Thursday, April 2, 2009

John Cassaday - an American dream

John Cassaday (born in Texas, 1971)  is a comic book artist most renowned for his work on "Astonishing X-Men", and his collaboration with Warren Ellis on "the Planetary". In fact, Ellis has just announced that that Cassaday has finished the artwork for the much delayed final issue of the latter series. 

Having completed his and Whedon's run on "the Astonishing X-Men" more than a year ago, the artist is currently in a very interesting position. After years of working in the comic book industry, he has recently decided to concentrate on his second career, following up on his film school studies.

In fact, "I am legion", the French comic he provided the art for is reportedly being optioned as a movie, with the artist rumoured to be on board as the director. The movie making business always being a risky proposition, Cassaday is still determined to remain in the field that he has become so successful in. 

His retro-pulpy art has actually graced many covers, no doubt leading to a significant financial reward. John Cassaday is currently as famous as he ever was, with no plans for going back to the daily grind of monthly comics where he made his name. It's interesting to note how he came to this point in his career.

1. Guest artist

John Cassaday's path is a great example of how a comic book artist can succeed in the industry. Starting out as a professional in 1995 at Dark Horse and Image, lead to his tenure on Jeff Mariotte's "Desperadoes" mini-series. The book was a cult favorite, but Cassaday chose not to continue the collaboration, opting instead for using it as a portfolio to get work at DC and Marvel. Meeting Mark Waid lead to a series of fill-ins and odd jobs on the likes of "Ka-Zar" and "Excalibur". Arguably, the high point of this point in his career was the Ben Raab penned "Union Jack" mini-series. 

All of the notable features in his art were prevalent even then, with highly expressive characters embroiled in all sorts of classical adventure scenarios. Yet, his stylized, cinematic renditions had to wait for a white to get truly noticed by the fans.

2. Co-creator

Thankfully, come 1999, Scott Dubnier, an art dealer and then-current Wildstorm editor saw fit to employ Cassaday, getting him to work with Warren Ellis. The writer was at that point peaking in his superhero output, having finally remade "Stormwatch" into the landmark "Authority", with the help of Bryan Hitch. And just as the Wildstorm assignment proved critical to making the Briton int arguably today's most celebrated artist, so did John Cassaday gave his best to making "Planetary" work.

In deciding to both pencil and ink a design-heavy book, the artist set out on the task of reshaping a century of popular entertainment in the contaxt of a superhero comic book for the new era. The result was astounding, as Cassaday illustrated every one of Ellis' reference-heavy scripts to fit a different sub genre, all the while staying true to the core characters, and the particular style of the book. The process proved time consuming, and the bi-monthly issues started experiencing severe delays, but ultimately the artist kept providing the audience with a very unique and fresh take on the old comic book cliches. 

Thus, it was that Ellis' ever-increasing workload drove the book to a halt in production. Ironically, in doing so it also freed up Cassaday, now a cult-favorite artist, to pursue the kind of work he was ready for years ago when he first started working for Marvel.

3. Trend-setter

In 2002, his first experiences with the superhero giant's new editorial lead to being placed at forefront of a very important relaunch for the company. Captain America, one of their oldest characters was being reinvisioned as the book commenting on the America post 9-11. Bringing in John Ney Reiber as the writer, the company published a new #1 under the edgy "Marvel Knights" imprint, encouraging the creators to recast the patriotic icon with very little superhero trappings.

Cassaday turned in very professional work, and the result was the first chapter of Reiber's run, depicting the character fighting terrorist threats. And yet, the artist decided to leave the competition of the story to a collegue, having been reinstated by Wildstorm to continue with his "Planetary" work. The result was "Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth", a Special teaming up his and Ellis' creations with the Wildstorm parent company's highest seller. 

The Special was warmly received, with Cassaday impressing his readers with the ability to further alter his style to mimic the artists that drew the Caped Crusader throughout the years. Having done their turns paying tribute to DC's flagship, the creators once again focused the audience's attention on "Planetary". The plan was to continue the book until it's conclusion, but doing so brought back a myriad old problems as well.

