There is an old saying about getting to see the Wizard behind the curtain and for those that do, that often ruins the whole mystery about the actual Wizard of Oz. Well sometimes that is a bad thing and other times that can be a wonderfully enlightening experience. Such was the case when Panel Surfing got to go on an expedition to Marvel Entertainment’s new offices and sit down with Senior Art Director Jeff Suter. It was wonderfully enlightening…
Jason Versaggi: Okay, so basically, I want to find out exactly what an art director at Marvel does and what it is that you do in your day to day. How’d it differ from when John Romita [was director]?
Jazzy Johnny at work
Jeff Suter: Right. John was my boss at one point. Let me see. It has changed over the years. I got here in ’97 and the art directors in the productions of comics were, like you said, a guy like John Romita, Jr. who were overseeing a creative talent in the execution of the art, they’re overseeing how panels were set up. They didn’t really have their hands much on the marketing, the branding. When I came in, the art department – mainly the advertising department at the time had eight or nine art directors. They’re all designing things from ads, posters, branding, licensing, stuff that’s basically taking everything that we could get out of the [bullpen]. Basically cover art – taking cover art and then applying it across the board from toys to whatever.
Jason Versaggi: Chef Boyardee.
Authentic Italian Cuisine. Snikt.
Jeff Suter: Exactly. So it was kind of a pigeon hole to the art that was being created by the comics. Later on, what happened is we took a department of eight people and we brought it down to one. That was me. So I got to oversee. I kind of took over everything that all those people were doing and maybe using or executing things in different directions, or going their own way, or – and kind of with it being one person and unify it from the production of the catalogue previews, which is our monthly catalogue, which solicits our published product – comic books. Then to take that and then apply that to going more in the mainstream direction. We had Wizard Magazine that we would advertise in and we had ads in comic books, minimally advertising other comic books, but what we did, we expanded that. We said, “Whatever ads we don’t fill, we’re not just going to throw in editorial content; we’re going to tell the readers, ‘Hey, you read the X-Men? Look what’s going on in Cap.'” So with one person working on all those projects, what we did is we created a singular idea of the brand Marvel. It’s a very bad time, this company was in a bad shape, and again, I was kind of part of the cleanup crew, if you will. So the role of an art director changed over that time as a person who was just involved in the production of the comic books to someone who was involved in all aspects of the brand Marvel.
Jason Versaggi: And now with multimedia?
Jeff Suter: It’s a long answer, but there’s a lot involved. My department works on everything from ads, retail posters, convention, design and execution of the booth – all material that you find in these conventions, expansion into – working with licensees. It goes on, and on, and on. Now, online, [to new] comics. You can go on, and on, and on. This is like we took the brand and applied it to every facet that we could and still are. So the role changed with design and the brand being the bigger picture.
Jason Versaggi: I guess because – I mean as technology has changed, the need for more art has probably increased tenfold. In the 60s, what they’d do to promote, they would take the image of the comic books, slap it in the inside and say…
Jeff Suter: Yes, and every once in a while, Stan would yell, “Jack, I need a pinup.”
Jason Versaggi: This is how we’re advertising art now. You need artwork for everything. I mean it’s the…
Jeff Suter: Yes, but you had Jack Kirby sitting at the table and Stan would go, “Jack, I need four heads. We’re going to do pins of whoever [signed in],” but it was all right there under one roof and it’s – but we have gotten back to that having – getting artwork other than just covers and stuff like that. So that’s one stuff that we get to work on and we do have that done, and of course, we have generic artwork that we produce for licensees and what not, but we don’t really use that for the publishing end because we want to be very specific to the creative team and stuff like that, but it’s hard if a guy’s working on a 32-page book or a 22-page of content and say, “Hey, can you throw a teaser image together?”
The King in his kingdom
Jason Versaggi: Imagine.
Jeff Suter: You have to try to use that artwork in a lot of different ways, but it’s great with the internet. I mean you have an online teaser, then we make that into a house ad, and then we make it into a mini poster, and then it’s a banner at a convention, then it’s a T-shirt.
