Smash Pages Q&A: Jen Bartel on ‘Crystal Fighters’

The artist of the forthcoming ‘Blackbird’ talks about her early work on ‘Crystal Fighters,’ which will be collected by Dark Horse Comics in September.

Jen Bartel’s artwork has become familiar to many comics readers. She’s drawn dozens of covers for BOOM! and Marvel, IDW and Archie, Valiant and more. She’s drawn issues and stories for comics like Jem and the Holograms and Mighty Thor, and contributed to anthologies including The Secret Loves of Geek Girls.

Her first comic as co-writer and artist was Crystal Fighters. First published digitally on Stela, a print edition of the webcomic is in stores Sept. 5 from Dark Horse Comics. If that’s not enough, in October, Bartel and writer Sam Humphries are launching a new ongoing series from Image Comics, Blackbird. This coming weekend, Bartel will be a special guest at Flame Con in New York City, and we reached out to ask her a few questions about the experience of putting together her first book and what comes next.

I always like to start by asking people, how did you come to comics?

It was really sort of an accident for me. I thought I was on the path to becoming an editorial illustrator, but my work was discovered by a couple of editors at IDW back in late 2015 and I was asked to do my first ever comic work: a Jem and The Holograms cover. Since then, I’ve worked with every major comics publisher doing covers and now interiors, but I originally never saw myself going down this path.

How do you describe Crystal Fighters?

Crystal Fighters is sort of a culmination of some of Tyler and my favorite properties growing up—it’s a bit of Sailor Moon, a bit of Dragonball, a bit of JRPGs. It’s a story about a young girl who discovers an underground virtual reality fight club in a sugary sweet video game she’s playing.

Who is Stella?

Stella is your average hot-headed young teen—she’s figuring out who she is and what her interests are, but doesn’t really have a solid group of friends or the support of her family. She wants to play games that are not typically marketed at girls, but much to her dismay her parents force her to get “Crystal Fighters” instead—a game she is convinced is for prissy babies. Little does she know, it’s actually home to the most intense secret battleground, and she wants nothing more than to prove herself there.

You mentioned your husband Tyler, who co-authored Crystal Fighters with you. How did you two collaborate?

I was initially a bit worried to enter into a work partnership with my spouse, but we have been best friends for so long that we were finishing each other’s sentences and collaborating at every stage, from the main story to the writing to the layouts to the drawing—we both had a hand in every step of the process.

Can you talk a little about how you approached finding the right look and aesthetic for the book, making it look familiar but not derivative or pastiche?

Crystal Fighters was my first ever sequential work, and I was really just trying to find my footing—one thing we wanted to capture was some of the incredible visual shorthand that gets used in anime and manga; there is a language to facial expressions, body language, even word balloons and lettering that is second nature to folks who are accustomed to reading manga, but it isn’t as common in western comics. We wanted to bring some of those fun elements over and keep Crystal Fighters super all-ages friendly.

On Stela, the comics have a vertical scroll. Was it hard to reformat it for the book, or were you always thinking in terms of pages that fit together?

You know, we were originally all-in on the vertical scrolling format—I think it’s a fun way to read comics, and it makes it extremely accessible for beginners and young people who maybe have less experience reading sequentials. It also let us really control the pace, so I was initially a bit hesitant when Daniel Chabon at Dark Horse approached us about converting it to print. The team at Dark Horse did an absolutely incredible job with it though, and I think it reads just as well, if not better in some areas, than the original digital version.

You’ve drawn covers and short comics and a couple issues of Jem and the Holograms, but this is your first big comics project. And this was also your first book with your own characters. What has that been like? And did it require a new way to work?

Yes, absolutely—as I mentioned before, I never thought I’d be working in comics, much less actually drawing interiors. I always viewed myself as an illustrator or even designer, and I think Crystal Fighters was key for me to make the move into comics because I had full creative control over the storytelling, the world, the characters, etc.—had I started with a licensed property, I likely would have felt much more stifled and unable to really experiment.

The book ends in a way that makes it clear you have more ideas for these characters and this world. Do you have definite plans to return for more?

Absolutely—there’s so much more story to tell within the world of Crystal Fighters (and, other connecting games…!!) but like most comic books, it really boils down to audience reception and demand. We’d love to expand the world though.

Besides this collection I know you have another book coming out in the fall. Do you want to say a little about what it is and how you’ve approached that project after Crystal Fighters?

Working in comics really is sort of like boot camp for artists. The workloads are insane, the schedules are nuts, but a side effect of that is that I have grown and improved so much as an artist since I worked on Crystal Fighters. My new book (Blackbird, out from Image Comics this October) is visually beyond anything I thought I’d be capable of doing, and the work I initially did on Crystal Fighters is what allowed me to have the foundation to get there. It’s been fun seeing my work grow and change even just over the last couple of years.

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