exit strategy out.
At this stage, I’ll gather reference. Sometimes it’s nothing more than grabbing some fabric and seeing how the folds lay. Other times it involves getting someone to stand there and look pretty with the sunlight in their hair. I’m all for conveying a sense of naturalism in my work these days, so keeping an eye on the real world helps the assignment and it helps me learn more.
Once penciled, I usually ink the piece with India ink and a precision watercolor brush, like classic comic-book art. Sometimes I will do a grayscale illustration with pencil, marker, and/or inkwash. Regardless, once the black & white art is done, I scan it and then proceed to the Photoshop phase: color!
If it’s traditional, inked comic art, I will lay in the flat, unrendered colors first. I’ll try to establish the overall color theory and value contrast at this stage. Then, I go in to each flat colored area and render it with gradations of color and tone. Normally, I use the Lasso Tool or the Pencil Tool with customized brushes. I also use a mouse, not a stylus or tablet. This seems to amaze people, but that’s how I learned to do things.
If it’s a grayscale piece, I convert the file to CMYK Mode, and then proceed to treat the piece like a traditional painting. The hand-drawn art is like a monochromatic grayscale under-drawing. I then tint the tones to colors, making the piece more like an imprimatur. I’ll use anything from Channel Mixer to the Airbrush Tool set in Color Mode. I then go in and do my opaque highlights using the Pencil Tool.
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