“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.
In her own words, Erin O’Neill Jones is “a simple art nerd who loves storytelling.” That simple nerd has, through careful planning and a little luck, been able to carve herself a career based around artistic storytelling — not only in comics, but through a variety of projects for different clients in different fields. And don’t look now, but some even bigger projects with her name on them are coming just over the horizon.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties: Comic artist and sometimes illustrator
Your home base: Houston, Texas
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What’s the attraction for you as an artist to working in the comics form specifically?
Erin O’Neill Jones: It’s a form of storytelling I can participate in. My family is full of amazing oral storytellers — people who can talk your ear off about the most mundane of things and have you in tears laughing by the end of the story. I’m not so great with words, but I can doodle a bit, so that’s how I’ve always contributed.
I’m also really into the collaborative aspect of comics. It’s all about connections — first between each member of the creative team, and ultimately between the team and the reader who breathes life into the story.
Plus, comics are a lot of fun.
KS: Do you remember when the “I want to do that” thought first appeared in your head regarding an art career of some kind?
EOJ: When I was on maternity leave with my second kid — wow, that is really sad, lol! Prior to that it never occurred to me that a career in art was even a possibility for me. As a kid, it was just expected that I’d put aside my “hobby” someday, study hard, and get a good job. I followed that script — even quit drawing for like ten years — and was absolutely miserable. When I was on maternity leave, my job reduced my salary, and I started doing the math. I figured out how much money I’d have to bring in if I switched careers and started plotting to escape my day job.
KS: What professional path were you on back in those miserable days?
EOJ: I was an operations supervisor for a third-party logistics company in the tech sector. I started out as a file clerk/data analyst and ended up running a multi-million dollar warehouse by the time I quit. Looking back at it, if they’d just given me the same raises as my male peers, I never would have realized I could afford to quit. I hated it, but I learned how to negotiate contracts, figured out client retention practices, and developed my unhealthy fixation with spreadsheets there. It wasn’t entirely terrible… just mostly terrible.
KS: Do you remember the first time you ever got paid for a piece of your art?
EOJ: Middle school or high school maybe? People used to pay me to draw stuff for their display boards whenever we were assigned presentations. I accepted cash or Skittles.
KS: Okay, then moving to cash only, what was your first professional paid gig? Did you at all get the sense that you’d officially “made it” as a pro?
EOJ: I took a lot of baby steps before I was willing to claim the “comic artist” title, so I was getting paid for my art long before I got over the impostor syndrome. I went from graphic artist who wanted to illustrate, to illustrator who really wanted to draw comics, to comic artist who is still in disbelief that I get to work with so many amazing people.
Despite 2020 being the hot mess that it was, I had a lot of “made it” moments that finally convinced me that no one was coming to shove me back in the cubicle I escaped from. The Living Heroes Kickstarter being funded in a day, meeting my agent, having DC pop up in my inbox, and my first graphic novel pitch going to auction, all made me realize it wasn’t a fluke.
KS: Your work has now appeared not only in comics, but on book covers and work for various clients. Tell us a little about your professional lifestyle. How do jobs typically find you (or vice versa)?
EOJ: Word of mouth and Twitter. I can trace almost every job to either a former client/collaborator who put my name out there or a shitpost on Twitter, lol. I’ve found that making sure my clients and collaborators actually enjoy the creation process has done more for my career than any advice I’ve tried. People who like working with you tend to tell their friends.
Now that I’ve got an agent, it’s pretty much the same, but I’m less stressed because I don’t have to follow up as much or negotiate contracts on my own.
KS: For many creatives, landing an agent can be something of a dream goal. What was your secret?
EOJ: It’s the shortest story ever. I do my New Year’s resolutions in April for my birthday and “find an agent” was the last thing on my list for 2020. I tweeted about it and got a recommendation two minutes later. After a few emails and a phone call, I signed with Claire [Draper] at The Bent Agency.
KS: That’s both an amazing bullseye shot and also a testament to the power of social media.
EOJ: I will say I did a fair amount of prep work before I got to that point. I sat and thought about what kind of work I’d need to pull in to support my household; I’ve got a house, kids, and all the bills that come with that. I love cape comics, but the turnaround time and the amount that those projects pay would be difficult for me to pull off because my kids are still young. That led me to longer-form projects like graphic novels that would give me more flexibility in my schedule. I can still pick up the occasional anthology gig, while having a bit more financial stability. After researching what was going on in the world of graphic novels, I knew I’d need someone who could help me navigate that whole scene. So, I updated my portfolio, made a page with my best sequential work, and hit send on that tweet. Wasn’t expecting things to move that fast, but I’m glad I was prepared.
KS: Backing up to your days as a comics reader, did you used to have particular favorite titles or characters?
EOJ: I was an opportunist. My dad was really insistent on me reading educational content, so if I couldn’t make a case for a book being “academic,” I couldn’t get it. I read every comic strip in the newspaper, faithfully kept up with scanlations and webcomics — I was a huge fan of Faith Erin Hicks’ Demonology 101 — and checked out every TPB from the local library.
Because I rarely got to read a complete run of any given story, I made up for it by creating comics with my brothers. We spent every summer writing and planning this massive universe of interconnected stories. The hope of someday getting to draw and publish some of those stories is the reason I ditched my day job and threw myself into this work full time.
KS: We can’t let that go by without hearing more. What kinds of stories were those?
EOJ: There are so many, roughly 60 the last time we met up and counted, crossing every genre you can think of — from space westerns with mechs to fantasy psychological thrillers. If we were into something, chances are we plotted out a comic and designed characters for it.
