Sunday, July 26, 2009

In the Studio with Ben Stenbeck

Above: Artist Ben Stenbeck in his studio with his son George.

This week we take a look inside the studio of Ben Stenbeck, one of the few local cartoonist who makes a living in the highly competitive market of american comics. In the last few years Ben's highly detailed and atmospheric artwork has made him a much in demand artist at Dark Horse Comics.

Above: 'Living with the Dead'. Copyright Dark Horse Comics 2009.

In 2007 he teamed up with Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson for the zombie series 'Living With The Dead'. It was his artwork on that series that got him noticed by comics legend Mike Mignola, who hand-picked him to join his exclusive list of collaborators in expanding the 'Hellboy' comics universe.

Above: 'BPRD: The Ectoplasmic Man'. Copyright Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics 2009.

His first 'Hellboy' related assignment was the 'BPRD: THe Ectoplasmic Man' one-shot, written by Mike Mignola & John Arcudi. His new collaboration with Mignola is the just released mini-series 'Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels', which spotlights the Victorian occult detective Sir Edward Grey. In a recent interview Mignola spoke highly of Ben's artwork and attention to detail: “Ben is very detail-oriented and he's a research hound. I wanted somebody who was going to take the time to draw Victorian London. He's got kind of a clunky, cartoonish style, so it's not photorealistic by any stretch, but he's loaded the thing with information, with old billboards and signs and building details and art deco details, so you get a lot of authenticity, even if it's a cartoonish drawing style. When you see machines, it looks like it could be a real Victorian machine. Or when you see a close up of a gun, you say, oh, that's a real gun.”

Above: 'Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels' #1. Copyright Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics 2009.

For more insight into the creation of Ben's artwork, let's take a look inside his studio!
(Oh, and Mike wasn't kidding when he said Ben's a research hound: bonus points if you can spot all the hidden replica guns;)

Above: Ben's drawing desk. Details of interest: Ben's original pencils on Zeta paper in the centre and to the left is Mike Mignola's detailed plot for an issue of 'Witchfinder'.

Q1: What are you currently working on?

I'm penciling the last issue of a 5 issue series written by Mike Mignola (Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels, you can
see a preview of the series here -AK!).
And getting my reference together for the next series. But I can't say what that is yet.

Q2: What are your current drawing tools of preference?

Clutch pencil, Staedtler pigment liners ( just the 0.1and triplus pens) And a Twink pen. Tons of twink, because I'm too lazy to use paint and wash brushes and all that. and Artline 210 0.6, which would be my favourite pen if Artline could get their nibs to hold their shape for longer than 5 minutes. And a lightbox, I constantly redraw panels so it helps to do that on a clean piece of paper over a lightbox. Also I do all my inking on separate paper to the pencils.

Above: The right side of Ben's desk, featuring models and reference drawings for 'Sir Edward Gray'.
Also take notice of the post-it note with Mignola's home phone number (..and no, you can't have it!).

Q3: Can you describe your average working routine?

My routine changes all the time, but if Im not looking after my son Im in my studio, working or wasting my life on the internets. Which im trying to unplug as much as possible these days. I work best late at night.

Above: A detailed issue plot from Mignola, from which Ben begins to breakdown the story.

Above: Ben's page breakdowns for an issue of 'Witchfinder'.

Above: A page of Ben's pencils.

Above: A finished page from 'Witchfinder'. Script by Mike Mignola with colours by Dave Stewart.
Copyright Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics 2009.

Q4: What is your working process?

I get a pretty detailed plot, which I then do layouts for and send to Mike and Scott Allie my editor. Their approach is to be as picky as possible over layouts because thats the important part. Thats where you work out all your storytelling, and if you get that wrong at the start, it dosnt matter what your drawing is like. Every now and then Mike will layout a page if there's something really specific he wants to see on it. Then I'll pencil the issue, that takes me about a month, and then I ink it. Then It goes to Dave Stewart who colours it and makes it look good. Then Mike will write final dialogue and send it off to the letterer.

