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Conversation With A Craftsman: Steve Lightle Talks With Rob Vollmar
By Rob Vollmar
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As the comic industry continues its painful metamorphosis into the vessel shaped to contain the output of artists and writers in the 21st Century, one has to admire those individuals who have persevered through wave after wave of innovation and disaster by staying in the game.

One such veteran is famed artist and writer, Steve Lightle who has spent the last couple of years splitting his time between producing covers for the now legendary Mark Waid run on the Flash, and collaborating with his old partners-in-crime, Richard Ashford and Roy Thomas, on works inspired by Robert E. Howard at the innovative Cross Plains Comics.

Through the course of this interview, I received a clear glimpse of an articulate comics legend who appreciates the value of knowing the breadth of his craft, and how to apply that skill with diligence.

The story of Steve Lightle's entry in the comics field in the early '80s was an archetypal one for the era, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he continues to improve on the lessons of his youth, producing works of increasing complexity and depth. To whet the appetite for next week's release of Robert E. Howard's Horror from Cross Plains Comics, ladies and gentlemen...Steve Lightle.

Rob Vollmar: First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk with us and our readers. Let's start with a modicum of biographical info. Where and when were you born?

Steve Lightle: Kansas, late 1959.

RV: How early did you exhibit an interest/aptitude for drawing? Was there anything else you wanted to do growing up?

SL: I've always drawn. My father insists that he gave me an "art lesson" when I was two years old, and was surprised that I could draw better than he could. With encouragement like that, it was a done deal. At the age of thirteen, I decided that I wanted to be the youngest person ever to contribute to the comic field. Unfortunately, I found out soon after setting that goal that Jim Shooter was sending in LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES scripts at the age of fourteen. The pressure was too great, and I cracked. When I turned fourteen and hadn't drawn my first professional comic job yet, I felt that I had lost some kind of race with Jim Shooter.

RV: What type of training did you undergo in preparation for your career as an artist?

SL: When I was very young, I developed a training method that taught me a great appreciation for different art styles. I found some tracing paper and decided to place it over comics drawn by Neal Adams, Jack Kirby, and Frank Springer. Then I decided to use a #3 Sable brush and ink over samples from each artist. For some reason, I decided that, rather than just tracing, I should use the underlying drawings as a skeletal structure. I decided that I would try to interpret the stylistically disparate drawings in a style of my own. I'm not sure that I realized, at the time, what the effect would be.

What this taught me was that these artists each had unique strengths, and each one had a different thing to teach me. I think I only spent one afternoon with that exercise, but it was probably a turning point for me. I also drew what I saw on the black and white horror films that I loved. Later, I checked out hundreds of books from the local libraries ...anything that contained art. It could be French or Russian poster art, or photo collages, or Renaissance painters. I eventually took courses at the Nelson/Atkins museum and in college. By the time I was taking college art courses, I had already begun working in commercial art. Arriving as a commercial artist doesn't mean that you need to stop learning; in fact, there's always something new to learn, that's why art is so exciting.

RV: Was it helpful? If so, which parts prepared you the most?

SL: It was all helpful. Actually, I think that the best thing you can do is study EVERYTHING around you. There are art lessons everywhere, in classrooms and out.

RV: Was your family supportive of your decision to be an artist?

SL: My family was very encouraging, especially my mother, who had wanted to be a commercial artist herself. She was constantly creating something, whether it was a painting or some craftwork.

RV: You got your first work published in the DC New Talent Showcase. For the youngins in the audience (including myself to a degree), tell us a little about the New Talent Showcase and how you were noticed by its editors. Did it involve a personal contact with someone at DC or a blind submission?

SL: When my mother passed away, I decided to concentrate on the "real world" for a while. I bought a trailer and took on a full time job in a grocery store as a department manager, and two part time jobs. I cooked pizzas at one job, and at another I played retirement home handyman. I actually had a fourth job, doing a cartoon for a local newspaper, but that was the only art-related job I did.

After two years, I was feeling the stress caused by ignoring my art. During that time, I hadn't seen too many comics. Occasionally I'd pick one up, and I remember being impressed by the works of Frank Miller, George Perez, and John Byrne. I also noticed that people who had been my peers as comic fans had managed to break into the industry. I took the success of people like Kerry Gammill, Jerry Ordway, and John Beatty as a challenge, and I began to prepare submissions. I was very fortunate that DC Comics was in the midst of a talent search when I submitted my work.

