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Talking in Flaming Tongues

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Clayton Crain brings Ghost Rider to screaming life.  His beautifully rendered digital art has set a new standard for depicting the character that most artists can only dream about taking on.  Think about it, flaming skull for a head, motorcycle spit up from the depths of hell, and a swagger to rival the baddest mo-fos on this limbo that we call Earth.  So how did this man of few words land the gig, and how does he make the magic happen, and why can he draw flaming skulls that threaten to actually burn our hands?  Broken Frontier asked him all those and more.

BROKEN FRONTIER: How did you get into comics originally?

CLAYTON CRAIN: I met the editor for Acclaim Comics in 1997 at a convention. Shadowman was my first professional project.

BF: Did you start in traditional media and move to digital art?  If so, what prompted the switch? 

CC: I began as a penciller, working on 50 or so comics.  But I got tired of not getting the results from my penciling that I felt capable of producing.  I began working on a self-designed project taking 3 months to finish 22 pages or pencils, inks, and colors.  As I worked on that project, I found that I liked the colors alone.  It took some time to break the bindings of my love for traditionally penciled/inked comics though.  It was March 3, 2003 when I knew digital art was my future.

BF: Why such a specific date? 

CC: It was the day I began sketching straight up in the computer, never to look back again.

BF: What do you get from the digital process that you don’t get from traditional means (besides the 3D aspect)? 

CC: A clean work area (no more eraser debris!), speed, flexibility, and overall satisfaction with my work.

BF: Are computer generated images going to take over mainstream comics the way computer generated images have taken over animated films and TV shows? 

CC: I think it will streamline the process if nothing else.  In 2002 I would scan my pages and email them to Jonathan [Glapion, who Crain worked with at Top Cow] to ink.  He would print them in blue line, ink them, scan them, and email them to the colorist.  It was very cool at the time.  A process that would take one to two weeks happened in less than 24 hours.

BF: How long do you spend working on a page? 

CC: 3 to 12 hours per page.  Covers usually take longer.

BF: Can you take us through how the magic is done more or less? 

CC: Simple, I start in Photoshop and end in Photoshop.  I create a sketch layer, breaking down the page.  I make a folder/group for all my layers in the layer pallet, use the Rectangular Marquee to select where I want my panels, turning that selection into a layer mask over the folder/group.  This allows me to draw as I wish amongst multiple layers in my layers/group and never go beyond my panels. 

The artwork usually consists of two layers: background and main object.  I make a selection of my main object(s) then colour fill; I work on the background, start with a big brush or gradient and work my way through the image using smaller and smaller brushes as I get closer to the finish.  I move on to the main object beginning with a dark silhouette pulling out the shape, then working big and adding smaller details last.  Maybe it’s not so simple!

BF: How did you land the gig on Ghost Rider: Road to Damnation ? 

CC: Must have been in the right place at the right time.  Oh, and I survived the gauntlet that Marvel had me run through.  It still gives me nightmares.

BF: The ‘gauntlet’ Marvel ran you through? 

CC: Fire sticks, blades, old ladies, and a hundred pound sledgehammer.  The usual.

BF: Do you enjoy the darker content that working on Ghost Rider (especially with a writer like Garth Ennis) presents or do you prefer lighter fare? 

CC: I like both, contrast is always preferred, though I lean a bit towards the dark side.

BF: Some of your covers on Road to Damnation are just epic.  Where did you go for inspiration? 

CC: I do tribute the design of the cover to issue #6 to Frank Frazetta.

BF: Why are you so damn good at drawing skulls on fire? 

CC: I have no clue.

BF: Alright, let me rephrase that.  You’re damn good at drawing skulls on fire.  Did you have to do anything in particular to be able to create such realistic flaming skulls? 

CC: When I knew I had the project I bought an anatomically correct skull and as for the fire, I read up on it, googled, referenced movies in slow motion, and stared at a candle for some time.

BF: You and Garth Ennis obviously worked well together to be doing another book.  Do you guys have a system for working together?  A way you guys visualize or plot out the pages? 

CC: Yeah, he writes it, I draw it.  It’s pretty much a straight line of production.

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BF: Are your page layouts exactly how he scripts them or do you have a modicum of creative flexibility when interpreting his writing? 

CC: Before I began working for Marvel, I would do as I pleased, taking liberties habitually.  When I worked for McFarlane the scripts were a page and a half long, sometimes no more than two paragraphs.  That was freedom.  Before I began working with Marvel I decided to try being professional.  So I don’t deviate from the writer’s script.  I do find it’s expected, to a point, to go a little further.  As long as the writer gets what he needs.

BF: Any style changes between Road to Damnation and Trail of Tears

CC: There are no 3D objects, and my style changes from page to page.  I avoid looking back too often.

BF: How’d you enjoy working on a period piece (the Civil War era) on Trail of Tears? 

CC: I tried my best to prepare for this, but it will be inevitable that I’ll draw the buttons on the wrong side of a Confederate coat or draw a pistol made in the 1870’s.

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BF: Of the characters you’ve illustrated, who’s been your favorite to work on? 

CC: Spider-Man.  He has such a range of comic relief and brooding that makes him so interesting.

BF: What sort of music do you listen to while you’re illustrating?  Does it change depending on the material? 

CC: I listen to CCR, Elvis, Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, White Stripes, Muse, The Toadies, Travis, Pete Yorn, Tom Waits, Marilyn Manson, Rage Against the Machine, The Sword, Electric Wizard…it’s a real mess.

The second issue of Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears hits stores on March 3.

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