Following the widely popular run of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday on Astonishing X-Men, Marvel needed an A-list team to keep their sales juggernaut going. So in arguably Marvel’s biggest announcement during the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con, the new Astonishing X-Men creative team was unveiled: writer Warren Ellis [Thunderbolts, Ultimate Human] and Italian artist extraordinaire Simone Bianchi [Wolverine]! In preparation for their upcoming run, I was fortunate to again sit down with Simone to discuss Astonishing X-Men and how his amazing art turns into a comic page.
Sean Boyle (SB) : Let’s get right into it: your first issue of Astonishing X-Men [#25] is set to debut around late-July, early-August. How far along are you on the book?
Simone Bianchi: [laughs] good question! Actually, I am currently working on the second issue (#26). The first issue is completely done, from pencils to inks to the ink wash to the colors. It’s done. Now my inker and I are working on the second issue with about half of the pages completely finished. Realistically, I should be done with the second issue and onto the third in about three weeks from now.
SB: Nice! Well, this is your first time working with writer Warren Ellis. What is it like working with Warren?
Simone: The funny thing is: the only time I ever got to meet and talk with the guy in person was when you introduced me to him.
SB: Last year in San Diego?
Simone: Yes! Remember that? You and I stopped by the booth that Warren was signing at. That was the only time I’ve been able to talk to him in person. Otherwise, we talk through our editor. It’s the same way I used to work with Grant Morrison.
I must say though, it’s a pleasure to work with Warren for the first time! The scripts are really beautiful. He has a fantastic handle on the characters. He handles these characters exactly the way a true writer should. He knows their personalities as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t be happier to work with this writer and to work with such a great story.
SB: Good! You seem to be extremely excited about this project!
Simone: Oh absolutely!
SB: You have mentioned in previous interviews that you grew up as a big fan of the X-Men…
Simone: Oh I still am! I should say I used to be a fan of the X-Men. This used to be my dream. Now it’s a reality!
SB: [Laughs] Well then, how has it been taking over drawing your favorite characters?
Simone: To be honest, it’s still a little bit uncomfortable for me to work on a team book, having to draw all of these characters; often in the same panel. I still feel a little strange about it. It’s still kind of surreal to me.
As far as the characters go, I love all of them. If I had to single out one, I guess I would say Beast is my favorite to draw. He is the one I enjoy drawing the most. Of course, I still love drawing Wolverine and Cyclops. All of these characters are a lot of fun to draw.
SB: You said that you were still a little uncomfortable with the large amount of characters that constitute drawing a team book. Is that the biggest challenge for you on this book?
Simone: You know, going into this project I knew it would be a lot of difficult work and would take a lot of time to draw each issue. However, I didn’t know it would be this hard! It’s much worse than I expected. [Laughs]
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining! It’s a dream come true to work on this book. It’s just a lot of work. I still have to get more adjusted to these characters and the feel of the book.
SB: For those out there that do not know the complexities of your artwork and all the work that goes into each page, could you explain the process of how your excellent artwork becomes a comic page?
Simone: Sure! This medium was something I really had to adjust to. I found that out very early when I was working on the first issue of Shining Knight (for DC’s Seven Soldiers). Believe it or not, back at that time, which was about three and a half years ago, it was the first time I started using water colors as an ink wash. I was trying to keep all those close lines and all the shading from black to white. I was trying to avoid all the detailed work and thought I might be able to do it faster with water color. Instead it took a lot more time.
Our process now is very detailed, because my inker now is involved in the ink-wash process. He works in my studio next to me day by day. We talk about each page every day. I do all the breakdowns from the script. I put them into tiny thumbnails that detail each panel and everything I want on the page. After the breakdowns we take a lot of reference pictures. We have a lot of models for different characters. We would like to have costumed models like Alex [Ross] has, but we usually just use un-costumed models.
The main reason we use pictures is for a reference on shadows and how light hits the human body. Once we’re done with the pictures I start working on every single page. I pencil everything very, very tight. The level of detail is very tight. Once I’m done with this process I pass the pages to my assistant Andrea Silvestri.
