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by Tim Leong
THERE’S AN “EX” IN “TEAM”
There’s more to Ex Machina than the plots and dialogue from award-winning writer Brian K. Vaughan. There’s three things, actually: Tony Harris, penciller, Tom Feister, inker, and JD Mettler, colorist. Comic Foundry presents a cumulative interview with each to understand what makes Machina tick.
How did you guys first meet?
METTLER: (Chuckles). I met Tony about 10 years ago when I was still trying to break into the business. He’d been doing some things by then but he’d just landed “Starman.” That was his first monthly and was just becoming entrenched in the business. My dad met him at a mutual friend’s dinner party. I was living in Florida at the time, out in Key West, and it was here in Macon when they met. So my dad tried to set up a meeting when I was in town visiting them. And I’d never heard of Tony or “Starman” but I figured any contact was better than nothing, so I better go meet this guy. So we met and we hit it off and I instantly saw his talent. I was more into X-Men-type stuff and Spawn – I’d just gotten back into comics from not reading them in a long time. He’s definitely most responsible for opening my eyes to the different styles because “Starman” was a different animal than what were around at the time. Little by little over the years when I would come back and I’d show him my portfolio, he’d give me reviews on what I needed work on, we became better and better friends. I guess in 2000 I moved back to Macon and started hanging out with him a lot and within that year I joined the studio and he’s become my mentor and one of my best friends.
FEISTER: Well, like I said, I’d been a fan of Tony’s for a long time. Actually, I’d met Wade Von Grawbadger at a DragonCon. I was showing off samples – I was in college. Wade had a promotional copy of “Starman” #0. It was one of those promotional copies, black and white, and basically all photocopies. He handed it to me and as I was flipping through it I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic!” – I still have it today. That was my first exposure to Tony. I thought it was a great, great book and I picked up every copy of it. Years later I finally met Tony at Heroes Con and I was in the process of buying a page from him and the page I had picked out was just pencils. I was giving him my money and he looked at it and said, “Oh, shit! I can’t sell this to you, I haven’t sent it off yet.” He was hung over from the night before and wasn’t paying attention and these were pages that needed to be sent to Wade to go into the book. He was about to sell these to me and I was about to walk off with the page. He excused himself to go to the bathroom, I don’t know if he was going to throw up or what, but he excused himself and I was going to buy a page from him when he got back and I never saw him again. To this day I still don’t have a “Starman” page from him.
HARRIS: Yeah, I completely forgot about that.
FEISTER: Years later I was hanging out with some friends and they said they were going down to Jolly Roger and were seeing if I wanted to go. So, I lived in Atlanta and Jolly Roger was based out of Macon so I hung out with those guys for a day. Tony was on his way out, I think he had to go pick up his daughter. I met him very briefly but we didn’t hit it off.
HARRIS: I thought Tom was an asshole. I’ve told him that, too.
FEISTER: I thought he was a dick, frankly. There was just that instant dislike. Which is funny because some of my closest friends were people I didn’t like at first. So anyway, I hung out for the day with the guys at Jolly Roger and then they came up for a show in Atlanta and I invited them over to the animation house I was working at and we all just hung out and had a good time, Tony included. We definitely had a better time the second time we met.
HARRIS: First impressions don’t mean a damn thing. They really don’t. But JD, I thought he was a cool guy. I could tell from the get-go that he was very passionate like Tom was. Definitely serious about wanting to get into the business.
FEISTER: And I just kept in touch with those guys and I’d say two months later there was a guy leaving the studio, Andrew Robinson, and they invited me down to a birthday party and while I was down there they said, “So, what do you want to do? Do you want to come down and join us or what?” I thought it was pretty neat.
METTLER: I first met Tom in 2001 when he was working as an animator for Cartoon Network. We all really liked Tom and he was just burning to get into comic books and out of animation. He wasn’t satisfied with animation. He just started working with us more and more. He was actually commuting to Macon from Atlanta almost every day. And he had this energy about him to break into comics and for the studio to do something more as a team that we hadn’t been focused on before we met him. He was really responsible for coming in and invigorating everybody to doing something new. His coming into the studio was the time period that some of the other guys took off. And then he and Tony and I decided that what we really wanted to do is a monthly project together. That’s when we really started looking for something to do and then not too long after “Ex Machina” came along.
What was that studio environment like?
FEISTER: I commuted for a year and a half from Atlanta to Macon. It was a haul. Normally it’s about an hour and fifteen minute drive but there was always construction so some days it took me four hours to get there, one way. It was without a doubt, the best time in my life. One thing about being a comic book geek, is that I’ve always felt like the odd man out. Like you didn’t belong. Going to Jolly Roger, you’re instantly in a room with people that feel the same way. We very quickly became a brotherhood. Especially for me, I was sitting in the blast zone. JD and Tony would get there early in the morning and would get these sausage bagels and right about the time I’d get there, the sausage bagels had done their job in their intestines and the two of them would sit there on either side of me, cutting loose. There was a little background and I was basically Switzerland. It’s stupid shit like that, but I’d take a bullet for either one of those guys. And they would for me. It goes back to working together as well as we do. We’ve been together as a group for a long, long time now. I don’t think you can quantify what that means to the way out work looks. Definitely Tony is the biggest factor in how things look, but I think the contributions that JD and I make to Tony’s stuff – a large part of that is through the time we’ve gotten to spend together.
