JG Jones: Behind the Page
JG Jones and Grant Morrison share a moment at the 2008 New York Comic Con
Saying it's a big summer for J.G. Jones is an understatement. Wanted, the film based on the comic he co-created with Mark Millar for Top Cow in 2003, hits theaters in June with box office stars like Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. And the artist has been honored as an Eisner nominee in the Best Cover Artist category for his acclaimed work on the covers for the weekly DC Comics series 52.
Plus there's this little comic he's drawing called Final Crisis.
This isn't the first time Jones has teamed up with Grant Morrison, the writer on the seven-issue Final Crisis, which kicks off with a 40-page issue this week. The two co-created the Marvel Boy mini-series in 2000 and worked together again as part of the 52 team last year. Now Jones and Morrison sit firmly at the helm of DC's summer headliner, their vision setting the stage for months worth of tie-ins, as well as the mysterious "what comes after" -- something expected to be pretty substantial from a comic with enough guts to call itself the final DCU crisis.
Yet with all this attention on his work, Jones was surprisingly laid back and relaxed when we sat down with him for an interview at New York Comic-Con last month. Stretching his long, thin frame across a sofa, his feet crossed on the table in front of him, and casually joking about his slight Southern drawl, it was easy to forget that he was carrying a portfolio with him that most comics fans would sell their left arm to see. For Jones, pages from Final Crisis are just another day's work.
So who is this guy who so often collaborates with the seemingly magnanimous Grant Morrison and is helping to guide DC's highest-profile comic? As Jones' big summer begins this week, Newsarama took a peek Behind the Page to find out.
Newsarama: I guess if we're going to find out what really makes you tick, we should start back at the beginning. When did you start being interested in art? Was it when you were a little tyke?
J.G. Jones: Yeah. I kind of always did it. I remember I had a contest with a kid in my first grade class about who could draw the best monster fight. And I still swear to this day I won. But he cheated and said he won. But then I said I won.
No, I've been drawing pretty much all my life.
NRAMA: What kind of stuff did you like to draw when you were little? Was it always superheroes?
JGJ: I read a lot of comic books, so I'd draw Bizarro and all the goofy stuff boys like to draw, like Mad Magazine stuff. Oh, and I would get those paint-by-number kits, except I wouldn't paint the picture on there. I would make up my own picture like outer space stuff. I'd build model robots, and I'd want a backdrop, so I'd paint planets and some stars. And my parents would get furious. "Why didn't you do the picture of the dawg??" "I didn't wanna do the dawg! And the paints smell real gooood!"
NRAMA: You were just doing that goofy, exaggerated Southern drawl, but you did grow up in the South, didn't you? Where was it?
NRAMA: Oh, well that's a different kind of South, isn't it?
JGJ: [laughs] It's a totally different kind of South. Boy, you said a mouthful there.
NRAMA: Were you exposed to a lot of art there? What was the environment like where you grew up?
JGJ: Other than cave paintings?
NRAMA: [laughs] But did your parents encourage you in art? Or get you classes in art?
JGJ: Yeah, actually, my mom was really good about the education thing. My dad would show me how to draw little things because he had a certain facility. He would carve cars out of blocks of wood and they were like, perfect. So he had some kind of ability. But my mom always encouraged it. And I remember later on they sent us to little YMCA painting classes and stuff where they'd make you do grapes and flowers and an empty wine bottle or something like that.
Then I took more formal classes at a private art school a couple of days a week in high school, after I got out of class.
NRAMA: It sounds like it was pretty serious by that point. When you were a teen, did you know that's what you wanted to do for a living?
JGJ: Yeah. I was always the class artist.
NRAMA: So many comic book artists say that! You were the "kid who could draw," right?
JGJ: Well, when I figured out that I could sit there and draw and get attention from girls, I was sold. [laughs] I didn't know that stopped when you had to get a real job.
NRAMA: [laughs] All of the sudden, you're not so cool anymore.
JGJ: Yeah. "He's that sweaty guy who draws pictures." It went from, "draw me a picture Jeff," to "get away from me!"
NRAMA: [laughs] But you eventually went off to college...
JGJ: I actually went off to college and forgot about comics for awhile. I did the fine art thing -- did painting for years. Two completely useless degrees in painting.
NRAMA: A bachelor of fine arts and...?
JGJ: I have my bachelor's and my MFA in painting.
NRAMA: But that training wasn't useless. You painted the covers for 52 and Final Crisis.
