Smash Pages Q&A: Francis Manapul on ‘Clear’

The artist of ‘Flash,’ ‘Justice League’ and more discusses his new creator-owned title with writer Scott Snyder.

Francis Manapul has been drawing comics for more than 20 years now. He became an artist to watch while working on Top Cow comics like Witchblade before moving on to DC Comics. While there, he drew Legion of Super-Heroes, Detective Comics and Justice League, among other titles, but he might be best known for his work on The Flash, which he eventually wrote in addition to drawing it.

After years at DC, Manapul is collaborating with his former Justice League partner-in-crime, Scott Snyder, for a new creator-owned comic called Clear. It’s one of several titles written by Snyder as part of his deal with comiXology Originals, and the second issue became available on the digital comics platform yesterday. Snyder and Manapul are clearly having fun with the neo-noir science fiction environment they’ve created that’s a departure from the bright world of superheroes, as Snyder said in our interview with him that was posted yesterday.

“People think of [Manapul] as doing this bright vibrant exuberant superhero work with a lot of emotionality that has a light, painterly feel,” Snyder said. “With this he’s showing that he has this whole range that hasn’t been explored with darkness and nightmarish kinds of abilities that he didn’t get to do much in superheroes.”

I spoke with Manapul at length about the origins of Clear, the opportunities that working on a digital comic have given him and drawing on the styles of other artists to create the “skins” featured in the first issue.

Clear #1 cover

Thanks for talking to me today. As this is your first creator-owned book, I thought I’d started by asking how it’s been working on something you own versus working for another company?

The simplest way to state it is that it’s rewarding. Once I’m working on it, you’re not really thinking that you own this or you own that, you’re kind of just focused on the work. And the main difference between this and my work at DC is that there’s this underlying feeling of freedom, in that if I want something to look this way, I don’t need to justify it to anybody, because Scott and I have been here from the beginning and we know what the story is about. The decisions that I’m making and any exceptions that we make together, whether it’s story related or visually related, it’s in line, you know?

Anything that I do visually is meant to enhance the story. Whereas, in the past you’re part of this greater conglomerate. And it represents something to everybody, whereas this stuff just represents what we wanted to represent.

You’re not as restricted by what else might be going on outside your book.

Yeah. Exactly, exactly.

I was hoping you could talk a little bit about where Clear started. You and Scott previously worked together on Justice League. Is that where the relationship started, or were you guys thinking about this even before that?

That’s basically when the relationship started. We had met when I started writing and drawing Detective Comics. And at the time Scott was basically “the man” when it comes to Batman. He was like the big brother, with me being the little brother with the Detective Comics, right? [laughs] That’s where we first were introduced to each other. And after Detective and working on Trinity, I wanted to take a step back and refocus on drawing. I just needed some time off.

As for working with Scott, when you’ve been writing for yourself for many years, you become kind of hesitant to work with another writer. But when that other writer is Scott, it’s a pretty easy thing to say yes to. And when we were working on Justice League, that is basically when we started discussing working on something beyond DC comics. At the time we were going to begin working on it, but there was this big DC crossover that we became a part of.

So it felt like Clear just kept getting pushed and pushed. And the time was just right, in that both of our contracts ran out roughly around the same time and we both decided to not renew and just really take the dive and focus in on our ourselves.

Did you guys come up with the premise together, or was this an idea that one of you had before you started?

Scott had the world. I remember he had mentioned he had this idea for this story where people can skin the world, however they want it. And his kids are of a certain age where they’re now playing video games, and how customization is a big deal. If you’ve ever played Fortnite or PUBG or Apex Legends, putting a skin or rather a distinct decal on your characters was very, very cool, right? And Scott had this idea of coming up with a world where everybody would skin the world around them, however they wanted it to be. That was the genesis of that conversation. There was no main character yet, there was no Detective Sam Dunes, none of that. It was just this world.

And I remember getting all excited about that because I was like, “Hey, wait a second. We can really do something interesting with the way we tell the story visually.” So I came up with these drawings that were not character designs, but they were scenes. I remember sketching a character going down a subway and around him are bunch of people walking against him and each character in person looked different, similar to what you’ve basically seen in the first issue of Clear. And I drew the character from behind because we didn’t have a main character yet at that point. We were really focused in on the world.

And the more we started talking, that’s where the detective angle came in and that’s where Sam came in. And there was this kind of break in-between as I was focusing on, at the time, I think we were working on some Death Metal stuff. Scott, having spearheaded that, was a little bit ahead of me.

