Live From The DMZ - by Justin Giampaoli

Justin Giampaoli has written and self-published several mini-comics, including The Mercy Killing, Silicon Valley Blues, and Blood Orange, but is primarily known as a critic. He’s written for Hijinx Comics, Savant Magazine, and The East County Californian Newspaper. He’s currently the Senior Reviewer at Poopsheet Foundation and blogs frequently about more mainstream offerings at his own 13 Minutes. Live From The DMZ is dedicated to Brian Wood’s contemporary classic through its final year of publication and beyond.

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JEROMY COX INTERVIEW

[Interview Conducted @ Aloha Sushi Lounge in La Jolla, California]

When DMZ colorist Jeromy Cox walks into the Museum of Contemporary Art to meet me for lunch, I find that looks can be deceiving. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Cox was just another one of those aging hippie surfer types, often seen combing the summer streets of San Diego. These are the guys I see surfing at 7am on a random Thursday morning near La Jolla Shores or off the coast up at San Elijo State Beach. If you made that unfortunate mistake and judged this particular book by its proverbial cover, you’d never know that Jeromy Cox absolutely has his shit together. He’s one of the hardest working and most prolific colorists working in the industry today.

After a quick stint animating Saturday morning cartoons early on, and then a steady paycheck in video game design, this third generation San Diegan began self-publishing comics on a whim around 1991 or 1992. “It was just prior to the formation of Image Comics,” he says, footnoting a personal reference point to his career. It’s an interesting aside that as DMZ writer Brian Wood was working for Rockstar Games in New York, Jeromy was working in parallel for a company acquired by Rockstar that became loosely referred to as “Rockstar West” in San Diego. They didn’t know each other back then, but they can cite some of the same company dynamics.

“I felt like I was always running from comics” in favor of the steady work of the video game industry, Cox chuckles. But he kept getting pulled back in. Despite his interest, “Everyone told me ‘oh, you can’t make money in comics.’ They kept degrading comics.” Jeromy Cox proved them wrong. He was an early WildStorm employee at the infamous La Jolla compound, when Jim Lee’s boutique imprint was booming. He was just the fourth colorist that WildStorm brought on. In fact, Jeromy informs me that the sushi bar we’re sitting in, which I’ve been unknowingly frequenting for about 4 years, used to be a Chinese restaurant that was a big hangout for the WildStorm crew because it was open late. It suddenly hits me: “This guy was here before it all, and he’ll be here after it all. This guy endures.” It’s no wonder he likes the DMZ issues with Zee – but more on that later. Of the early process, the overly-rendered and Photoshopped aesthetic of the early 90’s, he says pragmatically “you can learn all the bad stuff and then throw it out, just apply what you want.” That statement is key to understanding his professional ideology; it speaks volumes about his work ethic, and a path of perpetual refinement.

His earliest work included the critical darling LEAVE IT TO CHANCE with James Robinson and Paul Smith. He moved on to MAGE with Matt Wagner, PROMETHEA with Alan Moore and JH Williams III, and several big name properties. His professional bibliography spans something like 20 years in the field and reads like any creator’s wish list. SPIDER-MAN, AVENGERS, BATMAN, CATWOMAN, FEAR ITSELF, INFINITE CRISIS, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, GEN 13, GREEN LANTERN, JLA, JSA, REX MUNDI, STAR TREK, STAR WARS, TEEN TITANS, X-FACTOR, X-MEN, the list just keeps going and going and going, touching nearly every corner of the medium, and has resulted in multiple Eisner Award Nominations. He’s worked for every major publisher, from Marvel to Dark Horse, to CrossGen and Image, to DC and its various imprints, like WildStorm and Vertigo – which he seems particularly proud of. Like so many people I know (myself included), he credits Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN with bringing him back into comics as a fan after he’d drifted away. He’s proud to be a part of Vertigo, and hopes it endures.

Cox continues speaking with obvious affection for Vertigo, the product it produces, and some of the people he’s met who are affiliated with the imprint. Without prompting, he speaks glowingly of DMZ editor Will Dennis. He says without equivocation, “Will is the best editor to work for. He knows when to step in and when to leave us alone.” Cox drifts away from that thread as the conversation flows in free-form fashion. He talks about the reliability of artists and what it means to turn in serial work and hit the monthly deadline. “I have respect for that part of the industry,” he says with an old-school sensibility. He likes the idea of a commitment to the fans; that a monthly schedule and timeliness most certainly matter. Their serial nature is an endemic part of the comics reading experience.

