EXCLUSIVE! Dark Horse's Buffy, Angel, And Spike Cover Artists Get Up Front With Us

They say don't judge a book by its cover, but it's also impossible not to be drawn in by the art on Dark Horse's "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" line of comics. With work by Steve Morris, Jenny Frison, David Mack, and Phil Noto, it's also pretty easy to see why the covers would be so attractive. Yet the four don't get nearly as much ink - pun definitely intended - as the interiors. Luckily, we got a chance to chat with all four artists about their process in creating covers for "Buffy," "Angel & Faith," and the upcoming "Spike" and "Willow" mini-series, as well as showing off some upcoming covers from those books:

MTV Geek: Okay guys, for each of you, how did you end up working on the Buffy titles? And were you a fan of the franchise before you got involved?

Steve Morris: I had done two other Whedonverse covers: “Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale” and the “Dollhouse: Epitaphs” mini, prior to the Buffyverse books, so I think Dark Horse was comfortable with my ability to draw likenesses. Specifically with the “Angel & Faith” though, they thought my penchants to twist imagery and play with themes and symbols was a good fit for the nature of the title.

Yes, I actually saw the original "Buffy" movie in the theater and watched the "Buffy" and "Angel" series from their starts. So it was very cool, after all those years, to find myself involved with the Buffyverse and Whedonverse at large.

Jenny Frison: I originally worked on the Angel, Spike, and Illyria series over at IDW.  I was lucky enough to have Dark Horse include me in their Buffyverse.  I loved Buffy and Angel when the shows were on the air and had been reading Dark Horse's Buffy series since the first issue of season 8.

David Mack: Dark Horse editor Scott Allie approached me about it. 

Phil Noto: Scott Allie had asked me to do some Dollhouse covers for the miniseries, and after pleasing everyone with the likenesses, I was offered the chance to do the Buffy covers. And yes, I was/am a GIANT Buffy fan.

Geek: This is pretty well trod territory, but a lot of our readers may still not know what goes into doing likenesses - and how you approach them. Can you talk about the challenges in drawing real life people as their characters?

SM: I guess the hardest part is using photo references from a 15 year spread... I may be able to use a recent photo for a nose reference but I probably can’t use the same image for the contour’s of the face, because those contours are more subject to change over time. So to an extent you aim the likeness to a  type of ageless sweet-spot, while trying to avoid idealization which can make the likeness cold.  It’s also important to be mindful that the actors aren’t the characters, so you don’t want to just grab a candid shot of David Boreanaz and use his natural expressions and body language... The image can be used for reference points, but those points need to be translated through the persona of Angel and how the actor portrayed that character with his choice of mannerisms, gestures, etc.

DM: Well, the characters are very identified with the likeness of the actor so you want to be as respectful of that as possible, so I asked the editors to send me any reference of the characters that they think I should have.  It is good for me to see how the other artists approached this as well.  You want it to relate to the actor's likeness of the character but you want it to feel like its own image as well and not like the most popular shots you've already seen of the character and likeness.

JF: The likenesses can be very difficult.  As cover artists, we have the luxury of only having to capture one expression (as opposed to the interior artist who has to capture the whole range of emotions from every angle throughout each issue).  But the likeness on a cover like these can become the whole focus.  I usually find that no matter how much work I put into a cover and how much care and effort goes into all other details of the cover (design, rendering, color palette, etc.) if the likeness is off, the whole cover is off.  And sometimes it just takes the smallest line or shaded area to bring the whole likeness askew.

When tackling a character for a cover, I try to find a range of shots of the actor with several examples of expressions I want to achieve.  Often, I'll watch episodes on my computer and look for scenes where the actor is producing the emotion I think the character would express in the cover to help me replicate it.

PN: I have it much easier than the interior artists. I just have to get the likenesses right on one page rather than create versions of them that can act for the story.

Google images is my best friend when it comes to the faces. I will however work from some screen grabs if I need to.

Geek: And in general, what's your approach to covers? Some of course will be story driven, others not... Do you have a preference, and if so, why?

SM: I prefer story driven covers because it gives me fodder for interpretation, allowing for visual metaphor and symbols. That’s the ideal situation, but because the covers are done so far in advance of the actual book release, the content isn’t always fleshed out... In those cases I’ll either fall to a straight-up posed cover or possibly illustrate a direct scene, if DH has a few beats of the story nailed down.

JF: I would prefer a happy medium.  All of the Dark Horse covers I did were prompted with a story specific concept from the editor.  The IDW covers were more open... Covers are done so far in advance of the book to be available for solicitations, it's not uncommon for the specifics of the issue to not be written yet.  Covers where I have more freedom and less info can be really fun because they can be more about design and less about an actual scene.  But they can also be more difficult.  Ultimately, I prefer more freedom, but every now and then it's nice to have someone just tell me exactly what to draw.

DM: I love finding a single image that will make people want to pick up the book.  And I like to have something encrypted in the design or details of the cover that relates to the theme of the story.

