Vulture Hounds art writer Rai speaks with super talent Anime style artist Jen Bartel about her Lisa Frank style, the highs and lows of her career so far and the world within the female illustration industry.
First things first; tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get started as an artist?
I grew up loving western comics but always feeling sort of like it “wasn’t my place” because I was a girl. Because of that, I shied away from them and shifted my attention to anime instead, where there were a LOT more titles that were made for girls. I started drawing because of my interest in manga, and eventually decided I wanted to pursue art as an actual career. I graduated with a BFA in illustration from the School of Visual Arts and for several years after, I made art that I didn’t like, because I was taught that illustration should be narrative, anime was bad, and that comics were unimportant and irrelevant. Then I started seeing a real seeing a real renaissance happening in comics, with tons of female creators making interesting and compelling characters, and I decided I needed to throw my art school education out the window and pursue my passion.
What was the first comic book you owned?
Like so many other kids in the 90’s, my introduction to the world of western comics was X-Men, but growing up in Korea meant that I had way more access to manga and anime. Sailor Moon was 100% the most influential manga to me during my childhood, and it’s what got me drawing.
How would you describe your art style to someone who hasn’t seen your work?
I’ve seen it described as “Lisa Frank of the Internet Era” and I actually quite like that description! I think my childhood influences blend together in my work today, and it’s definitely got that 90’s flare.
What have been the highs and lows whilst working as an artist?
I think every young artist goes through this, but I had a tough time navigating the world of freelance illustration at the beginning of my career because I didn’t turn down jobs as they were scarce and hard to come by, and I agreed to too little pay for my time and effort. Eventually, I realized that was not a sustainable business model and decided to take a break from freelancing altogether. I started working a full time 9-5 art job as a product designer while focusing my nights and weekends on making as much personal art as possible. The past few months have been a real breakthrough for me because I have finally given myself the permission to simply make art that I like, instead of trying to make art to please other people. Being honest with myself has been the best thing for my art.
Definitely. I think it’s interesting when people don’t take comics or cartoons seriously, because this is the media that the youth of the world is consuming. It is so important to keep that in mind as a creator. All creators should feel the responsibility to create content that will shape the next generation—as dramatic as that sounds, it is 100% true. How many young people are reading Ms. Marvel today, excited that they are being represented and that they don’t have to imagine how much better their life would be if they were a pretty blonde girl? Representation is key. I believe it is my personal duty to focus on representation and diversity in my work, especially when it comes to drawing women—portraying strong POC characters is priority #1 for me, but beyond that I also want to support the LGBTQ community and any other underrepresented group as much as possible. I want to make these characters strong and desirable and lovable and important.
How do you think art affects our mental health? Do you think it has the power to heal?
Art has the ability to bring out true emotion in people—it can definitely heal. Sequential art has a whole other level of storytelling to it that can truly change the reader’s perception of the world though, and that is why it’s such an important corner of the art world. Kids grow up with characters that they idolize and respect—that can have a real positive impact on someone’s mental state as an adolescent or adult.
I think in any industry, women have historically always had to work twice as hard to receive the same recognition as men, and while that still holds true to many, it’s extremely refreshing to see publishers make a real visible push to gain female readership. Because of this relatively recent initiative, I’ve seen more and more women working in comics gaining the recognition and visibility they deserve, and it’s a really fantastic first step. I still think that most entertainment industries are very much a “Boy’s Club”, but I am hopeful that more women will become interested in reading comics, in turn making publishers work with more female artists and writers.
Who are your comic book hero’s / influences?
Ohh my gosh, ok, well—for the masters… Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) is definitely the highest on my list in terms of sheer quality of work on every panel. Jean Giraud (Moebius) is also a huge hero of mine. For contemporary artists… Adam Hughes draws the most stunning faces and I love his modern Mucha style, Becky Cloonan is the queen of ink (and her comics are just incredible), Cameron Stewart draws layouts like a rockstar, and though she’s not exclusively a comic artist, I’ve been a longtime fan of Joy Ang because her work is SO varied but every facet of it has the utmost polish. She is a pro, through and through. Leslie Hung is another woman in comics who is doing incredible work. I’ve also been really inspired by the girls of Marguerite Sauvage and Kevin Wada for a long time now—I love that they bring fashion into comics. So many iconic comic book characters were designed by white men with absolutely ZERO understanding of fashion (or women, ha!) and they are really changing that.
I would love to be working in the comic industry full time. I hope to be able to get an original comic published, and I’d like to be creating characters that inspire young girls and boys to be better to each other. Thanks again for the interview, it was fun!
To view more about Jen Bartel you can view her website here
Words: Rai Jayne Hearse
Images: Jen Bartel