Artist Luca Pizzari has gone from chasing the Red Skull to reinventing the Black Knight; not bad for an artist who celebrated his second year as a comics pro just a few weeks ago. The London-based artist has quickly become a rising star for Marvel after being found in the pages of 2000AD.
With the conclusion of his first Marvel series Red Skull hitting this week and his next, Black Knight, just recently announced, Newsarama spoke to the artist to find how he found ways to connect with the book’s dark subject matter and less-than-heroic cast of characters. Pizzari also looked ahead to his upcoming work, and his role as one of Marvel’s go-to artists for blending superhero comics with other genres.
Newsarama: Luca, with your work on Red Skull, you’ve highlighted some of the most evil characters in Marvel history going into one of the darkest territories on Battleworld. How have you balanced the darkness of the story with still making people root for the bad guys?
Luca Pizzari: I think most of it was in the script, really. Josh Williamson, editor Jon Moisan and I discussed right away how we wanted a dark, almost unsettling mood for the book, while still retaining a "superheroes" feeling. Josh was adamant from the start how this was to be considered a proper "horror" Marvel comic, which totally 100% connected with my sensibilities and taste.
I think the key in creating empathy and reader identification with the villains in the book lies in their motivations and believability. Magneto, even in his traditional depictions has always been a character who has lost so much in life that his actions seem, if not forgivable, at least understandable.
The Red Skull we see in this story is very different from the irredeemable figure we know from Cap books. He's a rebel, in the most mythological meaning of the world. He's a survivor, somebody who strives for and believes in the superiority of the strongest. It was very hard to make a character so connected with the most vile moment and ideology in human history a proper protagonist, and I think Josh did a wonderful job in making Red Skull's battle for the survival of the fittest coincide with the battle against the hordes of the Deadlands. Throughout the three issues the core of the character has remained essentially the same, but now he's truly fighting for his life, not only for his principles.
Nrama: Who has been your favorite villain of the series to draw? Which character did you really connect with on the page?
Pizzari: For different reasons, Magneto, Red Skull and Annihilus were a total blast to draw, Magneto has this all-white, almost pristine look that really becomes symbolic amidst all the mess going on around him in the three issues, and his helmet, with that iconic face opening, makes for amazing moody silhouettes. My inking usually tends to be very over-rendered since I just love doodling around with the brush, and to have an almost completely solid white character allowed me to play a lot with the different tones and textures around him in the panels to make him truly stand out in busy scenes. Whatever is going on in the page, I like to think you can always tell where Magneto is.
I always thought Red Skull had this amazing potential to be a truly horrific figure, and I sketched around a lot to come up with a version that was at the same time respectful of the traditional Jack Kirby rendition, with the big, blocky brow over his orbits, and more in line with contemporary horror. I was aiming for something that was closer to a face burnt almost to the bone rather than an actual skull-like head, and the hood we decided to add (more on that later) made possible to play with really cool shadows on his face.
About Annihilus, what can I say? I was given free reign to come up with my own version, and Josh initial notes about him and his throne room mentioned an "H.R. Giger"-like look, which, as a huge Alien fan, made me giggle to no end. I based a lot of my version from a really cool Scott Kolins design I stumbled upon, and tried to make it fit my style, adding a lot of textures and playing a bit more on the insect-like factor. As I said, a total blast ;)
Nrama: How did you come up with your take on the Deadlands? Are zombie comic books something you have a strong affinity for?
Pizzari: Yes and no. I’m a huge fan of zombie movies, having watched and re-watched pretty much any zombie flick that has ever been made, from the essential George Romero ones to that exploitation Italian masterpiece that is Zombie Flesh Eaters, by Lucio Fulci. But that said, I’m afraid that for no particular reason I haven't read many zombie comic books. I’ve always felt that a big part of the zombie menacing visuals comes from that sense of slow but relentless motion that doesn't translate very well in a "still" medium and becomes fully terrifying when you can see in movement.
As for the Deadlands look, the idea was to convey that same sense of menace to a land which was barren and devoid of life, a sort of "undead" landscape in itself.
Nrama: What makes the Red Skull such a menacing presence that his reign of terror lasts beyond death? How do you translate that visually?
Pizzari: I think a lot of it comes from his iconic look. You just look at the guy and you feel how he's evil incarnate, a sort of in-between figure existing halfway between humans and the same zombies he's fighting. We played a lot with the paradox of having him fight creatures that after all don't look that much different from him. In one of our earlier discussions over the script, while I was trying to come up with designs for all our protagonists, Josh suggested how cool it would be if he wore a hood, and that image immediately clicked with me. Dressing him in black, making him appear suddenly on the battlefield with his swords and axes reminds us of another icon that is very much rooted in horror imagery, that of the Grim Reaper. As you said, having him look a bit like the "human" personification of Death in a land of actual undead creatures really made him more of a symbol than a villain, a legend which haunts Battleworld even though outside of the Deadlands nobody knows for sure whether he's dead or not.
