IN-DEPTH: Ethan Van Sciver

Thu, July 16th, 2009 at 3:44pm PDT

Comic Books
Bill Mitchel, Contributing Writer

Ethan Van Sciver at Comic-Con International 2008

Many creators can lay claim to having resurrected a long dead character in superhero comics. Less so bringing two back to the top of the charts. The number of creators who have brought back hundreds of the dead all at once can be counted on one hand, and Ethan Van Sciver would be one of them.

Although not illustrating the series, Van Sciver certainly played a large role in bringing writer Geoff Johns’ “Blackest Night” to light. His work on “Green Lantern: Rebirth” and his designing and consulting behind the scenes helped lay the foundation of what would lead to DC Comics’ current summer event, whereby countless dead heroes and villains rise from their graves to blanket the DC Universe in death and horror as the evil Black Lantern Corps.

Van Sciver’s similarly re-exciting The Flash franchise in “The Flash: Rebirth,” also written by Johns. But all creators have to start somewhere. CBR News spoke with Van Sciver about his early days in comics, his rise to superstardom, and what lies ahead.

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CBR: Do you remember the first book or creator that made you excited about the world of comics? 

ETHAN VAN SCIVER: Oh yes, vividly!  Comics had been around me most of my life, but I didn't read or follow them until I was 12 or 13.  I would flip through them for good spots to squish down my Silly Putty.  So I had these characters, the ones that were less popular and less known than Superman and Batman, in my subconscious.  I just didn't know their names, or anything about them.  I used to go to a little shop called Blankenbush Drugs, in Merchantville NJ, because they had comics and penny candies.  One day, they had “Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men” #1 on the shelf, and the cover blew my mind.  It was dark, scary...violent.  And the book itself, drawn by Jon Bogdanove, seemed like it crossed so many lines.  That orange rocky guy that I'd seen in the comics of my childhood?  His name, it turned out, was The Thing, and there he was, dead and in a pile of broken rocky bits, his fleshy interior exposed underneath. 

"Cyberfrog" was Ethan Van Sciver's first professional work

It set me on fire, and I had to know everything about all of these characters as soon as possible.  And I bought everything, especially “Marvel Saga,” with that weird [Jack] Kirby and [Steve] Ditko clip art. I needed to know the origins and histories, which lead me to want to obtain original copes of the Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] “Fantastic Four” series, and from there, well, my sad and sordid comic book addiction -- including a shoplifting incident at 7-Eleven! -- was in full swing.

Aside from Jon Bogdanove, were there any artists that really stood out to you early on? Any that inspired your art in those early years of drawing?

Sure, I soon came to realize who John Byrne was, and started to notice and appreciate the quality of his work on “Superman,” but especially through “Classic X-Men,” which reprinted his and [Terry] Austin's run from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  And then, of course, Todd McFarlane.  I was 14 or 15 when I found him on “The Hulk” and then “Amazing Spider-Man,” and he was like a bolt from the blue.  Very exciting, very fresh stuff. 

Did your family encourage you to pursue art? 

Yeah, without question.  My parents probably both wished they'd taken different career paths.  My dad was a lawyer who hated it, and wanted to write poetry.  My mom was a housewife who loved to draw portraits of her children.  Or Paul McCartney.  She was very good, too.  Later, she tried to write a novel.  So I think they both looked over their kids who showed artistic inclinations very supportively.  I needed very little encouragement from them though.  I became delusional about my talent at age 14, able to do absolutely anything with no help or guidance from teachers or peers.  Comics smacked that right out of me, the moment I got to be around lots of talented people whose criticism was pointed, devastating, and important to my future.

Your first published work was “Cyberfrog,” starring a character you had created.  What is the story behind this project? 

