An Interview with Ibrahim Moustafa

Ibrahim Moustafa has known us longer than we’ve known him. As it turns out, Moustafa began listening to 11 O’clock Comics in our earliest days to help pass the time while he honed his craft. We’re happy our weekly ramblings kept him at the drawing table because Ibrahim has emerged onto the scene in recent years as an artistic tour-de-force. His collaboration with Chris Sebela on High Crimes — a masterful, character-driven crime noir story taking place at the top of a mountain — remains one of MonkeyBrain’s crowning achievements. Today, Moustafa and writer Justin Jordan are wowing us with Savage Things — a world of government-trained assassins gone very, very rogue. Ibrahim took time out of his busy schedule to chat about his career, including a multi-year sidebar to pursue breakdancing!

Ibrahim, thanks so much for taking the time to chat! We’ve become big fans of your work in recent years.

My pleasure! Thank you for having me!

I first discovered your artistry in High Crimes, the creator-owned project you did with Chris Sebela. How did you end up partnering on that project?

I’m from Portland, and I had been invited by Brandon Seifert (writer of Witch Doctor) to join a comics studio collective here in town. Joe Keatinge was a member, and I had mentioned to him that I was looking for a project and asked that he keep an ear to the ground for me in the event any writer-friends of his were looking for a collaborator. I told him that crime would be my preferred genre, and about two weeks later he brought Sebela by the studio and said, “you guys should talk.”

Chris pitched High Crimes to me right there at my desk and I was IN. He’d already had the book approved at MonkeyBrain and just needed to find someone to collaborate with, so we hit the ground running. That run would become a 3-year marathon. (haha)

Three years well spent! Let’s turn back the clock a bit and focus on your formative years. Were you a comics fan growing up? When did you decide you wanted to become an illustrator, and was it always with an eye toward drawing comics?

I’ve loved to draw as far back as I can remember, and some of my earliest memories are of watching the Christopher Reeve Superman films. I’d also been given a copy of John Byrne’s Man of Steel #2 when I was about 4 years old, as well as an issue of a Denny O’Niel/Jim Aparo Detective Comics that I read until the covers came off. I was also a child of the TMNT craze and the 90s X-Men cartoon. So I was always drawing those characters, and I’ve always had a very deep love of Superman.

I shifted away from comics and superheroes as I got older and was heavily into breakdancing for a number of years. As such, I ended up shifting into graffiti art for a long time and away from drawing superheroes. I was making money teaching and performing with dance, so that became my primary focus for a while, but I was pulled back into comics by Smallville. I was very stoked about seeing a modern interpretation of a live-action Superman story, and someone gave me a book on the history of Superman as a gift that had Alex Ross paintings in it. I’d never seen anything like it before and I got obsessed with tracking down as much of his work as I could.

That led me to Kingdom Come, and it was down the rabbit hole from there. At some point I realized that drawing comics was a job that people had, and I was determined to do it. So I entered into a life of monk-like discipline until I was able to make that a reality for myself. (haha)

Wow, there’s a LOT to unpack here. Let’s talk about the breakdancing! As a child of the ’80s, I may have thrown down on a piece of linoleum a time or two but never professionally. Do tell!

When I was 15 years old I met a guy named Willie who was volunteering at a Boys and Girls Club after school program I attended. Willie was an old school head from Harlem who grew up in New York during hip hop’s heyday. I saw him poppin and it blew my mind and I pretty much hounded him every week for lessons. He was also one of the best graffiti writers in NY back in the day (he’s got stacks of black-books he won in battle to prove it) and since I was already heavily into drawing I really glommed onto that aspect of the culture, too. He took a liking to me and we became really close. He’s literally my Mr. Miyagi. He’s like a father to me.

I loved graffiti, but I don’t know that I was ever great at it. I’m not much of an abstract thinker, so it didn’t come as naturally to me as I thought it would. I lamented that to my cousin once and he said, “well, just because you’re part of the culture and you draw doesn’t mean you have to do graffiti.” He was right! So I left it behind after, but I kept up with the dancing. I taught classes for years and won a few competitions, and then comics became a “shit or get off the pot” scenario, so I shifted my focus back to drawing. I still breakdance for fun though! Here’s the last time I was ever recorded doing it back in 2012:

Dope! That’s what’s up…much love. Now back to the comics talk. Where do you draw your artistic inspiration? What other creators inspire you? Does music or other art forms influence your work?

