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Thomas River, a Black man in a suit, stands with a silenced pistol held behind his back, in front of a shattered emblem of the CIA, on the cover of Thomas River, 12-Gauge Comics. Image: Brian Stelfreeze/12-Gauge Comics

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Brian Stelfreeze reinvented Batman and Black Panther. Now he’s taking on the CIA.

A legendary comics artist on his life and influences

If you saw the Black Panther movie and thought Shuri’s Kimoyo beads looked cool, you have Brian Stelfreeze to thank. His 2016 design work created an upgraded visual language for Wakandan culture and technology for the Black Panther series written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The artist’s next project, political action thriller Thomas River, focuses on a United States reeling from shocking acts of terrorism. It’s not as fantastical as his forays into King T’Challa’s homeland, but it’s still full of the taut storytelling and hypnotic linework that Stelfreeze is known for.

I look at Brian Stelfreeze’s art every day. The amazing cover he did for Rise of the Black Panther #1, which I wrote, serves as the lock screen on my phone. Even though he drew the covers for Rise of the Black Panther, I’ve only ever really talked to Brian a handful of times. Those conversations were fun but none of them gave me what I really wanted: insight into the creative workings of one of comics’ most breathtaking stylists.

Stelfreeze’s professional comics career started way back in 1988 on an indie sci-fi series called CyCops, but he made his biggest splash three years later as a cover artist for Batman: Shadow of the Bat. Since then, he’s applied his sharp, angular, ever-evolving style to thousands of covers and interior pages. He’s also the co-founder of 12-Gauge Comics, an imprint that’s published projects like Matador, which Stelfreeze co-created with writer Devin Grayson.

The company has released projects through Image Comics, but is going the crowdfunding route for new espionage action comic, Thomas River. Stelfreeze got on the phone with me to talk about the launch of 12-Gauge’s Kickstarter campaign and look back at his career. In the edited and condensed interview that follows, the Atlanta-based artist talks about growing up in coastal South Carolina, how his military upbringing influences Thomas River, and how his approach varies when he’s working on covers and interior pages.

“Sovereign Nation:” growing up and early career

The first place I remember seeing your art was on the Shadow of the Bat covers back in, what was it, ‘92? Walk us through the beginning of your career. I know your first published work was CyCops, right? And that was what year?

Brian Stelfreeze: Dude, man, that’s a seriously deep cut right there. CyCops was my first work in the comics industry, and that was in 1988. I think it was published in ‘88 or ‘89. And I was an architectural engineer and an illustrator at the time. And I was happy doing that, but comics was always unfinished business because as a kid, I wanted to be a comic book artist. But you know how life detours you? It detoured me into something a little bit more commercial because well, life included making money and stuff. So I was just doing that. And then I hooked up with some buddies and started getting into comics again and went to a comic book convention. I was just like, man.

It’s just that love you lose and you don’t think about it for a long time and the moment you start thinking about it, it just comes back hard. So I felt I had to do a comic just to get it out of my system. And that was a huge mistake because it didn’t get it out of my system, it set it deeper in.

So, let’s rewind a little bit. I don’t know a lot about your early life. Where did you grow up and where do you go to school, especially for your art training?

Well, I grew up on coastal South Carolina, in the areas where you have Mount Pleasant, McClellanville, Georgetown, up to Myrtle Beach. That’s where the family lived, but my dad was military. We ended up bouncing in and out. We’d be home for a couple of years and then we’d go out to Colorado, and then we’d be home for a couple years, then Oklahoma, then home for a couple of years and then New York.

It was a weird disjointed thing because McClellanville and the Georgetown area and Santee, those were all Gullah communities. It almost felt like the area was — I don’t want to say, ‘sovereign nation’, but it felt apart from the US. It’s almost a different language there, and it was a completely different culture. So you’d spend a couple of years in that and then suddenly go out to the world. So, it was like a really odd schizophrenic upbringing.

When you said coastal South Carolina, my thoughts immediately went to Gullah Geechee culture, which I only know as an outside observer. One of the things that’s amazing to me is it feels like somehow the culture there managed to hold onto the roots of the African traditions that came over, in a way that still remains really powerful. I remember I saw [Julie Dash’s movie] Daughters of the Dust in college and I was blown away by how the folkways were just different there. Was that something that you absorbed growing up?

Oh, dude, I am deep, deep into it, man. I didn’t have the education to realize that this was African. It was just growing up to me. This was just South Carolina and I didn’t realize that griot tradition, that root that I grew up in. It was just like, Oh man, this is South Carolina, these people are crazy and different. It was only after I went to school and got away from it for a while that I realized, wow, I grew up in some place that was really special. You almost feel like a foreigner to a certain extent.

Yeah, or other people make you feel like a foreigner. That happened to me as the child of Haitian immigrants.

Daughters of the Dust... that was my great-grandmother.

In terms of you seeing that presence from her?

