LGBTQ+ Creator Spotlight: Karen S. Darboe, Artist Supreme

Happy New Year to all the queer comic book connoisseurs out there! For the first installment of the Queer Creator spotlight of 2023, I had the honor of speaking with Afro-Italian artist Karen S. Darboe who’s launching her first Marvel book this week, Bloodline: Daughter of Blade.

Karen grew up in a small town on the southern peninsula of Italy named Follina. Her interest in art began early on and it was when she was seven years old that she read her first comic, the manga “Detective Conan.” It was her mom that explained to her that it was a person that drew all of the art and images that made up the “Detective Conan” book. Karen decided then that, that was what she wanted to do when she grew up.

From 2010 to 2015 she studied traditional art (painting and sculpture) in high school and in 2016, she attended the International School of Comics in Padova, where she graduated with high grades in 2018. While studying in the International School of comics, she worked as a teacher in a local art atelier called “Favol Arte”, owned by illustrators Anna Casaburi and Arcadio Lobato. And in that same period, she was able to create several illustrations for the metal band “Hell in the Club” which were used on merchandise.

Karen has gone on to work for Freak & Chic Games’ card game “Squillo City”, FairSquare Comics on a short story for the anthology “Noir Is the New Black”. And started doing covers for Black Mask Studios, Fair Square Comics, Behemoth, BOOM! Studios, Skybound and Marvel. Working on such titles as Something is Killing the Children, TMNT, Thor, Black Panther, The Walking Dead, Ms. Mutiny, and many more!

Marvel’s Bloodline: Daughter of Blade Cover by Karen S. Darboe

Chris Allo: As a young girl in Italy, what came first the love of drawing or the love of comic books?  Which came first for you?

Karen S. Darboe: I would say that art was the first thing just because I can’t remember a day of my life without drawing, and I bet my mother would agree! Comics came right after, though.

CA:  What was your first comic book? What was the thing that got you into comics? Do you have a favorite book or character?

KD: Oh yes, I remember this clearly, the first ever comic book I owned was Detective Conan! While starting to read more and more books my tiny innocent brain thought that those drawings were way too perfect to be created by humans, i always assumed they were done by computers or some sort of hyper advanced hi-tech thing, but then my mother revealed the shocking truth that changed my life forever, and in that moment I said “Hey, I wanna do that, and I’m gonna devote my whole existence to that!”

That’s literally how I started to get really involved in this world of comics! Then of course, Dragon Ball followed, which became, and still is, my absolute favorite series! Favorite character? It’s Cell, and people who know me absolutely saw this coming!

Skybound Walking Dead 19 Deluxe Cover Art by Karen S. Darboe

CA: Who are some of your artistic inspirations?

KD: My two major ones are absolutely Milo Manara and Gustav Klimt, as a lover of sensuality and the decorative aspect of painting, those are my two favorite masters since I started learning about art and comics!

CA: When did you decide to pursue drawing as a career?

KD: Well, as I previously stated, I had a very clear vision of myself doing this as soon as It has been revealed to me that people actually draw comics with their hands, that might sound like a very anticlimactic motivation, but being told, as a seven-year-old, fascinated by comics and art, that I could do that in the future when I grew up, was like the heavens opening up in front of my eyes. So yes, I decided I wanted to do this when I was seven!

CA: You’re very fearless when it comes to drawing. You don’t shy away from any content.  Why is that?

KD: Well, I admit I don’t have a specific answer for that, it’s simply how I am a very open person, not easily startled by taboos.

Squillo City Card Game art by Karen S. Darboe

Probably being raised in a very strict environment contributed to that, cause I really didn’t understand why some simple aspects of life such as sexuality were considered as much of a taboo. I personally wasn’t embarrassed by that like many people around me, I didn’t see the problem, so I thought about why I should stop myself from representing what I like just because others don’t like It.

Isn’t art by definition the expression of ourselves? Of course, not everyone will enjoy it, and that’s fine, but I can simply say that I’m simply very comfortable drawing and sharing what makes me feel better.

