Interview: Dave Johnson

Dodano: 12 June 2015

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Dave Johnson at Warsaw of Comics Festival 2015

Photography by Jarek Obważanek | PSK


Maciej Kur: What was the first comic book you have ever read?

Dave Johnson: The first, the earliest one I remember, what actually got me into comics, was Micronauts number five. I had been buying the toys before that. I just happened to be at a drug store… this was before comic book stores were everywhere, and there is was, sitting there, said Micronauts. And I was like “Holly crap! There’s a comic based on a toy that I love!?”. So I bought it, and I was hooked. Mike Golden drawn it, I became a huge fan of him, and years later I became his friend, which was awesome. So it was Micronauts number 5.

And was this your inspiration to become an artist?

– I was drawing before that. But it definitely got me drawing superhero stuff, like comic stuff. But I was always drawing, all my life.
Did you always imagine this as your carrier?

– Not early on. You know, you could very well ask me, would I fly. It didn’t seem real. People who did comic books seem like super humans. And years later I was like „Well, wait a minute! Maybe I can do it!” And I started pursuing it.


And how did it start with DC?

– I started at a studio calledGaijin Studios. It had Adam Hughes, Brian Stelfreeze, Cully Hammer, Jason Pearson… a lot of those guys were new and young and were starting out themselves. I was really starting out. I had nothing published at that point. I knew they were starting this studio and somehow I finagled my way in and they let me get jobs they didn’t want to do. So someone from DC would call up and say: “Hey, we want you to do this,” and they were like “Eh, we don’t want to. But we have this guy, he’s really good, you should give him a try.” And that’s how I started.

And how was your cooperation with Mark Millar?

– I didn’t really deal with Mark that much. Once he wrote the story, it was written. When I worked on Superman: Red Son I was mainly dealing with the editor. He would send stuff to Mark and if there was a problem, I would get notes.

So there wasn’t much interaction?

– Not really. He lives in England, I live in the States, and this was before the Internet was popular, so it was harder to get in touch with people.


(Showing concept drawings from “Superman: Red Son”): So all these great designs were your own inventions or Millar’s vision?

– Most of visuals came from me. I don’t remember a lot of direction from him, he left to me how I would interpret a Russian Superman, like the chest symbol – it make sense. Superman in Russia would be more about the state, not about the individual, so it would make sense he would have state sponsored symbol on his chest, as opposed to an identifier that he’s Superman. It was my idea to get rid of all the blue and yellow, just go for a nice Russian red and gray. You know, dower and awesome.

Did you study a lot of Russian culture from this period?

– I did. I really put some effort into finding as many books as I could about Russian architecture, propaganda art, anything that I could soak up and try translate into the book. I was definitely doing my best to do that.

Yes, I noticed a lot of influence of propaganda posters.

– I was always a big fan of propaganda posters in general: either American, German, Russian or Chinese. There was a real power to those images. I always thought that was amazing and that opportunity to incorporate some of that into my work was just a dream come true for me at the time.


So you had a lot of freedom for interpretation.

– Yeah. It’s not like it had to be a certain way. Basically, I tried to make it a good representation of the culture, as good I can make it. I’m only human and I probably screw up a lot. Once again – it was before the Internet, before I had any real access to people who spoke Russian. It would have been nice to make signs that where accurate and all that. If I would do the book today, it would be a lot different.

Did you also influence the plot?

– No, it was pretty much locked down by the time I came on board. So I didn’t have a lot of say-so with the story, except for the art.

Outside from the success of Red Son, what do you consider your biggest achievement?

– I designed a show called „Ben 10”, which went on being a mega hit. I designed the first two seasons: I design all the characters and all the toys that came from that. That was a great achievement. I started a group called „Drink and Draw Social Club”, which is now freaking global. I don’t make any money on it, I don’t necessary have any ownership of it, but I rather helped to start something that bring people together and they can have fun and enjoy themselves. That’s kind of nice.


What do you love about the Batman character the most?

– Batman in general is a great character to draw. He’s kind of dark, he’s not a boy scout. The character from my book is fun because of the hat. I actually had a lot of friends giving me lot of grief. They were making fun of me, when I showed them initial designs, but when it came out people where like “Oh, yeah! I get it. He’s not a rich man, he has to have his head protected.”

I notice this Batman smiles a lot.

– Yeah, in a mean kind of way. He’s definitely not a happy character. It’s almost like he knows something that other characters don’t know. It just seems to go with the character.

What do you do when you receive scripts you don’t like? Do you sometimes get scripts that make you go “Good God! This is horrible”.

–  Early on in my carrier, sure, but when you are just starting out,you can’t really say no to things. Later on, after Superman, I stopped doing inertial art anyway, so scripts weren’t necessary a big issue. If I’m doing a cover it doesn’t really matter if the script is terrible, I’m still going to do the cover no matter what.