Nrama: What’s coming up in the finale of Red Skull? Was there a bit you were particularly excited to draw?
Pizzari: All I can say for now, Josh really threw everything and the kitchen sink at me in the script for #3. The whole series really works as a 3-acts play, with the first one in which we introduced the setting and the (anti-)heroes, the second one in which we expanded on the plot and motivations of the characters and the third as a completely berserk resolution.
I’m immensely proud of #3, it just might be the pages of mine I've ever been happiest about. It’s basically a continuous huge fight scene over survival and betrayal, from page 1 to 20, really! The first spread opens with Magneto leading an army of dozens of Annihilus' insects against the Shield, and the way it plays out is just so cool! That, and the really unexpected final twist of the last two to three pages, which made me go "HA!" out loud when I first read the script, were absolutely the parts I enjoyed drawing the most.
Nrama: After Red Skull, you’re taking on Black Knight with Frank Tieri. Between the horror aspects of Red Skull and the sword-and-sorcery feel of Black Knight, you’re becoming a go-to artist for blending superheroes with other genres. Why is that?
Pizzari: First of all, just the thought that I can be the "go-to guy" for anything at Marvel, whose books I grew up devouring, is just mind-melting for me!
Jokes aside, I think it really comes from my taste and artistic formation, really. I've always read superhero comic books, but I’ve always been also a huge heavy metal fan, which brought me very early to enjoy and seek really obscure horror movies, which in turn brought me to look for different kind of stories in other media, like comics, as well. I basically very early in my artistic formation found this niche that was self-feeding from this pool of interconnected comics, music, movies and books. The way I draw is 100% self-taught on American comic books, so I always had a style reminiscent of that specific way of telling a story, but at the same time I've always been so contaminated by horror movies and heavy metal imagery that for a time I had come to peace with the fact that I would have probably never drawn mainstream superhero comics cause I was afraid my style didn’t really fit that look. Thank God, apparently I was wrong!
Nrama: Black Knight takes place on Weirdworld, a former Battleworld territory with a kind of twisted fantasy setting. Do you have a history with fantasy, or is this a new experience for you?
Pizzari: Yes, this is absolutely new for me. I always had an affinity for the weirdest side of fantasy, but I’ve never been too familiar with the classic Lord Of The Rings-like type of stories. But again, I've always thought that as an artist, there aren't really things you like drawing more or less, just things you have already drawn or not. In other words, I can't really say I don't enjoy drawing classic fantasy (even though, I just read the script for Black Knight #1 and boy, classic fantasy it ain’t), just that I've never really done it before, apart from sketches and pin-ups. But I take every new career direction both as a challenge and an occasion to have fun with new settings and so far, among other things, I have to say that fantasy allows for a freedom in costume designs that I’m quite enjoying.
Nrama: Tell us about the process of designing Black Knight’s new look. What was the feeling you were trying to capture with this more armored costume?
Pizzari: Re-designing Black Knight was great, really easy and really hard at the same time. To better explain it: the character has a very specific visual identity, connected with super-heroes classicism and medieval tradition that makes it very easy to come up with new versions of that look that are still immediately recognizable as the Black Knight if you play with the right things, but at the same time there was the risk of doing too little to really renew the character, for fear of messing too much with that iconic look, and of doing too much and straying too far from what makes him Marvel's Black Knight.
With that in mind we knew we wanted a more bad-ass and less "urban" look for him. Dane has gone throught a lot mentally, and we wanted him to look rougher, more dangerous, while at the same time clearly stating that he is our protagonist, not simply a troubled anti-hero. He was an Avenger after all!
I looked a lot at how Mike Del Mundo dealt with fantasy-inspired looks to make sure our vibe could fit in the same universe he designed, and we decided to push more on the proper "medieval knight" side of his costume. The helmet was probably the element that took the most takes, cause we wanted something that could look good visually but at the same time would realistically work in the same way that medieval helmets did. Frank Tieri along with our editors Jon Moisan and Wil Moss made sure I didn't fall into the trap of designing some "Iron-Man" kind of mechanics for the helmet that would have looked out of place in a setting like Weirdworld, so we tried to keep everything old-school, from the way the front plate opens to reveal Dane's face to the scaling of the armor on his shoulders and neck. So far I’m quite pleased with the result and seeing the covers by Julian Totino Tedesco with my design in action was definitely a high point in my career so far.
Nrama: Black Knight is still a few months away. What are you most looking forward to about the project?
Pizzari: As I said, I just read the script for issue 1 and its gonna be crazy! There are a lot of brand-new characters and an interesting backstory that is hinted throughout the whole issue that promises to deliver a lot of punches and twists. I love doing first issues cause that's when you establish elements that are gonna stay around for the whole run, plus being on an ongoing book allows me to really mature and grow accustomed with characters and visuals, which doesn't really happen on shorter stints. Also, Frank promised me possible cameos by other members of the '90s Avengers run, one of my favorites, so I couldn't be happier!