A Week of Tony Harris: Day 3: Process, Early Work

A Week of Tony Harris: Day 3: Process

In part one of our week long Tony Harris showcase in conjunction with Desperado Publishing’s coming artbook, Tony Harris: Art & Skulduggery, due out in March, we talked with the artist about his early days. From high school doodles to cease-and-desist-inducing self-created works, Harris talked about how he got bit by the art bug. We followed that with Day 2, in which he mentioned some artists he looks up to. Then some crazy news hit, the postponed us for a day.

Never fear, we hath returned, and have your 3rd installment ready to go. Here we get into Harris’s process, and how his art comes to life.

Newsarama: In terms of your process, I remember seeing something where you were taking reference photos of your friends to put together a conversation scene. Around when in your career did you begin using reference? How do you feel it helped you out?

Harris: I started probably around with my time at Gaijin Studios, and that would have been... the first time I used it in my work was pretty sporadically, in Nightbreed, here and there. And I used a little bit more of it in Darkhold, and then as I did each project, I started getting a little bit more into it. And I started Issue 0 of Starman, and I didn't use hardly any at all -- there's some there, you can see it -- but then I made a leap to using it almost exclusively when I did Starman #1.

Nrama: How do you feel that strengthened your work?

Harris: Well, I've always looked at my work specifically at comics really cinematically, kind of like the movies, I'm a huge film buff. So the idea of taking a script and casting a person as that specific character, to me, as a comic book reader, had a lot of appeal. So it's like, "that guy has a recognizable face" -- that was one of the problems I had with comics at that point was artists would draw this book or the other, and it's like, here's a white guy, here's a black guy, they all look exactly the same -- they didn't have any distinguishing features except how they were colored. I wanted everybody in Starman to have a very specific look -- to me, it was just that book, that cast of characters that dictated to me what had to happen. And then from that point on, when each project I took on, I said, "okay, what does this guy look like?" And I sort of sat down and drew rough sketches of what I thought the character should look like, and then I set about looking for friends and models that sort of fit that physical archetype for what that character looked like. And I think the readers of my work have a more investment in the characters too, when they look like... someone, y'know? Specifically, y'know, when they see that character in any situation, whether it be in a coffee shop or fighting a four-legged monster on top of a skyscraper, you're like, "okay, that's Steve Jenkins."

Nrama: Tying that all back to Starman, and how your art style was evolving, were there any particular moments in Starman that you thought were just superb? That Sand and Stars arc, as I recall, won you an Eisner...

Harris: Yes, it did. My favorite issue to date, and I talk about this at length in the art book, is Issue 37, the talking with David, when they had the big dinner with the JSA members that were all dead, and that to me is I think my high point on the series. Everything just kind of came together on that particular issue -- James' script was just amazing, and y'know, having that quiet little there where all those characters are sitting at the table, sharing a meal, sharing stories, and it felt really personal, and I had just a wonderful time orchestrating that shoot. We actually set up a huge long table and Craig Hamilton loaned us his dinnerware and glass goblets and silver and he actually like hand-did caligraphy for little placecards for where all of the characters sat. We cast everybody and passed out scripts, and everybody sort of read their lines, and we did a little rehearsal, and then just set about shooting everything. It just all came together so perfectly -- I couldn't have asked for a better issue of Starman, so 37 for me I felt I was totally at home, in my own skin.

Nrama: DC just brought Starman back from the dead in its Blackest Night crossover. Did you get a chance to look at that issue? If so, what'd you think about it?

Harris: I did, I actually did the cover for it. It was beautifully done, I'm a huge fan of Bill Sienkiewicz, and him doing the finishes... the breakdown artist [Fernando Dagnino], his storytelling was incredible. And it was nice to see James come back and tackle those characters and Opal. Reading his script -- I read it the other night -- and he really, you could really tell it felt like it was like him coming home again, that he was comfortable in his own skin.

Nrama: Over in 2001, you worked as a co-plotter as well as an artist, working on Obergeist. Could you tell us a little bit about what the series was about, and how your background as an artist informed your work as a writer, or vice versa?

