This isn’t the episode we thought we would have during the hiatus, much less one we wanted to do. However, life isn’t always kind, and on May 2nd the comic industry lost another great. John Paul Leon, illustrator for books like Static, The Winter Men, Earth-X and more; lost his life to cancer at the age of 49.
Allan and I wanted to take an episode talking about the man, and here it is. Our condolences to the family and his friends. Rest in Peace John Paul. You will be missed.
Show notes below:
John Paul Leon was born on April 26th, 1972 in New York City. He was the son of two Cuban immigrants. John Paul was always interested in comics. Growing up, he was collecting, reading, and drawing comics. The love was always there.
John Paul would start focusing his craft in high school while living in Miami, Florida. During that time, he would attend the New World School of the Arts. This school allowed students to pick one art that they could focus on whether it be dance, music, or visual arts. Leon would attend this school, in which days were longer than normal school days, but get proper training for his interest (he even mentioned the school brought in nude models for students to draw). He even had his first published work during this time when he found his art in the pages of TSR Dungeons and Dragons magazines. During his time there however, he felt like they didn’t see his love for comics as a successful path and didn’t really support that choice.
At the end of the 80’s when he was trying to decide where to go for college and how to improve his skills, he was thinking of magazines or books or whatever too. The main thing he wanted to do was something that involved narrative.
So from there, he would go to the New York City School of Visual Arts between 1990-1994. If this sounds familiar, it should. Because this was noted in our Milestone episode as Milestone Co-Founder Michael Davis would teach there – John Paul being one of his students. John Paul would major in illustration specifically, but did plenty of other things in the program such as studio drawing, painting, and even took storytelling courses held by Will Eisner and Walter Simonson.
While going to the School of Visual Arts, he would also find his first professional comic work. At 19, he found his way to drawing Robocop Prime Suspect for Dark Horse Comics before using his Michael Davis connection to find his way onto the Milestone book Static during his junior year and being one of the original artists working under Milestone. Thankfully, his teacher Walter Simonson allowed his work on Static to serve as his coursework during the semester. That time on Static with people such as Dwayne McDuffie, Robert Washington III, Shawn Martinborough and Steve Mitchell would eventually lead him to working on Shadow Cabinet as well, both of which would eventually help catch the attention of more major players in the comic industry
His time at the School of Visual Arts would come to an end in 1994 after he received a Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts.
The major two companies in DC and Marvel really took notice of John Paul after his Milestone work on Static and Shadow Cabinet. Marvel was the first to strike gold with him as they brought him on board to do series such as Logan: Path of the Warlord and The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix. However, it was his work on Earth-X with Jim Krueger and Alex Ross that would become one of the staples of his career.
DC would bring him on board shortly after and he would touch a number of books with an issue or two, but it was his time with Challengers of the Unknown (1996 series) where he had a decent run there.
He would continue to find a myriad of work around the industry, but Warner Bros. would actually bring him on in the early 2000s to do some work for them. He would provide style guides for DC properties planning to release films such as Superman Returns, Batman Begins, Green Lantern, and the Dark Knight. He even found time to illustrate a children’s book based on the Superman Returns film called “Superman Returns: Be A Hero”.
He also found himself in the world of Vertigo with The Winter Men and DMZ by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli around this time. He received a call from editor Will Dennis, who he worked with during Winter Men, to come on as cover artist for DMZ. Although he didn’t know the creators or read much (if any) DMZ at the time, he always loved the covers of DMZ. He thought the style in general made it stand out more (comparing it to magazines or subway ad posters) that he greatly admired. He also enjoyed the idea of trying to pull off a similar appeal for the book.
He would continue to keep busy, though it would be difficult once his diagnoses would start coming in regarding his cancer. In recent years, he was finally able to finish Batman: Creature of the Night written by Kurt Busiek and soon to be released “Batman/Catwoman Special #1” which is a book by Tom King where John Paul illustrates a retelling of Catwoman’s origin. That book is scheduled to release in July.
This isn’t everything, but here are some that I would consider the most notable of his long running books (though he has plenty single issues in other series):
Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool
Challengers of the Unknown (1996)
The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix
Batman: Creature of the Night
And quite a few covers under his belt (mostly because they were easier to accomplish during his health problems) including on series such as:
John Constantine: Hellblazer
The Sheriff of Babylon
Convergence: Suicide Squad
And of course on books he worked on such as Static, Challengers of the Unknown, Winter Men, etc.
In 2008, John Paul was diagnosed with cancer, specifically, colorectal cancer. He went through the typical rigorous treatments (chemo, surgery, radiation). In the summer of 2012, he received the news he was waiting for – he was cancer free. However, as some cancer patients may tell you, being told you’re “cancer free” is never a for sure sign of longevity. That would be the case with John Paul as well when he was found to have cancer again, this time in his lungs (this would be the third time), in January 2018.
A year later he would begin chemo again and it would seem to be going well. His blood counts were stable and sometimes improving, and despite the process easily wearing a person down, he found himself not too burdened by lack of energy.
14 years. That’s how long John Paul fought his bout with cancer. Numerous victories along the way, but sadly like so many others, he was taken from the world by it still. On Sunday May 2nd, 2021 at around 10am, roughly a week after his 49th birthday, Leon passed away surrounded by his family and friends.
Comments from others in the industry:
Jim Lee – “One of the greatest artists of our generation, he was also one of the nicest & most talented creators one could be lucky enough to have met. So young & still creating the very best work of his career. I remain in awe of both his unrivaled draftsmanship & his stellar design work – both of which were simply unparalleled & technically just so precise & perfect. But what really made me a fan was how he still squeezed in every bit of emotion & life in every image he created.”