Jason Versaggi: It has a long shelf life and I imagine that…
Jeff Suter: As long as the creative team has a long shelf life.
Jason Versaggi: Yes, that’s where it starts; that’s why they get paid the big bucks, but I mean I guess fans don’t really realize that if I’m a fan of the book and I want that, I don’t [realize] just how much more – sometimes. I mean I guess they do today, but so much more is behind that where it’s pushing that out to other platforms.
Jeff Suter: Right. I mean now you have the – I don’t really – they couldn’t really do like the movies. They couldn’t really do them right until recently, until technology caught up to Stan Lee. I mean honestly, you couldn’t pull up a Fantastic 4 – anyway, you couldn’t even pull up a 1962 version of Fantastic 4 until the last fifteen, twenty years. You know what I’m saying? So at that point, it was already 30 years old. So yes, luckily, technology caught up with Stan and we have all these fantastic movies which help move books and – I guess you do have a certain built-in crowd. I mean I don’t think there’s a single person that wasn’t a fan of Iron Man that didn’t go see the movie. Why would they not? I mean especially – thank God it was fantastic. Thank God Marvel Studios are now – we have an active role in our motion pictures which gives us just that much more opportunity to reach out.
Jason Versaggi: I guess it doesn’t hurt that now – I mean I guess if you were going to make a Fantastic 4 movie 25 years ago, twenty years ago, you had to rely just on that. Now, you can make a movie like that and say, “I don’t have to make $200 million with the movie because I’ve got so many other avenues for this to be successful.”
Jeff Suter: You’re absolutely right, though, but also, that we can put these characters under one roof now, finally. The ball had to start rolling outside of that roof and that’s still going strong. I mean…
Jason Versaggi: Batman, Amazing Spiderman, X-Men First Class.
Jeff Suter: Wolverine, whatever. Even FF, I mean people would say that the FF movies were not successful; they were absolutely successful.
Jason Versaggi: I enjoyed it.
Jeff Suter: They were absolutely profitable, but however, when we’re talking about the characters that are under the Marvel Studios roof, you’re going to get that Avengers movie that everyone has been waiting for for 40 years. You’re going to get that now. You couldn’t really do that. You can’t have Sony and Fox over here and New Line. You know what I’m saying?
Jason Versaggi: Yes.
Jeff Suter: You got to spread out. So thankfully, that was part of the business plan. It was early on part of the business plan back in early 2000.
Jason Versaggi: Well, you could see the direction and you could see it all set up. I mean so far, it looks like it’s brilliant and hopefully it continues to be that way.
Jeff Suter: They’re comic books.
Jason Versaggi: Yes. They’re supposed to be fun.
Jeff Suter: You’re right. It’s fun Shakespeare.
Jason Versaggi: Absolutely. Well, the way Stan wrote it back then, people thought it probably was Shakespeare.
Now and forever, "The Man"
Jeff Suter: That’s what I’m saying.
Jason Versaggi: So with so much – back to technology. If so much is being done digitally today from the way books used to be produced, what does an artist today have to know about old school disciplines that are always going to be applicable?
Jeff Suter: That’s a good question and Joe Quesada is one of those traditional artists, pencil on paper on board, and is now – and I’m not saying exclusively, but for the most part, what Joe is still – when he’s able to do some art, he’s now doing on a wacom tab. So he’s penciling digitally, which essentially at that point, you don’t really need an inker. Now, you can go in and you can adjust the levels in Photoshop and now it doesn’t need to be inked. So it’s not on paper, there’s no pencil involved, and you don’t need an inker, and then it’s colored digitally. Richard Isanove, who does all of Joe’s stuff and it’s all amazing. I mean he’s a digital painter. With that said, it took many, many years for one technology to really build up to that point to where these are now. I don’t think anybody can say of digital painting that it’s not art, that it’s not a work of art. Okay, maybe you can’t pick it up and you can’t hold it, but it is fantastic and it’s really – honestly, you had to have a guy like Alex Ross who essentially is working with gouache on board and an airbrush to get what people call “hyper-realistic”. Well, now, you can see the texture in the metal on Iron Man.
