In THE LIGHTBOX, a four-part series running all week, CBR speaks with some of comics’ biggest, most distinctive artists about their process and how they approach art and design in their work.
Brian Stelfreeze is probably better known to comic fans as a cover artist than he is a sequential storyteller, but as readers of BOOM! Studios’ ongoing “Day Men” are currently discovering, he’s one of the best in the business.
A founding member of Gaijin Studios, which was home to a who’s who of comics biggest artists including Adam Hughes, Dave Johnson, Tony Harris, Cully Hamner, Jason Pearson and more, Stelfreeze is an industry veteran. For over four years, his work greeted Batman fans on a monthly basis, illustrating 50 consecutive covers DC Comics’ “Batman: Shadow of the Bat.” He’s drawn numerous projects over his 25 years in the comic industry including “Domino” at Marvel, “The Ride” at 12-Gauge Comics, “Matador” at Wildstorm and “The Demon and Catwoman” feature in DC’s Eisner Award-nominated “Wednesday Comics.”
Last fall, Stelfreeze attracted a lot of online attention — and probably more than a few new fans — when he posted redesigns of DC’s Crime Syndicate. His take on the characters was very different, but managed to be true to the spirit of DC’s evil superteam. He also made his return to pencilling interiors last summer, taking on vampire noir “Day Men” at BOOM! Studios.
In his LIGHTBOX interview, Stelfreeze discusses his thought process in developing those redesigns, how his perspective on comic books has changed over the years and his ideal collaborative situation. We touch on the still-evolving approach toward depicting people of color in comics, the timelessness of Batman’s design and which of his own character designs is his favorite. He also walks CBR through a page from “Day Men,” from thumbnails to inks, and explains how the project is different from those he’s been a part of in the past.
CBR News: How do you think about comics and how that perspective has changed over the years?
Brian Stelfreeze: Much like every artist or every creator, I got into comics as a kid and the most important thing was the “bang zoom” of it. As many explosions as possible. If Bruckheimer was to do a comic book, in my opinion, that would have been the most awesome comic book of all time. I wanted things to be really big and glorious and pyrotechnical with lots of physical stuff happening.
As I’ve grown as a creator, I feel that I want to tread in deeper waters and have a lot more going on emotionally with the characters. That’s my appreciation for comics as a creator and a consumer as well. I’m more into stories that don’t just bounce off the surface, but go a little bit deeper.
Along those lines, what do you look for in a project or collaborator?
In a collaborator, I always look for someone who’s going to push me a little bit. I like when I hear a story and I don’t immediately know what I want to do. When I hear a story and it requires me to really think about it, it requires me to — in a sense — invent new tools to do that story. That’s the stuff that I’m most excited about. There’s an attitude that I have where I bring the art to the table and the writer brings the writing to the table, but neither of us brings the story to the table. The story is something that only happens with the combination of both of us. I look for a creator who’s willing to kind of sacrifice a little ego for the good of the story, and I try my best to do that as well.
What was it about “Day Men” that attracted you to the project?
The funny thing about “Day Men” is, nothing about it appealed to me initially. When Filip Sablik said, it’s a vampire story, I immediately was like, “Oh, God.” [Laughs]
I really didn’t know Matt Gagnon and Michael Nelson. Not only did I not know those guys, but I didn’t know guys that knew them as creators. A lot of us artists, we run to other artists and go, what was it like to work with this guy? The cool thing about it is that I think Filip understood, “I’ve lost you,” but he kept on speaking and then the real stuff came out. The fact that it’s a vampire story that’s not about vampires, necessarily. Vampires are there, but to me, it struck me as a true film noir.
