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EXCLUSIVE: Redesigning the “Invincible Iron Man”

by  in Comic News Comment
EXCLUSIVE: Redesigning the “Invincible Iron Man”

Moviegoers may be lining up next week for their first full view of the future of Marvel Studios’ version of Tony Stark when “Iron Man 2” opens in North America on May 7, but the comic readers behind the armored superhero’s success saw the latest level of the character’s ongoing evolution last week in Matt Fraction and Salvadore Larocca’s “Invincible Iron Man” #25. But just like the creative team from the comics has had an influence on the Iron Man movie universe, the staff at Marvel Studios has played strongly into this latest four-color iteration of the character in the form of film Character Designer Ryan Meinerding’s redesign of the comic book armor.

As a Concept Artist and Illustrator, Meinerding has provided work for blockbuster genre movies including “Transformers 2” as well as “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2” and the upcoming and currently filming Marvel Studios slate like “Thor” and “The First Avenger: Captain America.” But his behind the scenes work was flipping to front page news amongst fans when Marvel announced they’d tapped Meinerding to create a new look for their marquee “Invincible Iron Man” series last January.

With the latest “Mark” of Tony Stark’s life-saving, villain-smashing suit having made its debut last week in “Invincible Iron Man” #25 - part one of the “Resiliant” arc - CBR News asked Meinerding to open up his Iron Man armor design sketchbook to explain the process of creating a new, liquid suit for Stark, his own comics past and how exactly the Marvel films and comics cross over.

CBR News: Ryan, just to give fans a little background on yourself and what you do, what can you tell me about your background in design both in terms of what your basic job responsibilities are when working on a movie or game and some of the specific work you’ve done in the past that folks may be able to pick out of projects like “Iron Man” and “Transformers 2”?

Ryan Meinerding: My job responsibilities usually include some kind of keyframe illustration as well as character design. The main part of my gig is to try to come up with iconic images that can inspire people and help push a project forward. On a day to day basis that usually means reading a script or a design brief and talking with the directors and producers about the project, thinking through as many design paradigms as I can, doing research, scrambling to get through as many paintings as possible and presenting them to my bosses. With some of the projects I’ve worked on I’ve gotten to art direct the progress of the character designs down the production pipeline, and others I’ve just been involved in the illustration and design phase.

On “Iron Man,” I designed the Mark 1, the boot test costume, one of the RT’s [or “Repulsor Technology,” Tony’s chest unit], worked with Adi Granov on Iron Monger and did keyframe illustrations that helped figure out a few sequences. On “Transformers 2” I worked on Sideswipe and the Arcee robots, and helped push Devastator and one of the Constructicons forward. I also worked on the costumes for “Watchmen,” but I can’t take the blame for slimming down Nite Owl.

In the end though, I’d like to think my main responsibility is to be true to the material I’m working on. I grew up with a lot of the properties I work on, and they mean a lot to me. I’ve been lucky enough to help develop some of my favorite characters (Sideswipe was one of my most cherished toys, even though I broke one of the damn doors off). I’d like to think I’m in there fighting the good fight.

Beyond that very cool and very specific movie stuff, what’s your background as a comics guy? Are you a regular Wednesday reader? What kind of titles do you pick up?

I’m a product of the ’90s, so I grew up reading the Image Comics guys’ body of work. Technically the first book I really got into was “Wolverine,” but I’ve always loved Spidey and Cap, and have been on and off with X-Men. My brother and I would hit the local cons and flea markets looking for any kind of deal on a McFarlane Spiderman, “Amazing” or otherwise. Guys that constantly inspire me from then till now are Jim Lee and Travis Charest (I always go back to that “X-Men/WildC.A.T.S” crossover he did - it’s amazing) and of course Alex Ross. Joe Quesada’s work on “Daredevil” is also awesome. That Kevin Maguire Captain America mini-series from the ’90s is so damn exciting, and I always had a soft spot for “Madman.” The weirder it got, the more I dug it. I really liked the Flash as well. As far as villains go, you can’t go wrong with Reverse Flash and his Cosmic Treadmill. Loved that stuff. I had an obsession with getting a “Flash” #1, the restart after Barry Allen died. I paid $7 for it, and was literally shaking when I got my grubby little hands on it. From there I got into a lot of Geoff Darrow stuff, from “Hard Boiled” to “Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot.”

