Christian Ward has made a name for himself as an artist on Marvel's Black Bolt and Thor and the creator-owned ODY-C and Invisible Kingdom, but with his next project he's branching out into something new: writing.
Ward is writing Tommy Gun Wizards, a four-issue Prohibition period piece where booze is replaced with magic. Although he originally hoped to draw it himself, his busy work schedule led him to look for an artistic collaborator - and found one in artist Sami Kavela.
Together, with color flatter Dee Cuniffe and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, that duo are re-imagining Eliot Ness and his Untouchables as an incorruptable policeman fighting the criminal use of magic.
With the first issue due out August 28, Newsarama spoke with Ward about his transition from artist to writer, how he's keeping his hand in the art side of Tommy Gun Wizards in other ways, and why this concept has haunted him for so many years.
Newsarama: Christian, we're here - your first creator-owned book you're writing. We've talked about the possibility of you doing this for years, but it's now here with Tommy Gun Wizards. I know you have a trove of ideas - what made this one 'the one' to start with?
Christian Ward: This, right here, is all about putting my money where my mouth is. I'm constantly excited by a new story idea, one that that seems fresher or more exciting than the last and i'd jot them down in a little book and then do absolutely nothing with them. Catherine, my wife, would just roll her eyes every single time I'd say "I have this great idea."
I was hiding behind the excuse that I'd always planned on both drawing and writing (at least) my first book but with my schedule it was going to be years before I'd have time. So finally I looked at my little book of ideas and decided to choose one and develop it with another artist. It was time to get the ball rolling. Mo more putting it off.
Funnily enough, Tommy Gun Wizards wasn't going to be my first book as a writer. That was one idea I was adamant i did want to save for myself. I actually contacted Sami Kivela about another book. A weird little thriller about quantum physics and serial killers called The Balance but it needed more time to hone it than I had (what with my current workload drawing Invisible Kingdom). What I needed was something that was more fully formed. It was that revelation (together with one about Sami, which i'll get to) that made me decide on Tommy Gun Wizards.
The first time I told anyone about the story of Tommy Gun Wizards was at dinner after London Super Con about six years ago. I was sat next to Lee Garbett (who i'd met that night) and we got talking about creator-owned comics. He'd just done Loki and was thinking about making the move over to Image. I ended up kind of pitching Tommy Gun Wizards to him right there and then. You always know when a story works when you can tell someone the gist of it in one or two sentences: "Chicago's prohibition but with magic," I said and I knew from Lee's reaction the idea worked. We flirted with the notion of doing it together but I decided to keep it for myself and Lee decided to stick with work-for-hire but it became the one idea I kept coming back to.
All the while it simmered away in the back of my mind. The world grew. The characters developed. The story solidified. So fast forward to now and when I though about what idea people might respond to and what idea would be easier to write ( because I'd be writing in my head for last 5 years!) it was one and the same: Tommy Gun Wizards.
Nrama: The title, 'Tommy Gun Wizards,' sums up the flavor of the book pretty succinctly - but digging deeper, it's about Eliot Ness dealing with crime - but its not alcohol and drugs they're smuggling, it's magic. I know you're "the writer" here, but visually this sounds like a fun book to draw. Can you tell us about creating something so visually sumptious for your creator-owned book, and why that's important?
Ward: Here's something funny. I'd only called it Tommy Gun Wizards for the last year and I can thank Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso for that because I was originally going to call the book Moonshine.
Nrama: Which is the name of their recent Image Comics creator-owned title. Beat to the punch, I see.
Ward: All the comics I love are bold and visual. In a way that only comics can be. So when i thought about writing my own comics I tried to follow a similar path. More specifically when i first conceived of this particular book it was because i was something that would fit my aesthetic as an artist that wasn't sci-fi. I was worried of being typecast as the sci-fi guy so wanted to explore more of fantasy world.
It was definitely about wanting something fun for me to draw. Of course When Sami came on board it became about me wanting it to be fun for him to draw. In fact once I started writing the scripts for Sami the book became even more fun. I'd find myself scrapping big chunks of the script because it didn't have enough awesome for him to draw. He became my audience and if he had fun drawing it then there's more chance that the reader will have fun reading it.
Nrama: So did you have any unresolved pangs to want to draw this yourself even after you brought Sami onboard?
Ward: This book was (is) my baby. Easily my favorite, most fun idea. I'd even started putting together a pitch that I was going to send to Image back in 2014 with me as the artist. Right before ODY-C happened. Hopefully it speaks volumes of how much I value Sami as my collaborator because before him there's no way I would have shared creating this world with anyone else.
Thankfully i'm still involved artistically, not just with the covers and colors but i'm also drawing a back-up story for each issue that will connect to and inform the main narrative in interesting way. So there'll be plenty reason for fans of my art to pick this book up.
Nrama: So howw did you connect with Sami, and what was it about their work that you were willing to let go, so to speak, and let someone else draw your first creator-owned book you're writing?
Ward: Luckier still I've snatched him up before DC found him! I discovered Sami's work in Beautiful Canvas, the book he did Ryan K Lindsay over at Black Mask. Ryan had asked me to do a cover for the book and sent me the first issue and I was immediately impressed with Sami's work. It was that feeling you get when you know someones going to be a star.
