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Up, Up and Away

Artist Gabe Eltaeb’s career takes off with comic book giants
By Nate Haas (MS-04)

You may not know Gabe Eltaeb, but you’ll instantly recognize his iconic work. Batman. Catwoman. Superman. Green Lantern. Star Wars.

He’s colored or drawn all of them for big-name comic book companies. They seek out the talented freelancer for the high-profile assignments and trust the prolific artist to deliver. In 2012, he colored or drew 754 pages of comics.

Eltaeb, 34, followed his dream from California to UNC and back to California. A gifted artist who was drawing Star Wars characters by age 3 (he confesses his first crush was Princess Leia), he remembers using butcher paper as his canvas in his grandparents’ Mexican restaurant in Greeley.

He was particularly fond of coloring books. In 1991, Eltaeb’s fascination with comic books began when a friend showed him an X-Men title created by legendary artist Jim Lee, who happened to live in Eltaeb’s hometown of San Diego.

“I decided right then, I was going to meet him,” Eltaeb says.

And, indeed, the dominoes would begin to fall.

In high school, during a pickup basketball game at a local park, his girlfriend, now wife, approached an artist on the court who just so happened to work for Lee’s comic book company. Adrienne Eltaeb (BS-08) introduced them, and he learned the artist, Scott Clark, lived in Gabe’s neighborhood. Clark became a mentor, even providing drawing lessons.

At that point, Eltaeb says he became obsessed. Day and night, his pad always by his side, he would draw. He mailed samples to industry leviathans DC Comics and Marvel. He still keeps the stack of rejection letters in his desk drawer.

“It wasn’t good enough,” Eltaeb says of those samples, without a hint of bitterness in his voice, “so they justifiably didn’t give me any work.” (Years later, he compared a rejection letter with his second contract from Lucasfilm and noted the only difference was a “decade of hard work.”)

Undeterred, Eltaeb sought that experience. At UNC he approached The Mirror editor with a proposal to draw a strip for the student newspaper. His first paid position, Eltaeb went on to be recognized by Columbia University for the strip Higher Education about two college-aged students featuring a penguin and a chimp.

That led to an internship with the Greeley Tribune while attending school full time and still working at The Mirror and part time at Home Depot. Shortly before graduation, he landed a job illustrating children’s books for a friend’s father.

“That gave me money and security to strike out,” Eltaeb says of the children’s books. “I’ve never had a normal job since.”

Other jobs followed, including in 2005 for Mike Baron’s Detonator. After Eltaeb showed the award-winning artist a sample he colored, Baron handed him a plum assignment.

“’Draw Issue 3 and have it done in three weeks,’ ” Eltaeb recalls Baron saying. “Here I was thinking I’m the water boy and I’m starting in the Super Bowl. I worked three years with him.”

That led to a job for Danger’s Dozen, illustrated by legendary Batman artist Norm Breyfoyle.

And that’s when Eltaeb got his big break. Late one night, after finishing his latest work on Danger’s Dozen, he came across a contest by DC Comics to fill an opening for a colorist. Bleary eyed, Eltaeb fought off sleep and colored the Superman drawing. According to the site, he filed it at 2:27 a.m. Aug. 31 — his post was among 56 comments submitted about entering the contest.

Weeks passed. Eltaeb was still recovering from a late night playing Halo — something of a tradition with his son on the day new versions of the video game are released — when his phone rang. It was Jim Lee’s personal assistant offering him the job. After realizing it wasn’t a prank, and as much as he didn’t want to leave Colorado (up until now he could work over the Internet anywhere in the world), Eltaeb accepted.

“The fact that my favorite artist picked me and liked my work, it doesn’t seem real to me,” Eltaeb says. “It would be like John Elway picking a Denver Broncos fan to play for the team.”

Eltaeb has since decided to become a full-time freelancer after DC Comics offices in San Diego moved north to Burbank as part of a company merger. With a work ethic he says is influenced by his father and grandfather, he logs 60-hour weeks doing what he loves. He contracts with DC Comics, and has been personally called by Lee to work on projects — most recently Justice League.

And, just as the magazine was going to press, Eltaeb joined Robert Kirkman — best known for creating The Walking Dead — as an artist for Skybound Entertainment’s new book, Invincible Universe.

“The 13-year-old me would never have believed where I am now,” he says. NV


Meet Gabe Eltaeb

Age: 34

Degree: BA-04, Graphic Arts

Arts Profession: Freelance comic book artist who just joined forces on a new title, Invincible Universe, with Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead creator)

Notable titles: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Justice League, Star Wars

Residence: San Diego, Calif.

Family: Adrienne, wife; Daughter, Minnie, 16; Son, Peter, 14

Hobbies: Running, watching football, cooking


Coloring Comic Books

When Eltaeb receives an illustrated comic book to color, he first reads the script to make sure that “the dialogue, mood, time of day and themes do not disagree with the color.” He’ll then turn to industry-standard digital tools, including a pen recognized by a computer screen, to complete the project. Depending on how intricate the illustration is, it can take anywhere from 2-4 hours a page. He’s intentional in where he wants to lead readers’ eyes by focusing on important details and wary of causing distractions. “In a nutshell, you have to respect the illustration, not overrun it, in a way that helps further the story and makes sense to the reader,” he says.