Jesse James of Jesse James Comics writes for Bleeding Cool;
I had the great honor of meeting Mike Debalfo at Drawn to Comics two years ago. Since that time I have admired his growth in the comic book world. His covers have graced over 95+ comics during his very short career. Since his beginning with Zenescope he has become one of the most recognized Girl Cover creators in the industry. His work has been seen in Big Dog Ink, Moon Stone and also Brian Pulido’s Lady Death. On April 1st of this year he came to agreement to take over and relaunch the Aspen series Soulfire. He will be doing interiors and teaming up with Nei Ruffino on what’s just another step for the Debalfo family and a very bright future.
Debalfo took some time to sit down with me to talk about both his beginning and his future in the comic book industry.
What part of the country are you from?
I’m originally from New Jersey and moved to Arizona in 2003.
At what Age did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
As early as I could remember I was always career oriented, and I always flip flopped from paleontologist to cartoonist, but I estimate that it was around age eleven or twelve when I set my sights on a comic book oriented path. There were a few hick-ups along the way when I wanted to be a S.W.A.T team guy after seeing the movie “Speed”, then I wanted to be in a thrash metal band and I dipped my toes in computer animation but my heart always belonged to cartooning. That and those other career goal required nerves of steel, musical talent or a beer gut and I had none of those so comics was a good path for my gift of social awkwardness.
Did you have any early mentors in your career or was there a style that you worked hard to get to?
In my career directly? No. But I spent a couple of years at the Joe Kubert School before I started working professionally and that was such a strong learning curve. I remember going in for my applicant interview with a portfolio on paper ripped from a Walmart sketchbook and some doodles that I had scanned onto a CD. The instructors in the computer animation class I was involved in at the time beat it into our heads that people wanted portfolios on a digital format, and I can still see Mike Chen, the gentleman who interviewed me at Kubert, sort of rolling his eyes and looking fairly annoyed when I handed him a CD to load up after he’d seen my makeshift portfolio. [laughs] I still don’t know how I got accepted.
But it’s funny you ask if I had a certain style that I was trying to achieve because I went into the school with one thing in mind and I left with a strong frame for something else. The two people in mind my first days of school were Jim Lee and Greg Capullo. That’s who I wanted to draw like and nothing was going to change that for me. I really wanted to draw bad ass monsters like in I saw in Spawn and get better at doing all the demonic skulls, zombies, guts, and other stuff that I really enjoyed drawing when I was young because apparently I’m a psychopath. Once I actually learned how to draw people, because I really couldn’t do that before my time at Kubert, I learned that I had something of a knack for drawing women’s faces. –go figure. Not their bodies but just their faces and hair so I started studying J. Scott Campbell’s work and Adam Hughes, and other guys who drew girls really well to get my female figures to match the nice faces that I was already drawing. One of the instructors once told me, “You can draw pretty girls? You’ll never have trouble finding a job if you can draw pretty girls” and I’ll never forget that. So I started with the mind set of drawing really good horror and came out with the ability to draw the most powerful creations in nature; pretty girls. Proof that an art education can be a mind opening metamorphosis.
Hardest part starting out? Getting people to recognize your work?
Getting people to recognize my work was an easy task because of the internet and some simple decent marketing strategies. Getting people to buy it without cutting my own throat was the hard part. [laughs]
Was Zenescope a surprise for you to start your career or did they fit what style you wanted to be known for starting your career?
No, not at all. The company felt like a perfect fit because I still love monsters and horror so their combination of that and the pretty girls felt like a match made in heaven. I knew my strength was drawing girls and that if I wanted to make a place in the industry that was the way for me to do it. Those guys took me basically told me not to drawn anything Manga looking and after a little while let me do pretty much whatever after a while which was kind of nice. I never expected that kind of creative liberty in such a short time frame and we made some great things together, it was fun for sure. I think we all gelled pretty easily.
What’s the driving force in creating so many powerful women in all the covers you have done?
My mom is a 5’0″ no-nonsense Italian woman raised in New York City and East Rutherford, New Jersey. [laughs] She taught her kids to be polite, considerate, fair and most importantly respectful. My dad is a blue collar electrician who taught me that hard work is the best way to earn and appreciate anything. I used to joke that he was in the Mob or something because I didn’t believe an “electrician” could afford the lifestyle that he gave us. Once I truly realized how much he sacrificed for himself, just to give his family want he wanted, I saw how honest his words were. My dad worked his ass off all the time because he knew the pay off was well worth the sweat.
I carry those lessons down into the art that I make. You will never see me doing any of the over the top provocative or art where a woman is put into a compromising situation beyond her control. My mom didn’t raise that kid and I’ve learned from my dad that the hard put in to build myself up isn’t worth throwing it way on smut. I had a great childhood. I don’t know how I survived, but it was good and drawing cute good girls is simply me letting that inner child who refuses to grow up to come out and share his toys. I consider many of them respectful and fun. Something that almost anyone can enjoy. …as long as you’re over thirteen years old.
Impact on yourself with the success as a cover artist? Are you working harder or smarter?
