WC: Dave Johnson - The Thinking Man's Cover Artist

In a lively and breathtakingly fast discussion, Howard Chaykin kvelled over the talents of talents of "100 Bullets" cover artist Dave Johnson at San Francisco's WonderCon Friday afternoon. It was a small crowd (Chaykin correctly predicted there would be ten audience members in attendance, which overjoyed Johnson, but lost him a bet.)

Chaykin started the session by mentioning that he'd sent, in all seriousness, an e-mail to Johnson wishing he could take six months off to work as his assistant. "Dave is consistently the finest cover designer working in the field today. He finds the bridge between the intellectual and the emotional."

Born in Pittsburgh, Johnson moved to Georgia as a child. Chaykin asked about the size of his family, saying that "most of us (artists) are either the oldest or only children" When Johnson replied that he had an older sister; Chaykin responded that "a man with a sister is an only child." John discovered comics as a kid, but like so many fans, put them down, only to pick them up again in the late '70s, starting with John Byrne and Chris Claremont's run on "X-Men." He eventually enrolled at the Art Institute of Atlanta, studying painting, but ultimately became more interested in illustration. The thing that stuck with him, he said, "was billboards; you have five seconds to deliver a message." Applying that concept to comic covers, he said, "You're walking down the aisle (at your comic shop), and the simpler the design, and the brighter and bolder the covers, the better an idea it is. You say 'Batman,' and get the whole message at once."

Chaykin said that the first time he'd really noticed Johnson's work was his covers for DC's "All-Star" miniseries in 1999. "They actually fucked me up," he said.

Johnson: "When I designed them, I wanted the logos to be really huge, but the art to be simple and just two-tone (color) strips." Someone in DC editorial shot down that idea, but years later, Johnson met fellow artist Jim Steranko. Steranko went through Johnson's portfolio and came to those "All-Star" covers. "He went back and forth and back and forth and finally said 'the art should have been two-tone.' He felt vindicated and wished he'd been able to go back up to the DC offices "to kick their ass."

Both Johnson and Chaykin are big fans of the graphic artists of the 1950s. Chaykin especially admired the artists who did simple covers for paperback novels: "There was a Wild West approach; there was no need to reference every idea in the book."

Johnson picked up the point: "On '100 Bullets,' something clicked. 'I don't have to be literal to make a good cover; I just have to be interesting. It started with the one with the rubber stamps on the cover ('100 Bullets' #21). I was going to paint it like Leroy Nieman. It looks easy, but it's really hard to put off. I had to hit FedEx the next day (to deliver the art) and I thought, 'well, I'll just make a stamp that says "Loser," and make a face out of that. I sent it off (to DC), and I thought I was going to get fired. But not only did they not freak out, but Karen Berger herself called me to say what a good cover it was. That's when I realized I just had to be fearless (when creating a cover)."

Johnson kept disparaging his own talents. Chaykin couldn't believe that he'd never submitted his work to the "Illustrator's Annual" (the full color annual showcasing American and international illustration). "James Jean does! Why don't you!?!"

When Johnson explained, "I don't feel I'm at that level," Chaykin went off on one of his trademarked rants: "There's nothing wrong with Jean, but he's more of a crowd pleaser; you're smarter, cleverer, and more sophisticated. He's panders to the warm and fuzzy nature of comics fans. And I fucking hate that shit; I resent being manipulated. It's good work, but it's like martial music; I hate it, but I listen to Sousa, and I can feel myself saying 'let's go kick someone's ass.' There's a level of overt sentiment in comic fans; they like it pretty. Not to speak ill of the dead, but take Michael Turner's work; it's so obvious, there's no subtlety. Your work is so much smarter and sophisticated."

Johnson replied, "I realized I'm never gonna be the king of the world-an Alex Ross; the way you're talking about my art is not the way I look at it. I'm Joe Schmo; I'm just having fun. People look at it and I say I'm just having fun. I got burned out on "Red Son" -I'm not a continuity guy - and realized I can't do this anymore."

