Shirtless. Bear. Fighter.
It’s a good bet no one in attendance at Image Comics’ announcements-filled panel at Emerald City Comicon last month expected to hear that combination of words, especially in that order. But, oh, they did.
If you haven’t heard by now, “Shirtless Bear Fighter” is a new comic book series from the writing team of Jody LeHeup & Sebastian Girner, alongside artists Nil Vendrell and Mike Spicer. The title tells you everything you need to know about the June-debuting series — or does it? While, yes, the series does indeed star a Shirtless Bear-Fighter — whose first name is actually “Shirtless,” and fights the ursine mammals after being betrayed by the bears who raised him — the writers make it clear that the series “isn’t just jokes and bear-punches,” it’s also got a strong emotional core to it about the journey of a flawed, shirtless protagonist.
CBR spoke with LeHeup and Girner — both former editors at Marvel — to uncover more on “Shirtless Bear-Fighter,” the title character’s opinion on pants, and their desire to elicit responses ranging from “WTF is this?” to ““Damn, comics are the best!” Plus, an exclusive look inside “Shirtless Bear-Fighter” #1.
CBR: Jody, Sebastian: Let’s start with the question I’m sure everyone has on their mind right now. The comic is called “Shirtless Bear-Fighter,” but in these preview pages, he’s also pantsless. At what point does he acquire pants, and is that a major story beat? (I don’t want to spoil anything if so!)
Jody LeHeup: When we first meet Shirtless he is indeed rocking his hard-bodied birthday suit. He’s a wildman, living in the forest, eating flapjacks and punching bears. He has nothing to do with the world of humans at all, so why wear pants? They’re a prison for the loins! But, when Shirtless rejoins the urban front of the War on Bearror he (reluctantly) agrees to put on some pants for the love of god.
Sebastian Girner: It’s like the first time Batman puts on the cowl! Only in our case it’s an angry naked dude pulling on a pair of torn-up slacks using old rope as a belt… which is obviously way cooler. That’s right! Shots fired at DC! Come @ us, bros! (Nothing sells comics like a little drama.)
Image Comics has been known over recent years for classy, high-concept sci-fi or fantasy series. Which is not to say that “Shirtless Bear-Fighter” isn’t all of those things, but it it does appear to be… different. What was the pitching process like for this book?
Girner: I think the title of the book gave us confidence that we’d at least get our foot in the door, and a chance to say our piece. It’s so evocative and attention-grabbing! Most people’s first impression of the book is going to see the title and cover art, smile, and go, “WTF is this?” and we courted that reaction. Because we want to surprise readers with how much more there is to the book. And I think that’s the thing that squared it for Image.
LeHeup: Once you read the book you’ll discover that while, yeah, it’s pretty bonkers in the best possible way, there’s also a method to it. We’re riffing off a lot of classic genre tropes from ’80s action flicks to ancient myths to superhero fiction to tall tales and others… even a little film noir in there. And all that stuff isn’t strange at all. At least for most comics readers who know those influences by heart.
That said, Image was super down from the beginning. Especially when they saw that oh, by the way we’re telling an awesome story and our art team is amazing. Why did Image pick up “Shirtless Bear-Fighter”? Because it’s a great comic. Full stop.
Definitely want to hear more about the tone of this series. While it certainly looks like a good time and you’re having a lot of fun with the concept, since the first press on it, it’s been clear that there’s something of a more serious side to it — or at the very least a genuine emotional core. How do you define the tone of this series?
LeHeup: What’s so fun about this book is that there really is something for everyone in it. If you want to read a big, bombastic, high energy fight-book then “SBF” is for you. If you like comedy and gags and outright hilarity “SBF” is for you too. But “Shirtless Bear-Fighter!” isn’t just jokes and bear-punches. It’s also the story of a flawed hero’s quest for redemption. It’s about an angry man, bent on revenge whose obsession endangers the ones he loves. And unless he changes he’ll lose everything he didn’t even know he had. In that sense there’s some drama to our tall tale as well. But rather than creating dissonance, the different tones harmonize.