CA: You’ve been drawing professionally for a relatively short time. Yet, you’ve done dozens of covers. What was one of your favorites?

Boom! Studios Magic #4 Hidden Planeswalker Variant Cover by Karen S. Darboe

KD: Covers are my absolute passion, because I love to work on different characters and stories, so you can Imagine my surprise when I was asked by BOOM! Studios to work on a variant cover for Magic: The Gathering, starring the beautiful Nahiri. It was such fun and a big honor being able to represent her!

CA Generally speaking, are there any specific types of projects or subjects that you really like working on?

KD: Simple, are there enough women to draw? If the answer is “yes,” then you can absolutely count me in! Bonus points if it’s sexy!

CA: You’ve gone from a relatively unknown cover artist to launching a book for Marvel. Bloodline: The Daughter of Blade. Can you tell us a little bit about that journey?

KD: Well, I can say that everything became a thing very VERY fast! To this day I still didn’t fully realize how big this thing I’m doing really is, cause as you stated, I went from a fairly unknown individual to co-creator of a new Marvel character, this is the stuff that happens only in fantasy books right?

Fair Square Comics Noir is the New Black Art by Karen S. Darboe

At that time I had just finished my first published work for a card game here in Italy, and right after that my agent, Chris Allo, who was helping me find cover work in the American market, came to me with the proposal to work on a short story for the anthology “Noir Is the New Black”.

I was definitely not convinced by it cause it has been a while since I worked on sequentials, and it never went too well for me on that front, but he insisted that maybe I should give it a try and so, with his support, I did! And with that he got me my first work at BOOM! and then showed the “Noir” samples to Rickey Purdin at Marvel. Some editors working for Marvel saw those sequential pages or were following the NITNB project and noticed my work; that’s when they contacted me. I can say that I was at the right place at the right time!

CA: How does it feel to be working on a book for one of the “Big Two?”

KD: As I hinted before, it took me a while to realize what I was actually doing, and probably I’m not even fully understanding it yet! But seeing my name associated with some characters I portrayed in my covers like Deadpool, Black Panther or Photon is really something that feels simply fantastic and unreal at the same time!

Marvel’s Bloodline: Daughter of Blade #1 art by Karen S. Darboe colors by Cris Peter

I’m just a random girl living in a rural Italian city of 4000 souls that lives and breathes art, and here I am, with my name printed on Marvel comic books, it feels just …unreal in the most beautiful way possible!

CA:  What do you hope readers will take away from your art on Bloodline?

KD: Of course, I hope that readers Will like Brielle as a character as much as I liked working on her and that both mine and Danny Lore’s work on this would be appreciated since I tend to grow really attached to the characters I create!

Also, the subject that really got me involved in working on Bloodline Is the relationship between a father, with Blade’s cryptic persona, and a daughter eager to welcome him in her life. That’s a very personal and emotional subject for me since I had a very distant father that didn’t really express his emotions, and as a young girl the only thing you can think of Is “Does he love me?”

So, I really hope that people will be able to feel that tension as much as me and Brielle felt It, in some way!

CA: As a queer female artist working in the industry, what do you find exciting? What do you find challenging?

KD: To be honest what i like the most Is actually the fact that me, being a queer female artist, doesn’t really seem to count at the end of the day, meaning that my work Is what makes me relevant, and not me as a person, which Is a thing that i personally enjoy, and this Is also why i love the comics/art industry so much, your works speak already by themselves!

Boom! Studios Something is Killing the Children#21 Variant Cover Art by Karen S. Darboe

CA: Do you have any words of encouragement for other young female artists who want to work in this industry?

KD: This Is actually applicable to everyone, but It’s that one thing i truly believe, which Is never stop dreaming and working hard to better yourself in order to achieve that dream.

When you’re young you might or not be surrounded by supportive people, we all know that when a kid expresses the desire to pursue the artistic field, it’s unfortunately, not always welcomed in the best ways, and of course in that environment it won’t be easy.