Movies are a big inspiration for me. I love comics that are evocative of cinema while still taking full advantage of storytelling tools that are unique to the comics medium.

And hip hop is obviously a big inspiration, too. It’s a huge part of my life and when you spend a lot of time steeped in that culture it can really inform the way you express yourself in other avenues.

Of course, I’m constantly inspired by other comics creators. My artistic Mt. Rushmore includes:

  • Alex Toth: He’s the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). His ability to pair an image down to just the necessary information is unparalleled
  • Alex Ross: Some people don’t dig realism with superheroes, but for me his ability to create representations of these characters that I feel like I could see flying by outside my window is just the dopest thing. The gravity of his imagery has always been inspirational to me
  • John Paul Leon: Take what I just said about Ross and Toth and throw in an incredibly sharp sense of design, and you’ve got my man JPL. He’s brilliant
  • Jock: His covers and design work are a huge influence on my work
  • Jorge Zaffino: Dude was filthy with a brush! The inventiveness of his mark-making and the layered textures he used to create volume are like a puzzle that I could spend the rest of my life trying to solve
  • Greg (Papi) Capullo: The Court of Owls is some of the most brilliant comics work to come out in the last 20 years. Capullo’s layouts and shot choices are insane in that book. He was hungry and eager to prove his detractors wrong in that book, and he certainly did. His ability to balance a cartoony bounce with believable character work is unparalleled

You just pretty much dropped the mic, as all those artists are deserving of your praise. True legends.

Drawing comics can be an insular process, spending hours each day tethered to your drafting table. How do you pass the time? What keeps you sane?

PODCASTS. Lots of comedy and comics podcasts. Here’s where I sound like a suck-up, but I’ve been listening to EOC for years. It was one of the first comics podcasts I discovered back in 2010 or 2011, and you guys and your musings have been a huge part of my growth as a reader, artist, and storyteller. Word Balloon, iFanboy and Side Bar are the others that I’ve passed the time with over the years.

Audiobooks are another distraction. I’m obsessed with James Bond. I’ve recently been devouring the Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly. They’re sharply written “who dunnit?” detective stories.

Believe it or not, I can’t do music very often. After spending half of my life dancing it’s hard to sit still (haha). But I do enjoy swelling orchestral stuff like Two Steps From Hell while I work from time to time. It makes standing at a drafting table feel way more epic than it is.

As an original art collector, I lament the move toward digital illustration, but I understand the advantages in terms of time and flexibility it allows creators. What are your thoughts about digital versus traditional?

Digital is a great tool. I’m tempted by it more and more as deadlines start to close in on me. But there’s something about the tactile relationship of pencil/pen/brush to paper that I just love too damned much. And with my art style, if I were to go digital I would just be trying to find ways to make it look like it wasn’t digital to begin with, so it doesn’t feel all that worth it in the end.

I think the biggest reason I stay working traditionally is that I feel digital would hinder my ability to get better in some ways. The variables involved with using a brush are so extensive; the length of the bristles, natural hair versus synthetic, the amount of ink on it, the ink/water ratio, the way the inks bleeds onto the page, how much caffeine is surging through your body as you make your stroke. All of that affects how you draw, and learning to control those factors, to me, is part of mastering this medium. Working digitally removes a lot of those factors; there is no ink to bleed, there’s a pre-programmed level of line variation. It’s all 1’s and 0’s. I feel like that puts a ceiling on growth to an extent.

What’s the hardest thing in the world to draw? What’s your favorite thing to draw?

Non-existent technology is very tough for me. Kirby made everyone think it was easy, but he was just a genius (haha). Superman is definitely my favorite thing to draw. I also enjoy drawing cars, which is weird to a lot of people.

Ibrahim Superman Commissions

Superman I understand…but cars? C’mon son.

Artists are known to be their own worst critics, do you fit that bill?

To a degree, for sure. But deadlines will snap you out of that real quick-like!

What advice would you give up and coming creators?

Be willing to sacrifice. You won’t be able to see your friends, new movies, or binge TV shows like you used to, but that’s what this costs. Know your value, but understand that you’re going to have to do a lot of free work. That free work is your resume, so the sooner you get it done, the sooner you can get paid to do more. It’s like how you have to have ID to get ID at the DMV. Comics is a game of persistence, and I don’t know a single person working in comics who got there by not doing the work. If you want this for yourself, take it. Stop waiting for permission, get your ass in that chair, and work.

Let’s talk about Savage Things, your new project with Justin Jordan. How did that book come about?

