Interview: Darick Robertson on ‘The Boys’
Artist Darick Robertson is one of my favorite contradictions in the comics industry.
On one side, he’s one of the friendliest creators I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with and remains one of the nicest of the industry’s "nice guys." But a quick peek at some of the projects he’s best known for, specifically his famous collaborations with writers such as Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan) and Garth Ennis (The Punisher: Born, The Boys), reveals a side of the artist’s imagination that doesn’t seem very, well… nice.
Whether it’s images of a human head being crushed like an overripe tomato or acts of depravity that would make Ron Jeremy blush, Robertson has shown a knack for creating amazing art that pushes the boundaries of comics — even those already aimed at mature readers.
Of course, that’s not to say his all-ages fare isn’t equally impressive. In addition to critically praised runs on series such as Justice League, Wolverine and New Warriors, Robertson remains a go-to guy for publishers like DC, who currently has him under contract as a regular artist.
In 2006, Robertson and Ennis kicked off a new, creator-owned series titled The Boys, about a group of superpowered, clandestine operatives for the U.S. government who investigate the questionable activities of other superpowered individuals and, when necessary, reign them in by any means necessary. After the controversial series was abruptly cancelled by DC/Wildstorm after six issues, it landed at Dynamite Entertainment, where it has been published ever since and remains one of the publisher’s most popular ongoing titles. Earlier this year, Columbia Pictures picked up the rights to make a film based on the series.
I spoke with Robertson while he was hard at work in his studio, and discussed his busy schedule, what’s coming up for The Boys and his inspiration for its characters. We also talked movies, bounced around some thoughts on potential casting choices for the film version of The Boys and compared the power of graphic imagery with that of scenes that show very little, but say quite a lot.
COMICMIX: It’s been a while since we spoke last, Darick. How are things going these days with The Boys and Dynamite?
DARICK ROBERTSON: Everything’s great. It’s all coming along, everything’s going well and everyone’s been very professional.
CMix: You’ve also been doing some work for DC since you moved The Boys over to Dynamite. What’s the pace like for you these days?
DR: It’s been hard on the schedule, because I have to balance it all out with DC. When I took The Boys on, I was working for DC, but they generously kept me under contract when I went over to Dynamite. So now I have to balance those two schedules out. All in all, it’s been okay, though.
CMix: In the most recent story, The Boys ended up in Russia and, as usual, they tangled with a lot of questionable characters in capes. From the artist’s side, how do you feel about having to design so many new costumes and super-types in each story? Is it fun to design completely new sets of costumes and characters for every story or do you look forward to issues in which you only have to worry about working on the regular cast?
DR: I have the most fun when I’m drawing new things. In the case, I really enjoyed the scene where I had to draw everybody in the warehouse, and I got to free-form with my ideas. They weren’t any specific characters and I didn’t have to worry about them reappearing in the continuity, since they all exploded at the end of that arc. I could just do whatever I wanted. That’s where I get to have the most fun, because it’s very low-pressure.
CMix: In a few of the recent issues, you’ve focused on supporting characters like The Frenchman and The Female, and it seems like these characters are really getting some well-deserved depth. Are there certain characters that you really enjoy working on?
DR: I have an affection for them all, but I’m looking forward to The Frenchman going berserk again. If you remember, there was that opening scene in the coffee shop where he just went berserk and got to smash up some guy and then turn around and smile. I really enjoyed that. I find myself looking forward to the time when I get to draw The Frenchman going at it again.
Hughie and Butcher are the most challenging characters to work on, because I have to show the widest range of expressions on them. I want them to look consistent, which I don’t know if I’ve always been able to achieve, but that’s the goal.
CMix: Is there an added difficulty with Hughie, given that the public is aware he was based on the actor Simon Pegg?
DR: That was really an homage, and it was never intended to be based on, well… I’m still kind of uncomfortable with the amount of the attention it’s gotten.
I’m happy that Simon was pleased with it, but I really never wanted it to be that obvious. When I designed Hughie in the first place, Simon wasn’t that well-known in the U.S., and I didn’t think anyone was going to clue in to the reference as they did. When Simon embraced it, I felt like, "Why fix something that isn’t broken?"
Honestly, I used him the same way I use friends of mine when I put them in as a reference for a character — just like I did with Spider Jerusalem. I use them as an anchor for what the character’s features are, but as I draw them more and more, they become unique. They become their own characters.
I’m at the point now where I’m departing a little bit from trying to keep it looking like Simon, because it’s not Simon, it’s Wee Hughie. In my imagination, he lives in a world where people tell him, "Oh, you kind of remind me of Simon Pegg!" He was never supposed to be a "Simon Pegg character" per se, it’s just the way things worked out with people picking up on the reference.
CMix: Well, at least it worked out in a positive way. In fact, it seems like the whole situation worked out the best that it could, really, with both Simon Pegg and the readers really embracing it…
DR: Absolutely. With Simon being as supportive of it as he was and even writing the intro for the book, I got to meet him and he ended up being a terrific person in the flesh, too. He’s good people all around. I guess I have good taste in actors… [Laughs]
CMix: That certainly seems to be the case. But getting back to The Boys, what lessons would you say you’re learning from this series as a creator? I always find it interesting to know how certain projects fit into a creator’s professional and creative growth. What is The Boys teaching you?
DR: Draw faster! [Laughs] Every page is a learning experience. It’s more of me trying to keep up on my obligations and stay more tuned in to how I spread the work around. How to balance it with my DC schedule has been the biggest thing I’ve had to learn, really.
