Behind the Design: Image’s “The Weatherman”

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Image Comics, known for creator-generated and creator-owned titles such as Spawn, The Maxx, and Bitter Root, has another hit on its hands. Written by Jody LeHeup and illustrated by Nathan Fox, The Weatherman takes place in one possible and very horrific future, where one man fights for his survival—and his sanity. Co-creators LeHeup and Fox have created an electrifying series with spectacular art and gripping story.

With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.

Opening spread of The Weatherman trade paperback, volume 1.

Ordinarily, I find out about new titles from my local comic book shop, but not with The Weatherman. It showed up on social media, almost randomly—or perhaps not. And then, as luck would have it, while attending 2018’s HeroesCon in Charlotte, I spotted a Weatherman booth with a big graphic and a humble writer waiting to meet visitors. Jody LeHeup said, “Hi,” to my sons and I, answered my questions about issue 1, accepted my payment, and autographed it.

Reading it in the comforts of my own home, the prologue immediately hooked me. As a loyal comic book reader and sci-fi fan, everything about the book intrigued me and by the end of issue 1, I was aching to see the story continued in issue 2. But, getting my hands on issues 2 and 3 became more of a challenge than I expected, so rather than risk missing an issue, I had the title added to my Wednesday pull list, the collection of titles set aside for me at my local comic book shop.

Leading up to the debut of The Weatherman vol. 1, I had the opportunity to interview writer Jody LeHeup and artist Nathan Fox both of whom co-created The Weatherman, and their talented designer Tom Muller who created the book’s cover, along with its look and feel. The three of them shared their thoughts about story, comic books, design, and making what Image calls “a full-throttle, wide-screen, science fiction epic.”

With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.
With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.

Some of our readers, who are familiar with comic books, might also be familiar with Image, who publishes The Weatherman. But for readers who don’t know about Image and the unique relationship they have with their creators, talk about why you went with them for publishing this.

Jody LeHeup: So for those who don’t know, Image is… long story short… a company started in the ’90s by comic book artists who wanted to own their own intellectual properties. It’s what is referred to today as a “creator-owned” company. Any titles they publish are owned by the creators. That’s as opposed to “work-for-hire” companies like Marvel and DC where creators are freelance contractors who don’t own their work or creations for the company. One of the reasons that Nathan and I went with Image for The Weatherman is because it was important for us to own our work. And we wanted to own our own work in order to A) have total creative freedom and B) control our own destiny with—and stand to benefit from—any licensing opportunities that may come our way. That said, there are a number of publishing houses publishing creator-owned work, so why Image? Because Image was and continues to be incredibly supportive of The Weatherman from jump and because they put out the best creator-owned comics in the industry. And it’s not close. Everyone who knows comics knows Image is mark of quality so for us it was a no-brainer.

Tom Muller: I’ve been designing comics for almost 20 years now and have worked for most major publishers—including Marvel and DC. The main difference with Image, which Jody already explained, is that the creators of a series own and run everything themselves which allows for a lot of creative freedom. All the creator-owned series I’ve designed (which are all published by Image Comics coincidentally), including The Weatherman, allow me a great deal of creative input. Jody and Nathan brought me into the fold very early (I’d say 6 months before the book was announced but I might be stretching it?) allowing me to help shape what the series will look and feel like from a design perspective. The sharp contrast with work for hire commissions, like for DC Comics, is that it’s a much more linear and short process where my contribution—a logo design—plays a much smaller part in the overall creation and production process of a comic book by a publisher of that scale. Whereas on a creator owned book like The Weatherman, I can design a coherent design treatment that stretches from the publication design of the series, collected editions, and all marketing material from shelf-talkers to Instagram posts—which is incredibly important if you want to build brand recognition and consistent visual signposting across media channels (this is my non-comic brand and digital design voice talking).

With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.
With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.
With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.

If somebody tries to position The Weatherman into one specific genre, they might have trouble. It’s science fiction, it’s a thriller, it’s a mystery, it’s also a psychological suspense story with cat and mouse games throughout the narrative. I see a little bit of science fiction master Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick who fits almost entirely into a category of science fiction paranoia, and I also see some Stephen King influences, namely horror, but King’s also done historical fiction (11/22/63) and what I call “weepy” fiction (because these stories made me cry), part of what some call King’s Bachman Books or Bachman Stories, including but not limited to The Body, made into the movie Stand by Me, and also The Shawshank Redemption based on his story Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption. Who are some of the wri
ters who’ve influenced you, Jody, whether from the list above or otherwise, and is it important for The Weatherman to be tied down to any one genre, why or why not?

