“i wanted to do the same comics i liked as a kid” — adi granov, comic book artistBack
Movie credits aren’t a census; they’re there to tell you who did what, not where they came from or where they’re at.
When Adi Granov’s name scrolls by at the end of Iron Man, it’s with ‘Suit Consultant’ alongside; in Iron Man 2, it says ‘Conceptual Illustrator’; then for Iron Man 3 it’s a writing credit, ‘Based on the Extremis mini-series illustrated by Adi Granov’.
Nowhere does it mention that Adi Granov lives in Ilkley with his wife, Tamsin Isles. But then in Hollywood, and the Marvel universe, it doesn’t really matter where you are, although people don’t always tell you that.
“When I was working on Iron Man I was between Chicago and Leeds,” says Adi. “Ilkley seemed like a nice place that is close enough to everywhere I need to be, but far enough away that it’s quiet and peaceful.
“A lot of comic book artists are very urban people and they really like big cities – New York has traditionally been a big centre because Marvel and DC were there. I lived my entire life in cities; before Ilkley was Leeds but before that was Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, just these big, big cities.
“And I think cities are considered the cultural centres, so I never really considered not living in a city until I suddenly realised that I could. I realised, wait a second, I don’t have to live anywhere I don’t want to live, and as soon as we could we moved to Ilkley.”
Adi didn’t always have the choice of where to live. He and his family had to leave Sarajevo in 1994, when Adi was sixteen, to escape the Bosnian war. By that time he was already devoted to comic books, although the culture was different to that he found when the family arrived as refugees in the USA.
“There were no comic shops in Bosnia,” he says. “We did have a lot of comics but they were just sold through newsagents – I didn’t experience a proper comic shop until I was about eighteen.
“I got into comics very young. There were a lot of Italian comics that were kind of like TV crime shows, but full of humour. Looking back at a lot of those, when I go back now to Croatia or Bosnia, they seem almost absurd. Italian comics were always really interested in the Western genre, so they always had a superhero type of character in the Wild West. My favourite when I was a kid was Zagor – he lived in a tree and he had a Mexican sidekick. The whole thing was very racist, but when you’re a kid you don’t really realise – it’s just fun, this white guy living in a tree with a Mexican helper, solving all the Native Americans’ problems.”
Italian comics were published in Bosnia as a whole story in one book; while French, Belgian and American comics would come in magazines that published ten pages of each story side by side every week.
“I didn’t have any distinctions between the different markets because I just really liked all of it. It actually took a long time for the European market to accept American superheroes, because I think you have to have a culture growing up through the generations with that kind of stuff.
“There wasn’t that understanding that it’s often meant to be silly, you know, that you have to be able to accept people in spandex. I think a lot of people when they picked up their first American comics thought, what the hell is this?”
One thing that is consistent across comic books from any culture is the art, and it was the art that absorbed Adi.
“I always really liked art, I really liked drawn line work; and then just fun stories, and science fiction especially has always really interested me. Comics seemed to offer the best of both worlds.
“You could read it at your own pace, just like you could a novel, so you could go back a page or forward or whatever you liked. But comics offered a lot more to me than a novel, because they had these beautiful pictures.
“I really liked film and TV but it’s always a very linear experience – you start at one point, and unless you want to be rewinding back you can’t really be pausing to enjoy a frame – you don’t really do that. But a comic always allowed me to read a story in ten minutes, or in two hours, and I was always a very slow comic reader because I liked to spend a long time enjoying the art. That really pulled me in.”
A page of a comic book can be as visually rich as a wall in a gallery, where people would think nothing of standing in front of a masterpiece to gaze for hours. When that gaze was translated to comics, for Adi, it wasn’t only as a slow comic reader but as a slow comic artist, making him a bit different in a sometimes mechanical world.
“I’ve always really liked the technical side of really highly finished art,” says Adi. “I’ve always been drawn to that kind of art, and I’ve naturally gone into doing a similar kind of work. I’ve had the same goal with my art since I was 14 or 15, just hopefully over the years it has got better.
“My goal wasn’t to be a comic book artist, my goal was to be an illustrator; it’s just that I’ve been able throughout the years to apply that same style to comics. A couple of times, at Marvel especially, I’ve actually asked if they would like me to simplify it and do something more like traditional comics, but my style sells – so when I did the Iron Man: Extremis book they decided they would rather I spend more time and finish it to this level in this style, than for me to try to simplify it and produce a kind of half of what I could do. It gave me the confidence just to keep going with what I was already trying to do.”
Adi’s work on Iron Man: Extremis didn’t only boost his own confidence; as a company, Marvel were boosted by the impact of Adi and writer Warren Ellis’ reimagining of what had been a lesser character in the Marvel universe.