"Jeff Suter report to Conference Room Iron Man for your Panel Surfing closeup."
Jason Versaggi: It looks like brush stroke. It doesn’t look like it’s…
Jeff Suter: No. Because it’s caught up. Once again, technology’s caught up with what’s going on and I mean it can only get better. See, I’m saying it’s caught up, but maybe ten years from now, we’re going to be like, “Oh, God.” “Read this article about Jeff Suter that”. You know what I’m saying? I come from old school design, meaning that I started out stripping film for my dad who was a pressman, and we had a little two-color printing press on our basement, and that’s where I started. I was sixteen years old, and I started stripping film and stuff like that. So I come from the old school print, ink on paper. I had this discussion today and now I’m working on a computer all day long, but it’s the same thing with these guys who – the pen and ink guys. There had to be a crossover. There will always be a place for a pencil on paper in my opinion.
Jason Versaggi: What we have to do is look at – one of my favorite artists today is Mitch Breitweiser and see how his pen and ink stuff looks and then see when it’s painted.
Jeff Suter: Yes. Mitch is a really good example of that, too, because he understands that and he embraces it.
Jason Versaggi: It really enhances his work.
Jeff Suter: Right. Skottie Young would say the same thing and again, these are guys that come from traditional ink, paint on board, and canvass, and stuff like that. I pretty much stand by that technology has caught up with the medium or the medium’s growth, technology, [either one or two].
Jason Versaggi: Does this mean that the inkers are going to become extinct? The old school?
Jeff Suter: Well, I’m not saying extinct, but ever literally since day one, this is what it came down to – that the first time that a book was not inked. Now, I’m not counting painted stuff that got scanned in and you go right to press. I’m talking about scanned pencils right to a colorist. That process occurred for one reason and one reason only – the penciler got his work in late, and this had to go on press on time, and we had to skip a step. It was experimental, it was the first time, and I’m not saying the first time worked as well as it should have or looked as good as it should have, but it was like, “Whoa, it’s different.” It looks different. It wasn’t traditional hard lines on everything; it’s softer, it looks stylistic; it looked like we meant it. I want to say [with me]; I’m not saying it was even this company. I’m saying as a collective, it happened out of necessity. So was that the start of a particular media going away? Maybe, but again, I’m convinced that there will always be pencil on paper and ink, in one form or another.
Jason Versaggi: Hopefully. Just like John Lasseter says, they’re going to keep the traditional animation at Disney. Disney keeps running stuff…
Jeff Suter: That’s another thing and that’s one that – they look different. I mean you have to admit. The digital will never look like analog; it’s the same thing until technology catches up on it.
Jason Versaggi: There’s still that certain charm that people hear in the record player. So hopefully, there’s room for all of them.
Jeff Suter: I know people who still put on vinyl.
Jason Versaggi: Yes. Who are some of the artists in the industry whose work that either influence you or affect you, past and present?
Jeff Suter: I don’t have a comic book background. That was one thing that when I was brought in to Marvel, I was brought in for my expertise in – a few different ways is my technical expertise in digital output. I ran a digital output company. I was lucky enough to be involved in a company that when things went electronic, I was able to go from plate making and mixing chemicals to scanning, and output, and all that. They did cross over because you still need to process film. I had that background already, so it was the digital guys that knew the digital process and they didn’t know anything about film processing. Well, I was just in the right place in the right time. I was a hard worker and I was given the opportunity. So I wasn’t necessarily of the comic industry; I was of the print industry. So my influences were just good product – beautiful finely-produced magazines or any kind of print. That fascinates me, this enlargement on this wall because I used to do enlargement, you know what I’m saying? So to see how well it was done and applied to the wall or the framing on that print back there – because I ran a frame department for a certain amount of time. It was being involved in all of these different parts of the industry of presentation, if you will. It’s marketing and it expanded once I got into advertising and design and typography. They’re all interconnected and the more you know about the whole, the better you’ll be at doing the individual parts. So my position here is – I’m an asset because I know all the individual parts that make up the whole as opposed to just knowing this or just knowing that, just knowing. So I guess I oversee that. So my influences are basically good presentation marketing. Typography, I’m a big huge fan of [type]. My wife was very influential in my dumbing down of typography, which made it smarter. It’s very, very hard to do clean design in the comic industry, but it can be done.
