Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a new weekly feature where we speak in-depth with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These conversations will range from analyses of their current projects to a look at the lives they lead outside of comics.
Comic book fans know Francis Manapul from a long line of credits, drawing books ranging from "Witchblade" to "Love in Tights," "Legion of Supheroes" to "Iron and the Maiden," and "Necromancer" to "Adventure Comics." The truth is, though, that most readers known him for his work on "The Flash," first as an artist when he drew the relaunched series starting in 2010 and more recently as both co-writer and artist of "The Flash" in DC Comics' New 52.
In this week's Sunday Conversation, CBR News spoke to Manapul about photography and Toronto, dodgeball and the NBA -- and we even discuss one of his previous jobs as artist and on-screen talent for the television series "Beast Legends" and the crazy adventures that resulted.
CBR News: You grew up in Toronto and still live there today. What keeps you there?
Francis Manapul: I moved to Toronto because I had no choice. My mom lived here. [Laughs] I was born in the Philippines. A lot of the family on my mom’s side had moved to Canada for better opportunities and my mom did the same thing, so this was the place she chose. It’s funny because this is where I grew up, but after doing quite a lot of traveling, I think Toronto is one of the best cities in the world to live in. A lot of my family is here. A lot of my friends are here. Work is here. Being in Toronto has actually opened up a lot of opportunities for me outside of comic books. Toronto’s been good to me.
What is it like in the summertime?
It’s a great city to be in in the summer. All my friends live down by the waterfront so there’s usually a lot of activities around there. It’s great but at the same time it kind of sucks because there’s a lot of tourists. Just going around the city is great because Toronto is a very walkable city. You can ride your bike or take the streetcar or just walk and in the summer a lot of people do that. Not like in winter; it gets pretty cold. It’s got that New York vibe to it, only a lot cleaner. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I think cleaner is the adjective most often used to describe Toronto.
It reminds me a lot of Sydney as well, except Sydney’s waterfront is a billion times better, but it’s got that same vibe.
It’s nice to live in a walkable city, especially when you have a job that involves sitting all day.
Absolutely. When I lived in the suburbs, you’re either driving to where you’re going or driving back. When you’re living in the city, it’s easy to go in tangents. You’re going to go to the bank and end up walking into a coffee shop or walking to the store. Toronto’s a very walkable city and it feels almost like a television show because you so often run into people you know. You can’t do that in the suburbs. You’re not driving in your car and then pulling over when you see your buddy. You make appointments in the suburbs, but in the city you don’t need appointments. You just go. That’s what I really like about it.
Do you travel a lot when you get the chance?
I do quite a fair bit of traveling. It’s funny, I said for 2012 I’m going to cut back on conventions. The last couple years I did a lot of traveling working on this TV show ["Beast Legends"] so I was on the road basically for eight months. I said, this year, I’m just going to relax. I think I’ve already done more conventions in the last few months than I did last year. When I’m invited to a city I haven’t been to, it’s enticing to go. I’m noticing that conventions know who to target when it comes to these things. A lot of them will reach out to my girlfriend [artist Agnes Garbowska] and try to convince her to convince me to go.
One of your hobbies is photography. What about it do you enjoy and how is it different from your work as an artist?
It’s funny because I think what I like about it is the fact that it’s similar to what I do as an artist, but different enough. It feels faster. When I was doing a lot of traveling, I was running around Vietnam and all I had was a crappy iPhone taking photos. Some of these places that I went through, I’ll probably never go to them again. That was really the intent, just to take touristy photos. After a while I found it really really interesting and I got all nerded out getting into all the different kinds of lenses. Now I have all these lenses to take with me when I go traveling and they end up becoming heavier than my luggage. But it’s fun. Just being able to capture an image instantly rather than sitting there and toiling away for hours to draw this single image you can take with the snap of a finger. It’s really cool just being able to look at something in real life and think, how would I shoot this and make this like a really interesting composition? What angle would I shoot it at? Where would I shoot it at? What lighting? It’s exciting. Again, it feels like I’m flexing the same muscles as I do when I’m drawing comic books but in a more instantly gratifying way.
I would imagine it’s nice to be able to take a photo and be able to see so quickly different possibilities of light and perspective in a way you couldn’t drawing.
Absolutely, and again, it’s just a fun hobby to play around with. It feels like you’re using the same muscles in a different kind of way and it feels like it’s making my art better. After I take these photos I go into Photoshop and tweak and edit them.
As a guy with two cameras with only one lens each, what am I missing?
You’re missing more lenses. [Laughs]
But I like having room in my carry-on luggage. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Exactly. It’s fascinating once you get into it. Each lens is a constant compromise. Do you want speed or do you need lighting? You’re always giving up something. If you want speed you’re going to end up giving up range and if you want range you’re going to end up giving up a lot of speed, and when you get more speed you give up more flexibility and lighting. It’s all fascinating and boring and exciting at the same time.
