If you’ve ever been a fan of a DC animated cartoon series, chances are you’ve flipped through one of their various tie-in comics over the years. Illustrator Christopher Jones has made those books his regular stomping grounds, with dynamic art that has earned him a fan-base all his own.After a long run on DC’s The Batman Strikes!, he’s landed a full-time gig working with Greg Weisman on the Young Justice tie-in comic, currently the only way to get new YJ tales while the show is on its sudden hiatus. While the series is coming to a close in February 2013, as announced in the DC Solicitations for that month, it has caught up to Season 2's continuity and has a big story with a major villain not yet seen on the show or in the comic to close it out. Jones recently took a moment to chat with Newsarama about his career and the curious nature of making kids comics in an age when superhero books are predominantly aimed at older readers. Newsarama: When did you first take an interest in drawing?
Christopher Jones: I have been drawing, boy, as long as I can remember! As a little kid, I drew pictures but was already interested in making comic books. I would make little bundled booklets of my drawings. I didn’t immediately go to sequential panels, but it was definitely a series of drawings that made up a story. I don’t know that anyone else would have been able to follow the story, but to me it made up a story! I’m very conscious of having the job that I wanted all my life and I realize how rare that is, so I feel pretty privileged.
Nrama: Were there any comics aimed at kids that sparked your imagination back in those days?
Jones: It’s hard to say, especially as far as anything aimed at children. One of the things that I find remarkable about how comics have changed is that I often feel like the entire superhero genre, which used to be juvenile escapist adventure fiction, as they’ve tried to cater to an aging fan-base and have added adult elements to try to appeal to older readers, has taken all of these superhero characters that have been around and beloved by children for decades and made most of the material produced with them inappropriate for children.Both Marvel and DC as well as other publishers have kids lines of comics, but their threshold of the kind of material that they seem to think is kids-appropriate, is so much more juvenile than what I loved when I was the age of the audience that they’re trying to reach out to. Using DC as an example, we’re trying to do an all-ages book with Young Justice, but Standards & Practices is trying to basically enforce the same standards of a kids book that applies to Tiny Titans or Superman Family Adventures or Looney Tunes or any of that material. Before this I was doing The Batman Strikes! which was an animated TV series tie-in, and it was considered at the time DC’s kids Batman book and when I was the age of the audience that they think that’s intended for, I was reading the regular Batman book. I was reading Bob Haney and Jim Aparo’s Brave and the Bold. I was reading whatever was going on with Batman in Detective Comics in the early ‘70s and it’s a little sad to me just for the sake of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Also as a creator, as far as the kind of material I would really enjoy working on, it seems like there is a real gulf between the stuff that is aimed at five-year-olds these days and the stuff that is convoluted year-long story arcs and violence and sexual content that really makes it not appropriate for or accessible by younger readers.
Nrama: Do you think that there can be more of a happy medium between the two?
Jones: I think that there could be. I think there are opportunities presented as more and more stuff moves to digital, but right now it feels like DC and Marvel are struggling to find ways to market and distribute stuff to different target audiences. With the exception of digital and collected volumes going to bookstores, everything is going to comic book shops and you don’t really know from shop to shop how they’re displaying the stuff. Most comic book stores have a kids section, which means that anything that carries any kind of younger readers brand most older readers never even check out to see if there might be something there they want to look at. Now that said, there are plenty of older readers out there that enjoy material intended for kids or have checked it out and found it, but a lot of people just never even discover it.
Nrama: What was your first comic title that you worked on?Jones: Boy, it’s a long convoluted history, so I’ll try to tell the short version! My first published comics work was at the age of ten. I did a comic strip for my local newspaper with the provocative title of “Mister Muscle”, but my first paying work, so what I’d consider the beginning of my professional career, was working for a publisher called Eternity Comics. I worked on a book that was sort-of superheroes by way of science fiction with the title Street Heroes, and that was followed by a lot of other work for smaller publishers. I started working for DC Comics after years of trying to break in at either DC or Marvel.
