Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: Manhattan Project has been going on for over two years now. How were you first brought on to the project? When did you first become familiar with it?
Pitarra: I was brought on to it because I had worked with Jonathan [Hickman] at Marvel. Jonathan got me a gig at Marvel. It was my first published stuff. We met each other and got along. Then he mentioned wanting to do a creative project with Einstein in it. That’s when I first heard about it, a number of years ago. Various things happened and we did The Red Wing first and then we had The Manhattan Projects. That was going to be our big thing. We got an offer from Marvel – they have their own independent line –
Pitarra: Yeah, Icon. And then Image. We had to pick which one we wanted to go. So we went with Image because they were cool and Jon has already done all of his independent stuff there. Image was happy to have us. Jon and I had established a relationship by working on The Red Wing and doing a little bit of Marvel work together. That’s how it got started.
CB: Was there much of a difference between the contracts you were offered at Icon and Image?
Pitarra: I wasn’t involved in those discussions. I know that just Jon was comfortable at Image at the time. Icon was a little bigger then, too. A lot of people have jumped to Image since. He was comfortable here and they treat us really well. When we did The Red Wing, they gave us the cover previews. The sales were good, so there was no reason not to. Plus Jon, Image gave him his start. He’s a loyal guy and a good guy and wants to stick with them. Then it just so happened the Image resurgence started taking off from there. Guys from Icon had jumped over to Image. Books like Saga had come out and were juggernauts. That’s pretty much it. I don’t know the in’s and out’s or the details, though.
CB: It sounds like you and Jon had been talking for a while before it debuted, planning it together. How involved have you been in the long term plans for it and the design elements?
Pitarra: As far as the initial idea, that’s all Jon. If I weren’t in the picture, there would be some version of The Manhattan Projects. But with me in the picture, we work Marvel style. The story is still plotted out, but the Marvel style element makes me add a lot of fun stuff. I’d say a lot of the more humorous stuff in the book that makes it palatable to the simpler readers, which would be me, is stuff that I add. A lot of the headier stuff, the smarter stuff, is more Jon. I think why we work well together. He’s kind of smart and I’m kind of dumb, so we meet in the middle. You got the smart readers and you got guys that just kind of want to read on the toilet. I’m more of the latter. We’ve just found a good groove with readership.
CB: Working Marvel style, how loose does Jon leave the script? How open is it?
Pitarra: Some times it has been really tight. In the early issues, there are some really tight issues. Issues ten and eleven almost mirror each other. Issues one, two, and three were tight; they were the first ones. Then Jon got busy at Marvel. It got to the point where it’s “four pages, they’re talking, then he needs to leave and he’s pissed off when they leave”. From there I can add all kinds of stuff. So in issue twenty-three that will come out in a couple of months, Lyndon B. Jonson is talking to JFK. The script says he is talking to JFK. What he gets back for the art is JFK is on drugs and there are dead hookers in the room. The room has a lion tied up in it. It’s still them talking, and they leave on the same mood or tone that Jon needed for the scene. The script is still there, but what you get visually is something insane. You still get what he wanted.
There has been a lot of fun stuff like that that I add. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily plot stuff; it’s more gag stuff because everything’s had already been plotted out to issue twenty. When I talked to Jon at the beginning, we knew Einstein was coming back in twenty. We knew the last line of the first trade. There is stuff that’s plotted, but how we get there is completely organic and weird. There are characters I’ve added, like Westmoreland. The scene said to add a General, so I looked up a general from South Carolina. Jon’s from South Carolina too and it fit in the timeline. Now he’s a crazy commando, Rambo guy. That’s just somebody that we added and now he’s a character in the book. There’s stuff like that that and there is stuff that’s incredibly tight. Plot wise it is tight. Page to page wise it is very random.
CB: That’s really interesting. The historical likenesses are key to the book. I am a little bit of a history buff, so when I saw Westmoreland pop up, I thought, “Oh, this makes perfect sense.” To know that is something that came from you at the last minute is interesting. When you are bringing in historical likenesses, how much research do you put in? The characters always play off some historical exaggerations. You have Harry S. Truman as a part of the Masons sacrificing goats. You have JFK with a pile of blow in front of him at all times. What are you doing on the backend to decide how you want to portray these people?
Pitarra: When I look at them and draw them, I like playing with the shapes and faces of caricatures. I don’t think I’m necessarily the best caricature artist, but I do own what I decide to do. If I confidently draw something one way all of the time and Jonathan says it’s JFK enough, you’ll believe that that is our version of JFK after a few pages. As far as that goes, I like drawing caricatures in general. I think of everything being over the top.
