Acclaimed artist David Aja on ‘Hawkeye’s’ Pizza Dog getting the spotlight

Artist David Aja first came to comic fans’ attention with his work on Marvel’s “The Invincible Iron Fist,” a series co-written by Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker. After his run on the book came to an end, he drew a number of short stories and single issues here and there, drawing praise and accolades for his cover art and design work. Aja redesigned many of the characters for the recent relaunch of the Valiant titles. At Marvel, Aja has drawn and designed the covers for a number of miniseries, including “Immortal Weapons,” “Red Skull” and “5 Ronin.” His current project, for which he’s deservedly received a lot of attention and acclaim, is “Hawkeye.” Reuniting Aja with his “Iron Fist” partner Matt Fraction, the book looks like no other comic on the stands today. If there was any doubt of this, Issue #11, told from the point of view of Clint Barton’s pet, Pizza Dog, will make it clear.

CBR News: Matt Fraction once mentioned that you brought up Hawkeye years ago before you two started working on this book.
David Aja: When we finished “Iron Fist,” at that time I think Hawkeye was dead, maybe? I do not really follow a lot [of current series], so I cannot tell you, but he was one of my favorite characters when I was a kid.
How do the two of you work together?

It’s very, very collaborative. I love Matt. That’s important. We have a really great relationship. Sometimes even before he writes anything, we talk about what is the story going to be about. For example the dog issue started as a joke. [Laughs] Really. We were talking with [Marvel editor] Steve Wacker and messing around and talking about some issue and I said, maybe we should draw one issue from the dog’s point of view and I can draw it like how a dog sees. It was a joke. Suddenly, Steve and Matt said, yes, let’s do it. [Laughs] He sends me a plot with what happens, sometimes some dialogue and sometimes not — usually not. Then, I start sketching and I send him the sketches. We start talking about it. For example, do you remember the Christmas issue? In the beginning, it wasn’t Christmas. We were talking, and in this first stage we decided to do it at Christmas. I start sketching more and he writes dialogue. When I have the dialogue, I do the final pencils and then I do the final inks. The thing is, I sketch on the computer, so I always have all the text and dialogue. I sketch with them so I can see the whole composition, the text captions and where the balloons are going to be. I write the balloons and do the first lettering on the page so I know exactly how much room I have for drawing, or where the text panel goes. When I’m done, I send the page for lettering to Chris Eliopoulos. There’s a great relationship with everything, with Matt, with Chris, and with Matt Hollingsworth, of course. We talk a lot of about the color. It’s a very collaborative book. I think it’s great. I’m so happy, because everyone is doing their best and we’re talking a lot. It’s something we are doing all together.

Is there ever a point where you’re working and you say to Matt, can you cut some of the words in this scene?

Not really. Like I said, I’m sketching and I know how much room I have, so I try to adapt. Maybe if I see there’s too much dialogue for this one panel, I’ll have [the dialogue] in three balloons. But as he sees my sketches, he writes the dialogue thinking about those sketches. It’s very collaborative. It’s unnecessary to fix.

If you send him a sketch of a page with twelve or fifteen panels, he’s not going to write hundreds of words of dialogue for that page.
There was one page where the dialogue was written before. It was in issue two, the telephone conversation between Clint and Kate. He came to me with the plot, saying something like, this is that typical boring page where they talk because it’s necessary, so maybe two heads or whatever you want. I saw all those words there and I thought, what is this — a telephone conversation? I hate when sometimes you find two little heads on the page and the rest of the page is dialogue. For example, right now, we’re interacting. I cut up every single sentence into very small balloons. It’s a comic. Everything you can do to tell it visually, you have to do it visually. Not by words. Pictures are there for a reason. They have to be there for a reason. They have to give you information. The text is saying something, so let’s try to say something different with the pictures.
I think we’ve all read comics where the captions or dialogue explain what we know from looking at the art.
Right. I was talking with someone recently about the Hitchcock book by Truffaut. It’s more or less the same thing — though comics are not the same as movies. It’s another medium with its own tools. They talked about, what you can do visually, do not do it with words. There’s something in movies that was lost with [the advent of] sound, when people started doing movies with heads explaining everything instead of [showing it] visually.

If you can read the pictures without reading the text, then you have done something right. That’s always what I try to do. When I finish a comic, I check the pages and see if everything is understandable. Can you follow the story without balloons? If you can, it’s okay. Obviously, the words have a lot of information, very important information, but it has to be complementary in some way, I think.

