Joe Jusko: 30 Years, 30 Questions, Part One

Jusko: 30 Years, 30 Questions, 1

The Art of Joe Jusko

Joe Jusko’s name is synonymous with all the great fantasy artists of within the realm of fantasy and science fiction. 2008 marks the 30th year of his career as a professional artist and to mark that occasion, Desperado Publishing is releasing a new book, The Art of Joe Jusko, edited by Joe Pruett and written by none other than Joe Jusko himself. This 300-plus page hardcover book pays tribute to Jusko and features hundreds of pieces of his artwork from the entire span of his career and also features a tutorial on how Jusko creates his amazing paintings.

Newsarama sat down with Jusko to discuss his prolific career-to-date—from his start as an 18 year old cover artist—to his work on the Marvel Masterpiece cards of the 90’s—up to today, as one of the industry’s top artists over the past 30 years.

Newsarama: Joe, how old were you when you started painting and/ or drawing? What were you into as a kid?

Joe Jusko: I guess my first real memory goes back to about 5 or 6 years old. I used to watch my older brother Danny draw. He was into all the same things we are; comics, monster movies, Aurora model building, etc. My first exposure to comic books were through the ones he bought: Challengers of the Unknown, Metamorpho, Turok, Doctor Solar. Not a lot of Marvel or DC now that I think of it, but some I guess, since I distinctly remember him copying a Jack Kirby shot of The Hulk that he carried in his wallet for years. It still might be there!

There were some of his old Cray-Pa pastel sticks lying around and one day I got the urge to do more than watch. I drew a portrait of Fred Flintstone off of the TV screen that I was told looked great. In hindsight, what else would you tell a six year old kid? But it was enough encouragement to spur me on. I was a typical kid of the late 60's/early 70's, into comics (Marvel, mostly though I did read everything), monster movies and all the other stuff my brother taught me about. Mostly, I discovered though, I loved to draw, and spent every spare moment (and even those that should have been spent on things like schoolwork) drawing. I had one other friend that liked to draw, and we spent many afternoons in his living room creating our own comics while watching reruns of Superman, Batman and Star Trek on TV.

NRAMA: Do you remember any of your earliest influences? Who were they and what were they doing?

JJ: I remember buying a comic here and a comic there at first; Amazing Spider-Man #62, ("The Name of the Dame is Medusa") which I promptly left on the Avenue A bus, Sgt. Fury #10 ("On to Okinawa") and a Brave & the Bold ("...But Bork Can Hurt You!") come to mind but I didn't really kick into overdrive until I bought a couple of second hand comics from a kid in a playground, Avengers #57 and #58. That was my first exposure to the art of John Buscema and my entire outlook on art changed. I was in absolute awe of his work and he instantly became my ideal as to what comic art was supposed to be. Forty years later he still is, though my influences have since become much more extensive and wide ranging. I was a total Marvel geek, preferring the, trendy and topical stories and more dynamic artwork to that of DC's. Along with Big John, I discovered John Romita (Daredevil, Spider-Man), Gene Colan (Daredevil, Iron-Man, Dr. Strange), Jack Kirby (everything, but the Fantastic Four in particular), Gil Kane (The Hulk in Tales to Astonish, Spider-Man), Jim Steranko (Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD), Herb Trimpe (The Hulk), George Tuska (Iron-Man) and so many others. Each had a style so distinct you could tell who drew the book by just glancing at the splash page. I find that hard to do today in many instances. I learned almost everything I knew about comics from that amazing group of artists.

NRAMA: Did you take a lot of art classes in school? What sort of formal education do you have if any?

Joe Jusko, The Creator Chronicles DVD

JJ: I had a really cool art teacher in grade school named Henry Fiol, whose art classes were a bit more involved than the normal grade school fare. He would bring in cans of oil based house paint and give us crude painting lessons. I later attended the High School of Art & Design, a vocational school in NYC that gears it's curriculum toward preparing students for a career in commercial art. The faculty was made up of professional artists with years of field experience, including Bernie Krigstein, who is mostly remembered in our industry for his innovative EC Comics work in the 1950's. I took mostly fundamental art classes the first couple of years; perspective, drawing and composition and general illustration. I majored in Illustration and Advertising in junior and senior years.

