Comic Culture


Kelley Jones

Artist Kelley Jones discusses experimental storytelling and his legendary and influential run on Batman.

AIRED: December 21, 2021 | 0:26:46

[music playing]

- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture.

I'm Terence Dollard, a professor in the Department

of Mass Communication at the University of North

Carolina at Pembroke.

My guest today is artist Kelley Jones.

Kelley, welcome to Comic Culture.

- Thank you very much.

I'm very happy to be here.

- Kelley, you had a very celebrated run on Batman

in the '90s, which was a time when comics just experienced

a big boom and an excitement that has left a big impact.

So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit

about your work on Batman.

- Well, I was very lucky to have then editor Denny O'Neil call

me and ask if I wanted to take over the monthly.

I had done some special projects for them.

One called Batman Red Rain, which had done well.

But it was Nel's world.

And then I had done covers for them for their Knightfall epic.

That wasn't by design.

I had just been kind of pulled out of a hat.

And it just turned out to be something that worked out.

So when he called to do it, it was a big deal to me.

I mean, I'd never seen myself getting to a position where

I would be handling probably along with Superman,

the greatest characters--

one of the greatest characters ever.

So and at that time, it isn't like it is now.

Denny O'Neil was the end of where

you went to find out what you could and couldn't

do with Batman.

Whether it's films, comics, books, whatever.

And so when he asked me to come on there, he just had said,

I like what you do.

If you can be on time, I'd like you to say, yes.

And just do something I haven't seen before.

And that was that.

And for those 36 issues, three years,

I don't think I've had more fun.

It was the hardest work I've ever had.

And I really learned how to draw during that period,

even though I've been doing it for about 15 years or so.

I didn't know how to draw a comic book

until you get on a monthly with that much pressure.

But I have to say I enjoyed every minute of it.

I mean I can look back and not be embarrassed by anything.

And that that's a tribute really to both--

Doug mentioned Denny O'Neil.

I got great stories, but Denny was there.

He'd let if you got off the rails.

I don't know how I couldn't have done it without that.

Because I was-- he just would push me further.

And by push me, I would say, he wouldn't tell me

to stop doing what I was doing.

So I felt emboldened.

It's a great gift if you're an artist, especially someone

like myself who tends to try to find something new.

I don't feel like I have the ability

to do what other people do.

So I have to figure out what it is I do.

That's hard to find an editor who supports that.

- And it seems that it's this magical collaboration

between editor, artist, and writer that really creates

these comics that become ones that are not only big hits,

but also we look back fondly on years later.

And you said about pushing yourself.

And I'm wondering you had 22 pages

or so a month that you were working on.

And every page has a chance to improve.

Every page has a chance to try something new.

So were you constantly experimenting or were

you saying, well, this trick works.

And if I can repeat it, and refine it, and improve it,

I can keep using that trick?

- Well, for me, I'm not good with tricks

because I'm not a trained artist in that sense.

So I don't know--

I still don't know those things.

So I always kind of had to find my own way.

What I did do was think that there

are some things you can do.

And one of the things I had been taught

when I first came on into comics and had a career was at Marvel.

And they had taught back then if you're

going to do a monthly book, pick one panel on a page

and make it great.

Just get the other ones done, and then get to the next page.

Because they were wanting to get the book out.

And if you can do that-- they told me that sounds easy,

but it isn't.

If you can do that you'll have 22 great panels

in a comic book.

That's rare, but that will get the book done,

and gives you that chance to still try

to be as artistic as you can in a very commercial position.

And so I had that experience going into it.

What I had found, though, was I began to trust my ideas.

I began to trust that I knew they were different

and I knew it might not be accepted, but they excited me.

And it's that excitement that brings you to the board

to say, what will I see?

When you work with a good editor, and especially

a good editor, they are your first audience.

And considering also that I had Denny O'Neil

had seen everything up to that point.

And had a tremendous run his own, which is probably--

could be arguably the best run ever.

So he had seen everything.

And he would tell me all the time,

I haven't seen anything like this, but I'm interested.

And he wasn't a praise guy.

So if he said that, it made you feel,

OK, I can still run with this kind of a thing.

And we didn't get into the philosophy of Batman.

He didn't want to muck up whatever this was.

I didn't know that at the time.

I only knew it years later when we sat and had a meal together.

And that's when he told me he liked that.

He liked the excitement of that.

And he felt if he was getting it, other people would get it.

We also had the good fortune of our book

wasn't tied to any other books then.

They're all kind of tied together now continuitywise,

telling large stories.

And when I was doing it, it wasn't.

So they were insular.

They were unique.

You could be as idiosyncratic as you wanted.

They probably stand out now because simply they

aren't connected.

You don't need these books.

You only get them if you want them.

But they have a unique quality.

I will say it's hard to tell at the time

because you just make a deadline and having fun.

