Fans of dynamic cover art and sexy ladies, you’re going to want to read this interview! We’ve got an exclusive interview with cover artist Mike DeBalfo as part of our epic Zenescope Month. DeBalfo, who counts Eric Basuldua (Ebas) and J. Scott Campbell among his inspirations, actually broke into the comics industry as a cover artist–an almost unheard-of feat today–and has worked on everything from Grimm Fairy Tales to Wonderland.
Now I, personally, feel a little intimidated interviewing artists, since I’m not one myself and I’m not sure which questions are relevant and which showcase my total n00b status. So I’m really gratified that DeBalfo talked in-depth about his techniques and what he thinks makes a strong cover. Read his often amusing take below:
TFAW.com: Hi Mike. Thanks for the interview!
Mike DeBalfo: Thank you for having me, the pleasure is mine. I’d like to apologize for my typos in advance.
TFAW.com: When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
MD: I suppose it was around the age 9 or 10 when it occurred to me that I had potential to do something in the art field. I’ve always liked to draw, but around that time is when I had realized I was pretty good at it compared to the rest of the kids I knew. I was really into the Warner Bros cartoons growing up so early on I wanted to be an animator for their studio for several years, until I discovered comic book art in the late ’80s. I was just memorized by the attention to detail, the gritty look of the dudes, the hot chicks, and the fact that I didn’t have to pause the TV to draw my favorite characters. It was a like discovering a whole new world.
TFAW.com: Were you a comic book fan growing up?
MD: A bit of a late bloomer but, yes, definitely. It was hard for us to find books when I was a kid, though. The only place we really had to buy comics was a deli located a few miles down the street from where I lived that my friends and I would frequent.
At the time there wasn’t a single comic book store within 40 miles of our town in New Jersey, so this was literally the only place for us to buy them. They never had a steady selection of books because the owners didn’t know squat about comics, so they just bought what looked cool to them I guess. I suppose they selected the books by their cover content. Haha. It was sometimes tough to collect a consistent run in any series, but I was always more into the artwork so I didn’t mind too much.
Their inventory was just two short comic boxes placed on a counter in the back of the store next to a Mortal Kombat 2 arcade game, and rarely was there more than three copies of any book in this place, so between the four of us it was sometimes a rat race to get the newest issue of X-Men or Wizard Magazine or anything else that was hot in the early ’90s.
Our parents worked all day and our town was in serious neglect of establishing any means of public transportation or even sidewalks, so we would ride our bikes toe-to-toe with speeding traffic to get our comics. In the winter we would walk the miles on foot down the same curb-less streets through snow storms to feed the fix . . . I must sound like someone’s grandfather right now. From age 12 to 15 we risked our lives and well being for comics, so it’s nice to know it’s starting to pay off. Haha.
TFAW.com: Do you have any formal training, or are you just naturally talented?
MD: I spent a couple of years at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, so I’ve had formal training, but I wasn’t able to complete the full three-year program. After my second year I just couldn’t afford the third year so I had to leave prematurely, so sometimes I feel that I missed out on a nice learning curve. But even though they broke the mold, taught me a lot, and instilled the basics of the comic book style, I’ve learned a little extra on my own since I’ve left–it’s just taken a lot longer to get to the level I wanted to be at.
TFAW.com: How did you get connected with Zenescope?
MD: I had made acquaintance with Raven Gregory several years ago before he was working with Zenescope, and he had taken some interest in what I do back then. When I found out he was writing the Wonderland series for them, I had a friend of mine bring an issue to a convention that Raven was signing at, because I couldn’t make it to do so myself. Long story short, my name was dropped into the conversation and Raven remembered me and passed his current email address through my buddy to me. Before I could even contact Raven, he had sent me an email offering up some cover work, so I jumped on it like a fly on turds and the rest is pretty much history.
TFAW.com: What made you decide to work for Zenescope exclusively?
MD: Primarily, their subject matter is right up my alley: hot chicks and cleavage! Also we’d worked together enough that both Zenescope and myself knew what to expect from each other, so it wouldn’t be a tough transition getting “married” to the company. Also, I know my situation is extremely rare and extremely lucky, because no one breaks in as a cover artist–it’s just not how things work. I seriously wanted to make this a career, so when they offered me an exclusive contract that would guarantee steady work I felt it would be worth trying.
