Interview with John Cassaday, between star wars and mutants

John Cassaday, born in Texas in 1971, is one of the most appreciated comic book artist in the US comicdom. In 20 year of career he worked for Marvel, DC Comics e Les Humanoids Associès, realizing cult-work like Planetary (with Warren Ellis), Astonishing X-Men (with Joss Whedon), I am legion (withFabien Nury) and a higly appreciated and controversial run of Capitan America withJohn Ney Rieber. Apart from comics, he works as director, concept designer and actor in small roles for cinema and television. He is currently working on the acclaimed comic book series of Star Wars with Jason Aaron.

Hi John and thanks for being with us. I would like to start off with your latest work, Star Wars with Jason Aaron. First of all, I would like to know how it feels to confront yourself with such a known and iconic universe.
I grew up loving Star Wars, it was a part of me anyway. I felt I knew the character and their universe really well, so when the chance came it was really an honor for me, I felt very lucky. It was incredibly exciting the idea to jump in that pool, play with those toys and be a part of a canon. And it also helped that they put up a great team, people like Jason (Aaron). Marvel thought really carefully and deep about it, we had a lot of meetings about what we wanted to do, we didn’t just decided to do a Star Wars comic book like this. We were thinking about the time frame where to set the story, what characters we would like. I think it was a perfect storm, everything clicked at the right time, and I think we choose the best time in the original trilogy to set the story.

Your style is very realistic and static, focused on rendering emotions through expressions rather than through action. Where does this come from?
I don’t know if you can really choose these things, right? It comes from what you do, you start drawing and slowly you find the way you feel more comfortable about. I think I am most influenced by movies, i think at the work I do more in a cinematic way. And everything come from the story, the story always comes first, it’s the most important thing to me. If you have a good story, the action will present itself, but if the action comes and you haven’t earn it, and the emotions are not there, it’s just toys playing together. It has to be something more when there is a conflict, cannot be something like “I don’t like the way you look” and the other answer “I don’t like the way you look, let’s fight!”, it can’t be that simple. The action has to be earned.

What are your tools of choice for your work? Do you do everything digitally or do you start off from paper?
I still work mostly on paper, using ink, brush and pencils. 90% is on paper, then some little Photoshop to clean up, to add some effects. But most of my work is still on paper.

At the end of the 90s you also worked as scriptwriter for a couple of series (Union Jack, X-Men and Alpha Flight): what did you learn from that experience? Do you think it would be interesting to go back to working as a complete author?
I co-wrote some mini-series for Marvel with a friend of mine, …, and it was simply fantastic! I did what I wanted to do and Ben, who was already a seasoned writer, taught me a lot and probably we traded information, since I came from the visual side and I could give him some more insight and show him a way of depicting things more than saying it. And on the same way I was watching him developing the story and working hard on it. We were really swetting the plot, making sure everything logically tied together. He was a professionist and I learned a lot from that experience.
And of course I want to do more writing. I wrote some issues here and there in the years, but nothing really substantial. But I will do it a lot more in the coming year. It’s a bit scary but I feel confident, I have developed ideas in the last years and now I feel ready.

And can you tell us what it’s going to be or…
I cannot say anything right now, but thanks for asking, I will keep you updated! (Laughs)

During your long career you worked with many scriptwriters. With whom did you feel the strongest affinity? And what was your hardest moment during these years?
Joss Whedon on X-Men. We were friends before we did X-Men together and we decided to do X-Men in the hope that we would have not only kept our friendship, but worked well together. And it worked! Everything happenend as easily and organic as you can hope for. But also working on Planetary with Warren Ellis was an education, it was expanding my mind. I was drawing things that I would never drawn, different places on and outside the planet. It was a real challenge how to interpret the script and a vast universe storyline. Sometimes it was easy, I was reading and saying “I’ve got it!”, sometimes I knew I had to do some more homework because I didn’t know how to do that stuff. So I’ve really learned a lot. And then after that I’ve worked with Joss and everything was going smoothly. I think it’s one of the fantastic thing, I was growing as an artist and learning a lot and at that point everything clicked together. In the end I’ve been very fortunate in the people I’ve worked with.

Speaking of things you’ve learned, I’d like to talk about Legion, made in collaboration with Fabien Nury for the French market: do you think you have matured a higher consciousness on what comics can be apart from the US comicdom?
I was working on that at the same time as I was working on Planetary and X-Men. It was just a matter of taking the script and interpreting. It was written in a screenplay format, just the first part was a little bit more like a comic book. I just applied what I was doing with Planetary and X-Men, going straightforward and applying a cinematic style. It felt really natural working on it.

About cinema, a few years ago you worked as a concept artist on the adaptation of Watchmen.
I did some costume works, I’ve worked with Zack Snyder and we had some phone conversation, we were talking mostly about what we were interested in, like fanboys, so what we liked about every single character. He said “Just draw them as you like, do some change, do what you would like to do.”

And it was all in all simple, even though adapting a comic like Watchmen could be risky. At the beginning nobody believed in this film, but in the end it worked pretty well.
I think that too. It’s a difficult story to tell, and I believe they did the best as they could. I mean, putting that story in two hours, two hours and a half movie was really difficult, and they did a pretty good job.

Lastly, I’d like to know what are the most important features that, in your opinion, an artist needs to develop in order to work in the comic industry, especially the American one.
I think the key thing is not doing the job, go to a convention and meet the editor. You can do that. The hardest part is to sample your work. If you want to draw heroes fighting in a street, show one of them punching the other on a car, so you can show you can draw a car, and the one of them punch the other in park, so you can see a tree, a fountain, maybe a squirrel and a policeman driving a horse, and then on in a building, so you show that you can build architecture. So, show that you can draw action, that you can tell a story, but also that you can handle all these other things. It cannot just be two muscular men fighting, just run the game and show you can do that. Other tips could be: keep it short, 4-5 panels, nothing incomplete. And being honest with the one you are talking to. If you spent one year doing those four pages, unfortunately is not good, but let them know and be prepare to answer their questions. Just being honest, probably they will say: ok, he’s slow but we can put him on this title. And have a wide range of works to show, because when the script arrives, you have to draw it, no matter what the writer put out of his mind.

Thanks a lot for your time, John. See you soon.
Thank you.

Interview done at Lucca Comics 2016 on the 31th October 2016

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