Interview: Klaus Janson Grows and Improves

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 5, 2014.

Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: You’ve been working in comics for a long time, at Marvel Comics specifically, going all the way back to your truly iconic Daredevil run. Now you are moving to DC. The press you and John Romita have received for coming to work on Superman has been really impressive. You’ve been very successful for thirty years. What are you feelings about your career at this point?

Janson - 1Janson: I’m extremely grateful for all of the success that I’ve had, extremely grateful. I say this with genuine humility, I don’t take it for granted. I’m just very happy that I’m working, that I’m getting good projects, and that, for whatever reason whether it’s luck or talent or my innate charm, I continue getting work. I have no intention of retiring so that fits into my plans. I think I have been very fortunate. I have had a great time and I’m still having a great time. I think I learn something everything day. I just hired a tutor recently to teach me Photoshop. I find that really fascinating. It is finally starting to click. I’m hoping to make some inroads in that approach to the art. So it’s still interesting to me.

CB: I think one of the things that shines through in your work, whether looking at Daredevil and seeing how you and Frank [Miller] both progress over the course of several years or looking at your collaborations with John [Romita] covering the past decade, is it is constantly evolving. Does that come from a sense of experimentation or not wanting to get bored? What’s your drive to change how you work?

Janson: First of all, I appreciate you saying that because I think that that’s one of the things that I am most proud of. There is an evolution and I make a strong effort to get better and to improve. That’s what motivates me. My motivation is always to be a better artist and to do better work next week than I’ve done this week or next year than I have done this year. I would hope and I would like to think that that evolution that you notice is actually true. And when I look at some of the work that I have done in the past, because I have been working for almost forty years now, I can’t help but think that my work now is better than it was forty years ago.

Let me tell you a story. A fan sent me two drawings that I had done when I was sixteen. I’m very hard on the students that I have back in Manhattan at the School of Visual Arts, very tough on them. When I saw the two drawings that I did, I realized I may have been too tough on them because they genuinely were really, really, really bad. I was shocked at the ignorance that was within those two pieces. I wrote a letter back to the fan and I said, “Thanks for sending that and thanks for keeping me humble.” Because I thought to myself if I could make it after having done such shitty work at sixteen, anybody could do it. One of the things I tell my students is you need that persistence. You need that ambition. You need the ability to persevere. I would rather have an ambitious C student than a lazy A student because I have seen it for the last twenty-five years that the lazy A student is not going to make it. But the ambitious C student will make it. I think I’m living proof of that by the way.

Janson - 2

CB: You’ve been teaching for a while, too. How has your experience teaching and seeing students grow up and flourish within the industry affected your own work?

Janson: I am so impressed by the students that have managed to secure mini-series and books and are working at companies. One of the pleasures that I have in going to conventions is I get to see them two, three, four, five years after graduating and seeing their work. I buy all their work. I make sure that I keep tabs on them and send them nasty e-mails. No, I am kidding about that. I can’t think about anything that I enjoy more than seeing those students succeed and seeing how good their work is. I can’t really take credit for it, because I think a lot of students were good already as they came into the class. But it is very, very satisfying.

CB: In addition to your work with students, you’ve obviously been a collaborator your entire life. That is an interesting thing because you always hear people discussing the collaboration between writer and artist. This is a collaboration of artist and artist. What is your method of collaborating and how does it change when you are working with different people?

Janson: Well, it changes from assignment to assignment. What I try to do (to not get too stale or too bored with any one particular project) is I try to have a project that I am penciling and inking, I try to have a project that I am penciling and someone else is inking, and then I try to have a project that I am inking but someone else is penciling. So there is a great variety. I get to work with writers. I get to work with pencilers. I get to work with inkers. At its best, that is a really great schedule. In terms of penciling and inking, I’ve never looked down at inking. I know people are very confused about what inking is or what an inker does or that inking is less than penciling. I’ve never looked down at inking. I think of it as an art form in itself. What I try to do with various pencilers is bring out what they are best at and try to tweak some of their weaknesses. That requires a little bit of an eye that I’ve developed from teaching at the School of Visual Arts. It’s important to respect what the penciler brings to it, and it’s important to try to elevate the penciling into a third party. I think the best collaborations I’ve had (Frank Miller would be one of them, John Romita would be another) personify that, where you bring out the best in what they do and you sort of help or tweak the weaknesses a little bit. It’s fun. I have to say, it’s a lot of fun.

