Jody LeHeup and Sebastian Girner on Their New Comic ‘Shirtless Bear-Fighter’

Written by Rachel Freeman

Pop Break recently sat down with Jody LeHeup and Sebastian Girner, the creative geniuses behind Image Comics’ newest title, Shirtless Bear-Fighter.

The duo talk about their inspirations as comic book creators, what actors they took inspiration from to create the titular hero, and can this bear-fighter be this shredded if all he eats is carbs?

What inspired this epic series? And why bears specifically?

Sebastian Girner: The bears came with the title. We had “Shirtless Bear-Fighter!” before we had anything else. Jody and I were roommates at the time, and we’d watch bad movies or play video games and ping pong ideas at each other.

Jody LeHeup: Yeah, we came up with the title by accident when one of us referred to someone at some point as looking like a shirtless bear-fighter. For some reason though, rather than just having a laugh and forgetting about it, we couldn’t get those words out of our heads. They kept coming up until we realized we’d struck gold. Then of course the story we built out of the title HAD to be about bears which actually proved to be one of the reasons the book is so much fun to work on and even more fun to read.

The story itself though was inspired by moments in our lives when we’ve felt great anger as a result of loss, heartbreak, failure–feelings as humans we all experience eventually. SBF is about processing that anger and dealing with those feelings before they destroy you.

What got you into doing comics?

SG: I’ve been reading comics since before I could read. I moved to the States from Germany as a kid, and my parents gave me the Sunday funnies so I’d learn English faster. I learned English and how to read with Calvin and Hobbes and later on my dad would bring me these stacks of comics that were still being sold at newsstands. They’d just bundle up these comics and sell em’ as packs for a couple bucks off. This is how I got my first issue of Spider-Man. At the same time I’d buy French comics like Tintin and Asterix when visiting my grandparents (translated Franco-Belgian comics were super popular in Germany and a part of every German kids upbringing) so I did the splits across the comics cultural border. Later on in life I fell deep into manga, learned Japanese and studied there as well. After a year there I shipped home like 200lbs. of manga on a boat.

And even through all this I never really thought I’d pursue a career making them until after University when I sent a resume to Marvel, more or less on a whim. As luck would have it they had an opening for an assistant editor and I got the job and things developed from there and here I still am!

JL: Like Sebastian I grew up with comics. First strips like Calvin and Hobbes (which will forever be a huge influence) then superhero comics, then indie books from Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, etc…then mature readers graphic novels and manga…Sebastian and I both have a pretty diverse education and appreciation when it comes to comics.

As for how I “broke in” I love that question when we both can answer it because while Sebastian’s story is hilariously short, mine is like Homer’s Odyssey! I’ll spare you the long version though and just tell you that I was writing and working in film production after college when I was offered an internship at Marvel. Eventually I became an editor in the X-Men Office where I edited Rick and Jerome’s Uncanny X-Force, Deadpool, passion projects like the Strange Tales anthology, and others. Eventually I decided to return to the writing desk and here I am.

What authors and/or illustrators inspired you and this story (comic or other literature)?

JL: All of them I think. SBF is a love letter to the comics medium and to all the genres we grew up reading and later working on. Without tall tales, myths, super heroes, Saturday morning cartoons, 80’s action flicks and the creators that made them, SBF wouldn’t exist. There’s even some film noir influences in the plotting.

SG: SBF has literary roots as well: Tarzan, The Jungle Book, and tall-tales like Paul Bunyan come to mind: a wild man stuck between the forest and the human world, a bit of a stranger in both!  

JL: Speaking of illustrators though, SBF artist and co-creator Nil Vendrell, colorist Mike Spicer, and letterer Dave Lanphear have been inspiring us the moment they hopped on board the crazy train. Nil is a Barcelona-based artist and his work on SBF is nothing short of brilliant. Not only is he a fantastic storyteller but he draws incredibly dynamic fight scenes and really understands comedic timing. And Mike with his animated, expressive colors and Dave with his bouncy letters…we’re collaborating with some insanely talented folks and we couldn’t be more excited to be working with them. Nil, Mike, and Dave make us all look like geniuses.  

SG: Agreed. Writing up a bonkers comic is one thing, finding artists and collaborators that you totally click with and bring it all to life on the page…I’m pretty sure that’s what the guy who asked Conan “what is best in life” was talking about before Big Beefy started spouting some nonsense.

