I talked with Jok about his work on “Big Game Hunters” and “Mixtape”, both releasing early this fall.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: How did you approach creating these characters?
Jok: I had the original descriptions from Shon that gave detailed clues about characters’ backgrounds, but just a few hints on physical likeness and features. And it worked perfectly, as this is the way I prefer to approach character designs: psychologically-oriented profiles give me better clues on how they should look and, most importantly, they help me build expressions and body language. Clothing and prop choices are also relevant, of course, (especially with a project like “Big Game Hunters”). But the connection goes beyond outfits and just nicely-drawn people.
And, when it comes to actual sequential pages, there’re a lot of character depiction details to be developed way beyond mere technical actions required by scene descriptions. It’d be sad for me to just show people taking actions as written. As an artist I follow Eduardo Risso’s advice, I struggle to take scripts just as the beginning of a visual process instead of as the finish line.
All panels allow us some room for further characterization. Shon has proved to be a very generous writer in that regard, as he constantly encourages me to go beyond his original parameters. So, I enjoy having these characters sweating, spitting, looking in suspicion, reacting to backgrounds and hurting after a punch. All these secondary actions are not secondary to me and I usually try to take good care of characters’ presence “on stage.”
Properly built characters should react and act. This is why I tend to focus on expressions and body language. That’s the most effective way to make emotions pop from paper and screen. Nobody likes movies TV shows poorly enacted, and I strongly believe comic book readers shouldn’t accept that either.
So, we have Quinn, a natural leader, a tough guy apparently having situations under control, but on the other hand we see him sweating like a pig and even occasionally spitting to release tension. As a reader, once I care about characters, conflicts become real and I can’t help following them anywhere they go. As a storyteller, I aspire to have readers deeply involved and, to me, strong characterization is the key. Fortunately, Shon agrees with my approach. I’m grateful he lets me play with these wonderful toys and feels comfortable sharing this world with me. Hopefully we’re making these hunters, monsters and this world real in the minds of our readers. I really hope that this book exudes all the fun I had bringing all of this to life along with Shon.
Sacks: Did you take pains to ensure that they had Victorian characteristics?
Jok: Fortunately, Victorian Cosmogony is among my many interests and I even did some research on Victorian society a while ago. Also, I’ve already done some Victorian (and steampunk) stuff before, so I had some concrete background on the matter. I find great pleasure in drawing Victorian gadgets, cities, hairstyles and fashion – they weren’t all pretty and elegant, you know. So, no, it was no pain at all!
The whole concept of “Big Game Hunters” represents some arguable values of that time: “Let’s exterminate what’s not adapting to us, in the name of progress.” And I had that concept in mind the whole time, this ambiguous morality of our hunters. So, monsters and foreign abominations from fairy tales and folklore have their days numbered on this earth… in the name of what authority? It’s kind of a weird, fanatic speech for good guys who are great since I love to depict and develop heroes bearing serious flaws.
Sacks: The comic is very strong on settings. How did you research the world in which these characters live?
Jok: In storytelling, I think settings and background should be treated with as much detail and care as characters. “There’s someone living there? Has he been eating? Is there a heating device? What hints of everyday life are there?” Backgrounds should answer all of these questions to build a subliminal concept of a reader’s perception. Once the atmosphere is built, the chances of making things believable and more realistic increase dramatically, even if the story gets weird like in “Big Game Hunters.”
Once the script is properly read and studied and the time is right to go hunting for reference photos, it’s crucial to make sure you’re playing the right chord, so you may find the right castle, village, wood, props and devices. There’s a world of remarkable photos and images on internet, but they all must remain in the service of the story you’re telling. I’ve always thought of reference-gathering as some kind of concept art direction or pre-production. The first “Big Game Hunters” story had a fun plus for me, as I needed to furnish a castle with Sumerian ornaments, and since I’m deeply fond of ancient civilizations myself, it was a lot of fun. The equation was: Victorian + Ancient + Adventure = good, fun, and interesting settings!
Sacks: Your approach to this book has a darker shading and is more atmospheric than some of the other work I’ve seen by you. How did you approach this series in that way?
Jok: I believe all stories need some degree of style adjustment from the artist, which is an interesting way of making the creative process and your own art evolve. When the story demands something else in terms of aesthetic resources, the challenge can prove to be discouraging and motivating at the same time. And quite unsettling for anxious souls, but very rewarding at last. For “Big Game Hunters”, I felt my inks needed a more organic feel to help build an ancient mood (something that went way back in time, beyond the Victorian Era).
With constant advice and support from my studio’s associates and friends, I managed to develop this warmer inking style just in time. I believe this “newer” style suits the story way better than my previous inks would have, and I also had the chance of proving myself capable of escaping a comfort zone, which is very, very dangerous for artists (this can fortunately be avoided with constant study, observation and occasional aesthetic challenges).
Sacks: I’m a big fan of your work on “Mixtape”. Can you talk a bit about that comic and how each series exercises different muscles for you?
Jok: “Mixtape” is an incredibly well-written, character-driven story. I must make it clear that “Mixtape” artwork is the result of teamwork which includes one of my associates, Gervasio, an incredibly talented, hard-working and gifted artist on his own right. After receiving the script, we found it incredibly difficult to envision characters, which were so richly portrayed and shaped on the script. They were so real in the script that we felt a bit overwhelmed and really afraid of not doing them justice.
I remember going through tons of images from that period and I started to grow anxious—I couldn’t even attempt to approach the main characters. As I suspected there were many autobiographical elements in the series from writer Brad Abraham, I dared to use some of the writer’s personal photos from that time, with his friends (which he kindly sent us, to help build mood). It was like a magical creative remedy—all of the character designs popped into our heads one by one. No, I didn’t just copy the writer’s friends’ features (that would have been a bit cheap, wouldn’t it?). Those photos didn’t deliver specific “features,” but gave me the exact tone, the human dimension the story needed.
On strict aesthetic terms, Gervasio and I decided to go for a more black and white, plastic style which would hopefully build a more emotional atmosphere. There’s a literary quality in Brad’s writing, a hypnotic prose feeling that makes “Mixtape” very rare and unique. But at the same time, scripts are undoubtedly visual. Not an easy task to achieve that level of subtlety on sequential pages, which is rare, but very welcome. Readers will decide if we succeeded.
Era detail was also crucial, as readers would easily identify any 90s props/clothing mistake (this is all Gervasio’s exclusive merit, as he’s obsessed with reference gathering). In “Mixtape”, actions are rather small in terms of settings and actions but conflicts are huge and universal. And this is also very hard to achieve visually, although it may appear to be a simple premise. It demands a proper dimension for scenes, in which there’s the risk of overdoing the drama (and expressions) and spoiling the emotionally realistic and honest approach of Brad’s script. Fortunately, Brad shares our vision and work has flowed effortlessly. I believe readers get hooked on “Mixtape’s” dialogue and Gervasio and I just need to stay out of the way and stick to the “less is more” approach.
Our main concern with “Mixtape” is to tell the tale in a recognizable landscape and show the highest amount of respect for Brad’s honesty. In “Big Game Hunters”, I need to make Shon’s extravagant world look real to readers, capture the script’s energy and move full steam ahead, carried by the vertiginous pulse of adventure.
Big Game Hunters #1 ships in May. Mixtape #1 will ship in September. Both titles are from Space Goat Publishing.