Balancing ODY-C, ULTIMATES, SUICIDE SQUAD with CHRISTIAN WARD

"Ultimates #12" preview
Credit: Christian Ward
Credit: Christian Ward (Marvel Comics)

For the past three months, Christian Ward has been balancing Marvel's Ultimates, DC's Suicide Squad, and his long-running adaptation of The Odyssey with writer Matt Fraction. Quite a mix, but for the artist it is just the beginning.

The artist, who colors his own work, recently finished what he admitted was a break-neck schedule of three issues in three months - ODY-C #11, ODY-C #12, and Ultimates #12 - the last two coming out October 26. He's doing an eight-page Enchantress back-up for November 23's Suicide Squad, continuing his penchant for the cosmic and supernatural over to DC.

Newsarama talked with the enterprising and busy artist about his busy schedule as one of the Big Two's top free agent artists, his transition from classic painting to digital work, and also his ambition to write and draw his own material.

Credit: Christian Ward (Marvel Comics)

Newsarama: Christian, what is on your drawing board (digital or physical) today? What are you working on?

Christian Ward: I have a little but very cool eight-pager to do for DC’s Suicide Squad #7 that I'm currently working on. Other than that, I've just come to the end of a pretty intense workload, not to mention moving house so I'm enjoying doing some painting, catching up on some long overdue personal commissions. I've worked digitally for a year now so it's become even more pleasurable to sit down and physically paint. 

Nrama: Last week Marvel published your guest issue of Ultimates, wrapping up that volume. You also drew Ultimates #6. What do you feel your role is with these special issues, ending arcs, and also doing covers for Ultimates?

Ward: It's been a real honor and pleasure to be a guest on these Ultimates issues, I love what Al Ewing and the team are doing on the book. The real difference between this and ODY-C is this isn't my story and I have to respect what's come before. In ODY-C, Matt and I play with the world and here it's more like I’m playing in the world. The balance is to bring something different to the issues while still honoring Kenneth Rocafort. Both my guest issues have had moments of big cosmic importance, so much of the challenge has been to give those moments the drama they deserve. The constant struggle with my work has been keeping the balance between style and content, so that any 'flash' is in service of the story rather than detrimental to it. 

In regards to the covers for Ultimates 2, I'd had such a blast drawing this team for Ultimates so I basically begged Marvel to let me do it. It's always a challenge to do ongoing covers. To keep them exciting and different from the month before. 

Credit: Christian Ward (Marvel Comics)

Nrama: You mentioned “honoring Kenneth.” I understand the idea of that, but as an artist doing these pages what does it translate into? 

Ward: Just that how I depict the world and characters of Ultimates doesn't differ too much from Kenneth. 

Credit: Christian Ward (Marvel Comics)

Nrama: Ultimates is a book that I imagine would be challenging for an artist not only due to the fact it's an ensemble book, but there's always the question of scale with normal-sized people and then Galactus and his Galactus-sized things. What's it like drawing this book and mapping that kind of thing out?

Ward: One of the things I enjoy most about drawing comics is the challenge. Sometimes working out a page can feel like a puzzle, one that’s hugely satisfying to solve.  I'll often think about a page for the same length of time as actually drawing it. As you say it can get tricky with drawing Galactus alongside the human-sized characters but Al's scripts have made that relatively easy to do. In fact, much of the fun of Ultimates #6 came with Galactus encountering characters even bigger than him or having Molecule Man normalizing him. I never thought I’d be drawing Galactus in an arm chair. In a general sense, it has been the perfect book to make my Marvel debut on. Big and cosmic. I think the last two years on ODY-C have prepared me well for playing with an epic sci-fi. My rule of thumb has been to fill the pages with color.

Credit: Christian Ward

Nrama: This is the third full issue you've done in three months: ODY-C #11, ODY-C #12, and Ultimates #12. A record for you,  not to mention you are doing the line-work, shading and colors. Why the accelerated schedule?

Ward: Doing creator-owned comics is a little like working on a small indie movie and sometimes it’s nice to go do a Hollywood blockbuster. The boost that can give you in regards to exposure not to mention your bank balance can help to keep the creator-owned work going. This particular time I got offered the Ultimates fill-in and I'd had such a great time on Ultimates #6 I just didn't want to turn it down. Matt and I spent longer than planned on the ODY-C Coloring Book (when it went from reprints of line-work from ODY-C Volume 1 to being a 100 pages of new content) and we didn't want to delay the return of the single issues any longer so I found a way to make all three issues work in that time frame. Certainly not ideal but I think each of the three issues are some of my best work. Sometimes you need that pressure to push yourself to new places. 

Credit: Christian Ward

Nrama: So three issues in three months - what's your normal timeframe for doing an issue when not in this crunch?

Ward: We were in the process of moving home at the time also so each issue took around 20 days, ideally I like to spend around five weeks on an issue.

Nrama: So for the artists reading this, what’s your secret in making it work for those three months?

