What can be said about Jen Bartel that hasn’t been already? Celebrated artist. Eisner winner. Mentor. Bright light at any convention she attends. Her work has been seen in comic stores, art galleries, and on shoes; her past client list reads like a greatest hits compilation called Cool Companies. Success couldn’t have come to a nicer, harder-working person.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base (city/state or just state if you prefer): Minneapolis, MN
Blackbird (Image Comics)
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I open with the big question: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Jen Bartel: Honestly, I sort of fell backwards into comics without ever really intending to. I come from more of an illustration background, and in late 2015 I was sort of meandering, failing as a freelancer, and feeling burnt out by my day job, so I decided to take some time to indulge in making art for myself without the goal of attracting potential clients. I drew some pinups of my favorite X-Men, and landed on the radar of a few editors who gave me my first opportunities in comics. It’s snowballed quite a bit since then.
KS: Many people look at the arts as more a distant dream to be balanced alongside a day job when/if possible, while a much smaller percentage can actually make that leap and have it work out. When you made the transition from “civilian” to professional artist, was that part of a larger career plan?
JB: After I graduated with an illustration degree, I, of course, hoped to have a freelance career, but I spent the following six years spinning my wheels, so I had resigned myself to it not being in the cards. When it finally happened for me, it was a pretty unexpected shock.
KS: And would the Jen of 10 years ago be surprised at your current life?
JB: Yes, absolutely!
KS: Let’s backtrack to the start of your fandom. When did reading comics first become an important part of your life?
JB: I started reading manga when I was in second grade or so. I grew up in Seoul, Korea, so that’s what was accessible to me, and it became an obsession.
KS: Did you gravitate toward favorite books or characters back then?
JB: Sailor Moon and everything by CLAMP.
KS: Do you have a specific memory where a comic made you say “I want to try doing that?”
JB: Card Captor Sakura, I think! Finding out as a young girl that CLAMP was a group of four women creating comics was the most inspiring thing in the universe to me.
KS: What’s an early art piece you remember that felt like a serious project for you at the time — whatever age that was and whether or not you showed it to anyone else?
JB: I did a series of Ghibli fan art pieces back in 2015 that I think were a real style breakthrough for me. The Princess Mononoke one is probably my favorite of the bunch.
KS: These days, do you have a set daily/nightly drawing routine?
JB: Yep, I think more than anything, my dogs keep me on schedule—I’ve got a pair of White Swiss Shepherds who are quite high energy and demanding, so I’ve gotta work around them a lot of the time.
KS: How about listening to music or any other background noise while you work?
JB: I love listening to audiobooks, podcasts, and music… sometimes, I try to watch shows or movies while I work, but they always have to be either things I’ve seen before or juuuust crappy enough that I won’t be too distracted. My preference is definitely audiobooks.
KS: You probably became best known to most readers for your striking covers to various comics. How is your art process different when you sit down to create a cover vs. laying out a comics page? Obviously, one has a script you’re working from, but I’m wondering about the specific steps you take up front…
JB: Well, when I’m drawing a cover, the goal is usually to create an iconic image that will catch someone’s eye and get them to open up the book. Interior art is the opposite—it’s about revealing the narrative and focusing on the storytelling, and there’s much more runway to do that. I have to be in the right frame of mind to work on one or the other, and I have a hard time switching gears between the two—I generally need a bit of a palette cleanser before I can move on to interiors after working on covers and vice versa, so I’ll take some time to do administrative work or just get away from my desk altogether.
KS: Is there an art technique you most like to play with, even if you don’t get to do it often?
JB: I love working traditionally (especially inking), but I don’t often get a chance to do it due to time constraints. If I had an infinite amount of time on my deadlines, all my inks would be traditionally done.
KS: Can you give me one word that sums up an important trait for being successful in this business?
JB: Grit. Grit is a distinct combination of passion, resilience, determination, and focus that allows a person to maintain the discipline and optimism to persevere in their goals even in the face of discomfort, rejection, and a lack of visible progress for years, or even decades.
KS: Looking back further than this year’s Eisners, is there a specific moment of professional pride or joy from your career thus far that maybe still makes you smile?
JB: I think when my first collab with Adidas was announced—that was a really surreal moment for me.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel by someone else — recent or older — that you look at as with admiration?
JB: This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. It feels like that book singlehandedly launched an entire movement within the OGN scene, and it is an absolutely incredible piece of art. Covers-wise, I am a huge fan of the work James Jean did on his lengthy run on Fables, and I’m also forever inspired by all of Adam Hughes and Josh Middleton’s covers. One common thread between all of my favorite artists is that they are incredible designers as well as illustrators.