You might be even forced to avoid art schools, I saw It way too many times, but the lucky part here Is that art requires studying, not a degree.

There are amazing artists who went to art schools, and amazing artists who didn’t, if you like the field, if you like to create, there are the correct tools to study, learn and better your skills even if you are not immediately supported. What you need is a pencil, some paper, and your passion.

Black Mask’s White Chapter One variant cover by Karen S. Darboe

I’ve seen so many people throw away their art dream because they weren’t supported during those formative years, but I can assure you that you’ll find the right support, and of course, don’t rush It, growing up and improving requires dedication and time.

Don’t be scared to see 17-year-olds already with a huge following online making ton of great art, everyone is different, and It’s never too late!

CA: Thank you so much for a great interview, Karen. Looking forward to seeing Bloodline come out this week and future fabulous covers from you.

Interview with Iolanda Zanfardino and Elisa Romboli

IOLANDA ZANFARDINO is a comic book artist, writer and cover artist currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics, Marvel and several independent publishers. Her first Original Graphic novel “Midnight Radio” was published by Lion Forge comics. After a long arduous “I’ll do what I really love!” process, she finally works on queer (love) stories, and she’s so excited she still can’t even believe it. She likes rock musicals, street art, Pride parades, dystopian literature and brave heartwarming comedies.

ELISA ROMBOLI is a comic book artist and illustrator currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics and various independent publishers, partnered briefly with Marvel and with Square Enix for promotional illustrations. Co-author of Helen Bristol published by Shockdom.

Since she was a child, her dream has always been to be a comics artist. The thing is: she didn’t know what she was getting into. Now she’s almost completely absorbed into drawing and has forgotten everything else. Cat owner full time.

I had the opportunity to interview Iolanda and Elisa on their current project, Alice in Leatherland, which you can read below.

To start off, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Both: Hi Geeks OUT, and thank you for this great opportunity! We’re so honored to be on your website!

I: I’m Iolanda Zanfardino, a comic book artist, writer and cover artist currently working for Image comics,  Black Mask Studios, Titan Comics and Marvel. After a long arduous “I’ll do what I really love!” process, I finally work on queer (love) stories, and I’m so excited I still can’t even believe it!

I like rock musicals, street art, Pride parades, dystopian literature and brave heartwarming comedies.

E: I’m Elisa Romboli,  a comic book artist and illustrator currently working for Black Mask Studios, Image comics, Titan Comics and various independent publishers, co-author of Helen Bristol published by Shockdom.

Nostalgic video game lover, I have a strong passion for enamel pins and miniatures. I like robots and mechanical designs in general, I have an odd thing for triangle-shaped objects. Oh, and space!

How did the both of you get into comics? What drew you to the medium?

I: Telling stories has always been like a physical need I’ve perceived in my life, even when I was following a different career path. At a particular moment, I took the decision to quit everything else to pursue my dream to become a comic book creator. It was a tough journey (where I found myself being so behind people my age) but I’m happy for real now. If I could turn back time I’d do it again.

E: I’d say it was because of anime series airing on tv when I was a child. I used to watch a lot of those and I really enjoyed drawing those characters on paper, giving it my own direction. I loved to tell fighting stories, with monsters and robots. I used to make a ton of little stapled books with crazy things in there, without any kind of focus. Sadly, I’ve never been able to create stories that made sense, but this didn’t stop me from drawing.

What are your favorite parts of making comics? What are the trickiest and or hardest?

I: As a writer, my favorite part is the very first one of the creation itself: those vivid and sudden images that appear in your mind and you have to write them down before they become a huge avalanche inside you.

The hardest part is to let the characters free to come to life on the scripts while not losing sight of the direction and the meaning of the scene itself (and of the limited number of the pages!)

E: My favorite part in making comics is finally drawing that specific scene that gave birth to the whole project. There’s always that scene, that small frame that gets stuck in your head until you don’t start unfolding the rest of the story.

