n the first part of this interview series, I talked to R.A. (Bob) and Geno Salvatore about their role in creating the story for the comic series, Cutter. Now, let's talk with John Barber.
John Barber, Senior Editor at IDW, works to bring everything together on the comic page. He has a lot of juggling to do—story, art, me. I don't envy him his position. John and I had a lot of interaction on this comic. We wanted to try some new stuff out, from a process and development standpoint. So there were a lot of experiments with how we've normally done business together. I think the comic attests to how well the experiments turned out, but let's bring John into the mix and get behind the scenes with him.
John, you are quite familiar with the comic world, and you have had your hands in quite a number of comic series. How was it taking on a new Dungeons & Dragons comic series? Did it afford you a chance to do something new and innovative, or present new challenges?
John: Every new comic presents its own challenges and opportunities. I've been editing comics for a while now, but I hadn't really done anything in a fantasy setting—I think the closest I'd come was the Dark Tower comics, and that's pretty far off from where Dungeons & Dragons is, at least in literal terms. I'd been a D&D player (and fiction reader), but that was a while back. So I was excited to get to live in that world again, and to contribute in some way to something that had an impact on me growing up.
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The difficult part is that the D&D world is very complex and has a steep learning curve—in terms of grasping the specifics, I mean. So, while in broad strokes I understand the world, in the specifics . . . well, it's a steep learning curve understanding all the nuances of different classes and regions and worlds. Every ear, every eye, every piece of armor. All that stuff has to be right, and that's hard when you're managing several different comic-book-universes. I mean, if all I edited was D&D I could probably keep better track, but I also work on G.I. Joe and Transformers and other comics—which all have similar curves to them.
Bob and Geno really seemed to capture the essence of writing for a comic. They seemed to make the transition effortlessly . . . at least from the outside. How was it working with such esteemed novelists as Bob and Geno?
John: It's been great. I've had the chance to work with a number of people who've come in from different mediums—some really, really great, and some who needed some coaching. There tend to be certain pitfalls that creators fall into, depending on what media they're used to—even if they're great storytellers. But Bob and Geno—not only are they obviously great storytellers, but they have really not fallen into the normal traps that novelists might fall into of overwriting or thinking in terms that don't translate to visuals.
I came in right at the end of the Legend of Drizzt: Neverwinter Tales series they wrote and IDW published, so they already had a lot of scripts under their belt, so I have no idea what their learning curve on comics was like. But they think so, so visually, and really give the artist—the fantastic David Baldeon—room to shine. It's an amazing collaboration between those three (and David Garcia Cruz on colors, I should add!). It's like they've been working together for years and know each other inside and out.
But Bob and Geno are totally committed to the comics, take it seriously, and clearly did their homework on the mechanics of the medium.
We tried a few new things on the comic, and I think we really got a great series in the end—the story and art are really syncing up.
Do you want to share anything about the process that might be of interest?
John: I wish I could take more credit than I can! You brought David in to do character designs on the Wizards of the Coast side, while I was trying to find some new candidates for the art. We all agreed we should make a strong stylistic break from any of the previous D&D series—no offense to any of the fantastic artists who've worked on the comics thus far—but we wanted this one to look different.
You suggested David for the art, and I called him up and he was pretty excited about the opportunity. He'd just come off of X-Men Legacy and was ready for a new challenge. And, good as he was there, he's light years better now. At least in my humble opinion.
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David suggested doing the art just in pencils—traditionally, comic book art was drawn in pencil, then finished in ink, then colored. As digital technology allowed for better reproduction, the ink line became a stylistic choice, rather than a necessity of the printing process comics used to use. But, still, sometimes un-inked pages can look a little unfinished to my eye—at least when the coloring doesn't match up right. You and I had actually discussed doing the art in this style, even prior to David bringing it up.
Anyway—then David suggested the other David—colorist David Garcia Cruz. And, honestly, I couldn't believe he wasn't drowning in work already when I saw his samples. As great as Baldeon's art is, the combination of the two Davids was amazing.
I mean, I know we're supposed to hype the comics up, so this will come across as insincere no matter what—but this creative team came together better than almost any team I've ever worked with. And I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the all-time-bests in comics.
Ha! I get that John. Folks around me are sick of listening to me gush about this comic. I've had lots of fun working on all of the comics, but this one is extra special to me too. It's been a while since I've gotten this excited about a project. Do you ever struggle with that as well?
John: Oh yeah. I mean, it's sort of funny . . . there's a lot that goes into creating a comic book. As much as I love comics, the day-to-day can sometimes wear on you. Every comic is its own beast, and some are more difficult to birth than others. And it's a periodical business, too—so when you get one done, you have four weeks to get the next. Multiply that by the number of series I work on . . . so yeah, I get jaded sometimes. Still, there are some projects that, even if they're hard, still bring a smile to my face as I read the proof one last time before I send it off to the printer. Unfortunately, there are other projects that despite everybody's best intentions and efforts, never coalesce right.