This was kind of a dream scenario! I had just finished a project and was ready for something else when I got an email from our editor Jamie S. Rich saying that he had something he thought I would dig and be a good fit for, and the first issue was already written. So I read the pitch document and the first script and it was really good and right up my alley. I jumped into character designs right away and have been jamming on it ever since.

I had already been a fan of Justin’s work, and we’d met at a con some years before and got along famously, so it’s really been a wonderful project.

You’re working with colorist Jordan Boyd on Savage Things – Boyd was my choice for Favorite Colorist in our annual year end awards. We too often discount the role colorists play in comics. What does Jordan – or any of the other colorists you’ve worked with – bring to the final product?

Man, Jordan is so good. He’s a good friend of mine, and we’ve been looking to work together for a long time. We did a pitch together years ago, so this was a cool way of getting the band back together.

Jordan went to film school and we love many of the same comics and movies, so it’s been amazing to get to work with him. He turns stuff in and I basically just send him hand-clap emojis. He injects a really strong sense of mood into things with these lovely desaturated flashback sequences and vibrant night scenes. Working with him is kind of like jamming in a band; we find this groove and ride it out. I’m really privileged to get to work with him.

How good is Scalped, am I right?

[Editor’s Note: Both Ibrahim and I are on record that Scalped is one of the greatest comics ever created]

Let’s talk about commissions, how should collectors get in touch with you?

Scheduling has been too tight recently for me to do any, but I’ve got a waitlist going. When I have open slots I put them up on my online store and then tweet when there are spots available. I can be messaged directly via my online store as well with any inquiries.

I’m getting married this summer so there’s a good chance some spots will open up. (haha)

I also post original art of varying price ranges on there, too, so even if I’m booked up there are some daily sketches, commission-style pinups and original pages to peruse.

You’re getting married? Congratulations! I have to ask two things: 1) Where are you honeymooning and 2) Does your fiancé dig comics?

Yezzir! We’re heading to Hawaii for the honeymoon. The original plan was to try to go to visit some friends in England and check out Scotland, but we altered that because I’m not trying to deal with re-entering the country following the “Muslim-ban.” Not to get overly political but with the name Ibrahim Moustafa, things could get tense, you feel me? Which is ironic since I’m half-white, an atheist, and a natural born citizen of the United States. Yet, that won’t stop customs from hassling me, and my tendency to speak my mind will certainly exacerbate things. So we’re playing it safe, haha. We’re stoked – neither of us have been to Hawaii and we’re looking forward to it.

My fiancé is wonderful. She’s super-supportive and understanding of the long hours that go into this job, and she has medical insurance, so I won the lottery (haha). She grew up reading J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks novels, so she’s down with “nerd” stuff. She’d read the requisite college texts of Watchmen and Persepolis, and that was her gateway into Fables, which she loved. One of her friends had been getting into Image trades around the time she and I met, so she started mainlining a lot of those, and now her shelf is full of East of West trades, Black Science, Monstress, Shutter, Saga and a bunch of others. Ironically she’s lovingly not really into a lot of the stuff I’ve done. It’s not really her jam, genre-wise. It’s pretty great that she loves the medium, I’m very lucky.

Are conventions a vital component of your professional life, both in terms of supplementing your income and networking?

You know, I spend a lot of time thinking about this one. I’m not at a stage in my career where my flights or hotels are comped across the board, so in a lot of cases conventions are a wash financially. If I’m able to do pre-show commissions then shows are profitable, but if my schedule is too tight to accommodate those then I probably am just looking to break even. There’s also the time it takes to make new prints for shows, have them printed, etc. Every show is a different crowd interested in different things. The economics of conventions are interesting and can sometimes feel like a moving target.

That being said, their social value is unparalleled. Seeing friends, chatting with editors, commiserating about the life of being a comics creator – it’s all vital. Getting to connect with readers and fans of your work is very fulfilling. That has led to some of my most valued relationships over the years.

It’s baffling to think we haven’t yet met at a convention. Let’s fix that with the quickness. In the meantime, where can our readers and listeners find you on the internet?

This was great, looking forward to finally meeting you later this year. In the meantime, we’ll make sure our readers and listeners check out Savage Things, as well as Jaeger — your Eisner-nominated webcomic for the Stela platform! Thanks a ton Ibrahim!

Thank YOU!!!

  • Monica

    The breakdancing is so cool!
    These interviews are really showing interesting aspects of artists’ life.