We were fortunate enough to be able to conduct an interview with Eisner Award-winning artist Steve Lieber, whose impressive body of work over the last two decades includes such titles as Detective Comics, Hawkman, Whiteout, Underground, Hawkeye and – most recently – Superior Foes of Spider-Man.
Here’s what was said;
BIG COMIC PAGE: First off, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. It’s very much appreciated. You’re actually the third ‘Periscope Studio’ member that we’ve had the chance to interview, having previously spoken to both Jonathan Case and Paul Tobin. For those of our readers who might be unaware, can you fill us in on what Periscope Studio is, and how the whole idea came about?
STEVE LIEBER: Periscope is a workspace shared by 25 illustrators and comics-makers. We’ve all got our own projects: comic books, GNs, webcomics, prints, fine art. And we sometimes collaborate with each other. We also take on big projects as a studio – like when an marketing firm needs comics or storyboards on a schedule too tight for an individual artist. We split the cost of expensive equipment, give each other advice and criticism, pose for reference photos and try to maintain a fun, supportive environment to work in.
We formed in 2002, when a bunch of us were meeting regularly at a café to show off our latest stuff, talk about the industry, and maybe get some work done in the company of friends. Wally Wood once said that a career in cartooning was like being sentenced to life at hard labor in solitary confinement. Forming a studio is what cartoonists do to get sent back into general population.
BCP: Periscope also runs what sounds like an extremely valuable internship program. Can you tell us a little more about that?
SL: We take on two interns at a time for 3 month internships. They do some grunt work for us: scanning, flatting, erasing pages, running errands. Along the way, we give them tutorials, answer their questions about art, craft and business, critique their pages, and expose them to how a bunch of working professionals solve problems day by day.
BCP: One of your best-known works would have to be Whiteout, the four-issue series you did for Oni Press alongside Greg Rucka back in 1998. You’ve gone on to collaborate with Greg on a number of different projects over the years. How did that partnership first come about?
SL: Bob Schreck was one of the founders of Oni Press, and their first editor. I had done some work for him at Dark Horse, and he proposed my work to Greg Rucka. Greg visited my table at a con in Portland, where I had just moved the week before, checked out my stuff and gave me the thumbs up. Then Bob gave me a copy of Greg’s first novel and I knew after the first paragraph I wanted to work with the guy. A few weeks later, Greg and his wife Jen Van Meter and me and my wife Sara Ryan were all at a restaurant together, talking through the script for issue one, while I sketched character designs with wax crayons on a butcher-paper tablecloth.
BCP: Most of our readers will be familiar with the movie adaptation of Whiteout starring Kate Beckinsale and Tom Skerritt, which… didn’t exactly meet with widespread critical acclaim. Were you or Greg asked for any input at all into the movie?
SL: I had no input at all. Greg was hired as a script doctor, but not much of his work made it in there.
BCP: Were you happy with the adaptation, and if not, what would you have done differently ?
SL: Not particularly. I thought it was like a pilot for CSI: Antarctica. Mostly, I would’ve liked to seen our characters on the screen: the Carrie Stetko and Lily Sharpe that Greg and I created. My dream casting would’ve been Clea DuVall as Stetko and Naomi Watts as Sharpe.
That said, I’m a cartoonist, not a filmmaker, and I have no clue what it takes to make a movie. My opinions on this stuff are about as valuable as those of your average YouTube commenter.
BCP: You also drew the Eisner Award-winning sequel, Whiteout: Melt, but I hear there was also a third volume of the series entitled Whiteout: Thaw that was originally planned to be released to coincide with the movie. Why didn’t that ever surface?
SL: It was retitled Whiteout: Night. We finished the first 33 pages all the way through lettering and tones, then Greg hit a wall with the script, and it went on hiatus. Greg and I met a few weeks ago to discuss it, after we did a panel together at Heroes Con, and I think we might’ve shaken something loose. I wouldn’t give a date, but I’d say that book three is a real possibility again.