HARRIS: It was basically just a big ball game. We didn’t get a whole lot of work done. There are a lot of us, it wasn’t just JD and Tom and I, it was Ray Snyder, Drew Johnson, Andrew Robinson, Jim Royal and Dan Jolley – there were a lot of people there. The roster rotated and changed throughout the years. I worked in a studio outside my home for 10-12-plus years before I moved back and JD and Tom came in at the tail end of that experience. And we just stuck together after the studio disbanded. It was great as far as feeding off each other creatively, because you’re getting a lot of ideas off guys. Someone would be doing something really cool and it’d shame you into doing your best stuff. Very similar to when I was with guys in Atlanta. Great creative breeding ground. But at the same time, it’s also a pitfall because there’s a lot of horseplay going on and bullshitting going on, it’s not real good for getting your work done. I’m actually a whole lot more productive since I’ve moved to home.
METTLER: It was a lot of fun on the days we were getting along. When you put six or seven guys in a room together every day, all the time, tempers ran every now and then too. It’d get frustrating some days when you get mad, but then other days we’d just have a great time – and that was part of the problem too. It was kind of hard to get work done when we’re all goofing off.
HARRIS: The bad part was we had a pool hall right next door with a full bar, so, we were counting the minutes to 5 o’clock.
What changed over time?
FEISTER: When my wife got pregnant, I continued to work with Tony and JD in Macon. I think she was seven months pregnant when I stopped commuting. I didn’t feel comfortable being that far away if she needed me at home and if I was sitting in traffic, I’d had been a raging lunatic. We’re all on Macs and I use instant messaging to stay in touch with JD because JD and I work at night, Tony works during the day. JD and I are still in constant contact with each other.
HARRIS: JD moved away and moved back, so we lost touch for a while and then got back in touch again when he moved back to Georgia. At that point he’d gotten into computers while he was away and was savvy with them. And our studio had not yet gotten into the computer realm. We were still old school on everything. JD was really the linchpin in launching us into the digital stuff. I have a feeling that he had not come in when he had, along with our new guy, Jim Clark, we would’ve been left behind and lost a lot of opportunities.
You used to be a graphic designer. How did that help?
METTLER: I already knew Photoshop fluidly. When Tony and I sat down and really started working together every day, he basically didn’t know how to turn a computer on. I was really fluid in Photoshop, the program used for comics coloring, but I just used it other things. In comics we really use 1/1000th of what PhotoShop is capable of. So I was using it for different things but I knew how to get around in the program well. So Tony and I, each day we were teaching each other. I taught him PhotoShop while he was teaching me color theory and how to work in the field of comic books. Over the course of a year, he was doing all his covers digitally and I was working in comic books. It really worked out well for the both of us.
You’re a good teacher, I guess.
METTLER: I wouldn’t say he was natural to it. He definitely fought with the technical end of using PhotoShop. There is a lot of technical stuff to it and he would pull his hair out over it. But he definitely has it down now. He’s doing stuff now, like these “Conan” covers, that I swear if you didn’t know it, they look painted. He’s really, really gotten good in PhotoShop. Now instead of asking me how to do different things, we’re swapping out different things that he and I have both figured out.
How did you guys conceive the art plan?
METTLER: When we first started the book we really worked a lot closer on it because we weren’t sure, to tell you the truth. We knew wanted to do something different on all stages, from pencils to inks to colors. We weren’t 100 percent sure how we wanted to do it or what the end result would be. Those first couple books we worked really close together and even worked in the same room a lot until we came up with the final product. And even that has changed a lot since the first few issues. The book now doesn’t look like it did then, it’s definitely changed some. Now we don’t necessarily meet every week to go over what we’re or anything like that, we definitely have a better handle on it.
HARRIS: I dropped a lot of the blacks – I used to use a lot of heavy, heavy blacks – and I still do on some sequences or the cover. I kinda let the job dictate to me what the art needs to look like. Previous to “Ex Machina,” heavy blacks were indicative to Tony Harris’ style. You can look at my stuff and recognize it from that. I brought JD into our studio, previous to The Liberty File sequel, The Unholy Three, and we were training him as a colorist and did it where I could trust to work with him on anything I did and not second guess anything. The only other colorist I’ve worked with that has been inside my head and reading my mind is Matt Hollingsworth. JD came in after him, and basically I got a colorist that I work with so closely that I can just go to sleep and not ever worry about a single thing. So I said, you know what? Let’s let the color do the talking. I decided to use a more open approach with the art and do really illustrative stuff and focus on the storytelling and the facial expressions. I knew it was going to be a very dialogue-heavy book, i.e. politics and all that stuff. Less action, more personal interaction, so having the kind of colorist that JD is on this book is absolutely integral.
METTLER: As far as color-wise goes, I knew from the off-set that we wanted to a lot more line art holds than are typically done. I knew there were going to be less blacks and more painted line art. The figuring of the way to do that definitely took awhile with the quicker ways and shortcuts to getting that done on a monthly basis because it definitely adds a lot of work to leave the line art black and instead paint every little bit a different color. Like with the skin tones, every piece of line art in the skin tones get painted as skin tones, line art in pants get the color of pants, etc. It really took a few issues to figure out how to make that work quickly so we could still make the monthly deadline.