Q5: Do you listen to anything while you work?

Mostly audio books, has readings of thousands of public domain books for free, so Im usually listening to something from that. That or death metal.

Above: Ben's bookshelf.

Q6: Can you name some of your influences?

Mike Mignola, Geof Darrow, Dave Cooper, Martin Emond, Al Columbia, Liberatore, Moebius, Katsuhiro otomo, Bernie Wrightson, Guy Davis, Duncan Fegredo, H P Lovecraft, the Coen brothers, 80s horror films, Ray Harryhausen, any monster movies really, lots of stuff.

Q7: What is your most prized comics related item?

The original cowgirl painting by Martin Emond. And a drawing of Shaolin cowboy By Darrow. And a drawing of a guy in a dive suit with tentacles and crap pouring out of the suit by Guy Davis.

Q8: What was your best and worst comics convention experience?

I've been to San Diego comic con a few times, and theres always alot that happens at each one. But my best experience might have been Moebius patting me on the knee and telling me I could draw. My worst is, can't think of one. They're always pretty fun.

Above: Some more props and figures.

Q9: Do you have a favorite comics adaptation?


Q10: If I could have dinner with five other people from history they would be..?

Douglas Adams, Katsuhiro otomo, Peter Cushing, the elephant man, and I'd invite H P Lovecraft but he wouldnt turn up, because he'd be too scared of meeting a japanese man and Joseph Merrick.

Q11: If I could make one edit/change to the history of comics it would be...?

For a million reasons, A small one being for the benifit of New Zealand comics, I'd have Marty Emond make a better decision than the one he made. He was so accessible to anyone who wanted his advice. And his advice was always well informed and worthwhile. He might be the only person Ive ever met that you could say that about. All the people making comics in this country are missing out on not having access to a role model like Marty.
There's just no one in this country qualified to fill that role, not the way Marty did.

For more on Ben Stenbeck and lots more of his artwork, check out his website here.
The first issue of 'Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels' is out now from Dark Horse Comics.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Library Week 2009: Graphic Novel Competition

Above: The first page of a graphic novel, stared by Dylan Horrocks to be you!

As part of the celebrations for Library Week 2009, the 10th - 16th of August, LIANZA ( the Library & Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa) will be running a Graphic Novel Competition.

Dylan Horrocks, the well known and highly prolific New Zealand comics writer/artist, has created the first 4 frames of a graphic novel and it is up to you to carry on the story and be in with a chance to win yourself a prize!

Artists have a week to illustrate and upload their own 4 frames to follow on from the story posted to the website so far. A winner will be chosen at the end of each week and their frames will be made the next permanent line of the story.

There are 2 age categories (13 – 18 yrs and 19 yrs +) for this competition meaning there will be 2 versions of the story.

Details of competition:

  • The competition runs for 4 weeks, from Monday 20th July and will close on Friday 14th August.
  • Each week you can read the frames already published on the site, decide what you think should happen next and illustrate the next 4 frames.
  • Upload your images to the Library Week website.
  • A winner will be chosen weekly and their strip will be made a permanent part of the story.
  • There are two age categories for this competition, 13 – 18 yrs and 19 yrs +.

To view the graphic novel in progress, click here for the 13 – 18 yrs page or here for the 19 yrs + results.

There's not too much information available on the site as to what the prizes are or what the future of the finished 'graphic novel' will be; but it is a chance to create a jam comic with Dylan Horrocks (which is pretty cool in and of itself), and it's nice to see the Library community continue to embrace and promote graphic novels to readers of all ages.

Best of luck if you decide to enter. It should be interesting to see the results in the weeks to come, especially from the younger age group.

For more information about Library Week visit


Sunday, July 19, 2009


Above: The cover of 'Bristle #2 by Claire Harris

A new issue of the Wellington comics anthology is out now, featuring comics from some of Welly's finest cartoonists: Ned Wenlock, Dick Whyte, Jason Winter, Ari Freeman, Draw, Lorenzo Van Der Lingen, Grant Buist, Matt Emery, Ed Lynden-Bell, Steve Saville, Brent Willis and more.

