“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
It’s hard to know where to begin when discussing Jason Shawn Alexander’s wide ranging artistic career. His work on Spawn and so many other titles? His Eisner nominations? His motion comics? His art gallery shows, including the Smithsonian? Instead of trying to sum it up here, let’s hear from the man himself.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist/Writer
Your home base: Sherman Oaks, CA
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: To start off big… Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Jason Shawn Alexander: I love them. Literature and artwork combined. Working and playing off each other to create something no other medium can do. I’m drawn to it like nothing else, no pun intended. Getting to sink in to the beautiful art, the curve of a well-inked figure, exaggerated emotions on characters’ faces that you can just stay with and drink up, along with the text that leads you through the story. Telling jokes, making you furious, breaking your heart. It’s like intimate private movies just for you.
I know I romanticize the f**k out of comics. But truthfully, I’m a natural storyteller. Even in my fine art, the work tends to be more narrative in nature. I love telling stories, visually. Comics also allows me to essentially make infinity budget movies all by myself. Who can beat that?
KS: Around what age did reading comics first become an important part of your life?
JSA: In high school when I was around 15. Up until then, I wanted nothing more than to be a special effects makeup artist. I followed guys like Tom Savini and Dick Smith. I was always drawing but mostly creature designs and horror images. But then Todd [McFarlane]’s Spider-Man blew me out of the water, and I knew I wanted to draw comics. The ’90s stuff really drew me in. Like the X-Tinction Agenda stuff, and that era.
KS: When you were old enough to identify different artists, who were your first favorites? Did you used to follow people from title to title?
JSA: I followed artists from title to title. I would copy their work and scrutinize every line of each issue. I was obsessed. First artist I was so blown away with I learned to ape his style was Todd on Spider-Man. Then, I wanted to be James O’Barr after discovering The Crow. Then, I discovered Chris Bachalo on Shade the Changing Man, and my world was blown open again. From there, I discovered Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave McKean, Kent Williams, etc., and my art world opened up from there, beyond comics.
KS: Aside from admiring the art, was there a particular story that really had an impact on you as a younger reader?
JSA: The Crow. I was 16. Talk about the perfect time to discover emotive, dark, violent comics. Ha! It spoke to me and helped shape how I still make comics.
KS: Where did the art bug come from for you? Is there a specific early memory where a comic or some other form of visual work made you say, “I want to do THAT?”
JSA: My father is an amateur artist, and the spark was initially from him. He made me want to draw and make art. Once I saw Todd’s work on Spider-Man, I knew I would draw comics.
KS: What’s the first “serious” art project you remember creating? I’m looking for something that felt like a major effort at the time, whatever age it was and whether or not you showed it to anyone else.
JSA: At age 19, I got together with some other artist friends, and we started a publishing company. We produced an anthology series called Section 8. This was our first real publishing endeavor away from the photocopiers, etc., going through real printers and real distributors. It’s funny to me now, I was taking major leaps of faith with tons of work and research. Back then, I remember just moving forward. Driven and weirdly fearless.
KS: And what did you and the team ultimately do with Section 8? Did it go to retailers?
JSA: It went to stores. At that time in the industry, there were multiple distributors, not just the one we have now. I called every one of them and was picked up by Diamond and Capital City. We published seven issues of the title Section 8, and from that point another independent publisher called Sirius Entertainment picked up Empty Zone for a miniseries. (Empty Zone first appeared as a short story of Section 8.) This would be my first paying gig in comics, and it was doing my own book.
KS: Would teenage Jason be surprised to hear where your life path has taken you?
JSA: By far. Teenage me was all about horror and comics. The fine art path was something I’d never planned for. I’ve exhibited my work in Europe and across the U.S. But young, tenacious me might look at me now and say, “damn straight.” LOL.
KS: If you look back at your earlier artwork, what’s something that stands out as different from the artist you are today?
JSA: The current use of photo reference is the biggest difference. And upon looking back at my early work, there is something I love about the cartooning I was doing back then. And there’s certainly something about the realism in my work now that I love. I would honestly love to combine the two worlds more.
KS: Do you have a soundtrack for working these days?
JSA: New music distracts the hell out of me. I have two playlists on Spotify that I have been curating over the last two years that tend to be a mix of metal and movie scores. When I’m working, I have to listen to the playlist on repeat. The predictableness of it allows me to keep my focus on the work.
KS: You’ve written, co-written, and drawn various comics. Would you rather be the artist on a great script by someone else, or would you rather write a script to be illustrated by a great artist?
JSA: Artist. Visual storytelling for me is everything. I love creating the look. The atmosphere. If I were doing film, I’d be directing instead of writing. I love taking the scripts and translating them visually. Telling the story through nuance and gesture. It satisfies a drama bug in me as well. I can express myself much better through art.
KS: Is there a comic artist you maybe didn’t fully appreciate back in your reading days who you now “get” from a pro perspective?
JSA: So many! Mike Mignola is the first to come to mind. There was always something interesting about it, but for the most part I passed. Then, Hellboy came out. My eyes finally began understanding what he was doing. Now, I’ve been in love with it for 20 years.
KS: In addition to regular comics, you’ve done fine art, motion comics, been Eisner nominated, and so much more. What’s a particular moment of pride or joy that stands out from this career journey and maybe still makes you smile?
JSA: I’ve had many reasons, thankfully, to smile. I have paintings of mine hanging in homes of A-list stars and CEOs. That makes me smile. I work with artists I admire and have admired since the start, and every time I get a message or note from someone telling me that Empty Zone was very important for them, I smile all day.
KS: Please tell us about a passion of yours totally unrelated to art. Can be something you study, practice, collect…
JSA: My kids. Sounds like a cop out, maybe. Hah. But I truly love watching and participating in their lives. When you make comics you tend to be in your head most of the time. Kids introduced me to something bigger than myself, and it’s been fascinating. On the next tier, I collect old coffee makers, I decorate for holidays like I’m paid to, and I’m still obsessed with special effects make-up. One summer I’d like to take a class and basically sculpt and make masks in my free time. Ha.
KS: We end by spreading the love… What’s a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration or as a source of inspiration?
JSA: Cages by Dave McKean and A Contract with God by Will Eisner. Both bring me right back to what I love about comics. Emotive works, superb storytelling, pacing, and art.
KS: The second trade volume of your series, Killadelphia, hits stores on March 31. For readers who maybe aren’t familiar with the book, what type of audience were you aiming for?
JSA: If someone loves horror and suspense and some pretty funny-ass moments, they should check out Killadelphia. I can’t think of another title I can compare it to. Broadly, if you were a fan of all things Vertigo back in the day, you’re going to absolutely flip for this book. [Writer] Rodney [Barnes] is pushing the mythology of vampires in a direction that I haven’t seen before, and I’m absolutely excited to be a part of it.
KS: Aside from that, tell us about what you’re working on now and what we should be on the lookout for in 2021.
JSA: 2021, for comics, is predominantly Killadelphia. I’m finishing a film pitch with a writing partner, as well as a book project that I’m incredibly excited about.
I’m also spending this year developing the new Empty Zone reboot, and a large anthology book for next year.