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“I Spent Seven Years in the Belly of the Beast”: An Interview with Jamal Igle

Jamal Igle had a long career as a superhero artist. For years he was a master of many styles, moving from one title to another for different companies, often as a fill-in artist and it wasn’t until later when he really began to hone and develop his own style that he became a regular artist on books like Firestorm, Zatanna, Supergirl, and The Ray. It was on those books that he showed off his skills at design, in playing with tone, with body language. The current TV show Supergirl draws a lot of inspiration from the Sterling Gates and Igle run of comics. Igle always took his jobs seriously, has a great love and affection for the genre, but for him that means imbuing it with a sense of fun. In recent years Igle has stepped back from the monthly superhero grind and making fewer comics. He wrote and pencilled Molly Danger, he pencilled the acclaimed miniseries Black, and he’s drawing the new superhero series The Wrong Earth, which is the launch title from Ahoy Comics.

Igle is also on Twitter occasionally, where he stirs up trouble talking about how bad certain movies were, or by laying out numbers about comics sales historically. I interviewed him years ago for another publication and we see each other now and then at events, and I talked with him recently about why he rethought his career, getting older, and what he’s trying to do now.

How did you get involved with Ahoy Comics?

It started with Stuart Moore. Stuart and I worked together on Firestorm back in the day and we’ve stayed in touch. He came to my bachelor party. We live about a mile from each other so we’ll see each other at the coffee shop or wherever and catch up. One day I’m walking my dog and there’s a pie place in my neighborhood that I like to frequent because I need my muffins. [laughs] Stuart mentioned that he had talked to Tom Peyer about me and wanted to know if I would be willing to talk to him about this project. I said, okay. I like Tom’s work but I had never met Tom at that point but it’s Tom Peyer. The track record speaks for itself. I talked to Tom on the phone and he pitched me The Wrong Earth. I was immediately, okay, absolutely, let’s do this.

Jamal Igle, Archie Meets Batman '66 #5

What was it that made you say yes?

The opportunity to work with Tom was one I didn’t feel like I should pass up. This story hits all of my vigilante comic book buttons on both ends of the spectrum. I’m a huge huge fan of Batman and Batman ’66 and Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, Don Newton, yellow oval – the whole nine yards of that era Batman. It also has given me the opportunity with Earth Omega to explore everything that’s been done with the character since the Burton movies basically without honestly veering too much into a gothic take. Post-the first Burton Batman there was this whole rebranding of the character at DC from ‘91 to about ‘94. They had him dressing up all in black for a while and they changed the costume again and they tried to get rid of the sidekick. Post-Knightfall especially. Going from that and even most recently Batman v Superman and Justice League – things that I’ve been very very vocal about my distaste for. [laughs] It was the opportunity to play with those tropes and the darker aspects of what they’ve been trying to do with the character since then. The opportunities to play with the aesthetic of both versions of a character like that spoke to me. It absolutely spoke to me.

The book has a great high concept. A friend who’s not that into comics asked me about it and I said, if Adam West's Batman and the Dark Knight traded places, and they got it immediately. You go to design two sets of characters, two worlds, and there’s a lot of detail in each, but the color carries a lot of weight as far as which world we’re seeing.

Absolutely, but that’s entirely intentional. I’m getting ready to start issue #6 as we speak and the work that Andy Troy has been doing in terms of colors has been absolutely top notch. I wasn’t familiar with Andy before I started working on this, but he is a great colorist. I’m notorious about coloring so especially I had very specific images of what I wanted to do with both versions of Dragonfly and Dragonflyman and both Earths and pulling from not just that Batman ‘66 aesthetic but that whole '60s aesthetics. I was looking at old episodes of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Bewitched, and I Spy, pulling multiple things for the background details of both worlds. For example Earth Alpha has technology that doesn’t exist, but a lot of it is prototype technology. I did a deep dive into prototype vehicles that were never mass produced, computers, telephones. In terms of visual references I looked to films like In Like Flint or old '60s James Bond movies. Clothing from the '70s and elements from the '80s so it’s this mishmash of decades. I incorporated different eras of technology all coming together so it looks familiar but it doesn’t quite look right. Earth Omega is much more grounded. In terms of tech it’s much closer to our world because again it’s going back to the aesthetic of Batman since ‘89 or so, which has been to try to make Gotham much more realistic, especially over the last ten years. It’s gotten away from the gothic aesthetic and gone towards a more grounded real world version. In terms of color and going back to what Andy’s been doing on the book, I had a very specific palate for Earth Omega. I said to him I want you to treat what you’re doing as color grading as opposed to straight comic book coloring. Treat it the way that Vittorio Storaro would color grade in Apocalypse Now or Dick Tracy. I think he’s done a magnificent job with it.

For people who don’t know color grading, or aren’t familiar with the term, what is it?

