Chris Weston talks "Fantastic Four: First Family"

Wed, May 31st, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

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British artist Chris Weston has been amazing readers with his highly realistic and detailed artwork for years, with work on books like "The Filth," "Ministry of Space" and "War Stories" creating instant Weston fans. His latest project is "Fantastic Four: First Family" with writer Joe Casey from Marvel Comics. With the six-issue series hitting the half-way mark recently we caught up with Weston to discuss the series in depth.

"First Family" #1, Page 8 "First Family" #2, Page 3
Hey Chris, thanks for joining us today. Let's have you start out by giving our readers a quick introduction to "Fantastic Four: First Family." What have you and Joe cooked up for our readers?

This is Fantasic Four neat! It's an untold tale of the world's greatest science heroes in their most raw state. It's a "first adventure" that avoids yet another superfluous retelling of the origin and instead it concentrates on the team right after they emerge from the radiation-soaked rocket that gave them their powers. Casey then plunges them headfirst into an all-new tale of intrigue, and adventure, with added tension given by the fact that Ben, Reed and the Storm siblings have yet to adjust to their new powers, let alone gel as a team. Thrown into this mix is probably the creepiest new villain you'll have read for years.

Now, "Fantastic Four: First Family" is a stand-alone story, right? Readers don't have to be familiar with the history of the Fantastic Four to understand this story, right?

Right. No recycling of ideas, here. And, yeah, I know I'm biased, but this is a quality book, man! Fantastic Four fans should definitely seek this book out (which might've been easier if the Fantastic Four title-logo hadn't been left off the front covers! Casey has nailed these characters and written a story jam-packed with melodrama, mayhem, monsters and malevolent mutants. Jeez, I sound like Stan Lee!

"First Family" #3 "First Family" #3, Page 10
And that's not a bad thing! So, what attracted you to working on a project like this? What was it that made "Fantastic Four: First Family" a compelling project for you to be a part of?

How long have you got? Well, for starters: it's the Fantastic Four, silly! They are icons! I already had my own strong opinions about how these characters should be handled, even before this book was offered to me. They were characters I'd been waiting to draw, especially the Thing. And how could I turn down the opportunity to hang out creatively with Joe Casey, a true maverick in this industry!

Then there was the fact that it was a chance to make new friends with Marvel, a company I'd never worked with before. Casey thought it was about time I drew something a bit more mainstream, and I couldn't agree more!

What's that working relationship like between you and Joe Casey? Is there much communication between the two of you after you receive the script?

Oh, there's tons of communication but very little of it is about "Fantastic Four: First Family."

Really? How so?

"First Family" #3, Page 12 "First Family" #5
All the scripts were written well before I even started drawing my first page. I certainly didn't have any ideas about how they could be improved, but that hasn't stopped me from bombarding Casey with endless phone calls, pestering him with feverish rants on subjects like: "King Kong was too long!", "Why don't those creators who feel that Islam is a threat akin to the rise of Nazism in the thirties take a leaf out of Alex Raymond's book and sign up for active service?" or "Ecclestone was a rubbish Doctor!"... you know, the usual geek chatter!

Sounds like it! So, what kind of feedback has Joe been giving you this far? And vice-versa, what kind of feedback are you giving him?

Oh, it's a mutual love-fest, believe me. It's sickening.

Your work on books like "The Filth" and "Ministry of Space" couldn't be more different. Sure, your style remains the consistent, but what you drew in each series was quite unique.

Thanks. Yeah, I'm really proud of the work I did on those two books. Subject matter-wise, they couldn't be more different: one was deliberately grungey and depressing, the other had to look clean, sunny and optimistic. However, strangely enough, both stories were tailored to suit each writer's perception of my style. "The Filth," in particular, was written specifically for me, and Grant said it wouldn't have existed if I hadn't agreed to draw it. It didn't quite become the cult franchise I'd hoped it would be, but the trade paperback collection remains a consistent seller.

I suppose if you had to summarize my style in a single sentence it would be "weird shit rendered realistically."

"First Family" #6
You know that label's going to follow you around from now on! Now, your work in "Fantastic Four: First Family" is also quite unique compared to those other projects. How is this series challenging you differently than your previous work?

Every job has it's own difficulties. But on this book, I did feel I was cooking with gas, for a change. Probably because Casey had given me lots of cool stuff to draw; like sixty-foot reptilian monsters, mind-scapes made of spaghetti, disturbing death-scenes, weird technology and mutations. Not to mention the Fantastic Four themselves! Let's just say: inspiration wasn't a problem.

Subsequently, this is one of the quickest jobs I've ever drawn, not that you'd guess once you've seen the insane amount of detail I've put into it.

What's been the most challenging aspect of working on this book thus far?

The challenge comes with topping what you've done before. To come up with all-new eye-popping imagery that knocks the readers socks up. Give them something they can't get anywhere else and you've justified your existence as a comic strip artist. I pride myself in taking the writer's most outlandish concept and presenting it in a way that is understandable, authentic and, hopefully, pretty to look at. That's probably why I attract A-list scribes like Millar, Morrison, Ellis, Ennis and now Casey. I'm a safe pair of hands and they know I'm not going to skimp on the details!

