Up North and Underground with Steve Lieber


DESPITE HIS PLACE AS ONE OF THE FINEST DRAFTSMEN IN COMICS, Steve Lieber has stayed mostly below the radar, putting in work on such diverse series as Detective Comics, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gotham Central, Hellboy, The Escapist, Grendel, Civil War: Frontline, Hawkman, On the Road to Perdition, and others.

Lieber gained notoriety in 1998 for his work as the co-creator and artist of the Oni Press series Whiteout with writer Greg Rucka. A murder mystery set in Antarctica, Whiteout was one of Oni’s biggest early successes, and earned four Eisner Award nominations, including one for Lieber as “Best Penciler/Inker.” Lieber and Rucka returned to the Ice and to United States Marshall Carrie Stetko for a sequel, Whiteout: Melt, and the two books remain the work that Lieber is best known for.

Whiteout has been adapted into a film, which was released in September. While enjoying the attention the film and his work have been receiving, Lieber has remained busy with a variety of comics and commercial projects through Portland’s Periscope Studio (which I recently visited), and has launched a new series with writer and studiomate Jeff Parker. Underground, a personal project that Lieber and Parker have been developing for several years, is poised to replace Whiteout as the book mentioned first when Lieber’s name comes up. The second issue will be released this week. I spoke with Lieber at Periscope on September 2nd.

Wright Opinion: So, after getting together everything I wanted to ask you, I also asked a few other people if they had any questions for you. And one that I really liked was from [Dark Horse digital artist and friend of Periscope] Ryan Hill, who wanted to know abut your recently learning to drive. How’s your experience with that been?

Steve Lieber: I still haven’t gotten a license. I went to one test. I’ve taken a whole bunch of lessons. The most recent go around trying to learn was my fourth, I think. I haven’t gotten the trick of not thinking of all the different ways I could die or kill somebody else, and I really have to change that, but so far it hasn’t happened. Fortunately, I work a job where it really doesn’t matter at all.

WO: The reason I liked that question and wanted to ask you about that is it seems you hear about a lot of comics people who do not or cannot drive, and I’m assuming there must be a reason for it, something connected to the job, or the fact that people work at home. Is there a reason that you keep hearing?

SL: I like to think that we all share the “dweeb gene.” I don’t know, in my case I just never got past that horrible visualization of crashes. I’ve been in two car-totaling crashes, and I’ve seen the end of a crash that wound up beheading somebody. That’s the first thing that I think of when I get into anybody’s car, much less the driver’s seat. The beheading actually happened at the Kubert School. I heard the crash, went outside and saw the car turned upside down. I think it flipped over off of a snowdrift by the side of the road. And the paramedics had to reach in and pull the head out by the hair.

WO: Jeez.

SL: Not one of the happier memories.

WO: And so all the other people like Brian Bendis or Warren Ellis or the other people you hear about…

SL: Bendis learned.

WO: He learned? Okay.

SL: Yeah, I’ve seen him behind the wheel. He seemed perfectly happy. I’m sure that if I could lobotomize myself just so as to not run through all the horrible possibilities, I’d be a fine driver. I know I’ve got good reflexes, because I’m brilliant at pinball. But I’ve just never learned to pilot a vehicle safely.

WO: But, so, just the “dweeb gene,” not anything else uncommon?

SL: There could be something with the way we pay attention to things, the way we fixate on still details, but I know plenty of cartoonists who love to drive, too.

WO: Moving on to Periscope, can you give a quick origin of the studio, description of how it works, how’s it’s different from a traditional studio or something like CrossGen?

SL: Oh, sure. We’re not a business. We’re not a formal organization like CrossGen, or a unified business like Big Time Attic in Minneapolis. We’re a whole bunch of freelancers splitting up the cost of rent in a downtown office building in Portland. We initially started talking back in 2001, and there are so many cartoonists in town, that we decided there was no reason for us to be sitting going crazy in our studios by ourselves week in and week out; we could get together and share some space. Some folks had done it in town before.

So we started sending some e-mails back and forth, and we had a meeting in a big pizza group at Karl Kesel’s house, and decided how we were going to do this and set it up, and it’s been working and growing since then. We actually have maxed out at this point; we just no longer have enough physical space for anyone else. We’re just kind of piling people on top of people. It’s getting uncomfortable. It’s the sort of thing where we’d like to expand further in the future maybe, but right now we’ve just filled up our space. There’re twenty-two of us, all working artists and comics writers. And we have no formal business ties with each other aside from paying the rent. There’re lots of informal alliances and collaborations, and things that happen just by virtue of being in the room with lots of other terrific artists.

WO: Is there any kind of hierarchy of membership?

SL: Everybody works for me. [laughs] No, there really isn’t much of a hierarchy. There are a few tiers of how people pay; we’re kind of Marxist that way. But aside from that, we don’t have any formal rules or charter or anything like that. We kind of deal with problems as they’ve come, and just about every problem we’ve ever run into has been handled by asking people to be a little less jerky. We tend not to play music that other people don’t like. If someone’s playing something that you don’t like, you put headphones on, and you just sit around and get work done.

WO: So there are no formal business relationships between members, but do people help each other out, or refer people for jobs?

SL: Oh, all the time. There are referrals, there’s pitching in. Because there’re so many of us, our various clients learn that they can ask for the impossible, and we can bring in help and make the impossible happen. We’ve had advertising agencies that needed a very specialized comic done in a ridiculously short amount of time, and we have the bodies to throw at that, and everybody at this point can do a pretty good job approximating everybody else’s style. And we can make a seamless comic in a really short time if an agency or a publisher needs it.

WO: In talking about Periscope yesterday with [Dark Horse digital artist and Periscope member] Susan Tardif, she told me something that I hadn’t realized, which is how cleanly Periscope breaks into generations, with a lot of artists in their early forties, a lot of artists in the mid-twenties, and very few falling in between.

SL: That is true.

WO: Do you have a theory as to why it’s such a pronounced split?

SL: None at all, really. It’s the first I’ve thought of it. The older folks have all been in comics since either the early eighties or the early nineties, and a lot of the younger folks came in as assistants and interns, and so they were breaking in all at once. They didn’t come to us as semi-established pros or anything, they came with very little in the way of credits. But there are some folks who fall right in the middle. Dustin Weaver, one of our recent members is, I think, exactly thirty, and what a talent. I mean, he makes those of us with ten more years in the business than him just wonder how the hell he draws like that.

WO: So, if a lot of people have sort of come in as apprentices, is it just that generally speaking, you don’t apprentice or mentor people who are one or two years younger than you?

SL: Yeah, it’s hard to be a useful mentor to somebody who’s your peer in other ways. I feel a whole lot better being patronizing to someone I’m a patron to. [laughs] Did that come out right? I wouldn’t feel right telling someone who’s been drawing nearly as long as I have to go get me coffee or erase some pages. I’d just feel like a jerk. Whereas I know that if I was twenty-three or twenty-four, I would have killed for an opportunity like this. That’s been an important thing to us, making it into the kind of place where we’d have wanted to intern at ourselves.

WO: Would you consider yourself a mentor to a lot of the younger artists here?