Harris: Obergeist has been always been, for me, one of the hardest books that I've worked on to actually to describe to people. So I'd sort of give them a couple sentences, here's the hook, y'know? It was actually over 12, 13 years in the making, and it was almost 12 years before we even started page one. There was just a lot of developmental work, visually, done, and me and Dan [Jolley] working on ideas. We didn't get a publisher, which originally was DC, until 12 years after we started working on that.

Initially, it was, I think, it was my personal sort of me wrestling with what my personal religious beliefs are or are not. I was raised Penecostal, and at about 14 or so, I sort of split from that, decided it wasn't my cup of tea. I don't have any particular religious beliefs either way, but I didn't subscribe to that particular one. And so, over the years, I've been trying to kind of figure out what in my mind is plausible or not, and what's -- what's the word I'm looking for -- not crazy. (Laughs) And so, this book is sort of a combination of that. At least for me, anyway, I can't speak for Dan. But it was kind of me kind of looking into different religions, figuring out what the doctrine was here, what the doctrine was there, and sort of taking it apart from the base and building it back up and seeing what still stood. I met Dan, and we started developing some different things together -- I think this was the first thing we started working on. I can't tell you exactly what the origins were, aside from my end, on that, as far as the character goes and what he looked like and all that.

But the story, really, and if I have to do it in one sentence, it was basically Dan and I sitting down and going, "how far can you take somebody down into the pit of Hell, as far as like what they have done to other human beings in the planet, where they become unredeemable? And where is the line there?" So we said, "okay, what is one of the worst things that someone has done, and let's try to make that character the protagonist of the story, and see if he can't be redeemed. And that's really what the whole thing was. And so we said, "okay, Josef Mengele is about as bad as they get." And for those of your readers who don't know who he is, he was a doctor that worked for the Nazis in the concentration camps during World War II, and experimented on Jews and the mentally handicapped, and all this sort of thing -- and twins. Especially twins, he had a fascination with twins.

And so we came up with this fictional, sort of Mengele-esque character named Jurghen Steinholtz, who was a doctor who worked directly with and was recruited by Mengele, who developed a Super-Soldier program for the Nazis during the war. And they figured out there were people on the planet who had telekinesis, and who were able to control people and things and objects with their mind, and they wanted to develop that. So the story focuses around this one particular Jewish man named Adam Weiss, and he has been targeted by the Nazis as having that ability, and is brought to the camp. When Jurghen has direct contact with him, while they're torturing him and all this kind of stuff, trying to figure out what makes him tick, Adam touches Jurghen on his hand, and basically infuses Jurghen's mind with every horror the Nazis had perpetrated on mankind, in a split-second. It literally drives him completely over the edge of sanity, and he realizes that everything he's been a part of has been absolutely horrible, and doesn't want anything to do with it anymore.

So he goes to the camp commandant and Mengele and says, "look, I can't be a part of this anymore, what we're doing is so wrong." He's completely erratic and nuts, and they go, "all right, this guy's gone, let's kill him. If you're not going to be a part of it anymore, then you're going to be our first test subject." And so they pump him full of all these chemicals, and they ran on him the sorts of tests that they were doing on some of the Jews, and they think it killed him. So they throw him in a mass grave with a bunch of corpses and bury him alive. And thousands of years later, after the end of the world happens, and it's been like this apocalypse -- or what we call in our book Ragnarok -- again, that's us combining Jewish beliefs, Christianity, Norse mythology, just searching for that one path that we think is right.

He wakes up, and it's literally the end of the world, but the camp has been razed to the ground, and a Catholic church has been built on its site, like, thousands of years later. And so when he wakes up out of the grave, he claws his way out of the grave using his new telekinetic power that's been given to him by Weiss, just a little bit of it went into him when Weiss touched him. Without giving away the rest of the story, he comes out, he meets these two "angels" who make a deal with him -- they say, "if we could give you a second chance, if you could go back and change things and make even the slightest change to what was going on when you were alive, would you be interested in that kind of redemption?" And he jumps at the chance, obviously. So he makes this deal with these two angels, to send him back in time -- except he doesn't end up where he wanted to go. He doesn't end up anywhere near 1943, and he ends up actually in the future from 1943. I can't remember the exact year, but it's way beyond our present day, and a neo-Nazi party has risen to power, and he gets thrown right into the middle of all this stuff. It's basically his journey, fighting against this new Nazi regime, in America actually, and trying to redeem himself for all the bad shit he's been a part of. In a nutshell. (Laughs)

Nrama: How do you feel your background as an artist has helped you with plotting, with shaping a story?

