|Interview: Comic Geniuses|
Posted by on May 17, 2002 at 12:02 AM CST:
The MoD staff interviewed Greg Farshtey (writer), Carlos D'Anda (penciller), and Randy Elliott (inker) via email in the weeks between the releases of Issue 5 and Issue 6 of the BIONICLE™ comics. According to David McKillips, Vice President of Advertising for DC Comics/MAD Magazine, DC Comics has worked with many toy and gaming companies on custom publishing projects — however, BIONICLE is the largest of its kind.
Q: The comic books have a listed cover price, and I saw the first issue in my local comic book store, but not any of the rest. It seems the only way you can get them is free with a subscription to the LEGO® Club. Are they supposed to be available at retail?
Farshtey: No, the comics are available through the Club, on our BIONICLE tours, and sometimes at special retail events (like the recent signing at Toys R Us Times Square). To my knowledge, they are not sold at retail or in any comic book store. Though they aren't sold at retail, they still are limited edition and have collectible value.
Q: What do you do when you aren't writing BIONICLE comic books?
Farshtey: My full-time job is LEGO Direct staff writer. I write material for the LEGO Magazine, some content for LEGO.COM, catalog copy for LEGO Shop At Home (both print and online), and various other special projects for the company. Doing the comics is sort of a fringe benefit to my regular job.
When I'm not at work, I'm generally at home — writing my own stuff, playing computer games, watching movies, reading comics, and hanging out with my wife Lisa and our two cats.
Q: What got you interested in art, and what was your first paid work?
D'Anda: I've been drawing for as far back as I can remember, and I pretty much always knew that I wanted to make a living doing something art related, but it wasn't until high school that a good friend of mine showed me an issue of X-Men (drawn by Jim Lee) that I totally fell in love with the medium … as far as my first paid work … I think it was an issue of 'Wildstorm Spotlight' with Mr. Majestic … it was an awesome story written by Alan Moore, I really wish I could go back and redraw it!
Elliott: I've been drawing since I was able to hold a pencil. I can't remember not drawing! My first paid comic work would have been Dragonlance #1 for DC back in '88.
Q: How did you get started working with comic books and DC Comics?
D'Anda: I started sending submissions right after high school to Wildstorm, and a little over a year after, I got the call from Jim Lee asking me if I wanted to join the internship program at the studio.
Elliott: A friend of mine, Bob Gray, the owner of the former Twilight Book and Game Emporium, showed some comic work that I'd done for him to Barbara Kesel at a comic convention in Syracuse, NY. He phoned me and asked me if I'd like to come down to the con and speak to Barbara about a job inking! Of course, I went to the con. That was in April of 1988. Initially, I did backgrounds for Ron Randall, but from issue #15, I had full inking duties.
Q: How did you get involved with the BIONICLE comics?
Farshtey: The idea of doing comics for BIONICLE had largely already been decided upon when I joined LEGO Direct in October 2000. It did not at first look like I would get to work on the series, because they were looking at some possible freelancers — and I understood that, I had come in late in the process. I started playing around with a script for the first issue, just for fun, and showed it to my supervisor. As it turned out, it was a good thing I did, because they were going to need an approved script for issue #1 within two weeks. So I was drafted to do it, and it has been a real joy to work on.
D'Anda: From what I understand, someone over at LEGO saw the work I had done on Wildstorm mini-series for a character called Brass (big robot character) and then I was asked if I would be interested in working on this new 'hush hush' project called BIONICLE. I think the very first BIONICLE thing I saw was this QuickTime movie with all the characters showing off their powers … the short movie was really cool, so it wasn't very hard to say YES to the project :)
Elliot: I had worked with the WildStorm folks in the past and was looking around for some work when the job was offered to me. Thanks Scott (Dunbier)!
Q: I've noticed that there have been a few changes in the creative team roster. Is there a specific reason for this, or was it just a matter of who was available to work on it at any given time?
Farshtey: This is really something DC can answer better than I, but my understanding is that it is purely a matter of availability of talent. However, we have been very fortunate to have the services of Carlos D'Anda for every issue, including all the mini-comics — he really brings the whole thing to life.
Q: Is BIONICLE your first experience writing in this format?
Farshtey: It is my first experience writing a comic book, yes. Prior to coming to LEGO Direct, I had had three novels published and written (or co-written) numerous role-playing game books. I had also tried turning one of the novels into a screenplay, and screenplay writing is not all that far off from comic writing. But I did have things to learn when I began doing this work.