It's A5 sized, 32 pages with a cover by Claire Harris. You can mail order it for only five dollars plus a dollar for postage.

BRISTLE #1 is also still available, you can pick up both for ten dollars plus a dollar postage.
Send payments to : Brent Willis at PO Box 27-258, Wellington.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

'The Journey' by Dylan Horrocks

Above: The cover of 'The Journey' Copyright Waitakere City Council

Above: a page from 'The First Time' by Dylan Horrocks.

Now on a completely different subject, Dylan has also updated his website, offering his set of three Tijuana Bibles
online for the first time. They were originally created for Dirty Stories Vol.2 published by Fantagraphics.
The three stories: 'One Night', 'The First Time' and 'He Brings You' are all beautiful examples of erotic
fiction; and unlike most comics, you may enjoy sharing these with a significant other;)

PS: Dylan has pointed out they are 'not safe for work', so keep that in mind before you let your ur...fingers do the
walking (but they are so tastefully done, I'm sure you could get away with it!).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blastosaurus & American Original

Above: The 'American Original' logo.

Earlier this month, Jeff Katz, ex-20th Century Fox studio executive and occasional US comics writer, made his first announcement at Wizard World Philadelphia regarding a comics line to be published by his new multi-media company 'American Original'. Of the four titles to be announced one of them will sound very familiar to New Zealand comics readers: 'Blastosaurus'.

Above: 'Blastosaurus' by Richard Fairgray copyright 2009.

If you're unfamiliar with 'Blastosaurus', the comic follows the adventures of a mutated triceratops cop who has traveled through a time portal to the present day to do battle with a street gang of mutated Raptors to save the future of Freak Out City. Oh, and he has a really big gun. If this sounds a little outlandish, it's intentional; it's influenced by the high concept cartoons of the 90's (think 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' meets 'The Thunder-Lizards' (from 'Ekk the Cat).

Written and illustrated by 24 year old Auckland cartoonist Richard Fairgray, it will be published monthly through the new imprint in partnership with Top Cow Productions. Jeff Katz met Fairgray through a mutual friend on the set of 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine', which Katz was overseeing a an executive for Fox.

Katz recently shared his plans for 'Blastosaurus' during an interview for Comic Book Resources:

"[Richard and I] met and hit it off instantly. He gave me two or three properties, all of which I picked up immediately, but the one I fell in love with was a very simple thing. It was a dinosaur cop who's mutated and brought into the future to fight crime against velociraptor street gangs in the big city in the tone of the old school, early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stuff. It plays with it edgier – not necessarily as a kid thing but in a kid's context. I look at this, and I went, 'Christ! Kids like dinosaurs. Kids like crimefighting. This is as natural a kids property with some teeth to it as there is.' What we're going to be doing is reprinting his New Zealand run of 'Blastosaurus' as a set for the American version which will come out soon after."

Katz also had a lot of praise for Richard in the same interview:

"One of the things I wanted to put across from the line is that a great big idea can come from anywhere. The reality is that in the next ten years, distribution is going to be democratized in a pretty massive way in a lot of forms of entertainment, comics included. So now, 'the big idea' suddenly doesn't have to come from a guy who's exclusive to DC. It can come from a kid in New Zealand who just happens to have a good idea...And Richard's a kid who, I'll be frank, I'm going to lose to the big two. It's inevitable. But I just think that this is one of those things that's very unique from anything else in the marketplace. But beyond that, he's come up with a thing that's a very natural, franchisable concept. We're going to be a place that takes chances on new voices because on some level, I'd argue there's a dearth of young talent getting to rise up. I think showing what this guy can do in what is ostensibly a superhero context without it at all being superheroes and what is ostensibly a kids context while at the same time being all ages, I think is a unique thing. I think this guy is going to a real voice and someone we'll be hearing about for a long time."

