When you're a comic book artist, you take what you can get. As Charleston-based illustrator Christopher Hanchey learned one year when he took his portfolio to Comic-Con in San Diego, no one breaks into the industry without paying some dues.
"Wow, this is really cool, you know," Hanchey remembers a representative from Marvel Comics telling him after thumbing through his work. "We can't really see anything wrong with it ... Ummm ... Here you go." And with that, the portfolio was back in his lap.
"They don't have anything for you. They don't hire people off the street," Hanchey says. "You have to start out as an independent. You kind of have to start out in the trenches."
Hanchey was no slouch. When he graduated from Arizona State University in 2005 with a BA in multimedia arts and animation, his professors and classmates elected him for the Best Portfolio at Graduation award. He set himself apart from legions of amateurs with rigorous training in anatomy and perspective drawing, and he could sketch a mean cityscape, a skill that would later land him a few uncredited background-drawing gigs for Marvel. Going into school, the plan was to get a computer-animation job, but, burned out on technology after four years of college, he returned to a love he'd known since childhood: drawing.
"There's still, I think, a difference between doing it with your hand and doing it with your computer," he says. "I think people can still see it. They might not even know what they're perceiving." The joy of analog is deep-rooted for Hanchey; he holds dear the memory of discovering his uncle's comic book stash at age five and spreading the glossy page-turners across his bedroom floor. His older brother, who had uncovered the books with him, was fascinated by the storylines. Hanchey loved the drawings.
The Big Two of the comic book industry — Disney-owned Marvel and Time Warner-owned DC — have been known to cherry-pick talent from the smaller comic book publishers, and today Hanchey works for one such indie comic company. Heroic Publishing pays him by the page to illustrate The Infinites, a '70s-style sci-fi comic featuring a team of superheroes from across history and alternate realities. Hanchey also draws for the creators of Bulletproof Angel, an independently produced comic about a superhuman amnesiac who battles aliens to save Planet Earth.
Hanchey gets his instructions from the comic writers via e-mail. He draws with a mechanical pencil, scans the images into his computer, and shoots them back to the writers for approval. Some are finicky and give him painstaking instructions for each individual panel; others give him a lot of creative leeway. For Bulletproof Angel, he takes orders from writers Glenn Arseneau and Charles Quevedo, neither of whose names he can pronounce since they have never met in person.
The projects Hanchey works on are not graphic novels, trendy as they have become in recent years. They are old-school comics, with the same hyperbolic visions and fetishistic tendencies that have defined the genre for decades: swollen biceps, buxom maidens, and lots and lots of stylized violence.
Exhibit A: Heavenfire, Hanchey's passion project, which he writes and draws in his spare time when he's not drawing for a client or working at Trader Joe's ("I'm one of those lucky people who don't need a lot of sleep"). On a planet 10 times the size of earth, in a binary solar system somewhere near the center of the Milky Way, various races of dinosaur-like creatures battle each other for dominance with medieval weaponry. In the thick of it all is Thyne, a privileged prince who is beginning to come to grips with his responsibilities as a warrior-king after his father's death. The battle scenes have everything a comic junkie could hope for: fire-breathing, warhammer-slinging, and the occasional decapitation.
Hanchey does break one major convention with Heavenfire, though: There are no human characters. To him, movies like Michael Bay's Transformers are cheapened by the director's belief that audiences will disengage emotionally if they don't see someone of their own species. Leave Shia LaBeouf out of it, he says. In the old Transformers cartoons, Hanchey got just as attached to the robot characters.
"When Optimus Prime died, I cried like a baby," he says. He feels a similar kinship with Thyne, who looks like an anthropomorphic diplodocus. Hanchey sees a little bit of himself in Thyne, too.
"He's a great warrior and everything, but he's never had to really worry about society because he's at the top rung already," he says. "He's not used to being responsible for his actions, and now everything he does affects everybody else on the planet."
Hanchey estimates he'll need $10,000 to make Heavenfire a reality, including the costs of printing and hiring a colorist, co-writer, and letterer. You can help him out by making a donation on his Kickstarter page.