The New Crisis: Rags Morales talks 'Identity Crisis' and 'Hawkman'

Mon, January 12th, 2004 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

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Art from the upcoming "Indentity Crisis," as seen in Wizard #148
Some of you may remember artist Rags Morales from DC Comic's "Black Condor." More of you may remember him from Valiant Comics' "Geomancer." You're probably more familiar with his recent work on DC's "Hourman" and "Hawkman" series.

But make no mistake; you will know the name and the art after DC's "Identity Crisis" event this summer.

Billed as a status quo shattering seven-issue mini-series, "Identity Crisis" is beginning to remind readers of another "crisis" (specifically "Crisis on Infinite Earths," which rebooted the entire DC Universe in the late eighties) in scope and ambition. CBR News spoke to Morales to try and maneuver some information out of the meticulous penciller, though like writer Brad Meltzer (of "Green Arrow" fame), he isn't saying much about the specifics. It's scheduled for a May or June release, with the JLA (Justice League of America) as the primary focus, but beyond that, it seems Morales isn't allowed to elaborate.

"It's basically Brad Meltzer going through the DCU," explains Morales. "Shaking things up, address some personal issues - essentially he's a thriller writer so we're looking at a top notch thriller. His novels are all about that and that's the direction we're going to go. It's going to be a major mystery, death and mayhem- all kinds of crazy nonsense involving the DC Universe."

While everyone at DC, from VP Dan DiDio to "Hawkman" editor Peter Tomasi raved about the consistent quality of Morales work, quite a few people were surprised to see Morales attached to "Identity Crisis" and while few would question his skills, a lot of fans wondered how Morales and Meltzer came together. "Brad wanted me to do it. He really had this hot thing and Dan Didio was big on it, as soon as I made my intentions known that I wanted to stay with DC and I wanted to stay for a few years, they thought that a big project was something they wanted to give me. Brad liked my work and he had the final the say so. Blame Brad.

"I had never met Brad, but I had read his 'Archer's Quest' storyline he did in 'Green Arrow' and I was very impressed. He read 'Thanagarian' [a storyline in 'Hawkman'] and was equally impressed, so it was kind of like a marriage of two people. We met in New York later and it was great- we realized we had a lot of things artistically in common. His whole storyline is so top secret that I haven't read the whole thing yet, just the first three issues, and they're going to piecemeal it to me. This is big stuff."

In previous interviews with CBR, Morales has always maintained that he wants his style to evolve and for him to become a "better" artist at time goes on, but tackling what is billed as the biggest event from DC in years, one might think that Morales is intimidated by the prospect of having to deliver even more. "No, probably not, because I have to work as if it was a monthly ongoing thing. In terms of intensity, there may be a level less of what I'm capable of, because I'd love to have a long time to do a project, a year or so, but we're talking 7 issues, with 38 pages in the book ends and 30 per issue in the spine, so we're talking 226 pages. I'm pretty good at coming up with eight issue a year, so I'll treat it like an ongoing and I'll be doing my best given the circumstances. I just did a five page preview that'll be coming out in 'Wizard,' which is pretty rad and people will be getting an idea where I'm going with this. One cool thing that I'm doing, which I've never done before and always wanted to do, is that I'm taking my thumbnails more seriously and doing them with grey markers and adding full tonal value, adding it off to the colorist and inker so they know where I'm coming from.

"For one thing, it's a more unified approach- instead of the inker and colorist looking at the colors different ways, they're looking at it the same way now and everyone's on the same page, knowing where I come from, so when they go ahead and do their job, it's a more precise art. Half tone is essentially taking in the line work and shade it in for them, so they know where to look for their points."

Though sometimes the answer may seem obvious, creators enter the industry for different reasons and in the case of Rags Morales, CBR News decided to ask "why get into comics?" "Cause no one else would tolerate me," laughs the proud father. "I'm a comic fan- I grew up reading this stuff! I was weaned on John Romita, the JLA from Dick Dillon and Frank McLoughlin that was written by Len Wein- I grew up on this art form, it was my refuge and like most of the audience, it was my form of entertainment and luckily I found myself to be a proficient artist and I was able to break in."