The hardest? Imagining a full environment from scratch, like a whole new world. Some might find it entertaining, but it’s not my cup of tea;  it’s tricky, you have to remember lots of stuff and I’m quite a forgetful person.

Could you tell us a bit about your current project, Alice in Leatherland? Where did the inspiration for that story come from?

Both: From the very first moment we found ourselves working at home side by side, we dreamed of being able to do it together as a team on something of our own. We chose a rom-com because it’s the kind of movie we most love to watch together after a hard day.

Plus, many of the events of “AiL” are inspired by real life events, that’s too bad we can’t say what they are!

A large part of the book involves discussing sex positivity and exploring one’s sexuality, one’s comfort and limits with it. How did you approach your characters exploring that in ways that were organic to their character arcs?

Both: We tried to create a juxtaposition between Alice and Robin, the two main characters.
Robin is very open to new sexual experiences and she’s thrilled with the queer scene in San Francisco, but she also made up for herself strict rules against serious relationships that are not getting along with what she actually feels for Alice.

In the meantime, Alice is trying to set aside her “true fairy-tale love search” for a while in order to explore her sexuality (and to mend her broken heart). At first, she finds herself completely out of her comfort zone, but despite this she will learn to love and know better herself.

The meaning of the research of the firefly’s light in Alice’s own fairy tale is that true love cannot be forced and doesn’t depend, for example, on a partner’s mathematically calculable qualities. It’s something you find yourself in all of a sudden, without apparently any rational reason, and when it’s too late for you to get yourself out of it.

And this beautiful thing is what happens to Alice, while she’s freely exploring her sexuality and her relationship with her body!

Often when thinks of erotica, they think just that, erotic. But Alice in Leatherland combines sex with a sense of humor and tenderness, making sex both silly and playful and a larger part of the emotional story. Was this always your intention?

Both: Thank you so much! Sure it was: at the beginning, “AiL” had to be just  a short funny story about cliches of sapphic dates on dating apps, but then we got involved with our characters and the story evolved into something more complex, long and romantic than we planned!

The sex positivity is a very important part of the story, and the main focus of our creative process of this project.

Within your books, Midnight Radio and Alice in Leatherland, there’s an obvious queer aesthetic that makes other queer readers smile in recognition at how familiar it is? Did you feel your own experiences as queer creators influences your work?

Both: Our experiences as queer creators not only influence our work but it’s our big push. We believe that the representation of LGBTQIA characters in stories that talk about growth, friendship, life experiences and adventures, other than our “traumas” and difficulties or the discovery of our sexuality, is very important.

The world needs more different stories with queer protagonists. We needed it as teenagers and now that the world is finally changing, we want to do our part and participate to this necessary revolution.

I previously read and loved your last book, Midnight Radio. Where did the inspiration for that book come from?

I: I’m so glad you appreciated my “Midnight Radio”! I wrote that story during my year in San Francisco. It was a life-changing experience for me.

The inspiration of the book is the thought that everywhere there are people that are facing the consequences and frustrations of a life spent suppressing, for different reasons and in different ways, their true selves and aspirations. But that often they just need some kind of signs, an unexpected message to give them the strength to free themselves and to take hold of their lives again! Like little and unpredictable bursts of truth.

I’m sure it happens often! That’s surely happening in this right moment somewhere.

What advice might you have to give to other aspiring creators?

Both: What we really want to say is: If you have a story to tell, something you truly believe in, please, please, please write it down! Draw it!

You’ll definitely find someone who wants to read it out there, or needs it in their life without even knowing it.

What projects are you currently working on and at liberty to speak about?

Both: We’re currently working on “A Thing Called Truth”, a new comics mini-series. It’s a queer romantic-adventure road-trip story!

Issue #1 will be published by Shadowline IMAGE Comics this November. We can’t wait to know if someone will love it as much as we do!

What books/comics might you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?Both: Among our favorite comic books there are: “Betty Boob“, a lovely silent bande dessinée by Vero Cazot and Julie Rocheleau, “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel and all Liv Strömquist‘s irreverent books!