Brian Level is someone well worth keeping an eye on in comics. If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve almost certainly seen some of his work in the past few years. He has provided inks and pencils to comics like Lazarus and Constantine the Hellblazer, collaborating with esteemed artists Michael Lark and Riley Rossmo respectively. The Mantle, his Shadowline comic with writer Ed Brisson, showed just what he was capable of last year.
I was able to sit down with Brian at HeroesCon in Charlotte, North Carolina for a conversation last month. We discussed studio space, the daily grind of comics, staying interested in art, and a whole lot more.
Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: What are you doing for fun these days when you need to get away from comics?
Brian Level: It’s weird, I am not doing anything for fun. Well, I am renovating my studio and I have really enjoyed the woodworking part of it because I am building things in the studio. I am doing it out of necessity, but I enjoy it. The weird part is I am steering into comics deeper and harder, and sleeping less, to really push. I stepped away for a couple of months to recuperate from last year. Now I am diving in super hard, so it is going to get crazy soon.
CB: You’re an artist with a studio separate from home. Do you try to get all of your day job, making pages, done in that studio?
Level: Yeah, it is a separate building. I still have a day job that is not comics, so I do work there and I also have my studio there.
During the day, it needs to happen that way because I have two kids. Then at night, sometimes I like to be home in case they wake up or whatever. So I try to do all that stuff there during the day. Then at night I often will bring things home and work on them in front of the television or something like that.
CB: When you bring work home, are you actually trying to absorb things like TV while working? Or is it one hundred percent eyes on the page?
Level: I put things on for both. I have a list of things I want to see. Then I have a list of things that I want to see that I can’t be doing other stuff with while it is on. I watch a lot of movies and a lot of TV.
CB: So there’s a division between how you view entertainments and the things you really have your heart in?
Level: Yeah. For example,I already saw it in the theater, but if The Witch hit Blu-Ray, I am not going to be working while I put that on because it is something I really want to pour myself into. If I was going to watch the new Bourne movie, I would probably put it on while I worked.
CB: When you are seeking things out to watch like The Witch in theaters, is that for inspiration or is that more to experience a well-told story you don’t have to worry about telling?
Level: I think it is a little bit of both. I write and sometimes draw horror, but it is not crappy scary movie stuff. That is what attracted me to The Witch. This seems like real horror, not like “Oh, somebody’s head got chopped off. Wasn’t it so bloody?” It felt very legit. So I wanted to study it and see how is this movie making me afraid. I knew it would. I don’t know why, but I knew when I saw this, it was going to fuck me up.
CB: After seeing that first trailer I said, “I don’t want to know anything else. I just want to experience this horrifying thing.”
Level: There is something I just crave about visceral stories.
CB: Your work is surprisingly flexible considering your love of horror. Between The Mantle, Lazarus, and everything else, you do a wide range of work. Even Constantine the Hellblazer, has a pulpy noirness to it. You’ve been doing a lot of different styles and genres of work. Is that stressful or do you like flexing those different muscles?
Level: It used to be stressful because I felt like, “Okay, this has to be brighter and poppier because it is more this or that.” But as time has gone on and my style has developed, I realized that I am more interested in cramming things into my box than I am stretching myself to those boxes. I feel like it has worked. It is just how much more black do I put in. That’s really the biggest thing. It’s like, “Oh, this is real moody, so I will put more black in it.” But it is still my thing, you know?
CB: You describe it as your box. How do you describe your box?
Level: It’s everything that I learn; it is the sum of my influences. Like Lee Weeks is hands down one of the biggest influences on my work, period. And John Romita, Jr. Those tend to be the two guys I look at a lot. And I like Duncan Fegredo. If you mash all of those people up, you might end up with me. So it is high volume, with more rendering than is probably necessary. I have been trying to cartoon a lot more. I am also a big John Romita, Jr, fan so what I am going for is like cartooning but with a lot of weight.
CB: I think that is a really good way to describe both your stuff and some of those influences like Weeks and Romita.