“For about five or six years Marvel were recovering from their bankruptcy in the late-nineties, when in order to get money they had given all the licenses to their most popular characters – Spidermen, X-Men – to different companies to do. And then they realised, if they were going to make their own movies, then they had to make some of their B-list and even C-list characters into A-list.
“It was the right point in time for me to start doing covers for Iron Man, which was quite low in sales, and those covers attracted people because it was something fresh and different. It changed Iron Man, which had seemed like a really retro silly character – I think I managed to make him look like a really cool character.
“Then there was Warren Ellis, who is one of the most interesting and innovative writers around, and a marketing push from Marvel on the characters; and once I started turning in these pages… they were taking three times as long as normal pages but they started seeing them and said, oh wow, these look just like the covers. Then they realised: we might be on to something here.
“The book started selling, nothing amazing by their standards but pretty good. But it just kept selling, and selling, then went into hardcover and trade paperback, and nearly ten years later it’s still selling. We obviously did something right, although I don’t think anybody knew exactly what they were doing – it all just came together at the right time and place.”
One of the keys to the success of Iron Man: Extremis was that Adi was able to stay true to his own ideals of what comic book art should look like, formed in his youth and revealed by what hooked Marvel to Extremis: the comic looked like the cover.
“I always really liked French and Belgian comics of the seventies and eighties, and in those the same artist always did the cover and the insides, and put the same amount of work into both – so when you saw the cover, you knew what to expect inside.
“It always frustrated me when I was younger, I would buy something for the cover and would open it and be like, oh. It didn’t look anything like it. Now I understand the mechanics of the industry and why it was and is done, but at the time, as a fan, all I could see was the disappointment.
“So when I was asked to do a comic, I wanted to do the same kind of thing I really liked as a kid.”
The successful migration of childlike wonder from playgrounds to comics to executive offices in New York and L.A. has been key in Adi’s view to the evolution of Hollywood’s treatment of comic book characters, a process that made Adi integral when the Iron Man movie franchise was built atop the work he did with Warren Ellis on Extremis.
“I think for a long time, especially in Hollywood, there were no comic book fans in the film studios,” says Adi. “So they couldn’t quite understand what to do; how to translate something from a comic that they saw as ridiculous to something in a movie, without changing it so it didn’t look anything like the comic, or completely misunderstanding it so you end up with Batman with nipples.
“You can see that also about the level of humour, when people tried to do comic book style humour without quite understanding it, so you ended up with some really stupid superhero movies.
“But then what happened, around the time I got into it, a lot of the younger executives at movie studios at places like Marvel were comic book fans themselves, and then a lot of the writers were comic book fans, because they were the generation that had grown up with comics. You suddenly started to see comic book movies where you could tell that they understood the character. He didn’t necessarily have to have his pants on the outside – they could translate it so it was still the character you knew and loved in the comic.”
With Iron Man, the studio realised that the hard work of designing a world of characters and physicthat actually worked for the story had already been done by Adi, and so it made more sense to involve him and his work than start again from scratch.
“My breakthrough was that in the comic I tried to treat Iron Man as if it was not about a guy in a suit, but a guy in a wearable aircraft. And then suddenly you realise that okay, this stuff can’t bend, it’s not made of latex, it’s made of panels; and when it came to doing it in a movie it was very easy because I had already figured out all the principles of it.
“The most important thing with Iron Man in the movie was that, when you squint, and you can just kind of make it out, it looks like Iron Man from the comic. It came down to understanding what made him Iron Man in the comic, and not trying to turn him into RoboCop in the movie.
“John Favreau was presented with this book and basically there it was, it was the vision – they had a ready made style for the movie, and I know they used the book as part of a presentation to the actors and the investors and so on. Over many years it has stuck with them as a style guide for this movie universe.”
The success of that movie universe at the box office has come about through something that might be counter-intuitive for Hollywood, and for past generations of comic book creators – the replacement of cynicism with love.
“There was an older generation of comic creators who for one reason or another seemed to really dislike what they’ve done and the characters they worked on, and they always say, ‘I just did it for the money,’” says Adi. “And I think there was a big shift in that my generation actually really like the stuff we work on, we like the characters and embrace them. If I felt I was only doing something for the money, I wouldn’t do it, and I’ve always had that attitude. If I’m going to do something, then I’m going to really do it, and do it to be proud of.
“Josh Wheedon is one of the biggest comic book fans and creators, and you can really tell that he loves the characters and understands what should be done.
“I think there are a lot of people now who are no longer only doing things to make money, but because they really like the character or the story and think they can do a really good job, and that really translates in the movies – you can tell they’re taking it seriously.
“The movie might not look serious, but you can see that it’s done with love.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 17