NRAMA: Did your aspirations as an artist always lie in painting? Did you ever want to be a penciller?

JJ: I wanted to be John Buscema all through high school. I practiced my drawing and inking almost daily. I brought a sample package up to the Marvel offices in junior year and got an encouraging letter back from John Romita who looked over the samples. It was much more open back then than it is today. My focus changed to painting in late senior year when I determined that I just wasn't fast enough to draw comics on a monthly basis. That and a desire to more fully control the finished product pushed me toward painting, which I felt afforded me a more workable pace. I spent the summer I graduated teaching myself to paint (kinda).

NRAMA: What was the first piece you did where people started taking you seriously as an up-and-coming talent?

JJ: That's a tough one. I guess it was the first few covers I did for Heavy Metal magazine rather than any one piece. Heavy Metal was the popular fantasy magazine of the day back then and to be on the cover was a major feather in your illustrative cap. It kind of said you were among the "elite" in the fantasy art world. The magazine had a much more illustrious profile back then. The job that gave my career it's biggest boost, however, was the 1992 Marvel Masterpieces trading card set.

NRAMA: Who gave you your big break? How did it happen?

Jusko's take on Sheena

JJ: I got lucky right out of the gate and sold the first painting I ever did to Heavy Metal magazine at age 18, while I was working as Howard Chaykin's assistant. I had met Howard at a Greenwich Village comic shop where he saw some of my samples and hired me to paint backgrounds and effects on Empire, a science fiction graphic novel he was doing for Byron Preiss. He sent me up to Heavy Metal with the same samples I had shown him and I got a couple of covers and a calendar piece from them. I started working for Marvel soon after that.

NRAMA: What was your biggest challenge as a young professional artist? Did you ever experience any professional or personal setbacks earlier in your career?

JJ: My biggest challenge was inside my head. I had to continually convince myself that I belonged there. At 18, I was competing at Marvel for work with guys like Bob Larkin and Earl Norem on a daily basis. Hell, I'd been collecting their work just a few months before! I knew I wasn't anywhere near their caliber and felt had to keep improving from painting to painting to stay in the running. I got to "learn while I earned", which would never happen today. After a couple of mediocre covers for Marvel Preview and The Hulk!, I was given my second Starlord cover. It was to become the only cover I ever had killed due to it being unsatisfactory. Stan Lee just hated it and reassigned it to Earl Norem. After a quick start that was a bit of a step back, but a good lesson to learn my craft and learn it well. I've never had another cover refused in the ensuing 30 years.

NRAMA: Who were some of your contemporaries when you were breaking in as an artist?

JJ: There weren't a lot of people doing painted work in comics when I broke in. Painted books were in their infancy, but picking up steam due to the work being published in Heavy Metal. When I started at Marvel, it was essentially Larkin, Norem and myself doing covers. Boris had moved on to paperbacks by that point. There were some comic guys doing the occasional painted cover, like Jim Starlin and Val Mayerick, but mostly it was us three. Other guys breaking into the field at the same time were Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, among others.

NRAMA: When you started out, where did you see yourself going as an artist?

JJ: I wasn't sure. I was so stunned I was actually working at that age that a career path never entered my mind. I was thinking one job at a time. I was gauging my abilities based on comparisons to other guys working at the time. You know, "Well, Boris is better than me. How old is he and how long has he been working? That gives me "X" number of years to reach that level." Stupid shit like that. I wanted to paint movie posters and TV Guide covers. I really wanted to do movie posters, but had no idea how to go about that. I loved movie art and collected TV Guide covers for the art of guys like Bob Peak and Richard Amsel. i never did make it into either one of those arenas but came close with TV Guide.

NRAMA: Looking back, what was the biggest lesson you learned when you were breaking in?

JJ: Persistence. Persistence and accessibility. And schmoozing. Since I was in New York, I made sure to visit the Marvel offices as often as possible. I can't tell you how many covers I got that would have gone to Larkin or Norem simply because I happened to be in front of the editor when it became available. Building a personal relationship with the editors was paramount in me continually getting work up there; couple that with always breaking my ass on every job they gave me and I did okay. In fact, it worked so well for me that I worked almost exclusively for Marvel during the first 14 years of my career.

Joe Jusko continues his interview with Newsarama in Part 2 tomorrow.

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