In this case editor Scott Allie will send me a variety of notes and details that are in the story for me to choose from in terms of weaving them into the composition.

PN: I just try to make them very interesting illustrations. The story driven ones give me a better starting point and more to work with but the straight pin up pieces are fun too because I can just focus on making a cool portrait.

Geek: Another interesting aspect of the Buffy-verse comics is creating at least a semi-cohesive look across the line. Can you talk about what you give and take from each other? Or are you all rogues, going it alone, with no help needed from those other jerks?

SM: “I do what I want”... You’ll need to picture me in Cartman’s mirrored sunglasses to get the full effect! Seriously though, I think Dark Horse wants  each artist to bring their own flavor to the characters’ appearances. So clothing, hair styles (up or down) etc... The superficial stuff, is really left to the individual artist. I do, however, need to match the design of new characters (like demons), so if Rebekah hasn’t already drawn the issue I’m working on, she’ll develop a character design, get it approved by DH and then send it along to me.

JF: While doing the Spike covers, I didn't really get to see covers from the other artists except for a couple of Steve's.  The deadline's for the covers were pretty short and the turnaround pretty quick so there wasn't much time, but I am a huge fan of Steve, Phil, and David and definitely allow as much influence from them as possible!

DM: Scott sent me other covers that have come before, and also the design of contemporary covers that this story and the collection of it will want to relate to.  So I try to factor that in the best I can, and it is quite useful is seeing how other artists interpret the characters and the design of the world.  Once I see the freedom that they express in their own personal interpretation of the character it gives me motivation to be more expressive and design oriented with the imagery.

PN: A lot of times, I'll get interior reference pages for certain characters which certainly helps to maintain a consistent look. I'm not really in contact with any of the other artists but I definitely get inspired looking at their work.

Geek: What about the actual process of making a cover? I imagine it does vary from piece to piece, but what tools, tech or otherwise, do you use when putting together your covers?

SM: I normally ask DH for some story themes and basic plot points. From there I’ll do a rough low-res sketch of the composition in PhotoShop, accompanied by an email explaining the arcane marks of my chicken scratch. Once I get approval, I move on to the “pencil” stage, also in PS. At this stage I may either do a line drawing or a line drawing with shading.

I’ll spend the time shading if I don’t plan on painting over the line art. If I plan to go for the full-on painted effect, I’ll keep the line art simple and clean. When I color, I do a rough under-painting on a layer below the line art, gradually tighten it up until completion. If I decided to make the cover look “painted”, I’ll continue from the under-painting by adding a layer above the line art and covering over the lines, sampling the surrounding colors.

JF: Every cover I do starts with a sketch.  For the Spike covers, Scott would send me a prompt, specifically what he wanted to be happening in each cover... And I would sent him one or a couple quick sketches of that concept.  Once I had my layout approved, I would usually tighten my sketch up before I moved on to final pencils.  This is when I would figure out the likeness and expression. That way I could focus on movement and keep my line clean on the final pencils. Those pencils act as the final linework for my cover.

Next, I would do a tonal drawing on gray paper with copic marker, graphite, and white pastel. I like to do my rendering traditionally so I can get my hands dirty, but don't have to be too concerned about what colors to pick.  I find it is particularly helpful when I have a likeness to capture because I am more comfortable rendering with a pencil. I can shade and erase until I am sure what I've drawn on the paper looks like who I want it to look like.

Finally, I color the cover in photoshop.  I can spend as much time as I want adjusting the colors until I've got what I'm looking for and it is super easy to try multiple color palettes until I feel I've achieved the mood I want.

DM: I begin with many little layout scribbles. Then I zero in on one and flesh it out into a larger and more detailed composition. In the case of this series, I often asked a friend to model for the shot based on my drawings to get the lighting and shadows more dramatic. Then I used a variety of media from watercolor and acrylic to collage of paper, metal, wood, and orgainic materials (including the actual scales of a snake for #3).

PN: I start off with about 4-6 sketches and the editors choose one. I usually just go straight to the final from there. I work completely digitally in Photoshop on a Cintiq, so any changes or notes are easy to make.

Geek: Do you have a favorite? Least favorite?

SM: The A&F #9 cover is my least favorite of the series, although Angel is supposed to be leaping, it feels a little like a pseudo attempt at flight. I don’t know if I have a favorite, the right word might be which ones I “tolerate” better than others lol, because it’s hard to look past my mistakes. But my favorite is probably Buffy 9.3 partly because it was a rare daytime cover, but also because it felt most like a quiet portrait, almost outside the context of a comic book.

JF: Well, there were only 5 so it's tough to pick but I think my favorite might be the 4th cover of Spike. It was really simple and to the point. Plus, shiny, latex-y fabric is fun to render.

DM: Of the Willow covers I have completed, #3 is my favorite so far.  I like the balance of the composition, the figure balance to the design, and the contrast of the materials, metal, watercolor figure, and the texture of the actual snake skin for the snake woman's tail.  

PN: Favorite cover ..I think the one featuring all the quotes spiraling out of Buffy's head. I wasn't sure it was going to work at all, but in the end I was very happy with it.