SL: It was never anything I shot for, but it’s kind of worked out that way. I think I’m just kind of didactic. I wasn’t a natural artist at all. Everything I know about drawing and telling a story I kind of had to fight for, and because I kind of had to teach myself from the ground up, or learn it from the ground up with no natural skills, I’m pretty good at communicating how I learned it. I know what set of steps it took me to understand a piece of information, so I think I’m able to communicate it pretty well to others.

WO: It seems like, between things like being one of the founders of Periscope and coaching teams at the Stumptown Comic Art Battle, you are associated with a lot of the young artists. Is it fair to think of you as sort of a paterfamilias in the Portland comics scene?

SL: I’m just a fat old fuck. There are plenty of people who are better established and have a lot more authority. I just have a bigger mouth.

Lieber takes center stage at one of the Stumptown Comics Fest’s Comic Art Battles.
On the far right, Underground collaborator Jeff Parker MCs, while Floating World owner Jason Leivian serves as DJ up top.

WO: When you’re working here at Periscope, on something like [Lieber’s current Image miniseries] Underground, how is it different to be collaborating with people who are literally in the room, Jeff Parker the writer and Ron Chan the colorist?

SL: Oh, I love it. It’s seamless and it’s organic and it’s exactly the way a collaboration oughta work. Parker is of course a great artist, as anyone who knows his stuff from The Interman can tell you. So if there’s something in his script that normally he’d have to write out in six paragraphs to get across what he’s talking about, he can just lean over my shoulder and say, “No, the head goes over here and the arm’s coming up like this, and I was thinking that it should get real tight in this next panel,” and he can doodle me out a quick thumbnail in thirty seconds. I’ll know exactly what he’s talking about, and if it doesn’t work I can take an eraser and show him why. Same with the color and same with the script. We’re all right there, we can talk stuff through.

WO: Of course, it’s the twenty-first century, it’s not that hard to get in touch with people that aren’t physically there, but I imagine it must still make a huge difference.

SL: Yeah, it’s frictionless. No matter what, if you have to open a window in your browser and get someone else standing in front of his computer, and get them at just the right time, there’re difficulties. With this, if Jeff really wants to show me what he’s talking about, he can say, “No, like this,” and have me take a reference photo, and that’s a luxury for any working cartoonist.

WO: You usually ink your own work, and you do the lettering on a lot of it as well. Do you prefer to do as much of the work yourself as possible?

SL: Oh, yeah. I came out of the Kubert School, and I was taught to be a cartoonist. I know how to do all the jobs on the assembly line, but I like doing the whole thing, and I like fitting the pieces together. It’s satisfying to assemble it, and I almost always prefer the results when I’m done. There’re always a million little things that it’s just hard to get across to somebody else on an assembly line who’s got his own concerns about getting so many pages done an hour or whatever.

WO: So you feel it’s important for a comics artist to be able to do those things?

SL: Oh, yeah. Even if you are handing it down the assembly line—and I’m not using the term “assembly line” pejoratively, it’s just the easiest way to get it across—even if you are handing it off to somebody else, you want to understand what the next guy has to deal with. If you’ve sat down and colored things digitally, you know how important it is is to close off your shapes, and anybody who’s reading this who colors will know what I’m talking about. If you’ve lettered your own stuff, you know what a big deal it is to leave room for the lettering, and you’ll do that for the guy who has to come in and fit those words in.

WO: That’s actually something specifically I was going to ask you, how lettering yourself affects the way you lay out a page. When you are drawing in the balloons yourself or know that you’ll be dropping in the lettering yourself, does that change the way that you approach a layout versus drawing for somebody else to letter, or does it more inform the way that you do pages for other people?

SL: With something that was as type-dense as Whiteout was, it was very important that I letter it myself, because there were a lot of places where there were exchanges of three or four balloons in a single small panel, and I wanted to make sure that I was getting the maximum amount of space for those figures that I could, so it was important that I was the guy doing the lettering. Also, I did things with the rhythm—I’d make an executive decision and tell Greg about it later—where I’d break a word balloon into two and add another panel, and a letterer can’t do that. You can control the process so much more if it’s just one or two hands on the tiller. Terrible mixed metaphor.

WO: It looks like you lettered directly on the artwork for the first Whiteout…

SL: The first two.

WO: …and since then you do a lot work digitally, so I’m assuming you’re lettering digitally as well?

SL: Yeah, I’ve moved on to digital lettering. I’ve got a digital font based on my Whiteout lettering, actually, that Tom Orzechowski made for me, and it’s a great font. He did a beautiful job with it.

WO: And how have you adapted to the display lettering and the kind of sound effects that you do to the digital environment?

SL: Display lettering I still do by hand. That’s still drawing to me.

WO: Are those scanned separately and layered in?

SL: I do that right on the original art.

WO: How much of the original art is on paper and how much is digital?

SL: The way I work, I actually have lettering on the original art, because I like inking a lettered page. I lose the big advantage of that, which is making it easier for translated editions, but it’s really important to me to know where those areas of pale gray that the lettering represents are in composing the page. I thumbnail a page either on paper or digitally, then I do digital lettering, and print out my thumbnails at full ten-by-fifteen size on Bristol, with good lettering in black on the page. So my thumbnails are pale blue, the lettering is black, sometimes I’ll do the word balloons digitally first and print those out as well, other times I’ll leave them black and hand-draw the balloons, then complete the original on Bristol, scan it back in, and work on it digitally from there.

WO: I’ve noticed on a lot of your Marvel and DC work, it seems like you don’t do the covers as often. Is that your preference or do they not ask you?

Detective Comics #771: interior
pencils by Lieber
Detective Comics #772: cover
pencils by Lieber

SL: I love covers, I just don’t get asked. I’ve been asked more lately. I’ve done a lot of covers for independent projects that have gotten people noticing that I actually can do them. A lot of times getting covers is a matter of catching the eye of one or two people at a company. If you don’t catch that one person’s eye, you’re not going to be doing the covers.

WO: In particular, I remember there was a run of Detective Comics where I thought it was interesting that you had done some interiors on issues that you didn’t do the covers on, and then somewhere in the middle there was one where you’d done the cover but not the interiors.

SL: That happened a bunch of times. In fact, most of the stuff I’ve done at DC, when I was on a regular series, they would have me do the covers for the issues I wasn’t in, but not for the issues I was in.

WO: Huh. Did they give you a reason for that? Maintaining some sort of consistency for the issues you weren’t in?

SL: I couldn’t begin to guess. It’s a weird way to work, but I’m not a professional comic book marketing person, so I’m happy leaving those choices to them. The last serious batch of covers I did, I really had a great time for, was for Matt Maxwell’s Strangeways series.

WO: I didn’t see that.

SL: It was self-published. A cowboys and werewolves story. Really compelling, fun, entertaining stuff. And he just gave me free reign to work with those two themes and combine them in interesting ways, and I had a blast.

And, of course, the Underground covers, which are a complete collaboration between me and Parker. We just fire stuff back and forth. I defy anyone to tell who did what on them by the time we were done.

