The digital Spider-Man: first look at 'Spider-Man: Quality of Life'

May 15th, 2002, Spider-Man on the printed page will look like nothing you've ever seen before. That's when the first issue of "Spider-Man: Quality of Life" hits the stands. This four-issue mini-series is one of many special projects coming from Marvel to coincide with the release of this summer's most anticipated film "Spider-Man." Written by writer Greg Rucka with art by "The Lab" creator Scott Sava, "Spider-Man: Quality of Life" is poised to make you think completely different about computer generated art in comics.

In an interview with CBR last month writer Greg Rucka described the concept behind the book for us: "It is ostensibly a Lizard story and the bullet is this: Doctor Kurt Conners' wife Martha has cancer. Conners believes, and potentially has the evidence to prove, that her cancer is the result of exposure from a lab processing plant near by their home in the Everglades. "So, the company is called Monnano. They basically bill themselves as 'Feeding the world.' They do a lot of food stuff and farm stuff and so on. They prepare genetically altered strains and the like. Anyway, Kurt believes that Martha's cancer is related to Monnano's practices. Monnano denies it. And Kurt's looking at his wife dying and his sixteen year old son potentially having been exposed to the same thing and he doesn't have it. The only reason he can think that he doesn't is because he's the Lizard and he gets angry and frustrated. Monnano, very early on, knows that this guy who is trying to sue them is somebody else and they get nervous. So they hire someone to take care of the problem and Peter finds himself kind of in the middle because there's a question of who's right and who's wrong and what's the legality here. That's it in nothing like a broad-stroke."

This Wednesday artist Scott Sava spoke with CBR at length about the book and gave CBR a first look at what "Spider-Man: Quality of Life" will look like. For Scott, working on Spider-Man fulfills one of his greatest artistic dreams.

"I've been wanting to do Spider-Man since I was seven or eight years old," Sava told CBR News. "It's something I've always wanted to do. I'm an illustrator by trade. I got into comic books painting - doing 'Star Trek,' 'Mortal Kombat,' things like that, but never got the chance to do Spider-Man.

"About four years ago I went up to New York and brought some painted pages with me. I was working with Marv Wolfman and Len Wein on a re-creation of the first Spider-Man graphic novel called 'Mayhem in Manhattan,' which featured Doctor Octopus as the main villain. At the time, though, Marvel was not in its best financial state. When I got there they were moving offices and everything. It was just a bad time."

His dream was not to be realized, yet. Then a year ago Marv Wolfman encouraged Sava to approach Marvel again and this time, instead of showing them more painted artwork he suggested he show them Spider-Man in an animated style, using the CGI tools he'd been using as an animator those intervening years. Scott took Wolfman's advice to heart, got to work, and took the finished pages down to San Diego where Marv made the introductions to Spider-Man editor Axel Alonso. One thing led to another and now Sava is fulfilling his dream.

Now the ball was rolling, but the project had changed considerably and it was time to put together a full crew. A writer was needed and Axel Alonso approached Greg Rucka for the job.

"Axel wanted to put one of the top writers in the industry on this project. He showed it to Greg and he really liked it and wanted to give it a go. Axel had been wanting to work with Greg since he did an issue of 'Tangled Web.' He wanted to get him on a Spider-Man project and this seemed like a good idea."

The idea was sound, but the timing wasn't exactly perfect.

"The problem was though at the time, last September, Greg was finishing up a novel ['Critical Space']. So we had about a month to kill. Since I already had Doctor Octopus from the test pages that I did we worked up a seven page day in the life of Spider-Man. We talked to Greg and he worked that into the script as kind of a Prologue or whatever you want to call it. Greg wrote this great dialogue for thing. It was really, really cool!"

The production of "Spider-Man: Quality of Life" is very different than traditional comics. Because all the locations and characters have to be modeled and rendered, the story must be finished ahead of time to give the animators the chance to create the locations and elements necessary to tell the story. Everything is custom-modeled, all done from scratch. This process was something new for both Rucka and Alonso.

"I've had to teach both Axel and Greg how the production works for TV and Film, because that's how we're treating [SM:QoL], like a film or animated series. What happens is everything has to be pre-production which means you have to have the script up front; you have to know where all your characters are, you have to know where all your assets are, environments, your characters, your props, everything. So that way they can all be modeled, sculpted digitally with bones, everything has to be lit and ready to go for the actual production of the pages. That was something really new to them because they're used to be able to do just kind of work on the fly. 'Okay, you need issue two? I'll write it, here's issue two.' Whereas I need all four issues at least planned and worked out.

"That kind of was a shock to both Axel and Greg, but they've been really gracious to work with me this way."

While the general belief is that computers make life easier, we all know that's not true. In fact computers have probably complicated all our lives more than anything else. The same goes for producing a comic book digitally. It's not just sitting down in front of the computer and drawing some pretty pictures. The process is lengthy and in this case is a world-wide effort.

"It begins with the script," said Sava. "Greg lays it out in typical comic format. He's given me a lot of leeway to play with it as I see fit. I do the layout, which is basically just thumbnails. No one's going to see them, so they're no more than quick gesture drawings. Then I'll bring them into Photoshop and do a color rough on top of that so that I can get a feel for how I want the mood in each scene.

