Babs Tarr made a name for herself on DC's Batgirl, and with this summer's Rebirth the artist is using it to come into her own and take the next step in comic books. Image Comics has announced that Tarr and Batgirl writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher will at April's Image Expo event, presumably with something new to announce.
Tarr burst onto the comic book secene with Batgirl in 2014, and has ridden -- and steered it -- so that she's become one of the comic industry's biggest rising stars. With her distinct, anime-influenced style, she helped make the Batgirl of Burnside’s look instantly recognizable and launched hundreds of cosplays.
With the artist in this liminal period as Batgirl winds up and her next project about to be announced, Newsarama sat down with Tarr on her immediate future, as well as unpacking her past with Batgirl and what brought her to comic books.
Newsarama: So Babs, right off the bat (pun absolutely intended), what are you working on today?
Babs Tarr: Me? I am going to do a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Pink cover, because Brenden is going to be writing it with Kelley Thompson. I want to keep supporting Brenden and his projects so I’m going to do a cover for them. They asked me earlier, but I was too busy to do it. They were really nice to me and let me wait it out.
Nrama: Okay, so you skipped C2E2 this year…
Tarr: They didn’t invite me back [laughs]. Most of the time I can wiggle my way in, but not this year.
Nrama: Oh, okay! Fair enough. However, you’ve posted you’ll be at Image Expo in April with the rest of your Batgirl co-creators….
Nrama: Now, I’m sure you can’t say anything about that just yet, but you know...nobody really announces they’re going to Image Expo without revealing something.
Tarr: This is like the Spanish Inquisition [laughs].
Uhm, yeah...I’m going to be there. That should be fun. [Laughs]
You know I can’t tell you anything just yet.
Nrama: Okay, so, that being said, with Batgirl having such indie sensibilities, do you ever think it will feel weird when you start transitioning to creator-owned work? If you go down that route, that is.
Tarr: Oh, totally, it’s going to be weird. She’s my one true first love, ya know? My first romance in comics was Batgirl. Starting out, I didn’t know much about the comic world, I didn’t even read that many American comics or think about drawing them or dream about it. When I was little though, Batman was my favorite superhero. So getting to draw Batgirl was such a surreal dream come true, in a weird way.
So, I don’t know, it will be strange…. if I ever move on. I wish the best for that book. It’s a very intense book to work on because it’s a representative for me in DC. It means a lot to disabled people, it means a lot to trans people. I feel like Babs uses her brains more than her brawns. That book was intense to work on because it has so many expectations from people. It’s definitely made me a better person that I got to work on this book.
Nrama: Yeah, I was about to say that this book is the one that launched a thousand opportunities for you. I mean, looking back at the past two years, does it ever feel surreal at all?
Tarr: Yeah, it feels very crazy especially when I got so many con invites last year so I was barely home and working on this book, and meeting fans and hearing all these stories from people. You wouldn’t believe how many times I would hear “because of you and Batgirl I got into comics for the first time.” That was so amazing to hear because I felt like I had made something that would have gotten myself into comics for the first time. It was mostly young girls so that was cool to see and hear. There’s so much out there on where to start, but I’m glad I provided a jumping-on point for some new fans.
Nrama: Batgirl was your first big project, too. You didn’t wade through the indie scene for a long time and had to learn the ropes pretty fast. I guess working with Cameron and Brenden makes things slightly easier, I’m sure.
Tarr: Well, yeah. Cameron helped me with the layouts for the first few issues then I was on my own. Let’s see, Batgirl #35 through #40 was Cameron helping me, and I think #41 on was me on my own.
I would still ask for help once and a while. I could do them, like with the girls sitting around talking and being cute and having a conversation, but the action stuff I’m still not great at that. That takes me a long time to figure out and choreograph, so I will usually recruit somebody to do those pages as they’re only a handful in each issue.
I don’t have a big ego so I don’t care if the book isn’t all me the whole time, I just want it look as professional as possible for our readers. My action stuff just isn’t up-to-par just yet to my own standard.
We got super-talented people to help because I don’t want to put out a bad book; I want it to be something I can be proud of.
