Darick Robertson Looks Back On His Ballistic Career [Interview]
It was Grant Morrison's favorite comic of 2013, my favourite comic of the 21st century, and it delighted even the most stone-hearted of comic critics. Ballistic, a five-issue series from Black Mask by filmmaker Adam Egypt Mortimer and blockbuster artist Darick Robertson, last hit the streets in 2014.
Now it's back --- collected, polished, buffed to a shine for your delectation. It's on your shop shelves now people! So what better excuse to look back on the career of Darick Robertson, and Ballistic in particular, with the man himself?
ComicsAlliance: Your breakthrough into comics came with Space Beaver in the late ‘80s – what were the first comics you remember having an impact on you, and, the big old question everyone gets; why comics?
Darick Robertson: The earliest comics I recall were hand me downs from relatives, or whatever my older sister enjoyed, like Richie Rich, and Archie. I remember reading Spider-Man and some early Marvel comics. I was so young that I didn’t understand Spider-Man was a hero! I saw this sequence and thought he was killing the guy he’d captured:
So it was a while before I’d warm to the Marvel heroes, and DC was on TV then, Super Friends, Batman, Superman the movie was in theaters… the DCU just seemed friendlier to me. So when I discovered The Flash, with issue #272, I was hooked. That cover just struck me as something incredible, and I was pulled into the story through the art.
CA: Your early work is largely in the world of superheroes – was that your goal at the time, and how did things change for you in the ‘90s as the industry bubble popped?
DR: Oh, absolutely it was my goal. I made up my mind very young that drawing comics for the Big 2 would be the greatest thing ever. When I arrived in mainstream comics it was just as that 90’s bubble was about to pop and for about 2 years it was everything I dreamed it would be, but after the bottom fell out, I found myself reexamining my life and I was at a crossroads about staying in comics. Transmetropolitan kept me in comics and made me realize the value of creating something original.
CA: Speaking of things changing, how has your work process evolved over the years?
DR: I still use traditional tools to create art. I like the feel of paper and my hand making the lines. I use the computer now to bring things up a notch and add tones and digital effects to my final art. Over the past 10 years I have increasingly become my own inker and I really like crafting a page all the way to its final looking image, and work closely with my colorists whenever possible. Diego Rodriguez, who colored Ballistic, became a real collaborator who I was able to direct and work with towards the final look of the book. That is much better than a team working separately.
CA: Transmetropolitan is my favourite comic of all time, no lie, and your first creator-owned comic...
DR: Thank you. technically, Space Beaver is my first, but I am very proud of Transmetropolitan.
CA: Whoops, my bad! How did you come on board Transmetropolitan, and how did the collaboration process differ from working on the “mainstream” books?
DR: I had collaborated with Warren Ellis on a variety of books for smaller publishers, like Malibu and Acclaim, but I saw Warren’s talent when I read his early scripts. I called him in England and said if I could ever do an ongoing monthly title with him, I would be all over it. Not long after he called and told me about "Helix" comics, a sci-fi branch of comics that DC was launching. They’d approached Warren and he asked if I wanted to draw Transmetropolitan. At that point he only had his concept down, and as we discussed it we really started to laugh, throwing ideas back and forth. Warren imagined the book being a revolving artist book, the way 20/20 Visions was at that time, but I said I’d want to draw it monthly, and to that he said, “If you’re willing to do that, then I’m making you a co-creator.”
CA: There’s quite a difference in your work pre-Transmet - from the very first page of #1 there’s just such joy and energy in the art, and the same is true of The Boys, with Garth Ennis. Was that down to the creator-owned aspect?
DR: Yes, but really it came down to creating something original, and not having established work that I had to derive from. Both books were a chance for me to grow as an artist. At Marvel and DC I felt pressure to compete by mimicking popular styles of the nineties, ever the people pleaser, I just tried to fit my artist square peg in the mainstream round hole. With Transmet, I felt free to really draw the way I felt most comfortable, but because visually, that world was my blank canvas. Then with The Boys I finally had a monthly book I could ink myself, and work on that skill. I see lot of learning going on when I look back at The Boys.
CA: The Boys obviously has a lot of unlikable characters, but one arc that really stood out to me was that of Annie. It was very uncomfortable to read at times, but seeing it as a representation of what women go through on a daily basis in our society really hit home. Was that a difficult issue to portray?
DR: It was, as I really sympathized with her character. I tried to keep her innate goodness represented despite the scene. I could relate to feeling powerless in situations in my own life, and having regrets. Annie was one of the truest hearts in that story. I’ll always regret not being able to draw the scene where she and Hughie broke up. [Editor's note: That heartbreaking arc was drawn by Russ Braun.]
CA: Ballistic, The Boys, and Transmetropolitan have similar commentary on the evils of power and corruption in the real world, is that an important aspect of your art?
DR: Yeah, I suppose there is a running theme there. I worry a lot and I like to create from the stuff that scares or worries me as a way of purging those feelings, that anxiety.
