Interview: Neil Edwards

Michael gets to spend some time with Marvel comic artist Neil Edwards, a man with Spider-Man, Transformers and Fantastic Four on his CV...

As part of the promotional push behind Vicarious Visions/Activision’s new action-roleplaying game Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 (a campaign which also saw heroes guarding commuters on the London Underground), comic artist Neil Edwards (Fantastic Four, Fantastic Force, Squadron Supreme) gave a select few a masterclass in how to design and draw comic characters, at London’s Orbital Comics. After regaling all and sundry with helpful advice about the behind-the-scenes process of making comics, and the importance of simplicity in the design of iconic characters (“Lex Luthor’s not got a costume, he’s just a bald guy!”), we were presented with sheets of A3 paper and sharpened pencils, and left to our own devices, as Neil sketched and offered further advice.

It would be immodest of us to show off our high calibre, smudge-laden, wonky-fest of a sketch. Let’s just say, if there’s ever a comic that stars a cloud, or a box, Marvel knows who to contact. Instead, we were able to sit down and chat with Neil, asking about his career, his influences, and what he has lined up in the future. He was also kind enough to give us an awesome sketch of everyone’s favourite Nordic hero – and God of UK New Comics Day – Thor. Read on, true believer!

So, Neil, what made you want to become a comic artist?

I think I’ve always done it. It was when I was really young, I used to get Mighty World of Marvel from the newsagents down the road, and they used to serialise the stuff, and they used to chop up the issues, like The Hulk and that. And I always loved that, because the TV show was on, and I used to cut my jeans up like the Hulk and run off down the road, going mad! My mum and dad have still got pictures of me dressed up like the Hulk, with the ripped shirt.

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It used to be five pages of Daredevil, and then five pages of the Hulk, and I couldn’t wait for the next week – I wanted to carry on with the story, so I used to just draw my own version of the story. Of course, it was never like the proper thing, but I always used to do it, I just naturally started drawing. I always knew I was quite good at drawing, but it wasn’t until I was 10, and, I remember one of the teachers going ‘oh, that’s good!’ – it was a picture of this lad running home from where our school was, it was like a life drawing thing, and the teacher loved it. And that’s what started me on the road for drawing. And I’ve always loved to draw. I think I’d do it, even if I wasn’t getting paid for it… and it never feels like it’s a job. The hours are late, but it never feels like, ‘what am I doing?’, it’s more of a vocation, a proper job.

How did you get in there? Most British artists seem to go the 2000AD route, but you said you worked for Marvel UK…

Yeah, I worked for Marvel UK from when I was in university, and I was doing the covers for their reprints. I went down – I was in the second or third year of uni, and 2000AD were interested in doing some stuff with us, but that never came off. Marvel UK said ‘we’d love to use you, but we haven’t got anything for you’, so I just thought, ‘okay, yeah, whatever’. And then an editor, called Scott Gray said ‘we’ve got a cover for you, if you’d like to do it’. It was for Generation X, and I did that over a weekend – and I had to do it again because I did it completely wrong!

And, from there, I was one of their regular cover artists, and from there I did Action Man and Spider-Man, and I did Transformers for them for a bit… And then, almost over-night, the work just dried up, and I just didn’t know what to do. And I was always trying to get into to the States, I was going over to New York and going round the offices at Marvel and DC, and nothing ever really gelled, and I just thought ‘forget it, I can’t be bothered with this’. You know, I’d been in a dream all the time, thinking that I’m going to make it. I didn’t give up, I was still doing it, but I wasn’t really trying. And I sent off some samples to this company, and they were doing the Mr. T comic, and it was me and four other artists who had to send off samples. And mine was literally last minute, and I was working from home at the time, and they said ‘can you do us a sketch, quick, because we’ve got to send it to Mr. T’, so I sent it off, and I got the gig straight away, because he chose it.

Mr. T chose it?!