It was a matriarchal society. My great-grandmother, for the area, she was the matriarch and everyone came to her. If you had a kid, my great grandmother would babysit the kid when you went to work. So, growing up, there was always these strange babies just in the house. I didn’t realize at the time, but that was the tradition. She was the woman that you brought your kids to and she would raise your kids right. And it was weird at the time and sometimes very off-putting, but really magical now looking back at it.

So, you’re growing up, you have this itinerant childhood. What were some of the places you lived that made an impression on you?

We lived in Lawton, Oklahoma for a while. And it’s just like I got vague memories, but one of the things that threw me was seeing Native Americans. And it was just like, wow. I was just a kid from South Carolina, and this is only something that I’ve seen on black-and-white TV. And it was like, oh, there’s actual Native Americans in the world today. And my mother was friends with a lot of the Native Americans that lived in Oklahoma, and some of them would babysit us, we would hang out with them, and it was just such a different world. It was so fascinating seeing their culture and really amazing to get that experience.

And then from there, the place that I have the brightest memories of is probably West Point, New York, which is a military base. I would almost describe it as having zero culture outside of the military culture. And that was fascinating in a completely different way.

So was it your dad who had the military career?

Yeah. My dad ended up being an instructor at West Point. He was a Gunnery Sergeant and brought the family up there because he was going to be there for a while. And he had this system where if he had a foreign commission, he wouldn’t take the family, but if he had stateside commission, yeah, he would take the family there. So, all of the places, the three-year runs where he was at a stateside commission, we’d all get to go.

At what point does the desire to create art bubble up in your system?

The funny thing about it is — and this is the benefit of 2020 hindsight — art has been there for longer than I can remember. I remember my brothers and sisters and all the kids in the neighborhood, there was this giant oak tree that was the community oak that everyone would meet up at. And guys would gather under there and start telling stories. And the kids, what we would do is in South Carolina, the topsoil is almost like a light-colored beach sand, but the soil under that was very black. So, what we would do is we would sit under the oak and we’d spread the beach sand over things, and then we’d scratch pictures into the sand.

Oh, wow.

And yeah, and like I said, that was drawing for us. And it’s funny to remember it, because it was drawing but it was more about storytelling where we would just tell stories and draw little pictures of the story that we were telling. I didn’t know what paper and pencil was until I actually got to school.

Right. That’s funny. So you’re growing up and you’re going through high school. You were reading comics then, to hear you tell it. What was the stuff you were reading and really getting excited by?

A little bit of everything. At first I think one of the first comics that I picked up was some Batman stuff, and I really got into that. And it was weird because it was catch-as-catch-can until I moved to New York. It was whatever was there at the gas station in Georgetown. So, there was no such thing as a run of comics. I probably ended up having 50 or 60 comics to my collection, but it was random.

When I moved to New York just outside of West Point, I went to a Catholic school in a city called Highland Falls. There was a comic book shop walking distance away from the school and my mom would pick us up at the comic book shop. We would go from the school to the comic book shop and just hang out there for hours until my mom was off work. And that was our honeycomb hideout. I would buy my handful of comics and my buddies would all buy their handful of comics, and then we’d read each other’s comics, which is like the most common story in comics. The shop owner knew us very well and would give us breaks and discounts and all of that stuff.

You mentioned Batman. I have to ask because of your own architecture background, was it Marshall Rogers’ stuff you were reading at the time? He was an architecture artist who drew comics, too. Do you remember who the artist was?

Laughing, a giant Joker dangles Batman from a playing card, on the cover of Batman #251, DC Comics (1973). Image: Neal Adams/DC Comics

Well, there was some Neal Adams that was in there. I paid no attention to the creators. I was full on Batman. After a while, I got to the point where I could recognize a few people and Neal Adams was one of those, Jim Steranko was another one, and Gil Kane. I mean, I could spot Gil Kane a mile away, and I always loved his stuff. And it’s weird, because of my dyslexia, I assumed it was Gail Kane. And I just thought it was this girl who was awesome.

OK, you’re getting out of high school and you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do. How do architecture and art become the things that you land on?

I honestly didn’t think that comic book art was a thing. I just thought these are clearly drawn by someone, but they must do this in their spare time or something like that. Then I was in high school, I actually managed to get a job as an editorial cartoonist at the local newspaper. The publisher of the newspaper was really cool. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would go in and turn in my new cartoons and he would go, “Hey, well you got anything to do for the rest of the day?” Of course, I didn’t. So, he would go, “OK. Well, I’m going to put you in the paste-up room and you can learn to do paste-up.” And, “OK, now you’re going to learn to run the lettering machine, and now you’re going to learn...”

I ended up learning a bunch of stuff and being the staff artist. If there was some advertising that needed to be done, he’d come to me and he’d go, “Hey, can you draw a picture of this?” I got paid for it so I’m like a high school kid making at that point $5 per illustration, and that was serious money to me.

What kind of editorial cartoons were you drawing?

