Ray Sonne for Comics Bulletin: You have said before that you got into comics when you were around 10 years old. Do you remember what your first comic book was or what you were primarily reading at that time?
Darick Robertson: I really discovered comics as something more than disposable entertainment with “The Flash” #272. I fell in love with Garcia-Lopez’s cover art and Rich Buckler’s interiors grabbed me. I loved the way they captured the sequential movements of Flash running in multiple figures. At 10 years old, drawing that seemed impossible to me and so cool. I think in retrospect, while that stuff started me on the Flash and comics, in reality I was really falling in love and discovering a fascination for sequential art. I love the storytelling and I still love great stories. There’s magic when all things are top notch; Story, artwork, color, design, everything… like in “Saga”.
CB: Who was your favorite superhero? And, related, are there any villains that especially appeal to you? What, in your opinion, makes a solid hero versus a fascinating villain?
Robertson: At 10, it was Batman, the Flash, Firestorm, Spider-Man and Superman. Around 13 or 14, I discovered the X-Men and Daredevil, while Miller and Mazzuchelli were having their runs. (That Mazzuchelli art is still my gold standard for the character).
For the villains I loved The Joker, and most of Batman’s villains, Kingpin, Dr.Doom, Flash’s Rogues gallery, Doc Ock, and Man Bat.
I really love a villain with a dark back-story that makes him sympathetic in a way. Carl Jung’s version of evil is that we all have a dark side, a shadow self, so when a villain is with a degree of humanity, it’s far more interesting than your average cackling psychopath. Alan Moore really explored that in Watchmen, where the Comedian was more evil than the evildoers and poor Moloch The Mystic, once this bad-ass villain, is reduced to just a poor, old guy dying of cancer. If anything, at that point in the story, Rorschach seems the villain. That’s interesting to me, and I was reading Watchmen as it unfolded as a monthly comic back in the 80’s, so that had a huge impact on me. Between that, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Daredevil: Born Again, and Claremont and Anderson’s “God Loves, Man Kills” I lost my superhero innocence.
CB: Years ago, you worked with Malibu Comics to develop their ill-fated Ultraverse so you have years of experience with creating iconic characters. How do you approach the design of a hero versus the design of a villain? How about when the moral lines between them are blurred?
Robertson: I go for human elements and practicality. I like to create outfits that someone might actually wear. When I created the look for the Nightman, I gave him a big red lens for an eye, and that was to have a camera in it. My Nightman run was interrupted abruptly, and I never got to implement that idea of mine, so when I co-created Spider Jerusalem, I gave him the big red lens and created his glasses as a way for him to take pictures conveniently, being that he’s a journalist. With Nightman, I gave him knee, shoulder and arm pads, as I figured he’d be needing such protection, where I wouldn’t do the same for someone with invulnerability.
With Wolverine, whom I didn’t design, but rebooted at one point, I never saw him as a guy who’d wear a costume unless he had to. For one, protecting his ‘identity’ seems silly when he’s so clearly a five foot three hairy stocky guy, and those side burns should be visible below the mask line. Also, once those claws come out, something he regularly displays when out of costume, there’s no mistaking that’s Wolverine. So Rucka and I had him in street clothes the whole run that we did.
CB: How about when the moral lines between hero and villain are blurred?
Robertson: I got into those blurred lines when creating The 7, for The Boys. With the Homelander, I needed to make him look both believable as an ultimate super hero and a villain. So I went for patriotic garb as inspired by that quote from Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. The world of The Boys was supposed be a parallel to our own world, and how many big, filthy rich, powerful assholes are quick to proclaim morality, and wave the flag, while ripping off the country and getting exposed as absolute despots?
So a hero needs a nobility and a villain needs to look imposing and dangerous. But I always liked the gritty heroes, like Batman, Conan, Daredevil, Wolverine, the Punisher… guys that after a fight look like they’ve taken a beating and could keep going.
CB: You have quite a history with deconstruction; you have described your first comic, “Space Beaver”, as “a parody animal comic.” This reflected the time of its publishing where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Captain Carrot were popular.
Robertson: Captain Carrot was a direct inspiration for Space Beaver. I just started regurgitating every intense 80’s comic I’d read, and thought this hearty drama and bloody violence with fuzzy cartoon animals was funny. I was 18 and getting published, so I barely knew what to do with it and I just did the best that I could.
CB: Do you think deconstruction of genres is something you are particularly drawn to?
Robertson: I suppose, but I don’t really overthink it. I like stuff that makes me laugh and think, and usually I’m drawn to a dark edge. I liked the magazine “Heavy Metal” and the European artists like Moebius, Milo Manara, who is a masterful storyteller, and Liberatore (creator of Ranxerox) and Richard Corben’s stuff. Stuff like that was so raw, original and edgy, that it expanded for me what comics were. Again, great art, great story and original ideas are what gets me excited as a creator.
