Exclusive: An Interview With Klaus Janson
Klaus Janson is a comic book industry powerhouse, having worked extensively for DC Comics and Marvel Comics for decades as a comic book artist, both as a penciller and as an inker. He has participated in some of the most legendary runs at both publishing houses, including several run-ins with Daredevil and Batman, and his current work on Superman comics. Klaus Janson is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and he has written both The DC Comics Guide to Pencilling Comics and The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics. In this interview, we talked about his background in comics, his ideas about comic book storytelling, and his more recent projects, such as Superman, Daredevil: End of Days, and Justice League Dark Annual 2.
How did you get started in comics?
Klaus Janson: When I was still in high school, around when I was 17 or 18, I went to DC in New York to join in what I thought was a regular weekly tour of the offices. From what I understood at the time, DC used to offer these tours to fans. Unfortunately when I showed up, I was told by the receptionist that the tours were officially canceled. So I kind of whined and got teary eyed and she was kind enough to take pity on me and said “I’ll call inside and see what I can do”. So all of a sudden, Jack Miller, who was the editor of one of my favorite books at the time, Deadman, comes out and takes me around the office. I met Neal Adams, who was working on an Adam Strange cover at the moment, Carmine Infantino, who peppered me with questions about what kind of covers I liked, and Dick Giordano, who was still in the early stages of his tenure there. And when Jack introduced me to Dick, he said “I know you”, and I kind of freaked because I didn’t know what he was talking about. But Dick remembered me from all of the many letters I had written to Charlton Comics. Anyways, it turned out that Dick lived in Stratford, Connecticut which bordered Bridgeport, which was the town where my family and I lived. I told Dick that I wanted to draw comics and he invited me to show him some of the pages that I had done. So I made arrangements to visit and after he pulverized the crappy art I presented to him, we struck up a friendship that eventually that led to me assisting him for a bit on some of his projects, which led to me getting to know some other pros, which led to me getting a job at the Marvel office, which led to me meeting Rich Buckler and inking his Black Panther series for Marvel. All of that was a bit more time and labor intensive, I can assure you, but that’s roughly the way I got some of my first jobs. And I would never minimize the help, guidance and information that Dick provided in those early meetings. It was invaluable!
You’ve worked for both sides of the Big Two, and worked for Marvel in what many consider its heyday. What was an average day like in The Marvel Bullpen?
I know that reminiscing and nostalgia by definition has a golden, sunny tinge to it, but those days were a tremendous amount of fun. Part of it was due to not knowing what the hell I was doing and so everything was new and there was always something to discover around every corner, but that time and place will never be repeated again. The people that worked in the office, the artists and writers that I would meet, the stories, the legends, the quirky characters-it was everything that I had hoped for and imagined as a kid. You know those movies where the space station starts to fall apart and the crew has to improvise in order to survive? Well that’s what the office was like. It always felt like everything was held together with a little bit of spit and duct tape. Chaos was always staring everyone in the face and yet we managed to get the books out and still have an absolute great time. It was just a lot of fun!
Tell us about becoming a teacher. Also, I follow more than a few comic artists on Twitter and get the impression that making comic art can be very time-intensive. How do you find time to work as both a comic book artist and a teacher?
Well the first thing I tried to do when I started teaching was is to keep the teaching down to one day a week. I found out quickly enough that wasn’t really the way things worked. Preparing for class, correcting homework, checking up on students, advising, and everything else that’s attached to working at a college, takes a little more time than just one day. So the answer to your question is actually something that I try to emphasize in the class: time management. You have to be able to arrange and manage your time in a efficient and productive manner. And that applies to not only the teaching but the comic book work. If you have deadlines staring at you all the time, a mountain of pages waiting for you on your desk, you better have an efficient way of dealing with the challenge. I find that when students or pros miss their deadlines, it’s often because they aren’t able to manage their time properly. And, trust me on this, if anyone wants to have a career in comics, you have to learn how to manage your time.
You’ve worked as both a penciller and an inker in comic books, but you’re mainly known among comic fans for the many, many pages that you’ve inked. For the record, how long does it take you to ink a page? Do you know how many pages you’ve inked?
