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Ruse Clues

An Interview with Penciller Butch Guice

In a career that has spanned over two decades, Jackson "Butch" Guice has lived the dream of many comic fans: pencilling (and sometimes inking) such illustrious superheroes as Superman, Batman, the Flash, Iron Man, and the X-Men. From drawing Micronauts for Marvel in 1980 to his more recent acclaimed work on Birds of Prey for DC, Butch's intensely detailed style has given superhero comics a realism and beauty that few other comic artists have achieved.

Spring 2001 introduced a new chapter in Butch's career. Leaving DC and its superhero fold behind, Butch moved his family to Tampa, Florida and began work for CrossGen Comics. As penciller for Ruse, a supernatural detective series set on a world that resembles Victorian England, Butch has shown that his artistic talent is not limited to renderings of the spandex set. I believe this is the best work of his career: the richness of detail, the humour and atmosphere evoked in the pages of Ruse are stunning. Though the series is less than a year old, Butch's work on Ruse has already generated ample award buzz and critical praise. All that, and he's still one of the nicest guys in comics.

A big thanks to Erik Burnham at Butch-o-Rama and Jennifer Ford at CanaryNoir for the background information for this interview. Now, without further ado...

Birds of Prey and Women of Comics

WoG: Which of your previously drawn female characters is your favorite?

A classic Guice cover to Birds of Prey #26 BG: Barbara Gordon, easily. When I started my tenure on BoP I expected it to be Black Canary. I'm a Black Canary fan way back from the old fishnet costume days; however, Barbara quickly won me over. She's far more challenging artistically, due to the restraints the chair places upon you using body language. But once I developed her little "head bob" and focused on more complex facial expressions, Barbara became my favorite female character to draw rather quickly.

WoG: Which one was the easiest for you to draw?

BG: Unfortunately, easiest for me often equates to least interesting... a cipher character I'm putting into the story because I don't have a proper "take" yet developed in regard to body language and facial statement. There are scores of 'em throughout my career, unfortunately, but if I had to pick one I'd say Jean Grey during my X-Factor tenure. I never drew a good Jean Grey the entire run.

WoG: What was the greatest challenge during your stint on Birds of Prey?

BG: Trying to live up to the high standards Chuck, Greg, and Drew established early on the book, while subtly changing the visual look to make the book my own artistically, instead of just "...that run of issues after Land and Geraci."

WoG: And what was the most enriching or enjoyable aspect of your BoP days?

BG: Working with Chuck Dixon! We've become great friends. He's still the best writing collaborator in terms of my own particular visual approach that I've had the honor to work with in twenty years of comics.

WoG: In your interview at CanaryNoir, you mentioned you were a big Strangers In Paradise fan. Any thoughts on how Terry Moore will handle Birds of Prey? Any advice you would give him?

BG: Have fun! Take the book and run as hard and as fast as you can with it. Too many comics today feel like they are being produced merely to tread the monthly waters. As great as Chuck's run on the book was, there are so many exciting directions and tales left to relate. Just go out there and charge ahead with everything you've got to give.

Ruse

WoG: How much influence do you have on the storylines of Ruse? Is this the same or different from the influence you've had on other books, like Birds of Prey?

BG: On Birds of Prey, Chuck was so far ahead on scripts I had very little input into the stories coming up. All my contributions were bits of business, body language, etc. On Ruse, coming in as the book was being developed, I had a much larger voice, both in actual story elements and characterization, in addition to the visual design of the book.

WoG: How much input did you have into the "original" conception of Ruse?

BG: When I arrived at CrossGen, the entire "concept" was pretty much summed up as "...a Victorian mystery book with a male lead and a female 'Doctor Watson' type of partner. Mark Waid and I hammered out some characterization, decided Emma would be the narrator of the tales, solved the mysteries yet unrevealved of how this all ties back into the CrossGen Universe, and took it from there. In doing so, Mark and I discovered not only do we work very well together, but our best ideas often come out in free-form, rapid-fire shorthand pitches (best done over lunches)! Other than I pencil and Mark scripts, it's very hard to say who had what idea anymore in the plotting stage. We just talk the tale until we're both happy with it.

