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In Chris Bachalo’s case, you can go home again. This month Bachalo goes back to the drawing board for Uncanny X-Men where made a name for himself during his run in the late ’90s. Bachalo talked to Comic Foundry about how this time around will be different and what goes into producing an issue of his art.
You’ve done all the X-Men gigs before - how is taking over on Uncanny X-Men, again, different for you as an artist this time around?
This time around Marvel isn’t in Chapter 11. That was a small distraction. The creative hierarchy at Marvel is solid — a good thing. They talk to one another. They plan. Stories have been plotted for up to a year plus. Chris Claremont shows no signs of holding back. I was on the phone with him the other day, curious to see if his creative light was still burning bright. It was — a lot of good ideas, hope they see print. I’m looking forward to The End of Greys arc. I see it as my legitimate starting point of the series as I landed in mid-arc on the M crossover featuring characters and a story conceived by someone else. I felt like a stranger at the party. What the hell is going on? Who are these people? The first two issues have their moments but nothing like what I hope lies ahead.
Creatively, what are you hoping to do that you weren’t able to in your previous run
Well, for one, I hope to stick around a little longer. Last time, I was just getting comfortable with the water and the next thing I knew I was treading water in a different pool. My purpose creatively on Uncanny and everything else I work on, is to keep moving forward. I want to shake the tree and see what falls out — see if the creative Gods have anything else to offer. I mean, what else is there? Regurgitation of the tried and old? I don’t think so. Stick me in the deep fryer and serve me with fries. Creatively, I don’t know what is going to happen. I’m slightly uneasy about it, procrastinating a little. That’s normal. Let me know I’m alive and scratching and that I give a damn. Whatever happens I hope that it looks good. I hope that Chris and Mike (Marts, editor) understand.
What type of visual style do you think Uncanny X-Men calls for? How is it different from 10 years ago when you were first on the title?
Man, I think these characters have seen a little of everything so I can’t say with any certainty that there is a style that is relevant or not for Uncanny. I moved about a year ago and find myself still — where’d I get all this damned stuff?— digging through boxes. So many comics. I think, if I bought a slurpee instead of a comic every time I went to 7-eleven I’d be fat like Jabba and have an unimpressive collection of yellowing superhero plastic cups. Awful. Instead, I bought a comic and now I have a marginally impressive amount of comics filling up the closets of my house and pissing off my wife. Anyways, I was digging through a box and landed upon my (Barry) Winsdor-Smith Marvel Comics Presents with Wolvy. Just dumb amazing work. That style was definitely called for. So are many others: Jim Lee’s, Joe Mad’s, that Byrne guy. I can’t say that any one style is better than the other. It just has to be good — the best there is. What makes the style the best style? Who knows? I don’t. I crank out the work, come up with something I feel is competent and up to speed and hope others agree. We’ll see. I’ll do my best. I always have a vague idea of what I ‘d like to do, but that often changes just past page one, issue one.
Is there anything you want to change, visually, during your return to Uncanny X-Men?
I’d like to be better this time around. Why? Well, because it’s better and achieving to do better is better than achieving to do worse. I was hit and miss the first time around — the creative environment didn’t help. Plots would change from issue to issue. We started on a cool Rogue arc and then it was dropped. An anniversary issue surfaced unexpectedly. Issue #360? What? I felt bad for (Steven) Seagle and (Joe) Kelly. They really wanted to make a mark on the series. Then they were gone, then I was gone. Interestingly enough, issue 465, my second issue back, will mark 100 issues from my last Uncanny issue. Back then my style wavered all over the map. I look at what I was doing from 349 to 365 and, well, did my head split? Felt like it. My favorite issue was probably 462. Man, I was feeling good then. Found a groove. All up hill, you know. Then I was gone. Now I’m back. A little gray around the seams this time around, but better. Right?
Do you adapt your style to the different books you’re on?
Yeah. The writing, the tone, the pacing, they all dictate the style, feel and presentation of the book. I’ve been crazy fortunate to work with the best writers on the best series the past 14 plus years. I think I’ve touched all the genres. Maybe not the Archie genre, though, Veronica would be good to get to know sometime. It’s important to inject each series with its own character, its own look and feel.
