Ethan Van Sciver Sings the Blues

By Shaun Manning and Kiel Phegley

Though panel programming at the recent Wizard World Chicago Comic Con was notably scaled back from recent years, a Saturday afternoon session with Ethan Van Sciver proved that it doesn't take major announcements to get fans excited. Famous for reinvigorating two DC Comics icons in "Green Lantern Rebirth" and "Flash Rebirth" with writer Geoff Johns, Van Sciver is, it turns out, also an accomplished musician - at least when it comes to parody. During his Chicago panel, Van Sciver spoke with Wordballoon.com's John Siutress about his career and entertained fans with a few songs on a baby grand piano.

The panel advertised that Van Sciver would be playing some tunes, but as it opened, there was a problem: no piano had materialized. With fans already seated, the artist wondered aloud, "How would they get a piano in here, now?" Nevertheless, a representative from the convention center assured him that one would be made available as soon as possible.

Until the instrument's arrival, Van Sciver talked about his beginnings as an artist. "When I was a kid, my dad was painting the Osmonds' house - we lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, and he was painting Jimmy Osmond's goddamn house white. I remember crawling around, being in there, just a little kid, and this one guy, it could have been Jimmy Osmond, said, 'Hey, you're a good kid - buy yourself a treat,' and he gave me a dollar bill." Van Sciver used the dollar to buy a three-pack of Superman comics, noting that while in most cases "they'd put two good ones on the outside and like 'Rom Space Knight' #68 on the inside - dammit," the pack he chose contained all Superman comics. "Immediately, looking through at these colorful pictures of superheroes, I had to learn to draw them," Van Sciver said.

"What I would do is, I'd take a piece of paper and fold it a million times, so there'd be all these little box shapes. I'd fill them with superheroes, all the superheroes I knew. Oftentimes, they'd be naked - I don't know why," he continued, to laughter.

"At some point, someone started to tell me I was good. When you're a kid, when you're told you're good at something, it's very encouraging and makes you want to do more of it." Van Sciver said, while he isn't sure whether he really was a good artist at this point, he's remembered the lesson and applies it with his own son.

"In third or fourth grade, [a teacher] said, 'You know, we have an advanced art class that meets after school.' So I'm sitting there, this little kid around all these older kids, and we have these Maybelline ads, and we were supposed to copy them perfectly," Van Sciver continued. "That was the first time I received instruction and criticism, and I ate it up. I loved it."

In sixth grade, Van Sciver entered a gifted program, which he said taught him to believe in his own ideas. The class entered a nationwide contest sponsored by Life Cereal to write and storyboard an original commercial. While this was meant to be a full-class collaboration, Van Sciver was unhappy with his classmates' concept for the ad. "They said, 'Let's do this Cinderella story,' or something similar - it was a very mediocre idea. I said, 'I think my idea's better.' I had this grand, 'Thus Spake Zarathustra' kind of an idea, this big, ambitious idea for a commercial, and they looked at me like I was insane." Van Sciver got permission from his teacher to do his version of the project alone. "I won the nationwide contest."

In the midst of this story, the piano arrived, causing momentary interruptions as Van Sciver praised the instrument and fans moved chairs aside to make room for it in the aisle. His first selection of songs included a cover of Limp Bizkit's "Rollin'" and original compositions "You Look Stupid in Your Coffin" and "Wolverine is Gay," both of which Van Sciver described as "the worst song I've ever written." The latter includes lyrics like "Wolverine is gay / I learned the hard way," and "Mr. Wolverine, that's not what a fastball special is!"

After the first set, Van Sciver discussed working with big-name yet stylistically distinct writers like Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison."Grant Morrison writes scripts like dream interpretation. Like this is a dream journal - he dreamt it happening and then wrote it all down. You read it and go, 'I see what you mean.' Then you try to draw it, and it doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

"He told me one time, in a script for 'New X-Men' #134, in a scene I didn't end up drawing - Keron Grant got it after I was fired from Marvel - he said, 'I want you to picture this: a bunch of mutant students are holding hands in a circle, and they're concentrating and levitating the planet Earth above them, and suddenly Beak runs by squawking, and it breaks their concentration and the globe falls and shatters.' And I feel I can picture that, I know what you mean. Then I sat down to draw it, and it was like, 'What the Hell is he talking about? Where is this happening? What is the globe, is it some astral projection? Is it a real, physical thing? The whole thing doesn't make sense.' You have to sit down and invent things and answer questions for yourself, because Grant is not available by telephone. I did, in fact, draw the first six pages of it a certain way, then I went back to DC; Keron Grant finished it and drew a completely different way."

Geoff Johns, by contrast, "leaves things open to interpretation, but they're things that as an artist you're comfortable with. If not, he's always there to answer your phone call and go, 'Dude!'"