BCP: You and Jeff Parker have opted to make you cave exploration thriller ‘Underground‘ available, DRM-free, for a suggested donation of just $7. What prompted that decision, and what’s your take on DRM-free comics in general? Is it something you see catching on? [Ceej: For those of you who might not be aware DRM (Digital Rights Management)-free refers to comics that are distributed, not through a platform like ComiXology where the user doesn’t actually “own” the product they’re paying for, but by actually giving the user a digital copy (.pdf, .cbr, etc.) of the title to do with as they wish]
SL: A twitter follower told me that the entire Underground graphic novel was being shared on 4Chan’s /co/ board. They were looking at it page by page and talking about the story. Someone got a fact about the project wrong, and I couldn’t help but be a know-it-all, so I identified myself and joined in the conversation.
I didn’t want people to be judging the work based on scans, so after checking with Jeff Parker, I made pdfs and cbz files from the color artist’s original files and made them downloadable from our website. We had a nice spike in traffic, sold a lot of printed copies, and took in a bunch of donations from readers who downloaded.
The bottom line for me is that I don’t think that my career is going suffer from too many people liking my stuff. I’m fairly confident that a broke student who downloads my stuff now will buy the books from me in a few years, once she’s got a job.
I don’t want to be selling a product that’s notably inferior to what they can get from a pirate site for free. I like my readers, and I trust them to understand that their support is what makes it possible for me to keep drawing comics.
BCP: You’ve been able to work on a huge number of extremely diverse and popular comic book characters over your 20+ year career, but are there any characters still out there that you’d love to take a pop at?
SL: Characters rarely interest me in and of themselves. It’s all about the collaborator, and whether I like the stories I’d get to tell. That said, some characters have settings that are enormously appealing. I love drawing nature, so Swamp Thing would be a huge pleasure. Aquaman or Namor would give me plenty of undersea establishing shots.
BCP: I’d like to move on to your more recent work alongside Nick Spencer on Superior Foes of Spider-Man. I have to say, we’re absolutely in love with the series here at BigComicPage.com. How did that gig come about?
SL: Steve Wacker and Matt Fraction asked me and my studio-mate Jesse Hamm to draw a Hurricane Sandy-benefit issue of Hawkeye. We turned it around in a ridiculously short time. I think it went from email inquiry to comic on the shelves in something like five weeks. I guess that put me on Steve’s radar. A couple of months later he asked me if I’d be interested in drawing Superior Foes.
BCP: Superior Foes seems a lot more light-hearted and ‘silly’ than a lot of your previous work, and it looks like you’re having an absolute blast drawing it. Is the more humorous style something you’ve always wanted to do?
SL: It’s a perfect superhero assignment for me. Nick’s scripts are quite loose and give me a lot of freedom as a storyteller. I’m much happier doing character actors than glamorous leads, and my approach to drawing lends itself to the grounded, low-budget crime-story aesthetic that Nick is going for. Also, my obsession with pictorial word-balloons and 4th wall gags is a good match for Nick’s audience-aware narrative.
I’ve wanted to do funny stuff my entire career. It’s a pleasure to finally do so.
BCP: How long can we expect to see you being a part of the title? Do you have a long-term deal in place?
SL: No idea. Tom Brennan and Steve Wacker have been wonderful to work with. I couldn’t ask for a better editors on a house title. But Marvel is a big company owned by a huge company, so new decisions can come from anywhere. At any moment they could swap in a totally new creative team, or change the rules we’re working under, so I hesitate to make predictions. (I should note that this isn’t exclusive to our title. This is how things are with ANY ongoing series that isn’t creator-controlled.)
BCP: I know it’s difficult to divulge much of this kind of thing, but can you give us any hints or teasers about what to expect from the series moving forwards?
SL: Low-level violence;
Shocker’s a coward,
Speed Demon’s a dick.
BCP: And finally, do you have any other projects coming up in the future you’d like to mention?
SL: Well, Jeff Parker and I decided to follow up UNDERGROUND, our cave exploration thriller, with a new comic in another genre, so we’ve been talking our way through a second creator-owned project.
And I’m still writing a monthly “Dilettante” column for Comic-con’s Toucan blog.
BCP: Thanks again for taking the time to talk to us, Steve, and we look forward to seeing more from you in the future.
The writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson (aka Ceej)
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