1993, my caricature stand at the mall folded.  I quit it to take a step.  So I borrowed a room from my dad's law office building and got to work doing illustrations for children's books.  I knew it was time to start drawing comics, but I didn't know how to go about it or what to draw.  Anyhow, this girl I'd met at the mall used to come and visit me.  She had a boyfriend, and he'd drive her over while she came to see me.  We'd hook up while he waited... it was weird.  Anyhow, one of these times, she brought me a small porcelain frog from a trip she took to Puerto Rico.  It sat on my desk, and inspired Cyberfrog.  And that was the character I needed to start drawing comic book pages.

"Cyberfrog" was Ethan Van Sciver's first professional work

Had you submitted “Cyberfrog” to other publishers before it was picked up by Harris Comics?

No, it wasn't really like that.  It wasn't urgent that “Cyberfrog” be the project that I worked on, it was just a means by which to learn to draw comics.  So after drawing a few practice issues of “Cyberfrog,” I answered an ad in a free Philadelphia paper for a guy who wanted to start his own comic book company.  He wanted to write a line of comics based on the lyrics to Pet Shop Boys songs.  He was waiting for his mother to die to collect his inheritance, which he planned to use to fund this effort.  So I drew a book called “King’s Cross” for him, which was never published.  His mother never died, I guess.  

That was discouraging, but I'd also investigated the small press scene, and found Hall of Heroes, which published teenage comics artists in Elkhart, IN.  It seemed to be a mostly Christian outlet, but they had terrific production qualities.  I contacted them as well, and they agreed to publish “Cyberfrog.”  So when the Pet Shop Boys thing folded, I had Hall of Heroes all lined up and ready to go anyhow.

Would you advise aspiring artists or writers to try to break into the industry through small press? Do you think it’s better for creators to go that route first?

Young creators, absolutely.  It's the easiest route to the mainstream, because it allows you to take steps, rather than a gigantic, risky leap.  Create something, work on it intently, and stick with it until they start to notice you.  The money is non-existent, obviously, which is why I recommend it only to young people who still live at home! 

“Cyberfrog” led to work at Harris Comics soon after. What was the first project you landed with them and how did that come about?

I took “Cyberfrog” #1, the Hall of Heroes version, to a big convention in Philadelphia in 1994.  And I gave it to everyone.  Harris comics was there, and I gave copies to them, promising to return tomorrow and begging them to read it.  They did, I guess, and I got an inking job on “Vampirella/Shadowhawk,” a few trading cards, bits of work here and there. Eventually, Harris decided to publish new material for “Cyberfrog.”

You’ve stated in the past that “Cyberfrog” was never envisioned to be anything more then a method to practice making comics. Was it difficult to continue producing material for the Harris series?

The opposite of difficult.  It was just nonsense.  And I had no idea what I was doing.

"Cyberfrog" was Ethan Van Sciver's first professional work

Do you look back fondly on the Cyberfrog experience? Any chance we’ll see him again? Ever thought of sneaking him into a Corps in the Green Lantern books? 

Sure!  “Cyberfrog” was an incredible time.  I was making good money, traveling, meeting all of my heroes and lots of girls.  And a lot of hopeful things came from it, including coming very close to having a toy line from Playmates Toys and a computer animated cartoon show from Mainframe Animation. When it ended, and it **ended**, it was kind of traumatic.  I had to let the Frog go, and move on to DC Comics very quickly.  I haven't really drawn him since, but now that I own him again, it's nice to know that I could if I wanted to.  Maybe someday.  And no way will I put him in “Green Lantern!”  He's mine! 

You jumped from Harris to DC, first filling in and then becoming the regular artist of “Impulse.” How did that come about?

Well, once the toy and animation deal fell through, Harris Comics saw no future for “Cyberfrog” so they graciously offered that I could continue to do it on a monthly schedule, at one third of my page rate!  So I drew two issues, and it became clear that I was going to starve and become homeless this way.  I got DC's phone number, scanned their current product for an opportunity, and found “Impulse,” which had been a very hot book but had fallen off in sales.  I called the editor, faxed over some samples, including a drawing of Impulse, and he started to give me work.  First, a Wonder Girl pin-up, and then a fill in on “Impulse,” some short stories, and then the whole series.  It was awesome.  

