Rags To Riches: Morales Talks 'Hawkman'

Tue, November 12th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Scene from "Hawkman" #1
For those who know "Hawkman" artist Rags Morales, they know there's one thing you never do: don't call him a newcomer. This comic book artist has been in the industry for over 13 years and while some fans may wonder why they haven't heard much of him before, it's because Morales has always taken on projects that have interested him and infused them with his own personal style, never bowing down to the flavor of the month. While this makes for an uphill battle in terms of making it into the spotlight, Morales considers himself a true artist and wouldn't have it any other way, which makes his success on "Hawkman" (with writers Geoff Johns & James Robinson and inker Michael Bair) all the more sweet. After recently signing an exclusive one-year contract with DC Comics, Morales spoke with CBR News about his art and about the inspiration behind his work on "Hawkman," which is drawing acclaim from critics and fans alike.

"Let me quote Geoff Johns: we're looking to kick ass," says Morales of his creative goal on "Hawkman." "Hawkman's a character that, the way Geoff Johns approaches it, is rich with tradition and is like tempered steel, hence the Conan reference we've been using so much- he's Conan with wings. It's a really cool concept to have, a split personality type hero, not in the vein of someone who's putting it on like Clark Kent/Superman or Bruce Wayne/Batman. I think this is a guy who genuinely feels possessed to act once he gets the helmet on. With the helmet off, he's cultured and refined; even a sweet guy. Both aspects are genuine to the character. But you don't wanna get on his bad side because he'll put that helmet on and kick your ass."

If it sounds like Morales has a deep understanding of the character of Hawkman, AKA Carter Hall, then you'd be right. Morales feels it's that understanding that allows the artist to put that something "extra" into his work on the series. In fact, this approach has served Morales well throughout his entire career and has been somewhat of a trademark in all the work he's done: understand the character and accentuate the artistic style to represent that understanding. "You have no idea how aggravated I am- I walk around with a mask on when I get pissed," laughs Morales, pointing out the similarities between him and the titular character of "Hawkman." "When I broke in, the first thing I did, was a fantasy related book. From there I did a brief stint in what would be considered the mainstream, but my take on the mainstream was not necessarily palpable to common tastes. 'Black Condor' was a different book. I suppose I could have gone with a traditional stance, but I really hooked onto the idea of him being a Frankenstein character. I went ahead and drew him in a way that was 'slapped' together as opposed to the way that was typical of comic books. Then I did 'Turok' and from then on, everything I've done has been on the fringe of the mainstream. Along the way I've picked up a few things in terms of a feel and look that have finally come to fruition with a mainstream character; things that finally made sense for people who have been viewing me for years. I don't think a lot of editors have 'gotten' what I've tried to do. I've always tried to take the character over 'style' or what was considered good, which is a difficult thing. Most editors are writers and don't understand the artistic process as well as they understand the writing process. They get scared and think, 'this guy's hot, so I have to hire a look a like or a feel a like' and that was difficult for me to understand. Here I've finally gotten to a place where everything's fallen into place for me- I've got an editor whose intelligent enough to understand the artistic process and I've got a character whose got a certain element to him that adheres to everything I've done so far. There's the archaic nature, which harkens back to the fantasy- that is why I did the first arc in the way I did, it was something I was familiar with- and to then do an historic city. I was familiar with that from Philadelphia and 'Black Condor.' You're not seeing it all yet, but you'll see references to different time periods, such as issue #7. I feel it shows that I'm adaptable to these different kinds of stories. I'm familiar with the thought process of a character like Hawkman who's lived so many different lives because I guess I've drawn so many different genres of life."

If there's one thing that most of Morales' peers will agree on, it's that he is a true artist in every sense of the word and that's something reaffirmed when asked if he feels he is a better penciller for having never been a "flavor of the week" artist, though it might have been a way to make money quicker in the early days.

