Though he's worked in the comics game for over 15 years, ask almost any superhero fan what they think of when they hear artist Rags Morales' name, and the answer will invariable be "Identity Crisis." The 2004 book created with novelist Brad Meltzer launched a new era of big events for DC Comics and proved a massive (if controversial) sales success. Now after four years away, Morales returns to the heroes of DC's biggest superteam in a two-part story arc starting this month in "Justice League of America" #32 - of course, fans won't be seeing exactly the same crew he drew for Meltzer in the new Dwayne McDuffie-penned tale.
"In this particular arc that I'm working on, the characters I'm dealing most with are Kimiyo, the female Doctor Light; Firestorm; John Stewart; Vixen; a tiny bit of Black Canary and a bit with Superman who talks with Canary at the beginning of #32," Morales told CBR. "But the first four are the main characters I'm dealing with. Those characters, I haven't dealt with too much, maybe John Stewart the most, but they're all kind of new. And because of what I felt were the ill-advised directions in 'Identity Crisis,' I'm trying to get back to drawing superheroes the way people remember them with respect, of course, to making them look slightly different from each other."
Overall, those remain Morales' marching orders with his brief "Justice League of America" run: to improve on his past. "The funny thing is that I feel like I'm going back and fixing things that I did wrong in 'Identity Crisis,'" Morales revealed. "If you recall, back in 'IC,' there was a lot of talk of me using model sheets or having someone in particular in mind [for each character], and for me there are parts of it that failed. The feeling with iconic characters like Superman and Batman is that it's smarter to go with 'character' as opposed to 'who should play this character?' There's a different feel with that."
In a way, the current incarnation of the JLA presents the perfect opportunity for Morales' return, seeing as the run saw its kick-start at Meltzer's hands and this story features the villain Starbreaker - a cosmic vampire who debuted in the legendary "satellite era" of the Justice League in the '70s, which heavily influenced Meltzer and the entire modern state of the franchise. However, Morales quickly noted that the villain's involvement didn't signify that this story would be all nostalgia action.
"Despite the fact that Starbreaker is involved -Â as well as Shadowthief who plays a kind of Igor to Starbreaker's Dr. Frankensten -Â as the antagonist, we're doing a whole thing with the Milestone characters coming in, and it's honestly a pretty introspective story," Morales explained. "There's a lot of dialogue between the characters about the state of the JLA. In that regard, I don't feel at all that it calls back to the '70s version of the JLA."
Most of all, the artist looked forward to diving in and playing with some of the characters who don't often find themselves in the spotlight. "There's certainly a lot of somewhat tense dialogue between Doctor Light and Vixen and certain kinds of tension between Black Canary and Superman. And I enjoy that," Morales said. "I enjoy working on characters that don't get a major spotlight. One of the nice things about my work that was said to me by a friend was that I tend to make him care about characters he usually doesn't care about. It makes you want to care about them. I thought that was pretty telling about the kind of work I do. I'm very comfortable if Dwayne wants to bring in whoever. If he wants to bring in the Ma Hunkel Red Tornado, I'll have fun doing that."
Although his last assignment - a stint on DC's "Superman/Batman" title - allowed Morales to smooth out his renditions of the company's biggest icons, the artist believes that making the characters look distinctive on the page can boil down to looking at the artist who drew their most famous runs in the past. "I think it becomes part of the language of this medium. I would agree that there are certain people that just cast such a huge shadow over that character that you can't avoid it no matter how you try," Morales confessed. "When you do something that is slightly off or completely in a different direction, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Basically, I try to keep that in mind now. It's constantly a learning process. I've been doing this for 20 years, and I'm still trying to make tune-ups and minor adjustments to what I've done previously. Maybe the best way to draw Bruce Wayne would be to go with Jim Aparo or Neal Adams and for Superman, probably Curt Swan.
