SHIRTLESS BEAR FIGHTER! is coming to Image Comics next month, and in a savvy marketing move, the book – from co-writers Jody LeHeup and Sebastian Girner – features a leading man who fights bears, and, uh, doesn’t wear a shirt. No subtlety or metaphors here, folks. What you see is exactly what you get.
However, after being able to take an early peek at the first three issues of the series, which features artwork from Mike Spicer and Nil Vendrell and lettering from Dave Lanphearr, we can vouch for the fact that there’s a whole lot more to this one than just a snappy title.
Naturally, we had a lot of questions, so it’s fortunate that Jody and Sebastian were able to take a little time out of their schedule to sit down and chat with us about the series. And as soon as we started talking, we only had one question on our mind.
BIG COMIC PAGE: Okay, so… where in the *hell* did you guys come up with the idea for this one?
JODY LEHEUP: There aren’t any rules when it comes to starting points for stories. Really it’s whatever inspires you to continue building your narrative…a character, a world, an ending, a line of dialogue. But in this case it was the title. As soon as we uttered the words it was like a eureka moment.
SEBASTIAN GIRNER: We were roommates at the time and would spend our downtime watching action flicks or playing video games and just riffing on ideas, throwing story bits and gags at each other, like a creative exercise. At some point lightning struck with “Shirtless Bear-Fighter!” It was pretty clear to us that we needed to make a comic worthy of that title.
JL: Yeah, it was like we were morally obligated to make the most awesome comic of all time. SO WE DID.
BCP: The pair of you are perhaps best known from your work as Editors for the likes of Marvel, Image and Valiant. What prompted the jump into the world of writing?
JL: Yeah, Sebastian and I met in the X-Office at Marvel. After that I was at Valiant for a year and then left editorial to return to the writing desk. I’ve written some shorts for 2000AD and various anthologies like Negative Burn, The Ride, In the Dark, and Fearless Future where I had the opportunity to work with some incredible artists like David Lapham, Roland Boschi, Jefte Palo, etc… I learned a lot from my time as an editor but I was writing before I was an editor and writing’s always been the goal.
SG: I’ve read comics my whole life, I was born in Germany but grew up in the States so I grew up reading a bunch of different kinds of comics. I studied Japanese and lived there for a while as well. Even so, a career in comics was never completely the goal, I sort of stumbled into it when I applied and got a job as an editor at Marvel. I’ve been freelance editing for over four years now for writers and artists publishing creator-owned series with Image. But after almost ten years of editing I’m excited to branch out and challenge myself with something new. I’m pretty excited about carving a new path as a comic writer/editor.
BCP: Did you have any difficulty pitching the idea to Image?
SG: It was a tricky book to pitch. We’ve both worked on pitches before and know how important a first impression is, but also how crucial it is to follow through. With something like SBF we knew the pitch had to make it clear that we weren’t just sending them a joke book. So we took extra care that we explained the world, characters, story and that the book had legs beyond the hilarious title. Good thing Image knows a good comic when they see one!
JL: Exactly. Yeah, a lot of people are going to assume this is just a silly joke book…and there ARE jokes…SO MANY JOKES! But we’re definitely telling a story here and it was important that we conveyed that to Image, which meant sending over more material than one might normally. Fortunately Image saw immediately what we were cooking up and jumped on board.
BCP: Tell us a little bit about Shirtless, our enigmatic leading man. What’s his story?
SG: When we meet Shirtless he’s a naked wild man, living in the forest he’s sworn to protect, punching bears and eating flapjacks! But it wasn’t always that way. Shirtless was raised by bears, who found him orphaned as a baby in the forest. He grew up as a bear, until the day they betrayed him. The nature of that betrayal is the source of his rage, and from then on he swore to fight all bears.
JL: When super strong, wild-eyed bears start attacking human populations FBI agents Burke and Silva ask Shirtless for help. At that point Shirtless has to make a decision…stay and defend the forest he’s sworn to protect or leave it behind to pursue his revenge on the bears. It’s an important choice and one that will have dire ramifications if Shirtless makes the wrong one.
BCP: Shirtless clearly has some major issues, which we find out a little more about during the course of the series, but is there any kind of bear he *wouldn’t* fight? I mean, would he punch a Care Bear, for example?
JL: Any bear that Shirtless believes was a party to betraying him OR any bear that he perceives as evil he will not hesitate to punch right in the face. So it’s not like he’s walking around punching little bear cubs in the face or anything. He’s not a monster. But he does make mistakes as readers will discover. And those mistakes have consequences.
SG: Yeah. Shirtless isn’t that far gone. He has a code, and a big part of the story is the exploration of how he came to be the way he is when we first meet him. He’s a guy you will want to root for, angry bear-punch issues and all!
BCP: Aside from, y’know, shirtless bear fighting, what else should readers expect from the series?