The other really interesting thing that sets Richard apart from other comic creators is the fact that he is legally blind, with only five percent vision in one eye. Katz was not aware of this until he was interviewed for a article on Richard for the NZ Hearld last year. I understand Phil Jemenez (The Invisibles, New X-Men) was lined up to draw the US edition of the comic, but it's since been decided that Richard will continue as both writer and artist on the book due to his unique condition.

Katz touched on this during his second announcement interview over at Newsarama:

"And to top it all off, he's legally blind. He's writing, drawing and self-publishing these things with only five percent vision in one eye. In the one eye, he sees in only two dimensions. So he sees in comic book panels, which in and of itself is interesting."

With the move to 'American Original', the New Zealand incarnation of the series will conclude with issue #13, the end of the current story arc. In October there will be a Blastosaurus Halloween Special for the Armageddon Convention which will be the last locally published issue of the series for the foreseeable future.

He's obviously got big plans for Richard, so who the HELL is Jeff Katz?

He started out as a radio talk-back host at 15, before graduating to a stint as a promoter for WCW Wrestling (...which may go a long way to explaining the 'American Original' logo). He then became an unpaid intern at New Line Cinema and worked his way up the company ladder to become vice-president of development and production.
While at New Line he helped produce 'Freddy VS Jason', 'Snakes on a Plane' and 'Shoot 'Em Up' (none of which you should watch...ever). These films may have been critically underwhelming, but they made his reputation as an executive who was in touch with the valuable 'geek audience'.
With his genre-mashing credibility established moved to 20th Century Fox as Vice President of Production. During his tenure at Fox he dabbled in comics, writing the mini-series 'Freddy VS Jason VS Ash' for Wildstorm/Dynamite, before teaming up with Geoff Johns to co-write a 'Booster Gold' ongoing series for DC Comics.

With some success under his belt in both mediums (and the release of the 'X-men Origins: Wolverine' movie on the horizon), he shocked the Hollywood press last September by announcing his resignation from Fox to setup his own multi-media company that would become 'American Original'.

In a May press release for the launch of 'American Original', it was described as "a new entertainment company that will provide content across multiple platforms geared to the growing genre consumer base as well as provide services to genre creators themselves".

Now the idea of creating a banner company for multi-media genre publishing and producing is hardly an original one, but Katz's plan to profit share with the creators is a new development. From what I understand he plans to use a business model more in keeping with the movie industry than the comics business, by giving the comic creators the gross profits of their properties after the company's production costs are covered.
In theory this is a much better (and fairer) profit sharing deal than any of the other comic companies have to offer; especially when you factor in movie, video-games and any other media platform development deals (which Katz is counting for).

This all sounds very promising on paper, but this isn't the first time a company has created a publishing line for multi-media development. In the last 10 years, 'CrossGen Comics', 'Platinum Studios' and most recently 'Virgin Comics' to name only a few, have all collapsed while chasing the all-mighty development dollar instead of focusing on creating quality comic-books.

To me this appears to be a chicken and egg race.
While Katz was working as a producer he learned about the importance of 'pre-awareness' marketing. It's basically about selling consumers products based on properties they are already aware of and enjoy. If they like a specific property, the theory is they will probably consume it across a variety of media including films, comics and video-games. For example, franchises like 'Star Trek' and 'Spider-man' both bring in billions of dollars in branded merchandising every year. It's not hard to see why this would be a fairly solid business plan to follow. Marvel Comics recently rolled the dice by bankrolling it's own big-budget movies to huge success, making Iron Man (previously a B-Grade character with little name recognition) into a house-hold name.

Here's where the chicken and egg come into it: if you launch a comic-book and then sign a movie deal at the same time, will the comic audience read the book and then watch the film? Or will the movie audience watch the movie and then buy the comic? Or will both flop because they don't have 30 years of pre-awareness to be the next 'Wolverine'? Will anyone really care about these new properties?