FEISTER: There were so many gynormous changes going on at one time that it all seemed like a blur. For me, it was one of those things where I didn’t have a chance to stop and think about it and just get it done. I knew I had the ability to do some stuff, but there was a learning curve. And I talked to Tony about it and I said, “Look man, you need to know going into this what my abilities are what I can and can’t do.” So I just tried to make the best I could out of it. I still feel like I have a lot to learn. I look at guys like Alex Raymond and Al Williamson and artists who have been able to pencil and ink and do all sorts of other things and I thought, “Well, I’ll take some time and try to focus on this one element of the craft.”
And obviously Tony, because he’s been around longer and done more, it’s easier to see the wealth of influences outside comics and how it affects Tony’s work. For myself, it was just go and get it done and do the best you can. When I got that first page I was sweating because I started off as a fan of Tony’s stuff long before I actually met him. I was thinking, “This is the first page I’m ever going to do and it’s Tony friggin’ Harris. I better not screw this up.”
METTLER: One of the other things that we really worked different with is that we knew we wanted a different palette than typical comic books – that very saturated, bright colors that are typical on a Superman book or something like that. We’ll use saturated colors in some places if it works, but in a lot of other places we took ideas from movies moreseo than comic books and took a washed-out palette like they were using in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or “Minority Report,” where the film was getting the bleached byprocess. Tony was really looking for a cinematic approach for this book, so there were definitely movies we were taking influence from.
What other stuff were you looking at?
HARRIS: Well, JD and I share the same love as far as painters go and artistic influences. Most of the people I dig, and again, he does to, are American illustrators from the turn of the century. John Singer Sargent and (Norman) Rockwell, and (JC) Leyendecker. My absolute favorite of all time is Howard Pyle. And one of his students, NC Wyeth, is amazing. There’s so much you can garner and cultivate and farm from those guys’ bodies of work. The amount of inspiration is never lacking. If you ever find a day where you can’t get your head straight, just crack a book on any one of those names and you’re good to go.
Pulling Their Weight
What do you bring to the table?
METTLER: I push the color button. Everything’s done by hand. I get the file from the final inked page from Tom – he scans it and sends it to me. Then I format it as far as the dpi and sizing that the different publishers need for printing. Then I send it off to an assistant, usually, for deadline purposes, who flats out the pages in for me so that I can go in and wand different selections and do the rendering, highlighting, the shadows.
And what do you mean by when the assistant flats out the pages?
METTLER: They go in and, when it’s just black and white, I’ll give them a palette to work with and they will fill in Ñ if a guy is wearing a jacket, he’ll make the jacket blue or make a skin a flesh tone so I don’t have to spend the time doing that because it’s more technical doing that. The real artistry comes in after that. I can go in and select the skin tones that he’s put in and paint in all the shadows and the highlights. Just because the constraints Ñ the colorist is the last guy to get the pages and if everybody is a little bit late, then oftentimes my two weeks turns into two days.
After that, I’ll go in and do the special effects if there’s explosions or textures or glows, or anything like that. The last thing that gets done is, what I do a lot of on “Ex Machina,” are the actual line art holds. Instead of just leaving the line art that Tony and Tom have inked as black, I will go in and actually select that line art and paint it a color as well so it’s not left black. It gives it more of a painted look than just illustrated.
How would your job be different if Tony or Tom weren’t doing the previous two steps?
METTLER: Well, I do work on other books a lot. It just depends on who you’re working with. Some artists that I work with I’ve never talked to or met, they don’t really give me any kind of input on what they’re looking for – they just let you run with it and do your own thing. Other artists are very particular in what they’d like to see. It really depends.
What do you think you bring to Tony’s pencils?
FEISTER: I’ve tried to streamline it. I looked back at the other guys that have inked Tony and what I like about them. I always loved “Starman” and Wade always did really cool stuff over Tony and even back then, everything back then looked like it was drawn with a ruler. It looked cool but every now and then you’d see something that was more organic and it didn’t really read as being organic. Then he worked with Ray Schneider for a while and I used to talk to Ray and say how I loved that he dirtied up Tony’s work. Because Tony had a tendency, and less so in the past couple years, to be a little too clean with his angular lines. I thought his stuff should be a little more organic. I try to bring some dirt and grit to Tony’s stuff.
How does that happen?
FEISTER: By being a bad inker, basically. I don’t try to be as precise with his lines. I try to be more organic. I try to keep some of the action of Tony’s pencils. You can see the different strokes he’ll make with the pencil and you can see it’s something he’s done in a matter of seconds – like a field of grass. And he hasn’t tried to pencil out each blade of glass because the grass doesn’t have to read as every blade of glass. A lot of pencillers will try to over-render the shit out of everything and it just slows down the story. What I want to get across is a feeling of what a bunch of blades of grass is going to look like, not so much here is every single blade of grass beautifully rendered.
What do you think Tom brings to the table with “Ex Machina”?
HARRIS: Well, first and foremost, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, he has a healthy respect for the source material. He knows how much of a control freak I am with my pencils. I’m a very accomplished inker in my own right – most of my covers I ink myself. And I’ve inked some of my own interiors as well. I can pretty much do the job, I just don’t have the time to do, so I know exactly what I’m looking for when it comes to inks. I’m very, very cognizant of that and brings a very nice, solid completion to the work. A lot of inkers will come in and go, “Oh, I’m going to do this,” or, “It’ll be cool if I do that.” As an inker it’s important to realize that the penciller’s work is very rarely seen. The only thing that counts in comic books, when you get down to it, is the printed page. As a fan you very rarely get to see the pencils, moreso now with the Internet. But as far as the printed comic book goes, you get the wrong people working with you, and they’ve got a different idea than you’ve got, and you don’t have a lot of control, it could turn into a whole different animal than you want it to be.