JL: That’s like saying “aside from wars in the stars, what else should viewers expect from Star Wars?!” Shirtless Bear-Fighter! Is much, much more than bear-fighting, though if you came for fight comics you will be richly rewarded! It’s also a genre parody mashup that will have readers keeling over with laughter and a human drama about the dangers of living a wrathful life. This is a book that’s going to surprise people in some pretty big ways.
SG: This is a genre-bending book for sure. The whole team took pains to pack the pages of every issue to the gills (do bears have gills?) with comic goodness. It’s a celebration of the medium, the art form, the fun and insanity of comics as well as story, craft and gravitas. It’s the full package. Shirtless Bear-Fighter will be nothing less than the most bang-for-your-buck every month it comes out!
BCP: There are some fairly out-there moments (to say the least) in the first few issues. Was there anything you guys were brainstorming that you ended up thinking “nah, we’ve gone too far” and cutting it from the final script?
SG: Part of the fun of a comic like this is finding ways and reasons to let crazy stuff happen and still have it “make sense” in the world of the story. Comics are so good at showing the reader a world where the rules are just a bit different, and that’s what SBF is. Agent Silva, our everywoman, for example, is the reader’s eyes and ears in this world, and she often has the same reaction to what’s happening as they do.
JL: Right. The world of SBF is very elastic so you can make the logic work fairly easily based on what you set up but the only gags we cut for going too far were usually ones that were too blue or too sexual or too politically charged. I.E. they just didn’t fit with the tone of the series overall. And anything like that was never really seriously considered to begin with.
BCP: What do the artistic partnership of Nil Vendrell and Mike Spicer bring to the table?
JL: Oh it’s everything. Those guys are carrying us, really. Co-creator Nil Vendrell is just a cartooning dynamo. He gets everything about this book and elevates every insane idea we throw at him to astronomic levels. Nil’s relatively new to comics but he’s already so good at so many things…comedy, storytelling, bear-fights…he can do it all. The most fun Sebastian and I have on this book is getting Nil’s pages in. Each one is better than the last.
SG: Rounding out the team are colorist Mike Spicer and Letterer Dave Lanphear. Mike did an amazing job working with Nil to create the super clean and vibrant style of the book. He just gets the book and really nails all the different tones and emotional beats. Some of my favorite pages of his are actually just the quiet forest shots in #1. Mike breathes life into every page with his colors.
Dave rounds it all out with some A+ lettering, which is always the most elusive of the comics disciplines. Good letterers make a book soar, and Dave is one of the very best! He put so much thought and creativity into all the different mad sound effects we have, including the soon-to-be-iconic BEAR-PUNCH! If you find yourself chuckling at the writing in the book, a big part of that is Dave’s work.
BCP: How involved were the pair of you in helping develop the visual side of the book. Did you have a very specific aesthetic in mind for the characters, or did you just kinda sit back and let Nil and Mike do their thing?
JL: I’d say we’re pretty involved but in terms of art direction given all the comedic timing that needs to be pulled off but Nil and Mike are really the ones on the visual side that make the book sing. We all kind of bring what we’d like to see to the table and then Nil and Mike take the ball and run with it. Or more like sprint for world records with it.
SG: The whole first book grew out of Jody and my twisted brains, and we had some ideas as to how the characters should look, talk and compose themselves. But it wasn’t until we got the artists involved that it really all took shape in front of our eyes. You start to develop the vision together as a team, and the result is always stronger. We couldn’t be happier with what we ended up putting together.
BCP: If there was a live-action Shirtless Bear Fighter movie (which there totally should be), who would you guys like to see in the title role?
JL: Melissa Mccarthy in a muscle suit and beard.
SG: Tom Hardy is pretty cool swinging his ding dong around on film, but I guess that would be type-casting.
BCP: Once you’ve finished this five-part series, what’s next for each of you? Any other wild ideas swirling around in your heads?
JL: Absolutely. I’ve been working on a secret project for a while that my collaborators and I will hopefully be announcing in the fall. Very, very different than SBF. Big, epic, sci-fi-thriller kind of stuff with an incredible art team. Seriously, if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. Get ready for it.
SG: I’ll also be announcing something new and very exciting very soon. Been sitting on that one for over a year now and I’m ready to burst. Can’t wait to see it out in the world. Won’t be long now…
BCP: And finally, if you could say one thing to someone who was (inexplicably) on the fence about picking this one up to help convince them to give it a try, what would it be?
JL: What’s there to be on the fence about?! SBF has it all. Huge, dynamic bear-brawls, fall-out-of-your-chair laughs, and real human drama that will break your heart before wrapping it up in a big bear hug finale. It’s the most fun you can have with your shirt off and you will absolutely love it.
SG: Get off that fence, flex, and punch right through it! Shirtless Bear-Fighter! Is waiting to be your new favorite comic!
SHIRTLESS BEAR FIGHTER #1 goes on sale in print and digital on June 21st, 2017.
Keep your eyes glued to the Big Comic Page for an advance review of the first issue in the very near future.