Did you alter your style at all to suit the character of “Impulse?”  Was there an editorial mandate for the look of the book? 

Yeah, I did.  It wasn't an editorial mandate, it was just my perception of what the fans of that book wanted and expected, and I wanted to succeed.   

“The Flash: Iron Heights” one-shot saw an early teaming of you with Geoff Johns. How did this book come about? Was this a project you collaborated on closely with Geoff? 

I started chatting with Geoff way back when he wrote a fill-in on “Impulse,” which I didn't get to draw.  But we'd both started at DC around the same time, so we were both excited about it and I liked talking to him.  I don't remember how “Iron Heights” came about except that we wanted to work together on something.  I think he wanted to do a story introducing Keystone's prison, and it would be a cool story featuring Ragdoll.  But then he decided Ragdoll shouldn't be there, and we should create new characters.  So we did.  And it worked, and was a lot of fun.

Some of Ethan Van Sciver's "Impulse" work is collected in "The Flash Presents: Mercury Falling"

Your current artwork has an almost Brian Bolland feel to the line work and detail. Is he an influence on your work? 

Yeah, I like the way Bolland renders his work, and I like his sense of humor.  His covers always have a punch line, a clever gimmick or gag.  He's right out of the Silver Age in that way, and watching his work has taught me a lot.  A lot of artists influence me, but it's a struggle for me to maintain individuality when it would be so easy to just imitate different artists every day, depending on my mood.  I tend to just not read too many comics anymore, for that reason.

Marvel work soon followed with many issues of Grant Morrison’s “New X-Men.” What was it like working with Morrison on some of Marvel’s iconic mutants? 

It was a big mistake, probably the worst of my career.  But then again, it elevated me in status very quickly.  

A mistake in what regard?

It was an ungainly situation that I wasn't prepared for, the job being a lot bigger than what was presented to me.  And I wasn't ready for it yet.  I was also having a lot of fun at DC, and growing very quickly as a penciller.  My brief time at Marvel was very discouraging, and it took a long time to get some swagger back.

Your run was during Marvel’s period of having the X-Men dress much like their movie counterparts, specifically in black leather. Did you think this was a good move on their part? Or do you think the comic movies and the comics themselves should be separate entities? 

Frank Quitely had them dressed in big, puffy Kevlar jackets, which didn't resemble the movie costumes at all, but a lot of people drew that parallel.  I think Grant and Frank would have done that with or without the movie, but I wasn't there for the editorial or creative discussions.  By the time I was on board, everything was already set in place, and the first issue of their run was already solicited.

I thought the Quitely designed costumes were wonderful.  I was and still am a huge fan of his work, placing him on a level so far above and beyond the rest of us that it's not worth competing with him.  He is truly, truly great.  For me, drawing his uniforms wasn't any more or less difficult, but it was certainly more interesting.

"The Flash: Iron Heights" was Van Sciver's first collaboration with Geoff Johns

Would you ever return to work with Marvel again?  

I don't think I'll ever work there again, but you never know.

Is that due to a problem with the way you were treated or how things were operating at the time?

It was so long ago now, it doesn't even matter anymore.  But here's the situation.  I love DC, and I'm proud to work there.  It's a work-for-hire superhero job, and they seem to be happy to have me as well.  I don't see the point in switching from one work-for-hire superhero job where I'm appreciated to another where I may not be.  In other words, if I'm not drawing Flash, Green Lantern or Wonder Woman, I'm working for myself on an creator-owned property, either at DC or one of the indies.

“Green Lantern: Rebirth” was a huge success commercially and critically, and reestablished Hal Jordan as a major hero in the DC Universe. Did you think going in that this book would be such a hit?  

Yes, of course!  That's why I agreed to do it, even though I had never read a GL book prior.  It seemed like a huge hit waiting to happen.  

