Meeting artist Damion Hendricks was really Rob Liefeld’s fault.
Couple years back, at the San Diego convention I nearly died getting to, Damion had stopped by the Arcade Comics booth, to get his portfolio reviewed, and Rob, really feelin’ his work, hooked the two of us up right there, floating the possibility of putting together a Youngblood back-up story. I mean, even with a quick glance, the dude’s talent was undeniable, the highlight of his samples being the Ultimates sequence he’d redrawn, that had Cap throwing down with Hank Pym. Not many cats are gonna have the balls to remix Hitch pages, but Damion got in there, changed shots, flipped perspectives, and just blazed the whole thing, nearly matching the strength of the original pages.
So, like a couple of hyperactive rookies, Damion and I started plotting out a Shaft story right there at the booth, and I can still remember the panel arrangement for the first page. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out on that end, but we did keep in close contact, and eventually started developing a small project together, but that’s an issue for another column. Right now, I need to bring your attention to the first big project being graced by his artwork, an original graphic novel bringing popular sci-fi hero Magnus Robot Fighter back to prominence, hitting shops this May from ibooks. This week, the book’s accomplished scribe Louise Simonson teams up with artist Hendricks to give you the absolute lowdown, in one of the largest Ambi’s ever.
Consider it payback for last week…
Brandon Thomas: Okay man, I’ve already pumped you up pretty well with the intro, so for the people that haven’t been e-mailing you both and forth for months, what’s the secret artistic origin of Damion Hendricks, and how did you come to work on this Magnus GN?
Damion Hendricks: Well, I’m one of those guys who’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. I pursued graphic design, because I never really thought that I would get an opportunity to draw comics, but with some hard work, here I am doing the thing I’ve always wanted to do. As far as how I came to work on the book, I worked with the good folks at Komikwerks on two of their anthologies, and at the San Diego convention last year, while at their booth, I was told about the Magnus project and was able to show some of my stuff to Byron Priess, the President of ibooks. Long story short, when the time came, I sent in a sample, and the rest is history.
Thomas: With this serving as one of your first larger scale projects in comics, was there an additional level of discipline that was necessary to complete this assignment exactly the way you wanted to?
Hendricks: Definitely. I basically had to take the thing that I did when time permitted, and make it my top priority. The book had to be done rather quickly, so I really had to hit the ground running. Before this, I honestly was never put in a position where I had an inflexible deadline hanging over my head. While the folks at ibooks did all they could, if there isn’t much time, then there simply isn’t much time. I’m pretty pleased with how things turned out. This was a real trial by fire, and I loved every minute of it.
Thomas: You think the initial pursuit of graphic design has ultimately made you a better artist, and why didn’t you think you’d have the opportunity to illustrate comics?
Hendricks: Comic art is a funny thing, in that it’s one of those art forms that you don’t necessarily have to “study” to be good at. While this is true though, it does help to study other forms of art, as they help change the way you see and approach a page. I think that comic art is more difficult than other art forms in that it requires a mastery of many in order to be successful. Think about it, you’ve got to be good at interior design, architecture, etc. just to be considered a proficient comic book artist.
As to why I never felt I’d have the opportunity to draw comics, it just felt like an exclusive club that only a select few could join. The days of the “mail in submission” are gone; this is really the age of the convention, and I never thought I’d have the connections necessary to make a run at it, but time changes things.
Thomas: Walk us through how you create a page of artwork.
Hendricks: Well, when I read any page description, I immediately get a picture in my head of how the page should look. I then sit and make a small thumbnail of it, changing and reworking things, because an artist once told me, “If you can make it work at 2″x3″, then you can make it work at 11″x17″.” So, after I make sure that I’ve included all of the details the script requires, and make sure the storytelling is solid, I redraw it on the actual art board with a non photo-blue pencil. I don’t use a light box for this because to me, redrawing it allows for a little more flexibility. Once I’m done, and everyone is OK with the finished page, I scan the sucker in and ink it digitally. While I do prefer to ink conventionally, I find that my pencils tend to be so tight and clean, all I was doing was tracing what was already there. Also, depending on the time constraint, digital inking can save loads of time. Most pages take a day to pencil and only a couple of hours to ink digitally.
