“People who can’t draw are stunned by those who can.” — Scott Peterson, editor at the La Jolla–based comic imprint WildStorm.
When Peterson said that, it struck me as being a pretty good explanation for the appeal of Comic-Con, the massive annual celebration of “the popular arts” held each year in and around the San Diego Convention Center. It’s probably why people will pay $20–$35 a day for the privilege of paying $40 more for a signed lithograph of Batman by WildStorm founder (and celebrated artist) Jim Lee. Or, failing that, why they’ll stand in line for over an hour just to have Lee sign a copy of All-Star Batman & Robin, which he drew for WildStorm’s parent company, DC. It’s certainly why my brother happily paid $50 to stand in Artist’s Alley and watch Gene Colan — the guy who drew Howard the Duck, and Dr. Strange at his very strangest — whip off a small sketch of the good Doctor. (It’s also why I happily accepted said sketch as a birthday present.)
I mean, Monty Python taught us that it’s not exactly thrilling to watch a writer slave over his latest manuscript, and even the sexy business of making movies gets old after the 15th take of the same minor scene. But give a comic book artist a sheet of paper and five or ten minutes, and he can give you a very fine Batman.
Best of all, you get to watch your prize take shape, marveling as your man busts out his pencils (his brush-tipped pens, his markers…) and sets to work. (I say “he” because they’re mostly guys, but there are plenty of exceptions. Stay tuned.) Big, faint, swirling lines that might or might not be a cape, or an outstretched arm, or — is that a dragon? Yes, yes it is. The whole taking shape as the sure hand lays down layer upon enhancing layer: pencil, outline, color, shadow. So much cooler (and a good bit more personal) than a straight autograph.
Case in point: this particular rendition of the Dark Knight, as rendered by Daxiong Guo, artist on WildStorm’s Top 10 Special #1. Daxiong is Chinese and was at one point a celebrated teacher, producer, and publisher of comic illustration in his home country. (You learn this from his translator, who tells the story while the artist plies his trade.) He won awards at home and abroad, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble with the authorities. A follower of the quasi-religious practice of Falun Gong, he grew increasingly critical of the government as it carried out its infamous crackdown on the movement.
“I believe the reason for China’s disaster in humanity is because of the dirty evil acts of the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin,” he writes in the self-illustrated apologia given me by his translator. “The Chinese Communist Party is dragging people down into the pits of the underworld.” (The booklet includes a cartoon depicting Zemin as a puppet operated by a Communist devil, delivering a scolding to Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and bin Laden.) “In 2008,” he continues, “the Chinese Communist Party convicted me of lies and slander, so again I was arrested” and, according to his translator, tortured. But “with the help of friends overseas, I was able to escape to the United States and find my freedom.” Part of that escape involved being invited to Comic-Con 2008. (When he inscribes his sketch with the slogan “Justice and courage in the face of evil,” it gets a little easier to take seriously the notion that Batman & Co. are called superheroes.)
Naturally, it’s not all, or even mostly, politics and nobility. A little later, comic-book writer Marc Bernardin hits up Kody Chamberlain, another artist fortunate enough to park himself at the WildStorm table in the DC pavilion. (The pavilion is demarcated by enormous banners above, cushy purple carpet below, and a near-constant parade of DC-costumed fans all around — hello, Joker!)
“Gimme something I know,” advises Chamberlain. “I’m not very good at remembering things — like with superheroes, I can never remember where Batman’s cape connects to his shirt.”
“How about Ripley from Aliens?” asks Bernardin. “You got Sigourney Weaver in your head?”
“See, that’s a likeness problem,” complains Chamberlain.
“How about a Terminator?”
“I can do a Terminator. Of course, the first drawing of the day always sucks.”
“Awesome!” replies Bernardin. “Yay me!”
This sort of professional banter, says editor Peterson, is one of the reasons WildStorm is here at the Con. Sure, it’s a giant meat market, held in a cavernous hall that, despite its size, still winds up feeling overstuffed (one attendee told me to “write about the smells”). But, he says, “I’m still surprised by how many deals get made because people actually get to meet face to face. We meet with a lot of movie people, game people, foreign publishers…and it’s one of our biggest chances to actually meet with our creators, our freelancers.” And for creators to meet each other. And even for dreamers, amateurs, and the self-published to meet with the Powers That Be.
