At Comic-Con International in San Diego, iconic cover artist Jo Chen (“Runaways,” “Serenity”) got the panel treatment as she sat down with Dark Horse Comics Editor Scott Allie to discuss the ins and outs of her career in the comic industry.
Chen said that her passion for comics started when she was a little girl in Taiwan, and her sister had always been in need of someone to draw with. “We started by drawing on the walls in the house, and our father started to go a little bit crazy,” Chen remembered, “and the more we drew, the more we liked doing it. Eventually, once we got older, we realized the direction about becoming serious about it.”
Aside from silly antics like using hallways as canvases, Chen said that it wasn’t easy growing up in a traditional Asian home with the passions she had for becoming an artist. “Usually the parents prefer you to have what they think is a real job, like a doctor, an accountant or a lawyer, and not be a comic book artist.” She went on to say that if she had been a boy, she would have never become an artist.
Allie then asked about her days of self-publishing when she was a teenager. Chen said that when she was 14 she started a comic book club with several friends. The club slowly evolved into a DIY publisher in which Chen and her friends put out books through stores like Kinko’s. “A publisher in Taiwan saw our work, and they were interested,” Chen said. “They were willing to publish books for us. My sister and I were two of their main artists.”
Chen then spoke about her days in the art school that her sister had “tricked” her into attending, presenting the idea that in art school they would get to do comics every day. Sadly, that was not the case. “Once I got in, I realized you’re not allowed to do comics or manga in art school,” said Chen. “Since I accepted my fate, I said, ‘OK, I might as well go along with it.’ So every time when I stayed up doing all my homework, I was telling myself, ‘I’m doing this is all for comics.’ Eventually I realized I benefited from it.”
Moving forward with her career in American mainstream comics, Allie brought up Chen’s involvement with WildStorm’s “Racer X” comic. Chen told fans that she had been contacted by WildStorm directly after they saw some of her art on her website back in 1998. She prided herself on being one of the only artists maintaining a personal site at the time.
Having glossed over her involvement with Xbox and “Runaways,” Chen spoke on how she became involved with Joss Whedon’s “Serenity.” “I received an email from the writer,” Chen shared. “He was very nice and said he writes for a TV show and his name is Joss Whedon; he said was making a movie and trying to connect the movie with the TV show, and in order to connect the broken link, they needed to publish this comic.
“They asked me if I was interested to do the cover for the book,” Chen continued, “and since I didn’t know him, I did some research on Joss’ background and it mentioned ‘Firefly.’ Once I saw the show, I became a fan. That’s when I became kinda nervous…[but] it pulled me out of my comfort zone.”
Chen spoke went on to elaborate on her relationship with Joss and her work on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8.” For their four-page collaboration, she half-jokingly pitched a Yaoi story — boy-on-boy slash-fic — involving Spike and Angel, to which an adoring fangirl screamed, “Thank you!”
Having caught the crowd up on her current work, Chen then treated panel-goers to an inside look at her artistic process. She admitted to being a stickler for perfection, and her step-by-step look at her multimedia creative process proved it. Alternating between digital tools such as Photoshop and Painter provides a deeper level of mixtures when creating digital art, as Chen described. “The reason I like switching between programs is because they offer different things,” Chen said before showing fans how she mixes computer-generated images with physical mediums, like oils on canvas, to create a more textured look and feel. Chen admitted to once using a dinner plate.
Instead of jumping to questions from fans, Allie pushed to get a look at Chen’s process in dealing with publishers on the approval process. She showed fans several different rejected ideas that she stressed were much better than the covers chosen. While she said that communicating with publishers was frustrating at times, compromising was rewarding in its own way.
At that point, the time remaining only allowed for a handful of questions. When asked why she doesn’t sell any of her original prints, Chen replied, “It’s one thing to commission me to do something, but once I finish something I don’t feel like parting with them.” However, Chen did say that she has been known to change her mind.
The last question, and the close of the panel, came from a fan that asked why she doesn’t do interior art. Chen answered with “I’m pretty easygoing, and I compromise a lot, but when it comes to art work, I’m very determined about what I want to do. Working with a team, with someone inking over my art — it’s not like they’re doing a bad job, but it wouldn’t be the way I want to do it.”