How long does it take you to draw an issue?

It depends. Mostly a month and a half for both pencils and inks. It’s exhausting. The ideal would be to have a couple months or even more. That would be perfect. [Laughs] I lose a lot of time sketching and thinking about the issue, about how to tell the story visually. I like to have the plot and to see the issue as a whole. If you’re going to use a grid, then use it through the whole issue and see it in a specific way. For example, in Issue #3, for the car chase scenes, after thinking a lot and doing tons of sketches, I thought of the idea of the grid with little inserts for the arrows and little details that could make the narrative flow. You need to sketch everything before you start doing one page. Again, you need to use the comic structure to tell things, to find a visual way to tell the story. When doing Issue #8 and 9, I was sketching both issues at the same time. Even before I started drawing #8, I finished sketching issue nine because they were related.

Do you and Matt have a plan for how long you’ll be staying on “Hawkeye?”

We have thoughts for more issues. Right now, Annie Wu is going to be drawing alternate issues. I’m not going to spoil anything — let’s just say she’s going to draw Kate and I’m going to draw Clint. We have ideas for what’s happening more or less until Issue #20, and then we will see. We’re having fun.

You mentioned illustrating the car chase as being an involved process. In general, how much research do you do?

A lot. I’m psycho. I have to know how every car works, how the streets are, how archery is done, the gun, architecture. I did a lot of research on archery. I’ve lost a lot of time doing that. I need to do that. I think every little detail is important because it will give you a sense of credibility. We’re in a fantasy world, but you have to make the reader believe. He’s going to accept that a man can fly, but he’s not going to accept that a gun doesn’t have to be reloaded. I think those little details are very important — at least for me. Maybe you fail, but at least you tried. This issue, the famous dog issue, the entire team has been doing great things. For example, Matt Hollingsworth has colored the whole issue in the dog spectrum, in blues and yellows. It’s amazing. The dog issue. When we started, Matt and I wanted to do something like Steranko’s “Red Tide,” a book with a couple of illustrations and a lot of text. Our first idea was to do something like that. I think when he wrote the plot, we thought it was going to be something like that with just a couple of illustrations. The idea was to give me a little more room for hitting deadlines. It was going to look great and we loved that idea and everything was fantastic, but then I started sketching it. Suddenly, I started going what if –? I managed to explain everything with pictograms, everything the dog was smelling or hearing. It’s a difficult comic, I think. There are lots of little details. It’s the first time I have done lettering myself. I love Chris Eliopoulos, but in this issue, I put all the text in the balloons first and then erased all the words a dog would not understand. You’ll see. It’s something crazy. I can’t believe they’ve let us do this stuff. [Laughs] I decided it was going to be harder to explain to Chris what I wanted than to just do it myself. I have to thank Chris because he let me do the lettering here.

So the issue was envisioned to make it easier for you, but you transformed it into something harder and more involved?

Yes, I think it’s been the hardest comic I’ve ever done. [Laughs] But that’s me. That’s the story of my life. I complicate everything.

What are you working on today?

The issue #16 cover. Issue #15 gets solicited one of these days. Right now, I’m waiting for a script, so meanwhile, I’m doing covers.

What made you want to work in comics? W

here do I start? It’s complicated. I’ve read comics my whole life, I think. Even before knowing to read, there were comics at home, so I started reading comics before knowing to read. I loved comics. I think my whole life is somehow related to comic books. [Laughs] When I was a kid, I read a lot of superhero stuff, both Marvel and DC, some Spanish stuff as well. In the beginning of the nineties, I stopped reading superheroes, I don’t know why. I was thirteen or fourteen. I still read superheroes sometimes, maybe once or twice a year, but not as a collector. I started discovering new stuff. More independent stuff, small press, some Vertigo stuff, more adult work. I started discovering classic stuff like “The Spirit” or “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” When I started working with Marvel, I started reading some more mainstream stuff. I remember a friend telling me about “Sleeper” by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and I read “Scene of the Crime.” Other stuff like “Planetary” and “The Ultimates.” There are tons of stuff from the nineties where I have no idea what happened. [Laughs] I hate to say it, but it’s true. I haven’t read it, because I don’t have the time. Sometimes, if you have not read a whole decade of superheroes, you don’t always miss anything. [Laughs] Obviously, when I started working with Marvel, I read more stuff.

Before you started in comics, you were working as an illustrator, is that right?