When considering the work of Morales, one can't forget how the artistic union with inker (and sometimes penciller) Michael Bair has made a huge impact on his work. "Mike Mike Mike! Let me tell you something about Mike: Casey Stengle was once asked during the 50's how the Yankees were such a successful team. He said, 'Well, I never go to the park without my man.' There's always one guy who's in the back of your pocket, who's your ace in the hole and Casey was talking about Yogi Bera, their catcher. For me, it's Mike Bair- I don't want to go to war without this guy. We think alike, we talk alike- he's shown me things and we've really just meshed so well. And ever since issue 22 of 'JSA,' the first time we worked away, the feeling was mutual that 'this is what I've been looking for'- it's like finding your wife all of a sudden. It's awesome! The dude is just an immense artist- it's a shame he's only an inker because he could do so much more. He's got a sketchbook- if you're at a convention, check it out."

Staying on the subject of art, it seems that there's more pressure on modern superhero comic writers to push the envelope and deliver stories that are unexpected, so it would stand to reason that the same might be expected of contemporary superhero artists, but if that's true, Morales doesn't feel the pressure. "It's difficult on a monthly series, but there are tricks to show it and not show it at the same time. You have to learn where you're going to make your points- that in and of itself is an artform. It's not just drawing things 'cool' or drawing them accurately, it's drawing what is necessary, not drawing down, but drawing less. If you can do that, you should be able to handle a monthly title pretty well. I'm proud- of the 25 issues released of 'Hourman,' I did 20. Of the 25 issues of 'Hawkman' with Geoff, I did 21. I'm pretty happy with my productivity, but it is difficult- you're trying to integrate things that fans want to see as well as what you want to do. Like people say, it is pencillers who spend the most time with the book."

There's also a perception among some fans that pencillers should be faster, with many noting that "back in the day" artists like Jack Kirby could handle multiple series a month- something not seen often in superhero comics today. "It's not fair, not fair for a guy who does twelve issues a year versus a guy who does five. The guy who does five has his own reason for doing five, mostly because he's trying to put in as much detail as he can and take time with the process. The guy who's doing twelve a year is trying to meet the deadlines and put in enough quality work, which isn't easy at all. I alluded before about wanting to have a year to do this book and I wish I had even more time- it doesn't mean I'll do the book any less capable than I am, I'm just going to be drawing smarter. I want to make sure the book is out there on time as people expect it to be, but if we were in Europe, they'd be doing two issues a year and each would have like 60 pages- guys like Milo Manaro. It's different not only in expectations of the market, but we're not in Europe, so we're jealous of that. It would be nice to have more time, but then what are you doing? Some people draw all over the place and detract from the story; me, I try to enhance the story and treat it like a director, make it the best visual experience and not have these panels going everywhere. As soon as you do that, you take away from the reading experience and that's a shame, so that's why I try to take such a placid approach to the work I do."

There's a lot of misconceptions surrounding comic books these days and some of those are fostered by fans themselves, so Morales wanted to address what he feels is the biggest fallacy regarding pencillers, namely, "That the penciller has very little to say about the storyline. I think a good penciller is into the story as much as the writer is and a good penciller will call a writer with suggestions and a good writer will listen. Geoff [Johns, writer of 'Hawkman'] and I have a wonderful, wonderful relationship where I make suggestions and if he doesn't like them, he says so and if he does like them, he'll run with it- 'Headhunter' came about because it was my idea. To have that kind of unselfishness is a great thing and if you can find two people who agree, you'll have great comics- that's why people loved 'Hawkman' so much. As to why there's this idea, it's really not defined in the books- people just read the balloons and think that's all the writer. They see the setting and think that's all the writer- but there are subtleties that go on and things within a story that are so subtle you don't pick up on them, but if you're into the story, you do. There's a scene where Hawkman walks into a restaurant all covered in blood and the JSA are looking at him, wondering what is going on and Kendra is freaked out by this whole experience, because she's sort of embarrassed by him and throughout the whole scene, everyone's looking at Hawkman except for Courtney, she's looking at Kendra's, because she's her best friend and that's what a girl would do. That kind of subtlety isn't always written up- sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't, it's hard to separate and so if someone is giving praise to a book and only praising one person, you're doing a disservice to the book, because you've got two- three if you've got the right inker- people who deserve the credit. In our case, it's Geoff, Rags and Bair who are very much Geoff, Rags and Bair."

