On Tuesday, August 31, 2011, “Justice League” #1 dropped, officially beginning the experiment known as the New 52. DC Comics was not just relaunching all of its titles, it was doing so in a new, clean(er) continuity, in an attempt to revitalize and enthuse the fan base. It was an unprecedented move that bore good, bad, and mediocre comics.
Over the next year, we’ll be discussing each of the New 52 titles with a member of its creative team. We’re not taking any clear path through these books, but hopping from title to title, line to line, in an effort to spotlight the breadth of the initiative.
Today’s installment features Tony Akins. Akins was the regular fill-in artist on “Wonder Woman” in the New 52 up through issue #19. Tony’s issues often leaned on his horror tendencies, and often featured the other gods in Diana’s life, sometimes more than Diana herself. You can follow Tony on Twitter, @tony8akins. And check out Tony’s work in a recent installment of “Represent!,” one of DC’s new digital offerings.
Tony talks about his role as an alternating artist, designing some of the gods, and what it was like to work with the ‘Curtain of Scorn.’
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come about being the guy who was going to be alternating with Cliff Chiang on “Wonder Woman?”
Tony Akins: Well, I think it starts with Brian Azzarrello and Cliff and whatever was going on at editorial at the time when they landed this gig. Brian, and I had worked together, we were friends and so I, I think that Brian had nailed down the tone of the story and wanted a strong horror aspect. And he knew that was like right up my alley. Brian and I had done some work in the early 90s that had sort of had really crazy monsters and manga influence on the page that he really enjoyed. And I think he enjoyed it because he just needed to write a couple of sentences,I ran with it. But I think he wanted the same insanity in “Wonder Woman” too.
But you know what that means? He had to like, really strain to keep editorial out of the mix. And he’s told me and I’ve heard that he acquired this nickname, ‘the Curtain of Scorn.’ So I guess anytime editorial folks are wanting to know what direction the story was going in, they got that look from Brian. You know, just back off. So yeah, I think I was brought in, because Brian and I had a working release relationship prior. I think Brian really wanted something sinister in a settling to, to lace through the stories.
Now, when were you brought in? Were you always going to be, you know, sort of the the alternating artists with Cliff, or did that come about from, you know, they realized after production started, that Cliff wasn’t gonna be able to keep the pace that the DC was insistent on at the time, you know, there was this whole, like, ‘nothing’s ever going to be late in the New 52 edicts.’
TA: There might have been some anticipation for the need. I was basically the facto fill in artist; Cliff would do three, I would do two, he would do two, I would do one. And that’s how we were going to keep the series going.
The whole thing started with a meeting, editorial meeting, and Brian said something that he thought was funny, and it probably was funny, but [Dan] DiDio says, “okay, you think that’s funny? Here, you’re on “Wonder Woman.” That’s my understanding of how it went. But at some point, Brian may have had me in mind, you know, from the germ of the idea, but you know, it could have been a second thought could have been saying, Okay, we’ve got this for x number of issues.
I have not really read the full run in a while, but in anticipation of talking to you today, I was just kind of scrolling through some of the issues that you worked on in the book, and I was really taken by how especially there’s, there’s one or two issues that you draw, that Diana barely appears in it. Those stories are much more about the other gods. And I was wondering if, if that was sort of by design, if it was if it was decided upon, at some point, that you would be leaned on for the stories that were more about Ares and the other gods that were showing up, and that Cliff would be doing more of the Diana stuff? Or if that’s just kind of happenstance from which scripts you went up getting?Continued below
TA: I would say it was by design, that I handled Diana less, because I you know, I’m not a superhero guy. In looking back on those issues. my one take on it is, you know, if were to change something, it would be how I approached her, because I just, you know, again, not being a superhero guy, I felt that I didn’t do justice to her. And in fact, when I turned my issue in, which was on time, I got pushback from editorial on how I drew her and I had the time to address some of those. And I you know, maybe because of Brian’s ‘Curtain of Scorn’ stance on protecting the title, editorial may have come to a compromise rather than having me replaced. They would just have me draw around, Diana, and I’m sure Brian didn’t have a problem with that. And in fact, I was asked to sort of approach Cliff’s style just to, you know, keep the whole flavor on the page. But yeah, it’s Cliff’s book. So you know, that was the line I felt that I needed to toe.