Ward: Pure panic.

Nrama: [Laughs]

Credit: Christian Ward

Ward: Nothing motivates as much as a tight deadline. I also developed a slightly different method on these issues which sped things up some. Rather than drawing the page then coloring the lines, with these pages I drew and colored each element, backdrops and characters separately. It made painting the characters that much faster. 

Nrama: This brings me to ask about your digital painting vs. physical painting. Correct me if I'm wrong, but most of your comic book work is digital painting right? If so, have you thought about doing more physical painting for comic books?

Credit: Christian Ward

Ward: Yeah, I transitioned over to all digital for ODY-C #6. Initially it was a temporary move simply to give the new arc a different feel, but I enjoyed it too much to move back. I know many artists prefer it due to spending less time on it. Although it is faster, I find rather than spend less time, it allows instead to put more into a page. It's certainly made experimentation way easier and allowed my style to develop and change. That said, as mentioned I still love physically painting and would absolutely paint the right book. There's a project on the horizon that I want to experiment with painting the backdrops and laying over digital characters. I think that's when it gets really exciting, when you combined the two working methods.

Nrama: And on the same week Ultimates #12 came out, so did ODY-C #12. This twelve issues of you and Matt, every page, every issue. How has the story changed for you in the telling of it?

Credit: Christian Ward

Ward: ODY-C is a hugely different story to the one we originally set out to tell. That's the best thing about Matt, that he turns and turns an idea and lets it grow until it becomes its own thing. As much as our starting point was this retelling of The Odyssey, it feels more like its own story now; a wild universe with its own rules and characters with their own motivations. Part of the joy has been Matt mining other classic literature, like Moby Dick, 1001 Arabian Nights, Dante’s Inferno and threading them through our story. It's no exaggeration when I say every issue is a surprise and that keep's the telling of it incredibly exciting. I have no idea where we're going next.

Nrama: This is the second part of The Oresteia retelling, which Matt is doing entirely in limerick. How does that affect what you are doing on the art side?

Credit: Christian Ward

Ward: The limericks don't affect my part much, since Matt writes all text after the art (we kind of use the marvel method)… however quite early on he knew he wanted these two issues to be special and decided that we should do each issue as a series of 20 to 22 splash pages. Initially I was all like “That’s great!,” “That’ll be fun!”,” “Way easier than a regular issue”… boy, was I wrong.

ODY-C #11 and #12 have been the hardest issues to get right since the first issue. Each page had to be a showstopper, to be as 'wow' as I could make it and the problem with 20 showstoppers is it can become victim to the law of diminishing returns. It was hugely challenging. On top of that, I wanted readers’ eyes to be guided around the page much in the same way as your eye is guided by panels. As such, each page was built upon a nine-panel structure to ensure that interest was spread around the page. 

Nrama: After this marathon of three issues in three months, you're going straight into drawing an Enchantress back-up story for Suicide Squad #7. I believe this is your first DC interior work, so how did it come about?

Credit: Christian Ward

Ward: I wrote and drew a short called “Little Bang” for the Vertigo anthology comic SFX last year but yes this is my first DC comic. I've been chatting with Suicide Squad editor Andy Khouri on Twitter for almost a year, and he has been on the lookout for the right book for me. Suicide Squad seemed liked a good fit.

Nrama:  Your art style seems a great fit for Enchantress, given her power-set and the presentation of it. Did that play a part at all in your decision to do it?

Ward: Exactly! A lot of the work I've done recently has been big cosmic sci-fi, even Ultimates to some degree, so it's been nice to do something supernatural and go for a darker creepier aesthetic. 

Nrama: I've noticed you consciously ramping up work-for-hire work while balancing ODY-C this year. Why is that?

Credit: Christian Ward

Ward: That's two fold; for one, it's fun to have the opportunity to draw these characters I've enjoyed reading for years and two, doing work-for-hire helps with my exposure. It's great to have the chance to be seen by different audience that perhaps might then pick up ODY-C

Nrama: You mentioned awhile back in an interview that in addition to Ultimates, ODY-C, and now Suicide Squad, you're also working on your own book - doing the writing and art yourself. Can you give any update on that?

Ward: The end goal has always to be a writer/artist but the reality of getting my own books off the ground alongside my other projects has proven to be a little naive. I’ve got a number of comics I want to write and draw; a few are miniseries and a few are ongoing, as such it's likely to be after ODY-C finishes (we've got 36 issues planned) before I can really get my teeth into them. I have a couple of one-shots that are at the forefront of my mind though that I’m being more active with. At least one of those, a silent comic, I hope will see the light of day next year.  

Nrama: Do you thinking having these projects in-mind but being unable to execute them at the present moment will affect how they turn out in the long run? Does this 'fermenting' process affect the work?

Ward: Three things can happen. One: the idea can develop and improve over time. Two: I fall out of love with the story and it gets replaced by a better idea or Three: I have drop the idea altogether because a comic with a similar concept or story gets released.

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