Is it the same way with JD?
HARRIS: It actually goes a little bit further with JD because JD’s doing the color stage and I was doing a lot of painting for the first 10 or 15 years of my career, so color is my second thing next to penciling. I absolutely love to paint. His stage of the process I’m probably more involved with than the inking. Again, I’m a control freak and I want it to look the way I want it to look. JD is very accommodating on that end and sends the stuff to me before we go to press. Again, sometimes that fluctuates with the amount of time and deadlines and stuff like that. I’ve found over the last couple years that the more I work with JD the less input I give him, aside from, “Oh, God that looks great.” Early on we had to have many, many discussion with the book and we decided right off the bat that we wanted to do a very painted look with the book, so you’ve got really delineated shadow areas. The book almost has an animation cel look to it. We’re replacing a lot of blacks with color. Basically we took hours and hours and weeks and months looking at different painters and different palettes and decided what kind of look we wanted for the book. We decided early on to delineate scene changes with color shifts. If you look through Machina it’s evident. I mean, that’s the easiest way to me, and we kinda ripped that from film, specifically guys like David Fincher where you’ve got a really predominant color in one scene and you shift to another scene or time of day there’s another really dominant color scene that really helps change the mood of the book or help pace the storytelling in a way. We actually had Brian come in, on more than one occasion, that his palette and color choice shifts, key points in the story are really intuitive and help push the story along.
How does that scene shift work?
METTLER: Well, when we shift from scene to scene, I’ll use a predominant color or two to really show difference in the setting. Like they just moved from a flashback to current time or from night to day or even the mood of the characters to what they’re feeling. I’ll definitely use color to try and separate it from the page that came before or the page that came after, once the scene changes and to try to move the story along as it shifts throughout the book. And just by flipping through, you can definitely tell they’re in a different time here or a different mood than the page before.
How many pages a day are you finishing?
METTLER: It depends. On average I’d say I do four or five. Sometimes six. But I’ve done a book in two days, so we’re looking at 11 pages a day. It’s certainly not my best work. But every working colorist out there has had to do it. But I’d say that we probably all do four pages a day. You have to be able to work at least that fast to have editors call you back. If you can’t keep it on time, no matter how good it looks, they’re not going to hire you. They may keep you around for a mini-series or something that has an easier deadline, but a monthly colorist needs to at least do four or more pages. It can be tough. I know that when Crossgen was still out there, their policy for colorists was one page a day, just like the artist. We want it to look really good. If you’re done halfway through the day, put more time into the page. That’d be great. I’d love to work on one page a day and have stuff look a lot better than I do. But it doesn’t work that way. They tanked. I just don’t think the comic business is set up for colorists to take that kind of time on pages. Speed is definitely a big factor. If I did my job correctly, the editor, artist and writer are happy and the book ships on time and people like the book, then I guess you’re doing your job. I can’t really say that I’m happy with anything I’ve done. I look back and say, “Oh, I wish I’d done that or this or had more time to go back.” You kinda need that because if you get complacent your stuff starts to get boring.
FEISTER: I try to do a page a day, at least. It’s hard to gauge, though, because I like to bounce around over a bunch of pages at a time. If I know I have a bunch of hair to ink – stuff I’d use a brush on – I’ll go through and just ink all the hair at the same time. One thing it does is maintain a consistency over how things look. Say it’s two characters in a room talking, I want to make sure to keep that same kind of line going through each one of those pages in the same scene. And plus for me it makes it more interesting. Some days I’ll pick up the brush and it’s like I’m trying to ink with my nose or something. On days with that, I’ll pick up my pen and do all the tech stuff and borders and things I need a tech pen for. But the days when I’m feeling the brush, I can just motor through a whole bunch of stuff.
What’s the hardest thing to capture in Tony’s pencils?
FEISTER: There’s nothing really harder than everything else. The hardest parts to ink are when the Great Machine is in his costume.
Why is that?
FEISTER: Detail. There are so many zippers and buckles and clasps and clips and his helmet has three different pieces, there’s so much going on there. You look at Superman, it’s essentially a body with an “S” on it. Hell, even Batman doesn’t have nearly the amount of shit on him as the Great Machine does. There’s just so much stuff there that every time I get a page with the Great Machine and tree shots, this is going to take me, easily, twice as long as any other page. But that said, those are typically the most fun to do. I’m a superhero geek and he’s a close as I get to work on a superhero now and then. And he is a superhero, or was.
You mentioned no small amount of detail – is that something you try to focus on?
FEISTER: I want to get it right. I want the pages to look as good as I possibly can. I can tell you that with the first 12 pages of “Ex Machina,” Tony has drastically changed the way he’s drawing it. There’s a ton of more detail now than in the first 12 issues. He is just killing himself and in turn, killing JD and I with how much he’s putting on every page. He’s doing the best work of his career. He really is. It’s fun to watch. I’ve been a fan of his stuff for years and we’ve been friends for a while too so it’s fun to watch him go through these changes. When I first met him he was starting to come out of his “Starman” style and he was doing “Obergeist.” He was starting to play with the more cartoony style. And his styles are continuing to change, which is neat too. Definitely on “Ex Machina” he’s bringing a lot more in than he has before.
