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.


  1. Nice one Adrian - that Ben's a very clever boy!

  2. Awesome article, great to see NZers in the industry succeeding internationally.

    Great blog too!

  3. I would really like to know how he broke into the US market. Did he have a plan or did it just happen?

  4. Hey Draw,
    I have done a longer interview with Ben on his career which I'm hoping to have up soon, which answers that question and many more.

    The short answer is: lots of hard work on his part and multiple visits to San Diego Comic Con to build relationships with editors.