Q: With what other work of yours might our readers be familiar?
D'Anda: I did some work for Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, and then for Wildstorm, I worked on Wildcats, Divine Right, Mr.Majestic, and most recently, Brass.
Elliott: Dragonlance, Legends of the Stargrazers, Justice League Europe, Turok,Eternal Warrior, StormWatch, SpiderWoman, and a bunch of odd jobs, here and there.
Q: Besides comic books, what other artwork projects have you worked on recently?
D'Anda: I've done quite a bit of work creating character designs for various games.
Elliott: I have been involved with the CCG (collectible card game) industry for a number of years. Currently, I'm doing full color work for Jim Pinto at AEG on their D20, Warlord, and Legends of the Five Rings lines. I also just redesigned the mascot/logo for the 403rd Civil Affairs Battalion, an Army Reserve unit in my area.
Q: If you could work on any one comic book, what would it be?
D'Anda: … mhhh, hard question …. I would love to work on Spider-man. He was my favorite character when I was growing up.
Elliot: It's a toss-up between Conan, the Barbarian and Sgt. Rock! If I could work on either title, I'd die a happy man!
Q: What is your favorite medium to work with?
D'Anda: I'm trying to learn how to paint, but right now I am most comfortable with a pencil and markers. I really like to mess around with a computer with 3D modeling programs.
Elliott: Oil paint. Inking is what I do to pay the bills! I really have a lot of fun with the illustration stuff that I do. Inking is fun, but it's a collaborative effort. My illustrations are all mine. The oils create a nice balance, overall, in my work.
Q: When you write a comic book, do you describe what the action (images) should be for the artists?
Farshtey: Yes, I provide a description of the overall action in the scene, and then Carlos D'Anda (the penciller) translates that into panels. Sometimes he adds a panel, if he feels it's needed for clarity of storytelling, and in general he decides on the "angles of the shots." I mostly specify if I think it should be a close-up or a wide-angle illo (illustration), and his talent takes it from there.
Q: What does an Inker do?
Elliott: An inker interprets the pencilled line. Depending upon the time available, and the penciller, they "finish" the images for printing. It looks like tracing, and in a sense it is, but it's a much more sophisticated process than merely tracing the pencils. The inker determines the final "look" of the project. They can either impose their own sense of style upon the job or they can attempt to be as true to the intent of the pencils as possible. This requires the inker to have a familiarity with a number of inking styles, so as to be able to best "interpret" the penciller's intentions. I prefer to attempt to "enhance" and "interpret" the penciller's intentions, rather than impose my own "vision" onto the pencils. I try not to have "a style", but I'm told by friends that they can still pick my inks out from other inkers.
Q: Who lays out the flow?
Farshtey: In general, the art pages match the script I have given them, but in a few instances DC has shuffled things around a bit for clarity's sake. That hasn't happened often though.
Q: Are you given the number of pages in advance, or do you have some leeway?
Farshtey: I am given a set number to work with. Full-size BIONICLE comics are 12 pages of story and art. I was able to get a couple of extra pages in the U.S. version of BIONICLE #3, but normally it is pretty set.
Q: What are the dimensions of the original artwork for a standard comic page? Are they different for the McDonald's comics or the BOHROK mini-comics?
D'Anda: Most original pages are usually drawn on 11 by 17 Bristol boards, although the McDonald's mini-comic was drawn much smaller than that, I don't remember the exact proportions though.
Q: Does the format (size) of the actual comic have to be taken into account? I'm thinking about the smaller 2001 McDonald's comic and the even smaller 2002 McDonald's comics.
Farshtey: Oh, yes, definitely. When you are writing a mini-comic, you can usually get no more than 2, maybe 3 small panels to a page, as opposed to 5 or 6 on a regular comic page. Plus, when we do the in-box comics for inclusion with product, they cannot include text other than sound effects and BIONICLE terms (so that they do not need to be versioned for other languages). That can be a real challenge, conveying a story in a few panels with no text.
Q: Are the Bionicle comics translated into any other languages? How many different translations get printed of each full-size comic?
Farshtey: The translations vary … not every country carries every issue, sometimes they carry them in an abridged format, etc. For example, this year the UK and Central European clubs are only carrying a few of the full-sized issues (for budgetary reasons), but they have been printing abridged versions of the comics in their Club magazines (so UK English and German language versions).
I know that last year, various issues were, at various times, translated into French, UK English, German, Italian, and I believe some Asian languages as well.
