An Interview with Comic Book Artist Christopher Jones

Christopher Jones is a man of many talents. Recently, I had a chance to speak with Jones about his work on DC’s Young Justice and Marvel’s Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, his thoughts on the role of diversity in comic books, and a Mid-Western sci-fi and fantasy convention he helped initiate.

Colin Hollister: You’ve recently worked on two “all-ages” books (DC’s Young Justice and Marvel’s Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) in a medium that has become synonymous with dark and gritty, over-the-top ultra-violence. Do you find that kid-friendly action can be creatively restrictive, or does it fit your artistic preferences?

Christopher Jones: The only time all-ages material is creatively restrictive in any way is that many of the specific projects I’ve worked on have required me to adhere to existing model sheets for characters rather than doing my own interpretation of them. I sometimes find the association I have with all-ages material to be restrictive in other ways. Before I did my first work for DC Comics, much of the art I had done for other publishers was in the genres of crime and horror. Since getting some high-profile assignments based on animation properties, that tends to be the vast majority of what I get offered these days. Not only does that not give me opportunities to showcase the full range of my abilities, it’s limited in that there’s much less of that kind of work available than if I was being offered other kinds of projects as well. But I’m very happy to be working, and I’ve been lucky enough to work on quality material, so I can’t really complain. I’m just always looking for opportunities to branch out.

CH: In Young Justice, why was it important to work with such a large array of characters? Why not focus on fleshing out a select few cast members instead?

CJ: You’d have to ask that of Greg Weisman. I just draw what’s in the script! I think from the very beginning Young Justice has tried to portray the team in the context of the larger DC Universe of characters. I think that’s partly because the show grew out of Cartoon Network wanting another series along the lines of Justice League. I think it’s partly indicative of a different approach from say, the Teen Titans cartoon. While that series certainly contained some drama, there was a lot more silliness in the blend, and it tended to exist in sort of a vacuum. You didn’t really deal with characters having secret identities, adult mentors, extended families, or any real world outside of the costumed characters of the Teen Titans corner of the DC Universe. Young Justice was always about that context of the rest of the DCU, and I think has been a series of interconnected coming-of-age stories for individual characters and the team as a whole.

CH: Having worked on Young Justice and Avengers: E.M.H. simultaneously puts you on a short list of people who have worked for both sides of the Big Two at the same time. Is there ever a sense of tension from one side or the other, seeing as you provide a similar product for both competing companies?

CJ: I’ve actually never had it mentioned to me by anyone at either company, other than figuring out when I’d be available to do a story for the Avengers: EMH title, working around my schedule, which is already very full penciling and inking Young Justice every month. And stylistically I don’t find them that similar at all. The Avengers stories I’ve done are almost all action, and the art style is streamlined and simplified with exaggerated proportions that remind me of the Bruce Timm inspired style of the DCAU, while the Young Justice designs tend to be more detailed and realistically proportioned. And with inking Young Justice myself, I really have tried to push the art in a more textured, realistic direction, or at least as far as I can without getting “off model” from the look of the show.

CH: With artwork widely featured in comic books that are based on television shows and films (Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Batman Strikes, Avengers: E.M.H., Young Justice, etc.) is your goal to cross over to that form of media more permanently? Can you speak as to what you believe are the most notable differences between the two forms of story-telling?

CJ: I’d enjoy doing storyboards or design work for animation, but so far no real opportunities have presented themselves in that area. I think most of the ground-level opportunities in that field involve working on-staff for the studios, and I live in Minneapolis.
As much as is made of the similarities between comic art and television and film, there are quite a few differences. In comics you aren’t dealing with sound. You aren’t dealing with a moving image in rigid frame with a locked aspect ratio. You’re telling stories with sequences of panels of changing shape and size featuring static images that represent the peak moment in an action—not even a literal snapshot in time as the action in a comics panel can represent actions taking place over several seconds. It’s a wonderful, unique art form and while storyboards and animation may be close cousins, they are definitely different animals!
CH: Your illustrations in comic books, promotional art, and action figure design have been praised for their ability to adapt to the job at hand. Who would you say has influenced your wide collection of styles?

