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By Kevin Melrose
Whether it’s a comic book cover, a magazine illustration or an album jacket, James Jean’s style is unmistakable: fluid lines, a subtle energy, an almost ethereal palette. A 2001 graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, Jean has created work for the likes of Atlantic Records, Entertainment Weekly, Playboy and Target. But it’s his covers for “Fables,” (DC/Vertigo) “Batgirl” (DC Comics) and “Green Arrow” (DC Comics) that have earned him the attention of comics readers – and the Eisner and Harvey award committees. (Jean received the Eisner for Best Cover Artist in 2004 and 2005, and the Harvey in 2005.) Plus, of course, there’s his own Process Recess: The Art of James Jean, from AdHouse Books, and his rare sequential-art contribution to “Project: SUPERIOR.”
Recently, Jean spoke with Comic Foundry about his cover work, process, challenges … and casting George W. Bush as a Green Arrow villain.
What makes a successful cover? Do you follow a certain philosophy?
I try to attempt something new with every cover. Other than that, there are no rules; I try follow my intuition. Naturally, there are patterns to my behavior, but I don’t have a standardized method for creating a picture.
Your style is distinctive. Obviously, that creates demand. Are there any drawbacks?
I’ve had to learn to say “no,” which saddens me a bit – ideally, I’d love to make art for everyone who asks, but there are only so many hours in a day.
Walk us through that cover process.
The whole process usually takes two to three weeks, but I’m usually juggling a bunch of assignments at the same time.
I will get a call or e-mail about a cover, and the editor will attach a script or short synopsis of the story. I’ll start drawing a bunch of thumbnails on a sheet of regular bond paper, and when I arrive on a solid composition, I’ll fold a letter-size sheet in half to start the final sketch in pencil. Sometimes I’ll comp up the cover with type and color to clarify my ideas to the editor. I used to send in multiple cover ideas, but I found that it’s much better for me to hone in on one strong cover concept, rather than spread myself thin with three or four mediocre sketches. The sketch is the bones for the final piece, and thus the underlying structure has to be strong. No matter how prettily the flesh is draped, all the Photoshop filters, paint textures, lens flares, halftone textures in existence will fail on a weak frame.
It usually takes a day or two for the sketch to be approved, and I’ll start by transferring the sketch to the surface for the final: blow up the sketch in Photoshop, print it out in sections, and transfer it on either a lightbox or with blue transfer paper. At this point, I’m almost a slave to the sketch, and I’m constantly frustrated by trying to replicate the same energy and nuance in the finish. Of course, the finish must work on its own, but this struggle usually ends well, and I’ll discover new ways of expressing the original idea in the final drawing/painting. The art is scanned into Photoshop, usually in sections, and I’ve become quite adept at stitching things together after years of practice. The digital file will usually measure 7 by 10.5 inches at 500 or 600 dpi.
It takes me a couple of days to finish the piece, and I’ll sit on it for a few more days before taking another look with fresh eyes. After a few final tweaks, I’ll send a lo-res JPEG for approval, and upload the file once everything is good to go.
When you’re creating a cover, are you conscious of how it will be shelved at comics shops?
In a practical sense, I’ve been told to keep the logo visible and recognizable. DC has vetoed a couple of attempts of mine to modify the logo.
I’ve read that, with Fables, you typically work from Bill Willingham’s full script, while with other titles you might only get a plot summary. How does that affect the final piece?
The “Fables” covers might have a bit more depth than a cover for a superhero book, which is all about flash. I try to make the superhero covers more graphic and kinetic, while the Fables covers are more subtle.
Do relatively straightforward superhero books like Green Arrow or Amazing Fantasy pose different challenges for you than “Fables”?
It’s more difficult in a way. I’m more free to be experimental with Fables and, for some reason, my experience with superhero books is that they are more conservative. Plus, the lack of story or script when I receive the assignment is a challenge in itself, since superhero books tend to be rushed a bit. However, I’m able to create something more simple and graphic despite my tendency to overly design and decorate a picture.
Do you find yourself looking back at covers and thinking, “That was too much”?
It’s certainly a struggle during the process of making a cover – many times I’ll audition certain elements in picture, only to discard them in the end. That’s the blessing and curse of Photoshop.
One of my favorite covers is the one to “Green Arrow” #48, which features the oddball ’80s villain the Duke of Oil. He’s an undeniably silly character that your cover transformed into a fierce, steampunk-like creation. There’s also a St. Sebastian aspect to the image, with the Duke stuck by countless arrows. How did you settle on a look for the character, and how did you approach this cover?
