When DC decided to bring various corners of the Batman universe to July's Batgirl Annual #3, that included the young characters from DC's Gotham Academy series. At the same time, the Bat-office was determined to feature a star-studded line-up of artists for the annual, showcasing some of the fresh new faces working on Bat-books.
Enter Mingjue Helen Chen. The artist is already winning rave reviews for her full color, animation-inspired artwork when she fills in on Gotham Academy for regular artist Karl Kerschl. In Batgirl Annual #3, she'll be bringing the new Burnside version of Batgirl into the world of beloved Gotham Academy characters Olive and Maps.
Batgirl Annual #3 also features work from Bengal, who'll be drawing characters from Grayson; David Lafuente, who's uniting Batgirl with Spoiler; and Ming Doyle, who's drawing a story with Batwoman.
For her Gotham Academy story, Chen is utilizing her digital-drawing skills to build pages in a painting-based style reminiscent of her work on Gotham Academy. The artist graduated in 2010 from the Academy of Art University and has been working in animation ever since, including Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6.
For her work on Batgirl Annual #3, Newsarama talked to the artist to find out her take on Burnside Batgirl and how she builds her unique, digitally-painted pages.
Newsarama: Helen, for Batgirl Annual #3, are you working on these pages alone? There's so much detail in the backgrounds.
Mingjue Helen Chen: Yep! Working in animation, I actually mostly work on set design and background design for film. That means a lot of perspective and drawing a ton of backgrounds! It really helped me get to the point where I can compose images and rely on myself to paint all of it.
Nrama: What's your process like as you build a page like this?
Chen: I always start with a loose sketch and layout the page. Then I kind of just jump around from panel to panel until the whole page is done! For each panel I build the image back to front. So typically I'll paint the background first and then place the character in, then I tie the whole thing together with lighting.
Nrama: Let's talk about that lighting. Your painted approach gives you the ability for some unique lighting within the art. Can you describe how you do that?
Chen: As I said, I tend to build lighting last. I work purely in Photoshop, which is pretty common in the comic book world, its just a different style, and taking it a bit further. I think it's because I work alone, I don't really have to adhere to my own lines, and the process becomes a lot more malleable. There's nothing set in stone until I'm done with the page, I'm always tweaking and changing the pose, expressions, tweaking lighting, until I send it in!
Nrama: What were your thoughts about the way you approached this story overall for Batgirl Annual #3? What were you hoping to achieve visually?
Chen: I wanted there to be a lot of color and saturation, even when they're in these dark tunnels exploring underground world of Gotham Academy. Another thing that I love using is lighting, it really helps to separate the characters from the backgrounds and in general is the funnest part of a painting for me.
Nrama: What do you think of the Batgirl costume and new visual approach to the character? What did you want to do with that character?
Chen: I, personally, was one of those people who were 100% on board the minute I saw it. It has a freshness to it that I really appreciate, and its very "approachable," if that's the right term for it.
The Batgirl team did such great job re-introducing this character to a world that in recent years while the movie adaptations, etcetera, have gotten increasingly darker and grittier. I was a big fan of the animated TV show by Bruce Timm growing up, and that to me had such great mix of noir, mystery, but also, fun! So hopefully, what I did in the few pages with Batgirl really echoes some of that sentiment from my childhood.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell fans about working on Batgirl Annual #3?
Chen: That working on Batgirl even for a bit is a dream come true! I also can't wait to see what the other artists involved have cooked up and it really is such an honor to be working alongside such stars in the industry.