Designing The Wild Storm With Jon Davis-Hunt

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The artist of the best comics fight scene of 2017 talks process, design, & fanboys out a little.

The Wild Storm, Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt’s reimagining of the Wildstorm Universe, has been one of the best consequences of the reintroduction of the DC Multiverse. The characters, many of whom were introduced 25 years ago when Jim Lee first broke away from Marvel, have made multiple rounds as icons; first as bright, colorful superheroes during the Image Revolution; later as complex, ultraviolent deconstructions of the superhero genre in Ellis’s first go round with them, on Stormwatch and The Authority.

This time through, the world has been restarted and boiled down to its essence: aliens, covert extragovernmental agencies, weird science, decompressed storytelling, and absolutely staggering action set pieces. Davis-Hunt steps into this world having been part of the larger comics community since 2008, working on books like 2000 A.D. and the critical darling Clean Room. His art is a worthy addition to the Wildstorm history; his style has echoes of Miyazaki’s expressions, Otomo’s grandiosity, and Quitely’s blocking and pacing, while moving seamlessly from action to comedy to weird space stuff. We had a chance to chat with him about his work and what makes him so excited to be drawing these stories.

Den of Geek: So far, The Wild Storm’s redesigns have almost all been big departures from what they originally were. Has it been intimidating to make such iconic characters yours, especially when their creators are still involved in their publication?

Jon Davis-Hunt: Yes and no. Fundamentally, doing the redesigns has just been a huge amount of fun. The project was initially pitched to me as literally “Hey Jon, how would you like to completely re-design the entire Wildstorm universe,” and I think at that point, the fanboy side of my brain just kind of melted and sheer excitement took over, so I didn’t really get too freaked out. Warren made it really clear from the start that he wanted the designs to be a clear departure from the original look of the universe, so in that sense as well, it took some of the pressure off, as I wasn’t trying to create improved versions of any costumes, I was instead, just designing each character based on an entirely different set of parameters – grounded, real-world, no-spandex etc.

However, as Jim has done a cover for each issue (and now Bryan is too), I am suddenly very, very acutely aware that these guys (who are both, MUCH better artists than me) are now seeing the versions I’ve done of their original designs and so I am left thinking ‘Bloody hell, I really hope they like them!’. So yeah, now I am pretty freaked out, but I try not to think about it.

I actually do a lot of the character designs with the help of my wife, who is also a designer. We worked closely together on Clean Room too and she really helps when it comes to grounding the characters in a more realistic setting as her influences are more fashion based and it’s great having someone else to bounce ideas off of, especially at the really early stages where you are throwing the net really wide.

How have you noticed your style or approach change over the course of the first nine issues?

I don’t think it’s changed massively, but I do think you always improve as an artist the more you draw, so there are panels and sequences in the later issues I’m more happy with. You do get more used to drawing certain characters as the series goes by also, so I’m getting more comfortable with certain mannerisms, body language, emotions etc. Also, as the series progresses, the weirder elements of the universe are starting to float to the surface, so I’m starting to draw stranger, more surreal images as the book progresses and that does affect my approach, particularly in the early stages of each issue when it comes to layouts and character designs.

 

Pacing is really important to this book, do you find it difficult to switch gears between the Jackie/Mitch scenes which are almost comedic, and the big action set pieces?

It’s not difficult changing pace when I’m actually drawing the final pages, but the biggest effect is undoubtedly on the amount of planning that goes into the action sequences. I can normally rough out an issue in about a day, whereas the fight sequence in issue 9 (for instance), took me an entire day, just to work out those 10 pages. It was the same for the big shoot out in issue 3 where I had loads of stuff flying through the air. I have found though, that as long as I have the sequences really well planned out, the actual time it takes to draw a page of action, versus a page of conversation is pretty much the same.

 

The six and nine panel grids you’re using are really effective in the conversational scenes, but the way you shifted the panel borders in the fight scene in issue seven, and the way you go almost to micropanels in the fight in issue 9 altered the flow in incredible ways. How much of that flow is in the script, and how much of that is your own influences coming to the fore?

Warren provides lots of detail when it comes to the action sequences, especially when it comes to specific moves/set pieces. I simply try to deliver those as best I can and where I feel it’s warranted, I try to enhance the pacing and the impact. That’s where the micro panels came in. Warren was very certain he wanted to stay within the 9 panel grid structure, but when we were putting together Issue 1 and I got to the Engineer transformation sequence, I suggested we could drop in a load of extra panels, by splitting each panel into a further 4. That way, the overall structure of the page is maintained, but the extra panels really let us focus on detail and also enhance that ‘slow motion’ feeling of the scene that Warren wanted to convey. It gives so much more control over the flow and pacing.