The time it takes me to ink a page depends on the page and what my deadline is. If I have time, I will take more time and invest more of myself in the page. If I need to get pages in yesterday, I will ramp up and get it done quicker. I really enjoy what I do and if I can, I will slow it down just for the sheer pleasure of it.
I have no idea how many pages I’ve inked at this point but if you include the pages I’ve penciled and inked over myself, it’s a lot!
What is the single comic book work of which you’re proudest?
There’s a couple of jobs that I think hold up but I have a hard time picking just one. I can tell you that, for any number of reasons, DD: The End of Days looms large, Gothic with Grant Morrison, the Black and White Batman story that I wrote and drew for DC, Daredevil with Frank Miller, Thor and Wolverine with John Romita were a highlight, the last job that Gil Kane penciled before he passed away-it was a Green Lantern/Atom team-up-I felt I finally learned how to ink him properly, and come to think of it, the Mike Zeck job that was a part of that GL/Atom story arc-it was such a beautiful job!-Kull with John Buscema was a privilege, Dark Knight Returns with Frank, of course. I have a hard time picking just one favorite.
(Pencil Art for Daredevil: End of Days #8 , pgs. 11-12. Click on the pictures for higher resolution.)
Tell us about why Daredevil: End of Days looms large for you.
There are a couple of comic book characters that, for whatever reason, I find extremely likable. Daredevil I liked from the first issue on even as a kid. When I had the chance to work on the comic as an adult, it was a complete blast on so many levels. And when Frank Miller came onto the book, and we did our run, I really felt that I had done a good enough job that I didn’t want to take away from any of that. I’d had some small opportunities to revisit the character through the years but I always turned them down out of respect for the work that had come before.
But End of Days was different. You have to understand that comics is, more often than not, an assembly line of people getting together to produce one piece of work. As a result, there are so many moving parts and so many variables, that it’s easy for one or more of those variables to break down and screw the whole thing up. It’s easy to produce a crappy comic. So when we were able to line up the high level of talent on this project, I knew this had a chance of being really good.
(Pencil art for Daredevil: End of Days #4, pgs. 13-14)
I totally loved the script by Brian Bendis and David Mack. They did an absolutely amazing job and I couldn’t possibly say how much I appreciated playing in the sandbox that they built. And I couldn’t have asked for anyone better than Bill Sienkiewicz to ink the pencils. Bill did such a great job, that, honestly, I thought it was the best ink job Bill ever did over anyone. He never handed in a single panel that was anything other than his best work. He was operating on all cylinders for the duration of the job! Matt Hollingsworth moved the art into a whole different level where he managed to put his imprint on the art without getting in its way. The guidance and input from the editors and the considerate way that Marvel handled this project from the beginning was something that I will always be grateful for.
Not every project turns out the way you want but I was very happy with the way this one turned out and very happy to contribute one more story to the Daredevil canon.
Do you feel that your definitive Daredevil pages are in End of Days?
I have a great deal of affection for all of the work that I did on DD. Frank and I did some good work when we did our run and I don’t compare that to End of Days. They were different. Each has the ability to stand on its own. I look at End of Days as the distillation of every piece of storytelling knowledge that I’ve learned over the years.
Jack Kirby fans talk about his different inkers and their impact on his pages, and as a Curt Swan fan I’ve noticed also that his work varies widely as interpreted by each inker. These days it is popular to talk about pencil artists and their storytelling skills, and I was wondering how much of that dramatic direction is actually brought by the inker’s control of the shading, the contrast, and much of the visual emphasis on the staging of the final product? Are inkers storytellers too?
Oh, sure. I’ve never thought anything else.
Though I think you have to take into consideration that there are many variables involved. First: there are almost as many different levels of proficiency in pencils as there are pencilers. Some pencils are tight, some loose, and there’s a wide range in between. Some pencilers can really draw well and excel in things like anatomy or machinery or animals and others might need a little help which the inker can provide. Not all pencilers are created equal. So the inker, in the role of a collaborator, can “push” the pencils in a more helpful direction. But the amount of influence an inker has, depends on how accomplished the pencils are or are not. Someone like Greg Capullo or Bryan Hitch doesn’t need a whole lot of tweaking and if I were to ink those pencils, the inks would pretty much line up with the pencils.