You gave the Green Lanterns a new definitive look during “Rebirth,” with solid blacks, 3-D symbols and distinctive visual use of powers depending on which Lantern we were seeing. Can you take us through the thought process of your take on Green Lanterns and how you feel they should come across visually? 

It all came from just realizing that those costumes are made of energy and not fabric. They don't rip or fold, they don't reflect back light. They are light.  So the black areas needed to be solid black, which looks a whole lot better against that green than grey does, which is the effect that happens when you add light areas to the black.  And I was inspired by those big, electronic billboards in Tokyo. Their costumes became digital FX shows, rather than bland spandex tights.  It all became more and more clear as I descended further and further into madness. 

Were you a fan of Green Lantern prior to working on “Rebirth?” 

EVS:  No, not at all.  I didn't get it.

Van Sciver says "New X-Men" may have been the worst mistake of his career

Did you not understand the appeal of the concept? Or just thought the whole idea of making giant green hammers to smash bad guys was hokey?

I didn't look that closely into it or think about it at all.  Some books and characters drew me as an individual in right away, Superman and Flash for example.  Others don't.  I think I imagined Green Lantern to be a big space opera with goofy looking aliens, something like “Star Trek,” which it certainly was at times.  But I didn't understand what the Corps was, the oath, Oa, none of that. I didn't like Green Lantern out of pure ignorance, which is the reason why anyone wouldn't like Green Lantern

Next came the” Sinestro Corps Special,” which had a last page that surprised everyone, from fans to retailers. Did you know while drawing that page with Superboy Prime, Anti-Monitor and Cyborg Superman that people would be dying to read the “Sinestro Corps War” after seeing that image? 

No, “Sinestro Corps” was a complete surprise.  I labored over that book, wondering if it was going to pay off.  I wasn't even sure I liked my work on it.  The last page also didn't mean much to me.  Geoff went back and forth over whether or not to put Anti-Montor in it.  The final script eliminated him, and I called to ask him why.  Eventually he decided to just go for it, and I'm glad he did!  But when the reaction to the book came, and grew and grew and grew, we were all stunned by it.  That book, and the series that followed, was a gratifying surprise and an eye opener to us and a lot of people at DC.  

You had a short run on “Superman/Batman” where members of the Green Lantern Corps also made an appearance. Is it hard to escape drawing these characters? Did you think you were a good fit for the title? 

I don't know.  I had trouble with that book, just at its very core.  Superman and Batman really don't work well together visually.  Batman needs to be shadowed, Superman needs to be lit like an angel.  So I talked to [writer] Mark Verheiden about it, and we had a very good conversation about where that story was supposed to go, and how Superman and Batman would be so clearly defined apart from each other through the story.  I walked away from the conversation excited, pretty happy about what we had come up with. 

Then the next script came in, and I didn't understand; it wasn't going where we'd planned.  And the next script had Plastic Man in it for some reason.  And I just lost interest in it.  It was kind of depressing.  The Green Lanterns belonged in the story, so I was happy to draw them there.  But what we had planned was so big and scary and cool.   Suddenly it's Lex Luthor and weird rocks, and on and on.  It didn't work, and I don't know what happened.

"Green Lantern: Rebirth: was a landmark in Van Sciver's career

Have you done most of the design work for “Green Lantern” in recent years? Have you had much say in the look of the different corps and their members?

Well, I designed all of the costumes and symbols (except for the Star Sapphires and the Black Lanterns symbols) and pitch in ideas when it's asked of me.  But the aliens that wear those suits are all up to the artists that are privileged to draw “Green Lantern.”  And it's terrific, creatively.  Come on board and put all of your best and weirdest ideas to paper, there are no limits. 

How much collaboration was there between Geoff and yourself when it came to “Green Lantern” and events leading to “Blackest Night?” Does he bounce story ideas off of you? Do you offer ideas to him?

