This week, readers were introduced to the latest alternate earth in DC's multiverse, as the second issue of Grant Morrison's mind-bending epic was released — The Multiversity: The Society of Super-Heroes: Conquerors of Counter-World #1.
Since each issue of The Multiversity is being drawn by a different artist — and visiting a different alternate universe — Newsarama is reaching out to the artists to find out how they approached their issue's setting and characters.
After our discussion last month with Ivan Reis and Joe Prado about the series' first issue, this time we check in with Chris Sprouse, who designed characters and concepts and provided interior art for this week's issue of The Multiversity.
Sprouse has worked with Morrison before, and has also collaborated several other top-notch writers over the last couple decades (from Alan Moore on the Eisner Award-winning Tom Strong, to Warren Ellis on the 2004 mini-series Ocean, to Brian K. Vaughan on the two-issue Ex Machina Special).
Newsarama talked with Sprouse about his co-creation of Earth 20 for this week's chapter, continuing our series of interviews as we vivisect Multiversity.
Newsarama: Chris, what did you think of this project when you first heard about it? I know you've worked with Grant before, so was your initial agreement to do the project mostly about just working with Grant again?
Chris Sprouse: I leapt at the chance to do it! I was actually just about to begin a Sensation Comics story when editor Rickey Purdin pitched Multiversity to me. It sounded so good, I asked if I could put off the Wonder Woman project and take on Multiversity.
A lot of the appeal was indeed getting to work with Grant again, mostly because the other times I've taken on projects he's been involved with (Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne and my Action Comics stories) something's just "clicked" and everything has just turned out really well. But I also really like Doctor Fate, and having read a little Doc Savage as a kid, the idea of doing Doctor Fate as the pulpy "Doc Fate" sounded like a lot of fun!
Nrama: Why do you think Grant wanted you on this issue in particular?
Sprouse: It may be because my work on Tom Strong has gotten me pigeonholed as an artist with a "retro" style and I came to mind when Grant was planning this story with its pulp novel/magazine feel and all of the retro design work involved. That's my guess!
I usually hate that I've been stuck with that "retro" label, but occasionally it works out for me and people ask me to do some interesting projects, like this one.
Nrama: Once you understood the type of comic Grant wanted to create for this issue — and the twist on pulp comics he was going for — what was your thought process as you developed the look of it?
Sprouse: Grant's idea was that this world (Earth 20) should look like the design sense of the 1930s and 1940s was still going strong, so that even though our story took place in 2014, the everyday objects, cars, clothes, hairstyles and buildings all had a mid-century or earlier vibe.
So, I just immersed myself in pulp artwork and 1930s/40s design, as well as images of what 1930s/40s people thought the future would look like. And as I downloaded images and collected books, I let it all seep into my brain.
I then spent a few weeks just designing characters and buildings and cars, making sure everything fit that "retro/modern" mold. For example, if I had to draw a TV, I modeled it on the chunky art deco-inspired radios in my reference files. It was still a television, but it looked like a tube television, with a very ornately styled housing.
Nrama: Can you describe what part of the issue was the biggest challenge for you to accomplish visually, and how did you meet that challenge?
Sprouse: It all seemed to flow pretty easily, actually, with one exception: We have a scene where Lady Blackhawk's parachute is caught in a tree and she's dangling over a jungle river full of alligators. Her arch-enemy, Lady Shiva is also dangling from a parachute caught in a tree, and the two are supposed to get involved in a sword fight to the death while suspended from their trees. Sounds pretty "pulpy," right?
Well, it was really tough to choreograph that scene, let me tell you! I'm not sure I pulled it off, but I tried!
Other than that, it really was a ton of fun to draw from beginning to end.
Nrama: Did you utilize any different or specific technique or approach for this issue of Multiversity that you can point out?
Sprouse: Grant specifically asked me to "go darker" than I usually do, to evoke those old dark pulp illustrations, and I tried to do just that, using more shadows and black areas. It's kind of a dark, brutal story, so that seemed appropriate anyway.
Nrama: Which page is your favorite in the issue, or one that you thought really turned out particularly well?
Sprouse: Hmm...my favorite page is either the first page, which is a splash page showing a bustling Earth 20 Manhattan street scene, or possibly page 9, a splash page showing all the Society of Super-Heroes together for the first time, ready to face the oncoming menace threatening the planet.
There were so many pages from this issue that I liked (something that doesn't usually happen with anything I draw) that it's hard to pick just one...
Nrama: Why did those two specifically stick out to you as favorites?
Sprouse: The city street scene was just a huge amount of fun to draw. I kind of lost myself in it and had a good time with all the little details.
The Society of Super-Heroes splash is actually my second pass on that particular page. The first one I drew in sequence, but it's pretty early in the book so I hadn't actually drawn the characters very much yet — I didn't quite have a feel for them all, and the end result just didn't work for me.
