INTERVIEW: Tristan Jones

Tristan Jones is an outspoken Melbourne-based artist and writer, who has worked on such international properties as the TMNT, Ghostbusters, Aliens, and more recently on the covers of Jughead: The Hunger series and the latest issue of Greg Rucka’s Lazarus X+66 for Image Comics.

 

Hi Tristan. We’ve had our disagreements in the past, and I know I’ve done and said some stupid shit over the years. For my part, that’s where I’d like to leave it – in the past. But through all of that, I’ve always admired your talent, particularly as an artist – you’ve really gotten better and better at your craft. 

Thanks, man. Everyone says and does things they regret — I’m a long shot from perfect…!

I particularly like the series of covers you’ve been doing for Archie recently, the Jughead #2 variant in particular. What’s it like working for the Archie crew?

Ah yeah, that one was a good one. One of the rare instances I could just say to editorial “this is what I’m doing, I don’t care what you want” and they let me.

It’s been interesting because I’ve been through a series of different editors. All really great guys, but all with very different outlooks on things and obviously very different books. Alex Segura — the editor on a couple of things I’ve done, but this in particular is a consummate professional, and his years of experience in various different roles in the comics industry have made him one of the best people to work with. There was a secret thing I was working on with him that I had to pull out of for personal reasons, which would’ve been fun, and wildly different from anything Archie’s put out before, so seeing those guys take risks with their brand is fun.

More companies should be so bold. Creators too.

Your issue of Lazarus X+66 came out the other week too. Do you have a preference between covers and interior art?

Interiors are stressful. Working for Greg Rucka was terrifying and the initial timeline for things kinda went from June to October, and when that swung around I was mid-move, my partner was in and out of hospital, I’d gone back to full time work because working in comics is actually really shit if you’re not someone capable of just churning out pages on a full time basis and doesn’t pay what you really deserve even if you’re capable of that unless you’re right up that chain. But there’s a satisfaction to seeing pages completed. I love those interiors. Some of my best work is in that book, but some of my best work is also on some covers I’ve done.

They’re wildly different beasts. There are covers I’ve seen get butchered and altered without my approval, and that always fucking sucks. Covers have their own pressure. I’ve certainly done covers I don’t like, and a lot of the time you’re having to adhere to a corporate mandate, or a corporately driven mandate that can make some covers nightmares to work on regardless of the intent or how much you like the idea you’re putting forward. You get paid more for covers though, and they get your name out in front of people more often.

I think the lazy part of me prefers covers, but I think my days as a cover artist are long gone. I’d rather tell the story.

You started working at MINOTAUR recently, how has that been on the other side of the counter? I think most comic readers one day dream of working at a comic shop – but I’m guessing the dream is more glamorous than the reality.

It’s bizarre. I knew the comics industry had issues, and I have a lot of bones to pick with the way the general public treats any number of facets in the comic industry, but seeing how utterly useless things like Diamond’s preorder system is is a real eye opener. It’s been great though because I’m clearing regular money, which, as I was getting at before, is rare in comics unless you’re a machine or can demand those things. Really, it’s no different to any other retail job I’ve had, but having knowledge of the industry puts me in a slightly better place when it comes to my own work, and I guess getting things done here.

Honestly, I’m just there because it’s something I know and the money is good, and the people there are good. I’d actually gone and got all the licenses and tickets to work in construction prior to this, so really it was just a bake-off to see which place would hire me first. And now, here we are. It’s nothing remotely glamorous. But then again, I don’t really read a lot of comics these days. I read what interests me, and there isn’t much of that anymore. I’m sure it’s better for others, it’s all just how you feel about comics across the board, and I don’t have a tremendously high opinion of a lot of what’s out there at the moment.

You made the transition from writer to artist a few years back, which is not something many writers can do. Tell us a bit about what brought you to that decision.

The money was better and I could draw a bit. At least enough for someone to notice. When I did my TMNT story for IDW, I’d already sorta been courted to do Ghostbusters a couple of times, and then the editor on that book saw I had a following amongst Ghostbusters fans because I was drawing scarier versions of the monsters from the cartoons, so he put me on back-matter stuff and covers. It kinda just evolved into being comfortable enough to draw more ambitious things.

I only became truly comfortable with my interiors after Aliens and I was still actively looking to write as often as I could. Now I’m really only looking at doing creator owned things, or things where I’m writing AND drawing, because I do miss writing, but I’m a control freak creatively. I get worried and panic a bit when I’m working on other writers’ things because it’s their vision I’m working to bring to life, not mine. I’ve had story ideas I’d talked to good friends about doing together, where I’d write and they’d draw, that I’m not kinda wanting to just take back and do all on my own. That’s ultimately where it all came from though, not being able to afford to work on creator owned things with artists I’d worked with or knew through working on the TMNT. Working as an artist I could get paid more, still write and maybe, when I felt comfortable enough, draw my own things.