Scene from "Hawkman" #5
"I never really considered it an option- I'm not a person of that mentality," asserts Morales. "I take my art very seriously- I have since I was three years old. I knew what I was going to be since the beginning so there was no way to avoid what I'm doing today. The comic book medium is very important to me. My first hero was Neal Adams. Neil Adams was doing stuff when comic books were taking itself more seriously, with the 'Green Lantern/Green Arrow' series and 'Batman'. When they tried to break away from all the crap in the 60's and make it more legitimate. Thank you Stan Lee, for creating Spider-Man and making a more down to earth type of character, because everything started following suit since then. When I saw Neal Adams, I saw an illustrator who was a serious, true, fine artist in my mind. There are a bunch of fine artists that didn't do what they do by emulating the flavor of the week or the latest 'guy.' Guys who do that get found out very easily and are exposed. But if you scratch the surface of a Neal Adams or P. Craig Russell, you scratch the surface of a Bernie Wrightson, you find a fine art appreciation behind it all- John Buscema's the same way and Garcia-Lopez is another one of my heroes. These are guys I'd look at and say, 'where did they get it from?' Then I would not just stick with them, but go deeper. For every Michael Golden, there's a Wally Wood behind it and so forth, and so on, and if you keep going deeper, it all goes back to the renaissance age, classical illustration and the baroque period when things started changing. I took my artwork very seriously and I don't think I could have taken it any other way- I never considered myself a hack. I tried to learn everything I could from composition, to narrative, to design, to light source and point of view: everything that encompasses a good piece of work is what I tried to learn. I've been doing this for 13 years and I'm surprised there are a lot of people that don't know me as much as I'm surprised there are people that do."

For those who do know Morales' work, it did surprise some to see him re-appear as the regular artist on "Hawkman" and he explains that the road to landing that job wasn't an easy one.

"When I broke into this industry, it was a time when 'anything goes'. Here was a new book, here was a new genre, you could survive in that element being a 'Rags Morales'. A lot of people didn't get to see what I could do beyond period pieces and archaic pieces- 'yeah, he can draw sword & sorcery, but can he draw a car?' is something I actually heard from an editor- which really pissed me off. I was like, 'A car- yeah, a rectangle with wheels. I do have reference, y'know.' I couldn't believe some of these people were in a position to judge talent. So when the industry imploded upon itself (post 'speculator boom'), and I was scratching to make a living, the first thing I had to do was establish myself in the meat and potatoes of comic books- that I could do superheroes and that it wasn't that difficult for me. As luck would have it, I got an opportunity to work on 'Hourman.' I told Tom Peyer, 'dude, this guy is a part of the JLA One Million, this guy has JSA roots, JLA roots and I would really be disappointed if this book didn't explore sticking to the mainstream as much as possible.' Tom did a brilliant job on the book and 'Hourman' was such a good read. The fact that he was good and talented enough to put in my little desires, which I admit were selfish, in a way that didn't detract from the tight focus of those 25 issues speaks volumes. Now maybe Tom had some of those ideas in mind already, who knows, but the opportunity to draw the JLA and JSA and show what I felt I should have been able to do from the beginning, motivated me to work as hard as I ever had. I had extra inspiration to survive in a field that I couldn't live without. When I did the JSA thing [in Hourman], it caught the eye of Steve Sadowski [ex- 'JSA' penciller]. They were looking for a fill-in guy on 'JSA'- luckily it was when 'Hourman' was wrapping up- Steve said, 'hey, Rags Morales, he did that arc on 'Hourman' with the JSA- he'd be great,' and from there I got to work on a couple of issues with Mike Bair, Geoff Johns, and Peter Tomasi.

Scene from 'Hawkman' #3
"I guess they felt I was the natural for 'Hawkman' and they approached me with it. But I wasn't sure if I was going to do it at first, I thought I'd do something else. Something away from the day to day grind of a monthly series. I approached Tom Peyer with some ideas but those things never came to fruition and when I saw the magic that Michael Bair added to my work, I knew I had to stick with this dude. I told him that I had the option to do 'Hawkman' or to stay on 'JSA.' He was already burnt out on 'JSA' and he thought 'Hawkman' was the way to go. I agreed with him, so here we are. Hawkman's iconic- you look at the origins of the DCU and he's one of the core group of characters. This is going to sound very arrogant, and I apologize- there is a certain amount of fear behind arrogance-, but I feel there is nothing I can't do in this industry: I can do sci-fi, I can do archaic, I can do super hero, I can do romance. I'm not intimidated by any theme, and what I don't know, I'll research. It's one of the things I'm good about. Finding out things I don't know is actually fun for me. Like unraveling a mystery. I'll read books, watch movies, leaf through pictures in magazines, whatever it takes to be well informed on a subject that I have to illustrate. I'm not intimidated as long as I have a focus on where I want to take it all and a reference file to help me get there. It really could have been any book, but 'Hawkman' really started growing on me once I saw what Geoff was doing with it: I saw the romance angle, the world travel angle, and I can appreciate that. This is the kind of book that can touch on so many types of genre and pull it off, like what 'Hourman' did when it was here, yet still stay in the mainstream."

