Legendary comic book inker Brett Breeding met fans at Rhode Island Comic Con 2021 all weekend long. He took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to Conskipper about his iconic run on Superman, his career in the comics industry, and his brand new Marvel covers.
How did you first get started in the comic book industry?
Brett Breeding: I started right out of high school. I met Bob Layton at a local comic convention. I came across him again at the local mall several months later. He was in need of an assistant so I started doing work for him on his run on Iron Man. After a year or so of working for him I started doing work for other people at Marvel. I did background work for people like Joe Sinnott and Al Milgrom. And then I eventually started getting work on my own. Len Wein hired me to do work at DC Comics. After about a year of working at DC I started getting more offers from Marvel and did more work there. And the rest is history, as they say!
Your run on Superman with Dan Jurgens is legendary and beloved by fans. How did you end up working with Dan on Superman? What was your collaborative process like, and why do you think you two made such a good team?
Breeding: I was hired to work with George Perez on Superman and I started off working with Kerry Gammill because George was gearing up for his return to Action Comics. George decided he didn’t want to continue the Superman book as planned, and that left an opening that Dan Jurgens ended up filling. Mike Carlin decided he wanted to pair me up with Dan. I had done a few fill ins with Dan early on. So Carlin moved me to work with Dan, and this was right around the time we were revealing Superman and Lois’ engagement. It was kind of an odd change, but that’s what the editor wanted. I guess he just liked the way we worked together. Primarily, we didn’t really communicate other than at regular meetings or an occasional note back and forth about how we liked the work. We didn’t collaborate directly on the books on any kind of a regular basis. He would turn in his work, Carlin would send it to me, I would ink the work, and I would send it back in.
But there was definitely some magic there going on with these pages!
Breeding: I guess from the readers’ standpoint, maybe. A lot of people liked the work that we did together. For me, I feel like it was just working with another penciler. We meshed. It was a good pairing. Not all pairings are. There’s other pencilers who I think I pair well with, and others where we didn’t mesh… not to say that they’re not great artists. I later got paired with Tom Grummett on Superman: Man of Tomorrow, and I just didn’t think that we were as good of a fit. I thought Doug Hazlewood and Karl Kesel were better fits for his type of penciling. I did the best job I could but it just didn’t feel like a natural fit. For Dan, I know what to do with his work. I feel comfortable with Dan’s stuff. Ron Frenz is a penciler that I work with an awful lot. And his stuff is very reminiscent of what I would like to do myself. So it’s just a real comfortable pairing. I enjoyed working with Kerry Gammill immensely. Kerry was penciling his work and it had the feel like he was looking for a Tom Palmer look to it, and Tom Palmer was one of my influences. So that felt very natural. For me and Dan, it just all felt natural. It didn’t feel like this was anything more special at the time. It just worked. It was comfortable and it was easy, and fortunately it was accepted by the fans.
The impact of The Death of Superman on fans, collectors, and the comic book industry as a whole is well documented. What I’d like to know, however, is what was the greatest impact The Death of Superman had on you personally as one of its creators?
Breeding: A lot of people don’t realize that Superman was not really popular and didn’t have good sales before this. We were at cancelation numbers at one point. We couldn’t get any of our stories turned into trade paperbacks. Superman didn’t sell. He was a loss leader for the company. So we got to do stories that we really wanted to do as the result of The Death of Superman. There was a lot of creative energy that went into it. Everybody was really positive about the books. The Death of Superman came out of the need at the last minute to find a story to slot in place of the wedding issue. Issue #75 was originally meant to be the wedding. And because of the TV show, Lois & Clark, DC and Mike Carlin wanted to hold off on that. So we got together and we plotted The Death of Superman not even sure that they’d let us do it. It came out of spitballing ideas at our three or four day meeting. We didn’t think anything of it. We weren’t sure what we were going to do. We actually toyed with the idea that we might not bring Clark and those characters back. Certainly DC is going to need a Superman, but this was an opportunity to totally revamp it and do something different. Because people weren’t buying what’s been around for 60 years. We thought maybe we could find something else. So The Death of Superman came out, and the day it hit the stands it was such a huge media sensation. It was nuts. I mean, I was on CNN that morning and I was in the mall with probably 3,000 people filling up the food court to buy those books. And all four Philadelphia local news stations were there. We didn’t expect any of it. I kept getting phone calls from people who got my name from private records, and I was like, “I’m unlisted, how did you get my number?” And we were getting death threats. It was wild. It was like going from total obscurity to right into the spotlight. Some of it was kind of cool. Some of it was not (laughs).
I guess for me, the biggest impact is here I am— it’s going to be 30 years next November— and when I’m stopped at shows I’m primarily remembered for and signing these books I did 30 years ago. It’s had lasting staying power. The number of people who come up to me at every show and say The Death of Superman is what got me started in comics is amazing. I hear that at every show from multiple people. We started with a book with cancellation numbers and we increased comic book readership… not just on Superman. We brought new people to reading comics and collecting comics. It’s almost easier to see now the impact it had because it’s so much later. At the time it was a big thing for a short while. And the first year was crazy. Superman was selling better and was popular after that, so we maintained that. I’d like to think that it wasn’t just because we had this idea. We were doing good stories before that that people were discovering. For the most part we had the same pool of creators on that book for 10-12 years. You’ll never see that again. And there was a consistency to the books and coordination that really lent itself to good, story storytelling. And some of the best storytellers in the business were working on it. It really was a magical time to be in comics and on those books. There won’t ever be anything like it again.
