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HE SPEAKS WITH MEASURED thought and gestures in a tiny circle. When he looks up his hair flows over his face, keeping the man mysterious the more he reveals. Talking about himself seems to make him ill at ease.
His garb wards off attention: gray shirt, black pants, sneakers. He appears to barely keep track of his commercial art, projects scattered across his resume like secret children?he would remark ?What?s this?? to fans presenting the odd comic for signing.
Super presented him a cover he made that he?s never seen in print. He had quit commercial work to paint for himself. The award-winning artist of ?Fables,? ?The Umbrella Academy? and more is soft-spoken, shy and almost embarrassed of his popularity.
Like the Wizard of Oz, he?d rather be hidden, safely conjuring visual glory behind a curtain of isolation.
But whether he likes it or not, Jean is a superstar. Fans teemed breathlessly at Fully Booked High Street recently, eager to see the acclaimed artist. Super bagged this exclusive interview.
Is James Jean?s world as fascinating as his art?
Yes. [laughs] Personally I think my life is pretty mundane. I guess my life is interesting; working for yourself and being an artist leads you down interesting alleys.
I?m actually serious and detail-oriented. That?s where that work comes from?the contrast. The art is an outlet for what?s suppressed in me. You can see an aspect of my subconscious through all the work. Even the commercial work is personal.
Did you always want to be an artist?
Yeah, I?d always drawn. My parents groomed me to be a doctor or lawyer, but I felt compelled to apply to art school and be an artist. They were resistant, afraid. But that compelled me to be self-sufficient and independent, and to prove to them that I could be a working artist.
Have they embraced it now?
Totally. Mom reads my blog. Dad understands money [laughs]. My parents are very supportive now, and they?d like to hang up my art in their home.
How does being Asian-American influence your art?
It must be something in the genetics, because when I look at Chinese paintings or Japanese prints, there is an attraction to the draftsmanship. A lot of Asians draw really well for some reason, especially in comics. All the best drawers (sic) are Asian [laughs]. I don?t feel completely American or Asian. I take a foundation grounded in the culture to transform it into my world.
Has an Asian ever approached you and said they felt kinship with you?
[Hesitates and laughs] In London, this kid gave me a drawing. It was me with aspects of my work, and on the back he wrote that I?m an inspiration for ?that nerdy little Asian kid who can draw.? Maybe there?s something there, but my corporeal being has nothing to do with the paintings, so it?s strange to see that.
Some artists brand themselves: how they dress, address the media?it?s flamboyant, everyone knows who they are. I?m reclusive. I like to be the wizard behind the screen.
Do your admirers come in droves?
Only in Asia [laughs]. I don?t like to be mobbed or recognized. I?ve gotten recognized here and there which is unusual, but that?s why I?m growing my hair long: so I can kinda hide.
What?s it like winning the Eisner Awards?
They?ve been great for credibility and exposure, but it doesn?t affect how I work. I don?t work to get awards.
Your ?Fables? work elevated cover art. Did you want that approach?
I just wanted to make covers that were interesting to me. For a long time, I thought I was a horrible cover artist because other covers out there were bold, dynamic. I thought I couldn?t compete, so I did what I thought was interesting.
Why did you feel it was time to move on from ?Fables?? (Jean ended with Issue 81)
I?d always wanted to paint for myself, and ?Fables? was the last commercial thing I was doing at the time. I quit illustration the previous year and put together the ?Fables? covers book. After finishing the book, it was time to move on to what I always wanted: to create my paintings.
How was that met by (?Fables? creator and publishers) Bill Willingham and Vertigo?
It was very sad. But everyone?s very supportive of my decision.
How did you end up doing projects for many clients? (He has done Prada and Time Magazine, among others)
It?s interesting how my work appealed to many industries. I just get asked and go where the road takes me.
I have a book with your work (?Fingers? by William Sleator, from Tor Publishing). I got it because the cover was cool?it was first published in 1983. How did you get this project?
I was four and was contacted by the publisher [laughs]. I worked for this book publisher. They?re republishing this and the art director, Irene Gallo, just asked me to work on this. Actually, I haven?t seen this in print [inspects book].
What was it like working with (My Chemical Romance singer) Gerard Way?
Great! For the ?Black Parade? (album) cover he had many ideas. Some sketches he came up with were well-drawn. He had this black mass he wanted for Black Parade. I articulated the details he wanted in it. It was a mish-mash of ideas?same with ?The Umbrella Academy.? He drew the characters and gave me this ?Umbrella Academy Bible.? I used that to create the covers.
You create art for a living. How do you relax?
By creating art [laughs]. Sleep is when I relax, actually. I love sleeping.
Were you ever a starving artist?
[laughs] Yeah. In art school, I slept on the floor and shared one room with two artists. I?d have Taco Bell every other night. It was horrible; this was in 1999. The Internet bubble grew, I got sucked in, and had an Internet job my last two school years. I worked 30 hours a week, which is nuts, because I was turning in my thesis. It was cushy living. After school the bubble burst, 9-11 happened, no jobs. I got the "Fables" gig and that paid my rent and bills. Everything snowballed from there.
I have a friend who kissed Neil Gaiman. Are you prepared for something like that?
As long as it?s from a girl! [laughs]