MCU Concept Artist Andy Park Explains Why the Comics Remain King

We chat with Marvel's Director of Visual Development about when to adhere to and veer from the comic book source material.
Andy Park Thunderbolts Marvel Studios

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with Marvel Studios’ Director of Visual Development, Andy Park, about when to adhere to and veer from the comic book source material.

When you love comic books as much as I do, you want the filmmakers adapting the material into live-action to love the books with a similar passion. That’s frequently not the case, and often, that’s for the film’s benefit too. Outside perspectives are essential to growth; adherence to another medium can be deadly to the imagination. That being said, when you do find a filmmaker who is properly comic book obsessed, it’s a giddy treat.

Andy Park is a comics maniac. He grew up devouring Marvel stories in particular and spent his early adulthood fighting his way into the industry. As an artist, he made his name on Avengelyne and Tomb Raider comics. Those books got him noticed by video game developers, and he started knocking out character designs on Dungeons & Dragons: Dragonshard and the God of War franchise. Eventually, he was spotted by Marvel Studios and started working as a concept artist on Captain America: The First Avenger.

Park became an invaluable player at Marvel, securing a position as their Director of Visual Development. If you’ve attended a Marvel Studios presentation at the San Diego Comic-Con or D23 Expo, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed Kevin Feige reveal their grand plans using Park’s concept posters. Just a few months ago, we got our first look at the Thunderbolts via Park’s artwork, with each figure slowly revealed on three mega-screens projected over seven thousand roaring fans. When Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, materialized, you would have thought the actors themselves were in attendance. The crowd could barely contain themselves.

The artist shares their excitement. If he weren’t responsible for the illustration, he’d be in the crowd, screaming alongside everybody else. Park is in as much awe of where Marvel Studios has gone as the dork typing these words.

“I grew up in the eighties and nineties,” he says. “I grew up with Marvel Comics in particular. I’ve always dreamed about these characters. So, yeah, I’m honored, so honored, deeply honored to be working in the vis dev team, which is a unique department in the film industry. It’s all about Kevin Feige and the leadership of Marvel. They saw something unique about what they had, and they wanted to create something that’s different than just the Hollywood model.”

Andy Park and his team are often the first to take a crack at the characters and concepts for the next Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavor. While the production teams are being assembled, Park is already scribbling away. It’s a long, arduous process featuring many ideas from many people.

“We have a history working on these projects,” says Park. “A lot of the times before there’s any cast or director, we’re working as the script is being written. It’s really cool because Kevin Feige has utilized us to do early artwork for all these projects, like a proof of concept. Obviously, we’re looking at the comic books, but what can the film adaptation look like? These characters come to life through us first.”

As a longtime reader of these stories, Park ensures that his work always begins with the comics. He doesn’t believe he should stray too far from what the original creators established. However, it’s a complicated process. Park must take in a myriad of artistic perspectives, and these characters have undergone countless transformations over the years.

“It’s all about starting with the comic books,” he says. “We want to honor the source material, the hundreds of geniuses that have created these characters. Of course, starting with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. Then, through the decades, all the other artists and creators that have contributed to these characters. We’re doing a deep dive into the decades of histories of these characters because, as you know, where the Avengers started when it was created in the sixties by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and where they are now, they’ve gone through a lot. They’ve evolved, and they’ve had so many different looks, and their personalities have changed, and their storylines have changed, and their costumes have changed with each artist that has depicted them. We always want to keep that in mind and honor the history.”

After collecting the various looks from the books, they pick and pull them apart. They take a little from this design and a little from that design. Marvel wants the die-hards in their audience to recognize their favorite characters, but their desires are not the top priority either.

“It’s not a one-to-one translation,” says Park. “We’re adapting. We’re changing things when necessary. We’re creating a story, a new allure of these characters that we love – that the public loves. So, looking at the story, I’m having conversations with the filmmakers, from the directors as well as the leadership of Marvel, and from those discussions, I as well as the team of artists that we have in the vis dev department, we’re coming up with the visuals, we’re coming up with the concepts of what these characters not only can look like, what they can do with their abilities, their powers.”

As the MCU expands, the films are plunging into the darker corners of the comic book universe. Characters we could never have imagined receiving an adaptation fifteen years ago are no-brainers today. With these lesser-known properties, the filmmakers have a little more leeway to alter their designs.

ShangChi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was one where we had a little bit more freedom to reinvent the wheel and that character. We’re changing things up when necessary. There were rings in the comics, they were always on the fingers, but because Thanos had something similar so recently, Destin Daniel Cretton, the director, had a [different] idea for the rings. The martial arts rings, which are real things, but they’re usually meant for training purposes to strengthen the forearm and your striking abilities. They’re also in Kung Fu Hustle, used as weapons. We’re taking all that influence, and we’re adapting it and making it our own.”

Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is a cherished character for Andy Park. West Coast Avengers was one of his favorite comics as a kid, and the Scarlet Witch features prominently. Whenever he got the opportunity to tinker with her costume, he desperately tried to establish her classic crimson crown into the design. For the longest time, such notions were forbidden.

“I did that knowing it was going to get rejected,” says Park, “because the story didn’t call for that. She’s just from Sokovia; she was going to be wearing more real-world clothing. That’s why I did designs of her having a jacket, but I got to make it red and add all those little nods from the comic. Even in Civil War, I tried to give her a headband as a nod to her crown, but then, of course, eventually, the story led her to WandaVision. I was like, ‘Finally, I get to do the more comic-inspired crown.'”

As a result, Andy Park might be the most emotionally attached to the MCU’s Scarlet Witch. Many years passed between Avengers: Age of Ultron and WandaVision. He was never certain the character would ever evolve to the point where the crown made sense for her character. When he, at long last, saw Olsen in all her comic book costume glory, Park found himself profoundly moved.

“I’ll never forget going to that final costume fitting,” he says, “with costume designer Mayes Rubio at Ironhead Studios with Elizabeth Olsen. Seeing her in the costume, and then she put on the crown, and it’s just like, ‘Whoa.’ You spend so much time with that look as well as the toil of getting an approval, which takes months and months to finally get. And then working with the costume designer and the specialty costumers to get to that final look, and to see it realized, that’s a really special thing. That one stands out.”

Andy Park is a comic book geek done good. He’s living the life he once could barely imagine but willed into reality. He loves discussing these characters and the creators who brought them into being. He wishes he could tell us what he is working on right now and how far ahead in the MCU timeline he’s developing. On that subject, unfortunately, he must stay mum.

“How many years ahead am I?” he repeats the question. “We’re definitely a lot of years ahead, but I can’t say how many years. And schedules fluctuate and all that kind of stuff. We’re always juggling, and it’s really hard to keep all these secrets inside because things that I know are going to be coming out years ahead. I can’t even tell my family or my friends. And I want them to enjoy it when it finally is released.”

Fine. Andy Park is working on Phase Five, Six, Seven, or Eleven. He’s not telling. We’ll have to wait for the next Comic-Con when Kevin Feige takes to the stage, unveiling the next big thing using an Andy Park piece.

See Andy Park’s designs come to life in Thor: Love and Thunder, now available on Digital and Blu-Ray

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)