As co-creator of “Deadly Class,” Wes Craig has developed a comic that is simultaneously violent and poignant, over-the-top and all-too-real. His style is instantly recognizable and versatile in ways that consistently surprise you. At NYCC this year, I was lucky enough to talk to him about how his collaboration with the team on “Deadly Class” has evolved over the years, his contributions to the expanding world of the comic, and his approach to his art.
One thing I’ve always really liked about “Deadly Class” and especially in the new class of characters, is the way you designed the characters to be easily recognizable, late-80s archetypes. I was wondering how that developed in terms of like collaboration? Who says I want a Vietnamese Greaser? Or Helmut, all the new characters. How does that work?
Wes Craig: I wanted–it sounds a little egotistical–but that the new crop was a little bit… I was more involved in the creation of the second class, because I was more involved in the comic book. At the beginning it was the Deadly Class idea. It started with Rick. He had a lot of ideas that took some fleshing out, but it’s like he had the idea, obviously, of Marcus. Maria and Saya and all them got kinda fleshed out between me, and Rick, and Sebastian, our editor. We shot a lot of our ideas back and forth. At that point I was just being honest. He had already added a lot of things he wanted to do, and by the time we made that second class I was more in that world and I had certain ideas for certain characters that I wanted to draw.
Like Helmut initially, [I] just had him as being bad, I thought he was going to be a total bad guy. Similar to the way Victor is, where he is just a big ogre looking guy. Which I think that makes him look interesting, or makes him an interesting character. He kinda looks like a villain, but he is actually one of the good guys in the series. It seems like fans have really taken to him. In terms of Kwan, when I was a teenager, I was more of a Greaser type as a teenager, not very punk…but you know it was punk-like there are off-shoots like the Ska off-shoot and there’s the 1950s kind of rockabilly off-shoot and that’s what I was into when I was a kid. So, I knew this guy growing up; there was, you know, it’s more generally a white boy kind of thing. There was a few Asian people, a few black people, different cultures that were also into that.
So, they had their own take on it, and this one guy, I can’t think of his name right now but he was just–when I saw him he had like the perfect pompadour and he had the leather jacket and he’s this Asian guy. He was this fighter, so nobody wanted to fight him. He was a badass fighter. He was one of those goons you were scared of when you’re a kid and yet when I first saw him I was like that is a cool, cool looking guy. You know? I kinda wanted to capture that attitude. I wanted a rockabilly kid but if he was just a white kid then it would be a bit too much like myself and I didn’t want me in the comic book. You know? I just wanted to… I always loved that style, the style of the shoes, and leather jackets, all that stuff. So, I wanted to put that in there. He is one of my favorite characters to draw because I know that style so well.
In developing that, do you do a lot of preliminary work? Or do you just work it out on the page?
WC: I kinda did a few character [sketches], I did a bunch of characters and some of them kinda popped off the page to Rick and some them didn’t. There is a bunch of characters that maybe have could’ve been in the series but for whatever reason they didn’t end up in there. Sometimes I’ll put them in the background in the hallways or whatever.Continued below
There was this one kid–I was really missing that Vanilla Ice type of character, like an evil, evil shit, you know that’s got the spray can on his baggy jeans, just that terrible late 80s kind of white rapper style. That would be such a good bad guy to have, like Vanilla Ice, 15-year-old, really bratty little kid that’s–his dad is from the CIA or something like that. I thought that would be so good but for whatever reason he’s not really in there. Maybe I’ll draw him into this background eventually.
Yeah, basically Helmut and Zenzel and Kwan really popped off and then we wanted kind of skater character. It’s really different than Billy. Rick is a punk guy, but he’s in the off-shoot of, he’s very much skater punk off-shoot.
I think you needed somebody to kinda be in that world also. That’s why we have Tosawhi, you know, [showing] Native American culture and the clash that would be. Similar to how X-Men is back in the day and now we’re, you know, it’s like a strong series with an international cast.
There is also just as much creativity that goes into all the bad guys, especially in Love Like Blood. There are Frank Miller guys, the Yakuza guys with the Censored glasses…
WC: Yeah, yeah.
Is that just on the page? Or do you sketch that stuff out beforehand too?
WC: Yeah, I think…I’m not sure why I did the visor thing, I just thought it looked cool to add. It’s not even necessarily a realistic thing too. It’s like, “Is it a visor or is it just a black mark that I…?” You know when you have that thing where you see a person’s photo and their eyes are blacked out? Like it’s whatever, just the way I’m drawing I don’t know what the real life version of that would be and I’m just glad…it was a fun thing to make them slightly different than the average Yakuza style.
I wanted something to stand out, like…Saya’s brother, that’s like his gang and that’s their style. I knew that they have the Yakuza tattoos but they have something else that’s a bit more, maybe metal and a bit more kind of metal plate-y kind of thing going on, and the other route…I just always loved that Frank Miller mutant army thing mixed in with just the 1980s, like [a] weird kind of overdone punk style where it is just like spikes everywhere and stuff. I just love drawing that thing, I think visually just drawing all those little triangles with the black leather is very visually appealing.
You can kinda make it stand out from far back in a shot or close up. It is easily identifiable because they are basically all black with just a bunch of little white triangles all over them.
It makes for an easy to understand image. If the camera is like a million miles away you will still know that it’s a little ninja, white face mask thing with spikes.
Right. There are so many sequences that are far overhead, and like 20 of those guys. It totally works.
WC: With any design for any character you try to have something where it’s like, it has to work as a silhouette, it has to work as far back, it still has to be identifiable and you’re always just trying to make it very easy to read. You try to find simple, cool, like colors and shapes that are easy to identify.