WoG: When you're given the script for Ruse (or any other book), are you given specific instructions on how to draw a particular scene? For example, the living gargoyles in Ruse: whose idea was it to include those into this otherwise very conventional Victorian setting?

BG: In the case of the gargoyles, we were looking for an additional element to set the world of Arcadia apart from Victorian London on Earth. I suggested the gargoyles be alive instead of just building decorations. Just an off the cuff thing which we've developed an entire back story for now. In general, however, most writers give you a basic idea of the visual action and setting, leaving the artist with enormous freedom to extrapolate from. For example, Mark might write in the plot: Simon and Emma emerge from the residence at a run, charging after the departing carriage. Simon wheels round and sees a nearby passerby dismounting from his horse. "Distraction, Emma. Now!" he shouts. Emma throws her hand to her forehead and pretends to crumple into a faint mid-street. As the concerned passerby rushes to her aid, Simon grabs the reigns of the abandoned horse and gallops pell mell down the street in pursuit of the vanishing carriage.

Then I translate that direction into however many panels (or cuts) I feel are needed to adequately tell the sequence in its most interesting manner.

WoG: In a similar vein, who decided what Simon & co. look like? What considerations went into these decisions?

A beautiful Guice cover to Ruse #7 BG: The visual designs were left up to me. I recall it being suggested early on to make Simon dark haired and Emma a blonde, which fortunately was the look I was already working toward. The main consideration in design was to "capture" the personality of the character. Simon was all taciturn and book dust. Emma was sunshine and fresh air. She sparkles and he broods. That sort of thing.

WoG: In an interview published in Ruse #5, Mark Waid said that Simon Archard sees all of us as ants -- but Emma Bishop as a "slightly larger ant." What is your take on Simon's view of Emma? How would you describe the "balance of power" between them?

BG: I think Simon is/was quite unprepared to run up against someone like Emma, who not only seems rather unintimidated by his personality shell, but indeed, makes sustained deliberate attempts to force him to change rather than adjust her own personality traits. Simon is rude, arrogant, vain, and contemptuous... and yet Mark's incredible writing skills allow us to like the man despite all these faults. There for, we can understand why Emma likes him as well. Both Emma and Simon are marvelously written characters. Mark does an inspired job each and every issue.

WoG: How would you describe the relationship between Simon and Emma? What can we look forward to between them in future issues of Ruse? (All right, I know you can't divulge much... but can you drop some hints?)

BG: Emma has secrets. HUGE secrets. And she believes she has successfully kept them while working in close proximity with the world's greatest solver of secrets. Whether she's as successful as she believes she is and what impact those secrets hold are the major stories down the road. In addition, readers can expect even more bizarre additions to a cast of characters which is starting to brim with bizarre individuals. And then of course, there are the secrets Simon himself holds... secrets which until now, he's shared with no one. Secrets which will take our deductive pair around the globe in search of answers.

WoG: It is interesting that for this detective series, the conventional "plucky Girl Friday" actually has more page time and development, so far, than the supposed star detective. Was this Mark's and your intention right off the bat, or did it just "happen" as you developed the story?

BG: Early on, Mark, I believe, decided Emma was to be the narrator of the tales (much like Watson narrated Holmes' exploits). She is our doorway for the readers. Let's be frank. If Simon's thought processes are anything like his social skills, we wouldn't want to be privy to them. However, Emma as a "personality," the charm and wit which makes her Emma, are all due to Waid's wonderful scripting. I set the scenes up visually, but he delivers all the memorable banter and dialogue. Just wonderful stuff!

WoG: The settings and costumes in Ruse are incredibly detailed. How much historical reference research do you do per month? What sources do you use for your research?

BG: I have two bookshelves at CrossGen full of reference regarding Victorian buildings, costumes, and furniture. Most of the time, half of them are piled around the art table in disarray. There isn't a page of Ruse drawn in which something or the other wasn't at least initially referenced in regard to a lamp, or building, or shoes, or some odd whatnot. As far as hours, I couldn't even begin to guess. When the book shelves fail me, I turn to the Internet for help.

WoG: What are the greatest delights of pencilling Ruse? The toughest challenges?

