This weekend brings the return of Washington D.C.’s annual Awesome Con. This year’s guest list includes artist Greg Capullo, whose long career in the industry includes such high-profile properties as Spawn and Batman. His creator-owned work ranges from The Creech to Reborn. In advance of Awesome Con, I recently had an extended conversation with Capullo covering various aspects of his work, including his creative process for Batman, the importance of artistic collaboration and his experience working at Image during different phases of their history.
Thanks to Greg Capullo and Awesome Con for making this interview possible.
Creighton: Good afternoon, how are you today?
Greg Capullo: You know what I’m doing right now? I’ll tell you what I’m doing right now: my perfectionism is causing me anguish because I spent two days on a splash page and you know what I’m doing today? I’m redrawing it. So how’s your day?
Creighton: Rainy. I haven’t had trouble with perfectionism yet, though, that might be later in the day, when I rewrite the same paragraph three times.
Capullo: Keep going over the same tracks which sucks. You think “no one will care”, they’ll like it just the same, but in your gut it could be better so I got to make it better.
Creighton: That’s exactly what you need to do. I do that with my writing all the time. I might love the first draft of something, then come back the next day, and think “ugh what was I thinking?”
Capullo: Right and you got pride, so you got to do better if you can.
Creighton: That’s why we have the revision process.
I wanted to start today with a general background question: as an artist starting out there’s all different kinds of avenues you could have explored, so what led to your deciding on comics as the medium you wanted to work in?
Capullo: Well, it hit me at a very young age, probably around 8 years old. I was pretty much set with what I wanted to do and at that point, only it could have gone either way, Mad magazine or comic books. Those were the two things that I would just go “wow that’s just so cool.” I had both magazines in good abundance and I would draw stuff out of Mad magazine, Don Martin’s characters, draw superheroes, show it to my older cousin, ask “you think I’ll be good enough someday to do this?” And he’d shrug his shoulders and go “I don’t know?” I knew it at that very young age, just looking at it excited me. That’s it, I set my sights on going that way. But as I got closer to that goal and was getting the coaching tips from Marvel on how to improve enough to get their job, it really set me on the path to honing all the skills necessary to be a good draftsman which serves you better. When I advise young artists, I say “tell yourself I want to be an illustrator.” Then you’re honing all the skills necessary but more doors are open to you. Pretend that comics disappeared overnight, so now what do you do? You’ll still have your artistic ability and you’ll still hopefully make money using that ability, if you’re a good illustrator, a good draftsman, learning all the tenants that go with that territory.
Creighton: Batman is a rich character, who has had a long, elastic history, not just the type of stories that have been told about him but also a visual style ranging from artists such as Jerry Robinson to Neal Adams to Norm Breyfogle to Jim Lee. There are all sorts of different styles depicting the character. When you first came to Batman was it daunting to have so many models to choose from or is it liberating to know that you can really go any direction?
Capullo: A lot has happened with the various artists who have made a nice splash on Batman. I had seen their books so that removed some of it out of my way. But it wasn’t about how I was going about drawing Batman. What was the nervous thing about Batman was he is such an iconic character who is beloved worldwide. I would say he is the most popular superhero in all of comics.
Creighton: I would agree.
Capullo: So, that was the daunting thing. You don’t want to come on Batman and screw it all up, right? Because they’ll find you and they’ll tar and feather you. That was the biggest trepidation: don’t mess him up. But as far as the drawing style and how I went with it, you’ve seen everything about Batman, as I have, the cartoons, comic books, movies. All that stuff goes into you and your blender and if you were to start drawing Batman tomorrow, your expression of those things would come out subconsciously, connected to how you personally feel about the character. So that’s all I did. I followed my instincts and what came out. Luckily, the fans didn’t want to tar and feather me.
Creighton: And how much of that was influenced by what Scott Snyder was giving you in the scripts? Did his writing influence how the images were forming in your mind?
Capullo: Not too much. Somebody pointed out how my Batman has the shape of Space Ghost. And that’s possible. I had the Space Ghost coloring book, I loved the Space Ghost cartoons. So it wasn’t so much the writing as was what appealed to me in drawing Batman. It has to be the way you like to do it otherwise it’s just a whole drag. I did what was fun to me and what I thought would be a cool looking Batman.
Creighton: I never noticed that before but now every time I look at your Batman, I’ll think of Space Ghost.
Capullo: Next I’ll be putting gauntlets with buttons on him.
Creighton: And they both have capes already. You just need to start drawing monkeys in the background where nobody will notice.
I wanted to touch on what was, for me, one of the most striking images you’ve done during your Batman run. In #24, the climax of the Red Hood Gang arc, when their leader plunges in the chemical vat. It seemed to me, regardless of how you interpret who that character is or is not, you encapsulate the whole history of the Batman/Joker relationship. Batman is trying to save people, while the Joker’s just leaping into chaos. So much of that was conveyed not through words, but your use of body language and expressions. Would you like to talk about that for a moment?