The extra panels also allow me to shift focus and show action/re-action from multiple vantage points within a single moment. I think they help to give the book an additional visual characteristic. My aim is to find an appropriate place to slip in two full 32 panel pages. A 64 panel double page spread!!! I haven’t found the right time to do it yet, but one day!

The first page of issue seven is one of my favorites because of how concisely it recapped the first six issues. How did you pick which scenes to reference?

Basically, I had 3 objectives – show each of the major characters, introduce them on the page in roughly the same order they appeared and recap the major story elements. Oh and also, make the composition sit well on the page. In all honesty, it was just a question of going through dozens and dozens of different options until they finally all fit together properly. But it was Steve (Buccellato)’s colors that really tied the composition together, having the monochrome pallet with the red accent. He’s amazing!

Did you watch a Netflix Marvel show’s hallway scene before you drew the hallway scene in issue seven and think “screw those guys, I can do way better” or was that always part of the plan

That was all in Warren’s script, but yes, as I was drawing it, I was channeling those scenes and the awesome Oldboy scene as well. I’ve also got a huge soft spot for Equilibrium which has some tremendous close combat gunplay.

There is a samurai fight sequence in this week’s issue where the step by step flow feels like it’s almost out of a manga – you see how each movement progresses to the next in a way that western comics don’t really do often. What else were you drawing from to make such a stylish, deliberate fight?

That’s a real example of how I simply took Warren’s script and then tried to do it justice. Warren had detailed the fight out and then I went in and further spliced the action down. By using the micorpanels, I could include not only the actions that Warren had asked for, but also the re-action by each of the other characters. I really wanted every action to flow naturally into the next, so it felt very, very cohesive, and those extra panels just allow you to do that.

Style wise, I am a HUGE fan of Katsuhiro Otomo and his work is brilliant at really allowing action sequences to breathe. I also channeled some cinematic influences too – particularly, the fight scenes from ‘The Brotherhood of the Wolf’. That has some amazing cinematography and pacing in its fight scenes, lots of slow moments, mixed in with the intense action.

Steve Buccellato’s coloring is amazing. Can you talk about your process working with him?

It would be hard to over exaggerate just how brilliant Steve is. He really has been a huge part of the artistic process. Not only does he do a phenomenal job of coloring what I’ve drawn, but he actually adds in a huge amount of detail to the panels. The fight scene from issue 9 in particular, has a huge amount of embellishment on the clothing and scenery that is all down to Steve. I am a sucker for detail and quite often I’ll include stuff in the panels that is totally superfluous, but Steve will go in and give every inch his full attention. I felt especially bad after drawing all those rain drops in issue nine!

When we first started on the book, I attempted to convey the kind of look and style I wanted – very ‘real’ world, with particular attention paid to the quality of light, and realistic tones for clothing and objects in the world. Steve took my fairly vague notes and just totally realized the books visual aesthetic. There are some many sequences and images in the book that I think standout, purely because of Steve’s excellent colors.

Getting finished pages back from Steve is one of the most exciting parts of working on the book!

How do you go from horror in Clean Room to the cerebral action in The Wild Storm? 

I think both books have been heavy on characterization, so in that way, it’s been fairly easy. However, when Clean Room then slipped into a horror sequence, The Wild Storm does the same, but does it in a sci-fi way. The Wild Storm definitely has more action that Clean Room, but I’ve been very lucky with my time at DC, in that I have worked now on 2 books, back to back, that I simply love drawing. I think if you enjoy the book and feel invested in the story, you don’t really notice the differences. It’s just simply a blast drawing.

Who haven’t you drawn yet that you’re really excited to get to?

Well, as I was a huge Wildstorm fanboy prior to drawing the book, I’m going to have to go with Midnighter. It’s the obvious answer, but it’s also the truth. I love him as a character and I would love to have the opportunity to do my version of him. However, I honestly don’t know if he and Apollo will show up. I keep mentioning him to Warren, but so far, nothing. Fingers crossed though!

The Wild Storm #9 is out in shops and online on Wednesday, 11/15/2017. For more information on it, or to see what we picked as our best comics of 2017, stick with Den of Geek!

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