The New Not-so-Teen Titan: Barry Kitson talks 'Titans'

Fri, May 31st, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Pencils by Kitson for Issue 42, Page 11]
Pencils by Kitson for Issue 42, Page 11
Click to enlarge.
While DC Comics is the second largest comic book publisher, behind rival publishing house Marvel Comics, it sometimes seems like it's only their big characters (Batman, Superman, JLA) who get the attention from both press and fans, which is probably why the name Barry Kitson isn't as well known as it should be within fandom. It's ironic that Kitson has penned projects relating to two of DC's biggest properties ever- the Justice League propelled DC through the 90's and the New Teen Titans was a huge seller for DC in the 80's- but his distinct style still hasn't grabbed the attention of the majority of fans. But with writer Tom Peyer joining Kitson on "Titans" in a short while, the series should get a boost of attention and show people why Kitson is such a highly respected artist among his fans. Taking some time out of his grueling schedule, Kitson spoke to CBR News about landing the job on "Titans" and how he broke into the industry.

"I don't really have a professional background!" laughs Kitson. "I failed my art 'A' level - and still apparently the only pupil to fail in the school's history…. Make of that what you will. I know it sounds crazy, but drawing comics was my dream since I was about 6 years old! I never thought it would actually happen, but it really is a dream come true. The combination of pictorial story telling and the leap of imagination it demands from the reader just really got me hooked from the first time I saw a superhero comic! It seems to require a lot more from the reader than say the average film does of it's audience and at the same time it provides a chance for very individual visions to be presented in relatively 'pure' forms to the readers. I think is was the sheer energy and scope of imagination in comics that drew me to them - worlds where anything was possible… and impossibly dramatic too!"

"As a child Jack Kirby was my first big influence, the energy and force of his imagination just seemed to leap off the page! Around the same time Jim Steranko, Wally Wood, Gene Colan, Nick Cardy were all big favorites too - and then of course Neal Adams when he broke into the field! As an adult is much harder to answer - simply because there are so many influences I could name, I think if I'm honest I'm influenced by everything I read that I enjoy! I try to analyze a lot of what I read and try to take what I can learn from it to incorporate in my own work, especially means of storytelling - Frank Miller's 'Daredevil' stories really impressed me with their storytelling! I consider the story telling element of a comic artist's work probably the most important - even though that has maybe been a little overlooked recent times, I think it is coming back into prominence."

"I can't honestly say that I'm aware of other mediums influencing my work very directly, but of course they all influence my thinking and my perceptions of the world. I'm sure movies have influenced how I might light a scene or some designs possibly, and reading a non-fiction book will almost certainly trigger an idea for a story or two, but I don't think the influence would be any greater than that. I do try to absorb as much as I can of the current world and try to stay up to date with most entertainment trends in movies, music, fashion etc, but more from an academic standpoint in that I want what I do to look 'current'….I'm always a little sad to see comics in which the backgrounds have absolutely no connection to current reality obviously stemming from older comic art rather than reflecting 'real life' observations!"

[Issue 43, Page 14]
Issue 43, Page 14
Click to enlarge.
As previously mentioned, Kitson is currently penciling the "Titans" series at DC, which follows the adventures of the original Teen Titans (generally the sidekicks of the DCU, like Robin or Kid Flash) with some new members and is the latest installment in the successful Titans franchise. While one might imagine that Kitson has some complicated story that chronicles how he got the penciling job, he admits that it is pretty simple. "The simple truth is that I was asked by Andy Helfer (series editor) if I'd be interested - as a long-time fan of the characters it was an offer I wasn't going to turn down out of hand. I hadn't exactly been 'convinced' with the recent run of the title, but when Andy said there would be changes in the works and I could be part of them, I thought it was an opportunity that was too good to miss! I've been a Titans fan since Nick Cardy was drawing the book!"

