Artist Jacen Burrows has become known for his unique style of intricate line-work and for teaming with some of the top writers in the industry. His resume consists of projects with Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Brian Pulido, George A Romero, John Russo and Garth Ennis. Burrows and Ennis previously worked together on the mini-series "303," and in January, 2007 the duo reunite in the pages of “Chronicles of Wormwood” from Avatar Press.
Yesterday, we spoke with Ennis about the book. Today, we catch up with Burrows to talk about his latest project.
When you start on a new project like “Chronicles of Wormwood,” what are your steps to get ready to draw?
It isn’t all that different from anyone else, I’d imagine. I reread the scripts over and over to find the tonal style and get the vibe of the characters involved and then modify my style to match the tone. The nice thing about the projects I work on is that it is always a clean slate. I can experiment with style, art direction, whatever feels right for that book and then change things up with the next book.
Garth’s description of Danny in the script makes him out to be “in the middle” – handsome but no Adonis, reasonably in shape but not model-style tone body, etc. How did you come up with the look for Danny?
Part of it was talking it out with Garth and part of it was talking it out with my female friends. I wanted him to have an instant charisma, particularly with women as seemed appropriate for the character, so I talked about different actors that have that and really listened to the female perspective. I didn’t use likenesses as much as expressions and body language and I think as the series goes on, as you see more of him he becomes more fleshed out and realistic.
Once you’ve received the script, how much autonomy do you have when it comes to the page layouts and designs? Is Garth involved in the process at that point?
We send copies of the finished pages to Garth to look over and I would change anything he wasn’t completely happy with, but generally I am left alone to develop the visual look of the series once we have character approval. He trusts me to see his vision and to do everything I can to sell it, so to speak. I’m sure if I started going off on tangents and doing self serving splash art all over the place, he’d assert more editorial power, but we have a good vibe.
This series has a lot of supernatural type elements in a real world setting. How do you balance the two so that they flow naturally in the art?
This kind of thing is pretty common in today’s entertainment, so I think it is really just a matter of making sure you have a stylistic theme and don’t stray too far in any direction from it so it all feels like the same universe. People seem pretty willing to suspend disbelief in these kinds of stories so you just have to keep it from getting too silly and breaking the reality of this universe. There is some pretty crazy shit later on in the book, but I think it all still fits.
The series is somewhat controversial in its stance towards religion. How do you feel about drawing books that are controversial in nature since, as the artist, you will be tied to the content even without having written it?
I would never shy away from any content written by a writer I respect. Controversy simply means it might ruffle a few feathers with the more conservative element of the majority and those people aren’t really my audience anyway. I am in no way afraid of offending people in the name of telling thought provoking, original and damn funny material.
The industry is constantly playing things safe because of shareholders, licensing, closed minded retailers and a general sense of fear of straying away from accepted mainstream limitations. If Garth and Avatar are going to give me a chance to push people’s buttons, I’ll happily push them, conservative sensibilities be damned.
Being your second project with Garth Ennis, what does he bring to the script that is different than the other writers you have worked with? Does what he’s writing change your approach to drawing?
Garth has amazing timing. He’d make an amazing TV writer if he was interested in that kind of thing. He gets how to set dialogue beats for maximum impact or humor and lets me really sell these moments with expressions or body language. He makes things pretty easy when it comes to page flow and storytelling. Everything has a logic and setting up the panels is really easy. I don’t think my approach has changed all that much. I just continue to develop my own approach project after project. A lot of what goes into storytelling is instinctual which carries over into every project, despite the writer.
You have now worked with some of the biggest names in comics: Ennis, Ellis, Alan, etc. Are you surprised by the opportunities you’ve had and do you feel you’ve been influence by the talent you have worked with?
Certainly. When you work with these guys you are automatically classified into a really exclusive little group of extremely talented and lucky artists and it pushes you to grow to give the projects the service they deserve. These are all writers that can get anyone they want for their books, so it inspires me to at least try to go above and beyond. I am not without my problem areas, but I certainly don’t take my position lightly. If you had asked me when I was a teenager what kind of books I’d want to do it would have been these. Creator owned, original material in a variety of genres with the best writers in the industry. I’ll bet there is a huge thrill of being involved with something like “Civil War” or “52,” but that stuff is always there. I think the books I work on are special and these opportunities aren’t always available. How I got them is still a mystery to me!
Your art style is a little different than the mainstream, more in the vein of Gary Frank or Steve Dillon. How would you describe your style and who were your influences when learning to draw?
I get those comparisons a lot, which is flattering, but I think a lot of that comes from the fact that we all tend to draw people with normal proportions as the norm. There isn’t much of a call for superhero anatomy in the kinds of books I do. Stylistically, I’ve always tried to carry a balance between realism and cartoonish expressionism in order to be able set stories in tangible, realistic environments and still be free to get dynamic with the characters when the story calls for it. “Wormwood” tends to be a little more cartoonish than “303” was. I wanted to capture some of the energy of “Akira” or the art of Enrico Marini. I’m still evolving my style and ability to get what’s in my head on the page accurately.
When I was younger, my anatomy was pretty awful, so I was hiding a lot of that behind massive amounts of detail. Style is often used as a trick to hide inadequacies. You fill something with enough lines and little noodley detail and people will be impressed, just look at 2nd generation Image stuff.
“Hard Boiled” with Frank Miller had a huge impact on me, but I was always more focused on storytelling than surface style which might be why it took me so long to get rid of some of my problems. I studied those Epic editions of “Akira” constantly along with “Ronin,” “Dark Knight Returns,” “Watchmen,” “Scout” and all of those indies from the ’80s. I had a friend who used to live in Japan and had all these untranslated editions of “Fist of the North Star” that I used to study all the time. I was big into manga back then and I’d still probably consider Otomo my biggest influence.
At this point in your career, what are your goals? Do you want to take a swing at writing? Are there any creators you really want to work with?
The next project I have lined up (which is still unannounced) is one of those huge, career defining things and in many ways I feel like everything else I have done is training for this project, so it is hard to see past this one. My only goal right now is to swing for the fences with this series and I’ll deal with everything else later. I do eventually want to do something of my own just so I can try out some storytelling ideas and draw some things I don’t think anyone else would come up with. My imagination is pretty out there sometimes and I’d really like to do a horror thing that would let me get all these ideas out. At the top of my list are Brian Azarello, Brian K. Vaughn, Greg Rucka and Grant Morrison, but I could easily list off 10 others I would kill to work with. The writing skill in today’s comics is really amazing.