Geek: What about characters? Who has been the most difficult character from the Buffyverse to capture artistically? The easiest?

SM: They all seem a little tough in the beginning, because you need to learn the geography and language of their faces and since you don’t have the luxury of seeing them in person, you have to figure out how all the different photo of them fit together to make one face. I think Faith/Eliza Dushku’s face was probably the hardest to “get” and still eludes me sometimes. Xander/Nicholas Brendon’s was the easiest, I didn’t draw him much, but the small likenesses which I did create, seemed to congeal faster from the get go.

JF: I think Spike might be the easiest I've drawn.  His deep cheekbones are the sort of thing that make him really recognizable with just a few lines.  Angel, however, was always kind of hard for me.  David Boreanaz is a very handsome man and his heavy brow and thick neck are recognizable landmarks, but one wrong line and he looks like a caveman.

DM: I've enjoyed painting the Willow character. I tried to make each cover have a range and a contrast of presenting a different facet of her. 

PN: Dawn can be really tricky. It's difficult to get her not looking too young or too old. The easiest for me is Buffy. If you can just get the eyes, nose and lower lip right, she's recognizable.

Geek: Have you ever had the cover art of a book affect the interior look of the book? What's the give and take like there?

SM: Not to my knowledge, at least I can’t say I’ve ever noticed anything.

JF: I don't think I've ever affected the style of the art on the interior, but certainly the design of characters or scenes.  There tends to be a certain amount of understanding for readers that what happens on the cover doesn't have to exactly match the inside so I think interior artist know they can take what they like from a cover that uses a character or scene that hasn't been designed yet.  But if I'm lucky, I prefer to work directly with the interior artist to come up with something that we can both use.  It's really fun to see how different artist interpret the same design or scene.

DM: I've had that when it is a book that I'm both doing the cover for and the interior art for. Sometimes I may have figured out a character solution on the cover that I then bring into the interior. 

PN: I haven't had that happen. I prefer to let the interior artist design characters since they're going to have to draw them a lot more than me.

Geek: Lastly, anything coming up you're excited to show off? Anything you can't wait for fans to see?

SM: The cover for  A&F #16 came out nicely, it’s uncharacteristically simple, but it’s a gear shift that sets a different tone than many of the other covers in the series. Also, the Spike variant covers were allot of fun and there are still two which haven’t seen the light of day yet.

JF: I'm doing covers for Image's new book REVIVAL with Tim Seeley and Mike Norton.  Tim, Mike, and I all live in Chicago and share a studio space so it's one of those books I'm able to work closely with the creative team on.  It's been really fun.  The scripts have been incredible and Mike's pages are fantastic!

DM: It's been a real joy doing these covers at the same time that I've been doing covers for Daredevil: End of Days, and also drawing the animated Dexter webisodes.  It's been an exciting challenge to get in the specific groove and look of each of these projects while working on them during the same time period.

PN: Don't have anything to show, but just had a lot of fun drawing a... Certain female character for the first time!

You can check out the solicit info for three of the four series, below:

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER SEASON 9 #15

Jane Espenson (W), Drew Z. Greenberg (W), Karl Moline (P), Ben Dewey (P), Andy Owens (I), Michelle Madsen (C), Phil Noto (Cover), and Georges Jeanty (Variant cover)

On sale Nov 14

FC, 32 pages

$2.99

Ongoing

Training has begun, bringing the newest Slayer and Watcher closer together. Will they be ready when they're needed most? The rapidly growing zompire population has overcome a local institution, and our heroes in training must take on the fight of their lives!

Buffy show writers Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time) and Drew Z. Greenberg (Warehouse 13) reunite in this special two-part story about a young duo coming together to fight the forces of evil and discover their role in this strange, new ’verse.

• Executive produced by Joss Whedon!

• Arc finale!

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ANGEL & FAITH #16

Christos Gage (W), Rebekah Isaacs (A/Variant cover), Dan Jackson (C), and Steve Morris (Cover)

On sale Nov 28

FC, 32 pages

$2.99

Ongoing

Angel’s plan to resurrect Giles inches ever closer toward success. As he and Faith hack their way toward one more magical item to help in their venture, Angel reveals it is time to get the final part of Giles’s soul. But their triumphant return to London holds more than one surprise: first, the revenge-seeking Nadira and the Slayers come calling . . .

• Executive produced by Joss Whedon!

• Follows the events of Buffy Season 8!

_____

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: SPIKE #4 (of 5)

Victor Gischler (W), Paul Lee (P), Andy Owens (I), Cris Peter (C), Jenny Frison (Cover), and Steve Morris (Variant cover)

On sale Nov 21

FC, 32 pages

$2.99

Miniseries

Spike departs from the ruins of Sunnydale—and all those memories—with a demon who wants desperately to return to her home dimension. But with the loss of magic, her connection is lost. Spike, ever the hero, offers to help this mysterious damsel in distress in her journey to find any remnants of magic that might reconnect her to her world.

• Sparks (and punches) fly!