Baby Boom: DeStefano talks 'Legion #9' and more

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DC Comics' "Legion" series is continuing to gain new readers each month and one of the big reasons has been series artist Olivier Coipel. But as Coipel himself admits, he isn't the fastest artist and he's already received help from Peter Snejbjerg on "Legion #5." With the arrival of "Legion #9" at the end of June, the series sees another guest artist come onboard: this time it's Stephen DeStefano. The industry veteran recently sat down with CBR to speak exclusively about his work on "Legion #9" and his unconventional career.

"I'm a cartoonist by profession," explains DeStefano. "At any given time I'm working in three different sections of the cartooning industry: Animation, Comic Books and Licensing (I've been the 'Popeye the Sailor' licensing artist---on everything from shirts to mugs, for about 15 years). I've worked in Comic Books the longest, having one-page humor gags printed in DC's old 'House of Mystery' comic back 20 or so years ago. Before that I started as a teenage 'gopher' at DC for a few summers, and before that I was a pain in the neck letter-writer, pestering then-DC production chief, Bob Rozakis. Bob was kind, and liked my work, and after a while, he let me know that DC was looking for an intern with talent who'd be interested in learning the business. I was lucky and got the job. I think I was 15 at the time."

"My first big comics work was in DC's ''Mazing Man,' which I co-created with writer Bob Rozakis. From there I worked on DC's 'Hero Hotline,' and Disney Comic's 'Mickey Mouse.' In 1992 I was offered a job in Animation on the original 'Ren and Stimpy Show,' and worked on that as a designer and storyboard artist for 3 years. I stayed in animation for a while, working on cartoons like 'Felix The Cat,' 'Beethovan,' 'Woody Woodpecker', the 'Hercules and Xena' direct-to-video feature, and single episodes of 'Batman,' 'Superman' and 'Batman Beyond.' Also, during my time working in-house at animation studios, I co-created 'Instant Piano,' an anthology comic book published by Dark Horse, featuring the work of Kyle Baker, Mark Badger, Evan Dorkin, Robbie Busch and myself. In the past few years, I've worked on or storyboarded a few pilots for the Cartoon Network, including Bill Wray's 'King Crab,' Chris Savino's 'Faux Paws,' Chris Reccardi and Charlie Bean's 'Imp Squad,' Evan Dorkin's 'Welcome To Eltingville,' and most recently Debra Solomon's 'Private-Eye Princess.'

['Mazing Man #1]"I've grown quite a bit since ''Mazing Man.' My style has evolved, and then evolved again as I find more things to be influenced by, and get more comfortable with my skills as a draughtsman. It hits home for me the most when people tell me they read ''Mazing Man,' then say, 'you're work has changed SO MUCH since then!' I'm pretty sure they're paying me a compliment (at least I hope they are!)."

Throughout his life, DeStefano has loved comic books and says it all boils down to one reason. "I've always loved to draw, and I really enjoy telling stories. In comics, I get to do both. Even though I love animation, I would have to say that comics are my preferred form of expression, because I can do it all by myself. The ideas are pure, fresh from my mind, onto the page and into someone else's mind. Animation's a great art form, but it takes, generally, at least 30 people to produce a cartoon the way I like to see them. I've seen extremely expressive and personal cartoons that have been produced that way, but it takes amazing force of will to accomplish them, and comics are just easier to navigate."

"When I was real little, I loved the Sunday Funnies. My favorites were Chester Gould's 'Dick Tracy,' because it was so creepy looking, Irwin Hasen's 'Dondi,' 'cause my mom loved that strip, and 'Blondie' by Chic Young, 'cause it always looked so perfect, so beautifully constructed, so complete. When I got a little older, into comic-books, I loved Jim Aparo's 'Brave and The Bold,' Dick Dillin's 'Justice League,' C.C Beck's 'Shazam' and anything by Jim Steranko, Johnny Romita, Frank Robbins or Jack Kirby. Then, when I was a little older than that, I was nuts about guys like George Perez, John Byrne, Micheal Golden and Marshal Rogers. And I thought anything inked by Terry Austin was, like, the sh*t. Today, I'd say a lot of the artists from that list still inspire me, with the inclusion of names like Floyd Gottfredson, Alex Toth, Milt Gross, Billy DeBeck, Carl Barks, Jesse Marsh, Harvey Kurtzman, Steve Ditko, Jack Cole, and E. C. Segar(the creator of 'Popeye the Sailor') who's probably my favorite of them all."