"While I'm doing layouts for the whole book I've got modelers in different parts of the world that I'm working with. I've got a team of five people who are modeling the character environments. What I will do for the characters is I'll do a sketch of Spider-Man or Doctor Octopus and I'll send it to a guy named Tracy Mark Lee who's an ex-Disney animator. He takes my sketches and completely stylizes them and gives them that Disneyesque type look. Something that really pushes it past the ordinary.

"Once I approve the sketches then those go to a guy named Marcello Bortolino. This guy's in London and a very talented character modeler. He does mostly photo-realistic characters, but I've been trying to push him for something different. I'm trying to develop a style. I'm not going for 'Final Fantasy' or something like that, I'm going for a more stylized look here. He takes Tracey's drawings and he actually interprets them into a three-dimensional model.

"Concurrently I also have an architectural visualist in Portugal named Antero Pedras working for me. What he does is I'll say 'I need the Daily Bugle' or the main bad guys headquarters, the Monnano office. I'll send him some pictures and he will design a full building from scratch. Just beautiful! This guy's incredible. He sculpts it and gets it down to the very last detail. Everything from artwork to the big-screen TV, just everything.

"What's sad is a lot of these beautiful settings will later be destroyed in a fight!

"I also have another guy in Ireland named Adrian Hartrey who models some of the interiors and he's also really good at foliage and external settings like Central Park or something like that. He actually modeled the Daily Bugle office.

"When the characters are done being modeled I approve the look. I'll get it back from Marcello and that goes to a guy locally named Scott Hyman. He will rig the character; he puts in all the bones. The bones enable me to pose the characters. He'll also do facial expressions. I'll do a series of drawings specifying the kind of expressions I want out of Doc. Oc or J. Jonah. Really elaborate expressions. What he'll do is sculpt these. He'll take his face and he'll pull on the vertices or the polygons, open his eyes really wide, make his brows go up, open his mouth off to one side, really get that J. Jonah yell! That's called a Morph Target. Then, whenever I need to call that up, J. Jonah has this little slider; it's got yell, growl, sad, happy. Anytime I need an emotion from him I pull that up and slide it to the emotion I want. I can mix and match them too, so I can get thousands of different emotions from these people.

"It's the same technique used in animation. This whole process is the exact same process used in 'Monsters Inc.' or 'Shrek.' This is what I've been doing for TV and Film for the past few years. We're taking the studio mentality and we're putting it towards a comic book. There've been other comic books that have used CGI, but they haven't done it to the level we're doing it at. This is like a film."

To recap, here's what each person on the team does and their location:

  • Antero Pedras - Portugal

    Duties: Environmental Models both Interior and Exterior. Antero created the city.

  • Marcello Bortolino - London

    Duties: Character Models

  • Adrian Hartrey - Ireland

    Duties: Environments both Interior and Landscapes and Foliage

  • Scott Hyman - Los Angeles

    Duties: Rigging and Morph Targets

  • Tracy Mark Lee - Los Angeles

    Duties - Character Designs

So, now we know what the entire team does, but you ask yourself, what does Scott Sava do? Rest assured he's not sitting at home playing video-games. He's got his hands full.

"Once I get the characters I bring them into the scene. I'm the Director. I'm on location in the city. I bring my actors. I've got Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man. I've already done the layouts. I've already established what I want to do with the cameras. I bring them in and I pose them and I light them and I make sure that everything in that particular shot is as perfect as I can get that and as dynamic as possible.

"Another reason why I'm stylizing it is I'm trying to give it a comic book feel, not the sense of here's a mannequin standing in a room. It's got to have life. We've done a bunch of techniques we're calling the 'Kirby Effect' where we actually scale up the hands and feet to give it a feeling of fore-shortening. I've created a system of lighting to really give the characters volume. That'll take me 18 hours a day anyhow! I'm worried about pacing. I'm worried about timing. I'm worried about when I go from panel-to-panel do I hold the same shot for a couple of extra beats, maybe with no words, just to get the point across. I'm treating it like a movie. It's my baby!"

On a project of this scope Sava was quick to point out the importance of having a team of this size handle various pieces of the production. Ultimately it brings the level of quality up higher since you have so many experts working on different phases of the project.

"The thing is you can't do everything. You find people that you trust. It's really hard for an artist, especially when given his dream job, to let go. I know that by letting go of modeling characters it will afford me more time for other things and it'll make the project look that much better.

"What it's allowed me to do, other than giving me an ulcer managing everybody, is focus on storytelling and art. That's the thing that's been lacking in other CGI books is storytelling."

Sava's currently wrapping up issue #1 and everything's proceeding ahead of schedule for the May 15th release date. Each book is 22 pages long and will be supported by a full-color two-page spread in Previews.

When talking with Sava you get a sense of just how excited he is, but at the same time he's also very serious about the book and he feels he brings a lot to the table with regards to computer generated comics.

"One, production values. I am treating it like it's a film production. Taking my studio and using all it's assets, and Marvel, by giving us a good budget, allows us to be able to approach it as a movie production. We don't have to cut any corners. All we have to do is get it in on time.

"Secondly, I'm approaching it from an illustration point-of-view. From an artists point-of-view. I'm trying to tell a story. Yeah, it's CGI, but it's still sequential storytelling. It's still a comic book."

For more looks at the art from "Spider-Man: Quality of Life" visit Scott Sava's message board by clicking here. To learn more about Sava's creator-owned project, "The Lab," click here.

Superman's Secret Identity Reveal Will Cause Supervillains to Break... Good?

More in Comics