Chris Sprouse looks a little like Tom Strong. There’s something in the eyes, in the chin. Come to think of it, many artists somehow resemble their art style if you think about it. This is no doubt a much larger idea to explore, but it was nevertheless the first impression I had upon meeting the artist and co-creator of ABC’s most adventurous character, Tom Strong.
During my lengthy chat with Sprouse he was nice enough to sketch a gorgeous illustration of Millennium City’s hero, a character who, as I was intrigued to learn, originally started off looking like Indiana Jones. But before his ABC adventures, Sprouse was a struggling artist whose only interest was doing what he loved, drawing.
Filip Vukcevic: Starting at the beginning, what did you do after high-school?
Chris Sprouse: It took about a year. I did have a day job, it was your typical just got out of school, paying the bills kind of job. Within the year I had enough work to last for the next year. I thought, that’s a good time quit and go full-time with comics.
FV: And what sort of stuff did you work on back in the day? What would you consider your big break?
CS: Legionnaires, for DC comics. That was with Tom and Mary Beerbaum. They were pretty much just Legion writers and they came up through fandom.
FV: How did that transition into Awesome Comics in the mid-90s?
CS: I had been off Legionnaires for a couple of years, bouncing around to a bunch of different companies. I had landed at – I don’t think it was Awesome at first. Whatever Rob’s company was called. In about ’95 I started working for him. I did a couple Youngbloods. I think it was Maximum Press or something like that. I did some Youngblood thing and a book called New Men. And when that was cancelled I had heard that Alan was unhappy with whoever was drawing Supreme and the writer of New Men was the editor of Supreme, so he asked me if I wanted to do that, and it was that simple. I jumped at it.
FV: How much did you know about Supreme before you came on board? Or did you just jump in fresh?
CS: I had been reading Alan’s issues. I don’t know, I think there were at least six or so out before I got on the book. I had read them all. I always followed Alan’s stuff. I knew about the character. The scripts were so detailed that when I got the first one, it was all there. With Alan you never have questions to ask, it’s all there.
CS: He was pretty much done with the Supreme scripts when I got on. It was always going to be a finite thing, and he had finished his commitment, so the scripts were in. I just got them in the mail and talked to the editor. I didn’t talk to Alan until Rob’s company went under, and we were looking for work. Alan called us and asked if we wanted to work on a new project for him, and that turned out to be ABC.
FV: Did he always have you in mind for Tom Strong, or were there other properties at ABC that you were considered for?
CS: I think the way he developed some of the projects, I believe some of the ABC characters were characters Alan had created for Awesome comics, for the Supreme universe. They were going to be sort of flash-back retro characters, which Supreme already had a bunch of. He decided when that went under to do it as an entire line, a brand new line of comics. I think it was always intended that the guy who was drawing the “Superman” comic was going to get Tom Strong. I think they wanted Steve Skorce, who was drawing Youngblood, to – you know what, I think they wanted Brandon Peterson for Promethea. But he was doing Glory which was a Wonder Woman-kind of book. So there was a slot for all of us who had worked with Alan on Awesome comics. But not everybody could do it. I think by that time Brandon Peterson and a few of the other guys already had other work. The Awesome books took a long time to come to fruition. I think we started talking about them in ’97 and the first issues weren’t published until 1999 I believe.
FV: What about Superman? Your Tom Strong and your Supreme are very clearly that archetype, so had you ever wanted to do The Man of Steel?
CS: Actually, no. I never read Superman comics. My only connection to Superman was the movie – I loved the first movie. Every time I’ve ever drawn Superman at a convention, until very recently, they were always horrible. I hated the way I drew Superman. I just thought, “Never mind, this will be too hard.”
FV: While it may have been tongue-in-cheek hyperbole, Alan Moore had said that America’s Best Comics was his attempt at saving comics. Did he talk to you about what he meant by that? Was there more of an agenda?