We had so many talented people working on it and everybody was included. Mike Carlin set an environment where everyone was included in the meetings and contributed ideas and got to do things they wanted to do. Even the colorists… all the inkers, all the pencilers. And that sense of being part of the team really fed everybody to do their best work and come up with the best product that we could. It wasn’t just another job. We felt at the time like we were in a very special environment, and we appreciated it.
Some comic book fans might not know that your artistic talents aren’t exclusive to the world of comics. What can you tell me about your experiences with nature photography?
Breeding: I was doing nature photography full time for a while. I just bought a new camera so I have to start playing around with it again. It’s not the kind of business that you could support a family on, unfortunately. Nobody wants to pay for pictures anymore. They all want them for free. Photography equipment is very expensive, and then you’ve got to travel, and then you’ve got to find the wildlife and it all adds up. To recoup that is impossible. The only people I believe are really doing it are the people who are teaching workshops. At some point these big catalog companies started buying up catalogs of images. I did a lot of workshops in the beginning with someone who is a premier person in the field. You get a lot of doctors and pilots and lawyers who have disposable cash. The equipment doesn’t mean anything to them. They’re learning to take great pictures because they have the best equipment. They’re traveling in workshops with some of the best people. Opportunity is one of the biggest things. These guys aren’t siting somewhere waiting for something to happen. They’re already set up for it. They have work that’s up there with some of the best photographers, but they don’t have that feeling of “Oh, I just want to be published.” Comic book guys when they’re starting out, they’re not worried about “Oh, you’ve got to pay me.” They just see, “I’m going to be published!” That’s an allure to people. So I found these guys who were just like, “Yeah you could use my picture.” And then the publishers are saying, “There are people who are willing to give me just as good of work for free, so why should I pay somebody for it?” It costs thousands and thousands of dollars ultimately to produce those images. The final year I was really making an effort to do it, I had three states contact me that year because I had my pictures in the catalog through the National Wildlife Refuge Association. All three of them were doing calendars for their fish and wildlife, farming or agricultural programs. Not one of them was offering anything for their pictures. Not even a processing fee. They would say there was no money allocated for the photos. Who’s getting the money? The guy who’s pasting numbers in little boxes? It was ridiculous to me.
Comic book guys get the same thing. “Oh, can you do this for me? I don’t have any money but think of the exposure you’re going to get!” Exposure doesn’t put food on my table. I have a friend who had a dentist who wanted him to do work for his practice. He said he could give my friend great exposure. My friend was like, “Okay, hey I need a filling! Can you do it for free? I’ll tell all my friends you did a great job!” When you put it in those terms, it’s like: don’t you people get it? An artist is someone trying to make a living. When you’re just starting out, you can build a portfolio by offering free and reduced priced work. But at some point you’ve got to charge.
Are there any ways where you felt like you were able to apply your talent and experience in comic book artwork towards taking good nature photographs? In which ways do these different artforms intersect?
Breeding: I think that all creative processes have some overlap on some level. I went to a vocational high school, and in the course of that program we studied photography, printing, separating the printing plates, setting type, doing dark room work. When I got into comics one of the first things I started doing— because I understood the printing process so well— was color codes on comics. These are easy to do now because a computer does all the coloring. But back then you had to set up your artwork a certain way and request the different colored plates to get the colors you wanted to achieve. I started doing Green Lantern’s ring and editors loved it because it was something different that people weren’t really doing. They could do it on covers easier, but it wasn’t something you saw in the books very much. That inspiration and knowledge all came from other stuff that I never planned to use on comics.
Where comics and photography overlap for me, is that I use photography for reference. If I need to reference something I could go photograph it. In photography, especially when you’re doing wildlife, the difference between a good image and a bad image is no different for the both of them. If you ever saw John Buscema’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, he shows you a series of figures that are extreme. The ones that are the most dynamic are the best. You don’t want Doctor Doom just standing still with his arms at his side. You want him in an expressive pose. You don’t just want a guy punching. You want him leaning into it. It’s the same thing with wildlife photography. You don’t want the animal just standing there. You want to capture the tension in his body when he’s moving. That makes for more interesting images. Because I was aware from drawing what made a better image, I was able to look for it through the lens when I was watching the subject and say, “That’s the shot I want!” He’s just getting ready to leap or there’s some kind of tension there that comes through. There is an overlap.
What kinds of upcoming projects are you currently working on that your fans can look forward to reading soon?
Breeding: I’m back working with Dan Jurgens for Marvel this time. It’s the first time we’ve worked together in 25 years. It’s the first time we’ve worked together at Marvel. We’re doing a series of variant covers. There have been ten or eleven so far. We’re doing a lot of number one issues that Marvel is getting ready to publish… Hulk, Captain America/Iron Man, The Many Deaths of Wolverine, Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom. I just got assigned to another Wolverine cover and Magneto #4. We did Amazing Spider-Man #79, which is coming up in a couple months. I just did the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #75 with Ron Frenz. There’s also a page out there I did with Ron. There’s a Fantastic Four issue where they’re using the old scripts and having different artists do a page and finishing it. So I did a page in there. Even though it’s Fantastic Four, the page has Hawkeye and Spider-Man fighting Enchantress and Executioner. Finally, there is a new mini-series that J. M. DeMatteis is writing based on Ben Riley’s Spider-Man. He’s in a new costume. Dan and I are doing the covers for that.