Jason Versaggi: Well, let’s say, the way they used to do in the 60’s where it was all over the…
Jeff Suter: Well, that’s what I was saying. It’s very…
Jason Versaggi: Take that and then put ten word balloons or…
Jeff Suter: Yes, but it can be done.
Jason Versaggi: Yes.
Jeff Suter: I’ve tried. I think that’s what I’m trying to do. Alright, if you want to say that the guys in the industry right now that really inspire me, it’s guys like Joe Quesada who had a design background and who became an illustrator. You know what I’m saying? He gets it. He gets the whole picture, I mean becoming a writer, and an editor-in-chief, and overseeing the explosion of what happened with this industry and this company. So it’s guys like John Romita, Sr. who again, worked 70 hours a week and oversaw everything up until the end, but it was just a different world then. You know what I’m saying? It’s different, but it’s the same and he needed to know every single part of the process. So it’s guys like that. It’s guys who have a grasp of the bigger picture.
Jason Versaggi: How’d the podcast develop?
Jeff Suter: Well, the podcast, it’s funny you say that, the podcast developed again of just something that I technically had knowledge of. I’m a professional musician; that’s my side job.
Jason Versaggi: Wait, that’s your alter ego and this is your secret identity. That’s your…
Jeff Suter: No, this is my Clark Kent.
Jason Versaggi: Yes.
Jeff Suter: That’s my superman. I got it. By day, Peter Parker and Spiderman. Brand X, sorry. So how this approached was we used to do weekly or bi-monthly press conferences with the comic press. The online comic press was still blossoming at the time. There were a couple of websites that would cover our press conferences, but the rest of it was Wizard, CBR, the mom and pop [new shops] and stuff like that. So our retailers would call in and we do basically sales press conference about a project or have somebody on the phone, have Brian Bendis on the phone. So John Dokes who is a big sales guy now, but was my boss at the time, came to me and said – also a part-time musician, said, “How would you go about recording these press conferences so that we can post it online?” “Well, okay, let me think about that.” Thought about it, a couple of mikes and a laptop, and then preamp, we should be good to go. I had a background in recording; this can’t be any harder than recording a guitar or drums. We started doing that and I realized, “God, this is boring.” It’s a press conference, so I said, “We have to come up with a format. A radio makes sense to me, a radio format.” Q&A, one on one. We started with groups of creators which just simply did not work. You cannot have three writers talking about the same subject. Sorry. The format doesn’t work. So through about one year of a learning curve, I came up with a singular – “You know what? I’m going to host this, I’m going to have one or two guests and talk about one project. Let’s get a schedule going. What’s your big pushed coming up in a couple months?” Luckily, I had other people that would do the scheduling, stuff like that, and I’m just very comfortable on stage and it’s even easier in front of a microphone for me. I just try to be myself. Again, there’s a little curve there, but I think they roll off the tongue now.
Jason Versaggi: Yes. I mean you get to talk to some cool folks. It sounds like it’s a fun…
Jeff Suter: Yes. Well, that’s the whole thing and it’s a break. I mean it’s work, and then I do the mixing, and add in a few sound effects and some of these intro music, and outro music. I mean it is what it is. It’s a sales tool.
Jason Versaggi: Oh, yes, it works.
Jeff Suter: So again, I can get behind that because it’s helping me market our product.