Geoff and I created the spectrum late one night.  I ventured the idea to him, starting with yellow and green being next to each other on a rainbow, and violet being kind of already established.  There are probably other colors to fill in the rest of ROY G. BIV.  And he and I just talked it through, at first for fun, and then it seemed to make more and more sense.  He came up with Black Lanterns towards the end, and “Blackest Night.”  I offered other ideas, what certain elements of GL lore symbolize, etc.   We talked about “Blackest Night” and what should happen. He had a rough outline very quickly. 

I do suggest things to him all the time.  Sometimes he agrees, and sometimes he doesn't.  I fought very hard for what the Black Lanterns should look like, and I'm still not sure I won that fight.  They must be devoid of all color.  Like black and white images on television.  Things that are past.  Color suggests being part of the spectrum, of life.  But then I saw that Aquaman has an orange shirt!  So I'll wait and see the book with everyone else. 

Obviously the Black Lantern Corps is going to be populated by those who have died in the DC Universe. Do you think there are members who will shock readers? Was it fun to design this particular corps? 

Lots of fun, of course!  Drawing scary stuff is my thing!  From what I know, there are shocks and surprises around every turn!  Two in particular got a chuckle from me, and I had to ask Geoff what the hell was going on!  You'll see. 

Ethan Van Sciver art from "The Sinestro Corps War"

Many fans like to draw comparisons between DC and Marvel, sometimes even when it's a stretch. Were you and Geoff Johns ever concerned people would think the undead rising in “Blackest Night” was some sort of “Marvel Zombies” riff? 

It didn't even occur to us at the time.  We were talking about our Lanterns fighting the forces of Death, the gimmick being that we'd see the return of dead DCU characters.  “Marvel Zombies” was an imaginary story in which characters that are currently alive and active disgrace themselves by eating each other.  And it was a lot of fun, but of no real consequence to the Marvel Universe.  Black Lanterns are not zombies, and this isn't a fun, throwaway story.  It's of dire consequence, and it's really happening to the DC Universe.

You joined Geoff Johns on another “Rebirth,” this time with the Flash. Did you think Barry Allen needed to return? Do you think there should ever be a time where characters that have died should stay dead? 

Yes, Bruce Wayne's parents should stay dead, because without that, there's no Batman.  Wait, Bruce Wayne is gone now, isn't he?  Time to bring back the Waynes.  Barry Allen didn't **need** to return, in my opinion, but if he was going to, it was certainly time and we are the team to do it.  We have a big story, CBR, that requires Barry Allen.  We can't do this without him.  And the idea will lead to a better understanding of what The Flash is, and the destiny of his family and friends. 

I do believe that “The Flash” has all of the potential of “Green Lantern,” because they've always been brother books.  We're using “Rebirth” to explain who Barry is and why he's back, but also to get our ducks in a row for what's to come.

"The Flash: Rebirth" #1 variant by Ethan Van Sciver

What’s your approach to drawing the Flash? Is there something you feel you bring visually that has not been done previously?

I'm trying different things, different effects.  They are all engines powered by the Speed Force, so I love drawing lightning and sparks, exhaust, etc.  They become more than human when they run.  I have ideas that I am gradually introducing, bit by bit.  But it's all very difficult to put into words, and as Geoff will tell you: when I try, I sound like a crazy person.  

Do you have any plans to produce creator-owned work again?

I think about it, but no plans at the moment.

With Comic-Con International right around the corner and convention season in full swing, is there an Ethan Van Sciver con horror story you can share with us? 

There are quite a few, but they all involved drunkenness and bad behavior on my part.  And I'm quite sober and well-behaved these days.  We should all move forward and just enjoy the summer convention season without the sad reminders of our pasts. 

Any projects on the horizon you can discuss?

The horizon is still “The Flash: Rebirth.” Please, God, let me just finish this one more project.

TAGS:  ethan van sciver, blackest night, cyberfrog, new x-men, the flash: rebirth

 
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