Drawing the Flame – An Interview with Adam Gorham
Adam Gorham is one of those names that has been floating around in comics for many years. He has worked everywhere from Marvel to Valiant, and has partnered up with household names like Al Ewing, Cullen Bunn, Matthew Rosenberg and more.
Gorham's known for his arresting cover art, but it's his interiors that he is hoping will take center stage in his new book, The Blue Flame from Vault.
He spoke with Comic Book Yeti about his previous work, his lessons from 2020, and about The Blue Flame.
COMIC BOOK YETI: I’m interested in hearing about The Blue Flame and how it all came about. It’s rare you see these kinds of stories come about with bigger names like you and Christopher [Cantwell] where it’s all original, especially in a superhero story outside of the big two. Is it something [the publisher, Vault] approached you with, or did Christopher approach you?
ADAM GORHAM: Vault approached me with it. It was kind of the right project at the right time for me. My last really big gig would have been New Mutants at Marvel in 2018. From there I was doing Punk Mambo at Valiant, which was work I really enjoyed. I loved working with my editor, Lisa Hawkins. Great to work with Cullen. It was a character I wasn’t very familiar with. With a publisher whose superhero universe has a devout fanbase but at the same time still feels like there is room to blow up and expand. Lots of potential there. It was cool, like with an X-Men property, there are a lot of fingerprints on that and it can be a bit stifling. By the end of it, I didn’t have the best time with it.
I worked with [Matthew] Rosenberg, he had been doing some X-Men adjacent stuff. It was after New Mutants that he started writing Uncanny X-Men. That was a book that catapulted me onto a larger stage in terms of recognition from new fans and readers but wasn’t the easiest book to work on. I went from that to Punk Mambo at Valiant and, as a working experience, it was terrific and I’m proud of the work I did and I feel like not enough people saw it. It’s a shame because nobody phones it in, everybody does their best. I felt it was work that deserved more eyes on it than it received.
Once that was done, I was trying to figure out what was next for me. I had begun to feel this pull towards doing creator-owned stuff again. I started out doing books like The Violent [2016, with Ed Brisson], my creator-owned at Image, and hadn’t been back since then. I had already wanted to return to that and I was working on developing some things with a couple of people that we were getting ready to shop around. In the meantime, I was set to do another volume of Punk Mambo and I had some irons in the fire, then March 2020…Diamond says they’re stopping distribution and everything truncated so Valiant stopped the book, put it on hiatus, and for really most of 2020, it was a process of working on pitches but knowing that no one was really looking at pitches.
CBY: Everything stopped and ground to a halt.
AG: Yeah, I think a lot of publishers didn’t know what was going to happen month to month so it was really dicey. I had a bunch of things just dematerialize. 2020 saw me hopping from one thing to the next and not sure if this is going to be back on again a few months down the road. While all that was going on, I was doing cover work for Vault. So they started a program called The Cover Artists in Residence and it was me and a handful of other artists doing cover variants for entire runs of various books. I was doing variants for Bleed Them Dry, GIGA, [and] No One’s Rose, and I love illustrating covers and it was the first time that I started coloring my own stuff, so I was illustrating from top to bottom and it was a very wonderful experience and rewarding work, and I was getting along well with the people at Vault. So at a certain point, Vault said we have something we were hoping to bring to you once your cover work contract was up.
So, they had something in the works with Chris Cantwell for over a year at that point and they were just trying to find the right people to attach to it. I had a look at the pitch and they told me it was the first superhero book they were doing, as it wasn’t really a part of their brand, but it was different enough that they wanted to roll the dice on it. Chris’s stock in comics had really been growing in the last year or so. I had read The Mask with Dark Horse and really enjoyed that. I thought it was very subversive and out-there and I like that.
To be honest, it wasn’t hearing that it was like a creator-owned superhero book. That wasn’t what sold me right away. It was the quality of Chris’ writing. They sent me along the scripts. They told me what I could expect, but it was reading the scripts that pulled me into the project and think, I can draw this, I can draw the hell out of it. I was thinking about ways I could up my own ante and push my own work in ways and directions that I hadn’t before.
I hadn’t really done solid sequentials for most of 2020. I had drawn a 30-page Ninja Turtles annual and in that, I was trying some new stuff with spattering techniques to imitate shading and grey tones and stuff. I was looking at the work of artists that seemed to be thriving in the industry in a time that it seemed to be shrinking, and looking at what they had in common and, frankly, there are staggeringly good artists doing miracle work with various programs and interesting ingenuity and real vision and I wondered to myself, How can I do what they’re doing but with my hands and traditional methods? 2020 was kind of like being in a pressure cooker that forced me to earn a living to keep working to continue being attractive to publishers, editors and readers, and what are some new skills that I could acquire? How could I heighten my skills? 2020 was a tough year, but it was a great year in getting me to really focus on what I could bring [to] the table and what ultimately do I want from comics? My career in comics, what kind of books do I want to be working on? What kind of stories do I want to be telling? It was a great time with the covers to experiment and try new methods and programs, so by the time I got to The Blue Flame, I felt really ready to let loose on a [regular] monthly book.
