Vampire Noir: Brian Stelfreeze Returns to Monthly Comics with ‘Day Men’ [Interview]
Penciller, inker, colorist and painter Brian Stelfreeze is a longtime favorite of art and illustration enthusiasts. Beloved by a generation of readers for his memorably stunning run of painted covers for Batman: Shadow of the Bat in the 1990s, Stelfreeze’s work is at once luscious and razor sharp, flying off the page (or screen) in hypnotic, ultra high contrast black and white or in a frenzy of electric, eccentric color. He’s contributed in some capacity to seemingly every major American publisher in the form of routinely gorgeous covers, finishes and sequential art, but relatively few are the books that the famously meticulous Stelfreeze draws fully from start to finish. In recent times his work was most widely seen in Wednesday Comics’ one-page-per-week Catwoman serial, but it’s been about seven years since the artist’s work was seen in between the covers of a traditional monthly comic.
That streak breaks in July when BOOM! Studios launches Day Men, pencilled and inked by Stelfreeze from scripts by the publisher’s Editor-in-Chief Matt Gagnon and writer Michael Alan Nelson (Supergirl). Described by BOOM! as a sexy noir epic in which covens of vampires are re-imagined as the crime families who secretly control the world, and who employ specially trained human agents — the titular Day Men — to do their masters’ dirty work in broad daylight, Day Men will be a monthly project.
ComicsAlliance asked Stelfreeze about his new work, his creative process, why he left monthly comics behind, and about rumors of a long lost DC Comics project.
ComicsAlliance: Brian, it’s been a few years since we’ve seen a long-form serial from you. There were the one-page Catwoman strips for Wednesday Comics, which you also colored, back in 2009 in collaboration with writer Walt Simonson. In terms of traditional monthly comics, the last one I can remember is Matador from 2005 with Devin Grayson. So my first question is, what happened? Where’d you go?
Brian Stelfreeze: Yes, Matador was my last extended series. That was definitely the most fun I’ve had in comics, well… up until the point where I broke my hand.
I believe monthly comics and the extended miniseries are the true hallmarks of comic art and storytelling. It’s almost too easy to luxuriously pour time and effort into a single issue and have it come out great, but the monthly grind will really test your metal. I discovered a while back there is a balance I have to achieve to maintain the motivation for such a long project. First and foremost I have to both respect and enjoy the project itself, I have to have a solid relationship with the other creators involved, and, finally, I need to have artistic freedom. Surprisingly, it’s difficult to achieve all of the above on a project. If the project is missing one or more of these, or if it dissolves during the process, energy just seeps out of the work and the pages start slowing down. Much to my own disappointment, cash has very little to do with this formula. It’s all on how excited I am about the project.
CA: In your WE ARE BOOM! video for the ComicsPro retailer event, you mentioned a “shopping list” of desires that the company was able to fulfill and thus pull you back into sequential storytelling. I’m curious to know what was on that list. For an artist like yourself, what are the conditions that bring you to the table? Obviously there are financial considerations and I presume those are satisfactory, but what I’m asking about are the creative circumstances that had to exist for you to get excited about drawing comics again.
BS: Things started off well because [BOOM! Studios VP of Publishing and Marketing] Filip [Sablik] was my initial contact. We worked together on Hard-Core for Top Cow, and ever since we’ve had a pretty laid-back but respectful relationship. He’s had to endure endless complaints from prima donnas like myself, and our initial conversation addressed those complaints. The real X-factor happened when BOOM! flew me out to the California offices and I got a chance to hang out with both the creative team and the staff. For a few days we did nothing but eat good food and talk about the Day Men. Even when I’d go back to my hotel at night I would pull out my sketchbook just to bleed off residual creative pressure. The next morning the guys would immediately start weaving those elements into the story. Great project, great gang, and freedom to create.
CA: How did Day Men come together? Was this an idea you developed on your own and brought to BOOM! Studios, or something they brought to you, or a collaboration from the start?
BS: Matt Gagnon came up with the initial concept and brought in Michael Nelson to help add dimension. They played with it for a little while, and finally I got pulled in. Everyone contributes and it’s a great sense of rhythmic collaboration. Matt is on screaming lead guitar, Michael drops in that smooth funky bass, and I’m rocking drums. It’s a hell of a band.
