Friday, March 18, 2011

Savage Barsoom's Interview with Joe Jusko

I recently had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Joe Jusko, who has currently been creating some awesome cover art for Dynamite Entertainment's Warlord of Mars series, including a Dejah Thoris spin-off.

Checkout the very end of this interview with some links to a FAQ, tutorials and some other goodies.

General Q&A

SB: First off, what's on the easel right now?

JJ: As I'm writing this I just finished the cover to a trade edition of an independent comic series called Penny For Your Soul from Big Dog Ink and I'm about to start the first cover for a third Mars series. Then I jump back to the Dejah Thoris and Warlord covers, as well as a few private commissions and several other projects I can't reveal just now.

SB: I read on your site that you attended NYC's High School of Art & Design. Being the only vocational school in the country at the time (1977), it sure seems like it was an amazing opportunity for a young artist?

JJ: I think it may still be the only vocational public high school of it's kind in the country. It was very much akin to a college/university art curriculum geared toward preparing high school students for a serious career in the commercial art field. All of the teachers at Art & Design were retired professional illustrators with decades, if not a couple of centuries of combined practical experience. I learned many of the fundamentals that I still utilize today from a top notch faculty which included advertising artist Richard Taylor and EC Comics legend Bernie Krigstein.

SB: Do you still study the arts with anyone?

JJ: After graduation I spent a brief period as Howard Chaykin's assistant, during which time he gave a lot of useful criticism that I still reference today and introduced me to editors at Heavy Metal Magazine and Marvel Comics. Howard's recommendations opened doors for me that may have taken years for me to walk through otherwise. Today I read every art book, magazine and blog I can find to cherry pick any info I find useful for my own work. I've learned a hell of a lot that way.

SB: Do you teach?

JJ: I don't officially "teach" at the moment, but I do have an instructional DVD available and several online tutorials scattered about. I am planning an instructional art book but need to find the time to actually write it. Commercial work and private commissions are keeping me pretty busy lately. I have also toyed with the idea of approaching Syracuse University with an offer to teach. They used to have an exceptional art program but I'm not sure what the status is today.

SB: Who are your major influences in the art world?

JJ: Really? Jeez, WHERE to start? My very first and most lasting influence was John Buscema. I chose comics/art as a career after discovering his work at the age of eight. There is still a great deal of Buscema in the way I construct and pose figures. Most of the major comic artists of the day were my unofficial mentors, including John Romita, Neal Adams, Hal Foster, Joe Kubert, etc. It wasn't until high school that I discovered Frank Frazetta due to the release of the Bantam art book series. As my focus shifted to painting late in my senior year I became aware of a whole new world of illustration that included artists like James Bama, Boris Vallejo, Enric, Sanjulian and the like. My introduction to all the Golden Age illustrators as well as 50's-60's magazine and book illustrators came during my apprenticeship with Howard Chaykin. In the years since my influences have shifted depending on my interests at any particular time. The list would truly be close to endless.

SB: Any modern artist that blow you away?

JJ: Hmm, what constitutes "modern"? This is always a tough question to answer for a couple of reasons. One, I always remember people I'd forgotten to mention several days after and invariably someone gets insulted that I didn't list them (mostly my friends). Two, at this point no one really "blows me away" anymore. After so many years actually doing the work the wonderment is somewhat muted. I truly appreciate those who have reached really high levels of proficiency and who just seem to keep improving. Adam Hughes, Dave Johnson, Dan Panosian, Ryan Sook, Eric Powell, Mike Mignola and Eduardo Risso, just to name a few of the current geniuses out there . This list is another that could go on and on, especially if I start adding names from outside this industry (of which there are many).

SB: I know asking 'how long does it take to paint a piece' is frowned upon by artists at times, but I'm assuming you have pretty good idea of how long it takes with the amount of work you produce and the deadlines you have to meet?

JJ: Jeff Jones gets credit for my favorite response to this question. When asked how long it took to produce an average painting he answered, "Not as long as it takes to produce a good one". Genius, that Jeff! On average I'm looking at 3-5 days, based on content. Some larger, more complicated pieces can take weeks but I've also done paintings in a day. Even after all this time I still underestimate the time a piece will take more often than I'd care to admit. I generally work a 6 day week, 12 hours per day. That often increases depending on my schedule. Sunday workdays are not a rarity.

SB: Do you use models or photo reference for the poses of the subjects in your paintings?

