Talking to Brian Stelfreeze at Wizard World Atlanta

JMSwizardworld2010Weekend before last, Ken and I drove down to the Cobb Galleria outside Atlanta for Wizard World slash Atlanta Comic Con.  I admit, the trip was mostly for my husband, who is a lifelong comics fan and wanted to go and spend hours and hours rifling through dingy boxes of old comics. I figured I would wander through the convention for a while and then go shopping. Actually, though, when I say I’m not really a comics fan that’s not true. I’ve always been a fan of comic art. I actually used to read a lot of comics, but my mother wouldn’t let me bring them home, so I read them at Standefer’s Drugstore in Pikeville, TN, after school. I loved The Fantastic Four and Archie, and my mom actually let me get a subscription to Creepy and Mad. And I once spent two months in 1992 drawing a 32-page indy comic which never saw the light of day, and to give full credit to my comic-hating mom, she took care of my son Alex while I drew all day long every day.

The comic is still sitting unpublished in an old portfolio. I showed it to an underground comic artist at DragonCon years ago and he said it was really good and original, but the local guy who wrote the script didn’t like the way I drew it. I think he thought he was writing a superhero comic but I drew it as a parody, because the story was silly, and I couldn’t have drawn a superhero comic anyway. And my very first paying publication was in Dave Sim’s Cerebus comic’s Single Page, where he used to highlight up and coming talent and actually paid a pretty decent fee for the time: I got an actual cashable check for $125.00, which I appreciated even more later on when I was often promised big money but ended up paid zilch.

Years later, I actually went out of my way to meet Dave Sim at a convention and say hi and thanks for the cash. What I actually ended up saying was, “But I’m not really a comic artist,” and he looked at me with a puzzled expression on his big, doughy baby face, like I was crazy or stupid, but really, I’d never done any more comics and considered it over. Considering how he finally went off the deep end and started writing misogynistic drivel, he no doubt thought I was stupid. After I read some of the stuff he wrote about women I began to wonder if getting published by him was a curse on my entire career, and I wished I could go back to that con and hand him his $125.00 in cash and flounce away. But it’s too late, that money’s long gone, so it would just be all for show.

Usually at comic cons, I hit the artist’s tables and find someone to talk to, but they were pretty crowded at that point, so I left and wandered down the Galleria. Then I wandered back to the con and headed around to the artist’s tables again, and saw a bunch of prints by Alex Ross.  It turned out that Alex Ross wasn’t there, but the man at the table knew him.  “See that guy down there?” he asked, and I turned to see another artist, a well-built young man in a t-shirt a couple of tables down. “He posed as the Flash,” and then he showed me the finished painting. I could see how Ross had taken what he needed from the guy’s face and physique and added costume and background. Neat. I’ve often taken pics of my husband and son and daughter to use for illustrations; it’s the best way to get the right lighting, although I used to feel guilty about using the dreaded photo reference, otherwise known as “cheating.” My kids used to complain endlessly about the poses I put them in. “Mom, this is impossible, no one can do this,” they would say while I tried to twist them into position to be a zombie.

“I love how Ross manages warm and cool light,” I commented to the man at Alex’s table, and we talked lighting for a few minutes. He told me that Ross always used photo reference for his paintings, in order to get the lighting right, but I had already figured that out. His comic art is a series of exquisitely rendered watercolor portraits. I’m not a watercolorist but I admire his technique a lot. He’s one of those painters who make me want to sit and ponder and figure out how did he do that? Next down the line, I picked up somebody’s indy comic, with an intro by Dave Sim. Pass. Then I talked to a guy named Cory Smith who does excellent superhero portraits.  Maybe he was the guy who posed for Alex Ross. Anyway, he and I talked about pencils, since I draw a lot with pencils and find pencils to be very interesting. Seriously. He did maquettes, too, which are little sculptures of comic characters, to help the artist look at them from all angles.

I did maquettes for my ill-fated indy comic. Years later, I glued the maquettes to the posts of a wooden chair and painted the chair and sold it for about $100.  But now I wish I had the maquettes back, or at least the chair. Later, I checked out one of Cory’s sites and he had some beautiful pencil drawings of nudes, with very lovingly drawn labia, which I find very sweet. My husband has some old comics by some South American dude who draws the most beautiful little naked women, each of them with the most elegant and yet economically drawn labia, a very pretty detail. My only beef with Cory’s nudes would be his use of the Hitler’s mustache style of pubes that’s currently fashionable.