Like many of the larger comics publishers, DC does not accept unsolicited submissions — except here, they do. Here’s how it works: you attend a DC Talent Search Orientation Session at the convention. You submit photocopies of your work at the DC Comics booth. At the end of the day, says Peterson, “We stick them all in a bin and something like ten of us, from different departments around DC, will go through and look at every single entry. Then we each decide if we want to see someone the next day for a face-to-face portfolio review. I’m on the high end —
I might sign off on as many as ten percent. A lot of others are as low as one percent.” (It’s not surprising to learn that Peterson has a rep for cultivating new talent.)
Peterson did his first look-through on Thursday. At the WildStorm karaoke party, held in the Whiskey Girl’s basement on Friday evening, Peterson said that he’d signed off on something like 5 out of 50 submissions. “On Thursday, I was thinking along the lines of ‘I encourage you to keep going; you’re not there yet, but if you work really hard, in two or three years, you will be.’” But when Friday morning came, he reconsidered. “Now, I think a couple of them are more like six months away from getting work at a smaller publisher — they either have a wicked cool style or a lot of energy. I told pretty much all of them the same thing: I want to see faces. Dozens and dozens of faces, from all angles. Prove to me you can draw faces, and draw them consistently, and at least a few of you will have some sort of career in comics.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Writers, sadly, need not apply. But sometimes at the Con, a writer can get lucky, perhaps especially if he’s got some finished product to show. That’s how it worked out for Aaron Williams, anyway. Williams has been self-publishing his comics Nodwick and PS238 through his Do Gooder Press imprint since 2000 — the former is a gentle spoof on fantasy gaming, while the latter is set in an elementary school for children with superpowers. Doing a gamer comic gave him an in at gamer conventions as well as the usual lineup of comic gatherings (of which San Diego is the largest). “I fell in with a group called Adventure Retail,” he says. “They’re a traveling circus of sorts. They have my stuff, and stuff from a few other publishers, and also some game companies, like Atlas Games. It saves us from having to pack for every convention and pay for shipping.”
(Delightful gamer aside: while Williams chats, he stops off at the booth for Dark Horse comics to drop off cookies and a T-shirt to someone he knows. “I preordered the Ghostbusters video game,” he says, “and they gave me this free T-shirt. But it only comes in extra large, which is wrong. We refer to ‘extra large’ as ‘gamer small.’”)
Working under the Adventure Retail umbrella even makes it possible for Williams to sell his stuff at a con without actually being there to mind the store — though he wouldn’t pull that sort of stunt in San Diego. “Someone asked if I ever make a profit out here. For me, it’s really about exposure. I know some people who say that if you don’t show up to Comic-Con, others think you’re dead. It seems odd to them that you wouldn’t be here.”
Williams’s wife Cristi, who often travels with him and helps out with the whole “cheerful interaction with the public” thing, jumps in. “They think, ‘They must not be doing it anymore,’ or ‘Their business must not be flourishing.’ Not to show up is almost dangerous.”
As opposed to showing up, which is what led to Williams’s big break as the writer for WildStorm’s series North 40, which tells about what happens when the elder god Cthulhu gets one (tentacled) foot through the door into our world. Specifically, into one sleepy Midwestern county. (What happens? All hell breaks loose, of course. Plus, various people come down with various powers, and that’s when things start to get interesting.)
“North 40 is my first horror title,” Williams explains. “I’d been listening to a lot of Stephen King audio books, and I realized I needed to channel it somewhere. As a writer, I love Cthulhu, because it’s open-source horror.” Anyone can take a crack at the mythos. “There were two writers — H.P. Lovecraft and the guy who wrote Doc Savage — and they kind of traded the names of demons and gods back and forth, the idea being that if people read about them in more than one place, they would think that the stuff was coming from some real mythology.” (As a result, you can get various Cthulhu-themed graphic novels at Comic-Con, as well as squid-faced Cthulhu plush dolls in pink and baby blue.)
