Mark Sweeney talks BLACK SUMMER

Working with the likes of Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp is no small order, but colorist Mark Sweeney is ready for the task. Sweeney took some time out of his day to talk about the upcoming project BLACK SUMMER which he is coloring.

How did you come to be involved with Black Summer?

MS: I was dragged in kicking and screaming.

No…. William asked me if I’d like to color a monthly series by Juan Jose Ryp and Warren Ellis. William didn’t elaborate on what it was about, but was very excited about it, and said I’d be perfect for it. Even from the beginning, secrecy was paramount…

I was stunned that William asked me to color this. And terrified. Working on a Warren Ellis Book? With art by Juan Jose Ryp? My first reaction? “Oh Fuck me!”

Now I had to be honest with myself. Did I want to color this? “Hell yes!” More importantly, was asking myself, “Can I deliver my best work, consistently, for the entire 8 issue run, in a timely manner?” That’s the real question.

I’ve colored Juan’s work before – my second book for Avatar Press was Robocop #9. The amazing level of detail in Juan’s art is daunting, challenging to color, and very time-consuming. I’ll spend more time on one page of Juan’s art than any three pages for other books.

My answer? I cleared off my calendar for the next 8 months and said ‘Yes’ before anyone could change their mind.

I turn 40 in July. I fully expect to be spending that day coloring Black Summer. And loving every minute I spend on this book.

Black Summer is a very gritty super hero epic. How did you take into account Warren Ellis’ hard-boiled tone and the super hero genre in your work?

MS: Now that’s a fun question. I’ve finished issue 0, and just started coloring issue #1. Issue 0 takes place mostly in the White House. I’d considered going for something much darker and moodier than what I did, but I felt that would be taking those scenes in the wrong direction. They aren’t about mystery, suspense, or even violence, despite the copious amounts of blood.

We have John Horus, a well respected hero who often confers with the President and his advisors, walking into the Press room of the White. He is drenched in blood, stunning the press corps as he walks to the podium, where he simply states, “Ten minutes ago, I executed the President of the United States. And the vice president. And several of their advisors.” This is the most shocking thing you can do in just about any story. Kill the President of the United States of America. This isn’t the work of some raving lunatic hell-bent on world domination; some evil shadow corporation attempting to seize control, or a twisted psychopath living out delusions of ‘Taxi.’ This is a man doing what he believes is right, a man who believes the President, and the administration are criminals and he deals with them as such.

Subtle color palettes and coordinated color keys? No. This DEMANDS a 5000 watt spotlight. Absolute realism. It’s not a dream or fantasy. It’s real. It’s LIVE, on CNN in High Definition Technicolor gore. I think a blend of realism and noir are what is going work well with the hard-boiled tone and Juan’s art, color wise. John Alton’s ‘Painting With Light’ is going to be my bible for this book.

Ryp is becoming an industry powerhouse faster with each project on which he works. What do you find is appealing about his art compared to other past and present comic book artists?

MS: Juan’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous. He has an amazing eye for detail that never overpowers the storytelling; his figures and anatomy are superbly crafted, sets are feel like you can walk into them, and his inking is just unbelievable.

Metal, wood, skin, cloth, even the grimy, stained paint on the walls all have their own feel and texture that makes you believe you could touch the page and feel each individual surface with your fingertips.

Few people can create art with this level of detail without turning the page into artistic gibberish.

What will make BS a summer smash?

MS: I think what’s really going to set this apart from everything else is how firmly it’s rooted in the reality of our post 9/11 world. Other books may be set in the ‘real’ world, but only pay lip-service to the events happening around us.

They won’t do anything regarding politics that might upset people. They don’t write stories that criticize the current administration, its colossal blunders and outright lies; or how the constitution has been gutted like a fish for the transparent illusion of security.

Politics in comics is a great 3,000 pound bull in a china shop that many ignore or refuse to acknowledge for fear of a tempest in a teacup breaking out.

Warren hasn’t just grabbed this bull by its horns. He’s decapitated it, hung the gore splattered, blood-dripping head from your front porch and is leaning on the doorbell as smoke from the burning china shop billows down the street.

