Jody LeHeup and Sebastian Girner have been around comic books for years, editors at Marvel, Valiant and Image. Now they have their own comic, announced at ECCC, Shirtless Bear-Fighter. They gave Bleeding Cool a preview (below) and agreed to be interrogated by me.
On that topic, I am upping the number of interviews I'm doing on Bleeding Cool. If you are interested, get in touch.
Bleeding Cool: Jody, you've been around. Marvel, Valiant, why Image?
Jody LeHup: Right well as you mention I used to be an editor. At Marvel I worked in the X-Office where I edited DEADPOOL and Rick, Jerome, and Dean's UNCANNY X-FORCE as well as passion projects like the STRANGE TALES anthology. Then at Valiant I edited the QUANTUM AND WOODY relaunch. But I was writing before I was an editor and writing was always the end goal. I got so much out of my time editing…learned a lot about storytelling and art direction and worked with some incredibly talented people on some truly amazing projects. In fact the X-Office was where I met brilliant editor and SBF co-creator Sebastian Girner.
But eventually it was time to make the move back to the other side of the desk. One of the first books I started developing with Sebastian was SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER! and since it was a creator-owned book Image was a no-brainer. They've been setting the bar for high quality creator-owned comics for a long time now and we were thrilled to be able to pitch them SBF. Fortunately they dug it and here we are.
Bleeding Cook: Well, Sebastian, you've edited enough comics at Image. You'll have seen the ones that don't quite do as well as expected, leaving creators on the hock, trying to eke a living, putting out pages between commissions and work for hire as a result, eventually concluding, unfinished, gravestones for a career. Why is Shirtless Bear Fighter different?
Sebastian Girner: Awesome. Now I want to quit comics!
So, while it's true that some series don't find their audience, either because they're too far ahead (or behind) their time, I think that every creator-owned comic starts off as a passion project. A spark lit in the imagination and heart of creators who wants to will it to life, no matter what, even if there is no certainty for financial award or critical acclaim. That's a feat that demands respect in and of itself.
In that regard SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER! Is no different. It's a fever-dream concept filtered through Jody's and my own love and history with comics, and then brought to awesome life by a team of mega-talented artists and designers. It's exactly the kind of comic we wanted to make, and Image gave us a home for it, and we have faith that it's also a comic that a lot of people are going to want to read!
And while we wouldn't mind getting a hernia carrying giant sacks of Shirtless Bear-Money to the bank, we can say with certainty, that even if we bomb, we'd be proud to have our gravestones be just marble statues of us, shirtless, flexing, forever capturing the essence of the raw spirit that fueled the making of this comic!
BC: Looking at the preview… he's not just shirtless, this bear fighter, is he? He seems to be rather naked, and significantly endowed to take a bear's eye out. So why emphasise the lack of shirt?
JL: When we first meet Shirtless, he's a bit of a wild man…wandering the woods looking for bears to fight. No pants needed! But as events progress and Shirtless becomes more entwined with the human world, he's asked to put some pants on "for god's sake". So Shirtless rocks his pants/no shirt look for most of the series. Hence the name. His li'l bear-fighter IS quite impressive though…what do you think, 'Bass? Spinoff?
BC: The images are pixelated in the preview – will they remain that way in print? Because, damn, that's going to be a lot of pixels.
JL: We actually went back and forth on the pixels. At the end of the day we think the pixels are funnier. Like he's on an episode of Cops!
SG: Jody says "we went back and forth" but I think it was more like an epic Roman senate debate, where we took turns arguing for and against all the reasons to just have our main character be fully naked with a 3-foot hog lolling about in a comic about angry bear-punching. I think we made the right choice…but sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder…
JL: You lie awake at night wondering about 3-foot hogs?
SG: Doesn't everyone?
BC: Boys, please, you're both pretty. Have either of you ever been attacked by a bear? What about by Robert Kirkman?
JL: Never been attacked by a bear OR Robert Kirkman. YET. But this whole book was pretty much born out of the fear of Robert attacking us. It could still happen. SBF was our way of warning him not too because we'd…um…write a comic book about it.
What was the question?
SG: The question was if we'd fight Kirkman. And the answer is, unequivocally, "yes!" I challenge him and a team of professional wrestlers of his choice to come at Jody and me GUNS BLAZING!
BC: Is it just members of the family Ursidae, that the shirtless bear fighter fights? Or does he also scroll through Grindr looking for victims? I have to say, he does seem to fit the image of the "bear" himself.
JL: When it comes to enemies of the ursine persuasion, Shirtless is an equal opportunity bear-fighter. NO BEARS ARE SAFE and ALL are complicit in having wronged him. Though as the story progresses Shirtless is going to have to come to terms with the fact the world isn't as simple and black and white as he'd like for it to be. Along the way expect bear-brawls galore! And colorful non-bear enemies as well! SBF's hatred of bears is really just the starting point for our hero.
To answer your question though, be on the lookout for issue #2 where we have a lot of fun with that idea.
SG: Shirtless was wronged by a certain group of bears, his anger at them is justified and understandable. But rage is a wildfire, and after years of stoking the flames, Shirtless is easily goaded into fighting ANY bears. Like, if he went to the circus and saw a dancing bear he'd drop his cotton candy, jump into the ring and start a bare-knuckle shuffle! And also he'd beat up some clowns while he's in there, because obviously!
BC: What about Koala bears? Would he still fight them? Or, since this is a fictional world, Winnie The Pooh? Or, as mentioned earlier, Robert Kirkman?
JL: Rich, I can see the gears turning as the scope of SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER! begins to dawn on you. Sky(bound?)'s the limit!
SG: Shirtless wouldn't, like, wait outside a school bus full of tiny bears going to school and punch each of them in the face as they came hopping out. He's not THAT far gone. So there are bears that are safe from his rage…as we'll see in issue #3 and beyond…but it sure doesn't take much to get on Shirtless' "Made me angry: must punch" list!
BC: How the hell did you persuade Nil Vendrell and Mike Spicer to get involved with this?
SG: You need perfect co-conspirators to pull off the perfect crime, and our whole creative team…Nil, Mike, "Fancy Dave" Lanphear, all our awesome cover artists, Jared Fletcher our logo designer…they're all geniuses.
JL: This is Nil's first long form comic and he's already a rock star. Shirtless Bear-battles, comedic timing, cartooning, acting…Nil can do it all. And he absolutely nails the emotional components of scenes. This is a book with a bear-sized heart of gold and much of that is due to Nil's incredible storytelling. Then Mike comes in with his killer colors and Dave with the off-kilter bounce of his letters…Those guys really set the tone for the whole book. Couldn't be happier with the work they've done.