[Multiple Eisner Award winning cartoonist Matt Wagner has long been known for his sure hand with adventure comics; the breadth of imagination for his signature creations Mage and Grendel and his distinctive re-imaginings of Batman in various titles over the years. Now he’s imagining for the first time John Tower, a new character created by Legendary Pictures studio head Thomas Tull and debuting this week as part of the new Legendary Comics line. THE TOWER CHRONICLES: GEISTHAWK #1 is being published in the “prestige” format—a squarebound 64 page comics—well-known to 90s comics readers but not much used today. But it seems appropriate for the story that Wagner is telling, along with artist Simon Bisley, inker Rodney Ramos, and colorist Ryan Brown. In the following interview Wagner walks us through the process of developing John Tower and talks about his entire approach to making comics. We previously talked to Legendary’s COO Tim Connors here. ]
THE BEAT: So how and why and where? [Legendary Comics editor] Bob [Schreck] brought you on after he and Thomas had been talking about the concept of John Tower?
WAGNER: He and Thomas had been talking about a concept and Thomas said, “You know, find me a writer who you respect, who is well established, and also isn’t afraid to tell me when my ideas aren’t any good.” And Bob said, “I got the guy.” So they flew me down to Burbank, we had an initial meeting and it all just went swimmingly. I pulled the plug on a couple aspects of the character, but then we started hashing out other aspects and the story just continued to grow and grow. The original plan was to do it as an OGN, and I said to Thomas, “What we’ve got here now is too big for that, it’s just not going to work. We’ve got to break this up into different books because, you know, this character is a supernatural bounty hunter and has a deep, richly-textured back story. You don’t want to come up short on any aspects of those.” Certainly if you’ve got the fun aspect of him chasing down monsters, you want to see a lot of that. And as with everything I’ve done, as you know, under my own auspices, it’s something of a genre-mashing. We have aspects of supernatural adventure stuff, aspects of horror, fantasy, there’s some historical fiction in it. And luckily we had just the right artist. I think this is the longest sustained narrative Simon [Bisley]’s ever done.
THE BEAT: Ryan Brown’s coloring and Rodney Ramos’s inking have really contributed to the look. Simon is just penciling it? Ryan’s colors are amazing.
WAGNER: Ryan is an Irish guy that I think Simon has worked with a couple times before. Simon brought him to the table and and I thought it looked great. It looks like painted work from Simon and yet we’re able to produce it at a timely fashion. Simon is already 200-plus pages in.
THE BEAT: Rodney is also working on it, right?
WAGNER: Rodney’s inking it and he’s doing a great job, too. There was a little get-to-know-you sort of process and then all of a sudden, that just clicked. Rodney all of a sudden just figured out how to ink Simon perfectly. It’s a really good team and it’s all meshing very well. The more you work together, the better that synchronicity gets. I’m getting better at writing for Simon—he told me “This feels like you’re just writing it for me.” And as a writer, my God, that’s what you want to hear your artist say.
THE BEAT: I did notice, boy, nobody draws a kick ass tough guy with a scarred face quite the way he does.
WAGNER: And monsters, let’s not forget monsters.
THE BEAT: And monsters. And sexy girls. But yeah, he really does create this eerie, menacing world.
WAGNER: Two years ago at San Diego we were having the initial launch panel for Legendary and we needed to generate a piece of art. Bob had worked with Simon on the covers for Hellblazer, when he had still been at Vertigo and so he suggested Simon. We get this promo art painting, and Simon just knocked it so far out of the park, it hit the stratosphere. It captured everything about the character in a single image, which is so hard to do. And so Bob and I started whispering to ourselves, “God, wouldn’t it be great if he drew the whole thing?” And lo and behold, now we’re really in a creative sync.
THE BEAT: Let’s talk a little bit about the format, because this is “prestige format” which is kind of not done any more.
