STGCC 2015: JIM CHEUNG INTERVIEW
by Jedd Jong
British comic book artist Jim Cheung is in Singapore for the first time as a special guest of the Singapore Toy, Games and Comics Convention. Cheung has drawn for Marvel and CrossGen and has risen as one of Marvel’s superstar artists, having been named a “young gun”, a potential superstar, by Editor-in-chief Joe Quesada in 2005.
Cheung is probably best known for pencilling Young Avengers. Alongside writer Allan Heinberg, Cheung created characters such as Iron Lad, Hulkling, Wiccan, Hawkeye (Kate Bishop) and Speed.
At CrossGen, Cheung pencilled Scion and has gone on to draw such titles as New Avengers: Illuminati, Avengers: The Children’s Crusade and X-Force for Marvel. He has also done cover art for Avengers vs. X-Men and World War Hulk: Warbound.
Speaking to other journalists and I, Cheung looks back on his career, shares his inspirations and influences, weighs in on the aesthetics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and talks about his persistence in getting a page right.
It has been ten years since you were named one of Marvel’s “young guns”.
Oh, don’t remind me! [Laughs]
What was that like and looking back over your career, what has the journey been like so far?
It’s been a hell of a journey, I would see. It was definitely a surprise to be named a “young gun” back in 2004…2005, because I’d already been in the business a good ten years, so to be named a “young gun” was definitely unusual. It was definitely an honour, definitely a privilege to be amongst so many artists and such enormous talent. I guess it did in some ways further my career a lot. Thanks to that book, Young Avengers, it really helped my career a long way, because that was my big return to Marvel because before that, I went to work for CrossGen for a few years. It was an unusual point to jump in, the fact that it became a hit was definitely a big bonus.
What are the main inspirations for your current art style?
Current art style? It’s really like a bastardized style of a lot of my favourite artists. I kind of look at artists that I like and critically break it down, take different elements of what I like and try to incorporate it into my work and then it just becomes natural, that’s just the way it’s always been. I’m more an assimilator in a way, because if you look at my early work, you can see it’s very crude but then it gets more and more refined, because I’m looking at other people’s work and getting influenced by it. That’s why when I went to CrossGen, I was able to be in a studio with a whole bunch of artists for the very first time, and I was able to “steal” from them quite comprehensively.
Who were some of these artists who inspired you?
At CrossGen, there was a whole bunch of people. I worked very simply back in the day. When I was in London, I never worked with a lightbox before, then when I went to CrossGen, I saw people working with lightboxes so I got very curious. I developed a style where I started doing layouts very roughly and placed them underneath the finished board, whereas before I used to draw everything straight and I didn’t think about moving it over, once I started doing that, pieces started becoming starting much tighter. And looking at other artists’ work, like Greg Land who was also in the studio, seeing how much photo reference he was using, how he was using it, how Steve Epting was using the blacks in his pages, things like that were adding to my work.
What went into creating the characters who formed the Young Avengers, alongside Allan Heinberg?
Basically, I was just given the descriptions from Allan and from Tom Brevoort, the editor, and I just went away and did some rough designs. I kept doing multiple designs until I was comfortable with something to hand in to show them. A lot of them were very crude to begin with because they just basically said “do younger versions of the Hulk, of the Avengerscharacters.” So I was trying to give it a more modern twist while retaining a lot of those classic elements in making those characters, so it was a lot of trial and error, a lot of playing around, a lot of moving things around.
Is there a project you’ve worked on that you’d like to tackle?
I haven’t done any DC stuff in a long time and I’m very curious about that. I’d love to do some Batman stuff, some Justice League, although I really should be shying away from doing team books because it takes me forever to do them. For some reason, they keep hiring me to do team books, like Axis and certain characters.
As an artist, what are your thoughts on the visual style of the films that form the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
I love the fact that they kind of look like superheroes, although in some ways, I’m less keen on some of the complicated outfits because I like things clean, simple, visually arresting. With the movies, sometimes they can get overly complicated with their designs, I think it takes away…it kind of gets generic after a while. If there are rivets and buttons everywhere, then there isn’t that much colour, it can look very samey-samey. That’s some of the issues I’ve had with the movies, some of the characters could be interchangeable and it wouldn’t even matter. I understand that, because they have to make it sophisticated for the movie audience, but at the same time, it can be overdone. The good thing with the Marvel movies is that at least they still somewhat resemble the comic book versions, they’re still very distinctive.
How do you overcome artist’s block?
Partly why I’m so slow is because I’m constantly struggling to get things right, that’s why when people ask me to video myself and put it up on YouTube, my process and how I draw, I’d be like “70% of the time will be erasing what I’ve just drawn so it will be a very, very boring video.” I get artist’s block, unfortunately, I’m too stupid to walk away, I just keep hammering at it. Sometimes I will switch to other pages and they’ll come easier.
What do you struggle in getting right, is it the composition?
The composition, the way I draw a face, it can never come out right sometimes. Sometimes I think it’s important to have a different perspective on things, which is why with the lightbox it lets you switch things over, so you turn the page over, everything’s completely different, so sometimes that helps as well.
If you had a chance to work on a movie or television series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would you be willing to do it?
I don’t think I’m really suited to it. I’d certainly be interested; it’s a whole different field.