Q: What materials do you use to create the BIONICLE comic pages?
D'Anda: I'm the penciller on those books, so I just use a lead holder with H lead.
Elliott: I use a #2, series 7, Winsor & Newton watercolor sable brush for most of the outlines and a variety of Rotring Rapidograph pens and Hunt 102 crowquills for the rest. I have a complete set of ellipse templates, French curve and triangle with inking edge to round out things. Finally, I use Pelikan Graphic White for corrections. I use white erasers and kneaded erasers as well.
Q: Do you have much back-and-forth with the artists before completing an issue? What is the process an issue goes through, from inception to my mailbox?
Farshtey: First thing that happens, early in the year, is that I put together a very rough outline of what I see happening in which issue. This goes out to the rest of the BIONICLE team for approval, and it may get modified as the year goes on.
After I write a script for an individual issue, it goes out to BIONICLE team members in Denmark, the U.K., and the U.S. for approval. I make any revisions that are needed and pass the script on to DC Comics. From there, it goes to Carlos, who sketches thumbnails of the pages. These are approved by BIONICLE team members in Enfield, and Carlos then proceeds with the pencils.
Once the pencils are done, they are inked (normally by Randy Elliott, who is very talented). Inks are approved; then colors are done and approved; and finally we see the colored pages with lettering. Once that is done, the book is ready to be printed and mailed out with the LEGO Club Magazine.
Q: Do you have any input as to what the cover is going to be? The cover illustration of issue #5 has no direct tie to the story in the rest of the issue.
Farshtey: Yes, I, along with people from the BIONICLE team, make a cover suggestion to DC for each issue. Occasionally, we do "symbolic covers" that don't relate directly to the story line, but which we think are visually arresting.
Q: How many revisions does your work undergo for an average issue?
Farshtey: Generally only one set of changes. The script goes out to Denmark and the U.K. and the BIONICLE people there get back to me with any changes they want. Sometimes they are changes that have to be made, sometimes they are just suggestions. I have had scripts with really minor changes, and some where a decent amount had to be done. I find the revisions generally make the scripts a lot better, when all is said and done.
Q: How much lead-time is there between finalizing an issue and it getting into the hands of the readers?
Farshtey: The script for a given issue is due to DC about four months before the issue comes out. We usually get final, lettered art about two months before the issue ships.
Q: Do you find it difficult working within the confines of the writer's script?
D'Anda: I actually enjoy working within confines, I find that in a way, it actually helps me creatively because you have a better idea of where to focus your energy within a page.
Q: How much of the comic book story is your own original work, and how much of it is interpretation of existing story line?
Farshtey: The overall BIONICLE story line for the year is crafted by LEGO Media in the U.K., with assistance from other BIONICLE team members (including me). So I am working from that "bible" always — I cannot, for example, go off on my own and come up with an entirely new motivation for the BOHROK that contradicts what everyone else is doing.
So, I cannot change the grand scheme of things very much (and wouldn't want to), but I do have a hand in showing how things happen; developing the characters of the TOA; and deciding how best to convey a lot of story in 12-page chunks so that our readers will get it. I view everything I do, though, as very collaborative, because I am working in an exciting universe, and I have the benefit of working some enormously creative people…people who may improve upon my work with their suggestions, or simply listen to my ideas. I really can't say enough about how much freedom I have been given to create in the BIONICLE universe, much more than I would have expected.
Q: Who is responsible for the BIONICLE "bible"?
Farshtey: The overall story line is put together by a team of people from Denmark, the U.K., and the U.S. So it is very much a team effort.
Q: How difficult is it to coordinate with all the other story line sources, like the video games and the card game?
Farshtey: Not as difficult as you might expect. Unlike some other "universes" I worked in prior to coming to LEGO Direct, everyone here is motivated to work together and make BIONICLE function as a coherent whole. It's a big, rich, complex story line, and if we don't cooperate as much as possible, we run the risk of contradictions and confusion. So part of my job is staying in contact with the other storytellers, particularly the folks at BIONICLE.COM.
Q: What is the most difficult part of working on the BIONICLE comics?
Farshtey: Probably staying within the page count. There are so many cool things that you want to do with these characters and this story, but you have to stay disciplined so that the important points of the story can all be conveyed.
D'Anda: At first, the hardest part was getting used to drawing the characters in different angles, action poses, and stuff like that … it just took a little while to start seeing the characters as characters and not toys.
Elliott: The deadlines are the toughest part of the project.
Q: What becomes of the original artwork after the comic has been published?