Does that prove difficult at times, if you’re given a script to draw that (as a writer) you would have written differently yourself?

All the time. My problem is that I don’t want to let people down. But I don’t want to let myself down, and I feel bad when tamper with a script for the sake of what I see as being a problem with the flow of things, but I know as an illustrator and a reader that things can work better if I do them a particular way. It’s balance. You have to keep tabs on it all, particularly when it’s something like Lazarus, where there’s already a long standing narrative owned wholly by the creators. You have to think about the readers, too.

The Alien: Defiance stuff is some really spectacular work, you must have loved working on that one – there’s even an action figure of your xenomorph design isn’t there?

Thanks! Yeah, I did. It was rough, though. That’s a book I poured everything into, and I couldn’t do that on a monthly basis, and doing the Free Comic Day issue in the middle of #1’s schedule was a really bad idea. Good on paper, but completely blew my schedule out. Brian Wood is one of the best people I’ve worked with. He’s an artist’s writer. Really great guy. All that made working on it a blast. And Dan and Nate are longstanding veterans and amongst the best in their fields, so they really elevated work I was already pushing as hard as I could.

And yeah, there’s a figure. I don’t even own one! It was cool to see happen and I did the art on the box – even signed a few in the shop, but yeah, never even got one myself.

I was kinda surprised that you only did a short run on that series – was that always the intention, to have a rotating series of artists on it?

Nah, the intention was to do as many as I could, but life gets in the way sometimes and, as I said, I’m a meticulous, slow illustrator, so the month to month thing wasn’t going to work unless we’d done it ages in advance.

You’ve worked on a lot of commercial properties, such as Ghostbusters, TMNT and more recently the aforementioned Aliens. While these would seem to be dream projects, I imagine you’ve had a lot of editorial restrictions and guidelines imposed on the work – what you can and can’t do. Is that something you can just adapt to, or does it put a frustrating limit on what you’d like to do with them?

It’s infuriating sometimes. The TMNT story I did for IDW was a fucking nightmare. I quit a Halo book halfway through because that was the same. Honestly, I’ve had great editors who tried to make it as painless as possible, and some that’ve asked me to do other corporate things, but I’m done dealing with shit like that. You don’t hire someone for the way they do a thing and then tell them they have to do the opposite, and that’s been a big part of the problem so far. Use in-house guys or something. Back-end micromanagement. Comic illustrators don’t get paid anywhere near enough for that shit, and if they try to put clauses into contracts, then companies move on to the next guy waiting to tow the line.

I figured that must have been at least part of your decision to start working on a creator-owned project at the moment, RUIN. Can you tell us some more about it?

It’s what started as Red Sonja. I showed the pitch to Brian Wood and Nicola Scott, and both of them said it was better than that book deserved. I’d get more from it working on even a low-end creator owned deal than I would doing a Red Sonja book. That’s nothing against the company, that’s just math. I could get a base level work for hire page rate, and then the book would be relegated to the shelves somewhere and probably forgotten, like (honestly) pretty much all the Red Sonja stuff is.

I do my own thing, and I don’t have to answer to corporate interests and censorship, or the whims of the people who own Red Sonja. And there’s a LOT I want to do with that world and that sort of character that I don’t think would’ve gone down well at any stage of it being a work for hire thing. This way, you get my undiluted view on things, and that’s what I want.

Comics have become way too fucking safe. The predictability is gross.

Will you be pitching it to Image or another US publisher, or maybe go down the self-publishing route?

Waxwork Records‘ comic imprint is doing it, and I couldn’t be happier.

I think anyone who follows you on twitter has gotten a real insight into how crazy the deadlines are that you often have to work to – the sleepless nights. You’ve really put yourself through the wringer sometimes. How do you just push through all that, it must be tough to maintain relationships with friends and loved ones when you’re always working against the clock.

Yeah, I hate what I put my partner through. Even when I deliberately put aside time to be with her, it still never felt like enough. It’s part of why I quit comics a while back. I mean. I’m still here, but my day job comes first these days, and I’m having more fun and earning more money doing commissions than I ever did doing comics full time. What kills me is that here I am, where I struggled so hard to get to — creator owned deals, able to charge what I feel work is worth, and earning regular income — and when you’ve been with someone you want to spend you life with and build something with and that gets taken away from you because you’re not able to juggle things fairly, you feel like you’ve got nothing left to work towards.