More recently I’ve been lucky enough to get to read comics for work. As a result, the weekly reading I do is really focused on the project I’m working on. Marvel does a fantastic amount of research and dumps these huge stacks of material on the artists’ desks, so I keep entertained just doing my job. We read along with the Matt Fraction storyline during the production of “Iron Man 2,” and I really dug that and the artwork of Salvador Larroca. “Civil War” and “Secret Invasion” were a blast, too. I also really enjoyed reading through both “Captain America” Omnibuses and seeing how those stories wrapped up. Ed Brubaker’s work on “Captain America” is one of my favorites.

As far as my current fanboy tendencies, I really love Adi’s work. I have no idea how he gets the forms so perfect on all his images, and his suit designs are so refined and clean. I’m also a huge fan of Marko Djurdjevic, his covers are truly unbelievable. On the concept art side of things, Iain McCaig will always be a source of true inspiration for me, he is a neverending current of creativity. I still geek out realizing I’ve gotten to work with him.

How did the armor design gig come together? Had the editorial guys like Alejandro and Ralph and Joe Q been wanting to involve someone from the movie side in changing the design, and how did you specifically get called up for the gig, and what was your first reaction?

To be honest, I’m not sure how they came to the conclusion to use me, but I’m happy they did! I met Joe briefly on “Iron Man,” and he said he liked some of the keyframe images I had done. Based on that work, I got the chance to do a few covers, but from there I don’t really know how it moved forward. I got an e-mail from Joe asking if I’d be interested in doing a suit design for the comics, and of course I was blown away. I think that was during a particularly hectic week on “Thor,” and I was sort of newly inspired to have the chance to do something for the comics.

Obviously, the change in costume isn’t being brought on as some kind of promotional stunt. There’s a rhyme and reason for this in terms of the ongoing story of “Invincible Iron Man.” What were the initial ideas/instructons that Matt Fraction had laid out for you when you came on to start playing with the armor’s new look?

Matt outlined what he was looking for by saying he wanted to redefine Iron Man both literally and visually and make him into a “human bullet” with Tony basically becoming one with the suit. Matt was definitely interested in losing some of the bulk from the Extremis suit. He was pushing for very aerodynamic forms that were really close to the body and referenced combining some of the Iron Lad design with the Mark III movie suit. The Moebius Iron Man poster was also referenced. He really wanted to push the shininess and make him look like he’s always freshly waxed, and Joe was really interested in darkening the reds to almost black in some areas.

Traditionally, Iron Man’s armors have changed every few years and had their own “Era,” from the old school Silver and Gold models to the classic Avengers one through the Bob Layton design of the ’80s and right up to Adi’s most recent 21st Century take. Did you look back on some of the classic designs before you went into working up your own? What were some of the defining characteristics or visual ideas that you knew you had to include considering all the history there?

There are so many great Iron Man designs that it’s pretty hard to come up with something that isn’t inspired by the history in some way. Although the character has a long tradition of a changing design, the form language that makes him an icon is pretty firmly established…widow’s peak, square eyes and mouth, pronounced cheek bones, RT in chest and hands, usually gold biceps and thighs, some kind of gauntlet and boot and a bit of a shoulder pad. While the specific forms have changed from one version to the next, they really could all stand next to each other in one giant hall of armor. A lot of what I do for the movies is based around paying homage to one suit design or another (like with the Mark I), and I really think of the past suit designs as a fantastic source of inspiration. For the comic suit, I was specifically asked to look at Iron Lad and the Mark III movie suit. Since the basic direction was really based around staying close to the body and focusing on musculature, I also looked at Bob Layton’s run to see how to incorporate a few more round forms. I definitely tried to create different shapes and color break ups, but hopefully I hit all of the trademark characteristics that people would be looking for.