JGJ: Yeah, but I learned all of the painting technique I use now in those high school after school classes. My first teacher, I learned all that watercolor technique from him. 'Cause you know art school is total BS. It's like, go in and figure out how "creative" you are. It's like, "create some artistic statement." It's very important, and you just sit around and jerk each other off.
NRAMA: It's got to be a totally different reaction you get from people when you say you're an "artist" and when you say you're a comic book artist.
NRAMA: And yet you're still the same artist.
JGJ: Yeah, pretty much. It's all fair game. I still use a lot of my interest in old masters' paintings. Like in the 52 cover series, I would go back and look at old altarpiece paintings and stuff that interested me from all eras of art. So I guess the art history was actually better than the painting.
NRAMA: At what point did you say you weren't going to be a "painter" and decide to become a comic book artist? JGJ: I went to grad school in Albany and then I moved to New York City. And I was working at a little local newspaper in Brooklyn to subsidize my painting habit. And I just decided I didn't like the people in the art world here. And I got interested in comics again because a friend of mine at the newspaper was a big comic fan. We drew a comic together, and I brought about five pages into a show at the Javits Center, showed them to Jim Shooter. I didn't know who Jim Shooter was, but this big, tall man kept saying, "I want to give you a job," and I kept saying, "I have a job." So I don't know -- it took, like, two months of them calling me for me to realize drawing comics was actually a job choice and something you could do in life.
NRAMA: The first thing you did was at Defiant Comics. What was that experience like?
JGJ: Yeah, I did Dark Dominion for Defiant Comics. I didn't have any clue what I was doing. I actually learned a lot from Jim. He's very much about storytelling, and I still keep those lessons to this day. I think a lot of kids come up who have a really hot style but have never learned to do storytelling properly. They're just going for the big splash image or something fancy. "Look how the muscles look on my superhero!" but they can't draw a telephone.
NRAMA: Let's go back a little. You said you read comics when you were little -- what were your favorites when you were younger?
JGJ: I was a big Spider-Man and Fantastic Four geek. I didn't really get Kirby then. I was older before I got Kirby. But John Buscema was like my god. And who else? Ross Andrew. I just loved the way he drew Spider-Man as this kind of spindly, skinny character. Romita's Spider-Man was always blocky and heavy, and I thought that original kind of Ditko Spider-Man was what looked right to me. So I love Ross Andrew's stuff.
NRAMA: OK, but then you got away from comics in college. Once you came back to it because of your friend, what kind of stuff caught your eye after you'd had your art training?
JGJ: Mike Mignola is what really got me interested. That and the Frank Miller stuff that was coming out in the early '90s.
NRAMA: What was it about that art in particular that impressed you?
JGJ: Mike Mignola is the most amazing, just, pure designer working in comics. On his pages, he's taken out all the extraneous noise and his storytelling just focuses on what elements are necessary, and the timing, and the beats. And I'm really interested in that type of storytelling. And his art is the same way. It's pared down. It's like, "how much can I take away and still be left with just the essentials of really great design?" Black and white. The shapes. The energy. Just the essentials. And I love that. I love the way it's pared down, and it's clean.
NRAMA: You seem to do that on your covers. They come across as being as much about design as anything else.
JGJ: Oh, thank you. I work really hard on the design because I don't worry about my rendering skills. It's my design skills I've always been a little iffy on. So I put a lot of effort into trying to do good design work.
NRAMA: When you were working for Jim, did you keep your day job?
JGJ: At first I did. About a month or two in, I just couldn't do both jobs. I didn't realize just how much work it was going to be. But once I left the job, it was definitely like stepping out into the void. It's like Wile E. Coyote stepping off of the cliff. It takes a while to start falling because you don't realize you're off the cliff.
NRAMA: After your work at Defiant Comics and other projects you did, what was the point where you felt like you had made it as a comic book artist?
JGJ: I don't think I ever felt like I made it as a comic book artist. Not until recently, when I actually sold some comics.
NRAMA: But you had to realize at some point that, "Hey, I'm doing OK here..."
JGJ: Yeah. I guess I felt that way with Black Widow. I had moved up from a lot of smaller companies to an actual, big-time company.
NRAMA: How did you get that gig?
JGJ: Jimmy Palmiotti and I used to drink in the same bar.
NRAMA: Same neighborhood kind of thing?
JGJ: Yeah. In Manhattan. Johnny Foxes or whatever they called it back then. And he would look at my stuff from time to time, and eventually, I guess he thought I was ready. He and Joe [Quesada] had just started Marvel Knights. And Jimmy said, "Yeah, I think I might have somethin' for ya." So they brought me up and let me do Black Widow. It was three issues that Devin Grayson wrote. It was like a little spy story. That was fun.