Level: Weeks had this fluidity to his work that I think nobody talks about in the right context. The guy is a working master and I feel like nobody even pays attention.
CB: So were those the guys you were reading before you decided to be a comics artist?
Level: Yeah. Growing up, I was a big Eric Larsen guy. I guess it is funny because what I have found is all of the people that I love to death that I still love to death and have always loved to death go back to Kirby. It all goes back to Kirby. I try to study Kirby, but don’t learn as much. It is just awe-inspiring for me when I look at Kirby. But John Romita, Jr, I am like, “Oh, I can pick up on that.” It is the same thing with Mignola. The reason I studied Fegredo is not because I think he is the best, but because I can learn from him in a way that I can’t from Mike Mignola. With Mike Mignola, I get trapped in awe. It is like someone just made it appear; it is like magic.
CB: Mignola is somebody who seems to be feeding into his own things. He made Hellboy in Hell, a book where he could just draw old world towns and fishing villages, and make it work.
CB: Have you read Cosmic Odyssey?
Level: I have Cosmic Odyssey. I haven’t read it; I just go through it for the art.
CB: Looking at that art, you can see Mignola’s Kirby influence, which then becomes its own thing. I think you are right that Kirby is a sort of godfather figure in American comics. You can trace pretty much everything in the American tradition to him.
Level: It is crazy in Cosmic Odyssey because you can see almost just as much Kirby as you can Frank Frazetta in those figures. You look and say, “Holy shit!” When I saw that I was like, “Here is the Kirby influence, obviously.” I wasn’t expecting the Frazetta-ness. And the Frazetta-ness, if you don’t see it now, it is there. It is so there. That was a “Whoa!” moment to me.
CB: You have a sharp eye for style. Throughout your career, you have collaborated a lot on artwork. You’ll do layouts, somebody else does inks, or vice versa. You’ve worked with Michael Lark. You’ve worked with Riley Rossmo. How do you find that pushing you in developing your style?
Level: It’s funny because I feel like I am always made a better artist, even though I don’t usually like doing it. But when you see the way that someone else does something, you pick up flaws in your own work. When you see someone else’s construction, it can be like, “Oh, wow! I didn’t really think to do something like that.” It is weird; I did a whole arc of Harbinger where I did finishes over Barry Kitson. I draw nothing like Barry Kitson at all. But I learned a lot about expedited forms and how to get to a form quicker. I don’t know if I always retain that knowledge, but it sometimes comes to me. I am like, “Oh, that is how he did that.” It’s such a weird thing to even try to articulate. But it is something that I learned and I felt it was really interesting. It is like, “Oh, this is how you get to these forms faster.” Whereas with Riley, he was teaching me how to make graphic elements work on the page. I am so high volume and he is so graphic oriented, and it is so far apart. We made it work.
CB: It used to be a standard practice at Marvel and DC to have a penciler and an inker. That is becoming rarer and rarer. Is it something that you would recommend to other artists at least try at some point?
Level: I think you should just do it for fun, sure. I have learned so much more from having other professionals critique my portfolio (and not even editors, but professional artists) and working over people in varying degrees of finished stages. So if you are trying to ink yourself, ink other people. You are not really going to know where your flaws are until you work over somebody that is better… I did a test on Butch Weiss’ pencils and they are a nightmare. They are a beautiful, abstract thing that is almost possible to decipher, but it was an interesting and I think brilliant exercise for him to do that.
CB: Discussing inking can be difficult for readers because unless you have the pencils in front of you, it is hard to know what is happening. Once you start to notice it though, it is almost conversational in nature where the pencils and inks give to each other.
Level: I think they should. I just did a panel on inking. One of the questions was, “Do you feel pressure?” because they were talking to Jonathan Glapion (inker of Batman, vol. 2 #1-17). They asked him about searching out styles for different artists. He gave the professional and right answer. They got to me because I care more about being a penciler than I do an inker. They asked, “Do you feel stress about different styles?” I was like, “No.” I am busy trying to be better in general. So I am not going to sit there and worry. If I am sitting there trying to worry about how this person would do it, I don’t get any better myself.
