When superhero fans picked up last month's issue of Marvel Comic's best-selling "Hulk" ongoing series, they were greeted with a shock to the system when they saw the finished pages of artist Ian Churchill. Known throughout this industry for his fine crosshatching and heroic proportions, the penciler's "Hulk" work hews closer to an animated influence with smooth lines and expressive cartooning. Perhaps no one was more surprised by the change than "Hulk" writer Jeph Loeb, who described the switch in an interview with CBR earlier this year saying, "imagine you were dating a girl for three years, and she turns to you and said, 'I don't want to speak English to you anymore, I want to speak French.' And you go, 'What are you talking about?' And she says to you in French, 'I'm French, and I've always spoke French...until I met you in which case I only spoke English.' And you're sitting there going, 'Wait...what?!?'"
With his second issue - "Hulk" #15 -Â hitting stores earlier this week, CBR contacted Churchill to talk about the change, and the artist joked, "I think what Jeph was getting at was that he didn't realize that the style I've been drawing in all these years is a cultivated one!" before explaining how early editorial notes took him down the path fans are familiar with.
"Basically, when I got in to comics back in the early 1990's my first work was for Marvel, and the E-i-C at the time was Bob Harras," the artist explained. "I was out to lunch with Bob one day and asked him how I was to get more work from Marvel and his answer was 'Well, you could draw a little more like Jim Lee because that's what's selling well at the moment.' So, being quite young and out to make a splash, I started to adapt my drawing style to emulate, rather than copy, Jim's style. I began to get more projects offered to me, and it kind of snowballed from there. I certainly couldn't grumble as it has served me well over the years, but I've always felt like a square peg being forced into a round hole as a result."
Churchill went on to note that in the occasionally cutthroat world of comics freelance, it's usually best to stick with what's working. "The thing is, once you get recognised for drawing a certain way, then the editors who provide you the work expect you to draw that way; that's why they hire you. It's a business at the end of the day, and they want to sell comic books so they hire artists who have a specific 'look' to achieve that goal. Consequently, it becomes tougher and tougher to change your style once you become established as A) you don't want to let your employer down, B) your fans down, and C) you don't want to run the risk of the work flow drying up. I suppose the way around that situation would be to get a reputation for changing your approach and drawing style to suit each different project from early on in your career, such as Tim Sale has done - but that never occurred to me at the time."
Some of Churchill's "Hulk" thumbnails
Ultimately, the spark for the stylistic change didn't even come from Churchill's desire to embrace different influences. His motivation was medical. "The catalyst of the change was my shoulder problem," he said of the injury that halted his last high-profile gig. "Going back about three years now, I started to get a pain in my shoulder on my drawing arm whenever I drew for any length of time, and as everyone knows, pencilers spend hours at a time at the drawing board - it's a very time consuming job.
"Anyway, the pain got worse and worse, and by the time I was drawing the 'Titans East' special and 'Titans' #1, it felt like I had crushed glass lubricating my shoulder joint! As a result, I had to have a combination of two operations at once, which meant the healing time was doubled, and it didn't heal satisfactorily, so I had to have yet another operation on it after that! It put me out of the game for the best part of two years, during which I had constant work - thankfully - from Sonia Choi at DC Licensing, which was a godsend as I could just about manage figure drawing, but little else, and certainly not for extended periods."
Eventually, longtime collaborator Loeb reached out with the possibility of Churchill drawing a stint on "Hulk" in the place of regular artist Ed McGuinness -Â an offer the artist had to turn down once, before finding a solution. "[Jeph] approached me [for the second time] about it shortly before Christmas of 2008, and although my shoulder was getting better, I was still hesitant as I knew what the work would entail and didn't want to screw up the healing process. But it's hard to resist Jeph's powers of persuasion, and in the end I said yes. I drew the first couple of covers in the usual style, but after I explained that It would have less impact on my shoulder if I drew 'Hulk' in a more stylised version of my natural style rather than my usual style, and that it would also be less of a jarring shift from Ed's stuff, Jeph and [editor Mark Paniccia] said 'okay go for it,' and it evolved from there."