It’s a long way from Williams’s usual, more kid-friendly work, but as editor Peterson observes, “Writers write. Someone once said that Larry Hama got stereotyped for his work on ’Nam and Punisher. But, he said, ‘Larry could have done the most kick-ass Barbie comic.’ I don’t mean that Barbie would have carried guns. She’d be Barbie — no violence, just great drama, great dialogue, great structure. Writers write, and most of the time, they can handle many different genres.”
How fortunate, then, that kid-comic writer Williams found Peterson and his “writers write” attitude at the 2006 Con. It’s one thing to make Cthulhu into a children’s toy; it’s another to unleash him on a bunch of hicks. “I took my books to Scott Peterson,” who happened to be talking to someone Williams knew at Dark Horse comics. Not long after, Peterson found himself with time on his hands and PS238 in his hands and cracked the cover.
Recalls Williams, “I saw him again two days later, when everyone was closing down. He said something to the effect of ‘I get given books every year from independent publishers, and most of them suck. Yours don’t.’ He decided he liked my pacing and writing style and said, ‘If you have any ideas to pitch to me, do it.’” Williams came up with a pitch, and Peterson came up with an artist — Fiona Staples, a young woman he’d recently hired for a horror comic based on the upcoming film Trick ’r Treat. (See, I told you there were female artists. At one point, during the Con, Staples winds up parked at the artists’ table next to Rebecca Isaacs, artist on Brian Wood’s upcoming DV8. An in-house news crew appears; cameras zoom in and microphones droop down low enough to catch the skritch skritch of the Sharpies as they work.)
Williams and Staples worked together to put out a pitch book. Says Williams, “I made it by drawing on skills I developed while working at the Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages. I did lots of layouts there.” That helped him create something that looked less like a pitch and more like a presentation — fonts and graphics and text all working together to make a package. “Scott says that really helped to sell it.” Issue one of the series’ initial six-issue run has just been released, and Peterson gleefully relates the story of how a colleague stopped into a comic shop in Hollywood and asked the clerk for “‘your three favorite books that you’re reading right now. Don’t even think, just start listing them.’ She said, ‘I gotta tell you, my favorite book right now is a brand-new book from WildStorm called North 40. I just think it’s the best thing they’ve published.’”
∗ ∗ ∗
I wrote at the outset that delight in seeing artists in action explained Comic-Con’s considerable appeal. That’s partly true — and maybe once, in the beginning, it was mostly true. But looking around the place 40 years in, it’s clear that you also have to give props to sheer, unadulterated spectacle.
“Will you take a picture with me?” says the bosomy blonde to the guy doing a pretty credible Brandon-Routh-as-Superman as they stand amid the crowd on the corner of Fifth and Market, waiting to cross over to the Con. “I mean, because, come on — Oh, my God.” What a show. Behind us, two more blondes sit at a sidewalk table, signing their joint spread in Playboy. Beside them, an ice-cream truck plastered with images of the July/August issue — the one featuring Olivia Munn from G4’s pop-culture news program, Attack of the Show — distributes Popsicles along with copies of the magazine. Munn herself, the reigning Queen of the Fanboys, is inside, broadcasting from a platform raised high above the convention center floor. Below her, dozens, maybe hundreds of camcorders are aimed aloft by a throng of adorers. When she appears at the railing, cameras flash like machine guns and desperate shouts rise up from the crowd.
“Come on, you damn old busted camera!”
“I got it!”
“Marry me, Olivia!”
“Show us your boobs!”
A person could fill pages with the spectacle. I will limit myself here to just three items. First, the finest, most detailed tattoo I have ever seen, depicting on a man’s beefy upper arm the original appearance of Wolverine (cover of The Incredible Hulk #181). Second, the sprawling compound of displays devoted to Star Wars: snippets from the animated Clone Wars series blaring high overhead on miniature movie screens, endless displays of collectibles and memorabilia, and living dioramas of the series’ vast cast of characters. Third, the CAPCOM video-game tournament platform — challengers taking on masters, with hi-def screens aiming in all directions to allow spectators a view of the action. Comics, movies, television, and video games — behold the popular arts.
