Talk to anyone in the comics industry and they will share with you one common thread: the help of others to get them to where they are today. Eisner-award winning artist Jen Bartel (Blackbird) not only believes in that, but worked to pay it forward with a mentorship program at this year’s Flame Con, the first and largest comic convention supporting and representing the LGBTQ+ community.
Jen utilized her appearance as a special guest to mentor two artists also accepted as Flame Con vendors, providing them assistance at all steps of the business process, right down to table placement adjacent to her table at the con.
At Flame Con, I spoke with Jen Bartel about that mentorship program, finding the balance between creative work and the day-to-day of business management, and her work in and outside of comics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First and foremost, we have to offer our heartiest congratulations on your Eisner Award.
Thank you so much!
I love Blackbird. Your work on it has been stunning. Can we expect another volume?
We very much want to do another volume. Right now we’re working through some scheduling kinks. So I don’t have any concrete information. But as soon as I do, I’ll definitely be posting about it.
After you were accepted to Flame Con, you decided to start this mentorship program for two creators that also were accepted at the con. Tell me the genesis of how this idea had come about.
If everyone’s not aware, a lot of comic conventions invite guests out. And typically when guests are invited to table at conventions, they are generally comped a table, and then sometimes even their flight, and their hotel will be comped as well. And so Flame Con was very generous with their offer. And I just felt, because it’s such a community driven show, it felt like the right time to kind of take what I would have been spending on those things had I just been attending as a regular artist at an artist alley table, and give it back to two people who did actually make it in awesome. It was really important to me that whatever funds I would have been using for the show went to other people. They’re actually tabling right next to me at the show.
I do recall that part of the mentorship program was that you’re working with these creators from start to finish in terms of getting them to a con, and they’re actually literally right next to you at Flame Con.
Part of it was that they would be seated next to me and that way, me and Andrea Demonakos, who’s my web store manager and table assistant at conventions, would be fully available to them during the show. I covered the cost of all of their promotional materials and displayer and things like that. So basically everything they needed in order to table. And then, you know, just help them through getting vendors and all their merch prepared.
Who were the two folks that you did mentor this year? And will the program be back for the next Flame Con?
I don’t know for sure if I’ll be doing Flame Con next year. I feel like generally the show is pretty good about skipping years between guests. So I imagine someone else will be in my position next year. And hopefully they’ll continue it.
The two people that I mentored are Archie Bongiovanni, who is actually another Minneapolis local just like I am, and then an artist named Lychgate. They’re both super, super talented. I see really big things on the horizon for both of them.
You have this gift of being both an artist and a very skilled businesswoman. It is a struggle that many creative folks have. They want to spend all their time creating and doing things, but then they have to do stuff like file their taxes and do marketing plans. How do you, as a creative person, find that balance between doing the adulting and doing the fun making things? And what advice would you give to fellow creatives?
It’s hard, it’s definitely hard to strike a balance. And I think there are a lot of creative-minded people that, the business side of it, or the more administrative side of it, doesn’t come naturally. But, I think it’s sort of imperative to think of ourselves as business owners. We are essentially small businesses. We are considered small businesses when it comes tax time. And so for us to not see ourselves that way is sort of counterproductive. And so I think it’s important.
In terms of advice, just keep track of everything, keep everything as organized as possible. And for me, a really good boundary that I set for myself was: I don’t do emails on weekends. Most of the time, I will do the drawing part of my job on weekends. There’s a lot of weekends that I work both days, just because that’s how busy I’ve been. But one thing that I don’t do is the admin or email side of it, and that’s because that’s the side that actually feels like work. Setting that rule for myself was very helpful. I just make sure to do emails like during business hours That’s been a good good way for me to make sure that I’m on top of everything.
You also do work outside of comics. You did your first music video with Ingrid Michaelson, which was part of the video suite inspired by the current season of Stranger Things. What was different about designing for a music video, where there is more motion, as opposed to the still medium of comics?
When I was working on Ingrid Michaelson’s music video, I basically just provided a bunch of smaller assets, and I made sure all the layers were separated. And so it’s a little bit technical. When working on comics, no one’s really going in and changing individual elements in the backgrounds or things like that. But because these illustrations needed to be partially animated, just being able to separate out each of the assets and provide them with fully layered files was really important. So that’s how I did that.
