With the recent announcement of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” CrossGen reminded readers that – despite external questions concerning their financial status – they’re focusing on producing some popular comics. With “Sojourn” being, arguably, the most popular of all the sigil based CrossGen Comics, CBR News caught up with the creators behind the series. In this first part of a two part look at “Sojourn,” CBR News spoke with two members of the visual team on the series, colorist Justin Ponsor and inker Jay Leisten.
“I joined this title when Caesar (Rodriguez) moved back to California,” says Ponsor of how he got involved with “Sojourn.” “I enjoyed my time on ‘Scion,’ but I embraced the change to see what I could learn. So far it’s been fun.”
For Leisten, it was a simple case of good timing, and matter of wanting to work with the series’ artist. “Greg [Land] & I had wanted to work together for about 3 or 4 years, but it had never really worked out. So, when Drew (Geraci) decided to step down from the book it seemed like the perfect time for me to make the move to Florida.
“This book is right up my alley story-wise,” Leisten explained. “I always have enjoyed books like the ‘Hobbit,’ ‘LOTR,’ the ‘Wheel of Time’ series & R.E. Howard’s ‘Conan.’ That in combination with the opportunity to work with Greg & Justin just couldn’t be passed up!”
With fantasy so prevalent in today’s pop culture, “Sojourn” has to work much harder to stand out and for Ponsor, there’s one character that primarily makes the book unique. “You know, I’d have to say Gareth makes it stand out to me. He’s the kind of scoundrel I like to read about in fiction- kind of that Han Solo archetype. As a hero, Arwyn is a good sort of straightman, playing it serious almost 100% of the time. Gareth is the character readers identify with more easily. He’s the one who is a little less predictable with his actions and reactions. He’s a little less cut and dried, black-and-white, and I think it makes him more interesting.”
Though both creators draw their share of acclaim, it was Ponsor who won an award from the comic-oriented magazine “Wizard: The Guide To Comics” for being the best interior colorist. “My first thought was ‘They don’t like my covers?’ laughs Ponsor. “Honestly, that was really nice to get a nod from a comics publication. It felt like there were people somewhere who actually see what I do. I’m so used to being in a room with a computer, working, sending the files out, and seeing them come back a bit later to find out how they printed that I start to forget that the books go out to stores all over the country. It’s kind of like working in a vacuum sometimes, so it’s nice when someone like Wizard says ‘Good job.’
“As far as colorists being honored, I think we’re honored along with the other creators for every award and stuff, so I’d say that’s frequently enough. There’s a coloring Eisner and a coloring Harvey. I don’t think people in general understand what we do as well as they understand pencilers and writers, and those two positions tend to be kept in the marquee slots for most of the industry. Thus, people tend to pay more attention to them. It would be nice to be as important to the fans, but I’m realistic and know that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Personally, that’s okay with me. I want to do the best I can and it’s nice to be noticed once in a while without the responsibility of book sales hinging on me specifically.”
But when it comes to inking, Leisten says he feels there’s some way to go before the inkers get their due recognition. “I do think that we are generally overlooked. Mostly because our work is less tangible to the general fan. It is hard to understand what we do until you actually try it for yourself. I do think that not hearing your name mentioned as an inker can be a good thing. Inkers play a supporting role for the most part, if you do your job right then people notice your penciler, not you.”
What is it that fans don’t understand about coloring? As colorists Dave McCaig and Alex Sinclair explained in the past for CBR readers, color theory is the basis of coloring and in many ways, defines the art of coloring. “Well, in a nutshell, I’d say ‘Put contrast where you want people to look,'” says Ponsor, offering his definition of color theory. “Whether it’s hue, value, saturation, texture, complexity, etc. or some combination of those, you need to catch a reader’s eye with the right things. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the overall, absolute basic tenet of color. It’s practically the same for a penciller or inker, except they have a different range of choices with which to create contrast.
“In general [with ‘Sojourn’], I keep my palettes ‘earthy.’ They tend to be warm and contain a lot of browns and greens. Especially the desert series and the catacombs and whatnot- those had a lot of yellows to them. The current series, starting with #27 (which I just sent out the door), begins a lot more blue. There are a lot of large, blue skies as the characters take to the seas. I wanted that feel overall, so I toned down the warmth on a lot of things this time out. I usually spend the first page or two in any scene tinkering with the palette for that scene. I want each one as much as possible to have a different flavor to them, even if it’s just a subtle thing. I like people to be able to tell they’ve switched scenes at a glance. I don’t really have a formula or anything to it, but I tend to try things I haven’t tried before or incorporate something new I’ve learned in each issue. That keeps it interesting and challenging from month to month.”
Similarly, Leisten is dedicated to making his inking the best it can be and doesn’t stop till it’s perfect. “I am meticulous when I ink Greg or anybody. I try to capture as much of the pencillers intent as possible. I typically try to catch the little things, a forgotten bit of detail or a particular effect like the sandstorm issue, every grain of sand is there on a piece of paper somewhere. Sometimes I step up and add a little, but with Greg’s work my focus is more about execution of technique.