But all these years later, I can look back on them

and feel not embarrassed.

I look-- I don't know.

These are pretty good.

I didn't-- I couldn't do it then.

I couldn't do it for 10 years after.

They put out a big art book of all the first 10

issues at Graffiti Press.

And I had to go through and look at them

and help put it together.

And I was all ready to be horrified and put

an end to that project.

But once I read them, I went, these are really good.

I mean, everybody did their job.

So I give credit not to me, or Doug, or John.

We worked hard.

It was Denny who would have said no if it wasn't working.

So I told him that.

I was grateful for it, but that's the wonderful part

of making comics.

You do it by yourself.

Nobody sees it.

One or two other people see it on the way to production.

You read them by yourself.

It's all isolated.

So it's only when you're at a convention where

you see a lot of people, but we don't collect like that.

We do this in a private setting.

So if people like you or dislike you, that's pretty honest.

Because there's no one here to tell them to like it or not

like it.

- We would expect a professional artist to look at their work

and say, oh, this is a professional quality work.

But you're expressing a doubt that as an artist is exciting

because you're always looking to make it better.

- I'm looking at, first, in that situation to get it done.

That's first.

You can't be late.

You're going to affect not just the people at your company,

but all the retailers, all the reader.

Everybody is affected by that.

If you're late, it's bad.

For commercial reasons, for aesthetically, it's just bad.

So that's first.

You get over the fear of that.

That's why I was mentioning I just began to trust my ideas.

Because I got to where I was.

There, I felt many better illustrators than me.

But I was a strict comic book artist.

I didn't want to be an illustrator.

I wanted to be a comic book artist.

And the best way to do that for me was to allow something

of myself to come out.

And since I didn't have the technical stuff--

I mean, I didn't find they ever taught it.

I'd actually learned how to tell stories

from taking film courses.

And I took them to learn how to tell a story on paper.

I've never learned anything in an art class

because they rejected this form so strongly.

And I found it was too negative a place to go

because it was seen as a debasement of fine art.

So I had to pretty much learn this on my own.

And when you get to that point where you're in--

they put you in command of it, you

have to trust something new.

And that was ideas.

And I came there that way.

I'd handle Deadman and changed it.

And that went over well.

I took Sandman and changed it.

That went over well.

I didn't go in there saying I'm going to change it.

I just went in there saying, well,

if I invented this character, how would I do it?

So when I came to Batman, it was the same way.

There were so many great people before me

that I couldn't look at their stuff or you would freeze.

And you begin to trust yourself more and more.

You just-- you have to.

And I would look at a page I knew it was different,

but since I was looking at the other guys, I felt OK with it.

It also helped make Gotham and that Batman Universe,

my universe.

When a great idea happens, and that

was how I visually saw him, it starts

spinning off into other ideas.

Well, then those ideas start to grow.

And I made Gotham a character.

I didn't just make it buildings.

I made it a character.

I started thinking about it because I

wanted a different environment.

Denny O'Neil saw all this without saying,

I'm seeing all this.

And he would just say--

he called me only one time about the aesthetics of it once.

And he just says, I think--

he called he says, I don't have much time,

but I think you're doing something kind of special.

I'm off to lunch now.


That was it.

And I didn't know what that meant.

Special good, special bad, special in the sense

that he was maybe liking it or maybe just trying to keep me--

I mean, I had been doing it several months now.

And keeping my energy level up.

So as a freelancer you're always paranoid anyway.

So I just took it for what it was.

And there's a lot of strength in that.

There's a lot of power in one guy saying, who's in charge.

Saying, keep going.

And I think-- like I said, when he saw these ideas coming out,

he knew how hard it was to do that.

I didn't know it at the time, but he knew how hard

it is to do that on command.

It's the first of the month.

Here's a script.


I would read the script.

I would not do any thumbnails, any designing.

I would just let it percolate.

And then I'd let that natural energy,

I wanted to see it done now.

I didn't-- it went from getting it done for the editor,

for the publisher, to I wanted to see it on paper.

I can't remember times where I dislike something.

I can't remember times where I felt I could--

I wish I could have went further,

but there just was a time.

My natural reticence to look at my work

afterwards probably like an actor,

they don't like to look at their movie

because they just see everything wrong.

I just did want to--

I didn't-- I had a letterer once tell me,

I believe it was Todd Kline, and he had just said in person.

He says, you're very good.

And I thought he meant artistically.

He might have.

I don't know he just said, because while lettering

your stuff, I don't see repetition of panels.

I don't see the same schtick.

You're always doing something different.

And I think that came from the fact

that I did not look at my prior work.

I didn't look and say, oh, that works.

Let's do more of it.

I just went on to the next story and tried

to put it to paper as best as it was written

or as I interpreted.

And like I said, Doug Mench was liking in it.

