When Words Collide

Mon, March 22nd, 2010 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

MARKING UP THE MAINSTREAM: JORGE MOLINA

Jorge Molina, artist on "Avengers: The Initiative"

Last month, in my review of "Avengers: The Initiative" #33, I referred to the look of that comic as fitting in with a kind of "Marvel house style," even though I realized that such a term isn't as descriptive as it once might have been. With the diversity of artists at Marvel, the look of their comics can vary dramatically, but I still think there's a baseline level of quality - and it is quality - that's expected in even their second-tier titles. And there's a commonality of appearance in some of those series that makes them look a bit generic, even if that generic style is an effective one.

But since I wrote that review, I've seen some of the pencil art of Jorge Molina - the very artist who sparked my comment about the current "Marvel house style" - and his penciled pages looked far less generic than I'd imagined. So perhaps it's something about the Marvel production process, from the pencils through the inking and coloring and publishing, that can add a kind of similarity to the work of various artists. And I was curious about Molina's take on his own style, and his attempt to make a mark in the Marvel mainstream.

So I asked him about all of this stuff. And I know it's only been a couple of weeks since my last WWC interview, but like the last one, this is a timely one: Molina is wrapping up his "Avengers: The Initiative" run and thinking about where to take his career next, and I was interested in that part of his process as well. I wondered what it's like for a young guy to try to carve out a career in mainstream comics in days like this.

Here's what we talked about:

Tim Callahan: Let's start off with a bit of background - you've done a bit of comic book work here and there, and you've been working at Marvel for a little while, but where did you get your start? What was your first comics work? Where do you think your best work has shown up so far?

Jorge Molina: Well, after high school I was leaning toward studying graphic design here in Mexico and planning to stay here. I always had a passion for drawing comic characters and creating ones of my own, but I never thought I could make a living out of it. Then my mom - yes, I'm a mama's boy - found some universities more related to my comic love. I went to visit the Joe Kubert art school, but I wasn't very convinced of the whole place, and I thought New Jersey was kind of depressing for me. So after that, I jumped to Canada and visited a couple of colleges where they had animation courses. Finally I ended on Seneca College to study 2D and 3D animation.

It wasn't specifically comics, but it was definitely closer to comics compared to lame graphic design (not that graphic designers are lame, it just wasn't for me). And I thought "what's the harm, the more I know the better," so I got to keep my passion of making comics but adding influences from what I was learning from animation.

Then, as a result of my career, along those years I got surrounded by very talented people, classmates, roommates, teachers, everyone was somewhat related to the industry. So they showed me this thing called "networking." At first it started as a hobby, all my classmates had pages on Deviantart, CG society, etc., so I decided to open my own too and share my work. At this point, I really had no idea this would open job opportunities in the future. After some time, I started to get freelance work by these websites. I remember my first gig was coloring a book for Joe Kelly and drawn by Ben Roman. I was thrilled - I was working with one of the greatest writers on the comic book industry! After that, one of my teachers hooked me into working with Udon comics, so then I started to get various freelance jobs.

Then I relocated to sunny Mexico and I got to work with DC for a short time, and do some videogames concepts on the side. Then I jumped into Top Cow, where I worked on a pilot named "Urban Myths," which was one of the most exiting tittles I worked on. Jay Faeber, the writer, created this beautiful idea and characters, and I got so much artistic freedom, because not only did I design the characters myself, but also did all the artwork from pencils, inks, and colors. From there I got a short story with Image and right after that, the big event: Comic-Con! There I got interviewed by Marvel, and that's how I got started with them. Now it's been a year with them and it has really been a great experience. I've had the luck of working with very talented people.

I just wish I had more arms and the day had more hours to take on more projects - don't you wish the day had, like, 48 hours instead of 24?

TC: Yeah, I could always use more hours in a day, indeed. Think of all the comics I could read and review.

A little while back, in one of those reviews, I mentioned that, even though Marvel has plenty of diversity in the style of their artists, there is still a kind of "house style" that pops up in some of the comics like "Avengers: The Initiative," "Nova," and "Deadpool." There's a similarity about the baseline Marvel style, it seems to me - a certain way of drawing superhero comics that's a little J. Scott Campbell, a little Marc Silvestri. It's a style I don't mind at all, by the way, I'm just pointing out what I've been observing.

So here's my question. Or questions: Do you see any kind of "house style" at Marvel? How do you approach drawing superhero comics for Marvel, and is it an intentionally different approach than you used at Top Cow?