From a story perspective, the "Code Red" arc that Churchill is drawing has been touted as an integral piece of the ongoing "Who Is the Red Hulk?" mega-mystery, but for his part, the artist is focusing mostly on making his pages mesh well with the tone McGuinness set for the book in his previous work. "I didn't know all that much about Red Hulk going in, so that probably helped," Churchill said of adapting his style. "Ed's stuff has a very bold visual signature to it, and one thing Jeph was specific about was that he wanted to retain the heavy use of blacks that Ed likes to use, so I accommodated that - the pages are much more black heavy than I would usually do. Mark Farmer inked Ed on some of the previous issues and is the inker on my run as well, which has also helped to keep things consistently in line with Ed's portrayal. I've also been trying to keep my pencils a little looser than usual to give Mark more freedom to play and add his own touches."
The centerpiece of "Code Red" is the introduction of the new Red She-Hulk, whom Churchill described as "big, bold, brash and fun to draw. One of the things Jeph dangled when trying to convince me to jump on board was that I'd get to design Red She-Hulk. So he described what he had in mind, which was basically a red version of She-Hulk but in a slick black Nick Fury type outfit, and I did a few thumbnails and came up with an outfit that I thought looked kinda cool. I had some fishnet panels in the outfit that Jeph wasn't keen on, and I suggested that seeing as it was his and Ed's book, and that I was just filling in, that Ed design her and I would just go with how Ed saw her. Jeph emailed Ed's design through, which everyone thought was cool - a tattered look with a vest ripped open with a lot of cleavage and wild red streaks in her hair! However it seemed to me that a gust of wind and her whole chest would have been on display! So I added the belt around her chest to hold everything together, which Jeph loved, and then we were off.
"I've made her quite a heavy built girl with a physique more in line with a female bodybuilder, she has big arms and biceps, which I thought would be a little different and more appropriate to a character who has a more physical nature to her rather than the usual super heroine body type. Whether Ed chooses to continue down that road or not, we'll soon see!" teased Churchill, adding that, despite returning to old favorites on the arc like Wolverine and Domino, "the character I've really taken to is Thundra, which was a bit of a surprise. I always liked it when she'd show up in the 'Fantastic Four' when I was a kid, but I never thought I'd ever get to draw her. So thanks to Jeph for that."
The connection and shorthand between Churchill and Loeb should come as no surprise as the creators have paired on a bevy of comics over the years, from "Cable" and "Avengers" through "The Coven" and on to "Supergirl." Known as an "artist's favorite" writer, Loeb continually earns credit from Churchill because "he always manages the perfect balance between action and high drama so you never get bored, whether you happen to be the penciler or the reader he'll keep things interesting - he just knows how to get the beats right. Although he writes full script these days, nothing is ever set in stone and he gives the artist he's working with a lot of freedom to breathe, artistically speaking. I haven't asked for anything different than usual, he does his thing and I do mine, and together we just have fun and it seems to work."
For his next project, Churchill will be swinging away from his Big Two work for a bit as he explained, "Unless I get an offer from Marvel or DC that I simply can't refuse, then my plan is to proceed, after much encouragement from Richard Starkings - creator of the 'Elephentmen' - with my creator-owned property - 'Marineman' -Â which I'm planning to publish through Image Comics. He's an underwater character I created when I was around eight or nine years old, and I'm really looking forward to getting it all out of my head so I can finally sleep at night! But that's a whole other interview entirely! I've also been talking to Robert Kirkman about doing something with him, so as long as my shoulder doesn't take a turn for the worse, I have plenty to look forward to."
And when the time comes to go creator-owned, will Churchill be using his classic cross-hatched style or his current clear-lined take? "I think most commercial artists have a number of different styles they can employ for a given project, I know I have. In the future I think i'll be gravitating towards a style that I find more comfortable. Having said that, I wouldn't rule out reverting to my expected style if the project called for it."