Black Summer is going to be one hell of a ride.

Describe your experience with Avatar Press and Editor-in-Chief William Christensen so far?†

It’s been great. Three of the qualities I like about William are his honesty, his ability to challenge people who work for him, and his trust in their abilities.

I’ve heard horror stories from other colorists about some editors, from heavy handed control, interference, pettiness, and worse.

William is always professional and courteous, eminently respectful, and willing to move mountains to be able work with everyone’s schedule.

I know of artists working for other companies who have lost work because of saying ‘No’ to one project. I’ve had to turn down some offers of work from William simply because my schedule wouldn’t allow me to finish said book by the deadline.

I’m far from being the fastest colorist in the world – so I won’t accept work unless I know damn well I’m going to meet all the deadlines. It’s one thing to shoot myself in the foot, but I have absolutely no business blowing someone else’s feet off by missing a deadline.

If I explain that I can’t fit in an offer of work between now and the deadline, he’s ready with other work I can fit in, and always looks forward to seeing what I do with the work.

William really likes to challenge people. He doesn’t want you to get comfortable in your role, or your work. I’ve gone from horror, to science fiction, fantasy, and worked on numerous artists and writers under Willam, and it’s never the same old same old. There’s always something different, even when it’s variant covers for one book – it ranges from simple iconic sunset images to swirling masses bent on slaughter in medieval battles. Even with the same artist, he challenges you…. From the detailed style to simpler art nouveau covers that demand changes in rendering and coloring styles.

I’ll finally be able to meet William at the SDCC this year, and I’m really looking forward to meeting him in person.

What is appealing about Avatar Press as a comic book publisher?

Avatar Press is willing to take innovative chances, and go in daring directions and try things other won’t. Marvel Comics was almost brilliant at doing this during Bankruptcy Protection, but as soon as the cash started flowing…. It stopped dead cold.

While they did it because they had to, Avatar Press is doing this because they want to. It’s not a flash in the pan looking for a quick influx of readers and cash flow to keep going, or a marketing scheme tapping into the death of some character who, a week later, may not really even be dead. They’re building an audience, slowly, and expanding into new areas for stories – historical fiction, political science fiction and more.

How do you think Avatar Press’ role as an independent publisher affects the larger comic book industry?

Innovation. It’s a buzz word that’s bandied about by many companies. The comics landscaped is littered with the corpses of comics companies that have tried beat the big two by playing their game. Some companies slipped into terminal comas, while others self-destructed in spectacular fashion.

To my mind, super hero stories have largely settled into the story equivalent of day-time soap operas. Covers scream “EVERYTHING CHANGES FOREVER”… and 6 months down the road, it’s business as usual, and exactly the same.

Death of a major character? It’s about as permanent as the morning dew – a characters’ corpse barely even has time to cool before it’s up and at it again like nothing ever happened. Great stories are revisioned into pointlessness. Nothing seems to have any lasting ramifications, there’s no growth, consequences or ramifications.

Not so with Avatar Press. Books like Black Summer, 303, CrÈcy concentrate on telling a single solid story, instead of being a transparent attempt to create a mindless ongoing cash cow that moos about the landscape with hopeless abandon.

The overall market is changing as the DM is slowly bleeding out sales to bookstores that are dramatically increasing the market for graphic novels and TPBs. Many companies are fighting it out over a tiny piece of the DM while still trying to figure out how to deal with the bookstores. In my opinion, these are two totally different audiences, and companies need to go after both with that in mind.

The audience buying these titles in bookstores aren’t looking for some small slice of an ongoing soap opera. They’re looking for something substantive to sit down with. Something they can read from front to back and get the entire story without all the backdrop, continuity problems and melodrama of an ongoing soap.

Avatar Press is going after both the DM, with monthlies, and after the bookstore market with collected trades and graphic novels. Avatar Press recently celebrated 10 years in the business. When they celebrate 20 years, you’re going to find a damn fine library of books that cover a full spectrum of stories that reach a broader audience than the incredibly narrow niche of super hero soap operas.

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