Capullo: First off, thank you. When I was first trying to break into Marvel, I wasn’t good enough as far as my draftsmanship, so they were turning me away. Even at that early time, however, an editor was looking over my portfolio and said “this one knows how to act.” Meaning not me personally, but how to make the characters act. I just had a knack for it, starting early. When I go about drawing this stuff I’m kind of living each role as it goes on. Even as I’m reading scripts, if you were to be a fly on the wall, you’d see me making all kinds of emotional facial expressions, because I’m living it. I don’t really give it any conscious thought. I feel it and I put it down on the paper. I’m kind of fanatical about it. I’ll redraw a head four times because I want a slightly different tilt in a slightly different direction. Somebody might go “Greg you’re crazy,” but those really fine degrees of change make a huge emotional statement. So, I feel my way through.
Creighton: That’s a very good observation. It’s like writing the scripts: you can’t write any words, they need to be the exact right words, in the same way, you need the exact tilt of the head to express what it is you’re trying to convey.
Capullo: Yeah, and I find it more so, the older I get. Maybe it’s because the older you get the more life you’ve lived, so you’ve experienced more situations, emotions and thoughts, I’m more obsessive about it now. It’s more time consuming unfortunately but I think that goes hand in hand. Like writers, they write better later on, after they’ve experienced more of living because you have more in your library to draw upon at that point.
Creighton: I agree. I’ve never bought the idea that you do all your best work when you’re 23 and its downhill from there. That’s just not right.
One other thing about process on Batman: I’ve always been struck by the atmosphere of your pages and to me that’s not only what you’re bringing to it but also your inker Danny Miki and colorist FCO Planscencia.
Capullo: And there’s also Jonathan Glapion who’s inking me now.
Creighton: Thank you. What is the collaborative process with them like? Do you discuss the book or is it simply passing pages back and forth to each other?
Capullo: There’s not much discussion. The reason I work with them is I like how they look over me. They both have a little different approach but both are fine inkers. Excellent inkers, some of the best in the game. I’m not one of these guys who will leave it all open, where the blacks are going to go; I determine that. But they’re not just tracing. Where the inker brings it to life is in the snap of their lines. In other words if you’ve got a guy who just takes your pencils and goes over them, they’re going to be lifeless because you’ve taken something that was alive and then, by just tracing it, turn it into something that’s dead. You need an inker who will get your pencils. In my case, I’m a loose penciler and a lot of my expression comes from using a softer lead and not a mechanical pencil. My skill is in my pressure, it’s very loose and it needs a sharp inker able to analyze and capitalize on that. A different approach would be David Finch’s, a very nice artist, who is very meticulous, setting down every single line with great precision. You could really just take those into Photoshop and beef up the blacks and you’d be ready for print. I’m not that tight, so when the inker gets my pages and interprets what my intention is, his line is going to be fresher because he’s really solidifying it. That’s when you go from alive to lively, the component for the inks.
As for FCO, I’ve always liked his work, knowing what he’s capable of. What I like about FCO is that he doesn’t look like anyone else. There’re a lot of great colorists out there but they have the same repertoire, kind of all look the same and many of them, you couldn’t go “oh that’s that guy or that girl.” It’s all top shelf stuff but you want somebody who will stand out. I think that FCO really stands out and the reason is his influences are outside of comics. He’s more into fine arts and he pulls that into what he does with me. What’s really great about him is a lot of colorists these days know how to do so many fantastic effects sometimes you get carried away and they step over the line and you can’t really detect the line work. And FCO never ever does that. You can always see every single line we labor to put on there. I don’t give him guidance. Every once and awhile if I think that something could be a little bit different, in a better way, I’d say so but 99% of the time I simply get out of his way. The great thing about having someone talented like that with you is that they’ll surprise you. If you get out of their way, they’ll come up with better ideas than you ever dreamed of. I think that’s why our whole team works really well. Scott always gives me complete leeway to change or modify if I see a better way which allows me freedom and all the team does the same, respecting each other’s territory. Our goal is united in wanting to make the best possible book.
Creighton: Well, it’s working; it’s a beautiful looking title.
Capullo: Thank you.
Creighton: Do you draw from outside comics at all?
Capullo: I’m usually too busy to work outside of comics. The last thing I did was an album cover for Five Finger Death Punch and even that was kind of hurried, because I have deadline pressure all the time. I get offers to do other illustrations but I usually turn then away. I turn away a lot of extra work within the comics industry. “Would you like to do a cover?” I would love to do a cover, I just don’t have the time. I’m a one trick pony right now. There’s a lot of people who can draw really well, but, if you can’t get the work out on time you’re no use to the company. The other thing that’s really important is the fans. Comic books are expensive now. I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to collect a bunch of different comics. Four bucks a pop is kind of steep especially when you’re collecting multiple titles. So, you really want to give them their money’s worth. You don’t want them to get something and feel like you phoned it in and they wasted their four dollars. You’re competing with so many different great medias that are entertaining and cheaper. So, you ask “how can I make them feel that they spent their money wisely” and that’s by giving them the absolute best you can possibly do.
Creighton: Recently, though, you have been working on another project: Reborn with Mark Millar. Why take the break from Batman now? How did you get involved with Reborn? Were you there from the beginning or did Millar come to you when he needed an artist?
