State of the Art: Scott Kolins on Imagination and Collaboration in Past Aways

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Past Aways, out Wednesday from Dark Horse, is not your average science-fiction comic. The protagonists spend most of the first issue trying to kill each other or themselves, while the world at large has a minor meltdown (somewhat literally) over a monster the size of a chicken. Why? The time-traveling Past Aways team is stranded in a primitive, backwards prehistory—otherwise known as our present.

Things are rarely typical with writer Matt Kindt, and this time he’s joined by Big Two stalwart and fan-favorite artist Scott Kolins to bring this dysfunctional, time-addled team to life. Paste spoke with Kolins over email to discuss building a new property away from Marvel or DC, collaborating with another writer/artist and avoiding the obvious inspirations.

Designing From the Ground Up
Kolins is best known for more than two decades of work at the Big Two, most notably his frenetic Flash runs with writer Geoff Johns. Past Aways is the veteran artist’s first major work outside of existing corporate properties, and with that comes the opportunity to create a world from scratch. “For Marvel and DC, most of the design work is done for the artist,” Kolins explains. “We know what the Fantasticar looks like. We know what car Batman drives. In Past Aways, we’re creating everything. That’s as simple as the kind of phones or coffee cups they use, to strange devices that can kill you with poison hairs or scramble your brain with temporal waves.”

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“Strange” is a good choice of words for this time-travel-gone-wrong romp. A central plot point in the first issue is the discovery of a diminutive dragon-like creature that spits acid out of its asshole, an anomaly that proves to the stranded time travelers that there may be a way out of their chronological nightmare. The science fiction field is deep and often self-referential, with certain touchstones—Alien, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey—that seem to bear overwhelming influence on anything in the genre. Kolins is doing his best to avoid the obvious sources and start fresh. “I’m trying not to look at or think of other things,” he says. “When those influences pop up, I immediately question it. I can’t get rid of all inspirations, but I’m trying.”

This includes staying out from under the shadow of Moebius, a godfather of science fiction sequential art. “People usually do make that Moebius line-work connection, but that was never intentional and I wouldn’t name him as a top 10 influence (despite his incomparable genius),” Kolins shares. “The best description of my drawing I heard was that I am the bastard child of Jack Kirby and Moebius. That bastard part is the pivotal portion of that phrase.”

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Working with Matt Kindt
Past Aways writer Matt Kindt has experience drawing his own projects (Mind MGMT, Super Spy, Revolver) and writing for others (Rai, Divinity, Justice League of America). Kolins explored the scripting side of comics with DC’s Solomon Grundy series. These across-the-aisle experiences lend a collaborative atmosphere to their work together. “We share all the important decisions. Matt generally comes from a different angle than I do, which helps [keep] me from doing something I’ve done before. We’ve had a really good time just challenging each other and getting more jazzed every time we share the next insane piece of the puzzle. And with Matt at the helm, the stranger the better.”

While Kolins ultimately has final say on art choices and Kindt on the script, Kindt’s design input has led to some fun elements, including the old-school diagram of Past Away’s submerged secret base that brings to mind classic blue-prints of the Batcave and X-Mansion. “Matt had the idea and shared some examples. I drew up a rough with some notes and ideas, and with a little more crazy input from Matt, I finished it,” Kolins says. “I was still surprised with some of the room labels when it was printed! I did a diagram of Wally [West, the Flash]’s apartment and building way back when, but usually that opportunity isn’t there.”

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Settling on a Style
Kolins has a reputation as a fast, reliable artist at DC and Marvel, with a style that varies project to project. His line work here is thin and precise, a departure from some of his recent shadow-drenched pages. The choice, Kolins says, happened naturally. “I didn’t think about it too much beforehand. A part of me likes that style when doing sci-fi, and it just started happening with the sketching. Same with Solomon Grundy, which was much heavier.”

The open quality of the line-work provides a bigger playground—and challenge—for colorist Bill Crabtree, who gives Past Aways its bright palette. “He’s been involved, like us, experimenting and coloring pages again and again to get it right,” Kolins says in praise of Crabtree’s work. “Coloring my pages is not easy. With little or no shadows to help control the page, and all the crazy details and gadgets, his work here is probably double most [of his] other books.”

Years of nonstop work have helped Kolins refine his process from start to finish. “I pencil extremely tight. I do a rough or two, back and front, and work out most of the decisions before I get to the final page: the perspectives and foreshortening, or the referencing of cars and stuff.” Kolins has also jettisoned traditional inking, adjusting his crisp pencils until the near-ink quality fools fans and pros alike.

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Scratching Other Itches
Past Aways will be on Kolins’ plate for a while—the series is open-ended and he can see it going three to five years, easily—but the prolific creator has other projects in progress, and new genres he’d like to tackle. “Grundy got close to scratching my endless monster fix, but I haven’t done much in horror or straight-up fantasy with dragons and swords. All the best comics, to me, mix all those genres together and use them whenever they want.”

It sounds like Kolins will return to his beloved monsters soon, writing, drawing, coloring and designing unique lettering for his first solo creation, 12 years in the making. Dark Horse will officially announce the mini-series about “classic heroes versus twisted monsters” today at Emerald City Comicon. Kolins describes it as a mix of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four and John Carpenter’s The Thing, “in a primordial Burroughs-ish landscape with a pinch of The Herculoids zeal.” Sounds good to us.

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