Comic artist Ben Stenbeck talks Hellboy, Buffy & imposter syndrome | Two Sketches with Toby Morris


– After working from
home, six or seven years, you get into like a, “Oh, I
don’t have any friends anymore!” (Toby chuckles)
And then, at about nine or ten
years, you starting going, “That’s fine.” – Who needs friends, huh? – Who needs friends? I’m too old for that carry on. (gentle guitar music) – All right. – All right. – Thanks for having us in your space, man. – You’re welcome. – Glad we’re finally
getting to do this one. – Yeah. – Gonna be good. Have you got an idea of
what you want me to draw? – Yeah, but I want you to
give me something easy, so I’m happy to give you
something easy, if you want. – Okay, we can make a deal. – I was thinking for you, I’d
like to see you draw a zombie? – Okay, yeah. I was thinking that,
seeing as we’re in Dunedin, I was wondering if you could do some sort of Dunedin creature? Like, whether that’s some
sort of like, goblin, or dragon, or some kind
of Dunedin monster? – Hm, okay. – Yeah? (chuckles) – Okay.
– Yeah? (mellow guitar music) (pencil etches) – [Toby] So, Ben. – [Ben] Yeah. – You’ve been a professional comic artist for about 14 years, right? You’ve done “Baltimore”, “Witchfinder”, “Lobster Johnson”, “Hellboy B.P.R.D.”, “Koshchei the Deathless”,
like a long list. How do you introduce yourself usually? – I don’t know, I don’t
like saying I’m an artist, cause it’s–
– Yeah. – I don’t know, but, I think of myself as an illustrator, I
guess, or comic artist. But then, quite often, you have to explain what a comic artist is. ‘Cause people tend to
confuse it with animation, and other stuff. I’m used to introducing myself, and getting kind of a glazed– – Right. (laughs)
– Glazed look. Or people politely suggesting
I get a real job, and stuff. – Yeah, from fairly on you
decided to sort of set your path on drawing comics? – Yeah, well, when I was
about 13, it was kind of an abstract thing of trying
to work out in my head how someone does that. And I just thought, “Well,
I suppose, you probably start drawing really young.” And at 13, I was kind of like,
“Oh, I’m probably too old to begin the training.”
– (laughs) Missed the window. – Yeah, yeah, and I thought,
“Well, there’s kind of nothing to lose by giving it a shot. I got nothing else I’m planning on.” (Toby laughs) – So, I just started drawing a lot. Sort of trying to draw
everyday, in an attempt to get better at it. – Being in New Zealand, did that feel like an achievable thing
to make a career out of? – No. No, until I met, I was about
17, and I met Martin Emond, and he was doing that, he was
working in the comic industry from New Zealand. I think he was the first
guy from New Zealand who made a living in comics
while in New Zealand. So, he worked on things like “Lobo”, he did a comic called “White Trash”, he worked with Glenn Danzig on his stuff. So, I used to go to his
studio after school, and just kind of hang out, and talk to him about comics, and– – Was he cool about having you show up? – Weirdly, and that was
always kind of Martin’s thing, is he never really turned
people away, you know? A 17-year-old kid bugging
him every afternoon, that was the nice thing about Martin, he was always really easy to talk to, and got along with everyone. At one point, he did
laugh about the first time I talked to him. He said, I don’t remember
this, but he said I walked up to him in
the comic shop, and said, “Oh, I’ve got this idea
for this Batman comic! Batman’s got all these guns!” (Toby laughs) – And, he was a dick about
that, but that was all right. – But seeing what he was
doing made you feel like it was a possible path to make a job of this.
– Yeah, well, also, that was the early to mid 90s, so, people working in the comic industry were becoming millionaires. It was things like Frank
Miller getting paid a million dollars to draw,
or to write one comic. So, it all seemed like it
was an achievable thing. – And it was 2003 that
you did a “Buffy” Comic, was that the first kind of break, right? – I don’t know, was it?
– Proper opportunity? – Yeah, that was my first paying job, paying job in the
industry, and it was awful, and I made a mess of it. Then I got offered a chance
to work in the game industry. So, I thought, “Oh, that’s
fine, I’ve ruined things for myself in comics. I’ll go and work in video games.” – (laughs) Like you’ve
totally blown it already. One go, and you’ve stuffed it. – Yeah, yeah, it was
only ten pages but, yeah, I thought I’d completely blown it. So then, I went and worked on video games for about two years. – Doing like, concept art? Or, sort of character design? Or what kind of?