"For me, it usually takes about five issues to get used to any group of characters in a title that I'm working on, and as I move along, I think my Superman and Batman have become more crisp. Although I'm very cognizant of trying to make them look like different characters. When I say that, I'm referring in my mind to a panel in #53, where Superman and Bruce Wayne are looking off panel to a computer screen, and I was very, very much concentrating on trying to make them look different. For instance, Superman to me would have more of a steep, facial slope where as Batman would have more of a diagonal or moderate one."
Morales also enjoyed working with "Kings" writer Michael Green on the "Superman/Batman" title, despite the fact that the book's non-continuity status has slightly diminished its "buzz factor" online -- although sales remain steady. "I read the Joker story he did for 'Batman Confidential,' and I know he got some flak for the continuity, but I tell ya, that woke me up," Morales said. "I was very happy to hear I was going to be working with [Green] and Mike Johnson as well on 'Superman/Batman.' It's one of those titles that gets a lot of sales and very little ink. And that's not a sad thing. It's, 'Hey. It's Superman. It's Batman. It speaks for itself.' It doesn't need ink."
Speaking of ink, the penciller explained that fans who have noticed a darker tone to his recent work may have a change in finisher to thank. Of course, it might just be the change of scenery that did it. Explained Morales, "I think maybe it's osmosis. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm working on Batman. I know now I'm working with [inker] John Dell who has a bit of a heavier hand than Michael Bair. Mike has a very light, feathery touch. This is by no means something that distracts from John's brilliance, but John has a heavier quality to his line work that I do enjoy. Maybe that has something to do with it. I don't know. It's possible that the darker feeling has something to do with the Batman family being involved."
As for his future, Rags Morales knows that of late he's been moving from one project to another, but a large part of that "one arc" style of drawing can be laid at the feet of the way comics are scheduled these days. "As far as I go in my contributions, I really don't think at this point in my career that I can do 20 issues in a row, and recently there's been a lot of instances of giving me books that are not starting at the first issue. That's a major thing to consider," he said. "When I was used before, I was used to having a six-month lead time into a project where the first issue hadn't hit the shelves yet. But if you read back over 'JLA' and 'Superman/Batman' and prior to that with 'Nightwing' and 'Batman Confidential,' none of those series started from issue #1, so I've been brought in to kind of pinch hit on something that's already started.
"There's a certain luxury missing there knowing there's a lot less lead time than we're used to. A lot of people are under the assumption that this is all standard, but oftentimes you get a project with less time than you're used to, and unfortunately there are artistic sacrifices that come with that.
"Honestly, this is the kind of thing going on with both companies, and the only reason I can see it happening is that there's constantly these big events being interwoven with each other. I think it was a lot easier to keep a specific creative team on one book for an extended period of time when those books were basically unto themselves. Major crossover events with big implications and the need of having to rely on other professionals - writers or artists -Â to feed you information has basically slowed down the process. I think if anything has been a problem with the timing of the books, it has been the fact that there are so many people involved in the same basic story line, trying to pick apart the parts of it."
Morales noted that the possibility of more "Justice League of America" work had been discussed with DC, but for now, the artist is focusing on a new project which he declined to name so he wouldn't lead fans on in case it didn't come through. In the meantime, he's happy with his two issues of "JLA" of which he said, "I'm happy to say to anybody concerned, I actually met that deadline."
When it comes down to it, readers can expect more long-form stories from the artist as the shift to that format has come and not for the reasons many think. "I think what happens more these days is that most of the writers now are people who are varied in their backgrounds. You're talking about novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, sit-com writers...these are people used to a kind of pacing that is not conducive to the traditional comic anymore. So the pacing has expanded to look at this as if it were a movie or a novel where it's a bit slower. I think the idea that we're trying to decompress a storyline just to put it towards the trade market, that's a bit off base. I think people see the benefit of making things a little more dramatic, and on many levels it's very successful. On some, maybe it's not, but that's part of the learning curve we're dealing with as it's a whole different way of seeing these books."
"Justice League of America" #32 hits comic shops April 22 from DC Comics.