2011 has been a busy year for Jamal Igle, though a quick glance at Igle’s credits show that for him, every year has been a busy year. This year he completed his two-year run on “Supergirl” with writer Sterling Gates, and when their final issue was released CBR reviewer Doug Zawisza called Igle “one of the modern masters.” Igle also pencilled multiple issues of “Zatanna” and “Superman,” contributed to “Action Comics” #900, and Humanoids released an earlier work he illustrated in trade paperback as “Dominion.” If all that weren’t enough, this year at Comic-Con International, Igle received an Inkpot Award alongside other notables including Alan Davis, Jordi Bernet, Chester Brown and Steven Spielberg.
If Igle is less well known than he should be, particularly given his skill as an artist, perhaps it’s because few of his runs have allowed him to define and shape the characters and the visual world the way he was able to on projects such as “Firestorm” and “Supergirl.” That should change with his new project, “The Ray,” a four-issue miniseries from DC Comics written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti that introduces an all-new character to the DCU. The first issue of the series, which Igle described as “me drawing comics the way that I think comics should be drawn and designing things the way I think they should be designed,” is on sale tomorrow. Igle spoke with CBR News about his career, the challenge of creating a new character and offered a behind-the-scenes look at how he works.
CBR News: Jamal, to start things off, what was it that initially brought you to comics?
Jamal Igle: What brought me into comics was “Superman: The Movie.” That’s the simple answer. I grew up around comics. My father was a comic book fan. When I was younger, before my parents split up, we used to watch “Batman” and “The Adventures of Superman” on Channel 11 here in New York back in the ’70s. When my dad left, I stopped talking for about a year. I was about four or five years-old at that point. My grandfather took me to see “Superman: The Movie” when I was five. We walked in about halfway through the film, the scene where Clark is listening to the hypersonic signal from Lex Luthor and he climbs out the Daily Planet window and becomes Superman. I gripped my grandfather’s arm, grandpa, I want to do that! [Laughs] That started me on the path, but it’s a long, weird road. I was an actor when I was younger and I was vacillating back and forth between being an actor and wanting to be an artist. When I was in high school I basically made the decision that I wanted to draw. I wanted to be a comic book artist. I worked in marketing and advertising for a while. I worked in book publishing. I worked in film and TV animation. It’s been an interesting road to where I am now.
The first published work of yours that I’ve come across are two fill-ins you did in 1994 for an issue of “Green Lantern” at DC and an issue of “Kobalt” for Milestone.
The issue of “Green Lantern” wasn’t the first work that I did as an artist, but that was the first work that actually saw print. I had been working at this company called Majestic Entertainment back in the early ’90s. When I was working there Paul Jenkins was the Editor in Chief. He had just come over from Tundra. What ended up happening was the company filed Chapter 11 because the parent company had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars and stolen all of the artwork. [Laughs] I got this call from Paul who was like, Don’t do anything. We’re going out of business. We can’t find your artwork. [Laughs] So about six months before that issue of “Green Lantern” came out I had been working on this comic book called “Flashpoint.” At the time it was weird for me because I had gotten into the industry making a lot for somebody who’d never drawn a full comic book in his entire life. I was making like $175 a page for pencils. It set me up for a fall. [Laughs] It would take me a very long time to get close to that rate again.
After that point you did a lot of work for Billy Tucci.
I had actually gotten out of the business for a while. I had been working for a book publisher and I was working in the marketing department. What had happened was I ended up out of a job because the person who ran the shipping department had the one thing that I didn’t have, which was a marketing degree. I met Billy through a friend. I didn’t know who Billy was at all. I had been pretty much out of the business at that point and this is when “Shi” had just really started taking off. He asked me if I wanted to do eight pages as part of an issue of “Shi.” I did that and ended up working for Billy for about a year doing various things, helping him out in the office, drawing books, whatever. After that first year I had actually decided to go freelance, but while I was working for Billy I did “Shi,” “Tomoe/Witchblade,” the “Dardevil/Shi” crossover for Marvel, “Grifter/Shi.” Whatever needed to be done. That kind of became my title.