It was local politics. The local guys getting in different types of hot water. At the time, I didn’t care or even think about politics at all. But then when I got this job, I was like, OK, I’m going to have to start paying attention. I’m going to have to start reading up on local political situations. The editor of the paper really would go, “Hey, here’s an article we’ve got coming out. Why don’t you give this a read and see if you can come up with something on it?” So that sparked my interest in politics as well.

OK, the end of high school comes, you tell mom and dad, “I want to go to ‘blank school’ and do ‘blank’ as my major.” Fill in the blanks for me.

Well, yeah so what’s really terrible about that is my dad says, “Hey, man, I can get you hooked up at the Point.”

That’s wild. Please continue.

Yeah. And this is an offer not to laugh at. This is really awesome. I can get hooked up to go to West Point. My grades were good enough, and my dad had enough influence to get me a full ride in there. And I was just like, no.


Absolutely, I haven’t heard of their art program at West Point. So no, I’m not into it at all. Here’s what happened: My junior year in high school, I escaped from home during the summer and got a job working as an airbrush artist in Myrtle Beach. I just did airbrush work and made way too much cash for somebody that age. And then my senior year, I did the same thing and that ended up, along with loans and everything, being enough for me to be able to pay my own way to art school. I picked The Art Institute of Atlanta because I had an uncle that lived here in Atlanta. I was just like; hey, I can live with him until I get on my feet. So, that was the plan.

Brian, I need to pause you for a second here because I want to make sure I’m getting this right. Were you a dude airbrushing shit on the back of people’s denim jackets? Was that you? Were you one of those people?

Dude, that was me.

Oh my God.

Black Panther comic book artist Brian Stelfreeze at NYCC

Have a couple of minutes to watch comic book artist Brian Stelfreeze sketch Black Panther from New York Comic Con?

Posted by Howstuffworks on Friday, October 7, 2016

The corniest beach theme. So basically hearts with names written in them and all that stuff, and cars. Lots and lots of cars on people’s T-shirts.

This is amazing because, one, my twin brother did this stuff too. He got the whole airbrush rig, he had it in our room upstairs. And two, this is just such a very specific moment in time, in the mid-’80s, where this happened. I’m just wilding out, knowing that you’re one of the guys who did that. That’s so crazy. OK. So —

My pride was the five-minute beach scene.

I’ve seen you sketch in person and process stuff; it amazes me how fast you draw. Is that because of this high volume, quick turnaround paradigm that you supported yourself with?

Oh, 100%. And like I said, it’s a charmed sort of growing up. It’s a track that I stumbled into, but it’s really ended up helping out a lot. A lot of artists don’t like people watching them draw and they have a problem talking while they’re drawing. But airbrushing T-shirts on the beach, it’s probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% art, but then 80% performance. I really got in the habit of talking and hanging out and not minding people watching me draw or talking to me while I was drawing.

I mean, it must require incredible focus. Again, I’ve seen you do it, you drew me a sketch first time I met you in person, and you talked and you were drawing at the same time. And I was like, “Wow, his brain... to be able to do this is must be pretty formidable.” I mean, not to gas you up too much, but yeah, it was really incredible.

I’d consider it almost a bifurcation of focus, where you basically go Art guy, you go over there and you do that. Conversation guy, you go over there and do that.

Were architectural design and commercial art your focus at the Art Institute?

Well, no. At the Art Institute, it was primarily just visual arts. It’s the same general shotgun course that you would get at SCAD or any of the art schools. And I got to tell you, man, I hated it. I mean, I absolutely hated every moment that I was in school. It turned out not to be a good marriage at all. I was always getting in trouble with the instructors, and I think part of it came from the fact that they were teaching us how to do commercial work. And, inadvertently, the newspaper editor taught me how to do commercial work.

Generally, I think the problem with school is what you’re learning is probably five to 20 years older than what the professionals are actually doing. So, I would constantly go, “Hey, this isn’t done this way. What you’re talking about, no one does anymore.” And if this little tiny newspaper from Georgetown, South Carolina, isn’t doing it that way, no big newspaper’s doing it that way. So that ended up being a loggerheads situation.

At what point do you check out of school? Did you finish up, did you just bounce? What happens next?

I finished out my first year of art school and I’m in my second year of art school and that’s when I ended up accidentally stumbling into a job as an illustrator. It was a prominent illustration studio in Atlanta called Whole Hog Studio. Through a connection to a connection, I ended up getting a portfolio showing there. I was still in school and I was interested in, “Hey, how does my work stack up to professional work?” I went and the guy went, “OK, OK, good. We’ll give you a call.”

And I was just like, “OK, that was weird. I guess they’ll give me a call and tell me how my portfolio looked.” They called me in again, and now it was four guys looking at my work, asking questions about how I did certain things. Three of the guys left and one guy remained, and he said, “OK, what would you like your starting salary to be?” And I was like, “Oh, OK, he’s trying to figure out what I think my work is worth. That’s what’s going on here.”

