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Who is Rags Morales?
Here’s a hint: He drew the bestselling title in 2004, DC’s mammoth event, Identity Crisis. Need another? He’s the headlining penciler of DC’s biggest project (literally – it’s 80 pages) of 2005, Countdown to Infinite Crisis and will take over Wonder Woman in April. Still not sure? Read CF’s exclusive interview with him — you’ll find out how he became the artist he is today, and even his real name…
Where did you receive your art training?
I went for two years at the Joe Kubert School [of Cartoon and Graphic Art].
When you were at Kubert, was there anything you learned in school that you already knew coming in?
Well, at the Joe Kubert school what they try to do is basically take away anything you learned and start you from scratch. So the first year was an affirmation of things I already knew. There were a couple of new insights, but outside of scale, position, layout and design work or mechanical illustration, there was very little that I didn’t already know. Maybe anatomy – the bones and the muscles and things of that nature. And then, of course, things that I couldn’t have learned in high school, like animation.
Is there anything you wish you’d learned from the Kubert school that you didn’t?
Yeah … I only went for two years and never got my third, so I didn’t learn enough about the business end of it, which is something that is as important as writing. Those are third-year courses and they help you become a more well-rounded creator and those are the ones I missed out on.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on you and it seems that you take your art very seriously. Is that something that’s important for a comic artist?
It’s important for any artist. It’s important for anyone who wants to excel in their position they have in life. It’s the only way you can have fun. It sounds like an oxymoron, but the only way you can have fun is by taking it seriously. If you don’t take it seriously, then you’ll have a very difficult road ahead of you. The fans won’t respect it, the other professionals, the powers that be – the editorial staff, the publishers – none of those people will take that seriously unless you do. It’s very important to educate yourself in the history of whatever it is you’re doing, keep an eye out for who’s doing justice to your craft and to take yourself seriously enough to respect the fact that you want to succeed.
Have you noticed an evolution in your work over the years?
Oh, sure. There’s so much involved in this kind of storytelling. You have to know anatomy well. You have to know composition well. You have to know narrative and storytelling well. Your draftsmanship has to be done well. You have to research. You have to do so many things that it takes a really long time. No one is good at everything all at once at the very beginning. It takes a lot of time to pursue that and sometimes you’ll add more emphasis on basic drawing techniques, like light source or texture, or you might concentrate more on the storytelling aspect, making sure from panel to panel is a smooth transition. Sometimes you just want to draw landscapes better, or environments better or for lack of a better word, technology, better. All these things take time and they take concentration and they take focus. And sometimes when you’re concentrating on one thing you’re not necessarily focusing on another. It takes time to progress. It’s always a challenge to every young artist to try and get everything down as best as possible. Be patient. You’ll get that as long as you’re aware and you’re not kidding yourself and you continue to pursue your talents.
How has your art evolved over the years?
I’d like to say that I’m pretty well-rounded. At this point it’s more of a fine-tuning process rather than an overhaul. Initially I envisioned myself as someone who did just about everything well because the people I admired did everything well. Jim Aparo, John Buscema, everybody had an intelligent approach and it showed. You could see the intelligence in the draftsmanship and the storytelling and the anatomy. When I first broke in, it was more sporadic talent and not any one particular thing that I did well. I couldn’t particularly draw anatomy as well as I do now, but it was good enough to get a job, good enough to keep working. And I was a lot farther along in my head than I was in my hands. So it was important for me to know that I had a lot farther to go and to make sure to pursue it.
How much planning do you have to do?
Initially it’s probably a lot more because, over the years, it becomes second nature. You really do have to concentrate on a lot more things in the beginning. A lot of it also depends on who you’re working with. Some of the writers will leave it up to the artist to do more of the heavy lifting, whereas as some writers are very meticulous and have a very distinct way of looking at things.
Greg Rucka, the writer I’m working with now (on Wonder Woman), is one of these people that puts it down a specific way but is open to changes so long as it keeps the spirit of the story alive. You have to make sure you keep the story first and foremost. You don’t want to get too wrapped up in outlandish design because that’s a lack of focus. Those things are not good – or anything is not good – in overabundance. You have to pick and choose the moments when you do those things so it has the most effect. In terms of approach, you approach it the same way any good writer would: who, what, when, where and why. You would approach it from the scene and the atmosphere first, you approach it from the characters first, and their interactions long before you worry about how much detail you put into the side of a building. Those kinds of things are impressive to people who aren’t in tune to the subtleties of it.
So the first thing you do when you read a script is you consider the amount of space you’re working with. With a tight script you’re lucky enough to have the panels already planned out for you, in terms of panels per page. If you’re working in plot form, chances are it’s just a rundown in the things that happen and you have to go in there and figure out how many panels it takes to convey the story within the narrative there.
