BCP Interview – Kelley Jones talks SWAMP THING!
DC recently released the first issue of their brand new six-part Swamp Thing miniseries, written by the character’s co-creator Len Wein and featuring visuals provided by acclaimed Batman artist Kelley Jones.
Ceej got excited in his review of the first issue, saying “long-time Swamp Thing fans will be in absolute heaven here, and casual readers looking for a wonderfully old-school horror comic are in for a real treat.”
As you might have guessed, we’re pretty major Swampy fans here at the Big Comic Page, and given our excitement about the new series, we were absolutely thrilled to be able to sit down with Kelley to discuss the tone of the series, his collaboration with Wein, and – of course – stepping into the shoes of Swamp Thing’s other legendary co-creator, artist Bernie Wrightson.
Big Comic Page: First off, congratulations on such a fantastic first issue. We’re all delighted to see the big guy back and in such safe hands.
For those that haven’t picked it up yet, can you tell us what the series about?
Kelley Jones: Horror… and all the things that made Swampthing a classic book. Carrying on not only the traditions that Len Wien and Bernie Wrightson started… but those traditions that make any type of genre horror good, being that film or novels or excetra.
Atmosphere… characterization and death, those things are the prime ingredients to Len’s stew. Swampthing, as Len writes it here asks only that you need to know you want those elements, you needn’t know three decades of detailed history of the life of Swampthing.
Succinctly, Alec Holland is tired of being the avatar… and he’s weary of his fate… but that doesn’t mean dark things will stop advancing, and people won’t stop needing him to stand against those forces. The Bayou’s deep and dark… but not enough for Alec/Swampthing to escape his fate. Alec/Swampthing is out to redefine his sorry lot in life, and perhaps find out that in hiding away… he may have found himself.
BCP: Most recently, we’ve had the new 52 iteration of the character, which was very well received. This feels different though, like a modernised mix of the original Wein/Wrightson version and the Moore/Bissette/Totleben incarnation. Are you continuing the New 52 character or going your own way?
KJ: As I said… the character of Swampthing and his history became very convoluted to newer readership, and thus a clearer vision needed to be put forth… Swampthing is a horror title. The great stories of the past all happened, nothing has changed in that way, but the elements of the book that were grounded in dark horrors and personal tragedy are now put front and center. The human element as it were, and that is where the horror is… always.
BCP: What’s it like to be working with a legend like Len Wein, especially on one of his classic creations?
KJ: I have to say, it is a tremendous honor… Len and Bernie’s Swampthing made me want to draw comic books. Len is a great writer because he wrote great comics, and all comics are made or lost on the story.
Somedays, at the board, I cannot believe it. Drawing Swampthing for Gods sake! I have been doing this for some time and thought myself over that, and thankfully I’m not.
That I’m drawing Swampthing, written by Len himself, I would say it is a dream come true… but I never dreamed that big. His stories are vibrant and visual, and filled with imagination… they frankly draw themselves. I never take it for granted though, and tell anyone who listens that its like being asked to jump on stage and play with a member of the Beatles.
BCP: What’s your history with Swamp Thing? When did you discover him?
KJ: I discovered Swampthing in 1974 in trunk of comics, in a cabin, high up and isolated in the Sierra Mountains (twenty odd miles from where the Donner Party had their friends over for dinner… literally!) during a blizzard.
Some friends of my parents loaned the place they had for the weekend, and also gave me the comics stored there has they didn’t want their son to read them anymore. The trunk was filled with all the comics of the time, mostly superhero,and those comics I read first… leaving Swampthing issues 2, 3 and 4 last.
I didn’t like them at all when I first read them, and hate might be a better word. They were so different, you see.The outcome in those issues were decidedly gothic, therefore bittersweet and grim… and the Unmen!!!… god they grossed me out. But I’ll be honest, it really was because those issues of Swampthing scared me, and not just because the power was knocked out and I had to read them by lantern light.
By the end of the weekend, I was hooked, and they were easily my favorite comics. Think of it though… to a child, how could they not be? Created by men with strange sounding names…Wein and Wrightson… a hero covered in slime! Nightmarish adventures that never turned out right, and a lead character, different and shunned… unbeatable.
BCP: How much of an impact did the Moore run make on you? And did any of the creators that followed impress?
KJ: Yes, I remember liking Nestor Redondo and Martin Pasko a lot, Stephen Bissette showed such power in his version, and it still resonates as strongly as when bought off the shelf. Alan’s takes were so different, yet familiar at the same time that it was breath taking. Swampthing as seen by them, and the recent incarnations, all had this element that the original had to me those many years ago… it was the only book like itself out there, and that passion for it was seen in every page and panel.