And he had been doing comics for God knows how long.

And he would say, I'm not-- you're not

doing the same territory over and over.

He'd have his criticisms, but they weren't on that.

And then when it came to Denny, it was just very low key.

And I think he didn't want to mess

with whatever was happening-- to him, what was happening.

I was very grateful because about a year ago,

DC got a hold of me.

And they said that they had considered

that period, the '90s period, the look of Batman

to be what I had done, which surprised me because there

were so many terrific people.

And marketing wise, they were putting out

these little figures and stuff like that.

And it's very strange sitting on the other side of it.

Because that's never the intent.

You never think of it like that.

Back to my point of being isolated.

I was alone with this stuff.

And I'm still shocked by that.

I mean, you never get over it.

Because I'm not a professional in the strict sense.

I'm a fan who got lucky, who got to be doing this.

And that has never left me.

Because I knew all these people who went to the [inaudible]

School or took art classes.

And actually know every detail.

I don't.

I took film courses.

I took a few pre-med classes to learn

real anatomy, which was awful.

But I did those things to try to get the information-- well,

I'd read where the Renaissance guys would do that.

So I said, well, OK, that's--

but I did those kind of things.

And then physically drew.

Just would draw and make it work.

I think realism is good, but I think interesting's better.

And so I was able to get interesting.

- You mentioned a number of times about how it's--

22 pages, you've got to hit the deadline.

And you talked about being able to maintain and sustain energy

as you're working on a project.

So when you are working on a book, whether it's Deadman,

whether it's Batman, how do you get to the point

where you know how much you have to do every day

so that not only do you get the pages done,

but you can also maybe have a life outside of the studio?

Well, as my wife has compared me

to Jack Torrence in The Shining at times.

[laughs] There are those times where you just go, this is it.

I've got to do this.

But what happened was it went from getting the production

right to realizing the idea.

And when it comes to realizing the idea,

I don't need caffeine.

I don't need anything.

It's the sheer energy of this.

Something else takes over then.

I don't know where the ideas come

from but I don't know where the energy comes from,

but that has not went away.

I've gotten older.

And so, yes, you feel it.

In order to have a life, you just--

you pick your places.

I mean, you know when you're going to--

I didn't want to miss out on anything with my kids.

I just simply refused to do it.

And there was a period of time I took about eight months off

to be with my second child when he was born.

I just wanted-- I wanted that.

I'm grateful I did.

That, I wouldn't trade.

And so I made a point to always do that.

When you work--

I'm not an artsy guy.

I don't have modes of alienation and look

into the middle distance.

I go I've got 5 hours, I better get something done.

No walking around.

No nothing.

I put up a lot of distracting stuff around me

to create a white noise.

I can have the TV and the stereo on, and the radio

on all at the same time.

And it creates a white noise.

I'm not paying attention anything, but their timing.

A film last two hours.

I better be this much done during that time.

An album is however long.

I better be done with something this in that time.

If I hit a snag, I move to something else and get it done,

but I'm thinking about the snag.

So the repetition creates a false professionalism.

Fear at first and then excitement take over.

Fear of being disappointing someone.

The excitement then of seeing it to completion.

I'm fairly bored easily.

And my fear of boredom is what drives me.

I don't want to be on the same thing for a long time.

I don't understand a guy who can take three

months to draw four pages.

I would shoot myself.

So I have to keep moving like a shark.

I have to keep moving, or it it'll kill me.

It will diminish it.

I spent a lot of time on my stuff.

I spent a lot of time, but it's very focused.

And if I were to ever teach art, it

would be the most disappointing class

because it would be about thinking

and about developing these--

it wouldn't-- there would be drawing.

It would be, we're going to watch this,

or we're going to think this way,

or we're going to develop that aspect

of your creative ability.

And not worry about mistakes.

I could care less about mistakes.

In fact, a lot of my best stuff is from mistakes

that I looked at it, there was no time to change it.

You had to work with that mistake.

And all of a sudden the style starts to develop.

And it wasn't a mistake.

It was something that I hadn't trusted myself going

all the way to the mat on.

With Deadman, I drew him kind of like everyone else did.

In fear of deviating from Neal Adams.

And it wasn't working.

And so I drew him skinnier, and that looked better.

But it was just now it look--

well, now he looks pathetic.

And then I thought, how about monstrous,

how about horrifically skinny.

And it worked but it started as kind of a mistake.

Batman, the same thing.

I started thinking not like if he was in a room with you and I

right now and you could see all of his stuff,

but how he really would be in a dark place.

And what would I do then?

I don't know how to be Batman but I know

how to be afraid of Batman.

So it would be the shape, his silhouette.

The bits and pieces I would see would be should be frightening.

It should be demonic to me.

Because he's there to prevent stuff from happening,

not to stop it after it starts.

And he's there to make me not do something again.