CS: I think he was talking about the content. At the time everything was sort of that Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, dark, X-men-inspired super mutant teams. There was nothing but superheroes. Even though the ABC characters were superheroes, they were very pulp-influenced. He brought real magic concepts to Promethea. Not just Stan Lee making stuff up. He actually brought real magical ideas to it.
FV: What about with Tom Strong, did he ever say that there was a central theme? I noticed that the book became very much about family. Did it start off that way?
CS: Yes, he gave each of us the initial proposal and it was so detailed I thought it was for a year’s worth of comics, but it was just for the first issue. The family was always there, it was always going to be an important part of it. The family was intended to be like the supporting characters in Doc Savage. He always had helpers, kind of right-man-for-the-job characters. So that’s where the idea having a group of five or six supporting characters that are always there to draw from came from.
FV: Delving a bit more into the Tom Strong mythos, later on you did things with Warren Strong and Tom Strange. Did you guys just say, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Tom Strong was a rabbit?’ How did that come about?
CS: That was all Alan. I think he wanted to comment on a lot of different comic styles, using the ABC characters. That’s why you’ve got strange little period stories in Tomorrow Stories. In Tom Strong a lot of our backup stories were either goofy little Wally Wood science-fiction stories or Warren Strong. I think Alan just wanted to do a funny animal. And with Tom Strong you can do almost anything.
FV: For all of the ABC cities, in Tom Strong, Promethea, and even in Tomorrow Stories, the city is almost a character itself. It feels like you put a lot of time and effort into creating this world that isn’t generic. Millennium City is different than Promethea’s city which is different than Greyshirt’s city – what was the design process like?
CS: It was all Alan, it was there in the first script. The first page started with a panel that was just a door with a mail slot. And it had so much description, and it wasn’t just about that door, but it was about three pages of description that was all about the city. Why it should look this way and why it should have an oval-shaped mail slot. He went o
n about how he saw this city. He wanted to create an entire world for each of these characters and have it be instantly, recognizably different. You’d know you’re reading Greyshirt or Tom Strong instead of Promethea or Top Ten. It was all there in the first script. Where he gets his ideas, I don’t know. It may have been something he read. It may have been really pulpy and old fashioned. Yes, a little bit futuristic, that’s my guess. It felt old-fashioned to me, drawing them. But it worked. The one other thing he said, besides completely make up this city, was that he saw a lot of Windsor MacCay (early twentieth century artist, creator of Little Nemo and the famous animated short, “Gertie the Dinosaur”) when he was writing it. He saw Windsor MacCay’s city. That helped immensely, I started drawing really tall buildings with domes, a lot of the Chicago look. Like, they have blimp ports in Chicago but not in many other places. A lot of the architecture is outdated, but at the same time, bizarre little futuristic elements like that. I’d draw old looking buildings but they’d have lots of radio antennas and stuff.
FV: I’m sure there is distinct Chris Sprouse in Tom Strong. Where do you see yourself in the book?
CS: Actually, the design of Tom Strong, there was a lot of back and forth. Originally he was supposed to have long hair and be sort of an Indiana Jones-type adventurer. I have a picture of him as a khaki, jungle kind of guy. I did a sketch and it just didn’t work. It just didn’t look right, so Alan and I kept going back and forth. I’d send him sketches and he’d say, keep that, lose that. And eventually it didn’t look as much like the Tom Strong you know, but what I did, I was reading a lot of the old Alex Raymond Flash Gordon and it just sort of hit me. The Flash Gordon costume, the colours and it’s all pretty iconic. He’s got the black pants, the yellow stripe down the leg, the red shirt. It’s all Flash Gordon. And that more than anything, to me, is a lot of what ABC was about. What we, as the creators, were really into, what we liked to draw. That’s what it was for Alan; it was like his three biggest influences as a kid were Superman, Tarzan, and Doc Savage. And that describes Tom Strong in a nutshell.
FV: Where did the triangle insignia on the chest come from?