The first thing is to count the number of panels and over the years you learn your basic panel layout. Typically it’s the top from left to right – in thirds and in half and vertically on one side, in thirds and in half. So you run one big splash panel to a grid of nine panels on the page and any number of variations in between. Once you consider the amount of panels you decide which panels are going to be the most amount of space based on dialogue and based on the focus of that particular page. If you want a certain part of that page to stand you have to make room for that. But that’s always secondary to the amount of dialogue because it’s most important to make sure the story gets out.
After that, by the third panel, you establish from head to toe. You want to give yourself an opportunity to pull back far enough with the camera so you have a good representation of the characters and the environment that they’re in. You try to get that done by the third panel and you try to squeeze in a nice headshot, a close-up. The play between pulling back and pulling in is where the storytelling happens. And, of course, you pull in at distinct points when the character has an emotion or when you’re emphasizing a specific dialogue that has the most impact. That’s when you want to pull in and you want to pull back if you want to show the scope of the atmosphere you’re working in or establish the number of characters in that scene. Once you establish this really well you should consider from scene to scene, as well as panel to panel and page to page. There’s a lot of noodling that goes on in your head when you consider the amount of emphasis you put on panel to panel, page to page, scene to scene. It’s always important to read the entire story ahead of time so you get a chance to think it all through.
As far as Countdown to Infinite Crisis goes, was visual continuity ever a concern between the artists?
Actually, no, and a lot that has to do with editorial. I never read beyond my chapter in that particular project. I knew the basic concept of what was happening with the characters. I knew which characters were going to be more focused on, but outside of that there was very little interplay as to who was working with whom. In my particular chapter I drew Blue Beetle in his old costume and I most recently found out that in JLA: Classified, Blue Beetle’s costume was more dark blue and the trimming wasn’t black, it was light blue — I didn’t know this. It was like a negative of the character that I drew. So, in certain things like that you really have to rely on your editor to give you a sense of what’s important because you can’t think of a costume change unless they tell you there’s one.
Hopefully those kinds of things will be adjusted and considered so there’s no confusion in the fan base. You hope the editor says, “You’re doing your job, I won’t give it to the next guy until you’re done and then they can see it.” I don’t know if that happened, but that thing really depends on the editor because they want to get everybody involved and we’ll all exchange the ideas and show sketches and character designs. Then in other times they’ll do chapter one and hand it off to the next guy, and then when chapter two is done, they’ll hand it off again, etc.
How did you work with so many characters in Countdown? Was that difficult?
In Countdown it was just a couple characters and sometimes you’d just do a little spot with computer screens where I had to put a character in there. Other times I might have to address an entire story arch. It was just a minimal amount of characters – there were four main characters, one supporting character and little bits and piece of other characters that showed up on computer screens or in any of the flashbacks.
What about something like Identity Crisis – did you do anything differently to work with so many characters?
Before I got Identity Crisis, so much of it was already planned out. That’s Mike Carlin’s influence, he’s a very hardworking editor and he’s one of the editors who make sure everything is planned out ahead of time. So when I walked into New York to meet with Brad Meltzer and Michael Bair, I was handed reams of reference of everybody who was featured, but I only had scenes for the first two scripts. It was so well-planned-out, especially with writers who are more meticulous, like Brad, and he had everything planned out in the layout that he wanted. There were very few changes that I added. When you’re dealing with a mystery/thriller, you have to have a specific kind of pacing that’s very different from your standard comic book. A lot of his referencing came from movies and TV techniques and he had a very distinct vision. For Identity Crisis, I had tons of reference ahead of it and a very tight script that was very easy for me to go from panel to panel and page to page. Working with someone like Greg Rucka, where you need more input from the artist, it’s more important to get the script ahead of time.
What other types of reference do you usually use?
Well, I buy a lot of different kinds of books. I have an encyclopedia of how things work. It has inventions over the years and they break it down into how they work. I’ve got an encyclopedia from elementary school, actually. I held onto it because it has so many photographs in it. Joe Kubert had it right the first time: “Every book becomes a bible for an artist.” Time Life has a series of books about American landscape where they take you from Baja, Calif., to some swamp, to the Everglades. I’ve got books on bugs, books on animals, books on people, books on things around the world. I’ve got books on anatomy by Burne Hogarth and George Bridgman. I’ve even got “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.” I also have a VHS library and I tape a lot of things off The History Channel for reference.
There’s a lot of different types of reference that you can pick up. A good source would be the photography section of a bookstore. Waldenbooks always had that island of bargain books and I picked up a lot of good stuff there – books on dog breeds, flags, knots – that came in handy for Identity Crisis when I had to do the bowline knot with a Dutch marine twist. There’s all kinds of great books out there and you can get them cheaply because there’s not a large market for them. A book on flags from around the world might not be very interesting, but it’s interesting to me. If you have to draw the United Nations flag it’s gotta be in there. If you’re drawing another country and you want to represent part of the atmosphere, there might be a flag on the side of a building so you know where you are.