He started developing the story even more. And that’s when he presented me with Sam Dunes and Pedal and all these other characters that filled this world. And then from there that’s kind of where I started developing the looks of the character. Because the initial look of Detective Dunes was… I’m a big fan of The Spirit and all those old pulp noir novels that Scott is basically kind of riffing on, but with this new modern sci-fi twist. It’s very easy for your mind to kind of go to the Blade Runner riff. And so the initial designs of Dunes was just a guy. Suit, cool guy jacket. We all dug it but it just felt like… Having worked in superheroes, we were all about the iconography of the characters, right?

I think Scott basically said, “Hey man, I think we need… I don’t want a superhero costume, but I want the character to feel unique, that people would get excited over that. The kind of look that someone looked at and said, ‘I want to cosplay as that character.'” And it’s kind of difficult to figure that out, to come up with this iconic design, yet realistic and not out of place in this world. The funny thing is I hesitated on the initial designs because… Just to tease the issue 2, you’ll find out more about why he has the face mask and why he has the hand print. And I hesitated on it because… I’m going to stop right there because I’m going to spoil some of the stories.

Needless to say, I have an old Triumph bike in my garage that I have not used since my kid was born. And in my studio is an old two-by-four with my kid’s hand prints that we were going to use to create a height chart but we ended up not using because somebody made us a nicer one. Here it sits in my studio space, I just stare at it every day. And that’s kind of how that look came about, was just merging these things that I had laying around that were personal to me and kind of infusing it into this character.

And I remember telling Scott,” Hey, these are my ideas of why it looks like this. I was thinking perhaps this happened, perhaps that happened.” And he was like, “Oh, that’s cool,” and then he started integrating some of the elements. That way the look isn’t just a random look, there’s a very significant emotional reason for why he looks the way that he does. And it was kind of just based on things that I had lying around my house.

As you’re creating worlds like this and working with a writer, is it usually like that? Where you come up with something and then they work it into the story. Do you get that kind of back and forth in your other work as well?

Not to this extent. Because when I was working at DC early on, as you’re kind of making your way up the ladder, you kind of don’t have as much sway or pull, right? If, something happens… And I remember when I had worked with Geoff Johns, every now and then I would’ve drawn something and he would take it and run with it. And Scott would as well, right? But it wasn’t like a concerted effort to really build the world. It was kind of more of a little bit of an Easter egg sort of thing.

I remember this one time I thought I added something clever, and I completely messed up. I drew a scene where Superman’s cape ripped. I said, “Yeah, I think this adds a really dramatic tension to it.” And Geoff was like, “Actually his cape can’t rip because it’s made of Kryptonian fabric.” And I’m like, “Oh. Goddammit.” [laughs]

Don’t pull on Superman’s cape.

Exactly, right. I couldn’t really quite do that kind of stuff. But with this one, it’s very, very different. It’s much more collaborative because it is our world. We kind of know where things are going and where things need to be. And a lot of the things that Scott and I often do is before the start of any issue, we basically have just a long conversation.

And back in 2019 before this whole pandemic thing started, I was in New York and I had spent a few days at Scott’s place. And we basically just discussed Clear. We talked a little bit about Death Metal, but for the most part, we were there in his office with a white board and kind of just plotting out the bigger points of the story.

It’s almost like the captain saying, “Hey, here’s the map. This is the boat that we’re going to use. We’re going to go down Atlantic Ocean. And this is where we’re going to land.” And my role is me saying, “Hey, perhaps we could divert the route this way, so that way we can pick this up along the way. Let’s go through this canal, that way we’ll also get this.” And we’re still going towards the direction that you need to go, right.

And a lot of it was very collaborative, especially with ComiXology being more or less a new format and a new medium for us to tackle, right? It was very important that the visuals, the story beats, the format were all in sync. It really just felt like we were molding a clay from the beginning.

I was going to ask about that. Did you take a different approach to it because you knew it was going to be digital first?

Yeah, absolutely. Right off the bat, I knew that I couldn’t do jaggedy panels. It’s one of my favorite things to do — have panels that are not your typical rectangle, kind of slanted to the side. If you’re familiar with my past work, I tend to break borders a lot.

Oh yes, I’ve noticed that. [laughs]

Now, with ComiXology, it’s different for everybody, and I tend to read it on my phone, not an iPad, just because I find it easier. I actually use Guided View, rather than looking at it as a whole.

And in print — and I think this is one of the great things about the comic book medium — in print, you have the ability to see the present, i.e. the individual panel, or the whole and sort of see the future, right? You have this weird overview of the whole page, which is why page turns are such a big deal in comics. Because that’s really the only way we can control the pace and how you react to the story. Now with digital, you can choose to view the whole thing or you can choose to see it in Guided View, panel by panel. In which case, I don’t know whether you can see the whole thing or whether I can blindside you from panel one to panel two. That was one of the things that I needed to try to figure out with the pacing of the book.

