One of the highlights of Brian Wood's Star Wars monthly comic, published by Dark Horse, has been the art of Carlos D'Anda. Known for his previous work on Batman: Arkham City and Deathblow, he has penciled most of the issues for the series since its launch in January.
I recently sat down with D'Anda during the Long Beach Comic Con to discuss his take on the mythic figures of the galaxy far, far away. A transcript of our conversation appears below.
How did you begin your career in comics?
I got into comics [laughs] you're gonna make me feel old, in the old fashioned, pre internet days when you would send in physical submissions to editors, wait months, and wait to hear back. Before digital and all those things became a more expedient way of breaking in. So, old school, you know? Xeroxing, shipping stuff, and just hoping for the best.
What led to you drawing Star Wars?
It was actually one of those, "right time, right place" things with a nice dose of luck. Brian Wood was looking for an artist and one of my friends recommended my work. That was it. One day I was asked, "Do you want to do Star Wars?" And I said, "Sure, why not?" I had actually been thinking of taking a break from comics for a while and going back into concept design and starting up painting again, but when you get offered Star Wars you don't say no.
When were you first introduced to Star Wars?
As a kid! The first one I saw in the theater was Return of the Jedi because I was too young for the other ones. It was magic. Before VHS, I remember when it would come on TV and you were like, "YES!!!" What kid from the 70's and 80's didn't grow up with Star Wars as part of their cultural landscape, you know?
How would you describe your style in interpreting these characters and this setting?
As a very fine line between loving these characters, and also being selfish. You don't want to question yourself too much or you begin second guessing. You almost want to draw them from the kid part of your brain, the way your kid brain remembers them. With something like Star Wars, when you start thinking about it it's so daunting and so big that it can almost paralyze you creatively. The same with Batman and some of the other big characters I've been lucky enough to work on.
You want to be respectful to the franchise, but also be selfish in a healthy way where you're doing them the way your kid self would do them because once you start questioning everything else you can just freak out, you know? My approach was how can I do this and have fun, and almost forget that this is Star Wars because that gives me the freedom to just draw instead of focusing on all the baggage that can come with a property like this. You need to lose your fear of that so you can do it justice. The only way you can do a good job on something this big is to not carry the burden of everything that's come before you.
You've described the helmeted characters, such as Darth Vader and Boba Fett, as your "drawing nemeses". What made them a challenge for you and how did you overcome that?
In many ways, it was similar to all the other characters. Whenever I draw Han or Leia, I look at a lot of photographs. I call it soaking. You look at a ton of Leia photographs, or Carrie Fisher photographs and then you put them away. So you only draw what your brain remembers. So that's how you filter your imagination mixed with photo reference.
The tricky thing with Vader's and Fett's helmets is that they're challenging because they're geometric. If you draw them wrong they can very quickly go from looking menacing to looking almost goofy. It took me awhile to realize that Vader isn't a helmet, but a face. So now whenever I draw him I don't think of him only as a guy wearing a helmet. Because Vader's helmet is based on a samurai's and theirs were designed as grimaces. They were meant to be scary and strike fear into the hearts of their opponents.
Once I started thinking of Vader's face as this animated, evil, menacing kind of thing, it finally started clicking. That was the hard part of it, mixing the technical elements of his helmet with an expression that a helmet doesn't have. For Fett it was the same thing. He's technically a blank face. With both of them I had to stop looking at the photo reference, and start thinking about their facial expressions. I had to ask myself how do I crate a scowl, or surprise? How do I create expressions in what are essentially just thick visors?
As you mentioned, you've already left your mark on characters such as Batman and Deathblow. Now that you're drawing the characters of Star Wars, what mark would you like to leave on them?
To be honest, that's one of those questions I can't even answer right now because enough time has to pass before you can see what it meant. Right now, it's too close to have that kind of perspective. I just feel lucky that I was trusted enough to work on such a beloved property and play in that sandbox.
In the past you've said before that you don't really have favorite characters to draw, you have favorite stories to draw. What kinds of stories are your favorites?
I like stories that feel honest, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, and there's creativity involved. Even if it's something like a biography, you're still trying to heighten the sense of reality. I think that's what good writing does. It makes a character, whether they're a historical figure or Darth Vader, empathetic. It makes you care about them. Vader was an awesome character, but when we saw his humanity, when we discovered that he was Luke's father and we saw his hesitation… that kind of stuff makes a character interesting. That's why we read what we read. We see ourselves there.
That's actually one of the things I'm enjoying most about this series so far. I like the way it takes the events of A New Hope, which can either be taken as a simple adventure story or something a lot more mythic, and heightens that sense of reality or consequence. It feels as you say, more honest.
Give a lot of that credit to Brian Wood. Because he's an artist himself he writes for an artist. Many writers can forget that they're writing for comics and will give you a scene on a page so heavy with information that as an artist, you can't really convey it. The beauty of Brian's writing is that he gives me the space to tell a story and to have those quiet moments, which he's done a masterful job of. Sometimes you need moments where the images carry the emotion, not a million dialogue balloons. Sometimes you need that moment of sadness or introspection. If the pacing of my art in the book is any good, the credit goes to Brian because of the space he gives me.
Lots of artists would be thrilled to draw Star Wars, but I think that most of them would agree that there's something special about the classic trilogy era, especially A New Hope. What's the best part of being able to draw this particular time period in the Star Wars saga?
It goes back to me getting in touch with that kid part of my brain. Now, there's a lot of baggage about what Star Wars means in dollars and sense, but if you remember how it made you feel as a kid it's a lot of fun. So the reason it's so awesome is because I've got a way to go back to being the kid who just wanted to draw cool X-Wings [laughs]! By insulating my brain, by forgetting everything else, I'm having a blast. It's a lot of fun.
Thanks to Carlos D'Anda for taking the time out of a busy convention to speak with me. You can appreciate his art in Dark Horse Comics' monthly Star Wars series!