And it's the collective influence of all these great creators that led DeStefano to his current mindset regarding his artistic goals. "I think when I was younger I had fantasies about being a great artist. You know--an AHH-tist. Or an Arr-TEEST. Whichever. Now I mostly think of myself as a well-traveled crafts-person. I know my job, try and do it as well as I can, and always attempt to create a thing of beauty. Frequently, I consider myself something of a vaudevillian. A little song, a little dance, and if perhaps I've made you laugh, think, or even shed a tear, I'm content."

Just as DeStefano finds creative opportunities outside of comic books, so too does he find his inspiration outside of comic book creators. "Films, both live action and animated, are probably my biggest influence. I find that the great movie comedians are a constant source of inspiration and ideas for me. Guys like Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and the 3 Stooges worked so well visually, they moved so beautifully, and with such clarity. And the work of animation directors like Bob Clampett and Tex Avery constantly remind me to contort the figure, and push the emotion of the story I'm telling. At the moment, I can't really think of an example of how those things influenced a specific story, but they're always in my thoughts as I create."

While some fans of the Legion of Superheroes- originally introduced in the late 50's- have found themselves disillusioned with the Legion ever since their recreation in the early nineties (due to DC's universe changing "Zero Hour" event), DeStefano is one of those fans who has stuck with the franchise through all the highs and lows. "I'd love to work on the Legion again," exclaims the artist. "I'm a fan from way back. But probably the thing that most attracted me to working on the book is that Legion editor Mike McAvennie asked me to. I so rarely get invitations to draw superheroes, and I wasn't gonna turn the opportunity away!"

"There're several reasons why I've always liked the Legion. First of all, I always found it to be a real up-beat book. It's set in a future that's relatively peaceful and content. Sort of a Utopia. I thought it was a real change of pace from other books set in the future, which always seemed to picture our tomorrow as being ugly, and post-apocalyptic. Of course, I understand the apocalyptic vision, I just thought the Legion's world seemed more hopeful. And their world was always so clean! Artists, when I was a kid, always drew everything with a gleam on it. Everything was shining, sparkling. The artists were great! Curt Swan did some of his best work of the 60's on that book, Dave Cockrum's work was a lotta fun, and Mike Grell, Jim Sherman and Keith Giffen all did a great job. When I first noticed the book, Mike Grell was the artist, and my favorite thing about his art, his vision of the 30th Century, was that he theorized that women would always be wearing bikinis. Night and Day, Rain or Shine. I thought that was killer. That's probably the first thing that attracted me as a 10 year old to the Legion."

But for those fans who are only used to seeing the Legion brought to life under the detailed and fresh penciling of series artist Olivier Coipel, DeStefano's cartoony approach may come as quite a shock. "I had a lot of comics in front of me while I was drawing that issue. Mostly comics by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Jim Steranko, three of my favorite superhero artists. I also had some of Art Adam's work and recent issues of 'Legion' in front of me, trying to keep my drawings fresh and looking somewhat up to date. The style's pretty light. When editor Mike McAvennie invited me to work on the issue, he explained that the focus of the story was a baby floating through a space ship, and that he thought I would do a good job. I hope I did!"

How does he think fans will react to the work? "They'll like it, I hope," answers DeStefano. "If the style weren't suited for the story, they might have a harder time accepting it. But as I said before, it IS about a baby floating through a space-ship!"