For most of career it seems you’ve been doing that, jumping from one project to another. Only recently with “Firestorm” and “Supergirl” have you had the opportunity for lengthy runs on a single project to the point where you could really establish a style and define a character.
Around 2001-2002, when I started doing regular work again, the idea that I had in my head at the time was to make myself indispensable. I wanted to make myself available to anybody for any project whatsoever. I was perfectly willing to take a couple pages here or the last issue of a series, work as hard as I could on that material, get it to the publisher or editor when they needed it and then move onto the next project. My whole modus operandi at that point really was ingratiate myself. Make it so that when something needed to be done, I was the first person they thought of.
Do you think that doing this helped you develop and hone your style?
Well, no. Even before that point, something that I always prided myself on was flexibility and being able to draw any book of any subject and handle whatever genre was required. When I was going to art school, a lot of the people that I was taught by were classically trained illustrators, people who had been working in fiction and prose and comics for forty years before I was even born. They always impressed upon me the idea that as much as you need to establish a look and style of your own, you need to be as flexible as possible to take on whatever subject matter is required even within a series itself.
In that vein, on “Supergirl,” you and Sterling Gates played around with the character in the writing and you tweaked the style and costume design. Was that your intent from the beginning? Did DC give the two of you a mandate to change the book and character?
It goes back to the early conversations that I had with [“Supergirl” editor] Matt Idelson. I started to formulate an idea in my own head about how she would carry herself and how I wanted to represent her visually. How I wanted to draw her character and not even just draw her as a character visually, but how to integrate the look of the book so that it was lining up with what Pete Woods was doing on “Action [Comics]” and Gary Frank was working on “Superman” as well. Not copy what they were doing, but line it up visually so that there wasn’t going to be such a huge jarring change in tone between what Pete was doing on “Action” at the time and what I was doing on “Supergirl.” Then Pete moved over to “World of New Krypton” and a lot of the design work for what we were doing at that point was stuff that Pete was generating. Pete created this entire look for the Kryptonians and New Krypton. I was just picking up the ball on my end and carrying forward. Once we got past the initial crossover, around issue #53 I think, that was the point where things really started to gel for me. I always considered Kara as a hero first, as a woman second, as a young woman third. I kind of folded that into the idea of treating her as a normal person who just happened to have these powers.
You were one of the contributors to “Action Comics” #900. What did it mean to be a part of a big anniversary issue like that?
It was daunting. [Laughs] If you go from “Supergirl” #34, which was the third opportunity I had to draw Superman in the book, and then you see all the other appearances that I had of him up until that point, my version of Superman kept evolving. By the time I got to “Action” #900, I felt like I had finally found the look for the character that I saw in my head rather than trying to model him after a particular actor or another artist’s rendition of the character. I finally got to draw him in #900 and then with “Superman” #713 and #714, that was really where I felt like I had finally found my version of Superman.
When the last issue of “Supergirl” that you and Sterling worked on was released, my CBR colleague Doug Zawisza called you “one of the modern masters.”
Wow. [Laughs] That’s — wow. I appreciate that. Honestly I just think of myself as an artist who keeps trying to get better. The process is a journey and the most important thing.
More recently you drew a few issues of “Zatanna.” Did you enjoy it? Are you tired of drawing fishnets?
[Laughs] It’s interesting because that wasn’t the project I was expecting to do. That just came up because something else fell through. I wasn’t a fan of Zatanna. Not that I disliked her as a character. There have been a few people [who] were like, “Oh, you’re probably going to put her in bike shorts.” [Laughs] I really wanted to take a very different tact with Zatanna the character because her day job is a stage magician. It was fun. I got to work with Adam Beechen again. I got to work with Paul Dini again, who’s one of my favorite writers. It was fun. A much shorter run than I was expecting, but when I started hearing rumors about the relaunch I kind of figured that was one of the books that was going to go because the sales weren’t that great.
