Khary Randolph is the artist behind the upcoming Skybound Comics title Excellence, with writer Brandon Thomas. Excellence is set in a world of magic and a secret society of black magicians. Excellence #1 is set to release May 8, 2019. I sat down with Khary at Emerald City Comic Con to talk all things Excellence.
Tim: First things first, as a fellow Masshole living outside the state…
Khary: That’s right.
Tim: How is it repping Boston but living in New York?
Khary: It’s pretty easy for me. Nobody else likes it.
Tim: That’s how I feel.
Khary: It’s one of those things where I try to make sure to wear a Boston hat every day of the week. I’m not even a big Red Sox fan like that, but I do it to antagonize New Yorkers. It’s great for me.
Tim: You spent the majority of your career working on titles for the Big Two. What made you want to do more creator-owned work with Excellence?
Khary: I have no problem working for mainstream books. I have lots of fun working on properties for Marvel and DC. There’s certain things you just can’t do at those companies. You always kind of have a corporate mandate to foster and take care of characters. With these kind of things, you’re world-building. It’s all on you. A book like Excellence is a much more personal experience. I’m putting a lot more of myself into everything. From the design of the characters to the way we create the buildings to the magic effects, it’s all us. There’s honestly a freedom to this kind of thing. Even down to the covers. I knew for the covers I wanted to do something completely different. I was looking at stuff from like Hitchcock movies and Saul Bass and Olly Moss. There’s things that we wouldn’t be allowed to do experiment with at Marvel or DC. It’s honestly a freedom to do what I want and create content that appeals to me, that you can’t do with bigger companies.
Tim: In the press release, you mentioned mashing up the old and the new, taking cues from Steranko and Bass with modern things like hip-hop and video games. Can you elaborate on that?
Khary: When we first came up with the designs, I wasn’t given much direction. I know Brandon had certain ideas for what actors might play these roles, but he left the design up to me. The first thing I thought of is how can I portray that magic in a different way. The first thing I thought of was games like Assassin’s Creed. Like if this is a secret society, they’re going to be wearing hoods and moving around silently. Clearly, I’m going for an Assassin’s Creed kind of look. The wands were larger and on their backs, kind of like swords. Then “What if they’re like parkour ninjas?” It turned into that kind of thing. I had never seen that done before with things like Harry Potter or The Magicians. No one’s done that aspect. I approached it in a different way.
Even with some of the special effects, I’m always thinking about games like Destiny. It’s one of my favorite video games. It’s all space magic. It’s all space wizards. I was taking things from that and throwing it into the book as well, with the design. I see so much in comics, where it’s so self-referential. Everyone is kind of taking from each other. I’m trying to go outside of the comic book realm and take from like European stuff or video games or movies. Take things I like and mash it up to see what happens.
Tim: How does the genre of fantasy in Excellence affect your approach to the art?
Khary: Quickly, I realized this is a book that is not grounded in reality. There’s two ways that I approached the artwork and it boils down to the coloring as well. When we’re doing things that are reality-based, we try to keep the color scheme very neutral, and not uninteresting, but kind of on the grayer side. As soon as the magic stuff starts happening, you start seeing the colors get crazy. There’ll be a panel that’s just completely red or greens and blues everywhere. We try to keep it separate so when the things pop off, it really affects the way that the art moves, even down to the panel borders. We’ll have very straight panel borders, but as soon as the action happens, it explodes. We’re trying to create that effect that it’s grounded in reality until it’s not. Then it kind of becomes its own surrealistic thing.
Tim: You kind of touched on it, but magic has been depicted on screen and on panel in a variety of ways. How do you make the magic in Excellence unique?
Khary: I know with the magic specifically, I was looking at a lot of manga. The thing with manga that appealed to me was the fact that when you see Japanese special effects happen, they have their FX words. It becomes a piece of the artwork. I may not be able to read Japanese, but it creates a cool special effect, when they do it in action. What I tried to do is incorporate that into our action by taking that and turning it into the magic runes. They become a special effect and a sound effect itself. I thought that was a cool visual that I hadn’t seen before in American comics.
Tim: What made you and Brandon release through Skybound as opposed to the main Image line?
Khary: We both already had a relationship with Skybound. I worked with them in the past. We did a previous book called Tech Jacket in 2015. Also Robert gave me one of my first breaks in comics back when I was just starting out. It always felt like a second home to me. And frankly they gave us a freedom that I don’t think a lot of places would give us. There’s very little pushback when we say something crazy. They’re just like “Oh, all right.” It’s refreshing when someone is like “That sounds insane, but I trust you.” When you have that kind of freedom, that’s when the art really takes hold and something interesting comes out of it. That’s why we like Skybound so much.