I turned it in to [DC editor] Rickey [Purdin] anyway, with a warning that I might make some changes on that page somewhere down the road. [Newsarama note: We got ahold of that initial page from DC and are sharing it now.]
Then when I was completely finished with all of the other pages for the book, I went back and took another crack at that splash page, ultimately redrawing it entirely. It works for me now because by the time I redrew it, I had really gotten to know the characters and I think they look more like themselves (if that makes any sense).
Since it was the final page I drew for the story, it also felt like a nice send-off, a nice way to end my time on this project.
Nrama: There are a lot of cool characters and concepts in this issue. Can you point out some of them that you got to design? I assume there were a lot...
Sprouse: So many!
The Society of Super-Heroes themselves — Doc Fate, The Mighty Atom, Abin Sur, Lady Blackhawk and her Blackhawk Girls, and the Immortal Man — and some of the villains, including "Doc" Felix Faust and Lady Shiva.
I say "some" because I didn't change our story's main villain, Vandal Savage, much at all since I last drew him in my issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne, other than to put him in a vintage suit. I should also mention here that Doc Fate and Lady Blackhawk had already appeared once in print during Final Crisis and Grant had done a drawing of Doc Fate himself, so I didn't really fully design those characters so much as refine them.
I did design Doc Fate's Manhattan headquarters, as well as his Amazon jungle HQ, though, plus lots of cars and airplanes and airships, and even a new, pulpier version of the established DC monster Parallax.
Nrama: You mentioned Grant doing a drawing, and I think I read somewhere that Grant helped design the Abin Sur Green Lantern character. What was that process like, with you working together on that?
Sprouse: We didn't really work together on it; he had just done some relatively rough color sketches of Doc Fate and Abin Sur before I was involved with the book. Rickey sent me scans of those sketches and I incorporated Grant's ideas into my own designs. The final Abin Sur design is very close to Grant's original drawing, but my Doc Fate is a little different.
Mostly, it's just that I lost the trench coat that Grant gave him to evoke the original doctor Fate's cape, and I changed the giant revolvers Grant originally equipped him with into souped-up, World War II-era .45's. I kept planning to have him wear the trench coat eventually, but it never happened in the end.
Nrama: With all these characters you got to design, did any of them really stand out to you as you drew them in the pages, maybe that you enjoyed the most, or that you thought worked out in the book?
Sprouse: The Atom was the design I enjoyed the most. He's just this ordinary little guy in a sweater vest and chinos with a ridiculous superhero mask on his head, but he was a blast to draw and really captured that 1940's feel! I used 1940's clothing reference and just played his outfit very straight and realistic.
I also think the villain's airship design worked well. It's basically two zeppelins and a flying wing all crammed together into this evil-looking, Norman Bel Geddes-ish monster plane. I actually made a digital model of this airship to use as reference.
Nrama: Wow, that's pretty cool. I think we've talked about this before, when you were working with Grant on the Batman stuff, but what's it like working with him?
Sprouse: I've loved every one of the projects I've worked on with Grant. Like I said earlier, every time I've worked on one of his books, the results have been pretty fantastic. Every time, there are great visual moments or elements that are just comic book gold, like the giant bat skin Bruce Wayne wears in The Return of Bruce Wayne #1, or the new Mr. Mxyzptlk and his supporting cast from the New 52 Action Comics stories.
In Multiversity, there were so many cool scenes — Doc Fate holding off a zombie horde with his blazing .45's, the villains crashing their world into Earth 20 with buildings toppling into other buildings and armies dropping from the sky, the Mighty Atom's Atom Punch, Abin Sur and Parallax in the end of the book — I could go on and on.
Basically, Grant gives artists plenty of really fun things to draw while also challenging them to come up with visuals as interesting as the words.
Nrama: How would you describe his scripts?
Sprouse: Again, his scripts are challenging at times, pushing the artist to deliver something he or she has never seen or conceived of before, and trying to get my pencil to put down on paper what Grant is seeing in his head sometimes takes a few tries to get right, but I'm always pretty happy with the results.
I think as an artist himself and a huge comics fan, he knows how to use the language of visual narrative, so there's always plenty to get excited about for me as a penciler. His scripts are also loose enough/open enough that I can bring plenty of myself and my own ideas to whatever project we're working on.
Nrama: You said that Rickey shared the sketch Grant did, but do you get to communicate with Grant? How do you guys work together?
Sprouse: Well, he sends in scripts with notes for me and maybe some sketches or character drawings, then I send back character designs and sketches of my own, which he sees and okays or rejects, then I draw the pages. Sometimes he asks for changes to be made, but not often. He also, at least in my experience, takes another pass at the dialogue after I turn in the art, hopefully covering for anything I've screwed up and better matching the words with the action and the characters' expressions.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell fans about your work on The Multiversity?
Sprouse: I just hope the fans like it! I had fun with this book and I hope that comes across when they read it.