CA: When I interviewed Matt at Emerald City this year, one of the things he said about you was that you bring to the page a kind of understanding of the whole world in which a story takes place, aesthetically speaking. As opposed to just depicting the action as dictated by a script. What I think he meant by that, and this is interpretation is also based on my own study of your work, is that what ends up on the page is a lot of material that can’t be written, only envisioned. There are background flourishes, fashion choices, attitudes and design elements in your work that change from piece to piece based on what seems stylistically appropriate. Sometimes they’re small but they make an impact. And this quality is something I think is shared by your former Gaijin Studios colleagues Tony Harris and Adam Hughes and Dave Johnson, too. Is that how you like to work or are we just totally projecting?
BS: That is indeed deduction not speculation. Gaijin Studios was like the Skunk Works or Xerox Park of comics. Everyone there, from the early days to the end, had a passion for making things real. We were all kids who took this stuff seriously, and we wanted to take that believability into our adulthood. There were endless conversations going deep into the night almost every day about strategies to make these fantastic worlds more believable. Just about every other creator used the boom days of the ’90s to cash in, but all the guys at Gaijin used them to facilitate research and development in art and storytelling. Was that crazy?
Now, I can’t except doing comics any other way. That’s one of the reasons why I only attach myself to interesting projects. Characters can’t exist in a vacuum, but rather they need an entire world which compensates for their extremes. I like it when I’m watching a movie which has a harmonious feeling to it. It’s as if the environment puts you in the mood for the characters and story you experience. Movies like The Matrix and Gattaca are great examples of this. Every image you see fortifies the experience. I try my best to create that feeling of harmony.
Day Men provides a magnificent challenge in that it deals with a secret society within a secret society. On top of that, there are strange curveballs like our main character, David. He is the bridge between our world and the vampire families. Matt and Michael did a great job in that you can immediately identify with the character, but at the same time he is completely different. This whole thing is a visual buffet, and I’m staying for seconds and thirds.
CA: As we’re talking I’m looking at the character designs for Day Men: Casey, Titus, the Burner, and I suppose the Day Man himself? Can you tell me a little about these characters and how you went about designing them?
BS: I have to first give credit to [Matt and Michael] for coming up with such great attitudes and personalities to the point the characters practically dictated how they should look.
BS: Casey was a lot of fun. We wanted someone sharp and intellectually intimidating who looked like she can hold her own, but also hot — very hot. We thought it would be cool to make her somewhat racially indeterminate and sophisticated like Zoe Saldana or Alex Wagner. She’s sexy but very difficult to impress.
BS: Titus is my idea of the perfect soldier. He’s probably the oldest vampire in the series, but he has no interest in power. I wanted to give him a face hardened by battle but calmed by immortality. This guy probably knew Sun Tzu personally. The ritual scarring on his arms and back are there to mark great battles, and this guy has seen a lot of them. I was thinking this practice may have led to what military stripes come from.
BS: David went through the most changes, and got better and better every time. I think Matt threw out the idea of him having red hair and that really started things going. Not to come down too hard on the gingers, but it really gave him a slightly otherworldly feeling. This series is about the struggle for power in changing times. There are enormous forces at work and a world of power hangs in the balance, and our unassuming David stands in the middle of all of it. He needed to look like a guy who’s competent but still a little unsure of himself. Much like the reader, he doesn’t quite know how much of this he can handle. The streak in his hair is a natural occurrence which happens to day men when they are bonded to a vampire family. Next time you see someone on the streets with a lock of silver hair you have to ask yourself if they might be a Day Man.
CA: Your artwork is obviously really detail-oriented and I just assume that is not something that can be created especially quickly. Have you begun drawing the Day Men scripts? Is it going to be a challenge to get Day Men out every month and meet your plainly high standards? I assume your not coloring it is part of the strategy.
BS: The detail of my art depends entirely on the project itself. I tend to be a little more detail oriented with covers than I am with interior pages, and I try to reduce the detail on action sequences as opposed to suspense passages.
Day Men has a rhythmic quality which I will try to match with the art, but overall it shouldn’t be too excessively detailed. I want people to move through the story and not get hung up so much on the beauty of the art. My ego won’t allow me to completely let go of things, but I’m seeking a balance. Yes, the monthly schedule is a bit terrifying, but in a strange way I’m looking forward to that challenge as well.
Coloring is definitely off the table for me on this one. There is no way I could hold a monthly schedule, or any significant schedule for that matter, while coloring the book. I’m not too concerned in this area because the BOOM! guys gave me my choice of colorist.
CA: Finally, because I just have to know… is it true that you drew a whole issue of DC Comics’ Solo that’s sitting on a shelf somewhere?
BS: I cannot confirm or deny the truth of those rumors, and I also cannot confirm or deny those short stories were with some of the top writers in the business.
Day Men #1 goes on sale in July.