This week’s edition of Comics Disassembled starts on a somber note, but the only place it could. Let’s get to it.
1. John Paul Leon, Forever
“We could keep talking, you know.”
That’s what legendary artist John Paul Leon said to me, or at least a rough approximation of what he said, as we concluded his one and only appearance on Off Panel. JP told me he was a fan of longform podcasts like Hardcore History, shows in which the running time was four or five times the length of my usual episodes, and talking extensively appealed to him because of that. That was especially the case because he was in the midst of working on a page, one that he added so many blacks to he needed to actually white it out to get back to his intended look. While that was a problem, I sensed that it was one he enjoyed solving. Chatting during processes like that made it that much easier.
I suspect it wasn’t just because of those reasons, though. I always believed it was because he just really loved talking about art. It was a job, sure. But it was also something he took great pleasure from doing and discussing. It didn’t feel like work to talk about it, especially as he was doing it. So there wasn’t a burden in doing so. Only joy.
Like a fool, an absolute fool, I declined his request to keep chatting. We had already went for a while – the episode was an hour and seven minutes, but before editing it the episode was much longer, and we talked extensively before and after as well – and frankly, I lack the stamina of Hardcore History host Dan Carlin. More than that, though, it was a good podcast, and I felt like I was playing with house money at that point. I didn’t want to spoil a good thing.
It was actually the second time I had interviewed JP – the other time was an art feature interview on SKTCHD about his cover work – and both times, I was just desperate to not mess it up. It wasn’t because of who JP himself was, though. Instead, it was because of his almost mythic nature amongst his peers in the art world.
That self-created burden was generated by the hundreds of interviews I had done by that point. When you interview people, you start to realize that everyone, generally speaking, has wildly different answers to similar questions. Talking to enough folks around comics, you’ll hear every answer in the book, and the reason for that is simple: people are different! They contain multitudes and have experienced different things! Each of those ideas changed them and their answers in unique ways.
But if you ask comic artists about their own favorite artists – not influences, just those who astonish them – commonalities start to show. Alex Toth is mentioned a lot. Mike Mignola gets named often. Jorge Zaffino. Moebius. You know, the usual suspects.
John Paul Leon is right there alongside them.
I brought his place in that list up to JP once and he brushed it off, to a degree, saying, “Well I don’t think I belong in that company, but it’s nice to know that some other artists think so highly of my stuff that they would include me with those guys.” But the thing is, he did belong. He was the quintessential artist’s artist, the guy who made every person who has ever picked up a pen or brush and put it to Bristol board think, “If only I was that good.”
And the funny thing about JP’s work is it almost never was about the project he was working on itself. It was just him. He was the comic artist equivalent of that old line about actors and how you could listen to them read the phone book. It almost didn’t matter what it was; you knew any cover or interior page would be its very best self in JP’s hands.
Don’t get me wrong, he worked on remarkable projects, from Static and Earth X to The Winter Men and Batman: Creature of the Night. His covers for titles ranging from DMZ to The Sheriff of Babylon were astonishing and endlessly varied. But his work was so good, so wonderfully drawn, so potently inked, that it didn’t matter what it was. The only thing that mattered was it was him. When you looked at one of his pages, you felt it as much as saw it. It was just different, even amongst and to his peers.
That’s why both times I interviewed him, he was one of the rare people I had to really think about the questions on. I always do, to a degree. But I mean really thinking about them, as if I was carrying the weight of every artist who loved his work in the process. I felt pressure in getting those interviews right in a way that I never did before and never have since.
I never really needed to worry.
Even if they weren’t the best questions, JP was kind enough to make me feel like they lived up to the Herculean task of honoring his greatness. He was a tremendously thoughtful and gifted artist, someone whose passion came out in discussing his work and solving problems on the page. But more than that, he was a wonderful guy.
That can be difficult to balance. It can be tough to be great and kind. Often what it takes to be the former makes the latter a struggle, as you’re always willing yourself and those around you to do more and be more to the point that can be destructive. Michael Jordan is a perfect example of that, a man so fueled by his pursuit of being the best that he would take it out on his own teammates to get there. That’s more common than you might think, and for levels of talent that are considerably less than Jordan was at hoops.
But JP was that great while still being a kind and generous human being in my experience. Maybe that’s the way of a truly great artist. You can’t bring that much empathy to a page without carrying it yourself.
Just this past Saturday I was thinking of that one time he was on Off Panel, reflecting on that generosity. JP asking if we could keep going after the podcast recording concluded was the only time that ever happened in the 300 plus episodes of the podcast. I’d think about that from time to time and it would always bring a smile to my face, just considering this brilliant artist who was the best of the best and yet somehow an even nicer guy, by all accounts.
We kept in touch since, as we would say hello over email on occasion. But we never continued that conversation as JP requested, nor did we chat for another episode as we discussed doing after we stopped recording.
Now, I can’t help but wish we had.
John Paul Leon passed away at the age of 49 this past weekend after a long battle with cancer, and you could feel the loss in the comics community. That’s because of the type of person he was: a legend who was more than that at the same time.
If he was just a great artist, that would have been a hell of a thing. Being a peerless one, someone who other greats spoke of reverentially, insisting, “now that’s a guy who can draw” whenever he would come up – as if they themselves were chopped liver – was even more impressive. Pairing that greatness with a real goodness to him as a person? That’s something even more special.
John Paul Leon was all of those things, and undoubtedly a whole lot more.
If you can, please support the John Paul Leon Family Memorial on GoFundMe, which is designed to support the future education of JP’s daughter and to support his family at this difficult time.
2. Delays, Being Understood
I couldn’t help but think of the elongated release process of Batman: Creature of the Night in the wake of this. Rightly considered to be a masterwork after the collection arrived, what some might forget is the four issues of that series from Leon and writer Kurt Busiek took just under two years to arrive. That led to hemming and hawing about delays over that span, because that’s what we do when things of that sort happen. I get it. I’ve done it in the past myself.
But this situation is an important reminder of the human aspect of comics. These books we love aren’t created by automatons designed for crafting entertainment for each of us. They’re made by people, dealing with the kinds of things we deal with every day, week, month and year – and sometimes more. JP’s colorectal cancer returned during its production, coinciding with much of the project’s lifespan. Busiek himself battled health problems as well. It’s understandable that this would result in a prolonged release schedule, even if they themselves would have preferred otherwise.
But all of that – what these people are dealing with – is important to remember when we’re lamenting the absence of our favorite comic releases. People have lives outside the work, and sometimes there are hindrances to the process of creating comics that they could never have expected. As much as we want our faves back, right now, today, sometimes the story may be more than creators resting on their laurels. It’s important to keep that in mind. I know I will try to going forward.