Color grading is the process that cinematographers use to create a specific mood in their films that can’t be achieved through artificial lighting. It’s a way to adjust the “temperature” of a scene. For example, if the scene takes place during the winter a cinematographer would add a pale blue, or grey tone to the scene to increase the viewers sense of cold, or isolation. Adding red, creates urgency, blue creates mystery. The next time you watch a film, really look at how the color shifts from scene to scene and how it affects the characters mood.

When you first sat down with Tom and he was laying this out, were you saying I want to be a partner in this and I have thoughts about the design, about the color?

In terms of the artwork Tom has been gracious in letting me guide where things are going visually. Every step of the way he would come at me with an idea and he’s been 100% gung ho the entire time. That was never even a question. I was so enthusiastic about getting started that I actually started doing designs while I was on vacation in Japan. Much to my wife’s chagrin. [laughs] That also helped me solidify what I wanted to do with Dragonfly and Dragonflyman. We came up with a back story for why both versions of the character chose a dragonfly.

I just assumed a dragonfly crashed through the windows as pearls were falling in slow motion. [laughter]

No no no. He’s the orphaned millionaire son of people killed by criminals but Dragonflyman chose the dragonfly because in Japanese mythology dragonflies are the symbol of the warrior. They represent nobility. Dragonfly, our Earth-Omega doppleganger, chose dragonflies because dragonflies are monstrous symbols in European culture. in Swedish folklore, they’re called “the Hobgoblin fly” or “Blind stinger” because some believe that a dragonfly could pick out your eyes.

It sounds like one reason you wanted to do this is that you wanted to be a partner in this. In recent years it feels like you’ve stepped back from comics a little and now you pick your projects more carefully because you want to be a partner in whatever you do.

I think that’s probably the best way to describe it. Ultimately what really happened is that especially over the last couple of years I am not as comfortable working on other people’s brands. Not from a lack of want, because I’ve been approached to do things, but for whatever reason it didn’t pan out or we couldn’t agree on terms. Ultimately I have to do what’s in the best interest for me. It’s 2018, so it’s been six years of primarily doing my own material or working on projects where I have equity. Nobody really gets that far in this business without developing their own IP and developing their own projects or being involved with projects where they have a financial and emotional stake. That doesn’t mean that if you’re working for Marvel or DC or if your goal is to be an artist on Transformers, for example, that you’re doing something wrong. But I’m forty-six years old. As much as I love comics, the amount of time I’m going to want to do keep doing comics may end up being finite. I have to think about the long term and the long term is putting your own stuff out there. It’s still work, it’s still hard work, but I would rather take that energy on my own ideas. I may change my mind in a few years. You never know, someone at DC or Marvel may come to me and drop a bucket of money in front of me and say you can do Daredevil any way you want, we’ll let you write Superman for the next five years and go crazy. But for now my best option is to be in the Jamal Igle business. To extend the Jamal Igle brand. And the best way I can extend my business and my brand is by creating opportunities for myself.

The last time we did a big interview was right before The Ray dropped, which was when you were coming off Supergirl. I feel like you had a great experience on those two projects, but you didn’t want to be an employee in the same way afterwards.

Yeah. That’s the thing, especially on something like Supergirl, if you’re on a book for a year or two, the only way is to become emotionally invested in its success. Sterling and I on Supergirl became very very very emotionally invested in her longevity as a character. I walked away from the book because Sterling decided he was going to leave and I decided I can’t stay because it won’t be the same for me. When I walked away I started working on The Ray and I had a lot of fun working on The Ray, but that was done with the express intent of going out with the bang. This is going to be my last DC project so let’s show people what I can actually do with the brakes off. We invested so much time and energy on Supergirl between having to deal with the internal politics and then the attention that we got, especially in the first six months, and how we were doing in sales, and how that created tension internally, and having to deal with crossovers, and waiting for other people to do their part, and trying to align all that. It’s a lot. You put that much energy into something and it becomes emotionally draining if you don’t see not just a financial but an emotional return on investment.

Your run really influenced the TV show in different ways. I know that you and Sterling Gates have been name checked, but do you guys get anything?

They just mention us. I don’t get jack. [laughs]

At the same time, that’s the nature of work for hire. I’ve been in this business for almost thirty years and I completely understand. It’s the thing that makes people working in the business working at a larger company very hesitant about creating new characters for whatever company that they’re working for. Knowing the history of this business and knowing how many incredibly talented people either got screwed or weren’t keen enough businessmen to fully take advantage of the opportunities that they had at the time, I don’t want to ultimately end up that way. Having a background in advertising and marketing and editorial and production and knowing the realities of what it’s like to work in a business environment, I know that what your managers consider to be in the best interests of the business itself has nothing to do with your longevity as a creator. When you’re a freelancer you are a business unto yourself. It’s not Marvel or DC’s job to promote you per se outside of whatever you’re doing for them. That is not the relationship that you have with them as a creator. Their only responsibility is to exploit whatever talent they can get out of you for as long as they can and when you’re no longer of use to them, I won’t say that you’re discarded because everybody has to make their own decisions on that. Some people do get discarded. Some people leave by their own volition. Some people get forced out. Some people are just giant assholes and get pushed out because nobody wanted to deal with them no matter how talented or connected they are. I’ve always kept that in mind over the years.