So I think that they probably did come to the decision where, you know, political, financial, you know, the Diana centric stories. You know, handle all the big daddies, it seems really confident that I would handle anything that was especially bloody or gory. Fantastic. I’m always happy with my monsters, my designs and that, from Hades to you know, the other things that landed on the page that were, you know, just fantastic.
Do you remember what they had issue with with your Diana?
TA: She wasn’t pretty enough. I know, Cliff got some pushback, too, but that would fit into the way he did handle her, which fell within his stylistic range. And so it it, it melded with the rest of the art that he was dropping, but for me, it was a real struggle. You know, again, I’m culturally, editorially, I’m not that type of artist, I tend to be more naturalistic. Or, you know, just flat out, you know, sensationalistic with, you know, really broad, cartoony actions. So it was hard for me to walk away with that. So, I think the one is a sequence, at the Tower Bridge, where she is confronting these assassins, the centers who are the woman she’s protecting and all of that is great. I mean, I enjoyed all of that and did the best I could on Diana, and I guess they were happy with that.
But the one place they did check me was just the amount of gore that I had on the other page. And which, which is unfortunate because you know, they could have broken some sensitive viewer threshold, so it’s fun.
One of the things that I love about that run is how you and Cliff work in concert. I don’t think you’re very much like Cliff in your art style, but you two managed to work together so well that it didn’t feel jarring as you’re reading the book. And part of that I’m sure is the coloring and all that but it felt like a really good mixture of styles. But I also feel like your issues always had this really dark undercurrent and part of that is because of the characters you were drawing. But also as your work, like you said, leans towards horror. So when you were told or asked or whatever to try to sort of match Cliff’s style, what were you doing to your work to allow that match to happen? How did you adjust your work?
TA: I adjusted it through line quality; I tend to work the finer line. I guess I bought flatter [approach to] coloring that would be more of a sort of flat, animation type of color. So those are the two things that I kept in mind. Cliff is much more sophisticated than I am, design wise. And because I say that because he works he gets more work done with less than. I’ve been on jobs before, and I worked in a studio as a young artist, where we have to basically mimic the lead artists style so you know developed a critical eye.Continued below
Plus I just admired Cliff’s work, so I was easy, well not easy, but I was heated up to understand where I needed to push my work, curtailed by [his] style.
Did it come from you or Azzarrello to make him the inspiration for Ares?
TA: Brian said “Ares is me, but just imagine he’s covered in blood.” You know from His hands to his elbows in, you know, his pant legs also so it’s like he’s, he’s been messing around just bats of blood walking around the streets. Okay, that’s pretty easy. Brian is pretty easy to capture in a drawing.
Were any of the other gods similarly inspired? Were there people who were?
TA: Um, let’s see, I always try to be you know, original. If there’s an ask, I’ll wing it. But I like to, you know, bring something new, something that hasn’t been seen on the page, hopefully. I mean, that’s, that’s my, that’s my conceit.
Poseidon was great; Poseidon was just completely unusual. We wanted a sea monster. Brian and I were talking about it, and I can’t remember which one of us landed on the old Sea scrolls, you know, the old maps from the 16th century with badly formed or badly conceived continents, and then there’s nothing. And then there’s Beyonds here, like, you know, be monsters, and there’s always that weird looking dolphin that represents [the unknown]. So that’s where Poseidon came from. He was that big fish that swallows ships.