I think a big thing in establishing the tone of the book was the Truman stuff. Truman was a Free Mason. In real life he had this little baby triangle hat. It looks like a hat you would wear at a party. That’s a real picture of Truman as a Free Mason. When I turned that drawing in, Jon was like, “Give him a big Galactus hat.” I said, “Okay, if you want a Galactus hat, then I’m going to put him in his underwear.” Then I was like, “If I’m drawing the Free Mason scene, they are all going to be crazy in it.” Once you do that so early on, JFK just can’t be JFK anymore. He has to have blow. He has to have a dead hooker. Whatever ups the ante at this point. It has to do with the story too because we wanted a coked out president, but now it’s just over the top. The silly factor is what I think I bring to it more than anything else.
CB: It sounds sort of like playing a game of chicken.
Pitarra: Yeah. Hickman calls it jazz where he’s doing something and I come back sweet and sour or we’re trying to up each other. Sometimes it’s just me trying to meet a deadline, too, and I’m just in a crunch and drawing weird stuff. It’s a mix of everything. It’s very organic.
CB: That’s one thing I really like about what you are bringing to the historical figures, Truman, JFK, Einstein. You are also creating things that are just completely new. There is an alien surfer who is just bizarre and wonderful to look at. When he is on a rampage, that action sequence plays great. In terms of bouncing back and forth, is it similar to the jazz style you described when you are creating brand new things too?
Pitarra: Yeah. In Red Wing, he was pretty heavy handed with design and other stuff. This time he is letting me play a lot more. The most he will say in terms of critiquing something is that he will write “make this guy cooler than the last guy”. So now I’m like “oh, the last guy must not have been cool to Jon”. Then I will try to up the ante again. It’s design stuff. Maybe there’s a new monster coming up that has one head on it, and he says, “Make that thing have three heads.” I’m like, “Alright, I’ll do that.” When he gets the art back (I didn’t necessarily have the dialogue when I was drawing it because we work Marvel style), so now I get it back and it is sometimes something completely different than what it was. But whatever the end product is, the readership seems to respond to it and like it.
I trust him. He trusts me when he gives it to me not to be too weird, which bites him in the ass sometimes. When I give it to him, I just let him work it out how it needs to work out. We just work well together.
CB: It sounds like you have a really good symbiotic relationship. Do you think it helped having The Red Wing already done and having already established that relationship going in and starting The Manhattan Projects?
Pitarra: It absolutely helped. It helped me drawing wise because I thought the figures in Red Wing were very plain and simple. Then the figures in The Manhattan Projects are very over-the-top. If someone is skinny, they’re really skinny. If someone is bulky, they’re really bulky. When I was doing The Red Wing, I was only thinking about getting the page done and making sure the arms were straight. I wasn’t thinking about how the silhouette of the character looked compared to other characters.
Drawing is information and I’m feeding information to the reader. I wasn’t thinking in those terms. I just wanted it to look good. I think I leveled up with The Manhattan Projects. The best example I can use is The Simpsons. You can black out the outlines of all of those characters and know who they are. With The Manhattan Projects I made the silhouettes of everyone and you could tell who they are. That was a goal of mine. Having The Red Wing under my belt helped me do that. I don’t think The Manhattan Projects would be so fun looking, if I hadn’t made The Red Wing so boring first.
CB: Ryan Browne has been doing some of the issues, specifically those focused outside of the central story. He has drawn Laika’s story in space and the war inside of Oppenheimer’s head. Do you and Ryan work together at all?
Pitarra: The reason why he got that gig is because of his comic God Hates Astronauts, which is –
Pitarra: Absolutely awesome. I read that as a webcomic and bought a page from him. I could tell he was making stuff up on the fly, very ad lib. I loved the book and thought the humor was great. So I knew that when we needed a fill-in artist that he would take whatever Hickman gave him and make it crazy. And that’s what he did.
I actually called Jon and told him this was the guy we needed. With the Oppenheimer story, it fit well to let him do it. It was all taking place in someone’s brain and Ryan Browne is such a creative guy that he was going to add all of the fun stuff. I had nothing to do with him illustrating whatever he illustrated.
I also like collaborating with people. I would never hire someone and try to change their stuff. If you’re hiring Ryan Browne, the guy who created God Hates Astronauts, then you have to let Ryan Browne be Ryan Browne. Jon lets me be me when I’m drawing the pages. I let him be himself, smoking a pipe and writing masterfully. We’re comfortable playing off one another.
Of course, lots of people come up to me and think I drew those issues. So thank you Ryan Browne.
CB: You both have a very similar method to how you approach the script, but maintain very distinctive styles.
Pitarra: It’s all mashed potato-y, rubbery styles. I appreciate your time.
CB: Absolutely. Thank you for your time.