In noir movies, you had a war going on. The movies would often allude to the war, but often they wouldn’t deal with it directly. It was like, “We’re doing stories that are right next to the elephant in the room,” and “Day Men” struck me as that type of story. I immediately thought, this seems like an opportunity to do an homage to the film noir movies I like. Once I got the initial story, I was like, this seems really cool. I went out to California and hung out with Matt and Michael, and the thing that blew me away more than anything else is that, more than any project I’ve ever worked on, they took the project to a certain place — and then they stopped. Then they brought me in, and we continued going with it. It was so much fun to have those guys tell me stuff that they’d like to see visually, and for me to tell them stuff that I think of on a plot level. It was really cool, because we all got involved. Those guys are not only the writers — they’re the artists, to a certain extent. I consider myself the main art team, but also part of the writing team. It’s an extraordinarily collaborative process. I think it’s the most creative project I’ve ever been involved with.
You obviously like being a collaborator as opposed to simply a hired artist.
Yeah. I hate making broad proclamations, but I think that, to a certain extent, the separation of art and writing has hurt comics, because a lot of times the artists are in the position of — they’re grocery clerks. They have to get the stuff that the writers are asking for, and that’s it. They’re not participating. When I first got into comics, there were two writing styles. There was DC, which was full plot with full dialogue, and then there was Marvel style, where you get a loose plot and then you’d do the art and then the writer would come back and do a dialogue pass after the art was done. I think when everyone went to doing full plot, that really hurt comics because now the artists are not participating in the process that much. Like with Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] or Stan and [Steve] Ditko, where Stan would write, “Over the next five pages, this happens,” and the artists really had to visualize how to make it happen and discover creative ways of making that event happen.
You’re mostly known for miniseries, covers and design work, but “Day Men” is an ongoing series. What made you take on such an open-ended project?
It’s pure story. I think I would have been interested in doing ongoing series in the past, but the thing that I’m always looking for is something that’s going to hold my interest for a long time. It is a tremendous amount of work to do interior work — especially if you’re someone who’s going to really try to be passionate about it and involve yourself in it. You need something that’s going to hold your attention for a long time, otherwise you’ll just turn your brain out and push pages out and they’re not inspired. I’m lucky, but also damned, with this need to try to do something on every page.
Walk us through your process. How do you assemble “Day Men?”
The process for “Day Men” is the most confusing process — and a lot of this is me — but I think it’s a really creative process. I get the script and I do my layouts. My layouts are done at full page size; it’s more cartoony than the work ends up being, but it’s my way of doing the storytelling and how the characters are going to move around the page. Because I have the dialogue in front of me I place the word balloons because I think that’s an integral part of the storytelling.
After the page is finished, before it gets to the letterer, Matt and Mike highjack it and they react to what I’ve done. If they feel that something needs to be fleshed out a little more, they’ll add or move around dialogue. Or, if they feel I conveyed it, they’ll cut dialogue. Then it goes to the letterer and then it comes back to me and I react to the new dialogue. [Laughs]
It’s cool, because I see exactly how much space I have to work with. If the word balloon is a little bigger than I anticipated, then I can move the characters and adjust the storytelling to fit the word balloons. I always hate it when I’ll do a piece of art and the writer places a word balloon right over something that’s really important to the storytelling. Like, I was planning on that gun being in the background so the reader will notice it because it’s going to be important later in the story. That doesn’t happen here. After that’s finished, it goes to the colorist and after Darrin [Moore] finishes it, all of us stand over his colors and approve things or make minor changes. From there, it goes to print.
Have you worked in a similar way before, or is this something new for you?
This is something relatively new. There’s a couple of times I’ve worked with Scott Peterson and Devin Grayson and they’re a whole lot of fun to work with. They really enjoy the collaborative process as much as I do. On those occasions, I’ve really had a great time.
On “Day Men,” where you’re working with new characters and a new world, do you approach or think about it differently than when you work on established characters?
It’s a completely different thing. At [Gaijin Studios], we used to say there are artists who are actors, and there are artists who are stars. Those guys are like Jack Nicholson. It doesn’t matter what role you put him in, he’s going to be Jack Nicholson, and he’s going to be awesome for it. But there are other actors, like Gary Oldman or Matt Damon, they change who they are to fit the role. We consider those folks actors. As a comic book artist, I consider myself more of an actor in that every project I do, I try to think of, what does the project need? Does the project need to be more cartoony? Does it to be more naturalistic? Does the art need to move fast or move slow? What needs to happen to make it the best the project can be rather than how to make the project in my style?