At this point, Van Sciver stepped back to discuss breaking in as an artist in the 1990s with "Cyberfrog," which he wrote and drew. His story began with him working at a T-shirt airbrushing cart at the local mall. "It was 1993, so dudes would come up to me and say, 'Can you do a big pot leaf and have it say "Insane in the Membrane?" And then on the back have this dude with an uzi and big feet?' Yeah, I guess?" Van Sciver said that everyone who worked the cart wanted to draw comics, and he would show "Cyberfrog" pages to his coworkers.

"Eventually, I decided to find a publisher. I found this company in Elkhart, Indiana, a born-again Christian comic book company, that were publishing Christian versions of Spawn. It was like Spawn, kind of, but he was helping Jesus, who appeared to him with a sword and covered in blood, on a horse and everything - really crazy stuff, to me. I was raised with some Christian stuff in my life, but I'd never seen Jesus drenched in blood before, like I was witnessing here. So they published "Cyberfrog." I did two issues with them and then it was picked up by Harris Comics."

Van Sciver advised those who would like to break into comics to self-publish their original work. "I had a published comic book in my hands that I could show to people. It's like a business card. Rather than your portfolio, 'Here are pages that might be a comic someday,' actually having a comic and handing it out to people means that you have done a comic before and could potentially do another one."

Then, Van Sciver returned to the piano for his "Body Odor Trilogy," three songs that acknowledge the sweat of others and the artist's own, followed by "a love song to BP" and "When Star Trek is Over," which expresses his dislike of the series.

Returning to his career retrospective, Van Sciver said that "Flash: Iron Heights" was "almost a Batman story" and stemmed from combining villains that Geoff Johns had imagined at thirteen years old with Van Sciver's horror sensibilities. "Girder, he drew, and I said, 'Let's think of this prison as a really nasty place to be. Iron Heights, which is the prison in the Flash's hometown, is underground, it's dripping with water, it's rusty, the people down there are all dying of pneumonia. So if we have a guy like Girder, who was once a Colossus-style supervillain, he's orange, he's corroded, he coughs dust, his hair is like brillo, it's all grown out, he's got a beard now.' You get excited by stuff like that, you can picture this place; now let's fill it with other inhabitants."

The next step was to create the book's central villain. Van Sciver described the process of imagining Murmur with Johns as a true collaboration. "Here's a guy who has Tourrette's syndrome in the sense that he commits these murders and can't help but confess to them. So he cuts out his own tongue in prison and sews his mouth shut, does whatever he can do to get himself to stop talking." The artist then told a story about his time in upstate New York, where a neighbor made maple syrup in his front yard. "I don't know what it is, everybody thinks they can make maple syrup up there." The neighbor had walleye, a trait which Van Sciver gave to Murmur. The artist said that the neighbor later set a mountain on fire. "I was in a weird place when I was doing 'Iron Heights.'"

Van Sciver insisted that heroes work best when set against monsters, which he set about proving in both "Flash" and "Green Lantern." He added, though, that a lot of horror in comics fails to thrill. "If it doesn't upset you, if it doesn't give you nightmares, if it doesn't look like something that shouldn't be, something from your subconscious, it doesn't work.

"The thing that really bothered me about 'Green Lantern' was so many of the artists that draw the other 7200 aliens do these really bland, boring things - lizard men with the Green Lantern symbol. There's no imagination. What might there be on all these other planets - you can do anything you want!"

For "Sinestro Corps," Van Sciver's goal was to "make the most terrifying, nastiest aliens we possibly can." He said that Kryb came out of this effort, but was originally going to be used in an "Iron Heights" sequel called "Fear of Heights," which would focus on the death penalty. "Keystone is a very conservative town, they're all for it - execute these guys," Van Sciver said. "The first problem emerges with this woman named Kryb. She is this mutated, awful thing [...] and she'd come into your house and eat your baby. Anyway, they eventually caught her and put her in prison, and they're going to put her to death, but her lawyer says, 'Wait a minute, those babies are still alive in my client. Essentially, if you run electricity through her, you're going to kill all these babies.'"

Van Sciver said that he will be introducing Earth's Sinestro Corps member in "Untold Tales of Blackest Night" #1, a character named Voodoo Doll. "She creates yellow pins, sticks herself with them and they go through your head. So it's this weird form of self-mutilation that happens to you, and she can put up with it." He said that next year will see Earth-based Lanterns for all of the corps.