WO: What’s some of the illustration work that you do outside of comics, or for comics that are outside of the mainstream market, like custom comics and so forth? Are there many of those that you wish that your comics fans had seen?

SL: I’ve done a lot of stuff for 42 Entertainment. They do alternate reality games, which I’ve heard called “search operas.” They’re stories told in multiple media, kind of a scavenger hunt form. People will get a clue as a part of a movie trailer, or somewhere online, or in a giveaway at a concert, or something like that. And when they follow that clue, they find that they’re actually getting a little piece of a story, and they’ll follow from one thing to the next, and occasionally the people who do these like to do comic book stories as part of the mix of material, and I’ve worked with Periscope on several comics for these and just had a great time. NDAs prevent me from specifying which alternate reality games they were, but it’s been with some prominent ones, and if folks hunt around online, they could figure out which ones.

Actually, there’s one that I guess I can talk about, because it’s not saying what we did do, it’s saying what someone else did. There’s one that we were really proud of, that we had a great time doing, and then the fans were discussing who it was who did this, and somehow they decided that it had to be Mark Bagley who drew it. And we just had to sit there and stare in horror wondering, “Why is Bagley getting the credit for our work? No fair.”

WO: Diana Schutz wanted me to ask if you had any more personal work coming up, more along the line of Me and Edith Head or the stories you did with Jeffrey Lang in Dark Horse Presents?

SL: Man, I would love to. Its hard finding a venue for them, and I’ve just overcommitted with commercial stuff and with larger comics projects. But any chance I get, I’m going to jump all over a story like that.

WO: So, Whiteout. In your afterword to the Definitive Edition of the first Whiteout, you write about not having found your voice as an artist until that point. What wasn’t clicking in the previous work, and what was the breakthrough with Whiteout?

Robin #17 page 13. Click for full-size image

SL: Well, I was on the assembly line with almost everything I did. I didn’t know how to draw for color yet, so what I was doing with line never really matched what anyone else was doing with color. It wasn’t that they were doing anything wrong; I wasn’t giving them stuff that was designed to be colored. So, pretty much everything that was colored was a little off. [Indicating old issue of Robin] I mean, that’s solid, professional color, it just didn’t look like what I was seeing in my head. That’s inked by Enrique Villagran, a terrific inker, but none of it was what I was visualizing when I started drawing it. I liked pushing texture around a lot; I found that one of the ways I draw is by making mistakes and working my way out of them, just scratching my way to the feeling I thought a page should have, and I was never able to nail that working as part of the assembly line. At this point I think I’ve got a lot more professionalism under my belt. I could work that way if I had to, but fortunately I’m in a position right now that I don’t.

WO: When was the last time you were doing stuff like that? Gotham Central or that era?

SL: The last few things I’ve done for DC have been in color, and I think color’s better now than it used to be, too. The last time I penciled something for somebody else to ink that wasn’t a Periscope job, where it wasn’t supposed to be mine or where I wasn’t just trying to disappear into the group, would have been a Batman Family miniseries I just filled in for Stefano Gaudiano for one issue. And with that one, I knew going in that when they inked it they were going to do everything they could to make it not look like me, but to look like the other seven issues in the thing, which was appropriate, and so I was fine with that.

WO: So, what exactly was the breakthrough with Whiteout?

SL: Whiteout was the first time I drew a comic that looked like my sketchbooks, that looked like the kind of pictures that I was visualizing in my head. I would have something in my head, and I would do everything that I could to create a picture that matched it—that matched it in feeling, that matched it in intensity, that matched it in delicacy, any of these things.

WO: And was it just a function of the story speaking to you, or of being able to do the whole process yourself, or…

SL: It was everything. It was a story that asked for everything I’m good at, nothing I’m bad at, and that I had compete control over—I was penciling, inking, hand-lettering and hand-toning every page of the book. There wasn’t a single mark inside that comic that I didn’t make. So every page has all the virtues that my work has—and all the faults, and I was comfortable with that, too. It felt like a story that I had told, rather than something that I had worked on.

WO: What are the things you’re good at and the things you’re bad at?

SL: The things I’m bad at I will never say in public.

WO: I had to try.

SL: Yes, it’s always worth asking. I think I’m good at naturalism. I think I’m good at manipulating texture in interesting patterns on the page. I think I’m good at transitioning from linearly oriented drawing to shape-oriented drawing. I think I’m good at mixing media. I’m good at balancing black, white, and gray. I’m good at drawing nonconventional types; I don’t think my people often feel very Hollywood-heroic, and I was really, really glad to get a story that didn’t call for that. I think I’m good at pulling back and giving an interesting sense of place, and this was a story that was all about place, where the environment acted on the main character every bit as much as all the other characters did—more so, even. And a lot of the time, in mainstream comics that are there to serve a character, you can’t do that. There just isn’t room for it. You need to cut away and get in the three pages that are part of the big crossover that’s coming up. With this there was none of that. I wasn’t trying to tell a story that matched someone else’s ideas of what these characters looked like; none of these characters existed before I drew them the first time, so I was always drawing the character rather than my best interpretation of the character.

WO: Getting back to the pre-Whiteout work for a moment, with the distance of time, is there any of it that you like better, or where you do start to see things that later found a sort of fuller expression in your work?

SL: Oh, yeah. It’s almost always these really tiny stories. I did a bunch of short stories for the Paradox Press Big Book series, and every one of those were two-, three-, four-page stories, so I could try something, experiment. So, okay, for three or four pages I’m going to do something, and I might never want to do it again, but I can see how it works. And with every one of those, I picked up another trick, and that was really nifty. The Grendel Tales story I did for Dark Horse: there’s still a lot of drawing in there I’m really proud of, and I really love Jeff[rey Lang]’s story. I’d love to see that thing back in print someday.

What else? Plenty of moments in Hawkman, where I was drawing a character created by my teacher Joe Kubert, who I had tremendous memories of, and there were plenty of nights when it was just really fun to draw Hawkman hitting someone with that big mace. I can remember plenty of little breakthroughs where I figured out what made something work and what made something else not work.

And for every artist, it’s inevitable that there are going to be a few years of just getting pages down, just figuring out how you draw, getting natural with it so you’re not sitting there wondering, “What texture do I use to make something look shiny, but still flexible?” Now things just fall off my pencil. I visualize, I conjure up what a material is in my head, and my hand knows exactly what to do to get that across without me thinking about how I’m going to draw it, so I’m able to be much more natural about it. There’s less of an act of translating from real world to ink. It’s more like I’m speaking in a language I’m fluent in instead of flipping through a phrasebook.

An interview with me is all about weird metaphors.

WO: That’s fine. So you mean, rather than translating from real to ink, it just exists in your head as an ink form?

SL: Or, what I put on paper is the real thing. God, that’s pompous, wow. Is there like a pompous font you can put that in, maybe just switch to the New York Times title font?

WO: When you were first approaching the original Whiteout, how did you develop your approach to what amounts to a white landscape with wind that makes the whole sky full of white snow, where you’re essentially drawing not being able to see at all?