In general, when designing, is there a point where you step back and say, this isn’t practical or makes sense, even, but it works, for one reason or another?
That constantly happens. That’s the thing that, artistically, you have to really work out. You can’t just do naturalistic comics because, well, they look boring. [Laughs] You would do a comic book that ends up looking like a fumetti, and to this day I don’t think there is a good fumetti. What you have to do is balance the subjective versus the objective. I like trying to be as believable as possible, but not necessarily as real as possible. How far can I push this to where it’s not going to call attention to itself as being subjective?
When I did “Domino,” I could be a little more cartoony with that because that was a bombastic character and it was we were playing with lot of people running away from explosions so I could push that subjective side of things. I worked on “Gun Candy” with Doug Wagner, which is a dark comedy, and the fact that it’s a comedy means you can go overboard. In “Day Men,” it’s more naturalistic, so I’m not bending things too cartoony in this. It’s really coming up with the style for the project and the design for the characters and thinking in terms of what are the physics of the world the characters are living in and what are the limitations. Like — my Batman is completely unrealistic. [Laughs] I don’t really see Batman as something that’s too real.
I think I could write a book about the divide between more realistic and more fantastic depictions of Batman.
Oh, yeah. And it’s cool, because there are certain characters like Batman that allow that. That one was one of the fun things about doing “Shadow of the Bat” covers. You have a character that everyone perceives differently, so I can do one cover where the character is a little bit more of a spectre. I can do another cover where the character is a guy in a suit.
Batman is one of just a few characters you can do in twenty different styles and he’s still instantly recognizable.
That alone, I think, is one of the huge benefits of the comics industry that makes it so different from every other industry. In every other industry, there’s this thing called “model.” When you’re working in animation, things have to be “on model.” The times that I’ve worked for Disney, they are brutal about things being on model. It doesn’t matter who draws Mickey Mouse, it looks like one guy draws Mickey Mouse, and that guy has been drawing Mickey Mouse for the last hundred years. But in comics, you’re allowed to interpret things. The cool thing about comics is people expect your interpretation, people want your interpretation of things.
What’s a character you’ve designed that you like or you think works, or there’s just something about the character you like.
That would have to be Nightwing. When [DC Comics] asked me to do the design for Nightwing, it was really a fun time, and they gave me pretty much no instruction. Just go with whatever you think is cool. It was fun to sit down and go, okay, this is Batman’s apprentice. Now he’s off on his own, so he wants to have his own thing. As a comic book fanboy, what’s running through my head is all the Robin stuff and all the Teen Titans stuff. It was really cool to sit back and design a character that’s very practical, that isn’t so crazy. No giant cape and all of that stuff.
Late last year, you posted redesigns for DC’s Crime Syndicate. Are you regularly just randomly daydreaming and sketching something like that out?
Oh, yeah. That is the comic book shop conversation, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” The Crime Syndicate stuff was just so much fun to sit back and, rather than going too straight and narrow on this, let’s think outside the box on some of these characters and think of something fun.
So you have these thoughts a lot, you just don’t necessarily draw it or if you do draw it, you just don’t post it online.
Yeah. I’ve drawn a lot more than I’ve posted online. That one, my friend Robert Jewell and I were talking and he said, you ought to put these online. It’s something that got a good response, so we might revisit doing that.
Do you have a favorite design of those?
Among those, it has to be Johnny Quick. Primarily because the Flash, to me, is the most innocuous and wimpy character that there is. [Laughs] I mean, as far as a paper thin character is concerned, you can’t go far beyond the Flash. I mean, he has the ability to run really fast. That just seems so passive to me. The whole challenge there was to do a character whose ability is to run fast, but you immediately think, “Oh, my God — that’s dangerous.” Johnny Quick was the result of that. I don’t think anybody thinks that about the Flash.