It must have been a great honor to receive the Eisner award.

– It was a big honor. I’ve been nominated a couple of times before that, didn’t win. When I finally won, it was cool. But since then I realize that awards are kind of bullshit anyway. A lot of it is just a popularity contest. As far the awards go, the best award I’ve even gotten, wasn’t even an award. It was Jim Steranko giving me a thumbs up. Not only did he know who I was, but he collects my covers. When they come out, he would tear the covers off and put them in a file. When I found out… Holy moly! It just blew me away!

What was the hardest challenge?

– Superman. A lot of things were going on in my life at the time. This definitely kicked my butt.

Let’s go back to Ben 10. Tell me more about your work on this project. I personally think it was a great show for kids.

– Well, it’s definitely not an adult show. It started with those guys called „The Men of Action”. They originally pitched the show that was more based on an old DC property Dial H for Hero. It got picked up, it went to development for two and half years before I’ve got it. Unfortunately none of the stuff that got developed was up to the main guys liking. But at the time I got on board, it changed from human superhero to alien creatures. I came on board and they said „Look, we have no more development time, you better figure it out. We’re going to put in on air, so you better figure it out”. So it was kind of a rush to get it all out. The story was there, but none of the designs, I had to come up with everything. They didn’t show me what was done before. I had to do everything from scratch.

You designed just aliens or all of the cast?

– Yeah,I was involved in all aspects of that.

Are you very proud of how popular the show is?

– Oh, yes. I don’t make any money of it, but it’s kind of an indication I did a good job. One season could come out, it could be a horrible failure and nobody would like it. The fact that it’s still going and they keep making new versions…

That’s true. There is even one in CGI…

<Laughs>: Really? I haven’t really kept up with it. Once again, I can see where the appeal for kids came from. You might as well milk that cow till they got it.


Your favorite comics?

– The standard, Watchmen. Like I said, those early issues of Micronauts I still love to this day. Jack Kirby’s old Fantastic Four, I’m a big Moebius fan. A lot of European books I really got into… I would had to track them down, cause they weren’t really available in the United States, so whenever you would find one it was like O my God! This is amazing!

Any recommendations from current series?

– Honestly I barely go to the store anymore. I’m usually too busy. I decided a couple of years ago to stop buying so many things. I was running out of room in my apartment. I usually wait until somebody tells me something is really good and then I try to find it. But as far as the current comics go… The Hellboy stuff is still great. I still buy it, or I wait for collected trades to come out.

Out of curiosity, what do you think about the movies?

– I would’ve gone in a different direction with a lot of things. They’re OK, but I don’t feel they capture Hellboy like I know Hellboy, like the comics do.


What do you think about comic book movies in general? Like the upcoming “Batman v. Superman”?

–  A lot of people are upset and they’re already predicting failure when they haven’t even seen it, but you got to remember, a lot of people were saying that Michel Keaton’s Batman would be terrible, and it wasn’t. I was one of them. I was like “He’s not Batman! That’s crazy!”, but he did a great job. So I’m trying to give Ben Affleck the reasonable doubt. Maybe he can pull it off.

I wonder will Red Son influence the scripts. In both stories we have a Batman and Superman fight…

– Funny you should say that. I actually had the pleasure to meet Henry Cavill, after he did the first one [Man of Steel], at a show and he actually said that it was one of his inspirations. Playing the character not as a goody-two-shoes as much. Sometimes you have to deviate from the source material, sometimes things don’t translate very well. I don’t know will that movie be any good or not, but it definitely will be interesting, so what else you can ask for?

Any advice for the young creators?

– Just keep doing it. Don’t let people [get to you] – especially now, in the days of the Internet. If you get turn down by a publisher – screw it, go do your own. Put it up online. Now you don’t even have to be published to get popular. There’s a lot of artists now who are more popular than me, and they never got published. It’s a new world and nobody can tell you that you can’t do something. If you have desire to do it, then just start doing it.


Dave “The Reverend” Johnson is a comic book artist best known for his covers of various titles. An officially ordained Methodist Deacon, he may be best known for his minimalist covers on the noir Vertigo series, 100 Bullets. He has also done a number of covers for DC Comics, primarily Batman and Detective Comics. Mr. Johnson earned the 2002 Eisner Award for Best Cover Artist. He was also nominated for an Eisner in 2004 for his work on the critically acclaimed DC Elseworlds miniseries Superman: Red Son, which is now a perennial best seller in graphic novel form.

Maciej Kur is a writer and director, known for Hip-Hip i Hurra (2011), Cisza w Trybunale Cieni! (2015) and Witold Giersz – Sztuka Animacji (2012). He is also a big fan of comic books and pop culture.

Editing: Klementyna Dec

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