The spectacle is overwhelming. If you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, the sum total of it starts to make you numb. It’s hard to really focus on anything, because anything has to compete with everything. Still, that doesn’t stop the pros from doing their damnedest to catch You-the-Consumer’s eye, because, of course, the real game here is selling stuff, either by getting you to buy now (comics, collectibles) or by building enough buzz that you’ll buy later (movies, video games).
It starts before you even get inside: A baby hawking Showtime’s serial-killer drama Dexter grins from the back of Gaslamp pedicabs, young women hand out fliers for the upcoming film 9, and an entire café has been made over for the SyFy Channel. But let’s pass them by; let’s head inside, where the selling is inescapable.
Check in, get your badge, head on over to the tables to get your lanyard and your plastic welcome bag. There it is, on the side of the bag, on the side of over 100,000 bags: a great big ad for Dante’s Inferno (the video game, not the poem). A badass warrior dude, shirtless but with a red fabric cross stitched to his chest, glowering out from under his chainmail hood and holding a scythe with a handle that looks like an oversized human spine. Lost souls lurk at the edges of the image. “Rating Pending,” warns the ad. “May contain content inappropriate for children.”
There are many bags here at Comic-Con, bags advertising Superman, the Watchmen director’s cut, Ghost in the Shell 2.0, and on and on. But getting those bags depends on being in the right place at the right time, snagging one before they’re all passed out. This here is the bag that everybody gets. This is the bag that everybody sees, and what they see is Dante’s Inferno.
∗ ∗ ∗
Appetite aroused but not satisfied? No problem. Head on over to the Electronic Arts display, where you can see the game’s reboot of Dante in the flesh. Dude is suitably buff, and I’ll be dipped if they didn’t manage to make it look like that red cross really was stitched to his chest. Behind him, consoles provide the curious with bits of brutal, lovingly detailed gameplay. You’re Dante, of course, but you’re not shrinking from the horrors you behold; you’re fighting them. A damned soul writhes at your feet. “Filipo Argenti: Punish or Absolve?” You pull out your dagger — the one shaped like a crucifix — and plunge it into his skull. He explodes in a burst of light, and you are informed, “Filipo Argenti has been punished.”
On another level, you need to leap onto a giant’s back in order to saw his head off with your scythe; a burst of flame erupts from his neck before he topples. Your victory sets you up to battle the enormous King Minos, Judge of the Damned. The trick here is to latch onto his forearm, then launch yourself up to his face so that you can do some real damage. When Minos falls, you grab his forked tongue, drag it out of his head, impale it on a spiked wheel, then crank the wheel forward until the spikes pierce his ugly jaw and ultimately split his skull. Blood spatters hit the screen. Later, you’ll run up against an enormously obese woman who never stops vomiting noxious piles of green goop — until you kill her. If you die, you’re sent off with a line from Canto IV: “Without hope, we live in desire.”
Jonathan Knight, the game’s executive producer, stands behind the players, listening to their reactions. “We wanted to do a game that was set in hell,” he explains. “We did a lot of research, and obviously, Dante’s Divine Comedy is the definitive view of hell. We decided to do an adaptation of the poem and turn it into a video game. We wrote a whole new story to fit on top of the poem — you have the same characters, the same geography of hell, but this takes it to a new level of drama and action. We decided that the hero character would have a really dark past — a crusader who’s committed all these sins.”
It’s not that they just wanted Dante’s map of hell and never mind the whole notion of story. It’s that Dante’s story was the wrong story. The hero, following Virgil on his guided tour of the nine rings, is too passive for an interactive medium like video games. But having a story, says Knight, remains “really important in the game itself. It’s a reason to keep playing. If the gameplay isn’t good, the story isn’t going to save you. But if the gameplay is good, the story is going to help people want to finish the game. It gives you a reason to play through to the next chapter. For us, the story is trying to rescue this beautiful woman — Beatrice — but finding out it’s really more about saving yourself, dealing with the mistakes you’ve made. Everybody knows that you’re probably going to end up facing Lucifer in the ninth circle, but all that story stuff gives you a reason to keep playing.” Story is the hook, both to draw players deeper into the game, and to draw them to buy the game in the first place.
