An Interview with Rick Leonardi

(La versión en español de esta entrevista está disponible en Kekorto.es)

In the course of the last Expocomic Madrid 2011, and thanks to the wonderful chaps at Kekorto, I had the chance to spend a couple minutes with Spider-Man and Star Wars artist Rick Leonardi. The whole Marvel 2099 universe and Leonardi’s work in particular have always been a favorite of mine and one of the main influences for the kind of stuff We try to make over here. So make sure you check Rick’s amazing work and enjoy this transcript of the interview:

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Steel Raining: We wanted to start by talking about your begginings as a comic book artist.

Rick Leonardi: My first job… I think my first one was actually 1980. That was Thor #303

SR: So, how did you break up in the industry?

RL: Well, in 1979 I graduated in university and decided I wanted to work in comics, so I wrote a story, I pencilled the story and I Inked the story. I put word balloons on the story and took It down… this is in the days before professional copying, so I had to actually photostat the stuff. A very expensive process to reduce giant boards to comic book size. But I did It, because I wanted It to look like a comic book. I sent It off to Marvel. Waited months. In December 1979, I finally got a phone call back from New York that said: “We can’t tell. You say you want to be a penciller, but We can’t tell what kind of pencils you do, ’cause this is covered with ink, and It’s too small, and It’s got balloons. You might be a good writer. We don’t know, but your writing is pretty good”. So I said: “Aw!” (Leonardi slaps his own forehead). So I went home and did like three pictures, three pages of drawings in pencil, of Conan the Barbarian, turning and posing… and that was It.

SR: Through your career, you’ve drawn almost everything. From Marvel, to DC. Almost every character…

RL: Except Batman. My Moby Dick.

SR: Really? But I’ve seen drawings of the Batman by you.

RL: Yeah, I’ve had him in a lot of stories that I’ve drawn, but never in one of the main Batman books.

SR: Oh, that’s a shame, that would be awesome… So, You spent a long time working for Marvel…

RL: Past 20 years, yeah.

SR: … working in books such as Cloak and Dagger. At the time, that was a story that touched on some sensitive themes such as drug dealing or child offense. How did you approach that as an artist?

RL: Well, Bill Mantlo, the writer, was at the time putting himself through law school and He was a socially aware person to start with. So those are the sort of stories that appealed to him. Cloak and Dagger, I think It was always gonna be focused in that direction, rather than superheroic adventure. So my brief as a penciller was to make that as real as possible. Do researching: New York City, the back alleys, the dark places. I remember actually walking through New York at the time, taking a long walk down through Hell’s Kitchen.

SR: Another of your better known works was Spider-Man 2099, as part of the 2099 universe.

RL: It was the longest time I’ve been on a book. 25 issues plus the graphic novel.

SR: How did you land on the book? It looked like a pretty complicated project….

RL: It was a complicated thing, but I think They were looking for people who gave a little bit of a thought to what they were gonna draw.

SR: A lot of concept work, I suppose.

RL: Exactly. We were four teams for four different books, who met as teams in a hotel conference room, away from the office. We had a secret meeting to talk about how We were gonna do things, brainstorming a couple of the original ideas. I think the whole idea of New York City being built on top of the old city, with magnetic levitation roadways, riding from top to bottom… I think that came out of me.

SR: And you’re also remembered for the design of the popular black costume Spider-Man wore, back in the 80′s. The one that would ultimately become Venom.

RL: Well, the original black costume… I mean, Mike Zeck did a very quick drawing for Jim Shooter as a concept, and then Jim Shooter contacted me and said: “Can you refine this? We need a three-view. We need a real sheet that our artists can work from”. I don’t think I did much. I separated the legs (in the chest logo). I put an extra joint in the legs. I think I may have done the wrist thing.

SR: We were researching for the interview yesterday when we found this series called The Rampaging Hulk and there you’re credited as a writer in a couple of the issues. Tell us a bit about It.

RL: Well. My version of the story?

SR: Sure.

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RL: There’s always been the Incredible Hulk. It was written by Peter David and Peter David had taken the Incredible Hulk in an interesting new direction. The Incredible Hulk had been green, now It was grey, It wasn’t very smart, but now he was really smart, remember? A very interesting reading experience, but very different from the Hulk that was, so I think Marvel said: “We need to go back to what the Hulk used to be. We’re not gonna change Peter David, cause Peter David… (Leonardi makes a gesture of bowing, when He mentions Peter David). So, We’ll do a separate book called The Rampaging Hulk“.

