The Kubert School Spotlight recognizes a chosen Kubert School instructor or alumni, showcasing their work and journey as a comic book professional.

    Talent from The Kubert School


    Cliff Rathburn


    Interview by Michael Kraiger

    Cliff Rathburn is a 2001 Graduate of The Kubert School. Since leaving the school Cliff has penciled, inked and colored for most of the major comic book publishers today. He is also taking a stab at writing with REAPER, his creator-owned comic project recently published by Image Comics.

    TKS: Did you consider any other career before deciding on art?

    Cliff Rathburn: None that I can think of. When I was around four years old I got my first comic book and I recall how easy it was to understand what was happening in the story without even be able to read any of the dialogue. Telling a story with just pictures was something I wished I could do and that's what inspired me to become a comic book artist.

    TKS:  Who are some of the artists that inspired you early on?

    Cliff Rathburn: Lee Weeks’ run on DAREDEVIL was my first experience with comics so I became a huge fan of his work. Then I went on to discover Sergio Aragones' GROO THE WANDER and Erik Larsen’s work on PUNISHER and SPIDER-MAN.

    TKS: What originally prompted you to attend The Kubert School?

    Cliff Rathburn: As previously stated I was a huge fan of Lee Weeks, so I tried to learn more about him, I had noticed his name was listed as being an alumnus in one of the ads for the Kubert School that used to appear in comics. That's how I decided I wanted to go to the school.

    TKS: How would you characterize your daily life while at the school?

    Cliff Rathburn: I would arrive at school at 8:30 a.m., start working on whatever projects were due for that week, get advice from the teachers on those projects, and then work more. I’d leave school at 2:45 p.m. and continue working until I went to bed. Rinse and repeat.

    TKS: Was there any particular experience or class that stands out in your memory?

    Cliff Rathburn: I liked the experience of being able to get feedback as you’re currently working on your artwork, instead of being critiqued when it's finished and all your mistakes are final. Getting feedback from your teacher as you’re working helps you avoid mistakes. Watching the teachers demonstrate how to do something (for example, penciling or inking) was essential to me growing as an artist. It was so much better than having someone tell you how you do something. Critiquing is something everybody can do and is readily available online, but getting live feedback and watching a teacher actually demonstrate their methods is unmatched.

    TKS: Is there any one aspect of attending the school that you feel best prepared you for your current career?

    Cliff Rathburn: The heavy workload, but looking back I kind of wish it would've been an even heavier workload.  

    TKS: You started doing some professional inking jobs while still in school. What was that like?

    Cliff Rathburn: Stressful! Not because I didn't feel like I could actually do the work and get it done on time; I was more worried about it being of a professional quality. Low self-esteem has always been my biggest hurdle.

    TKS: Your first professional work was inking for Marvel. How did you start getting work doing penciling? 

    Cliff Rathburn: At the end of the third year at The Kubert School you get to go to the offices of DC Comics and meet with a group of editors. I just happened to be lucky enough that one of the editors liked my penciling, which led to me drawing JLA issue # 60.  

    TKS:  By starting out as an inker was it difficult getting editors to think of you as a penciler?

    Cliff Rathburn: No, not really. Working professionally as an inker while still in school, and penciling well enough, alleviated any worry that an editor might have about me being able to meet deadlines. Also selling yourself to the editors is another thing that made it a little easier, but selling myself happens to be one of the harder things for me to do because most the time I'm thinking about how much I need to improve. 

    TKS: It seems like early on you began inking your own pencils. Was that something you wanted to do to control the final look or was that something the editors were looking for?

    Cliff Rathburn: That's kind of a by-product of The Kubert School – being a control freak – and also it was just faster to have me ink it. I have always looked at penciling as a step towards the final page and inking is where I correct my mistakes. Most inkers today trace line-for-line perfectly what they see on a penciled page without improving the page or correcting things that are wrong with the anatomy or perspective. I have too many mistakes in my pencils to feel comfortable letting someone else ink it.

    TKS: On several of your projects – such as BRIT and REAPER – you did the penciling, inking and coloring. Is that a preferred way of working for you?

    Cliff Rathburn: No, not at all. But with many things it just comes down to money and knowing that your book isn't going to make enough money to pay anybody else to work on it. That is why I end up doing all the work myself, so I can see some kind of return on the time I’ve invested. Sadly this is the case for most independent comic books, but when working for Marvel or DC that isn't the case because you are getting paid a flat rate per page. Then the other details – like who is inking, coloring, and lettering – are up to the editor.

    TKS: Any difference in your work day or approach to the work when you're inking (or toning and coloring) as compared to when you're penciling?

    Cliff Rathburn: I approach penciling and inking almost similarly, but toning and coloring I have to use an entirely different mindset. I have a hard time if I have to pencil and color on that same day. My productivity slows ridiculously so I plan ahead knowing which days I'm going to color and which days I'm going to pencil and ink.  Every night before I go to bed I have to mentally prepare for them so I get in the right mindset. 

    TKS: You've done a great deal of work on projects with Robert Kirkman. How did that association come about?

    Cliff Rathburn: For two years I was a storyboard artist and absolutely hated every single minute of it. The work paid well, but what I had to draw was so completely boring and monotonous that I had to quit so I could get back to something I love to do – comics. So I devised a plan to create my own comic and to get it published through Image Comics, but I didn't feel I was confident enough to write it myself so I sought out a writer. I previously read some of Kirkman's work and thought we'd be a good fit and he was just really starting to get known. I knew I could hire him cheap before he became too famous.

    TKS: You've worked on the FANTASTIC FOUR, the INHUMANS, SHE-HULK, the JLA, LOBO and INVINCIBLE. Are there any favorite projects or are there any characters you'd like to tackle?

    Cliff Rathburn: No real favorite projects. Inking is my favorite thing to do. I find it relaxing and I get to work with people I admire. I can't really think of any characters I'd like to work on other than my own, but if I had to pick any characters that I would like to work with they would be the characters from Mike Mignola's HELLBOY Universe or John Arcudi’s MAJOR BUMMER. 

    TKS: Has there been a moment when you felt like you had achieved what you’d set out to do by coming to the school?

    Cliff Rathburn: No, and I never hope to. Bruce Lee said it best, “If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

    TKS: You seem to juggle several projects at once. What’s your current work day like? 

    Cliff Rathburn: As of right now I work 10 to 13 hours a day. And can pencil two-and-a-half pages in that time. For inking I can do at least an average of two to four pages a day, but coloring something takes me longer because of the numerous options for colors. I work pretty much every single day and rarely get a day off.