Do you remember your answer?

I was just like, “Maybe around $10,000 a year.” And he was just like, “Really? We’re prepared to start you off at 15.”


And I was just like, “OK.”

“When do I start?”

Well, my thing was, “OK, that’s what the work is worth then.” And he was just looking at me, and this is the most awkward conversation, and he said, “So you got the job.” And I was just like, “What job?” And he was just like, “Aren’t you here for the job?” And I’m like, “No.”

Oh my God. This is hilarious.

And he goes, “Well, it’s yours if you want it.” And I was just like, “OK, well, let me think about it.” And then I left as the biggest idiot in the world. It wasn’t until the next morning when I went school, I was in one of my instructors’ class. And I said, “Yeah, I got a job offer.” He was just like, “Oh, that’s, that’s awesome. Where?” And I said, “Oh, Whole Hog Studios.” He immediately went, “You got the Whole Hog Job?! “Half the instructors at this school wanted that job. If you got it, you don’t need to be here.” And I was just like, “Yeah, but I mean, I want to get my degree.” He was just like, “Leave.” So, I quit school. When your instructor tells you to leave, I think that’s a good time to head for the door.

Yeah. OK. So, you’re at Whole Hog and you’re doing commercial illustration work, right?

Yeah, I’m doing illustration for a lot of the local and a couple of national advertising. I did illustrations for Coca-Cola, illustrations for BellSouth and AT&T, and just a lot of the local print stuff. It was my life for a long time. Then it got to the point where the studio was moving and I decided to strike out on my own.

I had built up enough of a client base to where I thought, “OK, I can survive on that.” I was not absolutely correct on that. Eventually, I got a job with one of my clients who decided to basically go into signage design and architectural frontage design. Rather than doing work for him on a freelance basis, I’d actually partner with him. We started a company called Roswell Design, and we did that for a long time. By this time, it’s in the middle to late ‘80s, and I’m in my early twenties.

And you’d fallen completely out of touch with comics at this point?

Oh, done. Done with comics the moment that I really started seriously doing newspaper editorial stuff. I didn’t really have any time for comics after that. Comics had way been by the wayside. Every once in a while I would go to a comic book shop close to where I’d transfer buses. That’s where I started picking up the occasional comic book and started getting back into it. This is right around the time of Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Man, George Perez at the peak of his powers... you must have had your mind blown by that.

Dozens upon dozens of heroes assemble in Harbinger’s space ship in Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics (1985). Image: Marv Wolfman, George Pérez/DC Comics

Oh, dude. It was like leaving a friend when they’re five and then meeting up with them again in their thirties. “Whoa, you’ve grown up.” The love I had for comics was clearly juvenile infatuation. But now I’m picking up comics as an adult and I’ve got a little bit of years on me now and it’s like, “Wow, this is actually, I’m just as enamored with this stuff.” The stories seem to have kept pace with my maturity. So, I was really, really into it.

And you probably had a more sophisticated appreciation of the craft, right?

Definitely. I would actually go so far as to say that comics taught me seriously how to draw. My drawing has always been mostly influenced by comics until I got into illustration and airbrush and all that stuff.

So, I mentioned those Shadow of the Bat covers before, and that was my first point of contact with you. What struck me then about your stylistic approach was the heavy line-weights, big, bulky, almost brutalist forms, and the painted color floating on top highlighting everything. That felt like a bit of an outlier, when you came on the scene. Talk to me about getting that gig and breaking into what we call mainstream comics publishing.

Again, my entire comics career and life is an accident. The first time that my work was shown to a DC editor, I was doing a little advertising for Shelton Drum, who runs the comic book shop Heroes [Aren’t Hard to Find] in Charlotte, North Carolina. I did this little Batman illustration that I was quite proud of and somebody at DC saw it and they just tore it to shreds. Well, I guess I’m going to be an independent guy because I don’t have that DC magic.

Batman struggles against the arms of a horde of interchangable orderlies on the cover of Shadow of the Bat #1, DC Comics (1992). Image: Brian Stelfreeze/DC Comics

Somehow, a piece I did got to Denny O’Neil. And Denny O’Neil saw something in it that I guess other people didn’t. And contacted me and asked me if I’d like to do covers for DC comics. The stuff that really got me deeply into comics was a lot of the Neal Adams/Denny O’Neil Batman. So, a guy that I didn’t even consider human, he was a legend, for him to give me a call was huge.

It must have been nerve-racking

My first thought ws, “Oh, OK, well, maybe I should [tone things] down.” But Denny O’Neil said something that was career changing thing. He basically said, “I don’t want you to draw Batman the way that DC does it. I want you to do it the way that you do it.” It was just like, “That’s why I’m hiring you, I’m hiring you to be you.” That was just a confidence thing and blew my mind. So I was just, “OK, well, screw it then. I’m going to do what I do.”