SL: I didn’t know when I started, I just started. I was able to visualize using a light gray tone and cutting clouds out of it, either by cutting Zip-a-tone or painting on top of it. And I tried both, and I found that a combination of the two was what worked best for me. But with every page, I just sat down, and I just tried something, and if that didn’t work, I tried something else, and if that didn’t work, I tried something else. And if that didn’t work, I would look bleary at the sunrise, and I would try something else, I would try something else.

WO: And has that changed over the two sequels, has it become more codified in your head how you do that?

SL: Oh, yeah. When Greg and I were doing the third book, by that point I was making it a point to try to work in the same stylistic zone as the other two, just so that it would be a unified group of three books. Because I was doing the third one digitally, there were lots of places that I could have done other tricks that I didn’t want to introduce, because that would have busted the unity.

WO: And when you say digitally, you’re referring to the zip, but not the line work?

SL: Right.

WO: How have you translated that to digital? How has that affected how you’ve drawn “white”?

SL: It hasn’t much, because it is just digital when I do it. I’ve found digital ways to replicate every single thing I did on the previous books. I’ve got a series of things I can do without messing up my studio or ruining things. But of course that book’s on hold.

WO: What kind of research was involved in developing that look originally?

The first page of the original Whiteout.
Click for full-size image

SL: I went online—and this is 1998, so the ’Net wasn’t then what it is now—but I went and I found every photo I could from Antarctica, from every era. I just studied them and studied them, and sketched in my sketchbooks to get a feel for it. And I checked every detail I possibly could to make sure I wasn’t making a fool of myself in any of the pictures, and I think I managed to avoid any conspicuous errors in my drawing. I read diaries from people who were down there, every National Geographic or Nova special I could find, I watched those religiously. Every book and every magazine I could find at the local library about Antarctica I read. And I tried to make the place real in my mind. I know we did a pretty good job, because when the book was coming out we had people ask us what year we were there. And I got to tell them, “Nope, never been there.”

WO: And so I take it that starting in on Night did involve some new research, as you were saying Antarctica is very different now.

SL: Oh, yeah. A ton of research. Now I can go onto YouTube and see thirty or forty videos that people have shot in the last week or so.

WO: So you can see what it looks like this minute basically.

SL: And not just a single photograph, but moving pictures as they’re following someone around the room with a videocamera and yelling at them to drop the towel. I can find footage of Icestock, the McMurdo rock ’n’ roll festival that they hold on January first.

WO: I’ve never heard of that. Wow.

SL: Yes, Icestock, people. The site bigdeadplace.com, which is probably one of the most entertaining sites on the Web, is an endless source of fun and fascination for me. It’s written by Antarcticans for Antarcticans, all writing anonymously so they don’t get in trouble with Raytheon.

WO: So, we were talking about how you recreate the look of the Zip-a-tone and everything, and you’re definitely known for using zip extensively. Since you are doing everything digitally, what’s the appeal of the Zip-a-tone look, that you continue to recreate and use it rather than going to something like digital gray tones?

SL: Well, it is a digital gray tone. It’s just a coarser texture. And I like the look of that coarser texture. I liked the way it looked then, I like the way it looks now. It feels weird saying “doing it,” since the book’s on hiatus, but when I was doing it, I enjoyed the coarseness of the texture. Antarctica’s a cold, windy, dry environment, and there’s something about a coarse ziptone pattern that feels like stinging snow and wind blowing you in the face, and I did everything I could to get that across. I remember when I was starting out on the book trying three or four different levels of coarseness, and the one I liked the best was the one that was really wide. We got lucky with that, because when Oni decided to shrink the books down, it meant that there was some room for the dots to go without just closing up on me.

WO: I notice you’re not using a lot of zip in Underground, but do you still use it many other places?

SL: Not so often anymore. If I’m doing a project to be done in black-and-white, I might bring it in, but at this point I stay away from it, because that’s a look that’s now associated with Whiteout, and I want to leave it for that project, and not have people think they’re in the same world as something else I drew. It’s important that any project of mine you’re starting create its own world.

WO: The original Whiteout #1 was Greg Rucka’s first published comics script. And it’s ten, eleven years since then, and he’s gone on to be really prolific in the comics industry. It’s hard for me to imagine Greg ever writing without confidence, but at the same time, to have written that much over that amount of time, he must write differently now, he must have stepped up his game somewhat. What is it like working with him as a writer now as opposed to then?

Page from the upcoming Whiteout: Night.
Click for full-size image

SL: He knows exactly what he wants out of every page, and he knows what’s a good amount to put on a page. He hadn’t seen what a page with twenty-one word balloons looks like when he started Whiteout, so we got some pages with twenty-one word balloons, and it can get pretty dense. Now he’s much more comfortable about letting a page breathe, about letting more pages have fewer panels, and I think he just has a greater sense about what the medium can do, so he’s able to aim more directly for it.

WO: And at the same time, how has your collaboration together evolved? Is it still sort of, you get a script, you talk with him about the script, or do you have more input now?

SL: Frankly, probably less input now, at least on the DC things, because usually that’s tied into something else that’s going on at DC. We haven’t completed a creator-owned story since Whiteout: Melt, so it’s hard to say how that would work out over the long run.

WO: Well, that sort of preempts my next question, then. It was whether you had a more active role in, at least in the first Whiteout sequel, developing Carrie Stetko or in the plot.

SL: God, it’s almost a decade ago. With Whiteout: Melt I think I had some pretty solid input, and he heard some ideas from me and worked them in, but frankly we did that with the first one, too, because he was always willing to hear ideas for things I wanted to draw, or set pieces, or things like that.

WO: And while Thaw-slash-Night was a going concern, you guys must have talked about it a little bit over the years.

SL: We did.

WO: So I guess the difference would be to be brought in at the beginning as opposed to him having written Whiteout #1 and then going from there?

SL: It’s hard to say, because it may have been the taking too many of my ideas that stopped the process.

WO: Whether on the DC scripts or Whiteout: Melt, have you guys developed any sort of shorthand?

SL: Not really. Greg writes a very complete script. He knows what it is that he needs and what he doesn’t need to specify. Typically we would get together for coffee and just kind of page through the script, and I remember on the Detective thing, he gave me a six-panel page that I said really needed to be a sixteen-panel page, and he kind of crossed his eyes in horror and amazement that someone was asking him for a sixteen-panel page. I made my case as to why it was a good idea, and he said go for it, and he was very happy with that.

WO: When you’re writing your own stuff, and I know you’ve done a little, like the Underground short that was in Four Letter Worlds, has your experience with Greg, or with other writers like Jeff or Sara [Ryan, Lieber’s wife and collaborator on Me & Edith Head and Flytrap] helped you put a story together, or affected the way that you approach writing?

SL: I don’t think so, because I’m not a natural writer by any means. Remember what I said about having to translate from real world into comics when I started off drawing, and now just being fluent, and being able to work off the top of my head? Well, I’m not there with writing yet. I still have to very carefully assemble the thing like I’m building a model plane or something like that. So what writing I’ve done, it just tends to be hard-fought, and I don’t think I actually have enough experience to learn from the many terrific writers I’ve worked with yet. I think I’m going to need a lot more pages under my belt just to learn what they were doing.