RV: Pretty soon after that, you became a DC mainstay. Can you give us a short run-down of the DC books that you worked on and some of the writers that you were paired with?

SL: Well, on New Talent Showcase I worked with Rich Margoupolis. The people at DC promised to keep me busy, so they actually asked Rich to write more chapters featuring his New Talent Showcase character EKKO. Just as I was ready to start drawing that second multi-part story, they told me that they wanted me to do a fill-in issue of BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS (#10). I had always liked Batman as a character, and I enjoyed what Mike Barr and Jim Aparo had been doing on that book, so I was excited to get the chance to fill-in for Mr. Aparo.

Aside from getting to draw Batman, Black Lightning, and Metamorpho, which was exciting enough... I have two other fannish memories from that job. It was cool to get a chance to have my drawings of Metamorpho inked by Sal Trapani, who I knew from having seen his regular pencils and inks on the Metamorpho series from the sixties. The other cool moment was when a snowstorm made it impossible for Mr. Trapani to get some of my pages from DC, so Dick Giordano ghost-inked a few pages over my pencils.

I was told that the folks at DC liked the way I drew Batman, and so they asked me to draw a few issues of WORLD'S FINEST (written by David Kraft). They never did let me get back to that New Talent Showcase story. In fact, DC offered me lots more work than I could possibly do. I had to pass on a chance to work with Roy Thomas on his ALL-STAR SQUADRON and INFINITY INC. It was an exciting, whirlwind time, and before I knew what was happening, I was drawing the LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES.


RV: What was your favorite job at DC, in terms of the synergy between writer and artist?

SL: I was made to feel very welcome on LEGION, and since the characters had been favorites of mine consistently since childhood, it was a dream assignment. I can't say enough good about Paul Levitz, who encouraged me to be involved in every aspect of the book and its characters. He could have been very protective of his characters and kept me at arm's length, but instead he allowed me to suggest plotlines and create new Legionnaires. If I could only talk Paul into writing more, I'd gladly do the whole thing over again.

RV: Were you doing Marvel books as well or was there a point of transition between the Big Two for you?

SL: There was a period when I began to do work for both Marvel and DC Comics. I would draw a LEGION cover, then an X-MEN cover, then an AVENGERS cover, and back to the LEGION, with maybe a stopover for an interior job, like the X-FACTOR issue I did with Tom Defalco and Louise Simonson.

RV: Was it a big shift for you, as the artist, switching between the Marvel and DC scripting styles?

SL: Not at all. In fact, all those issues of LEGION, and even the WORLD'S FINEST issues were scripted in the "Marvel" style. It's only called that because it was popularly used at Marvel first, but it is really the industry standard.

In a "Marvel style" script, you draw the issue from a loose plot rather than a detailed script. After the art is completed, the scripter writes the final dialogue, sometimes incorporating script suggestions from the artist.

RV: If you had your druthers, which style would you request and why?

SL: Hands down...I'd choose Marvel style rather than working from a full script. I've always considered myself a storyteller, and I prefer the freedom of working from a loose plot. On occasion, I've even drawn comics based on phone conversations with the writer or editor. It's the next best thing to writing the whole thing yourself, which is my favorite way to go.

RV: You are as well known in the industry as a top-notch cover artist, despite your impressive history as a sequential artist. How did this become part of your repertoire?

SL: At some point, a few months after I had left the LEGION, I was asked to return to the book in some form. Though, at the time, I felt I shouldn't try to draw the interiors again, I was happy to do the covers for a book that I had enjoyed since childhood. From there I was offered the covers of a LEGION spin-off book, THE WANDERERS. I'm not really sure how I ended up doing covers for DAREDEVIL, FLASH, X-FACTOR, AVENGERS SPOTLIGHT, POWER PACK, TEEN TITANS, CONAN ... I just accepted most challenges that came my way. Whenever an editor asked me to contribute a cover to a new book, I just jumped at the chance to do something new and exciting.

RV: Do you have to call upon a different muse to create the perfect cover, as opposed to sequential work?

SL: Yes, that's what makes it such a fun challenge. Although there is an element of communication and storytelling in every drawing, covers are much more immediate. A good cover is all about grabbing the viewer's attention and intriguing him or her enough to want to know more. You want to pose a question in the viewer's mind. Hopefully it's a question that they can find answered inside the book.

RV: Who would you suggest aspiring cover artists study, in order to develop their understanding of the craft?

