Joe Jusko is well known for his realistic, highly detailed painted fantasy, pin-up, and cover illustrations, mainly within the comic book industry. He won the Comic Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Painter in 1992 and 1993, the Wizard Fan Award for Favorite Painter in 1993 and 1994 and his fully-painted graphic novel Tomb Raider: The Greatest Treasure of All won a Certificate of Merit from the Society of Illustrators (which accepted Jusko as a member in 2007).
Q) Joe, your artwork – whether painted or black & white – channels some of the best qualities of a period of comics history that really sings to me, the 1960’s and 1970’s. During that period comics fans had a bit of earlier pulp-inspired stuff and also benefited fully from the emergence of newfangled Marvel-style heroes. What material inspired you as a young person?
It's funny that I'm primarily known as a fantasy artist since I read nothing but 60's superhero comics until John Buscema took over Marvel's CONAN THE BARBARIAN comic in the early 70's. I was (and still am) the biggest Buscema fan and bought anything he worked on. Those books were my introduction to heroic fantasy, soon followed by John's Tarzan run and the Ballantine FRAZETTA books. I then sought out all of the REH and ERB books and have been a fan ever since. I think we all are formed by the impressions that initial exposures of anything have on us and the art and artists of the 60's, whether comic guys or paperback artists like McGinnis, Abbett, and Maguire (among many) are my biggest inspirations.
Q) By the way, your likeness of Conan ranks right up there with all of the great artists who worked on the REH barbarian while he was under the House of Ideas purview. What’s your take on the other artists who chronicled the wandering Cimmerians adventures?
Wow! Thanks! That's a hell of a compliment considering the artistic pantheon you're referring to! I think my Conan is a cross between Buscema and Frazetta, though since I was working on the Marvel book I was tied to their interpretation of him. Fans tend to forget that fact. You can't just run off and do your own thing. Frazetta is by far the benchmark that all artists aspire to meet. Even though Frank's version differs from Howard's description it has become the official interpretation through the sheer magnificence of those paintings. The power and visceral quality of those pieces cannot be duplicated as it was not a planned thing but a naturally occurring phenomena. As such they will never be topped and every other artist's take on the character will be ultimately matched to those and unfortunately come in a distant second. I think I did a decent job on the Marvel covers in spite of just starting my career around that time but Norem and Larkin did vastly superior work as they were so much more experienced than I. I love the recent work by Schultz, Gianni and Manchess. Oddly, I was never a fan of Smith's when I was younger as his Conan was so different from the Buscema/Frazetta version I preferred. As I got older and learned more about "art" I garnered a new appreciation for what Barry did. Live and learn. I'm not really familiar with the current Dark Horse run as I buy very few comics these days although from what I've read there has been some really terrific work done there. . I could go on at length as there have been so many artists that have tackled Conan but I think the answer would never really end so I think we'll move on.
Q) I read where you mentioned that Vampirella was one of your favorite characters to paint and one thing that really gets me about your depictions of the chick from Draculon is how you capture her eyes, and I know that may sound funny considering her rather skimpy outfit, but somehow you seem to bring out the essence of that character. What is the appeal of Vampirella to you (by the way Blood Lust was awesome, one of the best realizations of Vampi since her Warren magazine days)?
I definitely do have an affinity for Draculon's favorite daughter! I don't know exactly why, though a lot has to do with her being the first non superhero character I discovered and the incredibly beautiful Jose Gonzalez art that accompanied that discovery. Any compliment that favorably compares my work to the Warren era is not only appreciated but humbling. I consider Gonzalez, Maroto, Enric and Sanjulian among the best "girl" artists ever. As a matter of fact, I learned to draw male figures from Buscema but I learned to draw women from those guys. Their influence is very heavily evident in my Vampi con sketches. I've always tried to capture the class and glamor that she had during the Warren era, something that many (if not most) current artists tend to forego in lieu of big tits and gore. She's at her core a gothic romance heroine and that's the approach I find works best. I'm amazed by how many comments I get on how I paint eyes. I do feel that the life of every figure in in the eyes and especially with her. Since I don't normally paint her in an action setting any emotional connection needs to emanate from within and the eyes are the most obvious was to achieve that, at least for me.
Q) When art jobs were seemingly scarce you became a New York City police officer. Upon returning to professional life as an artist, did that experience inform your work to any great extent?
Not at all. I was a NYC street kid before I was a cop so I didn't really experience anything new or shocking, I just saw it from much closer up. As a cop you're always told to "leave the job at work", "don't take it home with you", etc. and I did. I think a lot of the domestic trauma I lived with as a kid helped me compartmentalize. While I chose to leave the NYPD and follow my passion for art I still miss the job to this day. I loved the diversity of daily occurrences that being a police officer afforded, never knowing what experience the next minute would bring.
