The Captain's Chair: artist Leonard Kirk talks 'JSA'

[JSA]Anyone who's looked at DC Comics' publishing schedule for 2003 can see that they're pushing the Justice Society of America franchise quite heavily, with multiple mini-series being released and related products in the works, and it's due to the success of the core "JSA" series. One of the main factors for the success of "JSA" is regular penciller Leonard Kirk, who joined the series initially as a fill in artist but soon found his hard work paying off with a full-time gig on the series. With the "Princes of Darkness" series turning the heads of "JSA" readers everywhere, CBR News caught up with Kirk and learned a bit more about his origins on the series.

"I was drawing Supergirl at the time but I was looking to work on some other projects as well," explains Kirk. "My editor, Mike McAvennie, forwarded my name to Peter Tomasi, the editor on 'JSA.' At first, I was asked to simply do layouts on five fill-in issues but I ended up doing full pencils. Before I was halfway through the project, Peter called me and asked if I would be interested in drawing 'JSA' full time.

"I think that what I found to be most appealing about 'JSA' was the same thing that I found appealing about 'Supergirl.' Unlike 'Superman' or 'Superboy,' 'Supergirl' was able to tackle issues and handle story lines that the other books would never touch. In Superman, it was always 'hinted,' but never established (at least I never saw it), that the character Maggie Sawyer was gay. In 'Supergirl,' not only did we establish that Andy Jones was definitely a lesbian, but that she had the hots for Linda Danvers, Supergirl's other identity. Do you think that DC would ever approve of a story in which a gay man had a crush on Clark Kent?? And I'm sure 'Supergirl' ruffled more than a few feathers with the book's various takes on religion.

"'JSA' has the same sort of feel. We haven't tackled stories with quite the same 'ground breaking' nature as I saw in 'Supergirl,' but we do have a sense of freedom that 'JLA' lacks. We can make changes to the team and uproot characters a lot easier than in the 'JLA' and I think that adds to some of the suspense. I know that a lot of 'JSA' readers could see the writing on the wall, but a number of them were still very surprised with the ending to issue #45."

Since beginning his work on "JSA," Kirk has developed an affection for certain characters, but he makes it clear that he has no favorites, manly because he feels that writers Geoff Johns and David Goyer make each character so uniquely interesting. "That's a toughie because I don't really have any 'favorites' per se. Character wise, I like Mr. Terrific and Flash. I'm not sure why. I think I like Mr. Terrific because he's so much a Batman-like character but I find him a bit more realistic and approachable. Flash? Hell, I've always liked Jay Garrick.

"As far as drawing is concerned, again, I like Mr. Terrific. Some folks may not like his current look, but I've always found that outfit fun to draw, especially the 'T mask.' I'm getting better with Wildcat, so I'm beginning to like drawing him more and more. Star Spangled Kid is another favorite. Hawkgirl was another tough one to get a handle on but I like drawing her a lot, too. And Power Girl! Any straight male artist who says he doesn't like drawing Power Girl is a bold faced liar!"

Speaking of his creative companions on "JSA," Kirk says that he enjoys working with them… only because he doesn't see them. "Well, they don't bite quite as frequently as the crew on 'Supergirl,' but that may simply be because I don't see them as often," laughs Kirk. "Actually, it's been a load of fun. I have to admit that I didn't read much of the current 'JSA' series until I accepted the job penciling the book. But when I went through the back issues, I loved what I saw. Geoff has been really supportive and he and David both have allowed me a lot of freedom to suggest changes and add ideas as I work. One of my biggest thrills was realizing that 'JSA's' David Goyer is the same David Goyer who co-wrote 'Dark City,' one of my favorite films. Keith [Champagne, inker] has been great, too. I always liked his work on 'Superboy' so I was pretty happy hearing that I was going to be working with him. We had a couple of rough issues as we tried to get our work to gel together but things have worked out pretty darn well."

The fan reaction to his appointment as regular penciller on "JSA" was never a concern of Kirk's, but then he was hit with a barrage of comments on the Internet and realized not everyone would approach his work with an open mind. "I knew there were going to be a lot of readers upset about Steve leaving but I wasn't too worried about fan reaction..........

