Jen Bartel: I know. I’ve been slammed. It’s a really good problem to have. But I haven’t been able to get out.
CB: People seem to love Jem and the Holograms.
Bartel: Yeah, I see a lot of people who are like, “I loved it back in the eighties.” They stop here and they haven’t heard about the comics. So it’s nice to be able to show them the new way.
CB: Tell me about your STELA series.
Bartel: It’s called Chaos Arena: Chrystal Fighters. I’m working on it with my husband, Tyler. Jim Gibbons is our editor and he is amazing. He approached me like six or seven years ago. He was like, “Hey, Jen. Do you want to pitch me something?” And I was like, “Yeah! How about an underground magical girl fight club?” I was fully expecting him to say, “No! That’s crazy.” But Jim is the most enthusiastic cheerleader editor ever. We love him. He was like, “Yes! Do it!” So we have just kind of run with it. It has been a lot of fun.
CB: It starts out very cute then gets very dark.
Bartel: Yeah. It does. It is funny because Tyler and I both really, really love this cyber-punk genre. We wanted to do something that… Really, we just wanted to make something fun and lighthearted. But we wanted to hit all of our nostalgic favorites. So it’s this weird combination of magical girls, our favorites like Sailor Moon and all of that kind of genre. But it also is kind of mixed in with Tron and Ghost in the Shell and all those weird cyber-punk things, too.
CB: And a little Fight Club mixed in, too.
Bartel: Yes! Got to have that.
CB: It’s a really interesting mix with kind of neon art, too. It is all flash and beautiful. The comic must have been a lot of fun to work on.
Bartel: Yeah, absolutely. Well, and it is really cool because I feel like STELA has done a lot of talking about wanting to give creators full rein over what they can do. I love my other projects too, but sometimes they can feel a little micromanaged. Especially when you do licensed work, you have to be loyal to the source of the material and you have to do things justice. Everything that I have done for STELA, they have pretty much been like, “Do whatever you want! It is free rein.” So it’s really fun.
CB: I’ve only gotten to read chapter one. I don’t want to ask for too much, but does it get even deeper and crazier?
Bartel: It does, yeah. We find out more. Really the first arc is a lot about Stella navigating her way through this underground club that is kind of secret. She ends up in there kind of by accident. So a lot of that is just figuring out why she is there and who the Chaos Club is. They’re this shadowy figure in the background and no one really knows a lot about them. We touch on that a little bit.
Really what we wanted to focus on is what it is to be a teenage girl and trying to figure out where you stand with other people and where you fit in and how your friendships really are. We wanted to touch on that dynamic a lot.
CB: I think you pull it off really well in the first chapter. You see her intrigued but also a little scared of this world.
Bartel: Yeah! I think that is how anyone would be.
CB: It could be getting involved in soccer or something for all that matters.
CB: Do you see it as a little analogy for your own life in a way?
Bartel: I think so, yeah. I think every teenage girl has gone through that experience of feeling like you really just don’t quite know where you stand with people and wanting to be accepted, but not really knowing how to achieve that. I definitely think that’s Stella as a character.
CB: So you felt that way, too?
CB: You probably had art all of your life.
Bartel: Yeah, well I did have that. That was an easy in for things.
CB: How did you approach creating on this interesting different canvas? Like the vertical scroll is sort of a splash page.
Bartel: It’s so fun! I think that I’m lucky in that I don’t actually have a ton of sequential art experience so I’m not really set in my ways. I think a lot of people coming from your traditional book might struggle with it a little more. But for me, I’m a blank slate starting. It’s been easier to adapt to it. It’s so much fun. To me, it feels more cinematic because the reveals happen in a line. So it’s almost like the passage of time is a little bit easier to show in that format. You can really set it up for some epic reveals.
Later on in Crystal Fighters, there are definitely some fight scenes that have some very long vertical scrolling, like epic battles. So we are excited about that.
CB: When is the whole series going to be available?
Bartel: Soon, I believe in May. I don’t have a specific date. But they’re telling me some time in May.
CB: What’s your next series after this? Are you going to continue on Jem or is there another thing coming as well?
Bartel: Oh, I don’t know. Right now I have a book called Spacepop that I am actually doing for Macmillan. So that is a two book little mini thing.
I think the format is they are doing an actual novel. But inside of it is a comic. So I don’t know if we will see more of that format coming up, but that’s what I am working on right now. I also am always doing more stuff on Jem and the Holograms. So my plate is full right now.
CB: I was going to say you’re nice and busy.
CB: Which is where you want to be. You’ve created this kind of fun, kind of poppy, bright, bold stuff.
Bartel: That’s the thing.
CB: Do you ever want to go dark?
Bartel: I don’t know. The thing is I love looking at that kind of art. But I just have never been really good at creating it.