Nrama: Were you hoping to break-in on one of their kids titles or mainstream titles?
Jones: Mainstream. You know most of the stuff I did for smaller publishers before working for DC was horror and crime books. I really hadn’t done a whole lot either for kids or with superheroes. I wasn’t uninterested in doing any of that; it’s just what I had a chance to work on. Then they announced that there was going to be a new Batman animated TV series – this would be The Batman. By that point, I knew there’s always a tie-in comic for the show.One of the things I’d done, among the piecemeal stuff, was issues of the Justice League Adventures comic, so I finally got to play in Bruce Timm land, just not in the way I’d expected. I knew there was a new Batman book starting up, so I thought “well, lets see if I can get in on this ahead of the curve” so I asked the editor I had been working with if he knew who the editor was going to be for the inevitable tie-in comic. He found out, I expressed my interest to that editor, she had me do a couple of sample pages based on the script for the first issue and I ended up getting the gig. So my first regular monthly work for DC was The Batman Strikes! and out of a 50-issue run on that book, I drew 44 of them. That was a ton of fun and a great experience and then when that book ended I spent a couple of years doing a lot of licensing art. It kept me busy and I had money coming in but not a lot of fans saw it. So I’d go to conventions and people were like “what are you working on?” and I’d say “nothing you’ve seen or heard of.”
My next regular comic book work ended up what I’m doing now, which is Young Justice. I started drawing it with issue five. I started inking it myself with issue fourteen. I’ve inked stuff here and there before but this is the first time I’ve inked a series so that’s kept me very busy. And apparently that wasn’t enough because now I’m also drawing the occasional story for Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes at Marvel, and that’s where I am now.Nrama: How would you describe your time on Justice League Adventures, which had a rotating roster of creative talent?
Jones: Yeah, I never heard why it was done that way, but they did not have a regular writer or artist on the book. They had a pool of writers and a pool of artists. The writers were submitting stories and then as they were approved they would choose an artist from the pool, or I don’t know if it was just whoever was next on the list, and assign it to them, which meant every three or four months I would get to draw a story and it was usually not the same writer every time. The stories were all self-contained and there wasn’t a lot of continuity, which is fine, although it means that there’s not as much cohesion to the book as there might have been. I never got to get into the groove and feel like I was really building from issue to issue. It was always “oh, I have a full issue of a comic to crank out” and then nothing for three months. Doing stuff kinda piecemeal here and there is just not the same experience and does not push your abilities.
Nrama: Did it feel like a testing ground?Jones: It didn’t feel like that was the intent. I was being used for fill-in stories, and short five to-ten page stories. It sort-of felt like I was being used as a utility hitter, and it was handy to keep available for little piecemeal jobs when they came along as opposed to putting me on something that was more regular, but then I had be tied up with that. I don’t know if that was the intent either but that’s more what it felt like. I’m certainly happier on a regular book, aside from the fact that it’s nice to have the work. Any time I have complaints about what’s going on, I’m always very conscious of the fact that I’m lucky and fortunate to be finding regular employment doing what I love to do, but I am not a fan of the anxiety of constantly being aware that the job you’re working on is coming to an end and you have to find the next one – which is unfortunate because it’s kinda the life I’ve chosen for myself! And then also just the volume of work when you’re doing a regular title really pushes you to improve and get faster in a way that just doing it occasionally doesn’t do.
Nrama: Did you find it particularly difficult to adapt the designs used in The Batman series for the comic?
Jones: Well, a lot of the work that I’ve been doing recently is stuff based on different animation properties. It’s what I’ve become known for so it’s what gets offered to me. I’ve done the Bruce Timm style for Justice League Adventures, I’ve done The Batman style for The Batman Strikes!, I’ve done Marvel Superhero Squad Show, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and of course Young Justice and part of challenge of all of those is trying to see the specific stylizations of the styles. Not only do you have to match the model sheets, but you have to design new characters for the specific stories that suit the style of that material, but then also balance that with putting enough of your own style into it so it’s not lifeless and it’s not just imitating model sheets.The Batman was particularly challenging because I think it’s the furthest from my own personal drawing style. It was based on the designs of Jeff Matsuda, who does beautiful beautiful art, but he has some very peculiar stylizations. His style is about concave curves and stylizations that look great in 2D but don’t work in 3D, so it’s hard to wrap your head around it sometimes. You’ll be looking at a design saying “Okay, but if I was looking at that character from above, what would that look like?” Nrama: Now, you’re working with writer Greg Weisman, who masterminds both the Young Justice series and the comic. What’s that experience been like?