NRAMA: Looking back, what is your favorite project you've done, or even favorite actual one issue?
JGJ: Black Widow was still pretty much fun. But I'm really proud of the last few issues of Marvel Boy. Grant's writing was just insanely kinetic and I think we kind of clicked together then. I don't know... it was just a rush drawing every page. I just loved that story and I loved that character and I loved how kinetic all the action was written. Everything moved. There was nothing still, ever.
NRAMA: Does Grant challenge you as an artist?
JGJ: Absolutely. Yeah. And even if he doesn't try to do it... OK, he does. [laughs] He tries. He puts way too much stuff for me to ever draw. But it's because he thinks I can do it. So I set myself up.
NRAMA: That's got to be a good feeling though. To know your artist trusts you that way and that you impress him to that extent.
JGJ: You know, when I'm drawing I do think... I'd like Grant's head to melt when he sees this. I put a little extra effort in there.
NRAMA: After Marvel Boy, you ended up working at DC next, right?
JGJ: Yeah, I did Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia with Greg Rucka. I enjoyed that a lot because I'm a fan of Greg's stuff, and also Greek mythology. I think that was my first DC work.
NRAMA: And you've been pretty much working with DC ever since. Except for Wanted?
JGJ: Yeah, except for Wanted, it's been DC. I just like the way they treat me at DC. I almost went and worked for the other company before Final Crisis. But DC wanted to keep me, so they offered me their big book. And you can't get any more love than that.
NRAMA: Let's talk a little about Wanted. How did you end up getting together with Mark Millar and working on that series?
JGJ: I think I'd just been talking to Mark about doing some stuff, and he wanted to trot out all those different independent books at once. But he offered me any one of these projects he had in mind. And I was like no, no, no... yes! Wanted just seemed like tons of fun. It was like, no holds barred, cursing, sex, guns, no morals... I was like, this has got to be fun.
NRAMA: That was some pretty crazy stuff you drew for that series, from a guy that was a walking pile of excrement to... what was the name of the guy with the talking... uh...
JGJ: [laughs] Johnny Two... Richards?
NRAMA: Yeah! That's the one. But drawing that kind of wacky stuff must have been quite a change of pace.
JGJ: Yeah. It was a hoot. You should have seen the stuff I self-edited out! I was like, nope, nope, nope...
NRAMA: But did you have to find unique ways of portraying some of that?
JGJ: Yeah. I say I usually don't change what the writers have in the script, but there were a few things where I felt like he was trotting out his shock value too early. I convinced him if he saved it for later in the story, it would probably play better. I think he wanted every page to offend as many people as he possibly could. I was like, "Why don't you build up to that, and then hit them with it after you've got them hooked in?" And he was like, "brilliant!"
NRAMA: That's the only thing you've done that sold as a movie, and now it's opening June 27th. When you found out they wanted your comic to be a movie, what was that like?
JGJ: Well, when it's optioned... you know how things are.
NRAMA: You figure it's never going to get made, right?
JGJ: Yeah. And I'm the Eeyore of comics. When I see it, I'll believe it. And then they optioned it again. And a couple of the guys from Universal came by my table a couple of years ago in San Diego and said, "We're fast-tracking this. This is our big project. It's our favorite thing!" And I was still like, uh-huh... sure... right. Until they did the casting, I didn't think it was going to happen.
NRAMA: What do you think of the casting? Do you like the cast?
JGJ: Yeah! I mean, I was actually surprised at the cast. I didn't know they were going for that level of actor, especially for [director] Timur's [Bekmambetov] first film. But they just pulled out all the stops and gave him all the toys.
NRAMA: I figure anything with Morgan Freeman in it is worth seeing on the big screen, you know?
JGJ: Oh, god, I love that guy. I love that guy. Yeah, I had no interest in fan-geeking anybody, but I wanted to meet Morgan.
NRAMA: Have you gotten to meet him?
JGJ: No, we haven't been in the same place at the same time.
NRAMA: Maybe at the premiere.
JGJ: I hope so.
NRAMA: But you were there when they were shooting some of the Wanted movie, right?
JGJ: Yeah. I was in Chicago when they were shooting that big car chase scene that's been on all the previews.
NRAMA: You're smiling so big right now. While some of the comic was changed for the big screen, you and I have talked before about how closely some of the visuals are to the comic. It's got to be a real thrill to see that they pulled some of the cinematography straight from your cinematography in the panels.