Which series would you be interested in?
I want to do a Young Avengers series, yes [laughs].
Is there a character in particular that you enjoy drawing the most?
I really enjoy drawing Thor, I kind of like the Thor eras that I grew up with. I don’t think I’m the best at drawing Spider-Man [but] I do enjoy drawing Spider-Man. I’ve become very comfortable drawing Captain America, even though his costume just becomes more and more complicated. Favourite character…default characters are usually those guys. I’m so used to drawing Marvel characters, that’s the problem, when I’m finally asked to draw DC characters, I’m like “how do you draw Batman again?” [Laughs]
How much leeway to you get to re-interpret a character? When you’re assigned to a book, do you get a chance to redesign the characters’ costumes?
Sometimes. If I’m asked to redesign a costume, then I will try to stay faithful to…I grew up in the 80s so I have a certain image of those characters, so if I’m asked to redesign those characters, I often refer to those as a starting point in a way. Some of the costumes have deviated so much, they look so different than how they used to look that it’s a completely different character with a totally different costume. So I like to bring it back sometimes with more familiar elements. I try to play around with that.
What was your gateway into reading comics?
Very early on, it was Spider-Man. In the UK, they used to reprint all the comics, the weeklies, so I used to come home, after lunch, and read it.
So it was always superheroes rather than war or horror comics?
I did read some of that stuff, but I didn’t really take to it. I read 2000 AD, but I always went back to Marvel characters. I just like the Spider-Man character, maybe it’s because with 2000 AD the stories progressed too slowly, they were always too short, six pages, there was never enough story and by the next week it was another six pages. It just didn’t flow as well.
Most British creators cut their teeth on 2000 AD, how did you break into comics?
I just didn’t start like I was “supposed” to. Back in the 90s, I didn’t really know how to break in. I didn’t know you had to do samples, you had to show them to the right people, so that’s what I did, it just happened to be that the people I showed them to were from Marvel, so I was lucky enough to get my foot in the door there.
What would you say is the hardest part of working in comics?
The hardest part is keeping your game up, I would say. The quality of the artwork these days is amazing. There are kids coming out of high school with better Photoshop skills than I can achieve right now. There’s a level of technology that I never had, they’re so comfortable with those programs, it’s a challenge to try and keep growing.
Does your process involve any digital work?
It does, yes. Nowadays, I do a little fumbling, I scan them in and I play around with them a little bit, I move around elements until I’m happy.
If you were tasked with reimagining the Young Avengers as they are now, what changes would you make?
The way it currently is? I would probably bring it back to the old team. No disrespect to what Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen did, it’s just wasn’t the same team for me, because they were introducing all these new characters and for me, it didn’t quite come across the same way. Maybe it’s the writer; Allan had a certain way with the characters as well. I enjoyed those core characters that I helped design, it’s very personal.
What was it like creating the Comic-Con promotional poster for the new season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and would you like to see movie posters return towards hand-drawn art, as unlikely as that may be?
It was actually quite an honour to do that poster for Comic-Con. I don’t think I’m the strongest guy when it comes to likenesses, so I try to shy away from that as much as possible, but when I was asked to do it, I thought it would be a great opportunity to try and do something that was like the movie posters, James Bond-style, all the elements, like similar to the old classic James Bond movies. That’s what I wanted to do. Luckily it turned out okay, I think. There’s a few things I would change, but there are always things I would change.
Are there any things in geek culture that you’re looking forward to, be it movies, TV or other media?
I’m trying to stay away as much as I can from the Star Wars stuff, you can’t escape it unfortunately. I’m kind of looking forward to seeing how that turns out. I’m also curious to see how the Marvel movies progress, to show the Infinity War. Like everybody else, I’m excited just the same, even though we all have a rough idea of what the story’s going to be like from the comics. It’s always cool to see on the big screen.
In your opinion, what is the most important component of visual storytelling?
The most important element is just clarity of storytelling, making sure the reader can follow everything that’s moving along. One of my rules when I’m laying out a book is that every issue can be somebody’s first, so you’ve got to make sure that it’s clear enough for somebody to pick up, or they aren’t going to be able to follow the story. I’ve picked up books where I’ve tried to read the story, but it’s so confusing because things are bouncing around all the time, it’s lost me even as a seasoned comic book reader. When I see that, I think that’s just missed opportunities – but again, that’s just me being very, very critical. It’s always easy being critical of other people’s work, failing to notice your own flaws.
What do you feel is the reason behind Marvel putting you on a lot of event books?
I don’t know, I think maybe they think I can handle the multiple characters, that’s why they give it to me. I also consider it a privilege, they think that I’m worthy to work on those tentpole events. I don’t question it too much, I just enjoy the opportunity.
Are you involved much with the planning of events?
Not at all, not at all. They just bring me in and show me the script.
Has there been a moment in the industry where you geeked out on a meeting a hero of yours?
I tried to avoid meeting my heroes as far as I can. Sometimes, it can affect your perception of the way you read it, I don’t know if you’ve ever met your heroes, sometimes if they give you a disappointing [first] impression, it affects everything you see from them afterwards. In some ways, I try and avoid that, but the people that I have met are great.
Thanks for an excellent interview Jim!