Janson - 3

CB: I think one of the reasons inkers are misunderstood in the medium is when readers pick up the finished product there is no way to easily discern between the pencils and inks. If you have access to the original pages though and you want to really dig, then you’re able to see it. If you go all the way back to Kirby’s early work at Marvel, you can start to easily recognize who is inking it, whether it be [Joe] Sinnott or someone else.

Janson: I agree. It’s interesting you mention the Kirby stuff. The relationship that Kirby had with his inkers is a real concrete example of how inkers are not tracers. Kirby was such a strong penciler, yet every inker he had somehow made it look a little different. Vinnie Colleta was very different from Joe Sinnott. Joe Sinnott was very different from Frank Giacoia or Chic Stone or Mike Royer, any of the inkers that worked with Kirby. If you look at that work, it really exemplifies how inkers can help, hurt, aid, bring something to it, or take away something from it. So that’s a good example of the inker/penciler relationship.

CB: Delving into a particular relationship, John Romita and you have been working together for many years now. How has that changed from when you started collaborating in comics to today where you are able to move between companies and it is treated like a big deal? People recognize your work and go, “Okay, I am going to buy this because it is JRJR and Klaus working together.”

Janson: The ability to form a team and continue doing work on other projects and with other companies is actually a rarity. If you think about it, it is rare thing. Even when (and I’m not comparing us to Kirby) Kirby went over to DC, he didn’t bring Joe Sinnott with him. So it’s interesting to create that entity, that Romita-Janson character that exists almost independent of each of us individually. John and I have a really terrific working relationship at this point. I think that one of the ways it has changed though, with all due humility, is that we have gotten better as artists, each one of us as individual artists. I would hope that is true. I have pages waiting for me at home on the next Superman, which I saw before I left, and they are stunning. They are beautiful. To be able to work with somebody that can produce pages like that is a privilege.

Art by Klaus Janson, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Matt Hollingsworth


CB: We have been talking a lot about collaboration. Unlike prose or static painting, comics regularly blend the two through the use of teams. Through all of your experience, all of your collaborations, and your extensive body of work in comics, what do you think it is about the act of artistic collaboration that makes comics unique and enhances them as a medium?

Janson: First of all I think you are right in saying it makes comics unique. That sort of collaboration, outside of film, doesn’t really work. Even in film, I think the director gets a lot, a lot of credit. The cinematographer, whom I think is really important, doesn’t really get as much credit obviously as the director. I think that the act of collaborating is at the heart of comics, and the ability to find a team that works really well. I thought we were incredibly lucky on Daredevil: End of Days to work with Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack and myself as penciler and Bill Sienkiewicz as the inker and Matt Hollingsworth as the colorist. That’s a great team and I think one of my favorite projects of all time that I’ve worked on. None of us fell down or phoned it in. We were all on top of our game from the first page to the last page. If you talk to any of those guys, Mack or Bendis or Sienkiewicz or Hollingsworth, they will tell you the same thing. We appreciate a good collaboration because we are very much aware of what the consequences are of a bad collaboration, which happen more than good ones. It’s rare to be able to produce good work in a collaborative setting. It’s not that easy. It’s really difficult. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Wow, I am really excited to do a shitty comic book today.” So everybody tries, but it doesn’t necessarily always work. There is an element of luck to it.

CB: Well thank you very much for your time.

Janson: You are welcome. Thanks.


Art by Klaus Janson


About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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