If you look at coloring 15 years ago compared to now, print and color have much more impact in the equation. Knowing that, how does that affect the way you work?
FEISTER: A lot of what I learned about prepping stuff for color is what I learned from animation – closing off lines, trying to make things more simple for the colorist when they go to grab things. There’s only so much control I have, as an inker, for what’s on the page, but there’s a lot of fine detail that I pay attention to.
One thing I learned about animation was speed. You’re getting stacks due each day. I was freelance and there was only so much animation to go around. And the faster you finished your stack the sooner you got to go on another stack. And if you didn’t move very fast, the work was quickly gone and you might not have anything else to go on to. It taught me work ethic, work fast, be precise.
METTLER: The paper quality has made a huge difference. I think even DC makes a few books on the newsprint type paper. The stuff is like toilet paper – it really is in terms of getting your stuff to print right. There’s a lot of stuff you can’t do if you’re printing on paper like opposed to if you’re printing on a book with nice, glossy paper. You need to know that going in. With the combination of the paper getting better and the inks getting better, and what we’re capable of doing in Photoshop with computers, has basically made it that the limit is how good you are in your imagination. If you can think and you can do it and you get good enough print quality, it can happen now – and not even five years ago that was pretty rare. I know it’s made comics more expensive to be printed on this nice paper, but the quality of what can be achieved – not necessarily what is being achieved – if you have the right team doing their best work, is unprecedented. It’s never been available before.
What’s your goal when you start your covers?
HARRIS: Above everything else, probably if you’re in a comic book shop and you walk in the door and you walk past the new books of the week, that our cover will just jump right off the stand and go, “BAM! Look at me!” That’s why I try to do some of the covers and go a lot more designy than illustrative. As far as color choices and graphic elements. Those covers, a lot of times, will just leap off among a sea of covers that are very detailed. And I’ve done covers like that too, but for instance, the “Censored” cover to issue 2 with the skeleton Lincoln – that was just red and black and a skeleton with the big word “censored” across the front. If you’re a reader and you walk into a shop and you see the word “Censored” across the front of it, I’m going to go over and pick it up.
Tom, do you miss penciling?
FEISTER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But, I’m working on a hugely successful book and I still get to do pencils and inks on other stuff with cards for Marvel and DC. But it’s something that after Machina runs its course I’m definitely going to pick it up and persue it again. But really, how many other guys get to spend their time getting pages from a guy like Tony, who really is a master storyteller. I get to sit down every day and really pore over his pages and really study how he tells a story, the way he’s drawing these pages and if nothing else, being able to look at the level of quality that goes into drawing this book. I’m in a really fortunate position of being able to see this stuff and being able to learn from it every day. There’s a lot of pencilers that don’t get to spend that time.
Tony, you’re a self-taught artist as well. Was there one real moment that you just got it?
HARRIS: No, I still don’t have it. I’ve been lucky enough to be around other people that have been very, very inspiring to me as far as their abilities and talent. To name a few: Adam Hughes, I shared a studio with for a while. Andrew Robinson was part of Jolly Roger for a while. I think he’s an amazingly talented guy. It’s a striving thing.
HARRIS: I cannot tell you how passionate I am about the fact that if you’re a creative person, whether it be art or music or whatever, don’t ever, ever just settle. Because if you’re constantly trying to improve and be a better artist, not only are you going to be more happy – personally and professionally – but the people that love your work and follow your stuff, they’re going to be rewarded just as you are. You’ll make friends and fans for life. A lot of the people that have been my fans over the years are dear friends. A lot of the people on the con circuit, just for that very reason. Look at my body of work and it speaks for itself. I’m constantly changing my style and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But at least I’m trying. At least I’m not getting stagnant and stale and doing the same old thing over and over.
How does the group’s familiarity play into the process?
HARRIS: Well we know each other. All three of us know each other really well. All three of us were in a studio environment. Actually in the same building and in the same room with each other for a couple of years before “Ex Machina” ever happened. Since then we’ve all moved back to our respective studios. But all of us were good friends and went through a lot of heavy, heavy, dark shit. Trial and tribulation makes for a good, solid friendships. When you go through the heavy crap you find out who your buddies are. That is a great groundwork for creativity. You know your guys well. Nothing can be said for creativity than working with guys who know you and you know them. That’s why you have filmmakers like the Coen brothers and the Wachowski brothers, you name it. Any good filmmaker reuses the same crew over and over again. Whether it be actors or cameramen or whoever – because they trust them. That’s exactly where I’m at.
FEISTER: It’s a mental shorthand. Me and JD can get something from Tony now and we don’t have to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, what did you mean by this?” We’ve done it before and we all know each other well enough to go, “Oh, this is what he wants to do, I’m going to go with that.” It’s essentially like reading each others’ minds. It’s nice to be in that place you can feel comfortable and feel secure that the guy at the next step has your back and knows what you’re thinking. Sometimes Tony will forget to draw something and I’ll draw it. Sometimes I’ll forget to ink something and JD will catch it and fill it in. It’s like this little commune of people trying to make each other look good. Hopefully it pays off. I can’t imagine how other pencilers and inkers work without knowing each other or having to pick up the phone and bullshit for 20 minutes about what’s going on with the pages. Tony and I don’t have to do that because we’ve known each other for so long. These guys are more like brothers than anything else.