[Cover]For those who are curious, DC's official website describes the story of "Legion #9" with this teaser: "Apparition is en route to Earth to reunite with long-lost husband Ultra Boy and introduce him to the baby son he's never met. Unfortunately, the spacecraft she's traveling in has gone on the fritz, she uncovers a mystery that means imminent trouble for the Legion and Earth, and travel companion-turned-babysitter Timber Wolf finds bringing up this baby is more than he bargained for!"

Despite any worries he may have about fan reaction, DeStefano says that the experience on "Legion" has been a lot of fun and he enjoyed the challenges it presented. "The easiest part of 'Legion #9,' for me, was the storytelling. In comics, that's always the most fun for me anyway, and I layed out this story pretty darn quickly. I had to, because the deadline was so tight! That was the hardest part of 'Legion 9'---getting the book done on time, practically an entire 22 page book in 3 weeks, pencils and inks! I was halfway through the an issue of 'Dexter's Laboratory' for DC editor Joan Hilty, when Mike called me and said he'd very much like for me to do all the art for 'Legion #9,' but he needed it turned around very quickly. We negotiated time a bit; Mike was very gracious and generous. By the time I finished 'Dexter' I was pooped, but I was still real jazzed about working on the Legion, and tried my best. It was exhausting, but worth it, I hope."

"The two main characters are Apparition and Timber Wolf. In order to give Apparition a ghostly feel, I drew her with constantly flowing lines, and stylized her in an almost flat way, with very little detail. I wanted to give the impression that you could nearly see through her. For Timber Wolf, there's lots of detail. Lots of hair, lots of crags in his jacket, lots of muscle--gristle, really. I wanted him to have an earthy feel. You should practically smell him when you see him. Hopefully, the look of each character plays off the other nicely."

DeStefano's passion for his work is apparent as is his unique approach to drawing comics, but in this day and age where writers seem to be the stars of comics, one must wonder if there is even more pressure on artists to "blow away" audiences. "If there is any pressure, I feel it may be coming from ourselves, as part of the industry's evolution," purports DeStefano. "It's just natural to look for a new way of doing things, to feel like you're growing, expanding. Joe Schuster's Superman was great in the 40's--(I think it's great today, personally). Then in the 60's, Jack Kirby felt he could build upon that, with intense 'psychedelia,' and all of the other extraordinary things Jack could do. In the 70's, Neal Adams added a photo-realistic sensibility. I don't know where we as artists are headed now, but we're probably on our way!"

Beyond the Legion, DeStefano would love to illustrate more DC heroes and isn't shy about sharing his dream DC projects with readers. "I'd love to do a Capt. Marvel story, I was always crazy about that character. Another of my DC favorites is Plastic Man. Even though I did draw the origin of Plas for DC many years ago, I'd still jump at another chance to draw him. And anything to do with the Justice Society, or any other Golden Age character, I'd be totally jazzed to work on. But still, my favorite character is Batman, and maybe someday I'll get a chance to draw him, outside of the bit of a Killer Croc episode I storyboarded for WB Animation. I don't think a day goes by when my inner 10 year old doesn't scream, 'I WANNA DRAW BATMAN, I WANNA DRAW BATMAN!'---Pesky 10 year old."

Despite DeStefano's plethora of dream projects at DC and his genuine love for the industry, he believes that the industry still has a way to go before it really hit it's stride. "In my opinion, I feel like the creators of mainstream comics need to focus on clarity. Often when I pick up a comic book today, I feel totally lost. For example, many stories are in the middle of some tremendous arc, and when I search for explanations about where the characters have been for the last few issues, or even WHO some of the characters are, I'm left hanging. Similarly, I find a lot of the art confusing. Artists seem to very rarely use gutters (spaces between panel borders) any more, making the page seem like one big poster shot, instead of a flow or continuity of pictures to read. I simply don't know where to look. Characters often seem to be leaping right at me, with a lot of speed lines around them, which I suppose seems exciting. But I never know where it is they're rushing to, I don't get a sense of where they are, or what's happening around them, making their leaping seem much less believable."

