After months of delay due to COVID-19, Marvel's epic summer event Empyre is finally coming to readers beginning July 15. Written by Al Ewing and Dan Slott, the Avengers and Fantastic Four-centric event brings together ancient enemies the Kree and Skrull as one massive intergalactic empire under the leadership of one-time Avenger Hulkling.
With so much on the line and so many characters, longtime Marvel artist Valerio Schiti has stepped up to the plate alongside colorist Marte Gracia to provide the intricate, widescreen art a series of Empyre's magnitude requires.
Newsarama caught up with Schiti just as he was completing work on Empyre's finale, digging into the daunting challenges of drawing a universe-wide event, and finding personal touches among a massive story.
Newsarama: Valerio, you've been drawing comics for Marvel for some time, but Empyre is different. What's going through your mind when you take on a Universe-wide story like this?
Valerio Schiti: I tried not to overthink what I was doing. Before I became a Marvel artist, I was a reader of course, a great Marvel fan, so I know how a reader thinks. I know the expectations, and I know what’s at stake.
I've read a lot of big events over the years, all drawn by great artists, my favorite artists actually. They did amazing pages, powerful images impressed in my memory that shaped me as a professional. As you can imagine, the pressure to measure up could become overwhelming, so I chose a different way: don’t think too much, just draw and have fun.
Nrama: Without being too spoiler-y, what's on your drawing board right now?
Schiti: Today is a very special day: believe it or not I just completed the last page of the sixth and last book of Empyre.
It's a splash page, which I hope fans will find very cool and powerful, a clear and brave statement about the future of the Marvel Universe.
I started working on this story in September 2019. At the time, I knew it would be a long run to the finish line, but Dan Slott and Al Ewing, the writers of this event, told me what our final goal was. So today, after 142 pages, I am very happy because we finally reached that point.
Nrama: Empyre centers on the Avengers and Fantastic Four going up against the Kree/Skrull alliance with even more players in the wings. What's different about drawing a book with this many characters?
Schiti: It was a huge change from Tony Stark: Iron Man, the book I was doing with Dan Slott. Even though there were a lot of supporting characters, there’s no comparison with what’s going on in Empyre!
In my case, the main challenges with handling a huge number of characters were the huge battle scenes and the characterization.
I tried to solve the first problem, the battles, mostly by studying the work of two master artists: Alan Davis and Bryan Hitch. Their work is iconic, and while I could never even try to do what they did, I thought it was important for me to understand how they think, how they guide the reader's eyes through a huge crowd of people fighting without confusion, using a layout as elegantly as possible.
The characterization was a little bit easier. When you work with Marvel, you usually work with characters with long histories, so their personalities and the stories that shaped them are pretty clear. This is very important for me because I always try to make the characters act like they are real people: each one is different, with a different life and a different attitude.
For instance, you'll see Tony Stark interacting with Reed Richards many times in this book. But even if they have a lot in common, I tried to give them very distinctive body language. This approach isn’t just something that I think is fun, it’s the working method of many of my favorite artists (Kevin Maguire, Stuart Immonen…) and I think it’s an added value for these books.
Nrama: Speaking of which, which member of the cast is your favorite to draw?
Schiti: There are at least two great characters that I loved so much, but I'm afraid that I can't reveal them yet because it would be a spoiler, sorry.
But choosing between the known heroes, I definitely love to draw the Thing. I already had the chance to draw Ben Grimm before, a few years ago on Guardians of the Galaxy with Brian Michael Bendis, and more recently on Marvel Two-In-One with Chip Zdarsky.
Each time, I really enjoyed showing the dualism of the character: the rock-solid body, which hides a sweet, kind soul inside. I think that when it comes to showing Ben Grimm's real spirit, it’s not about his pose or his body. It's about the look in his big blue eyes.
Nrama: Empyre delves deep into Marvel Comics lore. What aspects of that have been most exciting to connect with as you've been drawing this story?
I think that one of the things I loved the most was to add a new chapter to the Kree/Skrull saga. I've said this before, but the first Marvel book I read when I was a kid was the Italian edition of Fantastic Four Annual #18, the book that made me fall in love with Marvel characters. That was a key moment in the Kree/Skrull war, and a book deeply tied to Empyre (those who read Incoming! already know this). So you can imagine my surprise when I learned that I had to draw an event that directly follows that story. What happened was definitely pretty close to serendipity!
Nrama: You're working with Al Ewing and Dan Slott on Empyre. What's it like working with them? What's your favorite thing you've drawn for the series so far?
Schiti: I love Al and Dan's work, I enjoy their stories as a reader, and they're both easy writers to work with. They gave me a lot of freedom during these months. They were open to suggestions, and they trusted me a lot.
The thing I liked most was their support and the exchange of ideas when we were in the preliminary phase, when I was working on the character sheets for the event. I had to design uniforms, spaceships, locations, armors, new characters… It was clear that we were all very excited about this story, and they always shared their creative ideas with me to help me build the visuals of this new saga.
The editorial team was very helpful too. A story this big needs a lot of "brains," tons of references, perfect knowledge of continuity, and great coordination, so Empyre couldn’t have happened without the help of Tom Brevoort, Alanna Smith and Martin Biro.
There is a moment in Empyre that’s a huge turning point for some characters, and I think that was the page I loved drawing the most (actually the only one I didn't draw digitally). I can't say a lot since the book isn't out yet, but if you want, I can answer this question in a few weeks!
Nrama: What's been the biggest challenge of working on a story of this magnitude?
The main issue was the emotional challenge: to meet the expectations of the readers. It's a lot of pressure, but so far I've handled it by trying to be confident and not thinking too much about it. Now that the book is ready, and this is the hardest part, I can't go back and change things. I just have to wait and hope.
What gives me some relief is that I trusted my pages in the capable hands of the colorist Marte Gracia. He did a great job. He's well known for his powerful colors, but in Empyre, he's also shown a real talent for the "delicate" sequences when the story needed it. You will be amazed by his skill.
Nrama: Now that Empyre is finally coming out, what do you want readers to know about the story?
The story was announced long ago, so I had time to read a lot of comments, speculations, and early opinions about what this book will be.
Well, now I can say that everyone is wrong. Empyre is not anything you can expect!
Ok, there was this one guy on Facebook, like months ago, who posted a comment under an article about Empyre, and his guess was incredibly correct. No likes under his comment unfortunately, and no one took him seriously, but time will give him justice!