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Squirrel Hill native works the mainstream and the underground

Friday, April 27, 2001

By John Hayes Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Talent is a treasure and contacts are golden. But in the comic book business, there's just one thing that separates the 98-pound weaklings without work from the muscle-bound superheroes who illustrate the biggest comic book icons:

"Persistence," says Steve Lieber, a 33-year-old illustrator who within a few years went from sketching "Hawkman" in his Squirrel Hill bedroom to illustrating Batman and Conan for Times-Warner. His latest graphic novel, "Whiteout," an Oni Press collaboration with writer Greg Rucka, may be made into a movie by Columbia Pictures.

"I came out of school averagely skilled at best," he says, "but I've stayed working in comics longer than some of my contemporaries because I didn't want to do anything else."

In the frame-by-frame panel of his life, Lieber grew up inconspicuously in a former mill town, unaware of the power simmering deep inside of him that would ultimately change his life. He graduated from Allderdice in 1985, studied at Penn State and finished his art education at the Joe Kubert School for cartoonists in New Jersey. "Hawkman," DC Comic's winged Captain America for the '90s, caught the attention of the gods of the industry.

Suddenly -- BANG!, ZOOM! -- Lieber was transmogrified into a working penciler/illustrator getting big money to turn blank paper into the alpha and omega of the comic book universe -- Batman.

"There was kind of a value thing going on," he says by phone from his home office in Portland, Ore. "Like working on a novel from home and then finding yourself on a writing team for a television show."

In a field that prides itself on remaining underground, Lieber had landed in comic-book heaven. Suddenly bestowed with the power to manipulate the image of an international icon, Lieber put some of himself into Batman in the recent "Turning Points" series.

"In my most recent Batman project ... the story is set early in his career," he says. "So I drew him looking a lot less super-heroic than other guys do. He looked like a typical guy in tights, not tremendously large and overmuscled, more like a Martin Scorsese story."

But like the superhuman characters he illustrates, there's an deep, underlying yang to the yin of Lieber's new power.

"A big company that owns the characters offers a lot of visibility and the ability to play with extremely well-known icons," he says. "[And] working on characters owned by Times-Warner pays very well as compared to doing a character of your own. But it's not work that the artist owns. Some folks liken it to writing 'Star Trek' novels -- the characters already exist and have very detailed personal histories. You have to work within that. Working for a big company, you have to be able to leave the character and ideas behind [after departing the project] in exactly the same place as when you came in. It's having to work in an assembly line."

But even as he alters the physicality of the Dark Knight and the rippling musculature of Conan the Barbarian, Lieber is battling behind the scenes to attain the ultimate power: creation.

"It's about telling your own stories," he says. "Telling unified stories with finality."

Published by Oni, "Whiteout" was a popular comic book miniseries in the late 1990s. Columbia, says Lieber, has secured an option on the Antarctican action-thriller to be produced by German director Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm," "Air Force One"). The screenplay, by Jon and Erich Hoeber ("Montana"), is in its second draft, says Lieber, and Columbia is shopping for a big-name actress to play the lead.

"The story is really the heart of it," says Lieber. "It's very compelling."

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