'Foe' Panels: The 'Superior' Art of Steve Lieber

Marvel Comics February 2014 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics

Steve Lieber is a Portland, Oregon-based based creator and the primary artist behind the critical-favorite Superior Foes of Spider-Man, along with writer Nick Spencer. Lieber has worked with many well-known writers, ranging from Greg Rucka (Whiteout) to fellow Periscope Studio member Jeff Parker (Underground). His work has a distinctive look and feel, concentrating on the little details that can enhance a story, whether it’s a well-timed raised eyebrow or litter on a dirty street. Lieber ‘s pictogram word balloons are also a fan favorite, providing a means for him to personalize fan copies of this work by adding additional details to the original.

Scene from Superior Foes
Scene from Superior Foes
Credit: Marvel Comics

At the same time, Lieber’s action scenes are dynamic, such as the splash page for Superior Foes #2, where the Punisher jumps out at the reader, guns blazing orange-hot (thanks to the help of colorist Rachelle Rosenberg). When Cage and Iron First show up to fight the Foes, the action is slick and detailed, highlighting the moments of action when Shocker blasts someone or Danny Rand takes out a leg.

The first trade paperback collection of Superior Foes of Spider-Man goes on sale Wednesday, February 26. Newsarama spoke with Lieber about Superior Foes, his creative process, and working within both the creator-owned and superhero worlds.

Newsarama: Steve, if you’ve read Best Shots, you’ll know that the Newsarama review team is a big fan of Superior Foes of Spider-Man and your work on the title. How did you come to be a part of the creative team for the book?

Steve Lieber: Good question! To tell the truth, I'm not entirely sure. I think I got back on Marvel's radar when Matt Fraction suggested me as a possible guest-artist on Hawkeye for that Hurricane Sandy story he wrote. We turned that around in a ridiculously short time, and not long afterwards, Steve Wacker asked me if I'd be interested in working on "a villain book."

Nrama: Walk readers through how an issue of Superior Foes is created between you and writer Nick Spencer.

Lieber: There hasn't been much of the sort of back and forth collaboration you might expect. I'll get a few pages of script at a time. Sometimes they'll be full script. Sometimes Marvel-style plotting with just a rough guide to what happens and no dialogue. Other times it'll be three pages of dialog with no page or panel breaks, and very little indication of what the visuals are. I'll read what I have, maybe ping Nick with a few questions. Then I start doing little idea sketches until I find the right notes to hit for each scene. I turn in finished line art without ever showing intermediate steps to anyone. Then Rachelle Rosenberg colors it and Joe Caramagna letters it

Once in a while, a panel comes back for me to touch-up when I push a joke too far for a comic with Spider-Man's name on the cover.

Creatively, I couldn't ask for a better situation. It's not easy for a writer or editor to give up that kind of control. I get the impression that these days the business expects writers to be showrunner/directors, managing every single creative decision. But Nick has been enormously generous in letting me go ape with his stories and it's been more fun than I ever expected.

Nrama: What's been your favorite moment so far in Superior Foes, either from an artistic perspective or just "I can't believe they let us do this!"?

Scene from Superior Foes
Scene from Superior Foes
Credit: Marvel Comics

Lieber: God, there's so many. Probably the panel where Boomerang happily daydreams of being cuckolded by Dormammu.

That gag was Nick's by the way, and I actually fell sideways out of my chair when I read it in the script.

Nrama: Who is your favorite character in the cast, and why?

Lieber: Shocker. I love his costume and I adore drawing his careworn "too-old-for-this" face.

Nrama: Can you give 'Rama readers any hints on where things are going in the story?

Lieber: I can't. Not won't. Can't. Almost every plot development has been a surprise to me.

Nrama: What's been the biggest surprise for you working on Superior Foes?

Lieber: Finding that I actually can be funny in comics. For 20 years, I've built a career on crime comics, adventure comics, superheroes, war, but never humor. This has been my Leslie-Nielsen-in-Airplane moment.

Scene from Superior Foes
Scene from Superior Foes
Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: How is working on a book with Marvel different from doing something like Whiteout (Oni Press, with writer Greg Rucka) or Underground (Image Comics, with writer Jeff Parker)?

Lieber: I think a big part of the success of Superior Foes is that it's been a lot like working on an indie book. Our editor Tom Brennan has been tremendously supportive, trusting us to tell the story the way we think it should be told, without micromanaging our choices or trying to steer us towards any sort of house style.

Nrama: You've worked with some high-profile writers. We mentioned Rucka and Parker above, now Spencer, and of course Caitlin Kiernan on Alabaster from Dark Horse. Does the collaboration process change much depending on the writer, and do you have preferences on how you like to interact on a project?

Lieber: It changes a lot from one collaborator to another. Some writers welcome input. Others prefer a clear division of duties. So long as it the final result is good, I'm happy with either.

Scene from Superior Foes
Scene from Superior Foes
Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: During the livestream you did for the Periscope Studio Kickstarter, everything we saw you working on was digital. Are you 100% a digital artist now? What are the advantages/disadvantages of creating that way?

Lieber: I sometimes draw page entirely digitally, but I prefer to go back and forth between analog and digital tools. I like this hybrid method: Thumbnails in pencil, drawn right on the script. Then I letter the page in Photoshop and do some penciling and maybe a bit of inking in Manga Studio. Then I turn the pencils blue and print out the page onto bristol board and finish the art with a real brush and india ink. Then scan the page back in and do any digital tweaks that need to be done.

Nrama: Speaking of Periscope Studio, tell us about your association with them. What's it like working in a room with other creators, rather than alone?

Lieber: I'd worked in a room by myself for a long while, and over time it went from delightful to miserable. A decade ago, when the other founders and I started discussing the possibility of assembling a new studio, I knew I had to be part of it.

I love working around my studio mates. There's regular feedback and inspiration from sharp, knowledgeable peers, continuous exposure to new ideas and techniques, and the pleasure of spending time with a chosen family of like-minded weirdos.

Nrama: Last question: Where else can folks who have become a big fan of yours thanks to Superior Foes find you? Any other current or upcoming projects?

Lieber: I’d recommend the comics you mentioned, Underground and Whiteout. I've got a couple of possible future projects in mind, but nothing's lined up with a publisher yet- just things I'm still discussing with collaborators. For now, I'm all Superior Foes!

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