Nrama: That’s good though to have pride in your product! You never seem like you’re just going through the motions, so to speak.
Tarr: Yeah, and I feel like you can sense that with this book. I would never want people to feel that way with Batgirl.
Nrama: Your style was something that polarized fans with the initial announcement. Can you tell us how you found your own style throughout the years?
Tarr: Yeah, my inspirations from all over the place! I was a girl that grew up with anime so you can definitely see that in my artwork. When I was in college, I knew that I couldn’t just draw anime so I listened to my illustration teacher and they would show me a lot of cool illustrators doing really different stuff. I tried to mix that with my anime obsession to create something all my own.
Also, on a personal level, I really love fashion! I love badass ladies! I love cartoons and anime and manga. You definitely see a lot of “me” in my art style. Even in the fan art I did before Batgirl or if I ever did a zine now. If somebody asked me to do a Cardcaptor Sakura, I probably wouldn’t do it because I don’t have a hard connection with that anime. If you ask me to do a Cowboy Bebop zine or a Ninja Turtles zine, or something like that I’m, I’m down!
I think I want to try and keep it coming from an authentic place, so with Batgirl, I wanted to draw cool things that I thought were interesting to me. Obviously, fashion, again, is a big deal to me. I don’t want to say I’m the first one to do fashion-y things in comics, because that’s not true, but maybe my fashion-forwardness and my style is something unique to put on a main Big Two book, is pretty crazy.
Nrama: Let’s talk about your career pre-comics. You were trying to get a start-up going, right?
Tarr: Okay, so actually, I was living in San Francisco and working on two start-ups! I was designing toys for Hasbro and did some freelance artwork for newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe and whatever else rolled my way. Luckily, when you get a full-time job like that, when you branch off into freelance, you can pick and choose which jobs to take that may cater to your career better. Anything I did outside of my work was all me 100%. The end goal shouldn’t be working for "The Man," but do your own thing. I would also work these 2D jobs at ad companies and draw whatever in whatever style the company wanted me to draw, but you feel like you’re just a cog in a big machine. I was helping my CEO follow his dreams and not follow my own.
So at one point the freelance just got so good and Hasbro wanted me to come out there for about five months. They were going to put me up in a hotel and I was going to draw for them for a while, but along that same time, Cameron was talking to me from DC. So I had to talk to my boss and he figured I would take that gig. At the time, they were transitioning to less illustration and more design-based graphics and I felt like they weren’t using me to my full potential. It was like using a cannon as a water pistol. It was the right call and we’re still on good terms.
Nrama: As somebody who works primarily in digital, what do you think are the benefits of digital, for you, over traditional?
Tarr: I like digital because it’s so editable. It’s my first year in comics, yeah, I’m doing digital. Get over it! [laughs]
I think the guys that do traditional are so great, but they’re also the ones that rant about how “digital sucks and blah blah blah." I think they’re all tools that we use to make the best comics possible. It shouldn’t be a big d-ck waggling contest or whatever. I think if I was to get more confident, I would love to try and do more traditional stuff.
For the past year, I had not unboxed my apartment and didn’t even have a desk to do work on except the piece that my Cintiq is on, which took up so much room. So I didn’t even have the space to do anything traditional and a lot of guys do a mix of it. I know Kris Anka prints out his digital pencils and then inks on those. So you get all the benefits of working out all your ideas on the computer, but then the traditional lines on the paper. And you can sell that!
Nrama: After Cameron took the training wheels off and let you have at it, what was the most important thing with your page compositions? How did you get your mind around that?
Tarr: Oh, God. When I first started I couldn’t tell what was up or down or left or right or tell if it was good or bad. I didn’t know what I was doing and it was all guessing. You practice something more and you get a better feel for things.
If you are curious about comics or studying comics and want to see my growing pains, start at Batgirl #41 and follow it to #50 because you can see me kinda growing in front of you on a DC book. I don’t think it was horrible, but slowly and surely I started to get an idea of what I wanted.
