Conversing on Comics with Nate Bellegarde

When Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson came up with the idea for Nowhere Men, he knew not just any comic artist could handle the project. Luckily for him, Nate Bellegarde isn't just any comic artist.

Based in Boston, Bellegarde clawed his way into comics at an early age, making his professional debut at age 16 with a back-up strip in Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore's Battle Pope. He continued his association with Kirkman, providing back-ups for early issues of Invincible with Benito Cereno before segueing to their own standalone series with Hector Plasm. Bellegarde kept busy doing the first volume of Tim Seeley's Loaded Bible before being enlisted by Kirkman for Invincible spinoff books like Brit and Invincible Presents: Atom Eve & Rex Splode. His art had the crisp, clear style of his colleagues Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, but his linework betrayed a more subversive subtext. Each of his previous projects seemed to capitalize on part of the skill set Bellegarde had been honing over the years, but never quite captured all of it at once -- until Nowhere Men.

Mixing the interpersonal conflicts of science projects like The Right Stuff with more esoteric fiction constructs like the best of Franco-Belgian comics (and a side of British Invasion-era music), Nowhere Men is an uncommon, and uncompromising, piece of work. With three issues on stands and the fourth due March 6, I spoke with Bellegarde about Nowhere Men and its role in his pursuit of a life in comics.

Chris Arrant: What are you working on today?

Nate Bellegarde: I just sent a couple pages of Nowhere Men #4 off to colorist Jordie Bellaire, I am making changes to some layouts based on feedback from Eric, and when I am finished with that I am going to pencil and ink a two-page spread before I allow myself to go to sleep. I'm putting myself into a sort of nightmare difficulty mode so I can look forward to a long line of days a lot like this on the horizon. Hooray!

For many people, Nowhere Men is the first time they’ve seen your work, but you have a long history in comics, especially at Image and especially alongside Robert Kirkman. Can you tell us when you felt like you’d “broken” into comics?

Hmm, that's tricky since I feel like I have just been trickling into comics over the past 10 years. Hector Plasm has its loyal and patient fans but did not sell very well. Brit was less popular than Invincible, and I came onto the book well after a lot of readers were turned off by how "weird" it was. Atom Eve and Rex Splode was the last thing I worked on, and that isn't going to reach anyone who doesn't already read Invincible. I guess I have been a hard guy to notice up until now.

I first discovered your work in back-up stories inside early issues of Invincible, and I remember Eric Stephenson doing an early version of Nowhere Men there long, long ago. How did you and Eric connect to bring that back and re-invent it as it is today?

It was a few years ago. Eric was in Kentucky and drove to Baltimore Comic-Con with Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker and myself. In one of the hotel bars during that show he asked if I was interested in working with him on Nowhere Men. Since those original Nowhere Men pages that appeared in Invincible were colored by Hector Plasm colorist Jacob Baake, I was familiar with it. In the time between those original pages and when I came on board, Eric had a few new ideas he wanted to roll into the book, and I am a real sucker for any opportunity to do world-building so it sounded great. But that was at least three years ago, and even though we had those concepts and goals in mind we had no idea what the book would become at this point now. Especially with Jordie and Steven Finch of Fonografiks by our side.

I considered you a great artist with a strong leaning toward humor, from those Invincible strips over to Hector Plasm, but Nowhere Men seems to lean more cerebral. What made Nowhere Men a project you wanted to do?

Well, as I mentioned, I really enjoy world-building and the idea of an alternate history resulting in a present-day world that is more advanced than our own, not just technologically but also culturally, was a big draw. We've been pretty tight-lipped about where the book is headed, and a large part of the appeal involves things that have yet to be revealed to readers. Another part of it, like you said, the book is different from what I've done before and that poses a nice challenge for me and I enjoy pushing myself to new places.

How do you describe Nowhere Men to people you meet who aren’t familiar with it, or even comics?

I usually start with the premise, how in the last century four prodigious scientists with popularity/fame levels sort of on par with Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking join forces and found a company with the singular goal of improving the world, and that sort of ushers in a new age of enlightenment where scientists and researchers are revered over actors and musicians and athletes. And if their eyes haven't glazed over by then I continue with how the meat of the story takes place in the present and involves a group of researchers that work for that company, as well as the remaining founders of the company. And parts of the story are told through flashbacks while artifacts/ephemera flesh out the backstory and world. I feel like I am generally terrible at summarizing so I try to avoid it all turns.

Nowhere Men seems steeped in design from font elements to placement and back matter. What are the conversations like between you, Eric and Steve Finch of Fonografiks to find that Nowhere Men house style?

A lot of that stuff only really materialized once Steven came on the book, but once he was on board I feel like it materialized pretty quickly. Eric had a lot of really clear ideas on what sort of stuff he wanted and Steven can hit all the right notes as well as bring a lot of his own ideas to the table. So the design elements in the book are really 40 percent Eric and 40 percent Steven and maybe 20 percent me. I really only get involved with the stuff that needs to be illustrated and try to fit the style or era of whatever piece its going into. Outside of maybe tossing in a stray suggestion when everyone feels stumped on something. All the fantastic graphic design work, the visuals in the "ads" and the layout of the covers, the credit for all those goes to Steven, not to undersell anyone else. He really gives a sense of legitimacy or authenticity to the ephemera and it goes a long way towards that world-building stuff we're doing. In Issue 2 there is an excerpt from a chapter of a book about World Corp, and through the first page of that chapter you can see the end of the previous chapter inverted on the backside of the page of that book. He's great!

Last year you did two excellent prints for the convention circuit with “Odds Even” and “Hipster X-Ladies” (which are still available on your Big Cartel shop, by the way). Any plans to do more in 2013?

I honestly haven't had the time to think of doing any new prints! I do have a short list of ideas for ones I'd like to get around to doing sometime, but I feel like I have enough on my plate for the time being, and plenty of the remaining prints to go around. I suppose if I were going to take the time to do a new print though, it would probably be Nowhere Men related. This is the year of Nowhere Men! Actually I think we have some plans to make some prints for conventions this year, but those are not directly related to me personally, that'd be more of a thing available from Image I believe. But yeah, if I have the time, I definitely have a sort of pin-up itch to scratch for Nowhere Men that I think would be pretty cool.

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