Arts Desk

Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with Rob Steibel

Robert Steibel recently let me know about Wild Life, his new webcomic. It turns out that Steibel is yet another University of Maryland cartoonist alumni and has recently returned to both the area and to comics. Steibel's going to work in the single-panel format, and writes that "Wild Life is the umbrella title for four separate ideas. "Hairballs: starring the kittens Scratch and Sniff; FaceSpace: featuring politicians, celebrities, and regular people; Crazy Tales: experiments; and New Genesis: a collection of my new characters and stories." Before returning to drawing cartoons himself, Steibel was blogging about the great comic book artist Jack Kirby for the past year. Steibel took some time on New Year's Day to answer our standard questions, including a long thoughtful answer to the future of comics question.

Washington City Paper: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

Robert Steibel: I did some cartooning during the late '80s and early '90s for local businesses and publications like the University of Maryland Diamondback. They published Day Dreams, Maryland Madness, and The Cutting Edge. I also did some comics work for the Ocean City, Maryland papers — The Pseudo-Locals for The Beachcomber, Beach Bummers for The Coconut Times, and Beach Patrol for Oceana.

After I graduated from Maryland, I lost interest in comics. I didn't see a future for the medium—newspaper comics were already microscopic and I didn't foresee being able to make a full-time living as a freelance comic book creator—so aside from sketching for fun, I haven't done any official cartooning for almost 20 years.

WCP: How do you do it? Are you working with pen and ink, or electronically, or a mixture?

RS: I'm just learning how to do digital comics, so as of now I do the basic illustrations with pen and ink with some color added (from colored pencils, markers, watercolors); then I dump the artwork into the Comic Life program where I add the word balloons; finally I add digital color and some minor changes with Gimp (which you can download for free online). I'm hoping to try new combinations once I get rolling. Each comic takes about an hour, and I think it shows, so eventually I want to spend a little more time on each new piece and work towards a more professional look.

WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

RS: I was born in Baltimore the year the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper – 1967.

WCP: Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?

RS: I moved to Florida in 1991, but in addition to all the devastating hurricanes the recession has been smashing the sunshine state like a tsunami, so last year I moved back to the DC/Maryland area. Right now I'm in Laurel.

WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

RS: I took some advertising/design classes at the University of Maryland, but the art supplies were so expensive I changed my major to Film. Anything I learned about drawing I picked up from eyeballing the work of my favorite artists and looking at photographs.

WCP: Who are your influences?

RS: I read several of the Charles Schulz Peanuts paperbacks in the early 70s. When I was 7-years old I drew a homemade comic book with a character named "Barkle" who looked just like Snoopy. In my early teens, I loved watching the old Warner Brothers cartoons on WDCA Channel 20 (anyone out there remember Captain 20?), Chuck Jones' animation work was phenomenal. The Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry cartoons were terrific. '70s Marvel Comics were another big influence, especially the art in the Fantastic Four reprints by Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott. Kirby's abstract architecture, explosive cosmic imagery, and relentless work ethic continue to be a huge inspiration. Mort Drucker's work in Mad Magazine was absolutely hilarious. In my late teens, Berkely Breathed's Bloom County was a favorite. I used to visit my Grandmother in Illinois every summer and my Mom would clip the Bloom County dailies out of the Washington Post and send them to me.

WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

RS: I wish I had embraced new digital illustration technologies much sooner — I just learned how to do basic coloring using Gimp last month — so I have a lot of ground to make up if I want to compete with the other 20,000 + print and online comics cartoonists. I spent the last two decades working at Universal Studios in Orlando, then I finished a Master's in English Education at the University of Central Florida, so I never had enough free time to do any drawing, or learn how to paint with a program like Photoshop — now I'm beginning that process, which is a fun challenge to tackle.

WCP: What work are you best-known for?

RS: I did a 16mm short film in college called the Anti-Climax for the University of Maryland Health Center focused on promoting safe sex. Every now and then someone mentions the scene where the character called the Masked Condom is talking about "the birds and the bees," then a huge bee buzzes around him. People ask, "How did you get that bee do that?" They're always disappointed when I explain the bee just happened to fly by and was attracted to the yellow condom-costume, so it was an accident — I was actually waving the Masked Condom at the bee so it wouldn't sting me. I recently uploaded a video of the Anti-Climax to YouTube (part 1 and part 2). You can see some Tex Avery influence in that quick animation dream sequence in the beginning.

WCP: What work are you most proud of?