KS: Have you revisited any of that material recently?
EOJ: Back in 2019, I asked them if they wanted to resurrect any of our old ideas and we made a short list of the comics we’d publish if given the chance. I put them on notice — they’ve got until I finish these graphic novels to polish the scripts. The first one up is a comic about the Grim Reaper’s protégé that I’ve been dying to draw for years.
KS: Thinking back on the comic stories you first encountered, was there a particular one that really wowed you?
EOJ: [I] don’t think I can give a definitive answer. Everything I’ve ever read, even the stuff I hated, has stuck with me in one way or another. Like a lint roller or a katamari ball, it’s all just stuck up there and sort of blends into each other. I remember my whole world shifted when I first got my hands on Rorouni Kenshin, but I couldn’t tell you if it was because of the story, because of the way the story was presented, or because me and my dad were really into chanbara movies at the time.
KS: Tell us a little about your current workspace or studio setup.
EOJ: I share a studio with my partner Chris who is a collector (with a capital C), so my desk is sort of shoved nestled into a bay window. Normally, being surrounded by that much stuff would be distracting, but since my back is to it, I only notice it when I’m on a Zoom call.
My dad made me this cool glass desk that I try to keep clean, but it’s usually buried under all of my kids’ art projects — they’re currently into making their own comics.
KS: How about listening to music, or any other background noise while you work?
EOJ: My house is loud (three kids) and my noise cancelling headphones stay glued to my head, so I’m always listening to something. The problem is I can only listen to specific things during specific phases of working on a comic.
Like, the way my brain is set up I can’t listen to anything with English or French lyrics while I’m thumbnailing or referring to a script. But if I’m doing inks or backgrounds, suddenly, I’m able to process speech again so that’s when I catch up on podcasts. I also learned I can’t listen to songs from music videos I’ve watched. I’ll zone out and start remembering the visuals from the . My brain is annoying like that.
KS: As an artist who’s now worked with several different writers, what does the current Erin better understand about collaboration in this business/artform than the Erin who first started out doing it?
EOJ: I can be pretty intuitive when it comes to picking up clues in a script — all the things the writer may have been thinking but didn’t necessarily include in the text — but there’s always a calibration period where I’m sorting out what’s most important to the writer and what’s most important to the story (which isn’t always the same thing). I used to struggle through this phase hoping I could figure it out on my own.
I’ve learned to just ask the question no matter how ridiculous it makes me sound. Yes, that sometimes means asking a writer I admire what kind of breakfast cereal a particular character would eat even though there’s no scene involving cereal or breakfast, but whatever it takes to understand the characters and the world I’m being asked to draw. So, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s not a test, it’s a comic. And everyone involved wants it to be the best comic possible.
KS: Is there a moment of pride/joy from your career thus far that really stands out and maybe still makes you smile?
EOJ: There are a few, but the one that’s coming to mind today is the Janelle Monáe tribute I got to collaborate with Vita Ayala on in DC’s upcoming Wonderful Women of History. Everyone on the team was a huge Monáe fan, and their reactions to the art was everything I’d hoped for. I actually felt like I’d pulled off a heist or something, because I’d never watched any of her music videos before getting that assignment.
KS: Hypothetical time: A comics publisher is offering you a chance to illustrate one story featuring an established character/characters of your choice. You can mix & match whoever you like for a single issue, graphic novel, miniseries…
EOJ: Oh no! This question is stressing me out… there are too many possibilities. I’m going to choose the entire BatFam (plus Selina Kyle). I unironically adore the Batman TV series with Adam West and would love to see current members of the Bat Family in that sort of setting. They could literally be doing nothing for the entire story, I’m there for the family squabbles. Plus, it would be an excuse to draw Eartha Kitt as Catwoman.
KS: How about a passion of yours totally unrelated to comics or art? Something you study, practice, collect, whatever…
EOJ: I have a hard time not bringing comics into the things I’m interested in. I love learning about the latest discoveries in natural sciences and cognitive sciences, but it always ends with me coming up with plot bunnies that turn into more comics I don’t have time to draw. I think crocheting is the only thing I haven’t turned into work. It keeps my hands busy and is as close as I’ll ever get to meditating.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel from any era that you look at as an example of the craft at its highest form?
EOJ: This is the cruelest question anyone could ask me, because there are so many and I’m going to wake up in a cold sweat two weeks from now because I forgot to tell you about a book that changed my life.
Whenever I’m prepping for a project, I try to re-read books that remind me why I love comics, you know, to pump myself up. So, I recently re-read Gaby Dunn and Claire Roe’s Bury the Lede. Every creative choice made by that team worked so well together, and I am obsessed with Miquel Muerto’s colors. My god.
I also just re-read Petra Nordlund’s Tiger, Tiger (tigertigercomic.com) from the beginning. Every time I read it, I’m drawn in by something different. This go-round it was the surreal borderless dream sequences.
KS: To wrap up, tell us what you’re working on now and what we should look out for going forward.
EOJ: John Robinson IV and I have a story called “Min/Max” in the upcoming Kamikaze Short Circuits Anthology that I’m pretty proud of. I just found out it’s a featured story, so it’ll be available to read for free on their website (kamikazeanimated.com) this summer. There’s also Vita Ayala’s Janelle Monáe tribute in DC’s Wonderful Women of History that’s coming out in September. I’ve got a few unannounced projects I’m not allowed to speak about yet, but I can talk about the graphic novel I’m about to start. I’m teaming up with Alyssa Cole on our first of two OGNs, Reject Squad. It’s got fight scenes, and magic, and romance, and dragons, and I can’t wait for people to read it … in 2024.