Thomas: What are you finding to be the easiest and most difficult aspects of completing an actual page?
Hendricks: Honestly, I can’t say that there is one part that is more difficult than any other. Everything from thumbnails to inking is part of the process, so if you slack on one, you affect the rest. That being said though, I think that I enjoy the process of finishing the pencils the most. That’s when you see all of the groundwork pay off.
Thomas: Okay, good deal. Switching gears slightly, and checking in on the story side of things, industry veteran Louise Simonson is responsible for giving Damion all of this cool stuff to draw in the first place. So, Louise, what’s the major story here, give the people the high concept…
Louise Simonson: Two thousand years from now, the Traffickers, a cyborg race of alien pirate entrepreneurs, launch a hostile takeover of the Earth. Despite the heroic efforts of Magnus and the other human fighters, within six weeks, the Traffickers have damaged most of Earth’s weather and power stations, stolen much of its resources, and killed or enslaved many of its people. When a scientist invents a jamming device which will disrupt the powerful nanotechnology that drives the Traffickers, Magnus and Leeja Clane, working together, must try to board the Trafficker master ship, rescue the human slaves, and destroy the ship before it can launch its final devastating attack upon the Earth, in an encounter that will change Magnus irrevocably.
Thomas: How does your approach here either differ or echo previous interpretations of the Magnus character and his world?
Simonson: In preparing to write this, I reread the original Manning series and found myself asking a number of questions about things that seem intrinsic to Magnus’s world. Given our twenty-first century context, and our expectations about where science will take us in the next two thousand years, where were the cyborgs? After all, people are already receiving mechanical replacement parts. Why do the robots in Magnus’s world look so clearly robotic? Why was there a law against robots looking like humans? Whatever happened to the nanotechnology that many believe will transform our lives in the ensuing centuries?
I also wondered about Magnus’s origin and his superhuman abilities. Why did Magnus’s mentor 1A choose that particular baby to take to his laboratory beneath the sea? How does the technique that allows Magnus to harden his skin actually work? Why did 1A warn Magnus that he must not let anyone know he possessed an implanted device that let Magnus hear robot thoughts? Where, precisely, did the ancient robot 1A come from anyway? Are his motives entirely what they seem?
I also wondered how a man, raised in isolation from other humans while being inoculated with the “robot” idea that unselfish service to humanity is the highest calling, relate to the reality of humanity’s teeming masses and flexible moral codes. Why did the emergence of “evil robots” coincide with Magnus’s arrival in North Am? What was it about Magnus, aside from his dashing good looks, that instantly drew Leeja to him?
In answering these questions, and others, I created a history of Earth and of Magnus himself, which answered these questions about his history, abilities, interactions and motivations. It all goes back to Manning, to what he said, and what he didn’t. Since Byron Priess (president of ibooks) had the rights to the Manning material, but not the Valiant stories, I based my interpretation solely on Manning. I read the Valiant stories, of course, and enjoyed them, even while I questioned some of their direction and choices, but then…everybody’s a critic.
One major difference is that, at Valiant, Magnus was just one hero, a part of the larger Valiant universe, and his history became entwined with a batch of outside characters and huge sprawling crossovers. ibooks intends to produce three self-contained graphic novels, each telling a separate story with its own villains, conflict, climax, and resolution. Each story will move Magnus forward toward the third graphic novel, which will contain a shattering revelation and ultimate resolution that will change Magnus and the world he inhabits forever.
Thomas: Do you think the self-contained story has become a bit of a lost art in comics, and when constructing the story, how do you balance a pre-destined ending in one book, while leaving enough threads to pick up on in subsequent GNs?
