James Jean (casually known as J.J.) was born in 1979 in Taipei, Taiwan. At the age of three, he moved with his family to New Jersey, U.S.A. And like most illustrators, he began drawing before he could remember.
Jean’s natural talent led him to pursue studies at the SVA (School of Visual Arts) in New York City—where he graduated with a BFA in the year 2001. His recognition in the arts followed by receiving a $10,000 Jellybean Photographics Prize at the Society of Illustrators, a Gold Award at the Society of Illustrators LA, and his work being published in American Illustrator 22.
Currently, James Jean is a freelancer for DC/Vertigo comics, where he creates monthly covers for the Eisner Award winning series FABLES, and BATGIRL. He is also founding member and contributor for the online comics collective, “Meathaus.” His life and passion have revolved around comics, from a consistent style that prevails both character drawing to personal paintings. Jean’s artwork blends medias such as watercolor, oils, computer work, and sketching— and his compositions are well thought out that they frequently reference to art history, religion, and societal perversion. The body of his work shows an awareness and respect for both Western and Eastern culture.
Brandon Luhring, Scene 360: Have you always wanted to be a comic artist, or was that a natural career decision given your talent?
I grew up reading Wolverine and X-men, so naturally, comics was a dream career.
You’ve earned fans for the comic book covers you created of Fables and Batgirl (DC/Vertigo comics). How did you end up landing those jobs?
When I was living in New York, my friend, Farel Dalrymple, introduced me to an editor at DC’s offices. My card and a hand-made brochure started floating around the offices. After a after a month or so, Mark Chiarello (a great artist and editorial art director at DC) ended up checking out my site and recommending me to Vertigo editor Shelly Bond and writer/artist Bill Willingham. I had gone off to Austria at the time, and when I returned, Shelly had left a message on my machine offering me the first 5 covers to the series. Out of an oppressive sense of charity or duty, they decided to keep me on. A little over a year later, I got the call for BATGIRL.
What is the creative-process to completing a cover for Fables or Batgirl? How much information is given initially; how many DC executives do you have to attempt to please; and what mediums do you choose or have to work in?
DC usually sends me a script, and from there I do sketches that have to be approved before starting the finish. For FABLES, there is a small committee comprised of my editor, the writer/creator of the series, and the chief editor. BATGIRL was a little strange to start off with, because they pay separate rates for a penciller, inker, and colorist; and I just wanted to do a finished illustration without breaking up the production chores. They offered to get me a computer colorist for the cover, but I wanted to be in control of the whole process. But as long as I hand in something that looks decent, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in Photoshop or on a wet napkin.
As for my choice of mediums, it varies from oil painting to watercolor to Photoshop. There are many ways to skin a napkin.
The Fables covers look much more like your personal work than the Batgirl covers do. Consequently, both projects are from the same publisher, but they differ in art style. What are the differences and why? And how much creative freedom was allowed in each title?
FABLES is under the Vertigo imprint, which started off as DC’s horror-line for “mature” readers. They commissioned painted-covers which are usually more elaborate than the classic ink and color superhero stuff. And BATGIRL belongs to the DC universe along with Superman, Batman, and other finely muscled people. In my mind, FABLES is a complex tapestry of characters and history, while BATGIRL is all action and pathos. So FABLES ends up being more finely nuanced than BATGIRL, which the latter tends to be more graphic and iconic.
Comic book covers have changed over the years (i.e cover art has become more robust, concepts have been modernized…). What would you like to see happen in the industry during your career?
I’m just an illustrator who really likes comics, and as a fan, all I can say is that the quality of work in comics right now is amazing compared to just a decade ago.
How did the idea behind the comic collective website,“Meathaus,”come about? And what do you hope it will become for the site’s visitors?
The site was created by my friend Chris McD, to publicize and complement the Meathaus comics anthology that we’ve been putting together for the past few years. The anthology was started by bunch of guys who went to art school together as a way to congregate and draw comics in a cramped, damp room filled with beer and machismo. Eventually, we all pitched in a few bucks and started publishing it.
Looking through your personal work, I see many references to different religions. How does religion affect your artwork, and what do you hope to gain from investigating it artistically?
I wasn’t raised to be religious, although the imagery and symbolism of Buddhist and Christian art still fill me with dread and awe. And illuminated manuscripts and silk scroll paintings are a constant source of inspiration.
What other areas do you commonly draw inspiration from? (History, literature, film, music, etc.)
Life can be one big swipe file.
In past interview at KittyKitty, artbeatstreet.com, you joked about how hard it is to be an illustrator and still be able to feed yourself. Do you have other sources of income?
I sell artwork and prints. At the moment, I’m working with Ralph Bakshi on an animated series for the Sci-Fi channel. I’ll also be doing some coloring for Paul Pope on the side.
What direction would you have gone if drawing hadn’t worked out for you?
I really can’t imagine it “not working out.” If you’re dedicated, it’s not that difficult to find a job drawing. Advertising agencies, production companies, video game companies, and Special F/X studios keep a lot of artists gainfully employed.
Being primarily a freelance comic artist, how often do you collaborate with other artists on the same project? Is this important, or would you rather create solo?
I haven’t collaborated with anyone yet in comics, except to use a writer’s script as a springboard for the image. I’d rather be in control of the whole process. However, I just started a personal project with a friend of mine on my site, so we’ll see how it goes.
On your site, the sections displaying your sketchbooks and travel books are a great way to look into your process and to see why you are so good at what you do. How many hours a day (or week) do you find yourself sketching in your books?
Sometimes, I’ll spend a few days on a sketchbook to relax in between deadlines. During art school, I sketched all the time, but it’s been tough finding a good Life Drawing Workshop in west LA.
When I was in high school/college there were many students I knew who would love to become comic book artists, but they always seemed to dread the art class lessons of perspective drawing, figure drawing, color theory, etc. What advice would you give to these students? What’s important to succeed in this field?
When I was a kid, I would always eat my vegetables first. Instead of drawing the gravy part, take care of the spinach — and you’ll soon develop massive forearms of a consummate draughtsman.
Besides art, you play the trumpet as well; when did you start playing? Do you ever use the trumpet as a way to relax when you’re having a rough time with a drawing?
I got my first trumpet in the 4th grade, but didn’t seriously start playing until high school.
Whenever I have a tough time drawing, it’s usually because I haven’t warmed up enough. The same goes with playing the trumpet.
Has computers and the Internet given you new opportunities? And has it changed your work in any way?
I’d be nothing without Google and Photoshop.
Which sites online have kept you coming back for more?
Design portals like pixelsurgeon keep me sober. It’s amazing how easy it is to find good work out there now. But generally, I try to keep my surfing to a minimum unless it’s for research.
You’ve been in the U.S. for nearly your whole life, but you were born in Taiwan. Has your family kept the Taiwanese culture a part of your life? Do you plan on visiting there at anytime?
I’ve been back in 2001 and 2003, and I’m going back this winter as well. Most of my extended family is in Taiwan; my father grew up dirt poor and sold homemade brooms at the market, and he’s the first in a family of nine siblings to move to the US. So I’ve learned all about the immigrant’s dream of success through hard work and sacrifice, but my Chinese is execrable, and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to improve.
What cities/countries would you like to visit that you haven’t already?
This winter we’re going to Japan, but I still like home the best.