Artist John Paul Leon has been the target of a significant amount of acclaim from fellow artists and professionals for the years, and his current project looks to be the one that cold break him through to the comics world at large. The upcoming prestige-format limited series Batman: Creature of the Night follows a young boy named Bruce Wainwright that finds he has a lot in common with the comic book construct Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. These coincidences become concrete as Wainwright endeavors to follow in the footsteps of the fictional Batman and become Batman himself.Although Batman: Creature of the Night won't be released until next year at the soonest, Leon offered an exclusive sketchbook highlighting his recent work at New York Comic Con. Leon collected concept sketches, commissions, and even some unreleased art from upcoming projects to give people an idea of what’s coming next and frankly, what he’s been up to while he’s been away from comic shelves.
When we last spoke to Leon, he was finishing up the long-delayed WildStorm series The Winter Men and just began his cover series for DMZ. Fast forward three years and he’s knee-deep in Batman: Creature Of The Night as well as a host of smaller projects including a spot in DC’s New 52. Leon spoke with us earlier this week as he was finishing up work and preparing to board his flight to New York City.
Newsarama: What are you working on today, John?
John Paul Leon: Currently, I'm working on Batman: Creature of the Night, a large sequence in the upcoming Animal Man #6, and a few smaller gigs (most of which I can talk about!) : Just finished my run as cover artist on DMZ. I'm also doing some advertising storyboards with my brother, Alex, a Star Wars trading card, as well as some commissions that have been on the back burner for too long!Nrama: Newsarama talked with Kurt Busiek back in November 2010 about Batman: Creature of the Night, and at that point you were working on the first issue. Can you tell us how the book’s coming along?
Leon: I'm going way too slow on this thing! I think it's some of my best work ever and I'm very proud of how it looks so far, but between the book not being on schedule and doing other, smaller jobs in the interim, I've just taken much longer than I have any right to. To answer your question, the first issue is done and I just heard from DC editor Joey Cavalieri this past week that the second issue script is in. So I'll be starting that as soon as I get back from NYCC this weekend.
Nrama: What was it that appealed to you about this project and this particular take on Batman?
Leon: What I like about this story, and what also appealed to me about Superman: Secret Identity, was Kurt Busiek's attempt to reconcile these superhero mythologies with the real world. Like Superman: Secret Identity, our story does not take place in the DCU. It's set in Boston, in 1968.
I enjoy the tension between reality and fantasy. As far back as Challengers of the Unknown and Earth X, I've always been interested in the idea of portraying this incredible material realistically. But that is a trap all its own. Things can get boring or ridiculous, and we are dealing with drawn, static images here after all. So I always try to find the right balance between authenticity and artificiality.Nrama: Speaking of your work on Earth X, I noticed with that large percentage of your work isn’t in the normal continuity of DC or Marvel but in alternate timelines or futures divergent of the status quo, from Earth X to The Further Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix and even in a way your movie work. Is that just luck of the draw, or is there something going on deeper here?
Leon: I never considered that, but you're right. I would say it's luck of the draw. If there's something deeper going on, I'm certainly not aware of it.
Nrama: Getting back on topic, what did you think of Superman: Secret Identity before you knew you’d be doing a thematic sequel here with Batman: Creature Of The Night?
Leon: Yeah, I enjoyed Stuart Immonen's work on that story a lot. And it was cool to see how this character's attitude toward Superman and his abilities changes throughout the course of his life.
Nrama: That book was about secret identities and living up to your name, but with this title, “Creature of the Night,” it seems this is about something else. How would you describe the book?
Leon: Batman: Creature of the Night is almost the inverse of Superman: Secret Identity. Where as the Clark Kent character in Secret Identity begins with a negative attitude toward all things Superman, in Creature Of The Night, we have Bruce Wainwright, a kid who adores Batman and who's obsession with Batman leads him to some very dark places which he must ultimately confront. It is about loss and confronting your inner demons in the face of that loss.
Nrama: Your main character Bruce Wainwright isn’t Bruce Wayne, but in the book he does become Batman. What’s the character like, and how do you go to differentiate and align him with the mainstream view of Bruce Wayne?
Leon: Bruce Wainwright goes through the tragic loss of his parents similar to Bruce Wayne, but we get to spend a lot more time with him as a child. The entire first issue is dedicated to that time in his life. As far as how Batman works his way into his life, I'm going to leave that as a mystery for now.Nrama: You’re doing this book from the pencils to the inks and the colors. Can you talk about taking that on?
Leon: Yes, I'm handling all art chores on this thing. I've slowly been moving toward this, and I'm happy with the results so far. I welcome the opportunity to have more control over the end product and trying to reconcile B&W artwork with color is an artistic challenge that’s been stalking me for a while now.
All the B&W work is done traditionally, with pencil, pen and ink, brush, white out and markers. But the coloring is all digital. When I work in front of the computer, looking at artwork "in" the computer, it changes the experience of making the stuff. I'm glad I have the B&W original pages, because the digital finished colored files don't seem to exist for me. It's weirdly unsatisfying.
Nrama: What does seem to be satisfying for you is working on Batman. Batman’s a character you’ve been attached to for years, from that early Batman: Anarky story-arc to working directly on the movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. What are your own feelings about the character and how you seem to always come back to him?
Leon: I love the mystery of Batman and the urban world he moves through. Not to mention the most interesting rogues gallery of any comic book character. There is an image in my head that I can't shake--a movie still from a B&W Batman movie that never existed. It's grainy and looks like it was made in about 1929. It's just a shot of Batman standing against a wall in profile. In my work on Batman, I'm always trying to get back to the purity of that image.
Nrama: You debuted an all-new sketchbook at NYCC, with new work apart from the yearly BLVD book. Can you tell us how this came about?
Leon: I took a collection of DMZ cover sketches to Comic-Con International: San Diego this past summer and got very good reactions from people. My studio mate Bernard Chang suggested I put out an individual sketchbook for the New York show. When I started this project, I had no idea how much time and energy it was actually going to take. It took over! I couldn't walk away from it; couldn't leave it alone. But it turned out OK in the end. I'm pretty happy with it! Eventually, I expect each BLVD member to put out their own book.
Nrama: This book really brings into focus how popular you’re becoming with editors as a cover artist, especially as the regular cover artist for DMZ. What’s that like for you to be looked upon to provide this for books?Leon: Even though I feel that my true calling is as a paneled storyteller, I really enjoy doing covers. It's a different type of storytelling: more traditional illustration in the sense that you're telling a story – conveying an idea – with one image. And single image work also has the benefit of letting me focus more on technique, and when I'm doing paneled storytelling I just have to keep moving. There's rarely enough time to make it pretty.
Nrama: In the case of DMZ, was it hard to take over doing covers from Brian Wood since he co-created the book and did the covers before you? What is the working relationship like there?
Leon: It wasn't hard because Brian is so cool to work with. I always liked his work on DMZ and I wanted to keep that same graphic sensibility alive. Brian would send in a short synopsis of the story and big picture themes of that particular story arc. He would also give me a sentence or two with his ideas of how he saw the cover going down visually. From there I would do sketches and a dialogue would begin between Brian, editor Will Dennis and myself. Usually the first sketch would pass, but many times, I'd take a few passes at it before we settled on the best one. It was a fun gig. I always felt that they were open and receptive to trying new things.