As far as the final design, I think that everyone giving feedback through this process had a slightly individual take on where the design should go as well. From listening to what Matt was looking for, it felt like he really wanted to push the design into a new place, and Joe and the editors were really concerned with paying homage to a lot of the fantastic designs that came before. It felt like a really great push and pull that focused me on the right path.

Digging into the design specifics on display, let’s start with the helmet. Some of the art I’ve got has a very smooth, almost liquid metal feel, with portions of the facemask sliding all the way back across the top of Iron Man’s head and having their own unique design twists, while others are more “mecha-y” with sharp lines and a shorter mask. Which effects did you like the best on that front and why?

Since the concept is a liquid metal suit, I did think there was a chance to do something that could be more organic, actually breaking some of the Iron Man rules. It’s a hard thing though…what Phil Saunders and Adi Granov did with the Mark III helmet in the first movie is pretty amazing. It’s definitely my favorite Iron Man head shape and carves a niche that distinctly says Iron Man. It’s powerful and expressive at the same time. So while I really wanted to try something drastically different, I was finding that a lot of the designs I was gravitating toward were a little closer to the Mark III. I think my favorite design is #4. It felt like it took the Mark III and twisted it into a slightly more organic direction while still feeling strong. But unfortunately for me, Joe liked that one the least! I’m happy with what we ended up with, though, I can’t wait to see it drawn regularly in the comics.

Another aspect which jumps out both in the helmet designs and in the full suit models is your variation of color and tone for the suit with some versions being much darker and shinier than others. Was this a result of your playing with what kind of materials you thought would be used or just an effect of basic sketchwork versus how the design would ideally look when finished?

Yeah, it was basically an exercise in seeing what the final material is, but also in testing what the fast graphic read for the designs would be. Drawing is so much about basic shapes that I wanted to be able to decide on the design based on how clearly it could read without all the fancy surfacing.

When it comes to the full suit designs, there’s also a lot of variation here. Some of your takes feel a bit more “muscle-y” and sometimes rugged, while others are very smoothed out. The final design seems a good combo of both styles. Through what process did you find the right balance of elements?

The balance really came by trying to find a stylization of the plates that could read as machinery but not as strictly mechanical as the Extremis suit and not as strictly human as many of the more classic designs. To me, the concept of a “human bullet” means that some of the musculature needs to be abstracted and smoothed over in the design, otherwise his basic form would end up feeling too much like the Silver Surfer. The second too much of that musculature dictates the design is the second it tends to feel like you’re trying to design something overtly inspired by the older suits. Well, it either does that or it just feels too busy! Joe and the editors were really conscious of how many small forms I was including. If a character just has abs as the design, artists can abstract that and come up with a beautiful drawing. When the abs become plates and mechanical forms though, there’s not a whole lot of ways to simplify that without feeling like they’re doing a different design. They instructed me to be more economical with them so the suit wouldn’t be a complete bear to draw for the artists. In the end, I tried to really simplify the suit into the red and gold areas and allow the plates within those areas to be secondary reads.

The last specific design flourish that I think really sets this armor apart from previous Iron Man costumes is the multiple RT lights spread around the chest and the rest of the costume. You really let that power pop up in a few key places. What was the impetus for this element of the design, and how do you think it came out based on all the other versions you attempted?

From the start Joe mentioned the idea of multiple RT’s. I did a few versions without that as a major theme, and in the end everyone seemed to respond to the designs when I worked them into the design a little more specifically. It was a bit of a challenge to find a strong design that didn’t immediately read as a face the first time you looked at it, but I hope the final works out fine.

“Invincible Iron Man” #25 is in stores now. “Iron Man 2” opens in North America on May 7.

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