It’s cool that you picked up on that brutalist almost cubistic abstract approach to Batman, because that’s how I felt Batman. I was just like, “I’m bringing this to the table.”

Evan Narcisse: When you said harmonics, in terms of your storytelling, the one name that immediately popped up in my head was Trevor Von Eeden. I wish I could explain why, but I remember some of his work in the eighties just felt like it was singing in these really bold, rich tones and voices. Was he an influence of yours?

Batman and the Outsiders face off against Maxie Zeus and his New Olympians in Batman and the Outsiders #15, DC Comics (1984). Image: Mike W. Barr, Trevor Von Eeden/DC Comics

Definitely. But I’d say more of a milder influence. The funny thing is, once you figure out who you are as a storyteller, your influences start to not come from your peers. But they actually start coming from other media. When I first started, yeah, Jack Kirby was there. Jim Steranko was there. Walt Simonson was there. John Byrne. All of these people were there before I figured out who I was as a storyteller. But now that I have an idea of who I am as a storyteller, now I’m getting influenced by Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis. You know? Now I’m getting influenced by people who aren’t even in the visual medium.

How does that come out in the work? I feel like your approach to color must come from that.

Definitely. When you do a single piece of art, you’re really trying to make a statement. But, with comics, the thing that keeps me here is actually taking you through a story and knowing that, “OK, over here, I want you to feel this way. And then here, I want you to feel this way.” And it’s just this little symphony that you’re conducting. And you know that once they felt this and this, and they think this, now I’m going to introduce them to this. So, it’s like this entire sonata that you’re leading the reader through. And only in the end, do they feel the whole movement.

Do you have music on when you’re working?

I have music on when I’m thinking about working, I have music on when I’m doing my layouts. It depends on the project. That really, and I mean, that can go from Jay-Z into Marley, into Kraftwerk, some German drum and bass, it can go into classical. I mean, it’s a little bit of everything. It just depends on if the story’s clean or dirty. But when I’m actually doing the drawing, generally no. I’m the alchemist at that point. Everybody else get out of the room.

What did you have on when you were doing Black Panther stuff?

Oh man. When I’m doing Panther stuff, it’s all about the drum and bass. It’s all about just that tribal drive.

What do you have on for Thomas River?

Oh, that stuff is going to be a little bit more about like techno, but with a little bit of a beat to it. So, it’s going to be like that clean soundtrack stuff.

Like Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack?

Dude. That’s right on the spot right there. And some Fatboy Slim, even Propellerheads.

Welcome to Wakanda: Re-imagining a legend

I remember when Ta-Nehisi told me that you were going to be on interiors for the book. I was like, “You don’t understand. Brian’s a god and he rarely does interiors.” Looking back at your older work, it’s obvious to me your style has changed. Do you have a sense of your style evolving over the years since that initial DC gig?

Oh, definitely. I think what I try to do is I try to make considerations towards the story that I’m telling. And I try to adapt parts of my style to be more of a fit to the story, rather than just going, “This is the way I draw and I’m going to bring everything to me.” It’s just like, “Well, what does this story need?” And that story has to be in my orbit anyways, but then I’ll meet the story to basically not try to be the best artist, but to try to be the best storyteller for that work.

So, you know what’s funny? Again, this is a digression I was going to have later, but it feels organic to go here now. You and I weren’t talking when I was writing Rise of the Black Panther. Typically, the writer and the artists have to be on different tracks in terms of production, in order for the project to come out on time. But I remember when I saw the cover art for Rise of the Black Panther #1, I was like, “Yo, he read the story.” And I said to Ta-Nehisi, I was like, “Yo, you think he read the script?” He was like, “He certainly read the script.” What was your thought process for that specific cover, and the other ones? I feel like you had a template, or a rubric, a stylistic approach that you locked in and were just applying that to each cover. Can you walk me through where your brain was at? And I know this was two years ago and maybe a little bit of indulgent because it’s a project I was involved with, but —

Well, the thing that’s going to make the most sense to you is: The way that you approach telling the story is the same way that I approach coming up with a cover concept. I try to go, “OK, first and foremost, what’s my theme? What’s the story that I’m trying to get across here?” After reading the script, one of the things that I really keyed on was there was this sense of connection. There was a sense of everything being connected, and I thought, man, a cool way of showing that would be to basically go, you see something that’s a silhouette. That automatically means one thing, but then you see the connections of everything within that. And that was one of the things that drew me to that design, that there are things within things within things that make this overall story happen. I thought that was a really cool approach for almost a Year One style story where you see, this is what made this.

King T’chaka and prince T’challa stand on a waterfall, an image imposed over a silhouette of the head and shoulders of the Black Panther, on the cover of Rise of the Black Panther #1, Marvel Comics (2018). Image: Brian Stelfreeze/Marvel Comics

Yeah. I mean, you’re right. I have to admit, I’m getting a little bit emotional hearing you talk about it. Because that was totally the intent. I wanted to honor the stuff that comes before, and there was a very Afro-diasporan inspiration to that project, but I also wanted to comment on the world we’re living in now. Anyway, we don’t have to talk about that too much. I’ve always been curious about how you would describe your own art style. What words would you describe how you draw?