CB: The inker shouldn’t be subservient to the penciler. You are the inker. You were chosen for that job.
Level: I think that is something that, unfortunately, publishers sometimes forget. They just need something in a pinch. They are like, “Well, we want to keep continuity.” I am like, “Then don’t hire me.” Valiant tried to hire me for Miguel Sepulveda. He is super high cross hatch, like super intense, one billion lines. I was like, “Guys, what are you doing? I am flattered, but I can’t do this. It’s not who I am. I can’t get in here with a billion lines and make it look good. I am doing gray tones instead or you are getting nothing.” They were like, “Okay, we will see if we can find somebody else.”
CB: They dealt with you honestly at least. There is still a certain mentality in comics that you should take every job. That sometimes results in books where people got paid, but nobody really wanted to do or was invested in. Being able to recognize those bad shots is really valuable.
Level: I was scared. That was a lot of it.
CB: I can’t imagine it is easy to say no.
Level: No, especially when you have kids at home. It is like, “Well, that job would have yielded money.” But at the end of the day, I don’t know if it would have yielded more work for me in the future. What if I would have really blew it?
CB: Speaking of artistry and definitely not wanting to blow it, you also are a tattoo artist. You were doing that before you broke into comics?
Level: Yeah, I have been doing tattoos for the last twelve years.
CB: How did you get into tattoo as a form of artistry?
Level: There are a lot of different ways. I served a traditional apprenticeship, which I would always recommend. If you can dodge a lot of pitfalls, do it. You are not just fucking with your job; you are fucking with people’s health and their bodies. There is a lot on the line. I had some punk rock friends that let me do whatever I wanted. In the tattoo shop I worked in, the guy that I learned from was a really great guy, but he was absent a considerable amount of time. He would show up when I was working on one of my buddies and be like, “Why are you doing something that big?!” He’d freak out.
If you do it on your own, you don’t know methods of sterilization. It is better to serve a traditional apprenticeship, but people buy tattoo kits and they do all kinds of stuff. One of my favorite things that I saw was this supplier in California that serves only professionals. They have a tattoo kit section. When you click the tattoo kit section, it takes you to a link to clown school, which I thought was hilarious. We frown on it if you don’t serve an apprenticeship because you could really be making people sick. So it is always better to go to a shop, spend some money there, get some tattoos, get to know the people, present art, and say, “I want to do this.” Maybe the people will give you a shot.
CB: Have you found any crossover points where people seek you out as a tattoo artist because they know your work in comics?
Level: Yes. It has happened a couple of times. Oddly enough, you might be surprised that there is not crossover in subject matter. Any of the people that have sought me out for tattoos haven’t asked me about superhero stuff or comics at all. It is other random things, which is cool.
CB: We have talked about you being an inker, you being a penciler, you being a writer, you being a tattoo artist. Doing all of those different things professionally over the past decade, do you notice them all building on one another as your brain focuses on different ways to approach art?
Level: This is going to sound super pretentious. What I have learned through all of this stuff is how to be a better person and how to be a better man. I am not a good person. That is one thing it has revealed about me; I am not. But it also has helped me see how valuable people are. The intimacy that I spend with people in a tattoo chair, the time that I spend working with collaborators and seeing how much they pour into these things, the time that I spend writing and trying to get into character’s heads and their hearts, that is what… It is less about the art for me than it is about discovering being a person. I know it sounds super sentimental and sappy.
CB: No, that all sounds very honest.
Level: And kind of bullshit, but I really do mean it.
CB: There is so much talk in comics about artists being isolated. But you are always communicating with your audience, communicating with your subject in the case of being a tattoo artist or with someone else and affecting their work as a penciler or inker. It makes a lot of sense that as an artist, at the end of the day, it is about connecting to people.
Level: Absolutely. That is why comics are so great. It is a no bullshit way to actually connect heart to heart to people in a very real way, whether it is friends that you have known forever, artists you collaborate with, or your fans. Just getting in touch with people is valuable. That is what our stories try to do. It is craving fellowship. I think that is what a lot of this shit is.