HEROES CON 2022: AN INTERVIEW WITH J.K. WOODWARD
Fresh from Heroes Con, Comic Book Yeti contributor Alex Breen corresponded on the convention floor with J.K. Woodward, artist of Fallen Angel, numerous Star Trek comics, and the upcoming horror-action series Behemoth, to discuss how his art style has evolved since his time on Star Trek and the importance of earnest collaboration in comics.
COMIC BOOK YETI: Thank you, J.K., for joining me today with Comic Book Yeti. So, who are some of your all-time favorite artists as a fan?
J.K. WOODWARD: Well, I remember the first Comic Con I ever went to, and the only reason I went is that I wanted to meet John Byrne. He was the second coming of Kirby and the guy we all loved in the '80s. That's the guy I wanted to be at the time. Then I found out about Sienkiewicz when he started doing Moon Knight around the same time. And I was like, "this is Neal Adams on acid." I love this stuff.
Eventually, he did a book called Stray Toasters, which none of my friends liked at the time, but I love. I just thought it was brilliant. It was like Pink Floyd's The Wall for comics. And that was more my influence than anything else. Then later in life, I found out about people like Alex Ross, who's kind of my age. And he just got there first, but that's the kind of stuff I do.
CBY: So that one-two punch of Sienkiewicz and Alex Ross, you say would have the biggest influence on your personal style?
JW: I think so. I think if you look at my work, you can see both those guys in there.
"...I credit Star Trek as the reason I'm the man I am today. I probably would not be as nice of a guy if it wasn't for Star Trek."
CBY: Okay, cool. So, this is kind of my full disclosure personally, but I'm a casual fan of Star Trek. So I guess if anyone's like, looking for me to grill you on Star Trek, I'm not the guy for that. But you know, one thing I'm curious about is, were you always a fan of the Star Trek property?
JW: Oh, yes. And the thing is Star Trek, for artists out there, just so you know, doesn't pay that much. Because the money from the publisher goes to the property owner. And so, there isn’t much left for the talent. That's why even when it was at Marvel and DC, people started there and ended up moving elsewhere.
CBY: So, the licensing fees ate that up a lot?
JW: Yeah. And so I've been doing Star Trek for about 20 years now. That's how much I love it. It's not really paying the rent, but I love it. And after a while of doing this, I started working directly with CBS, who owned the property before it became Viacom again before they... Paramount wasn't involved for a while. And so I worked with those people directly.
There’s actually a book called The Mirror Universe right now, The Mirror War. That’s out right now. But there was originally a book that came out five years ago called Mirror Broken. And that was something that started with me and John Van Citters, who is the director of CBS consumer products, which owns the rights to Star Trek, and we did it for a style guide. And they were like, “well, why aren’t we doing this comic?” So they got the Tipton Brothers to create a story around it and here we are, seven years later, and it’s still out there.
CBY: That's incredible. So I guess what would you say is your favorite era of Star Trek as a fan?
JW: Oh, don't ask me that.
CBY: Or how about this? Is there an era that's more fun for you to draw? Or is that equally tough?
JW: Yeah, it's hard to say. It's like asking, I'm a David Bowie fan, like, what's your favorite Bowie album? Like, what day of the week is it? Depends on when you asked me, you know? Because I'm Ziggy Stardust guy today, and tomorrow, I'm into something else. I think with Star Trek, I'll always be an original series guy because that's how I got introduced. I watched it in the '70s with the reruns and it was on at seven o'clock every night. And right after that, I'd go to PBS and watch Doctor Who. So that was the science fiction that I absorbed at that age. So Star Trek will always have a special place in my heart because of that.
But that being said, I remember when I was a senior in high school, they were playing music in the background, and all of a sudden, I'm like, "Turn the music down, turn to me," because on the TV, showed up a commercial for the upcoming, Star Trek: The Next Generation. In 1987, they were like this new show was coming on and it was the first time I heard about it. "There's a Klingon on the bridge!" That's when I outed myself as a nerd. And I think Next Generation, like, really revived it. Because what you got to know is, in the '80s, before Next Generation, Star Trek was a dead property, apart from the movies which seemed to be coming to an end. It was just a bunch of nerds going to cons and that's where Comic Cons came from, actually. Star Trek started that whole thing.