That’s a cool challenge about working in comics — visiting different series. Typically, I read a script, address the topic and make a decision on the best way to tell the story. That’s why High Cost of Living doesn’t look like Steampunk, Steampunk doesn’t look like Captain America, Captain America doesn’t look like Batman: Black and White, Batman doesn’t look like Shade. Steampunk was, for me, very greasy and broken to pieces. Fragmented. Held together by rusty bolts and chains. Witching Hour was much more methodical. A deceptively straight forward nothing-what-it-seems tale. I can’t imagine drawing Captain America the way I drew that series. I was invited to create a Batman: Black and White entry. I had a dark, creepy story, with black and washes in mind. A small spin about an obsessive Batman groupie. It would be spooky, like the Ring movie — the first one, not the second. According to the rules, an individual is not permitted to both write and draw Batman at the same time…unless incorporated. That sounds complicated, so, I invited Brimstone writer/creator Cy Voris to help me out — Brimstone was a great TV series buy the way. They should collect it on DVD. C’mon, Cy! We created our little 8-pager and it was fun and dark and creepy like the first Ring movie and the point is that the subject matter dictated the style and look of the book. Creepy story, creepy art. Lots of black and scribbly, edge of vision, things-crawling-out-of-the-black-goodness kind of stuff. Not a look that would apply to, say, Gen X. The teenagers there are only a little black, with a semi-gloss coating. Definitely not Batman black. Batman doesn’t eat sugar bombs and have groin sensations for the hottie across the dorm room hall, if you know what I mean.
In the same vein, do you think you’ve matured as an artist over time?
Yes. That tends to be acquired, hopefully, with experience. I know a lot more now than I knew back then. I have more to offer. More options. Changes one’s perspective, you know? Sometimes this is good, sometimes not. I wonder why Creatives are often at their best when they’re young. Does the Muse leave? Drugs fail them? Do they get tired? Do they stop exploring? Maybe they become less desperate? Maybe too desperate. Maybe they have too many obligations sucking at the well? Kids. Family. Creditors. I’m aware of the burn out that comes with
creative pursuits and hope that, in my maturity, that I recognize this and continue to push myself to think outside of the box and to never grow complacent.
Chris Claremont is writing the current run — how does that change things for you as an artist and a collaborator?
Changes everything, really. It’s the difference between eating pizza and an apple. They’re both food, but the experience eating them is completely different. Everyone brings something different to the table. Working with Jeph Loeb on Witching Hour probably my best experience in working with a writer. He was very easy to communicate with and was a good listener. I never felt like I was crossing creative boundaries with him. He made it comfortable to share ideas, good or bad, which created a wonderful creative environment. He would call at 12 AM — I don’t think he sleeps very much — and share that he had seen the new pages and would then proceed to discuss them with me. He’d discuss likes and dislikes. He’d ask questions. He wanted to understand. He noted the details, the subtext. It was cool to know that some one was really paying attention. In turn, I gave him everything I had. I didn’t hold back. Witching Hour is one of my favorite efforts. Probably top three with Steampunk and Death: TOYL. Others send me a script, give a few notes and that’s enough. Mark Millar writes great scripts. Wonderful idea man. He continues to amaze me. Great energy. I want to punch something when I read his scripts. Everyone brings something to the table. A chimichanga here. Deviled eggs there. Potato salad. You know. We’ll see what Chris brings. BBQ ribs would be nice. Something meaty.
The advances in computer coloring technology in the past decade have certainly made color a much more prominent part of the visual equation. How have you adapted your pencils, if at all, to compensate in your details and figures?
If I’m coloring, I will make short cuts or adjust creative decisions and think about the colors during the conceptual stage knowing that I’m going to get another look at the page. I may not draw clouds in a background if I know I can put them in later. Stuff like that. It was computers that made it feasible to color my own work, which I’ve always wanted to do. Passing on the art for someone else to color has always been uncomfortable for me. It feels like starting on a sentence, getting two-thirds of the way through and having someone else finish the thought. I continue to color all my covers and pin ups and Upper Deck cards, concepts, etc. That seems to fill the void. Turning around interiors on a monthly basis proved to be a little tough. I tried it on Cap but the drag was heavy. When I’m not handling colors, I continue focus on the black and white page as I always have. I supply color notes to the colorist and leave them to do what they do best. The really cool part regarding the computer generated coloring aspect of the biz is the ability to make changes on a dime. I grew up with paint and brushes. Tested my patience a million times with them. I liken Photoshop to that of the invention of the wheel. It’s that amazing. I can change colors on a whim. Erase just like that. Use photography. Mine only. No stealing others photos, folks. Make things bigger. Smaller. Everything.