I had created a nice little fan base of a few thousand people through websites like DeviantART.com and other networking websites on my own, so when Zenescope offered to start sending me out to conventions and further spread the word, I figured why the hell not–it won’t hurt any. One of the toughest and most important things to do as a freelance artist is promote your name. It can get real expensive and tiring, and without a history on any consistent story run, it would be even harder for me to do that on my own, so when Zenescope offered to help out I couldn’t pass that up.
TFAW.com: As you mentioned, it’s really unusual for an artist to break into the industry as a cover artist. How did that happen for you?
MD: Luck. Haha. That’s really what it was: just right place, right time and right company. In a normal month Zenescope puts out a minimum of two covers for all of their top titles, so there’s a demand for freelance cover artists in the company. Raven had me do some spec/test covers for free to see how I dealt with deadlines and their characters. I submitted a new spec cover every Monday for about two months when finally I scored a cover for Wonderland Annual 2009. Immediately after that, I did another spec cover and they used it for a Tales From Wonderland variant on the Cheshire Cat one-shot. After that, I became the guy who never stopped bugging them for open cover slots and never turned down an offer for work. It took some time, but has led to a steady gig for me now.
I was told for a while the guys in the office were referring to me as “Ebas-light,” which they thought was hilarious, but I couldn’t help but take that comment as a compliment. Being a rookie and having these guys–who have worked with greats like Al Rio, Campbell, David Finch, Talent Caldwell, etc.–compare me to someone of that stature was kind of cool. It assured me that they were genuinely interested in what I was producing and not just taking me around the block for kicks. Of course, I was real cheap, so I’m sure that helped too. Haha.
TFAW.com: Do you have any advice for aspiring cover artists?
MD: If someone offers you a cover, whether you’re in the biz or not, make that cover shine like chrome. I approached my first several covers with “this has to be the best damn picture I’ve ever drawn” looming in the back of my mind, and though I can’t say I succeeded in accomplishing that task all the time, I did give it my all every time. Hype yourself up a bit and know that a lot of people are going to pass or bite on this book based solely on your cover image.
Study design and composition and learn to make it second nature to yourself. Learn how to place your characters, elements, and props to work together and avoid stiff composition. Again, I don’t always have the best layouts, but every once in while I really knock it out of the park, and sometimes it’s based mostly on the design of the cover. A good layout will make your work look more professional, and of course more appealing to the eye. I like to incorporate a lot of movement in my images, which helps me work things out. Even if the characters are standing still, there’s usually hair moving or leaves blowing by or something to imply drama.
Most importantly, though, nail down your anatomy. There’s little room for forgiveness of anatomical errors on a cover. With interior pages, you have several pictures throughout 22 pages to convince your audience that you can draw well. With covers, you have one shot.
TFAW.com: What are the major differences between being a cover artist and an interior artist?
MD: To me the only real difference is the interior artist’s job is telling the story, and the cover artist’s task is to sell the story. Other than that, our jobs are very similar.
TFAW.com: Do you ever want to do interiors?
MD: It would be nice. I did several pages on Tales From Wonderland: Red Rose, but I’ve always considered myself more of a pin-up artist, so right now I’m quite happy with where I am at. I honestly feel I’m better at telling a story with a singular image than I am with several images on one page, so I’ve never really had a burning urge to do interiors. Not to say I never will again, but right now I don’t see it in the near future.
TFAW.com: How do you approach your covers?
MD: Most of the time I’m pitched a concept and I have to dwell on it for a while to get a feel for a layout. Sometimes I’ll browse through the Internet or various magazines for poses and subject matter similar to what my concept entails to gather ideas. Some times it’s as easy as hearing a particular song that sparks an idea, which is nice, but that happens less often. From there I sketch up some really small and loose figures in the poses I might like to use, and once I get a good vibe going I’ll draw some layouts about 4″ x 6″ in size.
Almost all of my covers are exclusives or variants, so you’re typically allowed to get away with a little more that you would with a main newsstand cover. More often than not these covers are going to focus on a hot sexy chick, which mean from the start I’m thinking of what is the sexiest pose I can use and how much skin am I going to show? Main covers are a little trickier because they’re usually a bit more reserved and should be more dynamic–but still hot–so I spend a lot more time conceptualizing camera angles rather than sex appeal. Still, that’s a tough combo, trying to make something sexy and in-your-face dynamic.
TFAW.com: How do you create your art? What tools do you use?
MD: I always draw on four-ply smooth Bristol. For me, it’s the most comfortable surface to draw on. I like to use a method where you take the original 4″ x 6″ layout and blow it up roughly 200% to fit an 11″ x 17″ art board, and then light box those lines onto the board and flesh it out from there. I find this way is easier to proportion figures and composition than drawing the image full-size from the start.