Jody: Well, first of all, the writers you mention are obviously legends and to have their names invoked anywhere near The Weatherman is incredibly flattering. So thank you for that. Generally speaking I think the biggest influence on me is the totality of genre fiction that I’ve consumed over the course of my life. Whether that’s in the form of comics, movies, television, video games, music…or it’s sci-fi, westerns, crime-fiction, horror, ’80s action flicks, comedy, dramas, war stories, documentary, indie stuff…I’m a fiend for story and genre fiction in all its forms and that affection just naturally leaks out into my writing. You can see from both The Weatherman and Shirtless Bear-Fighter! that I like elastic worlds where I can bend and twist and combine different genre elements.

I think that kind of stuff is super fun. But I do actually think it’s good to have a main umbrella genre under which my books can be placed so that potential readers can kind of wrap their minds around what the book is. At least in a ballpark sense. For example, The Weatherman is—at least to me—squarely a science fiction comic…but with love letters to other genres within it. At the same time if you have a friend that loves action/thrillers you could also recommend The Weatherman to them. So genre diversity can work for us there as well.

In terms of specific influences it’s always an interesting question because while I’m writing I’m not thinking about any particular writers or styles. And The Weatherman is definitely its own thing. But in hindsight I think you can see some influence from anime like Shin’ichirô Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop and Space Dandy, Takeshi Koike’s Redline as well as over-the-top Paul Verhoeven satires like Robocop, and Joon-Ho Bong’s The Host—at least in terms of the aesthetics, energy, and tonal shifts. Those are also good examples of genre-bending as well.

Plot-wise there’s some Zero Dark Thirty in there in terms of there being this hunt for a notorious terrorist and thematically there’s some Hurt Locker in there as well so I’d probably count those Kathryn Bigelow films as influences too. Though we’re going to different places than she did. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are influences for sure too. And from a comics writers standpoint, I’m a huge fan (who isn’t?) of pretty much anything Alan Moore writes. Garth Ennis as well. His Preacher and Punisher MAX runs are masterworks.

In spring and summer 2018, I read about The Weatherman here and there on Twitter where people spread the word, basically… pay attention, and get your hands on this. Entertainment Weekly and AV Club were very supportive too, publishing reviews. Public relations and reaching out to the press can certainly help with promotion, but in your opinion, how much of the hype last year was a result of people wanting to see what you’d do next, on the (sockless & shoeless) heels of Shirtless Bear-Fighter!?

Jody: It’s hard to say. There were certainly folks out there that came to The Weatherman because they were fans of my work on Shirtless Bear-Fighter! but the books are so different that we couldn’t rely on the audience of one to be the audience of the other. We pretty much had to start a new hype machine from scratch to get the word out and attract new readers. Fortunately the mind-blowing work—not just by The Weatherman co-creator and actual art genius Nathan Fox—but by colorist Dave Stewart, letterer Steve Wands, designer Tom Muller, and our Cover B artist Marcos Martín made it easy. Any great press we got for The Weatherman…and we got a LOT…is well earned—and not simply the result of wanting to see what I did next. In fact there are a lot of people that love The Weatherman that have no idea I was the Shirtless Bear-Fighter! guy. And I’m great with that.

With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.

Story matters, but comic books are a visual medium, so art, graphics, coloring, paneling, pacing, lettering, all of those design elements matter a lot.

Jody: Apologies, Jason, but just to interrupt real quick… story—for us anyway, me and Nathan—doesn’t just matter, it’s everything. Story is the master we serve with all phases of production. To that end, the art of a comic book—story told with sequential art—doesn’t just matter a lot, it’s crucially important, and equal to the writing in terms of value to the project. Sorry, carry on…

Yes! Absolutely, Jody, I agree, story is everything, the illustrations bring that story to life, pulls us in. As a long-time comic book reader, I find The Weatherman’s artwork to be evocative, attention-getting, and also meticulous. The art and pacing and panels, it all resonates and it tells the story. Who are some of the artists who’ve inspired you to bring that level of detail, that level of richness, Nathan, and how have you made it your own?

Nathan Fox: Fantastic, man! Means a lot but I’m definitely not alone in those achievements. Jody and I are insanely blessed to be working with a fantastic creative team and at the end of the day, it’s the efforts of the entire team that make The Weatherman resonate the way it does. Tremendously honored for the collaboration! Inspiration-wise, I think a lot of what’s in the series had its humble beginnings with how much Jody and I share when it comes to movies and anime influences, comics, and storytelling approach in general. We had a solid year or so before final art on the first six issues really got underway so there was a good bit of time for visual development. Between the two of us, there’s a lot of Paul Verhoeven films, Kubrick, Hitchcock and Edgar Wright. In addition to the anime Jody mentioned, there’s a bit of Samurai Champloo, Akira, and Ninja Scroll in there as well. Comics-wise, there are too many to name and Jody has his influence in writing and mine in visuals and story. Personally, I drew a lot from Edgar Wright‘s films, Terry Gilliam, a bit of Kurt Vonnegut influence and Chuck Palahniuk’s characters in Survivor and my own obsessions with Don Bluth, Chuck Jones, and—I didn’t realize it at the time—but the character work in Disney’s The Sword In The Stone (directed by Wolfgang Reitherman) still haunts me to this day. On the visual writing/drawing side of things I have to admit that Milton Caniff, Jordi Bernet, Alberto Breccia, Moebius, Hiroaki Samura, and Taiso Yoshitoshi have had the greatest influence.

