Craig Johnson II Self Portrait

Q&A with Craig Johnson II

It’s not every day that creator Craig Johnson II gets to chime in on THE LEGEND OF PINKY and all things graphic literature, so let’s do this, with relish.

Q:  How did the idea for THE LEGEND OF PINKY come about?

CJ2:  I’ve long been a student/obsessive of crime history, early 20th Century culture and New York City, so naturally the Jazz Age and gangster era where all those things intersect is a place where I’m at. In college, back in the mid 2000s, my project was a comic called Harlem Shakedown, which was inspired by the real history of black crime figures in the famous neighborhood and their struggle against the invading white mob families. The Legend Of Pinky, which I conceived in late 2014, is a slightly-more lighthearted prequel/spinoff to that story, with a main protagonist based on one of my best friends, and inspiration drawn from my own years as a hard partier in NYC.

Q:  What more can you share with us about the protagonist in The Legend Of Pinky, without giving too much away?

CJ2:  Pinky is a young Jewish American mob gunman, a cold hearted killer who is also a fun loving free spirit. He’s the kind of guy whose ingrained confidence in his own abilities and persona has made him kind of a slacker and underachiever. He’s also the kind of guy who’s always seeking an escape. He lives for the high life uptown among New York’s thriving black community in Harlem, a vibrant ghetto that offers nightlife, women and music like he’s never witnessed. The story overall concerns what happens when all his worlds collide and he finally attempts to get really get himself ahead…

 

Q:  You mentioned Harlem Shakedown. What was that a tale about?

CJ2:  Harlem Shakedown was a fictionalized story drawn from the real life 1930s gang war in Harlem between black and white mobs over control of the neighborhood’s booming numbers lottery racket. The main characters were South Carolina-bred black crime lord Charlie, (who is heavily based on Bumpy Johnson) and his partner, a family man and ex-cop named Nate, who became disillusioned by the racism seen within the NYPD and ultimately quit and came to work for Charlie, who he’d incidentally also arrested and sent away years previously. Both are supporting characters in The Legend Of Pinky, which takes place in 1928, 3 years prior to Shakedown. Pinky initially knows Charlie from his extensive nightclubbing, then in Book II, by chance meets and bonds with a character who is a very large figure in Charlie’s life. That character will be the catalyst for the major arc in Pinky’s story, so expect to see more Charlie too.

Q:  How would you best describe your illustration style?

CJ2:  My subconscious influences are Kevin Knowlan, Brian Bolland and Howard Chaykin; creators who lean more towards realism, but with their own personal spins. Vintage illustration and culture eternally influence my content and approach. Even if I do something more futuristic, it’s definitely on the pulpy retro sci-fi side of things. Current creators who inspire me a lot are Francesco Francavilla and Daniel Acuna.

 

Q:  Which aspect of illustration are you enjoying most these days?  (sketching, line work, coloring, inking, other?)

CJ2:  Coloring.  The advent of digital is great because it allows you to be fearless with color. You don’t have to spend a fortune on a massive clutter of paints and markers. You can adjust settings and give a piece a whole new life. Also I’ve been getting more into backgrounds, buildings, furniture and objects. They always bored me (and you can tell in a lot of my work that I leave them for last) but I’ve really started to consider them more, especially doing a period story set in NYC, the setting is so crucial, it’s another character itself so I’m starting to realize that I’d better quit half-assing, ha ha.

Q:  The Legend Of Pinky features interesting pastel shades of blue of pink.  What another favorite color combination of yours?

CJ2:  Red and green, and not for Christmas, think Spidey and his rogues gallery.

Q:  When did you first know that you wanted to draw comics?

CJ2:  In 1989, when I was 5 years old, my first couple of comics were the official adaptation of Burton’s first Batman flick (with art by Jerry Ordway) and West Coast Avengers #46 with the Great Lakes Avengers (with art by John Byrne.) Those panels with Mr Immortal fighting the bank robbers, those were everything.

The Jim Lee / Rob Liefeld / Todd McFarlane boom years were just around the corner. My life was Marvel trading cards. Drawing and comic book imagery were my life then. It was that simple.

Q:  For young folks who are just getting started with drawing, what are some good pointers for them to follow?

CJ2:  Practice from photos and life. Learn (by heart) how things actually work and are shaped. Your style can truly develop from there.

Q:  Which indie comics have you been enjoying, and why?

CJ2:  I haven’t been reading much but the medium is obviously going through a golden age. Writer/artists like myself can do it all from behind their tablet this day and age. I was reading Saga, which is, of course, unfettered brilliance and I want to catch up on it someday. Head Lopper really interests me too. I love the vibe and the simple-yet-brilliant approach of the drawing. I’m always jealous of artists who can use shape like that, using minimal shadows and hatching. Black Hammer is another that I was enjoying too. I’m always down for a new take on superheroes.

Q:  In addition to all they do now, what do you suppose tablets will also allow illustrators to accomplish ten years from now?

CJ2:  Maybe on-the-spot 3-D hologram animating and projection?

Q:  That’s an interesting guess.  Are you surprised that that sort of technology isn’t already more commonplace in 2017?

CJ2:  I’m surprised we can do what we can now. There’s so much available even right now I haven’t even bothered to tap into. I kinda wish progress would just cap off right now so I could finally catch up.

Q:  Which illustrators have had a lasting influence on your own illustration style?

