When writer Warren Ellis was putting together The Wild Storm, the DC series that would effectively relaunch the whole Wildstorm universe, artist Jon Davis-Hunt had to redesign dozens of beloved characters in a way that would honor their '90s roots, but update them for modern readers.
It was no small task, as Davis-Hunt says Ellis "wanted [the new Wild Storm] to be essentially the opposite of what those books were originally."
"So everything that they did, we wanted to do literally the exact opposite."
After making so many tweaks to the well-known characters, Davis-Hunt now admits it feels "surreal," since he was a fan of the WildStorm universe when he was young.
Created by Jim Lee at Image and later sold to DC, the WildStorm universe and its characters were more recently incorporated into the DCU itself. But The Wild Storm, which launched last year, gives the characters new life on an earth of their own — under the respectful pen of one of the men who helped define some of them in the first place.
Newsarama talked to Davis-Hunt about his work with Ellis on The Wild Storm, and we found out — as he spoke about a "load of characters" who will be introduced in the next couple issues — that there might be some truth to the speculation that issue #13 will feature the return of a team with the number 13 in their name.
Davis-Hunt: I had talked to my editor at Vertigo about what book I'd be doing after Clean Room, which I was doing at the time with Gail Simone. And so I was on holiday, and I got an email about a project. It was really secret, so she was like, "I can't tell you what it is, but what sort of writers are you into? What sort of writers do you like, just so I have an idea of the type of project you might be looking for?"
So I just said, I really like Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis and Jonathan Hickman — not that I thought for a minute that those would be the people who were writing, but just as a guide for her.
She sent the email book and said, that's good — do you want to work with Warren on re-doing the WildStorm universe?
That was literally my first contact.
So I said yes, straight away.
And then I had to do a lot of character sketches, to sort of try out. I rushed home from holiday, and I had a weekend to do loads of character concepts. And I sent them in and then waited earnestly for a few days.
And I got the gig!
It's just surreal.
Nrama: OK, so you were a fan of Warren's writing. Did you know these characters?
Davis-Hunt: Yes! I'd grown up — I was a massive fan. I got into comics at sort of the end of the '80s and beginning of the '90s, when I was a kid. And Jim Lee was one of my favorite artists. I followed him when he went to Image. I got all the old WildStorm books and everything.
And then when I went to university, that was at the same time as when The Authority and Planetary came out. I read all those books. I read the Warren run, then I really liked the Mark Millar and Frank Quitely run. And I really enjoyed, like, Sleeper when that came out — all that later WildStorm stuff, I was really, really into.
I didn't follow it as much when it got folded into the DCU. But The Authority is probably one of my favorite comic books, and Planetary is probably my favorite comic book of all time.
That's why this was so surreal. If you'd asked me 15 years ago as I was coming out of uni, what I would like to do in an ideal world, it would have been taking over for Bryan Hitch or something. Of course, at the time I would have thought that would be impossible.
So yeah, it still feels weird now that I got to re-do those characters.
Nrama: As you said, you've gotten to "re-do" these characters, bringing the characters into a world that feels realistic for today. Did you try to put your own stamp on the characters?
Davis-Hunt: Yeah, Warren first wrote a design bible for the series, which was an overview of the themes and the visual language that he wanted to use. And the key thing to that was that he wanted it to be essentially the opposite of what those books were originally.
So everything that they did, we wanted to do literally the exact opposite. It would be more small-scale, far more grounded in reality. He wanted to stick to a nine-panel grid structure. He wanted the characters to look believable. He didn't want any spandex or anything like that.
So what I did was I went back over my old books, and obviously looked at comics online — I'd look at all the characters, how they used to be, and then I'd put that away and draw them from scratch just from the descriptions that Warren gave. And I'd try not to draw anything from their original look, but if I pulled a little bit out — things like Grifter's mask — I drew it from memory as opposed to using any reference. I thought that would be a cool way, if I wasn't copying anything, if I was just kind of drawing it how I remembered it, even if I mis-remembered things, it would give it a unique look.
But my main thing was I wanted to design the characters in costumes that looked like they could have actually gone into a shop and bought them, rather than having actual costumes.
