Geek Vibes Interview: Artist and Creator of ‘Thomas River’ Brian Stelfreeze

Talking with Brian Stelfreeze

If you wanted to find a man who knows how to do just about everything, you would just look under the name Brian Stelfreeze. Brian is a skilled penciller, inker, painter, writer and apparently, sometimes printer. But we’ll get to that. His comic covers are things of brilliance as are his Comic pages. If you need further proof of the full breadth of the man’s skills, just check out his book The Signature Art of Brian Stelfreeze. It not only shows examples of his comic art but also celebrity paintings and most importantly, descriptions of his technique. Call me impressed.

After taking a hiatus after his famed Black Panther run with writer Ta-Nehsi Coates, Brian is returning to his creators work with a vengeance. Along side his writing partner Doug Wagner, he is starting the creator owned book Thomas River. In their new book, Thomas is a brilliant Engineer who just happens to be a deadly CIA operative. When terrorist attacks happen simultaneously across US cities, it’s River time. It sounds like an exciting project and who better to talk to about it than the man himself. So we are proud to welcome Brian Stelfreeze to GeekVibesLive Interview. Thank you so much for your time today, Brian.

GVL: For those of our readers not familiar with your work, let us talk a little about your background. When did you first get interested in comics and when did you take an interest in art?

BS: My interest in both art and comics goes back to my single digits. It was reading comics that got me more serious about drawing. First the newspaper dailies and later the superheroes of Marvel and DC.

GVL: During that time, did you have a favorite book or artist that you admired or perhaps inspired you?

BS: My biggest inspirations didn’t come until a bit later. I actually never paid attention to the creators’ names when I was a kid. The characters and storylines were more important to me back then and it wasn’t until middle school when I noticed those names. John Byrne and Neal Adams were the earliest influences, but I think it was the later guys like Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, and Walt Simonson that really shaped what I do. Most of my other influences come from the world of illustration.

GVL: Man, you mentioned some great ones. Steranko I thought was always underrated. His unique streamlined take on anatomy and panel use was visually appealing. So, did you have a mentor during your early career? Someone who believed in you and encouraged you in your ambitions?

BS: Of course, my dad was a huge mentor and he constantly challenged me. He knows absolutely nothing about art but he really passed on a sense of discipline rather than dreaming. Later I worked for an illustration studio and those guys really educated me on process. They got me off of the idea of talent and onto the solid footing of knowledge.

GVL: As I mentioned in my opener, you are a complete creator. You not only can handle penciling, inking, and writing but coloring as well. I am not sure you would not tackle the printing if you could. What made you decide to become proficient at all these skills? Was it a matter of making yourself more employable, or was it simply a matter of pride to be able to do so?

BS: You’re absolutely correct, I have tackled the printing. I worked as an assistant at a newspaper company throughout my high school years and I became fascinated with the process. Learning every job gave me a greater understanding of what I was doing and a better ability to communicate with a team. I’m a tinkerer and an information sponge so it all just came naturally. I think it’s a good idea for writers to understand what it takes to draw a comic book and for artists to understand narrative and story structure.

GVL: Your cover work has been simply brilliant. What goes into deciding what is on a cover? Does the publisher decide what they are looking for, or does the book’s artist decide? In your case, I could imagine them giving you an idea of what they want and leaving it in your capable hands.

BS: I can’t tell you how many roads I’ve taken to get to a cover. It really depends on the company and the editors. Generally I prefer dealing with one person as it avoids conflicting editorial views. The best occasions are when an editor describes how they want the cover to feel and then I go off to the races. That’s a much more inviting target to hit. Wil Moss, the Black Panther editor at Marvel, was great to work with. He would say things like “on the next cover let’s bring them down a notch and make them think.” Hearing that is like pure gold. It’s exactly what you need to know and it doesn’t trap you in a box. There are other editors that just asked me to do something cool and tell me the lead character. That’s a great challenge as well, because now it’s on me.

GVL: Needless to say, your results speak for themselves. When it comes to your art, are you more of a traditional artist or do you work in the digital mode? Many of your cover’s “look” like more traditional techniques.

