Slayer Lit

Slayer Lit Interview

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JO CHEN
Interview conducted by Shiai Mata June 2009

"You have to love comics, really love them, to stick with it."

Once upon a time, the cover was very often the most important part of a comic book...at least as far as publishers and editors were concerned. A good cover, something that caught the eye and captured the imagination, generally meant good sales for an issue, often irregardless of what was on the pages behind that cover. Frequently, covers were worked up first, then then writers and artists went to work creating a story to fit what was on that cover!

Over time, however, comics seemed to drift away from the idea that a strong work of cover art was an important part of the overall package. And that may just explain why comic book sales plummeted during that time. After all, if you can't grab someone's attention at first glance, what hope can you have that they'll have faith enough in a book to pick it up and buy it?

Happily, the art of the cover is enjoying a creative resurgence these days, with Jo Chen very much in the vanguard. Her work seamlessly blends ultra-realism with the sort of bigger-than-life visuals that are de rigueur for comic books.

Having recently announced that she's taking a brief hiatus from the Buffy series in order to focus on other demands, we're thrilled that Jo has made the time to speak with SlayerLit about her art.

SLAYERLIT: Hi Jo, and welcome to SlayerLit! Could you describe what your workspace environment is like? Are you a music or TV listener when you work, or do you prefer quiet?

JO CHEN: I work from a small home office, festooned with posters and action figures. I often listen to music but it has to be the right music to help create the right mood. And that depends on the type of illo I'm working on. Some film scores, Blur, Suede, Crowded House, some Chinese and Japanese rock bands, etc. I will also keep an ear tuned to news from Taiwan or international news delivered in Chinese.

SL: And what is your workday like? Some artists prefer to hit the board first thing in the morning, others are night owls, and some treat it strictly as a 9-to-5 job.

JC: Before my kids, I was a night owl. Working at night also allowed me to confer with my friends in Taiwan on projects I was working on or hoping to work on. With the kids, I can no longer do this, and it's become a normal day job for me. My preference is still to work at night but that may not be possible until the little ones are old enough to care for themselves.

SL: Which artists inspire you?

JC: There are many artists that I like and there many that inspire me but Lord Frederick Leighton, a 19th Century English painter and sculptor, has had a tremendous impact on my painting style. I also really like Alan Lee very much.

SL: And how exactly did you come to work on BUFFY SEASON 8?

JC: Brian Vaughan introduced me Joss while we were working on the RUNAWAYS book. Joss saw one of the Runaways issues with my artwork on the cover, and asked BKV for my email address. At the time, he was planning the first Serenity mini-series for Dark Horse4, to bridge the FIREFLY series and the upcoming SERENITY film, and sent me an email introducing himself and asked if I would like to participate. I'm not sure if he or Dark Horse had somebody else in mind for the Buffy covers when the project arose but Dark Horse editor Scott Allie approached me and I said 'sign me up'. Working for Dark Horse and Joss has always been a great experience for me.

SL: What's the genesis of one of your covers? Do you do a lot of sketches to lay out your ideas first?

JC: Yes, I always start with thumbnail sketches. In fact, Dark Horse recently posted a brief online tutorial of mine showing my creative process.

SL: Approximately how long does it take you to complete a cover, from initial design to finished art?

JC: Usually, about four or five days. But it really depends upon the complexity of the piece. How many characters, how many of them have to be detailed, how many recognizable, the difficulty of the background, etc. But four, five days from thumbnail to finished painting is normal.

SL: And what sort of freedom do you have to design your Buffy covers? Do Scott Allie or Joss make any specific requests, or are you free to basically do whatever you choose to?

JC: Scott Allie usually conveys the ideas to me from the writers or Joss. Scott has always said, 'It's Joss's baby', so DH defers to him. Joss, in turn, may defer to the writer of the arc for cover ideas. Here is what makes me think this: Early on in the series, Joss asked me more than once not to make the illo I was working on too grotesque. I recall the cover of BUFFY issue #57, in particular. The idea for the cover was that of Buffy with her fingers at her throat beginning to peel off what appears to be a mask. I asked if he wanted it like the rubbery mask-reveals of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films, and he told me not to make it that grotesque; he wanted something subtler that would keep Buffy/SMG looking recognizable. And to go easy on the blood spatters as well.

