Getting 'Drunk' On Justice: Champagne talks 'JSA'

Keith Champagne, Inks

If there's one thing you can expect from DC Comics' sleeper hit series "JSA," it's that the talent working on that series will become well known very quickly. From the series' profile raising of writer Geoff Johns and ex-artist Steve Sadowski to the current penciller Leonard Kirk, it seems that everyone involved with this series has been able to reap the rewards of their hard work. And for new inker Keith Champagne, there just couldn't be a better trend, which is what he recently told CBR News when approached about his new job on "JSA." Champagne's also out to bring new readers to the series, so he was more than willing to provide readers with an introduction to JSA.

"'JSA' is a book about a bunch of costume wearing, evil fighting sons o' guns with a rich history and heritage dating back longer than most of us have been alive. The team includes, among others, such illustrious members as Wildcat, who's really tough and grizzled; Sentinel, who's really freakin' powerful, and current leader Mr. Terrific, who's kind of arrogant, but has these cool little spheres that always hover around him. So I guess he has the right to be. The book is written by David Goyer and Geoff Johns, with art by Leonard Kirk and myself, colored by John Kalisz, lettered by Ken Lopez, and edited by Pete Tomasi and Steve Wacker. It's actually a really good superhero book that constantly finds creative, unexpected ways to reinvent these classic characters for a new audience."

It's no secret that "JSA" is one of DC's best selling comic books and as such, Champagne realizes that he's very lucky to have this inking job. "A lot of it boils down to being in the right place at the right time," he admits. "I was finishing up a two-year run on 'Superboy,' not by choice but because there was a new creative team coming on board, and I was in the position of having to look around for a new monthly gig. At the same time, changes were being made on the 'JSA' art team. Stephen Sadowski was at the tail end of his run, and Michael Bair was moving over to 'Hawkman,' so they were in need of a new art team. I had done some fill-in work on 'JSA' a couple of times, and Peter Tomasi gave me a chance at the monthly. I did issue #33 over Leonard Kirk, and everyone liked the end result enough that I was officially invited on board. Ironically, this is twice that Pete has saved my ass from the unemployment lines. When 'Young Heroes in Love' was cancelled, he gave me 'Starman,' and now again with 'JSA.' I like to think it's because I do a decent job, but really, I think he just feels bad for me. As for what attracted me to the book? It's JSA and it's monthly work. I really, really like making a living in comics, you know? Seriously, it's a great gig working with really good people. I'm very fortunate to have it, and they'll have to drag me off the book kicking and screaming."

Then there's that eternal question that Champagne admits to being asked a great deal: Are inkers anything more than tracers? "Not really," laughs Champagne. "Sometimes, inking really is just about tracing and other times, you're able to have more of an artistic hand in the way a book looks. It depends on the pencils, really. If I'm working with a guy who pencils obscenely tightly, indicating line weights and texture etc. (basically doing my job for me in the pencils), I'm more than happy to shut my brain off and slick it up and basically give him/her what he/she wants. In other cases, where I'm left more room to put my own personal stamp on the way things look, I'm also more than happy to do so.

In either case, I really try to serve the pencils and bring out the best in whatever artist I'm working over, rather than dominating the pencils with my own style. I think an inker has to be a chameleon, able to disappear into the style of whomever they're working over. That's just me, though; I know plenty of other guys who think the reverse. They're not wrong, either."

Keith Champagne, Inks

The road to success for Champagne has been paved with two constants- hard work and DC Comics. "I've been working full-time as an inker for almost ten years now, primarily at DC for the last 8 years or so. I graduated from the Kubert School back in 93, although I started working professionally about halfway through my second year as an assistant. Tom Mandrake gave me my first paying work inking backgrounds. I also did a lot of background work for Ken Branch. Eventually, in my third year, my inking had progressed to a level where Andy Kubert was nice enough to show my samples to Bob Harras, and I started getting work on my own. Around the same time, a fellow named Pat Garrahy hired me to ink 'Deathstroke' starting with the Zero Hour issue. The rest is history. I actually reached the point where I had so much paying work that I started hiring fellow Kubert students to do my schoolwork for me. I hope if someone from the school reads this, they don't revoke my diploma! I had a great deal of help and encouragement from some real quality people who very selflessly helped me break in. I also have a lot of gratitude towards Keri Kowalski, a former assistant editor at DC, who was a real island in some turbulent early years."

But what led him to want to work in comics? The same thing as most creators, explains Champagne- childhood memories of his favorite superheroes. "Some of my very first memories are of my brother Kenny and myself looking at old issues of Thor and Hulk and pretending we knew how to read. So I guess I don't really remember a time when comics weren't a part of my life. I think the medium of comics really offers a chance to use your imagination, whether you're reading or creating them. As a reader, your mind automatically fills in the gaps between panels, and I think that kind of subtle interactivity is something you can't readily find in other mediums.