"Comics are tough. A monthly book is really hard and it doesn’t always leave you a lot of room to experiment or practice or chip away at oneself to get to a place that you want to get to."
Just from the scripts, I could see it was going to provide me with the opportunities. If you’ve seen the stuff online, you see there is a huge cosmic component that I was excited to tackle while there was still a lot of down-to-earth and human moments throughout that are challenging in their own way, and are things that I felt I needed to get better at. The only way to do that is to do that. Trying to do them better. So, The Blue Flame offered me not only the opportunity to do a new creator-owned comic with an exciting writer and with a publisher putting out material that feels fresh and interesting and looks great – their books are gorgeous – it was a chance for me to really strut my stuff and play in a world I got to build.
CBY: It must have been exciting building up from the ground. I’ve seen you post process pictures designing The Blue Flame himself and I saw Chris post a few days ago the side-by-side script to art and you can see how it could have been appealing, particularly the cosmic stuff. It sounds like it all gave you the opportunity, this last year, to take this step back and decide how to adapt and take a step forward.
AG: Absolutely. I’m definitely putting a silver lining on. If I could choose between [having] a year like 2020 or not, I would certainly choose to not have it. That said, every once in a while, I know every artist is self-deprecating and thinks their work could be better, but every once in a while I would seriously consider: I want my interiors to be better. Comics are tough. A monthly book is really hard and it doesn’t always leave you a lot of room to experiment or practice or chip away at oneself to get to a place that you want to get to. Every once in a while I would think what if I take a year off from doing a book, do commissions, do cover work, but really put the muscle into working on myself. Maybe take some courses or whatever, and so 2020 forced me to do that. I’m in a much better place than I was at the end of 2019. That was a time where I was really looking for direction, and now I have it. I have the roadmap. I just need to do what’s necessary to get there.
CBY: It sounds like you’re putting your best foot forward.
AG: You have to!
CBY: Any silver lining you can take from the last 18 months is always going to be good. One of the things I wanted to ask is, when I was looking back at the older Marvel stuff, a lot of it was doing inking as well as just pencils. Is that something maybe this year has given you a chance to go back and do entire things, bring your own colors to the table?
AG: I thought about it. I had some things planned. I probably won’t color my own comic for a long time. A good friend of mine, Mike Walsh, just launched The Silver Coin, an Image book he’s been working for a while. It’s anthology-style and the twist is it's a rotating roster of writers.
CBY: A real "Who's Who" of hot writers coming in to do it.
AG: Yeah, I have seen what he has in store. It’s a title I’m excited about and happy for him but the undertaking – inking, coloring his own work. He had started doing that. Before he had lettered it by hand as well, but he’s a single guy. I’m a father of two, there’s only so much labor I can do and keep relatively a…
CBY: Balanced life.
AG: Exactly. I wouldn’t call it "balanced" now, but I would disappear if I did more. I am working on a project that I will be writing as well as drawing and doing the cover for. That will be cool when I can talk about that. Should be happening later this year. It was something – writing – that I always did a little bit. I’ve done a lot of co-writing with friends on pitches and whatnot, but this is my first professional writing credit and hopefully will have people look at me a little bit differently. When you’re a writer/artist, people take you a little more seriously.
CBY: I imagine again it’s that sense of creativity and ownership, that I feel like you have had with The Blue Flame, in being able to build that world but being able to put the words into that too. I imagine it feels pretty good.
AG: It does. Not to minimize, it felt good to, in a sense, [challenge] myself to do more. The thrill of taking a risk, the fear of taking a risk. Fear of not succeeding. So, you know, I find I worry when I say, "I know how much work goes into just drawing a comic and how it’s a visual medium that wouldn’t exist without art." Already drawing, I’m doing so much, so I don’t want to minimize “just drawing” by saying I plan to write but I feel there is this perception where you can write and draw, it’s almost like a badge you can wear. I’m not doing it for that so much as to see if I can and if I’m any good at it. It’s like actors who go on to direct a film they star in. You hope the final product that the people will let you do it again. But also, I already construct – when you draw a comic, you construct everything from how people work, to how they act, how they emote, the environments they stand in, everything. But I find in almost every project I’ve worked on, when it comes to helping direct the arc of the story or having some influence, I get this kind of like “you know that’s not your lane” and you know, fair enough, that’s part of a healthy partnership is knowing and respecting each other's boundaries, when a writer is like: I need to tell my story. I’ve never had anyone say “don’t give me any notes.” I’ve never worked with anybody who has never wanted any input, but I think that you, as the artist, have a hold of the reins in such a big way that you know the writer can get protective of what they’re trying to bring to the table.