For those who've read at least the first issue of the series, it's clear Joe's having a lot of fun with the powers these characters have. You already mentioned my favorite scene thus far, the one with Reed's spaghetti arms stretched all over the place. Quite nightmarish looking! Do you like drawing the more surreal stuff best? Or is it the tech? The people? What's your favorite part of this project?

An early Weston Sketch for "Fantastic Four: First Family." Note The Thing's hair!
It's no less nightmarish than any of the stuff Jack Kirby or any other FF artist drew. It just looks more disturbing because I've drawn it realistically. When you are confronted with the realities of the team's powers, it can and should be pretty shocking. That's the approach I've always wanted to take with the Fantastic Four; to treat them as the radiation poisoned freaks they actually are. Originally, I was going to draw the Thing with a full head of hair that slowly fell out as the series progressed, but eventually I decided it was better to go straight to his classic image, much to Marvel's relief! They even suggested ignoring the original "puff-pastry-look" that the Thing had in the early days, and I think that was a wise choice.

But back to your question: what's my favourite part of the project? I like designing the environments: the quarantine base that the Fantastic Four are imprisoned in, the Baxter Building with it's bizarre technology. I guess I'm a frustrated movie production designer at heart.

A friend of mine was writing a script for a new artist hoping to break into comics. My friend asked the artist, "What do you like to draw?" He gave him a list and did his best to incorporate those artistic elements into the story. So, in general, what is it you like to draw? Do you have a preference?

I love science fiction -- my head is full of alien architecture and weird landscapes that I'm dying to draw. At some point, someone has got to write me a full-on science fantasy epic which will let me draw bizarre environments, peopled with strange, unnerving characters in outlandish costumes. "Fantastic Four: First Family" definitely inhabits the edges of this realm, but now I want to take it to the next level.

I'm guessing with your military family background that drawing military equipment may come a bit easier to you than most artists.

Maybe. I certainly enjoyed drawing my World War Two collaborations with Garth Ennis: "Enemy Ace" and "Johann's Tiger." I learned a lot about how to do "research" on those stories; how to find and use reference, which is a wonderful and enjoyable way of avoiding doing any actual work! I reckon Garth and I ought to have a go at "Blackhawk" one day.

In your career thus far you seem to gravitate more towards mini-series than ongoing series. Why's that? Is it simply a time issue?

Drawing a monthly book is a tough gig and my admiration goes out to the guys who can pull that off. As it is, on "Fantastic Four: First Family" I'm already working 'til ten each night, and suffering the guilt of the absentee father and husband. So people better buy this book to justify my miserable and lonely lifestyle!

If I was honest, I would have to say that, deep down, I remain unconvinced that the labour should be divided between pencillers, inkers and colourists. Obviously that's a necessary process if you want to guarantee your books come out frequently and punctually, but I would prefer to do the whole thing myself. I was trained in all three disciplines, and I always feel like I'm turning in half-finished work when I'm doing pencils only, and that's not a satisfying feeling. However, the situation is made much more bearable when you have artists like Gary Erskine and Chris Chuckry collaborating with you! Both of them have done their best work ever on "Fantastic Four: First Family," and together I think we've produced a great looking comic. Chris, in particular, blows my socks off with every coloured jpeg he sends me. His work on this book really is one of the highlights of this project. I can't speak highly enough about it, and it's worth buying the book for the colours alone.

No doubt, each page of this series thus far has been a site to behold. With the final issue of "Fantasic Four: First Family" now solicited, what's next for you? Any hints on what we'll find you working on in the next year?

Ah, I'm not at liberty to say, sorry! But I'm sure it will look "marvelous" -- in more ways than one! However, my main priority is to have a good break!

Let's finish up here by having you tell us about your creative process. What are the steps you take from blank to finished page?

A look at how Weston laysout his pages using himself as a model.
Well, recently I did hear that "photo-strips are the future of comics" in which case I should be alright, because I use a heck of a lot of photo-reference. I probably don't go to the lengths that artists like Alex Ross or Tim Bradstreet do: I don't hire models or costumes, or use lighting rigs, purely because I can't be bothered. I just put my camera on timer and quickly jump into the required position -- it's a bit like doing yoga! And I don't slavishly reproduce the photos, either. I just tend to use them as a device for composing page layout, and for getting the proportions of the characters right. There's a little bit of Poser programme in there too, which you use at your peril, because it can produce characters that look stiff and lifeless -- the uncanny valley effect! Poser can't render realistic cloth-wrinkling either; that's where the photography helps.

If I've got to create a sci-fi location which will feature in a good portion of the book, I will use Bryce 3D to build the "set" virtually. That way I can flip the "camera" around it and find the exact shot I want. It helps keep all the background details consistent, too. And I find it great, time-wasting fun!

Once I've got all my photo reference, my Poser people and my digital backgrounds sorted, I then use Photoshop to arrange them on the page. This is converted into a black and white image and printed off. I then assume my "Buzz Lightbox" persona and trace the page, making sure to make all the figures look like the characters they are supposed to be and nothing like me!

Sometimes, I envy those artists who've got a simple, more cartoony style. Then I wouldn't have to do so much preparation and research. But I like realistic-looking art; my heroes are Brian Bolland, Garry Leach, Frank Hampson and Jesus Blasco and I aspire to produce similarily-veined artwork.

Thanks, Chris. Now back to the drawing table for you!

 
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