Yeah! [laughs] So, from there, I started doing that. It was just small press, not big Marvel stuff. And it took off from there, I worked on Starship Troopers… But even then it was still part-time, I was still doing my proper job during the day, and I was doing the pages at night. Then there’d be the odd little Marvel UK job that I’d get. Then, last summer, they started up a new comic called Marvel Heroes, and I started work on that, and from there I started showing my work around, and Marvel took notice, and then I met this editor in Leeds, a scouting editor, and he was all ‘yeah, we’ve been keeping an eye on you, how are you fixed at the moment?’, and I said ‘I’m free, don’t worry!’. And a couple of months later, he gave me that Squadron Supreme to do, and from there, I just kept helping out. They took me off Squadron Supreme to work on Fantastic Four, to help Bryan Hitch out. And I did two issues of that, and I’ve just done an issue of Fantastic Force, which is out today. And I’m now a rotating artist on Fantastic Four.

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So that was your break, then?

Yeah! It’s getting that first break, because, as soon as you’ve got one, DC go ‘oh, we’ll use you as well’. So I’ve done three DCs, and five Marvels. And, you’re getting asked to do other stuff as well, like today, or film companies ringing you up, asking if you want to come for a meeting. So you’re gaining other work as well as doing the comic stuff. But, this is what I love [points at the sketch] and I feel so privileged that I’m doing it. I really do.

[Pause in conversation as Neil is asked to sign a young lady’s Hulk figurine]

You say, then, that you’re getting side jobs and other prospects – getting calls from film companies, and doing events like today, which is in aid of a videogame. So it seems that the adaptation of comics into films and games isn’t necessarily the end of the pencilling artist.

No, a lot of pencillers are doing that, because it’s regular work. I haven’t got a clue how long this will last, but obviously I want to make it a career. I speak to Bryan [Hitch] quite often, and I said to him, you’ve worked so hard to get here, that you don’t want to give it up. I certainly won’t – if I can help it – miss deadlines. Because I love doing it, and I just want to make it the best I can. Because you know there’s 101 artists out there that can do it better than you can. I suppose it’s like winning the lottery, or playing for Wrexham and then Man U ringing you up and asking if you want to play for them for a bit. You just say yeah! It’s that sort of scale. And for them to have trust for you to do a full issue. It really means a lot. And, when I got the call about doing Fantastic Four, I was speechless, and I’m never really short for words! I was just dumbfounded, I couldn’t believe it. I was speaking to the editor Tom Breevort, and his assistant Lauren, and I was like ‘I don’t know what to say!’.

Working on comics such as F4, Fantastic Force and Justice Society of America, you’ve drawn quite a few iconic characters, but are there any characters you’d still like to work on? Maybe for a full issue?

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Maybe because of the childhood thing, but I’d love to do the Hulk. I’m doing it in Fantastic Four at the moment, because it’s the Hulk’s son. But I’d love to draw it properly, and make it really big, and explosive, all over the place. And Thor’s another one. Thor’s lovely to draw as well – big muscles and stuff like that. It’s quite nice to draw, rather than buildings all of the time!

It’s that more epic sort of storytelling. And with characters like Thor and Hulk, you get some proper action scenes that you can get your teeth into.

Yeah! And in the Fantastic Fours that I’m doing at the moment, there’s the bit where The Thing is bashing up the robots – that was great to do. I just did it straight, I didn’t even do a prelim for that. I don’t know, really. I like the real-life stuff. Like, Daredevil would be good to work on, or Batman, but I like the big, punching and dynamic stuff as well.

Who are your influences when it comes to artwork, personally?

Bryan, obviously. I love that style, and I’ve always loved Bryan’s artwork, [especially] when Ultimates came out. I’ve always loved detailed work, and it really pushed me to do better. and there’s people like Olivier Coipel and Alex Ross. I’ve always loved the more realistic style. Other than them, I love the pre-Raphaelite work. And real life, I just love looking at real life. When I had to draw the Hulk again, I had to go on bodybuilding sites, and look at how the muscles worked. Because, you’re just drawing how you know it worked, but how it looks is completely different, with the skin over the top of it. And it’s completely different, how I was drawing it. So I put the way the muscles worked into your shoulder, and then the veins on top of it, to give it a better feel. And I think it worked really well. It’s nice to relearn stuff, just from life, really.