CA: It seems like a stronger thread through The Boys than the parodying of superheroes. And then there's the diversity present, as with much of your work --- is that an issue close to your heart?
DR: I recall a moment in The Simpsons when Homer says "Every time I learn something new it pushes old stuff out of my brain!"
When I first started going to comic cons, seeing women there, unless they were hired to dress scantily and hang out by booths, their presence as fans was an anomaly. I recall often when signing, seeing a young woman get to the front of the line with a stack of books, and I'd be happy because I thought "Right on! A female reader here who loves comics!" and I'd ask her what she liked and often they'd smile and say, "These are my boyfriend's.. he's in another line, I'm not really into comics...". Most women I'd meet at signings were long-suffering supportive girlfriends and wives. I was tired then of the lopsided attitude in mainstream comics.
Two characters that I am most proud of co-creating are Spider's filthy assistants, Channon and Yelena, because I was able to draw Channon as glamorous, but tough as nails and smarter than just her looks. I loved when she became Spider's bodyguard. Yelena wasn't about glamour at all, but was funny, sardonic, and a great foil as a pseudo love interest for Spider. Both characters had brains and female readers seemed to really embrace them. Actor Anna Chlumsky proclaimed on Late Night with Seth Meyers that Transmetropolitan is her favorite comic and her fantasy football team is called "The Filthy Assistants." I was thrilled to know she'd not only read it, but loved it! And told a national audience! Not because she was in some production about it, doing PR, but that she genuinely loves it and found it on her own.
So lately, things have changed, as they do, and the diversification of the audience is kind of overwhelming. Personally, I have always seen comics as a medium as the ultimate in potential for inclusiveness; because of the creators I've met and because it's a medium that anyone can harness. It really doesn't matter what your gender or race is, because it's about the work. If your work is good, you can almost be invisible and let it speak for itself. I love Lynda Barry's work, and despite her crude art style, her comics are witty, deep, and engaging. I learned a lot about what it must be like to be an awkward young woman, from reading her stuff. As an awkward young man, I saw that we had a lot in common. That's the magic of comics.
I have a hard time with this argument about comics, because I see both sides. I don't want anyone telling me what I can and can't draw. I don't think it's anyone's job to be the "thought police." People can vote with their money, and support what they like and ignore what they don't. The idea that comics are a treehouse and only the ones with the secret knock should be allowed in, is childish. It's an artform, it should be debated, and celebrated together.
On the flipside, change comes with awareness. I adamantly support and believe comic cons should be safe venues, and if they're all-ages events, vendors and artists should be sensitive to that, as it's just good business. Every molehill can be made into a mountain with the rise of social media and everyone with a keyboard can make their opinion known. It's fair that people who enjoy creating a certain style of comic and enjoy a readership should be free to create what they want to sell, lest we walk our collective way into book burnings and censorship to make a point. It's also fair for people to criticize vocally what they don't like, but the idea that it has to be all one way or the other is symptomatic of an industry and community that is still evolving. But honestly, being socially awkward is a lot of what brings people to comics-geek culture in the first place. It's the place to fit in with those that don't fit in.
We all benefit as fans and pros by having more people included.
About parodying superheroes though, it’s more of the idea that they represented power in that world and were metaphors for the places and systems in our world where money and power corrupt, as absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ennis didn’t have a fond affection for costumed heroes as his background and youth in comics was more grounded in 2000AD and Judge Dredd, and war comics. I think that was the yin-yang energy of that book. I loved drawing superheroes and loved the dark view the story took. I like contrast.
CA: Ballistic has its fair share of the dark and macabre --- am I right in thinking that that definitely appeals to you?
DR: Yeah, I grew up on sci-fi and horror movies. I loved Heavy Metal, the magazine, movie and the music, and that stuff still delights me as an artist. I enjoy drawing monsters and villains.
CA: Is there anything you’ve drawn the line at or chosen to tackle in a different manner, and/or do you have a different approach to that when working in superhero comics vs indie?
DR: I just do my best to get to the heart of the story and capture what the writer is going for. If the story is a light hearted one, I wouldn’t make it dark just to do so, I’d try to get the comedy, or hopeful aspect. But I guess I get a lot of dark humor assigned to me because that seems to be my wheelhouse.
CA: How did Ballistic go from the concept of a guy with a talking gun to being a fully formed idea?
DR: Adam Egypt Mortimer is an old pal of mine, and we talked about it for years. We would Skype and I'd draw as we talked about what the gun would look like, and over the years that we were searching for a publisher, we would evolve the story. Adam’s a crazy genius, and had so many ideas that drawing that book became a test of my strength, as every page has some original idea that I had to make believable to the reader, and locations would change nearly every scene. Not since Transmetropolitan did I have such a huge world to create.
CA: From the back pages of info it seems like Adam did a lot of research, and the designing of the world must have taken ages!
