The Art of Design: Phil Jimenez
Interview by Katherine Keller – January 1999 – courtesy of www.sequentialtart.com
Sequential Tart: So what got you into comics?
Phil Jimenez: What got me into comics? God, this is kind of a tough question. I was always a friend of Superfriends and cartoons and the like when I was a kid, but I wasn’t into comics much. I was always a big fan of Wonder Woman and Bionic Woman. But then, what really got me into comics so that I started reading them was a friend of mine in 7th grade showed me some X-Men comics because he wanted me to copy some pictures out of them. And then I started reading them and I kind of fell in love with them.
I was also a big fan of soap operas which sort of helped because there’s that ongoing, serial aspect, I think, was always there.
ST: So even as early as 7th grade, you were known as the kid who could draw?
PJ: Oh, yeah. I was drawing from the time I was 3 or 4. So, except that I tended to draw dragons for boys and unicorns for girls. I’d draw all these creatures. So instead of doing my math homework, I would be drawing mythological animals and people could see that I could draw. And then this boy I knew was reading X-Men and said hey could you draw this? And, you know, I did a relatively good job at it.
So that’s my official Secret Origin.
ST: What did you like about Wonder Woman?
PJ: What did I like about Wonder Woman? That’s a good question. That’s a constant source of internalized analysis for me. What is it about Wonder Woman?
I know what appeals to me now about the character has to do with her background. She’s an Amazon, it’s a Greek mythology thing, the fact that she’s so strong, the fact that in my head at least, she’s this incredibly good human being. Like, she’s almost an iconically good human being, and therefore something to aspire to. Like, she’s kind, she’s good with children, she talks to animals, the whole thing. Yet at the same time, you know, she can cave your head in. I think that dichotomy I find particularly fascinating.
As a kid, I think I just liked the suit and I liked to watch her spin around.
ST: When did you think hey, I can do this, I can draw comics?
PJ: Some time in high school, it dawned on me that I could do this because I started drawing after I drew the X-Men characters I started drawing my friends as comic characters in these home made comic books. By high school’s end, I’d drawn over 50 of them. Somewhere in my senior year, I decided this was what I was going to do. This was what I was going to pursue. Because most of my friends were going into law or medicine, and that just seemed kind of dull to me. And I thought, I’m going to be a comic book artist. No one else in school’s going to be a comic book artist.
ST: What was your first pro work and what are you proudest of?
PJ: My first pro work, the first published thing, was War of the Gods 4. The first work I actually ever did but was published after War of the Gods was a cyborg story in Showcase 93. The work I’m probably most proud of remains … This is sort of a two sided question. Tempest is probably the work I’m most proud of. JLA Titans is the work I’ve had the most fun on.
ST: What kind of training do you have? Are you self taught or did you go to art school?
PJ: I’m mostly self taught, but I did have two years of art school at the School of Visual Arts in New York City which is why I moved here after I went to college. And, that was extremely helpful. It’s something I would recommend to anyone who wants to be an artist because I just learned things that I never … I don’t believe I would have learned anywhere else. Like, just the practical training was so good. I’m very thankful for my time in school.
ST: Did you ever consider another career like graphic design or commercial art?
PJ: The only other place I probably would have gone was movies. Which I’m still considering. Sort of movie, set design, storyboards, things like that. That sticks in my head that I’m still very, very interested in doing and probably where I would have gone except for I was single mindedly determined to draw Wonder Woman. Like, there was a really bad artist on Wonder Woman at the time I was going to school, and this more than anything spurred me on. I was like, I’m going to draw this book because, you know, the art continued to be this bad.
ST: George Perez is a major influence on your art, but who are some of your other influences?
PJ: In comics, the two I can cite right off the bat would be Brian Bolland and, I don’t know how to pronounce his name properly, Rioki Akigami, the guy that draws Crying Freemen. Those two more than any others are people that I look to for sort of inspiration and, you know, if I need to swipe something. That’s where I go. Just because I think that technically those two artists are so skilled it’s frightening.
