"Image United" Weekly - Erik Larsen

"Image United" Weekly - Erik Larsen

It's really happening.

Image United, the six-issue "jam session" with six of the artists who founded the publishing company 17 years ago, hits stores in November with a story by the newest Image partner, Robert Kirkman.

The series artists – Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino – made comic book history in 1992 when they and Jim Lee left Marvel Comics to start Image Comics. Founded on the idea that creators own their intellectual properties, Image started with launches of series like Youngblood, The Savage Dragon and Spawn.

Now the six founders are doing something in Image United that's pretty revolutionary – each artist will draw the characters he created, meaning sometimes one page might have six artists working on it, sending pages back and forth until they are finished.

When the series was announced in 2008, many fans wondered if the six artists, many of whom now administer their own studios and companies, would be able to find the time to make the project work.

But a little over a year later, the first issue of Image United is finished and the series is on its way to completion.

And last week, Image revealed that the main villain in Image United would be Al Simmons, the character who was the original Spawn.

In the first of a weekly series on Newsarama – Image United Weekly – leading up to the release of the first issue, we begin by discussing the series with Erik Larsen. The artist's Savage Dragon is Image's longest running owner-created title by an Image partner, and he served as publisher for the company before Eric Stephenson joined the company last year.

As we spoke to the artist, he was reluctant to reminisce too much about the past, but had some interesting stories to share about the process behind Image United and what the series means to the company's future.

Newsarama: We've talked before about how the project came together, but what was your motivation to do this, and why did it appeal to you in particular?

Erik Larsen: Well, years ago we had done this thing where we all swapped books. We all got the opportunity to draw other people's characters. At the time, what was really appealing about that as an idea was that it wasn't something that any other company could really do. You could have this creative team of Spider-Man at that moment mix up with the creative team of Incredible Hulk at that moment, but those creators were not specifically identified 100 percent with those characters, whereas at Image, nobody had drawn Savage Dragon, nobody had drawn Cyberforce, nobody had drawn Spawn. These guys were doing their own books. So when people would swap from one book to the other, it would be cool. It would be an event.

It's the same now. You've got a team-up, or a crossover, of six groups of characters. And it's pretty exciting that the guy who created Spawn is the guy who is drawing Spawn in this crossover. And all the other characters all the way down the line. There's nobody filling in. There's nobody's second cousin doing stuff or whatever. You can't do that anywhere else, really. You can't do that with any books at Marvel or DC, because most of the original creators are gone or don't want anything to do with the company anymore. So you're not going to get Steve Ditko drawing Spider-Man in a crossover with Incredible Hulk drawn by Jack Kirby. It's not possible for that kind of thing to go on.

So it makes it a pretty exciting thing for both me as a creator, and me as a reader, to just be able to get the real characters by the real creators. This is pretty exciting stuff.

Nrama: The six of you together automatically reminds people of the founding of Image Comics. Looking back, the founding of Image Comics has come to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. How do you remember that time?

Larsen: I'm kind of the wrong guy to ask about that, because I tend to be much more forward-looking than backward-looking. I keep looking toward what's coming next and what I have going on instead of dwelling on the past.

It certainly was an exciting time to be doing comic books. I think there are a lot of people who got very strange messages from us leaving, as though somehow we were betraying Marvel or that this was going to be something that was bad for the industry. But giving people more choices and options where they can take their creative stuff – that's got to be a good thing.

I look back on it as a relatively positive time. Absolutely, there were a lot of mistakes. None of us had ever really started up a new book with a #1 from scratch before. Todd had come on and done Spider-Man, but Spider-Man had an established history and cast. He wasn't having to really add a lot of new things to that mix, but was just taking the ball that was handed to him and run with it. And same thing with Rob on X-Force and Jim Lee on X-Men. These were things that were pre-existing. So when we're coming on here, we're having to essentially create an entire universe of characters and make up all the rules and decide where everything was going. And there were definite mistakes that came along with that where we were screwing things up and not getting things in on time. And having all sorts of inconsistencies as to how a universe would be and should be put together.

But over the years, I think it turned out rather well.

Nrama: Would you ever have predicted where you would all end up today? Does any of it still surprise you?

Larsen: It doesn't surprise me that we're still around, because I expected that we would be. But you never know for sure what's going to go on with anything.

Certainly, when I started my book, I wasn't sitting there thinking, "Well, of course this is going to be around for 17 years! And in Issue #154, what I really want to do is...." You know, there was none of that. You can't plan that far ahead. It really would be kind of foolish to make those kinds of plans.