I was working as an illustrator. I loved comics, and some of my illustrations had balloons or panels, but I was an illustrator. I’m a Spaniard, and when I started there was not a big comics industry [here]. More than anything, I had to pay rent. [Laughs] I found more jobs and better paying jobs in illustration. I did a lot of things. Book covers, magazines, newspapers — everything. I had different styles. I’m also a designer. When I did a CD cover, I always asked to do the design, the typography, all that stuff.

You mentioned earlier that you do all your artwork on the computer. When did you stop working on paper?

With “Hawkeye,” in fact. I have been sketching on the computer for a while. I found it easier, but I always did the pencils and inks on paper. Lately, I had some covers done on the Wacom [tablet] and I realized that I had some work done on the Wacom and some on paper — and I myself could not recognize [which was which]. So I said, let’s try to do it on the Wacom, and I realized I saved a lot of time. Now that I’ve done the “Hakweye” series on the Wacom, I think it would be hard to go back to the table with the ink. I think I would lose too much time. When I worked with ink, I was more slow because I was afraid of being wrong. With the Wacom, if you do something wrong, it’s OK.

Despite preferring to handle everything yourself in your illustration career, in comics, you and colorist Matt Hollingsworth have worked together quite a bit. What are your conversations like?

We talk a lot. I talk a lot with everybody. More or less what we have been doing is, I start sending him final pages and maybe some notes or color sketches if I had an idea, but not all the time. For example, if I have some reference, I send it to him. I trust him a lot. We have been working a long time together, and I think he’s the best and I trust him. As you know, we are doing just flat colors and we tried this once before. I did a Daredevil story with Ann Nocenti for issue #500. We tried the flat colors, and I thought it worked great. We wanted to repeat it. Matt loves it because it’s a way he can work more on the design and more on the concept and the narrative instead of doing just rendering. He spends more time thinking and doing design work. As soon as he does the pages, he sends them to me and I check them, just in case. Sometimes there’s a finger that’s painted the same way as a shirt or little details like that. He wants me to check them, and I’m okay with that — we check them together, and then he sends them to the whole team.

You do a lot of cover and design work on books where you aren’t illustrating the interiors. You redesigned some characters for Valiant, and you’ve done some great work on Marvel miniseries covers, like “5 Ronin” and “Red Skull.”

I think one of my first gigs at Marvel was a cover for “Marvel Knights” #4, and when I started doing comics, I used to do my own covers. I started working with Warren Simons, the editor who’s now at Valiant, and he gave me a lot of covers to do because he liked what I did. I love doing covers and I love design. On “Hawkeye” and “Iron Fist” and “5 Ronin” and “Red Skull,” I also designed the logos. I like it. And I’m paid for it, of course. [Laughs] It’s my job and I have two kids. That’s important. It’s very different. It’s another concept to do a cover as opposed to interiors. They’re two completely different things. When you’re doing an interior, you’re trying to tell a story in a visual way. A cover is something completely different. It has to be striking. It has to call people to buy the book yelling, hey, I’m here, buy me! You have to look for more of an impact, something striking. On “Iron Fist,” I was using a lot of white because I remember when I was going to start “Iron Fist,” I was looking at other series and everything was dark or full of colors. I said, if we put something white there, it’s going to call attention [to the comic]. The reader might look and say, it’s crap — I don’t want to buy it, but at least he would see it. That’s what I thought.

Having worked so closely with Matt and Matt and Chris, do you think you could ever work on a comic without that level of collaboration? On a comic where you were just handed a full script?

No. But I have never been able to work that way. Since the very beginning — my first comic was with David Lapham. I have done a couple issues with him, and it’s exactly the same way. Same with Ed Brubaker on “Daredevil.” Most of the writers I have worked with have been very, very open. They always wanted to talk, to know my thoughts, and that’s great. With Brubaker, the one issue we did in “Daredevil,” I remember we talked the whole time he was writing this issue. With Ann Nocenti it was Marvel style, too. That’s more or less the way I like to work. It’s very important to be comfortable and have good collaboration because it’s very hard work. It’s not well paid. You put too many hours on it, too much thought, so if you’re in good company and have fun doing it, that’s really, really important. I think that pops up in the comic. If the comic is done with love, it’s going to be a good comic, or have something special. Or if you’re like a machine, it’s going to look like something done by a machine.

“Hawkeye” #11, by Matt Fraction, David Aja and Matt Hollingsworth, arrives in stores June 26.