A lot of people have described your art as anime-like. What effect, if any, has the popularization of manga and anime had on you?
Anime really wasn’t the poison here, it was Joe Mad. He was affected by anime, but I thought he drew a lot better than most of the Japanese offerings. I couldn’t help but be affected some way. I looked a lot at what he was doing on Uncanny and picked up a few details of his work that I enjoyed. I do this with a lot of artists. (Mike) Golden is my favorite. I ‘m an avid collector of his work. I’ve been looking at (Travis) Charest’s art of late. I’m sure you’ll see a few influences from him in creep into my offerings. The key is not to copy another artist out right. Every artist that has ever been successful has his own identity. They are all influenced by others but, as they mature, they develop they’re own style and inject their own personality into their work. They become unique. Bill Sienkiewicz was a Neal Adams disciple. Check out his Moon Knight and Rampaging Hulk work. It was cool to see him rapidly evolve his own unique style on Moon Knight, New Mutants and Elektra.
How do you figure out panel structure?
Man, that’s a big one. I could write a book on that. I treat each individual page as a work of art while at the same time keeping in mind that each page is a piece of a bigger pie. In my first action I simplify and note, usually right on the script, the beats of each page. Then I’ll pick out the strongest image, make that the dominant element of the page and design around it. That’s where 2D design comes into play. Best class I took in University. The play between black and white and gray and the use of shapes is what separates the men from the boys. Too often artists think they’re being creative by over lapping panels, turning them, stacking them. Mostly it creates anarchy. Simple panel layout is often the best way to go — especially if you’re new to the game. (John) Cassaday and (Bryan) Hitch are great with limited panel layouts. But I don’t want limit creativity either. At some point is it’s great knock out the panel borders and float a few images. Frank Miller is amazing at design. Mike Mignola. Tim Sale. Eduardo Risso. They know how to design the page to create harmony, focus and drama. They also use black very well. The subject matter often dictates the layout of a page. Lots of talking, lots of panels, conservative placement of panels. Action, preferably, big panels with guts and bits of everything being sprayed about and bold panel layouts with lots of contrasts using either color or black and white.
There’s so much action and fight scenes that go on in your books — as an artist, how do you handle it all?
I’m not famous for my fight choreography. Infamous, maybe. I’ve lost one or two souls along the way. I put a lot into the fight scenes and I suspect that I lose many because they tend to read the books a little fast and skip past the details. Often, there are two or three actions occurring in any one panel and, unless you stop and savor, it looks like muck. One would offer that my job is to offer up clarity. A good point and I try to please, but I also try and be creative in the way that I handle the action, to try and think outside of the box and offer up something new. Sometimes this works, other times not. The main goal is to sell the action that the writer has called for. With the layering of actions within one panel I can often combine two beats at once leaving room for bigger, more dramatic panels.
How do you approach creating a cover?
Another chapter in my book. I should write one some day. My first objective with covers is to sell the book. My cover is going to compete with five hundred others covers on the book shelves, so I need to find a way to arrest the eye. The best way is to be graphic and simple. Look at Miller’s work. Stark and dramatic. You can see a Sin City book from across the room. I really liked the Cassaday Astonishing X-Men cover with Professor X. That big, black and white head shot one. I could see it from 20 feet at the Borders bookstore. Effective. I bought it. The second objective is to try and sell the story or the topic of the book, so it’s important to sell the prospective reader on what the book is about. You wouldn’t put Marv shooting someone’s guts out on a Betty and Veronica book. On Uncanny, my objective is grab the reader with a simple, striking image, with as few characters as possible, using a narrow range of color—the more colors on the cover the more it will blend with the other riff raff on the stands—and sell the buyer that this is a dangerous, over the top, super powered, sci-fi adventure book worth their three bucks. Media is important. Note the starkness of the Sin City work. Black and White. Hard lines. Sharp contrasts. Really sells the idea of Sin City, doesn’t it? The (Dave) McKean covers on Sandman effectively sold the feeling of that book. Very different media on those. Adam Hughes’ style on Wonder Woman sold the idea of that title. All three styles are very different from one another but effective in advertising the content of their respective books.
— Interview by Tim Leong