WAGNER: I know. Well, that’s another cool thing about it, I think. Thomas, due to Legendary’s prestige and status in the movie industry, wanted their comic books to be of a champaign quality every time out. And so the original plan was to do everything as OGNs. Bob and I talked him out of that for this project because we have a brand new character and in this sort of economy you can’t ask people to be slapping down 30, 40 bucks for a character they don’t know. Let’s divvy it up and we can still make it fancier and more substantial feeling than the monthly floppies. But by divvying it up into the prestige size, you can buy the first issue without breaking your bank and see if you like it. And yet at the same time, with each issue you get a nice, chunky installment, it’s not just the 22-page tantalizing, not-enough-ness of the monthly comics.
THE BEAT: Right, a satisfying chunk. Is there a difference in how you approach writing that, though? What else are you doing these days? I know you’re always busy.
WAGNER: This is it basically. I wrapped up my run on Zorro for Dynamite and then leapt into this and again, this is a very epic project. They don’t really want to stop and slow down, they want it to keep coming out regularly. I’m two-thirds of the way through what will ultimately be an 800-plus page project. It’s a little different serializing it in 22 pages from serializing in 68 pages, but I don’t know, you just need to pick your end spot for each chapter and work towards that. I mean, I’ve been at this a long time, you know?
THE BEAT: It is interesting how all these formats evolve. When you first started out it was 22 pages, and that’s it. Now there’s prestige and graphic novels and Mark Waid is talking about how he’s learning how to write an interactive web comic. It does evolve.
WAGNER: I’m never bored in my job. There’s always a new challenge, that’s one of the reasons I was attracted to this project in the first place. Not in the format, but the creative structure. I have worked on the big projects where I’m playing with somebody else’s toys, Batman, Superman. I have Mage, which is my total one-man-show, and I have Grendel, which is my big collaborative orgy, where I’ve worked with literally over 100 different artists over the years. This was an opportunity where somebody has an idea and I have to work with that somebody to bring this idea to fruition. That was a challenge I’d never approached before and I’m always looking for a creative challenge. It really appealed to me.
THE BEAT: Well, let’s talk a little bit about John Tower, who he is and what sets him apart. What we learn in the first issue is, he is a bounty, a ghost bounty hunter, correct?
WAGNER: A supernatural bounty hunter, it’s not all ghosts, but yeah. He’s a bounty hunter and especially at the get-go, he’s very much in the Clint Eastwood taciturn lone adventurer category. He’s very aloof. I keep saying that in the first issue, first volume, we’re not even sure we really like him. But from the beginning Thomas had the basic structure of this character and I said, “Okay, but I have to bring the humanity to the table because it’s great to have this cool, tough as nails, tough-shit character, but you have to give a damn about him.” As the story goes on, these layers of mystery that surround him slowly get peeled away and little by little we learn more of his history, we learn more of his purpose, like, for instance why. Why is he doing this? He says over and over again in the first issue, money is not really his concern. And yet he charges money to do this. So why? As the story progresses it becomes evident that there’s a cause that drives him forward that is much deeper than it first appears.
THE BEAT: What was Thomas’s initial connection to the character? What was it that he was most excited about that made this the project that he wanted to do?
WAGNER: Well, I think everybody who has not done a sustained narrative in comics kind of has their ideal comic book character in their head. And he had this one and again, this is why Bob brought me in because I could help him hone it into a real character. What he had initially was some cool ideas.
THE BEAT: Everybody likes tough guy heroes who go out and kick supernatural butt, let’s face it.
WAGNER: I sure do. That’s evident in my work as well. Fighting monsters is cool shit! The key is to balance the familiarity of the setting with something new and odd every time. Having worked on Batman, that’s a big challenge with Batman as well. Because he tends to do the same shit over and over and over again.
THE BEAT: You’ve also introduced Agent Hardwick, the tough-as-nails FBI operative. Is she a sidekick for John Tower?
WAGNER: Eventually. She’s mainly our conduit into him. Although not in the same fashion, but I would equate it to how Dr. Melfi was our conduit into Tony Soprano’s private life. Hardwick is part of the FBI, so she’s an investigator at heart, so she becomes fascinated with Tower and begins to investigate him. It’s kind of through her interaction that we see the carefully placed parts of his facade start to peel away little by little.