Outside, my biggest influences, my biggest help back in college, I’m a big fan of 18th, 19th century Japanese print work. And I just think that line work and that technique was very, very helpful for me in college and still has an influence.
ST: Which leads to my next question. When I look at some of those massive pages that you and Perez draw with 80 or 90 characters on them, one of them, this one page you drew kind of reminded me of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, just how you laid out a lot of people on one page. And have you ever looked at non-comic or classical pieces of art to help you figure out how to lay things out?
PJ: Actually … Never for layout that I’m conscious of. Most of my layout skills have come from what I’ve learned from George and what I learned on my own. Like, I’m not a great anatomist, I’m not a great drawer …
ST: Why do you say that?
PJ: It just means I don’t think I am. People like Adam Hughes and Brian Bolland — they’re much anatomists, they’re much better drawers. But I think my skill is in design. I mean, I just think that’s what I have a knack for. Laying out a page, putting, you know, figuring out … designing a page. Like, designing a way a picture looks, an oil picture. I think that’s where my strength lies.
I often flip through … Actually, I’m looking through it right now, it’s a book called The History of Art, and there’s another one. I’m very prone to flip through them. I can’t think of consciously lifting from them so much as just being inspired by them and reminding myself of how far I have to go to become a full and true artist. If that makes any sense?
ST: Back to comics, what’s your dream project?
PJ: The dream project is a problem. I have a dream project. I’ve been pitching it to DC now for over a year. It remains a problem because they have no place to put it. I’ve been told quite frankly that it would be a marketing nightmare, and they don’t think they could find a place for it there.
ST: Does it star DC characters?
PJ: No, and that’s the problem.
ST: Have you ever thought about going to another comic company? With Image or something?
PJ: Well, I have, actually, though, the DC/Wildstorm merger is interesting for me because it’s a place that … They were suggesting I go to Cliffhanger. Now, Cliffhanger is technically owned by DC. So what I’m interested in doing, actually, is uniting the two. Getting the Wildstorm production end and the DC editorial end, you know? Sort of be the first, in my idea, the first DC/Wildstorm project where it combines the talents of both companies. That’s how I want to pitch it now, I’ve decided.
ST: When I think of you and your art, when I hear your name, I automatically think of the Titans. What do you like so much about the Titans?
PJ: George Perez. I’ve found that my Titans reading had everything to do with the type of life I felt George instilled in those characters. Because when George left, for the most part, so did I. I tried to read it, but I really kind of realized how much he had to do with it. What he and Marv did, I think, on that book was create fairly accessible people. These are characters people thought of as their friends almost. They were definitely one of the most accessible group of characters in comics. They were young, they had some problems, they were pretty, but I think just a lot of it … my favorite character in comics has always been Wonder Girl. I think that a lot of it has to do with just the type of character I believe George made her. I really do think a lot of it just has to do with the sort of life that he gave them. Yeah.
ST: Who is your favorite Titan character and why?
PJ: Again, that would be Donna Troy, pre-Darkstar days. The whys are two fold. One is of course the Greek mythology origin, which I’m a sucker for. Two is because in my head this character would probably be one of the nicest people you’d ever meet. And nice not in a saccharine way but just someone who is generally concerned about the well being of other people. If there’s a sort of person in comics, like a role model, that I would inspire to be like, and it would be her. Just because I truly believe, at least when I work with the character, that she’s the type of person who would help you for no other reason than you needed help. And she believes that that’s the right thing to do.
ST: Did you have fun exploring those issues in that Donna Troy one shot that you did?