CB: What makes working on deconstructive works different from titles that are more true to the genre (ex. The Boys vs. DC’s 52)?
Robertson: It just comes down creating something original over something derivative. I love the Marvel and DC characters but there are limited boundaries to what you can and cannot do with those characters and so many cooks in the kitchen that it becomes a responsibility.
There’s something great about being the person who designed and co-created Spider Jerusalem, as that was a time when I had the freedom to draw the character as I imagined him. I wasn’t working from someone else’s designs and ideas. There’s a creative freedom in that, which is still where I am happiest creating. Director John Stevenson said it best: “A creative idea is a fragile thing.” Sometimes too many opinions can kill something that needs room to grow. I like experimenting and taking chances.
CB: What was it about The Boys that drew you into doing the art for the series and what turned out to be your favorite part of the process? Who was your favorite character to draw)?
Robertson: At the time, I had collaborated on a great deal of Marvel titles with Garth Ennis, who is a deep well of sick, twisted and incredibly original, funny ideas. Ennis had proposed The Boys to me at the same time Marvel offered me a contract on Wolverine, but after a year or so of Wolverine, I was longing for the freedom to draw stuff as dark and edgy as I wanted it to be. The concept for The Boys was a great opportunity for me to have my cake and eat it too as I could draw superheroes, but also draw the dark, sardonic stuff that I enjoy. Ennis came back around later on and it took a few years to coordinate our schedules, but I was very excited to draw that series.
I loved the close collaboration that we shared during the development and we had some lead time to figure stuff out. I proposed that we change The Female to a Japanese woman to add more diversity to the team. The book was originally going be much tamer and set in the DCU, but we quickly realized that wasn’t going work and set about creating our own universe. My favorite characters were Wee Hughie and Mother’s Milk.
But ultimately, I enjoyed all of the characters, as they were my designs and I was having a good time, enjoying the freedom.
CB: Arcs like We Gotta Go Now must have been interesting since you had to draw in single panels crowds of characters that were original, yet also had to call back to the properties that influenced them.
Robertson: Yes, but that was good fun. Ennis didn’t have the childhood affection for the Big Two Universes that I grew up with, so for him, I imagine it was a bit like going to Disneyland as a late teenager and seeing through everything, as fake, childish, and a little bit silly.That was his view of the costumed characters at both companies, which shows in his other work, like the Punisher and Hitman. So I came at it with this affection for the DC and Marvel characters and he was having fun deconstructing them. I loved the subtext of the series and thought the real challenge was to make the audience love Wee Hughie and experience that world of The Boys through him. Wee Hughie was my emotional center. I saw Ennis much more akin to Butcher, and think that he was having his fun writing from that perspective. It made Butcher the more challenging one to draw.
CB: The Boys had a very take-no-prisoners attitude, not just with the sheer amount of violence it contained, but with the very adult criticisms it made of the superhero genre.
Robertson: Think the big mistake one can make in reading the Boys is taking it too literally or too seriously. What we were really doing was trying to take the genre and tell a tale about power and corruption, illusions and realities. It was much less about taking the piss out of recognizable superheroes and much more about asking questions those universes didn’t deal with so much then and really addressing the idea of what it would mean to have beings that powerful living in our world.
I recall Ennis describing a concept scene, as an example, of Homelander flying out to save an oil tanker that had run aground and after the applause and media celebration, quietly getting a cut of the profits as he dragged the tanker to US shores and oil companies claim the rights to the ship and its contents.
Superman is precious to me, and I’d debate what Superman would do and wouldn’t do to level 10 geekdom, but Homelander wasn’t Superman and that was the point. Superman doesn’t do the things that Homelander did and that matters. A costume and a cape, a uniform, doesn’t mean the person wearing it is inherently good. It’s the character inside that matters. Homelander was part of a tightly protected corporate image and PR department keeping him safe from being exposed as the evil, sociopathic bastard he was. Ennis based that scene with Starlight in issue three on tales of the old Hollywood casting couches. Money and power corrupt and there’s nothing to stop these costumed bastards in The Boys’ universe from doing whatever they want to do, except for “The Boys”.
CB: It struck me how the destruction of the Brooklyn Bridge made an effective fictional parallel to 9/11 while bringing up unusual questions of responsibility in a world where superheroes could cause serious tragedy.
Robertson: That was a direct example of the way Ennis wanted to create a division between reality and comics’ reality. In the DCU and Marvel U, 9/11 happened the way it did in our reality. There are drawings of Spider-Man and Superman at ground zero.
CB: There was also much of Annie January’s character arc that confronted negative treatment of female superheroes and, through that, problems that real women face.