And of course, the new stuff coming on now has done the same thing 20 years later, but to answer your actual question, instead of going on and on, I would say the original series is still always going to be my favorite because they always had those...Voyager, also... because they always had those questions they asked, like, "What if God was not a nice guy," you know? In those kinds of questions, you watch an episode, you'd learn something by the end of it. Maybe it was a good thing. Maybe it wasn't because some of it was problematic because it was the '60s. It's probably some feminist issues they should have dealt with that they didn't deal with until Next Generation. But the thing I liked about Star Trek is you always learned how to be a better person from Star Trek.
And I credit Star Trek as the reason I'm the man I am today. I probably would not be as nice of a guy if it wasn't for Star Trek. Star Trek teaches you what it's like to be the other. No matter who you are, it doesn't matter, but it teaches you what it's like to be the other.
CBY: Yeah, I can understand that. Because one of the episodes of the original series I remember watching as a kid was like...
JW: Is it the Frank Gorshin one?
CBY: Wait. Riddler, Frank Gorshin? I didn't realize that was him in it. Oh, wow! That makes a lot of sense now, but yeah, that episode really stuck with me.
JW: "We hate those guys because their face is black on the wrong side." Yeah. And it makes you realize how ridiculous racism is.
CBY: Yeah, it's a wonderful, wonderful use of futuristic storytelling.
JW: And the reason I say Voyager is another one of my favorites is because they continue with that. They were in Delta Quadrant, they weren't around the Federation, they took all that away. And then they would have to learn, that just because we have these values doesn't mean these other people do. And I think the Voyager taught us that just because our values don't match these other people's values, it doesn't make them wrong or us right, and doesn't give us the right to take over. It was anti-colonialism, basically, is what they were teaching and that was in the '90s.
And now we have new messages and I get really upset when people go like, "Oh, it's so woke." Star Trek has always been. That's all it's ever been. Just enjoy it and learn from it. If you see a character that's a villain that reminds you of yourself. Take some stock. That's what Star Trek is for.
CBY: Well said. Thank you for entertaining me with my... I'll say token Star Trek question.
JW: Get me talking about Star Trek and I won't shut up.
CBY: So, onto Behemoth, because you were gracious enough to give me a preview of it.
JW: Grateful for the opportunity to talk about it.
CBY: Yeah, that comic stood out to me a lot honestly. So for Behemoth, can you give the readers an elevator pitch for the story?
JW: So basically, when I describe this, it's gonna sound like "Oh, well, they've done that story before and the X-Men have done that story." But seriously, we're taking a new angle. Chris Kipiniak, [is] the writer, who, by the way, has done a Nightcrawler miniseries and a bunch of Spider-Man stories, so he's not new to comics.
But anyway, the story really is these kids, for whatever reason, and we don't explain it (we're saving that for later) start turning into monsters and the government to start rounding them up, and they're given a choice. Either you turn into a beast and we put you down, or you work for us in a sort of Black Ops, CIA way. So the story follows this young girl who is turning into a monster and opens with the "men in black" showing up and taking her away, and she ends up going to a prison camp and she's offered the choice to either die here, or do something else: help your country. And she says, "Well, I'll do that." And the question that we're trying to bring across is, what makes you more of a monster? The choices you make, or how you were born? That's really what the story is about.
It's a group of people that become a family because they're all working for these black ops, but they're also like, "Who are we really?" Some of them are more monstrous than others, some people mutate to the point of being crazy. Others, like Teresa, the main character in the story, still has her brain, but she can feel it slipping away. And she's really worried about that. Am I a monster? What makes me a monster? Am I a monster for serving my country? Or am I a monster for not serving my country? Or am I going to be a monster either way? What do I do? Those are the kinds of things we're grappling with in this.
CBY: Yeah. And that goes back to Star Trek in a sense, taking on a more futuristic angle for a topic that applies to the real world.
CBY: Well, I appreciate the context for that because the book isn't out yet. And by the way, this is a gorgeous freaking comic. Can you walk us through a little bit of your artistic process for your pages?
JW: Sure! This book is a little different from what you're probably used to if you're a Star Trek fan, and you saw my Star Trek work. I do a kind of Alex Ross-type painting, hyper-realism. In this book, I did something a little different. I did ink and I did it a little less realistic. I did more of the stuff I enjoyed, like that back to the John Byrne and the John Buscema influence and the stuff I enjoyed as a kid. Behemoth gave me the opportunity to do that, but it's still a little bit more realistic. Like, if you look at it, it's somewhere halfway between John Buscema and Alex Ross. But it gave me the opportunity to do something a bit more expressive. So, in my opinion, this is the best art I've ever done and that nobody would pay me for. So, I had to do it myself.
"I've always been a horror artist. And I bring a darkness to sci-fi, whenever I can."