We all absorb movies and TV and other comics, whether we like it or not, and I started to think like a director. I tried to keep on my pacing and when you look at a script page, you try to pick out what’s more important and how you construct it. This panel has a lot of words in it, so try to make it bigger, so you’re juggling so much. Trying to figure out what the environment is. One panel might have more background, you might have another one that’s just heads talking so you can drop a lot of the elements there. There’s little things like that, but now I can figure out what’s good and working, and if it’s bad, fix it.
Even the fight scenes, I can tell they’re not great, but not horrible. I’m still learning, but I think we’re all still learning [laughs] in my defense. If you stop practicing, you will get worse. The lessons never stop.
Nrama: Speaking of which, how do you hone your skills and keeping yourself inspired? Readers have seen creators burn out before.
Tarr: So common, yeah. Fashion is so important to me and this might sound like such a “girl” thing, but what I do is get out of my house, go look at clothes, shopping and do some people-watching.
Nrama: I can tell. You have a ton of followers on your Instagram account and your outfit of the day (#OOTD) photos get as many as your actual artwork.
Tarr: Yeah. [laughs]
I always get inspired by playing this sort of game where I ask what character would wear this and why would they wear it. You get inspired by the things that you see and when you work on comics all the time, you do get shut out from the outside world at times and all that inspiration goes away so you can’t let that happen.
I just love the sunshine and beautiful days and hanging out with my friends and family Traveling to new places and getting exposed to their cultures and what they bring to the table is what I think what makes a more well-rounded person. We’re doing these comics that are a reflection of our realities and where we live and if we’re not paying attention to all the cool things that are happening outside of our work, we’re going to get dated. You can’t keep up.
Nrama: Having known you for a few years now, I’ve seen your lines at conventions grow and grow and you’re constantly working at these shows. What is the most common question you get asked by your fans at conventions?
Tarr: Oh, man. That’s a good question. Most common question...oh, “do you take commissions?”
Nrama: [Laughs] Aside from that, but do you have a question from people looking for advice or inspiration? Anything that sticks out?
Tarr: Yeah, I think how did I get into comics is the standard. I always say it’s a bit of a Cinderella story before I tell them, but there is something to going out there and finding your own style that’s unique and having people find you for job opportunities--not saying I sat on my butt and it was all given to me. I worked hard on my style and to make cool things and put tons of hours into making something look great.
There’s something to say about honing a style that’s neat, clean and that communicates with its readers. You’re telling a story and when the communication isn’t strong, it’s not doing its job. My artwork has a clear message with clear lines and I think that helps. You can always ask Cameron this question, too [laughs]. Yeah, that’s probably my second biggest question.
Nrama: In the famous words used by countless celebrities on MTV’s Diary series: you think you know, but you have no idea.
Tarr: [Talking along] No idea [laughs].
Nrama: If you could tell your audience one thing that they might not know about making comic books, what would it be?
Tarr: Hrm, probably, I think...I’m trying to think of something good.
Well, you’re talking to me about my work and my stuff but it’s so much more collaborative than you could ever imagine. At least on Batgirl, between the writers, the editor, the colorist, and the letterer... to work on a project like this is such a different beast. It’s not just my clear vision; it’s crazy collaborative, especially when you don’t own the character. It’s a product of hours of everybody making the best thing possible. Even David Wielgus, our assistant editor, is so essential throughout the whole process.
Nrama: Lastly, you’re already an Eisner nominee and a fan favorite. You're established, but where do you see yourself in five years?
Tarr: I don’t know if I want to think that far ahead![laughs] That’s so intense.
I would like to make more...I don’t know.
So what I’ve learned this past year is that I’ve come to value time I got to spend working at a company with brands. Not that I want to do that again, but those kind of relationships are so important.
To give you a super honest answer, wherever I’m going to have the most fun with people is where I want to go. Because life is about relationships and people and memories and having fun. Right now, I love working with Brenden and Cameron and who knows what the future holds. I’m just going to keep doing that if I can. Whatever happens, it’s because those people are super cool and I want to work with them.
It could be another comic, video games, whatever, I’m going to go where the cool people are. I used to say that I want to work on my own stuff, but thinking about it, I would get so bored just alone all the time. Now that I’m older and have the success and money, I really just want the people and relationships. I hope I keep making cool stuff that people enjoy and buy. That’s the most I can say about where I want to be in five years.