Before I can even ask the question about the observation I’d made in preparation for the interview, Cox blurts out that DMZ is the book he’s worked the longest on. It’s his longest run on any title, by far. In fact, with the exception of issue 12, which Brian provided all the art for, Brian and Jeromy are the only two creators who have worked on every single issue. I ask why he’s stuck around so long. I don’t need to remind him that he’s worked on, like, every book, and could probably have his pick of the litter, so why stick with what is essentially an indie book? Cox explains that “it suits my liberal mindedness quite well.” That he’s at a point in his career where if he had his way, he’d like the ability to follow the creators he likes or the work that he feels some personal connection with. He tells me about signing an exclusive with Marvel Comics at some point in the past, but that he specifically requested to stay on DMZ.

Though working on DMZ is not without some emotional difficulty it seems. “New York is the capital of the world,” he says. “I feel this sense of melancholy. I like the city so much, and here I am destroying it on paper.” Recalling his first visit to New York City, “I was walking on the street and I passed through 5 languages,” he says with a sense of wonder. I respond “Yeah, there’s nowhere else in the world you can do that.” He smiles back and says quietly “I don’t think so.” We talk a while longer and he shares an anecdote about being so excited after seeing the early pages of DMZ art come in from Riccardo Burchielli. He was “salivating,” he says, “I really wanted to work on this book, but didn’t want to appear over eager.” He remembers that he interrupted Will Dennis at Comic-Con as he was talking to someone else. After he’d walked away, he realized he’d just interrupted a meeting with Will and [100 BULLETS writer] Brian Azzarello. He still feels bad about coming off as rude.

We drink two rounds of Sapporo and demolish some really decadent sushi like it was lower Manhattan. [I recommend my regular, the Protein Roll, which has hamachi, salmon, crab, spicy tuna, and avocado wrapped in thinly sliced cucumber and soy paper… while Jeromy opts for the Volcano Roll, a delicious blend of salmon, crab, and avocado, all broiled off with a spicy aioli dressing]. As this scene develops, the word I keep scribbling in my notes, even underlining at times, is “humble.” Jeromy Cox has clearly earned his stripes and is what I’d call an “industry veteran.” But nothing seems to be fueling his ego; he is, perhaps, his own worst critic. I enjoy the way he can even embrace moments of self-doubt. 20 years later, he appears dedicated to continually honing his craft. He never seems to rest on his laurels. He’ll go back and recolor work before it’s collected in trade, rethink his approach, consider what he could have done better, wonder if he’s even right for a given book. He listens keenly to feedback from writer, artist, and editor. When he says quietly “I’m a powerful weapon in the industry,” it’s important to point out that it’s not with arrogance or even confidence, but because he genuinely wants to help. He’s so willing to find a writer or artist he enjoys working with and then simply help them to achieve their goal, to present their work in the best light possible, relying on his years of experience to do so.

When it comes to his role as a colorist, he says casually “I think of myself as a cinematographer.” I can see the analogy forming in my head as he explains what that means to him, Will’s the producer, Brian’s the director, and Riccardo is doing set design and costume design. Jeromy finishes the thought by saying that he will “set the lighting, determine where the shot is, and then help control the tone of the story.” He tells me his basic creative mindset and it sounds like a mantra that’s the simple secret to being a great colorist with professional longevity: “let the story shine, and don’t step in front of the art.”

I ask if the fact that Brian is also an artist, not just a writer, changes the dynamic. He says “yes, absolutely, but it makes it easier because not only does he know how to talk as a writer, he knows how to talk to an artist.” It’s something I’ve heard echoed from Kristian Donaldson and other collaborators. His scripts simply make sense, because he’s been on the other side of the equation. “For example,” Cox says, “Alan [Moore] throws so much into these full scripts, but Brian doesn’t do that. His scripts are fairly spartan. He does it right. One character per panel, saying one phrase, it invites collaboration and interpretation, in terms of inking and coloring, the whole process.” Cox explains that his approach to DMZ is different. “I think about it more” he says plainly. He admits that superhero coloring can be somewhat interchangeable, but coloring DMZ, “there’s always conscious thought and deliberation in every choice,” ensuring it’s in service to the tone of the story.

I ask about favorites. Without hesitation, he describes the single issue stories that spotlight characters in DMZ, the “focal point stories” as he calls them. “Brian’s the best at it,” he says without room for argument, as if it’s a given that everyone in the industry already knows. Those with Zee are clearly favorites. Cox is truly a fan, excited to read the final product when it comes out, not just the scripts he works from. He mentions that he probably spends more time on these particular issues than he normally would. Picking up on his excitement for Zee, I suggest that this character is near and dear to Brian’s heart, and that maybe that passion comes across and infects everyone. He agrees. I press the issue. When I tell him that Brian has concluded Zee is a physical manifestation of the city, the living embodiment of New York itself, it’s like a light bulb goes off over his head. “Oh God, that’s great. Wow. Yeah, that makes so much sense,” he says, eager to run off and re-read DMZ with that in mind. Jeromy also specifically mentions “the snow issues” [The Ghosts of Central Park] as favorites. There was something just different about them, just challenging enough that they were not the typical exterior shots of New York. “And anything with Nathan,” he confesses.

