The Urban Fantasy genre has captivated the hearts of fans for years. However, its dark and often moody atmospheres have defined the genre for too long. Writer Sam Humphries and artist Jen Bartel seek to change that view with BLACKBIRD. Set to release in October, BLACKBIRD follows Nina Rodriguez as she struggles to find her place in the world. After experiencing an extraordinary magical event as a teen, she has become obsessed with the concept.

She has researched every lead and gone down every dark alley, leaving her real life to ruin. Everyone else thinks she is crazy, but when a giant mystical monster arrives and kidnaps her sister, they may have to change their opinions. With BLACKBIRD #1’s release upcoming, ComicsVerse caught up with Jen Bartel (AMERICA) to delve into her designs for this magical world.

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ComicsVerse (CV): In your own words, what is BLACKBIRD all about?
Jen Bartel (JB): BLACKBIRD is a coming of age story about Nina Rodriguez, a young woman living in LA who discovers a hidden world of magic when a mystical beast kidnaps her sister.

CV: How did you and writer Sam Humphries first start working together on this project?
JB: Sam initially approached me about collaborating in spring 2016. We just kind of casually bounced ideas off of each other until we had enough material to shape it into what has now become BLACKBIRD. By the fall, we were ready to start pitching it to publishers.
Courtesy of Image Comics

CV: As a budding artist, what other creators inspired you to keep practicing and working? Are there any particularly strong stylistic inspirations for your work?

JB: I went to school for illustration, so a lot of my art heroes come from the illustration world—people like James Jean, Tomer Hanuka, and Marcos Chin were huge inspirations for me as I was trying to find my voice—but I think I always held on to the media that I liked to consume as a teenager—things like Final Fantasy and Sailor Moon were huge for me and I think a lot of my color sensibility comes from that general time period. People joke that I’m like a grown-up Lisa Frank, and.. I don’t disagree with that at all!

CV: Tell me a little about your process of designing the visuals of the magical elements in BLACKBIRD #1. Whether it be the mysterious Beacon or the Great Beast, the magic of this book feels so vibrant and alive compared to the grim or grey world around it. Was this an intentional decision?

JB: Absolutely—a major consideration in all kinds of visual media, whether it’s design or film or sequential art, is leading the viewer through whatever it is they’re looking at—and a great way to do that is through value or light—I wanted the magic world to be bright and vibrant, to really stand out against the streets of North Hollywood, where Nina lives.

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CV: Nina and Marissa act as this issue’s focal characters, and they each have incredibly distinct visual and emotional differences. How did you go about creating these two very different characters? What elements did you try to emphasize as differentiators, and what elements did you try to keep similar between these sisters?

JB: I wanted to take queues from typical sister relationships—Marisa is the older sibling, very responsible and put together, and as the younger sister, Nina is a little more free-spirited and unorganized. Also, since they come from a mixed race background, I wanted Nina’s features to look more like their dad’s, and Marisa’s features to mirror their mom’s. I find it so interesting how sometimes siblings seem to be mirror images of one of their parents. Without giving anything away, I will just say that my decision to pull features from their respective parents was very intentional and ties into the story later on.
Courtesy of Image Comics

CV: Can you go a bit more in-depth with the design of the Great Beast? Does it differ in any way from Sam Humphries original idea, and if so, what did you bring to this creature?

JB: Originally, Sam asked me what I wanted to draw. I told him I wanted to pull in some mythological elements wherever I could. The Great Beast was the first character he wrote in for me to do exactly that. He gave me complete free reign with its appearance—most of these types of important decisions were made after we bounced ideas back and forth, so he knew roughly what I had in mind: I wanted to pull visual inspiration from Chinese lion dogs, or as they’re known in Korean mythology, “haechi”, as they are a symbol of justice and protection against natural disasters, which again, ties into the story.

CV: Compared to your other work on stories like AMERICA, your visual style in BLACKBIRD feels quite distinct. I especially noticed that you use more linework in this story. In what ways did you evolve or develop your style in preparation for this book?
JB: I think in large part, all of my earlier work in comics (CRYSTAL FIGHTERS, JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, AMERICA, etc.) was really where I got to experiment and figure out what would work for BLACKBIRD. I definitely utilize lines a little more on these pages because I know that ultimately, I’m not going to be the one coloring—we had Nayoung Wilson on issue 1, and Triona Farrell has been coloring issues since #2, and both these women are absolutely incredible but anything I could do in the inks stage to help make their lives easier in colors, I tried to do.
Courtesy of Image Comics

CV: The poses and expressions you use throughout BLACKBIRD are incredibly dynamic and emotive. What is your process for developing these important storytelling elements? Do you use a lot of photo reference, or do you typically stay more loose and imaginative?

JB: You know, it took me a long time to figure out how I wanted certain expressions to look, because most of my influences come from manga and anime, where there is a very specific visual shorthand/language that is used to quickly communicate certain specific emotions (sweatdrops, dread lines, etc.) that western audiences aren’t always as familiar with.

On top of that, I was almost exclusively a cover artist for the last 3 years, so I was very accustomed to drawing stoic heroes and lightly “smizing” characters—up until jumping into drawing BLACKBIRD, I really didn’t have a whole lot of experience with drawing a range of expressions, and it’s been a challenging process to figure out how to do it, but it does help for me to act it out while I’m doing pencils. My camera roll is never allowed to be seen by anyone because it’s got a high volume of photos of me doing weird faces, hah!

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CV: Without spoiling too much, can you tell us what is in store for Nina and the BLACKBIRD series?

JB: When Sam and I were discussing Nina, we both agreed that we wanted to show her grow from someone who is kind of just letting life happen to her into someone who gains control and confidence. Nina is going to discover a whole underworld of magic users and sinister plots. I can’t wait for readers to see her evolve throughout the series.

CV: What other projects are you currently working on?
JB: BLACKBIRD is the only ongoing comic I’m currently drawing. However, I am still doing lots of covers and illustration work. I’m also always designing new products for my store and conventions, so it’s been an extremely busy year.

Want to Know More about BLACKBIRD?

BLACKBIRD #1 is set to release on October 3 in stores and all digital platforms. To learn more about Jen Bartel’s work, visit her Twitter (@heyjenbartel), her website, or pick up an art print at her online store! For more on writer Sam Humphries, check out his Twitter (@samhumphries) or his personal website.

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