The series demanded every bit of elaborate design work as it ever did, yet it once again failed to reconnect with the wider audience. Production costs being high, heavy delays followed between the issues, and it was increasingly obvious that something had to change. Once again, it meant Cassaday getting engaged with other projects, only this time the plan was to keep publishing "Planetary" alongside.

Thus, the artist made his foray in the European comics market, working on Fabian Nury's "I am legion". The three-volume assignment meant working in a larger format, but also in a much more relax fashion, with the audience used to yearly gaps between the story chapters. Cassaday took every opportunity to exploit his new contract, which did not prevent him from landing the highest profile work of his career so far.

4. Fan favourite

When Marvel approached him in 2004 with the idea to pencil Joss ("Buffy the vampire slayer") Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men", Cassaday finally got the offer he was working towards for all of his years in the industry. The new publisher decided to refocus the company on the traditional approach towards the characters, perhaps even making the artist sign an exclusive contract from behind the scenes. 

Getting the X-Men to the team's superhero roots in the new core title was a major challenge for Cassaday. In turn, he managed to realize all twelve of Whedon's initial scripts without long delays in publishing, all the while still finding the time to work on "Planetary" on the side. The run was tremendously well received, leading to the announcement of the additional twelve issues that would bring Whedon's subplots to the conclusion. 

In the interim, Cassaday presumably continued working on "I am legion", with every indication that his work on both "Planetary" and "Astonishing X-Men" would be finished in a timely manner, pleasing both his many new found fans, and the readers who followed his work all along.

5. Superstar

Still, scheduling the book as a bi-monthly title didn't help both Cassaday or Marvel in the long run, as the wait between issues started resembling "Planetary"'s troubled release order. Meanwhile, the artist's work on his and Ellis' own series appropriately came to a near halt, with only a few issues left to complete the story arc. 

By this point, Cassaday's career once again mirrored that of his Wildstorm colleague Bryan Hitch's experiences, as he attained the position of a top artist at Marvel. They were both assigned series that had to be relaunched due to the increasing delays, which eventually ended up not improving the book's schedule problems. Unofficialy, Marvel's hesitation to use the services of a fill-in artist meant that Cassaday has finally managed to attain a very special position. It would seem that his page-rate had gotten so high that the actual publishing frequency of the title seemingly didn't mater much to him or his audience, if it meant having the published product retain the same level of skill and detail.

Slowly but surely, this lead to the publication of "Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men", the final chapter of Whedon's plan for the characters. Yet, as the publisher finally started releasing the series in multiple formats, for the benefit of the current and future fans, the artist's position in the industry started getting unclear, as he showed no wish to continue working on another ongoing title. In fact, Cassaday started mentioning his plans to get back to film-making, a surprise for everyone not in close contact with him.

With the completion of the third and final volume of "I am legion", those plans started seeming much more concrete, leaving the artist with only one scheduled comic project, the long-awaited conclusion of "Planetary".

6. Cover artist

Today, Cassaday is in a position that is unattainable to all but the select few comic book illustrators, such as Brian Bolland and Alex Ross. His style is considered so attractive and so in demand that almost all of the major publishing companies seek to better market their work by employing the artist to paint the covers for them. 

In an industry catering so much to the first impression that it provides it's customers with variant covers for all major releases, it means that his work is now more frequently seen then ever. The higher production values also mean that his work is rewarded with sums reserved only for the elite few, in whose company Cassaday has found himself in.

This, coupled with the royalties he's receiving with every new printing of his sequential work, almost guarantees that he will not be returning soon to the long hours at bringing scripts to life. To the contrary, Cassaday seems more open to other kind of work, such as designing the costumes for "Watchmen" the movie. 

In fact, the closest he gets to regular work with a single publisher is his status as the art director on Dynamite's "Long ranger" licence. This is remarkable, considering that most of the best-selling artists rarely shy away from direct involvement with one of the major superhero publishers. It's a real testament to his reputation that he can keep up getting high profile work as a freelancer.

In an industry that is relentlessly hard to get into, forcing heavy deadlines on it's artists while arbitrarily placing them on one assignment to another, he is a shining example of the quality and professionalism. In whatever form he chooses to continue applying his talents, he will no doubt be leaving his fans with a lot to like, while they wait for his eventual return to penciling the comic book interiors.

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