For a lot of comic fans and young artists, it would be a dream-come-true to work as a regular penciler at a major comics company.
For Jeremy Roberts, the penciler on DC's repackaged and just-relaunched title New Suicide Squad, that dream finally came true thanks to a talent search that broke him out of obscurity after more than a decade of trying to get a penciling job.
The big break came when DC Entertainment publicized an "Open Talent Search" to find an artist that could draw a four-panel page from a script by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner for Harley Quinn #0.
"I've loved to draw for as long as I can remember, and I always dreamed of drawing comic books. So for me, it was the opportunity of a lifetime," Robert said.
His submitted page beat out all other entries for Harley's debut issue, and it was published in November 2013 next to pages from superstar artists like Jim Lee and Adam Hughes. And although Roberts' name got mentioned quite a bit around the comics community, it wasn't necessarily because of his work, but because the script for Roberts' Harley Quinn page had brought DC a little controversy, although Roberts altered the final product before publication.
It may sound like an overnight success story, but two things made that far from true:
First, Roberts had already put a decade of work into accomplishing this "sudden" break into comics.
And second, winning a talent contest does not mean a creator gets a job (just ask comics writer Jason Aaron, who won a talent contest with Marvel in 2001, but waited almost five more years before anyone would give him ongoing work).
"It took awhile to get here," Roberts said, remembering the struggle to get anyone to pay attention to him as a potential artist. "I started working in the industry 10 to 15 years ago, at Bright Anvil Studios in Toronto. I kept bugging them for a job, but they didn't need another artist. So, I learned how to color, and they gave me a shot."
Roberts' first published work was as a colorist on a few Dark Horse books. "I was flatting pages on the side to try and make a living," he said.
Because it would pay the bills — and because nobody would hire him as a penciler — Roberts kept taking coloring jobs. "Eventually, I ended up working for Sotocolor Graphics. I got to work with Chris Sotomayor, and learn from one of the absolute best colorists in the business," he said. "We worked together on Noble Causes at Image, and I got to color countless Marvel books including Pet Avengers, which I'm still very proud of. At the same time, I got to live out a childhood dream coloring He-Man comics at MV Creations, as well as Voltron and G.I. Joe vs. Transformers for Devil's Due."
Still unable to find penciling work, Roberts' experience as a colorist opened the door for him as a digital painter, and he was able to sell a few covers. "I got to ink a few books for Marvel," he said. "I worked as an illustrator for Disney, and I even got to do licensing art for the first Captain America movie, as well as Thor, and the entire Avengers Assemble line."
Despite all that experience working with Marvel characters, the artist still hadn't been given a chance to hone his skills as an interior penciler — so the DC contest became the perfect opportunity to show off what he could do.
"I feel very fortunate to have had such varied career," he said, but added, "I'm thrilled now that I actually get to draw comics!"
When he won the DC contest, his experience at coloring might have given him some advantage over other entries, so DC editors must have wondered — could he handle an ongoing gig as a penciler?
His first test came when DC tried him out on a job drawing more than one page, as they handed over the pencils for March's Stormwatch #30, the final issue of the series. Working on a script from writer Sterling Gates, Roberts had to leave the coloring work to other people.
Apparently, Roberts passed the test, because DC soon announced he'd be a regular artist for the company on New Suicide Squad, which launched this month.
Roberts said he's trying to give the art on New Suicide Squad an "edge," like the book's title team.
"Task Force X has a real edge to it, and the art reflects that," Roberts said. "It's a little darker than any other work that I've done in the past. There are plenty of explosions and a lot of grit and grime."
And although he's a veteran of the industry in general, Roberts said his penciling style is still evolving. "I'm constantly learning from everything; I have a lot of influences," he said.
"My biggest influence has to be Jim Lee. I grew up on a lot of the early Image stuff — artists like J. Scott Campbell, Joe Madureira, Brandon Peterson, Matt Broome, and Travis Charest were all extremely influential," Roberts said. "I also learned a lot from studying the work of Joe Kubert and Lee Weeks."
He continues to be inspired by colorists — "like Alex Sinclair, Laura Martin, Jason Keith, and especially Justin Ponsor" — as well as writers, who help him hone his storytelling skills.
"I'm continually trying to improve my storytelling, so I make a point of reading everything I can from the best writers out there," Roberts said. "Scott Snyder, Geoff Johns, Fred Van Lente, and Brian Michael Bendis...
"The artists that I look up to most today are probably Jim Cheung, Steve McNiven, and David Marquez, because they can create stunning visuals, but also tell an incredibly engaging story."
On New Suicide Squad, Roberts said he's also challenged by the great creators who came before him, drawing past incarnations of the Squad.
"The Suicide Squad has a great legacy," he said. "Some tremendously talented people have worked on this book in the past. So I'm just trying to do my best to live up to that."