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Indie Comics Spotlight: Jen Bartel talks Blackbird, Sailor Moon, and why Wonder Woman is everything

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Aug 9, 2018, 3:30 PM EDT

The first time I saw Jen Bartel’s work, it was for a variant cover for Image Comics' Wicked + Divine #24. That day I fell down the neon-rainbow-bright rabbit hole of Bartel’s Tumblr page (her cats are epic) and have followed her ever since.

Bartel actually got her “break” a few months before that, when she took over Jem and the Holograms (IDW) from artist Sophie Campbell. Since then, she's done cover work for Josie and the Pussycats (Archie), America (Marvel), Faith (Valiant), Wonder Woman (DC), The Life of Captain Marvel (Marvel), and more. So basically, every major comic book publisher has a Bartel cover in their library.

Although Bartel burst onto the comic book scene in early 2016 drawing covers for Jem, her first full comic was actually Crystal Fighters, which she worked on alongside her husband, Tyler, and debuted on the webtoon service Stela.

Blackbird (Image), Bartel’s latest project, is another creator-owned work, written by Sam Humphries and due out this fall. And like Crystal Fighters, she's drawing the whole book. Bartel is a busy lady, but after a few weeks of trying, SYFY WIRE finally caught up for a chat about all her impressive work, and how she balances that busy schedule.

Artist: Jen Bartel

Where did you grow up and what made you start drawing?

I was born in L.A. and spent my early childhood there, but when I was in first grade, my family moved to Seoul, Korea. That’s where I stayed until I graduated high school, so it shaped a lot of my interests — I had always loved drawing even as a toddler, but growing up in Korea meant that anime and manga were readily available, so that’s what really got me interested in drawing as a career.

What were some of your favorite manga growing up?

I was a huge CLAMP fan — Magic Knight Rayearth, Card Captor Sakura, etc. Of course, Sailor Moon. I also loved Ah My Goddess, 3x3 Eyes, and Battle Angel Alita.

Artist: Jen Bartel

How did you end up working in comics?

Back in late 2015, I was contacted by John Barber at IDW about doing a Jem and The Holograms cover — I had never done any work in comics but I was posting a lot of fanart online, and he happened to see some of my fashion redesigns of lady superheroes. After that cover, I just kept getting asked to do them, so I ended up being the ongoing cover artist on Jem and The Holograms for over 20 issues. It was a really fun gig!

The first comic I ever drew was actually Crystal Fighters — it was originally created by me and my husband in digital format for the webtoon company Stela, but is actually coming out in print for the first time from Dark Horse this fall.

Your style is always neon bright. What influenced you to come up with this style?

I think a big part of it is just being a '90s kid, growing up with Lisa Frank and tie-dye and that kind of slightly tacky, slightly psychedelic rainbow aesthetic. I think I’ve always been drawn to brighter, more saturated palettes, but I’ve definitely leaned into it further because comics are the perfect platform for them.

Most of your artwork features beautiful, strong women. Who has been your favorite character to draw? America, Thor, Jem, Diana?

I love drawing Wonder Woman — of all the lady superheroes I’ve drawn, I’ve probably done more pieces of her than anyone else. She’s very versatile, but most of my drawings of her have more of a quiet, steady strength.

To me, Diana is like an oak tree. That kind of a description is typically reserved for male superheroes, which is part of why she’s so special.

From my more recent projects though, I have to say I loved drawing Thor’s granddaughters when I worked on The Mighty Thor: At the Gates of Valhalla. They each have such unique and fun personalities, and getting to play with those in some interior pages was a real treat.

What's one element or theme that you always try to bring across in your work?

I try to be very mindful [that] my female characters are drawn in ways that are empowering. In my mind, there is plenty of room for sexy characters, as long as it makes sense for the character and they appear to have agency.

What's your process? Do you draw traditionally and then scan in your work to color? Or is everything created digitally?

I try to work traditionally as much as possible because I love it, but with comics deadlines, the majority of my work gets done digitally just because it’s more efficient for me and easier to make changes if the client requests any.

Tell us about Blackbird; how did that project with Sam Humphries come about?

Sam approached me about working on a creator-owned project back in 2016. It was before I had any kind of real industry experience, so I didn’t really know what I was agreeing to.

Going from drawing just covers to actually doing full interiors is basically like I’ve been in a very brutal art boot camp for the past year — it’s the hardest I’ve ever had to work at drawing, but I’m learning so much and it’s really having a positive effect on the rest of my work as well.

Artist: Jen Bartel

For those who are unfamiliar, what is the premise of Blackbird?

Blackbird is a story about Nina Rodriguez, a young woman living in Los Angeles who discovers a hidden world of magic when her sister is kidnapped by a mystical beast. If you’re a fan of The Magicians, Shadowhunters, or The Wicked + The Divine, it’ll be right up your alley. Like those properties, it’s also very much an urban/modern magic story, but aesthetically it’s in the vein of Riverdale or Nicolas Winding Refn films — lots of atmospheric neon lighting and North Hollywood streets.

You have a pretty tight schedule. Are you drawing, coloring, and inking everything? How are you managing all of that?

From the beginning, I knew how crazy a monthly comic schedule could be, so I wanted to make sure I had all the help I could get!

We’ve got a really incredible team. Paul Reinwand helps me with initial layouts; Issue 1 was colored by Nayoung Wilson and myself; Triona Farrell became 100 percent our colorist starting with Issue 2. I work with Sam on larger story and plot development, do all the pencils and inks, and then pass issues off to Triona. Even with the team size we have, it’s still an insane amount of work, so I really wanted to make sure I had a solid head start — by the time Issue 1 ships, the entire first arc will be fully drawn, so we won’t have any late issues.

Who's a character that you would love to draw in the future?

I have been so fortunate during my very short career and have had the opportunity to draw most of the characters I would want to, but I will say, if ever there was an official Sailor Moon anthology or art book featuring Western artists, I would go absolutely ham on a piece for it.

I don’t really have a "bucket list" of characters like a lot of artists do, but for Sailor Moon? Yeah. That’d be something my childhood self would completely lose her mind over.

Blackbird hits stores on Oct. 3.