This past Wednesday DC shipped the twenty-fourth issue of their Super Friends title, the kid-friendly Johnny DC book based on the Mattel toy line of the same name. That means cover artist J. Bone has been working on the title for two straight years now, providing all 24 covers and the interior art for a handful of those issues.
Writer Sholly Fisch devised a heck of a script for the issue, about a mad scientist convention in Oolong Island that includes just about every villainous scientist in DC’s extensive character catalog. The number of cameos and in-jokes—about one a pane—make the issue perhaps the best jumping-on point for grown-up DC fans the series has had so far. The task for introducing the likes of Mr. Mind, Dr. Cyclops, Dr. Poison and Dr. Togg and his Gombezis into the Super Friends-iverse fell to Bone, who drew this particular issue cover to cover.
I took the opportunity to talk with Bone about drawing DC’s biggest stars (and all of the company’s mad scientists).
Blog@Newsarama: One of the behind-the-scenes aspects of comics like Super Friends that I’ve always been interested in is seeing the way a particular artist’s style converges with the pre-existing design of the concept the book’s based on. For example, seeing artists drawing in a Bruce Timm-inspired style on some of the animated books, or, in this case, adhering to the basic design of the toy line.
Was it at all difficult for you to sort of calibrate your style to fit the look of the Super Friends toy line? Or am I making an unfair assumption—was there a point at the beginning with model sheets and the like involved?
J. Bone: In the beginning (and still) there were model sheets. I take them out with each cover just to make sure I’m not going too far off the mark. I’ve definitely streamlined a few things and melded my style with the look of the book. I think the main difference for me in the start was that I don’t tend to draw a lot of muscle definition and the Mattel Toy Line is all about muscles. The proportions I had no problem with, I just had to consciously add more muscle definition. They’re big, fun, cartoony characters. You could compare them to the old He-Man toys in that they’ve got very large upper bodies.
Since doing a few interiors I’ve learned how to add the chunky muscles without, I think, losing my own approach to drawing. Looking at Kirby art really helped with that. He’s the master of those big, muscley supermen!
Blog@: When you’re designing a cover, do you do so with a particular audience in mind? Do you just draw what you think looks cool, or are you conscious of making an image that would particularly appeal to a six-year-old, or that a 30-something would find funny, or do you try covering all those bases? There definitely seems to be occasional in-jokes for older readers in some of them, like the Starro-as-pirate cover echoing that 1960s Justice League image, for example.
JB: My aim as much as possible is to grab the eye of a six- to eight-year-old. I’d like them to see the comic in the shop or in their parent’s comic pile and want to read that comic book! I try to design each cover as though it were a poster a kid might want on their wall. I’m more successful in some than in others but I’ve also learned that my favorites aren’t always someone else’s.
The in-jokes, references to past DC covers, are definitely there for the moms and dads who are most likely buying the comics for their kids.
Blog@: How much info do you get ahead of time before drawing a cover? Have you already read the script at that point, or do they just give you rather general descriptions, like “the Super Friends join the circus” or whatever?
JB: I’ve got the full script when I draw the cover, including all the reference that writer Sholly Fisch attaches with his scripts. Sometimes it’s really tough not to draw the big scene in the book. But that would give away a possible surprise ending and take away from the fun the interior artist is going to have drawing that scene! So instead I try to hit on something iconic within the story or play on the theme of the adventure.
A good example of that is the fairy tale cover done for issue #21. I mention on my blog that I knew, after reading the script, that Stewart [McKenny] wouldn’t be drawing literal fairy tale versions of the Super Friends but that it was something I really wanted to see! I already had the idea (or it was suggested by my editor, Rachel Gluckstern) to have the Friends jumping out of the pages of an old book. I started thinking about Batman as the Dark knight and from there I assigned mythological or fairy tale roles for each of the Super Friends. Superman is a man of steel, Wonder Woman as Amazon princess, Aquaman as king of the sea, Green Lantern as man of light, and the Flash as Hermes god of speed.
So often the cry goes out that the cover doesn’t match what is inside the book. It’s my fault when this happens on the Super Friends! You may blame me.
Blog@: Do you have a personal favorite cover you’ve done for the series so far?
JB: Okay—I really, really like the cover I did for issue #24. I love the way Lex is just casually stopping the Super Friends from appearing on their own book!
Up until that one though (and this is my way of having two favorites) I love #11 with the Bat-Squad. Giving all the Super Friends Batman-inspired costumes was super fun and I was riffing on Sheldon Moldoff’s Batman covers. He would often have Batman and Robin in the bottom left or right corner reacting to something central on the comic cover.
