Unlike other kids who were merely horrified that their moms had thrown away their beloved comic book collections, Brett Breeding got the best revenge: He began working in the industry, for both Marvel and DC comics. Forty years later, the comic book illustrator’s name means something and sets a standard.
For those who dismiss Spider-Man, Superman and Wonder Women as juvenile entertainment, Breeding says, “From reading comics as a kid, I got a sense of good writing and speaking. I became a more engaged reader. I learned a stronger vocabulary from comics, which used college-level words. When my family got tired of me asking what those challenging words meant, they bought me a dictionary for Christmas.”
After reading Fantastic Voyage in school, Breeding was further tossed into the world of engaging writing and fantasy, as well as good dialogue between characters. His real focus, however, was on the visual art. Drawing inspiration from Saturday morning cartoons and his own comic collection, he began sketching and doodling all the time, on everything—even the desks at school.
“I also learned a lot of good lessons from comics, and I never forgot the words, ‘With great power there must also come great responsibility’—which came out of the origin issue of Spider-Man,” he says. “Reading these stories made me want to be a better person.” Comics have had a sly way of having their stories and heroes on the pulse of politics. During World War II, more than half of American soldiers were reading how their comic heroes were also fighting Nazis. Black Panther became a hero in 1966 at the height of the civil rights movement. Iron Man came out during the Vietnam War. During periods of great unrest, Batman, Captain America and a host of other heroic characters gave readers the justice they sought.
“Many of the [movies and TV shows] we’ve seen today are based on comics: Men in Black, Road to Perdition, The Walking Dead. This isn’t just about superheroes; this is quality storytelling. Harry Potter could have started as a comic,” Breeding notes.
As for the artwork, he wants you to think about what you’re seeing. “I’m not just drawing superheroes,” Breeding points out. “I’m drawing men in suits, women in dresses, cars, buildings and people engaged in different ways with one another. …Do I draw the character in profile or in full face, and what is that expression? Do I draw the whole character or not? Are there other characters in that panel? Are the characters holding things? How are they moving? What kind of backgrounds am I drawing? What’s in them? Where is the letterer going to put the word balloons and sound effects? There’s much to consider.”
Putting together a comic book is teamwork. The pencil artist breaks the story down into a page of panels, generally in detail, but as pencil doesn’t go to print, that page is now handed to the inker who embellishes those lines in India ink. That’s Breeding.
“You could give the same page of pencils to four different inkers and come away with four different interpretations of that same pencil drawing,” he says. “Each one could see the lines and shadings just a bit differently, each one creating a different impact.”
Consider also that a comic book is generally 22 pages, and each page has between one and nine panels, occasionally more. That’s 22 to over 100 individual panels of artwork, each one demanding that the artist bring his imagination to the table. Whereas a painter or author may have years to finish a piece of work, comic books come out monthly, so there are also demanding deadlines in play.
“You could give the same page of pencils to four different inkers and come away with four different interpretations of that same pencil drawing.”
“People think that what I do is a natural talent,” says Breeding, “but it’s hard work, and the learning never stops. It’s been a lifetime of study, observation and practice every day. After 42 years in this business, I’m still trying to draw a better hand.”
Much has changed in the world of comics. Colorists have seen their palettes grow from 64 colors to 16 million-plus with digital coloring. Comic book conventions have gone from being about the artists to being about the stars who played those heroes in the movies. Fans who used to cobble together an outfit for cosplay now often create costumes of such intricate detail that some are hired by Hollywood filmmakers.
While many of Breeding’s original works are in the homes of comic collectors, some are bought and then sold again at auctions as a commodity. Private commissions are sometimes a recreation of a cover he once did and sometimes a panel of a favorite character. His works have been seen on everything from candy bars to cruise ships.
For the past 15 years, he’s been involved in licensing and marketing and has created catalogs of images to be used on products or in packaging, drawing villains and major characters in different poses. Companies can buy a license to have access to that catalog and use those images on everything from cookies to beach towels. A catalog of his Justice League illustrations was created for Mattel for its packaging on a line of action figures.
“In this business, you’re only as good as your last job,” Breeding points out. “And I treat every job as if it were my last job.”