BG: The greatest delight is working so closely with such incredibly talented coworkers. Mark, Mike, and Laura contribute so much effort and time into the book. We are a true "team." The biggest challenge is that despite 60+ hours a week by everyone involved, it still doesn't seem to be enough time to get everything in the book exactly as we would like it. We set incredibly high expectations for ourselves with each issue and then battle to get somewhere in the ballpark with the final result. If we could double the available hours each week we'd still probably be cursing the things we didn't get to accomplish due to deadline.

WoG: Have you read any Mary Russell stories? Do they have any influence on Ruse?

BG: I have not. I can't speak for other members of the team. Should I?

WoG: One poster at Words of Prey noticed that you did a stint on Doctor Strange. Are there any similarities between Simon Archard and the Master of Mystic Arts?

BG: None that I'm aware of currently.

WoG: Obviously, Sherlock Holmes is a major influence on Ruse. But what other comics/books/films/TV do you and Mark draw from?

Cover to the upcoming Ruse trade paperback BG: I like to think of Ruse as one part Sherlock Holmes, one part Steed and Emma Peel, a touch of the X-Files, all mixed with a large dose of '30s screwball comedies and classic action/adventure comic strips. Honestly, we just write and draw the book we ourselves would like to read. We have no large preconceived influence that I'm aware of besides the obvious comparison to Holmes (which Mark, by the way, has read all of possibly two Holmes tales in his entire life... so even there, I wouldn't say it was a huge influence).

WoG: What kind of readers do you think Ruse attracts?

BG: The spectrum is so broad it would be very hard to define. We have every thing from the traditional young male comic fan just getting into comics, to female business executives in their forties and fifties. We're all over the map with readership and I couldn't be happier!

CrossGen

WoG: What are the differences between working for CrossGen vs. DC? Advantages? Disadvantages?

BG: The biggest advantage, besides nice things which I appreciate more as I get older like health coverage and profit sharing, company equity, etc., is being within a few feet of everyone involved in the production of the book. If I have a particular effect in mind in regard to the inking or coloring, I can speak directly to the person handling that duty with the page in front of us. A specific example would be panel 1, page18 of Ruse #5. That shot required me to pencil it under Mark's direction within the plot, Mike to handle the inks of the elements in certain ways under my direction, including using a black prismacolor pencil for the farthest background elements instead of ink, and Laura to then color it with specific intent and direction of dawn breaking upon the foggy streets of Partington. You don't get that kind of collaboration at any other major publisher. We knew what we wanted and were able to work as a team until we had that particular panel looking exactly how we, the team, wanted it to look.

I enjoyed my decade at DC immensely, but I've been thoroughly spoiled by my short time at CrossGen.

WoG: In a previous interview, you lamented the lack of variety in comics and the overwhelming prevalence of the superhero genre. CrossGen is trying to break that mold, but there are those who are skeptical. What would you say to those who argue that CrossGen's comic books are merely superhero tales in different clothing? Are they really all that different from Superman or Wonder Woman?

BG: My argument is not so much against superheroes but rather instead, for far better tales told in a creative manner whatever the genre. Much of the current superhero market seems to stuck in a holding pattern telling stale rehashing of tales I read as a kid, afraid to betray their few good years of established continuity. So they reinvent themselves every so often with a relaunched first issue and the "creative" team then goes "forward "and retells the same old stories again with some slight twist. Or even worse, publishers trying to hide behind excessive shock value exploitiveness by claiming to be more "adult" in their approach than the other guy. Why does "adult" always have to equate raunchy sensationalism? And yet the executive mindset in a market clamoring for something to jump start the market is that there is no market for anything besides superheroes. If that's the case, how can a Bone, or Liberty Meadows, or a Strangers in Paradise find a readership (which they obviously have and do)? As an individual, I enjoy any number of genres in my reading and movie viewing. If all I had were superhero television shows or feature films to watch... or superhero novels to read, I'd probably give up on reading and viewing and look up some other form of entertainment.

