Fables cover artist James Jean hit the ground running. Born in Taiwan in 1979, the artist got the gig illustrating Bill Willingham’s celebrated ongoing Vertigo series straight out of art school, and he hasn’t looked back (his final issue comes out this month). Racking up five consecutive “Best Cover Artist” Eisner Awards and three consecutive Harveys, among a host of other awards, the 29-year-old painter is striking out on his own in 2009 and heading into the art world with a collection of his Fables covers (DC Comics, $39.99) and a book of postcards from Chronicle books on the consumer market. PWCW caught up with Jean literally paintbrush in hand at the Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York, where the paintings for his “Kindling” exhibition sold like wildfire.
Unpretentious and soft-spoken, Jean discussed his startling career trajectory—he’s one of the very few comics artists to make the transition to fine art—his work on Fables, and what he wants to do with his extremely bright future.
Note: Jean generously posts large images of his work on his excellent website, www.jamesjean.com, so anything referenced here that is not a DC Comics cover is probably available there.
PWCW: So what are you doing right now?
James Jean: Just a wall painting. It spreads onto the frame here and it’s going to go up here. [Jean gestures to the pencil roughs on the wall — he’s painting vines next to one of his pictures, leaves spilling over slightly onto the glass in the frame].
PWCW: Do you freehand all those curves?
JJ: Yeah, it takes a lot of arm strength, actually.
PWCW: So what’s the medium for this painting?
JJ: It's a mix of acrylic and oil. It was painted in acrylics first and then I did some oil glaze on the top. I do small graphite sketches before I paint—everything's pretty much figured out in terms of the composition. Of course in the final there are always a lot of other things that are happening, but you're always trying to recapture the initial energy of the sketch.
PWCW: So how did you get started doing this?
JJ: I was born in Taiwan in 1979, and I moved the US when I was three. My parents aren't artistic at all, but I had always drawn when I was a kid, and I grew up reading comic books, so that was sort of my introduction into art culture—Wolverine and X-Men. Basically I decided to go to the School of Visual Arts because they had a cartooning major, and then the foundation year actually had nothing to do with cartooning. It was painting, photography, drawing, sculpture—they gave you a broad survey of the basics, and I sort of fell into painting. Meanwhile, friends had encouraged me to go into illustration. You could actually learn a great deal more in the illustration program than in the cartooning program. Illustration was much more competitive. And that's where I learned a lot more about the fine art world and about painting. So when I graduated I felt like I had a broad mix of comics and painting, and I was reading Dave Cooper and Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine.
PWCW: How did you get the Fables gig?
JJ: I'd gone into DC with a friend who knew Heidi [MacDonald], and I dropped off a little portfolio and I guess Mark Chiarello saw it, and he liked it and gave it to Shelly Bond and Bill Willingham. The first issue was very heavily art-directed and it was a difficult process, especially since it was my first gig—they had all these concepts and ideas, concerns that they wanted to impress in that first image. They wanted to make sure it looked like an ensemble book, that they could tell it was fantasy, that it took place in modern-day New York, and on and on. There was so much stuff that they had to hire another artist (Alex Maleev) to do an alternate cover.
PWCW: When did you feel like you could stretch a little?
JJ: I would say about Issue 6. The book was selling well enough that they felt confident they could keep the series going. And I wanted to start playing around with the other design elements on the cover—the names and the logo, and the rest of the composition. That was when I introduced more Photoshop into it, too.
PWCW: Is it weird working with Photoshop alongside paints?
JJ: It's not too weird. The most challenging thing for me is the color, because in Photoshop you have a full spectrum to work with at the touch of a button, and in painting you have to mix your colors. Throughout working with Fables, I was doing a lot of my own work. And my stuff used to be very monochromatic, and now the colors are sort of electrified.
PWCW: Speaking of which, just because I'm interested—Crayon Eater. Is that Photoshop or a painting?
JJ: It's half-and-half—it's photoshop at the top and then a line drawing underneath.
PWCW: So are you interested in doing more sequential stuff? You did a short for the Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall graphic novel.
JJ: I'm interested in doing books, and I'm interested in putting together a body of work for a show. Since the work tends to be narrative, there is something sequential there. So it's not totally removed. But yeah, at this point, I really do want to paint for myself. When I first moved to LA in 2003, I did a series called "Recess," and I wanted to do a whole book of images based around that work, but it'll take a while. I love to put together books, so doing not necessarily a graphic novel, but maybe some kind of extended picture book is something I'd definitely like to do.
PWCW: Now, you worked for Prada, too, right?
JJ: I did. I did wallpaper for some of their stores and a lot of my drawings were remixed for the clothing and accessories. And then they said, “Since we've done all this work together, we want to put it together into a special project, and we've never done an animation before.” So I did a pitch, and that was approved, and I did storyboards, and that was approved. They were really unsure what to do, so I created this story, and they found a producer and a director to help put it together, and I provided art direction and sketches along the way. There are things about the animation that I wasn't entirely happy with, but I'm still very proud of the style frames I made for the film.
PWCW: And then Madonna just stole it.
JJ: I can't talk about that.
PWCW: I mean, I watched it. It's on YouTube. It’s really shameless.
JJ: Well, if you want to say there's an eerie resemblance or something, I can't stop you.
PWCW: Eerie? It's a blatant rip-off. How did you find out about it?
JJ: A variety of people sent me links. [PWCW readers can decide for themselves how much money Madonna’s tour owes Jean by clicking above to watch his original video, and here to watch her tour video, in which Jean was in no way involved and for which he has received no payment. Same director (James Lima), though!]
PWCW: Do you find yourself attracted to Asian artwork. Does your own heritage inform that at all?
JJ: Definitely, yeah. I'm very attracted to Chinese art and Asian art in general. I’m not sure it’s genetic, though [laughs]. It's definitely something I'm drawn to, and something I grew up with. There's something about going back to your homeland and seeing the shared heritage and architecture and culture and food and art. It really resonates within you. You see that everyone has the same hair color and skin and it's very affecting when you've been living in another place for a long time.