Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants, Part 1: A Conversation with Jamal Igle

Welcome, folks, to what is the first in a series of interviews celebrating Black History month here at CBR. I'm your host, Vince Moore. In the weeks to come, I will be bringing you interviews with a selection of black creators, past, present, and future, to learn from them and their struggles and to share their stories with you.

Our first interview is with Jamal Igle, penciler of "Firestorm: The Nuclear Man." As he has recently signed an exclusive with DC Comics, it felt like it was time to sit down with him across the Internet and learn more about this working-for-many-years-overnight-success.

Without further ado, let's begin:

CBR News: Okay, Jamal, I want to start out by asking you to introduce yourself to our audience. If you can share with us your history within (and without) the comics industry as well as what current projects you're working on.

Jamal Igle: Well, my name is Jamal Yaseem Igle. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, born and raised, the oldest of six children. I've had a pretty interesting life, though. I was an actor until I was 15 years old. However, I was always interested in comics. I abandoned my acting career, which really wasn't going any where anyway, and devoted myself to becoming a comic book artist.

While attending the High School of Art and Design, I attained my first job in comics at 17, as an intern at DC Comics. After I left College, I worked a series of jobs, everything from McDonald's to Radio Shack to a couple of comic books shops. I worked as a junior art director at an ad agency and in a marketing company, doing sales. Through it all, I always kept my eye on working in comics. It took a long time, working for a number of small publishers for years until about 1999, when I left comics for a while to work at Sony Animation.

It was during my time at Sony that I got a call from Marvel Comics to work on "New Warriors" with Jay Faerber and it's been pretty steady since. Currently, I'm an exclusive artist with DC Comics, penciling "Firestorm: the Nuclear Man."

CBR: Now, let's start talking more about the comics industry and you. I'd like you to talk about your first big break. How did you get it? What was it? As we all are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, would you like to mention any mentors or wise ones who helped you along the way? And finally, could you go into any challenges or difficulties you faced while getting into the comics biz?

JI: Keith Giffen taught me the importance of storytelling in comics. Alex Simmons, creator of "Blackjack," who, as well as being one of my dearest friends, taught me not only what good writing is all about. Andy Helfer, Kevin Dooley, Mike Bair, Buzz (who I've known since high school), Pete Tomasi, Steve Wacker, Bob Greenberger, Fred Ruiz, Flint Henry, Bob Rozakis, Kyle Baker, Steve Ellis ("The Silencers"), Ivan Cohen, Bob Schreck, Bill Tucci. I'm forgetting a bunch of people, but these are some of the people who have helped me over the years.

My first break as an artist was with a now defunct publisher called Majestic Entertainment. It was 1993, the height of the industry glut. There were new publishers popping up all the time and work was everywhere. I had just started putting a real portfolio together and hitting the Con circuit. I had gone to two smaller shows to talk to some artists, but this was the first show with real publishers attending. I had seen a cover shot, I think, two weeks before of "Static," from Milestone, and based my samples around him. The funny part was, one of the people I had shown the pages to was Dwayne McDuffie, who was impressed that I was able to put together this dead-on Static sample without even reading the book (it hadn't even hit the stands at that point). Anyway I walked into this show a complete newbie and walked out with freelance work from several publishers, including Majestic.

My time with Majestic was interesting and just weird for me. I tried out for one series with them and ended up being the penciler on a series called "Flashpoint," with former Paradox Press editor Jim Higgins. It was rough because I had gone from penciling a page a week to trying to pencil a page a day and struggling with it as we all do. Half way through my tenure there, Paul Jenkins became the Editor-in-Chief ( I worked for them for about six months) and things were already in turmoil within the company. None of it was Paul's fault, by the way. Actually, he got it worse than the rest of us and went out of his way to help the freelancers. In the end, Majestic ended up owing me three grand and stole all of my artwork. Out of work and not knowing what to do next, I took some of the copies of the pages I'd done and sent out packages to different editors. A week later I got my first published work: eight pages in "Green Lantern" #52.

Unfortunately, it would be the last time I'd work for DC for about four years.

CBR: Interesting. Would you say your time in the comics industry been a mostly enjoyable experience? And please, share with our readers some of your most notable experiences in comics, positive or negative.

JI: Getting my first job in the industry wasn't that difficult. Subsequent work after that became the real challenge.

The thing is, at the time, I had started developing a little bit of an ego, a slight sense of entitlement. I did some work for Milestone, did some freelance illustration for Disney, but nothing steady. I was constantly sending samples and wondering why I wasn't being immediately snapped up. Looking back on it now, I really wasn't that good, or at least good enough to have the attitude I did. I remained an independent for a long time. I wasn't hanging in a comic clique or anything and, although I knew people, I don't think I ever tried to use those connections in that way. The way that I drew at the time was very much influenced by Dave Stevens and Steve Rude and had a bit of an Adam Hughes touch to it. So, every one tried to push me into being a Hughes clone. Well, as I usually do in such a situation, when someone tries to make me conform to their vision, I would rebel and do just the opposite.

I've never been a go-along-to-get-along type of guy. And, while I try to be a friendly person, I do have a temper. I had an agent at the time, Clark Westerman, who just didn't know what to do with my work because I refused to just copy someone else's work, just to work.

I do have to say that my experiences in comics haven't been all bad, actually they've been really good. The struggles have all been worth it. My career has always been about The Question. When I was a struggling freelancer, the question was always: Why aren't you working more? Once I started doing steady amounts of work, the question became: Why don't you have a series? Once I started working on "Firestorm," the question became : Why aren't you exclusive? See what I mean?

