When you work in comics and help assemble creative teams, the results can be as wildly diverse as the personalities involved. Sometimes, through no one’s fault, the match just isn’t ideal. But other times, it succeeds in ways that you never imagined, and rewards you far beyond the work itself. That was the case when writer Brian Lynch and artist Franco Urru, who passed away on November 30, joined up for their first series set in Joss Whedon’s Angel universe, "Spike: Asylum."
I met Franco through longtime "Angel" artist David Messina – Franco was another Italian artist and someone who, like David, would become an incredibly valued part of the IDW family and an artist I was honored to know and work with. Brian, I’d met years before, while running Kevin Smith’s entertainment portal.
It’s funny to me now, a half-dozen years later, that I waited so long to ask Brian to write comics for us. Even then, in his pre-"Hop"/"Puss in Boots"/"Minions" days, he was a steadily working screenwriter, so I just assumed that he was too busy to have time to dally in the world of comics. I think it even caused a little awkwardness between us at the time, but to me, he was the supermodel in the room that no one asks out. (Guys: ask them out! If it goes even half as well for you as this did for me, you’ll be doing great)
But this is about Franco. I wasn’t familiar with his work before Messina brought him to my attention, but he quickly proved perfect for Spike. He could draw the character without drawing the actor—Franco wasn’t one to trace photos or rely on reference to guide him. Instead, he was the consummate artist, obsessing over background details, throwaway characters, and fan-service nods as much as he did the characters themselves. And he handled everything Brian threw at him. Like I say, Brian’s a screenwriter by trade, and he has a masterful touch with dialogue and character interplay, while also crafting these elaborate set pieces. Which, you know, for the reader is great. For the artist who needs to fit in all those details and dialogue balloons and everything else to really do justice to the script, it takes a special talent. And Franco was that special talent.
Franco told me stories of how he apprenticed under Gold Key "Star Trek" artist Nevio Zeccara. Stories of the lean years, when he took a soul-crushing job with a shipping company (no names, but they specialized in Express shipping). But you can’t stick an artist into a cubicle and expect him to thrive, so Franco returned to art, and for the last half-dozen years, before he got sick, and even during that time, I’m happy to say he worked steadily for us, producing some great works, and with Brian, reinvigorating the "Angel" and "Spike" franchises (you’re welcome, Dark Horse).
The best was still to come. "Spike: Asylum" worked wonders with the fans, and led to another Spike series by Brian and Franco, "Spike: Shadow Puppets." Wherein, Franco got to draw the Spike puppet and lots of other felt creatures, scores of ninja and a Tokyo setting. But Asylum had another impact, too. None other than Joss Whedon picked up a copy of the comic, and Joss, wise man that he is, recognized how well Brian captured the characters’ voices. Joss now wanted to pick up the Angel series where the show left off, and he wanted to do it with Brian and Franco.
"Angel: After the Fall" #1 by Joss, Brian and Franco went on sale in mid-2006 and it became our single biggest issue ever (until this month, when "My Little Pony" #1 surpassed it). It was right around the time that issue 1 was debuting that Brian Lynch was getting married, and Franco was good enough to do up this special cover we presented to Brian as a wedding gift:
Creatively, it was exactly what the fans wanted -- all their favorite characters returned, the story advanced, and Brian and Franco worked together for nearly two years, telling that story and others besides. The fans loved the comics, but I think I was the true beneficiary, getting to work closely with both guys for the entire time. And over the course of those years, we grew into very close friends, talking about so much more than just comics. Franco was a passionate cook, he said, and always promised to make amazing meals if we ever made it to his home in Rome. The meals he described for friends and collaborators sounded legendary (think Big Night-level repasts). In fact, one of his colorists, the also-crazy-talented artist Fabio Mantovani, used to prefer to get paid in meals rather than money for coloring Franco’s work.
Along the way, Brian and Franco also added one more Spike series to their canon: "Spike: After the Fall."
Unbeknownst to me at the time, in the penultimate issue of Brian and Franco’s "After the Fall" story, he threw me a nice cameo that became one of my business cards (it’s comics -- of course I have variant business cards).
When the "Angel" license was pulled from us and returned to Dark Horse (you’re welcome, Dark Horse), Franco, fiercely loyal to us and hurt by the loss, said he’d never draw Spike again, after he and I collaborated on a page for our final issue of Angel, a Night Gallery-like walkthrough of all of our "Angel" comics. Luckily for me, he didn’t stick to that – just a couple months back, he drew Spike for me one last time.
For our coming "Mars Attacks" IDW event, I wanted to do variant covers that featured other characters getting "Mars Attacked" and the idea of doing a Spike cover sounded fun. Dark horse’s Scott Allie and Fox were good sports about allowing us this one last visitation with Spike (thank you, Dark Horse), and Franco nailed it. He even worked in a gag that gently ribbed the Dark Horse run, with the Martian about to crush one of the bugs from the DH Spike series.
Franco had been sick for over a year. He was a very private person and didn’t want this known publicly. He even withdrew from some friends as a way to spare them from seeing him fight his illness. I knew things weren’t great, but it was hard to ever know how serious his health situation was, since he talked as always about his optimism for comics, his other projects he wanted to do, a possible teaching gig in Chicago, and of course his promise to cook a meal fit for kings if I ever visited Rome. He fought a good fight, even describing some of the treatments and bad doctors and pain with good humor and optimism. And as you can see from his final piece of art for us, he was talented as could be to the very end.
I never did make it to Rome.
But we spent time at other conventions, and always he was a thoughtful, caring, diligent artist and person. And damn, he dressed nice for a comic creator. A true pro, and a real friend.
There’s a line at the end of the film Stand By Me that’s always resonated, and for years, I believed it. "I never had friends as close as the ones I made when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?"
Before working in comics, I thought that was true. Until meeting some of the best, most inspiring people and dearest friends I’ve made in this world. Franco Urru was both of those things. I’ll treasure our collaborations, and miss him, forever.