Jones: It has been terrific working with Greg Weisman! I like his writing a lot. I like his take on the characters. He visualizes things in a way that I don’t have a hard time figuring out how to interpret his scripts onto a comic book page. Being a big Batman fan, I really appreciate the way he writes Batman and all those related characters. It’s interesting having someone who is the Executive Producer and the Head Writer of the TV show writing the comic because first of all, it certainly simplifies any approval process. What Greg writes in the script is what’s going to be approved in the TV show and the only challenges come at finding compromise between what Greg wants and what DC is willing to do. Where the challenges can arise sometimes is that because they have Young Justice based on an animated TV show branded as a kids book, even though everyone working on it intends it to be as much all-ages as possible and appealing to a more mature audience just the way the TV show is, it means there’s occasionally been some negotiation and compromise as to what they’ll let us get away with. But for the most part it works out and I love working with Greg. I hope to continue working on this for a good long while and I’d love to work with him on more stuff down the road.
Nrama: Can you tease what’s coming up in the book…or the show?
Jones: I really don’t have spoilers for the show to offer, even if I could offer them, and as far as what’s coming up in the comic, issue 20 brought the comic into the Season Two timeframe. Technically, we’re like a month ahead of when the first episode of Season Two takes place, so even though we’ve got the Season Two characters, we don’t have the five year time jump: we have the four year, eleven month time jump. We’re launching a six-part storyline where, as was revealed at the end of issue 20, our big bad is Brainiac, who has not yet appeared in the show. So it’s my Brainiac design, and that’s the Young Justice Brainiac!
Nrama: Any chance that design could end up being used in the show?Jones: If there’s more of the show! Since I started on the comic, people have asked about the potential for things from the comic to end up on the show. I think all of Season Two was written when I started on the comic and it’s just been in various phases of production and post-production since then. There’s so much lead-time on animated properties. So yeah - if we were to see a Season Three or Four of Young Justice, there would certainly be a chance of stuff from the comic book getting adapted, but as far as Season Two, everything there was set in place before I even started on the comics.
Nrama: I’ve heard it said that working on a kids title like this one comes with a certain amount of freedom and that you don’t feel the pressure of having that mainstream spotlight on you the way you would if you were working on one of the flagship DC titles. Would you say that’s accurate?Jones: While I’ve been working on Young Justice, all this New 52 stuff has been going on, and it’s been kind-of nice to be shielded from all of the negotiations of the elaborate storylines and revisions of continuity. We’re kind-of off to the side doing our own thing. It’s sort-of strange that with some characters, the Young Justice version almost resembles the “classic” version more than some of what’s currently featured in the regular DC Comics. I’ve joked about making up an ad that says “Young Justice – our Superman still wears shorts!” It’s a lot of fun, and yeah, we’re in our own little corner of the DC Universe. It’s Earth 16!
Nrama: What kind of response do you get from younger readers at comic conventions?
Jones: Well, certainly it is one of the real joys of working with this kind of material that you get so many kids at conventions and you get the kind of response that you do from kids. I’m also very aware that with Young Justice specifically, that the female audience is very large. There’s a ton of female fans.
Nrama: Looking to the future, are there any projects you’d really like to work on?
Jones: Batman: Brave and the Bold! Batman teamed up with everyone else. That would keep me happy for a very long time. Or something creator-owned that I haven’t figured out yet.
For more of Christopher Jones’ work, visit his blog. He can also be followed on Twitter @ChrisJonesArt.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!