"To me, mainstream comics today seem like a tremendous club, or fraternity, and if you don't know the by-laws, the secret handshakes and what not, you're really not welcome to join. There seems to be very little that's inviting in comics today. When I was growing up, superhero comics would start with a short caption detailing the origin of the hero on page one. Also on page one would be a recap of the previous issue, if it were a multi-issue epic. Nowadays, it seems like a given that you know who all the characters are, and where they've been, and if you don't, it's sink or swim. I'm not entirely sure why this combative stance--that's how it seems to me-- toward newer audiences, younger readers has been taken, but I really can't imagine that it's healthy for the business. I hope superheroes will always be around, because I really like superhero comics. It's odd to me that a film like 'Spider-Man' should do so well, and yet the comics industry seems a bit anemic right now. Again, I'm not sure what the answer is, but when people tell me that they saw 'Spider-Man,' I tell them they might enjoy reading the first years worth of Steve Ditko's run on the original comic book. Whether they liked the film or not, those 12 issues are wonderfully told, simple stories that are incredibly entertaining and engaging."

While DeStefano is loathe to try and predict the next big trend in the industry that could bring in new readers, he does see some creators whose efforts are helping the medium tremendously. "Gosh, at the moment I can't really think of any big trends. But, I can think of specific creators actively working in or around the field who're having an impact. Dan Clowes and Chris Ware are getting the kind of attention and accolades from the mainstream press that only reflects well on the industry. Guys like Chip Kidd, Genndy Tartakovsky and Michael Chabon are important, cuz even though they may or may not work directly in the industry, they've expressed clear interest and affection for comics, which calls attention to the artform. And someone like my pal Evan Dorkin is real important, because Evan loves the comic-book culture so much, but also knows how to communicate both its silliness and seriousness to the uninitiated public."

It may surprise many, but DeStefano isn't an avid follower of most current comics and prefers older material. "I mostly read old stuff. Right now I'm reading a translation of Osamu Tezuka's 'Phoenix,' which is truly amazing, I dunno why it's only now, years after his death, that some of Tezuka's stuff's finally being translated. And I love reading old newspaper strips, clipped and collected out of vintage newspapers. I'm reading a 'Dickie Dare' continuity from the late 30's by Coulton Waugh, and a series of Sunday Strips by Sidney Smith for his comic strip, the 'Gumps.' They're both amazing."

If you're already a fan of DeStefano's work or intrigued by the three page "Legion #9" preview that appeared exclusively on CBR recently, you'll be happy to know that DeStefano is one busy artist. "Well, for those of you who enjoy my work, on sale the same week as 'Legion #9' is an issue of 'Dexter's Laboratory' that I drew. It's issue #30, a 22 page story, and I'm extremely proud of it, it may be the finest work I've ever done (please take a look at it, and let me know what you think, won't you?) I haven't done much animation in a while, so there may not be any cartoons to look for with my name on them in the near future. In licensing, I've completed a very cool 'Retro Popeye' style guide for the King Features syndicate, which stars a more 1950's looking Popeye, as opposed to the 1930's/Fleischer Studio's Popeye that I usually draw for them. Also in licensing, I'm working on a 'Betty Boop' style guide, again for King Features, and a 'Jimmy Neutron' children's book for Simon and Schuster. In comics, I've just completed a 'Jimmy Neutron' 2-page gag for Nickelodeon magazine, and am currently inking a 'Courage the Cowardly Dog' story I penciled some time ago for DC Comics. After that, there's nothing definite, but a lot of possibilities, so please stay tuned for further developments."

"I think what I'd like to say to my fans is what I'd like to say to those readers who don't much like a cartoony approach to comics, and that is to keep an open mind. If you don't like humor comics, well, I guess you just don't, but at least give one a chance, you might find yourself really enjoying it. And if you like my work, I thank you, and invite you to come along with me as my style changes and grows. It might get a little hairy, because I'm not comfortable with my work unless I'm challenging myself, and taking risks. I could end up creating some crummy work, but it's not for lack of trying!"

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