As far as building a brand, that means things like writing and drawing Molly Danger, which rereading I think I liked even more this time around. And then you pencilled Black, which was a great chance to see your work uncolored.

That was different. It was an interesting exercise for me because having gotten used to working with colorists and the greytones on the book made me rethink how I approached it. I’m really happy with the result.

Photo by Pat Loika

You’ve worked with some colorists, so I don’t think they were smothering or obscuring your work, but printing it with greyscale really showed off your skill at facial expressions and body language to build characters subtextually.

Thank you. I certainly try to make an effort to do all of that, especially body language, because I think that’s one of the most difficult things that you can try and show in terms of illustration in general and especially comics because there’s so much happening on the page so often it’s hard to get the visual difference across in characters other than their looks. Because there’s so much more that goes into it. I think some of the best artists have been masters of that across the board. That’s something that I’m constantly working on. I want to show body language and movement but there’s a tendency a lot of times for people to go overboard and push too much – intentionally – into the realm of animation when they want to show real differences in how a character carries themselves. I feel like for a straight action adventure story you don’t always want to get into a more animated feel because it takes the reader out of the experience.

You mentioned that you’ve been working on a bunch of things. I’m assuming one is another Molly Danger book.

Yeah. Things have been very challenging because of things happening on the family side over the last year. We’ve been rebuilding ourselves. Not to get into too much detail but I have been working the next Molly Danger the entire time, but that’s required me to take on other work. I’ve explained it to my backers and I’ve offered refunds to those who want it, but they’ve been exceedingly patient with me and completely understanding.

You’re still making comics, but you stepped away from a monthly grind and I figured you were busy with other opportunities in between comics series. As hard as it is to imagine there are more lucrative things than comics.

[laughs] I try not to distract myself too much because I only have a limited amount of time every day. Especially with a child in school and other family responsibilities. You have to reassess where you are and how you deal with things. When I was at DC and working on a monthly book and just killing myself trying to get ten, eleven, sometimes twelve issues done a year with the level of detail I was trying to do, it was a lot. I had half my paycheck going to paying for a nanny so I could work. It was the only way I was going to be able to get anything done at that point. It worked out. As Katie has gotten older it hasn’t been as much of a necessity but on top of everything else I’m the guy who keeps the household running. I walk the dog, I make dinner, I make sure the laundry gets done. This on top of trying to take care of my own health and trying to make sure that I keep my work obligations and stay on a reasonable schedule. A lot of it is about relearning that as well.

You do go on Twitter now and then to point out how bad Batman v Superman is.

[laughs] Well, that’s easy for me. It feels like I’m on there a lot, but I’m really not. Whenever I need to take a break while I’m working during the day I jump on Twitter and babble and talk about stuff. If I have something on my mind or something is happening politically I’ll express my opinion, learned or unlearned. It’s become a kind of release valve. While I’m working I listen to a lot of talk radio. I’m a political junkie and I’ve become even more of a political junkie than I was when I was younger, so twitter being the evil that it is makes it very easy for me to spew my righteous indignation to all of my followers. [laughs] Whether they like it or not.

You use Twitter for other things. You did a long series of posts analyzing sales numbers historically, which got a lot of attention.

That was something that had been on my mind for a very long time because I’ve heard people make those very same arguments as the Comicsgate people make. For years. I wanted to yell at them and say, "You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about," but you can’t do that because all that does is gin them up. I still rant and scream at them occasionally because they’re really just being obnoxious fucking tools, but I don’t feel like I’m talking to them directly. I’m talking to all the people in their orbit. All the people who are on the fringe and don’t really have the same virulent beliefs that they do. They’re just following them because of whatever hashtag they stumbled on. I’m speaking past the hardcore Gaters and giving them real information. Or at least trying to give them real information.

