Bears Beware! Shirtless Bear-Fighter Comes Out the Gate Swinging!! [Interview]

Shirtless’s fiery animosity for bears, along with his unparalleled bare-knuckle brawling skills and limitless stamina, will prove invaluable as a wave of bears descends on major American cities with their own brand of clawed, furry destruction. Reluctantly brought out of his self-imposed seclusion, Shirtless faces down bears mano-a-bear-claw all over the country to save the nation from this ursine onslaught. And soon, he learns that these seemingly random attacks may be connected to Shirtless’s own secret, tragic history...

Jokes aside (and there are jokes aplenty), SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER is the perfect high-octane, escapist action story, a love letter to the testosterone-laden, popcorn spectacles of the 1980s and their muscle-bound superstars in the finest tradition of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. But even figures as rugged as, say, Chuck Norris, have nothing on Shirtless. He’s built like a professional wrestler, eats like a lumberjack, and brawls like the entire Street Fighter roster combined.

Matching LeHeup and Girner’s zany, action-packed scripts is Vendrell’s artwork, which captures all the frenetic, no-holds-barred throwdowns in full display. Despite the fight-filled premise, the violence is never particularly unsavory, usually rendered bright and full of color rather than grounded in realism. Even at its darkest moments, SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER is constantly aware that it seeks to thrill and entertain its audience; pathos and emotion certainly exist within its pages, but the primary mission is to deliver laughs and adrenaline rushes as often as its title character delivers jaw-shattering haymakers and back-breaking piledrivers.

While serious comics with a message absolutely are a vitally important part of the industry, it is also important to remember that, since their inception, comic books have been intended to entertain. Readers wanted to have FUN. With its irreverent and unrelenting sense of machismo, SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER is the perfect book that seamlessly blends the action-based appeal of Saturday morning cartoons with ’80s action movies. If you’re looking for a fun new comic book series to jump into from launch, look no further: LeHeup, Girner, and Vendrell have you covered!

SAM STONE: What was the inspiration for this testosterone-fueled, bare-knuckle adventure?

JODY LEHEUP: While SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER certainly has its share of over-the-top “manliness” it’s all tongue-in-cheek and played for laughs. What really motivates [our protagonist] Shirtless isn’t testosterone but anger, and a desire to get even with those who’ve wronged him—feelings, I think, if we’re being honest, we can all relate to feeling at some point in our lives, man or woman. What we’re exploring with this story is the damage that anger can do to you and people around you if left unchecked.

As for inspiration...Sebastian, do you remember how we came up with SBF?

SEBASTIAN GIRNER: The true origin of SBF lies shrouded in the foggy mists of time, but I do recall a while back Jody and I agreeing that superheroes should be shirtless like way more often.

JODY: Sebastian and I have always had great creative chemistry and we love pitching each other concepts. Many a late night conversation has been had just coming up with insane ideas. The Shirtless Bear-Fighter character came out of those discussions.

SEBASTIAN: That pebble quickly cascaded into an avalanche of ideas, and at some point we just sat down to put it all on paper, even if just to get it out of our heads. We egged each other on to put everything into a comic we ever wanted, to make the ultimate fun comic. What we ended up with was more a manifesto than anything else. I didn’t even think anyone could draw this crazy story...ah, but that was before I met Nil Vendrell. A man whose name will soon be known far and wide!

SAM: What makes bears the most dangerous, insidious threat against our great republic?

JODY: Well as readers will discover, it has less to do with Bears vs. America (although that’s amazing and definitely something we’ll happily steal from you) and more to the beginning...with crazed bears attacking urban centers. But as the story unfolds we’ll learn that there’s much, much more to these bear attacks. I won’t spoil it for you, but finding out why bears in this world are turning on people is part of the fun.

SEBASTIAN: I’m gonna come at this questions full-blown-comic-writer style and totally over-intellectualize it. Ahem...bears are the human id. The dark impulse that just tells us to eat, fight, poop, and rub our asses all over everything. In every man, woman, and child slumbers a bear: savage, insatiable brutes that want to roar and flex and run wild and free. A noble instinct, but a dangerous one as well.

SAM: The fight scenes in the series have a hard-hitting, hyperkinetic quality to them. What were some of the visual influences there?

SEBASTIAN: That’s all down to Nil drawing his heart out on every mad thing Jody and I throw his way. When he turned in the page of naked Shirtless suplexing that bear in issue one, I couldn’t stop laughing for joy for like an hour. Same again when Mike Spicer colored it and Dave Lanphear added his brilliant sound effects. I think more than a specific influence, the energy of those scenes grew out of everyone working on the book really keying into the crazy fun of what we were trying to accomplish.

JODY: Sebastian, Nil, Mike, Dave—we all grew up with superhero comics, tall tales, and folk legends, so much of the dynamism and bombast of the fighting in SBF comes from those influences. But as Sebastian mentioned, what really makes those scenes sing is Nil’s brilliant choices on the art side. Nil is an amazing artist and his style is perfect for this book. High-octane bear brawls, comedy, acting—Nil can do it all. And he absolutely nails the emotional components of scenes. We really can’t say enough about how much we love what he brings to SBF.