This industry has a long history of genres besides the superhero tale. Unlike the rest of the world comic market, we abandoned those other genres chasing the almighty superhero "buck." Now we have a very very small market and a creative force which for the most part can't conceive of a comic tale (let alone, actually produce it) unless it includes someone with mutant powers pounding upon someone else with mutant powers. Why doesn't the rest of America care one wit about our form of escapist entertainment? Easy. We don't give them anything to care about.

Crossgen is about telling interesting tales in whatever genre. And we want to tell them to the world, not just the 300,000 superhero junkies this industry continues to mainline material for each year. I like being part of that. We may not have perfected our efforts as of yet, but at least we're out there making an effort.

WoG: CrossGen has been quite busy trying to attract a mainstream audience -- signing movie development deals, not to mention the Forge and Edge compendia. How important do you think these efforts are, and why? How successful do you think CrossGen will be in attracting non-comics readers to their books?

BG: I covered a lot of the importance in my response above. I think it is absolutely vital that if there is to be a comic market at all in the United States twenty years from now, we have to move beyond the superhero. We have to move beyond delivering our product to ever dwindling numbers of comic shops. We've got to reawaken mainstream America to the general fact we even still exist as an industry. New formats. New material. New efforts made to reach beyond listing in Diamond's ludicrous top 100 each month. Crossgen has only just begun to branch out and build this new approach. The problems won't be solved overnight, but I can at least feel good that I'm working for a company which is genuinely trying to not only survive in a dismal market, but actually attempting to revive an artform with serious efforts instead of glib press releases and destructive business practices. There are a lot more things coming up for CrossGen down the road. Much as the company's creative universe has many shared levels built into it, Crossgen's business plan has the same multi-tiered approach.

WoG: What do you think the "big two" could learn from CrossGen?

BG: Think beyond the dollar your trying to earn today.

"I can at least feel good that I'm working for a company which is genuinely trying to not only survive in a dismal market, but actually attempting to revive an artform with serious efforts instead of glib press releases and destructive business practices."
WoG: Of CrossGen's 11 main titles, four (Mystic, Sojourn, Meridian, Crux) star female leads; Ruse arguably stars a woman, and even The First, Scion and The Way of the Rat have very prominent female characters. Is this a conscious policy on CrossGen's part, and if so, what is its rationale?

BG: CrossGen realizes there are far more potential readers in the international mainstream market (both male and female) besides the traditional young male comic fan. I think our titles reflect that potential. We try very hard to craft stories which appeal across the spectrum of ages, nationalities, and gender.

WoG: What (else) is CrossGen doing to reach that lucrative but elusive female readership?

BG: The same thing we try to do every day...craft the best sequentially illustrated stories available. Pretty simple approach, really.

WoG: Are there any other CrossGen (or other) projects that you will be involved in, in the near future? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

BG: All my projects in the future are Crossgen related. I fully expect to retire from Crossgen (hopefully not before another twenty tears or so passes). I'm busy drawing Ruse. I'm one of the three assistant art directors at CrossGen under Bart Sears. I'm quite happy doing what I'm currently doing, surrounded by such creative fellow coworkers and quad mates.

WoG: And here's one you probably get asked a lot, but for the record: why did you decide to join CrossGen?

BG: Because I was finally given the opportunity to address my concerns about the industry and be somewhere I might possibly make a difference long term.

Reading Comics

WoG: Do you have favorite characters or types of storylines that draw you to read certain books?

BG: I enjoy what used to be described as action/adventure tales. Stories set in exotic places with costuming and pageantry. Where heroes knew they were the good guys and even the rogues were charming. I like tales where the characters can find themselves in the most laughable of situations and can chuckle at their misfortune. Give me Captain Blood, or Gunga Din, or Terry and the Pirates, or Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man) anyday, and I'll be perfectly content and happy.

WoG: What is your all-time favorite comic book?

BG: Extra, published by EC. How can you go wrong with Johnny Craig, John Severin, and Reed Crandall?

WoG: Are there any comics you're enjoying as a reader right now?

BG: My tastes tend to run more toward reprints of classic comic strips (Buzz Sawyer, the aforementioned Terry and The Pirates, Scorchy Smith, Prince Valiant, etc.), European and Asian comic material, and back issues of comics I enjoyed as a kid. About the only new material I faithfully read right now is Liberty Meadows by Frank Cho.