Cox is extremely complimentary of Riccardo Burchielli, how he’s captured New York so brilliantly while sitting thousands of miles away in Florence, Italy.  He’s also drawn to the work of Kristian Donaldson. “This guy’s got his own distinct design sense and individual style, which is so rare these days, not just copying another artist’s style.” But we end up talking about Nathan Fox more than any other artistic collaborator on the series. He keeps calling Fox “innovative” and “vibrant,” that he draws the types of things that Jeromy himself likes to draw. I insert my standard line about Fox into the conversation; that I keep running around calling him “the next Paul Pope.” Cox laughs heartily and says “It’s true!” At this point, we’re about halfway through the interview and Cox blurts out with a tiny streak of embarrassed recognition “Did I meet you before?” I nod yes, and explain that it was last year at Comic-Con, at the Heavy Metal booth when he and Nathan Fox released FLUORESCENT BLACK. I tell him I really don’t expect him to remember one face out of thousands, and he retorts, “No, that’s definitely it, cool!” He talks about Nathan’s vision, that they give 200% when they work together, not because they’ll be paid more, but because they enjoy the challenge. The way he tells the story is disarming. There’s no pretense. It’s just two guys who adore working together.

I ask specifically about one of my favorite singles, DMZ #27, with DJ Random Fire. Cox explains “I get a lot of freedom out of working with Nathan. It lets me explore choices. That’s so valuable, to see so many ways a page or panel can go.” He says that he ends up in discussions a lot more with Nathan than he does with other artists. He’s also quick to point out the invaluable contribution of letterer Jared K. Fletcher, in a general sense on the series, but specifically for the music and the way the beats were managed in the DJ Random Fire issue. Cox concludes this thread by musing “It really all just came together in that issue.”

I push him toward DMZ #56, also with Nathan Fox, which was the last Wilson story. I describe the scene I love, with young Wilson sitting in an Eames chair, the washed out watercolor effect giving it this aesthetic nostalgia. “Yes. Yes. Oh, that was all Nathan!” he says excitedly, giving credit where credit is due, and downplaying his own involvement. “It was different, so I was nervous about it. I was also finishing those pages the week of Comic-Con that year, so it was hectic. But, I do my best work when the book is due, when people are watching, having that accountability. I was playing with gray scale and color washes. But it all worked. Nathan is very innovative. He does so much outside of comics that his style diverges from typical comics.”

Toward the end of the interview, I ask Jeromy Cox point blank why DMZ has been so successful. He gives an answer I’ve never heard before or ever considered myself, but it’s one that I instantly agree with, and recognize in my own reading habits. He doesn’t cite liberal politics, the post-9/11 significance, its prescient futurism, or even the “cool looking European art” he was originally drawn to himself. He says, “I think everyone has a post-apocalyptic world in their head. What if the world ended? It’s always bad. They’re really popular in comic book culture, or just in general.” We conclude that there is some primal urge common in man to envision a dystopian future, to imagine a hero rising up against it, and writers feel compelled to explore that. He explains that “there’s also something about it being in Manhattan, which is where most of these big comic book companies are.” Cox then credits Brian Wood’s versatility as a writer with bringing in a diverse fan base. “Who else can just go out and do a Viking book like that!?” [referring to NORTHLANDERS]. “Yeah,” I say, “I always tell people that my three favorite Brian Wood books are DMZ, DV8, and LOCAL, that statement alone shows his crazy range.” Cox bellies out a satisfied “HA!” to that. As our conversation winds down, he says that he’s “still coming to terms with the finality of it,” regarding the book ending in a few months. “I’ve worked on so many comics, I can tell when they’ve hit the right nerve, and DMZ has.”

Jeromy Cox is one of those iconoclast creators I’m always drawn to. He’s got a broad range of experience to pull from, his professional existence isn’t steeped solely in comics, and he’s stronger for it. He’s also a genuinely nice guy, opinionated, for sure, but thoughtful and respectful. Most importantly, he understands what it means to be legitimately successful. He understands that the right combination of talent, intent, and humility can get you pretty far in life.

End Transmission


(from DMZ #50, for the Riccardo-illustrated piece that was intended to run as black and white. the colorists are always the last to be told anything!)

Notes

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