After that I met an interesting guy named Dirk Strangely.  He was friendly and talkative and a lot of fun, a contrast with his art, which was very dark and macabre.   His paintings don’t make me want to figure out how he does it, like Alex Ross’s stuff.  Still it was interesting stylistically, in particular his paintings of women.  I picked up one painting of a nude woman with part of her face scratched out and “mother” written on her belly, and said, “This is really scary.”  The image was weirdly compelling, and if I’d had a few more dollars on me, part of me wanted to have it, while the other part found it repellent.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my own mother died a few months ago. Strangely said the painting was about American women’s self hatred and talked about how he wanted women to see their own true beauty. Hmmm. I found his argument somewhat less than convincing, although he seemed like a very nice, sympathetic guy, with his wife and kids hanging around behind the table, helping out. Nope, his work reminded me a little too much of Willem de Kooning, and even more of Walter Sickert, the Victorian English painter who some, including famous crime novelist Patricia Cornwall, think might have been Jack the Ripper. It’s probably best I left the original painting there. I ended up buying one of his indy comics, Graveyard Girl, and a narrative drawing postcard to stick up in my studio with my postcard collection. We talked a bit about crossover into fine art galleries, and he seems to have it down. The edginess of his work probably helps. I’ve found my edgier stuff can cross over easier than stuff that’s too cute.

I checked out the Wizard World schedule and saw that at 4 PM there was a panel of famous comic artists right there in room 4. Bingo, I had something to look forward to, even though none of the names was familiar. Like I’ve said, I’ve been out of the loop for a long time, even though I often look through Ken’s books just to see the pictures. I find a lot of comic writing just unreadable, especially superheroes, even while I often find myself looking at the pictures with awe and wonder. I sat down in the back of the room for the panel, and watched the room fill up and finally the four panelists walk in and sit down. Honestly, I didn’t have a clue who any of them were and I didn’t expect to be terribly interested. After about 5 minutes, I realized that I was really into the panel so I got up and moved closer. These people were really interesting, especially one man, a compactly built African-American man in a yellow knit cap, whose enormous eyes dominated his face, even from twenty paces. I saw the name Brian Stelfreeze on a huge poster behind him, and it rang a bell from my random comics perusals, and since it was over the man in the yellow cap, I figured it was him. (Here’s a link to his cool art blog.) It turned out I was right about who he was, but it could have been a coincidence that the poster was over his head.

I wish I could remember the other men on the panel: one of them was an editor or columnist from Wizard Magazine, I remember that, and there was a very tall blond chap, and another blondish fellow. A woman was listed on the program, but she must not have shown.  They got to talking about dealing with writers and how it could be difficult, and how some they didn’t ever want to work with again. I found myself holding my hand up and asking them if they meant hard to deal with personally or if the writing was the problem. It sounded like it boiled down to the writers’ egos, which  could get in the way. The artists agreed that they prefered a writer who leaves the script “open,’ instead of dictating camera angles. One artist said he told a writer, “I’ll let you dictate camera angles if you let me write dialogue.” Touche. The man who turned out to be Stelfreeze then answered a question about computer art;  he said (and I hope I can remember exactly what)  that too many artists nowadays aren’t learning basic drawing skills, with a pencil or ink on real paper. Instead, they go straight to the computer tablet and stylus, which enables them to wipe out lines too easily, so the young artist never learns to make a real decisive mark. Stelfreeze emphasized that making art involves making mistakes and correcting them and learning from them.  He seemed to be talking about sometimes utilizing the mistakes that happen when the artist is drawing with pencil and ink on paper, painting something out, making a new mark, and sometimes discovering something new in the process.