"Honestly, as a creator, inking doesn't fulfill a great deal of creative expression. It's a great job, don't get me wrong, but I view it as more of a trade than an actual art form. Or maybe it's some kind of strange hybrid of art and craft? There are definitely creative aspects to it; each penciled page offers new and different problems to solve, but we're not actually creating anything from scratch. We're interpreting what's already there through our own artistic sensibilities. The story has already been written; the book has already been laid out, you know? I don't mean to denigrate the work of any of my peers by saying that. There are certainly guys working, people like Mark Farmer or John Dell or Michael Bair or Karl Story, who are absolute wizards with a brush or pen. Maybe for guys who ink with that level of skill, inking is a true creative outlet. I don't know because I'm not in the same league, although I try really, really hard. So while I take a lot of pride in my work, I get my creative fulfillment through writing screenplays and the such. I'm a frustrated writer wannabe. It's a different side of the brain and I personally find the process of writing much more creatively gratifying than inking."

Even if Champagne does find writing very exciting, he doesn't mind the fact that his input on the plotting of "JSA" is as minimal as possible. "No input whatsoever. David and Geoff have their storylines laid out pretty far in advance, and they seem to be doing just fine without comments from this peanut gallery. In fact, I pick up a lot of knowledge about pacing and characterization from reading their scripts."

The experience of working on "JSA" has been a unique one for Champage and he explains that it has very distinct challenges coupled with distinct pleasures. "For me, the hardest part has been getting a regular flow of pages every week, although schedule-wise, we're finally getting on track. I don't think you'll see a fill-in issue for a bit. Inking wise, I hate rendering Hawkman/Hawkgirl's wings, and I absolutely loathe Mr. Terrific's jacket. Who knows why? I just groan every time I get a page filled with wings or Mr. T. The easiest? Working with the rest of the team. From Peter to Steve Wacker to Geoff and David to Leonard to John Kalisz and Ken Lopez, everyone on this book is a gentleman. Tomasi runs a really smooth sailing ship crewed with professionals, both in terms of talent and disposition. And I'm not just saying that to kiss ass, I could take them all in a battle royal if I had to."

Keith Champagne, Inks

It may come as a surprise to some, but Champagne says that he doesn't feel any real pressure coming onboard "JSA" when it has established itself as a top-tier title without his help so far. "It doesn't feel odd, per se," admits Champagne. "If anything, I feel lucky to be working on a strong-selling title with such a dedicated fan base. It's about as close to job security as you can get in the freelance world. I think the fans gave Leonard Kirk a pretty rough time when it was first announced he was coming on board. Stephen Sadowski has a pretty loyal following, but that seems to have quieted down now that we've produced 8-9 issues together. I think each issue we've done looks stronger than the previous one, so hopefully the fan base has noticed and appreciates that. Moreover, [Geoff, David & Leonard] are all really nice guys who put a lot into making 'JSA' a quality read every month. When you work with people who genuinely care about the product, it helps to make it more than just a 'job', it becomes something that you can take pride in. As much as you can when you're fighting a deadline every month."

While satisfied with his work on "JSA," Champagne admits to having a desire to produce a few dream projects and is more than willing to share those with CBR News. "As far as work-for-hire projects go, my dream project is to write 'Power Man and Iron Fist,' which was my absolute favorite book growing up. I've had an idea for a while now about the direction I would take them in. I'm just waiting for my career to reach a point where someone will listen to me. Before all is said and done, I would also like to have a chance to contribute something substantial to Superman. I've always been a big Superman guy. Mostly, I'm just working towards a chance to be more creative in this industry, and see where that takes me."

Champagne has a variety of other working coming up, including a very vague description of what sounds like a project that fans should keep an eye out for in "Previews." "Aside from JSA every month, I've been pitching in and inking Pascual Ferry on 'Superman' here and there. I'm also getting a chance to write an issue of a team book at DC. I believe it's being drawn by an artist making his return to the property after a long absence. Some recent personnel changes at 1700 Broadway have kind of thrown a monkey wrench into that, but I think everything is back in order. I don't think I can be much more specific than that, except to say that I'm really excited about the opportunity and I'm hoping it opens a few doors for me. I've also got various screenplays and treatments floating around Hollywood. If anyone from California is reading this, feel free to buy one!"

Before heading back to the drawing table to ink some more pages, Champagne has some parting words for fans of his work and comic readers in general.

"Thanks for the support and thanks for reading 'JSA,'" says the inker and then jokingly adds, "To Arthur Lender, the fan who spilled his milk all over me on the plane ride out to the San Diego Con: next time I see you, I'm gonna kick your ass, you little punk!"

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