Mike’s colors as well. His palette choices really enhance the tone of SBF and Dave’s letters bring so much comedic flourish. Both of those guys are doing tremendous work.

NIL VENDRELL: Thanks guys, I could listen to kind words about me all day, but any success I’ve had drawing these scenes is due to the quality of Jody and Sebastian’s writing. The fight scenes are probably what excited me the most when I first read the scripts. All the crazy and super epic ideas you’ll see in the book are in there. Jody and Sebastian have all the action so clear in their heads. Whenever I got stuck on something, I just asked them and they knew exactly how to solve the problem.

And when I finished the illustrations, Mike and Dave just took it to a whole other level. I couldn’t be happier with the final result!

SAM: Shirtless has a history with Burke. Are we going to see glimpses of that history and more about Shirtless’s origins?

JODY: Without a doubt. Shirtless’s origin plays a major role in the series, and we’ll learn more about his shared past with Burke in issue two.

SAM: What makes pancakes, urm, flapjacks, the manliest food in the world?

SEBASTIAN: All the greatest people ate flapjacks. Paul Bunyan ate them, and he was best friends with a giant blue ox! And Eleanor Roosevelt had flapjacks the morning she punched out Paul Bunyan!

JODY: The flapjacks bit is a nod to Paul Bunyan and lumberjack lore. This old-fashioned log cabin idea of people living in the woods, cutting down trees, and eating pancakes. But why are pancakes the most manly food? They’re not. At least in a traditional sense. They’re dessert for breakfast. That’s why it’s funny. One of the many ways we’re poking fun of the idea of manliness with SBF.

Speaking of, let’s talk about the other main character of the book—Special Agent Suzie Silva. Silva is our everywoman. Her perspective is the lens through which we view the world of SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER, and her arc stands toe-to-toe with Shirtless’s. She has demons of her own she’ll need to overcome in order to defeat the bear threat. She’s probably my favorite character in the book to be honest.

SEBASTIAN: My favorite part of the book is when the bears get punched...oh wait. Character! Yeah totally. Silva crushes it. Nil did such an amazing job designing her.

SAM: Shirtless is pretty unstoppable from the beginning. Are we going to see a possible Achilles heel for the bear brawler?

JODY: Shirtless is incredibly powerful when we meet him, but he definitely comes into conflict with physical threats stronger than he is as early as issue one. And the threats only escalate from there. That said, Shirtless does have a physical weakness, and we’ll see that exploited in the series in a pretty hilarious way.

More important than his physical weaknesses, though, are his emotional ones. Shirtless’s inability to deal with his rage is going to be a big problem for him.

SEBASTIAN: Exactly. Shirtless’s anger at bears makes him super strong, but that anger is a fire that could consume Shirtless if he’s not careful. A big part of his journey is to understand that our greatest strength can quickly become our greatest weakness.

SAM: This sudden bear invasion doesn’t appear to be a random occurrence. How far will this unbearable violence escalate? What are the stakes?

SEBASTIAN: The stakes couldn’t be higher! What starts as a simple bear attack on Major City quickly becomes a nationwide threat that Shirtless, Silva, and Burke can barely keep contained. Someone is causing bears to go bonkers. It’s almost as if they wanted the Bear-Fighter busy punching bears to distract him from something...far more nefarious...

JODY: Yeah, it’s very much not a random occurrence. Someone or somebear is manipulating Shirtless, and the bear attacks are just the very tip of that iceberg. If Shirtless fails, he stands to lose not only his life, but the forest he’s sworn to protect and the relationships he doesn’t realize how badly he needs.

SAM: Sebastian, you’re one of the most prolific editors in the business. How has that informed your approach to writing?

SEBASTIAN: Yeah, I came to writing SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER from editing, as did Jody. We were both at Marvel, and I think during those years as fresh editors, we both found our voices and got a bead on the kind of comics we wanted to make. I had a chance to work with some great creators, some of whom I still work with today. I met Rick Remender & Jerome Opena editing Punisher (Jody edited their run on Uncanny X-Force) and Jason Aaron and I tore it up, first on Ghost Rider and then Punisher MAX with the late, great Steve Dillon.

So those were the years we cut our teeth and learned a lot from writers and artists, helping them tell their stories. You’re not driving the car, really. You’re riding shotgun with a map in your lap.

But at some point you’re bound to get the bug. You start to want to take the reins on a story of your own, to slide into the driver’s seat, take the wheel and gun the motor.

That poses a ton of challenges on its own. As did co-writing a book with a close friend, a brother even, who also happened to be a colleague whose opinions and tastes I respect very much, especially when they differ from my own. I think that’s where having worked as editors helped us. We both took turns at the wheel, and then switched for a bit and let the other guy drive (getting every last inch out of this strained metaphor!).

SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER! It’s a story that grew out of our friendship, our loves, and our passions, but also our differences, both as people and as creators. It’s really funny how personal and autobiographical a comic about a naked dude fighting bears in the woods can end up becoming.

SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER #1 is available now.

Sam Stone is a columnist and translator for Image Comics living in the D.C.-area. He is one of the foremost experts on the work of Shigeru Miyamoto. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @samstoneshow. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.