Second: the definition of effective storytelling, in penciling or inking, should include the ability to create a believable world. This is true whether the world is reality based, meaning the story takes place in the recognizable world that we inhabit, or if the world is original and unique like Calvin and Hobbes or Saga. And one of the contributions an inker can make is to make things look like what they are. In other words, the scratches and marks an inker makes to draw a tree, makes the tree look like a tree and not anything else. That specific texture belongs to the tree. Wool has a different identity than grass or water or hair. Part of the obligation of effective storytelling, whether it’s writing, penciling, inking or coloring, is creating an identifiable environment that approximates a believable reality and the inker has a particularly strong hand in this because it’s the inker’s line and texture that gets reproduced.
And by the way, I wish people would talk more about “pencil artists and their storytelling skills” because I find a distinct lack of that in the comic book media. The vast majority of talk in the discussion of comics is about the story and what happened to the characters, etc. And that’s fine because we all want to know what happens to the characters this issue. After the story, the talk usually gets around to the art and how it “looked”. And that part of the discussion is often wrapped up in the disclaimer that “I don’t know anything about art but I know what I like”. And I’m not saying that’s not legitimate, because I’m telling you that creating a world that works and is believable is critically important to storytelling. But I am saying that storytelling is not just style or detail or how the art “looks”. It’s also about whether or not the art is effective. Does it work? Do we know where we are? Are the characters introduced in a clear and identifiable way? Do we understand the action? Do the choices of angles and shots have meaning and are they visually interesting? Does the page layout tell a story? Those are tougher criteria to talk about than the superficial style of a penciler and what the art “looks like”.
There are two ideas in that answer that I’d like to break down. One, that inkers, or good inkers anyway, can make things look like what they are, that is, move them one step closer from the artist’s conception to the reader’s perception. That’s very profound. It seems to make the inker’s task a kind of reverse-Platonism, moving from the ideal world of forms to the specific and concrete world of reality. How long has this idea, that it is your task as an inker to make things look like what they are, guided your work?
When I started teaching, about 25 years ago, I was unprepared for how quickly I ran out of material. A few weeks into the class and I was running on fumes. I didn’t want to be standing in front of a bunch of students and fumble my way through some half-assed, retread of someone else’s approach to comics and sequential narrative. I realized I really didn’t know a damn thing. Maybe, at best, what I was doing in my own work was intuitive, but I certainly didn’t have the ability to verbalize that. It was a real wake up call for me. So I started to read and study and pay attention in a more conscious way to what worked and what didn’t, not only in the pages that I was producing, but other comic book artists, illustrators and painters, film-makers, etc. And all of that eventually led to some specific theories of visual communication. Some storytelling choices work well and some don’t and we as storytellers should know the difference.
One of the things I discovered was that comics, sequential narrative, shares many of the same theories that overlap with other visual mediums. But it also has characteristics that are unique to only comics. The rules of composition, for instance, are pretty consistent from one medium to another. As long as there is a defined space, a panel, a page, a movie screen, a canvas or any image contained within a border, the rules of composition are the same. But the fact that we have many panels and images contained within one page is unique to comics. Those panels and images are bouncing off one another like a pinball and storytellers have to deal with the fact that all of those images are in a relationship with each other and affect one another. One of the most interesting things about comics is the notion of juxtaposition. A storyteller can, for instance, draw the most beautiful and effective panel that works perfectly wel by itself. It has a specific meaning and communication and is successful on every level. You can then take the same image and put another panel next to it and the meaning of the first panel is completely changed! The relationship of one image to another can change the meaning of the individual images. And what was initially a successful drawing by itself, can become a complete failure because of the panel preceding or following it. And that makes the comic book page just a bit more difficult to manage than one panel or canvas or movie screen.
Another realization that emerged from all of this study, as I said earlier, was the importance of creating a viable and convincing world that the reader can accept and believe. The art and drawing have to rise to a certain level of competence in order for the story to be accepted by the viewer. If you can’t convincingly draw a car and your scene has cars in it, the reader will reject what he’s seeing and the storyteller has then failed in their primary responsibility, which is to communicate information. In other words, what the artist did, didn’t work.
So creating an identifiable texture on a tree that looks different than the texture on a flannel shirt, for example, is important not only in separating shapes and objects from each other, but also in creating a believable world where the story can reveal itself to the reader. Because communicating your story is your job. That’s what comics is primarily about. And whatever the artist can do to help that along, like creating a believable world, is a step in the right direction.