“I have always tried my best to learn from those around me. Early in my career Greg was there to teach me. Then in 2000 I moved to L.A. to work with some of the Top Cow crew. Until then I was all about brush-work. Those guys really opened my eyes to a whole new world with Crow Quill work.
“With every new penciller you learn something. I try to analyze a penciler’s style, then talk with them about what they like from other inkers. If possible I will also ask them for samples they themselves have inked.”
In regards to coloring, there’s a different learning curve, as Ponsor explains. “For me, it was exponential. At first I had to fight my own expectations for how things are done and I think that slowed my progress. Once I relaxed and experimented a bit, I started to ‘get it.’ On the whole, it’s kind of like those stationary bikes in the gym with the hills and plateaus on the screen. You learn something new and suddenly there’s this burst of creative energy and your stuff takes a leap forward. Then there’s periods where you kind of get into a rut. I think it’s the same more or less with any kind of artist in any field. You can’t possibly be advancing all the time. Sometimes you have to kind of regroup and settle in.
“As far as dealing with different artists, there’s definitely an adjustment period anytime you work with someone new. After a few years, you get to where someone new can describe what they want to see and you can hit it pretty closely the first couple times. Of course, the longer you work together, the better you tend to mesh. I wouldn’t say you have to relearn anything with different teams, but you do learn new things. For example, I learned a lot about creating certain effects and textures and lighting working with Jim (Cheung) on ‘Scion,’ a lot about simplifying with minimal cuts and edge lights with Jeff (Campbell) on ‘Danger Girl,’ a lot about realistic modeling with Travis (Charest) on ‘WildCATS’ which I’ve built on working with Greg on ‘Sojourn.’ His style is very natural and I’ve had to learn quite a bit about realism, especially facial construction. That’s the fun part of the job for me- learning new aspects to the art.”
Ponsor also says that the less background used, the more challenging- and exciting- the project is for him. “I think it’s definitely more challenging with lots of open white areas. That leaves a good bit of the burden of creating depth up to the colors. Working with someone like a Mike Mignola, you don’t have much left to do. It’s all there for the most part and it calls for big, flat blocks of color. You get to spend your time picking which colors and not so much worrying about shaping the figures. With the open areas you have a lot more variables and take up a larger percentage of the page with your choices, so there’s a little more pressure to perform.”
Liesten, while enjoying a challenge as much as his co-worker, says he’s got a definite preference in the art he likes to ink. “For me, it has always been harder to ink someone who’s work is too exact. If a penciler draws something that fights the design of the piece (ex. a misplaced black shape, a thick line behind a thin one, or makes an error in the perspective), but does it tightly as if it were done with intent, do you change it? I prefer someone who is clear, but not razor sharp.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about the supporting players in comics and Leisten tries to clear up a few. “I guess people seem to think that anyone can do it, after all it is just tracing? The reality is most inkers are pencilers who a) don’t want the pressure of penciling a regular book, or b) didn’t have the skills to pencil professionally, but wanted to start getting work.
“Lately I have been surprised at the reaction of fans at the booth when we do our con sketches. They usually hang around as I ink Greg’s sketches, as this happens people get a better perspective on how we work. I really should thank Mark for that little bit.”
It’s true that Ponsor encounters many stereotypes regarding colorists, but they’ve become too common to surprise him. “Some people are still surprised that we use computers, which is a good example of how little people know about what we do. My favorite misconception is that the computer does it for us. That’s a good one. When people have used Photoshop a couple times, you can tell because they ask which filters you use. The truth is that it’s just like having a digital paintbrush. You still have to know what to do with it. Granted, there are some nifty tricks you can do digitally that you can’t do by hand, but it’s not a case of automation. We’re neither button monkeys nor robots. That brings me to my other favorite misconception, which is people with no art background who think that obtaining Photoshop will allow them to join the industry. I try hard not to take offense, but when someone says to my face ‘I can’t really write or draw, so I was thinking about becoming a colorist. Which program should I get?,’ it sticks in my craw a wee bit. Learning to draw should come before learning Photoshop. The program surely isn’t going to teach anyone.”
So what’s a day in the life of a CrossGen employee like? “Well, when I get to work in the morning, I check my e-mail to see if I got anything important over the night and I go get a drink from the kitchen,” explains Ponsor. “If I’m pretty close to Jay, only one or two pages back, I’ll scan the latest page and try and have it flatted by lunch. If I’ve got a big gap between Jay and I, I’ll usually take a day or two to scan and flat a whole group of pages.
“On ‘Sojourn’ specifically, they use a lot of grease pencil to get some greys in the lineart. That means I have to scan these things greyscale, then I run Levels, clean up any particles on the scan, Threshold the page at around 168, then use the History Brush to sorta ‘paint’ back in the grease pencil. It used to take me longer, but I’ve got it down by now. And ‘flatting,’ for anyone not familiar with the process, is when you create shapes of flat colors whose edges are covered by lines in the line art in order to break up the page into the parts that will be rendered separately. For example, Arwyn’s skin will be flatted one color, her hair another, outfit in a couple more colors and so on. This lets a colorist quickly grab an area with the wand tool so that it’s masked off for rendering.