METTLER: When I work with Tony, I’ve been working with him for so long now that I really don’t have to call him and ask what he’s looking for. I already know. We just know each other’s minds so well. If there’s a particular something that he really wants we’ll have a conversation about it. But as far as the difference on working with teams, it really depends on who you’re working with and what they’re looking for for each project.
The Reality of the Situation
“Ex Machina” is a drawn in a very realistic style – how does that affect the way you work?
FESITER: I think that’s where dirtying Tony’s stuff up comes into play. If you go look outside and you look at the real world, there are no right angles in buildings. There is spots and dirt on the ground all around us. You look at a guy like Ed McGuiness and his world has a very animated look to it. I just don’t think that kind of stuff would work well with Tony, especially not with “Ex Machina.” He worked on a project called “Down” (Image Comics) that Dexter Vines is inking him on now. Dexter does that super-clean, animated style really well and on a project like Down, it looks great because Tony is drawing in a much more animated style.
There’s a lot of talking heads and less POW! BAM! What differences did that make, color-wise?
METTLER: Well, we were looking for more of a realistic look. I used more K-tones than in a lot of other comic books, which lends to it not being as saturated but also makes it look more like the way things look in real life.
What about in storytelling when it lacks that big action sequence?
METTLER: Yeah, I definitely try to use color as a means for storytelling on top of Tony’s means for using pencils as storytelling.
FEISTER: I think it makes it that more important how Tony draws his faces and how I ink those faces because so much is being told through facial expressions – subtle, subtle facial expressions. I think it’s so much a part of a story – those little tiny details, that’s so important for them to read and they work the way they’re supposed to work.
How do you capture all that emotion and information in the faces?
HARRIS: Well I’m lucky enough to have a really great group of models that I shoot. Everybody’s very much aware of who their character is and very into it. We actually block everything out like a scene like a play. Everybody knows their dialogue and if they don’t I read it aloud as we shoot. Everybody knows the emotion that I’m looking for and a lot of times I’ll have to reshoot shots again and again and again until I can get somebody to do what I want them to do. But again, there’s a lot of elaboration that I have to do beyond that. I always have to tell everyone when we’re shooting to over do it. Overexaggerate every emotion that I’m telling you to do. If you’re yelling, or crying or whatever. Get campy with it. What happens is that it’s going to go from photo reference to penciling to inking to coloring. And then in every stage of that process it’s going to get a little diluted every time. So by the time it gets to the printed page, it’s going to be right where it needs to be it it’s overdone in the photo reference stage.
Yeah, and I’m lucky that I’m working with people, as far as my models go, that really dig what they’re doing. I’m not paying them. They’re my friends and they donate their time and their effort. But they’re interested in the end result and a lot of times in the middle of a shoot I’ll say, “I want to do this.” And then my model for Mitchell will say, “Why don’t we try this? If I were Mitchell, I wouldn’t do that,” because these guys actually know their characters at this point, they’ve played them for so long. So I’m getting input from my guys just through springboarding and the back and forth. A lot of times we’ll come up with ideas that make the work so much better.
Because you know some of this stuff is coming from photo ref, does it change the way you color something?
METTLER: Definitely. I try to color more realistically with a photo realistic project than something that’s more cartoony. With each project, the line art that comes to me dictates how I approach the color. And not only the rendering, but the palette as well.
There’s a lot of criticism about using photo reference – what is your take?
FEISTER: I look at it this way: Point to any artist who didn’t use a model and I’ll show you a very shitty artist. As far as using photo reference goes, and if you look at Tony’s work and you look at someone else who’s name I won’t mention, who obviously uses photo reference, there’s a way to use photo reference right and a way to use it wrong. You end up with stiff, awkward-looking things, you get hand that are misshapen because the camera lens lies. Tony understands how to use photo reference and what its limitations are. And personally, I don’t have a problem with it because he knows how to use it. I’ve seen him take a photo that looks lunky and strange and crazy and by the time it’s on the board it’s a beautiful drawing. I don’t see a problem with it, as long as it’s used correctly. At the same time, I’ve sat with Tony at a con and seen him do 20 con sketches and not use a piece of photo reference and do 20 beautiful drawings. Tony can sit down and draw three pages a day. If using reference gives him the ability to draw that kind of stuff – there’s no small amount of detail in “Ex Machina” and he’s been able to maintain a monthly schedule on the book and doing I don’t know how many covers for Marvel and other side projects and doing the movie stuff, and he’s able to keep a monthly schedule – if that’s what photo reference allows him to do, more power to him. I think there’s a lot of misinformation about using photo reference, and I think there’s a lot of jealousy.
METTLER: Photo reference can definitely be a crutch for a lot of people. I think it shows in a lot of the stuff that’s really popular right now. Some of these guys are tracing a photo right out of a magazine and relying on it far too heavily. It can definitely be a crutch if you’re not careful with it. If you know Tony, you know that he doesn’t need it. He can sit down and draw anything and some of his projects like “Down” or “Obergeist” have no photo ref. He can make things look photographic without light-boxing at all. He does use it in “Ex Machina.” For one thing, he wanted likenesses. He wanted people to look very different from each other, not because of the costume that they’re wearing but because of their specific face or their expressions. It also depends on the project you’re working on too. I think it works well with “Ex Machina” – I don’t think the book would work if it were really cartoony because of the realism of the storyline and in some books it’s definitely a mistake.
They can kiss my ass in the crack.