That explains the upcoming comic — published by WildStorm and edited by Scott Peterson. It also explains the six-segment animated DVD, set to be released by Anchor Bay Entertainment right around the same time as the game. Says Knight, “The main thing with these guys is, it’s a way to expand the property, do a different visual take, and reach a bigger audience. This way, we can reach the comic-book audience with the story, get people involved with the characters and the universe ahead of the game coming out. On the animated feature, we’re going to change anime styles six different times, have a crazy visual feast. It’s still an adaptation based on the game, but there’s some more stuff directly from the poem. The minotaurs and centaurs didn’t fit in the game — they felt too Greek to me — but it’s part of the poem, and we can bring them in on the animated feature.”
∗ ∗ ∗
“The Matrix was the first to do it,” says director of marketing Kevin Carney, sitting on a Lucite stool in the Anchor Bay setup. The animated collection Animatrix came out on DVD “right before Matrix Reloaded, and that’s been the model ever since. And in the video game of The Matrix, you actually followed a side story — when you saw in the second movie where they came running and said, ‘Oh, we’ve just had a rough day’? You played their rough day.” And, oh yeah, there was a comic collection as well, including stories written by the Wachowski Brothers and comics legend Neil Gaiman.
On the TV behind Carney runs the trailer for the upcoming TV series Spartacus, which looks a lot like 300 meets HBO’s Rome. On the TV to his left is the trailer for Rob Zombie’s cartoon The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. And on the TV in front of him is the trailer for the Dante’s Inferno collection. “Based on EA’s highly anticipated video game…six acclaimed international directors…six terrifying visions of hell…a quest for a woman’s heart…a battle for a hero’s soul…”
“We did this a year ago with Dead Space,” he continues. “We got a lot of press just on the marketing of it — the graphic novel, the animated series, a book of the art, and the game all coming out at the same time. It really made a big difference. In general, fanboys are fanboys, but they tend to be more localized. This helped bring the fanboyness across a wider spectrum. We had people who were more anime fans than gamers, and they said, ‘I’ve never played a game before, but I’ll play this.’ The DVD and the comic gave some backstory — they fleshed out the characters, so you cared more about them. The graphic novel even gave the mythology of the religion involved, which, to me, was fascinating.”
And to hear Carney tell it, here on the convention floor is the absolute perfect spot for this kind of cross-platform promotion. “There’s one thing about Comic-Con: It’s pop-culture bedlam. It’s not really focused, the way an anime expo would be. Anything that involves horror, blood, or breasts, they love it. So response has been great.”
Speaking of breasts and promotions…
I was making my way over to the Dante’s Inferno game displays on Friday when a pair of extremely skinny blondes in pale blue tees and pleated gray skirts sidled up to me. The identical outfits gave them away as booth babes — hotties who help garner attention for this or that product by passing out goodies, smiling, and looking, um, pretty. The skirts were short and the T-shirts offered a little cleavage, but all in all, the look was pretty mild — nothing so suggestive as the Russian babe in black vinyl over at the Singularity booth, or as off-putting as the busty girls in short shorts and tight red tees with “find WALDO” and the AT&T logo displayed lumpily across their chests. (Booth babes? For Where’s Waldo? Really?) Only the black “Go to Hell” logo on their backs suggested any association with the hellish environs of Dante’s Inferno. At least, until they started talking.
“Can she take our picture?” one of them asked me.
“Um, sure,” I answered, genuinely confused. I handed over my camera to Blonde #2 and smiled horribly as Blonde #1’s arm encircled my waist. (I’m looking at the picture now. You can’t see it. I look too damned creepy. The girl, however, looks positively cheerful — a true professional.) Then I got my camera back, along with a card advertising EA’s Sin to Win contest. The prize: “A night with the hottest girl at Comic-Con. Dinner, booty, and more.” A horned devil’s skull adorned the card, flanked by the silhouettes of two horned ladies on all fours. How to win? “Commit acts of lust — take photos with us or any booth babe.” Then post those photos to the game’s pages on Twitter or Facebook. “One handpicked winner gets dinner and a sinful night with two hot girls, a limo service, paparazzi, and a chest full of booty.” Cue Beavis & Butthead: “Huh-huh. Chest. Booty.”