CS: It was just supposed to be an iconic symbol that we could use on vehicles, coffee cups, whatever we could. Because Tom Strong is just that kind of character. This is where the Fantastic Four stuff started to come in – he’s an inventor; he had all sorts of gadgets. It was meant to show that he was established in the world. He had all of this stuff with the Strong family logo on it. And everybody in Millennium City knew that it was Tom Strong. Not an empire, but a recognizable brand.
FV: When did you finish the last Tom Strong issue?
CS: I remember it for many reasons, but it was New Year’s eve of 2005 when I finished the last page.
FV: I’m no artist, but I usually have a few images I keep drawing over and over. Easy things like the Superman S-shield or a logo of some kind or a starship. Do you have an image you draw a lot?
CS: Yeah, it’s weird, I doodle cross-hatches. I just doodle different shade-in stuff. It’s weird. Kind of obsessive compulsive I guess. I never had a character I doodled. I would actually just draw. I made my own comic books in high school, so I would work on those. They were science fiction mostly. That’s sort of how I got into comics, through the Star Wars adaptation. You get enough Marvel comics and they have guest appearances by Spider-Man and it opens doors into superheroes.
CS: No, I just sort of evolved the way I draw. The way I see things and the way it comes out on paper. I used to draw like everybody in the 80’s; I was influenced in high school by John Byrne and Walt Simonson and Frank Miller. Whatever I was reading at the time, my stuff would look like that, at least a bad version of that. What a fifteen year old version of John Byrne would look like. But I think I’ve washed a lot of that out of my system. Going to college and having professors tell you, ‘Draw what you see.’ I think it broke a lot of bad habits. But now, having been in comics for almost twenty years, I’ve got a lot of new bad habits that I need to watch out for.
FV: Like what?
CS: Just rendering things the same ways that I always do, rather than how it would look. I find myself drawing hair or folds in clothing and it’s not realistic, it’s just how I’ve always done it. You need to learn and grow. So if I find myself doing that I will make it a priority to study it or get some photo-reference. Find out what makes something fold like that. One of my big things right now is shading. I don’t do a lot of heavy lighting on people. I do it very, very rarely. Like a scene in Midnighter, taking place at night, no electric lighting anywhere, the only light would be from a fire in the lower left corner, but everybody is completely brightly lit. I should probably have given them more shadow. I need to make myself do that. It’s something where I fell into a trap when I drew it, I never really lit anybody.
FV: Almost a decade ago when you guys started on the whole ABC thing, the big goal was to save comics. If you were going to save comics today, nearly ten years later, how would you approach it? How do you save comics in 2008?
CS: One of the ways, from the inside, one of the things I’ve been arguing for in the behind-the-scenes area is that in order for things to come out on time these days, they need to get a large chunk of books done before they are solicited or printed. People are getting disgusted with the books and talking more about the writers and the artists than they are the characters. I think you get repeat readers when you make the books about the characters or the stories. Not whether or not Jim Lee is doing this issue. Nobody is reading the Jim Lee Batman or Superman for the characters, they’re reading it for Jim Lee.
I mean, I’m an artist and I love it when people like my work, but I think it’s starting to interfere. People are worried about gossip and who’s late and who’s fired and that stuff shouldn’t matter. That’s not what’s going to get readers interested. I find myself doing this, too. I follow books for who is working on them and not the characters. So when Stuart Immonen stops drawing Ultimate Spider-Man, I’m not gonna read it anymore; unless it’s so good that I can’t do that. That’s what we need to do – make books that are so good that people will come back no matter who is working on it. And they won’t complain when people are late. And the only way I can see an artist being regular on a book is to have the books done so far in advance that they never ship late. Then there’s always a huge buffer. And the series that I’m working on now, that was the whole reason I could do it, is because it’s being done about a year in advance and it’ll come out on time. I think that’ll look good on me, but there’s still gonna be comments about the creative team. Is it going to ship on time? Is it going to be late? That’s not the point. I’d like to get back to really interesting characters that will grab readers. I don’t know if that will save comics, but I think that it will help quite a bit.