BS: I’m definitely a brackish creature. That same fascination I have with the process of printing also translates to art supplies. I paint and draw in just about every medium and I consider digital as one among many. There are things you can only achieve with watercolors and other things more suited for oils and that also applies to digital meda. Most of my interior work today is digital. I really love the flexibility of working on the computer.

GVL: You have been art director for 12 Gauge since 2004. How did that come about?

BS: 12-Gauge Comics is a very small crew and many of us had to wear several hats in the beginning. It was just a natural fit and I get a kick out of doing some design work and reviewing portfolios.

GVL: So lets start talking Thomas River. You have not really been as involved in the actual hands on creative work since your great run on Black Panther. What made you decide to jump back in and create Thomas River?

BS: It’s that incessant creative itch. It starts small and then it consumes my every waking moment. You phrase the question is if I had a choice but it doesn’t feel that way. After my run on Black Panther, this felt like something I had to do so I sort of went away and worked on it.

GVL: Your partner in this project is Doug Wagner. Is working together something you and he have discussed in the past?

BS: Doug and I are always working together. Sometimes as a creative team and at other times he is the cool head that keeps me from setting a bridge on fire. We are always cutting it up and challenging each other to do our best. We have a similar background in some ways and I knew he would get what I was thinking. This book is definitely a team effort.

GVL: I have read your opening issue and it is very impressive. I really like the emphasis on his intelligence and his love of family. Was this important for you to include in his make-up?

BS: Most spy characters come off as flawless robots or tortured automatons or as if they don’t exist outside of the mission. We wanted to show the characters’ moral grounding so the reader could feel the truth in the risks he takes. We wanted the character to be more than just a sexy gun that the government points and fires. Family is an important part of that foundation and it can sometimes be negative as well is positive.

GVL: You started a KickStarter for Thomas River. How has that process gone and have you been encouraged by the support you have received thus far?

BS: It’s quite shocking and a little difficult to get our heads around. We keep getting reminded that we are working directly with and for the fans of what we’re doing. It’s an entirely different paradigm. Especially when you’ve spent an entire career being considerate of editors, companies, distributors, and retailers. It’s a different headspace we find ourselves in with this project.

GVL: If I am not mistaken, you have a three-issue run planned at this time for Thomas River. If things go well and it is well received, would you consider doing more?

BS: Without a doubt. Doug and I already have a three-series arc in our heads and we dare people to drag it out of us.

GVL: Now that you have dipped your feet back into the creative pool, do you have any other projects on the horizon (That you are free to talk about)? Provided you have time with being art director at 12 gauge, and your work with Gajin Studios.

BS: Oh there’s always at least 10 in the clip when there’s one in the chamber. I’m going to have fun with Thomas River right now, but there is a world of genres and adventures out there and I plan to do as much of it as possible.

GVL: Thank you so much for giving us some of your time to talk. However, I have established a reputation for ending with a hypothetical question. It is even more fun when talking to an established veteran like yourself. So here is yours:

BS: Cool, hit me with it.

GVL: It has been decided to establish a museum dedicated to absolute best of comic book art. One wing is specifically for Comic Book Covers. Because of your reputation in the comic art world, they are requesting at least four examples (maybe more if you cannot decide) of what you consider to be the best representation of your work for the cover wing. What would they be? As a bonus…they are thrilled you agreed, two examples of your interior art that screams Brian Stelfreeze. Thoughts?

BS: You are killing me. I believe Sophie had to make this type of choice. I probably start with the cover to Black Panther #1. It’s an iconographic image and I think it’s become synonymous with the character. It’s an honor to get the opportunity to make that kind of statement. As an honorable mention, I also include the cover to Black Panther #8. That was such a fun cover and Wil put a lot of trust in me on that one. I’d include the cover to Matador #1 because it is such a simple punch in the face. Lastly I’d say the cover for The Flash #244 because I think it really speaks to the character. If you ask me this same question tomorrow I’d probably give you a different set of answers.

GVL: Thank you so much and we at Geek Vibes Nation look forward to the release of Thomas River. Also, best of luck on your KickStarter.

BS: Not at all, I really appreciate you guys getting the word out.

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