I wanted to touch on the book you did at Humanoids, which has just been published in trade paperback as “Dominion.” How did you end up working on the book and why did you only draw the first two volumes of the series?
I had been originally approached by Paul Benjamin, who was an editor at Humanoids at the time. I met Paul when he was working at Platinum Studios. Actually, I almost hit him with my car, but that’s another story. Anyway, Paul introduced me to Fabrice Geiger at San Diego in 2002. When Jay Faerber and I were wrapping up “Venture,” Paul called me up, pitched me the story and I agreed to do it. the story is about a New Orleans Homicide detective, Jason Ash, who gets caught up in a war between factions of angels. It really is a very cool book, very dark and moody. The only reason I didn’t finish the series was, at the time, Humanoids was having payment issues. I had to supplement my work for them by taking on fill-in work at Marvel and DC. When I was finishing Book Two [of “Dominion,”] DC approached me to become the artist on “Firestorm.” So I was pencilling the first issue of “Firestorm,” and pencilling and inking the last 16 pages of Book Two. I hadn’tÂ heardÂ anything from Humanoids for almost half a year when they got in touch with me about Book Three. At that time I had been working on “Firestorm” for six issues and had no plans on leaving that book. And Humanoids wanted me to finish book three in half the time it took for me to do Book One and Two. Something had to give and I decided not to complete it.
When the new 52 was announced, your name was one of those notably missing from the lineup of creators. We now know “it’s because you’ve been drawing “The Ray.” I don’t know if you knew this, but it seems like an intimidating assignment given the last two artists to tackle a “The Ray” #1 were Howard Porter and Joe Quesada.
No more intimidating than being one of the guys to finish up a run on “Superman” following in the footsteps of Curt Swan. [Laughs] Howard’s a friend, so that’s cool company. And Joe Quesada is Joe Quesada, so there you go there. One of the things that helps is we’re taking a completely different spin with the characters. I don’t have to have that comparison hanging directly over my head of drawing another version of Ray Terrill or Happy Terrill. We created a whole new visual for the character and a whole new supporting cast for the character, so I think that will probably help a little bit. [Laughs]
As you said, the character is all new. Just who is the new Ray?
The new Ray is a twenty-two year-old professional lifeguard named Lucien Gates. He’s Korean. His adoptive parents are surfers and hippies. His best friend Darius is the son of a hip hop mogul. His girlfriend is a Hollywood executive. Basically, he gets hit by an experimental beam of light and gets superpowers and we’re off to the races.
How much freedom did you and Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have as far as designing this new character?
Everything that you guys see in the series is one hundred percent me. All of the design work, all the costume design, the designs for all the monsters and villains is all me. The initial costume discussion was me and Cully Hamner batting ideas back and forth over the course of a day coming up with something that we both liked. Everybody seemed to be okay with it until we heard back from Jimmy, who thought it was too busy. When Jimmy asked for something a little simplified, that’s when I came up with the version that you see in the book now. Everybody just immediately said, “That’s perfect, that’s where we need to go.”
This entire series really is me drawing comics the way that I think comics should be drawn. Designing things the way I think they should be designed. I’ve put everything that I can possibly put into these pages. There’s this level of detail, crazy monsters, aliens, supervillains. It’s a fun series. When I got the script for the first issue it was really obvious that Justin and Jimmy were thinking of me when they were writing this. Everything that’s in here is stuff that I love. I love designing monsters and aliens. I love being able to tell more human stories. The thing about the first issue is you will know whether or not you like Lucian Gates, not only as a hero, but as a person, by page fifteen. He’s warm. He’s funny. The book itself really is more in the vein of what Justin and Jimmy were doing on “Powergirl” where there’s a lot of really funny stuff going on, but at the same time there’s a sense of danger, a sense of menace, and there’s a lot of action in the book as well.
You mentioned that Jimmy had feedback on the costume design. Because he’s been an artist and editor, and has a good sense of art design, what has it been like working with him as a writer?