RS: I wouldn't say I'm "proud" of my new project because I'm just getting started and I have no idea where it will lead, but I try and take pride in everything I do, so hopefully I'll be pleased with the final results of Wild Life. I figure once I've done the first 800 comics that will make for a nice 200-page book, then I'll be able to see if the project has potential.

WCP: What would you like to do or work on in the future?

RS: Right now, I want to experiment with the single frame comic format to explore some of the ideas I've collected over the years using the Wild Life template. I never even considered doing a single-panel comic before because it's difficult to do any kind of really in-depth characterization, but I think the format works incredibly well online, especially for readers on the move who view information on a handheld device like a Blackberry, iPod, or cell phone.
Eventually I may do a traditional four-panel daily and a Sunday, but I think consistently doing a really beautiful strip like Walt Kelly's Pogo or Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes would require a tremendous time investment.

I'd love to work on an animated film project or a live action movie featuring some of my characters — but who wouldn't — that's become the new American dream for millions of artists and writers. Working for an organization like the Washington Post Writers Group would also be a dream come true — my Grandparents have been loyal subscribers since the 1950s when the Post was The Washington Post and Times-Herald — but I know it's difficult to get a deal with any syndicate these days, although I think there will always be a market for innovative, funny daily comics, so I'm going to dive into the genre.

WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

RS: Writer's block has never been a problem for me, but sometimes I do find it challenging to make a logical connection between two totally unrelated ideas — when that's the case, I just put the work aside for a half-hour, go for a walk, juggle the possibilities in my head, then get back to the task. When I worked for the Writing Center at the University of Central Florida I always advised students to discuss their writing projects with a friend or family member if they had major writer's block — it's amazing how student writers can almost always work out the problems themselves if they verbalize the obstacles they're trying to overcome.

WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?

RS: It's impossible to predict the future, but here's my guess: in my opinion, the comics medium is an incredibly effective way to quickly and inexpensively communicate an infinite number of ideas to a wide variety of readers, so I think over time more and more people will combine images and text in a sequence to tell a story or send a message via a "comic." Right now I'll guess there are around 20,000 webcomics. In 10 years, I suspect there might be 100,000.  Maybe more. In the far distant future? There may be millions.

I would not be at all surprised to see future generations of elementary school kids taking a class on how to produce digital comics (learning how to insert text into a word balloon, placing that on a digital drawing, then pasting that image onto a panel-grid) in the same way many of us were taught how to write the alphabet with a pencil inside the printed horizontal lines on a piece of paper. So I think the real question is going to become: How will future comics creators reach a significant number of readers when there are exponentially more online comics out there competing for attention, almost all of which are available for free? We'll probably see some online gatekeeper emerge, a sort of amazon.com of comics, who selects and promotes new material and offers it online for a fee. I'm sure less people are going to publish and purchase hard copies of all types of books, but eventually some exceptional new talents will surely rise to the surface and we'll see a handful of brilliant, visionary comics creators receiving national and international accolades for their published comics work, although I predict it's going to become increasingly difficult for all storytellers in any medium to make a full-time living producing any kind of commercial art, especially in print.

I think the real future of communication is going to be in multi-media where individuals express themselves using an audio-visual synthesis of film, animation, photography, music, soundeffects, illustrations, digital graphics, and text, so chances are comics will simply be one weapon in the arsenal of every person who wants to express themselves using a home computer. If we don't destroy ourselves with nukes, the future looks really bright for anyone young-or-old who wants to harness technology in order to explore their imagination, and I think comics will be part of everyone's creative toolbox of the future.

WCP: What's your favorite thing about D.C.?

RS: After two decades living in Florida, now I'm like a tourist when I go to the National Mall, snapping photos of the memorials with my digital camera. I have a much greater appreciation for the historical significance of the city and the landmarks and feel very lucky to be living in this part of the country. The main thing I like about DC are the conversations with friends, family, and new acquaintances — people who live and work in the metro area are incredibly knowledgeable and insightful when it comes to current events and politics.

WCP: Least favorite?

RS: Can't Democrats and Republicans figure out some way to work together?

WCP: What monument or museum do you take most out-of-town guests to?

RS: My favorite spot is standing on the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking towards the Washington Monument, especially on a sunny day when you can see the clouds shimmering in the reflecting pool. I love the DC museums on a rainy day, so many remarkable masterpieces, but if the weather's nice I like to go outside and walk around town until someone in our group gets tired, then it's time to go catch a Nationals game.

WCP: Do you have a website or blog?

RS: I just started a website at robertsteibel.com. I also have a daily weblog at the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center called Kirby Dynamics.

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