D'Anda: In most cases, the artist gets it back after a few months.
Q: Which character do you most enjoy writing for/about and why?
Farshtey: Probably KOPAKA. But I find he works best when he has someone like LEWA or POHATU to play off of. All of the TOA are forces of good, and most of them tend to be very benevolent and trusting by nature and very much "team players." KOPAKA, on the other hand, is a loner, very sure of himself, and somewhat cynical. That makes him fun to write. With the exception of GALI, who is very perceptive and can see past his icy shell, I think most of the other TOA respect KOPAKA more than they actually like him.
Q: Which character or creature do you find is the most difficult to draw/ink and why? Easiest? Most fun?
D'Anda: The hardest was probably the big bull and cat creatures from the first series, it was just hard to make them look dynamic with so many little pieces … the easiest, I still have to draw one of those :) … and the most fun … I really like drawing KOPAKA and LEWA.
Elliott: All of the BIONICLE characters and creatures are pretty tough to ink! Carlos certainly makes the job easier with his terrific pencils, but the mechanical nature of the images makes them a little more difficult to ink than people. I really like LEWA and his axe! He's a menacing looking figure!
Q: In Issue 4, there is a recap which mentions "SHADOW TOA." Where were we supposed to encounter the SHADOW TOA and what was supposed to happen?
Farshtey: From the start, the story of BIONICLE was intended to be told in a lot of different ways - through the comics, through the web, and through software, to name a few. The plan for 2001 was to do three comics that would introduce the TOA and the RAHI, and lead into the PC game. The PC game would have featured the confrontation with the SHADOW TOA aspect of MAKUTA. When the PC game was cancelled, mentioning it as a recap in the January issue seemed the best alternative, as the issue had to focus on the BOHROK's emergence.
Q: Also in Issue 4, the narration mentions the TOA's "first encounter" with MAKUTA. Is there a future encounter with MAKUTA in store for the TOA?
Farshtey: I don't have all the details yet for the 2003 story line (and even if I did, I wouldn't want to ruin any surprises for BIONICLE fans). But based on my years of reading comics, I have never known a master villain who didn't pop back up again when you least expected him.
Q: How do the BOHROK make that "chikt-chikt" sound?
Farshtey: I was going for sort of a "metallic cockroach" sound when I came up with that. It could be something as simple as the sound they make when they move (I favor that over the idea of it being a verbal communication). With one BOHROK, it might not be that noticeable, but with a swarm, it is loud and intimidating.
Q: Do you have any advice for those interested in becoming a comic book artist?
D'Anda: Practice all the time!!!
Elliott: I would advise any aspiring comic artist to draw, draw, draw!!!! You need to train in the same way that a professional boxer does. You need to work on the fundamentals every day. Aspire to never miss deadlines!!! Comics are a commodity. Our publishers need us to produce the material on time. If we do that, we all make money. Tailor your "style" to fit the tight deadlines that you'll face in publishing. Comics are not a field for faint-hearted or those artists worried about creating a "Mona Lisa" with every page!
Q: Do you foresee the comic book series running as long as the toy line continues to be developed?
Farshtey: I certainly hope so. We discovered in 2001 that the comic was an excellent way to get the story of BIONICLE out to the audience, and the story is a very big part of the success of the line. Ultimately, people at a higher level will decide whether it continues to be a valid storytelling tool going forward, but I am certainly willing to keep writing them.
Q: Is there anything you would like our readers to know which I have not asked about?
Farshtey: I would like to say thank you to the BIONICLE team in Europe and in America for the opportunity to work on the comics. Their contributions to the effort and their support make all the difference in the world, and the comic never would have gotten off the ground (or continued) without the efforts of the entire team. So any success it has had or regard it has gained really belongs to everyone involved with BIONICLE.
D'Anda: You can all envy me because I get the toys way, way in advance before they come out at the stores … heheheh … just kidding! :)
Elliott: BIONICLE is the most enjoyable property that I've worked on in all the years that I've been in comics! It's designed for and directed at kids. Many kids never get to see the other properties that I've worked on and indeed, a good many of them would not be appropriate for younger kids, but Bionicle is different. LEGO has put this comic book into the hands of thousands of kids that may never have read another comic book. That's important. I love comic books and welcome the opportunity to introduce a legion of new readers to the medium!
I would also like to take the opportunity to thank my co-creators and the other behind-the-scene people at LEGO and DC for this opportunity. Without you folks, I wouldn't have this opportunity. Thank you, all!