By Jarrod Jones. Jen Bartel has credited work for virtually every major publisher in the comics industry, and she’s only been at it for three years. Take one look at her body of work and it’s easy to see why. With her portraits, interiors, and the cover work that made her a convention sensation, Bartel has tapped into that mystical third eye we’re all supposed to have, that one that spots the mysteries of the cosmos and lets just enough of it into our hearts so that we might know a bit of magic in our short lives.
Think of the atmosphere Kubrick accomplished with Larry Smith in Eyes Wide Shut, the color palette of Patrick Nagel, the steely resolve of Tamara de Lempicka, and you’re about there. Plus cats. To say that Jen Bartel is an in-demand artist is an insult to understatement. Three years into her career, Bartel has only begun to show us the wonders of her craft. Blackbird, her latest creator-owned project, sees the artist teaming with writer Sam Humphries, Paul Reinwand, Nayoung Wilson and Jodi Wynne, and it’s pushing her in ways once undreamt of. Jen Bartel, it’s safe to say, has leveled up.
“Sam pushes me a little bit more every issue—I feel like drawing interiors has strengthened the rest of my work as well, just because I’m drawing so much these days,” she tells me. “It’s definitely made me less fearful of loosening up and getting more expressive. Drawing a comic really does feel like boot camp, or at the very least, like going to the gym very regularly.” Then she laughs, expanding the “boot camp” metaphor she used at this year’s Image Expo when Blackbird was announced. “I went from being kind of out of shape to having really big artistic gains every week.”
Jen Bartel spoke with DoomRocket about Blackbird, her collaboration with Sam Humphries and her incredible art team, and what music informs her latest neon-drenched exercise in magnificence.
1. Nina, the focus character of ‘Blackbird’, has endured tragedy in her life and has thus produced a few troubling coping mechanisms along her path. Beyond that, where some people question the more fantastic things in life, she knows she has answers—but she has the self-awareness to realize that she has more to learn. Who is Nina to you? Where do you go—mentally, emotionally—when you’re depicting her on the page?
Jen Bartel: To me, Nina’s experience (aside from the teenage encounter with the magic world) is representative of so many young women who are trying to figure out their place in the world—she carries a lot of emotional baggage and doesn’t always know how to cope, and she’s just trying to make it through the day, but she knows she’s capable of more and wants more for herself. I think back to who I was in my early 20’s, and how much I developed as a person in just a few short years back then—that “no longer a teenager, not quite an adult” period of growth is what I’m hoping to depict with Nina throughout Blackbird.
2. Sam Humphries suggested ‘Blackbird’ take place in Los Angeles, which seems idyllic for your aesthetic. It lends itself magnificently to the atmosphere and the magic inherent in your story; there are images in the first issue that I’d have to describe as ‘Heat’ as directed by Lisa Frank. How do you go about representing a real place in a world that has magic? How do you go about developing that atmosphere—and how much reference comes from personal experience?
JB: Hah! Heat by Lisa Frank—I like that description a lot. I’d say it’s pretty accurate! Yes, Blackbird is set in LA, but it’s sides of LA that we don’t always get to see—it’s quiet North Hollywood streets, abandoned lots, neon lit liquor stores and food trucks. I’m originally from Los Angeles, and Sam is a long time resident, so we decided it would be great to set Blackbird in a real location we both had a personal connection with.
3. At this year’s Image Expo you said you feel as though you’ve “leveled up” as an artist, and you described drawing comics as “artistic boot camp”—what is your training regimen for ‘Blackbird’? How has the interior-page experience been for you?
JB: Oh man, and it’s only intensified since then. Sam pushes me a little bit more every issue—I feel like drawing interiors has strengthened the rest of my work as well, just because I’m drawing so much these days. It’s definitely made me less fearful of loosening up and getting more expressive. Drawing a comic really does feel like boot camp, or at the very least, like going to the gym very regularly. I went from being kind of out of shape to having really big artistic gains every week, haha.
4. How did you and Sam assemble the ‘Blackbird’ army of Paul Reinwand, Nayoung Wilson, Jodi Wynne and Dylan Todd? As an artist who usually works solo, how do you go about maintaining an aesthetic through-line when collaborating with a group of creatives?
JB: I had done a little bit of sequential work here and there, but going into Blackbird, and knowing how much labor goes into a monthly ongoing, I knew I’d need as much help as I could get. Sam was very open to adding to the art team, so I first approached my friend Paul to see if he could help me with layouts. We have a very established and comfortable working relationship, so there’s a lot of back and forth that happens—he doesn’t take it personally if I totally change his layouts and I get to see his approach to things which is often totally different from how I would have tackled something. It makes the book so much stronger having both of us working together.
Color is a huge part of my work so I really wanted to find a colorist that would feel comfortable working in saturated tones—Nayoung’s work on the Ghost in the Shell comic was such a great indicator of her skills, and I instantly wanted to hire her based on that. She did a fantastic job on issue 1 but due to scheduling, Triona Farrell took over on colors starting with issue 2. Triona had colored several of my covers before and I knew that she and I worked great together, so it was a no brainer. The book looks incredible, in huge part thanks to her colors.
Jodi is an incredible letterer—I really wanted to hire as many women as I could so I went searching for female and NB letterers—after a lot of researching I discovered Jodi and instantly fell in love with her work. She’s been absolutely fantastic. And Dylan has worked with Sam on a few other projects in the past—he’s super great as well, and it’s awesome to have a designer to handle putting the book together every month!
5. Finally, what’s your soundtrack when you’re working on ‘Blackbird’?
JB: Lana Del Rey, Sia, CHVRCHES, MUNA, Massive Attack, M83… I’ve joked about trying to make Blackbird kind of like a CW show in comic book form, but… I gotta be honest, the playlist I often work to is very CW. Haha.
‘Blackbird’ #1 hits stores October 3.
Check out our preview of ‘Blackbird’ #1 here.
Check out Fiona Staples’ alternative cover to ‘Blackbird’ #1, courtesy of Image Comics!
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