However, Kitson isn't just working on "Titans" to fulfill a childhood fantasy- he has some concrete creative goals and is using his love for the characters to accentuate his creative desires, not just define them. "Basically just to make it a really good comic - I think most readers feel it hasn't been fulfilling its potential for quite some time and I'd have to agree with them. If we can at least have most of the readers enjoying the book and getting excited about it again then I'll be happy! I'm just trying to draw the book as best I can! Hopefully it'll have very clear storytelling and still be fresh and modern looking. I can honestly say I've thoroughly enjoyed drawing Tom's first arc and I hope it'll show through in the printed pages"

The inspiration behind the visual "Kitson-flavor" for "Titans" is largely a result of his varied career, with each project enhancing his penciling skills to bring him to where he is today. "I guess the honest answer would be the extent of my limitations - I hope my style is the sum of all I've learnt over the years and the new chances I'm taking to improve all the time, it's as basic as that. I try to learn a little more each book I illustrate and remember what works well to add to my 'bag of tricks'. At the same time I like to try something new every issue - I always think these new ideas work (or else I wouldn't send the pages in) but sometimes with hindsight I realize I could have done things better! I DO have a very strong definition of each character in my mind… in fact as I'm drawing the pages they often take on an 'inner' life of their own in my head, just because they're in my thoughts for so much of each working day! I don't like to articulate my feelings about each character too much though - again largely because of the 'second-guessing' that goes on if I do. I do form pretty definite ideas of how a character's nature should be reflected in their body language though and hopefully you'll be able to 'read' those ideas from how I draw each of the Titans."

[Issue 43, Page 22]
Issue 43, Page 22
Click to enlarge.
The most notable of Kitson's visual predecessors on "Titans" is industry legend George Perez who, along with writer Marv Wolfman, was instrumental in making "New Teen Titans" the enduring team and comic book that it is today. So does Kitson feel any pressure to live up to Perez's legend? "Only a little, I think I'd feel it a great deal more had I been inheriting the book directly from George!" admits Kitson. "I am aware that working on the 'Titans' there will be people making comparisons between my work and George's, but as I'm not self-delusional (I don't think) I don't expect many of the comparisons to favor me." Smiling, Kitson also adds, "Seriously, I think most readers are educated enough to understand George and I are different artists with our own styles and as long as most are prepared to judge my work on its own merits that's all I can ask for. There are artists who can mimic other's styles, but I'm not one of them, my work has always developed along its own lines (often in totally different ways than even I've consciously hoped for it)."

While Kitson once again reiterates that his goal on "Titans" is to "Just to have the art look fresh and exciting whilst keeping the good telling as the main objective," he also admits that he also hopes to take his art skills to the next level while working on the series. "Well, as you've probably gathered from previous answers I actually look upon my work as a continual development - I do what I do and do it the best I can every story I come to! Only very occasionally do I come across a particular story that I think needs to be dealt with in a certain way, outside of what I consider 'my style'. Within what I do I think there's a pretty wide range of approaches I understand and try to incorporate in my story telling… what I hope is that they all gel together into something that is recognizably 'Barry Kitson'. I want the approaches to be almost absorbed sub-consciously by the readers, so that if they go back and analyze what I've been doing they might spot what 'tricks' I've used, but not have those techniques leap out of the page at them so they immediately think 'Oh he's using film noir now' or whatever."

Regardless of any strides that Kitson feels he needs to make, he has gained a reputation for deftly melding the fantastic world of super-heroics with the down-to-Earth feel of reality. "As to how I do it, I have to say it's just a combination of all the influences I've absorbed over the years and my particular view of reality. As to preferences in comic book art, namely the whole cartoony vs. realistic debate, I don't really have a favorite, I enjoy both 'schools' and hopefully my work has a little something from both. My only real preferences in art are for individual visions - I really enjoy seeing artists whose work doesn't look like anyone else's, that's what I truly admire. That said, I have to be honest and say I don't like every individual style, but I do enjoy a wide range from 'manga' to super-realistic, my own tastes lie somewhere in between…rather like my style!"

Though he's having a great time on "Titans," Kitson concedes that there are still some difficult moments, though the good easily outweighs the bad. "The hardest aspects have been getting my own take on each of the main characters in the light of the tradition that comes with them so that I could feel they are 'my own' now - that and getting them all into each panel when required. I have to admit the 'unique challenge' would be starting work on a book in the middle of a run and trying to give it a whole new direction. There's a big difference in starting on a new book for which you set the direction or coming onto one that already has a lot of approval from the readers and the company and you're just expected to carry things on. I've been asked a lot of times why I would want to take it on, but I figured it was a chance to draw a group of characters I always liked and hope I could make a difference to their fortunes. I guess the easiest aspect of things has been working with Tom, Andy, Harvey (Richards), Jay, James and Rich!"

