“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Sometimes in comics, a synergy so perfect occurs between creator and property that it almost seems to have been fated. Such is the case with Sarah Leuver and Teen Titans Go!, where her whimsical art style brings those characters to life in a way unique from any other comics iteration. But before the Titans came a young artist who dreamed of working in animation…
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: Northern California
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: I always start with the big question first: Why comics? What attracts you to working in comic art specifically?
Sarah Leuver: When I first encountered comics as a kid, my initial impression of them was basically “animated cartoons you can read.” And since I loved animated films and reading … it was kind of the perfect combination, to my mind. And it still is, in my opinion. Obviously, comic art is incredibly varied and stylistically diverse, so I wouldn’t really describe them as cartoons you read anymore, but the act of “reading art” and assembling static drawings in such a way that tells a story remains the coolest thing, if I do say so.
KS: Talk about your earliest experience with being a comics reader. Were they something you had regular access to, either via “floppies” or newspaper strips or any other format?
SL: It was newspaper strips first, both in the actual newspaper—my dad always had the comics section pulled out and set aside, he’d do the Word Jumble, then I could read the comics—as well as collected editions from Scholastic book fairs. Archie Comics, too, back when they carried the Double Digests at the grocery store. So, I would say I had fairly regular access to them.
KS: What kind of material did you find yourself gravitating toward as your tastes formed?
SL: As I mentioned before, my initial impression of comics was “cartoons you can read,” so I really gravitated to titles that either felt like something you’d see on a Saturday morning animation block, or something that actually was a cartoon. The comics in the Disney Adventures magazines, Pokemon…I also had a Dutch-language Quest for Camelot comic, of all things. Outside of animated adaptations, Calvin and Hobbes was an early and immediate favorite. I pretty much judged all other comics against it. Still do, sometimes!
KS: Can you remember a particular comic story that really landed for you as a younger reader?
SL: Jeff Smith’s Bone stands out as a big one. I had a very rigid perception about the kinds of stories that could be told with particular art styles. I think by the time I discovered Bone, I had gotten into superhero comics and, as such, was basically convinced I’d never be able to draw “serious” stories because my art looked… nothing like the stuff I was seeing in most monthly floppies. But then I found a copy of The Great Cow Race in my school’s library, and after some initial confusion due to having completely missed the first volume of the Scholastic color editions, I was completely hooked and tracked down as many of the volumes as were available at the time. It completely changed my view of sequential storytelling.
KS: What were the specific elements you responded to?
SL: Bone was a sprawling fantasy epic—it had action and lore and a creepy zombie bad guy made out of locusts! But it also had heart and humor, and the main characters looked like something out of the Smurfs. It helped break that limited mindset and really inspired me to grow artistically, as well as expand my taste in comics.
KS: Because a career in the arts can be such a crapshoot, I’m always curious how the idea first develops for each person. As best you can recall, was it some “a-ha” moment for you or something long-simmering?
SL: Very long-simmering, I would say. I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember, and I knew I wanted a job working in art—specifically cartoons!— as early as first or second grade, but figuring out how to make that actually happen took the next…oh…decade or so? It wasn’t until late high school that I seriously thought I could make a living with art.
KS: Did you have family support for an admittedly non-traditional career path?
SL: I did, yes. Both my parents were incredibly supportive–I would not be drawing for a living, if not for them. My dad actually went to the same art school that I attended…though he only lasted about a semester before deciding it wasn’t for him.
KS: Which school did you ultimately land at?
SL: California College of the Arts, in Oakland.
KS: Can you recall the first art project you did that felt like a big deal to you, whatever age that was and whether or not anyone else ever saw it?
SL: The one project that stands out as being my first “for real” art job actually had nothing to do with comics—a family friend worked in graphic design and recommended me for a job designing a backdrop for a local play. I was still in high school and this was the first time I was being paid to draw, which was incredibly exciting. Even more exciting than that, though, was that they gave me an old copy of Photoshop to use for the project. I couldn’t afford the program myself, and I’d been dying to try out digital art, so that really made it feel like a big deal.
KS: As a former theatre kid myself, I can’t let that pass without asking what the play was and what kind of background you did…
SL: I feel like the answer is going to be a disappointment! It was part of a presentation for some kind of “Best Town” contest —basically, the play was all about how great it was to live there. If I remember correctly, the background was just a bunch of local landmarks. The town did win, though!
KS: Where or when on the timeline does working in the comics field enter your thinking? You mentioned your original dream was doing cartoons.