Friends, not so much, friends come and go, and you can keep up with friends pretty irregularly without really losing anything, and I’ve got a very small group of very good friends, but yeah, when you find that one person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you really have to get a solid grip on your priorities and look at yourself. That’s not always easy to do, even when you want to.

How can someone order one of those commissions from you?

Hit me up at tyrannojones@gmail.com, I check it every couple of days, and now that I’m deadline free and clearing out the last of the queue from last year, spaces are opening back up. Or people can hit me up at Twitter or on Instagram.

Does it take the joy out of drawing for a while – do you need to take breaks from it after a gruelling deadline passes?

It abso-fucking-lutely does.

Is it all worth it though, when that Diamond box is opened and you get those lovely books in your hands – and the fans reaction to them?

Sometimes. It’s not the be-all-end-all. I mean, there’s maybe five minutes of fun seeing that, and sometimes it’s great when people are into things you were into doing, but I cringe a lot of the time when people come up at cons or whatever with things that I can’t even look at. But it’s great that they like it. I’ll never begrudge them for that.

Honestly, professional comics, particularly on the corporate level is — you do the work, it’s on the shelf, you move on. More often than not, it’s forgotten in a couple of weeks because the next thing to be forgotten is already coming or is already out. Ask me again when I’ve got more creator owned stuff out. Ultimately, it’s a job. I don’t congratulate myself for finishing anything. I might breathe a big old sigh of relief, have a beer or go out and just enjoy not being under the deadlines, but you just get it done and move on to the next thing.

Like many artists recently, you’ve had to deal with art theft online – where someone steals your artwork and labels it as their own, and then uploads it to a t-shirt or merchandise printing website. It’s really becoming so hard to police, and the websites usually throw up their hands, claiming they can’t control what their users do… it’s so frustrating. Did you end up having to threaten legal action?

It was kinda surreal. I’d been off Facebook for a solid while with zero intent on returning before a friend sent me a link saying someone had pinched a drawing I did (lo-res at that) of Leatherface and made this terrible fucking shirt out of it. Misogynistic and just really fucking woeful design in general, but the fucking thing had been shared multiple thousands of times over, was up on 3 shirt websites, and people were eagerly paying for it. I’ve only really had it happen once before and I kinda shot them a threatening email, but my partner had come in like fist from the sky, written up and sent the t-shirt companies cease and desists before either of us finished work that day!

And that’s horseshit about websites. They just exist to make a buck. They don’t care. It’s like the conventions policing people who just yank images from google and run a Photoshop filter over them to sell as prints. Any company worth their salt has it within their capability to police these things. It just takes maybe one person to view submissions, or in the case of the cons, walk the floor. Fuck, even just take one of the REAL comic artists around and have them tell you! Unfortunately, most of them just think a disclaimer at the start is absolvent of responsibility.

Does it make you think twice about posting your art to social media or deviantart?

Yeah, absolutely. Anything I don’t post to Instagram I’ll be watermarking. I really should’ve done it sooner, but even Deviantart is garbage. I can’t actually access my account anymore. Something to do with the passport, and they just throw their hands up at this sort of thing too. Deviantart can be useful, but I’ve never really had anyone come to me at a show and say they found my work there. Sean Murphy made deviantart appealing back when he blew up, but it’s a pigsty of a site.

Do you have any local or international comic conventions you’re planning to attend this year?

I took a break from the local conventions for a couple of years because the politics of it all got ridiculous and the returns were making them more stress than they were worth. The odds of you seeing me at Supanova are zilch, but I just got invited to do Oz Comic Con by the new showrunners, so I’ll be doing those. As for the international ones, I don’t really have any plans. They cost a lot of money to do, so unless I’m guested and comped a tonne of expenses it’s not likely. I’d love to do ECCC some day though, or Thought Bubble. They seem to be the only two shows left that aren’t riddled with pop culture nonsense and really focus on comics and art.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring artist who wants to work for a major publisher, what would it be?

I generally don’t like giving advice because everyone has their own narrative. Their experience is different. What I tell you might apply to a minute percentage of people out there because my life is my own. Just look at what you value and who and try to keep sight of that.

Thanks for doing this interview Tristan – it’s good to talk to you again.

About Darren Close

Darren Close
Darren is the creator and publisher of the KILLEROO series, and also the creator of the OzComics website and subsequent drawing challenge on Facebook. He's been around the local comic scene for far too long for many people's liking. Gary Chaloner was foolish enough to make him the new Managing Editor of AustralianComicsJournal.com

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One comment

  1. This is exactly why I love Tristan and his work. The focus in the right place and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about his own priorities. Great interview Daz.

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