Kelley Jones interview about his comic illustrating career

Original article appeared on Comic Conventions UK.

The following interview with Kelley Jones was realized in the age of social networking. I never would have had the chance to interview my favourite artist ever. Please enjoy it as much as I did when working on it.

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview, Kelley. Looking at your artwork from your comic career the first thing comes to my mind is that you probably are one of the biggest horror fans out in the whole world.
How did you find and develop this unique and highly expressive style of yours?

I was very influenced by the films of James Whale and Jacques Tourneur, as well as artists Wally Wood, Graham Ingels, Jack Kirby and Bernie Wrightson. I loved the cartoons of UPI, they did Mister Magoo and such. I didn’t set out to emulate them as much as using them as a starting point to solve drawing problems.

Justice League Dark #33 cover

In the comic book world you are best known for your run and covers on Batman and Detective Comics with writer Doug Moench and inker John Beatty. And of course the Elseworlds graphic novels featuring the now classic vampire Batman. Most comic book fans would agree that your Batman is one of the scariest out there and I would like to know how this type of Batman came to your mind.
When you were first contracted by DC to draw Batman did you know immediately what you wanted him to look like?

I wanted him to be intimidating, I wanted him to be never fully accepted as human by the sane criminals of Gotham. You have to remember, he is seen as a criminal or worse by the good citizens and most the police of Gotham. The nut jobs that comprise the Rogues Gallery, they must fear him entirely. That’s – to me – Batman’s real ‘power’.

And what’s the story behind the creation?

I knew he had to look more like a character that you only see at night. His shape became the most important thing, else he would just be like Daredevil or Captain America. I set about making the cape and cowl his most dominate feature. Drapery studies became more important than anatomy when he appeared in an alley, or warehouse, or your bedroom!

Batman #516 cover

How was working with writer ? Was there a special method the team of you, Doug and John worked together?

That Doug could write the stories he always wanted to. His Batman stories in this run are his best I think, because he was writing himself as Batman. His righteousness came through very clearly in the stories of Batman. It was perfect to match that with my view that Batman was first and foremost an intimidator. John always put in a lot of story elements, what characters should look like and such. He was always having Doug put in touches all over the place.

I myself am a big Batman fan too and honestly one of my favourite renderings of Batman is yours. I love the longest ears possible which sometimes does not even fit on the page or in the panels.

Thank you! To be fair, my inspiration for that was from Marshall Rogers’ definitive run.

And Batman’s cape looks like it’s living its own life in your work. And for sure yours has the longest ears and this is also well known.
Do you have a back story behind this phenomenon or did you just let your pencil wander?

Batman had to become more frightening, more demonic in order to match Doug’s vision. His ‘living’ cape for example, the labyrinth of the Batcave (I never ever followed any map or design for the bat cave, it just went on and on), the odder and odder tools from his utility belt, which was a way to show readers Batman’s clever mind and forethought. I know that people nowadays get caught up in how do things really work, but to me that limits the scope and interpretation of a character. No one questions the look of the Penguin, or Joker, and so on, they are just weird. So, to me in order for Batman to be the most dominate force in a city, as dark and gothic as Gotham, I had to have him look accordingly. Batman’s stories are at their best when the are indistinguishable from horror and film noir. The motives of the criminals and psychopaths Batman fights are entirely different from every other book. They never just steal money or jewels. The crimes of Gotham are crimes of revenge and passion.

You know there’s not much international comic publishing in Hungary but a few years ago they started to publish Sandman in paperback form, sadly they only went with the first 4 books due to financial problems but that means we have 2 that include artwork from you. Dream Country includes Callipe and one of my all time favourites A Dream of a Thousand Cats is a creepily cute story but your artwork brings the whole atmosphere to several levels up. It is a well known fact that Neil Gaiman loves cats. It is also an interesting scientific question whether cats have dreams like we do. This story takes place in a world of cats and Gaiman delves into the idea that cats have the exact same ’Endless’ beings therefore there is a ’Sandcat’.
You coming from the horror comics and Sandman is sometimes also very horror-like, how did you approach drawing an entire 24 pages of comics starring ’cute little cats’ in it?

Well, they weren’t always cute at least. I owned a cat back then that modeled for most of the cats in the book. I myself know that cats dream, and not always when they sleep. My cat at the time, Knuckles, was a large orange tom, and he would come to me every afternoon to go for walks on the large rural property I lived on. When we would be on one of these walks, I could see him imagining invisible prey, and attacking blowing leaves and such. Other times he would want to sit on this fallen tree, and just look down on this glade it over looked. I always will swear he was daydreaming of whatever cats daydream of at those times. When the ‘Cat’ story was offered, I said something like ‘sounds fun’, and Karen Berger [the editor] asked if I was sure. She then went on to say four other artists turned it down because it was all cats, no people. I laughed and told her that’s why I’m taking the job! For my money, it is the best story in the entire run. Bar none.

Sandman

Now some questions I know Hungarian fans would be interested about.
If you remember them, what kind of Sandman-scripts did Neil Gaiman give you back in the day? Were they highly detailed or more open to interpretation?

