When you listen to Tony Harris talk about his career, it almost reads a map cutting through a wide swath of the industry's finest. Passing by names like Brian Stelfreeze and James Robinson and Brian K. Vaughan and Cully Hamner, it's clear that over his 20 year career, Tony Harris has covered a lot of ground. And to commemorate Harris's milestone, IDW and Desperado will be releasing a retrospective on his work called Tony Harris: Art & Skulduggery, due out in March. Newsarama caught up with the two-time Eisner-winning Harris in a five-part coversation that truly painted an in-depth portrait of the artist -- whether it's working on Ex Machina or Starman, Obergeist or Lazarus 5, Harris spoke frankly and candidly over his roots, his failures, his successes and his thoughts on the industry.
Newsarama: Tony, we've heard that IDW and Desperado are printing a retrospective on your career as an artist. Which titles are going to be highlighted in this book? How far are they going back?
Tony Harris: To high school.
Harris: (Laughs) Yeah, it's an absolutely 100% complete retrospective. We go back all the way to 1988, which was pre- my professional career. And there's some stuff in there from high school, there's a lot of text with me working with the school newspaper as the editorial cartoonist, and stuff like that. We began the book with my first published work, which was self-published back in '89, a book called Blade. And it just goes all the way through everything, my independent days, working for everybody from Innovation to Malibu to Millenium, Epic at Marvel, my days at Innovation doing Nightmare on Elm Street, my first work as an inker over Jason Pearson at the Big Two. And Starman will have a major presence in the book. Obviously, that's a no-brainer, 'cause that put me on the map professionally, and not putting Starman in the retrospective would have been a bullet to the brain (laughs) to do the book without Jack Knight in it.
And of course it does everything beyond that, Obergeist, Lazurus 5, and the two JSA books I did with Dan Jolley, Doctor Strange, tons of unpublished stuff, things that I was commisioned to do that, y'know, didn't see the light of day for whatever reason. There's a lot of personal work in the book that no one's ever seen before. And Ex Machina's in the book -- it's totally inclusive. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, everything.
I was pretty lucky when we started putting the book together, I started contacting everybody that I had worked with, and everybody gave us permission. The only company not to give us permission officially was DC, because they have a sort of across-the-board policy of not co-mingling their properties with other publishers. But there's a little thing called "fair usage" in the publishing world, and -- I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know percentages -- but per your page count in the book, you're allowed a certain percentage of your body of work at a publisher to be included in a retrospective, as long as it doesn't go over a certain number of pages. It has to do directly with the percentage, so I was able to actually include all the seminal parts in my DC career.
Nrama: That's interesting that you say this book goes as far back as high school for you. Did you always know you wanted to be a comic artist? What made you decide that this was the career path you wanted to take?
Harris: No, I didn't. I knew I always wanted to do something with art professionally, but me being involved with the school newspapers, [being] the editorial cartoonist, was a fluke. I could draw, and I was always one of those kids in high school that everybody thought, that was sort of my identifying thing -- "Oh, Harris can draw." So they asked me to be involved, and I did that, but I never really read comics in earnest and collected until I was 19, and I was out of high school.
I flirted with the medium, as all kids do, and I bought a comic here and there -- the first comic I ever bought was a pocket-sized edition of Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson's Empire Strikes Back adaptation. And I was like -- God, I think I was like 11, or something -- it had (starts laughing), it had my home room from my school written in the front page. So if I lost it in school, somebody could have brought it back to me -- like they would have. But yeah, I bought that, and like I said, I was about 10 or 11, and I actually was so enamored with Al's work in the book -- and Archie's too, but specifically Al, because he was the artist -- that I set about to actually recreate every panel from the actual book on typing paper, with, like, ballpoint pen and magic markers. I got permission from my elementary school to post a couple of new pages each week up on the bulletin board as you stood in line to go into the lunchroom, so the kids could sort of read them when you were going through. So I guess I did have an early start, but I had no inkling that I would end up doing it professionally, of course.
And I graduated high school, and split, and went to find my way -- and it didn't work out. So I was in Athens, Ga., in '89, after I graduated, and I spent a year there. I just kind of did whatever came my way, and that's where I sort of discovered comics, with the comic shops there. So I kind of fell into it there and really just fell in love with the medium instantly, sort of rediscovered it, if you will. I had heard about a couple of conventions in Atlanta, so I made a few trips up there to the now late Atlanta Fantasy Fare and a few other things, and that's where I started meeting other working professionals, who would later become my studio partners at Gaijin. And I decided then and there, "this is for me, this is what I want to do." And I called my father and said, "Hey, I figured out what I want to do! I want to be a comic book artist!"
Nrama: (Laughs) What'd he have to say to that?
Harris: "...Oookay. What does that mean?" (Laughs) So I explained it to him, and I said, "Well, see, there are guys out there, Dad, these things don't just appear. There are people out there who actually draw this -- and they get paid. And this is what I want to do. And can I move back home?" (Laughs) He said, "yeah, you can come home," and he gave me a year to make it. And I think I got my first paying assignment inside of six months.
Nrama: Was that first paid assignment Blade #1?
Harris: No, actually, I did Blade while I was home. I went to a local comic shop in Macon, Ga., and it's called Komix Castle, with a K., and I put up on a bulletin board -- oh, I have a history with bulletin boards here, don't I? -- a little sort of thing saying, "I want to do a comic, I need a writer." And my oldest friend in the world now, Seaborn Mercer, answered the call, and he ended up writing it, and I ended up drawing it, and he and his wife ended up using some of their savings to fund some of our publishing.
And we did two issues of that, before we got a cease-and-desist letter from Marvel.
Nrama: Whooooooa. (Laughs) Oh, wow!
Harris: (Laughing) We were actually doing really well, too. We did two printings on the first issue. The first one was, I think, 3,000, and we had to do another printing, so we did a total of five, and this was back in '89. But that's back when there was still a real black-and-white boom in the independent market. And we were doing the typical hyperviolent fare, nothing special. But we do reprint the entirety of Blade #1 in the art book, lettered and everything, so you can read the entire horrid thing. (Laughs) I felt it was important, especially for young guys coming up who want to see, who say "wow, I've been following this guy's career, I dig his stuff, y'know, what's it going to take for me to get in?" I don't think I'm rare -- I think it was important to include Blade, because it was my first published work, so they could see, everybody has to start somewhere. So it's there in all its glory. But my first paid assignment for the proper market was Nightmare on Elm Street, and those were fully painted interiors, and those were for Innovation.
Check in tomorrow for Part 2, with Harris’s move to Nightmare on Elm Street, Cully Hamner, and much more.