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Balke brings color to comic book heroes


October 29, 2013 | 03:59 PM
They seem to fly and leap off the wall.

Thor raising his hammer, Spiderman swinging among high-rises, Batman and Dare Devil back-to-back, a light saber-wielding Yoda, the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles in martial arts poses.

The colors pop.

They make the two-dimensional art appear three-dimensional. They make the figures move.

And that’s the work of Jeff Balke, a comic book colorist now living in Elkhorn.

Balke and his work were brought to C. Berger Gallery, 237 Broad St., Lake Geneva, by the Lake Geneva Art Museum. The nonprofit museum organized the show, said Elizabeth Chappell, president of the museum board of directors. And gallery owner Claire Berger provided the wall space.

Balke has been a professional comics color artist for the past five years.

He was born in Chicago and grew up in Lindenhurst, Ill. He said he moved to Elkhorn about six years ago to be closer to family, who moved to Wisconsin about a decade ago.

Balke said in a Oct. 23 interview that he plans to move to Lake Geneva.

And that seems appropriate. Lake Geneva was home to Sidney Smith, who created the newspaper comic “The Gumps,” which first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1917. Comic artist Joe Martin, creator of “Mr. Boffo” and “Cats with Hands,” also has a home in Lake Geneva.

Balke doesn’t look or act like the scrawny little ink-stained introvert-in-glasses stereotype of a comic book artist.

OK, he wears glasses. But he’s a big guy with a big laugh, and he loves to talk.

Balke said he’s loved drawing and doodling since he was a child.

But Balke said he didn’t start collecting comics until he was 12. He remembers buying his first comic book at the newly-opened Gurney Mills mall. It was Fantastic Four number 188. In 1993, he attended his first comics convention in Chicago, where comic book publishers advertise their new titles, where comic book artists sell their work and where fans try to get a glimpse of their favorite artists or seek out the latest on their favorite superheroes.

There, Balke met a superhero of sorts. Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Comics, was meeting fans and signing autographs.

Balke said he put down a Spiderman comic for Lee to sign.

Lee signed the book and encouraged Balke to keep being a “true believer.” Balke said that was the day he decided he wanted to work in the comic book industry.

Naturally, with his love of artwork and comic books, Balke got a degree in information technology and then got jobs managing retail stores.

OK, that doesn’t sound right, but, said Balke, that’s what he did.

During the evenings, however, he would go home and indulge in his first love, drawing comic book heroes and posting them on Myspace in the pre-Facebook Internet era.

His drawing and coloring are self-taught, as is his ability with PhotoShop.

Comments made of his work online made him realize his color work attracted far more interest than his black-and-white drawings.

Balke said he began making contacts within the comic book industry, showing some of his work at comic book art shows and letting it be known he was interested in breaking into the business.

It’s not an easy profession to break into, he said. Comic book publishers need to know that an artist can meet deadlines and produce high-quality work within a short time, Balke said.

Balke said he tried to attract the attention of the big comic book corporations, DC and Marvel. Both publishers took his submissions and made a few helpful comments, but Balke said he never heard from them again.

Balke’s first real comics job came in 2005, when he took a commission to color the pages of a now-defunct “all-ages” comic called Foxwood Falcons, published by After Hours Press. He did the work, cover-to-cover, for free. Balke said the comics were terrible.

“You can’t give them away,” he said, laughing.

But coloring the pages of “Foxwood Falcons” became his passport into the world of comics. His break came in 2007 while he was managing a Crate and Barrel store in the Chicago area.

“Thankfully, I got fired,” Balke said.

That forced him to make some life-changing moves.

First, he moved to Elkhorn where his parents, Raymond and Mickey Balke, live.

And then he seriously took the plunge into comics as full-time work.

A company called Zenescope Entertainment gave the newcomer a shot.

Balke wound up being the colorist for such books as “Charmed,” “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” and “Urban Legends.”

Balke said he’s able to color a page or a cover in about three hours.

Balke attends up to 32 comics conventions across the country annually, but now he’s the professional the fans seek out.

“The fans want to meet you,” Balke said. “The fans to me are number one.”

Of his art on the wall at C. Berger Gallery, Balke said that the figure drawings were done by other artists. But the colors are his.

About 28 individual pieces were on display last week, with another 15 or so in storage. They were selling for between $60 and $150 each, Balke said.

He said he keeps good relations with his figure artists. Color artists and figure artists technically both own the artwork they produce, he said.

The two groups often cross promote each other, and there are figure artists who will specifically ask that a certain color artist do their works, Balke said. Balke said he was proud to be a special guest at the ribbon cutting for Wizard World at the Nashville Comicon in the new Nashville convention center.

Standing with him to help cut the ribbon were actors Lou (The Hulk) Ferrigno and Henry (Happy Days) Winkler. Also at the ribbon-cutting was the seemingly-immortal Stan Lee. Balke said that when he’s hand-coloring commissioned artwork in Starbucks with his special markers, occasionally people will approach and ask, ‘Can you make a living at that?’“

Balke’s reply is an emphatic affirmative. And he doesn’t plan on slowing down.

He recently completed coloring his 300th comic, and he said, he’s looking forward to doing his next 300. In addition to working for established comics publishers, Balke said he plans to bring out his own publications in January under the imprint EKO Entertainment.

“I want to work into my 90s,” said Balke. “Just like Stan Lee.”

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