PJ: Yeah, actually. I was a little saddled down with the fact that they were trying to make her this dark jinx sort of thing. That kind of irritated me because that didn’t come from me, that was editorial. But, yeah, that was the whole point. Despite the fact that I was asking some questions that I’ve had through the character … like, there was a scene where she brings this homeless woman some food. Well, I’ve actually spoken … that homeless woman is based on someone I’ve spoken to. And it was just … Just a sort of inherent belief, and I could be wrong, that Donna Troy is the type of character who would see a homeless person and think they’re hungry and wouldn’t second guess that. And because she’s sort of privileged and has money and is sort of who she is, she would help her. She would try to provide that person shelter or food or whatever. And I do think that Donna Troy is the type of character who wouldn’t understand why people hate each other. It wouldn’t make sense to her. And so, yeah, I did have … cause that’s sort of a question that … why do people hate each other? … I struggle with often and she’s the sort of character that I can ask those questions through.
That was very long winded.
ST: No. But it was very fascinating. Just between you and me, it’s the one Girl Frenzy book we’re out of at my husband’s store.
PJ: I’m told that it’s the one everybody liked which makes me happy.
ST: It’s the one that nobody could keep in stock.
ST: Besides the fact that it was going to be huge, what was the thing that appealed to you most about the upcoming JLA/Titans crossover?
PJ: Part of it, you see, that was really appealing about it was its scale. The reason I haven’t done sort of an ongoing superhero book is just because things have become sort of slow and mundane. And the story craft was just really big. There were a lot of characters and I got to basically draw everyone I’ve ever cared about. So that was it’s primary appeal. Plotting this sort of epic visual adventure. I just think DC’s crossovers have been so bad the past few years and like these big epics just have no life.
ST: They’re epics just to have an epic.
PJ: Yeah, and the thing is … What struck me about a book like Crisis on Infinite Earths is that most of my friends who were around reading comics at that time can remember lines of dialogue, they can remember panels, they can remember specific imagery. And I can’t think of too many other major events like that where people say ‘Oh, do you remember this?’ and can seriously cite a panel or words that came out of a character’s mouth. And I’m interested in exciting readers like that again. Like having a whole new crop of readers who – wow, this is pure ego – a whole new crop of readers who would talk to their friends and say ‘Oh do you remember when Superman did this’ or ‘wasn’t it cool when Wonder Woman lifted the train on this page’ or have them … Like, the thing about, for example, DC 1000000 that I thought was sort of interesting was that everyone really seemed to like it and I read it and it was sorta fast past and exciting, etc. But I put it down, and I don’t remember a thing. People would ask me what it’s about and I don’t … I remember a certain vague, all over sense that this event happened, but I don’t remember oh, this one certain specific event, or a panel of art that really touched me. And that’s what I’m hoping to do with JLA/Titans.
ST: Do you think the story idea stands on its own merit? I mean, what appeals to you about the story that you want to tell?
PJ: The basis of the story, sort of thing, epic, bleah bleah bleah, revolves around family and what that word means to different people. And the conflict between the JLA and the Titans ultimately comes down to what’s more important, the fate of the world or the fate of a family member. Like, if, the world is crumbling around you, are you trying to save the world or are you trying to save the one person. You know? That conflict, I think, meant a lot to me. It’s the needs of the many to the needs of the one. It’s a very interesting argument. And that’s what we got to play with. That’s the whole annoying theme of this whole thing. It’s that the Titans are standing up for someone they consider family, and the JLA is saying ‘Look, you’re doing that, but people are dying’. You know? Is it worth it? And that’s the conflict that I thought was interesting.
ST: Vertigo fans want to know … Why did you leave the Invisibles?
PJ: Because of Grant Morrison. (laugh) He was really really late on the scripts, and I couldn’t afford to stay on the books. I would have stayed on that book for years if I’d believed that Grant could have generated the work on a monthly basis. Which is not to say anything bad about Grant because I love him. He’s actually one of my favorite people and creators in comics. Grant makes me giddy talking to him because he’s just such a good man. And, like, he’s like a little kid and he gets so excited and he loves what he does. He’s just … I’ll be judicious and say that genius can’t necessarily work on a monthly basis.