– Yeah, yeah, and while I was doing that,
I started to rethink comics, and started to kind of refocus on the fact that that’s really what
I wanted to be doing. – Right, the experience
made you feel more clearer that it definitely was
comics that you wanted to do? – Yeah, yeah, and it
wasn’t that video games were particularly bad. I mean, that’s the last
time I had any money (both chuckle) doing that.
– Yeah. – But, I didn’t like the cog
in the machine kind of process. I could spend the next 10
years working for that company, and all I’d have to show for
it was a game that I worked on with a whole bunch of other people. And I might be able to
go, “Oh, see that guy in the background there? I designed his pants.”
– It’s just one little piece. Yeah, they’ve a mess of team
on games like that, right? It’s a big, big operation.
– Yeah, yeah, I mean, I spent a year of my life
on “Lord of the Rings”, and it’s that thing, “That
one guy in the background? His pants.” Or no, there was one suit
of armour that I designed that got into the film, and
then cut out of the film, and there’s a toy of that character. And that’s it, that was a year of my life. And I was kind of, “Hey,
I don’t know if that’s what I want to be doing.” Whereas, comics, you sit
down, and you work for a year, and at the end of it, you’ve got a book. And that’s what you did with that time. – It’s a tangible, solid
page at the end of the day, each day?
– Yeah, end of each day, yeah. So, I thought, “Okay, I’ll take a risk, and I will turn down all that money, and try to get back into
the comic industry again.” (papers shuffling) (gentle guitar music) (pen scrapes) – So, that second sort
of shot that you had, how did that come about? – Went over to San Diego, and, you know, showed my stuff around. It was a slow process. Some people saw it, and
for about six months, I would get these kind of emails, “Can you draw something on this character for this possible comic?” So, I’d draw some pages,
or just some sketches, and send them off, and the
comic would fall through. And then, a series came along that I did, that was my first series. Mike Mignola saw that,
and I had the same editor, the editor I was working
for was Mike’s editor, and so, knew that I was
a fan of Mike’s stuff. He is the creator of “Hellboy”,
and was successful enough that he was sort of in a position where he could expand
Hellboy’s universe enough that he could get other
writers and other artists to come and work on these characters that were all a part of the
same connected universe. Mike liked the series that I did, and decided to give me a shot. So, I did a one-issue thing
for him, and he liked that, so that lead to a series,
and he liked that, so. I think once I started
working on his stuff, he could see that I was,
I think, doing research, looking into the period I was drawing, and a certain, sharing
sort of a sensibility towards storytelling, I think. ‘Cause he’s not looking for
people who draw like him, or emulate him, or any of
that, but there is a certain– – Like a tone, or something that you feel that he’s looking for?
– Yeah, yeah, like a tone to the storytelling that
he’s looking for, I think. – How would you describe that universe? – I think it’s really poetic,
especially Mike’s work. There’s a poetry, and beauty
to it that, I think a lot of people would hear the name “Hellboy”. You know, if you haven’t read
comics, you would hear that, and just think, “Oh, that’s a goof.” – Like it’s some schlocky kind of thing?
– Yeah, yeah, and it has that, it’s got monsters getting
punched in the face, ’cause that stuff’s fun. But, there’s a poetry to the
storytelling and the imagery, that I don’t think other
comics really quite manage. – Have you got a favourite
out of all of the books that you’ve done together? – Usually, my favourite thing
tends to be the most recent, which would be “Koshchei”,
which was so fun to do. – So, who is Koshchei? Is it Kosh-ay, Koshchei? – I don’t think anyone really knows. Kos-kay, Koshchei, Kos-kee. I say Koshchei, but who knows? It’s tricky. I mean, he’s a character
from Russian mythology. He’s sort of an undead,
you know, he can’t die, this immortal guy, and
he’s sort of a villain in a lot of Russian folktales. And Mike had him fight
Hellboy at one point. Someone else drew that,
but then Mike decided to do Koshchei tells his life story, so I drew the series
“Koshchei the Deathless”, which was Koshchei and Hellboy,
sitting in a pub in hell, and Koshchei telling his life story. So, it’s sort of a Russian
Mediaeval folktale epic. I was working on it one morning, and realised probably the
reason I was enjoying it so much was because it was
everything I was drawing when I was seven years old. You know? It was guys in armour,
and swords, and dragons, all that kind of thing.
