The list of artists on Superman: American Alien reads like a Who's Who in comic books. One of the more anticipated titles coming from DC, Superman:American Alien is the brainchild of Max Landis, the Hollywood screenwriter behind movies like Chronicle and the upcoming Victor Frankenstein. To bring the writer's story to life, DC has enlisted artists like Jock, Joelle Jones, Tommy Lee Edwards, and Jae Lee.
The series will be told over seven issues that are thematically linked, but function as standalone stories. They kick off in November's issue #1 with a "Clark-coming-of-age story" drawn by Eisner-nominated artist Nick Dragotta (East of West). The artist's clean lines and smooth storytelling give the issue an innocent yet almost magical feel as young Clark begins to figure out flight for the first time.
Newsarama talked to Dragotta to find out more about drawing Superman: American Alien, what it was like working with Landis, and how he approached this young, innocent version of Clark Kent.
Newsarama: Nick, this issue is really unique. I don't know if you read the script before you agreed to do it, or did you hop on board when you heard Max was doing it — how did that come about?
Nick Dragotta: It came about from just being in touch with the editor, Alex Antone, for quite a bit. He's been asking me to do stuff. I was doing East of West, but I said if there was a break in the schedule, and the project was right. And he just told me the basic premise of the book, and I thought it sounded really cool, especially with Max being attached, and some of Max's ideas for not just my issues but down the line.
And what sealed the deal was the list of artists who became attached to it.
But no, I hadn't seen the script. It was just a vague idea of what I'd be drawing. And I got to launch the first issue, which was cool.
Nrama: When you did get the script and you knew what you'd be drawing — or at least, when you heard you'd be drawing Clark Kent as a child — what was your thought process as you were considering how you'd draw young Clark and his family and the atmosphere of his home?
Dragotta: I wanted to tap into making a young character that readers could identify with. Not doing a definitive look of Clark so much, but just doing a cute little kid, and try to draw eyes well so I can tap into that emotion.
I grew up in the farm lands of New Jersey, so it was cool getting a script that took place in cornfields, because that's exactly where I grew up, so I was familiar with the feel of those big, open spaces. I was trying to kind of add that character into the book, and have the environment be just as much of a character.
Nrama: There were elements of it that were almost … I don't know if the right word is "magical"? I mean, it's a boy who can fly. But was that part of the idea? What was the feel you were going for?
Dragotta: Well, Max said that — there are seven issues in the American Alien series, and he wanted our first issue to be the most innocent of the bunch. And he would reference — you know, he's from film — so he would refer to a lot of film references. And he wanted ours to feel Pixar-esque.
So many Pixar films have made me cry. Like, you want to try to emote the characters in a believable way that the reader can identify.
But I think the issues will get progressively darker.
Yeah, I don't know. Mine just felt like a coming-of-age story. I was just trying to tap into that.
Nrama: Let's talk about your influences a little bit, particularly on this issue. Who do you call your influences? Anything that you pulled from to do this issue?
Dragotta: My influences go back — I mean, I've been drawing comics for like 15 years, so I think my biggest influence early on was Alex Toth. So just, like, a real classical sense to how you approach story. Like, never try to confuse the reader and just do really simple, clear pictures that can be easily read quickly.
And for this particular issue, I looked at the manga of Naoki Urasawa. He's a Japanese comic artist that does 20th Century Boys and Pluto. And he's just one of the greatest storytellers in the world and I feel like does really good page turns and stuff. So I was looking at his stuff a lot. He draws kids really well, so I was kind of drawing from that.
And then Max didn't write a straight-forward script for this. It was kind of like, this is the first time he had tackled a comic book series this large, so in a sense he kind of worked Marvel style. But not really. So Alex helped Max break down the script. But it was really just, like streaming dialogue. And scene descriptions, next to the dialogue.
I wanted to give that a lot of storytelling, so you'll see there's an average of maybe 10 to 12 panels a page. There are a lot of panels per page, and then when we want to hit a beat, we'll do a splash.
So I think it hearkens back to Toth for me, and then Naoki Urusawa.
Nrama: I find those interesting, particularly the manga, because you don't usually think of that being a reference for Superman. He has a certain look. Do you have a certain Superman that you'd call your Superman, and did that influence how you drew Clark?
Dragotta: Not really. I mean, I'm more of a Batman man, actually, if I had to pick a DC character.