Well, the tricky thing about it is I think on any given story, I would have a different answer for that. But I think overall, the thing that I want to do is, and I don’t want to use the word deception, but I think what I try to do is really point out the difference between what is physically taking place and what is emotionally taking place. Duality fascinates me. I think the story that Ta-Nehisi wrote was just a grand thesis on duality. And I was just like, “Oh my God, yes. Right there.” That’s where I exist.

And I think it reflects on comics where you think, “OK, the more powerful person wins, that’s it, we’re done here.” Ta-Nehisi wrote a story that doesn’t work like that. And it was just really fun to show this character who’s physically superb. Who’s physically flawless. But it doesn’t matter how much he punches this thing; it’s not going to solve the problem. That physical perfection isn’t going to help; he’s got to go inward. That inward journey is what I felt made the story.

I drew Black Panther to always look like sculpture. He didn’t even look human, he looked hyper-human. Perfect in every way. All the other characters could have a little bit of looseness to them, but Black Panther was always in a perfect pose, lit perfectly. So, he had that sense of perfection, but it was a situation where Black Panther [the superhero] couldn’t solve this problem, only T’Challa [the man] could.

Right. And even beyond that, it’s the story of him facing up to Wakanda’s imperfections. Like here you have this perfect physical and mental specimen. But he’s challenged by a shift in perception. There’s a duality in that, too.

Exactly. If the story doesn’t have it, then I try to think, is there any way that I can get that in here? Those are the stories that I’m attracted to because, to a certain extent, that’s what the world is. The world is full of what you see is not necessarily what’s happening.

That leads into the next question I was going to ask you, which is, what do you value as a storyteller? Do you want to get inside the character’s head? Would you prioritize a journey through a fantastical world or surprising story? And what does it take to balance all those things?

Hmm. What I’m looking for in a character is sympathy. I’m looking for empathy, but also probably the biggest thing is harmonics. Because I think all characters have to have that discord. How they try to solve that discord, that’s the intrinsic quality of the character. I look for a character that is discordant and is trying to bridge this gap. To me, that’s the chase, that’s the thing that’s absolutely awesome. And I like being able to move you through that emotionally and physically.

Whenever you draw interiors, it feels like a momentous occasion. It feels, to me, like this is a rare treat. Is there a switch in your head that you flip when you’re doing cover work or interiors? Is there a toggle?

Dude, that’s a hard, hard switch. That is a polarizing switch that I’m flipping. I’m actually trying to do the opposite in each mode. When I’m doing a cover, I am trying to wow you. I am trying to blow your mind as much as possible, and I’m trying to get you to stick. But when I’m doing interiors, I’m trying to move you along. I want you to slide from one panel to the next panel. There are moments where I really want you to just speed through pages, but there are other moments where I want you to slowly plod your way through pages. I don’t know if it’s fission, or fusion, but the energy of converting two-dimensional art into the four-dimensional sense of time, that is the most awesome thing in the world for me.

And as a storyteller, you’ve got to feel that. You’ve got to feel “I’m going to drive this moment.” I’m going to stretch this moment out in time, or I’m going to compress this moment into a microsecond, even though this moment is a year. That’s got to be the coolest thing. Which I think you nailed is the conversion of fantasy into experience and vice versa. Where you have to sit back and you have to go, “This is fantasy, this is a thing that doesn’t exist, but I’m going to try to tell it in such a way that makes you feel like you’ve lived it.” Whereas, when I’m doing covers, man, I’m only interested in your eyes. I want to blow the surface of this lake off. But when I’m doing interiors, and this is the reason why I don’t do interiors very often is I want to get deep. I want to really like sink in there. And to a certain extent, I want a story that’s worth me spending that time.

Deep like rivers: Politics, misdirection, and trusting the reader to trust you

Let’s apply that lens to Thomas River, the lead character of this new project of yours. What is the dissonance with him that he’s trying to resolve?

Well, I think the dissonance of Thomas River is you have a kid that grew up on the mean streets. You know, a kid that had to deal with drug dealers. A kid that’s got to deal with racial inequality. A kid that’s got to deal with the wealth gap. But now what ends up happening is he manages to jump that chasm. And in jumping that chasm, he becomes not only a successful architectural engineer, but he becomes the CIA’s main operations agent. For all intents and purposes, he made it, he did it. But it’s still not over for him. That’s not the end of it. I think a lot of times the American dream tells us once you’ve achieved financial security, you made it. You’re done. But that’s not actually reality. The reality is you may never make it. You may have a moment where you feel like you’ve made it, but there are forces marshaled against you at all times.

How did this project come about? It’s coming from 12-Gauge, the imprint that you co-founded.