CMix: During your collaborations with Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, you’ve created quite a bit of art that depicted graphic sex, violence or, in some cases, a combination of the two. How do you approach that side of your art? How much of that is the writer, and how much of that is your addition to the story?
DR: I’ve always had a sick imagination. A lot of the time, it’s not something they’ve asked for, and if it is, it’s never a problem for me. I grew up on movies, I was a punk-rock teenager and I was into horror movies and stuff like that from a very young age. Nothing really disturbs me. To me, ultimately, it’s just a black-and-white drawing. I don’t really see the big deal. I guess it stimulates other people differently than it does me.
For me, it’s just a mechanical process. Drawing out somebody doing something benign is just as challenging as drawing somebody getting their head split open, but because you don’t see somebody getting their head split open every day, there’s a lot more room for interpretation on all sides.
CMix: Have there ever been any scenes in a script you received that were just too much… or just really made you uneasy?
DR: No. Not at all. Nothing Garth has ever thrown at me has made me go, "I can’t draw this." A while ago I was drawing a panel of severed heads stuck on guns — a whole field of them — and it was the most fun I’ve had in a couple of issues. There’s something wrong with me.
CMix: On that note, do you have any moments from The Boys that stick out in your memory as being really enjoyable to work on?
DR: My most recent favorite scene was one in which The Frenchman and The Female are sharing some candy and then he talks her out of an assassination. I really thought that was a great scene and I had to be very focused on how I approached it. I wanted it to be subtle and I wanted it to flow, and there wasn’t a lot of action going on, so it needed to say a lot in the faces. Garth was very pleased with that sequence as well, so I feel like I nailed that.
CMix: I know the scene, and it certainly felt like you accomplished what you set out to do with it. In fact, I was planning to ask you about that scene during this interview — specifically, the way there was so much going on with so little action…
DR: If I have a strength, that’s my strength. I think I brought that to Transmetropolitan in a lot of places, too. Warren’s stories were phenomenal, but there were places where my art had to really carry the scene. It had to be quiet and it had to work without any words. In the ending sequence of issue #8 of Transmetropolitan, Spider just gets up and stretches and pitches a cigarette off the balcony, but it had to feel important and cinematic. I was very pleased with that, too. Once in a while, I feel like I "get it" and everything works, and it looks good when it’s done and in print, and that makes me happy.
So yeah, that scene with The Frenchman and The Female was like that, and it was one of my favorites.
CMix: A while back it was announced that Columbia Pictures had picked up the option to produce a film based on The Boys. Are there any new developments there?
DR: You know as much as I do at this point. Apparently in Hollywood, there’s a lot of hoo-ha and then you sit around and wonder if the deal’s still happening. As far as I know, everything is moving forward and I’m just waiting for more information and trying to pretend like it isn’t happening. As Garth said very well: Put all of your hopes and dreams into something like that, and that way lies madness. I’m just sort of pretending it’s not happening, so when and if it does, I’ll be very happy. I won’t be too disappointed either way.
I had a few things happen with Transmetropolitan over the years where it seemed like something big was about to break and we had some big offers, and then nothing comes of it. It’s not that uncommon in Hollywood for something to come out with a lot of fanfare and then nothing happens.
CMix: So what’s next for The Boys?
DR: The arc that I’m working on now, called "I Tell You No Lie, G.I.," is a really, really powerful one. Hughie gets the lowdown on the history of The Boys and moreso the history of superheroes and the backstory of The Homelander — and how superheroes came to be in this world. There’s a powerful issue coming up that shows what happened to the Brooklyn Bridge, too.
You asked me if I’ve ever drawn something that made me cringe a little, and this would be the issue. If I’ve ever approached that feeling, it was when I was reading this script, because it actually made my stomach hurt a little bit. It’s pretty powerful. It’s going to be a hard one to draw. Logistically, making the drawings happen on the page is going to be a challenge, but beyond that, it’s just a really powerful story. It’s a gut-wrenching thing to read. I’m just hoping to do a good job drawing it.
CMix: I have one last question for you, though. In the past, you and I have talked movies quite a bit, and you’ve given me some great recommendations. I probably would never have picked up Dead Man’s Shoes if you hadn’t told me Garth described it as "the movie The Punisher should have been." So I have to ask, what are you watching these days?
DR: [Laughs] It’s been mostly mainstream stuff that I’ve been catching up on recently. I just saw There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. I loved No Country For Old Men, and I had noted recently about a photo I’d seen of Josh Brolin that he might make a good Butcher. Then, after I saw No Country For Old Men, I felt like I was spot-on — he would make a great Butcher. I don’t think he’s up for the role or anything, but I just thought he was great in that film. I had been reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, based on Garth’s recommendation, when I saw No Country For Old Men, so I was surprised that it was the same author.
I really enjoyed There Will Be Blood, but there’s a good example of my hypocrisy: It’s probably the best movie I’ll never watch again. There was so much blunt trauma… I couldn’t handle it. It kept twisting me in a knot. And it’s funny because people are like, "You draw all of this blunt trauma in your book," but at the same time, it’s quiet and more technical when I’m drawing, and I hear it and see it on the screen… pipes falling on people and everything else. I can’t take it. I like to draw what scares me, and blunt trauma frightens me.
CMix: Well, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with me, Darick. Best of luck with The Boys!
Issue #19 of The Boys, featuring the start of the "I Tell You No Lie, G.I." storyline, with a script by Garth Ennis and art by Darick Robertson, hits shelves June 4 from Dynamite Entertainment.