Comic books inspire film ambition

Where most office desks might have an In/Out box full of paperwork, local comics creator and graphic design guru George Gatsis keeps a 3D printer.

Beside it is a jumble of plastic legs, arms, hands, and a big round snout – freshly printed parts for a Cerebus the Aardvark action figure.

In one of many side projects, Gatsis is helping to resurrect the sword-swinging aardvark, hero of a 300-issue series that Watchmen creator Alan Moore once said is to comic books “what hydrogen is to the periodic table.”

But on the mantel above Gatsis’ desk stands a set of much larger action figures – the heroes of Seven, a story with elements that Gatsis started experimenting with years ago.

Growing up, Gatsis says, “I just loved comic books.”

Comics creator George Gatsis, left, and Ding Ding, a producer on Gatsis’ forthcoming animated feature, Seven, stand by shelves of comics and action figures in Gatsis’ Gerrard Street office. “That’s what’s left of my personal collection,” said Gatsis, chuckling. “My parents decided to throw all my comic books away at one point.” PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Comics creator George Gatsis, left, and Ding Ding, a producer on Gatsis’ forthcoming animated feature, Seven, stand by shelves of comics and action figures in Gatsis’ Gerrard Street office. “That’s what’s left of my personal collection,” said Gatsis, chuckling. “My parents decided to throw all my comic books away at one point.”
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

“My parents weren’t thrilled that I took the dollar that they gave me – the allowance I got every week – and spent it on three or four comics.”

Before he got into niche comics like Cerebus, Gatsis mainly read DC and Marvel standards like Superman, Spiderman, and The Avengers.

But it was a Joe Kubert comic, One Million B.C., that got him started. When Gatsis met the late great comics artist two years ago, he told Kubert how that early dinosaur comic sparked his entire graphic design career.

In 1990, not long after finishing a related program at George Brown College, Gatsis started his own graphic design business, The Black Diamond Effect.

It was a smooth transition. Besides courses that ranged from advertising to typography, Gatsis got paid experience at George Brown – in third year, the college hired him to manage its publishing floor.

After graduation, he stayed on for a couple commercial art classes, this time as the teacher. Some of his students had been classmates just months before.

“It got so bad that I actually had to bring in the head technician and dean to say, ‘No, no. George is actually teaching this course!’”

Gatsis soon left George Brown to take on advertising contracts, doing design work for the likes of Burger King, Coca Cola, Honda and Ford. Later, he got a two-year contract at Nelvana, Canada’s largest animation company.

But even as his career got going, Gatsis was busy making what inspired it: comic books.

The series had the same title as his company, The Black Diamond Effect. But Gatsis’ series had something no other comic book did – totally digital graphics.

Staring with Mike Saenz’ 1985 comic, Shatter, artists had used computers to give hand-drawn art a digital look. Gatsis went a step further by rendering his art into vector graphics, lines and curves that he could completely reshape with no loss in sharpness.

“The moment everything became vector, it was 100 per cent computer-generated,” Gatsis said. Other techniques were “just pushing pixels around.”

Gatsis phoned the Sun, the Star, and the Globe and Mail with his story, but they didn’t bite.

“No one understood,” he said.

Although it suited the theme of his futurist sci-fi comic, the early digital illustrations had very simple lines, and none of the headline profile of a DC or Marvel comic, or even the Canadian-made Spawn.

Gatsis published seven issues, but even when he finished, he kept developing the story, this time as a single screenplay.

“It’s like Back to the Future meets E.T. with a mafia plot on the side,” he said, laughing. Characters include the likes of Syntax Error and Ms. Take, not to mention the familiar-sounding General Danforth and Leslie St. Clair.

“I used everything and anything about Toronto in the stories,” he said.

A year ago, Gatsis began to work that screenplay into an animated feature film, Seven.

Helped by his contacts in graphic design, comics, and animation, he hired Marvel writer Peter David to edit the screenplay as well as director Ben Jones and George Elliott, a Toronto animator with more than 30 years’ experience.

Like his original comic books, the project is full of experiments.

Gatsis is working with producers Ding Ding and Virgil Liu, who aim to gather funding and release the film in China as well as Canada – a goal that requires a careful translation of culture.

“We were born in China, and got educated in North America, so we have a sense of both sides,” said Ding.

China has a huge market for animated features, but so far, most of the animated films made there are “unwatchable,” he said.

Ding listed many reasons, from censors to insecure intellectual property and a lack of producers who understand both the business and creative sides of filmmaking.

With Seven, he said, the goal is to play to Canada’s and China’s respective strengths – creative talent and investment opportunity.

Gatsis said the project is footsteps away from full-blown production.

Already, he has 3D models of a futurist battle inside a TTC subway station, and plans to bring in more local people on board.

“We’re going to push hard for Toronto talent,” he said. “We’re competing against the big boys.”


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