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!
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!
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.
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?
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?
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!
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!
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.
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.