And if communicating and informing is the primary goal of the storyteller, the secondary goal of the storyteller is to be entertaining. But that’s another topic.
I like how you put it earlier, that “wool has a different identity than grass or water or hair.” That sounds like a paraphrase of A is A, Aristotle’s law of identity. Is this from art theory, or are you also a reader of philosophy?
There’s certainly some philosophical underpinnings to my approach to storytelling or maintaining a career. One example, for instance, that I try to get across to students is the notion that decisions and behavior have consequences. The decisions that a storyteller makes on a page has profound consequences for the rest of that page. I mean: profound. The idea that images on a comicbook page can change their individual meaning is a very profound concept. Everything that an artist does within a defined space affects everything else within that defined space. You change a shape or move something around on a page and all of a sudden, it’s something completely different. Maybe it’s better or maybe it falls apart, but the decision has consequences. Same with how one approaches school or a career. You don’t just happen to not hand in homework, you choose not to hand in homework. You decide that. And it’s important to realize that those decisions have consequences.
But, above and beyond any philosophical attachments to art, school or life, my primary goal for making wool different than grass or water or hair is simple: it’s about clarity. Storytelling always comes down to clarity. Does the reader understand what they are looking at? Does the reader understand the action? Anything that we as storytellers can do to achieve clear communication can only be a positive thing for the story.
The second takeaway I have from your answer on art and storytelling is that comic book commentators, reviewers, and artist/storytellers should focus less on how art looks and focus instead on how art works. Your exposition on this point recalls the five Ws of journalistic writing. Where, who (characters), what (actions), why (choices). Would you say that comic book art and commentary on it is a matter of honest reporting? And conversely, dishonest reporting leading to bad comic book art and commentary on comic books?
Who, what, when, where and (if you can) why, are the foundation to clarity. That’s why there has to be something as fundamental as the need for an establishing shot. The establishing shot should communicate as much of the “Five W’s” as possible. The reader must see where we are and who’s there and what they are doing and their relationship to each other personally and spatially.
One of the things that I find annoying in the phrase “I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I only know what I like” is the shoulder shrug that accompanies that. It’s a shrug that says “I give up”. Everyone is entitled to their likes and dislikes . But I do think that there are definitely standards by which we can judge art. It’s not just about what we like. There are objective criteria by which we can judge whether or not a comic book page succeeds or fails. And if we are going to have a discussion about comics, then let’s at least try to get beyond the surface and go a little deeper. When I mention that reviewers are focused on what things look like and not what things do, I mean that we often get stuck in how someone draws hair or how many lines an artist can use to render or any number of things that we see on the surface.
Creating an attractive, believable world is part of storytelling. But if we want this medium to grow as an art form, we need to add another layer to our critical abilities and start thinking about some standards by which we can evaluate the efficacy of the art and storytelling beyond the surface level. It’s not just about how much detail or lines there are on a page. It’s also about, like I said, knowing where we are, how the eye moves across the page, how the composition communicates primary and secondary importance, pacing, rhythm, emotion, visual characterization, body language, and so much more . It’s easy to say that you don’t “like” someone’s art. But we owe it to ourselves and to this medium to go deeper than that. It’s important to defend your likes and dislikes and explain why.
In an interview a while back for comicfoundry.com, you said “I don’t think that comics are about photorealism, and I tell you that if I had one wish for this medium it would be to pull back from that.” Looking at the market today, with great non-photorealistic artists like David Aja, Chris Samnee, Javier Pulido, John Romita Jr., and Greg Capullo being fan favorites right now, it looks like the comic market agreed with you. Do you agree?
You mention those extremely capable artists and I’m happy to see that there are plenty more making a living doing what they want to do. I’m a big fan of someone like James Harren. I think he has the perfect combination of reality and cartooning. I think that comics are in a real golden period right now where someone like Harren and the artists you mentioned are flourishing along side artists who approach comics in a completely different way. But my preference for non-photorealistic art is based not so much in any criticism of it as an artistic approach but rather in my love of certain techniques that comics are very effective in doing. I think fore-shortening, distortion, exaggeration are great tools in the arsenal of a storyteller and I would not choose to be without them.