Simonson: I guess that depends on what you mean by self-contained. In a serial medium like modern-day comics, with continuing characters that develop and change over the course of a series, a writer might not want to construct totally self-contained stories. Writers like to write IMPORTANT stories, ones that have meaning, and, if a story is important, it will have repercussions throughout that protagonist’s universe and have an impact, great or small, on the stories that follow.
I consider a self-contained story one in which a clear status quo-who, what, where, when, why– is delineated. Something destabilizes that status quo. And the subsequent events lead to a resolution and the creation of a new status quo. By the end of the story, the protagonist, the antagonist, the landscape, the very world the characters inhabit, may have changed. And this changed world becomes the beginning status quo of my next story, the context that will be altered during the ensuing conflict and resolution.
Thomas: After several years working in the industry, what kind of new challenges does a project like this present to you as a creator?
Simonson: I’ve written a lot of superhero material, mainly Superman for DC and, before that, Power Pack, New Mutants, and X-Factor for Marvel. In both universes there’s a little wiggle-room–certainly enough to create compelling stories. But both universes have been pretty well mapped out by the creators who’ve come before.
There are only twenty-one original Manning Magnus stories, plus another seven drawn by other creators. So the Magnus universe is a lot more open to interpretation, which means it’s a lot of fun for the person lucky enough to be writing in it. It’s also science fiction (though Magnus certainly has its super heroic elements). Since I haven’t done straight science fiction before, working on Magnus is even more challenging and exciting.
Thomas: Even with its super heroic leanings, what makes this Magnus story undeniably a science fiction tale?
Simonson: There are a number of sub-groups of science fiction, among them hard science fiction, adventure science fiction, social science fiction, even fantasy, and I think Magnus is a bit of all of these. Russ Manning asked himself, given what he knew at the time, about science, human populations, human nature, and what the world would look like two-thousand years from now. North Am and the rest of Magnus’s world, with its mile-high cities and subterranean depths, its hydroponics plants and robot run factories, is his answer to that question.
For me, that makes it science fiction.
Thomas: What elements do you think have allowed the character and concept of Magnus Robot Fighter to stay around for so long?
Simonson: Magnus, like the enduring heroes Tarzan and Superman, began as an orphan who was raised by loving but alien creatures, far from his natural environment. Despite this displacement, the resilient child not only survived, but thrived, becoming something of a better person than he would have been, had he not been forced to meet the difficult challenges life threw at him. The hero then chose to use his gifts to aid others. Like Superman, Magnus represents an ideal.
Magnus, a human child, was trained to peak physical, mental and ethical standard and to the highest robotic virtues-honesty, loyalty, intelligence, diligence, and selflessness. He’s the ultimate hero, willing to put aside his own self-interest and risk everything to achieve the greater good. I think, in this age of cynicism, there’s something inside us all that believes true heroism is possible and is cheered by seeing it represented.
Thomas: Characters (like Superman) that are obviously larger than life and otherworldly in nature, are often accused of having few reference points with the audience, making them harder to identify with. Considering that, what things are you including to ensure that we can root for Magnus, but also empathize with him?
Simonson: I’ve heard that said, but never believed people have trouble relating to Superman as a character. If they did, he wouldn’t be such an icon throughout the world.
Superman is a classic hero. An orphan whose very world was destroyed but who gained strange powers. (Talk about your classic loner.) He was shaped by the love of his adopted parents, into the kind of person anyone would want to be, and chose to exercise those powers to help those weaker than himself. With great power comes great responsibility. ‘Nuff said.
Superman is an ideal but there are real people out there-firemen, cops, teachers, soldiers, ordinary men and women-who have Superman souls.
Magnus is another orphan. He was raised lovingly, by a robot, to a nearly unattainable ideal of human perfection. He has been given power, which he uses to defend the weak. He’s a good, decent human being. He tries his best to live up to the charge he was given: to protect humanity against evil robots. And, because he’s succeeded so far, Magnus has been lauded as Earth’s champion. But where the infant who became Magnus came from, and the origin of his powers are shrouded in mystery. He’s different. He’s unique. In a way, like Superman, he’s the only one of his kind.