WO: And actually, I did like the “Underground: Fell” story. It was only a few pages long, but it has some tense moments, it has some funny moments, you can see a through line from it to the way that the characters behave in the longer Underground series so far. Given more time to get together in your head how you approach writing, is it something you want to do more of at some point?

SL: Oh, I’d love to. And I always enjoy it, and I love the freedom of being able to hit exactly the beats I want, when I want them. I like pacing things in my own way, deciding what are the high points, what are the low points, what little quirky bits stay in and what stays out. Jeff Parker is constantly encouraging me to do more of my own writing, and at some point I will. I just have had plenty of good scripts coming from others, and I’ve been happy working with those for awhile.

WO: Speaking of the short, I think that’s actually the only thing of yours I’ve seen that you’ve both written and drawn.

SL: I haven’t written much. There was that, there was a two-page thing about my dad—I would call it speculative autobiography. And I wrote a ten-page Vampirella story for Harris. That was a lot of fun.

WO: How have these writing gigs that you’ve gotten, like the Vampirella or Underground stories come about?

SL: Vampirella came about because I ran into the editor of Vampirella Comics Magazine at several conventions and we’d always enjoy talking with each other, and at one I said, “Hey, can I pitch a Vampirella story to you?” just on a whim and she said, “Sure.” And it was the smoothest experience any freelancer has ever had. I called her up, I told her my three ideas for Vampirella stories, she told me the one she liked, I wrote it up as a pitch, she said go for it, I wrote it up as a script. I think I sent it in about eight o’clock in the morning, and before lunch she had written back to me with three very minor changes that all made perfect sense, which I made, and then went and drew it, and it saw print and got decent reviews, and I got paid. It was a ton of fun to do, and I couldn’t imagine a better editorial experience. In a way it’s a terrible thing, because it’s all going to be downhill from there, I know. It’s never going to be that easy and rewarding again.

WO: Did the Underground story come about similarly, bumping into an editor and pitching it?

SL: That was, I think, an email from Eric Stephenson, who was putting the anthology together. I think it was Eric, asking me if I wanted to contribute and telling me the concept. I had known I wanted to do a cave story, so I used this as an opportunity to do a pilot episode, just to see if I actually did like drawing caves, if I liked how this character worked.

WO: And so you already had this notion that you wanted to do a longer series, and this was a trial run?

SL: Yeah. Call it a pilot episode, or that it’s my little District 9 five-minute film.

WO: So, before we go further, what is Underground?

SL: Underground is a thriller, a five-part miniseries set in a Kentucky cave. Its being published by Image Comics, and it’s written by Jeff Parker. The main character is Wesley Fischer, who is a Park Ranger in Marion, Kentucky. She is a caver, an environmentalist, and a little naive. The co-lead in the story is Seth Ridge, who’s a native of Marion, Kentucky, of part-Native American ancestry, another Park Ranger. At the beginning of the story, the two of them have just hooked up, and they’re not quite sure what their status is with each other. They’ve had that incredibly awkward moment of waking up next to each other and they don’t exactly know whether they’re boyfriend and girlfriend or whether they’re just coworkers or what, and that’s a tension that runs throughout the series.

The conflict in the story is that there is this magnificent cave in Marion, absolutely gorgeous thing, that’s barely been explored. Local kids have gone shallow in there for years, but it hasn’t been explored much, except by a few of the local cavers, who want to keep it a secret. A cave is a really fragile environment. The wrong step can destroy formations that took fifteen thousand years to build and grow, and lifeforms can live in caves that can’t exist anywhere else, outside of that really, really small niche. So it’s a really delicate environment.

The town is on hard times; there’re no jobs, there’s no tax base anymore, they’re losing population. They want to open this place up as a show cave. Everybody in Kentucky knows about Mammoth Caves, which is one of the nation’s great tourist attractions; it’s an incredible place. And Marion wants a piece of that, and this is the kind of thing that could get some jobs in the town, get some money in there, get them on the tourist trail. A local developer wants to kind of make the opening of that cave a fait accompli, so he sends a couple of good old boys who work for him to dynamite the opening, to make it friendlier for people just to walk in, and make it easier for him to get some investors and developing it as a show cave. He’s not a bad guy, our main characters aren’t bad guys. It’s just opposing interests smacking into each other. But what should just be a vigorous discussion about what to do with this thing spirals out of control, things get heated, and before too long, it turns into a deadly chase through the cave system, with life-or-death choices in an environment that doesn’t forgive at all—a cave is an incredibly dangerous place if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s dangerous if you do know what you’re doing.

One of the things that initially attracted me about doing a story in a cave is that there are more fascinating ways to get injured or killed than just about anywhere on Earth. A caver can get stuck and drown in two inches of water, face down in the mud. A rock shifts and it can crush your legs. I hear stories about cavers who don’t configure their arms right as they’re moving through a really tight pinch between two rocks and end up getting stuck, and the people they’re with have to break their collarbone to make them squeeze back out of what they got into. It’s just really, really dangerous; you have to know what you’re doing.

The best cavers in the world are tiny women. That’s something else that really fascinated me about it. It’s a difficult athletic pursuit, ad the best people are really, really small ladies, because when you’re trying to get through a four-inch crack between two rocks, you don’t want to be a big guy, you want to be ninety-seven pounds and flexible. I like that, in the conflict that goes on, our hero has an advantage because she’s so much smaller than the people who are chasing her, and she knows what she’s doing and they don’t.

WO: There are several interesting parallels with Whiteout, primarily the setting, which is a pair of very, very specific natural environments, both of which are very dangerous. There’s the female law-enforcement agent with a deep emotional connection to that setting, environmentalist themes, though they’re more explicit here than in Whiteout. It seems unlikely that’s a coincidence, so are these things that attract you, unusual settings and environmentalism?

SL: Oh, absolutely. I love drawing nature, I just adore drawing nature. I love natural forms, whether they’re snow, ice, rock, mud, greenery. It’s a source of never-ending fascination to me, studying what natural forms do. And when I started looking at photographs of caves, I knew I had to draw this. I got to do a tiny touch of this doing Batman, but the Batcave ain’t a cave; that’s not the real thing. And I like a dangerous natural environment, because I think when you throw character up against a situation thats completely unforgiving, that there’s no question, there’s no buffer zone—either you do it right or you’re dead—you find out what they’re made of. It’s really, really appealing to me to see a likable character put into tough situations, and dangerous nature does that. I guess I’m a big aficionado of the environmental thriller.

Actual issues of environmentalism… I’m interested in it, but it’s not something that I seek out as story material. We never did much of it in the first two Whiteouts. It’s an issue here because it had to be, that’s one of the big conflicts in the story. But as storytellers we don’t take sides. I’ve been telling Jeff that what we’re doing here is filming Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and one side is the lion, one side is the zebra, and it’s going to play out the way it’s going to play out. It’s just people thrown into conflict by conflicting interests.

WO: I’ve heard you talk about Underground a couple of times before this year. Actually, in Four Letter Worlds, Jeff Parker’s bio says that the book was expected that year [2005]. Was it a matter of finding time, or better-paying projects coming?