JM: Yeah, I see what you mean, when I look at DC's comics, they all have this Jim Lee influence in their art, which I love, but you can clearly see the influence in most of the artists. I can't really put my finger in what makes the Marvel artist have similarities in their styles. I still believe you get a wide range of style in the titles, I mean, to go from Scottie Young to Mike Deodato, Jr to me...it's very diverse. But I think the editors pick the artists who have the "Marvel feel" to work with them, that might be the case. I can honestly admit that I am heavy influenced by J. Scott Campbell. I spent countless hours studying his drawings and copying tons of "Danger Girl" issues, so I can see how that shows in my work.

On the other hand, I think the artist are somewhat influenced by other artists. On "Avengers: The Initiative," I have to look to a lot of reference material from Olivier Coipel, so I feel I'm being influenced by his work, and I can imagine most artist at Marvel go through the same thing. Still, I try to play around with the style. If you take a look at my work from Top Cow, to Image, to various Marvel titles, you can see how it changes. The scripts have a lot to do with that. If you get a heavy, violent, serious cowboy story, you're not gonna draw cartoony, funny-looking characters - you want dark gritty ones. In the case of "Urban Myths," I thought the script had somewhat of a "Disney" feel to it, so that's why I chose a more animated style for it.

How is it to review such a wide ranges if titles? Isn't it hard to review the titles without your personal taste making a judgment?

TC: That's always an issue - the question of how much of a review is subjective vs. objective. I've written plenty about that topic in the past, and it basically boils down to this: a reviewer should approach any comic objectively, without preconceptions, but it's ultimately a review based on the reviewer's response to the comic.

I approach comics aesthetically more than emotionally (in the sense that, hey just because I personally want Iron Fist to survive, doesn't mean I'll give a comic a negative review just because the character dies), yet there is that matter of taste. I prefer some artists to others, and some writers to others. But it's my job to think about why. What makes some artists and writers more effective than others, and why it works the way it does (or doesn't).

Often, a review is a conversation about what made a comic work (or fail to work) from my point of view. But it is, always, from my point of view. I don't speak for anyone but myself. That's why it's annoying to see a review attributed to a magazine or a website (like in a blurb or something), because it's the individual voice of the reviewer that matters, it's not some hive mind of like-thinking reviewers.

Which I guess gets back to the whole idea of the Marvel house style. And, no, your stuff certainly doesn't look like Skottie Young or Mike Deodato at all. But in your work with Marvel, have you been given any specific editorial direction about your pages? Has anyone ever told you to emphasize something in a panel to make it more dynamic or anything like that? And, to follow up on that, how specific are the scripts you've been working with?

JM: I could never be a reviewer, I always have an opinion, but I can't judge something without my personal taste making a judgment. I think that's the difference between a reviewer and a critic, the reviewer has to be objective while the other doesn't.

Being objective also translates to the editor's way of guiding the artists. I really don't get any direction in terms of my style in Marvel. They are really cool about it and let the artist work in the style they feel more comfortable with. This works great because, as an artist, you can just focus on making the page work in general instead on focusing on the way you should draw.

But don't believe I get to do whatever I want. Editors work really close with the artists in Marvel; mostly they guide me in making the panels in the pages easy to read, so sometimes I find myself reworking out the panels. I tended to work with only horizontal panels, mostly, but Bill Rosemann ("Avengers: The Initiative" editor) pitched me the idea of maybe adding different panel shapes to vary the pages. So I tried that and it has worked really great so far. I really don't get any uncomfortable directions from them; they really know what they are doing.

For "Avengers: The Initiative," I had a lot of freedom on the pages. Christos Gage's writing is so friendly to the artist; I get just the perfect amount of direction. No page has more than five panels, which works great because it makes the pages easy to read. And he guides the artist with enough description of the action, but he always leaves some freedom to the artist. I feel this freedom has somewhat pushed me to improve my skill, and I've been grateful for the experience.

TC: Back up a bit. How do you think you change the story when you change the panel size and shape? Can you give an example of when you have tried a few different panel sizes and decided to go with one over the other?

I'm also interested in how you attack a page for penciling. Do you draw a central image first, and build your page composition around that, or do you measure out some panels and then just go from top left to bottom right, Jack Kirby style?

JM: Well, the way I work my pages it's really almost like a ritual, like most things I'm sure, I go through all this process to get to the final page. I'm sure you do the same thing when reviewing or writing something, I don't think you just sit and everything flows like magic. You must have some process right?