I know you’re a basketball fan, but are you a big NBA fan?
I’m a huge NBA fan. It’s funny because before I moved to Toronto, my dad used to watch basketball all the time in the Philippines. They showed the Tokyo Basketball Association. It’s funny because here teams all have cool names like Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors and in the Philippines a lot of the basketball teams were sponsored by big corporations and their team would be called whatever those corporations are. I remember this one basketball team was called PureFoods. [Laughs] Can you imagine the New York Kelloggs or the Seattle Starbucks? That’s what it was like in the Philippines. So I grew up on that, but the irony of it is that I actually never liked it because it got in the way of my cartoon watching when my dad would watch basketball. When I moved to Canada one of the things I really liked was hockey. I was a big hockey fan when I was a kid. I told my mom, I really want to play hockey. It seems like such an awesome game. So my mom looked into it and said, this is a really expensive sport. Here’s a basketball. [Laughs] So I ended up growing up disliking hockey because I couldn’t play it and came to like basketball because all you needed was a ball. It’s as cheap a sport as you can get. My love for it came out of being able to play it.
As a Toronto resident, are you a big Raptors fan?
I’m a Raptors fan because they’re from Toronto. My loyalty ends there. [Laughs] I’m actually more of a Knicks fan. Toronto is like that. We end up liking the teams that are close to us. Toronto is a big, big Buffalo Bills city. Every now and again they’ll play a game here in Toronto and the tickets are out of this world. In a sense that’s why I like the Knicks. New York’s pretty close to Toronto. I started following them when I was a kid. In theory I could have gone the other way and become a fan of the Detroit Pistons. Personally I’m now a fan of the Lions because my friend has season tickets and it’s a lot cheaper than trying to watch the Bills.
Since CBR is an LA-based website and for the sake of my boss, do you have any thoughts on the Clippers? I usually just mock them.
[Laughs] They’re an exciting team. I don’t want to say I’m a Lakers hater, but I have a lot of respect for the Clippers. I personally like them because I’ve seen them live. I remember one of the things I did when I started working for Top Cow and going down to LA, David Wohl, who was the writer of "Witchblade" at the time, took me to a Clippers game and we had these amazing seats. I was like, "Wow, these are amazing seats," and he said, "Of course, it’s the Clippers." [Laughs] I doubt it’s going to be easy to do that now.
You told me that you play dodgeball. Are you in a league?
Yeah. I play in a league actually with most of my studio mates.
How did you start playing dodgeball?
My girlfriend came in and played one game and she really enjoyed it so she joined the team. All I remember from dodgeball is how you played it in elementary school and I was like, I’m not sure how much fun that’s going to be. I came out one day because they were short a person and it was actually a lot of fun. It’s a good way to get aggression out and it’s also a good way to get more aggravated. It really depends on the individual. It depends on the team that you’re playing. If it’s a light-hearted team, then it’s a good, fun game. But there’s always that one team with all those super aggro individuals that just treat everything way too seriously. Then it gets to be really annoying. But it’s a good way to be active. I don’t make it sound as exciting as it actually is.
I wanted to ask about working on "Beast Legends." For people who aren't familiar, what was this show about?
Basically the concept of the show was that they were going to send out a ragtag team of scientists and biologists and animal experts to go around and gather real information on these mythical creatures. For one episode we’re going to create the griffin and the idea is that we’re taking real world science and trying to apply that to these mythological creatures and trying to create them as if they were real. What would it be like if there was really a dragon? What components would that animal have? What characteristics would it have? Where would it live? That was the basic premise of the show. Basically like "CSI" they run around [and] do all that cool shit and then they come back to the lab and say, "Here, analyze this." My initial role was that the scientists would run around and come back to "the beast lab" and give me all this information that they gathered. I would draw what this creature could have looked like, almost like a police sketch artist. That was the basic format. I think initially they told me they needed me for a total of one week of shooting. They would shoot all the stuff and then I would watch the clips and they would shoot me interacting with the scientists and I would draw these creatures for them.
What ended up happening was they were doing a shoot with two scientists and I guess the producers weren’t terribly excited about what was being shot. They thought it was a little bit boring. They said let’s experiment and send this artist out in field and see what we get. It felt almost like being cast in a movie. They go through this process of finding out who you are. They knew that I’m a city guy. I’ve never camped in my entire life. I don’t know how to swim. Then they’re like, let’s send him to the Vietnam jungle. So we went to Vietnam for a little over a week, just shooting in the jungle. I guess the producers really liked what they saw and they ended up expanding my role from a background guy to one of the main guys. So right after Vietnam, instead of going home -- which I was supposed to do and start working on "The Flash" -- I ended up going straight to New Zealand to shoot the next episode. I remember putting in a call to my girlfriend and saying, "Can you put all my stuff in a box, someone’s going to come by and pick it up." I had her pack all my art supplies and they had it shipped to New Zealand so it was waiting there for me when I arrived. That way I could start drawing the book after shooting the show during the day. It was a very, very exciting time, I have to tell you. Who would have thought that I’d be doing all this kind of thing? It’s pretty ridiculous some of the things that we did. A lot of life-endangering moments. It was exciting.