The stories would be standalone. He’ll be angry and He’ll smash stuff. He’ll be like the old one. I think that was the Idea, trying to appeal the people who used to like the way He was rather the way He’d become. So, by issue six or so, We were selling so many of the Rampaging Hulk the Incredible Hulk people said: “hey, wait a second, We’ll make our Hulk go back”, so they cancelled our book.

SR: You spent quite some time at Marvel, but come the late 90′s, you decided to move to DC.

RL: Well, Marvel went into… It had It’s financial difficulties. It’s first round of financial difficulties. One day, all this mid level editors that I’d been working with would let go. Fired. So I followed them to DC. It was a difficult time.

SR: A difficult time, indeed. Whether It’s Nightwing, Batgirl or Vigilante, you seem to be very comfortable working in stories set in the city. Lonely characters in an urban environment. Is that a personal taste of yours?

RL: I think that’s a sort of story that comes my way. They all tend to be, again, maybe a little bit of a typecast. I wind up in the darker, shadier stories. Back alley stuff. Specially Vigilante. They were fairly explicit there to say: “We need someone who can do gritty”.

SR: Being a longtime comic book artist, We wanted to ask you about the way comic book art and people’s taste for comic book art have changed over the years.

RL: Well, there’s a lot going on in what I what I would call “post-production face” now, that I don’t really understand so well. Actually, I saw a video that someone uploaded to the internet, just the other day, of a spanish artist, drawing a pin-up, and I was surprised that very very quickly, I mean sooner than I would have, He went to the scanner and then into Photoshop . That, I don’t have any contact with. I’m still…

SR: You still haven’t moved to digital tools.

RL: Yeah. Exactly.

SR: Recently, We’ve seen you working on some movie tie-in books. Things like Alien Versus Predator or the Darth Vader: The Lost Command miniseries.

RL: That’s Dark Horse. Dark Horse has that license.

SR: How is it different working on that kind of movie franchises from drawing the average superhero book?

RL: It’s not terrificly different, although two issues into the Darth Vader’s story, for Star Wars, I got some feedback from Lucas (Books). I was doing this… there’s that triangular grill right here (on Vader’s face), and there’s another triangular grill right here underneath (on Vader’s neck). This was wrong (Leonardi points the lower grill in Vader’s mask). I was doing It wrong. We had to go back and fix It.

SR: Tell us. Do you still read comic books regularly?

RL: No, not regularly. I follow artists.

SR: Really? ‘Cause We wanted to ask you about your influences. What you like and what you’ve enjoyed over the years.

RL: Well, as a kid I looked at a lot of reprints of really old stuff. Prince Valiant by Hal foster, Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, Will Eisner… all the grandfathers of comics. But the guy who really got me interested was Jim Steranko. The Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff he made and Captain America. Awesome. Awesome stuff. He was really the first… you know, OK, there’s Jack Kirby (Leonardi makes a gesture of bowing again when He mentions Kirby)… but Jim Steranko was the first rock star penciller, and I thought: “wow, this guy’s number one”.

SR: Are you interested in creating your own stories or putting out your own creator owned suff at some point in the future?

RL: Well, I think your next question is going to be “what are you working on, now?”. Yeah, I think there’s where I have to head. You know, Marvel’s been bought by Disney and I don’t know what kind of bussiness They’re in right now. DC, in reaction to that purchase is all confused… I don’t know. I don’t know who to call anymore, so It’s time to work for independent publishers and possibly do something on my own.

SR: Well, I think that’s all. Thank you very much, Rick and We’ll be looking forward to your new projects.

I’ve done my best to transcribe Leonardi’s words faithfully, but there might be something wrong here and there. Just let me know and I’ll address any mistakes. I was really happy to talk to Rick and I have to thank him again for his patience and the time he spent with us. My gratitude goes to the Expocomic organization too, their press department and obviously Kekorto.es, who makes a huge effort every year to report from the halls of the con. I hope to see you all soon, guys!

All Images are copyright ©, their respective owners, and appear here with informative and promotional purposes only.

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