Superstar Machine, pt. 2 | Derec Donovan

badrock-header.jpgIn the second part of our two-part look at the hotly anticpated relaunch of Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood, artist Derec Donovan reveals how he landed the gig, the challenges of drawing a team book, and his chemistry with writer Joe Casey.



When it was first announced last summer, the return of the celebrity superhero team Youngblood in a monthly title was packed with the kind of names that get fans drooling. Not only are Youngblood and their creator Rob Liefeld household names, but new series writer Joe Casey is no slouch either, with runs on Cable, Incredible Hulk, Uncanny X-Men, and his recent creator-owned series Gødland under his belt. The announcement that the team would be returning to Image Comics, where they were originally published 15 years ago before Liefeld’s infamously acrimonious split from the company he helped found, was just icing on the cake.


Badrock leaps into action, as drawn by Derec Donovan. Click thumbnail for a larger image.But amid the big names and surprising publishing home, the artistic reins for the new ongoing Youngblood series (kicking off this January) landed in the hands of relative unknown Derec Donovan. Fans had little cause to worry: Donovan’s work on the recent Green Arrow spin-off miniseries Connor Hawke: Dragon’s Blood with writer Chuck Dixon proved he’d have no problem handling Shaft, Youngblood’s resident archer, while his year-long stint with writer Joe Casey on Adventures of Superman showed the duo’s working chemistry. While Donovan’s art bears little resemblance to Liefeld’s dynamic, muscle-bound characters, the few preview pages that have slipped show his clean, uncluttered style will hold plenty of appeal to fans of artist Steve Skroce’s brief but well-received run on the title.


We caught up with Derec Donovan at his studio in Tampa, where he chatted with us about how he landed the Youngblood gig, the challenges of drawing a team book, and the chemistry of working with Casey and colorist Bill Crabtree. "It’s like a three-man band," says the artist. "It’s a light set-up, but it works great."


This is the second of a two-part look at Youngblood. Be sure to check out the related links below to read part one, featuring our interview with Youngblood writer Joe Casey.




How did you get involved with the Youngblood relaunch?


Well, I’d worked with Joe in the past so we knew each other, and I talk to him—not all the time, but every once in a blue moon. He called after I was finished with Connor Hawke, the book I did for DC previously, to congratulate me on doing a good job and whatever, and he said "Hey, and by the way, would you be interested in doing Youngblood? I thought of you…" and just threw it out there.


At first, I [thought] "Is he joking with me?" because I know the guy well enough for him to prank on me a little, and because [Youngblood]’s a big deal. So I thought about it for a little bit and came back and said, "Yeah, I’m interested." Even then, it didn’t seem real until I went to San Diego to do [Comic Con International] and actually sat down with Rob and talked to him. I was like, "Holy crap, this is really happening."


Had Rob Liefeld already signed off on the idea of doing a Youngblood relaunch when Joe approached you, or was he pulling you in before he approached Rob about it?


I think what happened, from what Joe told me—I don’t know if he told you, so hopefully our stories sync up here—actually Robert Kirkman had more to do with it than any of us because he’s such a phenomenal Liefeld fan that I guess he was behind Liefeld saying "You’ve got to do this, the time is now! Everybody wants this!" He was just pumping Rob left and right. [Liefeld] pulled Joe into it, I guess, because Kirkman said "I want to see this from the fan point of view, not from the job point of view. Joe’s my guy, I think he should write it." Then Joe pulled me onboard…I think by the time I came onboard, everybody was just looking at me, going, "Ok, we’re doing this. Start drawing."


How collaborative is the work between you and Joe? Did you take part in any of the story, or in selecting team members?


No, I leave the script stuff to Joe. He pretty much dictates where the story goes, but I’ll accent and pepper it wherever I think it could use a little touch-up. Joe’s pretty much there with what he wants.


Shaft is a bad mother (shut yo' mouth!) as drawn by Derec Donovan. Click for a larger image.I tried to leave the characters the same, but at the same time there was a decree to "Go ahead, move it around a little bit if you want." But certain characters are not to be messed with, like Shaft…Shaft is Shaft, so he better look like Shaft. But Shaft’s a cool design, you know? I’m basically taking a lot of the Steve Skroce stuff and sticking to that or adapting it to the way I draw. Diehard and Cougar might be two of the more radical—radical being a loose word—design changes.


How much is Rob Liefeld involved in the day-to-day making of the book? For example, did he have to sign off on your design changes?


I’m pretty sure he did. I wasn’t involved in the process, I just drew stuff and then they made sure he was in on everything. Every e-mail I send out, every design, is sent to four people: Eric Stephenson at Image, Joe Casey, the colorist, and Rob. He sees everything, but I don’t know how many people are looking at him and going, "Is this ok? Is this ok? Is this ok?" I think it’s pretty much if Rob sees something he doesn’t like, he’ll let me know or them know.


It’s running…it’s a machine with few moving parts, but I think that is what it needs.


Team books are notoriously hard to draw. Are there any particular characters you find especially difficult to draw, or that you especially enjoy drawing?


