Hooked on Comics
How Jeff Butler turned a childhood obsession into a career.
Jeff Butler x’18 has always loved the company of superheroes, starting with Batman and Bart Starr.
As a kid, he devoured comics. He read them over and over, studying the art. His mother, Bonnie, was convinced reading anything was a good thing and encouraged her energetic son to draw.
“I suspect it was a welcome break for her to have me sitting quietly for any length of time,” Butler says.
But his father, Tom ’50, wasn’t keen on his comic book obsession: “He thought they were trash,” says Butler. The two bonded instead over a shared love of football and his dad’s stories of sports legends.
Butler’s competing passions for art and athletics continued as he entered college in 1976, where he joined the Badger football team as a walk-on. But art ultimately won out, or as Butler puts it: “Mom won the argument.”
During his time at UW–Madison, Butler created a comic book and launched a career as a commercial artist that included illustrating Dungeons & Dragons, a landmark role playing game in which each player is assigned a character to inhabit during imaginary adventures that take place in a fantasy world. D&D has influenced pop culture for decades.
He grew up watching the Green Bay Packers every Sunday with his father, a longtime sports writer who covered Badger basketball and football for the Wisconsin State Journal. At Madison West High School, Butler played quarterback under coach Burt Hable ’53, MS’65, a former UW defensive back.
Butler arrived on the UW campus in 1976 and joined the football team in the spring of 1978, during Dave McClain’s first season as the Badgers’ head coach. But he subsequently struggled with headaches following a concussion during a scrimmage and gave up football after one season on the advice of his doctor.
A fine arts major, Butler focused on school but stayed connected to athletics by illustrating posters for the UW’s football and wrestling teams. His painting classes provided the firm foundation he needed as an aspiring illustrator and comics artist.
“Before college, drawing was just an intuitive thing that I did,” Butler says. “College was the first time I started paying attention to the formal and academic aspects of creating art.”
In 1982, writer Mike Baron ’71 recruited Butler to draw The Badger for Madison-based Capital Comics. The independent comic featured a Vietnam War veteran suffering from multiple personality disorder. One of his personalities was The Badger, an urban vigilante who could talk to animals.
Butler had drawn several issues of The Badger when he left the UW without his degree to work as an artist for a Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, gaming company called TSR, Inc., the maker of Dungeons & Dragons.
For five years, he worked on D&D illustrations. The company created the role playing game industry that laid the groundwork for computer games such as World of Warcraft, as well as the Game of Thrones books and HBO television series. “Simply put, this seminal game made these later multibillion-dollar pop culture phenomena possible,” Michael Witwer wrote in his 2016 book, Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons.
TSR also had the license for the Marvel Super Heroes role playing game, for which Butler became the primary artist. The game received critical praise and still has an active following more than 30 years after its initial release. And the assignment reunited him with the characters that captivated his childhood imagination. “I was just thrilled to get paid to do this stuff,” Butler says.
He left TSR and returned to comics in 1989, working on The Green Hornet, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Hercules. He also reunited with Baron, his collaborator and cocreator on The Badger, to create Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley, based on a Japanese TV commercial for Nike with the NBA great taking on the movie monster.
Butler came home to Madison in 1997 and, in his words, “began a crash course in digital art.” For 13 years, he created video game character art for Raven Software, including uniform designs and storyboards for Star Trek: Voyager — Elite Force. Raven’s work on the game caught the eye of LucasArts, which “borrowed” the studio for two Star Wars games, Butler says. Digital art also kept him close to some of the characters he fell in love with when he worked as lead character artist on video games based on Marvel properties.
In 2012, Butler began teaching comic book art and cartooning classes at Madison College. He now leads courses in the school’s graphic design and illustration program. Earlier this year, he reenrolled full time at the UW to complete the 25 credits he needed to earn his art degree. One of his courses — Making Comics — was taught by renowned cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry, whose methods have inspired Butler in his own teaching.
“I appreciate [being a student] so much more now that I’m older,” Butler says. “But I still feel like a kid.”
Kurt Anthony Krug is a freelance writer based in Michigan.
Published in the Summer 2018 issue