JGJ: Yeah, that was really surprising. One of the things they kept was the scene where Wesley shoots the wings off the flies, which I got so excited when I saw that footage. I had a little fanboy moment. Actually, that's when it hit me that this was a real thing that I had something to do with. It was just a movie before that. They gave me some money, which was great, but it felt like it was just this thing they were doing.
But then I saw some of the stuff I had worked on actually moving on a huge screen. And I love Timur's visual style anyway. I thought that was a great decision, to have him direct this.
NRAMA: Let's talk about 52, which was your next big project. Did you have any idea what you were getting into when you signed on? JGJ: Absolutely! That's what I wanted to do at that time. I was sort of burned out from drawing a book. And to get a cover gig like that was pure gravy. It was fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. I don't think I'll ever have another gig in comics that was just that much pure fun to do.
NRAMA: What was so fun about it?
JGJ: I got to experiment with a different style on every cover every week. I tried different design techniques, different references... everything from Medieval altarpiece paintings to '50s design to '40s monster posters to James Bond posters to really up-to-date design stuff. I could do anything I wanted, as long as it was visually interesting.
NRAMA: You got so much attention for those...
JGJ: Well, that's the real reason I did it. [laughs]
NRAMA: [laughs] It was just for your ego, right?
JGJ: Yeah. That's it. I have this huge ego like Galactus that must be fed. Feed me planets.
NRAMA: Well, you said the way DC kept you was to offer you the big comic. "I'm not staying unless you give me the big gig." [laughs]
JGJ: [laughs] Well, it wasn't like I demanded anything! They shocked me!
NRAMA: Did you request in particular that you wanted to work with Grant again?
JGJ: No. I didn't have any idea this project was coming up. But they know that I love the Fourth World Kirby characters a lot. I'm always talking about what a geek I am on that stuff.
NRAMA: You said that you learned storytelling from Jim Shooter. That's an element of comic book creation that I rarely see defined or described, whether in reviews or instructional pieces. The storytelling ability of the artist makes a world of difference in comics and yet it's so hard to quantify what is being done. But some of that has to be instinct, am I right?
JGJ: It has to be, at a certain level. It's like anything else. When you're learning, you really have to be on your game and think about it a lot. But at a certain point, you get your own storytelling style, just like you get a drawing style. And I don't know that I have one that is that specific. I try to build off the story beats that the writer has. But there are certain things I do with my camera -- you know, the shots I choose and stuff like that.
NRAMA: Such as...?
JGJ: Well, in Final Crisis there's this old Kirby character we reintroduced called Sonny Sumo. And he's just this big mass of a guy, and he's very quiet and he's very still until you screw with him. So the whole time I was drawing Sonny, I kept the camera pretty much level. I didn't do down-shots or up-shots or funky angles, where I often will tilt; even if it's just a shot of a street, I'll tilt the angle. But with Sonny, it's just like a stage set. And I didn't do anything with the camera movement until another character comes in.
NRAMA: Why do that with this character in particular? Was it because of his quiet presence? Or was the story so strong at that point?
JGJ: Well, I wanted it to -- maybe even on a subconscious level -- give the reader the psychological feeling of how I felt Sonny should be presented. Everything's still and placid until he's provoked, and then everything shifts.
So I try to just do even an organization and presentation that's germane to what's going on with the character or the scene.
NRAMA: We've talked about your favorite things you've done. Are there things you've done that you didn't like?
JGJ: Yeah, but I don't want to talk about them because people will go find them! I almost always hate my work. I just keep moving on so I don't have to look back.
NRAMA: When you look back, aren't you proud of some of it?
JGJ: Uh... maybe a piece here or there. But generally I feel horrible disappointment that I didn't do what I wanted to.
NRAMA: All you artist guys are that way. You know that?
JGJ: Yeah. It all comes from the prom queen not going out with us. She wanted to go out with the football player.
Actually, that's not true. I dated the prom queen for years. What am I talking about? I'm doing alright.
NRAMA: See? And they say it's not right for Spider-Man to come home to his model wife. Why can't a guy like you come home to something hot, right?
JGJ: Yeah! Why not me?
By the way, if any models are reading this right now. I'm available!
NRAMA: You know, last time we talked , you made it clear you weren't getting out of the house much because of all the work you're doing on Final Crisis. But when you're not drawing, what does J.G. Jones do for fun to get out of the studio? Or are you just purely an artist?
JGJ: Oh, god, I love to relax. I love to travel when I get the chance, which I did a lot last year.
NRAMA: After 52?