So, I was surprised when BKV, writing his Buffy arc, proposed a cover of Faith drowning Buffy (BtVS #8), and Joss was silent. A drowning girl, fighting for breath and life, wouldn't be pretty. Anything but. It would be grotesque and that's the way I painted it. Joss never said anything, but I always wondered whether he liked the cover or even the idea of the cover. If I had to guess, I would say that he would have preferred a less gruesome scenario and illustration. But he never said a word to me, and that seems to be the kind of guy he is. He allows his writers and artists a good deal of latitude, and only interferes when we've strayed too far off course. That has certainly been my experience with him.

If what I've produced isn't up to scratch or it could be better, Joss and/or Scott let me know very diplomatically/politely... almost reluctantly...and I do my best to correct whatever is amiss and give Joss what he wants. Sometimes I think Joss and Scott are shy of proposing character posture changes or telling me that Dawn doesn't look enough like Michelle, or whatever, because they don't want to piss me off or insult me. I guess there are some artists they've worked with who can't take constructive criticism without physically collapsing into tears or walking off the project in a snit. But that's not me, and I've had to remind them both not to feel as if they have to walk on eggshells around me.

SL: Do you often like to sneak in some sort of signature symbolism into your work?

JC: No. Again, this is somebody else's creation that I'm working on. It's not my place to play Jo Chen, Freemason-at-Large. I'll leave the symbolism stuff to the Aleister Crowley crowd.

SL: You have an uncanny knack for capturing the likenesses of the actors. Has anyone proven particularly difficult to capture?

JC: Both Eliza Dushku and Michelle Trachtenberg give me trouble on occasion. Dushku often looks so different in photographs over the course of her career, due to make-up and lighting, that she might as well be different people in some of the reference material. Actually, the occasional difficulty isn't restricted to those two. It could be anybody, really.

I blogged on my MySpace page back in September of 2008 to convey the difficulties of creating a convincing, dynamic and recognizabl cover illo. One of the stresses with the Buffy and even the Serenity covers is that the characters have to be recognizable. Unfortunately, only static, boring headshots are recognizable. However, a cover may call for some piece of action or distress with characters at some extreme angle or in some extreme pose. In those scenarios, it's tough to produce recognizable characters/actors because it's not an 8x10 headshot.

I challenge anybody to place a camera at their feet and take a photo, pointing directly up, past the calves, thighs, pubis, belly, chin and into the nostrils and have everybody who is shown the photo say, "I know exactly who that is!" You may not recognize the subject of the photo but it's certainly a more interesting and dynamic angle than a mall glam photo. So, that's the balance I attempt to achieve with all the covers.

SL: I seem to recall seeing a photo of Eliza Dushku holding a copy of BtVS #98, the famous 'Faith burning her clothes' piece you did, at an autograph signing. Have you received any feedback from any of the actors about your depictions of them?

JC: Only Jewel Staite communicated with me regarding the Kaylee - Serenity cover, and that is because I reached out to her to help with a charity piece I was giving the CSTS gang for auction (Jewel is great that way). But the Buffy folks, not directly. Although, Alyson Hannigan was reported to have said something along the lines of 'I don't know who that is supposed to be, but she's sure been working out a lot' when Joss sent her my first Willow cover (BtVS #311) . Also, I think I read that Mercedes McNab saw the Harm cover (BtVS #2112) with the two snarling Poms and had a laugh. Oh yeah, and Nick Brendon, when signing a print of the BtVS #2 cover at a con, asked in surprise if that was supposed to be him in the illo, and something like he never looked that good. Or something like that. Again, this is all second hand information or stuff I've read on the web. Who knows if it's true but if it is, I think it's funny that nobody seems to recognize themselves in my paintings. I think it must be like hearing your recorded voice played back. Either that or the Buffy readers are shining me on about the likenesses in the paintings.

SL: Having established yourself as the main cover artist for Dark Horse's Buffy, have you given any hope about maybe trying your hand at an Angel or Spike cover for IDW?

JC: Well, being so closely associated with the Buffy Season 8 book, there are difficulties for me to attach myself to related books from a different publisher. I'll leave it at that. Although, I may yet get to illustrate either or both of those characters at some point in the future. Honestly, I'm so busy these days with work and family stuff that I've had to turn down a considerable number of jobs. So, even if IDW14 approached me to work on its Angel book, I simply couldn't accept the work due to my existing workload and familial obligations. Just not enough hours in the day.

SL: There seems to be a growing wave of women in comics, not just as readers, but also creators. What do you think accounts for this sudden shift in the gender dynamics of what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry?