CJ2:  Well, I already named some earlier, and you also can’t go wrong with Jack “King” Kirby, or Kyle Baker (who did this Shadow annual issue patterned after Citizen Kane back in the 80s,) which is one of my favorite comic book issues of all time. Jose Luis Garcia Lopez really influenced me with his forms and faces. See the way he defines the outlines and features with smooth thicker lines, then thinner lines for subtle hatching to further define shape. I found myself following that a lot method in my own work on the Legend Of Pinky.

Q:  As an illustrator, what are your favorite tools of the trade?

CJ2:  Other than Manga Studio on my Surface Pro, I’m gonna say Tombo brush pens, Copic grayscale markers and white gel pens on colored paper.

Q:  You mentioned Manga Studio, and we’re curious to know your thoughts about manga itself, as a medium?  And why do you suppose manga hasn’t enjoyed more success in this part of the world?  After all, it’s certainly been around long enough.

CJ2:  I’ve never forayed too far into manga. I started Uzumaki and liked it. I respect those guys because a lot of them are one-man-shows, like I try to be, but they’re pretty tight and diligent, with so much detail and consistency. Me personally, if I’m turned off by anything in manga it’s the preordained sameness in the aesthetic. It’s all so rigid and idiosyncratically of itself. I feel like there are no Jack Kirbys in manga, if that makes sense; no breakout individual style – that’s what America’s about.

Q:  What sort of music do you enjoy listening to while you draw, or do you prefer quiet?

CJ2:  When I was in college and working on Harlem Shakedown, I was listening to a lot of era-specific Duke Ellington, which is what people would imagine. Even though I still hear that stuff in my head automatically when I approach my work, I usually end up just letting Soundcloud go with a bunch of rowdy empty-headed trap rap music, which is all about grinding and work of a sort (and so it really keeps me productive, no joke.)

Q:  What hasn’t really happened in graphic literature yet, that you would love to see happen next?

CJ2:  People are doing wild stuff. I feel like I can’t say what hasn’t or isn’t happening somewhere in the medium. Like with film, it’s limitless, and that’s what I think people need to realize. On a mainstream level, perhaps more reliance on character, less on conflict.

In my own book, and I know it bugs some people, I try not to have gun violence be the star. The Legend Of Pinky is a story about gangsters, but that’s not the main draw of it for me. I’ve seen enough fistfights and gunfights in genre entertainment. They’re just perfunctory to me at this point. I don’t end with a cliffhanger because I want each book to stand completely on its own as a character piece. Readers will want to get the next issue because they actually care about the protagonist character (and not just because he had a gun pointed at him last time he was seen and you just want to see how he gets out of it.)

Q:  What are some of your favorite “period pieces” from film and television?

CJ2:  My favorite period pieces, wow…

Well, let’s start with the biggest influences on The Legend Of Pinky.

Boardwalk Empire, Bullets Over Broadway, Once Upon A Time In America, all incarnations of The Untouchables, The Cotton Club, Sweet and Lowdown (pretty much any Woody Allen period piece I’m down with,) 1973’s Dillinger, Malcolm X (one of the greatest films of the 90s,) the 1959 Al Capone with Rod Steiger, Billy Bathgate, Bugsy, and L.A, Confidential.

Recently in television, there’s Peaky Blinders, and The Knick (which is all kinds of fantastic.)

THE KNICK

Q:  The Knick was denied a third season.  Why do you suppose that is?

CJ2:  I think a third season would have been wholly unnecessary, I appreciate the dark downbeat note on which the second season ended, I feel like the finale set up moreso the 20th century itself than another season of tv…. I don’t know if I can say more without spoiling.

Q:  Share with us a favorite moment of yours from Woody Allen’s films?

CJ2:  There’s a weird moment in BANANAS, one of his early broader, more slapsticky films where he has a dream he is being carried on a cross by a group of hooded monks through the street. They attempt to park him only to be intercepted by another group of monks carrying another man on a cross. Woody and the other guy on a cross have words (which you can’t hear because the whole bit is silent) then both groups of monks put down the crosses and brawl with each other over the parking space. It’s so damn strange and ahead of its time, and not like anything I’d think anyone would readily associate him with.

Woody Allen’s BANANAS (1971)

Q:  What are you going to be for Halloween this year?

CJ2:  Being a slim fellow, there’s only so many comic characters you don’t feel silly attempting. I stick to Spider Man because he has so many sick variants. I’ve been Future Foundation Spidey, Miles Morales Spidey, and if I do it this year I’m doing one of the unused Marvel Cinematic designs – one that’s based on the Superior Spidey look which is pretty damn amazing and I hope gets onscreen someday.

Q:  Beyond Halloween, what are you most looking forward to during the cooler months ahead?

CJ2:  Well, Fall in NYC is great. My book is set in Fall in NYC for a reason. It’s a really beautiful time in the city and really the only period of truly comfortable weather. I’ll be making my first major con appearance at NYCC, Sunday at booth 966 with small press publisher Pronto Comics. There’s Comic Arts Brooklyn, which is the big annual indie con next month (gonna try to weasel in there at the last minute, if possible.) Fall movie season is of course always great. They roll out the Oscar bait, and we’ve even still got a couple superhero tentpoles left to roll out that look great (Thor and Justice League.) I’m also looking to get out to the theater; ballet and all that cultural NY stuff that I’ve never taken full advantage of during my seven years of living here.

 

 

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