Harris: I don't know that it did -- for me, it was kind of a natural progression. I still don't have anything on the books, on my own, as a writer, but I've collaborated with a lot of people in that way, but I've always been a really strong, what I call an idea man, but I've never been what I'd call a writer. Just like, "ooh, I've got this really cool idea, here's these characters, here's how they interact, here's the top dog, here's the bottom dog, here's the protagonist, here's the antagonist, here's the world they live in, and here's the hook -- now you go write it." (Laughs)

Being an idea man like that, it made sense, when working on things like Obergeist and Lazarus 5 and Doctor Strange and JSA: The Liberty File and the sequel we did, Dan was very very open to collaborating with me and allowing me the opportunity to be a part of the actual construction of the story. That was the first time I had ever had that -- no other writer I had ever worked with was actually interested in doing that. Most writers just kind of want you to draw what they write -- I've been lucky since then, with my choices, with the guys I've worked with. Like Brian Vaughan, the guy I'm working with now, he's the very definition of a collaborator. But I digress. So yeah, it's kind of a natural progression, having a lot of ideas that I felt strongly about, and if I couldn't find that kind of collaboration with one particular guy like I did with Dan, I would have searched out and found it elsewhere.

Nrama: Could you tell us a little bit more about Lazarus 5? Could you tell us a bit about how you were evolving at this point?

Harris: Well, I actually didn't draw that one. I originally intended to, but my plate was so full at the time, and it was a story we really wanted to do and get out there, that we decided to bring in an artist to take care of the interiors. That was actually Dusty Abbell and Jim Royal, and they were actually both studiomates of mine at the time. Dusty was a virtual studio member, he was out in California, but Jim was actually in-house with us. But it's hard -- Lazarus 5 was one of those things where the concept was really cool, but it was a grand failure. (Laughs) If I could do it all over again... well, that story we did, how do you explain it. We didn't do it in a linear fashion. We broke it up with flashbacks, and we were jumping around in time a lot, and I think if we could do it all over again, I think the story would have worked so better if we had done it in a straight linear fashion. My memory's a little bit fuzzy on that one, because it's been a very, very long time.

Nrama: As an artist, when you experience what you perceive to be a failure, how do you come back from that? Do you take it as a learning experience?

Harris: Yeah, you do. Not everything you're going to do is going to be received well, or loved, or even hated. You're going to do things that resonate with people -- and we talked about that earlier in the interview, when you asked me about Starman, did we have any inkling it was going to be as successful as it was? No, we didn't -- you tell the stories that are personal to you, that you want to tell, that either click with people or they don't.

Like with Obergeist, our audience on 'Giest was very polarized. We had this whole group of people who read the book and they bought it because their either liked Dan's work or mine, and they were like, "the art's real great and all, but this guy is a son of a bitch. How the hell are you going to have a protagonist who was a Nazi butcher doctor during World War II? And you expect us to follow him through the story with any kind of hope for his redemption?" But that was the whole point of the story. And the other group of people, who were hoping and cheering that he was going to do something on a grand scale, to maybe, in some tiny way, redeem himself.

But you never know, I mean, when you have a colossal failure -- and I can say that Lazarus 5 was a colossal failure -- but you know what? We do have a very strong core group who really did dig that story, and I think they dig it for the same reasons that Dan and I did, and Ray, that we believed that the central concept was very, very strong, but the execution just kind of fell short, y'know? Maybe one day we'll go back to it, who knows. It's never been collected, there's no trade out, and I did recently ask DC for a rights reversion, so we'll see what happens. If that happens, and we do place it elsewhere, I certainly wouldn't mind revisiting that universe, and actually drawing it this time.

Check in Tomorrow for an installment all about Tony's work with Brian K. Vaughan on the Superhero Political Thriller EX MACHINA

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