Interview: Comic Artist ChrisCross On 'Supergirl,' 'Batwing,' and Staying Relevant

[Updated: Mr. Cross reached out for a couple of corrections in the piece. First, the originally article stated that Travel Foreman provided touch ups to his Batman designs for Superman/Batman when it fact it was the other way around. Second, Mr. Cross wished to clarify his views on the initial response from the readership of the New 52. You'll find the corrections inline.]

Comic artist ChrisCross has been at this for a while—well over two decades, actually. Getting his start with Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan during the Milestone days, he's bounced around the majors over the last two decades. Recently, he had a chance to illustrate the New 52 with issue #4 of Batwing recounting that character's origin, and before that he wrapped up the pre-relaunch runs of both Superman/Batman and Supergirl with Cullen Bunn and Kelly Sue Deconnick respectively.

I spoke to the artist recently about his work in the industry over the years , and we delved into a subject that's very much of interest to him: relevance—how to keep your books relevant and how to stay current. We discussed this as well as some of his recent work in these excerpted segments from our chat.

On his start in the comic industry at meeting Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan in the Milestone days:

Chris Cross: I was at the School of Visual Arts for a while and someone told me about a new comic book company that was coming out and was putting out some cultural-based stuff. And I didn’t know what it was and he told me some of the guys were from Marvel and DC, so I said “Okay!” So I took the time to visit the guys who were Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan, and Michael Davis was there also.

Came up there, showed them some samples, and basically got this weird look on their faces, and they went to sit down. Then Denys Cowan came out and shook my hand, Dwayne McDuffie came out and shook my hand and smiled and went to his room, then after that it was one of those things where I thought maybe I’ve come to the wrong place because this [was] kind of weird.

But I ended up getting an assignment from the guys. It was a nine-card set of Blood Syndicate, and after I did the nine-card set, they gave me the books. And from there, I started my foray into professional comicdom. And from there I went to DC, and from DC I went to Marvel, and basically going back and forth, you know?

On one of his most recent assignments, Superman/Batman with Cullen Bunn and keeping two decades-old characters fresh:

Cross: Give me a particular character to play with and I’m going to do what I can to visually upgrade them and make them look as relevant as possible. And some of these characters just don’t need to be fixed. I mean, you’ve got Klarion the Witch Boy created by Jack Kirby, that’s something timeless. So when other people are drawing his stuff, it just looks cooler—especially when it’s modernized.

You know, being able to do Superman and Batman, being able to play with the aesthetics [for their medieval incarnations] and redo Superman as a knight who has this magical armor and really long, ornate sword—I like drawing stuff like that whenever I get a chance to play with it, I like to go off on it. Travel Foreman came up with the conceptual drawings for Batman's armor, and I got to go in and retouch it and take it to another level.

Then there was the Superman armor, being able to pull a Final Fantasy aspect into it and throw sword and sorcery stuff into the middle of it, that’s a really great thing, that’s the thing that really sells books especially in light of the whole videogame market. I was going for that esthetic when i created the look of the armor. Something really flamboyant yet it could still be seen that Superman would wear something like that. It still had his sensibilities.

On working with Kelly Sue Deconnick on their short-lived Supergirl run and his reaction to its cancellation for the New 52:

Cross: Working with Kelly Sue Deconnick was really cool. I’m really open to working with newer talent, up-and-coming talent. So [DC Editorial] threw this at me and they said it’s not superhero stuff, and I said that’s okay. You’re not really an artist if you can’t do quiet moments or talking heads. I like to pride myself on doing a lot of acting with characters.

As far as the New 52 is concerned, I’m sure they had to do something else to reboot the franchises that they had. Every five, six years, they have to renew everything that’s being done, rethink everything because they have to keep it relevant.

With Superman/Batman and Supergirl, I got to usher in the endings for both of those titles, which is something that can be said—a little pride and glory that I got to be a part of that.

His thoughts on accessibility and the work being done in DC’s big new relaunch:

Cross: The new relaunch I see as a great thing for DC Comics and it was something that was really needed. They're attempting to rework the wheel in many ways and want to do something fresh and new in a remaking of the legendary concepts that made DC what it is today with some upgrades.