SL: Yeah, yeah, of taking one job to pay the bills and another job to pay the bills, and having to squeeze in Underground in whatever time was left around it.

WO: So, have you been working on it all this time, drawing here and there?

SL: Yep. Get a panel done here, a panel done there. I finished up by 4:30, that last half hour before I quit at 5:00 belonged to Underground. Get up an hour early, I can get an hour in on that project, and over time you get some stuff done.

WO: Have the extra years of gestation changed Underground or affected the story much?

SL: I don’t think it’s affected the story much. Jeff had a very tight outline from the beginning, when we first decided we were going to do it. I think I’m a better artist. One of the great things about being here at Periscope is that I’m constantly exposed to really, really great drawing by my peers, and I’m learning things from them, and I think I’m able to do things in my drawing that I didn’t used to be able to do. Our heroine is a lot more physically attractive, she’s a lot more conventionally attractive than Carrie Stetko was. That was a conscious effort. When I visualized [Wesley] in my head, I saw her as being this glowing, healthy person, whereas Carrie didn’t get out in the sun much, and she smoked and drank too much, and I find I’m now more able to get that glowing, pretty quality that I never was able to nail before.

WO: Speaking of Wesley, she wasn’t a Ranger in the short story, was she?

SL: No, she was just a caver then.

WO: And is that something that’s happened to the character since, or is that a change in the story?

SL: That’s a change in the story. The original short isn’t “in continuity.” God, I’m like an X-Men: First Class fan here. That’s not part of the same narrative; that was just the trial run. It was just a first shot at figuring out how the story might work. I knew I wanted a caver and a Park Ranger. It turned out that the caver was a Park Ranger.

WO: It just worked better for the larger story to make the change?

SL: Yeah.

WO: You were talking about how you feel that you’re a better artist…

SL: Oh, technically, certainly.

WO: …and what I found in reading the first two issues of Underground is that it looks really, really different from what I’ve seen before, even work that you’ve done before for color, even a couple years ago. It’s much simpler, it seems much more open. Is that a function of the way that color has changed, or is that just the evolution of your style?

SL: I’m able to hit the target a lot more quickly than I used to. I described with Whiteout how a big part of my creative process was floundering, was just whaling away at the page until it looked right and building us these lattices of textures and carving those back into new shapes. There’s still room for some of that in drawing the landscape, in drawing the cave interiors, but I hit the right brushstroke or the right construction line the first time out eight, or nine times out of ten, instead of two or three times out of ten like I did when I started.

WO: Yeah, it seems really common that cartoonists’ work gets simpler as they go, everything that’s extraneous sort of slowly gets out, everything that’s hiding anything sort of slowly is gone as the work gets more confident and sort of naked almost.

SL: Yeah, I’ve always looked for simplicity in art, because I was a big Alex Toth fan, but I knew that simplicity never means sterility. I mean, nothing’s simpler than putting two lines in a panel. The trick is finding two lines that express everything you need that panel to express, and that I could never get anywhere near, so I’d put down fifty lines trying to express what I needed. Now it doesn’t take me nearly that many marks on the paper. I can juxtapose one shape with another and tell the story the way that I want, and I think it just looks a whole lot better.

WO: So this style isn’t necessarily just the “Underground style,” this is more or less what you expect your work for color to look like going forward?

SL: No idea. I’m telling this story the way it needs to be told. Next time I’m working for color, I won’t need to do the kind of things I did with gray before, because that’s the color’s job. The color can handle all the shades of gray. When I learned to draw in ink, I was still being trained for old-style sixty-four-color coloring, where there were exactly sixty-four colors that could be reproduced in a comic book and no others, so any subtleties you wanted, any interesting transitions had to be done in the line art. Now every colorist has the infinite palette and they can do all sorts of gorgeous things with texture and with tone, so it’s stepping into their turf, it’s holding them back by putting too much in the line art.

WO: It seems though like that is putting a lot of trust in the colorist. That’s one thing when you work with Ron right here in the office, but is that a little harder to let go of when it’s, say, a DC book or something?

SL: Oh, it definitely is, but I’ve been lucky. The last few things I’ve done for color have been really, really beautifully colored. At Dark Horse I’ve worked with Matt Hollingsworth, who’s wonderful, at DC I’ve worked with Lee Loughridge.

WO: So clearly you’re drawing for color, and clearly you have everyday access to your colorist. Are you giving much instruction? How are you communicating what it is you want in the color? Just going over there and saying, “Do this,” or…

SL: I’m staying out of it. With Ron, we talked about palette, we knew from the start—and I say “we” because Jeff also has a very strong voice in this; he’s a terrific colorist himself in addition to being a good writer and artist, so he had very strong opinions about how things should work. And Ron Chan is a total artist himself as well, so he thinks out it like a storyteller, not just someone who’s filling in color on a page. We knew going in that we wanted a really vivid palette for the stuff aboveground, and an extremely limited palette for the stuff underground to mark a clear delineation between those two worlds.

WO: And that’s nearly monochrome, right?

SL: Pretty much so, yeah. It’s all in one color family, because Parker and I have been in a cave, and you don’t see a whole range of color, even in the lights. It all just washes down to tonal differences. When I initially drew the book, though, I didn’t know it was going to be in color. When I first started to accumulating pages, I had no idea who was going to publish it or where I was going to take it, so I drew it so that it could work in black-and-white or color. Now that I know that it’s going to be color, I can make choices specifically with color in mind, and that’s a real pleasure right there.

WO: So the later issues are going to look a little different from the early ones?

SL: Not significantly. There’ll be a few places where I can leave out very minor details of construction. I can leave out a few marks because I know exactly what the color’s going to do. If I want a headlamp against a field of color, I don’t have to shade in the area that field of color’s going to be in, I don’t have to make it gray and then color of top of the gray; I can just know that the colors going to go into that spot to make the shape I need.

WO: Similarly to the color, the art is very, very different in the cave than it is aboveground. It’s much more large areas of black. Rather than line work, there are more lines and shapes that are suggested by the black. Was that, I assume, a similar idea of making it as extremely different as possible?

SL: That’s just trying to get across what it’s like in there. I looked at plenty of cave videos, photography people have done down there, read people’s accounts, my own memories of going to Laurel Caverns in Pennsylvania when I was a kid, my trip the Ape Caves here in the Northwest, Mt. Saint Helens Park. For the most part, you see what your light is hitting and maybe a lit-up bit where that light is bouncing, and the rest just plunges into darkness. And it’s an incredibly creepy thing. You just get this one little glowing shape off in the distance where your beam is hitting, and then there’s nothing. It’s almost like there’s just a rock floating there in the sky, and I love that look. It’s surreal and fascinating.

WO: In the past you’ve have worked with so much gray. Did you have to relearn how to see shapes or change your approach to do that much just stark black?

SL: It wasn’t that hard, just because when I do the pre-visualization that you do before a page, where you just sit in your chair for a second and close your eyes and try to imagine what the page is going to look like, what I saw is people cornered in the dark, and once I know that, that’s just what the space looked like.