Tom King – “John Paul Leon was a comic book humanist. He grounded the inherent absurdity of conveying myth and story through inked panels by insisting the emotional struggle of our lived experience be in every line, every picture. And he was a joy of a man, kind and funny, to the end. RIP.”
Mike Mignola – “This one is like a punch in the gut, even though I didn’t really know him. We met several times and he was always super nice – and SUCH a great artist, such a talent, gone way way too soon.”
Frank Tieri – “Truly heartbreaking. I was lucky enough to have worked with him on an issue of WEAPON X and always wished I would get the chance to work with him again. A true master taken way too young. RIP.”
Mitch Gerads – “The last time I spoke with John Paul Leon was a few short months ago. I think that last line will haunt me forever. Hopefully as a reminder to stay in touch with those who have touched my soul. JP mentions he was a whiskey fan before the chemo. Well tonight I raise one for him.”
Kurt Busiek – “John Paul was an amazing talent, a wonderful collaborator, and a great guy. I was very lucky to be able to work with him on a big story, sad that we won’t get to do the little story we had in the works, and devastated that he’s gone. Such a heartbreaking loss for his family and friends, and for the medium of comics. What he’s done will always be with us, though, and we can treasure that.”
Chris Sotomayor – “John Paul was humble, unassuming, and way more talented than he ever gave himself credit for. You always hear artists tell people to draw everything if you want to get good. That’s what John Paul did. He’d spend all day drawing and then relax by drawing. Master of his craft.
Declan Shalvey – “I’m devastated. My art hero, John Paul Leon has passed away. I was lucky enough to meet him a few times, and he was so sweet, so kind. Considerate in all the ways you’d imagine an artist of such skill and inspiration would be. My most sincere condolences to his family and friends.”
Michael Davis – After we recorded this episode, Michael Davis (Milestone co-founder/teacher of JPL) wrote the linked article about John Paul Leon. Wanted to note it here as well.
John Paul would sell his art to help fund his 17-year old daughter’s future education. With this thought, his family thought it best to set up a gofundme where proceeds would go towards that very thing as a trust fund, but also use some of the money to help cover costs associated with his passing. The gofundme was created on May 2nd and managed by studio-mates Tommy Lee Edwards and Bernard Chang, and as of me typing these notes (May 3rd), the $2000 goal has been easily surpassed. It is now sitting at $35,505. Update now?
Yes, there are definitely fans (such as myself) who have donated. But other creators have as well. A few that you might recognize: Cliff Chiang, Dustin Nguyen, Jeff Parker, Jim Lee, Kelly Thompson, Shawn Martinbrough, Mark Waid,James Tynion IV, Jimmy Palmiotti, and former instructor Walter Simonson.
So if you can, please donate. It goes to a great cause, and what better way to say thank you.
Artist Tips from the Man Himself:
Why not? In case there’s any artists listening to this podcast, why not give pointers from the man :
- “Solve the hard storytelling problems, as best as possible, in the layout stage. It’s not going to get any easier down the line.”
- “You can’t wait around for inspiration. Just start working and hopefully, inspiration will arrive at some point in the process.”
- “Drawing from life will help prevent (my) art from becoming formulaic.”
- When speaking about artists/students who show him pencilled art at conventions: “You should ink some of the stuff. Because inking will make your pencilling better.”
- He had kept scans of pretty much all of his artwork since projects he’d worked on from 2004.
- Prior to his work on DMZ, he didn’t really use color very often. However, when he became the regular cover artist there, he knew he had to start perfecting the use of coloring his work. So that’s where he really started to bloom when it came to coloring, although he would decide based on what he was trying to accomplish whether it would be better served as black and white art vs colored.
- John Paul was also incredibly critical about his work. In his own words, he would oftentimes find his art “boring”.
- He is also a referential artist. He would get references for as many things as possible, and as many references of each of those things, so he could draw it to perfection. His ultimate goal with that would be to get it so right that he wouldn’t have to even look at the references once he got it down.
- As a kid, he would often go back to the covers just to look them over. “My favorite covers are the ones that not only grab me at first glance, but also stand up to scrutiny and evolve as you return to it while reading the story. You may start to see things you hadn’t noticed before.” He also really loved covers that could reflect part of the story being told inside. But he also really loved montage covers because he liked the challenge of finding references that he could then work together on a cover that would also tell the story of what’s inside.
- Batman: Creature of the Night was a 4-issue book (think Superman: Secret Identity – also by Busiek) that took a long time to be released illustrated by John Paul, written by Kurt Busiek. I believe it was first teased to release in 2012. DC hadn’t announced it, so they were planning on taking their time. But just as it was announced, both creators would be hit with health problems at the same time. So the work couldn’t be completed until they were both up to the task. In John Paul Leon’s case, it was the spare time he could make it to the studio when he wasn’t recovering. To give you an idea, he was finishing up pages on issue 3 back in 2015.
- While he claimed his influences were constantly changing, there were definitely names that would routinely be uttered when asked this question. Alex Toth, Robert Fawcett, Jorge Zaffino, Walter Simonson, and more.
- Tom King and John Paul Leon were nominated for an Eisner for a story they did in Vertigo’s CMYK: Black issue. The short story was called Black Death in America.
- John Paul always wanted to take a chance to write what he drew. As far as I knew, that chance only came up with during the Winter Men Winter Special. Would have been real cool for that dream to become more of a reality before his passing.
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Intro and Outro Music: “RetroFuture Clean” by Kevin MacLeod
RetroFuture Clean Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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