Let’s get to know Brian Level a little better!
Where are you from, where did you grow up?
I’m from the “Black Swamp” area of Northwestern Ohio. Near Toledo or Cedar Point/Lake Erie if that’s any help at all. I grew up in a few very small towns. One had a single-streetlight-downtown. It was incredibly small but a great place to grow up.
Do you have any formal art training?
Yeah I suppose so. I took art classes in High School and 3 semesters of Art-related courses in college until I dropped out. Everything else is kinda learned from books, colleagues, or failures.
What’s the first thing you can remember drawing?
I remember coloring before anything. I used to enter coloring contests as a kid whenever I saw them. As far as drawing, I remember laying on my dad’s garage floor with a stack of paper drawing larger versions of the trading cards that MARVEL was putting out at the time. Arthur Adams was just killing it on those things! Haha. I remember drawing a Cap vs. Baron Zemo pretty distinctly. I strangely also remember that I had a terrible nightmare the prior evening. Not relevant, but I still remember being jarred by the dream as I was drawing Zemo pointing his gun at Cap in a control room or something. I don’t really want to look the card up now, for fear or spoiling the memory haha!
Tools of the trade…what are your favorite “go to” tools. Pencils, pens, inks, paper, paint, etc…what are we guaranteed to find at your drawing table?
I’m a brush man – and a cheap man. I use cheap round 0 brushes for most everything except filling in blacks. I also use Pitt pens for super tiny/mechanical stuff, and the occasional Prismacolor Tech Pen. Quills if I’m feeling randy. Brush pens if I’m under the gun. White out and photoshop if I suck. I love Dr PH Marten’s Black Star ink as well as their Bombay Black. Paper? Bristol that I rule myself because I tend to work smaller than most people. I do a lot of layouts digitally.
Do you have extensive reference files or does it [your art] mostly come from your head?
I do! Reference is pretty imperative for me at times. The ins and outs of everything in life just isn’t stored in my head. I’m not going to just draw a deer without at least looking at one first. I also keep reference art too. Style, storytelling, clarity, page composition, action. All of those things are hugely important to me, so I collect material to go back to if I feel stuck or just need a muse.
Who are your art heroes? Who’s work do you pull the most inspiration from?
As far as all-around art, Rembrandt Van Rijn is my favorite artist that has ever lived. He just seemed so irreverent and impossibly talented. The sculptor Bernini, Gustave Dore, Albrecht Durer. There is something so melancholy about these three that I love. I’m not trying to be punny in saying that (regarding Durer’s “Melancholi I”). It’s just something I am sucked into. I adore Alphonse Mucha, but who doesn’t? J.C. Leyendecker, Frazetta, Hokusai, Yoshitoshi…I could go forever.
Comic artists would be guys like, Alex Raymond and Al Williamson. I LOVE those guys. Mazzucchelli is a top 3 artist for me. JH Williams is ridiculous. Mignola is untouchable. King Kirby is whole reason I love the Black Panther. Old Frank Miller. Tim Sale. John Romita Jr., David Aja, Mike Zeck, Shawn Martinbrough, Mike Oeming, Marc Silvestri, Ron Garney. Lee Weeks, if you asked, is probably my favorite working comic artist and has also become a dear friend. I could say the same for Stefano Gaudiano. He’s an amazing person that makes it looks so easy.
A similar, but different question, what artists have had the most influence on your own work?
I draw TONS of inspiration from tattooers (being my job and all). Older dudes I always go back to for reference would be Owen Jensen, Percy Waters, Sailor Jerry Collins. Filip Leu may be the best there ever was… Horiyoshi III is my go-to for traditional Japanese. Newer tattooers that blow me away consistently are Mike Rubendall, Genko, Jeff Zuck. Shawn McDonald, Mike Dorsey. I’m always looking at what these guys are doing and then freak out at how much catch-up I have to do.
Comics is another beast I suppose. You can probably see some Lee Weeks. Most prevalent influences would probably be guys like Gabe Hardman, Sean Phillips, and Michael Lark. Mignola. Chaykin. Maybe a little Butch Guice and Steve Epting. Some Shawn Martinbrough (who’s instructional book was so great). Mitchell Breitweiser. Patch Zircher. Chris Samnee. It’s hard to pick out who makes you…
Funny because people on several occasions have asked me if I’m influenced by John Severin or Charlie Adlard (never in the same sentence). Both artists I regard very highly. They are both super talented. I have several old Severin’s stories from GI Combat that are so cool. I can see the comparisons people make about my art but the reality is I’ve never cracked the books for reference. Kinda funny.
A current miniseries I’m working on called The Tattooer is particularly close to me. My pal Nikola Jajic has taken on script duties after wading through my scatterbrained plot and it’s freed me to really dive into two worlds at once. It’s just terribly personal and challenging. I’m thrilled to see when it’s completed.
Script. Completely. I read it and allow it all to play out like I’m sitting there static. It’s like reading novels for me. I start alone in a gray room. Everything that happens in script fills in that gray. Characters, environments, props, smells, etc. then I get the feel/tone of the scene and light it then move the camera around.
But before I do anything on the board, I do small thumbnails trying to nail down a good page flow with all the information I just downloaded. They’re generally 2×3” and done pretty fast so i don’t lose steam.
Nah. Anything could happen, but I doubt it.
What advice would you give to young people who want to follow your steps?
Work your ass off. Remain kind and teachable.
Are you working on any projects now?
I’m tearing through this super-rad revenge/road-trip/exploitation story called The Brothers James. Ryan Ferrier is writing an insane ride through rural America. I’m just holding on! The Tattooer is slower going but still very important to me.
I also run CHALLENGER COMICS with Ryan Ferrier. There are all sorts of cool free and pay comics on there. We have a huge passion for collaboration, creating, and self-publishing so this serves us and others well. It’s become a really cool collective of folks trying to push unique and unrestrained material. It’s a blast to watch it all go!