Once I get the loose pencil down, I always start with the main figure’s face, because it is usually the most important part of any picture. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but I never proceed further until I get that face where I want it to be. After that things usually start to jive pretty naturally, because I know I’ve got the viewer’s attention at that point and almost everything else is secondary to that single element of the picture.
I switch up pencils often, though, like right now I like using a 0.5 mechanical pencil I bought at an office supply store. For several months before this I was using a Staedtler lead holder pencil, and before that I was using a regular #2 pencil. But I always like HB lead. I’ve tried 3H and H, but I just find the artwork doesn’t jump off the page with harder leads, and I’m not being inked so I don’t have to worry about someone having a hard time erasing my pencils, either.
I have a ridiculous collection of erasers, though mostly I use Magik Rubs, kneaded erasers, and eraser sticks, which are awesome because you can draw with them, too.
TFAW.com: Your covers are usually dominated by gorgeous, sexy women. What do you use for reference?
MD: Most of it is out of memory now, but once in a while I hit a tough spot so I’ll use women’s fitness [magazines] like Oxygen, or Playboy and Maxim magazines to help with those hard spots. Also hairstyle magazines and the Internet help quite a bit. I’m pretty sure I have the largest assortment of skin magazines on the West Coast. Haha.
TFAW.com: There are also, of course, strong elements of fantasy. What are your influences?
MD: It’s funny because I don’t really have a lot of fantasy artist influences other than Frank Frazetta. Aside from my obvious influences like Campbell, Jim Lee, Adam Hughes, and pin-up artists like Vargas and Armando Huerta, I’ve drawn heavy inspiration from animated cartoons like Ren & Stimpy, Looney Toons and, most surprisingly to some, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics, published by Mirage Studios. I’d say that if J. Scott Campbell is the backbone of my style, than the art on the classic TMNT comics, especially the issues drawn by Eric Talbot, are the legs and feet that it stands on.
TFAW.com: What is the most difficult cover you’ve ever done, and why?
MD: Probably the cover I did for Grimm Fairy Tales #43. I was just unleashed into the comic biz, so my range of content wasn’t exactly to par, and I was asked to draw a character riding on the back of a unicorn. I’ve never drawn many animals prior to this, and I’ve always predicted that horses would be especially hard to draw because, like humans, their anatomy is real prominent and defined, so muscle placement is so important. Horses seem like they would take a lot of study and practice to pin down, which I didn’t necessarily have time for when I was pitched the concept. A lot of other animals are covered in thick coats of hair, so you can sort of fudge and embellish the muscle structure with some believability with fur, or scales, feathers, or whatever. I struggled a lot with that cover, even though it was probably the simplest cover design I’ve ever done, and it’s largely due to that unicorn! :shakes fist in anger:
TFAW.com: Do you ever have a favorite series to work on, or a series you want to work on but haven’t yet?
MD: I really enjoy doing Zenescope’s Wonderland covers. Every chance I get I drop hints to my editor about doing one. The characters have so many iconic scenarios to play on, and since they exist in such a nonsensical and impossible reality, even for comics, there is so much fun to be had with them. I am looking forward to hopefully doing some covers for their new Monster Hunter series as well, which looks like a cool book. A while back when Image Comics released Todd McFarlane’s Haunt series, I came extremely close to nabbing an exclusive for issue #1 that a local retailer was going to sponsor, but it fell through and never came to be. I still think that would have been amazing if things had panned out with that, so I’m crossing my fingers for that opportunity again.
TFAW.com: What do you have coming down the pike?
MD: I’m not sure what I can reveal, but there’s a lot lined up, including a cover for the indie comic Zombies vs. Cheerleaders which was a lot of fun to work on, and a cover for the next Grimm Fairy Tales hardcover trade, which I had the honor of illustrating. Though most exciting for me is that I’m doing a main cover for the #1 issue of the new series Grimm Myths and Legends, alongside Campbell and Ebas. It’s a bit intimidating going up against those guys, especially because I take them both with such high regard, but it’s an honor just to share a shelf with them, so be sure to keep an eye out for that and much much more very soon.
I want to personally thank DeBalfo for such an enlightening and entertaining interview–we’ll keep our eyes peeled for Grimm Myths and Legends! Make sure to check out all of our Zenescope interviews, as well as our Zenescope Month page!
How important are covers when you buy comics? Post your comments below!
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