WO: We’ve talked about Jeff Parker a little bit as we’ve been going, but I haven’t asked, since this is a project that you originated, at what point did you bring Jeff in?

SL: I tried to write it myself, and I talked the story out with my wife, I talked the story out with Parker, but what it came down to in the end is, I didn’t know these people. I just didn’t know the types. I didn’t know what animated them, I didn’t hear their voices clearly in my head. I was doing warmed-over TV stuff, because that’s what I knew of Kentucky. I knew it had to be in Kentucky, because that’s where some of the most interesting caves in the US are, and when I visualized [Wesley], that’s the landscape I saw her in. And I just couldn’t write the people. Parker grew up in North Carolina, about forty-five minutes from the state line in Kentucky. He’d driven through there plenty of times, he grew up hearing those voices, and he grew up in a town that sometimes had those kinds of difficulties. He just had a much, much stronger sense for how to make these people real people, and not cardboard.

WO: And so you had a sort of outline of the story?

SL: I had a sense of the story. I knew what the conflict was, I could see some of the set pieces. But I didn’t have it all knitted together, and as soon as I started talking it out with Parker, it just started [snaps fingers]. From our first conversation where he was in as a writer, it was clear he knew who these people were. Story just grows out of him like a potato growing out of the ground.

WO: So you asked him to come in and be the writer?

SL: Yeah.

WO: The two of you have had this really big promotional push. You’ve done your website, the blog, you’ve provided preview copies of the first two issues. Have you been involved in much marketing before, or is this sort of a new things for you?

SL: I’ve been on the convention circuit for years, I’ve talked a to a lot of people, I’ve been on the Internet pretty actively since 1992, ’93… Since the old CompuServe days. So I know about getting the word out. I really wanted to see the word get out about this comic, because I knew it was going to be a terrific story, and if we could get it into people’s hands, they’d love it. With Image, of course, there’s no marketing department, so if you don’t do the marketing, no one’s going to find out about it, so I was comfortable doing that. It’s actually kind of a pleasure doing it, because I don’t feel like I’m stepping on anybody else’s toes when I’m doing publicity for the book. With other publishers, I mean I was once told by somebody not to promote my book because we’re promoting another book that month. And I asked facetiously, “So, am I getting royalties on that other book?”

Anyway, with this, I wanted it to find its audience. I’m proud of the work, I love the drawing, I love Parker’s story, and I really want it to get into people’s hands. And so I’ve done everything I can to makes sure they do hear about it.

WO: And with Image largely they print it and they put it in the front section of Previews, and that’s about it, right?

SL: That’s it. And I mean, their production department’s been great. They’ve caught some errors in our files and things like that, spotted some things that hadn’t been flattened and what-have-you.

WO: But for the most part you deliver them a completed book?

SL: Yeah.

WO: Anything you’d like to add about Underground?

SL: No, that’s pretty much everything I can think of… I could tell you the story of how we wound up taking it to Image.

WO: Sure.

SL: We had two issues of the book in a binder, ready to show off, and we tried contacting Image by e-mail, and hadn’t heard back from them. We thought, “Wow, we really thought they’d like this. God.” We were all distressed and hurt. It turned out we had the wrong e-mail address, so we sat there looking at our inbox for a month, wondering why nobody loved us. And when we went to the Emerald City Comic-Con, Eric Stephenson was there, and we flagged him down and showed him the stuff, and it was the first he’d heard of it because we had the wrong e-mail address. And he looked through it and said, “Oh, we’d publish this in a second.” And we were off.

There was one snafu: we’d initially planned to solicit in September and release the book in November, and we thought we’d gotten that clear, and then we found that the book had been solicited in July to be released in September. So just like that we lost three months off of our schedule.

WO: When was this when you were pitching? Was that originally before it says in Four Letter Worlds it’s coming out, or for the current run?

SL: Oh, no, this was this year. It was just a few months ago.

WO: Okay. So, wow.

SL: Yeah, so we had to get our marketing machine in place real quick.

WO: Well, it certainly came together with the website and everything.

SL: Parker and I are just both logged into the same WordPress files and making changes on the fly as we go.

WO: The Whiteout movie, then. First thing I should ask you is, have you seen the movie?

SL: No.

WO: Well, then.

SL: I’ve seen rushes of scenes, I’ve seen all the clips they’ve released online, of course, I’ve seen a little mini-documentary about using my work as like storyboards for scenes. And everything I’ve seen I like. The performances all look great. The set—I got to visit the actual shooting set—was gorgeous. They did an unbelievable job.

WO: Where was it shot?

SL: The exteriors, which I didn’t visit, were in Manitoba, right in the middle of Lake Winnipeg. They waited until it iced up so they could drive trucks on it, and built Antarctica up there. The interiors were shot in Montreal on a soundstage, where they reconstructed a version of Amundsen Scott Base at the South Pole, and a Russian Antarctic station, and several other interesting environments. And I just loved walking through those; those were tremendously cool. I loved looking at movie light in 3D. Like every artist, I’ve done a million freeze-frame sketches from DVDs, and the way movie light works, it sculpts form in this beautiful, striking way, that actually being in movie light and being able to walk 360 degrees around objects and people that were lit that way was a great lesson in drawing.

WO: Has that found its way into Underground and elsewhere?

SL: I think I’m a better draftsman for it.

WO: Were you a consultant in any way, or was it largely from your comics pages?

SL: Yeah, just from the comics. By the time I was brought to the set, they were so far into production, the last thing they needed was me to pick up a pencil. But what they had was 200 pages, maybe 1,400, 1,500 panels of artwork of mine that they could comb through for visual ideas all they wanted, and they used a lot of them.

WO: Was there any part of the visual depiction of Antarctica that you were concerned they might not pull off, anything that you were worried might come out sort of movie-fake?

SL: I didn’t want any dancing penguins, I made that clear. No snowmen… No, I really wasn’t, because everybody that I heard from or spoke to was really excited about Antarctica. They like what a harsh environment it is, and I knew they’d want to put it on the screen. It’s one of the most interesting things about the story. I had no fears about how they were going to handle that at all.

WO: Do you anticipate being at all part of the marketing of the film? I mean obviously not to the Dave Gibbons level where he was the face of Watchmen, but a little press or anything?

SL: They’re supposed to be getting me a bunch of posters and swag for the store signings I’ve got coming up in LA, but for the most part marketing a movie seems to be something that they’re leaving to movie marketing professionals, and I’m happy to be hands-off about it.

WO: When are you seeing the movie?

SL: September the ninth is the big red carpet premiere. They’re flying me and Sara down for that, and we will be the least glamorous people at Grauman’s Westwood Theater.

WO: Well, without you having seen the movie, I’m not sure what else I can ask about the movie, and you know, that’s okay, because by the time I actually type all this up and add images, the movie will have come out, but Susan said I should ask you the “secret origin of Steve Lieber.” She didn’t put it that way, though. She was talking about how you are one of the few people she knows who wanted to be a comics artist from a very, very young age.