It was crazy to watch because you’re out on the open water and you’re saying, "I don’t like water, I can’t swim." I’m like, "Dude, what are you doing there?"
[Laughs] That’s the thing, right? I think the producers struggled to find the identity of the show. In the US it aired on SyFy, but in Canada it aired on the Discovery Channel. I was under the impression that the show was really about the science and adventure and the people, but I guess SyFy has these other shows "Destination: Truth" and "Ghost Hunters" where they’re running around pretending this shit is real. I guess there was pressure from that network to turn our show that way. Ultimately it was probably half of what SyFy wanted and half of what Discovery wanted. It was a very fun show, but I think ultimately the true identity of the show was a little bit of a mixed bag. I mean obviously my main value to the team wasn’t the fact that I could swim or the fact that I could hike through the jungle. Clearly that was not my forté. My value to the team was the imagination I bring in. The fact that what we are doing is mixing science with mythology and a bit of fantasy, you do have to make this leap of faith. When it was just the science there, it was a very boring concept they were creating. They were creating a Frankenstein monster. They weren’t going beyond what you could do.
It’s funny because I feel like we’re doing the same thing with "The Flash." We’re taking these little bits and pieces from real world science and taking it to the speculative side. That was my role in the show, to take this science and real elements from animals and make it more exciting. What was interesting was me and this other scientist had huge arguments about how real these creatures should be, what elements they should have. Ultimately a lot of that stuff ended up being cut but we had some real arguments that would continue past the shooting.
There was one episode we were making a kraken. I remember getting into this debate about how he said it should be more squid-like and I said, "Here’s the thing, it’s cool if it’s like a squid but the whole point is to make it more; make it not just a squid. It’s the fucking kraken. It should be cooler than a squid." When all was said and done one of the scientists turned to me and said, "You know what, I think you were right because it’s actually a lot more exciting if we let our imagination run wild and we as scientists try to find things in real life that can replicate all these exciting things. We started doing that with the dragon where I said, "I want to do this and I want to do that" and they said, "Well what about this?" The creatures wouldn’t be so hindered by the science and the reality of it. Only in the last episode that we shot, they realized that it was actually quite exciting to go, realistically nothing can breathe fire, so we started concocting all these real world animal features that could actually make this thing breathe fire. It was exciting to get the scientists to think beyond the factual science and start to think outside the box.
It seems like everyone had fun on the show.
Oh, man, you don’t know the half of it. [Laughs] It’s pretty ridiculous. I mean who’d have thought that drawing comics would lead me to swimming with sharks or going paragliding or doing a lot of this stuff. It’s really ridiculous. What’s interesting, too, was being in there with the crew. Everybody gets pretty close. The director would ask, "How would you do this?" I would be like, "I would put the cameras here and shoot it from this angle." I found that pretty rewarding, just those interactions, and it was interesting how my ability to do my job as a comic book artist sort of really lent itself well to all of these mediums. It was so cool to say, "We should do this," and they’re like, "Let’s do that."
It’s funny because no matter how much we try not to talk about work, work always comes up.
That’s the thing. Comics are a lot of work. I don’t want to say it’s a lifestyle, but it’s part of who we are. It’s really hard to separate. I feel like being an artist affects who I am in real life, but that’s as far as it goes. It’s not like a lot of the guys here in the studio are quoting passages from "Infinite Crisis" #3. If you ask me those kinds of questions I will look at you with the blankest stare. [Laughs] But when it comes to the craft of it, I can get in a pretty deep conversation about that.
So when you’re not playing dodgeball and watching basketball, you’re writing and drawing "The Flash" every month. Is there anything else you’re in midst of?
A lot of stuff. This week I have a meeting with a production company and I’m hoping to maybe direct and storyboard some stuff. There’s a chance that I might be back on TV again. Lots of little things here and there. For the past year my focus has just been writing and drawing "The Flash." Before I always juggled a lot of different things and now that I’m sort of getting the hang of doing the two I’m able to sniff around for different avenues for my art or my creatives services, I guess. I don’t know how else to describe it.
You’re now thinking about the next big thing.
Yeah. I think it’s just exciting to see where art takes me. I mean I certainly didn’t think it would allow me to do all these different things. I just wanted to draw comic books, but it seems to reward me by giving me all these other opportunities.