HARRIS: They can kiss my ass in the crack. If you know your art history, you know who’s been doing it for eons and who hasn’t. I’ll just say one name: Norman Rockwell.
You Say You Want an Evolution
How do you know if you’re doing you’re job right?
METTLER: I don’t. There’s a lot of doubt in this business. It’s cutthroat. There’s 10,000 guys who want the job and will do it for less. A big part of it is getting it in on time, especially for the colorist. Like I said before, a lot of times it’ll be late but the book still has that deadline. You can still get a couple days squeezed in sometimes, but really, a big part of the colorist’s job is to keep things on time. When I was first starting out in the business, I was looking at the stuff that was coming out and was thinking, “Man, I’d really like to see that colorist do more.” Now, looking back, I realize that he didn’t have time to do more. He really did the job that he could with the time that was allotted. Quite often, the editor, who has people breathing down his neck as well, would rather have a competent book in on time rather than fine art a month late. For the colorist, that’s a big part of the job so it ships right. That can be really stressful because there are days where you don’t get any sleep because you have to finish a job.
FESITER: I try not to look at old stuff for a while, at least not for two or three months. Then I’ll pull it out and say, “OK, well, I’m better now because I’m looking at this and it’s not quite where I want it to be. Everyone’s their worst critic. I look at where I want to be and I look at guys like Al Williamson, I look at Alex Raymond and guys like Dexter and Karl – the brush for them is just an extension of their arm. That’s my goal where I want to get with my inking ability. I think that the day that I’m happy with what I’m doing is the day I need to walk away.
The book really doesn’t look the same when it first launched.
HARRIS: Thank god, yeah.
Do you think that’s an evolution in everyone’s work, or the group as a whole?
METTLER: Both, I’d say. All of us, if you’re not getting better with each book, something’s wrong. As a team, too. We’ve been doing it long enough now that when Tony lays down those lines on page, he has more of an idea of how it’s going to end up on the final page with regards to what I or Tom is going to do than on the first issue. The metamorphosis is just seeing it in print over the past couple of years and saying, “I don’t like how this turned out” and adjusting accordingly. And also just how we changed over the past year and a half. Whatever doesn’t change, stagnates. I don’t think it’s completely different, I just think it’s evolved a bit. I like it better now than when it started and hopefully I can say the same thing a year and half from now as well.
You talked about improving, but how did that evolution happen?
HARRIS: You know what? That is nothing more than just getting comfortable and slipping into the “Ex Machina” world. When we first started out, me and Tom talked a lot about how we wanted to approach the line art. JD and I talked about how we wanted to approach the color. When we did the first arc, we were still stumbling around trying to figure out what the look for “Ex Machina” is. And, I think if you look at those first few issues, you can see us going, “Oh, we’re trying this, we’re trying that.” But after the first arc, when we got into the second arc in the Tag volume, that’s when we really started figuring out the jive. Here’s that musical arc that we’re riding on. I think we slipped into a really comfortable feel visually with the book. And, we know the characters better. Tom is more confident with his lines. JD has fewer questions for me when it comes to color. I know the characters and how they emote better than I did on issue 2 now that I’m working on issue 20. It’s like making new friends. You don’t really know them that well. You don’t really know how far you can push them, you don’t know what’s appropriate to say in front of them. Then over time you get to know them better and before you know it you’re tearing each other’s heads off and calling each other names. Whatever. You’re always the shittiest to the people you’re closest to.
How do you think you’ve evolved since?
FEISTER: I’m a lot more confident. I never used a brush to ink before and the last several issues I’ve largely used it. It’s been a lot of fun. And the reason I started picking up the brush was that seeing where “Ex Machina” was going with Tony stylistically, I wanted to be able to do more than what I’d been doing. I wanted a wider range of tools to express what Tony’s trying to get through with his lines. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m getting more and more confident every day. Man, it really is a craft. It really is. Having not been an inker before, my appreciation for other people’s talent and my admiration for their skill has grown by leaps and bounds.
METTLER: A lot of it is learning the crapshoot of printing. Even when you have your monitor calibrated for the way it’s supposed to print at the printer, it’s a little different and a lot of times it’s a little different each time. For me, I’ve learned a few tricks to make it print the way I want it to, even though it’s a little different on my monitor. That was a big issue for me that took along while to get a handle on it. I’m pretty happy with them now – they’re finally printing the way I want them to.
Was this a noticeable difference or is it just because you were the one that colored it?
METTLER: Yeah, I doubt anyone else would look at it and say, “That really got screwed up in the printing,” but I can look at it and say, “That’s not the way it was supposed to look when I sent it in.” It was a big consideration in those first few issues when it wasn’t coming out the way I wanted.
How’d you get that result?
METTLER: Just learning to adjust a few things. Little adjustments here and there. This is the way I want it to look on my monitor but I need to adjust this and that for it to actually print that way. It’s something I don’t really think about it any more, it’s just something I do. I’ve got my system pretty well calibrated. There are a few tricks you need to know. What type of paper you’re printing on makes a difference with the settings. And also just learning how to render better and how light works by studying painters. Hopefully with each issue I get a little bit better at it than a few years ago.
Where do you see the book going?
HARRIS: Hopefully to a whole bunch of goddamn Eisners. (laughs).
Well that’s funny – when it won the Eisner last year, did that changed anything in your mind about the book?