JJ: I've used both. I learned the value of a good reference file during my time with Chaykin. It's a standard practice of every illustrator. I still chop up every magazine that flits through my hands. Ideas are generated and drawn out first as I like the movement and spontaneity that practice affords, then photo ref is utilized if needed. Many times friends or family pose, though professional models are also enlisted as time permits. is a wonderful model recourse to find local models. Often I'll cannibalize a variety of clip photos to ensure anatomy or lighting is correct, though much of the time there is none used at all. The biggest compliment is when the viewer thinks I used a photo and I didn't.

SB: Do you have a favorite piece of amongst all of your own work?

JJ: I'd like to say something artistically self indulgent like "They're all my children and I love each one equally", but the truth is I instantly find a dozen things I would do differently as soon as a painting is done. There are those I like more than others but I have no emotional attachment to any of them. I even hang other people's art in lieu of my own so I don't have to constantly look at all the "errors" in mine. I have favorite subjects (women, big cats, nature in general) but no one favorite piece. I do favor pieces that come out pretty close to my original idea, though, like Tomb Raider, Restful Interlude and Tarzan and the Golden Lion.

SB: What medium is your favorite to work in? One would assume paints, but I have met artists in the past that may excel in one medium, but really love working in another.

JJ: I love working in color as I think and compose in color so I prefer paints. Acrylics are my medium of choice for their quick drying properties as I'm a very impatient painter and I dislike waiting for stages to dry. That said, being a huge Film Noir fan it's refreshing to play with values by working strictly in grey tones. I also like the spontaneity of convention sketches as they're essentially "on the fly" exercises that keep your drawing hand loose.

SB: Are you a comic collector? If so, what are your favorite titles? Who are your favorite writers and or artists?

JJ: I collected avidly up until I graduated high school but sold off the collection soon after I broke into the business. In hindsight, since I had amassed a complete high grade run of every Silver Age Marvel series up to that point it was a stupid decision. I got it in my head that I couldn't be a pro and collect, too. Like I said, stupid. To give you an idea of the condition the books were in I was selling them to a dealer at Price Guide "Mint" values! I had an unopened copy of Tales of Suspense #39 That I sold at double Price Guide. Unfortunately, Price Guide "Mint" for that book was $85 in 1977! I sold a Fantastic Four #1 at double Guide, too, when it was listed at $500. Yikes.

SB: Since is mainly a role-playing game site I have to ask if you are a 'gamer'; either RPGs or video games?

JJ: My attention span does not gel well with RPG's or video games. After five minutes I just get the feeling I could be doing something more productive, like watching reruns of Jonny Quest or The Herculoids.

SB: Any RPG related work coming up?

JJ: Not on the horizon. I painted several series of Warcraft cards but because I didn't play the game I couldn't really get into the characters.

SB: Any pet-projects you are working on?

JJ: There are a couple of "bucket list" projects in the hopper but unfortunately nothing I can speak about at the moment.

Edgar Rice Burroughs Q&A

SB: Your work on Edgar Rice Burroughs' related art is very expansive; how many pieces have you done based of his wonderful worlds?

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JJ: I created 125 paintings for the Burroughs card set published by FPG in 1995, including the chase cards, cover for the book collection and the dedicated piece for the Dum Dum that year, where I was awarded the Golden Lion for my contributions to the ERB legacy. I was very honored to join previous recipients such as Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo and Michael Whelan. I've done other pieces since for private commissions and have recently been painting covers for the Dynamite Comics adaptation of the Barsoom tales.

SB: For the 125 cards created for the ERB card sets, were these comprised of all original pieces or collected works?

JJ: They were all new pieces. I took the project on because I had never before been given the opportunity to paint Burroughs mythology. FPG president Mike Friedlander gave me a choice between Burroughs and R. E. Howard and I immediately chose Burroughs. In addition to fulfilling my dream of illustrating ERB, I had painted Marvel's Conan covers for years and didn't think I had anything new to add to the materiel. I referenced all of the books to choose the scenes but unfortunately, even with 120 basic card images to play with I was limited to 1-3 scenes per book. I left a lot of good ideas on the cutting room floor with that job.

SB: How long did it take you to create all the pieces for the sets? Just thumbing through them again, I am blown away by the shear volume and quality of work.