“Usually when I get back from lunch or shortly thereafter, I’m done flatting the page and I start rendering it. Depending on the scene, I’ll usually either start with backgrounds or faces. It also makes a big difference if I’ve already done a page or two in the same scene. In that case, it doesn’t really matter all that much because I can just pull colors off those pages where I’ve already determined the palette. The rendering process varies wildly from page to page and from scene to scene, so sometimes I’m done quickly and sometimes I don’t finish the page until the next day. I end up staying late a lot of the time, and working weekends, so I guess the longer pages are more common that the quicker ones. The studio usually starts to empty out between 6 and 7. I like staying later, it usually helps me concentrate to have fewer interruptions. At night, I’ll usually grab a bite with someone else who’s working late and play a couple foosball games here or there to get the blood flowing and keep me from nodding off, especially on a deadline week.
“Most days are pretty uneventful, really. There’s definitely a routine to sequential artwork, which is nice for stability’s sake, but not much for exciting news to share.”
It’s the latter comments there that Leisten can get behind the most and while he loves his job, he does find it uneventful. “I usually get up around 7 and get to the office by 9. First thing, Greg & I go over the page from the previous day, doing any last minute changes before I pass it to Justin. I try to get the most important panels done in the morning when I am most alert. I take lunch & go to the gym at 12. after that I am typically a little tired. That is why I focus the more difficult work in the am. Then by 6 I am usually out for the day. Nothing particularly exciting.”
As mentioned, don’t get the wrong impression about Leisten: he adores his job and explains what it’s been like to work on “Sojourn.” “I have enjoyed almost every minute of it. I always dread fill-in months. I would love to be able to work on those as well. It’s one of those situations where I see something that seems out of place that maybe I could help wrangle into place. My work for Top Cow (with the exception of ‘Midnight Nation’) was typically done fast I didn’t ever have the time to do it right. Being the new kid, I always had to dig in at the last minute & help out. I got good at it but I don’t like to work that way.
“At CG I have all the time I need, but not all the time I want. We do (on average) 5 pages a week. There are pages I could easily spend 2 or 3 days on, if I had it.”
Difficult challenges were in front of Ponsor as he began work on “Sojourn,” but he feels that he’s finally in a good place. “It’s definitely been interesting. I had a steep learning curve in the first few issues where I used a softer style in the beginning while I figured out what Greg was looking for. That gave me the confidence to sharpen it up and get a little bolder. Greg definitely has a look in mind and is very particular about certain things. But he gives me a surprising amount of freedom overall, which has been really a good experience. He trusts me, and that’s cool.
“I like how the characters have been in very different environments so far on the series. I really enjoyed the storybook issue where we got to concentrate on making one image the best we could. It was like doing 22 covers. My favorite parts of the series so far as far as my job is concerned are the big, sweeping backgrounds and the big faces. It’s really taught me a lot and that’s the kind of stuff I enjoy.
“It’s definitely been a new thing for me to be on a team that is promoted so heavily and to be included in the promotion in general. That’s one aspect of working on this series that makes it very different for me. I’m still not used to being in on the interviews and stuff. It’s kinda fun, but I would like to see it happen for more people around here, to be honest. There are some people here that I think would definitely have some interesting things to say.”
New writer Ian Edgington has made a big impact on fans, but he’s also impacted these two creators, allowing them to express themselves in the story’s development as well. “Sure, when Ian flew in for his visit we all sat down and came up with a wish list,” says Leisten. “We would put out 4 or 5 thing we’d like to see & Ian gobbled that stuff up! He’s great with that. Someone would throw out a little nugget of an idea, He would then run with it. Giving feedback on how we could use it in this issue or that where he already had an idea that it made sense with. I am really looking forward to his run on the book as a reader.”
Though Ponsor has had the same opportunities, he’s more interested in focusing on the color, as opposed to the story. “I am at the team meetings where we talk in broad strokes about where the characters are going and we toss ideas into the ring- anything from a specific moment to a general direction. While Ian’s working on moving down, we haven’t had as much time as a team, but he seemed pretty receptive in the meetings we have had. I like being able to put in my two cents, but I’m realistic and know that the writer has to feel it for themselves in order to write something great. So I’m not offended if they don’t take my suggestions. I don’t really think I need much more input, no, because as much as there are things I would love to see the characters do, I’d rather spend my time making sure the colors look good than figuring out what I should suggest Ian write. I trust him to do his job well, like I trust Greg and Jay. You kind of have to, or the team just doesn’t work.”
So what’s next for “Sojourn?” Leisten is able to keep quiet and says he wants fans surprised, but Ponsor succumbs to our teaser torture. “Well, Arwyn eventually changes outfits. Hehe..I don’t think that’s a huge spoiler. I’m actually working on a page right now without the green and gold. The spoiler would be telling you why she changed.
“As far as I’m aware, there’s some seafaring adventures in the future as our heroes make their way to a fragment in a frozen wasteland. I’m looking forward to the snow and ice and lots of white.”