I’m more protective of my surroundings. As it is with any level of success in any career you find people who just want to latch on or try to ride your coat tails. That’s a very strange thing for me because I’ve never been the “popular kid” or someone who people just want to talk to. I’m very friendly and courteous to everyone I meet but I have learned that I can’t wear my heart on my sleeve how I want to. On the flip side, the irony is that I find that some of the people who I want to take with me seem to think that I’m trying to use them which I can understand so I never act like a leech. Definitely working harder, probably not smarter. …ever. Grew a monstrous ego, became a douche and I eat a lot more Top Ramen because I’m still poor.
Tell us about your new gig?
Soulfire! I got the script and have been working on pages that I can’t wait to show people. It was a little choppy at first but I’m getting a good rhythm going now and a better feel for laying out interior pages. Vince and the guys at Aspen have been great moral support, but I can’t talk too much about what we’re doing yet. I did a series of Aspen covers to start, all of which will hit shelves in August surrounding the Soulfire Vol. 4 release, and rest assured that I am chucking away at the pages and people are going to freak when they read this arc. J.T Krul has really outdone himself with the script so even if you hate my art Soulfire fans will love the story it’s so good. You’ve seen the promo poster of “Dark Grace” so that should be a clue to how different things are going to be in the Soulfire universe. We goin’ tear it up!
Your relationship has been very well matched up with Nei Ruffino, Now your teaming up again for Soulfire does that take some pressure of you?
No, it’s even more pressure! Nei’s career is on fire right now being pulled in every direction possible and there’s a number of big names that she’s attaching herself with. Not to mention DC having her on their playing field. I never expected that she would be coloring my interior art on Soulfire so the pressure is on me to keep my work top notch. Nei is one of those artists that can make mediocre line art look great and good line art look phenomenal. If I drop the ball on this she will take over my own bed when she comes to town and make me sleep on the futon in my office but I know she’s too much of a professional to let the book look less than awesome. Still, I don’t want to sleep on my futon. It’s great to be working with a real good friend takes things as seriously as I do and she’s just as excited about all of this as I am.
Maybe only because I have had people tell me that they just can’t get some of my covers because bills and mortgage payments are more important. I always say that as long as you like the art that is what’s really important to me. Good intentions may not pay the bills but they’re peace of mind that I’m not completely screwing everything up and that helps me sleep at night.
Your approaching 100 comics with your name on them. How does that feel to know the fans want more?
I feel like a little worm on a big friggin’ hook! Seriously though, it’s a nice sentiment. When I first started I was worried that no one would like what I have to offer. Coming up on the 100 mark and hearing that people still want more is really nice. The only concern I have right now is that somethings are going to change; less covers, more interior pages and pin-up prints so I just hope people still dig it and stick around to enjoy what I have to offer.
Why do you still play a major role in the community of Arizona? How important is it to you still with were you at know?
We’re all a big family in Arizona. Sure, sometimes some of us get mad at each other but we always wish the best for everyone and that’s what makes a family. I see a lot of cooperation between the local artists that can be pretty inspiring. I don’t know of anywhere else in the country where there is such a large tight knit group of comic book creators from Eisner winners like John Layman, to legendary creators like Brian Pulido all the way to enthusiastic indie folks like Alfred Trujillo and Andy Bohn who is making a name for himself in parts of England without ever leaving the state or Arizona and we’re all friends. We inspire each other, we feed off one another and we all thrive together. Where else do you have that? It’s amazing.
Any secret upcoming surprises for the Bleeding Cool fan?
The cat is pretty much out of the bag on everything now from Soulfire to the “Squirrel Girls” but there’s some mini projects bouncing around that I think people will dig and some hidden treasures that will debut at Phoenix Comion 2012 that I’m not marketing publicly. People will just have to come to the booth to see what’s up our sleeve.
Does the tide change having Mary DeBalfo, your wife, backing your self up 110% and being involved versus doing it just by your self like most creators do?
Most definitely. For nearly two and a half years I was juggling everything on my own and I still don’t see how some people can do that. It just got so over whelming that planning and networking was taking just as much time as drawing and I found myself falling under the bus and burning out. I took Mary on to start handling the commission lists and before I knew it I was giving her the rope on everything that didn’t involve drawing. She even helps me with marketing ideas and correspondence with my editors at Aspen now which is an absolute blessing. She runs this ship with an iron fist and some people who have tried to cross her have eaten hard metal and left with boyishly bruised egos. That stuff is actually pretty funny. My wife has proven to be a very strong asset to our brand, I’m incredibly fortunate to have her in my court.
Any helpful hints to new Artist or getting a start with a a publisher?
Get good. Don’t fuck yourself
Three creators you would love to work on a project with?
Kevin Eastman, J. Scott Campbell and Hugh Hefner. Hef may not be a comic creator but he is a creative visionary.
Will you ever sit down and watch Star Wars?
Ya know, I’ve gone this long without it I think that not seeing it needs to be part of my legacy. My grave stone will be encrypted with, “Here lies Mike DeBalfo. Worked in comics. Never saw Star Wars”. People will come from miles away to believe the evidence. Maybe by that time technology will allow us to put little LED screens in headstones and you guys can play Star Wars on it forever.
We want to thank Mike Debalfo for his time and cant wait to see his future work with Aspen.