CBR: Absolutely. Not to cast any aspersions on anyone, or get you into any trouble, but could you like address that aspect of the industry that would much rather see newer artists imitate whatever is hot at the moment? Do you think it harms young artists or stunts their development? Conversely, do you think it's in the interest of the companies, like Marvel and DC, to have a kind of house look to their books?

JI: I don't begrudge a young artist who is trying to get into the business by imitating another artist style. I've certainly seen my fair share of it. At the same time, I do try to discourage it. As an illustrator, in general, you get work based on the work you've done before. That is part of how you establish a reputation. I feel that when you imitate another artist because his style is "hot," you aren't flattering the artist. As a matter of fact, it's just the opposite, in my opinion. The thing is, I had a conversation with an editor once about this very subject. His response was, "It works out for us because, if we like Sean Phillips or Joe Mad and can't get or afford them, we find a guy who draws like them and we get the book out." As a short-term solution to getting work, I can understand it. But I do feel that it limits the potential of said artist. Not always, though, because some of the best artist in the industry (Joe Madureira, Travis Charest, Terry Dodson, J. Scott Campbell) started out aping other artists' style and growing into their own.

So, do the Big companies have a "House style?" I think there tends to be a shift across the board where artists see what each other is doing and sort of [start] subconsciously conforming [to that style]. I think the companies tend to, once again, capitalize on it, and make the style their own. I don't think it's done intentionally like the way it was done in the past.

CBR: Jamal, let's talk about the struggles you may have faced in comics. Were there any ways or situations in which you felt the comics industry let you down? Or disappointed you?

JI: Well, there was a long period of time when I was the "almost" guy. Around 1998-1999, I would be up for a job: a series, miniseries, what have you. It would always come down between me and another artist of equal skill, and the [job] would go to the other artist. This happened quite a few times to the point where I felt like it was a personal objection, based on me and not my talent. I was up for "Green Lantern," "JSA," JLA," "Creature Commandos," "Fantastic Four," and always seemed to come up short. I was trying to fill the gaps in work with any job that came up, making about 12 grand a year, and living in New York City. I became pretty depressed about it.

CBR: But you didn't feel that your being black was a hindrance to your career, part of why you weren't getting work? Or do you think too much is made by some people of your ethnicity? Is it a non-issue?

JI: I try not to make my race an issue because my name doesn't ear mark me specifically as being black. I still get flyers from the U.S. Army in Farsi because Jamal is an Arabic name. I don't know if my being black has been a hindrance. I've been steadily employed doing comics for the last seven years, and a lot of that, I hope, has more to do with the fact that my skills have improved. At the same time, I will admit that, if I looked like John Cassaday, a few more doors would probably open as far as promoting my career.

CBR: Since this interview series is being done to celebrate Black History Month, would you like to share any thoughts about the state of blacks in the comics industry? We've seen growth in the numbers of creators, mainstream and independent, over the last two or three decades. Do you think this pattern will continue?

JI: I think that things are probably a lot better now than they've ever been, but that's really sad. I don't feel there's a significant Black presence in the comics industry, or at least not an organized one. I'm still surprised when I hear about someone else in the business who is black. I sometimes feel very isolated in general. A lot [of] people don't realize how many of us are in comics. Brian Stelfreeze, Damion Scott, Shawn Martinborogh, Khary Randolph, Rob Stull, Koi Turnbull, Jason Pearson, Dexter Vines, Lou Small, Mark Bright, Larry Stroman, Dwayne Turner, Nachie Castro, Harvey Richards, just to name a few. It's my sincere hope that we can be a much bigger voice in comics as time passes.

CBR: And what about more readers of color? Given some of the initiatives being taken by some companies-- such as hiring creators from outside of comics with some cache in the black community-- do you think more can be done? Should more be done?

JI: I think we need more readers in general, not just readers of color. Any thing we can do to bring more readers into comics is positive to me, even bringing in guys like Reggie Hudlin and Eric Jerome Dickey as writers.

CBR: What's the future hold for you, Jamal? If you can, please talk about any upcoming projects you're working on in the comics industry or in any other media?

JI: Well, I just signed my exclusive, so I'm going to be at DC for the next couple of years. Working on "Firestorm" and what ever comes along there.

CBR: And, any word on the U.S. publication of your European graphic novel?

JI: "Army of Angels" ("Le Armee de Anges") isn't available yet in the US, but I think you can order them from Amazon France.

CBR: Where can readers find you on the Web to check out more of your artwork?

JI: My Personal site JamalIgle.com is down for the moment, but Fans can see some of my work on my forum.

CBR: Lastly, as an elder-- in terms of your professional status-- in the comics industry yourself, do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to the next generation of creators? Any advice specifically to readers of color?

JI: I've learned the value of being patient. It's hard to be a young creator in this industry. There isn't a lot of work going around and you're in competition with ... well, ... guys like me, who've been around. Try to remember that there's nothing wrong with paying your dues. It's how we learn and improve. Take the small jobs, they'll keep building and building. I'm still learning new techniques as I'm going along. Learn to listen to advice. As an artist, it's hard for us to not be defensive about our work. You need pay attention and just soak in any advice you get.

CBR: Jamal, thank you very much for spending some time with us.

That should do it this time out.

Again, I'd like to thank Jamal Igle for doing this interview.

In the coming weeks, I will bring you other voices, some you readers may already know and some you may not be familiar with. I hope you guys stick with me to see who I talk with next.

Join us next time for Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants.

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