Jen Bartel is one of the most in-demand cover artists in comic books, but she has loftier ambitions than that.
This October, Bartel's creator-owned series Blackbird with writer Sam Humphries launches from Image Comics. Bartel has drawn comic shorts from time to time (including in the recent Mighty Thor: Gates of Valhalla anthology), but Blackbird #1 will be her first full issue.
So why did Bartel choose to expand into interior work despite having a steady stream of cover work? What is Blackbird about? And where did she come from? Newsarama spoke with Bartel, asking all those questions and more.
Newsarama: Let's start off slow - what's on your to-do list today for work?
Jen Bartel: Heya! No problem, thanks for having me! I just finished inking an issue of Blackbird, so I’m switching gears and getting some covers done. I’ve got two for Marvel, one for Dark Horse, and two for Image that I need to get out the door this week. Thankfully all of my sketches for them have been approved already, whew!
Nrama: After years of being known primarily as a cover artist, you're working on your first series, Blackbird, and there was talk a while back of you doing a Storm book with Ta-Nehisi Coates for Marvel. Is interior work something you have always been interested in?
Bartel: You know, I never thought I’d be an interior artist - I went to school for illustration, and I actually thought I’d be an editorial or fashion illustrator. A big part of that was that there weren’t a lot of visible women working in mainstream comics, so even though I’ve always had a huge interest in comics and nerd media, I didn’t see a place for me in the industry until very recently.
Now that I actually have these opportunities, I’m having to learn an entirely new discipline at warp speed - it’s a lot of fun but it’s hugely challenging; illustration and sequential art are just two completely different animals. Interiors are so hard!
Nrama: You must have been approached before now to draw comics - what changed for you to agree to do this?
Bartel: I think I was just very nervous about agreeing to do something that I wouldn’t be able to deliver on - I knew how much work would go into being an interior artist, and I didn’t feel confident I could just jump in and do the thing.
When Sam initially approached me about working on something together, I was very transparent about my inexperience and he was willing to help and be flexible with how he wrote scripts, and he was also supportive of my decision to hire my good friend Paul Reinwand as the layout artist on the book. If I was going to jump straight into doing an Image book, I wanted to have some pretty steady training wheels on first, and so far it’s created an environment for me to learn the ropes very quickly.
Nrama: For your interior comics work, are you bringing in an outside color artist?
Bartel: Yes, there’s no way I could put out a 22-page comic on a monthly schedule without the incredible colorists I’ve had the opportunity to work with. Triona Farrell is my most regular collaborator - she’s done some beautiful color work on lots of covers of mine this year, and she’s coloring Blackbird as well.
Matt Wilson just colored a Mighty Thor story I drew and he’s absolutely incredible. Coloring comics is so different from coloring a single illustration, I’m very glad to have them.
Nrama: Pardon me for asking… but why interiors? In most cases, a page of comics pays much less than doing a cover, and its more individual illustrations than a cover usually. What does drawing actual comics mean to you?
Bartel: Covers are nice to look at, but ultimately they are superficial, singular illustrations. Being able to dive into interior art meant that I would be able to reach people on a more emotional level, to actually be a storyteller, and to hopefully inspire them in a deeper way. Stories have more longevity than cover images, so in my mind, they’re more meaningful and more likely to provide a lasting legacy.
Nrama: When Blackbird was announced at Image Expo you said the series came about because you told Sam Humphries you wanted to "draw demons, magic, and beautiful people." I like that - but can you give us more detail on what the book is turning into?
Bartel: Absolutely. Blackbird is at its core, a coming of age story about Nina Rodriguez - a down-on-her-luck young woman living in Los Angeles, who is dealing with grief, abandonment, and struggling to find her footing after some traumatic events she went through as a teenager.
The story begins with her discovering a hidden world of magic that’s been under her nose this entire time when her sister is kidnapped by a mystical beast. Through her quest to save her sister, she discovers more about herself, her family history, and her city than she ever bargained for.
Nrama: One of the strongest facets of your cover work has been your color theory. What are your earliest memories of using color in your artwork?
Bartel: Hah! I was obsessed with Lisa Frank and Shojo anime as a kid, where everything is just rainbow colored and super vibrant - I think I subconsciously am always trying to capture the essence of that era in my work, because nostalgia is a powerful thing and those memories are some of the happiest for not just me, but a lot of people.
I started drawing digitally when I was just a teenager, cutting my teeth on old art forums and learning how to use a Wacom tablet and Photoshop - it was a time period where a lot of pros hadn’t even made the transition to digital art fully yet, and lots of folks were abusing the lens flare filter and dodge+burn tools, but it was really formative for me and got me to experiment without a fear of failure.
Nrama: What mediums did you use primarily before you went digital?
Bartel: I got started with digital art when I was a teenager, so after I graduated high school and went to the School of Visual Arts to get my illustration degree, I thought for sure I’d be able to just keep doing work digitally, but it was widely discouraged.
While I was in school and up until the year before I started working in comics, I actually did most of my work traditionally - lots of graphite, ink wash, acrylics, gouache, and watercolor. I’m really glad I learned how to use some of those traditional mediums because the techniques I learned are now applied when I’m working digitally.
Nrama: Blackbird #1 debuts in October - I've been fortunate enough to meet you at HeroesCon. Do you have plans for signings or appearances relating to the debut?
Bartel: Yeah! The first issue release should be timed with New York Comic Con, and I’ll definitely be there. I’ll probably also be doing some signings in Minneapolis where I’m based.
Nrama: What are your big goals with Blackbird?
Bartel: I joke with Sam all the time that I really just want to make a “self-aware, CW trash, visual junk food” type of book, but honestly, I think there’s something to that. I love shows like Riverdale and Vampire Diaries - media that’s really easy and fun to consume - I think right now, people want something that provides a little bit of an escape from the world, and I hope to be able to provide that with Blackbird.
Nrama: And what would you say to young artists in high school now who admire your work and want to be successful like you?
Bartel: I think the most important element to having a successful art career is grit. To me, grit is the combination of passion, resilience, determination, and focus that allows someone to maintain the discipline and optimism to persevere in their goals even in the face of discomfort, rejection, and a lack of visible progress - art is a long game and even people who appear to be at the top of their field are still learning and evolving. The people who “make it” are only there because they never gave up.