For Morales, like many fans of "Hawkman," he says his favorite part of the comic book is simply…reading it. "Every time I read a script, it's like 'wow! When I first spoke to Geoff he seemed like an 'aw shucks' kind of guy but when I met him after a year and half of collaborating, the first time we'd met face to face, you could see the genius in his eyes and you could see he was supremely confident in his abilities, which comes out in his scripts. He told me this some time ago while we were talking shop. He was telling me about this one particular project and the editor came back saying , 'nah, that's too superheroey, thanks but no thanks.' Geoff's response was, 'well what do you want?' Instead of saying I gave it my best, or I'm not right for the project, he said what could I do and what would you like to see, and THAT told me something right there- you have to have a certain amount of ego to do this for a living- and it showed me Geoff was versatile. It said he was supremely confident in himself and he was willing to change to make it work- that was great! When I see Geoff's script, I see smatterings of genius all around this idea of a superhero book and he's very intelligent about that, he's very methodical in his approach and he's smart enough to listen to me when I offer advice (laughs). He's very susceptible to ideas and when you're doing 100 issues a month, it might be smart to listen to someone else's ideas. Geoff's easily one of the great people in the industry. Every script is very refreshing and teaches me something new about the characters. I wasn't sure if I'd stick around for more than 2 years, but I can easily see myself staying past 30 issues to see where Geoff takes things."

With all good things, there come challenges, and Morales admits that as much as he loves "Hawkman," the series is no walk in the park for him. "The most challenging part is probably just staying consistent. Each issue if not better, than at least as good as the previous. Geoff and I are very, very aware of the fanbase and aware of the things they consider loose ends that need to be tied up. We set a standard with ourselves and we are our worst critics- all the accolades that we've gotten make us say, 'Oh really?' Really, you haven't seen anything yet, as clichéd as that sounds. The hardest thing is living up to our own expectations- fans' expectations are pretty tame compared to what we think the book should be about. If you put a scale to it, we're thinking 7 when everyone else is seeing a 9 or 10. Geoff and Mike Bair push me artistically and I like to think I push them, so I think we'll accomplish some decent things and some awesome surprises are in store, which we're really stoked about. For a character that isn't in Vertigo, this is going to be one the deeper creations in the DCU, on par with Batman, on par with Superman."

It's been said by many, fans and critics alike, that "Hawkman" is Morales' best work and the artist says that the positive response may be a result of his new focus in terms of growing as an artist personally. "Consistency is my last plateau I think. I used to be concerned about the nuts and bolts of putting together a book and I would play around with narrative, style, design and composition. I'm not as concerned with those things any more, they've become second nature to me. I want to put out a solid, consistent book. I'm quoting Neal Adams, who's quoting Shakespeare: 'The play's the thing.' A lot of my work is placid in it's presentation, it's very straightforward and could even be considered academic in the way that Jack Kirby would have done it because I'm more interested in what's going on in the panels than how well I can break the panels with the artwork. So I think I'm at the point now where continually improving the story is the key as opposed to continually improving myself.

"I find that the supreme confidence of everyone around me is inspiring. If I could just separate myself from the creative team around me, look at it in and of itself, it's pretty impressive! You've got a James Robinson and Geoff Johns collaborating on ideas, you've got a fantastic illustrator in Michael Bair, and I mean that. There are inkers that trace and there are inkers that embellish, and the latter are rare because they're people that can do anything the field. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for me but unfortunately for Mike, people have forgotten how good of an artist he is. Most of his work has been on the ink side and hey, anyone whose looked at his work knows, when Michael Bair inks a book, it's a great book. It doesn't matter who the penciller is and I'm pretty anal: I put down everything. I'm confident with the creative team, so maybe that's bringing out my best work or maybe it's my work finally maturing- I don't know. I always considered myself doing what's right for the character, regardless of the market, from 'Black Condor' to 'Turok' to 'Forgotten Realms'- no matter the series, if you're listening to the writer, the writer will tell you how to draw the character.

Scene from "Hawkman" #6
"Every time I get a different character and a different writer, I get stoked and I think it's a chance to do an issue better than the last issue, a series better than the last series, a character better than the last character. To be honest with you, if I went back to do the characters I did before, I don't know how different I'd do them, because the mental process is the same and there would be very little change from what I've done before. Maybe draftsmanship wise, it'd be more finely tuned but idealistically, I don't think I could do 'Turok' better than I have or 'Black Condor' better than I have or 'Geomancer' better than I have. Over the years I always look forward to improving myself by saying something about the characters. I'm trying and hopefully people see someone who cares enough to give his best. If you like 'Hawkman' now, who's to say my next project won't be better than that? I don't think I've hit a wall yet in terms of expanding myself artistically- I like to think I hit an incline and then level off until I meet my next challenge, go up that incline and level off, etc."