Some comics give people a sense refuge from reality, a sense of freedom or emotion or inspiration…What do you want people to get from you comic?

SG: A rollicking good time. Really! With SHIRTLESS we wanted to deliver a fun, smart and action-packed story, in a way that only a comic can. We want readers to pick this up going “What the heck IS this?” and on reading it not want to put it down. And when they do we want them to feel like they have to rush out and tell someone else about it. Because that’s how great it is, and that’s what great comics make you want to do!

JL: I don’t know that there’s ever been a more urgent need for comics that make you laugh and feel good and have fun than right now. We’re living through arguably the darkest days in the history of America and as we move through them it’s important to remind ourselves what joy feels like. SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER is that reminder. It’s without hyperbole the most joyful comic you’ve ever read. We need books like it now more than we ever have.

Shirtless Bear-Fighter has the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger and facial hair that could rival ZZ Top. What kind(s) of actors or characters is he based off of?

JL: From a body type standpoint we’re parodying larger-than-life strong men heroes (Arnold’s one example) from all the influences mentioned above. Impossibly buff strong men types forever flexing and gritting their teeth…but it’s all played for laughs. One of those things where it’s dumb and hilarious and awesome in all the right ways all at the same time. Although part of me really wants to see the mockumentary version of SBF where we cut to the actor playing Shirtless spitting out the flapjacks and maple syrup he just ate for a take. No way Shirtless is as buff as he is in real life with that steady diet of simple carbs!

SG: Is he cut like Arnold? I think he’s a little leaner, like he couldn’t afford to go to Gold’s Gym so he just lifted logs and rolled boulders up hills to get buff. I love how Nil made him this massive physical presence, but still just this side of believable.

Shirtless’ character is based off a mix of prototypes and anti-heroes Jody and I are both fans of. His so-angry-it’s-funny persona was loosely inspired by a guy popularized in the Winnebago Man videos, who is shooting this terrible RV promo in the middle of nowhere in 90 degree heat and the camera keeps rolling and he’s miserable and profane and you can feel for him every step of the way. Everyone’s had a day that bad. It’s the kind of anger anyone can relate it and endears you to Shirtless immediately.

Have you ever imagined the bears that Shirtless is punching are real people? (You don’t have to tell us who….unless you want to *wink wink*)

JL: I would never wish the relentless fury of Shirtless on anyone, even my worst enemies. Anger is a wildfire, and even as we cheer Shirtless on when he dispenses bear-knuckled justice on the furry fiends that wronged him, we should wonder if all of them really deserve it? That’s a big part of the large story we’re trying to tell: the danger of of letting your rage get the best of you, no matter how cathartic it can be in the short term.

SG: To me all the bears that Shirtless smacks are Kuma from Tekken. Jody majored in Tekken-ology in college, so when we played he’d always pick that cheating ass bear and kick my ass, and that’s ok, I’m fine with losing. Only the best can rise to be King of Iron Fist tournament. But when he wins Kuma does this dance animation where he shines you on with his bear paws and it gets me every time. Like, not only is he a sore winner, but he’s a shit dancer as well. Unforgivable! In truth, creating SBF is just a ploy for me to get so rich I can quit making comics and just train Tekken for a few years to rematch against Jody and Kuma and reclaim my honor.

What drew you to publishing through Image?

JL: Image offers creators 100% creative control. Especially for a comic as bonkers as SBF is (at least on the surface), we needed to know we’d have the freedom to tell this story the way we felt it needed to be told.

If you were a comic retail worker, what would your sales pitch be for this comic?

SG: This is the ultimate comic! If you like big action and huge fights, we got you covered. If you like comedy and laugh-out-loud gags, that’s in there too. If you like a smart and well-crafted story about redemption and responsibility that includes bear foes galore, southern sorcery, pig-people, bearded babies, bear-planes, evil toilet paper companies, and an everything-PLUS-the-kitchen-sink finale, check check and check. It’s a one-of-a-kind reading experience that readers are going to instantly fall in love with. Nothing else on the racks quite compares to SHIRTLESS BEAR-FIGHTER!

Shirtless Bear-Fighter! #1 hits comic stands on June 21, 2017!