And my partner and I had a cat, this Himalayan that, you know, is a great cat. But you know, sometimes you just get this look on his face and you don’t even don’t know where he was coming from, or whether he was pissed or just, you know, asleep with his eyes open. And that’s sort of where the face of Poseidon came from. And then I just added, you know, sort of the whole Baroque detail of that, you know, of shells of beings that are clustered on his back because, you know, he’s this giant creature, so things are going to basically live on his back. He was an amalgamation of different sorts of see that, you know, aspects of sea life that are just sinister and threatening, like the tentacles, and that was just purely visual stuff to have something sinister rise up out of the sea beneath.
I think Cliff established Strife. I think my only other design for key characters were Hades and Brian just had one ask: he’s a kid. And so you go “Okay, he’s a kid you,” and you think think Village of the Damned. I think that the problem I was having with my initial designs for Hades was it was a little kid, but I needed to make it so you would think he would be adorable, but there is sinister in them. And I was having problems with [visualizing] that.
So I just thought, Well, you know, just give him no eyes. So that’s with a crowd of candles and all the wax dripping down. There is a painting called ‘The Dead Travel Fast [by Horace Vernet].’ It’s a countryside and there’s a house in the distance but it’s at night, and the only light that’s describing what’s going on is coming from the eyes of this horseman.This horseman is dressed in armor, and his dead eyes are glowing. His eyes are basically, you know, like headlights. So the horse is defined through the light. You know, the gleam on his black armor behind him is this poor woman who’s clutching on for I can’t say she’s clutching on for life, because she’s obviously being spirited off by this manifestation of death. It’s just as she just has this look on her face at his raised visor, you know, see, releases this light from the space and realizes that she’s screwed. It’s an amazing painting.
I just pulled it up on my computer. It’s haunting
TA: Isn’t it? Yeah. So that’s where Hades’s armor came from, that black glistening, you know, sepulchral shell? It’s it’s Yeah, and then I just added the little wings on the backbecause you know, that would be what I thought that was cute.Continued below
Now, you were on the book on an off until issue 19. Do you remember why you stepped away from the book?
TA: I was burnt out. I had just moved from Chicago to Seattle. It was a big move. In fact, the news that Brian was on the book came to me while I was scouting out a place to live in Seattle. I was crossing the street with my my partner. She was late, and we were looking for apartments. We’re on Capitol Hill. And I got a call and so it’s crossing some road. I saw there’s Brian and I picked it up. “Hey, what’s up?” It’s like, “what do you think of ‘Wonder Woman’” and like,” I don’t, why?” He’s like, “well, I’ve got the book. And we’re gonna play, you know, we’re gonna do what we want with all the toys. And then we got to put it back for, you know, X number of issues. So I’ll email you what I’m thinking.”
And that’s kind of like the news. And I said, Yes. I said, Yes, right there on the spot, bcause again, I worked with Brian. And I knew Brian and I thought about hooking up with him again. But that was a Sunday that he called me because I remember I was preparing the next day to go down to Dark Horse, because I’d been dancing with Scott Allie about the next Buffy season, because he wanted me on it. We were going through the back and forth with the talent representation of, you know, the actors because they think they have to look a certain way on the page.
And so it just got to the point where you know, I’m going to find a place to live, and then the following Monday, take up, take a train down to Portland, walk into Dark Horse’s offices, sit down with Scott and just like, get this done. Then Brian called me, and that was it. I called Scott the next day and said, “Hey, listen, I was going to come down there and just sit in the office and get this done.” Scott was like, “well, that wouldn’t have been a good idea.” But, you know, that’s that that was my plan, you know, because I wanted, you know, I needed to win the next gig.
So yeah, Brian, calls me and I just say yes, right here on the street. And that was it for Dark Horse. I did talk to Scott the next day and, in fact, I was torn about it, because “Buffy” was still not clearly in my hands and “Wonder Woman” was, you know, clearly offered. Scott says, “Well, what do you want more?” And based on, you know, ‘the bird in the hand?’ I said, “Wonder Woman.”