One of comics’ premier artists, Brian Stelfreeze couldn’t really talk about his forthcoming work for BOOM! Studios at last weekend’s Emerald City Comic Con, but he could speak — lucidly, philosophically, and at generous length — about almost every other aspect of his passion for the medium.
Stelfreeze made his mark on comics in the ’90s with a number of fondly-remembered projects, not the least of which was his stint as cover artist for 50 consecutive issues of “Batman: Shadow of the Bat,” a spinoff title that appeared in the wake of the Bat-mania spurred by Tim Burton’s two filmic takes on the character. From covers to interior stories, he’s since tackled Superman, Spider-Man and a host of major comics characters for multiple publishers.
His newest project is so hush-hush, he and BOOM! VP of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik wouldn’t even speak its title or identify Stelfreeze’s collaborators, using the time as more of a career retrospective. But over the course of their long and freewheeling discussion conversation, Stelfreeze did let slip the word “vampires” while discussing his current artwork.
But even that may prove to be more of a red herring than a slip of the toungue. “I’m looking at this as a film noir,” Stelfreeze said of the project, “but most of it takes place in the daylight.”
Stelfreeze was already a mature artist by the time he came to comics as his own penciler, inker and colorist, schooled in practically ever other aspect of illustration, from fashion to courtroom sketching. He’d already helped found Gaijin Studios, the Atlanta-based artist’s collective that existed from 1991 to 2010. “I’m a guy who gets bored with stuff really quickly,” he told Sablik.
But not comics — not so far. The key to his continued enthusiasm for the medium (apart from having been a comics reader from a young age) lies in storytelling, mastering and steering the art in such a way as to propel the reader through the drama.
He had a good coach in that arena, since longtime Batman writer-editor Denny O’Neil was the man who pulled him into the comics world after spotting his art. To this day, Stelfreeze said, he still has the answering machine tape with O’Neil asking him to come on board as cover illustrator for “Shadow of the Bat,” which launched in 1992 and ran for the next eight years.
“My studies in storytelling just went through the roof, because I could call him up and talk about storytelling,” Stelfreeze said. “Denny teaches a class now, and I got it for free.”
O’Neil envisioned “Shadow of the Bat” as an anthology of “weird” Batman stories, based more on bystanders’ perception of him rather than on the truth of Bruce Wayne. Stelfreeze’s resultant cover images indulged in a certain gleaming abstraction, and made use of every painters’ material from oil to goat-milk paints.
“What I wanted to do was a much more harsh, a much more angry, a much more angular Batman,” he said.
It was ironic, considering an early Batman illustration Stelfreeze submitted for a promotion was rejected by DC Comics’ marketing department.
“They wrote a list of what was wrong with the way that I drew Batman. The list included things like, ‘He shouldn’t have such an angry expression, he’s way too muscular and his ears need to both be the same [size]’ — because I got a kick out of doing one ear longer than the other.”
Stelfreeze moved inside the covers with “Matador,” his six-issue 2005 miniseries with writer Devin Grayson (although the covers remained entirely his as well). It was his first extended interior work. The same year saw the launch of “Gun Candy” through Image, with baby-doll assassin Laci shooting and exploding her way through an extended revenge fantasy scripted by Doug Wagner.
All the while, Stelfreeze continued to explore the “temporal” aspects of comics storytelling, in which space and panel alignment are used to represent time. Working with gifted writers throughout — including Walt Simonson, on DC Comics’ 2009 “Wednesday Comics” series, in a romp that paired Catwoman and Jack Kirby’s Demon.
“I find that artists who understand writers, who understand that lexicon, are more capable of telling stories with writers,” he said. And vice versa: “I think that’s one of the reasons why a lot of these great writers are guys who know something about drawing themselves. The translation and the blending is just so much easier.
“If you’re a comic book artist, you’re sort of a weirdo,” Stelfreeze continued. “You’re not an artist, you’re a storyteller, but we end up sidetracking ourselves because we become obsessed with art, when storytelling is the actual goal we’re looking for… You will be hired not for your ability to draw, but for your ability to tell stories.”
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