THE BEAT: I see what you mean about him being unlikable. One of my favorite moments in the first issue was when he confront’s this ghost guy, and says “I suppose I could investigate this,” and he has that little, “I think of her” moment. And you’re like, “Wait a minute, hold on! This dude’s cheated death!” but he still goes and just blows him away. So he’s pretty pragmatic.
WAGNER: Well, he works for his clients. He doesn’t judge his clients. In fact, the first issue we see he works first for a private citizen, then for a gangster, and then because of his interaction with Alicia, ultimately for the government. He’s picky about who he works for, but he’s not judgmental about who he works for. And here again, the whole point is, there’s a deeper reason. Working for his clients is not his real aim and as the story progresses, this mystery and his true motivations come to the surface.
THE BEAT: The first issue is on sale today. Without spoiling thigns, can you give us a little blurb about the second issue?
WAGNER: The first issue is all contemporary. The second issue starts to delve back into Tower’s past. And some of the forces that are opposing him come to the foreground a little bit, because they aren’t just the monsters that he pursues. And so the puzzle becomes more complex.
THE BEAT: As an industry veteran, what’s it like working for a company like Legendary? Some people say “Movies are saving comics,” others say “Movies are ruining comics,” Thomas Tull is obviously is a huge comics lover, but how do you like working for a movie studio?
WAGNER: From the very beginning, both Thomas and Bob told me, obviously we’re going to be met with a certain reaction in that it’s a movie company developing comics. “You’re just developing a movie, the comic is basically a movie pitch.” And they stressed to me up one side and down the other—and Bob knows that I would take this approach anyway—that’s just not going to happen if you don’t deliver a kick-ass product right out of the gate. My main aim is to tell great stories and my medium is comics. I’m not one of these comic authors who want to write films. I’m not a frustrated novelist, I’m not a frustrated filmmaker, I’m a very realized comic book creator. And as far as movies ruining comics or saving comics. Saving comics? Movies certainly generate a lot of income for the companies that own those characters. Ruining comics? Well, you just told me you just came from SPX and that doesn’t sound like comics are being ruined at all, does it?
THE BEAT: Nope.
WAGNER: They’re thriving with many, many individual voices there. I’m not really worried.
THE BEAT: Yeah, it’s all part of the greater fabric of what’s going on. Are you drawing right now? How much of your time is spent between writing and drawing?
WAGNER: I’m not drawing that much right now. I’m mainly writing this. As you know, I entered the field from the indie side and then went to work for the big guys, whereas so many of my contemporaries, Frank Miller, Mike Mignola…a lot of the guys that are my colleagues of similar age and position in the industry started the other way around, worked for the big guys first and then discovered the indies. Anyway, because of the way I entered the field and as a result of having worked with Bob so much, I really don’t notice much difference in the way I create things. For instance, when I was working on Batman with Bob, I might as well have been working on Grendel; he he left me alone because he trusts my creative instincts and I’m just so used to having my hands in every aspects of things. It was the same on Zorro when I was working through Dynamite. I look at every single stage. I approve the inks, I approve the colors, I get to see the letters. There’s always a little tweak, like, “Hey, that balloon’s pointed at the wrong guy.” I’m very involved in every single stage of it and I know no other way to do it. It would kill me to just turn in a script and sit back and forget about it. That just doesn’t happen with me.
THE BEAT: Matt, I’m always fascinated by talking to people who are as accomplished as yourself. Whenever I pick up a Matt Wagner comic I know I’m going to get a certain level of story and quality. And, it seems like you try to deliver the whole package. It’s not like you obsess about any individual element, but you just kind of see it as a whole?
WAGNER: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I treat the whole story as a painting. Starting from an initial sketch and then you do the under drawing of every element of the painting, you hook those all together, you do the under painting, you do the toning, you put the finish on the very end. That’s just the way, I always say I draw like a writer and I write like an artist.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.