CBY: I mean, that's the beautiful thing about independent work is you have the opportunity to stretch yourself in ways you might otherwise not get the opportunity.
JW: Exactly, yeah. If you're an editor, and you see my work, and it's sold well as that, they want more of that. But if you're an individual doing your own comic, you can tell them, "I know this is going to do well." They're not going to take the chance, but if you're doing your own indie comic, you can do that. That's where the best stuff comes from.
CBY: Yeah, whole companies were created off the idea of "I'm gonna go my own way."
JW: And it all started from people that didn't want to pay for it. It could go one way or the other. We'll find out in July when it comes out.
CBY: Even the fact that you made this right now, I mean, that will open up other pathways for you down the road. Obviously, the first thing I was thinking of when I was looking through the pages, too, is, that you must really enjoy monsters and horror, right? Like, this seems like an itch you needed to scratch. Not that Trek didn't turn into horror sometimes. But like, this is definitely more in that direction.
JW: It's funny, I have a page hanging my studio from City on the Edge of Forever, where I worked with Harlan Ellison, who by the way is more of a horror guy than a sci-fi guy. He would never admit it, but he always had kind of a dark thing to him. So, when I was doing City on the Edge of Forever, my favorite page, that I still have hanging, is when a character got sucked into a vortex and kept dying in the birth of a star over and over again. I showed the guy's face-melting and I was like, "I want to do more of this." So I've always been a horror artist, I think. And I bring a darkness to sci-fi, whenever I can.
CBY: As far as your preference goes, do you usually work on a full script? Or do you get more room to improv on the page?
JW: I've done both. So my Star Trek stuff, I usually work with the Tipton brothers. What we do is we get together on a phone call and we do an outline of the story, develop the story together and then they write the script and I get a full script, and I work off their script. There are other times when writers will just give me the old Marvel method, like, "This is what we want to accomplish on this page. I'll write the dialogue later." And I really enjoyed that. I think the best work comes from that method, more than a full script, but I've also worked from full script when I was doing Fallen Angel with Peter David, but I would call him up once in a while and go, "Hey, on page three, can we do this?"
But the important thing I think, in comics, is there needs to be a collaboration with the writer. And I compare it to Hollywood: here's your screenplay, but no writer is on set, cause I'm directing this picture, you know? And the second the artist gets it, if you give the artist enough leeway, they will tell the story. Either in a worse way or a better way, but let's find out. That used to be the thing in the '70s and '80s and now it's not so much and I think comics have suffered from that a little bit. So I always try to put my foot in the door a bit, you know?
CBY: That's great. I mean, artists aren't- I think the phrase people use is, "They're not art monkeys," you know? It's a collaboration.
JW: Well, the thing is, we're just as good at telling stories as writers, we just do it visually. There are some great talented artists out there that cannot draw comics because it's a separate talent, It's something you have to learn. Yeah, you have to learn how to tell a story on a page, which is different from, I don't know, doing a billboard, or something else. And I think if you're not using that talent, then why are you hiring these people? I think artists actually pitch in more than people realize to a story and I think they should, I think it makes it better.
"Some of the best stuff that you're reading right now is a collaboration, and I think those are the books that do better."
CBY: Can you expand on that for listeners? Some of the aspects of an artist's job that get overlooked?
JW: Well, like I said, like, with the Star Trek stuff, the Tiptons, we would have a phone call, and we would talk about like, "you know, what'd be great? Why don't we do this? Why don't we do that?" And you know, I wouldn't write the script, but I would say like, here's what we start with, here's where we want to go and I would be a part of that. I think the stories come out better for that reason.
With Chris Kipiniak and Behemoth, that started at a bar in Queens. We were like, "Okay, so let's work on something together." We both worked in comics, he did his Nightcrawler thing, and I did my IDW stuff and like, we need to do something. So, we sat there and he told me about... in this case, he came up with all the ideas because he had all these ideas... and I went, "I like that one" And I picked Behemoth. Then we started talking about like, what do we want to say, what is the point of this? So I told him that I think it should be about this and he's like, "that's what it's about" and we saw eye to eye.
He actually gave me a full script, but that was an example of where I would call him and go, "What if, on page two, he said, panel three should look like this. What if I make that two panels? And I do this?" And he's like, "Yeah, whatever you want to do." And I think you've got to give artists that kind of freedom because [they] think visually. Unless you're a writer who is an artist, the artists know better about how to tell that story visually and he was always good with that.
