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. Our 3rd installment focused on Harris’s process, and how his art comes to life. For Part 4, we took an in-depth look at Ex Machina, and how that epic has changed his work.
Our fifth and final installment covers Harris’s newest project, War Heroes with Mark Millar, his favorite works, and his take on the ever-changing comic book industry.
Newsarama: You've also been getting some Hollywood attention lately with your comic with Mark Millar, War Heroes. In a lot of ways, it looks and feels like Ex Machina with the veneer of civilization ripped off. How do you contrast working between Ex Machina and War Heroes, between working with Brian and Mark?
Harris: Oh, boy, they're very different. They're very different guys. Mark is very -- how do I put this -- I love him to death, he's a great guy. He is kind of the polar opposite (laughs) of Brian, in that he's constantly in the media, and he's constantly has a visibility to fans and the media, and he loves it. I mean, he just embraces it full-force, and his excitement is infectious.
...I'm going to start with their personal differences, and then their work. Mark is very very boisterous, outgoing, and -- not that Brian's not, Brian has become, over the last few years, quite a private guy. He had a very active and huge online community called Caballero, for a long time, he had a blog, and y'know, did a lot of press, and this was when he was doing a ton of work in the business, too, before he went off to do Lost and that. And since then, he had announced the closing of his message board, and I sort of adopted that board, and moved it to a different site, so we still have Caballeros. The community isn't as big as it once was -- because I'm "not as popular as Brian" -- little 30-year-old shit. And anyway, Brian, he got married, his wife just had a baby boy, and he left Lost to pursue a lot of personal work, and some film stuff, and come back to comics, too. So he's become very, very, he's looking inward more than he was earlier on, when we were working on Machina. And he's going to be coming back soon, a big prescence in comics, so I think people can rest assured about that.
And as far as Mark goes, Mark is very much a traditional sort of Marvel writer, where his scripts are very very stripped down. It's still a full script, we get the dialogue, too, but his descriptions are very much stripped down, very simple, kind of the way the old writers at Marvel used to write, just plots, and give it over to the artists, and then we'd go back and do all the dialogue again. And Brian is a very, very descriptive writer, he gives you as much as he can -- not as bad, as say, an Alan Moore, that guy is crazy. I'm sure you've heard about Moore's scripts.
Nrama: Those telephone-book sized scripts.
Harris: Those are nuts! But in a good way. But Brian is a very very descriptive writer, and really likes to, y'know, give you the meat and potatoes, plus a couple of sides, so you know exactly where your direction is. But he's also very very open to your input and your interpretation -- not that Mark hasn't -- but I really haven't crossed that stream that much because the story on War Heroes is so straightforward and cut and dry. It's a huge action yarn, y'know? I don't even think Mark would argue with you when he says this is a popcorn movie. It's a big action flick, and it's not supposed to have an Oscar-winning scene or anything like that.
And Ex Machina is a lot more cerebral, when you do the action, it's very limited, and very short bursts of it, and then the meat of the book is a drama that sort of unfolds between personal interaction between politicians and people, and that gets really dense and really thick. And that's why I think a book like Ex Machina is a lot more difficult to draw than, y'know, it's not big huge set pieces in the desert with Humvees and tanks and shit blowing up. And that is difficult -- that is difficult from a technical standpoint -- but I think in a lot of ways, Ex Machina is harder to draw because it is these quiet scenes, it's two guys in a room discussing issues that are going to be voted on, or a group of lobbyists that are trying to put something down in New York City and Mitchell's trying to rally his friends and constituents to try to make sure this doesn't happen. And to me, that's equally interesting stuff.
But you're dealing with individuals and their facial expressions, and how they relate to another person, so it all comes down to acting. It's all down to just bare-bones acting and just physical gestures and facial expressions -- and that is way more difficult to do than huge set piece action scenes. To me, anyway. I don't get to do a lot of action in Ex Machina, but I have done it; people just have to look at issue 3 of War Heroes, and it's almost nothing but balls-to-the-wall action from page one to page 22. And actually a lot of people said it was refreshing to see me do that kind of stuff, because I had been on Machina for five years now, and I don't get to do those huge type of things a whole lot. So those are the main differences, I think, in terms of their personal levels, and how they work. War Heroes sort of came fully-formed in Mark's mind, and -- not that Ex Machina was not for Brian -- but Brian was very very interested in collaboration and interested in what the book would become once the artist had been attached. And he's told me a lot of times in the past that the book has become something very very different from what he intended -- he still has that original outline to get him from point A to point B, but we've taken a lot of interesting side turns as a result of our collaboration. With War Heroes, it was a fully-formed epic that Millar just pooped from his butt, and there it was. (Laughs)
Nrama: You just passed your 20-year mark in comics, and you have drawn a lot of characters and a lot of stories over the years. Are there any that are your particular favorite?
Harris: My favorite thing that I've drawn is the thing that's on my desk on any given day. That's like asking a father which of his kids is his favorite. (Laughs)
Nrama: I was going to say, I don't want you to choose between your babies or anything!
