“Art and Comics were Simultaneous:” John Bivens on Art and The Devil’s Red Bride

The Devil’s Red Bride is a new series from Vault from writer Sebastian Girner, line artist John Bivens, colorist Iris Monahan, and letterer Jeff Powell, with its first issue recently dropping in comic shops everywhere. As revealed in my recent podcast with Girner, I was a big fan of the first issue, and Bivens’ art was a big part of the reason why. Equally adept at gore and storytelling – gorytelling? – Bivens is a perfect fit for a samurai story steeped in family.

So, with that in mind, we had to chat, and chat we did. Bivens and I put together a conversation about his background as an artist, being part of the Minnesota art studio World Monster HQ, how The Devil’s Red Bride came together, and more, before we break down several pages from the first issue to talk about how he makes the magic happen.

Give it a read below, and if you dig it, make sure to give The Devil’s Red Bride a read. It’s a good one!

Let’s start at the beginning: what came first for you, art or comics, and how did your love of both lead to where you are now?

John Bivens: Wow… thinking about it, art and comics were simultaneous for me. I came up with a large extended family; with a brother, cousins, and uncles that had creative talent they put towards a variety of things. At the same time there were always a bunch of old comics laying around. Depending on what family I went to visit, there would be Marvel and DC superheroes, Archie digests, Warren magazines, or MAD/Cracked publications. Being exposed to all that had me sending submission packets to Marvel by the time I was 14 (many rejection letters with Spider-man swinging in the corner).

Did you have any schooling on the art side, or were you mostly self-taught? If the latter, what were your big touchstones to figure out the artist you wanted to be?

JB: Early I was self-taught, and was lucky to have supportive parents. They would get me books like Drawing Comics the Marvel Way, Dynamic Anatomy/Shading, and The Pen & Ink Book by Jos Smith. 

Once I hit my second year of high school, a new art teacher (Bill) came in. He had interned at MAD Magazine and was all about helping me learn more. I credit him with getting my first paid work in comics. At 17 I was roughing out pages to send into Cracked with his scripts. I would get half of his writer’s page rate for that.

After a hiatus from any real focus on art, I decided I needed to do something. I went to a community college in my area and the head of the art department was really good at writing grants for visiting artists. I got to meet Murray Tinkelman, Gary Kelley, and C.F. Payne. I was easily convinced that I needed to become an editorial illustrator.

Having direction, I went to Northern Illinois University. It had a strong illustration program where one of the original designers of the curriculum was Mark Nelson (of Aliens at Dark Horse fame). There I fell into a crowd of like-minded people and my focus eventually switched from editorial illustration to visual storytelling.

I started working in comics off and on while holding down a day job. I decided I wanted to teach and ended up going to the Minneapolis College of Art & Design for my MFA. There I had Tom Kaczynski (publisher of Uncivilized Books) as my personal mentor. All of that added up to where I am now, in the shortest way I could describe.

Let’s talk process. Everyone works differently, and it seems to me that most work a combination of traditionally and digitally at this point. How do you work? Is it a mix of both or does it depend on the page and what you’re trying to do?

JB: Depends on the project, and depends on the page. My favorite way to work is a mix of digital and traditional – digital pencils, traditional inks – but for The Devil’s Red Bride it has been 95% digital. This is mainly due to me needing to have the ability to work anywhere at anytime, while getting into the swing of teaching schedules, pandemics, and jumping between home and studio.

You’re part of World Monster HQ, a notable, Minnesota-based art studio that includes people like Zander Cannon and Peter Wartman amongst its roster. Obviously 2020 might have impacted how that works, but how does having a network of local artists you can turn to for advice, guidance or even just a second opinion impact your work? Do you think being a part of World Monster has led to real, tangible gains for your work?

JB: World Monster is my immediate creative family… and then the rest of the Twin Cities is filled with a larger comic book extended family. One of the main reasons that I chose MCAD and uprooted to come to Minneapolis was the community I discovered.

It could be inspiration, or my own competitive spirit, but I want to work harder when I’m around creative people. Being part of the studio really extended my network, and opened doors to a lot of new relationships in the industry.

The Devil’s Red Bride is your new project, and it’s with Sebastian Girner, Iris Monahan, and Jeff Powell. How did this project come together for you, and what made it something that appealed to you as an artist?

JB: Sebastian and I became familiar with each other when I was brought in to finish Spread, which he was editing. Eventually I saw Shirtless Bear Fighter and let Sebastian know that if he had anything that I might be a fit for to let me know. 

Six months to a year later Sebastian came to me with The Devil’s Red Bride. It had people fighting in the goriest way and monsters. Perfectly my wheel-house. At this point I had already formed a relationship with the folks at Vault, and they seemed to like the pitch we put together.

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