Artist Arthur Suydam sat down with Wizard's Kiel Phegley and fans on Saturday at Wizard World LA for an in-depth discussion about his career arc and what goes into making the covers for the hit Marvel Comics series, Marvel Zombies.
"I had spent most of my career avoiding working for mainstream comics," Suydam said, noting he started in 1972, "because I didn't want to get trapped working on a mainstream comic. I wanted to focus on my skills. Also, I was the slowest artist, I think, in the history of comics. When I came into comics, I was writing and illustrating my own stuff, and when I went to DC, they pulled a script out of a drawer and said 'hey kid, come back when you're done.' I was very slow coming into the comics business. There came a point where I decided now I'm fast enough, I have enough growth under my belt."
Suydam first met with Marvel back in the booming '90s, and was offered "any title I wanted," and he set to work on a Conan graphic novel that excited him. However, the book did not materialize as Marvel experienced some financial difficulties and was taken over by Toy Biz. Suddenly, everyone Suydam knew was out of work and the new bosses weren't quite so hospitable. "That delayed me by another four years, then the film industry got hold of me," Suydam said. "It took me another four years to try and get another stab at [comics]."
That next stab included taking low paying jobs painting collectible trading card games, as Suydam felt that his lack of mainstream characters in his portfolio was a weakness. Once he came back in a new century with a new portfolio combining his body of work from the fantasy world and some familiar masks and capes, the response from publishers was much more positive.
"I'm a much better match for comics now," Suydam admitted. "Nobody thought it ['Marvel Zombies] was going to be as big as it is, except me. As soon as I heard what the concept was, I thought this was a fantastic concept. If the writer doesn't blow this, it's gonna be great. Nobody really wanted to commit to say 'this is good.' It wasn't until the trade paperback came out that they figured out this was something special."
Suydam then began an analysis of many of the covers he'd created for the series. He started out with his interpretation of Todd McFarlane's "Spider-Man" #1. Of the image, the artist said, "My approach to comics illustration is very different than comic book artists. I approach it as an illustrator." He noted Norman Rockwell as a great source of inspiration and his ambition to follow in that tradition. "There's a whole strategy for illustration, and I'm a student of that. For illustrators the name of the game is to sell the book and that one picture should tell a story. With each one of these covers, I was trying to take the concept of the cover like the director handed me a slip of paper saying 'I want Spider-Man in a web.'" Suydam wanted to tell a kind of story with this image, showcasing a painted version of Spidey with many Marvel characters trapped in his web.
The next cover examined was a take on McFarlane's classic Hulk #340, depicting Wolverine with the Hulk's reflection visible in Wolverine's claws. In Suydam's version, the Hulk and Wolverine each have an eyeball in their mouth. "The more [covers] that I did, the further from the original I got," Suydam said. "How much can I get away with?"
Suydam explained the zombie covers had to be recognizable as coming from their specific source materials, but he still wanted to have each piece enjoy its own storyline and theory, regardless of the content within the issue. "Whenever we decided what the cover was going to be, I would sit down with a pad and a paper and try to write down a little subplot from the story and try to put that in the painting, he said. Wolverine's going to be the caviar guy. Other zombies can have head and feet, but save the eyeballs for me. Along comes the Hulk, and he's got the same tastes. That was the irony in this piece. Once I decided on the backstory for my characters, I tried to keep that consistent."
The next cover was an interpretation of the classic Jack Kirby "This Man, This Monster" cover for "Fantastic Four" #51. Phegley took particular note of the fact that Suydam's Sue Storm was not zombified. "If everybody was ugly in the piece, it became a picture of a bunch of zombies," Suydam said. He preferred to make Sue a 1950s style pin-up queen and make it a more "Beauty and the Beast" scenario.
Next up was the Jack Kirby cover of The X-Men #1. "This was a particularly hard one to do because it has so many characters," Suydam said. "The name of the game was to create a substory for each one. You want them to pick it up and spend some time with it, trying to figure it out."
A Steranko-styled Nick Fury zombie cover was shown, referencing Nick Furty: Agent of SHIELD #4. "Steranko came from a commercial background, he had these great design skills, said Suydam. His more successful covers combine some of his talents from doing design work and comic art as well. It was a learning process, meaning I'd never done the inks before. I tried to create a cover that was matching the same elements."
Suydam confessed disappointment with his in his "Marvel Zombies/Evil Dead" crossover cover, which referenced the famous John Byrne cover of "Days of Future Past," saying, "'Evil Dead 2' is one of my favorites of all time, where he ends up chasing his hand around. These covers were hard to do, but trying to squeeze an odd character in and still have it recognizable was really tricky. Squeezing an odd character, the risk is that nobody's gonna recognize the cover. It adds an extra challenge, it was very hard to shoehorn Bruce Campbell in."
The artist was much happier with a commission piece, zombifying the cover of "Crisis on Infinite Earths" #7, in which Superman held a dead Supergirl. "To me, it'd be a failure if I just took the cover and did a recreation. The name of the game is create a new story. The thing here is that this is a big feast, and Supergirl is the pig on the plate." He added, "That's my wife [as Supergirl], who modeled very reluctantly."
Suydam noted that while he loved working on Marvel characters, but he'd love to create a Batman zombie book.
Now discuss this story in CBR's Marvel Comics forum.