DMZ #39 cover by LeonArtist John Paul Leon has done almost every kind of comic book you can think of – from licensed work like Robocop to some of DC and Marvel greats; he's also done creator-owned work such as The Winter Men. He's perhaps best known for his work on Earth X, and his work is held in high regard by his comics colleagues and has done guest stints on issues of Captain America and Ex Machina.
Leon has been a journeyman artist in recent years, working for both Marvel and DC Comics while also doing licensing work for such movies as Superman Returns and Batman Begins. His primary project is finishing up the eight-issue series The Winter Men, and he's also just started doing covers for DMZ. For more, we talked with Leon from his home in Miami, Florida.
Newsarama: Thanks for talking to us, John. Can you tell us what you're working on today?
John Paul Leon: I'm working on an 32 page Ex Machina special and a one-shot Nick Fury & the Howling Commandos story. I'm also doing covers for DMZ.
NRAMA: Let's talk about those DMZ covers you're doing. You're taking over from Brian Wood, who is the creator/writer and did the covers up until now. Can you tell us about the assignment and working with Brian?
JPL: This is a fun gig. I'm getting a chance to color my own work, which is relatively new for me. Color doesn't come naturally to me, but it's a step I've wanted to take for some time now. Brian always supplies a synopsis of the issue along with some image ideas. I'm enjoying working on this.
NRAMA: I read that you were born in New York City and studied at NYC's School of Visual Arts. Working in comic books were a lot of things take place in New York City - from superheroes to your new project DMZ - does it help you in terms of dreaming up the NYC setting?
JPL: Absolutely. While in school I did a lot of "on the spot" location drawing. I still draw on that experience today in my comics work. There is no substitute to drawing from life. It's the best teacher. Another good source for NYC inspiration---Woody Allen movies!
NRAMA: While at the School of Visual Arts, there were some real greats teaching there. Can you tell us some of your favorite teachers and any interesting stories you might have?
Design work for Superman ReturnsJPL: I was lucky to study under some great teachers at SVA. Walter Simonson, Jack Potter, John Ruggeri, and, of course, Will Eisner. That was a good blend of pure drawing and comics storytelling. Unfortunately, I was on drugs through most of college, so any stories have long since vanished into the ether.----That's a joke.
NRAMA: [laughs] I laughed.
You broke into the field of illustration doing pieces for Dragon and Dungeon magazine when you were only 16. How'd that come about?
JPL: When I was 15 or 16 I bought a copy of a book called Artist's Market, which was basically a categorized directory of commercial art publishers all over the country. I had always been a D&D player as a kid so I thought mailing some samples to these game related magazines might be a good way to get some professional work… and it worked! I did about ten B&W illustrations for both magazines. Now I get to say I started working professionally when I was still in high school!
NRAMA: Correct me if I'm wrong, but your first work in comics was an issue of Robocop for Dark Horse Comics. How did you land that assignment, and how do you view those pages now?
JPL: Yes, you're right. I got that job from showing a 15-page Superman sample story to Bob Schreck at the NYC con of...91, I think it was. It was downstairs at the Penta hotel, across from Madison Square Garden. I was very enthusiastic! I was still in school and it was very cool to have a paying gig.
I haven't looked at that job in years, and I don't think it would hold up very well from a drawing point of view. Very cartoony. I was into the storytelling though, and I think there is an exaggeration in that stuff that probably came from studying with Eisner. That's a good thing - I think as my drawing has become more naturalistic, some of that exaggeration has been lost. And it's a very useful storytelling tool, exaggeration.
NRAMA: After that you rolled into the DC/Milestone series Static. That character you co-created has gone on to some success, with the Static Shock cartoon and Static's impending arrival in DC Universe itself. What do you think about something you were a pat of going so far?
From Marvel's Earth XJPL: I'm happy about it! Working on Static was just great fun, but I have to correct you on something. I'd love to take the credit, but the character was created by the founders of Milestone, Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derrick Dingle. Still, working as the regular artist for the first ten issues or so, I can't help but feel like I had some impact on its success. So maybe I can take some of the credit!
NRAMA: I think you do. Those issues really stand up today. Another one of your early works was doing Earth X with Alex Ross and Jim Krueger. Looking back on it now, how do you think it fits in with your overall career?
JPL: This was a challenging job, in many different ways.
I distinguish between career and work. The last chapter in my career hasn't been written yet, so it's difficult for me to see where Earth X will fit in that equation. At that point, it will probably be relegated to ancient history, so who will really care. Career is the "what". But work is different. Work is the "how" I think Earth X was me at my most naturalistic, my most obsessive, and in an odd way, my most limited.
NRAMA: Looking over the breath of your work, I saw a particular favorite of mine that was overlooked - an issue of New X-Men you did with Grant Morrison about Xorn. How was that issue for you?