Oh…I also love the Bizarro cover but that is also just plain my favorite of my own recent comic book work all around.
Blog@: The all-mad scientist issue is one where you’ve done the interior art as well as the cover. How do you and DC decide who’s drawing which issue…do you volunteer for stories that sound particularly interesting to you, or do they ask when they need a different artist, or…?
JB: Firstly just let me say that I have no say in who draws the guts of the book! That’s my editor, Rachel, matching up artist with story. Now, in the case of issue #24 I did specifically ask to draw it. I didn’t know it was going to have so many characters when I asked…but I would have wanted it anyway.
That issue marked two years of doing covers for the book and I wanted to celebrate that by drawing the whole issue. It also left #25, which is generally accepted as an actual landmark issue, to be drawn by one of the guys who draw the book regularly (I think in this case it’s Dario Brizuela).
Having drawn Superman’s birthday (#9) and Batman’s (#15) I’ve kind of become the birthday guy. A label I accept happily. I’m working on #27, which is yet another birthday issue, though I won’t say whose.
Blog@: Part of the reason I asked was that this issue seemed like it would be a rather labor intensive one. Just going from the sketches on your blog, it looks like there are about 20 or so mad scientist characters involved, many of which I assume you were drawing into the Super Friends books for the first time.
JB: Yes. Yes it was.
Blog@: Can you walk us through that design process a little bit? I understand many of these characters you had never heard of before…do you get sent reference material or go looking for it on your own? How do go about taking so many characters designed by so many different artists over so many decades and sort of make them your own? (I suppose that’s a challenge for anyone drawing any superhero-universe comics, but it seems like it might extra challenging for a book with a particular aesthetic like this). Were any of the scientists hard to make look just right, either to fit into your style or to fit into the look of the Super Friends book?
JB: Oh yeah! Like I say, Sholly provides reference with every script. Usually the same stuff I find when I do a Google Image search. Because there were so many characters, I wanted to get a handle on the featured characters, so I read more online (God bless all of you comic fans for putting up sites about your favorite, obscure characters).
I did quick sketches of each character, labeled, so that I would have that as constant reference. I can’t tell you how many times I drew the Ultra Humanite on my roughs when it should have been Gorilla Grodd and Dr. Hugo when the script called for Hugo Strange. Speaking of Dr. Hugo I learned only too late that he is a regular sized guy with a big cranium. I drew him as a little person with a gigantic head. That was me not doing enough research…but, and I risk offending fans of Dr. Hugo, I love him as a little guy. He was really one of my favorite guys to draw in the story. I thought of him as a little Jack Kirby, mammoth sized bravado in a little, bitty body.
I’m also not sure if I got Mr. Mind right. I drew him with glasses but I’m not sure he actually wears them. Sometimes it’s very hard to “read” a jpeg so I just go with what feels and looks fun! A tiny caterpillar wearing glasses? That’s fun!
The trick, in my mind, to making them work in the Super Friends Universe (Earth 2.5?) is to think of them as silly-evil instead of horrible-evil. I think my villains smile just about as much as the Super Friends do. They’re having fun being a villain!
Blog@: Super Friends covers and occasional interiors sure seems like a dream job for a superhero fan, since you get to draw all of DC’s most popular characters every month, but are you interested in drawing the “real” versions of these characters for the DCU books at some point?
JB: Hmm…I would absolutely love to draw a “real” Wonder Woman story. But (and this is a big but) I would absolutely want to draw it the way I draw. The closest I’ve come to that was when I drew her for the New Frontier one-shot in the story written by Darwyn Cooke. I know some people didn’t like how cartoony I was with her but that is honestly how I would approach her character. To me “cartoony” is no less “real” than any other comic book style. When she punches those bad guys they still get black eyes and see stars. And her costume magically stays up despite the pull of “gravity” and “physics”.
Blog@: Hey, how come Martian Manhunter isn’t a Super Friend?!
JB: Oh but he is! In issue #4 Aquaman is actually the Martian Manhunter in disguise. You didn’t know?
Blog@: Can you tell us what’s on your drawing table at the moment?
JB: At this very moment my drawing table is under a stack of pages for Super Friends #27. There is also a cover to a Toronto magazine, and rough art for a four-page comic for that same magazine. Also, though not necessarily work related, is a cup of coffee, drawing tools and the MattyCollector Super Friends’ Robin action figure! It’s awesome! Makes me wish they’d hurry up and do a Wonder Woman figure!
Blog@: Finally, I wanted to take this opportunity to ask you a question people are always asking me, since my byline includes a “J.”—what does the J. stand for?