ST: Are the rumors that you’ll be doing some work for Volume III true?
PJ: I didn’t even realize there were rumors! I’ve talked to Shelley Roeburg about it because I’d like to do some work for it if my schedule permits. Again it all depends on if Grant can generate the work. It really does hinge on his ability to generate stuff. And I mean, like, within a couple of months. I’m not talking that I need it now, but to say, like, this book is due here, and I need the script here if I’m to start. And that was always a sort of problem with him. And to his credit he was sick for that long time, so he never was able to catch up. And he’s been working on so many big projects that he’s just as swamped as the rest of us. So, ultimately, it will depend on his schedule.
ST: Did you think that Tempest would be the huge critical success that it was? When I look at Kingdom Come, which came out that year, I think that Mark Waid and Alex Ross were very conscious that they were creating art with a capital A, you know?
PJ: Right. (laugh)
ST: Did you think that there would ever be a lot of people who would think ‘Tempest … yeah!’
PJ: Actually, I had no idea … No, the fact that people continue to write me letters about it. Like, I still get emails about this thing that essentially came out almost two years ago … it makes me very happy that it has a shelf life. That people go back. And I think they’re generally happy with it. You know, it’s not like they’re trying to blow sunshine up my ass as it were. They’re not trying to say we love it because we love you. Cause in comics, as you know, it can be strange. I just think they liked it. I was not expecting much of it. I remember hearing that the first issue sold better than anyone expected and it was really hard to find. And at a convention in Australia that I was at, it was really hard to find. And people were just telling me in this convention in Australia that it sold really well. And everyone was just shocked and surprised. Everybody’s thinking if you take a character who’s name is Aqualad and put him in a miniseries, you’re kind of taking your chances. But, yeah, I guess I was shocked and very happy. And I’m happy because … for no other reason than people … I got a couple letters that said it was over plotted, and I kind of believe that, but people really seemed to like it.
ST: Over plotted how?
PJ: People just thought it was a little … dense. My work tends to be sort of dense. Like, there was so many elements that I introduced, so many background elements that I introduced, and if you missed any of them, you sort of miss … I don’t see that it was over plotted, but I can imagine it being a little tricky, because if you miss something here, that could be a little tricky. But beyond that, bleah bleah bleah, everyone seemed to like it, and nothing makes me happier than generating work that is worth people’s investments. Because in my mind, everyone who buys my comics is basically paying my rent. And if they’re doing that, they need to get something out of it. Like, if they’re going to spend their hard earned money on my stuff, I want to make them happy. And to hear that I made them happy was really rewarding.
ST: What do you think people like the most about the Tempest series?
PJ: Obviously the letters column in the back touched a lot of people. I think they liked the art a lot. Comments that I heard a lot was that no one wants to read Aquaman because they can’t relate to it and they don’t like the underwater stuff. What they liked about this was that it created this underwater world. And I heard that a lot from people. ‘I don’t like underwater adventure, but I like this.’ I definitely think they liked the emotional subtext. I think the last couple pages of the series where he says goodbye to his girlfriend touched them. Yeah, I think that would be it. I think people really liked looking at it. I think people thought it was pretty.
ST: Yeah, yeah, it was hard on the eyes.
PJ: (laugh) That would just be my thought. The thing about DC is that I don’t think they have a lot of pretty art. Like, art that’s really pretty to look at. That’s sort of a goal of mine, to make art that will make people want to look at it. And I think it’s why I’m not so hyperstylized. Because, I think my art tends to be fairly accessible to a broad range of people. Like, I don’t tend to push in any particular direction. Like, it’s fairly … I don’t want to say realistic, but … it’s not overly cartoony, it’s not too dark, it’s not too manga-ie. It’s accessible to a lot of people.
ST: Are there any upcoming stories or series that you’re going to write as opposed to drawing?