I was sent some sketches of the character by the interior artist, and that was the basis for my interpretation of the character. Ever since I started on “Green Arrow,” I wanted to evoke the ending of “Throne of Blood,” where Toshiro Mifune gets shot at with a thousand real arrows. This was the closest chance I could get, and sadly, I never got another one. I wanted to give the character a grit and weight that was missing in the initial sketch. When I thought of the Duke of Oil and his mechanical body, the most obvious thing to do was to evoke a dirty, rusty oil rig, which really creates a sense of heaviness and danger in the image. Also, he was based loosely on George W. Bush, and his initials are engraved in the boots.
Some of your covers are literal interpretations of the stories. Others, like those for “Batgirl” #46 or “Machine Teen” #1 (Marvel Comics), are more abstract. How do you decide which course to take?
It all depends on inspiration. I’m not a great conceptual illustrator like Guy Billout or Christoph Niemann. I suppose I’m more of a sensualist in terms of material, texture and form. For “Machine Teen,” the image of an exploded diagram immediately came to mind, and I used vector drawing to express the perfect surface of the mechanical elements. I’ll try to find one interesting aspect of the piece and exploit it to a degree that’s unusual and beautiful.
It wasn’t until Issues 6 and 7 of Fables that you hit upon the trademark look for the series. What brought about that evolution?
Originally, I was just signed on for five issues, and we didn’t know if Fables would do well enough to warrant a renewal in the contract. I felt a lot of pressure to do full-on paintings for the beginning of the series, but after the series was renewed, I knew I had to make some changes, since I wasn’t satisfied with what I had done. Firstly, I asked if Vertigo could send me the logo so I could design around it. Secondly, I started using Photoshop to enhance the images. I was just beginning to learn Photoshop at the time as well, so it was definitely a turning point for me.
You’ve made the Fables logo and trade dress an organic thing. That’s something we don’t see a lot of in mainstream comics. Was there resistance from Vertigo? How did that come about?
Vertigo was pretty open to the idea, especially since they favor covers that don’t look like typical comic books. That was one reason my homage to Sgt. Rock on the cover to “Fables” #28 got some flak from Vertigo: The word balloon was too reminiscent of “comics.” Dave McKean had done some really innovative things with “Sandman,” so I don’t think my request to work with the logo was that unusual. I had always felt that the logo was such an integral part of the composition – it shouldn’t float on top the picture, but sit within it.
In the version of Issue 35 that appears on your Web site, the logo is shortened to Fab!, which is fitting, given the Jack-in-Hollywood storyline. However, the final cover has “Fables” spelled out. What happened between submission and printing?
This was one of those instances where my suggested logotype was vetoed. DC has a cover design department that usually handles all the cover dress, and they act under the guidance of the editors. There are many practical considerations to selling a book, but in this example, the conceptual playfulness of the image was trimmed a bit.
In “Fables” #49, you utilize scale – the enormous wolf’s head in the foreground dwarfing Mowgli in the tree line – to tell help tell a story. The prey eclipses the hunter. But you also toy with the cover dress, thrusting the UPC box above the logo, and turning one side of the “A” in “Fables” into the handle of the knife. It’s a little unconventional, even for a Fables cover.
For 49, it was Bigby Wolf’s return to “Fables,” so I knew I had to do something dramatic. There was no script, so Bill Willingham told me to have Mowgli, shirtless with a big hunting knife, facing the Big Bad Wolf. After working out some tired, cliched ideas in some thumbnails – think of the many images you’ve seen of the hero confronting something larger than himself – I pushed the composition to the extreme, the strangeness of which attracted me. It was also a pleasure to paint the wolf’s head. Lately, I’ve been trying to use the physical properties of the paint to describe motion, weight and texture, rather than using paint to create the illusion of an object. The more personal obsessions I’m able to work out in the covers, the more interesting they become.
What are some of those obsessions?
How difficult is it to reinterpret the stories for the trade paperback covers? Is it tough to find new aspects of the plot to focus on, or to bring together pieces from the broader storyline?
Actually, I had initiated the idea of creating a wraparound cover to Vertigo, and it’s fortunate that “Fables” keeps doing well enough to commission one for each trade. However, it’s difficult to create an image that has to fulfill so many requirements: It has to show the ensemble cast, reflect different elements in the story, work as a single cover image as well as a wraparound, and accommodate lots of type. I look forward to the challenge whenever I get the call for each trade – it’s a rare chance to do something grand.
Of the six – soon to be seven – trade covers, which ones best meet those requirements, or just work well?
I’m still happy with the first one, “Legends in Exile.” I was able to use the subway car to indicate the modern/urban setting of the story, and contain the whole cast as well. I fear that the rest of the covers suffer from more of a traditional montage approach, though the “Animal Farm” cover seems to have set the standard for the rest of the Fables trade paperback covers.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
My job is to help sell books, but if I try to enlighten myself in the process, then everyone wins.
For more information on James Jean, check out his Web site here.