CJ: It’s hard to say, as the artists I’ve tried to deliberately take something from probably aren’t that obvious in whatever style I have that shows through from project-to-project. I’m a huge fan of the sense of design of artists like Alex Toth and Mike Mignola. David Mazzucchelli’s run of Daredevil and Batman: Year One came out during my formative comics reading years, and I love his sense of composition and movement. During the same era, I was greatly impressed with the simple, direct storytelling of John Byrne. Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Gil Kane, all the classic greats. I really love Jim Aparo from the era of his work on Aquaman, The Spectre and the Phantom Stranger. Neal Adams. Steve Rude. The list just goes on and on, without even getting into the new guys from the last decade…

CH: On Twitter you and I briefly discussed the implications of Shining Knight, a character from Paul Cornell’s Demon Knights, being revealed as transgendered. How does diversity factor into your creative process? Do you feel modern comics are doing enough to incorporate and respectively represent all walks of life?

CJ: I think if you’re grounding your story in any kind of reality then you have to look at what’s really out there, and it’s a diverse world whether you’re talking about ethnicity, sexuality, age, gender, religion—you name it. I think comics need to broaden their audience if they’re going to survive and remain relevant, and the best way to do that is give the people you want to join your audience something in your story that they can relate to. You’re seeing steps taken in the right direction, but I look forward to the day where that diversity is just part of the norm and not newsworthy or, worse yet, a marketing gimmick.

CH: You co-founded a Mid-Western science-fiction and fantasy convention called CONvergence, a fact that several of us Mid-Western Capeless Crusaders can appreciate. What prompted you to start the convention, what does the event entail, and can you describe the community outreach program the convention is associated with?

CJ: I was one of the initial group of seven people who came together to found a new convention when another convention that had been THE science fiction convention of Minnesota for decades was going through some major changes and seemed to be stepping back from a lot of the things that its membership wanted from it. We came together to create a new convention that could be a home for that fandom. What’s interesting is that none of the initial seven of us had ever run a convention before, although we had relevant job skills. I, for example, ended up running the Publications Division, which involved creating artwork and publications and generally doing marketing for the convention. We surrounded ourselves with a large group of people to act as department heads and staff that DID have relevant convention experience and that combination of experience and new ideas helped us build a very successful event that really broke free of a lot of what seemed to us to be the traditional ways of organizing a convention. CONvergence is held over the first weekend in July each year and has grown from 1,500 people back in 1999 to over 5,600 in 2012. It’s a fundraiser for the 501(c)3 non-profit we formed and is still going strong. I served as a member of the Board of Directors and oversaw the Publications division from 1999 to 2011, and I still serve as the organization’s Chief Creative Officer.

CH: You’ve made it clear that feedback from your fans is very important to you. What would you say to members of the industry who choose a less personal relationship with their readers?

CJ: I don’t think there’s any one way to do things, and I would never presume to tell someone that they have to do a thing the same way I do it to be doing it “right.” I think there’s value in reaching out to readers both to get a sense of what they’re responding to and what there seems to be an appetite for. The fanbase for Young Justice specifically is *very* passionate, *very* vocal, and *very* active online. They also seem to be much younger and include many more women and girls than the stereotypical comic book audience. I think if comics publishers want to bring in new readers and broaden their audience they could do worse than to put some effort into understanding what Young Justice is doing well to attract the fanbase it has.

CH: Christopher, I’d like to take a moment to thank you very deeply for allowing us this interview. We here at Capeless Crusader are more than just reporters, we’re fans, and we very much look forward to seeing your future works.

CJ: Thanks very much. And hey, I’m a fan, too!

For more on artist Christopher Jones you can check out his web site here: http://blog.christopherjonesart.com/

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