This kind of fishing for instant success is understandable, but VERY rarely achievable, especially in the comics business.
In the last 20 years the most successful independent comics company launch would have to be Image Comics. Todd McFarlane's 'Spawn' was an instant success as a comic and merchandising property, but drew heavily on McFarlane's profile and fan-base that he had spent years building up at Marvel (proving he was the brand, not the characters). It also didn't hurt that he tapped into the grunge zeitgeist of the early 90s, and gave his fans exactly what they wanted. That kind of success has more to do with the right timing than marketing, and can't really be artificially created.

The 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' also had a fast track to success, and the potential for 'Blastosaurus' to follow in it's merchandising footsteps clearly appealed to Katz's business sense. Genre roots aside, 'Blastosaurus' may be the most original offering from 'American Original' (I'm sure the irony of this association isn't lost on anyone).
The other announce titles on offer are: 'Vengeance of Mine' by Katz & artist Thomas Nachlik, 'Daybreak' by Gary Whitta and Brian Lynch and artist Marco Castiello and 'Comedy Deathray Anthology' edited by Scott Aukerman.

Not surprisingly, the first two titles read like genre movie pitches sitting on the 'needs more development' pile. Katz describes 'Vengeance of Mine' as "a mix of the 'Payback' or 'Get Carter' model and the monster world of movies like 'Nightbreed'." 'Daybreak' mines the highly original 'prison break' genre, best described as "an homage to the sort of swaggering, man's-man action movies of the '80s that Kurt Russell and John Carpenter did together." I guess some explanation as to why these concepts will make great comics is unnecessary...

The comedy anthology at least heads in a new direction, promising a rotating creative team made up of comedy's brightest talents. Comedy is of coarse one of the most difficult genres to pull off in comics, so it's a big ask from new creators to comics. It could really go either way; a unique stand-alone success, or a disaster of epic proportions.

Which is kind of how I feel about this whole venture; based on the information available at this time, I would have to bet my chips on the latter.

I appreciate the fact he's attempting to mine untapped areas of the comics industry to create a different spin on the multi-platform development company; but it's still the same animal with different stripes. If these books can't stand on their own, no movie, TV show, video-game or web-what-have-you development deal is going to make them any more readable.

So here's my educated guess on how I think this is going to pan out:

I give the comics line a shelf life of 6 months to a year (this could be extended by six months if any of the development deals get the green-light). Keep in mind the above titles are only the first announcement. I expect he's keeping a high-profile creator-owned book announcement for the San Diego Comic Con. My money is on a book by his 'Booster Gold' co-writer Geoff Johns, guaranteed to bring home the bacon while the other books find their sales levels.

Unfortunately, I think 'Blastosaurus' will be the first title to go.
I like Richard, he's an endearing and intelligent local creator, who deserves a great deal of credit for what he's achieved and the limitations he's overcome. It was a bold local effort; I just don't think it's ready for the blood-thirsty, overly serious mainstream american comics audience.
The series has an innocent, good-natured intention that I think will be lost on Top Cow's regular readers and would probably be more at home at an indie label like Top Shelf, which would suit it's cartoon irony much better.
There is still an outside chance a TV deal could still come through, and like TMNT it could go on to eclipse the comic as a merchandising machine in it's own right. In any event, I'm sure Richard's contagious enthusiasm will see him land on his feet.

As for Katz, I don't foresee him having the patience to nurture a comics line for the years it takes to successfully gather a loyal readership to create the 'pre-awareness' he values without giving into the temptation to develop the properties straight out the gate. I expect the recession and the continuing market shrinkage will cop the blame for the company's failure and Katz will return to the safe bet of re-packaging old movie franchises for new audiences.

Looking for big money in the comics industry is like hunting for fools gold: you may find something that looks like the real deal and shines bright in the sunlight; but if it's the rich rewards you really crave, you're digging in the wrong place.

Go off and make your movies and money, 'cause we're just making comics here.


To hear Jeff Katz talk/hype 'American Original' in his own words, check out this clip from G4's 'Attack of the Show'.