Saladin Ahmed later shared earlier sneaks at his work on Abbott and that feeling was only strengthened. When I finally decided I wanted to work with other artists rather than holding off to write and draw, he was one of the first artist I approached and was thrilled when he said yes. Like i said the book I had in mind for Sami was very different but my mind kept thinking about how well Sami had handled the period elements of Abbott and something struck me, as an artist my best work is when I'm not confined by reality and though i'd been saving Tommy Gun Wizards for myself I knew that for it to really succeed, for all of it's fantasy and magic trappings it needed to feel grounded in reality. The penny dropped and I knew Sami was perfect for the book. Thankfully he agreed!
Beyond his attention to period details , both in fashion and the architecture (the world in this book really feels like 1930's Chicago), Sami is a fantastic story teller and his acting chops is second to none. This meant working with him has been great because I've been able to trust him to just do his thing.
As an artist I've always done my best work when my collaborator has given me the freedom to do what I do and allowed me the freedom to illustrate (and direct) the script how I perceive it and I knew I had to do the same with Sami. There's been times he's added panels, taken away panels or just approached a sequence or page slightly different and thats made reading his pages thrilling. He's breathed life into this world and in many ways by working with Sami (rather than waiting to draw my first book as a writer myself ) has also legitimized me as writer. It's stopped the book being a vanity projected and instead it's all about the story.
Nrama: That being said, you are coloring Sami's work here - with Dee Cunniffe doing flats - and you're making sure to credit your flatter, which is a welcome change in comic books. Whats the process like between you and Dee?
Ward: As fun as it's been i'm not sure I'd color another book that wasn't already drawing but Tommy Gun Wizards was my baby for so long I felt like I had to. Back when I envisaged drawing it I could always picture what Tommy Gun's world would look and though I designed more of the cast I just felt I lack that attention to detail I mentioned to make it work. It was important to me that i had a hand in how the world felt and coloring the book felt like the best way to do that.
In that way it's a great collaborate with me and Sami on the art. He sells the reality and I help sell the magic. With Dee I haven't worked with Dee since ODY-C (he used to flat that book too) but I knew with my work load on Invisible Kingdom that I'd need his help with this book. Dee's work here, though technically flats, is a little more than that. I like to think more that Dee is applying the first layer of paint for me to then apply my coat above. He takes Sami's linework and defines the shapes and makes color choices which I can either go with, tweak, or change completely. On top of these I add additional thin (as in transparent) layers of additional color (this creates a more luminous colour and or a gradient of color) then add tone, texture, and any magic effects that are needed.
Nrama: Getting into the story... what is Eliot Ness up against in this series? And is the story limited to just being about Eliot?
Ward: We're going to put Eliot snd his team of Untouchables through the wringer. This is very much the story of ordinary men fighting with magic powered beings. It's been fun as the writer to see Sami have bring this whole cast of wild and dangerous characters to life. That said not all of the magic in Tommy Gun Wizards is like 'Harry Potter but with gangsters', in fact in our world much of the magic is mundane and everyday. Not every person who uses it becomes a 'wizard' and similarly the drama of the book comes from the humanity of our cast rather than from the spectacle. It comes from what each of our characters desires and how those desires are in conflict with each other.
Nrama: Right now this is plotted out as a four-issue series, but c'mon Christian.. I know you got more ideas for this stowed away under your proverbial floorboards, right?
Ward: Though I planned these four issues to work as a complete story should we go no further, the initial pitch was conceived as a 12-issue run, and I certainly feel like there's many more to explore in this world. In fact I feel like I could write this book for years. I already have the next arc plotted so if the first four issues sell well, Dark Horse are on board with us doing more.
After this arc focusing on Ness and Capone I want to the next one to feature a character inspired by Carrie Nation, who was this literally axe-wielding bad-ass who targeted and destroyed bars even before the Prohibition. What could you possibly add to magic and gangsters to make them cooler? Axes, of course! So please, pre-order and add to your pull list everyone because we have such cool things planned.
Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals for Tommy Gun Wizards?
Ward: Honestly, I just want to take readers on a ride. All my favorite long-form stories, either in TV or comics, are those that surprise and keep the audience on their toes and I want to strive to do that here as long as people want read it.
On a personal level, writing Tommy Gun Wizards has been about proving to myself that I can write. As an artist I've always approached page design like solving a puzzle and this feels like an extension to that. How to use the page count of the comic to effectively tell our story. With film perhaps it's your budget that limits you or shapes your story, here it's your page count. Having 20-24 pages to tell your story in the best way you can and having finished the last script it feels great to sit here and feel like I can can now legitimately call myself a writer.
I thank Dark Horse and in particular our editor Daniel Chabon for giving me that opportunity. Now i can flick through little book of ideas and think: What's next?
Nrama: And lastly, say you were born into this world of Tommy Gun Wizards. What side of the fence would you be on?
Ward: If partaking in magic meant I could work twice as fast I'd be hiding a little bottle of the magic stuff in my desk draw for sure, Eliot Ness be damned.