They were detailed, but not in describing what to draw as much as atmospheres and feelings. His scripts were closer to letters.

What type of scripts do you prefer and how different were Neil’s compared to let’s say one of your more frequent collaborators, Doug Moench?

Doug writes in a evocative, journalistic style like Ernest Hemingway. Always on point, and with terrific cues for storytelling. But the remarkable thing is Doug’s scripts are entirely up to interpretation. You can approach them however you want because he is so clear on the point of the page, and panel. Very visual.

You worked many years successfully with inker extraordinaire and as I see it you understand each other perfectly. Did you have a say in this after you first worked together?

John was the best inker in the world of comics then, and as to the history of comics, easily in the top 5 ever. John was in the DC Comics offices and saw my Deadman story in the pencil stage for Action Comics Weekly. He asked if he could ink it and was told it was already assigned. One must remember I was a no one then. Only in passing, a few weeks later my editor tells me this, and I’m stunned. She says yeah, he wanted your phone number and might call you. It really knocked me out, as I believed he was one of the great talents artistically in comics then. Well he called, and introduced himself and made that offer. Not long after I was given the chance to do a book called the Hangman for Archie comics, written by Len Wein. I drew the first issue and John inked the majority of it, and it was pulled because the publisher finally looked at what we were doing and said it was too creepy. So our first job is in a flat file. When Malcolm Jones III [inker of Sandman] had to leave the Dark Joker book, John stepped in, and it was, in my opinion ,a marriage made in comics heaven.

Pencils by with inks by John Beatty

How does a long working relationship like this end?

After ten-plus years John was just plain worn out. He puts a 100% into his art, and I’m not an easy ink, I think. So when he called today he had to stop, I was totally understanding his decision. I consider myself just lucky to have even known him, much less have him grace my stuff with his incredible talent. He’s a genius, and I mean that.

When we last spoke on Facebook you mentioned that some places and some streets of your interpretation of Gotham City was inspired by Budapest, the capitol of Hungary.
Have you ever been here in our country?

I haven’t been to Hungary, but have an enormous amount of books on the architecture of its cities. It is not a stretch of the imagination to see those buildings in a city like Gotham.

Do you frequently get inspired by cities or buildings?

All the time, I get distracted in cities, so my wife has to drive in them because I’m always weaving in traffic ogling the alleys and buildings!

Your last Batman story with the all-star team was Batman: Unseen in 2009, 5 years ago which was obviously inspired by the classic H.G. Wells invisible man story. On that comic series you inked yourself.
How was this book different in your line of Batman stories as you finally got to ink yourself?

John was retired then, and I didn’t know anyone who wanted to do it then. My editor then asked if I would do it, as he liked my inking and so I said sure.

Did you and Doug want to try this also?

No, it was just something that came out of necessity.

Batman – Artist’s Edition

is an exciting year in your life I guess because DC Comics finally started to publish your Batman issues collected in a beautiful hardcover edition called Batman by Doug Moench & Kelley Jones Volume 1. Besides this book, Graphitti Designs announced an amazing original page-sized edition of Batman #515-525.
What can you tell us about these two books?

The DC reprint is one of those things I’m happy about for perhaps a different reason. Simply for those issues just being available again. Those stories bring back some of the best memories of my life, we had a great deal of fun in a very stressful situation. As to the work itself, I feel good that they hold up after almost 20 years. Doug’s stories are even better now, if possible. They are a ‘pure’ comic book experience, you don’t need to read other books to follow what we did. Doug was at the very top of his game, and as with John, I was just happy to be there.

How do you feel now that you’re finally getting that attention your work and you always deserved?

I am genuinely humbled, and I always considered myself fortunate in my career. To have Graphitti Designs call to say that they wanted to inaugurate their foray into fine art editions of the best of comic art with my stuff is truly an honor… to say the least. I’m maybe happiest about the book in that it will show John’s stunning skills the best that it can be seen.

What’s even more amazing that we’re still in 2014 and you did a graphic novel called Space Mountain for too. It’s been written by Bryan Q. Miller who is very well known in both comics and television series circles and can be regarded as one of the hottest writers nowadays. What do we need to know about this GN and how long has it been in the making?

Blackflame

A few years ago, my editor at DC Comics on Batman went to Disney. He wanted to do original-content comics there. It has been one my most rewarding experiences ever. Bryan is a great and entertaining writer, and a great pleasure to work with. I am glad to be doing the sequels with him now.

Finally my last question: is there anything else in the making you can talk about? Comics or anything else.

I have an original graphic novel coming out, the Black Flame.It’s a horror themed story by Peter Gillis, my old friend from my days on the Micronauts. And my character the is being reprinted in a hardcover trade by IDW this October.

More horrors, do we even need greater news than these!? Thank you very much for answering my questions, Kelley, I feel genuinely honored.

And thank you very much for doing this interview despite me being very late in sending it to you.

No way you were late, I had this idea of the interview back in December 2013…

About Milán Kovács 36 Articles
Comic fan and art collector. Founder of theDRAW.in and small press publisher ZSIGER.hu.