Chris Bachalo doesn't believe in magic -- but he things what he and Jason Aaron are doing in Doctor Strange is magic.
The long-time Marvel artist is two issues into the new series for the Sorcerer Supreme, and with it he's found something he didn't have before: an appreciation for the character.
Newsarama learned about how Jason Aaron convinced the California-based artist to help revitalize Marvel's master of the magic arts. Along the way, Bachalo found his own interest in the character by imbuing it with his own inspirations, ideas and artistic touches.
Newsarama: Chris, there’s a new issue of Doctor Strange out this week, but let’s start at the beginning. What interested you in doing this series?
Chris Bachalo: The opportunity to work with Jason Aaron again. I really enjoyed building and launching Wolverine and the X-Men with him. Having an opportunity to participate in his storytelling once again and create more wonderful stuff is a joy.
Nrama: October’s first issue was one of your most intricately drawn issues since the days of Steampunk. Was that your plan all along, or did it just develop when you were drawing the pages organically?
Bachalo: The plan took a while to put together. I had the script for a while before commencing drawing. It’s something that I do with new launches—sit and think, plan, conceive. It drives those around me a little crazy, as it looks like I’m doing nothing, but the wheels are turning. A lot of what I’m thinking about revolves around what I would the like the book to look like, how to lay it out, pacing, style. Characters need to be created. Do they have long hair? Short? How do they conduct themselves. What do the sets look like? Costumes? Hair? Lighting? I’m creating a universe and it takes a little time, but at some point, the time arrives to draw and, having figured everything out on my head, the drawings go down pretty quick.
Much of what eventually goes down on paper is a reflection of what is inspired via the script, the stories being told. Steampunk is a good comparison in terms of style and level of detail as I came away with similar feeling from what Joe Kelly put together in that book and what Jason is talking about here. Both have a ton of great visuals to work with. I find that it’s really easy to fill the page to the borders with all kinds of fanciful, interesting and creative stuff. The hard part is knowing when to censor, understanding that I have a deadline and that the book needs to be completed. I can’t fully indulge my entire imagination in lieu of missing deadline or filling the pages up with so much stuff that it becomes indecipherable—a small problem that, many expressed, was an issue with Steampunk.
Nrama: Jason Aaron's put a name to some of the creatures you created here, but there are others all over the place without names. Do you have names for these, such as the sunflowers with teeth?
Bachalo: Ha! Yeah, we call them " the things that lurk underneath the cool side of Chris' pillow”!
Nrama: That’s your pillow, not mine – I hope.
I got the vague vibe of Tim Burton a bit with some of the creatures -- what inspires you in creating them?
Bachalo: I wasn’t literally thinking of Burton when I was drawing the pages but now that you mention him, I can see where a lot of this stuff probably came from watching movies like Beetlejuice. The creations are, more or less, a reflection of the collective influences of a lifetime of enjoying magical weird stuff. The big striped worms inching through the buildings are a result of an impression left upon me when I read Watchmen way back in the mid-1980s when I was 20 years old. I’ve been looking a great deal at James Jean’s work. It’s very organic, creepy and beautiful. His work inspired a lot of what you’re seeing in the opening issues of Doctor Strange.
I really enjoy organic, fantastical, subject matter and his style is a perfect reflection of that. During the contemplative pre-drawing session of the book I decided that was a direction that I wanted to go in --in regards to what the dimensional realms would look and feel like. I wanted to take a step away from the established Steve Ditko “ cosmic" realms that have been associated with Strange and try something different— to distinguish every realm, have them be made up of their own unique set of rules. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be realms similar to the Ditko landscapes, some may be similar, but others may stray way outside of what we may have seen before. There may be realms made up entirely of cubes for instance. Others, nothing but water, others that are entirely upside down. This promises to be, creatively, a fun aspect in the book.
Nrama: Doctor Strange looks to have been de-aged a little bit -- at least in not having grey in his hair anymore. When you went about drawing him for this, how did you approach it differently than your previous time drawing him such as in Avengers?
