Babs Tarr is a comic book artist and freelance illustrator who drew Batgirl over at DC Comics for three years. Along with writer Brendon Fletcher and artist Cameron Stewart, she helped reinvent Barbara Gordon and made her look more her age with a redesigned outfit. As a result, Babs is also the first female long-term artist on any story in the Batman Universe at DC. The run was a hit, but in 2011 the team left DC to create Motor Crush at Image Comics; that comic has also been successful and is about to drop its second trade in May.
SYFY WIRE got a chance to talk to Babs about her process, how she got into the business and her love of anime.
Even though you are credited as the Motor Crush artist, you also wrote and helped create quite a bit of it as well?
Babs Tarr: I helped with the broad strokes of it in the beginning when we first started working on it. Brendan Fletcher and Cameron Stewart did most of the conceptualizing. Both those sweet, sweet Canadian boys came down to Charleston, South Carolina, which is where I'm located now, to discuss the story. We had a loose concept of what Motor Crush was, but we wanted to nail down what the story was, what the world was, who the characters were. We rough-outlined three arcs and then a little bit more aggressively outlined the first arc, and that's kind of like my contribution to the writing.
Also, when the guys have a new script, before I start drawing it, I'll read it and I'll make notes, like "This sounds a little too bitchy" or "This doesn't sound like what that character would say." That's kind of my contribution to the writing afterward, because sketching it and drawing it and coloring it every month like really takes up most of my energy.
Is that one of the differences between Batgirl and Motor Crush? It sounds like on Batgirl you would pencil and then somebody else was coloring and inking, right?
Well, I penciled and inked Batgirl and then Cameron would do the layouts. He also did the layouts for the first arc of Motor Crush, and then we've gotten someone else to help with it, because it's just too much. I'm very slow at that, and it's like my least favorite part. So it keeps me more in love with a book if I get someone else to do it. And Batgirl, it was hard for me because that was my first comic ever.
I come from this illustration background, and I color my own work; line work is like a half-finished illustration to me. It's was so hard to have to pass that off to somebody else and let that go. So much of what I'm doing on Motor Crush is because I couldn't do a lot of that on Batgirl. I like to bake in the action words, I draw them myself, I add the special effects. So it feels like it's baked into the page and considered with the illustration instead of like digitally slapped on and sitting on top.
I'm super proud of what we did on Batgirl and revitalizing her, but you know, some of the issues I don't even want to open, because I’m hard on myself and feel like the drawing and coloring isn’t as good because I had to rush sometimes to hit deadlines.
What's the Motor Crush schedule? Because I know Image's schedule is different than DC.
So it's really up to the creators with Image. So you make your own schedule and it's up to you to deliver. Image doesn't hold your hand. They tell you due dates to ship and the times that you want to ship, and it’s up to you to make those deadlines. So we could do monthly or bi-monthly, or we could not put out any issues and just put out a trade or whatever. It's really up to us, but we do five or six issues an arc. So we just finished up six issues for the trade of Vol. 2 that's going to be out May 30th.
How did you find Brendan and Cameron, or how did they find you? Did you all know each other before Batgirl?
So, I'm like the Cinderella story of how to get into comics, because I didn't pursue it at all. I was working at a game artist in San Francisco, and I was full-time there but I was also doing a lot of freelance on the side. So I did some work for Hasbro and some other odd illustration jobs that would come in, because I knew that I didn't want to help make someone else money all day, which is what I was doing at my start-up job. And I was super bored with what I was doing, so I hustled in my free time instead of going out and drinking with all my friends; I would stay late at work and draw something for fun and put that on the internet or work on my freelance art and make extra money.
Around that time I'd gotten two big job offers. Hasbro wanted me to come out and work for them in-house for like two to five months. And then also Cameron and Brendan were talking to me about Batgirl, and Cameron had apparently been following my illustration work since back in 2011, when I was right out of school. He had seen of mine on Tumblr, and that's when he first found me, I think. I think they made a list of artists that they wanted to work with that had kind of like a young, youthful quality to the work, that would fit the tone of the new Batgirl story. And I think the stars just aligned in a way. They tell me that I was at the top of the list, but I feel like they have to say that.
Now that you're in the sequential world, do you draw traditionally and then digitally ink, or do you do everything digitally on a tablet?
For Batgirl, since I was so nervous about it and it was my first comic, I did it all digital so I could make it perfect. And then for Motor Crush I wanted to have more of a loose illustration, like on-paper feeling. So I ink Motor Crush on paper and then I'll sketch it on the computer. But for these last few issues, we've been so under the gun that I've sketched on paper and inked on paper, which it actually goes even faster even though it's maybe not as tight as I want it. I'll scan it in and I can always fix it before I send it off to my flatter.
You can feel it, though. It has a more organic feel, like you see with some of the backgrounds and the motion.
Yeah. I think in the colorist can make or break a comic book. And because of my oil painting background, I feel like it got me a leg up on coloring. I really enjoy it. and I love making it all come together. I love it when an illustration’s like down to that last 10 percent and everything comes together. I just want to do the story justice and the readers justice and be proud of the stuff I'm putting out. It feels good to say that about Motor Crush.
Are there any other comic book artists out there who’ve influenced you?