JC: At the 2008 Calgary Expo in Alberta , I did a newspaper interview for the Calgary Herald16 in which I stated (and believe) that comics, science fiction and fantasy were perceived, for a long time, to be the lowbrow entertainments of deviates and cretins (okay...and Oxford professors). What was then fringe and unacceptable is now cool and acceptable, not to mention big money. And what is finally lucrative drives the number of dollars pumped into marketing products for sale that eventually become acceptable; for both sexes, nonetheless. Isn't that the goal of all consumer products?

In the West, the industry has been male dominated for so long because the subject matter of superheroes (the majority of Western comic books) didn't appeal to girls, by and large. I always equate it to The Three Stooges; how many girls can you count as Stooges fans? Not many. It's a guy thing. If girls can't identify with it, then they won't buy it. If they don't buy and read it, then why would they want to write it, draw it/follow it as a career path? There is no mystery to the way things have evolved, regarding male and female demographics and the sexes as players in the industry.

SL: Let's talk about this new Buffy work you're doing with Joss. This is your first time doing anything other than the cover, correct? So how did this project come about?

JC: Well, Scott Allie asked me if I would be interested in contributing the interiors for a two-page Buffy story (now expanded to three pages), and I said "Sure." He said we'll try to get Joss to write it (time permitting). Joss agreed and asked me for ideas of what I would like the story to include. I told him and he ran with it.

SL: And how much can you tell us about the story itself?

JC: It involves Faith who discovers that she can convert herself into a Shelby Cobra, and then into a roller-skating, jumbo machinder, sworn to protect Earth and Simon Le Bon.

SL: Has this whetted your appetite to do more interior artwork, or are you happy to stick with covers now?

JC: I've always done interior artwork and it's how I made my bones in Asia and here in the West. I decided to switch to covers at some point because producing interiors is often hard, tedious work and the deadlines can be murderous. I love doing it, though. But I reserve all the energy and effort it takes for my own stories.

SL: You've done some work for Marvel and DC lately. Would you like to pursue more mainstream superhero fare?

JC: I take jobs as I have room for and if the subject matter appeals to me. I wouldn't want to restrict myself to one thing or another but if Sonia Choi at DC asks me, or Joe Q at Marvel asks me, I'm there. And I get requests at conventions to draw different super hero characters. I've been thinking about creating a Green Lantern illo for my own edification. Now all I need is to find a couple of free days….

SL: You've done some video game packaging artwork. Have you given any thought to perhaps getting into animation design, or storyboarding? What about regular advertising work?

JC: My first job out of school in the mid-1990's was work at an advertising firm in Taipei. I did it for about one month then quit to do comics full-time. They offered me more money to stay, but I had manga fever and nothing could keep me from it.

About animation…a friend of mine, Cynthia Ignacio, who was working at Warner Brothers Animation several years ago, helped to arrange a meeting with producer Glen Murakami, who was ramping up production for the Teen Titans animated series. If I recall correctly, the original idea was to see if I might be interested in doing some character designs. I'm not really sure because by the time we met, there was no discussion of that. We just chatted in his office, toured the animator's bullpen and I signed his copies of my RACER X comic books for him. He was a very nice guy. The long and short of it is that you have to love comics, really love them, to stick with it and try to make a living at it. There is usually always more money for good artists in animation and video games, etc., so comics is something one does out of love. Certainly, that is why Joss does it. There is certainly more money to be made from producing DOLLHOUSE or CABIN IN THE WOODS, but he loves comics so he keeps a finger or two in the pie.

SL: What's the dream project you haven't done yet?

JC: Yeah…I keep working, whenever I have time (ha-ha!), on a story called 'The Specter King'. At least, that is the English working title. I've been banging away at this for years, but I have to put food in the mouths of my children so the commercial stuff comes first. It's kind of an historical fantasy, set in a mythical, ancient China, and has all the elements that make for great reading/viewing.

SL: As a reader or viewer, what books, films and TV shows are exciting you the most right now?

JC: I've been trying to catch-up on DOLLHOUSE and DEXTER, am hoping to finally watch the third season of DEADWOOD, and still enjoy re-runs of KING OF THE HILL when I have the time to watch. I'm reading Louis Cha's series The Semi-Gods and the Semi-Devils. Great books.

SL: Jo, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and we're all looking forward to seeing your work for a long time to come!