One of the things that I wanted to keep in place is that, even though I’m going to use some funky panels here and there, I wanted it to either be the landscape 9 by 16 format or vertical 16 by 9 format. And any fancy panels I would do would be insets within that structured frame. That way, when you’re looking at it in Guided View, you have the entire view of a panel. Not just a snip of it, it’s not cut off a little bit because I used the diagonal panel. And I realized also with Guided View, sometimes you kind of have the ability to scroll, right? If you’re using a landscape panel, sometimes in Guided View the editor will have it zoomed in from the left and it’s slowly panning to the right. Or if it’s vertical, sometimes the balloons and the captions that Scott wrote are at the top and we’re slowly panning down. I realized that in some ways I gained the ability to have dolly shots within the comic book. I started designing in panel reveals. That way we’re either moving left to right or top to bottom. And I thought, “Oh, this is really cool.” I couldn’t do that in print before, because you would see the whole thing.

There were all these little, subtle differences that I used to kind of take advantage of that medium, even in things like when I switch from… If you do decide to read it in Guided View, if you’re looking at it landscape, of course you’re going to flip your phone because you want it to fill as much of your screen as possible.

Yep, that’s what you naturally do.

And I realize that it is a little bit obtrusive to have to turn it when suddenly you’re using a vertical panel. But if you time it right, I’m forcing the reader to turn it at a point where there’s a tonal change in the scene. Now it feels like it makes sense. Because then you being jarred by the fact that you have to twist it is also compounded on the fact that the next panel you’re seeing is a bit jarring from the previous one.

There’s all of these weird little intricacies that I just find fascinating. Because like when I was working on The Flash, it was so much fun to… That one was me subverting being digital. Whereas, I’m going to try to make my book as unreadable as possible digitally. I want people to have to buy the book, right?

And now in this one I’m doing the opposite. I’m trying some storytelling techniques that you can only fully experience through the ComiXology or Kindle app or whatever it is that you’re using to read it on, the digital platform.

Were you figuring all this out on your own or does ComiXology offer any kind of guidance or expertise you could take advantage of?

Yeah, so Chip [Mosher], who is the main man over there, he literally gave me a PDF, like a handbook. Imagine you’re going to work at… I don’t know, Dunder Mifflin for the first time and they give you an employee handbook, right?

That Dwight wrote.

Exactly. A PDF of the dos and don’ts. And I feel like it would’ve been very easy to be like, “Ah, man, I can’t do all the cool shit I used to do.” Right? And I think that’s the initial gut reaction because, you’re like, “Oh, this is so restrictive.” Landscape or portrait. But then once you start reading between the lines and you start looking at the capabilities of things that they can do, you realize how much more open it actually is. And once I started going through that, it really changed the way I thought about the way I drew this book. And in some ways I’ve found it infinitely rewarding because it’s forcing me to focus on what’s in the panel.

Rather than with my previous work, I could kind of get away with creating tension or feeling by changing the way the panel sizes are. And I still do that to some effect with this book, but because I want to fill up as much of that digital real estate as possible, a lot of the tension that I started adding to my work came less from panel size. It now came from lighting, from atmosphere and dark shadows. And then when I am able to create slim panels or really tight panels, it really enhanced the emotions of those panels.

I don’t know… I’m finding it just super, super nerdy fascinating. It’s like somebody discovering a camera for the first time and learning how shutter speed and apertures work. And how messing around with each of these little dials changes the entire thing. It’s like writing. There’s many ways to say the same sentence. But sometimes when you’re forced to be succinct and get to the point, suddenly you’ve found a more poignant way to say something with fewer words, and it feels like that with this.

Even though I found the most non-succinct way to describe it. [laughs]

I was going to ask about the premise of the book, with the skins and the veils. It seems like it gives you a lot of freedom and opportunity to really experiment and have fun even outside of the neo-noir science fiction genre. And I’m thinking about page 17 in the first issue, when the main character is suddenly seeing all these different skins on people — I think there was like a Geppetto/Pinocchio reference at one point, and what looked like some kind of Western. Can you talk a little bit about that and the fun you had with bringing in some of those other little pieces there?

Yeah, absolutely. I think with those insets — that would be the technical term for it — but whenever I have the opportunity to show a visual of this world that is skinned, aside from showing a different genre or a different time period, I wanted the illustrative style of it to match the tone of that. I didn’t want it to just look like my drawing. I wanted that first panel… That was actually me trying to draw like my studio mate.

Would that be Dan Hipp? It reminded me of his style.

