In this week's world-hopping Ultra Comics chapter of Grant Morrison's The Multiversity, artist Doug Mahnke helped the writer define Earth 33 — the supposed "real" world, yet one that's clearly re-focused through the writer's mind-bending lens.
Filled with self-referential in-jokes yet framed in a straight-up superhero adventure, The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1 is the penultimate issue in the limited series, with the final The Multiversity #2 coming out in April.
Ultra Comics gave Mahnke the chance to design some new characters while also picking up the threads from past issues, all drawn by different artists. Mahnke has been working in the comics industry several years, being one of the creators behind The Mask series for Dark Horse Comics in the '90s and working with Morrison on the epic DC series Final Crisis. More recently, the artist has been working on regular DC Comics, like Green Lantern, Justice League and Superman/Wonder Woman.
In the last of our series of interviews, "Vivisecting Multiversity," with the artists who've brought Morrison's vision to life, we talked to Mahnke about working with the writer and what he enjoyed most about The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1. Mahnke and DC provided Newsarama will the steps for several pages discussed here.
Newsarama: Doug, with all the work you've done on DC characters, why did working on a project like Multiversity appeal to you?
Doug Mahnke: Working with Grant appeals to me, no matter what he is doing. Never a dull moment with a Morrison script.
Nrama: We've been hearing about that during this series. But how much did you know about Multiversity and the story you'd be drawing? And what did you think about it when you initially understood the concept of your issue?
Mahnke: I really knew nothing about the story, only that it was part of a greater whole. With something like Multiversity, I prefer to wait until I have all of it in my hands to read it.
I'm not a very good monthly type of reader, so I have yet to actually dig into Multiversity. As far as understanding the concept of the issue, it's an ongoing process!
Nrama: Out of all the designs you did for this issue, I really enjoyed the Neighborhood Guard. How'd you put together the look of these kids?
Mahnke: Grant provided some conceptual references based upon DC kid gangs from the '40s on. In particular he referenced Boy Commandos, but we needed girls as well, not to mention a whole lot of kids.
Nrama: We've heard from other artists who had input from Grant at varying levels. Can you talk about any of the other designs you did and your approach to the characters and their costumes?
Nrama: Grant always provides plenty of written concepts, not to mention actual drawings at times. In this case he did some sketching for Ultra Comics in particular, then I fleshed it out and made it something I could work with.
Red Hood was my design, as well as the kids. With the Deforminoids, the script had a very entertaining description of them, pure Grant:
These mashed, mindless heads have a single yawning lamprey gape of a mouth with two jagged teeth on top and one in the center below — snake's fangs. The eyes are vestigial blobs at either side of the heads. They have multiple jointed arms with insect or crab additions, centipede legs and arms. They climb in from all sides.
How can you go wrong with that?
Nrama: Good point. OK, since you're quoting Grant's scripts, and you talked earlier about how fun they are to work with, let's talk about Grant's script for this issue — and how his scripts compare to other scripts you've worked on?
Mahnke: The first ever Grant script I worked from was Seven Soldiers: Frankenstein, which was actually pretty straightforward and easy to work from. Next came Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, which was hugely descriptive and dense. It took a bit to get in the groove. After this was Final Crisis, wrapping up some pages in #6 and full drawing chores on #7.
As complex and far out superman Beyond was, Final Crisis #7 was more so. I really credit then-editorial assistant Adam Schlagman for walking through the script with me. We honestly had hours of fun unraveling what Grant wanted.
After my previous experiences with Grant's scripts, I knew what to expect from Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1. You have to get to a point where you are no longer reading a script as a fan but as a professional that has to bring images to words.
Nrama: Can we talk a little about your approach, or your style in this issue?
Mahnke: I never think about style really, or how I draw. I focus on storytelling. This story lends itself to a lot of facial expression which I enjoy and took advantage of.
Nrama: How much of your work do you complete digitally, and can you describe the process?
Nrama: Zero. That's easy.
Nrama: Low tech, huh? OK, then, let's talk about some of the other hands who touched this issue — there were quite a few. But the colors were remarkable — although it's a pretty basic color palette in the background, there were some pretty cool effects that helped tell the story. What was it like working with the colorists and what were your thoughts behind the approach?
Mahnke: We did want a strong primary color presence, and David Baron easily set the tone. And Gabe Eltab picked up quite well where David left off while at the same time making it his own. Against this backdrop of simplicity, some of the unusual effects stood out.
Nrama: What was the biggest challenge for you, drawing this story?
Getting it finished! It took way too long. The problems of being busy on a regular book and doing a special project are definitely not lost on me.
Nrama: What scene or page do you think turned out particularly well?
Mahnke: Pages 14 through 17, as a scene, I'm quite happy with. Page 22, where they're hiding from "Reorizzon's Dronedroids" at the top is probably my favorite page.
Nrama: Why those pages in particular?
Mahnke: I don't know really... i just happen to like them. I feel I got the mood right.
Nrama: I was going to ask you next about whether you were enjoying the overall Multiversity story but…
Mahnke: Get back to me after I read it all.
Nrama: Then to finish up, Doug, is there anything else you want to tell fans about this issue of Multiversity?
Mahnke: That I'm pretty proud of how it turned out. It definitely was a group event to finish it, but everyone worked together and got a book finished that looks like there was not a deadline dragon breathing down our collective necks.