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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Interview with Comic Book Artist Jay Leisten




By Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Published in conjunction with Pure Uncut Candy magazine.


Jay Leisten has been a comic book artist for many years, most recently working for Marvel Comics on titles such as X-Men, X-Factor and Iron Man. On June 29 he will be participating in the Derby City Comic Com at the Kentucky International Convention Center.

Keith Waits: People who are familiar with comic books understand that there are various stages in which the art is created, and you’ve done more than one of these roles but you are primarily an inker. Tell us a little bit about what that means.
Jay Leisten: To back it up one step, first the writer and editors put together a script to work from, and then it is sent to a penciler, who is usually my partner on a project. They do the layout, the design and the character work, so that the page reads clearly. It’s sort of what a director would do on a film. I plug things in like the lighting or special effects guy would, assisting him in getting a final product that is clear to read in black-and-white. Sometimes I’ll do gray tone painting – that’s actually kind of my specialty, the gray tone washes and things like that. At that point it’s called final line art and then it goes off to a colorist who does digital color to make four-color separations and achieve the nice, extra lighting work that’s done in the colors.

KW: You talk about that specialty – gray washes. Do the editors come to you requesting that that? Or are you given a lot of freedom to do what you want?
JL: I’m fairly free to do what I want. I work closely with Greg Land, and we’ve known each other for almost 20 years. I’ve worked with him specifically since 2002, and sometimes they will bring a new artist who may be similar or have certain quirks that I am particularly good at correcting. But Greg and I have a symbiotic relationship where he can now turn in a little less work so I can carry the load a little bit more, so we can achieve some life balances, as it were. The penciling job is by far the more intensive job page-to-page. Those guys are clocking 12 to 16 hours on one page, whereas I may do something like 4 to 10, so I can handle two artists or assist another artist and let them back down on their time line.

KW: Do you pencil sometimes?
JL: In published comics I’ve only done four 4 pencil jobs. I’ve done several jobs where I am what is called a finisher, wherein the penciler only does a layout – the figures are in the correct placement, the anatomy is roughly correct, the costuming is not in place, the hair and lighting is really out the window, and just the structure itself is there. It is my job then to take the time, which he didn’t have, and make it look like his work, which is tricky sometimes.

KW: You’re working for Marvel, which means you’ve had the opportunity to work on some iconic titles – you’re doing Iron Man now, you’ve done X-Men…
JL: Yeah, I did X-Men for a little over five years, and both X-Men titles for two years.

KW: Does the fact that you are working with something so well-known ever inform the choices you make creatively?
JL: Sure. You’re upholding a certain standard that has been around since…well X-Men goes back 50 years – 1962 or '63 at least.

KW: Do you feel obliged to pick up on certain influences or styles from previous artists in that history?
JL: Not a lot. It does happen from time to time that you want to do a specific homage. We did Fantastic Four for a little while and Greg really wanted to call back to Jack Kirby, who started the Fantastic Four, so the Thing character was always done as close to a “Jack Kirby” style as possible: lots of thick, black, chunky lines; odd lighting choices that make things stick out like broken concrete. Issue #9 of Iron Man was an origin story, and so I got to ink nine different eras of Tony Stark. So I just went back in and changed the style of it to fit the '80s, '90s, 2000s and make it fit the style of whichever artist was doing it at the time.

KW: It’s interesting that you can live in Louisville and do this work for one of the two major comic book publishers. It’s become easy now. But how does that work?
JL: We work a lot by email. I get files and then throw them on the scanner so the colorist and editors can see it. Greg (who lives in Tampa) and I have a pretty good understanding, so we don’t have to communicate a whole lot about the work. We’ll discuss general ideas when we are launching a title and then after that he’s putting it in my hands to uphold what we discussed early on. With others we will Skype or Google chat and show the pages back and forth, give each other corrections and advice.

KW: Do you and Greg get paired a lot because the editors…
JL: We work exclusively...there is no other choice, really. Since I started with Greg, except for a break of a few years, no one has touched a page of his since 2004.

KW: Is that kind of partnership common in the comic book world right now?
JL:  It can be, but typically deadlines cause problems with that. If the penciler gets behind, for whatever reason, then there may not be enough time for one inker to get the pages done on time. Greg and I have an understanding that we will keep the pages flowing and cover additional Fed Ex charges ourselves if need be. It buys us time and keeps any cracks from opening up.