That’s a good transition, I want to talk to you about working with Jordan Boyd, the colorist. What’s that collaboration like, the process behind it?
WC: When [“Deadly Class”] first started, we had definitely [spoke with] Lee Loughridge, the original colorist, and set a definite tone between me and Rick and Lee. We worked out… we wanted to be, like, it’s set in the 80s and let’s basically color it like we’re in the 80s. No filters, no fades, you know, super, super, basic color palette, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it stand out on that from other comic books.Continued below
So, a lot of it was, Jordan was a very adaptable colorist and we… Rick showed me bunch of his work, very adaptable to different styles, and [he] really understood color theory. He understood how to still make a page interesting without using all the bells and whistles of Photoshop.
Same thing as Lee, he’s got that same talent where he knows how to make the page pop using the minimal palette.
It probably took a little bit in the beginning, I don’t know if it was exactly how… I think every once in a while he wants to use a filter. It’s very hard to keep pulling yourself back. Sometimes you want to go crazy.
Similar to how me and him worked on the, when they’re on drugs or whatever, when they’ve taken too much acid or something like that. It’s for both of us to be like, all right, time to go crazy!
I can draw super detailed or it doesn’t have to make perfect sense. I can just go crazy and I say the same thing to him, I’m like, we don’t have to do our standard like stuff. You want to do fades, if you want to do this, that go, go nuts. I do watercolors, sometimes for the watercolors-
Yeah, for those flashback sequences, how did that work?
WC: Yeah, I love doing that for myself, it’s just very time consuming, so I kind of, I noticed for this particular job, like for this particular class I didn’t… watercolor was not the way to go, unless you wanted… the only people who were doing that in the 80s were like European artists. I wanted to stick to a very American graphic style, like influenced by Mazzuchelli and Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin. More of that school.
But going back to drawing, I think it took a little bit of figuring each other out in the very beginning, but now it is like I don’t really tell him, I don’t know what an issue it was, but a few issues in where all the kinks had been worked out and I just stopped giving any kind of suggestions. He totally got what I was going for, it’s always what you hope for just like the writer gives an artist his scripts and the writer hopes they give them back something, either what they were going for or, “Oh my god I didn’t even think about it like that!”
It’s similar where I’m giving Jordan, the colorist, I’m giving him revisions and he’s coming back and I didn’t know what that scene was going to be colored and this is so much better than what I imagined it in, like he really gets it now 100%. The color combinations that he comes up with, which is really what’s it like to go with this style because it’s like if you don’t have an interesting color contrast and stuff than the page is going to be very flat and very boring. So, a lot it is on the colorist. That’s why me and Rick never did like an artist edition of “Deadly Class”. A lot of the other artists that he works with are very much…not line…but more detail-driven and it looks really good in black and white but a lot of my pages don’t make perfect sense until the color is added to them. So, a lot of pressure on the colorist and Jordan does an amazing job and Lee did an amazing job before him.
In terms of pages making sense: Your page layouts. I noticed in the backmatter of the latest trade, it’s all in the thumbnail. All those really cool page layouts. How much of that is in the script? Or do you just get a fairly standard script and work from there?
WC: Rick gives a pretty figured out script. In terms of what has to happen on the page he can really–we experimented here and there when the lines are too tight. He’s like, “I’m going to give you a slightly looser or slightly tighter script.”
Currently with the T.V. show going on he is very involved in that. We’re working with he doesn’t necessarily break the page down into every exact panel it has to be but he doesn’t really need to because even when he did that, it was always an understanding between the two of us. He knows that I like to mess with the composition of the page, so I never changed his storytelling or what he wants to be on that page but I do sometimes say it would be cool if this is broken down into a strobe light effect, where if somebody throws a punch sometimes I just want it to not be just a punch. I want it to be like every half second you see the punch almost about to land and then there is a big shot of it landing or whatever. I like to mess around with stuff like that. So he lets me do that and he leaves me open. He knows that’s one of my favorite things in the comic book.Continued below
The drawing is cool and everything but those thumbnails are really the most fun for me. Where I get to break everything down and I send those to him just in case there is any kind of major statement he wasn’t going for and to me they are very rough looking but whatever. He understands them, every time I send them off I’m like, “You’re not going, no one’s going to understand what I drew here,” but he always seems to get them and he gets what I’m going for. It is very collaborative.
One last question. One thing you’re really good at is the acting of characters, their emotions. There are all these scenes with crazy action, but when you see Marcus he’s scared shitless. I was just wondering like what kind of thinking goes into that in terms of elevating an action comic and how that contributes to making the book into something a little bit deeper.
WC: Yeah, that’s pretty…some stuff is really winging it and just doing whatever… sometimes with comics you can’t think out every single thing, you’ve just got to keep going on it. Keep getting it done. But that is pretty on purpose because it is a very violent comic and I don’t–I hate the idea of it being…we’re not doing it to make violence look cool. We want the violence to–I don’t want–I mean Saya is the one character that does a little bit of that kind of Quentin Tarantino-style, like, undefeatable character, like, crazy ninja stuff. That’s what she does once in a while, but generally speaking, if Marcus is firing a gun I want to have at least one shot where he’s sweating, his eyeballs are pinned, his teeth are chattering, he’s shaking after…it’s not fun or cool to be in this world. There is nothing cool about it. He’s not going to be some badass ninja dude one day. He’ll be lucky if he survives the experience and so will all of them.
I want to show the physical and mental effects of taking a life or being in a shoot-out or any of that shit. It permanently messes your head up you know? Not that I get into those things, but PSTD, all those things are real things. I want to show that they’re not coming out of it unscathed. I always try to have at least one shot that shows the effect it is having on them, being in that action scene.