JJ: Thanks! I'm always flattered to hear that as I know that how quickly each piece was done. Painting a card set is not like painting book or magazine covers. Due to the sheer volume of images the pace is much quicker and it leaves no time for finished cover quality art. Each painting was 9"x12" and meant to be shot down to card size (2.5"x3.5") for proper effect. Still, I was determined to at least give the impression they were comparable with finished book art at the smaller size. Each painting took between 2-3 days to produce and all of the cards were completed in about 13 months. Producing one or two covers at such an accelerated pace is one thing, doing it 125 times for over a year guarantees they won't all be masterpieces. I am still really happy with many of the concepts and compositions, though in spite of the accelerated work schedule.

SB: Are there plans for another set of ERB cards?

JJ: No, the card market is pretty much DOA and I would never want that kind of schedule again. I would rather take the time to concentrate on the quality of the art rather than cram to push out volume that compromises it.

SB: Do you have a favorite ERB series and/or book?

JJ: I like many of them for different reasons; the Tarzan novels for the wildlife and natural settings, the Mars novels for the wealth of imaginative visuals; a true illustrator's dream, and the Venus, Caspak, and Pellucidar books for most of the same reasons. I'm thoroughly enjoying the Mars property at the moment.

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SB: I love the 'Space Opera' painting, it is so iconic of Barsoom and it's inhabitants. Is 'Space Opera' the name you gave the painting? Was this all from your mind's eye or did you have any direction on the piece, other than what was described in the books? Any other details you want to share about it?

JJ: I coined the title in 1999 when I was asked to provide several prints for a 3 week European appearance tour I was invited to participate in. Since I wasn't sure what the copyright issues were with the names and characters a generic title seemed the best solution. This was the "Chase Card" set from the first Edgar Rice Burroughs series in 1994. The trick to this painting is that it is evenly divided into six separate areas that all work independently as stand alone cards but which work together as a cohesive composition when pieced together. I unified the different elements by carrying background structures and colors across several different cards, in effect camouflaging the puzzle aspect of the illustration. I was given total creative freedom on this project which is a rare gift in commercial art. Unlike the Thuvia puzzle in ERB-Set 2 this was conceived from the very start as a puzzle. It was a challenging and in the end very satisfying exercise.

SB: Have you worked on concept art for the pre-production of any of the attempted incarnations of the John Carter movies?

JJ: My buddy Bernie Wrightson had told me I was on the short list of artists who were under consideration for a designer's position on one of the earlier, now defunct film incarnations of the property but that's as close as I've ever come to actually working on the film. I would have loved the opportunity, believe me. I saw a great animatic from one of those unrealized films showing JC in battle with Thark. and was blown away.

SB: I know I joked about the "Green Men Are On The Roids!", but could you give a little more detail about the politics involved with not having complete creative freedom on a project?

JJ: It's not so much politics as it is just the way things are in commercial art. Unlike the card sets in which I was given total creative freedom, here I'm being hired to visualize Dynamite Entertainment's interpretation of the characters. We've discussed our differing views on the Tharks but when all is said and done I'm obligated to their guidelines. As a professional you put your personal preferences aside and do your job. One of the issues I had when I did the earlier pieces was the unwillingness of many ERB fans to give any leeway toward my interpretations if they at all differed from theirs. While I think [Michael] Whelan and I are closer to what Burroughs intended, especially considering their described height to weight ratio, the new cover paintings are infinitely better than anything I did for the card set (or almost anything I've done in the past couple of years). I don't feel the bulkier Tharks distract from the overall work at all unless you're an ERB purist.

SB: Since A Princess of Mars is public domain, any chance you would ever illustrate a book or, better yet, create your own comic adaption of the story?

JJ: While the geek in me is so intrigued by those possibilities, I don't think so. Tom Yeates just illustrated a splendid hardback edition and there's already a new comic series. A cool Sunday page would be fun though, not unlike the recent Wednesday Comics from DC. Hmmmmm.

I'm also trying to figure out how to manage an offer I've gotten to illustrate and omnibus of Tarzan of the Apes and Return of Tarzan for the 100th anniversary. Logistics relating to several issues including the time involved is still a barrier, though. We'll see.

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SB: One last, very serious, question; who is your inspiration for your Dejah Thoris?!

JJ: I just draws 'em the way I likes 'em.

SB: Is there anything you would like to add?

JJ: I'd just like to thank you for the interest in and appreciation of my work. It really means a lot. Thank you!

SB: Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions.


Joe Jusko links:

Interview & Tutorial DVD