12-Gauge started off with Keven Gardner, who’s a comic book shop owner and just a good buddy of ours. He just got tired of listening to our complaints and went, “OK, well, what if I did a comic book company and you guys could do whatever you wanted.” And that’s what 12-Gauge came from. And the first few books that we did were really successful. So, he just kept doing it. And it’s like your dad’s house. It’s cool because you can go out, you can do stuff. You can be successful and do whatever you want, but then you can come home and do whatever you want to do. That’s what 12-Gauge has become. [Thomas River writer] Doug [Wagner] and I, we never send Kevin a script or anything. He just gets the finished pages.

The complete opposite of working at a bigger publisher.

Absolutely. You know, it is true self-publishing, but you don’t have to do the publishing part. You can just be creative.

Is that why you guys are going the crowdfunding route with Kickstarter?

Yeah. Yeah. That’s exactly what we’re doing. I mean, this started off as a 12-Gauge book that would be put out through a larger publisher and that’s how 12-Gauge normally works. The whole Covid thing happened, and we decided let’s pivot on this. Let’s do something a little bit different. Because, honestly this became much more of a personal project. A personal project to me, and a personal project to Doug. So, we went, “Well, let’s just do this on our own. Let’s see what people say about it.”

The James Bond and John Wick influences are there. There’s a lot of gun-fu, and intensely choreographed hand-to-hand combat. How do you take that stuff and try to make it your own?

To me, the real big secret is — and I think a lot of both writers and artists miss out on this — the action sequence can’t just be porn. Oftentimes, when the action starts, the storytelling ends. The thing that Ta- Nehisi and I really got into was the idea that the action sequences have to tell us something about the character. Is the character spending most of this action defending themselves or attacking? What does that say about the character? The way that Doug is approaching this is that an action sequence isn’t just kinetics. By viewing this action sequence, you know a little bit more about the inside of the character, by the actions of the outside of the character.

One thing we can’t look away from in this first issue of Thomas River is the fact that the story you guys are trying to tell is based around a terrorist attack. It’s politically motivated violence that disrupts the relative calm of everyday life. What were your team’s concerns with crafting a story like this? Was there a level of trepidation? Talk to me about deciding that this is where you wanted the story to start.

Concept art of a man in a mask with segmented eye patches and dual cylinders over the mouth, like a gas mask, from Thomas River.
Concept art from Thomas River.
Image: Brian Stelfreeze

Well, I’ve got to tell you, man, it’s terrifying. Because as a storyteller, you want to be aware of the world, and you don’t want to cast aspersions on any one race, or religion, or anything like that. But, at the same time, you want to tell your story. So that’s one of the things that we wanted to be a little bit careful about, and always check ourselves and say, “Hey, are we being racist here?” That’s the bottom line of it.

But, to a certain extent, in the story that we’re telling, we want that to be part of your perception. We want you to question what we’re doing. We want you to look at this and go, “What are these guys saying?” But we also want you to come back to the second issue and then come back to the third issue because it gets deeper. I think it’s just tough because right now we’re living in a culture of headline readers, where people will read the headline and take from that, the story. And not read any further.

You basically want deeper engagement with the work. You don’t want snap judgments, you want people to consume the whole thing.

Definitely that. And at the same time, I want you to understand I’m manipulating you. That’s what a storyteller is supposed to do. They’re supposed to manipulate you. They’re supposed to manipulate your feelings.

On that note, you have this main character, who’s a Black man, who’s an agent of the state, an embodiment of state violence. Were you concerned about having him be that character, a vessel for that, especially considering the times that we’re living through?

There’s definitely a deep concern for that. And we explore that in the story. One of our early readers mentioned that. “Ah man. This is a portrait of America.” And Doug and I were laughing and we’re like, “Well we actually started the portrait before the subject arrived.” We’ve been working on this story for over a year. But then all these things started happening. And we’re like, “Wow, in the last year, reality is catching up with this fantasy story that we were telling.”

Do you feel like growing up in close proximity to the military influenced the creation of this character? At least for your part of it?

Oh, beyond a doubt. Watching my dad go through the military, watching people just shower him with respect, that gave me such military pride. But, at the same time, my pride isn’t going to be blindness because I didn’t join the military and follow him. I think I’m trying to celebrate that willingness to sacrifice yourself for the country. I personally don’t have that. It’s cool that I wasn’t asked to, but I admire people who can.

It sounds like you want Thomas River to interrogate the policies, inequalities, and consequences that sometimes happen as a result of that service.

I think it’s worth interrogating all that, because there is a deficiency within that. There is a deficiency when you have a person that’s willing to give their life for service, but you also have situations where people wish to manipulate or take advantage of that, where people are going to profit.

Some of the conversations you see happening now about superheroes as a genre or action fantasy as a genre focus on how closely tethered it is to cops and police and military and espionage and thinking about the nature of heroism coming through those political vectors. Is that something else you guys wanted to interrogate in this work?