But some of the content was a problem for a lot of women readers—I got tons of email that blew up my email account one day that I should chime in on their blogs about the visuals of some of the heroes carrying on in ways no one had actually seen before. Like that splash page with Catwoman grinding Bats—their complaint was that they knew that the characters had been getting it on and it was implied over and over, they just didn't really want to see it. And it was kinda freaky to see it happening with Batman still with mask on.The women felt it was disrespectful. And it was, I guess, probably more shock and awe than anything truly Desaad-ian. I guess they felt that DC needed to explain themselves but in the end, I see it worked out really well because they pulled in some great numbers overall.

But they have to be more careful about the content a bit. Making stories and the characters harder, rougher , more promiscuous and darker may have some setbacks if a parent growing up reading comics lets their kid(s) read that material and those children are witnessing Batgirl or Thundra doing something suggestive only seen on HBO or some internet site. Know what I mean? We put the adult tag on these concepts but that doesn't mean that parents are always cognizant of what their kids read or what they should buy their kids to consume. We gotta be better in that regard. And we want to strive as storytellers to give people something to believe in with these characters. Keep the integrity that made them famous yet have them meld with the ebb and flow of the times.

On countering stagnation in the comic industry and targeting young readers:

Cross: In the aspect of pulling in new readership, I think that DC is trying to find ways to get that readership with the upgrading of the New 52, as is Marvel with their books, but maybe having problems making that happen.

For the most part, they will, of course, cater to the set readership they already have but may have some trepidation about how to bring in people that never read comics or want to read but don't know where to get them, or even where to start reading without immense research and exposition. Going from comic store to comic store I'm sure will deflate anyone trying to catch up on a series they just started. Of course, trades are the best way to go, but I'm glad to see the digital market taking effect.

The problem with the Big Two was that they were competing with the videogame crowd and the movies—but more the videogamers. Those involved with that aspect of entertainment want to see moving figures, and interactive gameplay with voices and explosions and pretty lights at their control. But unless [publishers] do something to work that crowd into the scheme of reading comics fully and consistently, and finding ways to bring more women onboard like videogames did—they had an increase to 42 percent of female gamers—we may be back to the shrinking of the comic herd again as the months pass along.

Since the marriage of videogames, comics, and the motion picture market, one would think that the market for comics would just explode all over again. Even bigger since comics are influencing those other markets in major ways, but not seeing ways to digitally download from theaters as a tester when a superhero movie is playing or passing out hardcopies of those books that inspired the movie to new participants, for example, keeps people in the dark about what went into creating that motion picture in the first place since usually after seeing a movie, they will think what's in the movie will most likely be in that book. It would be a great way to get new readership onboard digitally and hardcopy-wise if they could have access to those books right there in the hallway of the theater as the premier is showing, I think.

My summation is that a lot of people still don't have eReaders or Smartphones or even computers, believe it or not, so as the digital market progresses, it's great to have place for people to go to get into reading comics consistently. But as the digital wave takes hold more, there has to be a transmedia concept to getting new people to not only surf and download digital comics, but to keep their attention in such a way that makes more readers invest in comics like they do those videogames and movies.

That's been the glitch so far, but we're all in this and figuring it out.

What else he has cooking right now:

Cross: Right now, I’m doing some backup stories for Action Comics… a Ma and Pa Kent story for Action Comics #5. I got Batwing coming out this month (with issue #4), and basically, I made myself the villain, so that was pretty funny. And it’s a pretty cool little point with the Batwing character, his origin, so it was really cool to have a chance to do that.

I’ve got a lot of other stuff that’s in preproduction, but I also wanted to announce that me and my partner, Vito Delsante have put together a company called “Eternal Kick,” and it’s going to be a company that’s producing a lot of material. We’re in the middle of doing a lot of preproduction on that and it’ll be great if people would look out for it. Hopefully, by next year we’ll be putting some stuff out and making some announcements. Just working hard to put out your own stuff, co-creating and getting ownership of your own material.

Batwing #4 is on shelves now as is the Superman/Batman collection, "Sorcery Kings" via ComiXology and Amazon, and through the Page 3 store.

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