But the proliferation of styles proves that this is a great time for comics and absolutely the best time that I’ve seen since I’ve been working. Creator owned comics has absolutely changed the landscape of mainstream comics much more than we realize, I think. And the alternative, indie market, I’m very happy to say, is extraordinarily healthy with lots of opportunities for smart and creative people. Crowd sourcing, web comics, even the movies and TV shows have been good for comics. And, if you know where to look, the quality of comics is very, very high.
Speaking of great comic art, tell me about Justice League Dark Annual #2. What was your experience drawing the dark fantasy side of the DCU?
There are always a million and one things that go into deciding whether or not to work on a specific project or not: whether or not you have the time, whether you want to draw the characters, whether the salary can support you, the story, the artistic challenge, the team that you are working with, the fame and glory (okay, I kid about the last one) and the Justice League Dark Annual was all of the above and more. The artistic challenge for me was to draw my first team book. I’d never drawn a group book before and I wanted to stretch as an artist and see whether or not I could it. I know a slew of artists that won’t go near a team book because it’s more difficult than drawing a solo hero and it’s more time consuming. But, you know, you always want to improve and challenge yourself, so that was one of the reasons in the mix.
I liked interpreting the characters well enough. Deadman was always a favorite of mine from way back. I was surprised how much I liked drawing Swamp Thing. Zatanna was fun. John Constantine is a guy in a trench coat and I had lots of reference left over from Daredevil: End of Days (kidding).
By the time the book was done, I felt I was getting close to doing what I set out to do. I’d give myself a C+ overall and a B- on a handful of the better pages.
And yeah, drawing a team book was tough.
You’ve been reading Superman comics since your early childhood days. Not counting your’s and Romita’s own definitive run on the title, what is your favorite penciller/inker team on Superman, or any of the “Superman family” of comic books?
When I was a kid, my favorite Superman art was anything that was inked by Murphy Anderson. I loved his stuff! So whether it was penciled by Curt Swan or Carmine Infantino or anyone else, when Anderson inked the art, it always looked like Superman to me!
In your 2014 interview with CBR, you mentioned how your early views of right and wrong were shaped by Superman comics. Given this personal experience, do you feel that there is any additional moral responsibility when working on Superman, along with the artistic responsibilities you bring to the book?
I don’t worry about Superman violating any specific moral belief system that I have. I think that Superman is probably a less risky character to work on, morality wise, than say The Punisher. Certainly the comics that I read as a kid had a fairly clear delineation of what was right and what was wrong. There was good and there was evil. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, things changed with the rise of the anti-hero and the popularity of the vigilante and I started to feel more ambivalent about that. I’ve had some personal causes that I feel passionate about and when they came up, I would point out what was objectionable to me and almost always, things were changed. Years ago, I never really thought that the depiction of violence was anything that I should be concerned about. But in the context of some of the violent events that have occurred in the States, I’m a bit more conscious of how we portray violence and what my responsibilities are as a participant in mass media.
But let me be selfish for a moment. The primary value I attach to a story is through the filter of a storyteller. Honestly, my main concern is whether or not this story allows me a chance to make some cool pictures or sequence of pictures. I do think about what message this or that story sends to an impressionable mind. I try to be as responsible as I can and I would never knowingly choose to work on a story that violates my principles. I have left projects because I thought it fetishized violence. But I try to be reasonable about these things and ultimately I cross my fingers and hope that what projects I choose to draw send a positive message.
What is your favorite Superman story? Earlier, you remarked that after the primary goal of communicating and informing, the comic creator’s secondary goal is to make an entertaining story. How, or why, or what are the story or art criteria by which you think this story succeeded in entertaining you?
Comics are still, at the heart, a medium that entertains. Most of what I’ve been prattling on about has been from the point of view of a visual storyteller, the art side of the writer/artist team. And a lot of that involves the mechanics of art and storytelling and how to engage the reader in a more effective way. The idea of being entertaining is basically anchored in the premise that if the comic is boring, the reader loses interest and the story fails to upload to the reader. If you can’t hold onto the reader, you’re not going to be able to communicate the story.
