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Waiting For Tommy XXXVII
By Richard Johnston
Joe Q and Bill J were all in favour of us forgetting the rules that would apply to a MU project which left us free to examine everything with a fresh attitude. Starting from scratch also meant introducing all of our cast to people who hadn't seen an Avengers comic before. That meant more character work. If you are presenting some pretty far out and unbelievable stuff you have to have characters with believable reactions that persuade you to believe in what's happening otherwise readers are unwilling to suspend their disbelief. We had to assume no previous experience or familiarity with Avengers and go from the ground floor up, which is why I have to completely disagree with your assertion that we have corrupted these characters. How can we have? Those characters are alive and well in The Avengers and doing just what they always have done in their own book. This is not that book and these are not those characters. They were never intended to be and never will be, for good or bad they are The Ultimates, NOT the Avengers. They will follow their own paths. They are separate and they are certainly different.

Avengers is a classic Superhero cartoon adventure, Ultimates is a war comic. The interesting thing about our book isn't always the action, of which there has been relatively little, but the human side of people who do superhuman things. One reviewer recently made mention that even though the bitch slapping Rogers gave Pym in issue #9 was satisfying, far more interesting was the preparation for battle in the second half of the issue. This to me is one of the biggest differences between us and The Avengers: the focus isn't how big the threat is or the action involved in defeating it, (that stuff we still have of course) but in the Avengers comics, they have been doing the job for thirty odd years and our guys are new to it and finding their feet. The sense of wonder and the sense of danger are still there. This being the Ultimate Universe we can do things we couldn't do in the regular Marvel universe. Any of our characters can die, get arrested, go bad; they can change and stay changed.

Well, that and we outsell them more than 2-1 of course.

We are actually at an advantage over the Marvel Universe Avengers in that our characters do not have their own titles, therefore their continuity and development is not dictated by other creative teams on individual comics. That gives us far more latitude for development than would normally be the case on a book like JLA and Avengers, probably also why [George] Perez and [Marv] Wolfman's Titans and The X-Men were their companies biggest sellers in their day. If you think about it, this is probably why writers on these sorts of team books normally create new characters or shift the focus from the guys with their own books to the second stringers. I found this during my brief tenure on JLA. [Grant] Morrison had, I think, the right approach to that sort of book by jettisoning any attempt to explore the characters individual continuity beyond the JLA, he's simply got on with telling big stories liberated from the need for too much back story on each member. [Mark] Waid wanted to more explore the characters and their motivations, which is of course an excellent and valid approach but one we didn't realise would hamstring us so much. Nothing we could do would have any lasting impact on their characters because of their own titles and creators. There is absolutely no way we could do on Avengers what we are doing on the Ultimates, even if we took over the Avengers tomorrow we couldn't make these books the same for the above reasons if nothing else, but mainly because they really are different books, and despite the names, different characters.

I think it's perfectly possible to enjoy both books on their individual merits without the need to say one is a violation of the other.

RICHARD: Kurt Busiek quit the Avengers because he didn't want to compete against you guys... a victory for The Ultimates team?

BRYAN: Only if you see it as a competition, which we don't. The Mighty Morphin' Millar and I are only really interested in challenging each other and we work very hard on what we do. We certainly don't set out to be better than other people's projects and works, only to better our own.

Anyway, I don't believe that statement about Busiek at all. It would seem more likely that he left because the synergy was between him and Perez and without George it was only half a process. That was the real reason I wasn't interested in doing Authority without Warren [Ellis], no matter how good Mark is. It's also why I won't do Ultimates without him either.

Anyhoo, I say all this guff by way of answering your contentious questions, but our way of making comics doesn't really need defending. Our approach is clearly successful, clearly saleable and clearly appreciated in the majority, which is just groovy. This could all change I daresay, but as long as we try to tell good stories with honesty and conviction done to the best of our abilities I believe we will find an audience.


RICHARD: Yeah, talking about your storytelling skills, what's all this widescreen nonsense, eh? It's just padding isn't it? Stretching a one issue story into four or five, when Stan Lee could probably have fit it into eight pages. Oh, all very pretty I'm sure, but with the increasing cost of comics, aren't you lot just giving less bang for buck? Why, in my day, a superhero team could save the world twice before the first Hostess cake ad, etc etc...

BRYAN: And there will no doubt be people who grow up reading comics done this way and find the more compressed approach quaint and old fashioned. It really isn't padding and I think you are confusing two separate things here.

To my mind the widescreen approach is more to do with the way I layout a panel and the composition within it; how one uses the space within a frame, if you like. With Ultimates I try to keep all the panels horizontal, emulating a movie screen or TV screen. I have been proceeding from the idea that in attracting new readers we must assume that they have no understanding of the conventions of comic book layout and storytelling. Let's face it a number of comics have almost incomprehensible layouts. Angular panels, people leaping from the frames and overlapping other panels and sometimes almost no storytelling. Certainly no sense of environment. All of these things have become acceptable to established (hardcore, if you like) readers, but if you can step outside of that comic fan mindset and look at objectively at what we accept as the norm you can't help but see how odd it all is. Every other visual storytelling form such as TV and cinema are presented in rectangles or squares. If this is all you are familiar with the preoccupation in comics of avoiding clear storytelling could well be confusing. Mostly it results in poor examples of the form. We must always remember that first and foremost this is a visual storytelling medium and that all the artwork must exist to serve and further the story and should be done in the most clear, simple and effective way possible.

There is so much to convey in each issue: Character acting, fluid and dramatic action, mood, atmosphere, set design, lighting, and emotion. All of these are used in accordance with the story one is telling and dictate the pace and rhythm of the storytelling.

The stretching, or padding of a story you refer to isn't widescreen at all, it's decompression. This is something that has existed in Japanese comics for decades. The manga stuff has more to offer than simply big feet, wide eyes and speedlines. That's just surface sheen. The best thing about it to my mind is the almost perfect marriage between comics and movies storytelling approaches. Shirow is raw energy and power, Otomo is restrained pacing that is almost a movie storyboard. This stuff resonated with me the minute I saw it as it connected with a lot of ideas that had been brewing in me for years before I got distracted by trying to emulate the approaches of others instead of having the confidence and conviction to follow my own instincts.

Frank Miller once said that the enemy of the comic book storyteller is time, and he's bang on. Unless you control the way you pace a story, the readers will be through it before you want them to be. You have to control the pacing and visual execution, like beats in music, to keep your reader where you want them, when you want them. If the rhythm is all a square four beat, and the volume is always level then music is fairly boring and should be confined to elevators. One needs to create mood, space and drama that is unique to any given scene, and that's something that can't be dictated by a formulaic approach. One uses just as much space as the story needs. I really don't feel any of this has been unnecessarily padded, we have just paced and told the story the way we felt best and tried to keep it moving. If you really think we're skimping, go back and look at issue five and count how many panels there are on those pages, and just how much work went into it. I actually would have loved about ten more pages on that issue. Padded? Hardly.

Pages: 1 | 2 | 3 Continued Here...

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