Anyhow, that’s my long-winded [way] of saying that I’m excited to fill that role for this thing and if it feels nice, I may consider doing more of it when I can, if I can.
CBY: I always find it interesting, with artists like yourself, it’s such a personal thing, the creative process, especially with...the writer can give you the backbone, but the artist has to do so much, and it’s a relationship you have to develop with people and so many people have different ways of working. Doing everything yourself gives you carte blanche to go crazy and fulfill your fantasies of how to do these things.
AG: There’s certainly that, the feeling of freedom, but also I second-guess myself enough as it is. What I’ve done so far...does every writer have any self-doubt? I’m sure, I guess it’s ultimately a trial by fire. Comics in general, you don’t need anyone to tell you to make them or how to make them. The bottom line is, you can just make them if you wanted to. And writing is the same way. That feeling of freedom and getting to do it yourself. There is the worry of, y’know, what did a writer go through to get good at writing? What do they know that I don’t? Or am I just doing this thinking I can do this, but it’s all wrong?
CBY: I think that’s just a natural fear, it’s the one medium where artists are very much storytellers – just because you’re maybe not writing words, you’re translating them into a different way, you’re still developing the same muscle.
AG: Oh yes, for sure.
CBY: You get these people who say you have to write 100,000 words before you write something good but you have, just not with words.
AG: It’s not often where I get to lay the foundation for a story, – this will be that. And it will be cool. So, when I can share it, it will be all...I’ll still probably be a basket case but it will be cool to finally get to strut my stuff.
CBY: I imagine it’s been a different experience with the Dune book. That’s very much set standards and parameters with a big IP.
AG: Yes, Dune was different in what it was asking of me. I don’t own it in any way, and it felt more like contributing to a tapestry rather than doing anything that I could really hang my name on. But at the same time, you know it was a project that I got offered just before taking on The Blue Flame.
It happened early on. It was one of these things where I [had] just drawn for Ninja Turtles and that was fairly lengthy. The difference being, it’s a science fiction story that I love reading and it’s a property that my dad is crazy about. My father introduced me to Dune and I’ve seen the [David] Lynch film and the TV movie series. I saw those, I read all the original Herbert books, I Wikipedia most of the expanded [universe]. My father, for years, it’s been the easiest birthday, Father's [Day], Christmas present – if there’s a new Dune book in stores, I’ve got that gift figured out. He reads everything Dune.
I wanted to do this in a way to bring myself closer to my father. We have a healthy relationship and everything like that, but there are projects that I do that I get excited about, but for people who are outside of comics, I have to explain why it’s cool. My dad has always been supportive of my career in the arts and comics, it’s never been for the lack of support, but I knew this was a project he would think is very cool. He regarded it as if it was the seminal work of my career. It made me happy, but it was also kind of funny because I told him, Dune: Blood of Sardauker (out in July with BOOM!), is a story that takes place in the events of the first novel. It introduces a new character, you see a new point of view in the Dune timeline, in the Dune story. Dune is one of those stories where it’s not black or white, it’s shades of grey and it adds just enough shade of grey. I got to help create a new character that would be canon with the novels. He wanted to hear everything.
CBY: Was he constantly checking in?
AG: Not constantly! I would get materials and I would let him take a peek at certain things. It was also that I was working with Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson (who were writing the scripts and writing directives and whatnot) and he’s been reading their books for all this time and I was working with them. To him, this was all very neat.
If you read the Dune books, they’re so descriptive, but one of the interesting things about them was certain details are left really to the imagination. There are lots of things that are never made explicit. One of those big revelations reading those books was book five – Heretics of Dune – you find out spice is the color blue. I had read those books thinking of spice like cinnamon and earth-tones and I guess spice in its final form, or delivered or whatever, it’s all these vagaries. You feel like you know the story and the world so well and when it comes time to depict them you have to be like, “what color is spice? What does it physically look like?” They have like spice-food and spice-beer and it’s an example of this world that I felt like I had in my mind but had these blanks, and filling in those blanks was very cool. It’s drawn beautifully, colored beautiful. If you’re a Dunehead, I imagine it’s going to be pretty fun. Compared to The Blue Flame, it was very much [like] I was working in the service of a greater thing. I’m drawing this thing and I might be able to do that, but it will never be mine.
CBY: It’s like trying to be the guy who walks in and adds something to the new Star Wars, it’s something with a huge heritage.
AG: I’ll also do happily, if the Star Wars people are listening!