HARRIS: No, you know, we had a huge year. We were very fortunate. People just embraced the book and all the hard work we put into it. Folks were going, “Yeah, they’re busting ass, they’re doing some good shit.” So we all felt really blessed. And then we sold the film rights to New Line Cinema and all these big things are happening. Brian took the Eisner for writer and the book got one, so you can take all that stuff and go, “Wow, we are the shit.” Or you can take all that stuff and go, “Ok, how are we going to top that?” We got the awards and the accolades and the press and all that shit in year one of a four-year long book. I’m sorry, but that’s kind of putting the screws to you. You gotta put up or shutup at that point. It’s one thing to do a huge body of work over four years, or a series of films or novels and be posthumously awarded after you’re dead or a lifetime achievement award, but when it happens quick like that right out of the gate, and if it doesn’t and I’m talking to creators here. If it doesn’t push you to try to match that shit and blow it away and improve every book every page every year, then do something else.
How are you trying to top that?
HARRIS: This is a small for instance, but in my first year I realized that I was making a massive error when it comes to portraying New York City. A lot of fans have said that, “Oh, they really love the fact that they’re pushing the detail and the attention to small things to making New York look like New York. But I realized a glaring error in my art in year one and I’m trying to correct that as the year goes on by taking trips to New York and doing photo reference stuff. The level of people – I mean, that city is so friggin’ packed that you can’t go day or night – 2 o’clock in the morning, 10 a.m., without the sidewalks packed with people everywhere. So I tried to improve on that with city street scenes and the hustle and bustle of city hall and the mayor walking around the corridors and stuff like that. That’s one example of many that we’re trying to improve on. Just pushing the storytelling. When you’re doing a book that’s very dialogue-heavy, talking scenes can get boring if you don’t approach them with the same respect you do with an action scene. And an action scene is going to be exciting if you’re a decent storyteller just by definition of what it is – it’s action. So when I get to that stuff it’s always a great release because of all the dialogue and talking, but you still have to approach all of those scenes with the same respect and the same fond and glee that you do with an action sequence. What makes those scenes interesting to people in “Ex Machina” is because I am pushing the envelope with the expressions and the interaction. I just did a scene where, I don’t want to blow it, but Mitchell loses his cool talking to somebody and grabs a book and throws it up in the air and pages go flying everywhere. And that’s right in the middle of a dialogue sequence. Anything I can grab onto like that, any emotional little twist or jab I can get in there to amp it up a little bit, visually, I think it helps the work immensely.
Where are you weakest?
HARRIS: That’s a tough question. I’d really like to take another leap as far as how I’m using Photoshop and coloring as far as my covers go, because I color all my own covers. I stopped painting on boards about five years ago because the industry changed and I just kinda went with it. So I’d like to incorporate a lot more painting techniques in Photoshop and I’ve actually been playing with that now with the “Conan” covers I’m doing for Dark Horse. And if you look at those they have a very different look than what I’m doing for the Machina covers, because with the Machina covers I’m take a much more live-art approach with digital color. And with the “Conan” stuff I try to push the whole painted look with things a bit more. I’d like to mess with that and there’s a lot of things storytelling-wise that I’m not comfortable with in my work. I’m there in a lot of respects, but if you ever get to the point that you’re completely comfortable with what you’re doing, something’s wrong. You’re overconfident, you’ve got too much ego and you need to step back and say, “You know what? My shit’s still fucked up, I need to work on it.”
Do you think not working in the same office together has changed the outcome of the work?
FEISTER: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. One of the things that was really great about Jolly Roger was the spitballing of ideas. I remember when Tony was doing Liberty Files and we were doing reference shoots, Tony would say, “Do this.” And JD or I would say, “Well that’s cool, but what about this?” Things would morph and change into different images and different ideas would come about that weren’t there initially. There’s something to be said for a whole creative team working in the same room together. That said, his wife will be the first one to tell you that the amount of work Tony got done during the day because of the sausage farts and stuff like that, I don’t think his production is nearly what it was today. Maybe now what you’re seeing today is more singularly Tony’s than when he was in a studio and not bouncing ideas off other people. That’s not to say Tony doesn’t bounce ideas off of us, but we’re at a point now where time-wise we’re so under the gun. We have to get stuff out and get stuff done, there’s not time for those conversations any more. And as far as us getting together, I’m in Atlanta, those guys are in Macon, I see them maybe four times a year. These are guys I spent 14-15 hours a day with. That’s definitely a down side. But again, those relationships are still there and there’s a solid foundation. I don’t think the work has suffered, but I think that “Ex Machina” would be a different book if we were all in the same room together.
How different do you think the end result would be if Tom and JD weren’t working on it?
HARRIS: I have a certain level of faith in my own abilities as a storyteller and an artist. I’d still be brining my A game because I try to approach everything like that. I still think the book would be strong, but I think it’d be strong in a different way. Maybe weaker, I don’t know. Like I said, we’re all local to each other. Tom’s only an hour and a half up the road, and JD’s like 15 minutes from my house. So we spend a good amount of time with each other. I don’t know if I was working with an inker and a colorist from, say, California and New York, where everything had to be done via email and telephone, which we do a lot of Ñ we have our own lives outside of the work. I wouldn’t have the history I have with these guys with a Dave Stewart, Kevin Nowlan or who else might’ve been brought in to work. I don’t know if the jive would be there.
This story was compiled after separate interviews with Harris, Feister and Mettler.