It might be a hard name for an average American to say. But his art is easy to like.
European artist Tonci Zonjic has worked for a variety of publishers on his continent, but in the past few years he’s made his career in the Americas. His name has been popping up on both sides of the superhero sidewalk in the past three years, with work on Marvel’s The Immortal Iron Fist, Marvel Divas and Heralds and several short stories in DC’s superhero anthologies But it’s Zonjic’s newest project that has brought him the most name recognition – the Image espionage series Who Is Jake Ellis?.
Written by Nathan Edmondson (Olympus, The Light), Who Is Jake Ellis? gives ample room for the Croatian artist’s timeless style that is high on mood with resorting to sequential tricks to get a sense of drama. Debuting last month, the book follows an elusive spy-for-hire named Jon Moore as he crisscrosses the European map when a shady deal goes bad; with no one on his side – unless you count the shadowy figure name Jake Ellis that no one can see or hear but him. The thrill of the book isn’t only Moore’s spy capers but also the mystery that is the book’s title.
And as it turns out, the artist himself is keeping himself gleefully unaware of the question at the center – and at the top – of the book. Who is Jake Ellis? is Zonjic’s first American creator-owned work after a string of projects for Marvel and DC, and he enjoys the break and the investment in something different than his normal work. As the second issue of the five-issue series comes out this week, Newsarama sat down with the artist to talk not only about his comics, but his illustration work in movies and newspapers as well.
Newsarama: Let’s start with an easy one, Tonci... what are you working on today?
Tonci Zonjic: Today, finishing issue 2 of Who is Jake Ellis?, some pencils for a different project, and a newspaper portrait, because it's Thursday.
Nrama: I want to ask you about those newspaper portraits, but first the comic.The big question of the book is in the title – “Who is Jake Ellis?”. Nathan’s keeping it pretty close to his vest in the comic and in interviews, but do you know? Has he told you, or are you gleefully in the dark as well?
Zonjic: You could say that I'm drawing the book to find it out. I've been avoiding to read ahead as much as possible. Even with the covers, which have to be done months in advance, I had Nathan feed me scenes so I don't have to read ahead. The script for issue 4 is on my desktop but I haven't opened it yet.
Nrama: In an earlier interview, Nathan said that you’re “very determined to illustrate scenes particular to the settings” and I noticed that a lot in your Heralds series for Marvel as well. How important to you is setting and positioning characters relative to the setting they’re in to you? Can you tell us what goes on in your head when you choreograph a scene?
Zonjic: Defining the setting well makes my job easier. I amass a lot of reference material, photos, YouTube videos even, and just soak in that for a week. Then I can mentally walk the space and know what would probably be around, and I try to draw that. I'm sure it sounds much more esoteric than it is. As for choreographing the scene, it's a messy process- a lot of back and forth, trying out things, even the ones that shouldn't work. Most of the time the simplest solution is best. This I usually find out after drawing all the other, much more complicated versions.
Nrama: Do you ever wish you had someone like Jake on your side? He might help drawing those pages!
Zonjic: With the frenetic pace of comic book drawing, I'd imagine he'd be very, very bored: "You have a deadline next Friday." -"I know."
Maybe if he could fill the blacks and scan pages, that'd be something.
Nrama: Although you’ve been doing American work for some time, it’s this book that really grabbed people’s attention for you. People are throwing out comparisons like Pratt, Toth, Sean Phillips and Jamie Hernandez… what would you say to the comparisons?
Zonjic: The comparisons are all very flattering, and I've studied all of the artists mentioned. Some surprise me, though- people have compared my work to Hernandez before I've even read Love & Rockets - so some of these influences have come 'second hand', through work of people like Edvin Biukovic. Some comparisons straight out baffle me. But if you do this kind of graphic, chiaroscuro work, the same names pop up over and over. It's nearly impossible to go through a conversation about it without someone mentioning David Mazzucchelli, Micheluzzi, or Sickles.
Nrama: After reading the first issue, I went back to the credits page and double-checked – you did both the coloring and lettering for this, right? Doing creator-owned can be tough, especially starting up since it’s unpaid pretty much – why’d you jump at the chance to control completely how the book turned out?
Zonjic: That was one of the major reasons for doing the book -- not in the sense of showing off (because I do color all of my shorter stories for DC and others already), but to make it more cohesive and personal, if you will. And people have been really responding to this, so it's really worth the extra effort. Also, I've put some money aside from other work to be able to do this book without worrying too much- I didn't have any expectations when I started, except doing it the way I thought was the right way to do it.
Nrama: Seeing your work I figured you were some comics veteran from Europe just starting in American comics, but when I found out how old you are I was blown away. Can you give us a rundown of your career up until now, especially the non-American work you’ve done?
Zonjic: That'll be short! [laughs]Even though I did start out at 15, technically, the first comic book I did was in some ways similar to Who Is Jake Ellis? - 20 pages that I colored and lettered myself, an educational story about sea diving for kids, and it sits unpublished since 2006, probably for the best. Since, I've been endlessly trying to finish Port Silver, written by Darko Macan, I've finished a few 10-page stories (Mono Johnson, Hrvatski Velikani), and I've done odd jobs here and there, comic strips, ads in the shape of comics. Most of these are up on my website and the blog, for anyone interested.
There is actually very little of it, comics work- I think my total output so far has been maybe 300 pages, if you count the self-published mini-comics work from 2004 and such. Maybe. "Real comics", it's probably closer to 200, and that will double by the end of this year, so I'm sure there'll be some new developments. It's very unpredictable, every story is a huge learning experience.
Nrama: 8. Besides comics, you’ve got a healthy list of side jobs – from storyboards to book covers and a wealth of newspaper portraits. Can you tell us about those, especially your newspaper work you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation?
Zonjic: The newspaper portraits have been going on weekly for more than three years now. It's something I took mostly because I didn't know how to do it- much like the way I ended up studying animation and concept art in college. Now I'm not afraid to draw someone's portrait, so it worked. Storyboards I don't do anymore because it's was always a last minute "just get anything on the paper" rush job, a hassle, and it gets very dull, drawing pathologically cheerful people all the time. It's good practice, and has certainly helped me get very fast at coloring, but I don't miss it one bit. And book covers are something that allows me to dabble in other techniques every once in a while, and it can be quite rewarding in that respect.
Nrama: You’re working out of your native Croatia, but I know a lot of American comic fans would love to meet you at a con. Any plans to come out to a U.S. or UK convention anytime soon?
Zonjic: Probably not for a while yet- it takes a lot of schedule wrangling, planning and money. This might change next year, if all goes as planned.
Nrama: You’re coming off a string of projects at Marvel to do this – do you have your next project lined up after you finish Who Is Jake Ellis??
Zonjic: Indeed, the next project is not only lined up, I'm drawing page forty of it and it's immensely fun to do. It hasn't been announced yet, and I'm sure nobody can guess what it is.
I also have a script by Darko Macan that's been sitting in his drawer for ten years, and in my drawer for nearly two years now, that I should get around to this summer.