I probably shouldn't jinx anything by saying this, but so far Cutter has been not-that-difficult on the administrative side. I mean, Bob and Geno and the two Davids are knocking themselves out with their hard work, but there isn't any arguing or going back and changing tons of stuff, or a clash of different styles. It's all coalescing easily—everybody gets along great, everybody has the same vision for the comic. That's one of the most important things—that singularity of creative vision, that, when it happens, really makes a comic feel like it comes from one creative mind, not an assembly line. I mean, there are great comics that came from strife—just like arguing bands can still produce great albums—but usually if the creative minds aren't on the same path, the result is both difficult and terrible.
But, that has absolutely NOT been the case here. Like I said, it's like these guys are finishing each other's sentences, and everybody is really excited about what everybody else is bringing to the table. And yeah, the result is pretty spectacular.
This is such a gorgeous comic—I mean, you know the Salvatore name is synonymous with good stories, but Baldeon and Cruz are doing such an amazing job, I just want to stop and stare at every panel all day. I literally called people over to my desk when the first pages came in.
What is your favorite aspect of the comic? Are there any characters or scenes that have really grabbed you?
John: Well, I hate to pick one, but the opening sword fight in issue 1 is where I knew we had something great in our hands. Bob and Geno wrote a really nice opening—there was a lot of space for the fight to breathe, but if you sit down and count out the number of events that occur on the first few pages . . . there's not much. It's all about the mood and the atmosphere, which is a tricky thing to pull off. It read well in the script, but we didn't know David was going to be drawing it yet, and that kind of storytelling is very reliant on the artist. I mean, it all is—but here the emotion and the scope was all about the visuals, not tons of dialog.
So when David sent in that first set of pages, I was floored. I mean, I knew he was a good artist, but this was a GREAT sequence. When you get to the page 2–3 spread, you can feel the orchestra rising. That whole scene, the way Doum'wielle's and Teirflin's personalities come through in the way they fight—and in their reaction at the end—and the way the art carries that conceptual weight . . . it's great and so rare to see things work out that well.
AND THEN when David Garcia Cruz did the colors, somehow he elevated the scene even further. Looking at the pencils, it worked so well I couldn't imagine color doing anything other than hurting it . . . but WOW was I wrong. Now I can't imagine what it would look like without the colors. . . .
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I mean, let me give you an example of the INSTANT synergy of the team here. Page 1 in the script is two panels: one of Teirflin, one of Doum'wielle. Then, pages 2–3 we get the establishment of the whole scene and their relative positions. I think that makes sense—it give you an intro for each character, gives the artist the chance to establish their look, and—if the artist is really good—give us a little of the personality, by the way they're posed. I mean—the script calls that out. Teirflin is standing menacingly—imposing. And Doum'wielle is meditative. This is some nice storytelling in the script, but it relies on an artist being able to pull it off. And having worked with hundreds of artists—there are a lot of artists who won't really get that emotion onto the page.
But David not only got the emotion through—he added two more panels, close on the eyes of Teirflin, to open the comic. We can see the anger and arrogance there. Then we pull back and not only get the rigid stance of Teirflin and the two swords he holds, but we also get Doum'wielle's back—we have them physically set in relation to each other, plus a hint at the differences in their postures. Not only is Doum'wielle sitting, but look how loosely she's holding her sword.
Panel 3 is the reverse. And we see Teirflin gripping his sword . . . nervously? Aggressively? It's not the loose calm grip of Doum'wielle. And there she is, legs crossed, serenely. Finally, panel 4, cut to the serenity of her face. It's a great sequence, but laid out on the page, the whole page coalesces into balanced, unified whole. That's not good storytelling—that is phenomenally great storytelling.
Anybody that's seen the comic itself, in color, let me blow your mind: the sun came in at the color stage. I mean, it's there in the script, but the penciled pages don't contain this—I know the two Davids talked this through, but that's the kind of trust you have to have to leap off without a net and go for it. Because that sun becomes a focal point of the whole scene—like the best visual devices, it has multiple functions and meanings. On a practical level, it anchors the action. We're in a wide field with (at least on page 1) no real other distinguishing physical elements to act as an anchor. And the anchor is important for the physical action of the sword fight. It gives the movement something to occur in relation to.
But there's a lot more going on. Behind Doum'wielle, the sun casts her in light and Teirflin in dark, which works thematically. But even as it creates a halo around her—it makes her cast a long shadow. It—I don't mean this as a pun—foreshadows what's going to happen with Teirflin. And also—it gives Doum'wielle an advantage in the fight, if Teirflin is advancing with the sun in his eyes. It implies that he's the more skilled swordfighter, AND it gives him another reason to be bitter when he loses.
All that's in page one, and all that is such a great, pure collaboration. THAT'S the thing that grabs me, and makes this comic really stand out for me.
We've talked to John about the process of the new R.A. and Geno Salvatore Cutter comic series coming together. Jon next talks to the artists, and that interview will be revealed in part 3 of this interview series.
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.