Nrama: No! Don't say that. You're drawing Superman!
Dragotta: No, I mean, I like Superman. I grew up with the films. And I'm looking forward to the new one.
But I think it just goes back to the story — the story we were trying to tell. I was dealing with young Clark, so there's not a lot of reference to pull from. And his parents.
And this story takes place in the 1980s. Max referenced that. So I was just trying to create a new story and add to that whole mythology.
But I try not — you know, I think you put too much pressure on yourself if you, kind of, draw too much from it.
Nrama: My next question was going to be about how it was working with Max, but you kind of covered it a bit earlier. You said there was some dialogue? No panel breakdowns?
Dragotta: It was more like a… I guess it was more like a film script. So it was more like dialogue and scenes.
And what's cool about working with Max is that, you know, I had free rein to do my thing. So if I wanted to add panels, or subtract or do whatever. He gave me that direction. I had to get from point A to point B, but from that I could do what I want.
So it was definitely the ideal working situation.
And Max is super passionate about this material. And that's always great when working with a writer. He's got some cool ideas.
Nrama: He's definitely passionate. He's just so excited when he talks about things, especially this series. So I guess you got to talk to him? Did you spend some time with him talking about the issue?
Dragotta: Yeah, yeah, we had breakfast. And the first time I met him, I was like, this guy's insane! And he just reels off the whole storyline of Superman: American Alien. And I'm not sure if it was, like, on the fly or right on the spot, but he started writing a sequel right there.
Dragotta: But there's some really cool stuff coming up in this series for Superman that I haven't seen in the comics before. So I think it's going to be a really cool book. Outside of my own issue, there's just some really nice, cool things coming up.
Nrama: We're previewing your inks, but also the colors. Your colorist is Alex Guimaraes?
Dragotta: Yeah, he's out of Brazil, and he's just fantastic. You want to give volume to your line art, and Alex does that so well. He did a really nice job with the cornfield, and it's a very colorful book. It kind of feels like Pixar-ish because it's very rich, but I think he did a fantastic job. He's terrific.
And John Workman did the letters, which is cool too. Most lettering now is digital, and John works digital, but he actually letters by hand digitally. So it was nice to work with John, who's been lettering comics for so many years, and just really adds to that flow. He put a lot of thought into balloon placement and things like that. It was cool to work with him.
Nrama: Do you do most of your work digitally?
Dragotta: Yeah. I'm primarily digital, just because I can move so much faster.
Nrama: I've run into so many artists now that are digital. I think it's the majority now, isn't it?
Dragotta: Oh really? I think we're in the minority still. But I don't know.
But you know, I like to try to remain on the stands and get a book out monthly. So for me, I like working digitally, with all the editing capabilities. All the fun is in the thumbnails, doing the storytelling. And working digitally just allows me to move that all around.
And then you kind of eliminate the inking stage, because your pencils are essentially your inks. You can just print out what you've penciled over top of your thumbnails. So it's much quicker for me. It works for me.
I would like to go back to paper at one point. Nothing can replace paper. And it's nice to have the original art.
Nrama: I assume, from the way you've been talking, you like having lots of freedom in doing layouts and storytelling. I know from interviews with Jonathan Hickman that you like having the freedom he gives you as an artist. I would think working digitally goes well with that, because of the ability to quickly change things and move them around.
Dragotta: Yeah, absolutely. I think most artists would prefer to work this way. We spend our whole day thinking how to make things look visually interesting. I like to challenge the writers to give me interesting ideas and let me tell the story that you put down in words, and I'll take care of the visual. It makes for fun, interesting comics. I think if the artist and the writer are in synch, it's a nice surprise at the end.
Nrama: Since the issue doesn't come out for a few more weeks — and even longer for subsequent issues by other artists — what would you want to tell potential readers about the series and what people can expect?
Dragotta: I think there's going to be a lot of cool moments in this series. Like, I know a little bit about what Jock's doing in his issue, and it sounds really cool. I've seen some of the art on Tommy Lee Edwards' issue. And it looks amazing. I can't wait to see what Joelle Jones does.
This is a real who's who of DC talent doing these comics, and I think it's going to be really cool.
My issue in particular, if you want to see how Clark basically learns to fly, check it out. It's cool to be part of it, and I was happy to do it.