PJ: No. My feelings on that are that I don’t think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as a penciller who will write a few stories here and there. Unlike a lot of writers I know who say … I don’t have a million stories to tell. I have, like, twelve. (laugh) Once they’re told, like, I don’t need to be writing anymore. I don’t need to write for the sake of writing. If I don’t have anything to say I certainly don’t think I should be putting words in characters’ mouths. If I don’t have anything to say, I don’t think I should be making them say anything. There are a couple of things that I’d like to write and draw but I don’t think what I have to say is important enough that I have to make someone else draw it.
ST: Earlier you mentioned that you liked the serialized aspect of comic storytelling. What is it about that that appeals to you, and what do you think the strength of serial storytelling is?
PJ: What appeals to me about it, I suspect, is that cliffhanger, that intense need to know what happens next. And also, in serial, you can create a number of characters and build. Like, each installment you craft a more three dimensional, a more fully realized person. And that appeals to me. Here you’re basically … start here at these archtypes, and then over a period of issues over months or whatever, you turn them into real, accessible people. I think the joy in comics and soap operas, at least for me in terms of trash medium, is … a.) the cliffhanger and watching these characters develop, and b.) like, when you develop these fully realized characters, you get a chance to … the people that are reading are growing more and more attached, and you can disseminate information through these characters to the readers. One of the things I was talking about recently was how to use DC comics characters to address social issues after that boy was killed in Wyoming. These are the perfect characters … DC comics characters are really good for that because there’s a history behind them and you can involve them in adventures where they have to deal with social injustice. Like, wife abuse, spousal abuse, or gay bashing. And you can, if done properly, without overly moralizing or being too didactic, use them … if a kid sees that Superman, you know, is kind of like anti gay bashing, maybe that kid will get into it. By using the serial to make them three dimensional characters, you can tell stories like this.
Another long winded answer. (laugh)
I think that’s what excites me the most. Taking something that’s a two dimensional archtype and building them into these very real characters with all these multifacets and using them and taking them in all these different directions and taking the reader along for the ride. I think my biggest problem with Invisibles was that I think in Volume I Grant didn’t do enough … I think in Volume II, they were such characters, like, they suddenly became people. I think in Volume I they weren’t as fully realized. And I think that was a problem because I think in comic books that you need characters that people, even if they can’t relate to them, they have to like them and know things about them if they’re going to follow the story. This is my thing, anyway. And I think Grant introduced a few stories too early. Like, Arcadia, which was what basically blew Invisibles out of the water. I just think … well, one of the most relevant pieces of comic writing ever just came too early in the series. Because, we’re supposed to read this incredibly intelligent treatise on these things, but they were characters we didn’t really know that well or care.
ST: What would you most like to do that’s not related to comics?
PJ: As a profession?
ST: I mean, do you ever have a dream like ‘I want to climb Mt Everest’ or see the Taj Mahal or something.
PJ: Actually, my big dream is to design a technologically interactive museum about American history. My dream, ultimately, if I get out of comics, to work in museum spaces that completely envelope the viewer in an environment. So if you’re talking about the civil war, they’re literally put – using set pieces, animatronics, color graph technology, whatever’s available – they’re literally put in the middle of this war. Because, I think, that people often learn best through experience. And if you can recreate the experience for them, it might help them understand a situation or a historical event to a greater degree.
So that’s my dream. To design and create spaces like that. And ultimately, one big space. And tell American history, literally. So it’s not just dummies in a diorama in a glass case. But people are actually engaged if not in the war, then they’re really put in the middle of it. And this would include things like raising and lowering the temperature, creating smells, sounds, everything. Create a total environment for them.
PJ: (laugh) And this, I think, would make museums so much more … I’m a big fan of them, but I realize how dull they are. And I think this would make them so much more interesting and it would make learning so much easier.
Bill Walko is an author and artist and the man behind titanstower.com. He's been reading and drawing comics since he was 5 years old and hasn't stopped since.