Next to "Legion" and "JSA" (both being popular, long-time DC superhero teams) fans, Titans fans are known as some of the most vocal and demanding comic book fans. While some creators might be intimidated by the sheer amount of criticism from fans both online and through mail to DC, Kitson says that he embraces the opportunity to make people happy with his renditions of the Titans characters. "I'd never really thought about it too much before working on the book but I have to say since coming on board the reaction has been tremendous from the fans - I couldn't really have hoped for better support and encouragement! I have absolutely no problem with fans being demanding and vocal all I ask is a fair hearing, which I think I have been given by the Titans readers. I've tried to be as honest with them as I can about the book and I think they have been with me - most of the criticism I've received has been really constructive and encouraging and you can't ask for more than that! On the whole the readers have been WAY kinder to me than I probably deserve! As far as my work goes I've really enjoyed #43 more than anything I've drawn for a long time! Overall getting to work with all the creators on the book, but probably more than anything just getting to know the readers through the DC boards has been a real pleasure!"

Knowing that Kitson holds the "Titans" characters in high standing, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he has some impact on the content of their stories, not just the visuals. "I think I've had quite a lot of input in overall direction rather than specific plots - I talked a lot with Jay and Tom about where we wanted the book to be heading and what we wanted to achieve with stories, but as far as particular plots are concerned my input usually comes after an initial draft is written and then I get a chance to throw in extra ideas or maybe new twists on how to deal with things. Tom and Jay [Faerber, the exiting series writer] have both been great at letting me join in…hopefully in a constructive way."

Kitson also says that the feel of "Titans" will be very different than anything readers have seen since the series was re-launched a few years ago. "The stories will be a lot less 'domestic' than they have been, there's lots more interaction between the core characters and lots of old faces showing up to ad to the dramatis personae. I think the book is a lot less 'predictable' than it has been too - Tom has certainly surprised me with some really original ideas!" The "domestic" stories that Kitson refers involved a group of kids, the "DEOkids" whom the Titans took under the wing and who, according to many fans, became the focus of the series. To the fans who left "Titans" because of the lack of focus on the title characters themselves, Kitson pleads, "'Come back it won't happen again!' LOL! Part of what Tom and I want to do as fast as we can is to bring a new focus to the book - the DEOkids are not seen after #41 and the TITANS are very much the core of the book. Obviously we can't guarantee every reader will like every story we produce, but we can guarantee they'll be very different to the issues leading up to our tenure on the book."

[Empire]One thing to note is that this isn't the first time that Peyer and Kitson have worked together- both collaborated on a Legion of Superheroes mini- series and in conjunction with Mark Waid on the Brave and the Bold mini-series charting the relationship between Hal Jordan and Barry Allen.. Kitson says that working with Peyer is a unique experience, as was working with his "JLA: Year One" partner Mark Waid and former "Titans" scribe Jay Faerber. "Obviously working with any creator is different to working with any other - I think every artist/writer team has to find its own unique voice and its own particular way of working. For instance Tom likes to write full scripts then have me throw in my ideas, whereas Mark and I will throw ideas back and forth a lot before he actually writes an 'Empire' plot…and even then we continue to bat ideas around - I'll often send Mark my thumbnails for the pages to discuss if we want any more changes before I draw them up. In the specific case of Titans I think Jay had a more 'soap-opera' approach to the book whereas Tom is more 'concept' orientated… now there's a non-answer if ever I read one."

Asked if he'd liked to revive "L.E.G.I.O.N," especially in light of the success of "The Legion," Kitson answers slyly by saying, "I've always loved the L.E.G.I.O.N. characters and it seems there's a lot of readers out there that feel the same way…. hopefully there may be something in the pipeline for 2003!"