WoG: Any favorite comic series from the past?

BG: Daredevil, during Gene Colan's run...especially the Tom Palmer issues. I loved those as a kid. "The Panther's Rage" stories with Black Panther in the 70's. Tomb of Dracula. Werewolf by Night. Spiderman (of course, up through Romita, Kane, and Andru), anything drawn by Alex Toth!, Starlin's original run Captain Marvel tales during the 70's, and tons more I'm forgetting...

Drawing Comics

WoG:What artists have been a particular influence on your style? (One poster at Words of Prey says your style reminds them of George Perez.)

BG: Perez? I've never heard that one before! I don't know how much influence per se each had, but I can list the guys whose work I admired when I was reading comics as a kid...Gene Colan, Alex Toth, Dick Giordano, Ross Andru, John Romita Sr., Billy Graham, Frank Robbins, John Buscema...

WoG: How many hours per day do you spend at the drawing board? How much time does inking take, in relation to penciling?

BG: I currently spend from 7-7:30 in the morning until roughly 6-7:00 in the evening penciling Ruse with a lunch break midday. When I was inking my own pencils, I usually could ink two pages for every one penciled in the same amount of time.

WoG: How long does it take to pencil one issue of Ruse? Does it take less or more time than penciling one issue of Birds of Prey?

BG: My schedule on Ruse requires that I pencil one page a day in addition to my duties as an assistant art director. Since I was penciling for my own inks on BoP the penciling time was far quicker due to the layout nature of the work as opposed to the full pencils I now try and provide.

WoG: Do you miss doing your own inking on Ruse? Why was the decision made to have Michael Perkins ink Ruse instead?

BG: Due to the way Crossgen production is set up, with each team member producing one page a day, it is far more difficult to accommodate someone penciling and inking themselves, thus holding up the colorist, than it is elsewhere. This was all covered with me before joining CrossGen. Now I have Mike Perkins laboring over all that Victorian architectural whatnots, and couldn't be happier!

WoG: Do you feel you've reached your peak as an artist? What areas do you want to grow and improve in?

BG: Hopefully I've far from reached my peak as an artist! My desire is to try and grow as an illustrator everyday I'm able to work. I don't think I could get out of bed and produce anything if I thought I had reached some sort of built-in limit. And in answer to you second question... anatomy. You can never know too much about how to draw the human body properly.

WoG: What do you think are your strengths as an artist?

BG: I'm too stubborn to recognize the enormous number of shortcomings in my work, and there for continue to bounce out bed each morning convinced today is the day I'm going to start getting it "right"...

WoG: Are there any other mediums that you'd like to try your hand at? Children's book illustrating, fine art, or movie storyboarding, as examples?

BG: I paint in various media (oil, gauche, watercolor) when time permits...just personal stuff. Nothing for show anywhere.

WoG: What are your dream projects -- the comic book stories you'd sacrifice a limb to get the chance to draw?

BG: I'd like to either draw a series set in the 1930s, being a huge fan of the movies, radio shows, and comic strips of that era... or, do a teen mystery detective series involving characters between the ages of 10-14 year olds. Neither one would probably set the world on fire commercially, but would bring me great enjoyment personally in illustrating. That, or pirates...you can never draw too many pirates stories in your life!

Final Question

WoG: If you were given a hundred billion dollars and the mandate to "save" North American popular culture (including, but not limited to, comic books), what would you do?

BG: They would probably take money back after I pointed out how little of North American popular culture I truly deemed worth saving, being the old curmudgeon I've become. Old Radio shows, classic movies from the 30's and 40's, comic books (with a multitude of genres!... sorry, couldn't resist), and swing band music. Much of the rest, unfortunately, I'd be first in line on shovel duty to help bury.

WoG: Thanks so much, Butch!

BG: Laura...this was a blast!

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Ruse and related images are copyrights of CrossGen Comics, and are being used for non-commercial purposes. Ditto for Birds of Prey and DC Comics. This interview is copyrighted by Laura Hysert. Please do not reprint or republish anything off this site without my permission. Questions, comments, or such permission requests can be forwarded by e-mailing me.

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