– Dragons, yeah. It seems like you had lots of fun with the costumes and stuff on that. Everything seems really
well, like the world seems very fleshed out. – Yeah, and that’s one of my
favourite things about the job is every now and then,
sort of once a year, you get a whole, brand
new reality to make. Mediaeval Russian, and then
onto Victorian England. And so, I get to jump around
all these time periods, and that stuff’s really appealing to me. I really enjoy exploring these
kind of different cultures, and time periods. – Seems like running through all the stuff is essentially is monsters, right? There seems like there’s
something that’s very primal about creatures, and
monsters, and the fact that there’s all those different,
every culture in the world has some sort of monsters, makes you feel like there’s something very
human instinct about going looking for monsters, or–
– Yeah, well, for how long was it? Like, 300,000 years? We were living in caves
hiding from literal monsters outside the cave, you know? There’s a saber-toothed tiger
around the corner, keep quiet. And then, the last 10,000
years, we started living in little houses that
we made for ourselves. But, I think that 300,000 years, or whatever it was beforehand,
has instilled something into us–
– It’s deeply ingrained. – Yeah, yeah. There was a bit in “Baltimore”
that I really liked where, he’s fighting all
these vampires and monsters, but the most terrifying character in it was a human who was this religious zealot who would torture women and children. And, all the other monsters
were just like (growls), but this guys like, “No, I’m gonna torture some kids now.” – And that, I really liked that feeling of the most terrifying
thing in the whole series was this human. Eventually, he turned into a werewolf. (Toby laughs) (gentle guitar music) (pen scrapes) – So, what are you inking with, man? What’s your weapon? – No idea, that one? – [Toby] (laughs) This one? Can I look.
– Yeah, I just hunt around on eBay, till I find a cheap looking pen. – Okay, cool.
– ‘Cause I buy them in bulk. Just whatever’s cheap. – That’s got a little
bit of flexibility on it like a brush pen, though.
– Yeah, you can go from a really fine pin
prick to quite wide. – Is that what you use
for the comics, mostly? – Yeah, pretty much my process
is down to these two types of pens, really, and white
out, lots of white out all over everything. – And you’re still doing the
inking, actually analogue, physical inking, right?
– Yeah, so I draw on Cintiq, on a tablet, just the rough,
what would’ve once been pencils like we’ve done here with pencil, but I do it on the Cintiq. And then, print that out really light. – Oh, okay. – And then, ink over the top of that. – Like on a light box, or something? Or just have it on–
– I just print it out. So, I lighten it up so
you can hardly see it, and print it out, and then
just ink straight over the top. – Oh, like actually onto the print out? – Yeah, yeah.
– Oh, that’s cool. So, you work from home, right? This is the office?
– Yeah. – And, how are you with working from home? I know for me, I’ve done
it in various stages, and sometimes found it a bit of a lonely kind of job.
– It is, but I’ve found if you
can muscle through that, you kind of come out the other side, and it kind of stops mattering. After six or seven years,
(Toby laughs) after working from home
six or seven years, you get into like a, “Oh, I
don’t have any friends anymore!” And then, at about nine or ten years, you start going, “That’s fine.” – Who needs friends, huh? – Who needs friends? I’m too old for that carry on. (Toby chuckles) – How prescriptive is
the script that you get? Is it like, “The first panel
is this,” or is it like, “here’s the action on a
page,” and you can work out what panels need to be where? Like, I’ve never really known that. – It changes a lot. Different writers have
different ways of writing, and how specific they are. But yeah, it is quite, you
know, “Here’s panel one. There’s this, this, and this. Panel two: there’s this, this, and this.” And, that’s what I get
sent, and then I think I’m given enough freedom to
sort of go, “No, it doesn’t. Here’s what happens.”
– Right. This will look better if–
– To a degree, to a degree. If I ever do that, I try and
completely preserve the intent of what the writer’s put in. – But, it will be up
to you to layout, like, “We need a big panel here that’s close up, and there’s a little detail here,”? Like, the sort of staging
of it all is you, right? – Yeah, pretty much, yeah. – Do you enjoy that part of it? Like, the being a film
director kind of part of it? – Sort of I mean that’s always the, sort of, the fun moment, where the possibilities are endless. And then, you start working
on it, and realise you’re only as good as you are.