I never sent in my photo. I did, however, pass by the girls again on my way out of the convention center, just as they were being prepped by somebody from EA: “It’s kind of like an After-Con. There will be some hip-hop. Afterward, they just go right back to the hotel. Everything will be fine.” Apparently, the night wasn’t going to be quite as sinful as promised.
Still, folks were upset by the implications, to the point where the Dante team eventually issued an apology: “We created this promotion as part of our marketing efforts around the Circle of Lust (one of the nine sins/circles of Hell)… In the spirit of both the Circle of Lust and Comic-Con, we are encouraging attendees to Tweet photos of themselves with any of the costumed reps at Comic-Con…a ‘Night of Lust’ means only that the winner will receive a chaperoned VIP night on the town with the Dante’s Inferno reps…” Chaperoned? How on earth is that “in the spirit of the Circle of Lust”? While we’re at it, what is EA doing here, exactly? “Sin to win”? I mean, in the game, the Circle of Lust is freaking terrifying…oh, never mind.
∗ ∗ ∗
Dante’s Inferno is far from the only cross-platform product being hawked here at the Con. I’m not looking for more, but somewhere along the line, somebody hands me a comic attached to GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, put out by IDW, and Image Comics has Singularity. Heck, Dante’s Inferno isn’t even the only cross-platform title available from WildStorm. Prototype, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, Gears of War, Push…
“I edited the miniseries that served as a prequel to the movie Push,” says Peterson. “Here’s what I find: nobody gives a shit about adaptations, unless it’s Star Wars. They don’t sell. But so much time gets spent setting up these universes. There are tons of other stories to tell.” From his perspective, it’s less about casting a wide net than it is about the prudent use of resources: why waste the universe?
There is a temptation, of course, to look at the comic book tie-ins as glorified commercials. But recall, if you will, dear reader, that film director Michael Bay’s finest work to date remains the original Got Milk? ad, the one about Aaron Burr. And Spike Jonze, who directed the film version of Where the Wild Things Are, made ads for Miller beer. That’s not really an argument for anything, except maybe to say that some commercials are more glorified than others. Part of it depends on the product, but most of it depends on the artists involved.
I find Christos Gage, the writer on Dante’s Inferno, sitting behind a table not at WildStorm, but at Avatar Press, publishers of his new series Absolution. (It’s a dark, gory tale about a superhero serial killer, one who has bought into the idea that some people are bad enough that they “just need killin’. ”) Writes Gage in an introductory letter, “I knew from writing for the TV show Law & Order: SVU that real-life sex-crimes officers are forced to transfer to a different department after a certain amount of time because no sane human being can see what they do and keep it together for long. But what if you couldn’t transfer out because there was no one to replace you?”
Together with his wife Ruth, Gage has written episodes for a couple of TV shows, and the two have seen more than one of their screenplays make it through production. But his comics résumé is considerably longer and includes most of the heavy hitters: Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man…the list goes on. “I was a screenwriter for seven years before I got into comics, but I’d collected them all my life,” he says. “I’d never done a video-game adaptation before,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting, though I was a little trepidatious — sometimes, licensers can be very heavy-handed with the notes. But EA’s been great. They brought me up to — I call it the compound, outside of San Francisco. They gave me the game script, and I got to play an early version of the game, which was fun. The world was very visually exciting…”
A fan interrupts, asking for a signature. “Thank you so much,” he says. “Keep doing the work; I’ll keep buying the books.”
“You keep buying it, and I’ll keep doing it,” replies Gage. “I need you more than you need me.”
“Well, I don’t know,” admits the fan. “I kind of need this to make it through the week.”
“So do I,” says Gage.