I wanted to ask about Superwoman, which I loved, and this may be a touchy subject, but we don’t see many characters who look like that. I’m curious about your perspective, having been around for a few years, about how things have changed for characters of color and creators of color.
I think things have changed relatively dramatically. The thing that’s changed is that when character of color were being illustrated before, they were always stereotypes and cliches. A lot of times, it was from people who didn’t understand that culture, just doing the absolute worst of the cliches. Me and my friends always used to laugh about Luke Cage because it’s the most racist, white person’s perspective of a black guy. He’s got iron hide and his name is Cage and he wears shackles. [Laughs] That’s about as offensive as you can possibly get. But because it’s during the blaxploitation time, even though the character should be offensive, there’s something cool about him. You have a lot of characters who are like that. These characters who are really very stereotypical, and now you have characters who are a little more diverse. They’re characters who happen to be black, rather than black characters.
I was in the studio when Cully [Hamner] did “Blue Beetle,” and it was really cool to see the subtlety of how they treated a Hispanic character. The character was Latino, but he wasn’t stereotypically Latino. He didn’t live in the barrio or wear headbands. It was cool to see that. When Devin [Grayson] and I did “Matador,” we made the decision to set the story in Little Havana. I got the opportunity to hook up with George, this Cuban friend of mine, and go to Little Havana and hang out with him and drive around. He was telling me a little about the culture. That’s a lot of work, but at the same time, that work forces respect. I don’t know anything about living in Little Havana. I don’t know anything about Cuban culture, but if I’m going to depict it, I should try to pay as much attention to it as possible. I think more and more, creators are feeling that way. The diversity of the country is forcing that. More people now know more people.
What’s a comic or a comic character that you think is well-designed?
I’m going to have to go back to Batman on that one. Mainly because Batman has stood the test of time. There are certain characters that I think you know when the design is just right, because we all wait for them to go back to the original. With Batman, every once in a while people will make a decision to change the character and the fans are like, okay, do what you have to do — because we know you’re eventually going to go back. Wonder Woman — you know they’re going to go back to the star-spangled tights. Just don’t even worry about it. I think Batman is one of those characters that, in his inception, he was so simply designed and so clean — which is not like a lot of the characters that were designed around that time. Batman has not really been improved over the years. It’s been tweaked, but there hasn’t been a massive sweep to Batman that’s irrevocably changed the character. If it was put to just about any artist, okay, redesign Batman and come up with something cooler — they couldn’t do it. Every time they make a big change to Black Canary, we’re like, okay, go ahead. We all know what’s eventually going to happen so just get it out of your system.
She’s another character where her outfit and the design are not at all practical.
No. It’s not practical at all. Again, it’s in line with the stories you’re going to tell. Black Canary should not be involved in a story about child slavery and drugs. It’s not really that character’s arena. But if you’re going to do some silly good girl stuff, Black Canary is where you want to be. I think, when you take a character that’s obviously cheesecake and you try to place that character in a serious type of story, it just doesn’t work. I think Superman is limited to the types of stories you can tell. I think one of the failures of the Superman movie [“Man of Steel”] is that they’re trying to tell this really nuanced, serious story with Superman, and Superman is a character that should be dealing with black and white and that’s it. Batman is a character that deals with black and dark gray, and that’s it.
As you said before, and some people disagree, but Batman is not realistic.
It’s not realistic, and it shouldn’t be treated as realistic. What’s funny is that as a fanboy we have to watch it sometimes because as a fanboy we totally accept it. [Laughs] I hear a lot of the fan voices going, Wolverine should be in the yellow costume. That would be totally fine to a hardcore fanboy — but seriously. [Laughs] If we can get our fanboy out of there and look at things realistically that would look really Sid and Marty Croft if you had Hugh Jackman running around in a bright yellow suit. Would you question the military being in bright yellow spandex? I think often times as a fanboy, you have to really sit back and say, am I being realistic, or is this just the result of my religion?