JPL: I enjoyed working on it because I got to work with one of my comics heroes, Bill Sienkiewicz. His courage and range as an artist has always been an inspiration to me. If there is a "John Coltrane of comics", he's it.
But the colors were a fucking catastrophe.
NRAMA: They were a bit different. But let's move on to another Marvel work of yours: you did an early issue of Ed Brubaker's new Captain America series, focusing on the Winter Soldier - who later became the new Captain America. How did that come about, and what was your take on the work you were doing?
JPL: I was disappointed in the way this came out. Again the colors were horrendous. I think they destroyed what was a very curious inking job by Tom Palmer. His inks were unusual over me, but I enjoyed the results in B&W ---- Naturalistic and done in a classic comic book style. Like oil and water, but compelling to me nonetheless.
Winter MenNRAMA: Coming to the current day, the final issue of The Winter Men is set to come out later this year. The miniseries had some delay - and was even shorted from the original advertised eight issues. What would you chalk up these changes and delays to?
JPL: I wouldn't want to badmouth my writer, so I'll just leave it at two words - not me.
NRAMA: Regardless of that, I've really enjoyed The Winter Men series so far, and I've got them all pulled to read when the last issue comes out. Reading it over, it seems you put in a lot of time with the Russian setting. What's your connection to that? Did you live there, or just do great research?
JPL: Thanks, Chris. I did do a lot of research. Never actually been there but it was really important to me to have the setting look authentic, so I'm glad to hear that you get a real sense of place from the story.
NRAMA: In addition to your comics work, you've done style guides for two DC movies: Superman Returns and Batman Begins. How was that experience - and did you see much of your art influence the finished movies?
JPL: This work was all done for DC licensing. Fun work but heavily art directed. For the Batman job DC actually flew a group of us out to England: Mark Stutzman, Scott McDaniel, James Hodgkins, and Tommy Lee Edwards were among the guys in our group. We worked at Shepperton studios for a week, got to visit the sets and get up close to the costumes. It was a great experience. But this was all licensing work so it's hard to know if any of our work actually influenced the film---but maybe, I don't know.
NRAMA: How would you compare the licensing work with regular comics?
JPL: I enjoy this work. It pays well and is a break from the panel to panel existence. As a comics artist, though, I think I'm spoiled by a lack of art direction. Editors tend to leave you alone and let you do your thing. Licensing work is different. They want everything "on model", and this can be creatively stifling. Sometimes you feel like you are truly JUST a hired hand. Don't think too much! Don't be experimental in any way! But I enjoy it because you end up with some solidly conservative pieces, and that can be satisfying.
Winter MenNRAMA: If you had to choose it, what would be your dream comics project?
JPL: I don't know if I have a dream comics project. I would like to try and write my own material more often.
NRAMA: You've also done some comics writing such as in the 9-11 Anthology, Marvel Comics: Shadows & Light book and your story "101 Segovia" in theBLVD Sketchbook. Can people expect to see more comics writing from you in the future?
JPL: This is something I really want to work on. I think it's the next logical step as a storyteller. I just need to get off my ass!
NRAMA: Let's talk more about you doing your own book – writing and drawing. Do you have any concrete ideas of what you'd like to do?
JPL: I definitely want to create something from the ground up and for me everything grows from a good story. I've never been one to create characters and then stick them in stories. A good story should produce interesting characters.
I've been tinkering with what is now a short story about a cargo train conductor, the engineer and fireman on an old locomotive. I'm interested in the process by which the dispatcher, engineer and conductor would communicate station to station. Also, in their efforts to keep stowaways off the train. The story has a surrealist bent. I'm not sure where it will lead. Of course, this is purely something that I'm interested in. I don't know if there is a place in today's comic book market for something like this, but at this stage I don't think that's important.
NRAMA: Oh, I'm interested. Let us know how it turns out!
Let's turn now to your virtual studio you share with friends called theBLVD. In it is you, Tommy Lee Edwards, Sean Chen, Bernard Chang and Trevor Goring. How does that partnership help you as an artist?
From Captain AmericaJPL:: I think there's a healthy competition between the five of us. I feel that I've gotten better since we formed the group. Going to conventions and doing commissions has made me more confident in drawing directly in ink. Also, printing our sketchbooks has allowed me to show a variety of different drawing styles - something that I don't usually get to do in comics storytelling.
NRAMA: Speaking of styles, you've got a really distinctive style, John. If you look over all your work you can see a distinct progression from those issues of RoboCop to the new DMZ covers. Before we wrap this up, to what would you attribute your evolution as an artist?
JPL: I've always tried to get better with each job. Also, being in a position were you must work is a good place to be. Especially if you're just starting out. This was my situation when I started as penciller on Static. I had to work. The monthly schedule demanded it. You just naturally improve under those circumstances. You're doing so much storytelling and drawing on a daily basis, you can't help but get better. Eventually, pushing yourself to improve becomes a habit.