Capullo: He approached me a while back; I was on his hit list of people he wanted to work with. I had been working with Scott for so long, I was under contract [with DC] and it so happened that the windows were lined up. When Mark wanted to try to get it done and when I was able to actually be free of a contract to do that. I thought it would be cool to do something creator-owned, own it 50/50, and it sounded like a fun project. And you know, working with Mark, there’s always the chance the series might get into movies, which is cool. Scott’s had the opportunity to work with so many artists because writers can work on multiple titles as once. An artist is very limited. The chance for me to work with other writers are few and far between, so this was an opportunity to cheat on Scott for a minute.
Creighton: Well, he’s doing more cheating on you as he has a new artist for almost every new issue of All-Star Batman.
One thing I noticed about Reborn is how you’re working with different tones, balancing between, for lack of a better word, the natural world and this fantasy realm. Was it challenging finding a way to blend them together so that you don’t feel as if you’re reading two separate stories?
Capullo: Right. Things originate from the writer, and a competent illustrator is going to do it as it should be and bring it to life. Again I don’t give much thought into the stuff; I always follow my instincts. To answer how I go about it, I would have to analyze myself. Instead, I just go. Here is another example of where a colorist is so vital. It’s FCO really. He’s choosing his palettes and he’s separating as well. Again comics are a team sport, you can’t put it all on the writer or the penciler or any single guy. It is really a product of a whole team working in unison. The colorist gets the script, he wants to understand the story as well as I do. We all just read the story and do our thing.
Creighton: You are right about how collaborative the whole process is. When I think of your work, I think of your lines and pencils but immediately after that Planscenia’s coloring comes into my mind because of how your work blends so well together.
Image is marking their 25th Anniversary this year and you were there near the beginning working on Spawn and then your own projects through the years and now back with Reborn. Image is company that has gone through a lot of evolution, starting with a superhero dominated rooster of titles to evolve into covering pretty much every type of genre out there right now. Was this process something you were aware of while you were working there? What is like working for Image now versus then?
Capullo: It’s a good question. I was pretty much settled with Todd [McFarlane] the whole time, so my world revolved around Todd. We became very good friends during that time working on Spawn. I never thought of myself as working for Image. It’s just I’m working with my friend Todd. I would say that period of my comics career was without any doubt the most fun and the most joyous and most rewarding that I’ve ever had. Amazing. Now a lot of that was because I was working with Todd and we were so tight. Working at Image now, again, there is not really exposure to the company itself on my end. Mark’s people dealt with Image on the business end of things. Again it was just me working with another guy. It’s a different story when you do your own thing, like when I did for Creech. The coolest thing, of course, is that you’ve got nobody telling you what you can or cannot do, especially as it isn’t a publicly owned company. Disney doesn’t want you doing certain things, Warner Brothers doesn’t want you doing certain things, right? At Image you don’t have any of that, so whatever you want to do, you can do. The only restriction I ever encountered was in The Creech I had some bad guys with swastikas on their foreheads and when we went to publish that in Germany, such imagery is outlawed, so I just had to do some edits to remove those. You have all the free-wheeling you could hope for when you do something at Image.
Creighton: As you said, you were mostly just working with Todd McFarlane. Was there any sense that this might be a company going somewhere or was it more a sense of this is simply what I’m doing at the moment?
Capullo: Well, when Todd first tried to get me, Image had just started out. Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Todd, all those guys, had just left [Marvel] and formed Image. So all the top slots at Marvel opened up and Marvel yanked me from Quasar, my first full-time book there, and stuck me on X-Force. I had only been there a year and I had already gotten one of the plumbs off the tree. Todd called me up when I was less than a year on X-Force. He spent the first ten minutes convincing me that he was Todd McFarlane; I thought someone was pranking me. Then he gives me the pitch and I go “are you out of your mind? They just put me on X-Force and you want me to give up that job and come work for your little startup company that could fold over night?” He called me a pussy and hung up. What ended up upsetting me about Marvel was because they had gotten stung they no longer wanted to push their artists. Now I’m a loyal guy, as you see, I tend to plant roots and stay for a long time. Just push my name like you did for all those guys but they wouldn’t do it. Pressed the issue a couple times, they still wouldn’t do it, so I called Todd to see if there was still an opportunity with him. The rest is history. We stayed married for quite a long time.
Creighton: Plus you get to work with Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman while you’re at it.
Capullo: Which is always great fun.
Creighton: Finally are there any upcoming projects you would like to mention?
Capullo: I hope that everyone is looking forward is the summer blockbuster Scott, I and a bunch of guys are working on, DC’s Metal. I’m working on that now. If people picked up Reborn and thought it was different subject matter for me, I’m doing crazy, wild, out of control stuff in Metal. We teased an image of it from the storyline showing the Justice League wearing gladiator armor. That’s our starting point, page 2, which should give you some indication of where it’s going. There’s going to be some books which proceed ours, then Scott and mine comes out in August. I’m excited to be back with Scott and back at DC, who have treated me fantastically.
Awesome Con will be held at DC’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 6/16-6/18. For more information, please see their website.