SB: No relation to Marc, of course.
Simone: Ha, ha. Right. I always get asked that. No relationship to Marc at all. So Andrea starts with the ink-wash and then the outside lines. When he’s done I take the pages back and do all the minute retouches and add some more details. It’s the very last step but it takes a lot of time. The whole process is very time consuming because we have so many steps to get to the final page.
SB: Well, you realize that other people can do pages faster because they don’t have all that detail.
Simone: You’re absolutely right! [laughs]. This is the way I love to work though. I look at these pages as a painter instead of a classic comic book artist. This is the only way I can draw figures and do this work. Ha, ha. So we really have to be patient to accomplish these steps. I think this is why Marvel decided to give me arguably the most popular book of the past five years. It looks like it’s all paying off.
SB: It looks like it’s all paying off for the fans too, because the pages look amazing!
Simone: You’re too nice! Actually, I’m going to put together another San Diego Comic-Con sketchbook that will show how the pages come together. Everyone can come to my booth in San Diego to check out how it all comes together. We honestly could send the penciled pages directly to my colorist if we wanted to. That’s how detailed the pencils end up being before inks. And it would save us A LOT of time. But havi
ng a final page inked and washed always looks so much better than a tightly penciled page.
SB: So this is your third series/mini-series you’ve worked on both covers and interiors. Shining Knight, then Wolverine, and now Astonishing.
Simone: And don’t forget two things that I’m very proud of: my one issue of Green Lantern and something like thirty covers in a row for Batman/Detective Comics.
SB: And I’m so sad you’re not doing those covers anymore.
Simone: [Laughs] I’m so sad too, Sean! I love Batman and would have done anything to keep doing those covers. It was something I had to drop to keep up with my workload.
SB: So since you’ve begun working on U.S. comics, what is something you’ve picked up or something you’ve learned since Shining Knight?
Simone: Tough question. I think since then we’ve nailed down how long it takes for me and my assistants to finish an issue. Typically it takes us about six weeks, give or take, to complete an issue. Believe it or not we finished the final issue of Wolverine, from nothing to the final ink-washed pages, in four weeks. Still, the first issue of Astonishing we still took about eight weeks. We might even need eight weeks for the second issue. But every day I learn something new.
SB: Interesting. Just to touch upon this story in general, I know you have been working on the first two issues. How is the story looking? What is it that you’re excited about?
Simone: I think it’s a great story! The first issue is somewhat of an introduction issue. We wanted to show people how Warren and I approach the group. This is how we interact with the characters. We have a tough task in taking over this book from a stellar team like Joss Whedon and John Cassaday. But the first issue is just putting forth our take on the book. The second issue is where the story takes off. I think we have all the ingredients to have a great story. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anymore at this point!
So far so good though! It features great dialogue. It has everything you would want from a Warren Ellis story. Again, it is a very thoughtful story that features Warren’s knowledge and understanding of these characters. It’s going to be a big mystery, and the second issue is where we start kicking a lot of ass!
We’ll talk again when it gets closer to shipping.
SB: In preparation for this, did you go back to see how John Cassaday approached these characters and the look of this series?
Simone: Definitely, yes. It was the least I could do to go back and pay attention and pick up what John did in the first twenty-four issues. John did a beautiful job and the fans reacted to it! I tweaked the costumes here and there to better fit my style, but other than that I tried to keep the look as close to John’s as possible. Especially Cyclops and I loved the way he drew Beast. Hopefully I kept up with that high quality and that it’s good enough. I don’t know. I never judge my own work. I’ll let other people do that.
SB: You’re too modest!
Simone: [Laughs] Oh, I’m not that modest! Trust me! I have a lot of confidence. But I was trying to not go too crazy far from what John did, because it fits the book so well. Everyone loved it! Between me, Warren and Marvel, we wanted to hold onto those readers that loved the previous series so much. We’re going to do whatever we can to keep those readers engaged and buying the book in the future.
SB: Great! Well, thank you so much for taking the time out for this interview!
Simone: Sean, it’s always a pleasure. We’ll do this again soon!