No, it’s Tri Vuong. He’s got this creator-owned book over at Skybound called Everyday Hero Machine Boy.

Oh yeah, yeah. That’s coming out pretty soon. It looks great.

Yeah. I was looking at his stuff and I thought this would be kind of fun. And the panel after, on the page that you had mentioned… I’m a big fan of Moebius.

Oh, of course. I can see the reference.

I love Blueberry and all those old Western books. I was kind of riffing on that and it really gave me the opportunity to kind of… What’s the word? Be somewhat indulgent in drawing from my fanboy mind, right? So anything I was a fan of, I would throw in there. And things like Little Punk sequence, I just wanted draw dragon. I just felt like it. And I love seeing those old fantasy books with the paintings and stuff. I digitally painted that. And when there was this old man looking at the world in a noir feel, I put old schools in the tones and it wasn’t black and white.

It just felt like I had the opportunity to be who I am. But in certain moments, for myself as an artist, I felt like I was given the opportunity to put a mask on and walk in someone else’s shoes. And there are times when experimentation like that leads to me incorporating it into my main work. And whenever I have the opportunity to try out a different style, I have to do it. I have to do it, it’s like I can’t learn something new or apply and attain new tricks up my sleeves unless I try it out. And in this case, what you’re seeing in those panels is not just me having fun. It’s not just me showing you a different style that I can play around with, but it’s also me learning. Those scenes are much more meaningful to me in some ways that I think isn’t quite as apparent. It’s meaningful in the story, but it’s also meaningful in my ability to grow as an artist.

That makes a lot of sense. When I first saw that page, my first thought was, “Did he have somebody else draw those?” Because they were very different than what I would’ve expected from you.

No, I appreciate that. I’ll take that as a compliment.

That was cool. And that was probably my favorite page in the book, too.

Oh, thank you.

I saw on Twitter that you put together a Spotify playlist for the series as a whole, and then a separate one for issue 1. I was going to ask, do you listen to music while you’re working, or what kind drove you to set up the playlist?

Here is the funny thing. I have not listened to music in years. Aside from when I’m in the car, I tend to listen to audio books or podcast. When I draw, I kind of have this ability, and I think a lot of us do, have this ability to be in two places at once. So I didn’t want to inhabit the world that I’m drawing… I didn’t want to just inhabit that one place. And I found that listening to audio books allowed me to literally be in two places at once.

But with Clear, what happened was I started experimenting with Instagram reels and making these short 30 second mini trailers, comprised of panels from the book. And Instagram started this new feature where you could use music, like real music from real artists. Music that is very iconic, right?

I started editing these videos and looking through the music that I thought matched the scene or the sequence and I started editing it together. There’s quite a few of them online on my Instagram. And it started really enhancing the moods of these scenes. I was editing these videos to music that gave a fuller experience to the scene, so now I would kind of listen to certain music as I’m drawing certain scenes. Because we’re trying to make this book as immersive as possible, an experience. And especially for a brand new creator-owned book, a brand new world that most people are unfamiliar with.

Anything that I could do to sort of create this sense of pulling you in was super helpful. I mostly did it for myself. And when I realized how immersive it was, drawing me into the story… I remember, I think it was through those posts that our PR guy said, “Hey, you should put together a playlist.” I was like, “Yeah, done.” Right? There’s a Best Jacket Press Spotify playlist. And I actually provided them with scene by scene breakdowns, where I say, “Okay, page 1 to 4, this is the track. Page 5 to 6, this is the track. So there’s going to be a playlist for issue 2 once that’s out. But for now, when you look at the playlist for issue 1, there’s not a lot of songs. Because it’s meant to match up with the cadence of the book, right?

Take it for what it is. I think the way I described it, like, “Oh, what kind of music is this?” I’m like well, it’s not one particular genre. But the overwhelming vibe of them is that they’re foreboding. They sound cool and futuristic but kind of folky. But ultimately just a little bit depressing. But just a little bit, just a little bit.

I was looking through the list and thinking, “Oh yeah, this makes sense for this particular scene.” And I was appreciating the vibe of the songs;  I remembering thinking, “Oh, hey, yeah, ‘Drive’ by The Cars really works here.”

Yeah, absolutely. I think stuff like that feels subversive to how it looks. Especially the opening sequence, the perfect track for this rainy opening scene is Blue Skies.

And yeah it’s a vibe. I feel like you’re not supposed to be a fan of your own shit because it makes you look kind of egotistical. To me I think adding that music made me kind of like my art. Whereas before I’m like, “Oh man, my stuff sucks.” But then when I look at it with music, I’m like, “Oh, it makes my art a little bit better when I listen to good music.”

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