"Until I went to the message boards! It's pretty funny now but, at the time, I was taken aback by some of the negative reactions. I can't say that I was surprised. The same thing happened when I took over 'Supergirl' from Gary Frank and when I took over 'Star Trek: DS9' from Gordon Purcell and when I took over 'Dinosaurs for Hire' from Mitch Byrd.... Hmmm. I'm beginning to see a pattern. I suppose what disturbed me most were the fans ready to damn me and have me removed from the book months before my first issue even came out. I remember at least one person who admitted that he hadn't seen any of my work in the past four or five years but was still convinced I was unworthy of the task of drawing 'JSA.'

[JSA]"Coincidentally, the most exciting aspect of coming on to 'JSA' was the positive response I received from fans after my issues started hitting the stands. There were still some folks who were unconvinced but, gradually, many of them have been won over."

Different artists will take different amounts of time to adjust to a new series, but Kirk says he's slowly developing his own "'JSA' Style." "Well, I'm definitely more comfortable drawing the series today than I was when I started," admits the artist. "Comparing it to 'Supergirl' is not easy. I think my style on 'Supergirl' was a little more cartoonish. My work on JSA has gradually pulled away from that.

"Steve Sadowski has always been my biggest influence on 'JSA.' Not so much for his style, since my work definitely does not look like his, but more for his designs of the characters. I approached 'JSA' the same way I approached 'Supergirl.' I wanted my work to be distinctive but I didn't want to start making radical design and costume changes just for the hell of it. There wasn't any point to it. Most of what I saw was already fine just as it was. I don't really have any other visual references for the 'JSA' specifically. I don't usually use any kind of photo reference since that just slows me down.

"I think my biggest influence in trying to blend 'the fantastic with the realistic' has always been film. Many films try to blend fantastic and bizarre visual effects with the reality of human actors. I try to do the same thing. I draw the characters and the sets as realistically as I can and then stick in the weird and twisted crap. Drawing much of the panel realistically helps to make the weird stuff look even weirder by comparison."

As many would imagine, Kirk says that the sheer number of characters in "JSA" was daunting and helped to differentiate the series greatly for him, as a job, from "Supergirl." "The number of characters was the hardest thing about taking on 'JSA.' Also, most of the 'JSA' characters were already designed and established. Many of the 'Supergirl' characters were already designed when I came aboard that book. However, I designed many others myself so I didn't have to refer to other people's work when I drew them. As a whole, 'JSA' was much more established than 'Supergirl.' The first issue of 'Supergirl' I drew was #10. I didn't start on 'JSA' until issue #33."

Though Kirk is happy with his work and believes he's doing some of his best work on "JSA," he knows has room to improve. "Aside from 'getting the job done' my biggest goal is to try and improve my work. This is a very competitive business and any artist that is unwilling or incapable of changing, adapting and improving his or her material is not going to make it. I know I still have room for improvement. I look at comics I drew only a few months ago and see my flaws staring me in the face. So, I sit down and try to correct those flaws as I draw later issues.

"On the whole, I think fans are reacting pretty good. I mentioned earlier some of the sour reactions I received. However, I think those are outweighed by the fact that 'JSA' sales are still strong and steady. I know I'm not the sole reason for this but it is nice to know that I didn't manage to sink the ship. :)"

Kirk's co-workers also love working with the artist and "JSA" co-writer Geoff Johns has some positive comments. "Leonard brings a fun, wonderfully detailed and smooth style to the book. He also keeps the mood light -- he's rarely serious. In fact, he probably has one of the greatest answering machine messages of all time. I don't know how you did that with your voice, Leonard."

So what's next for "JSA?" Kirk laughs and slyly reveals…something. "OK. In a nutshell, here is everything that is going to happen over the next year in 'JSA.' First, we finally discover the real secret behind Dr. Mid-Nite's..... hmmmmm...... Actually, on second thought, maybe I shouldn't say anything at all.

"There. How's that for a teaser? :)"

For the fans who haven't picked up "JSA" yet, Kirk believes that if they enjoy superheroes and if they enjoy a fun story, then this is the book for them. "I think they should pick up 'JSA' because it's a consistently fun book. I think that they should buy it because even the worst issues of 'JSA' are better than the best that many other series have to offer. I think that people should pick up 'JSA' because, in addition to our great younger characters, we also have some classic, Golden Age members like Flash, Hawkman and Sentinel (formerly Green Lantern) which helps to show that just because something is old, you don't have to throw it out.

"And, finally, I think fans should pick up JSA because I recently bought a house and I really, really, really need the money."

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