BCP: Bernie Wrightson has clearly always been a big influence on your art. What’s it like to step into his shoes?
KJ: Bernie Wrightson is my art ‘father’.’A Look Back’ was my textbook. Wrightson’s skills were wondrous and thrilling from the start. Not knowing anything other than I loved his work, I began to realize there was so much more to his art than lines, lighting, composition and glorious monsters and violence. Wrightson effected me, and so many others because of his innate ability to choose the right angle, or the correct image to make the greatest possible impact to the story he was illustrating… Not just the gory or horrific, but the quiet and the beautiful as well.
Wrightson is rightfully seen as one of the greatest talents ever to work in comics, but his ability to put to paper images of such power come from his ability to think… and elevate sordid and exploitive elements to high art. So many then as now cannot seem to understand that in their own work. Overwrought and needlessly explicit, those kinds of artists miss the point entirely…
His skill at knowing when to pull back… or be decidedly gruesome… is the mind of a master, and Wrightson’s mind for this is that of a genius… drawing with the gift to know what best to put in the panel, with a force of style he possesses, is magic, and his art, by any standard, is timeless!
So yeah…I like it.
BCP: Your art on this seems to reference both Wrightson and Bissette/Totleben, while still very much feeling like your own thing. Is this a deliberate channeling of does it just come with the subject matter?
KJ: My art comes from many places… film mostly, as thats where I learned to story tell, for directors were my biggest influences. Kubrick, Carpenter and Terence Fisher at the very top… Welles when I am doing Batman for example. I learned inking from Graham Engel and Wally Wood’s work. With each character I have been fortunate to draw, I always start with a question, and that is what is his or her point? What do they try and say, and from there the pictures start.
BCP: When you first drew Swampy in Batman he was like a walking swamp, with vegetation all over him. This new version is much cleaner, like how he first looked. What’s your thinking on the design?
KJ: Swampthing has rejected the Green, and wants /longs for his own life… so I thought it should be reflected in how he looks, like Deadman being skeletal, showing his emotional suffering, or Batman’s cape and cowl, showing he is the literal personification of demonic justice and such.
The planty-ness will return as he becomes more involved in his proper fate, he is a tragic fellow, and the real way to show that to me is through his eyes. Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the Mummy in the Hammer film classic is what influences my Swampthing. Lee got so much emotion and empathy through all that make up… and yet scared the hell out of the audience.
BCP: You’ve brought Swamp Thing back to his roots (sorry) as an old-school horror comic and we can tell how much fun you’re having drawing it. We’ve seen Phantom Stranger already, is there anyone else you’d like to be drawing into it?
KJ: Considering that hardly anything with a horror sensibility is being done in the mainstream arena comic wise, and the kind of horror like Len and I are doing is not to be seen anywhere, it can give pause to the wisdom of that decision. Nothing was intended to be consciously retro, or old school or whatever. I draw things that thrill me or bother me so that I can try and get that emotion for readers. Len writes in a way that things are made clear, characterization through the act of a character doing things. Plots… and sub plots that advance a story… clearly. A lot of story happens in the 20 pages we did.
That Swampthing number 1 sold out in two days, and got a tremendous reaction, was a shock to me to say the least. I was confident in Len and my work, but a book you do it hit the stands… who knows… anything can happen.Younger readers really went for it, as well as older fans. Really could not be happier with the outcome… and as they say, we have to keep it up.
Zatanna is gonna make an appearance, and Deadman as well, and a few more surprises….
BCP: Michelle Madsen’s colouring is superb and works brilliantly with your art. What does she bring to the table?
KJ: Michelle Madsen is my not so secret weapon. She understands black is a color too… her backlighting and rich primary sense makes my work look like no one else’s. She doesn’t do over production,or knock out and distort an image. She’s like a great composer doing the soundtrack to my movie. I can honestly say she improves my art, and every time I see it I ooohh and awww like everyone else. I feel you should work with folks that you don’t have to give instruction to, and I never do with her. Let them be creative and see what happens. I love her to bits.
BCP: It’s a six-parter. If it does well enough (surely!) will we get more? And do the pair of you have ideas for where you’d like to take it already?
KJ: If the book continues to sell like it has, and like our Convergence issues did… it will be a monthly… but that is really up to fans.
Swamp Thing #2 goes on sale February 3rd from DC Comics, and – if it does as well as the first issue – you might want to grab it quickly before it sells out.
Interview by: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy
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