SL: You should notice the things that command your attention. What kind of things grab your eye?

Reading a comic story can sometimes be like experiencing the many subtle effects of a storm, but a cover should be like a bolt of lightning. It should be powerful and should stand out from everything around it. Sometimes you need to take the other books that surround your book into consideration. A cannonball in a mound of cannonballs doesn't stand out... but surround a single black ball by a hundred white ones and your eye will be drawn to it.

RV: What were your favorite covers that you have rendered and why do they stick out from the others to you?

SL: A successful cover is one that stands out from among other comics, like the cover to the upcoming book, Robert E. Howard's Horror. It's just a painting of a dark, bloody axe, dripping blood against a black void. A favorite cover though, might have more to do with a feeling of accomplishment, or some bit of fun that attached itself to the drawing.

I really enjoyed drawing a recent cover of the FLASH {#161}, which was a tribute to the Golden Age. I got to imagine myself as an artist from that era, and try to approach the composition and rendering from a different perspective. For similar reasons, I have a fondness for a MIGHTY MOUSE cover that I drew some years ago.

RV: I would like to talk about Cross Plains. You had done some work with Roy Thomas on Conan at Marvel. Did your relationship with Cross Plains Comics evolve from that?

SL: Although Roy suggested long ago that we should work on a CONAN graphic novel, and I did draw a small handful of CONAN covers, I suspect that the biggest factor was my association with Richard Ashford, who is managing editor of Cross Plains Comics. Richard and I had gotten to know each other while he edited Marvel Comics Presents. We had a very friendly working relationship while I was doing WOLVERINE stories for that book. While working with Richard as my editor, I co-plotted stories with Ann Nocenti, created new characters, and even got my first solo writing credit.


RV: Your framing sequences for Wolfshead are wonderfully dark and very stylish. Was that look something that was discussed between you and Roy, or did that evolve as you began the character design?

SL: It's very important to me that my art changes to suit whatever my subject requires. I wouldn't dream of drawing a horror story in the same way that I would draw a SUPERBOY story. Artwork is the tool that you use to convey your story, and you wouldn't use a saw to drive a nail, or a hammer to cut glass. I was just trying to establish a style that uniquely suited that story. I'm glad to hear that it worked for you.

RV: Can you tell us anything about the Wolfshead piece coming out in Robert E. Howard's Horror this August from Cross Plains? Did you write as well as illustrate it?

SL: Yes, I wrote, penciled, inked and lettered that one...I'll have to bear the blame all by myself. The goal I set was to create a horror story with real suspense. Usually in comics, because it is such a visual medium, the horror stories hinge on shocking drawings of monsters or gory images. Those things are easy to do in comics, but suspense is much harder to pull off. You will have to look at the story and let me know if you think I succeeded or not.

RV: I also mightily enjoyed the recent Red Sonja reboot. Your style for that is very different than the Wolfshead piece, more reminiscent of the glory days of fantasy comics in the '70s. Was it pretty fun to draw?

SL: I avoided using too stylized of an approach with Red Sonja, because I wanted the reader to feel like her foreign world could be real. I put in details that weren't necessary in the modern day setting of the Wolfshead story. It was important to me that the Hyborian age of Red Sonja be as believable as possible. It was very fun to draw. A good challenge can be really invigorating.

RV: Were you thinking of any other artists in particular to capture that vibe?

SL: Not consciously. Richard says that it reminded him of Hal Raymond, and though I'm flattered by the comparison, I'm not sure I see it.

RV: After the horror story in August, what can a Steve Lightle fan expect to see from you in the next year or so to come?

SL: At the moment I am drawing a full-length story for the FLASH. I have also been talking to interested editors, both mainstream and independent, about various covers. There are other bigger projects that I am tempted to talk about, but it might be best to work out what kind of schedules those projects will have first. I will say that my experiences with Cross Plains Comics have whetted my appetite, and I am anxious to pursue other original projects. I intend to focus more on projects that allow me opportunities as a writer, as well as an artist. There are science-fiction and horror related projects that are demanding to be told, and I fully intend to make room in my work schedule for an increasing amount of graphic storytelling.

RV: Thank you for your time. Do you have any website addresses where fans can see authorized scans of your work?

SL: Yes I do. I would like to invite everyone to visit: Lightle Gallery

Thank you for a very pleasant interview, and don't forget to check out my story, "Beast of the Arkansas Woods" in ROBERT E. HOWARD's HORROR. It should be available on August 11th.



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