Robertson: Indeed, but again, ‘superheroes’ is just another organization. In corporate America, women are sexually harassed and paid less than men. In the military and on college campuses, bastions of rules and honor, rape is rampant and there are great deal of powerful people putting more effort in covering up these awful acts, or being outraged when they see it happen in fiction, than it seems they are in rooting out real corruption. Like Jerry Sandusky being allowed to rape kids in campus showers and people turned away and protected him because he was this beloved figure in College Sports.
Uniforms create a facade but humans are humans and evil can happen anywhere. That’s the point of Annie’s arc. She becomes disillusioned and has to find her own way back to her own moral center. There was criticism of that stuff we did then, describing her as being raped, but she wasn’t. Annie submitted to that in order climb that power ladder and get accepted, then loathed herself.
The real fantasy in our story was that actions came with consequences. Too often in our reality, that’s just not the case.
CB: Do you think that general superhero comics could benefit from scrutinizing themselves the way The Boys did?
Robertson: I think they do in a lot of ways. Marvel Comics under Axel Alonso as EIC has seen an incredible growth in terms of diversity, progressive characters and storylines.
But what we did in The Boys is not for everyone, nor all audiences. We had the right and freedom to tell the story we wanted to tell, but that shouldn’t be an either/or scenario. Both types of books can exist without one tainting the other. Just like with film and television.
CB: Back when Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were developing Watchmen, DC requested that the initial use of Charlton Comics properties be changed to original characters. You faced a more difficult complication when The Boys was just starting off; while its initial platform of the DC-owned Wildstorm imprint was appropriate, given its previous publishing of series such as The Authority, you and Ennis ultimately had to move The Boys over to Dynamite Entertainment. What do you think has changed in the years between Watchmen and The Boys?
Robertson: My understanding [of the Watchmen situation] was that was Moore’s way of telling the story he wanted tell, as DC then wanted to fold the Charlton characters into the DCU. I believe Moore offered the compromise to DC.
[Our situation] was a misunderstanding that DC went out of its way to make good by us. They were great in the whole matter, honestly. They could have created a nightmare for us and instead we all agreed that what we wanted to create wasn’t a good fit alongside DC books. Look at The Boys issue one and you’ll see ads for Batman and Justice League within…
DC reverted our rights and we chose Dynamite. We had multiple offers to publish The Boys and support for the story we were creating.
CB: Are the DC and Marvel less tolerant of criticism of their properties than they used to be?
Robertson: The DC and Marvel characters are copyrights of the Disney and Warner Brothers corporations. They have millions of dollars tied up in licenses and merchandising, and they need to protect their properties and reputation. That’s certainly understandable.
DC and Marvel work with excellent artists and writers and create great comics. Ennis and I just wanted to do our Watchmen and create a story that didn’t fit in those worlds. As I said before, to reduce The Boys to just a tale to piss on Superheroes as parodies, is missing the larger point.
CB: Are criticisms better for books outside of the bigger publishers now anyway, assuming that small publishers offer less limitations?
Robertson: The comics creative community benefits from having as much creative freedom as possible. Publishers like Dynamite, Image, Black Mask, Dark Horse, IDW, and BOOM! being able to publish original content is good for everybody. Fans can vote with their dollar and they do.
CB: The Boys was a massive series for me because, while I love superheroes, it opened up different lines of thought in how I look at the genre. Plus, I still can’t look at Legion of Superheroes and not think of Superduper! Has working on The Boys changed your view on the superhero genre or made you pay more attention to elements you never especially noticed before?
Robertson: No, I always saw those worlds as separate, the way seeing the movie ‘Amadeus’ doesn’t change the way I listen to Mozart or seeing “This is Spinal Tap” didn’t make me love Rock any less. When I draw Batman, I’m in the Batman world. The part that changed was imagining consequences to actions. Ennis pointed out that they have all these big battles, throwing cars around and smashing through buildings, and civilians walk away unharmed and that’s so unrealistic that it takes the gravitas out of the danger of the sequence. That’s why Wee Hughie’s origin with The Boys begins the way that it does.
CB: The comics industry is growing, both in terms of sales and diversity. We are in an era of massive change. What new things have you seen lately that have excited you as a reader or artist and what are you looking forward to for the future?
Robertson: It’s a wonderful and frightening thing.
I am really excited by the diversity in comics and that female creators and fans are prominent and doing mainstream stuff, with writers like G.Willow Wilson, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Gail Simone. I think those voices and perspective will bring a better edge to superheroes and the genre.
I also like that there are thriving publishers devoted to publishing original, creator-owned work.
CB: What projects have you been working on lately? That cover of Amped looked great!
Robertson: Thanks! I was invited to do that title, but my schedule wouldn’t permit it.
I am working on OLIVER with writer Gary Whitta for Image Comics; a steampunk-inspired adaptation of Oliver Twist, set in a post apocalyptic London, adapting a screenplay that Gary wrote years ago.
Also a collection of “Ballistic”, a critically acclaimed original series that I did last year with Adam Egypt Mortimer, from Black Mask Studios is coming out on the 22nd!