What new artistic challenges have you set for yourself with The Weatherman, Nathan, to push yourself in new directions, or perhaps revisit something you’ve done in the past but never had the chance to fully explore?

Nathan: Sure thing. Well, honestly, from the beginning this project continues to be one, if not THE, most insanely challenging, intimidating, scary as hell and thereby the most fun story I’ve worked on to date. I was inspired by Jody’s scripts, our conversations, and our collective hopes and dreams for the series which put me in a great position when it came to art and design development. The biggest challenges in the beginning were visually defining the world of the 28th century and giving the characters as much life and personality as they have in our imaginations.

For the world building, we were really interested in making the tech, mechanics, and world logic a bit more relatable to our own current world. Mars was already terraformed, if not Earth-2, by the time our story starts. It’s gritty and worn out and just as used and abused as our own. And just off enough to not be earth at the same time. Cars still have wheels, guns fire projectiles and people still travel by foot—but there are also flying spaceships, intergalactic travel, and terraformed planets. And we made sure to show just enough little touches in the architecture, objects and atmosphere whenever possible. Hopefully making the world of The Weatherman as rich and nuanced as the characters who inhabit it.

When it came to the cast, the biggest challenges for me were staging the quiet moments and emotional beats. Such a large cast of characters was intimidating to say the least and identifying with each character in their own way was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Keep in mind that most of projects I’ve worked on previously featured already established characters and worlds. But again, Jody’s scripts and dialogue were really strong anchors and the more time I spent with the cast the stronger my understanding of their visual voice and form became. Which led to stronger integration into the story. Nathan and Amanda’s personalities and relationship to each other were the most important and hardest to nail down, but once we were able to find the right balance, the rest of the cast, and even the new characters we’re introducing in Volume 2, I just connected with in kind. And when it came to the visual design of each character I wanted to make sure that a bit of their personality came through in their silhouette, their weapons of choice, their abilities, and how they carry themselves in the story. It’s amazing to see how much they’ve developed and come into their own over the past few years and how much their voices have changed and evolved from the initial designs to completed pages. So much so that we probably have more than enough behind-the-scenes content and backstory material for each character than will ever see the light of day.

Once I had the character voices and world down, I had to figure out how to commit to page. For the tension and mood we wanted to establish, I tried to find a line style that would give just as much texture and expression as the characters themselves. After a few tests on my end I found a solid set of digital brushes and an inking process that felt right for the story and had the flexibility and responsiveness I was looking for. That way I could ebb and flow seamlessly between scenes and beats of the story without having to overwork or dumb down the linework. Plus working in multiple layers helped me communicate the right atmosphere of each scene in both line and shadow. That way I could communicate the “bones“ of each scene, and the colorist could then take it from there. For Volume 1, we had the amazing Dave Stewart on colors and now taking the reins with Volume 2 we have the equally as brilliant Moreno Dinisio, both of whom enhance the narrative in their own ways with their color choices.

Aside from juggling the various art aspects on The Weatherman, there’s the challenges of juggling family, commuting, and teaching full time. HA HAH! Not sure I can successfully address this one just yet but doing my best to make a go of it all. I’m sure hindsight will be 20/20 in 2020 when the story finds its end. ‘Til then…onward!

Jody: Just jumping in to shout out our extraordinary letterer Steve Wands as well. Steve is one of the best letterers in the industry and not an issue goes by that we don’t stop and think to ourselves, “Damn, that was a smart choice Steve made.” His lettering decisions really elevate our work as well and in ways that aren’t immediately apparent to most folks. Also interesting is that Steve is using a digital font (designed by John Green) that’s based on Nathan’s hand lettering. Which is actually really difficult to work with.

Some of my fondest memories of shopping for comic books include the sounds of spinning the metal rack or smelling the wooden shelves at the newsstand. But comic book stores, where most of us now shop for comics, are different on so many levels, namely the massive amount of titles competing for our attention. How does Tom’s masthead manage to stay true to the brand, the look and feel of The Weatherman, and also reach out and grab shoppers’ attention?