Oh, definitely. I don’t think you can live in this world without feeling that. I’m a patriot. Doug Wagner is a patriot. But I’m also Black and Doug is Native American. These things don’t exist in different places. They exist in the same person. I think all of the people that are saying “Black Lives Matter,” those people are patriots. Those people are all trying for what we wish this country to be. And I think to a certain extent, Doug and I are trying to tackle those harmonics. We’re trying to tie those things together. And Thomas River is an answer to some of the same questions that we have.

An equipped special operative in a strange full face mask, carrying a sniper rifle, in concept art from Thomas River.
Concept art of Wraith from Thomas River.
Image: Brian Stelfreeze

Drawing while Black: Truth and fantasy on the page

When we spoke recently, you expressed this frustration with being pigeonholed in a certain box in this part of your career, saying you’re only getting calls on Black projects, or characters with Black main characters, or Black themes. Talk to me about how you feel about that. Why you think it came about.

In the early part of my career, I was just known as an artist. It’s funny because the fact that I was Black wasn’t really on the radar for the longest time, and I think to a certain extent everyone ends up being surprised that I am. And that was always a funny thing for me, because the way that I personally would like to live my life is as a creator who’s Black, rather than as a Black creator.

Well, mostly because other people foist a context on you with the latter, right? They feel like you’re maybe only capable of or concerned with certain things, when you have a wider swath of concerns and interests that don’t necessarily fit into that label, they put on you.

Exactly. I think I’ve got a lot to say, and I’ve got a lot to comment on. I’ve got a lot to comment on personally, and I’ve got a lot to comment on through my work. And I don’t like the idea of, “Oh, you’re allowed to say these things and that’s it.” That’s not what my work is all about. That’s not what my beliefs ... That’s not what my drive is. I’m interested in a bunch of different subjects, I am interested in a bunch of different characters. And I try to be a creative guy. I told this in this one interview, I think for me to do characters outside of who I am takes creativity. For me to do characters that reflect who I am, just takes the truth. And sometimes I love being creative, other times I love being truthful.

The last time I saw you in person, you showed me the pencils for that Marvel’s Voices variant cover set in the barbershop. Do you feel like that was a combination of both? I feel like you can look at a piece like that and feel like it’s easy for you to draw. It’s a common idea that, within Black communities, the barbershop is an important gathering place. Talk to me about the conception of that piece, the idea of it, and what you wanted to impart.

Storm, Misty Knight, Manifold, Luke Cage, and Black Panther hang out in a barber shop together in a variant cover for Marvel’s Voices #1, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: Brian Stelfreeze/Marvel Comics

That piece comes from experience. I remember way too many times in the community that I grew up in, my uncles would just randomly gather all the kids and just take us to the barbershop, and we would get our haircut reluctantly while him and all the other guys were just chewing the fat, talking about a little bit of everything. The subjects would just range through everything. That’s an experience that I’ve had over, and over, and over. Even when I go to the barbershop now, those are the best and funniest conversations.

For me, I thought, “Man, what’s the barbershop that T’Challa goes to? And of course, Luke Cage would be there, and of course Storm would be there, and all these other characters would be there. And kids would be pushed off to the side waiting for their turn in the chair. That’s me, not using my imagination, but just drawing through a mirror. Everything in that, even things like the little poster with all the different hairstyles on it. Everyone who’s had the experience of the barbershop is going to see that, and go, “Oh, yeah, I recognize everything in this.” I think the thing that makes it enjoyable is not the fantasy of it but the truthfulness of it.

I really want that piece to be a poster.

There’s going to be the flip side of that, too. And the flip side of that is, yeah I’m going to do an awesome drawing of Batman jumping off of a building. I’ve never jumped off of a building before. So, in order for me to make that believable, I’m going to have to be really creative. Those are bookends. That’s something that I love.

I think as a comic book fan, I think we have a tendency to see who we want to be in these characters. I would go so far as to say it almost doesn’t matter, the race of the character. The race of the character makes it easier for us to put on those clothes. But we see ourselves in these characters. We all were that awkward teenager that maybe had this superpower of playing the piano, or drawing, or writing, or math that we’d get teased for. So, we see ourselves in Spider-Man. We’re all the outsider who wants to be the best in our community, even though our community casts us aside. We’re all like that, so we can see ourselves as Superman. And the same with Batman. We all feel like, well within this community I’m well respected, but in this community I’m not even considered. So, we all project ourselves into T’Challa’s position.

I think the same thing with Thomas River. I want some kid in Baltimore who thinks that they’re heading for a dead end to look at this as a beacon and go, “Well man, this guy grew up in the same situation that I did. Maybe I can. Look at how he’s handling it.” Your parents didn’t die in an alley after you watched a movie and you’re not a billionaire, so the chances of you being Bruce Wayne? Slim. But maybe Thomas River is a slightly easier projection. At the same time, hopefully it’s going to be as exciting of a story.


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