Some people are always asking, when you started that, were you thinking what you were going to do with Issue #150? No! That's crazy talk! I have a vague idea of where I wanted to go, because I had a point where I had been before with the characters, so I knew that I wanted to get to a certain point eventually. But I got to that point eventually, and then beyond that, it's all been gravy.

But over the last 17 years, there have certainly been a lot of unexpected changes. Creators have moved in and moved out. Having started this thing, I really would have wished that everybody would have stuck to their guns and stayed on their characters and continued to do the books they wanted to do. But really, coming into this thing, you couldn't possibly expect that my agenda would be everyone else's agenda. That's something that, coming into this, I think a lot of people were under the impression that the group of us walked in a locked step. And that just isn't the case. We really were separate people with different things we wanted to accomplish with this company. And I think all of us, to some degree or another, have accomplished what we had set out to do.

But my goal was to never look back and never waver from doing the book that I started. The idea for me has always been that this is the comic I do for the rest of my career.

Nrama: With this project, do the words Image United have more than one meaning? What do they mean to you?

Larsen: The idea was that it would be open for all kinds of interpretation. It's getting the gang back together and having the group of us work in a "united" fashion. But it's also about the characters coming together and the story being about them "uniting."

Nrama: What do you think of the story?

Larsen: So far, it's great. At this point, I've not laid out every issue. It's still a work in progress. So I haven't gotten to the end yet. So I'm looking forward to having it all wrapped up in that regard. But I like what I've done so far.

Nrama: How would you describe the story to Newsarama readers?

Larsen: Oh jeez. You guys are a tough crowd. [laughs]

Nrama: [laughs] OK, then how would you describe it to a friend? How's that?

Larsen: For me, it's all about getting the characters together and doing a cool story.

But the notion of it is that the character Fortress has seen a vision of a world in which everything has gone really screwy, and it's all the fault of the Image characters not acting in a way and doing things in a way they should have been to have things go right. So it's a lot like a "Days of Future Past" type story.

I think it's just a cool story in general if you haven't read any of these characters before because it's a good introduction to who they are and their history. But because it also touches upon a lot of things we've done in our history, it's definitely a cool story if you've read Image Comics over the years.

Nrama: Are there several characters you're working on in Image United?

Larsen: Yeah. All of my characters that have been introduced. I had done Freak Force early on, and those characters are going to be showing up. You'll see SuperPatriot in there, and Mighty Man and numerous other characters. Right now, Dragon's got kids, so they'll be showing up and will be involved in the action as well. It really hits on everything that I've done at the company.

But the main player is Savage Dragon. I'll be drawing more Savage Dragon than anybody else. But there are also a lot of Savage Dragon villains that show up as well as other supporting characters.

Nrama: What role does Savage Dragon play in the story?

Larsen: He plays the role of the big cop with the green fin on his head. [laughs]

Uh... I don't know how to answer that without saying too much. I don't want to step on Robert's toes as far as character stuff. He does play a major role in the book. I've drawn him a lot. But I don't want to give away too much.

Nrama: What's the process been like? You've been working on it for about a year, haven't you?

Larsen: Well, we announced it last year in San Diego. We had just started thinking about it and discussing the idea at Free Comic Book Day in 2008. But it wasn't until San Diego that we really hashed out the story. It's not like it's been that long.

As processes go, it's fairly involved. It's very hands-on, and a lot of FedEx back and forth.

Nrama: You mentioned your layouts. Are you doing all the layouts?

Larsen: Rob Liefeld laid out the first issue or most of the first issue. I laid out a page that just had Savage Dragon on it, so there wasn't any real need to have him touch that page, because it was just my guys. But I've laid out all the covers thus far.

Initially the idea was that everybody would lay out an issue, but for the sake of all of our sanity and deadlines, I think I'll end up laying out all of them. There was going to be some real consistency issues if we kept trying to have everyone do an issue. There were these issues where props were changing from one issue to the next and stuff like that.

Nrama: So it starts with the script, right? I'm trying to understand the process. Are they plot scripts?

Larsen: Yeah. The basic process is that I'll get the plot from Robert, and then I'll lay in some really rough figures as to where things are and what things are on a full-size page. In many cases, they will barely resemble the characters they're supposed to be. The idea is just for me to be putting down gestures, and then the other artists will come in and put their character where the gesturing figure is. There have even been places where I've done a basic male character where a female character will be. Because the important part is you just getting the gesture, not following my drawing. All of us construct characters somewhat different from each other. So while I may have people with especially long legs or small heads, the next guys isn't necessarily doing it in that way. So he's got to make his own adjustments to turn that layout into his own work.

So I make photocopies of everything. The plot is written in such a way that it says on each page, for example, Page 1: Rob, Whilce. And that means Rob and Whilce are the main artists on that page. And the rest of us will know, OK, we don't need to work on those pages. Those will only be sent to Rob and Whilce. And when those two guys are done with it, it's finished.