There’s a lot of great stuff – even video games can become a great source of reference. When I did Hourman there was a lot of visual magic, and Final Fantasy Tactics became a source of reference for me. And the way they display manga is terrific for the way they do sci-fi and magic and explosions. So, the special effects can be done from a lot of different sources, you basically just have to keep your eyes open. If you’re sensitive to it you’ll pick up on what you need.
Do you ever use actors?
With Identity Crisis, yes, because I had a lot of lead time. Lead time is the number of months you have to work on a project before the first issue hits the stands. With Identity Crisis, I started in January of ’04 and the first issue came out in May. I believe I was just wrapping up issue four when the first issue hit. That lead time is very important to an artist because it gives you enough time to absorb everything before you have to worry about deadline crunches. I had time to consider the characters and with the entire ream of reference they handed to me, I was able to say: “OK, Mirror Master to me, reminds me of Eric Roberts.” If you take the mustache off of Tom Selleck he makes a great Bruce Wayne. Johnny Depp makes a wonderful Dick Grayson for me. Lesley Ann Warren was terrific, in my mind, for Jean Loring. I had some books on Hollywood and headshots of people and the more I looked at the books the more I wanted to put a distinct look to every character. I went to the Internet to Web sites for actors and publicity photos and I printed out a lot of those and it grew from there. Sometimes you fall in love with the referencing as much as you do the drawing as well.
How does Mike Bair affect your work?
Mike Bair is an embellisher. That’s an important inference. Inker is a very broad term for embellishers and inkers. An embellisher is someone who actually adds a little something to the work. His line weight is a little bit different. His interpretation is different, but it’s always in the mind of “This isn’t just what I’m capable of doing, this is where I perceive.” An embellisher is someone who has a vision for the artwork. Bair likes to call it “tickling the work.” It’s very important to have an embellisher who works with you who understands your influences and can draw from the same people. So when they see it on paper they can see what you’re trying to do or where you’re coming from.
Mike Bair and I have a great relationship in that regard. We’re fans of the same artists and there are times he’ll try a different line weight or he’ll try a different kind of brush. At the end of Identity Crisis a lot of people thought it was a different inker but it wasn’t, it was Mike Bair and he was trying something new. I like it when things get a little muddied. I don’t like it to be too clean or too slick. Too me it looks a little too sterile. I like things to have a little more teeth to them, a little more interpretation to them, a little more style. You need a guy who’s going to be really good at drawing a tree and the leaves on a tree. You need a guy who’s really good at drawing water – and not just the technical stuff, that’s important too, but you really need a guy who’s got the versatility to do something rustic versus something that’s very contemporary and ultra-clean. You have to have someone with that kind of ability and sensibility and Mike Bair is among the elite in that category. Very few inkers are in his company. He’s just that good.
An inker is someone who doesn’t necessarily add or take away from a particular project. But he puts in a workman’s effort, is on time and does simple, basic line weight – foreground, heavy line weight; middle, middle line weight; background, light line weight. And then they do their best to keep up with you. I’m a very demanding penciler and when I put something down on paper it requires a lot of thought and a lot of consideration. You have to have an inker who’s going to embellish. If not, it’s going to be a mismatch and it’s going to be very obvious.
Is there one lesson you wish you’d known before you got into the industry?
There are a lot of things I wish I could’ve done better with the business aspect, for sure. The whole accounting of money coming in and money going out is very important because it is a freelance field and you don’t have people taking out taxes for you, you don’t have people keeping track of your receipts – you have to do that yourself. But probably more than anything – and it takes time to get to this level – you need to know that you’re part of an assembly-line process. For you to get paid, your writer has to be on time. For your inker to be paid, you have to be on time. For the colorist to get paid, the inker has to be on time. So, you have to consider that everybody is trying to make their money and you have to do your best to make sure everyone is covered around you. The first person in is the writer and he or she has the ability to work more quickly than a penciler or an inker. Colorists and letterists, as well, require less time to finish a project. Just keep track of where you are work-wise and understand how much you’re capable to do in a week’s time because basically that’s how you’ll be hired. A lot of people will be hired on their greatness and how they can render. That’s important too, but the most important thing is to be on time and to be professional. If you’re willing to take less time to pursue your craft, you’re probably willing to take less money because you’re not going to be on time.
What is your first name, by the way?
My first name is Ralph. The thing is, I broke into the industry with a pen name and it’s funny because anyone in the industry can’t conceive of calling me “Ralph” and anybody in my personal life has a difficulty calling me Rags. I kind of grew up that way because my father’s name was Ralph so I grew up in a household with two names anyway. My mother called me by my middle name, which is Anthony, and my father called me Ralph, my friends called me Ralph and my immediate family and aunts, uncles and cousins, because I mostly saw my mother’s side of the family, they all called me Anthony. It’s the kind of thing I was used to.
—Interview by Tim Leong