And you also just did a campaign for Aussie hair care, which celebrates curly hair. Tell us a little bit about this particular ad campaign and what it’s like working doing design in the corporate world versus creator owned work.
It was a really fun ad job. Aussie really wanted to capture these sort of superhero kinds of vibes. The ad campaign is called Curl Power, and it’s for curly haired girls. And a few of the actual drawings that I ended up doing were of real existing women, which was really cool. Right now, I think there’s a bunch of billboards up all over LA. And there’s a there’s a spread in US Weekly. I ended up doing like a pinup illustration and an accompanying comic for each of them. Fun job.
Who are some of your artistic inspirations?
I think probably because I come from more of the illustration world, I think a lot of the prominent illustrators, from when I was in school, are still some of my biggest influences. And I think James Jean is still someone who’s very top of that list. I had a teacher when I was in school named Marcos Chen, who I still am just always looking at his work and always in awe of it.
I think as far as cover artists that I look at, I love the work of Josh Middleton. I think he’s just doing his best work of his career right now. It’s been really phenomenal to follow the work that he’s been doing lately especially.
You have a new cover coming out for The Amazing Mary Jane. Which is more fun for you, and which is easier for you, realizing this could be different answers: just the cover, or the whole story from start to finish?
I definitely think that working on covers is easier, just because it’s less labor. Overall, you’re putting less time and less labor and energy into it. Certainly doing actual sequential work and telling full on stories, it’s more rewarding. It definitely feels more fulfilling, that’s for sure.
This year, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the fifth year of Flame Con. How are you feeling about the state of LGBTQ+ representation in the comics industry? What has comics done right? Where do they still need to improve?
Overall, we’re seeing a lot of LGBTQ+ creators really come to the forefront of telling stories. Within mainstream comics, it’s really important to see because they’ve always been present within indie comics. But if you look at mainstream, they’ve definitely been underrepresented. And I think even though a lot of these publishers have tried to put out stories that feature queer characters, they don’t always do it in the best ways. And so I think hiring more creators who actually come from these backgrounds has been a really good step for them to take.
And one thing I do also feel like I’m seeing less of and that I’m at least being asked to do less of is panels and workshops and talks that feature exclusively women or exclusively LGBTQ+ creators, which I think is always a good thing. I feel like for a while it was sort of this double edged sword of wanting to spotlight then, but also making them more of a commodity. Even a couple years ago, I was getting invited to a lot of “Women of Comics” panels. And I don’t feel like those should necessarily be the priority. I feel like we should do a “People of Comics” panel and just have women present. Women and of course, other marginalized people. I’m seeing more panels that are just just more diverse now, and less of that explicit focus.
Who are some of your favorite artists and writers in comics right now? Who you feel is at the top of their game? Who do you feel we should be keeping an eye on?
I feel like anytime I’m asked this question, I always answer it, and then I walk away, and I’m like, “Oh, I should have said so-and-so.” This is going sound really biased because we are very close friends. But if you have not read The White Trees, which just came out last week, Kris Anka, Chip Zdarksy, and Matt Wilson, that book is…my God. I don’t mean to sound biased, but all three of them are doing the best work of their careers. The book is super, super gay. And it’s the most beautiful pairing of of Chris and Matt’s work that I’ve ever seen. And it’s incredible.
Is there a character in comics right now that you look at, and you say to yourself, “Damn, I want a chance at drawing that character?” Who is that, and what would spin would you put on him/her/them?
Oh, it’s hard, because I feel like I used to have a bucket list of characters that I wanted to draw. And now at this point, in my career, I’ve professionally drawn a lot of them. I guess I would have to say, the first character I was actually approached about doing a cover for at Marvel was Silk. And it never panned out because of scheduling reasons. But I would still very much love to work on something Silk related, just because she is a Korean-American superhero at Marvel, and I myself am Korean-American. It would be really special to work on something Silk-related. And if I had the flexibility to, I would change her costume a little. I wouldn’t want to take away too many things. This is really great costume. But I would add a little bit of some Korean flair in there.