Jason Versaggi: You’re just packaging the brand in a new way…
Jeff Suter: Yes. I mean you might as well do one. I’m me on those podcasts; I don’t – I’m not putting on a show. I really am goofy, and I laugh like an idiot, and I’m perfectly happy with the guys who are comfortable on the show to dig into me a little bit, and I think they usually expect me to dig into them a little bit, too. Just try to be myself and try to get some of the questions that – it’s very hard to get an answer out of these guys because you don’t want to spoil. I mean storytelling is – if you tell the story before the story comes out – so we just try to get people pumped up about stuff.
Jason Versaggi: “Did you hear the podcast? Suter spoiled Fear Itself.”
Jeff Suter: That’s the thing, and the beauty of it is if just something come up, I can take it out because I am [crosstalk]. I’m responsible for it and I’m the guy who edits. I don’t think I’ve ever [let] anything out. I can be wrong, though.
Jason Versaggi: Do you do them all here? Does anybody call in?
Jeff Suter: Well, we do call-ins most of the time, but it’s nice when there’s like a convention going on or they’re doing a creative retreat or something, try to get somebody one on one. I mean it’s just nicer, face to face.
Jason Versaggi: Well, any big projects you’ve got on the horizon that you’re just psyched about?
Jeff Suter: Well, Fear Itself, which is our big – I don’t want to say crossover, but it’s 2011’s first big event and that involves lots of gods, and hammers. There’s a Spiderman storyline coming up where the entire island of Manhattan gets spider powers, so I’m looking forward to it, [which is very throwback]. I mean it’s very throwback. Stan would do it. How about everybody on Manhattan gets…?
Jason Versaggi: Why not? That sounds cool.
Jeff Suter: So that’s because – and there’s some very, very good X-Men stuff coming up that I can’t get into detail about, some Fantastic turnovers, Fantastic bad guys, and some old players coming back. The X-Men stuff is really, really, really good and I’m looking forward to that. Looking forward to do some video trailers on that, too. I do a lot of the comic book trailers.
Jason Versaggi: Those are pretty awesome, too.
Jeff Suter: Yes, those are fun for me because I get to compose the music.
Jason Versaggi: Yes, another great tool.
Jeff Suter: You know what I’m saying? Or do the narration, or record someone doing the narration, or fun sound effects. I could do a little video editing and sometimes I get some of the other guys to do some of the video stuff, and then I can just concentrate on the music, but for the most part, I do most of those. Again, it’s just another thing. It’s like trying to apply what I enjoy doing to my – like composing music for doing our videos and stuff, as a musician, I’m doing this on my day job.
Jason Versaggi: Yes. You wouldn’t think it works, and then you hear the motion comic, and then when you get it, you’re like, “Wow. It really works.”
Jeff Suter: [Ironically], yes. I’m not saying they’re all perfect, but…
Jason Versaggi: No, but I remember the ’60s, 1966 Marvel shows where they just would take a panel and they’d put in…
Jeff Suter: Yes. I remember the albums where it was just Stan narrating and then they recorded it to albums and…
Jason Versaggi: So that’s the progression of it and it works.
Jeff Suter: [Proved] fantastic, yes.
Jason Versaggi: Where can people see you perform your music?
Jeff Suter: Oh, my band – well, you can check out my website which is hardcoverrocks.net. I play mostly in northern New Jersey, in Burton County area, and Paramus, New Jersey, a place called “The Orange Lantern,” play at a place in the lower, lower, lower, New York state, Sloatsburg, New York specifically, which is the Rhodes North Tavern which is a fun venue. I’m pretty much booked through December at this point. I took this winter off. Thank goodness I took this winter off with the way the winter was. So yes, you can check out the website and you can check out me on Twitter, I’m Jeff Suter at Twitter, and generally, I’ll tweet or let people know when – “Hey, check out my website, today it’s updated,” but that’s my side job and let’s rock and roll.
Jason Versaggi: That is rock and roll.
I really appreciated Jeff taking the time to sit down and chat and also for the walking tour of Marvel’s new offices. I dare anyone to fall asleep in a meeting held in either Conference Room Thor or Conference Room Hulk. The Marvel tour continues next with the sequel to this chat: My conversation with Marvel’s new Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso in the next Panel Surfing.
Panel Surfers Assemble!