If one looks back at many of the creative endeavors by Rags Morales, a trend becomes apparent- most, if not all, of the series he's worked on have been cancelled prematurely, which leads one to ask: is there a Morales Curse? "It's the writers' fault, it ain't me," laughs Morales. "I just get the shit jobs. Jokes aside, you never know what's going to happen and all you can do is your best. If I told the typical American, that I know this great Indian restaurant and the kasha is out of this world, you go there and you're gonna love it! They'd take my word for it because I told them it's good and they'd have to trust me. Few people are really that aware of something foreign, like Indian food. But if I said I know a great pizza place, a lot of people know pizza, it's a lot easier to judge good pizza and that's the way to describe my style- my style is Indian food. A lot of people look at it and say they don't know if it's good- it's only ever been 'Forgotten Realms,' 'Turok,' etc. As far as any worries for the Morales Curse affecting 'Hawkman' goes, every character I've tackled previously didn't have a common collective consciousness with the comic book market- this is a first for me. Now 'Hawkman' is my pizza. You can compare it to other versions of Hawkman. Everything I've done prior, except maybe 'Hourman,' has been considered foreign. I'm not sure if what I've done before had a chance to be appreciated for everything I could do. 'Turok' told me something- because it was a combination of 'Dances With Wolves' and 'Jurassic Park;' people started noticing my work- I had to go to them, they weren't going to come to me. Doing a 'Hawkman,' I can show people what I'm capable of and what they've been missing for 13 yrs. Indians are not easy to do in the marketplace."

As mentioned earlier, Morales has signed an exclusive contract with DC Comics and he explains that he did it for one simple reason- he loves the characters. "When I told a friend of mine I was going to do Hourman for DC, he told me, 'aw Rags, you're in the blanket, man.' DC, with all due respect to Marvel, has the greatest characters, the greatest lineage and the greatest history: DC is baseball. Marvel is like basketball or football. You can always come up with a great old baseball story that has been around forever and that will go on forever. DC boasts the most recognizable heroes anywhere, anywhere and to be affiliated with them- Now, I'm a Mets fan so I hate this analogy- is like playing for the Yankees. DC is the Yankees. Marvel showed interest in my work and I appreciate that, if I ever got the opportunity I'd love to draw Spider-Man, Captain America, Daredevil and so many other classic characters; but character for character, history for history, DC boasts the greatest abundance. I'm glad that DC approached me with the contract and the chance to do 'Hawkman' for a year, to stay in the DCU and support my family. To draw the Atom and Dr. Fate, to go and do something with a legendary group of characters; it's what dreams are made of. People will forever know I did Hawkman, whether that's good or not. As far as I'm concerned, I'm under the shadow of Joe Kubert and that'll always be the case.

"I want to continue doing pizza, things people are familiar with, so people can continue to see how capable I am and hopefully they'll like it. Any project I do from here on out is one I'll be confident that people will like, because I'm confident."

As far as dream projects go, Morales does say that there are some characters he'd like to tackle in the future but he feels that it'd be inappropriate to say who some of them are right now. "I know I'm not on the same level of an Alex Ross or Adam Hughes who can't do wrong. I don't like saying 'I'd like to do this character or that character' because a lot of those characters are ongoing and have artists on them, and it's like trespassing for me. I know a lot of people with a big spotlight on them don't think twice about saying how much they love this character and knowing full well that someone else is dealing with that book, supporting themselves and or their families. I don't know if I'm big- I don't know if the perception of me has even changed- I think a lot of people are waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I know I'm not on the bottom rung and so I don't think it's cool to say I wanna do someone else's book. One character that I want to do, that isn't being singularly handled, is Captain Marvel/Shazam- I love that character! The next project I do will hopefully be a graphic novel because I'm looking for my 'Killing Joke' or my 'Watchmen' where I can spend a year or so working on it. Geoff & I have discussed the possibility; so don't be surprised if you see something soon dealing with some beloved characters...that isn't a hint by the way. Wink, wink."

Morales hints at some other "pie in the sky" projects that he's cooking up, but before he can share any more with CBR News, his fiancé arrives home from work and he realizes it's time to get going. Before he does depart, he has some important parting words for fans:

"To the 'Hawkman' fans, your money will be well spent- your support will be justified. I'm working with brilliant people who are doing a brilliant job and if Geoff Johns has proven anything, he can make a hit. So, thanks to all the 'Hawkman' fans- you're gonna love it! To the two fans of mine [laughs], thanks for sticking with me, it's been a long time and you'll like what's coming. You can hold it up next to another guy who did the same character and say, 'hey, this guy's capable.' It's cliché, I don't wanna say something cliché, but you haven't seen anything yet and you're gonna dig it… if you don't there's something wrong with you."

[smiles] "Just kidding."

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