Earlier this month, DC Comics made the blockbuster announcement that Geoff Johns, John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson are the incoming creative team on the “Superman” monthly series.
In his first interview since the announcement, Janson spoke with CBR News exclusively about the newest landmark in the artist’s already legendary career. During our discussion, the award-winning penciler, inker and colorist spoke passionately about his love for the Man of the Steel, his craft and what it means to be collaborating with Johns and Romita. He also shared his thoughts on the upcoming 30th anniversary of “The Dark Knight Returns,” the four-issue miniseries he illustrated with Frank Miller.
Currently teaching sequential storytelling at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Janson also looked back on his personal history with Superman, which includes reading comics featuring the Man of Steel as a young boy after moving to the United States from Germany, watching “The Adventures of Superman” television series starring George Reeves and drawing the story “The Living Legends of Superman: Chapter Seven” for “Superman” #400 in 1984.
CBR News: It’s been more than a decade since you last worked at DC Comics. Obviously, the biggest change since then is the launch of the New 52. Broad strokes here, but what are you most excited about as you start this next phase of your award-winning career as an artist at DC Comics.
Klaus Janson: I’m most excited to be working with collaborators who are among the best artists and writers in the business. Unfortunately, I can’t at this moment be more revealing with specifics except to mention what has already been announced, and that’s the opportunity to work with John Romita and Geoff Johns on “Superman.” But I would say that’s a pretty good assignment to begin with, wouldn’t you?
Yes, that’s a pretty good assignment. [Laughs] I realize you’ve worked on the Man of Steel in the past, but what is your history with the character? Did you read “Action Comics” and “Superman” growing up in Germany? Or did you have to wait until you came to America to read comics?
I think the only Superman story of note that I’ve done was a short story that I penciled and inked, and maybe colored it too, for a “Superman” anniversary issue. It was edited by Julie Schwartz, so that gives you an idea of how long ago that was. I know I’ve inked a few Superman stories, but not a whole lot, so this will be the first extended and focused run on the character for me.
Superman will always be an important part of my childhood because he was the first superhero I was exposed to when I arrived in the U.S. I can remember very distinctly, sitting on the front porch and reading specific Superman stories and my reaction to them. Funny story is, when my mom retired and sold the family house, I had to go and collect all my childhood comics I had stored in the attic when I moved to New York. I had no idea at that point what I was going to find, but I was imagining some real cool books like “Batman” or “The Flash” or something, because, you know, you want to believe that you were a cool kid. After I clawed my way through the dust and cobwebs, I was chagrined to find what, you might ask? Pile after pile of “Lois Lane” comics. Cool, indeed.
So I think it would be safe to say that Superman, and the Superman family, loomed pretty large to at least one kid in Connecticut.
Is he your favorite DC superhero?
There are tons of DC characters that I love: Adam Strange, Hawkman, Kirby’s “Fourth World” characters, Deadman, Blue Beetle, Creeper, Martian Manhunter. But I think my favorite DC character is probably, like most of the universe I think, Batman, especially when I get a chance to draw him. But Superman is right up there for me, too. One of the things I’m most looking forward to on this project is the power and strength that John Romita can bring to the character in his pencils. I know for sure that John is going to bring his A-plus game to this event, and as an artist, I just did not want to miss out on something like that.
The appeal of Superman is not just limited to his physical presence or even the chance to interpret the character in a more muscular and powerful way. I’ve always been intrigued by his morality and integrity. I would guess that those early stories, and the Superman TV show, probably formed a lot of my youthful notions of right and wrong.
in your opinion, which artist draws the most iconic version of Superman?
A lot of great artists have highlighted many different facets of Superman’s visual appearance. Each was great in its own way. Neal Adams does a great Superman. So did [Bryan] Hitch when he was doing “JLA.” Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson back in the day, Jon Bogdanove, Jim Lee — the list is endless.
One of my favorites was the Keith Giffen/Wally Wood version way back in, I think it was “All-Star Comics,” or something like that. Everyone brought something unique to the table and I’m hoping that when we get done with our run, if we’ve done our jobs right, then we might be able to join that list.
While you have enjoyed a long career in comics, including a game-changing run on “Daredevil” and the acclaimed “The Dark Knight Returns” with Frank Miller, some of your most notable projects have included collaborations with John Romita, Jr. As a penciler, what is it about his style/technique that allows you to enhance his panels and pages as an inker?
I would love to be able to point to this or that reason why we work well together, but sometimes when collaboration works, it works because of a certain unknowable chemistry that isn’t always easy to define. I think John is one of the best storytellers in an art form that depends on good storytelling for its success. You will never get lost or not know what’s going on in a John Romita Jr. story. It’s very well thought out. His drawing ability is clear, believable, economical and inker friendly. I add a little bit of weight to his line, some texture to some of the shapes and we’re ready for color. I’m oversimplifying it, but I think maybe we approach some of the drawing and storytelling problems the same way, so we are not fighting each other in our respective responsibilities. We have the same goals: Clear storytelling and credible drawing. He does that in his pencils, and I try to do that in the inks. It helps a lot to not be from different schools of thought, where two people are in opposition with each other. In any case, it’s a blast to be doing “Superman” with him.