I usually tend to give the script a first read, just for fun. At this point, I don't think about panels and any images, I just read it to enjoy the story. Then I give the script a second read, but this time I try to focus on the number of panels and try to picture in my head the shot of each panel. Here, I start adding very little thumbnails on the side of the script, trying to work the composition of the panels of each pages. I focus on the flow of the main story, for instance. If I have a quiet emotional scene, like the ones between Constrictor and Diamondback, I tend to keep the panels horizontal for a more cinematic and smooth transition between them, but then if I have an action page, let's say Thor and Sentry fighting, I might add a big panel in the page to attract the attention when Sentry is ripping Thor in half and make that the most shocking panel of all, maybe having the image breaking into the other panels to accentuate its importance.

After I set up my panel shapes on the pages, then on another page I do small quick thumbnails of each panel. If I don't have a very clear idea of the camera angle, I tend to do two or three ways of drawing each panel and then pick the one I think works the best. But like I said...it's only when I don't have a clear idea. Sometimes I just nail it from the first sketch, other times I don't.

Now everything gets a bit more technical, so excuse me to all those who might find these boring. This is for the artist out there, because I'm always eager to know how other artists work.

Now I do a more detailed sketch on a letter size paper, usually using an HB pencil to get strong lines and accentuate the posing. The I scan my sketch into my computer, tweak whatever I need to tweak in Photoshop, sometimes adding 3D elements, say a plane or a tank, and then I blow the page up into a comic board size and print it into this massive printer I have. Once it prints, I tape a comic board page on top of it and use my light table to trace the printed sketch. Now I use a 2h pencil; this way I don't smudge much and I get clean lines. I go though the whole page, tracing. Once I'm done, I turn the light table off and then go over the page again, accentuating my lines and giving it the final touches. So, as you can see, it's a big process, and this goes into every single page. I know there are other ways, but I've tried many and I found that this one is the one I feel I get my best quality and saves me time. But I'm sure my methods will keep evolving with time.

TC: That's good stuff. I love to hear about the process behind the creative act. Writing reviews isn't that much of a creative process - I mean, I try to throw in some interesting sentences and avoid plot summaries, but mostly I'm just honestly responding to a comic, and putting down my reaction in a coherent way. When I write fiction, or comic book scripts, I use a much more elaborate process, plotting out the story beats ahead of time, injecting appropriate patterns and motifs to give some texture to the narrative, and refining the dialogue.

Speaking of that - how much attention do you pay to visual symbols and motifs in the comics you draw? I know some writers really layer that stuff in their scripts, but some writers don't worry about that sort of thing at all. Do you think, as you're drawing a page or a panel, "what is the symbolic connotation of this image? How can I help emphasize its symbolic importance?" Not just to emphasize a certain mood or plot point, but to layer in a kind of visual meaning that transcends - or amplifies - the script?

JM: Yeah, writing is fun, I've been trying to write some personal stuff with a friend for a while and we always have fun. I just love to create characters and situations to the point where you almost feel part of the scenes and the idea of just freedom of ideas just pouring to makes the plot work, it's all great fun.

As for the visual symbols and motifs on the titles I have worked on, I really don't get much of that. The scripts I write are very straightforward to get the action and the story done, to add those details is up to the artist, which is fine too. I just don't think we get much "detail" writing on monthly comics. That's one of the things I loved about "Watchmen" that really surprised me, how if you look closely to the story and the pages, you can see how Moore and Gibbons pay so much and detail attention in dropping visual hints here and there. It makes the story so rich, and you feel the need to go around again and look closer to the story.

TC: "Watchmen"? Should I bother reading that? (Just kidding.)

So what's next for you? Will you be writing and drawing creator-owned comics, or are you still looking for superhero gigs in the mainstream? What's the Jorge Molina plan?

JM: Well, short plan: stay with Marvel and hopefully get more exposure as an artist and maybe a contract. Long term plan: I really want to produce personal work, tell stories of my own. I'm also a big videogame fan, so doing games is something I look forward to. Hopefully I will be able to open my own studio here in Mexico sometime in the future. But nothing is set in stone. I would take whatever life give me and work with it, but I'll do my best to achieve my ideas and hopefully success.

Jorge would like everyone to check out his final two issues of "Avengers: The Initiative" as he draws the series to a close over the next couple of months. I promised I would mention that. So that's what I'm doing. Now, I'm going to go read that "Watchmen" comic I've been hearing so much about.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

TAGS:  when words collide, jorge molina, avengers: the initiative

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