The crazy people are going to keep doing what they're doing.

That's part of it.

And realism didn't serve me that way, but interesting did.

And that shape in the--

it made itself.

The cap, the ears, the way he would hold himself

body language wise would have to be

different than every other superhero.

Because fear is a superpower.

And they're all used to taking a beating,

but they're not used to a guy being in the room 10 minutes

with you before you know he's in the room with you 10 minutes.

That's scary.

And he has to look the part.

Can't be where I see every button and bolt

and look for weaknesses.

And that worked.

They drew itself after that.

Sandman was the same thing.

He was very static character.

So I just said, dreams I can't remember twice the same--

it changes all through it.

So he will.

And there always has to be an unseen wind

blowing when he's around.

Just always.

Whatever it is.

And those things-- when those things happen--

and what DC saw and that's why I got that was,

I never thought of it this way.

But each one of those things, they were seeing.

And it would be like, that's how it should be.

That's how they were reacting.

That's a good solution.

Because they knew.

I mean, they had tremendously gifted talented artists there

and me.

And so when they saw the ideas, though, nobody else

was doing that.

And I've been fortunate enough to have Neal Adams come

up and say, that was good.

Because everybody was looking like me, but you're Batman

and you're Deadman are.

You and that's hard to do.

And that's a big endorsement.

I had Bernie [inaudible] and say something like that to me too.

He said-- I was shocked even looked at my stuff like that.

But he had broken down my Batman and said the same thing.

He says there's a lot more here than all over the place.

Well, it's because I was--

those ideas start happening and they start--

and it becomes too big.

If I started that way, it would have ended.

If I just said, well, I'm going to do this.

Make the Batman look this way.

Change, Gotham, do that.

It would have collapsed.

It was too much.

But it grows in the telling.

And I was lucky enough to have a guy who let me do it.

- It's sort of like jazz.

I think it was Herbie Hancock was talking about Miles Davis


And he said he hit the wrong note.

And it wasn't so much that it was the wrong note.

It was what he would do on the next note.

So sort of what you were saying, I was thinking along that.

You're following in the footsteps

of folks like Neal Adams, or Jose Luis, Garcia Lopez, or Jim


And you are finding your own voice

within that visual lexicon,

which is just fascinating.

You also talk about how you make the backgrounds

sort of a character.

So when you're dealing with a Batman, or a Sandman,

or a Deadman, how do you visualize those worlds

so that way it becomes that character?

- First and foremost, it has to look like that character,

whether he's on the page or not.

It has to look to you like, well, Batman--

this is a Batman story even though he's not there.

So you think of it that way.

What that environment is.

With Deadman he's a ghost.

So everything should be like a horror film,

but not as easy as that.

But it should be sad.

It should be not the moment of something happening,

but many years after that something happened.

That's how I would always approach it.

And I would say that a wrong note, to me,

is just a discordant one.

And I like discordant.

So if you can find something that rings off,

that wakes people up.

They all expect the right note, but they don't

expect the discordant one.

And the discordant one is interesting.

And I always defer to interesting.

If people begin to look at this--

I always looked at this way.

There's a shock of change.

And I knew when it would come on that, there

would be a shock of change.

And a lot of people don't want to go through that create.

They want universal love or acceptance, whatever.

Because it's a very dangerous thing to be disliked.

But when I came on there, I found nobody

was talking about these things.

They were just by role doing it.

They were just going through it.

I knew I had these ideas.

And I knew I couldn't do it their way.

So I went into it saying, well, I'm going to ask them to think.

I'm not going to explain it to them.

I'm going to be ambiguous.

If his ears are long and his cap is weird, figure it out.

But look at the books, and when you read them.

Now the best thing that can happen

to an artist or any creative person

is someone can-- someone has to come up and tell you

they dislike it.

They hate it.

You ruin their lives with this.

And then a few issues--

a few years later, they go I can't imagine anyone else

doing it, but you.

And I had an enormous amount of that.

And not just from fans, but from people who were fans,

got into the business, became editors,

and would call me and always tell me that story.

I've heard it more times than I can now.

And the reason I came to that is it happened to me.

I would read a book.

There would be a big change.

I would go, no.

And then I fell in love with it.

And then it was the only way.

And I went, boy, how naive am I, or how unexperienced am I

that I didn't accept that?

Or just go let me try to get used to this a little bit.

- Well, Kelley, I'm sorry, but we've run out of time.

I'd like to thank you so much for talking with me.

There's literally countless directions

I would like this conversation to continue,

but there's only so--

[interposing voices]

- Very kind.

Thank you.

- Thank you again for taking time out to talk with me today.

And thanks, everyone at home for watching Comic Culture.

We will see you again soon.

[music playing]

- [Announcer] Comic Culture is a production of the Department

of Mass Communication at the University of North

Carolina at Pembroke.


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