On the opening day of WonderCon Anaheim, the mustachioed and bespectacled Brent Anderson of "Astro City" and "X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills" fame sat down to talk to fans about his career as an artist in comic books. It was more of a conversation than an interview, which moderator Mark Evanier underscored with his introduction.
"Did I volunteer, or was I drafted for this?" Evanier joked to the intimate crowd. "I think I volunteered to interview my friend, Brent Anderson. His art always impressed me because he drew human beings like he'd actually seen one!"
The questions began at the beginning of Anderson's interest in art and comics when he was in middle school. "Very early on, I used to copy pictures out of encyclopedias," he said. "Then I saw Neil Adams' 'Deadman.' I had a friend who brought in a comic book when we were supposed to be studying, which was forbidden! I started drawing my own comics after I saw the Deadman comic, and Jim Steranko's 'Captain America.'"
Anderson was completely enraptured by Adams' art, and from there he began to draw influences from Walt Disney, Normal Rockwell and commercial illustrator Bob Peak. "[I'm] mostly self-taught. I started writing and drawing my own comics on binder paper in the seventh grade." Later, Anderson took formal art classes at a local college while working (and living) at a comic shop.
In 1974, Anderson made his first attempt to go pro. "The Bullpen was were I wanted to be," he said, referring to Marvel Comics' team of writers, editors and artists. "In those days, everything was done by the mail... I put together five pages of original art and sent them to [Marvel's] John Romita Sr.
"And I got a very nice rejection letter."
"'This is very nice,'" he continued, quoting the letter from Romita Sr. "'Keep drawing, keep working at it and come back. I'd like to see where you go.' There was something in his rejection that was very, very encouraging. I saved that letter."
When Anderson was 19, he tried again, submitting five more pages to Marvel to be reviewed by Romita Sr. This batch included three sequential pages of a Captain America fight scene. The response?
"'If you're ever in New York... stop in!'"
This presented a problem for Anderson, who was living in Washington state at the time. He recruited some friends, and together they drove straight across the country.
While in New York City Anderson had the opportunity to meet Sergio Aragonés, who had many nice things to say about his art. "I like the way you draw your hands," Anderson said in his best Aragonés impression. "They go like this, like Neil Adams." Here Anderson struck a comically dramatic pose. "And then they grit their teeth and go 'graaah!' You do that, you get work."
"I expected [the Bullpen] to be more lively -- the mighty Marvel manner and such. At DC [Comics], it was the opposite!... Once you got in, they were lively and happy."
Asked about his first DC Comics work, Anderson said it was a short piece called "Mail Order Brides from Another World," which Evanier affirmed was an unused and unfinished "House of Mystery" story.
"Every six months or s,o they [would] pick out twenty-five thousand dollars worth of art to not publish so they could write it off on their taxes," Evanier said.
Evanier asked about Anderson's transition away from inking all his own work. "Letting go of the final product was I think the hardest thing to do," Anderson answered. "But as a professional, that's what you do. I'm happiest when the inker is doing what they do best... as long as they change [the work] in a way that strengthens the story or strengthens the character."
Speaking about his early days at Marvel and working on "Ka-Zar the Savage," Anderson recalled that he was worried about the workload required for a twenty-plus page monthly book, having only done fill-in and short stories before, but he turned the first 8 issues in on time.
Issue #9 presented him with some problems, however. With a deadline fast approaching, Anderson pencilled the entire issue in only 3 days -- and he was not pleased with the results. Despite those feelings, he handed in the pages to Louise Simonson, the book's editor, with the caveat that it wasn't his best work.
"Louise did the, 'I'll be the judge of that' thing. Then she looked through the pages and said, 'It's all here. You're tired and dejected and you didn't do the job you wanted, but it's all here. That's what makes you a professional.' I thought, what a nice lady!
"After issue 9 of 'Ka-Zar' I did miss a couple of deadlines," Anderson added later. He was particularly disappointed with the fact that he wasn't able to an draw issue where Ka-Zar and Shanna the She-Devil accidentally eat hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The next milestone in Anderson's career was when he realized he had his own style. He had always thought of his work as an amalgam of others until one day, other Marvel artists showed him an illustration in "Boy's Life" magazine that they thought he had done. Anderson said he was surprised he had developed a style "that could be recognized independent of my other influences."
Asked what Anderson's dream book would have been, Anderson's answer was quick. "'Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu.' I was the biggest Bruce Lee geek... I had taken martial arts, I drew Bruce Lee."
He heard that artist Paul Gulacy was leaving the book and jumped at the chance to prove himself to the book's editor, Archie Goodwin. "I went home and drew 17 pages about Shang-Chi in a death maze full of traps -- he gets all the way to the end, and who's behind it? Dr. Doom."
"Archie Goodwin handed me back the pages and said, 'this is really good stuff.'" Anderson then paused, put on an ecstatic expression. "He's gonna give me the book!"
"'But I can't give you the book. You're a good enough artist to draw the book, but you haven't been tested on a deadline.'"
"This was before 'Ka-Zar,'" Anderson added.
Evanier turned their attention to Anderson's first truly seminal work, the X-Men graphic novel "God Loves, Man Kills." Anderson decided he would quit "Ka-Zar" after issue 9, and walked into Louise Simonson's office to tell her. He said she accepted his resignation, but just as he was leaving, X-Men writer Chris Claremont walked in looking for a replacement for Neil Adams on the project. Simonson jumped at the chance to put Anderson on the book.
"'Ask Brent! He just quit 'Ka-Zar'! He's available!'"
Describing his work process, Anderson said, "The first thing in my mind is to draw perfectly. I want to draw it the best as I can. As [writer and collaborator] Kurt Busiek points out, I'm a literalist... You don't have to go much past Norman Rockwell's influence for that."
Evanier asked what artists made Anderson say, "I couldn't have done that."
"I used to have these conversations with Bill Sienkiewicz when we shared a studio together. I would tell him, 'I wish I could do what you do.' [Sienkiewicz] would just experiment all over the place. Literally stitching pieces of art together, stapling them... I was just too precise."
Anderson has a few projects currently in the pipeline, the first of which is written by his wife Shirley Johnston and entitled "El Jáguar." The story is about a coyote -- a person who smuggles immigrants across the US/Mexico border for money -- and the semi-mystical journey across the desert wastelands he leads his charges on. Anderson is also working on a story about children who find a dinosaur and eventually realize they have to return it to its proper place in time.
Getting to what is perhaps Anderson's most well-known work to modern readers, Evanier asked about the roots of the soon-to-return "Astro City." "I think it was in 1994," Anderson said. "We went to a world science fiction convention in San Francisco. I had been out of comics for a while. I had had some health issues... There was only one panel at this convention about comics, and it had Marv Wolfman and Kurt Busiek."
Anderson had read Busiek's "Marvels" and wanted to meet him, so he started asking a lot of questions at the panel about the state of the comics industry since he left. After Wolfman told Busiek who Anderson was, they met after the panel and Busiek pitched the first "Astro City" miniseries.
"He asked me if I wanted to draw the first issue. Sure, I'd love to draw that story. That'd be a great story to draw."
The idea behind the initial miniseries was to hire 6 different artists and use them to tell 6 different stories, one per issue. But Busiek had difficulties nailing down the people he wanted. Eventually, Busiek asked Anderson a very tough question.
"'How would you feel about telling the miniseries and the [subsequent] main storyline?' I said, sure! I was a hard sell."