Jody: Tom’s design helps define The Weatherman’s brand, there’s no need to stay true to it if that makes sense. It’s leading the way. But that, of course, comes with its own pressures. Not that stone cold veteran Tom Muller feels any of that. He just comes in, puts two bullets in the masthead, and disappears into the night. Like some kind of design assassin. As far as grabbing attention… jeez just look at it. The day issue one came out Nathan and I—glowing with pride—sent Tom a bunch of pictures of it on the rack. It’s so bold and colorful you can see it from space.

Tom: I think above all the logo—and the nameplate—and how the whole issue feels had to scream The Weatherman. That, to me at least, was always the goal. In the glut of comics that are available in today’s market I wanted the comic to scream at you from the far side of the shelves its displayed on.

With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.
With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.
With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.

Early, unused designs for The Weatherman title, by Tom Muller.

And, wow, it does scream. Nathan & Jody, what sensibilities do you think Tom brings to the design of each cover, and also The Weatherman’s masthead, that are a perfect fit for your own sensibilities and the tone of the book?

Jody: Tom is an absolutely brilliant designer and his work is a huge reason for The Weatherman’s success. In fact, Tom’s design is so smart, that when he first pitched us the masthead design that we have now…I believe it was his second pitch… at first Nathan and I just didn’t get it. But Tom… because he’s amazing… went through the process and took us through a few more passes I’m sure knowing that we were eventually going to return to the logo he knew was the one. Which, of course, we did. But the thing that we didn’t get at the time that we definitely do now is that the power of the logo comes not only from its beautiful, bold simplicity, but from how it acts as an anchor for the book. The story of The Weatherman and certainly Nathan’s art have so much energy—right up to the edge of too much—that Tom was trying to balance it.

Nathan: Exactly—to cool it off in a good way. Provide the reader a kind of iconography that they could always come back to. And that was so bold that it demanded people pay attention to what we were all doing. As soon as we saw it from Tom’s perspective… and god love him for having the patience for us to get there… it was undeniable. Now it’s one of our favorite parts of the book.

Tom: Stop it guys, I’m blushing. Like Nathan said, we indeed went through a lot of iterations to get the logo right. As Jody pointed out earlier, when we started talking about the design of The Weatherman the references he listed were very much an initial guiding light. I started moodboarding to see if some of those influences could work their way into the design. The first ideas I sent over were, I guess, more of a conversation starter to see if anything would stick. In my experience it always helps to get things going when you present things visually to spark ideas and solidify a design direction. Those first ideas didn’t make it past the first round, but there were a few elements—how certain letterforms locked into each other, or stacked—that Jody and Nathan really liked.

So of course, like every good designer I went back to the drawing board and presented them with a completely new and different design. That second design was in my mind the home run: it was bold, it had the right flair of being serious and iconic, but also pop—and I had designed it with the idea that we could throw any kind of colors at it and it would retain its character. And like Jody says: I wanted to counter-balance Nathan’s art and find a balance where art and design work harmoniously. There are too many comics on the shelves these days that dial up every element of the cover which usually backfires.

But yes, we went back to the drawing board and circled a lot of options that hinged on angular and interlocking letterforms layered on top of Nathan’s art—which slowly turned into trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The main stumbling block for me as a designer was that I wanted to stay respectful of Nathan’s artwork (instead of just plastering a nameplate all over it), but needed the logo to be prominent enough—especially for a new series. After working ourselves into a dead end, we paused the design and when we came back to the logo a while later we settled on my initial recommendation and we got to work carefully fine-tuning the shapes and choosing a fitting support font (for the fans: it’s Lineto’s Replica, designed by Norm) that would complete the identity of The Weatherman. When it came to designing the nameplate for the cover, I decided to set the logo and the cover furniture on a solid color and separate it from the art to create a strong graphical lockup—that way Nathan’s art would be clear from any design and we’d use the juxtaposition of art and design to make both elements sing equally.

With its striking design, The Weatherman is stirring up a storm.

The Weatherman trade paperback volume 1.

And it does just that, Tom: everything comes together nicely and harmoniously, the cover art, cover typography, and of course, all of the juicy interior art and storytelling, colors and lettering. When it comes to The Weatherman, I’ll continue to sing its praises and I’m excited to see the adventures unfold in the second and third volumes. Thanks for sharing so much about your work and your process.

Issues 1–6 were page-turners. But, if you’ve missed them and want to dive in all at once, you’re in luck because the volume 1 trade paperback collects the first six issues and is available now.

If you want to read more about The Weatherman, be sure to check out Steven Heller’s interview with the co-creators, Badass Comic Assassins.

Edited from a series of electronic interviews.