You’ve collaborated with John on “Wolverine,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Black Panther” and most recently, “The Avengers.” While these are not all street-level characters, many operate in the shadows. With a character like Superman, as an inker, what characteristics/qualities of the Man of Steel are you hoping to explore, allowing you as an artist to shine?
Regardless of the specific character, the base line is always going to be to make sure that the storytelling is clear and the world that the characters inhabit is believable. Once those basic goals are met, I try to enhance the character or story with an approach that is specific and unique to this particular individual. I always try to change the approach I use, depending on the type of story or character that I’m illustrating.
With Superman, I’d love to get some of that raw power that he obviously has, and convey that with a style that emphasizes power and dynamics. Without getting too much in the weeds, the pencils might address that through dynamic composition, careful choice of shots and staging, and the inks would deal with that by using a bolder line and high contrast between black and white shapes. That sounds a bit too simple and doesn’t convey how difficult that can all be, but if we can bring some excitement to the page, then I know John and I will have done well by Superman.
What can you tell us about the Superman that you, John and Geoff are going to unleash in the summer of 2014? Thanks to the New 52, this is obviously a younger version of the character, but can you talk about specifics regarding his suit or the look and feel of his overall appearance?
At this point in the process, we haven’t nailed down any final decisions on the look that we are going for just because we are still at a very early stage. There is an organic development that generally happens where the characters determine their own visuals, and that occurs only after drawing those characters a lot. It’s akin to what writers talk about when they say that the characters write their own stories after a while. With the art side of things, we will know what Superman looks like after having penciled and inked him for a while.
Does the suit look more like armor or does it look more like cloth? I don’t think we know the answer to that yet, so you’ll have to hang around and see what happens like the rest of us.
Have you had a chance to connect with Geoff to discuss your run?
I’ve met Geoff a few times, but we haven’t connected over “Superman” specifically. I know we will run into each other at conventions during the year, and that will be fun. But we are both professionals. I know what he can bring to this project, and he knows the same about my work, too. Neither one of us is taking on this project to do anything but our best work possible. That’s all we need to do right now.
Do you have other projects at DC Comics already in the queue? And if not, or you can’t say, which DCU superheroes or supervillains would you most want to explore or revisit?
I am working on another project that I’m penciling and inking, that will be out in the fall ,and I have a couple of other projects lined up also. I can’t say anything about any of it, because DC, like every company, wants to manage the announcements themselves. But you know that I am attracted to the darker characters, so you can kind of guess in what direction I’m going.
I’m penciling and inking some of the work, inking “Superman” over John Jr., penciling and being inked on other projects and hopefully writing and drawing some short stories here and there. I would be disappointed if, at some point, I didn’t do something with Batman, so I think it would be safe to say that I will have an opportunity to do that. Variety is something I’m always pursuing, so I’m happy with the array of assignments I have on my desk right now.
As we are now well into the digital age of comics, how has that affected your work as an artist and inker? Have you had to change your technique, style or tools?
One of the most interesting changes that has happened at my class at The School of Visual Arts is the schism between the students who use paper, and those that use digital. When digital came along a few years ago, there was a great curiosity and appetite to explore the technology. In the last couple of years, the paper and ink camp has made a very ferocious comeback. There are students that swear by the advantages the non-digital approach gives them. I haven’t made the leap into digital as much as I would like, so I have to say I am still in the paper and ink school.
I have a Cintiq, and I can play around in Photoshop, but the majority of my work is not directly affected by digital. I’m making inroads, slowly, and part of my working at DC was to give me the opportunity to make a break with my current style, change my approach a bit and do something that looks a little different. But it’s always a lot easier sounding than it is to do in practice. [Laughs]
In 2016, “The Dark Knight Returns” will mark its 30th anniversary, which saying out loud seems impossible. Are you surprised by the lasting legacy of the series, or did you know you were working on something special back in 1986?
I do admit that I am surprised that the series has such a high profile still but, make no mistake, I’m very happy to be a part of it. I can’t speak for Frank, but neither I nor anyone else in the DC office realized the impact of the books at that time. It would have been crazy to predict way back then. It’s not unheard of to have a particular project garner a lot of attention in the moment, but it is unusual for a project to cast such a long shadow, to hold up so many years later. “Dark Knight Returns” was a hurricane. It was a force of nature that swept everyone up in its path, and I learned a lot from that experience. I’d love to work with Frank at least once more, whether it’s for the 30th anniversary or something else, so this is my way of starting to put the offer out there. Let’s go, Frank — it would be great fun!