Girner: We set out to create a comic that had everything that we personally love from the medium. To blend humor, action, drama, catharsis in a way that leaves the reader feeling like “Damn, comics are the best!” To hit that nerve that you had as a kid or teen when you read something you just have to show someone else. That pinnacle of excitement and joy.
The main character is actually named Shirtless, which is great. What other qualities do you like about this main character? How do you make the audience root for a Shirtless Bear-Fighter?
Girner: I love how angry he is. On the surface, anger is such a funny emotion. Like those Winnebago Man videos, where you can just soak in this poor man’s word-defying rage at being stuck in this situation: shooting a tacky RV promo in some swamp somewhere “under that goddamn hotlight!”
LeHeup: But that’s the thing, right? You watch the Winnebago man freaking out and it’s hilarious… but you also really feel for the guy because you totally know what it’s like to be in his situation. So it is with Shirtless. We all know what it feels like to be angry… to experience loss… to want to get even with someone… And we know the pain of acting on those emotions without thinking things through and hurting the ones we care about. It’s something we can all relate to.
Nil Vendrell and Mike Spicer are bringing this series to visual life. What did you see in them that made them perfect for this book — other than the ability to draw bears?
Girner: As we said above, SBF’s tone is pretty unique. It’s relentlessly silly on the surface, but there are moments of real gravitas in there that are accentuated by all the gonzo stuff surrounding it. So we needed an art team that could do it all, and that’s a tall order.
LeHeup: Definitely. It’s a deceptively difficult book to draw. You need the action chops to pull off powerful, dynamic fight scenes but you also need to understand comedic timing, storytelling, and acting. SBF requires a diverse artistic skill set and fortunately for us, Nil has it in spades. The man is a monster talent and we’re thrilled to be working with him on “Shirtless Bear-Fighter!”
Girner: Mike Spicer’s outstanding on this as well. His colors on Nil give the book such a fun, animated feel. Together they make a book we’d be happy to give to absolutely anyone, no matter if they’re die-hard nerds or first-time comic book readers.
I’ve known you both as editors at Valiant and Marvel, but this is your first comics writing credits — and with an Image series, you’re not starting out small. Tell me more about the path for you both, as professionals and partners, to this series — was writing always the goal in comics? How involved are you on the editing side, compared to the focus on writing?
LeHeup: Right well, for those who don’t know I used to edit in the X-Office at Marvel. That’s actually where Sebastian and I met. I edited Rick [Remender], Jerome [Opeña] and Dean [White]’s “Uncanny X-Force,” “Deadpool,” and other stuff like the “Strange Tales” anthologies. Then over at Valiant I edited the “Quantum and Woody” relaunch. I became an editor because I loved comics and wanted to help people tell their stories. But I was writing before I was editing and returning to writing was always the goal. I learned so much as an editor… not a day goes by I don’t use that training… but now I use it to tell stories of my own. “SBF” is one of them. Hopefully we’ll be announcing another one this year.
Girner: I’m still pretty deep into the editing side of things. Currently I’m the editor of Rick Remender’s line of creator-owned Image titles as well as “Southern Bastards,” “The Goddamned,” “Drifter,” “Renato Jones: The One%” and a bunch of others. I’m very fortunate to have worked myself into a position where I can work with the creators and teams on books like that as editor, and then carve time out each day to work on my own writing projects. Just like Jody, I have something that is quite a ways along, actually. Busy times. Maybe the scales will tip one day and I’ll find myself writing more than editing? It’s possible, but I would love to keep doing both.
And I’m fairly genuinely curious: Are you worried that the man-on-bear violence may raise the ire of PETA or the like?
Girner: We also have Man-on-Half-Man-Half-Pig violence, Woman-disguised-as-bear-on-bear-disguised as-man violence, Bear-on-Toilet Robot violence, we run the gamut! But ultimately, PETA (or any lovers of nature’s creatures, large or small) have nothing to worry about!
LeHeup: Yeah, if someone reads this book and tries to punch a bear in the face they’re probably only gonna do it once. Bear-Fighting’s its own deterrent. Best to leave it to the professionals!
“Shirtless Bear-Fighter” #1 is scheduled for release on June 21 from Image Comics.