As far as feedback, he’s been really really open. The way that I work usually is that I will lay out the entire book before I even start drawing page one, so everybody from the writers to the editor have a clear idea of what I’m trying to do visually. As far as the design process goes, he really has been leaving it up to me to make the big creative decisions. I think the only time that there’s really been a lot of back and forth has been on the initial design of the costume.
Could you talk a little more about your process? You mentioned that you thumbnail and lay out the book before you pencil it.
I tend to be extremely methodical when it comes to layout and design. I like to read the script at least two or three times before I even start putting pen to paper. I will sit down and lay out the entire issue before I even start. The first day of the week I draw all the layouts for all the pages for that week and very rarely make changes in between. Usually, and more now than when I was younger, I have a very clear vision of what I want the book to look like. There are very few changes from the thumbnail stage to the final pencilled stages. And when I do make changes, I try to get them approved beforehand. Justin and Jimmy have been really open and really really good with whatever small, minor changes I’ve made in terms of storytelling.
Most of the time, once I get the script and I’ve given them the initial thumbnails, they don’t see the finished pages until I turn them in. It’s given me a lot of latitude in terms of drawing and giving me the space to draw. I don’t feel like I have to check every single little thing with them, but if there needs to be changes done afterwards, I have the flexibility to go in and make the changes according to what they ask. Really very, very minor changes have needed to happen. I didn’t get a piece of reference that somebody sent so I have to go in afterwards and change some clothing. For the most part it’s been a very smooth process.
I know that you’re still having conversations about your next project after “The Ray,” but I’m curious about your ambitions. Do you want to do more creator-owned work? Are you interested in writing?
I would like to write more. I’ve got some creator-owned projects that I’m going to be pitching very soon. Ultimately, I’m all about creativity and longevity. The idea in my head, really, is that I’m going to be working and in demand forty years from now. Hopefully. God-willing. [Laughs] I’ve got three or four creator-owned projects that are at various stages of development. I’ve got outside writing projects; I’m working on a screenplay with a friend of mine. I’ll hopefully get some more storyboarding work pretty soon.
I also wanted to ask your thoughts on people of color in comics. “The Ray” will hopefully be a step in the right direction, but while there are many minorities working in comics, we don’t necessarily see the world outside our windows reflected on the page.
I don’t think the reason we don’t see them on the page is intentional from the companies’ standpoint. I think that if they felt like more characters of color would sell better, that they’d be more willing to go in that route. As business entities, they’re going to go with what they think works and what they think will sell better. Unfortunately a lot of times characters of color just cannot get the traction that we would like for them to get for whatever reason. I don’t want to chalk it up to racism. It’s the same problem with female characters. There aren’t that many books with female leads, either.
We work in a culture where, unfortunately, stereotypes abound and stereotyping abounds. A lot of people don’t believe that certain characters can exist without being attached to another character, like Jim Rhodes or Batwing. They tried to do a new “Power Man and Iron Fist.” Jason Rusch is back in “Firestorm” and I’m hoping that that does well. You’ve got Jaime Reyes in the new “Blue Beetle” series. We’ve got “Black Panther” and I think the book is a good book, I just don’t know how it does. It’s not just comic books, it’s all media. It’s very hard to sell most media without a non-white lead attached. That’s what the prevailing idea in entertainment seems to be. A movie has to have a white lead in it or a white character in it to help the black lead along. I don’t know how we get past that or how we shake that idea.
Wrapping things up, do you have any advice for the younger you?
I know you think that things will never get better, that everything seems dire right now and you feel lost. All I can say to you that if you’re patient, if you stop trying to prove everyone wrong and start to realize you’re better than you think you are as a person, as an artist, as a son. If you allow yourself to feel the pain you need to feel, you will go further than you could imagine. You’ll see the world, you’ll find true love, you’ll become a part of history and you’ll learn to laugh again.
“The Ray” #1 by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Jamal Igle is on sale tomorrow.