Sheva’s War, by Chris Moeller

I have always toyed with the idea of producing my own fully-painted comic, and perhaps one day I’ll finally make it happen. And although it’s one of those projects  that always takes a back seat to other more pressing assignments, I have made enough head way with it to know just how daunting of a task it is, and just how much work producing one actually is…. It takes YEARS! Which is likely why you see so few of them.

My small foray into the subject matter has however given me a much greater appreciation for the artists that do manage to produce fully painted graphic novels. The painted comic work of Chris Moeller is a particular inspiration of mine.

You may know Chris’ work from some of his posts here on Muddy Colors, from his extensive work on ‘Magic: The Gathering’, or more likely from one of his many amazing and fully painted graphic novels for DC Comics.

However, when Chris isn’t painting something for Wizards of the Coast, or for DC Comics, he’s usually working on his own intellectual property, called ‘Iron Empires‘.
If you’re unfamiliar with the comics, it is a creator-owned, science fiction epic that began as a mini-series for the prestigious, Dark Horse Presents. What began as a simple 4 issue, black and white mini-series called ‘By Divine Right’, eventually blossomed into 3 fully realized, and fully painted, graphic novels called ‘Iron Empires’.

A sample page from ‘Iron Empires: Sheva’s War’

The work that Chris has put into these books is nothing short of spectacular. There is no skimping here. The interior art is just as exquisite as the covers, and page after page is full of beautiful compositions that only get better as the series goes on.

These books, in my opinion, transcend ‘comics’ and reside on my shelves amongst the the other ‘art books’.

The amount of work that goes into books like this takes serious dedication, and a whole lot of passion. When asked about what helped fuel that passion, Chris had this really wonderful story to share:

I recently found an old letter, written to my grandparents when I was 15 years old, in which I proudly set my goals as “writer/illustrator of my own books, and comic artist.” It reminded me of when I decided it was what I really wanted to do with my life. My parents (an engineer and teacher) clearly hoped that it was a childish fantasy that I would out-grow, but when it was clear I would not, they talked me into at least going to a “name” university so I would “have options” should I change my mind.

Chris’ letter to his Grandparents

I was admitted to Cornell and Carnegie Mellon, but fell in love with the University of Michigan, mainly because of the shiny new light-filled building that housed the school of art. This was back in the early ’80’s. When I arrived I found the school full of eager, talented students and a faculty who, to a man (and one woman, if memory serves), were abstract expressionists. It took me a while to figure this out, and when I did, I had to look up what an abstract expressionist was: Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, etc… It was clear I was not an abstract expressionist – not even close. I feared I was in the wrong school. But being an earnest young student, I went all in. I was determined to see what abstract expressionism had to offer me (a hell of a lot, it turned out). I spent my spare time drawing comic book art.

That’s the key to mastering anything, of course. If you wait for someone to lead you to the promised land, you’ll never get there. You have to be so driven, so passionate, that you don’t realize what you’re doing is work. I drew comics all the time. I wrote, inked and painted a full-color comic-book when I was at Michigan called “The Death-Mauser Saga” (don’t ask). Every week, I displayed a new page on the door of my dorm room.

I kept my comic work separate from my class work, except for two occasions I can remember. The first came during my advanced painting class, in which we were encouraged to select our own subject matter. When I hung my painting of Conan the Barbarian on the wall at critique time, it became clear that our choice of subject matter hadn’t been intended to extend beyond abstract expressionism. My professor did his usual routine, moving down the wall of paintings, offering comments, soliciting input from the students. When he came to my brooding portrait of the famous barbarian he stopped, clearly at a loss. Turning to the class, he asked “do you think this is a suitable subject for a painting class?” At least one student who had imbibed deeply of the abstract expressionist Kool-Aid™ replied “No! It is not suitable!” I asked the professor if he could help me improve the painting. He chose to move on to the next piece.

The Conan painting in question, hanging in Chris’ dormitory

The only other time I “outed” myself as a comic book artist was for my senior project. My advisor, the great Al Hinton, raised one eyebrow but signed off on the idea. At the end of the year, when I submitted my finished 12-page story “By Divine Right” to him, he shook my hand and said “you know, it’s a shame we don’t have somebody here for students like you.” I agreed with him. It was late in the day, but I appreciated the sentiment.

The last event before graduation was a Senior Exhibition in the Slusser Gallery, and I displayed that final project as the centerpiece of my work. My painting professor came up and gestured to my framed pages of art. I braced myself for another “is this appropriate” critique, but he said “I’ve spoken with the rest of the faculty, and we all agree you’re most likely to succeed.” I thanked him, and hoped he was right.

‘By Divine Right’ on display at the Slusser Gallery

I worked like a dog and got some lucky breaks, and then 5 years after graduation (in 1990), I painted my first complete 128 page comic book, Rocketman. My career was launched. I felt I had died and gone to heaven, especially the first time I went to Comi-Con as an exhibitor. I loved writing and illustrating comic books for DC and Marvel comics. It was a thrill to paint Batman, Superman, Spiderman and all my other childhood heroes.

But I had a world that I had been creating since my days among the abstract expressionists at U of M. It was a world on the edge of extinction, where a group of galactic nations struggled against decline. Against this backdrop I would create the stories I loved, filled with excitement, danger, suspense, romance and heroism. Each story stood on it’s own, with its own characters and resolution. Iron Empires gave me a common framework I could keep going back to when I wanted to explore different themes and situations such as rebellion, humility, courage, finding meaning in life, and being true to yourself.

—Chris Moeller

The original comic Chris produced in college, and what it eventually turned into.

The ‘Iron Empire’ books are within arms reach of my easel, serving as inspiration and as testaments to what a painted comic can really be. Sadly, most of them are long out print, and you’d be hard pressed to still find a copy in your local comic shop.
But with your help, we are hoping to change that! 

There is a Kickstarter currently underway to support the reprinting of ‘Iron Empires: Faith Conquers’ and ‘Iron Empires: Sheva’s War’. 
The reprints will be re-mastered editions scanned from the original mylar film, using modern technology to produce a comic far superior in print quality to the originals.

I, for one, would really love to see these comics available again so more people can enjoy them. So please take the time to visit the ‘Iron Empires’ Kickstarter page, and reserve your own copies of these exquisite books!