My wife is a designer as well, so we normally go over the character synopsis first, and we talk about things. And then I'll go away and research stuff. And she'll do the same. And quite often, she'll bring more of a grounded, more fashion sort of tone to everything, because I still tend to go off on a bit of a superhero trip — and add loads of unnecessary gadgets and stuff.
But yeah, I tried to keep it functional, real world, like they could go out and buy these clothes.
And that also made me think who these characters were.
Like Grifter, I designed him thinking, well, he'd want to stay off the grid. He'd buy all his clothes from, like, an army-navy story. So that's why I kept all his stuff, like, used and as if it was literally coming from second-hand stores.
Lucy Blaze is a much more couture, like, tailored fashion. And again, that helps me with their body language, so that when I draw them, I try to draw them in poses that suit the way that they dress and the way that they would act as well.
I was doing it all so quickly.
One thing that I did do is really get kind of freaked out by the whole thing, in hindsight. I'd think about, like, Bryan's original designs or Jim Lee's original design, and they were so much better artists than I am. I think if I had had more time at the time to think about it, I would have, like, scared myself silly. But as it was, I was busy enough that it kept me quite chilled really.
Nrama: Now that you're into the series, have any of them emerged as something that's more of a challenge than you expected?
Davis-Hunt: I think I've been quite lucky. All the characters so far, I've either had enough time to work out — like with the Engineer, Angela, when I drew her in human form, she came really quickly. I sort of knew from Warren's description exactly what she was like. I did her pretty much straight-away, and same with Grifter.
But other characters, like the Engineer's armored form and probably Void as well, they took loads of iterations for me to really kind of get them. And I've been lucky that I've had the time to do it.
Sometimes, I've had to design characters literally that morning, then draw it that afternoon. I've always been lucky that they've been characters that I've just known instinctively what they're going to look like.
When I did Bendix for the first time, I just drew him almost straight onto the page. I just sort of knew what he was going to look like.
So far, I've not had any big problems. I probably wish I could go back and maybe spend more time on Voodoo, because I'd like to have her in different costumes more often when she does appear. But I just didn't have the time.
But no, so far, touch wood, I've been quite happy with them, actually. I think they turned out OK. I hope they turned out OK.
Nrama: How would you describe your overall style, and did you tweak it at all for this book?
Davis-Hunt: I think when I started on Clean Room, that was just the way I draw and it was a bit weird — like, the way you draw is like hearing your own voice in a recording. It's just a bit weird.
I have lots of influences, lots of French artists I really like — I'm a massive fan of Katsuhiro Otomo, most famous for drawing Akira. I like lots of Western artists as well. And I pick bits from lots of people, but I don't really draw directly like anyone I know. The way I draw, I'm always a bit like, oh, I draw things like that.
But I've become more comfortable with the way I draw things. I used to ink my stuff a lot heavier. I'd put a lot more shading in. I don't really feel comfortable with that. I prefer open lines and clean lines.
And when I did Clean Room, I went with that and Shelly [Bond, Vertigo editor] at the time, she really encouraged me to just draw the way I wanted to draw, which I did.
And then with Wild Storm, I think it's building on that, really.
But I hope that I'm improving all the time. I try to improve all the time, and quite often, things will change more over several issues — I look back on stuff I did in Clean Room, and I draw differently in some ways from how I do now. But you don't notice that it's changing at the time. All you're trying to do is just draw things the best you can.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything you want to tell fans about The Wild Storm or what's coming up?
Davis-Hunt: The truth is, I don't know exactly what's going to happen, because I've only got the script now for issue #13, and I only kind of know what's coming in #14. So beyond that, it's just as big of a mystery to me.
Warren's dropped a few hints about characters that are going to appear when I ask him direct questions.
But I will say that the third arc, which I'm drawing now, takes a darker tone and has a bit of a John Carpenter vibe to it, which is very cool. So things get a lot darker. It's got a road trip element to it at the beginning, where a character who you will see at the end of issue #12, he goes off in search of a whole load of other characters. And they all get introduced over the next arc, which is really cool.
So there's a load of new characters, and there's a real horror element as well, which has been really fun to start drawing, actually. It gives it a really different sort of flavor, a different feel to the last two arcs. And to kind of mirror that in the art, I'm really trying to use a lot more shadows and think about the scenery a lot more. It takes place in middle America, so I'm looking at a lot of Americana kind of influences and the buildings and the kind of architecture and props and stuff.