In some cases there are pages where every one of us is involved. In some cases there are pages that have just one or two guys involved.

Nrama: So you photocopy the whole thing, so everyone knows the whole layout, but they just get the original pages that they need to work on?

Larsen: Yes. The actually original art is sent to every person who is working on that particular page. Rob Liefeld is drawing on the actual boards. This isn't being pieced together in Photoshop. People are working on the actual art. And that makes it cool for everybody involved. You get to see what everybody else is doing on the page, and you get to be inspired by somebody else's work. And it's just a cool process to be a part of.

Nrama: And since it's a plot-style script, then Robert gets the art at the end so he can do the dialogue?

Larsen: Yeah, at the very end of it, Robert gets the art and decides what everyone's saying.

Nrama: Have you guys hit any snafus?

Larsen: There have been cases where people are drawing along and they assumed this is supposed to be one thing, and the pencils were vague enough that when they guess wrong, we can fix it. Generally speaking, those kinds of things can be overcome and patches can be made.

There was a page where Cyberforce was jumping out of their ship, and then Marc didn't realize it was supposed to be their ship. So we got the original art back, and I'm sitting there doing the backgrounds, and there's no ship there. And I don't know what the hell their ship looks like. So in that instance, Marc had to send through a patch, and the ship was added in Photoshop. Whoever ends up with original art for that page won't have the ship there.

Todd McFarlane works a lot these days not on original art. The stuff he's been inking has been mostly been done digitally. He's fallen in love with Cintiq and has been doing stuff that way. But we're kind of twisting his arm here and getting him to do things the old-fashioned way. But there have been cases here and there where he's said, "Can I just scan this in and get this little effect here on the Cintiq?" And we're like, "Oh, alright, man."

It's kind of surprising how into that Todd is. But in a way, it makes sense because you've got this tool now where your pen never runs out of ink. You've always got the point on it you want. The brush is always the brush you'd want to use. And stuff like that. It's definitely a cool tool. But for those of us who like working on the actual paper, it's not the tool we want to use.

I rely a lot on happy accidents. So for me, I couldn't work that way because I'm too dependent on splattering something and saying, "OK, that's kind of cool. Now I'm going to work with that." But more power to him.

Nrama: Are you feeling good about your ability to get all the issues done in a timely manner?

Larsen: I'm feeling really good about my ability to get everything done. [laughs] Let's put it that way. Robert has been really good at cracking the whip and herding these cats in the direction they need to go. And when push comes to shove and it needs to get done, they've been pretty good at it. And I think that everything's going to come together. But really? The only guy I can 100 percent say for sure is going to get it done is myself. But I think you'll find that everybody in this process will probably give you the exact same answer.

Hopefully the case will be that every one of us will have our act together and it will all work out and be awesome. So far, it's been clicking along pretty well. So I'm not super worried about it. There have been a couple spots here and there, but people have gotten it together and it's been really good. So far, there's been no cause for concern.

Nrama: What has the experience been like for you, placing those characters into the story and seeing them interact in this way?

Larsen: Oh, it's been great. It really has. It's just awesome. And it's a real kick to see your layout turn into a Whilce drawing or a McFarlane drawing or a Silvestri drawing. You know? You weren't necessarily thinking this is the kind of page that it going to turn into this. When you see it, it's like, holy crap! That guy really delivered there! It's pretty cool. It's just an exciting thing to be part of.

Nrama: If someone else was planning to do a comic the same way, what advice would you have for them?

Larsen: I think it helps to have Robert. If we were going to try to do this just the six of us without Robert, it would have been a vastly bigger headache than it has been. But he's been really great. Eric Stephenson has been keeping track of pages and making sure things get done. And it's really been a real team effort to get all the ducks in a row. For the most part, it's been done without any hiccups. I'm hoping it all works out in the end. And it will be a great project when everything's all put together.

Nrama: Do you think this experience has shaped the way your company will work in the future?

Larsen: You know I think the group of us can look at the way this is going and say, you know what? I haven't really been playing with the other guys' toys for awhile. Maybe it would be cool to take this universe and make it into more of a universe, and put that sense of community back into the books. I think there's definitely going to be people taking that out of this, and that you'll likely see coordination between people. You'll see little mentions that Spawn exists or whatever. These books take place in a shared universe, and we can do things with each others' characters and do things in a way that there is some kind of ramifications to what's going on.

I think that's what really attracted us to doing this in the first place. I think we lost sight of that a little bit. But I think we're catching on as we go and yeah, I think you'll see more of it. And I think that's an exciting thing.

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