There are tons of other stories to tell… “One of the things they wanted to do was flesh out the character of Beatrice,” says Gage. “In the game, she’s very much a damsel in distress. And we were bound by both the game and by the original poem, so obviously she wasn’t going to turn into Linda Hamilton and start blowing away demons with a machine gun. But if you get into her head a little bit, you realize that” — in the game, anyway — “as much as Dante is trying to save her soul from hell, she’s trying to save his. And Lucifer is not just this big bad guy who’s grabbed this girl — she actually has a lot more power in the relationship. She knows Dante’s soul is in danger,” thanks to his misdeeds as a crusader, and so she accepts the devil’s wager: “If Dante has been true to you, I shall relinquish any claim on his soul…but if he has not…you shall be mine.” Here, the comic diverges from both poem and game — here, the devil wants a bride.
Geez. A crusader on the highway to hell? A murderous superhero? Cthulhu bustin’ through and making Midwesterners eat each other? “I think,” comments Gage, “that in times like these, when you see moral compromise going on all around you — from the highest holders of public office to crime on the rise in my neighborhood — when people don’t have jobs or money, they resort to more questionable activities. I think it’s just like when we had an economic crisis in the ’70s, and we had movies like Death Wish and superheroes like the Punisher coming out.”
That may be part of it, but Gage also grants that there was a trend in the (economically booming) ’90s toward tarnishing the icons, “darkening heroes like the Green Lantern. The soul of a story is conflict,” and inner conflict started looking more interesting than figuring out where the Joker would strike next. But, says Gage, “I think the pendulum is swinging the other way now. I think it’s good to have traditional heroes” alongside your more divided souls. “When I’m writing Spider-Man, he’s not breaking criminals’ skulls; he’s making jokes and webbing people up. He’s being Spider-Man. And someone like Captain America knows who he is and what he believes in.” (Which may be part of the reason Captain America got assassinated a while back.)
Besides the chance to play around in hell, says Gage, “One of the big attractions was working with artist Diego Latorre. They had him on board already, and when I saw his art, I was blown away. Some parts are very stylized, and some parts are very photorealistic — even though he doesn’t use photos.”
Instead, he paints — and then sets to work with his computer. “The concept here,” says Latorre as he gets ready to sign posters and copies of Dante’s Inferno #0, “is combining a classic with pop culture” — perhaps the greatest poem ever written with the latest in electronic entertainment. “And so I think my style fits with it very well, classical painting combined with computer effects. First, I paint, and then I add layers with ink and water,” he explains, pointing out the shadowy swirls around his rendition of the devil and the wisps around Beatrice that glow brighter than any gold-leaf halo. “I use many textures — these patches of black around the devil are pieces of burned paper. For Death, I made a human body and then added the skull on his chest with Photoshop — I bought one from the hippies.”
Latorre, too, relished the opportunity to play around with such (in)famous characters. “The devil is more human in my version” than in the game, appearing here with a man’s face and a body that seems to be constantly evaporating into tendrils of black fog. “I like that better. I love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — his vision of hell and the devil. I always think of the devil as a rebel, like Ché Guevara or something. I think God is like a dictator, so I have sympathy for the devil.”
Sympathy, too, for the spectacle. “I love the merchandising of the popular arts,” he says, grinning. “I am from a little town in Spain, and it is difficult to find comic books. In Spain, ‘popular arts’ is Goya and Velazquez; the culture there is a classical culture. So I love a convention like this one. I like to see the video games — they’re the most interactive medium out there today. I would like to be more inside that world, and I would like to see my art in CGI.” (Indeed, it’s fun to imagine all those wispy bits of satanic emanation curling about Beatrice, forever being dispersed by the fire of her purity…)
∗ ∗ ∗
This is Latorre’s first visit to San Diego’s Comic-Con. After years of working as a magazine illustrator, he ventured to New York’s somewhat smaller version and found some interest from Marvel Comics. But it was at last year’s Barcelona Con that his portfolio found its way to Scott Peterson, and it was Peterson who sold EA on his style. One more example of a Con’s ability to make dreams come true, to make it all worthwhile. Says Peterson, “One of the nice things about the convention” — over and above the crowds, the smells, the noise, the stuff, the gossip, the much-debated influence of Hollywood (hello, Twilight panel!), the occasionally alarming fans, the stink of commerce, the obligatory parties and schmoozing, the late nights, the scheduling, and the sheer muchness of it all — “is how many people I work with who I’ve actually met this way.”