I was really influenced by the Vision. It's like my favorite modern comic book, like a superhero comic book I read. I thought the art was so beautiful and the coloring was so beautiful. And I had no idea really what the story was about, and then the story ended up being so cool this time.
You’re talking about the Tom King run with Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles, right?
Yes! The work on it is so beautiful. I remember messaging Jordie and I was like, how did you get all those like painterly textures? He told me that Hernandez Walta does these amazing color washes on the pages, and that's what influenced me to do it on Motor Crush. It looked so cool, and it gave it this natural texture. I love the idea of telling that kind of like weird story. I like slow-burning murder stories with superheroes, that interests me so much more than like a big war. I like hearing what makes characters tick.
I think it's one of the reasons I was really drawn and manga and anime, because I feel like they actually have beats and there were like these, it has room for these emotions and these moments to hit.
What were the mangas and animes that influenced you coming up?
I mean, obviously Sailor Moon; I didn't really read American comics when I was younger. My favorite manga ever is probably Tramps Like Us which is josei. I don't know if you've heard of it, but it's really good and it's kind of more of adult romance, which just makes it sound like porn, but it really just means that it deals with more mature relationships versus a high school person falling in love and or a first kiss and all that stuff. The girl is 27 and the guy's a little younger. Rama 1/2 I loved. It’s weird, all these mangas would be problematic if they came out now, I guess. Right? I loved Cowboy Bebop. I watched Neon Genesis, Evangelion. Akira was cool, and there's this movie that's amazing called Blue.
The Interstellar space opera for like Daft Punk like blew my mind, because that came out when I was seventh grade. It was so heavily anime-inspired. And since it was so rare to see anime in mainstream then, it really influenced me. I also love the idea of the Gorillaz. Anything that had illustrations in mass media I got so excited about, because I pictured that for myself.
I love that comic books are becoming more mainstream, acceptable. And I feel like America especially has such a hard time accepting comics in an animation to tell more mature stories, less so with politics, of course. I love to animate because it just feels like people of all ages just accepted any type of story that they tell when it's on paper and in animation. And I just think that's so cool, because it's such a cool medium.
You also mentioned fashion, and I want to talk about a little bit about that too. How that's influenced your work?
Fashion has always been at the forefront of my illustration work, and I just love it. I love clothes. I love that they tell a story about who that person is. I feel like you can read so much into a person or a character by all of their choices. Me and my dad were like really obsessed with the Lord of the Rings movies, and he would get me those DVDs that had like eight disks in it. So they’d have the whole movie and then l10 extras just about the making of it. They showed the workshop and all of the costume design, and that all that blew my mind.
So there's a clip where they're talking about Smeagol before he turns into Gollum, and the costume designer was talking about how, for his Hobbit look, she gave him a little handkerchief because he adored precious things and dreamed of being fancy. It was just this little detail in his costume with foreshadowing that blew my mind.
I still think about that when I'm designing a person or a character or dressing them. What is their story? Where did that come from? What is their history? What is their situation, and why do they dress that way?
Did you do that when you were designing Domino for Motor Crush? When you were thinking there were certain things that she absolutely was always going to have, the of it was at the boots or was it something?
Yeah. Domino's look is influenced a lot by her environment. There's a beach and the water right there, and she probably skateboards because it's beautiful outside and it's sunny and she probably has a lot of sports bras and tanks and things like that. The more I was designing her closet the more it started influencing my own closet. So now my sportier-looking stuff, I'll wear it to the cons and kind of like low-key cosplay Motor Crush.
I could see a Motor Crush anime. Like how are you guys thinking about getting it animated?
We're talking to lots of people. One is animation into his TV. We did have movie options, but I wanted it to last longer than a couple of hours.
I love animation, obviously, and the 16-year-old in me would lose her mind if it got animated by a studio in Japan. But also I want it to be on as many eyeballs and the American audience, only a percentage of them actually watches anime or takes a cartoon. So I think I would like to see it live-action, just because I want to see my world translated in the IRL. I'd be like really cool. And I feel like it very easily could be shot in L.A.
But another reason I love the idea of TV is that we could expand on the story more. I love what shows like Preacher are doing right now. I feel like it's true to the characters mostly, but they just built out this really cool story and made it modern, and I'm not super precious about the story being page-by-page and shot-by-shot our comic. I just want other people who are better than me to make it better and make it cooler and make it more awesome and just get more people's eyeballs on it.
So while you're on hiatus from Motor Crush, is there anything else that's coming out that we need to know about?
I'm going to be doing the Teen Titan variant covers every month for DC. There's like a new team of kids.
Yes! The team with the new characters Jinn and Lobo’s daughter Crush.
Yep. That’s the one. And then I have a Nancy Drew cover coming out and a Red Sonja cover coming out and I'm working on a Pink Power Ranger one soon. I just like getting to do illustrations, which is my home, my happy place. I can polish them. I can take my time, I can make them awesome. I don't have to rush and do like 10 other panels so that quality on the same page and cry because they kinda hit a deadline or whatever. I can do covers in like a day or two. I can take on a lot and be proud of it, because it's like a single illustration, which is what I went to school for.
Motor Crush Vol. 2 is available to pre-order now.