There have been some times when I was forced to draw something that I knew was bad and I'm not going to mention names on that one. I'm not gonna shoot anybody in the leg here, but, there were some times where I was like, "this isn't working" and they're like, "just do what you're told, art monkey." And that reflects badly on the artists because the reviews come in and they're like, "this artist has bad storytelling" and I had no choice. So, I think some of the best stuff that you're reading right now is a collaboration, and I think those are the books that do better. I think the ones that do bad are written by... maybe screenplay writers and have done comics, forcing the artists to do things that don't work.
I think comics know what they're doing. They've been around since the '30s. Obviously, we know what we're doing, it works. And I think when you mess with that recipe, when you come in... and I blame Hollywood for a lot of it, that hurts the storytelling. I think, artists and writers are supposed to work together to tell the story. You're not supposed to just do what they tell you.
CBY: Yeah. And I think it's just everything coming together. The art, the letters, the coloring, – it's like you said, it's all the ingredients of like a secret sauce. If it's a little bit too much in one thing, it ruins the whole recipe.
JW: You're exactly right. Being a comic book artist is a different skill from a commercial artist. You can be a great artist and not be good at telling a story, it's a specific talent, it's something we work really hard to do and it's something every artist thinks they can do, but not all of us can. I hope if I say anything here, it's that comic art is a special skill. Not every artist can do it.
CBY: Yeah. And it shouldn't be taken for granted.
JW: It shouldn't be taken for granted. Telling a story is something you can do it visually, as well as with words.
CBY: So you kind of answered this. So I'm gonna modify the question a little bit. So, I know you're working on Behemoth now. In general, have you knocked off every property that you've wanted to draw for? And if you have, is there another genre that you would like to take a crack at besides horror?
JW: As I age and I see the end coming near, I think about what am I going to leave the world? So, I started thinking about the properties I want to do, I want to invent something. I want to be the Star Trek, I want to be Gene Roddenberry when I die, so I can live on forever, in that certain sense. But if you're talking about, the properties I worked on, Star Trek was the first and X-Men was the second.
I said when I was 12, the same age my stepson is, I said, "I'm gonna do an X-Men book, because I love John Byrne." Once I did that, I was like, "checked it off my list" and moved on. Star Trek was a big one and I got to do Doctor Who and Planet of the Apes as well. The only one I haven't done that I really want to do is Star Wars. I want to do Star Wars so bad.
I even pitched a Star Trek/Star Wars crossover once, in the hopes that we could, at the time, Dark Horse owned the property, in the hopes that IDW would work with them. It was around the time I was doing the Star Trek/Doctor Who crossover. I was like, "What if we do a Star Wars one" and it was like, the Borg go back in time. And ended up in a galaxy far, far away. They tried to take over, but Vader takes over the Borg and now Vader is like the Borg queen. I was like, "if you guys don't do this, you're stupid." Now I realize that it was a dumb idea, but as a fan, how awesome would that be?
CBY: I mean, at its core, multimedia type of crossovers, that is playing with all the toys and there's nothing wrong with that. It can just be like a really, really fun spectacle.
JW: So when people go like, "Oh, it's a crossover. That's lame." I'm like, "Yeah, but you bought it, didn't you?"
CBY: Hell, one of the coolest crossovers of all time is Alien vs. Predator.
JW: The coolest one was Batman vs. Predator.
CBY: Oh, yeah! Good call. So, rounding it down then. When is issue one of Behemoth coming out?
JW: Supposedly July 6, according to the printer, but I'm told that indies always come out late so it could be the week after but supposedly July 6. I'm going to be doing a signing at San Diego Comic Con over at the Scout booth. The company's called Black Caravan, but it's an imprint from Scout, so I'll be over at the Scout booth so if you're at San Diego... Will this come out before [San Diego Comic Con]?
CBY: I will make sure to get it out for that. It will take me a bit to transcribe all this, but yes. I will make sure that happens.
JW: Ok, so I will be at San Diego over at the IDW booth and the Scout booth signing Star Trek and Behemoth.
CBY: Excellent and where can people find you on social media?
JW: @JK_Woodward on both Twitter and Instagram. All I do is like if I'm doing a commission that's all I do on Instagram. Like you'll never see a picture of me going "Hey, selfie!" But you'll always see my art there. I do a lot of if you'd like that. I want to call it stop motion. What's...
CBY: Are you thinking of process vids?
JW: Yeah! So, I put it on Instagram and also on a Facebook site called The Art of JK Woodward. Okay, so look for that. Also, if you'd like Star Trek, listen to me and Daryl, get drunk and talk about it on Go Trek Yourself.
CBY: Okay. Well, JK, thank you so much for your time.