Harris: Yeah, I can't do that. I mean all the projects that I've had a hand in have been special in one way or another. Either good stories, or bad memories, all these things seasons you as a human being and as an artist and as a professional -- I love them all. I certainly have my career highlights, and the things that are more memorable. I think that it's ironic that I've only been a part of two ongoing monthly series in my 20-year career, and both of those books have earned me an Eisner, so I have to say that Starman and Ex Machina are very very special. It's nice to be recognized by your peers, and have all these people that you respect and work with say, "oh, you know what, your shit was the best shit this year. Here's something to remember that by."
But then there are other little things, like -- I like to equate comics to film a lot, with analogies and things, it's very similar in the way you work. You can do the big studio movies, you can do the big tentpole events for summer release for film, and do something like that for DC or Marvel, or you can go off and do a little indie movie, y'know, and that's how I've looked at all the stuff I've done. I've been very fortunate to do a lot of creator-owned work over time over 20 years, and I've done my fair share of company-owned stuff, too.
I think that it's a balancing act -- I think to be a continuing prescence and force in the industry, I think -- and to be particular, I think you have to do three things. These are my three sort of rules that I operate my career by: You have to do a certain amount of mainstream work, for visibility. And not just for that -- I love comics as much as the next guy, and superhero stuff is fun, that's what it is, a blast -- but you've got to do enough of that kind of stuff to make a name for yourself and maintain a certain level of popularity. And with that popularity and that celebrity come opportunities that you wouldn't have otherwise. You have people calling you and say, "oh, we saw this thing you did, it was very big, it was very beautiful -- how about you come and do this thing for us? And so you get a lot of smaller opportunities, where you get a lot more freedom and more creative control on than, say, working for the Big Two, like Obergeist and like Lazarus 5, which was for DC, but it was creator-owned so we did have more control than we would normally.
Cover gigs, like, a dream come true for me in my career was working on Conan, for Dark Horse, only because it was like the first motion picture I saw in a theater. As a kid, my father took me, and it went against everything he believed (laughs) as far as his personal religious beliefs and everything. And he knew what the content was going to be like, and so at the time I was reading, I was buying, like, the Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian magazine, the black-and-white, and when they announced the film, they ran a feature in the back that had a lot of photographs of them, and I went to my father and just begged him, "please, please take me to see this movie." And against everything he knew was right (laughs), my dad took me. I think I was maybe 11 or 12 at the time, and we just sat there in that theater, just the two of us, and it was one of the best memories of my life. I loved Conan so much ever since, and to have it come full-circle, y'know, when I was, what, 37 or 38 when I got that gig, a 12-issue run on the covers, that was a dream come true. And they put out a Conan companion book written by Roy Thomas, during my run, and they sent me a comp copy, because they ran one of my covers in the book, and it was very very excellent for me to take a copy of that book, and personalize it to my father, and tell him this was all because of him. That was an incredibly nice thing.
And I've had little things like that happen to me throughout my career -- y'know, we're all, what do they call it, pop culture freaks in this industry, so to get work on Star Wars, or getting to work on Indiana Jones, like I was able to, y'know, those were career highlights. But no more so than the personal work. I would say that the creator-owned stuff is the stuff I hold most dear, just because it's more personal and you get more invested in it, so you really are apt to put your best foot forward on that stuff. I'm speaking from a personal standpoint, of course, I'm not downplaying anybody else's work on mainstream characters or company-owned stuff.
Nrama: Of course. So as someone who's been around the block and seen a thing or two, we wanted to ask -- how do you feel the industry has changed in the past two decades? Do you feel optimistic about where the industry is heading?
Harris: Oh, I do, very much so. I think the industry is doing tremendously well. We definitely still have our problems and stuff to work out, but y'know our bookstore, our trade program and our prescence in the mainstream book stores is like bigger than it's ever been, and it's only getting bigger. I personally -- and this is again just from my standpoint -- I personally would like to see a lot of the singles being printed on a monthly basis to just sort of go away, because I just think there is just a proliferation of sort of sub-par stuff that could be a lot better. I said a long time ago, and I'm just using DC as an example, instead of having 48,000 Batman books being published on a monthly basis, y'know, pare it down to one or two, and then go off and do your miniseries, or whatever, but have a couple of core ongoing monthly books, and really pull an American Idol on this thing, and get a judging panel together, and put your top-notch talent on these books. They're going to sell well, they're going to do tremendously well. We're seeing a huge resurgence in creator-owned material right now, and it's, in some cases, doing better than anything else. Look at a lot of the properties that are being adapted into film and stuff now, and you could say as many -- or more -- creator-owned projects are being made into successful films as mainstream superhero stuff.
I remember, God, I'm fortunate where I got into the business in '88, '89, and it was before the digital age, and so I've been fortunate to work in the business and see that transition and see how that's sort of helped everything get better. And then I saw the bottom drop out in the '90s. I listened to all the naysayers say, "oh, this is the end of the comics industry, it's going to die! The bottom's dropped out, it's dead, it's only a matter of time!" It's come back. It's an upward curve. I think it's as strong as it was before the bottom dropped out in the '90s. Maybe not in sales figures, but in terms of interest in the industry, and growth in new directions. I'm very optimistic -- I don't think it's going anywhere. I'm just happy to still be a viable creative force in the business after 20 years.
And you ain't seen shit yet.