20 People to Watch - Mark Bagley: The Comic Book Illustrator

Acclaimed illustrator rescues comics from empty heroics

"Marvel Comics Wants You!" announced the Thing, a rock-covered, muscle-bound superhero, on the back of The Official Marvel Comics Try-Out Book in 1983. The venerable comic book publisher didn't know it, but it really did want Mark Bagley, then an aspiring Marietta-based illustrator in his mid-20s. Today, Bagley commands respect as one of the most acclaimed artists in comics, with credits including the best-selling Ultimate Spider-Man and 2012's Avengers Assemble, a title designed to ride the cape-tails of next summer's big Avengers movie starring Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and other Hollywood A-listers.

In the early 1980s, Bagley worked a day job illustrating technical manuals for Marietta's Lockheed Martin. "I'd take photographs of machine parts, trace them, and make them 'explode,' like when you get a diagram of a piece of furniture," says Bagley, a funny, feisty 54-year-old. He counts among his influences Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell, as well as superhero illustrators such as Gil Kane. "I was really good at it, but I couldn't be promoted because it was a union shop."

After almost a decade of drawing comics and submitting samples of his work, Bagley found himself losing hope that he'd ever land a comic book gig. "I told myself, when I turned 30, if I hadn't broken in, it would be time to let it go. I'd seen too many sad old guys carrying around portfolios," says Bagley.

In 1983, his friend Cliff Biggers, co-owner of Marietta's Dr. No's comic book store, urged him to take the challenge of the new Marvel Try-Out book. The volume features a deconstructed story of Spider-Man fighting Dr. Octopus, leaving strategic blanks for would-be artists to write dialogue, color and ink rough pencil sketches, and completely write and draw the final five pages.

The tryout book seemed like a more expensive version of those old matchbook ads — "Draw the turtle and go to art school!" — but Bagley finished the book and actually won a gig at Marvel. He started with low-profile work, like drawing trading cards, but earned stints with the company's flagship characters. In 2000, he initially resisted the assignment for Ultimate Spider-Man, which would become his best-known work.

You know how the new Marvel movies like Iron Man and Thor feature cameos from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D.? The Nick Fury character began as a white World War II veteran, but in 2001, Marvel launched the "Ultimates" line of rebooted, simplified versions of its most famous titles, and recast Fury as a bald Samuel L. Jackson look-alike.

Brian Michael Bendis, until then a writer of independent, noir-influenced crime comics, wanted to reintroduce the web-slinger as a high school student and make the title as accessible as possible. Bagley renders his long-limbed characters so dynamically they practically ripple off the page. But with Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis' penchant for long scenes and rich, witty dialogue expanded Bagley's emotional palette. "We really tried to go deep into the character aspect of it," says Bagley. "It wasn't a fistfight every issue. One entire issue was Peter Parker and Mary Jane sitting on a bed, talking. That was one of the most fun to draw."

These days Hollywood adapts graphic novels of all sorts, but tends to treat decades of superhero comic books as a kind of research and development department, cherry-picking scenes, characters, and story lines for the big screen. "Some movie scenes have been taken directly from our comics," Bagley points out. "I remember watching the first Spider-Man, and the scene when J. Jonah Jameson looks at Peter Parker's photos and says 'Crap ... Crap ...' was one of ours. I thought, 'Holy shit!'"

Bagley and Bendis hope to take advantage of the interest generated by the long-teased Avengers movie when it opens in May. "Brian's idea is to make Avengers Assemble accessible for someone who's never read the comics before, but has seen the movies," Bagley explains. He's relieved that he doesn't have to draw the characters to resemble their big-screen counterparts. "We've been specifically told not to do that. I can't do a likeness to save my life, so I won't be making Tony Stark look like Robert Downey Jr."

While spending part of 2012 on the periphery of a massive media event, Bagley will also be working on a new title called Brilliant outside the mainstream. Also written by Bendis, Brilliant concerns college students who dabble in super powers, only to explore more dire consequences than generally allowed in most commercial comics. Bendis and Bagley own Brilliant and its characters, which the artist finds liberating: "I'm able to take my own license with it. You don't have someone looking over your shoulder saying, 'You have to re-draw this guy.'"

Bagley appreciates the prospect of a big payday if Brilliant gets sold to the movies, but his favorite aspect is the book's relative realism. "It's set in the real world, so there's no costumes — I can draw real clothes and rooms. If I don't do them often, I have to learn to do them all over: 'How do these folds work again?'"

Bagley works from his deceptively quaint Marietta home, which features a huge front porch and plenty of rocking chairs. His studio within looks exactly like you'd hope for a comic book icon, with collected comic volumes lining bookshelves, superheroic decorations including a life-size Spider-Man and neon signs of the Batman and Superman logos, as well as a huge drafting table, on which lies a page from an upcoming issue of Brilliant.

Unlike many of his younger peers, Bagley resists doing his illustrations on the computer, even though digitization has enormously simplified the creation of comic books. "I'm computer phobic," he says. "I like using pencil and paper, and like having a hard copy when I'm finished. I never have that with a computer process." He's similarly reluctant to embrace the Kindle-style digital distribution of comics. "I like having the book. You own the thing, and not a digital copy of the thing. But it's coming. When comics are $2.99 or $4.99 apiece, that's not cheap. Anything to keep the business going."

I met Bagley before the holidays, which may have made him particularly jolly. When I mentioned that I, too, bought the Marvel Comics Try-Out Book back in 1983, he laughed, "I guess I kicked your ass!" Maybe he enjoys fight scenes more than he admits.

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