KW: It seems like the publishers would value that kind of partnership because comic book readers are known for loyalty and attention to particular artists or teams of artists.
JL: There are some pencilers who work fast enough to support two inkers. It’s rare but it happens; and you will find that the books with one inker sell really well and with the other inker…not so much. In general, people don’t put a whole lot of weight into that; but you can see the influence we (inkers) have on the final product. Actually, with guys that are that fast, they are pretty loose and leave out a lot of specifics and let the inker carry a lot of the weight.
Before and after inking.
It’s a weird line you straddle as an inker. Almost all pencilers are artists – they’re not technicians. There are some who are draughtsmen and will draw the exact same face for you every time, but the guys who are most respected are artists and tend to be a little more free in their work. My job is to kind of rein that in, but, at the same time, maybe take it a step further. Typically, early on, it is reining them in because they will get so caught up in drawing that they will, say, position a hand so all of the fingers aren’t visible, so I will figure out a way to make sense of those fingers. It’s kind of like a microphone dropping into frame in a movie. It’s the fourth wall that you’re trying not to break.

KW: You make a lot of references to film, and when you look at director’s storyboards, there is an obvious similarity in format. It’s a very cinematic format.
JL: When I lived in L.A. I would do storyboards off and on: cartoons and a little bit of TV work

KW: When you were younger, what inspired you to move in the direction of comic book art?
JL: At Manual I loved doing portraits, and I took a drafting class my sophomore year, drawing buildings and trees and discovering that I had a natural affinity for drafting. But I liked drawing people. I met guys within the community at school who wanted to be comic book artists, but I didn’t understand how to get into it professionally. A guy I knew at J-Town High School in my senior year actually got a job working in comics while he was still in high school. Once I saw that, and realized you could do it, I started asking a lot of questions. It surprised me that he was living here and working at such a young age. But it was the early '90s, when, almost if you could hold a pencil, they would look at you, because the top tier artists all quit to start their own company. So Marvel and DC had to replace 20 of their best guys, throwing pages at anybody who could draw to try and find that next artist. That’s when I met Greg and starting doing inking samples for him. Then I was in New York making an office visit to try and get work, and 15 minutes before I walked in, a guy quit…just walked out. I happened to be there and they said, “We see that you can draw; we can see that you can ink. Why don’t you just take this back to the hotel and get it done!”

KW: Talk about “right place at the right time.”
JL: Yeah, and it’s a fairly common story in comics. Then I didn’t work for a year! But then I went to L.A. to work for Top Cow.

KW: Is one of the advantages of working from Louisville that you avoid the kind of stress that makes someone walk out on their job?
JL: Oh yeah. Here, I work out of this studio (at home) and this studio space alone in New York would cost what it costs here for our entire house. I’d maybe get more work, but I have plenty of work. I don’t need it.
Jay Leisten.

KW: To go back to your time at Manual, were your teachers, like Corie Neumayer, encouraging of your comics work?
JL: She certainly was, but there was another teacher who threatened to burn my work in class! The final week of my senior year, another student came running down the hall screaming because he (the teacher) was going to burn my art! I have a tendency to want to be right, and he enjoyed that same tendency, so we had this big argument about Roy Lichtenstein, who I really liked. He did too, but he saw it as “pop art” and didn’t take it as seriously. So I wanted to do a series of paintings with Bingo daubers, red, green and blue, just like in the comics, and I literally painted comic book panels using the Bingo daubers.

KW: That strikes me as a very creative and inspired idea.
JL: It just wasn’t his thing. The fact that I was trying to skirt the argument by introducing a non-traditional art tool…which was fine, but it was not the purpose of the class, and I just couldn’t find a way to do what I wanted to do, while simultaneously trying to fulfilling the class work.

KW: You do so much work. Do you have the time to do art for your own edification?
JL: Sure. I do commissions, and I am slowly but surely doing my own book. It’s a western.

KW: Do you have any advice for young artists wanting to get into the comic book world?
JL: Just keep hammering away and don’t give up. This work requires a lot of time. I’m routinely called on to do a book in a week sometimes, which is 4 to 8 hours a page and 20 pages – that’s a lot of work in a week! When I was breaking in, in L.A., I would work a 40-hour cycle: work for 40 then sleep for 16; stay awake for 40, sleep for 16. Because the payroll day, the due date for the book and the day the penciler turned them in, aren’t always going to line up right. I may have to do five pages by 5 p.m. on Friday to get paid that week, so…sleeping is not really an option! I don’t do that anymore.

KW: Is it still necessary to go to New York or L.A. to break in?
JL: Not at all.

KW: Do the publishers recruit in the field, at events such as Comic-Con?
JL: Marvel has a full-time staff person who flies around the globe: Spain, Portugal, and the Philippines. One of my best friends runs a school in Brazil teaching only comic book art, and they are turning out 15 to 20 guys a year that are just amazing!

KW: So you feel those guys breathing down your neck?
JL: Always. But that is part of the nature of doing it.

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