Does it always work? No. They’re still screaming about how X-Men #1 sold 7 million copies. Well, yes, they sold 7 million copies but 6.5 million of them are sitting in landfills and back issue bins. I always tell the same story. I worked at Jim Hanley’s Universe when it was on Chambers Street. We were around the corner from Lehman Brothers, and whenever there was a big event you’d see stockbrokers waiting in line – or sending people – and buying two or three cases of books. Then six months later they came back trying to flip them. I would do the same thing each time. I would take them downstairs and show them the cases of unsold books – the very same books they were trying to sell. I would say, I will pay you five cents a copy because that’s how much it’s worth. When you break it down for people that way and say, look, all of this speculation that happened from ‘86 to even ‘94, I would say, happened because people started treating comic books like common stock. They saw a couple of news stories about how classic comics had suddenly jumped in value and companies got it into their heads that all they had to do was put out #1’s with foil stamps and suddenly those books were going to be worth twenty bucks a copy. Having lived through those times both as somebody working in retail and as somebody who got then into the business just as all those jobs were disappearing – where you went from 400 comic book companies to 150, and maybe ten of them were paying more than 50 bucks a page – is a perspective that a lot of people, even a lot of professionals, never had.

We’ve talked about representation in the past, but right now we’ve had Wonder Woman and Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians at the box office, we’re seeing more comics and books from all kinds of people and it feels like we’re in a different cultural moment than we were five or ten years ago.

I would agree with that. Here’s the thing I would add: I feel like we are on the cusp of really having a cultural breakthrough, but we’ve been through this before. There were strides, not just in comics but in our culture in general— I feel like we’ve been here before a few times when we’ve taken these steps forward culturally towards inclusion, towards equality. Then as you’re seeing now with just our political structure, it seems like every time there’s a huge step forward, there’s this pocket of resistance that returns. It’s the same resistance that keeps coming back over and over and over again. I am thrilled that we have all of these things that are happening at the same time. I would really love to see it go from being a zeitgeist moment to just being a matter of fact where we’re not thinking about it. Warner Brothers released a statement about how they’re actively going to be taking strides towards inclusivity, which is a wonderful statement to make publicly – especially with the amount of venom that hones towards anything that features non-cis, non-white, non-male, non-able-bodied people. But the fact that they felt like they had to make a public statement and a public declaration in that way just proves that we are so far off.

There is so much that needs to happen to make it the norm as opposed to what a few people still see as aberrations. It doesn’t help that it’s not just in the states, internationally we’re seeing authoritarians rising up. We’re seeing people in leadership who are making it okay for racists and sexists and misogynists to come back and share their twisted world views. It’s aided unfortunately by well-meaning liberals who say, we’ve got to hear from both sides. Everybody needs to have a voice in the conversation. No! Not every argument is valid. You don’t have to give them a goddamn platform. I’m glad that you have stuff like Crazy Rich Asians doing so well at the box office. At the same time, the fact that movies like Crazy Rich Asians or Black Panther or Moonlight or Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel are seen as revolutionary and new and never been done before is part of the problem. That’s part of the old thinking that we haven’t evolved past.

As you said, we’ve seen how quickly things can shift politically. Is this the first step on a path to change or is it a blip?

I’m heartened by younger people who aren’t willing to sit down and just take it. Who aren’t afraid to step out of their comfort zone and express who they are and express what they believe in. If we can keep building generations of that, then I think we will get to that place where these things are no longer seen as aberrations.

We mentioned Molly Danger before, but you were talking about rethinking and reassessing and relearning. Has it changed what you want to do or what you want to spend your energy doing?

Well, the biggest change was getting healthy, losing weight, exercising. Those were the physical changes, but the biggest change was how I treated myself as a person. I think this is true of anyone who is even remotely creative, we can be our own worst enemies. I treated myself like a second class citizen because I didn’t respect myself as a person. What I mean by that is, so much of my identity was tied to being an artist. Everything else was secondary. I was constantly putting other people’s needs and wants before my own because of it. I was trying to make impossible deadlines, because I felt that If I kept making myself indispensable I’d always have a place at DC. I did it in my personal relationships as well. It was killing me. I spent the better part of a decade only getting four hours of sleep a night. I had to learn to love myself, and that process really started when I met my wife, Karine. She’s been so instrumental in me figuring out what the most important thing in life to me is, which is being a husband and a father.

I also had to figure out how to be myself, how to be truly authentic and find my voice. I guess it all ties together in a way. I spent seven years in the belly of the beast, playing by corporate rules and biting my tongue about important issues because you had to present a perfect image, or that’s at least what I told myself. Once I started to be able to look at myself in a mirror and see who Jamal was, things got clearer. I remembered that I don’t just draw, I’m a writer as well. That’s not to say it’s easy. I have doubts and fears, because I wouldn’t be human otherwise. One of the things I stopped worrying about however was the idea of ever being a “superstar artist”, because that’s an illusion. I’ve watched “Superstars” come in hot and burnout in a few years. I’d rather be a journeyman, like Jose Luis Garcia Lopez or Alan Davis. All I can do is work on projects that make me happy, and hope that other people dig it too. I don’t worry about my “place in the industry” the way I used to.

I just have fun now. I work with fun people. I do books that challenge me and write whatever I want to write when I get the chance to.

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