Bachalo: Well, in Avengers he was established within the storyline line and universe so there wasn’t a ton of thought put into how I portrayed him. With this new book, this was quite the opposite. There was room to re-imagine a few things.
I didn’t jump on the Strange bus right away. Jason approached me about a year into my Uncanny X-Men run with Brian Michael Bendis and my response was, "let’s work on Spider-man". He kept at it. I figured he was kind of serious about this and eventually I sat down , wrote a long email that you could you could entitle "If I were I work on Doctor Strange, this is what I would like to do”.
Jason replied, "We’re on the same page” and, eventually, I agreed to take it on.
The determining factor was that I knew that I was going to be working with a great writer and creator in Jason Aaron, and that I’m in good hands.
I did put together a mental list of things that I would fight for, others that I could live with and others for which I would back out. One of the items, for example, that I wanted to address was the high collar. I really enjoy Ditko’s costume but I wanted nothing to with that thing. It’s unpractical on several levels—and practicality has always been an important part of my costume designs.
Another part of the overall discussion, to address your notation on age, was that the idea was brought up of the character being younger… much younger. Like in his mid-20’s younger, which I didn’t feel held up taking into consideration the history of the character, how he came to be the Sorcerer Supreme-- and someone that others of his ilk would respect. Not an attribute typically gained by someone in their mid-twenties fresh out of school. We figured it out and I have in mind that he’s in his early thirties when drawing him. I wasn’t disheartened to see the white side panels go as I’ve always found that Reed Richards owned that distinction.
Nrama: Speaking of your Avengers run, back then when you did those handful of issues I had you pegged as an ideal Doctor Strange artist. Would you call yourself a fan of the character, either from his stories or what you get to draw when featuring this character back then?
Bachalo: Not at all. A large part of my hesitancy to come on board the book was that I didn’t enjoy the character. I think he has a great costume but I’ve never had interest in characters of the magical variety. I’ve never been a fan of Harry Potter for example. Saw the first movie and that wasn’t for me.
I enjoy characters with limitations. I’m a Batman guy and not a Superman guy. Doctor Strange has always come across as a “superman” god-like character to me --that with a wave of his hands could save the day. Deus ex machina. So, my inclination was to pass on it.
"How about Spider-Man instead, Jason?"
And he was never a character that I felt that I could relate too. He always seemed kind of arrogant and above it all, at times sinister looking, on another other level than the rest of his colleagues. God-like. One of the items on my "wish" list was for him to come across as more of an average guy—that happens to have an extraordinary role. A big part of my message to Jason regarding what I would like to see in the book was to diminish what he could do; that his power set be limited. He has to be more creative in solving problems and sometimes there are repercussions to his actions. He loses. He suffers.
I’d say that my biggest influence in terms of how the book is coming across visually is a reflection of my obsessed interest in Michael Golden’s work when I was growing up. One of the best comic books ever illustrated was Doctor Strange #55. It’s the one Doctor Strange issue that I own and I’ve completely destroyed it after years of repeatedly studying Mike’s art. It’s amazing and it’s the version of Doctor Strange that I most have in mind when drawing the book.
Nrama: This book is about magic -- do you believe in magic, Chris?
Bachalo: Ha! I can’t say that I believe in the magic that is a part of Doctor Strange’s world, but I do believe in the magic that goes into creating something wonderful.
The movie The Walk is out right now. I didn’t see that movie but saw the documentary Man On Wire. To me what Philippe Petite did was truly magical.
Or, something like the birth of a baby, the beauty of an orchid, the culinary skills of a fine chef, a well-told story, or a song perfectly played. They are all magical. I believe in that.
Nrama: Last question… big picture, what are you hoping to show fans in the work you're doing in this series?
Bachalo: I think I want people to come away from our work with a sense of joy that comes from a well told story. That it’s a book that’s entertaining, fun to read, interesting to look at, and a good time. I hope they enjoy the creativity and appreciate the thought an hard work that goes into it—and that it's worth their time. The script for #4 arrived this week and it’s a joy to read. Jason is a master storyteller and it’s not lost on me how lucky I am to be able to visually document his stories. I hope that the readers have a similar appreciation.