StelfreezeAtlantaIt made me realize that my own drawing process isn’t as awful as I’ve often worried. I still draw with a pencil, pen, and brush (or sometimes paint) on paper, and only utilize the computer for labelling and a few corrections. My “technique,” if you can call it that, makes use of my many mistakes. I am willing to stay up all night drawing tiny hands, if necessary, doing it over and over and over again which is why I can draw as well as I can. At work, when drawing fossils, I often paint out lines I don’t like and go over them; when I eff it up, I start over having found out what I did wrong, able to make the decisive mark finally. Somehow I thought other artists didn’t do this, but I guess they do. After the panel, I followed them into the convention room to their table, because I wanted to tell Stelfreeze how much I enjoyed listening to them and especially him. But there were numerous hopeful kids with portfolios standing in line waiting to show their art to the panelists. I stood back and listened. A young man brought out his comic art and showed Stelfreeze, who gave him a long and generous critique. The crowd bubbled around me, and I could barely hear what he was saying and bent in closer to listen more carefully. After about five minutes, I realized I was hearing the most astonishing drawing lesson I had ever heard. I wished I had a tape recorder, and only  hoped that my mind would retain some of what I was hearing.

Later, after we got back to the hotel, I sat down and tried to write down a little of what Stelfreeze had talked about. “You draw well,” he told one young artist, “twenty years from now you will never draw one bit better.” The kid stood up a little straighter. He told the young man that his job now was to develop a personal style, to convey a particular mood, and to make every single panel he drew serve that style and mood. “Art with a purpose,”  Stelfreeze said several times, “Comics is art with a purpose.” Comics are about conveying emotion and every image should carry that emotion forward. He said that the comic artist should develop a directorial style, like a movie director, and look at the work of famous movie directors with a mind to finding their own style. I remembered when I was drawing my indy comic, an acquaintance who had done comics and was quite good, much more facile than me, lent me a copy of an old classic book on cinematography which he said was key in drawing comics. At the time I didn’t quite know what he was talking about, but I kept the book.  I gotta find that thing. Stelfreeze also said that when you find your directorial style, you can throw out skillsets you don’t need. Wow, I had never thought of that.

Stelfreeze mentioned, I think, Sterenko as someone who decided he didn’t really need deep perspective. That was a real eye-opener for me.  I had struggled for so long to do everything, and perspective is hard for me, maybe because I am very nearsighted. Maybe I should just move on and do what I do well. Hmmm. I could see that Dirk Strangely, for instance, had a  good, clear vision of his own Tim Burtonesque style that hung together quite well, without worrying one bit about perspective. Stelfreeze talked about action too, in a way that made me understand the whole concept better than I had before. I’d always thought that “action” meant big ACTION, big beefy supermen hitting each other, which doesn’t really interest me much, but he talked about small actions, a man hitting a fly, someone sitting down slowly, panel by panel, a look, a twist of the body. I wish I could remember everything he said but I can’t. When he finished talking to the kid, I stepped up and told him how much I had enjoyed listening to him. In fact I said, “That was amazing!” which it was. He was really nice and open, and when I told him that I and my artist friend Pyra (she has done some comics already based on her own Noantri world) had been talking about how much we wanted to do our own indy comic, but we were afraid no one wanted to see comics by middle-aged ladies, he responded enthusiastically. “You have real experience to write about!”  he said. “Too many kids write indy comics before they have lived;  you have lived and have so much to say.”

I stepped back because a young woman had been standing there for quite a while with her portfolio, waiting for a review. I could have talked to him for hours. You can tell how much he enjoys doing what he’s doing, can’t you? I know how he feels.  Talking to other working artists is such an energizer. Now I feel jazzed up and creative again.

I thought a lot about what he said later. I’ve noticed for a long time that many young wanna-be comic artists have gotten a lot of training in basic drawing, but they seem to have had all the originality and style wrung out of them. Some of them seem to think that they are supposed not to have any discernible style and that has always aggravated me. I knew something was wrong with the way they drew: competent, but flat, with no personality. I think they get it from old books on how to draw pencils for Marvel. That’s what all teenage boys want to do: pencils for Marvel. They especially seem to have taken to heart directions on how to sketch in a face, drawing every face the same, the mouth a straight line, no feeling for the underlying muscles. I’ve seen some of my husband’s old pencilled comic drawings. They weren’t bad at all, and he had a better handle on perspective than I did for a long time, but they drove me nuts, because he had taken all his own style out, but I didn’t know how to put it into words before. If you’re a professional artist, however, learn from my example and don’t critique your husband’s amateur drawings.  He didn’t like it when I told him that he drew his hands and feet too small, but he did.



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