Comic book creator Christian Gossett returns to the virtual battlefield to present an all-new story of epic sci-fi.
By Kevin Rubinstein
Launched in 1999, “The Red Star” graphic novels have sold over a million copies across six languages, and in the country whose history inspired it, the Russian republics, sales of pirate translations have become an economy all their own. Nominated for five Eisner Awards, Wizard magazine counted it as one of the top 100 graphic novels of all time.
A sprawling tale created by Christian Gossett, “The Red Star” depicts the struggles of patriots and soldiers — men and women — locked in epic battles, armed with both retro-futuristic weaponry and vehicles and straight-up witchcraft and wizardry. It’s a heady blend: part opera, part pulp novel, part Soviet-style propaganda, but all manner of cool.
Yet the last “Red Star” comic was published in 2009, as Gossett stepped away from his award-winning franchise to focus on other projects, including his directing career and work as a sought-after conceptual designer on such films as Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Yet Gossett still had plenty of stories to tell from his “Red Star” universe, and long believed he would one day return to it. Well, that day has come.
With a big-screen feature film version of “The Red Star” in development at Warner Bros with director Josh Trank (Chronicle), Gossett literally went back the drawing table to create “a 16-page ‘Red Star’ story that will be published in the August/September issue of Geek,” says the artist. “It’s an original one-shot about a group of female warkasters — sorceresses — in a training exercise, learning to use the kind of battlefield magic we’ve seen used in the comics. It’s military-industrial sorcery. Magic that’s codified, standardized, regulated and weaponized for warfare. Nasty stuff. Not nice magic. Kill magic.”
Creating “Rapidfire” began with Gossett writing the script and initiating his design and illustration process, which all started with a blank sheet of paper and a pen in hand. With the resulting concept sketches and storyboards, he then plotted out his next key step: an extensive photo reference shoot that would bring an added level of realism and detail to his artwork and serve as the basis for his final character designs.
It was at the photo studio — where he was working with models Ana Alexander, Catherine Annette and Ashley Noel, photographer Jorge Nuñez and “Red Star” comic producer Jhennifer Webberley — that Geek caught up with Gossett, who enthusiastically sat down to explain his process behind creating “Rapidfire.”
GEEK: Chris, let’s start at the beginning. Tell us how this new work fits into the established “Red Star” universe.
GOSSETT: “Rapidfire” is a self-contained story that introduces readers to the world of “The Red Star” by way of showing how these women learn how to use the magic that the state gives them to fight wars. “The Red Star” is all about brutal warfare made possible by industrial sorcery used by soldiers to wreak havoc on each other. Think of one soldier who can do the damage of thousands, and that’s what these women in this new story are learning to do. So, in “Rapidfire,” we see something we’ve never seen in “The Red Star” before: the training needed for soldiers to learn how to use this powerful magic.
How did you cast the models who are playing the warkasters in the story?
The story is about a squad of female soldiers participating in a training exercises on a huge stage, running through a series simulated battlefield situations. They’re not only learning how to fight using their magic but learning how to fight together as a unit. So in the casting I was looking for strong personalities. They had to be real actresses, not just models, really, because they had to deliver the emotion for the story’s arc. It was important for the squad to have a stoic and powerful figure to handle heavy, powerful weapons. Then there had to be one who was a little younger — the cadet. And then I needed one to play the squad’s leader, the captain, who is the most experienced and knows more than the others but they’re all learning. So I needed their physicality to reflect those personalities. I also wanted athleticism; they had to look like they could really wield a weapon. All of the “Red Star” characters are gorgeous, but also strong, and I wanted them to have a tough, militaristic appearance. I come from a military family, so depicting these soldiers in a noble, respectful way is very important to me.
What are some of the benefits of this process and working with models as the basis for your art?
Our models really brought the personality I was after. To start the process, you do your shot list, you do your layouts and then you bring in the models and set up your shots. It’s a lot like shooting a movie, but we’re just shooting stills. But the great thing is that the models come in, you direct them on what to do — reload your weapon, assume a firing position, and so on — and then they give you so much more than what you ask for. Spontaneously, accidentally, they add character to the positions I’d planned out, and act out tiny details that make them far more real that what I’d come up with just creating everything by myself at the drawing table. There are facial expressions, muscle movement and so much more. Yes, I could just draw from memory, but it wouldn’t have as much personality. I enjoy comic book drawing — I’ve done it for 20 years — but when you do a reference shoot like this, you get so much more out of the process. My favorite comics artists all used extensive photo references for their work, like Adam Hughes [“Justice League of America,” “Before Watchmen: Doctor Manhattan”] and Alex Ross [“Astro City,” “Superman”], for instance. If you research his process, you’ll find that Ross relies heavily on photo references, which he then transfers to the page as the basis of his illustrations. You really gain the life from that photograph and then stylize that into your drawing. I’ve always used models on “Red Star,” but this is one of the most elaborate shoots we’ve done in preparation for the artwork, both hand-drawn and 3D.
Being a comic book artist can be a pretty lonely job if you allow it to be that way.
Very. You’re sitting there, alone, and sometimes you draw something, and say to yourself, “That’s so cool! I’ve never drawn that before!” But, most of the time, you’re thinking, “Really? I’m going to use that same pose again?” So where do you go for inspiration? Often, to the artists who have inspired you forever. But what’s better is to work from something you just saw, something fresh in your mind. So a photo shoot is incredibly important.
What about the photographer? How does his work play into the process?
It’s part of the collaboration. You set up the shots and angles, but they’ll add to that with their choice of lenses, as different lenses make people look quite different, as well as the lighting, which can bring out incredible detail, reflections and shadows that would have been difficult to draw correctly without a good reference.
What about the props and wardrobe?
We have a collection of real and plastic toy weapons for the shoot. I love having the real weapons because they have a weight to them that translates into particular body positions and muscle shapes, which is great. In the “Red Star” universe the warkasters use magical energy weapons that can transform into different configurations dependent on the target they’re engaging, so the weapons you see in the photos will be almost completely replaced, but the way in which the soldiers are carrying them will be retained, and that helps make them seem real.
How is working on a “Red Star” story today different from it was when you ended the comic’s publication in 2009?
I’ve learned so much about telling stories and introducing readers to a fantasy story world. Whatever your fantasy world is — Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or whatever else — you have to teach people about that world’s rules and how it works so they can understand why the characters behave the way they do and make the choices they make. I took a lot of those lessons and put them into the construction of this story. Specifically, introducing new readers to the world of “The Red Star” by allowing them to see how a small group of women are being trained to become warkasters — witches, spell casters, really. So the reader is learning about this world by watching them learn.
The 16-page “Rapidfire” comic will appear in the August/September issue of Geek. A variation of this pos ter will be available exclusively at the San Diego Comic-Con.
The Red Star: Rapidfire
Concept, story and design by Christian Gossett
Produced by Jhennifer Webberley
Color by Ian MacDonald
Reference photography by Jorge Nuñez
Models: Ana Alexander, Catherine Annette, Ashley Noel
Makeup by Ann Beckette
Produced for Geek by David E. Williams