If you ever talk to Morales, it's obvious that he had a great time working on "Hawkman" and it would rank as one of his favorite experiences in the comic book industry… which begs the question, why leave the series? "The thing is that when an opportunity like 'Identity Crisis' comes along, you gotta take it," contends Morales. "I've been doing this since 1989 and it's my first big project, so if anyone wants to blame someone, blame me. I decided to leave 'Hawkman,' not because I didn't have a desire to carry on, but because it's not an opportunity I'll see again for a long time. So the timing was unfortunate for the fan base and the people whole enjoyed what Geoff and I were doing, but I had to take the opportunity. Wrapping up the last issue of 'Hawkman,' I didn't feel tired or dread doing it- I feel energized. There's still things Geoff and I want to say about the characters, I wouldn't expect we do it as a monthly, but do not be surprised if down the line you see us doing a mini-series. I would prefer to do it as a graphic novel, but I would mainly love to have enough time to do it, where I could sit back and let the thoughts come to me instead of having to worry about how many pages to do a week. But you also have to be proficient enough and stay out there because people can forget who you are. It's kind of like a bitch goddess to think about it."

Morales work on previous series like "Geomancer" or "Hourman" was never long lived, as the series found themselves cancelled fairly soon and the irony of leaving the first series he's worked on long term where a sizeable fan base exists is not lost on the artist. "One half of me says 'I told you so' and the other half says 'alright.' You can't predict how things go or why things go a specific way because if you could, then no one would have a bad day. So I'm not too worried about it, but I always new that given the opportunity, I could have a lot of fun and bring something new to a property that was handled before, that at least was popular. A lot of things I've done before have not been ultra popular characters and have not been handled before, so I haven't really been noticed, but there's also growth in my own skills to take into account, I'm not going to kid you. I'm a much better and smarter artist than I was before, which isn't to say the stuff I did before didn't have merit, but I'm better. Geoff and I have discussed coming back together to work on something, probably not 'Hawkman' right away, because when you work on something the size of 'Identity Crisis,' you want to keep going up, up, up and not sideways. But Geoff and I have some special ideas cooked up, just wait and see."

After working on a new "Crisis," it's hard to imagine what constitutes "higher" for Morales and without giving away the secret of any projects he may tackle once he finishes his current workload, he explains where he wants to go next. "I'd love to do something iconic, something popular and I'd love to be able to do it off continuity so I could give it special attention. With 'Identity Crisis,' I'm drawing the whole DCU, so there isn't anything in terms of prestige, in terms of who I'm drawing that is going to be higher than that. When I say higher, I'm talking about taking more time to put the special touches on the project. Batman's cool and I'd love to do it, he's the wonder boy, he's it- there's few iconic characters as big as Batman. That'd be cool, especially since he was probably my first favorite superhero and with Neal Adams having set the tone for how I envision the universe, it'd be great to do that character."

And for the tough question… how long would the cape on a Rags Morales Batman be? "Well," laughs the DC Exclusive Morales. "I won't do it like Ross Andru but I won't do it like Bernie Wrightson either."

While Morales has spent his time honing his creative skills as a visual artist, one can't discount the possibility he's working to be the next Frank Miller, with the literary talents to go along with his pencilling excellence. "I don't know. I've got ideas and right now I'm better at plotting and I could write a story, but like Harlan Ellison says, that doesn't make you a writer, a writer is someone who continues to write. I don't think I'm smart enough to be a great writer, I don't think I'm smart enough to have a great idea and don't know the style I'd do it in. Maybe someday, who knows?"

If you're one of the fans who want to see more Rags on "Hawkman" and can't wait, Morales wants to thank you for your devotion. "Just hang tight, I'm not going to make any promises, because it'll take more than my say so for it to happen, but I loved the work Geoff, Bair and I did, but if the right chance comes about, we'll be back. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You to all the fans from the bottom of my heart and the heart of my bottom [laughs]. It's the greatest thing to have a lot of people enjoy your stuff and 'Hawkman' was my first big success, at least continuity wise."

 
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