Most of Kitson's art has been featured in superhero team books, which leads one to wonder if Kitson prefers such huge core casts, but the artist admits that he hasn't consciously been aiming to do only team stories. "I haven't really made any conscious choice to do a lot of team books - I spent a long time on 'Azrael' which was largely a 'solo-character book' but the thing is that even on a book like that the supporting cast become the rest of the team so there's no real difference. I think the only real difference is actually probably when it comes to fight scenes, in a single character book you can actually choreograph a fight over several panels, but in a team book you usually only get one or two panel to show each character in action. Also in team books there tends to be more characters per panel which tends to make it take longer to draw, but as long as the characters are fun to work with it's not a big problem."

We asked Kitson to give us his views about the state of the comic book market and when asked about how to best bring in new readers to the medium, he replies, "Now there's a 64 thousand $ question! I guess the two things I'd say are most fundamental are to get comics into markets beyond specialist comic shops - simply because I don't see how you can expect people to seek out the specialist shops if they haven't had a chance to experience comics and know they like them! The other thing I think really needs to be done is to have comics available that aren't completely dependent on a knowledge of years of continuity for their stories to have any resonance to the readers. I'm not suggesting continuity should be forgotten, but that there should be titles out there that will make sense to a completely new reader. If you get a chance to read Grant Morrison's pitch about the X-men reprinted in the trade paperback of his first X-men stories, he sums up much of how I see the industry's problems in a much more eloquent and logical way than I'm doing!"

"I think that the market is entering a crucial phase - I'm sure the potential market for comics is as great as ever, but the next few years will determine whether we really tap into it or marginalize ourselves outside mainstream entertainment. I think a new, greater degree variety is essential - there's absolutely nothing wrong with superheroes, but there needs to be a choice out there and a variety of stories for new or old readers to be able to make a choice. I think at the moment the choice seems to be between far too many pretty similar reads."

But even in a comic book market that Kitson believes to be less-than-perfect, he admits that there are a lot of gems and many reasons to get excited about comic books. "Well I read far too many comics to want to list them all here, but my favorite titles of the moment would have to be the ABC books - I love everything Alan Moore writes, Grant's 'New X-men,' ' The Ultimates,' 'Planetary,' 'The Authority,' 'Amazing Spiderman,' 'Flash' all spring to mind (in no particular order). I guess the uniting principle in all of them would be artwork I enjoy and stories that surprise me every month. Those are by no means the only books I enjoy, but I think they're probably the ones that get straight to the top of my 'must read' pile!"

In the end, Kitson just plain loves superheroes and admits that they comprise the bulk of his "dream projects." "Well I love working on established characters - there is a definite kick to be gotten out of drawing the same characters that excited you as a kid, so whenever I draw Batman or Superman or The JLA it's a real joy for me, but I also enjoy the idea of having characters that we as creators have complete control over which of course you don't get with the likes of Batman or Superman. Really at the moment I'm enjoying the best of both dreamworlds working on the 'Titans' and 'Empire,' the first allowing me to 'play' with established and beloved DC characters and the latter which Mark (Waid) and I created giving us just about total freedom to go where we like!"

[]
Artwork by Kitson for a California band.
Click to enlarge.
But fans who want to see Kitson's work will have to settle for his current work schedule, which is quite packed according to him. "I'm pretty much booked up for the fore-seeable future working on Titans and Empire as far as comics goes - though there are a couple of other projects in the pipeline that I'd really like to get round to one day! Outside comics I'm doing some posters and CD covers for some US bands and hopefully, schedules allowing will get to illustrate one of George.R.R.Martin's new WildCards novels. George and I have talked about that happening, but so I've been too under my deadlines to have an opportunity to actually make it a reality!"

For those with an interest in "Titans" or who are fans of superheroes in general, Kitson says that this series is for you! "Hopefully it will appeal to anyone who likes superhero comics, plenty of character interaction, big surprises and the whole range of drama. There's a lot to enjoy on several different levels in the coming issues. The book's choc full of great characters with tremendous potential and Tom Peyer is writing great stories that will surprise everyone issue by issue! There's a lot of great character interaction, high adventure and it's fun!"

Before heading back to the drawing board, Kitson has one last message for the fans:

"Thanks for being so kind to me over the years…and keep in touch!"

 
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