SL: There was a period of time where I sort of gave up on the idea of breaking into comics and instead decided to focus on a career in animation—I don’t know that I thought that would necessarily be any easier, but I figured there would possibly be more job opportunities. I transferred to an art school, majored in animation, did a lot of networking events—I was really trying to become involved in the animation community. But then I realized that I was having more success and just feeling… a little more at home? in various corners of the comics community. The “a-ha” moment for comics came after a portfolio review at WonderCon. I’d just graduated the year before, and while I’d had positive comments on my storyboarding work, none of the followup talks ever went anywhere. The WonderCon review, though, resulted in an actual, paying gig. The choice seemed clear! I did eventually end up doing storyboarding work on and off for several years, though.
KS: RIP to the late, great Oakland WonderCon days. Was one of the major publishers doing those reviews?
SL: The portfolio review was with IDW! I ended up doing a variant for Real Science Adventures.
KS: How then did your first paid comics gig come about?
SL: So, technically, my first paid comics gig was an illustration for an anthology issue of Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless. I loved the series and had made some fan art that I posted online. Jeremy saw it and asked if I’d like to do a piece to be included in Short Stories for Warrior Women. In terms of my first sequentials/interior pages work, that was Teen Titans Go! and that came about in a similar way—fan art in the right place at the right time!
KS: Other than lucky breaks, how had you positioned yourself to be in the right place, right time?
SL: [I’d] been posting art online for a very long time before either of these opportunities came up, so patience and persistence was key, as well as making sure my art was in a place where folks could see it.
KS: Did that patience and persistence come to you easily? I imagine there’s a sense of putting one’s art out into the void and wondering if anyone “important” will ever come across it.
SL: I’d say it did come easily, for the most part. While I was definitely making an effort to get my art out there consistently and maintain various portfolios for potential work, a lot of it was just for fun. I think allowing yourself a measure of self-indulgence with your art every now and again really does help in terms of staying motivated.
KS: Thumbs up or down: listening to music or other background noise while you draw? If thumbs up, what might we hear on the Sarah playlist?
SL: Thumbs up, most definitely. As for the songs on the Sarah playlist, mmmm. I’m checking my phone to see the most recently-listened-to albums… Bee Gees, Sara Bareilles, a lot of Joe Hisaishi score. Oh, I went through a Legend of Zelda lofi remix kick not too long ago—video game music is great for inking, I’ve found!
KS: The Teen Titans Go! books you’ve done have such a distinctive look and style to them. What made you good “casting” as an artist for that type of material?
SL: Well, one of my favorite things to do for fun is draw goofy fan comics featuring superheroes, so I was already kind of operating in that tongue-in-cheek, irreverent gag strip mode, which I think was a good fit for Teen Titans Go! I also think it helped that I could generally keep the characters “on model,” since it was a title based on a preexisting cartoon, and therefore had a set look. Have to give a shout-out to my animation instructors—they’d always remind us that being able to adapt to a house style at a particular studio was a valuable skill to have on board. Very grateful I followed their advice! Guess I’ve really come full-circle on the “comics are cartoons you can read” thing, since most of my professional comic work has been adaptations of animated cartoons!
KS: What was your Teen Titans exposure before getting involved in the books? Had you encountered them in comics or elsewhere much?
SL: I got into Teen Titans via the Cartoon Network show, which in turn got me to check out the comics. I was somewhat disappointed at the time, though, because the team in the comics at the time was… pretty different from the show! But then DC put out Teen Titans Go!  which featured the cartoon versions of the characters, and I followed that title through its entire run of 55 issues. Since then, I’ve read a handful of other Teen Titans comics, but I have to admit, given the choice between teen hero teams, I’m more of a Legion fan.
KS: Hypothetical question: You can spend a day in the studio of any artist from the history of comics, looking over their shoulder, watching them work, asking questions. Who do you pick for this?
SL: Oh man, a great question, but also a tough one! Hmmmm. Think I’m going to go a more contemporary route and say Hiromu Arakawa. Not only would I love to see her artistic process—her inking in particular!— she also just seems like she’d be a very interesting person to talk to in general. Of course, this assumes that the language barrier isn’t a problem in this hypothetical scenario!
KS: Please tell us about a passion of yours totally unrelated to art. Can be something you study, collect, practice…
SL: Well, currently a lot of my free time is focused on training a very cute and very energetic Mini Australian Shepherd puppy. I don’t know if that counts as a passion, necessarily, but it’s probably one of the few things in my day-to-day life that isn’t art-related, and it’s certainly required quite a bit of studying!
KS: Finally, talk about what you’re working on now and what we should look out for on the horizon.
SL: I drew a short Super-Pets story, written by Amanda Deibert, that’s included in the recently released Walmart version of The Great Mxy-Up! Beyond that, I have another project I’ve just started that I can’t really talk about. I think it’ll probably be out sometime next year, if all goes well!