Q) With a thirty year career under your belt, to what extent does being a “proven” quantity add to your ability to drum up topnotch assignments?
That's a good question! Being in the business over 30 years is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand my body of work is an obvious testament to my ability but on the other hand I've 'been around for 30 years' and many younger editors and art directors are either determined to discover their own talent or are totally seduced by digital technology, which is not my medium of choice. I have found that editors whom I have worked with in the past or those who grew up on my work are more apt to hire me, though many times it's for a "retro look" or project. Having the word "legendary" precede your name is the first nail in your professional coffin these days. lol What has happened is that interest in private commissions from people who have followed my work has increased greatly in the past few years. I find it a much more desirable situation in many ways since the pressure of a tight deadline is not a factor and I can produce work of what I think to be a higher quality as I can step away from it for a day or so if I get stuck. You can't do that with pieces done for publication as you almost always get them with little time to spare and need to do the best you can do in the time allotted.
Q) Are you more proactive in seeking out specific work or do you prefer to sit back and see what is offered?
Both, actually. My girlfriend is still amazed that I can open my email on any given day and work drops in from seemingly out of nowhere. lol It's always exciting to see what new project I'm offered. I've learned to not count on that, however, and really have no reservations about letting publishers know of my interest in working with them. The SHEENA covers I did for Devil's Due came about because I saw a news bite on Newsarama.com about them acquiring the rights and contacted them directly. Luckily they were responsive to my enthusiasm for the character.
Q) Do you have any unrealized goals within the industry that you still hope to achieve?
I used to be motivated by competition, awards and recognition but you just reach a point where it's just about the work. I'm never totally happy with what I do (no artist should be) and I just want to keep improving. That's become my daily goal; to either do something I've never done before or do it better than before. Competition with one's self is a lot more rewarding than competing with one's peers.
Q) Besides Vampirella, Conan and Burroughs-related stuff, I think that lots of fans recall your high volume trading card sets. Was doing that type of project a draining experience at all or did it just allow you to really cut loose as a creator?
It was draining (really draining), but I must give credit to the Marvel Masterpiece cards for ultimately changing my career. I painted that set of 104 cards in 92 days with almost no sleep to speak of. They're not the greatest paintings in the world considering the speed at which they were produced but they put a spotlight on me that 14 years of prior work never did. To this day I sign more of those cards than anything else I've ever done. Trading cards were a great tool for learning to think on the fly and paint on demand, at least when you were painting the entire set on your own as I often did. What the weren't were the best way to produce quality work. They couldn't be as the paintings were not only done quickly but on a diminutive scale no larger than 9"x12" in my case. The Masterpiece cards were actually 6"x8.5"! I was always a bit jealous of the artists who painted the Marvel cards after me as they were given a lot more time than I was. Despite the popularity of my set I think the Hildebrandts and Boris & Julie did far superior work, technically. I ran into the same issues with the ERB sets as die hard fans were comparing the quick card paintings to all of the previous Frazetta and St. John work, et al. The fact that the publisher, FPG printed all the classic art on the reverse sides only made the comparisons that much easier. I was talking to Frank [Frazetta] about it one day and his advice was essentially "Fuck "em. What do they know"! lol I felt better after that. :-)
Q) What comics or other genre stuff are you following at the moment? Whose current work do respond to?
My tastes vary like the wind these days and I don't follow many particular titles, but I do follow artists. I love The Goon by Eric Powell, Hellboy by Mignola, anything that Mark Schultz or Eduardo Risso does as well as guys like Ryan Sook (loved, LOVED the Kamandi work), Sean Phillips, Michael Lark and Dave Johnson. I know there are others I'm forgetting at the moment but those are the ones that spring to mind.
Q) What do you think that people find most surprising about you?
That I'm not 90 years old! I started in the business when I was 17 back in 1977 so many people who come to meet me for the first time at cons walk right past my table looking for an older guy! I turn 51 on September 1st but apparently still have my youthful charm (or so I've been told).
Q) Hey man, what does Joe Jusko do to chill out, when he’s not at the drawing board?
I'm a film buff so I'm more than likely gonna be watching a good film noir or Universal monster flick or headed to the movies. I also work out and love darts. I was on several NYC championship teams years ago but haven't played competitively since.
Q) Is there any chance that we might see you back in the Carolina’s or maybe at Dragoncon in 2010? (This question is a big clue as to how long I've had this in the pipeline)