In the comics that work the best, the artist will manage to offer something interesting that will hold the viewers attention. And the artist can achieve that, for instance, by creating something that has never been seen before. Or invigorate a scene by approaching it in a different and unusual way. Or maintain the readers interest just by the sheer power of the artist’s style and drawing, which offers the reader lots of things to look at. Anything that will compel the reader to stay in the story is pretty much valid.
But the Superman story that I remember as a kid was the imaginary story where, for the first time, Superman died. I think the art was by Curt Swan though I’m not a hundred per cent sure of that. But that’s an example of a comic where the story took predominance over the art. As a little immigrant kid who was desperately trying to find his way around in a new country, I found the death of this mythological icon and the reaction of his friends to be very memorable. I was at exactly the right time and place for a story like that to affect me. It was a comic that made an impression on me because of the strength of its story.
And I think the lesson in that, is, no matter if you are a writer or an artist: don’t be boring!
The story you are remembering is most likely the Imaginary Story, “The Death of Superman,” in Superman V1 #149, as it does include a procession of Superman’s friends reacting to Superman’s death. That was written by Jerry Siegel in his second round with the character in the early 1960s. Jerry Siegel killed his famous co-creation in this non-continuity story, and it is a fan-favorite among Superman enthusiasts, so you’re not the only one that was affected by it. In the most recent issue of Superman, he gets a brand new solar flare power that introduces him to 24 hours of mortality, and opens future stories to the possibility of the invulnerable character dying or living in a more human way. Are there plans to give Superman any more brushes with death? Or is this a way to give Superman a break from the never-ending battle and make Clark Kent experience life in a more hedonistic way, with scenes like the infamous beef bourginon sleepover scene in Superman #297?
It’s all of the above and more. Eddie, Gene, John and everyone else attached to the book want to do stories that are worth doing and de-powering him for 24 hours is a cool way of adding a new element that can be used to spin out some interesting situations and stories. Stay tuned-it will be worth the time!
CBR recently announced Geoff John’s departure and Gene Luen Yang taking over the writing of Superman, making the new creative team Gene Luen Yang, John Romita Jr., and yourself. Can you tell me anything about how the new direction we’ll see in the Superman title?
You know I can’t really say anything about specifics because it would spoil all the fun of just discovering what we are doing through the actual act of reading-lol. But I can say that the new power is one component of a larger shake-up for the character. I think by now everyone has read about some of the post Convergence plans that DC is mounting. There’s a general feeling throughout the company that we need to rattle the cage a little bit and take some chances. The editors and creators have been urged to be innovative and Superman is one book among many that will try to do that. It’s an intriguing time to be at DC and I think that a lot of interesting and exciting material will emerge from this period.
Aside from your continuing work on Superman, do you have any other projects upcoming that you can talk about? Also, returning to your previous answer which touched on crowd sourcing, have you ever considered crowdfunding a project?
I would like to crowdfund a project down the road. I have some ideas that would lend itself to that. If I can get to that point, I would love to do that, yes.
As for future projects: I’m working on a whole bunch that will be out this year. We’re trying to figure out exactly how long the run will be on Superman. It was originally a certain amount of issues but it looks like we might be going beyond that as there seems to be a lot happening in that book that is exciting (trust me, really!) to all of us so we will see how that plays out.
I’m inking the Batman and Robin book over Denys Cowan for the Convergence event. I love inking Denys’ pencils and the book has been so much fun.
There’s a creator owned book that I co-created and am co-writing with my collaborator, Pablo Raimondi, that I hope will be out later this year. Pablo’s doing the bulk of the art but I will be doing the art on specific segments. I can’t say more than that as it’ll reveal something about the structure of the series and I don’t want to giv e that away. But it looks and reads great and I’m very, very happy with how it’s going so far.
DC will be releasing Gothic as a hard cover sometime this year and they are using the original art, which I have, and recoloring it and including extras. I’m so happy that they are approaching this version in such a professional and caring way. It should be an awesome looking book.
And there’s a bunch of stuff that I can’t talk about that starts in the latter half of this year, because, you know, if I told you, I’d have to kill you. But I can say that it’s something I’m really looking forward to.
We’re looking forward to all of your upcoming work, whether it’s Superman, Batman and Robin, Gothic, or the mysterious creator owned work. Thank you very much for the informative interview!