Well, team books are a pain in the butt, for sure. You know, I will say this: Steve Skroce left me [with a template], with the few designs that are carryovers like Shaft and Johnny Panic. They’re complicated costumes—they’ve got a lot of buckles and snaps and doodads and whatnot—[so I’m] just trying to learn the shorthand. Because that’s the one thing that anybody who has been doing a book with characters for a long time, or characters they know very well, [will do]: they learn a shorthand and really get into the groove of doing the book.


Starting from the word go, from page 1, it takes a little time to build up that steam, that shorthand, but once you get it cooking, you’re just banging. With team books, it’s just a matter of squeezing everybody in the panels and leaving the balloon space right, that’s the main thing.


Now I’m not super familiar with your previous work, have you ever done a team book before Youngblood?


I’ve done a couple, yeah. I’ve generally tried to avoid them unless they’re situations like this, where you’re like "This is going to be a team book that people are interested in." I’ve done a couple team books, or just books with so many people in it that it seems like a team book. You get enough people in a room crowded together talking, it’s the same thing.


As a fan, were you a comics reader during the first big Image launch happened, and were you a fan of Youngblood back then?


Interior art from Youngblood #1 by Derec Donovan. Click for a larger image.Actually, yeah, I remember the book when it came out. I was working at a comics shop when I was 14, bagging and boarding and all that stuff. When Image came out, I had already been working in the comics shop, knew I wanted to do comics—by then, I was in love enough that I was doing samples.  I remember the Image launch and I remember stocking the shelves with Youngblood #1 and all the other books that came after it. So yeah, I definitely remember the [first] wave of things.


I’ve been familiar with the book throughout the years, but I never followed it super close. I’ve been in studios with people who worked on Youngblood stuff so I’m familiar with the characters, or at least some of them—there’s so many of them. I followed it here and there, followed the Moore and Skroce stuff for the issues that it existed, liked it, and picked it up whenever I’d see it.


There are a lot of people who are diehard fans of that Alan Moore/Steve Skroce run. Did you find it intimidating to follow that, or did the fact that it was so short relieve some of that?

That helps. That helps a lot. I think that’s the only way for me—I’m curious what Joe would say to that one, because I think Steve Skroce is a heck of an artist, but Alan Moore is Alan Moore, you know? But I think, for sure, the fact that there’s only what, two, three issues total? That definitely makes the load a little bit easier.


But still, at the same time there are [big] names on this list, for sure. Liefeld’s name is staggering unto itself, because he’s Rob, you know? Then you start throwing in these other guys, and you go "Wow…don’t screw up in front of everybody."


This is a question I asked Joe, and I’m curious what your response is to it. Youngblood and Rob Liefeld are both names that carry a lot of baggage, and yet when this new series was launched, the reaction on the internet was overall quite positive. I was curious what you expected the reaction to be, and if it surprised you, once the news was announced, what people’s reactions actually were.


Interior art from Youngblood #1 by Derec Donovan. Click for a larger image.I’ll be honest, I had no clue what to expect. When I first got the phone call from Joe, there was a part of me—a larger part of me—that was going, "I’m being pranked on!" I know a lot of pranksters in the comics industry—Dave Johnson has pulled some famous pranks on people—so I was always kind of saying, "Alright, this is a really cool idea, this could be big." It took a while for that to sink in.


I was overwhelmed by the amount of [Liefeld’s] fans. I was contacted by a few people on DeviantArt or on MySpace, people who were huge fans of the book that found me, and I was definitely taken aback. I’ve worked on books that had fans, but this seems like the first time a book got handed over to me with this built-in audience like I had never seen. And they love the book, they love Rob, and Rob, God bless him, I don’t know how he [handles it]….he is just this human lightning rod. I met him at San Diego, and I was like, "He’s a guy, y’know? He’s a person." But you can’t say his name anywhere on the internet without posts ten pages deep from people crying one way or the other.


So yeah…[the reaction] is overwhelming, but it’s cool.


Youngblood has had a lot of stops and starts. With this new relaunch, how far in advance do you have it planned and how deep into it are you working right not as we’re talking?


I’m not telling you how late I am! [laughs]


[laughs] You don’t have to if you don’t want to!


I can give you script up to #2, page… [both laugh] Nah, they have a pretty good idea what they want to do, and a pretty clear cut plan.


Joe’s far enough ahead of me because he got a huge leap as far as the script goes, because I had to finish up the Robin annual before I did this. That was my one obstacle; I told them "I’m all about doing this, but I made a commitment and I have to [fulfill it] before I can even start." He got ahead of me, and now I’m just playing catch-up on Joe.


The train’s moving, that’s for damn sure. I’m aware of the whole history of the book, having the stop-start problem. Joe and I had a conversation about this early on, and we just said being that that is the way this book has been, this very stop-start thing, our biggest asset in the world is to bang out 4 or 5 issues in a row without a stop, and whenever we have our stops, announce it, or put out a trade, or put something else in its place.


We’re moving. And because we did our time on Superman together for over a year, Joe and I work great together. He sends scripts, I draw pages. I don’t think we’ve ever had an argument. It’s great. | Jason Green

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