(Toby chuckles) I’ve had that a few times, especially if it’s something Mike’s written. Usually, it’s a script that I’m so excited by the possibility of
everything that it could be. And then I start work,
and maybe get as far as having the first issue
done, and there’s usually sort of a moment where I
go, “Oh, it’s only ever gonna be that now.”
(Toby chuckles) You know? – Right, yeah. The blank page is like, you know– – Yeah, infinite possibility. And then, you make it finite, and you have to live with that. – Is there kind of a long term
plan to do your own comic? – Yeah, there is, and
I’ve had this little thing I’ve been tinkering with for a long time, but not really having a chance to sit down and work on it properly. It looks like I’m gonna
have the opportunity to do that next year, which will be huge. – Yeah, that’s amazing.
– It will be, yeah. – Is there a side of that
that’s kind of daunting, going out and doing your own thing? – We’re not saying that.
(Toby laughs) We’re not even looking
at that in the face, because if I stop to do that, then I will not even try it.
– Talk yourself out of it. – Yeah.
– Yeah, that sounds amazing, I think. – Yeah, so I’ve got to do it,
and not care whether or not anyone likes it, and kind of
hope that it does alright. – Take the pressure off, yeah. – Yeah.
– Cool. – I’ve got to try it at least once, and if it’s a huge
failure, then I’ll know. And, that’ll be fine, and I
can live with that, I think. – You’re more than well
established now, though, it seems like I mean, your “Buffy’ comic
didn’t ruin you. (laughs) – (laughs) Yeah, yeah. I mean, it took me years to accept that it might not all collapse immediately. – Seems like even the
most, like everybody gets that imposter thing, right? Like you’re always kind of–
– Imposter syndrome, yeah. – Like, “They’re gonna
find me out at any time.” – Yeah, any minute, they’re
gonna know I don’t know what I’m doing.
(Toby chuckles) About a month ago, I had breakfast with this big deal comic artist. We were talking about
that, and I asked him, “So, are you happy with your work?” And he’s like “Not really”.
He’s never done a perfect page.” The people you meet who aren’t like that are generally the people
who aren’t that talented. It’s always the people
who are incredibly gifted, and I’m not saying I’m one of those, but that seems to be a general
rule, that those are the people that are always like,
“Eh, I’m not that great.” – “I just need to improve
this,” or “I still got to figure this out,”
or “I’m trying things.” – But that’s how you
get there, is by having that kind of attitude to it. Just that idea of sitting back and going, “Whoa, I can’t believe that I drew that. I’m amazing.
(Toby chuckles) I’m so good, look at
this awesome drawing!” That seems really weird to me. – Yeah. (gentle guitar music) (pen scratches) – That’s the thing about
drawing in real life is trying to get rid of
all that pencil schmutz. (Toby laughs) – And not tearing your page in half eh? – Yeah, I did that.
– I’ve done that a few times. (imitating ripping) – I did that on a commission once, the guy was standing there,
and I’d done the whole thing. I spent an hour, or whatever,
at like, a convention, and so, the guys standing
there, waiting for it. And all I had left to do
was rub out all the pencil. (imitates erasing)
(imitates ripping) And I was like, “Oh.” So then, I had to start again. (Toby laughs) – Alright man, you all done? – Yeah.
– You ready? – Okay. – Yeah, you want to see this? – Yep.
(paper rustles) (chuckles) Nice. – [Toby] That’s you,
that’s the pen zombie. – [Ben] Oh, that’s, sure. – [Toby] I first drew
it with a speech bubble saying, “Pens,” but it
looked like it said, “Penis.” (men laughing)
So, I got rid of it in the final one. – Awesome.
– Yeah. – Cool.
– How’d you go? – Dunedin Monster, I
don’t know, he’s cold. (Toby laughs) – I like that, I like the scarf. That’s beautiful, man, that’s awesome. I love the legs too,
that’s some creepy legs. Yeah, that’s great. I love the little steam.
– And he’s shaking. – That’s amazing. Well, thank you so much
for doing that, Ben. That was really lovely
to check out your space, and amazing to catch up.
– You’re welcome. – Thank you so much.
– Thank you. – [Toby] That was great. (gentle guitar music) (peppy guitar music) (comic whoosh)

Dereck Turner

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