Chaykin responded: "I think you're a dreadful judge of your own talent. Your work is as identifiable as Adam Hughes, Kevin Nowlan, or Mike Golden. Gil Kane was a guy who never realized he'd transcended his influences." And he feels Johnson has done that. "I'd like to take control of your career," he said.

Talk turned to Johnson's technique. "I just basically learned the basics; to do everything dark (when painting) before bringing in the acrylics, and layer on the colors and the lighter shades; to keep opacity as low as possible. I'm trying to be less opaque and more brushy. I'm a terrible painter; it's a pure accident that it comes out as good as it does. It's almost like cooking; you have to do things in order"-"That's baking," Chaykin interrupted. Johnson continued, "I get too impatient and I start jumping all over and then look at it and psych myself out and think, 'Aw, I should have done it this way.' A lot of the time, I don't even know what I'm doing. I'm not thinking about it and just doing it and then look at it and realize it's exactly right. Usually, if I paint something, I like to paint it all the way; I don't like to half-paint it and then digitize it; there's a technique I can do with a digital greywash, and the layering looks fantastic." Johnson explained that he does all of his preliminary work in his head for about a week and then renders them in an hour or so. "Most editors are clueless" (about ideas for covers) and he just "doesn't want to present them with ten comps." He'd rather deliver just the final product.

Chaykin asked him about his preferred media. "If you were committed to one medium the rest of you life, what would it be?" Johnson said "If you look at my work, I'm all over the place. It's not like McDonald's; you go there anywhere in the world, and you you're going to get the same thing in the same way. And a lot of artists are like that. But I get bored."

Talk turned to process. Because of the need for images in "Previews Magazine," his deadline has gotten earlier and earlier. "Originally, I was getting finished pages; then it was just pencils; then it was just full scripts; then finally just a synopsis. It got to the point where Brian (Azzarello) hadn't even started writing the script yet, so I did the cover with guy floating in a pool with a knife in his back ("100 Bullets" #62), and there was nothing like that in that book. People thought it must refer to a subplot that was coming up."

"You must feel intimidated by working with a guy (Eduardo Risso) whose interiors are so powerful." "It's a problem. If I'm drawing the Punisher, well, everyone's drawn the Punisher, but Eduardo's the only one who's drawn the '100 Bullets' characters, so I feel intimidated by that."

Influences? "John Byrne, Michael Golden. Byrne is a total asshole, though-I met him once and I vowed never to do that again." Chaykin chimed in again: "The good thing about Byrne is, as long as he's alive, you know you never have to be the most despised man in comics." Meeting Byrne made Johnson vow never to treat fans the way Byrne treated him. Johnson was at a convention with his portfolio, and was excited to see Byrne at a table with no crowd. "I can finally get to meet one of my influences. I went up to him and said, 'I've started working at DC, and just wanted to get your opinion.' He went through my portfolio quickly, and finally said, 'You draw like Paul Gulacy.' He threw it back at me and turned away. I had similar experiences with Art Adams and Mike Golden, but now I can tweak them about it."

Johnson then described the process behind constructing a cover. "I get a script or a 'this is what I'm thinking about writing.' I'm working on 'The Unknown Soldier' right now, and it's set in Sudan; there's a lot of kids with guns, and there's a lot of downer imagery to pull from. But the word came down, 'Don't do African masks; don't do the cliches,' so it's difficult to get good strong imagery. It's easier to do the Punisher; you can always come back to that skull. It's like Batman; I'm always looking for something to hold on to. I try to stay away from doing 'panel covers;' I don't want a cover to just look like panels in a book. I'm always trying to do something a little different. What's a graphic element I can pull out and put on the cover?"

His goal is to "Not sell the comic, but to do something I'm happy with. If it's a new book, I try to give it a little mystery. With "100 Bullets," after about 50 issues, there was a point where, if you weren't already buying the book, you weren't going to start buying it. So it was a chance to do something a little more experimental. To me, it looks cool. I've done some of the simplest covers, and people have hated them, but if it makes for a good cover, I don't care."

His biggest rule? "Don't follow Adam Hughes on covers if it's a chick book."

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