DR: Adam really put so much thought and research into the book, it’s amazing to realize that some of those ideas are turning into reality or derived from existing technology. I thought up how Repo City State came about being, with the idea that the giant trash island in the Pacific could be terraformed into the living island city Adam was envisioning, so we both brought our sci-fi brains to the story and creation of that world. Being good friends, communicating and collaborating came naturally to us. Even when we’d disagree, we’d hash it out to a solution. It was a good experience.
CA: In the first issue there is a full page spread of the winged car across the city...
DR: For the collection I drew a new border for that page to make it into a two page spread. So I had to draw even more of that scene.
CA: It's the first time the reader really sees the apocalyptic organic-tech Repo City State. How early on in the development process did that concept arrive?
DR: Adam always envisioned the organic city. He even took a trip to Singapore and took extensive photos to show me the way he envisioned the city. I took that and ran with it, looking up green buildings and reading the articles he’d send about future tech.
CA: Is that page one of the reasons you inked the book yourself (to spare anyone else!)?
DR: Yes! That makes me laugh, but yes! I don’t want to put anyone through my OCD inclinations when I draw stuff like that. It’s like a compulsion. Poor Diego Rodriguez suffered enough coloring it all!
I even dedicated that first issue to Moebius. I recalled his landscapes and totally original character designs. His stuff was so detailed it I would get lost in scenes like this:
CA: Reading Ballistic I can guess that there are a lot of concepts that in writing alone really wouldn’t do the story justice. I’ve mentioned before my favourite sequence of the bank heist where there are “the high finance cells – where nests of transactors soaking in baths of liquid capital shift billions of assets every second” that are brilliantly realized. With the tech having its roots in the organic world, how do you get from concept to realization?
DR: From a lot of conversation with Adam! I’d have to describe what I was seeing before I could wrap my mind around what he was going for. I began studying microorganisms and insects enlarged with super microscopes, and seeing the symmetry in nature. Looking at a fly’s eyeball for example.
CA: As an artist, did you get the scripts for Ballistic ahead of time or did you work on a script-by-script basis?
DR: The latter.
CA: Was there an element of evolution throughout as new information is introduced? I noticed that Butch goes from being a bit gormless looking to more heroic as the story continues, which also reflects his character development.
Yes, that happens as I understand the character better. I realized Butch would have to be pretty strong to endure everything he was going through. So I started see him as more of a blue collar guy mechanic than a shiftless greasy loser, which was my early vision for him. When the character starts to perform in my mind and on the page, sometimes my direction will follow that. Creating this book was like making music, and Adam and I started playing off of each other, with Matt Pizzolo there to keep us on track without getting in the middle of the creativity. Matt and Brett Gurewitz [CA: Black Mask Studios co-founders] were incredibly supportive of the book.
CA: The Ballistic release schedule was a little erratic for the single issues...
DR: Yes, that book became such a behemoth to draw as I described earlier, that monthly just wasn’t possible. Not having the scripts ahead of time, I didn’t really know what I was going to be taking on until I was in the thick of it. But rather than shit it out, I got support from Black Mask to just do it the best that I could make it. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, so I felt that it was worth it and I’m hoping that now that it’s all collected, people will finally start discovering it. I feel that Transmet fans especially will enjoy it.
CA: You’ve said before that you believe it’s the collected edition that will really find the audience and that stands the test of time.
DR: It’s true. With Transmetropolitan I am meeting people who are just now discovering the title, and reading it for the first time, and I haven’t drawn that book since 2002! So having Ballistic be the best I could make it means a lot to me and I hope that comes through to the reader.
CA: Comic sales in bookstores would certainly back up collections finding their audience! Is that your intention with all indie comics, and how does that differ from mainstream work?
DR: Indie comics don’t have the PR machine that mainstream books do so it’s harder to get people’s attention. Mainstream comics often have characters that sell themselves. I was told by a number of store owners they ordered lightly on Ballistic, because they didn’t know Adam’s name nor the publisher and while liking my work, they were cautious.
CA: What will we be seeing next from the desk of Darick Robertson?
DR: Well, lesson learned from Happy! and Ballistic, I am creating a book slowly, but will have multiple issues done before it’s released; OLIVER for Image Comics, which is now years later than the release I originally planned, but again will be a book that I am proud to present when it’s ready. It may be my best work to date. Oliver is a steam-punk edged post apocalyptic interpretation of Oliver Twist, set in an annihilated, crumbling, post war London, that’s empty and irradiated. So I’m drawing future London in detail and it’s an epic story. It’s written by my co-creator Gary Whitta, based on a screenplay he wrote years ago.
CA: And finally, is there any hope for those of us who’d like to see more Ballistic in future?
DR: Adam would like to carry on. I would happily create covers for anything new. I committed to Oliver before I took on Ballistic and Ballistic ended up taking my whole schedule over, so I am committed to getting Oliver out there as soon as possible at the highest quality art that I can produce. Since it isn’t yet scheduled for release, I am able to really craft it in ways I’ve never been able to before on any other book.
The trade collection of Ballistic is out in stores this week. You can also read a preview to whet your whistle here.