How do you test a hero like that? What would it take to break him? What if he learned, what if the world learned, that much of what they knew about Magnus was a lie? There’s a Japanese saying that I love and find relevant to the writing of heroes: The peg that sticks up gets hammered.
It’s my job as a writer to hammer the hero, to throw at him such nearly insurmountable odds that he’s tested to his limits. Then we all get to see if he breaks or grows stronger. And, over the years, the more I’ve tested the heroes of my stories, the more they strive and, yes, survive, the more I appreciate them. How a hero reacts to challenges defines who he is. We tend to root for the underdog, the man or woman who struggles bravely against terrible odds. This is just one of the reasons I hope folks will root for Magnus.
Thomas: Sounds like you’ve got most of this figured out, and really did some sizable research on your end. From your perspective Damion, exactly how much research does this require for you, with Magnus’ extremely long history and clearly defined setting to visually portray?
Hendricks: Well, I have to give Mrs. Simonson a huge amount of credit on this front. She did most of the heavy lifting, as those original Gold Key comics were impossible to track down in time, so without her, things would have gotten really interesting to say the least. Artistically, it did require a fair amount of research though, or at least referring to the original material, to ensure that we stayed in the same ballpark visually. My biggest concern was that I didn’t modernize things to the point where they were unrecognizable and didn’t fit in with the Magnus mythos. This meant that I had to have a good idea of what came before, thus, it became necessary to have accurate references to get a feel for the design. Some things remained exactly the same, while others are completely new. Good research helped maintain a healthy balance between the two.
Simonson: Magnus is a great character… and Damion did a wonderful job telling this first story of the Magnus trilogy. Magnus’s new look, as interpreted by Jim Steranko, and drawn by Hendricks, is an edgy, modern reinterpretation of Manning’s beloved fifties sci-fi look. Damion really brought that edginess to his rendering of North Am, from the mile-high penthouses of the ruling class, to the laboratories of the technocrats, to the slum-like depths where the Goph outcasts live in shadows. And his designs for the alien invaders, the Traffickers, are appropriately hideous.
Thomas: Is the science fiction comic ready for resurgence in today’s market?
Hendricks: I sure hope so. I think that when you read books like Ultimate Fantastic Four and Adam Strange, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t an audience for science fiction. I’m a really big science fiction fan, and I’m not sure if it’s the cool gear, or the fact that I get to see earth-shaking battles between cool alien races, but there’s just something about these stories that appeal to me. I believe that science fiction is a good median between superhero and non-superhero comics. It gives us the cool elements of both, with an air of plausibility throughout. If done well, you kind of read it wondering, “Could this really happen?”
Thomas: Here’s one last question for you both to close us out. What are the things (and this can be other creators, music, movies, etc.) that influence you and keep you in pursuit of that “next level” in terms of your creative output?
Simonson: I’ve always loved the work of Robert Heinlein, particularly his juvenile novels, and I felt his influence very much in working on Magnus. And you can’t do robots without a deep bow to Asimov and his rules of robotics. In addition, I’ve always thought the Magnus stories were a sort of synthesis of the Star Trek and Star Wars esthetics.
Hendricks: I think that deep down inside, I have something to prove. Most people are unfamiliar with my work, so I think that it’s my goal to make sure that when they see something with my signature on it, that it’s something that impresses them. Call me crazy, but I think I have something to offer. In terms of creators, I think that the Image guys and guys like Quesada and other “superstar artists” continue to motivate me. These guys can sell a book with their artwork alone. That’s impressive.
Many thanks to Damion and Louise for dropping by this week, and the Magnus Robot Fighter GN hits stands in May from ibooks, weighing in at 48 full color pages with a $6.95 price tag. Stay tuned for a few more updates as the release date gets closer, and I’ll be back in seven, probably with some musing and unabashed promotion of my first graphic novel. Thanks.