JGJ: Yeah. After 52 I did a lot of traveling. I did the show in Barcelona, then I took some time and traveled around Spain. I went to Italy for the better part of a month, which was beautiful. Tuscany.
NRAMA: There's just something about that country... what is it about Italy?
JGJ: Aw... man. I am missing that food and wine. And the way the light looks there.
NRAMA: When you visit Europe, do you see things through an artist's eyes?
JGJ: I don't think I do. I mean, regular people... or what would I call them? Civilians? [laughs] I mean, you got that feeling when you went to Italy.
NRAMA: I did.
JGJ: It's just a magical place. The whole Mediterranean has those particular colors, the landscape, the light... and when you get the sea mixed in there too. It's like orange and blue and green. It's just beautiful.
NRAMA: Why are we here and not there???
JGJ: [laughs] Why, God, why???
NRAMA: You've lived in New York ever since you were in grad school?
JGJ: Yeah. But I've been living in New Jersey for the last five or six years.
NRAMA: Yet you obviously like the Mediterranean weather and the ocean. Why in the world are you in Jersey?
JGJ: Yeah, I would be living over there now if the dollar didn't suck against the Euro. And I have this thing where I only speak two languages.
NRAMA: What are your two languages?
JGJ: English and redneck.
NRAMA: [laughs] You totally set me up for that.
NRAMA: But Jersey because?
JGJ: Well, I got married and we wanted to get a house and all that stuff. Now it's just me and the house and the remnant cats.
NRAMA: Looking forward, do you know what comes next? You've got Final Crisis going for awhile, don't you?
JGJ: Yeah, the only thing I see past Final Crisis is a beach... and me on it with a drink.
NRAMA: You've already said you love these characters, but as you draw it and work with Grant and see his vision, what about the project do you think is ideal for J.G. Jones?
JGJ: It's a new challenge, you know? Every few years I have to challenge myself to do something I haven't done yet. I've never done a big, "company" book. I've drawn books that have been small things that were well-received, but they didn't affect the greater universe or anything. And I thought it would be cool to do something that might leave a footprint in comics.
NRAMA: But don't you think about... what's the next challenge?
JGJ: Creator-owned. Write and draw. I have several stories in mind, but I have one picked out to do next.
NRAMA: So you're going to finish this huge, high-profile DC comic, then instead of riding that wave in the spotlight, you're going to shuffle off into the creator-owned world for awhile?
JGJ: It's what I want to do. Why repeat yourself?
NRAMA: Can you tell us anything about the story you're hoping to do?
JGJ: It's a period piece, and I think it's going to be a surprise to people who are used to me drawing superheroes and things. I've been actually going back and looking at a lot of the newspaper strips and cartoonists from the '40s and '50s and '60s. I want to do some stylistic changes that are story-specific. Stylistic changes. The way I work.
NRAMA: Do you do that with your interiors? I mean, obviously you do on your covers. Does your style change with the tone of the story?
JGJ: Yeah. I actually do try to give everything a different look. Like I think Black Widow looks different from Marvel Boy. I try to give each book its own stamp.
NRAMA: What's your stamp on Final Crisis?
JGJ: Um.... bold. I've done a lot of delicate work, I think, at times. This has got a little more heft to it. A little more punch.
NRAMA: Those are good, strong descriptive words.
JGJ: Punch! Pow! These pages are Bif! Boff! and Pow!
NRAMA: So now that you're doing the big Crisis book, I mean I'm sure you feel like you've succeeded, but that decision you made to walk away from the art world and your painting... do you ever think about why? I mean, why comic books? Out of all the media from which an artist can choose, what is it about comic books?
JGJ: It's the storytelling medium. I don't work well with others, so movie directing is probably out for me. Actually, I do... I work well with others.
NRAMA: I was going to say... you survived 52 pretty well.
JGJ: Yeah, but I'm kind of uncomfortable around people I don't know, which is a weird thing. And I hate managerial. I hate telling people what to do, which is one reason I got out of that newspaper job. I expect to just tell them to do their job and just walk away. And that's sort of why I'm a control freak and ink my own stuff. I'm inking all the pages for Final Crisis.
NRAMA: And you're doing all the covers. You really are a control freak. But is the storytelling what it all comes down to for you? Why you enjoy this medium more than other artistic pursuits?
JGJ: Yeah. It's all about the story, which I love. I've always been a big film junky. I read a lot. I love stories. It's what people do. Since we've been drawing on cave walls, people have been telling stories. Sitting around the fire and telling stories. And that's what I've been privileged to do for a living, and I think that's what I'll always do in some form or another.