SL: Yeah, I wanted to do comics since I first encountered them. I think I was three or four years old, copying Peanuts strips from the Sunday paper, and from those paperbacks they used to put out. I just adored them.

One of the things that convinced me I wanted to draw for a living, or that I wanted to do comics and do them seriously, was a weird close encounter I had with Bernie Krigstein’s work. The Pittsburgh Public Library had this immense volume of EC reprints. The book was original art sized—“points to original EC art on the wall”—and it reprinted his masterpiece story, “Master Race,” and the story does things in the storytelling and the way it juxtaposes pictures and words that nobody else picked up on for years, and I remember reading that as a kid and just feeling ideas about how to juxtapose pictures Tetris-ing into place in my head, chk-chk, chk-chk, building this strange structure.

And I had never looked at a picture and clearly heard sound from a picture before, and I did from his stuff. I had never seen pictures create slow motion in that unique, brittle way that comics do. I had never seen the juxtaposition of slow versus fast made explicit in a story the way that that one story does. I’d never seen somebody do a sound transition. I didn’t have words for it; I just thought it was cool that it talked about how the sound of a roaring crowd at a Nazi rally turned into the sound of a subway train roaring down a tunnel, and I heard both sounds in my head as I read the story, and I was just blown away.

It’s very strange that I was looking through an EC book at the age of twelve, and as much as I loved Wallace Wood’s stuff and Al Williamson and Jack Davis, and all the other great stuff in there, it was this Bernard Krigstein story that just set my brain on fire, and it turned me into someone who really wanted to think analytically about comics.

WO: That’s also pretty heavy stuff for a kid to be reading. What were some of your first comics?

SL: My first comic book I owned I’ve got here in the other room; I can show it to you.

WO: Sure.

SL: Note that the magazine binder says “Lieber’s childhood treasures” on the side. These are actual comics rescued from under my bed and found in a grocery bag in my father’s house when he died. It was a Sub-Mariner comic Marie Severin drew for Marvel in 1969. Here it is. You can see that, all throughout the book is my first attempt at inking, where I went through and I outlined all of the Sub-Mariner figures in ballpoint. And I remember just being fascinated that the villain of the story seemed sort of heroic, too, and that created a sense of mystery that I wanted to know more about, and I think that taste for ambiguity is showing up today in Underground. Looking at it now, I realize that that’s Marie drawing the Marvel Bullpen standing around on the beach. That’s John Buscema there, John Verpoorten, I think Marie’s there, there’s Jack Kirby.

WO: With cigar, of course.

SL: Yeah, and a whole bunch of other folks there. I can rattle off some of the first comics I have here. These are all coverless, because at the time I was not allowed to buy comics with covers on them; that was too expensive. There was a place in the next neighborhood over from my house that sold stripped books, which were comics that we supposed to have been destroyed, but they would sell them three for a quarter or twelve for a buck, and that was the only was I was allowed to get comics. I didn’t own a comic with a cover on it until I was twelve of thirteen, except every once in awhile I could get one of these kind of bootleg reprints. I don’t know what Modern Comics was, but they reprinted old Carlton Comics, and those I would sometimes get with covers on them at flea markets or something.

It’s a really weird bunch of comics to be my formative comics. Marvel, DC, Carlton, Peanuts paperbacks, Tumbleweeds paperbacks, Dick Tracy paperbacks reprinting comics from the 1930s, which were awesome, because they were insanely violent and scary as hell. I had a Dick Tracy comic, a paperback that reprinted an entire storyline form the newspaper strip in the 1930s. It was the “Mrs. Pruneface” storyline, and it was this brutal, sadistic thing. It was just one of the most ridiculously violent things; I can’t believe they let kids read this stuff. Gangsters got riddled with machine-gun bullets right on panel. At one point they built this elaborate deathtrap for Dick Tracy, where they’ve tied him to the ground and basically crucified him, put him between two giant blocks of ice, and put a plank of wood with a big nail going through it aimed right at his heart. And then they put a refrigerator over the plank, so that as the ice melted the refrigerator would drive the spike through his heart. [laughs]

WO: Oh, God. [laughs] That’s insane.

SL: And for like two weeks, readers were left watching Dick Tracy about to be impaled on a spike as he’s tied down. What the hell? I don’t know if that was a formative influence, but it definitely alerted me to some of the possibilities of the medium.

WO: And so, there was an encounter at a convention with Marie Severin, is that right?

SL: Oh, yeah. In addition to being the artist of the very first comic book I ever owned, she was a guest at the Pittsburgh Comicon when I was ten, I think. It would have been about ’77, so yeah, ten. My mom dropped me off at the mall where the convention was being held with one dollar, and so I had one dollar to spend at the convention over the three or four hours I was there with my friends. Not a lot you can do with that. I think I got a hotdog pretty soon on, and then I had nothing to spend after that, so I just walked around, and I was a greedy kid and I was miserable, because there was all this stuff I wanted, no one would take it out of a plastic bag for me, I couldn’t get to any of it.

And Marie Severin, one of the guests, was just sitting there in a folding chair and saw me looking with giant saucer eyes at all this stuff, and said, “Hey, kid, you want a drawing?” and kind of waved me over, and I said, “Yeah.” [laughs] And she said, “Of what?” And I said, “Doc Savage,” because I was really into the Doc Savage books at the time. And it didn’t occur to me that a nice lady who looked like my mom or my grandma or somewhere in between would know how to draw Doc Savage, but damned if she didn’t draw the hell out of that Doc Savage. She took out a marker, and without any kind of preparatory under-drawing, just drew a beautiful Doc Savage drawing. It’s perfectly posed and exciting, it’s got the ripped shirt, y’know, one arm forward, one arm back, all the principles of dynamic drawing that I know now were in this thing.

WO: Is that something you still have?

SL: Yeah. It’s deep in a drawer, but yeah.

And I was blown away by it. I’d never seen anything like it; it just flew off of her hand. And I thanked her and walked away just blinking, stars in my eyes, completely dazzled, and when I got home I just started copying it. I had one of those big, thick, cheap pads of newsprint that they sell to kids to draw with crayons, and I opened up a page and I tried copying it, and it looked like hell, so I flipped the page and I tried copying it again, and then again, and by the time I got to the end of the pad, I could do a pretty good job of reproducing that drawing. That was my first serious attempt at trying to be a professional artist, trying to draw.

Years and years later, I was a guest at San Diego Comicon, as was she, and I saw her sitting across the aisle from me, and I said, “I’ve got to go talk to her, I’ve got to tell her this story,” so I tell her the whole thing, and I said, “Y’know, it’s because of you I became a professional artist, I think,” and she said, “Oh, my God. I’m sorry!”

Interview conducted, transcribed and edited for length and clarity by Brendan Wright, proofread by participants.


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2 Responses to “Up North and Underground with Steve Lieber”

  1. Comics A.M. | The comics Internet in two minutes | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] Creators | Brendan Wright chats with Steve Lieber about Periscope Studio, his new series Underground, Whiteout, and more. [The Wright Opinion] […]

  2. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Oct. 21, 2009: Saying the sky is blue Says:

    […] [Profile] Steve Lieber Link: Brendan Wright […]

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