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It’s very interesting, and that’s what keeps comic art so vibrant. Because even though there’s a diverse tradition, from figures like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, right through to Jim Lee and others, new generations and new artists bring their own influences and specific focuses in from outside, as well.

That’s right. And I feel like, I want to draw the stuff I’d like to read. Looking back at this Fantastic Four, now [flicking through comic]. The bits I’ve done look dreadful next to Bryan’s. They look almost amateurish, really. I wouldn’t dare do that now, so it shows you’re improving all the time.

Well, if you’ve got to keep to those deadlines, you’ll just be improving because you’re working at it so hard.

Yeah, and there’s ways of working, as well. Like, doing very tight prelims before you actually do the finished work. Where I used to do really loose prelims, I’d try to do tight ones now, so I can do them quicker. Make all the mistakes earlier on, as opposed to on the actual page. And cutting corners, knowing what the inker will fill in, as opposed to you going to town with it.

What comics are you reading at the moment?

I don’t generally read a lot. I like the Ultimate line, and I pick up Bryan’s Cap book  [Captain America: Reborn] – I love that. Blackest Night, that’s great as well. I don’t generally go for a lot. We’ve got a comics shop in Chester that I nip to, but, with work, you don’t get a chance to do an awful lot [laughs]. It’s nice to see your stuff in print. Like, when things come back from the printers, like, ‘aw, that looks great!’, or ‘aw, I buggered that up!’. I still get a buzz out of seeing something in print. That’s great.

Do you think that’s something that will be fundamentally different, when – or if – digital distribution takes over?

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I don’t know. Because it will just be like getting a PDF, then, won’t it? I suppose it all depends on how it’s done. They’re doing the Marvel moving ones, now. There’s one which recently got a lot of coverage called Longbox, which looked like the interface, and how it’s presented on screen, was very well implemented. Because, people are getting very high definition screens nowadays. I know on the iPhone, my friend PJ Holden he does all his comics on the iPhone. They look great, to be fair, they’re almost interactive, you can move stuff about. And you can double click it, and you see the inks, and double click it again, and see the pencils. I thought that was great, such a different way of looking at it. And you get the full comic, as opposed to just the finished product.

That’s really intriguing, because quite a lot of people don’t know the process behind the making of a comic. Well, comic geeks probably do, but that’s such a hardcore community. What projects do you have coming out in the near future? You’re working on a new JSA book, right?

Yeah, I’ve got that. All the artwork got sent off this week for that. And there’s JSA vs Kobra. I think that’s it for DC at the moment.    

You mentioned earlier a project at Boom Studios with Mark Waid, is that under wraps, or something you can talk about?

It’s kept under wraps for the moment. I’ve started it, I’m about halfway through it. I got the back end of the scripts the week before last. That’s a 12 issue series, and Gary Erskine is doing the inks on that.

And there’s this project coming out in December, with Andi Ewington, with different artists [such as Sean Phillips, Charlie Adlard, Lee Garbett]…

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45! That’s great, that was. Andi’s great. I met him at one of the conventions, and I showed him my work, and he said ‘would you be interested in doing a book with us?’, and I didn’t know what it was at the time, so I said yeah. This is before I did any Marvel stuff or DC work, and they said they wanted me to do a page. And they sent it over and it was just like a page from a novel, outlining the character. And each page was done by a different artist. There’s some really nice stuff in there, there’s nobody really the same style. They wanted me to be more Marvel-y, so that’s why they gave me the Rock-type character. And that was nice to do, because it allows you to play with the layout a bit. I can’t wait for that to come out.

Thank you for speaking with us, Neil!

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is out now. Read more about Neil at his blog, thebristolboard.