He also discussed reinventing Sinestro as a more fearsome character, which involved the artist showing Dan DiDio sketches of his take on Hal Jordan's classic arch-nemesis. "So many times, you have ideas that cannot be expressed in words - you have to show them. You can say, 'I know you think Sinestro is this, because you've seen him on "Superfriends." You think he's this cackling goofball. But he's not! He's really Hitler, he's a fascist dictator!'" Van Sciver said. He described the first change as suggesting Sinestro should wear yellow instead of his traditional blue costume. "People go, oh, that's a big change. Let me just show you. Let me show you what you could have instead of what you have now."

Van Sciver returned to the piano for another set, beginning with a Christmas song about a kid who will be suffering through the holiday, giftless. This was followed by what Van Sciver described as "a happy song for me," a song about having a well-equipped bomb shelter with lines like "It won't seem so dumb / When the zombies come / And I'm watching 'What's My Line.'" He ended with a medley of "Hangin' Tough," "TiK ToK" ("the worst song I've ever heard in my entire life"), "Take On Me" and "The Power of Love."

Returning to the topic of his Sinestro Corps story, Van Sciver said, "This is the first time I'm writing something!" adding that,"Cyberfrog didn't really count, because it was this train of thought kind of thing." He said he had learned a lot from writers like Johns and Morrison.

"I can't rely on other people to convey my ideas all the time, any more than it's fair to ask me to always convey other people's ideas," he said of turning to writing. Van Sciver noted, however, in recent years artists have been given short shrift in creative recognition. "There's a real sense that the artist is the dog, the pocket dog, and the writer is Paris Hilton." By way of example, he said that in the popular perception, "Watchmen" is "Alan Moore's work that Dave Gibbons drew," but added that "I read 'Killing Joke' for Brian Bolland."

Later in the weekend, Van Sciver put on an encore performance as part of Saturday night's annual "100% Cotton" Q&A led by "Wizard" Editor Mike Cotton. At the late night affair, the artist sang songs about cannibalism, men who smell bad and Gail Simone before taking the opportunity to announce a few upcoming projects.

Van Sciver confirmed that in the coming year he'll be pitching in on "a major DC Comics event," but that the majority of his focus will be launching three new creator-owned horror series at DC's WildStorm imprint, including a relaunch of his "Cyberfrog" title.

"The way to work in life and the way to deal with your job is to learn how to get paid more to do less," Van Sciver said, hitting a frequent theme of his during the panel which was comic artists reclaiming creative control of the industry. "This is something to strive for. Don't work harder, work smarter and get someone else to work for you if you can. Maybe this is hypocritical, but I'm trying to escape the shackles that are on me by putting them onto other people. I see it as job creation, essentially. So I plan to create these three books - start them, write them, draw the first issues and do covers - and then I'll hire a writer and an artist on each book to take the books forward. That way I can keep my ideas out there without expending so much of my own energy devoted to getting just one series out. Those are my plans for the future."

Speaking further on the projects and "Cyberfrog" in particular, the artist described his interest in horror saying, "I have entire gigantic bookshelves loaded with horror DVDs. If you're a fan, your eyes would go 'Ka-Boom.' I buy everything. All the books I'm going to do are horror oriented because I'm doing them mainly for me as if I was going to read them. I find that most horror comics really suck, and they're not scary at all. There are a few horror movies that I've seen that get under my skin and upset me, and most of them are directed by David Lynch. They look like waking nightmares. These are things stripped from my subconscious that are up there on the screen, and I don't know what they mean and they're upsetting. That's the kind of horror I want to do.

"All three books are horror, including the 'Cyberfrog' relaunch. I'll tell you a little about it. Cyberfrog was gone for ten years. While he was gone, there was an invasion of aliens. Cyberfrog has been underground, hibernating and healing from this horrible alien bee invasion. He was so arrogant, cocky and lazy that he was sent to Earth to stop this from happening, and he's been busy watching 'Maury Povich.' So he let it happen, and he's been healing ever since. Ten years later, he comes out of the ground - he's been healed, he's been re-calibrated, his memories have been reset. He doesn't have much of a sense of humor anymore, because he's still putting himself back together.

"He comes back to see the world has been utterly devastated by these monstrous, skeletal bees and hornets and wasps. What they do is come down and chew up human flesh to turn it into paper and then paper over buildings. So all of Manhattan is now this enormous hive for these things, and they feast on human blood as pollen and make honey out of it. They will drain your blood, turn it into honey and feed their queen, and they're progressively moving west. What's left of humans - including Cyberfrog's best friend Heather, who he saved before he was basically killed, and is married with a kid now - are pushing west and trying to survive as the bees come closer."

Van Sciver also promised some appearances by Salamandroid, Cyberfrog's big brother in the series. Overall the artist is excited to return to the series he calls "Cyberfrog: Blood Hunt," not only because he's grown as an artist but because "the character, to me, still looks really cool and has a lot of potential."

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