December 20, 2009

Never Grow Old, Just Keep Growing

An Interview with Jack Harris, designer and illustrator

Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2)
Click on any image to enlarge it to original size

In his own words,
Jack Harris likes to talk. And to be honest, he’s a lot of fun to talk to. At the risk of running through my monthly allotment of clichés at one go, one of the best parts of getting to talk to Jack is that he not only has a great sense of humor, but he also has a truly infectious laugh. We found ourselves more than once having a good giggle over many of the topics we spoke and even reminisced about, including such wide ranging topics as our mutual love of comics, music (‘hey, have you heard of that band called ‘Pink Floyd’?), hair styles in the late 70’s and early 80’s (don’t ask), and even how old we both are (+/-) in comparison to maybe how old we both feel (++/+++).

Another thing you notice about Jack is that he often takes significant, even what you might call ‘pregnant pauses’ before he answers a question. But you don’t get the feeling that he’s doing like way too many people do these days, that is, trying to come up with any kind of ‘politically correct’ answer or some other non-threatening format; instead, you feel like he is running through a couple of variations to see which will best solve the question you’re asking him. He is after all an ‘idea man’, both in the way he approaches his ‘professional’ business as well as his illustration and design. Not that the difference between these two areas is black and white at all.

We’re glad then to share our conversation with Jack Harris, designer, illustrator, painter and more (age somewhere between 14 and 49):

ZN: Jack, welcome to the show. Before we get ‘started’, I just have to get something off my chest so that we can move forward: should you wish your name to be remembered forever more in the realms of the creative, please, please change it! For example, I desperately wanted to look into your experiences and/or contributions to the world of comics and graphic novels (said as an equally unabashed fan of same, who is desperate to find like-minded souls to commiserate and perhaps even, uh, fanannate with).

However, are you Jack Harris (no middle initial), Jack C. Harris or Jack S. Harris? Or maybe you’re an Australian poet? Free mason or even evangelical crusader? Or
one of the best brains under the age of 40?!? Even Wikipedia – the modern source of all knowledge that is good and benevolent and most importantly, free – was of no help! In the words of the immortal (and equally round-headed [to me I mean]) Charlie Brown: “AaaAAAaahhHHH!”
Sorry about that Ziggy! Jack Harris is correct (though very rarely my middle initial will appear “F.”)

Funny enough, Jack C. Harris is a friend of mine and he and others have strongly suggested I change my name. I have given it serious thought. My place in comic history, however, is relatively (very relatively) inconsequential. However, you can find me on the web as the
cover artist for ‘Version’, an anime title published by Dark Horse. All of my other comics work has been graphic design related (where we actually get paid).

I’m not Australian, however, my sister does live in Australia. But she doesn’t write. I am the world’s only Jewish freemason and I was voted ‘Designer to Watch’ in 2000 by Graphic Design Magazine. So, I think that makes me one of the best minds under 50. Or over 40.

ZN: Sorry, what was that about being a Jewish freemason?
Sorry, inside joke. Curiously enough my logo (called an
ambigram) was designed by a terrific typographic designer and artist named John Langdon. The character in Dan Brown’s novels were named after John, who created ambigrams for Dan’s book covers, among other things.

ZN: Oh...kay. Moving on. As it says on your email signature, namely, ‘Jack Harris – Diabolical Creative Director’: are you a diabolical person per se or is your creativity in some way hell-bent?
I think both. But the “diabolical” reference is an attempt to describe a way of thinking that transcends the mundane and yields ideas (for design, books, my paintings) that have a hint of ‘mad genius’.

Arrogant fantasy? Perhaps. But, if I don’t believe it, no one else will either.

ZN: You mention that you were involved ‘early in the Internet development (and that you) published an online magazine called ‘Buzzcutt’’, which has not only been referred to as ‘pioneering’ but was devoted to among other things comics, film and pop culture.
Yes. It was a blog, long before there were blogs.
Jim Steranko was our feature for the first issue. Worthless name-dropping trivia: I gave Jim his first Wacom Tablet.

ZN: Just briefly, if I could ask a few more questions to that topic: What is Al Gore – as one of the self-proclaimed inventors of the Internet, of course – like in person?
I don’t know. Of course, he didn’t invent the Internet. I did.

ZN: What was life like back then, before Internet? Did you have running water and telephones?
I actually had a cartoon telephone that was posed in a running position. And we did have indoor plumbing. A hole really. In the kitchen. So, yes?

ZN: How did you socialize at all?
I didn’t actually. Sadly, that’s not a joke.

ZN: And gosh, what did you do on ‘Friday Porn Surfing’ nights?
We had access to lo-tech, hi-touch porn.

ZN: All kidding aside (hardly): What was it like running a ‘zine? You must have just been ‘winging it’ in a lot of ways, no?
No. We actually had a lot of experience with magazine publishing. Just not how to make money. So we didn’t try. We just tried to have fun.

ZN: Are there any ‘remains’ of ‘Buzzcutt’ left on-line? I’m going to go out on a limb and just say that some of the more UN-usual links I found did NOT originate from you... and those are the only ones that made it through our parental controls, yikes!
Try here:*/

ZN: Whew, okay, we’ve got all that our of our systems. Jack, you’ve made the admirable statement that you ‘still collect comic books and (aren’t) afraid to say so’. Do you find yourself particularly comfortable around people – including former ‘Eureka-ist’
Charley Parker – that feel the same way? On the other hand, how do you explain your interest in this medium to so-called ‘non-believers’?
I grew up with comics. I started out probably at about age 7 copying comic books. I’ve always loved them, and I still do. Although I will say what I purchase is considerably different.

I actually do – well, I don’t know if I want to say prefer – but I do like hanging out with other illustrators and comic book artists and that sort of person. But you have to be kind of careful sometimes because they have a tendency to stand around and talk about who could beat up who (ZN: or even whom). I try to stay away from those conversations. But yeah, we like talking about things like story telling techniques and the great artists that we were influenced by and that we admire.

On the other hand, I’m also working right now as a professor at a University in Long Island, New York, and they’re very serious about academic art. I don’t talk comics there as I don’t think this would necessarily fit very well into their vernacular and also just because I don’t want to sound like I’m not academic enough. So I do like to hang out or talk to people that still love the medium whenever I can.

However, that said, I do think it’s still the best possible medium through which to tell a story. I think it’s even better than films. There’s just nothing like it in terms of engaging the viewer. Having to read the text and also having to read the images is an intellectual activity that I think you don’t get anywhere else. It’s hard to explain to someone that’s not in this world. It’s kind of like talking to my wife about it. She hates it! She hates this stuff!

You know, since you brought it up, I’m trying to think if I’ve ever been successful talking to someone about it that isn’t as passionate about it as I am. Hm. But one thing I am convinced of is that it can be a great way to learn how to read for younger people. This is, well, obviously because it has actual reading of words. However, it also requires reading of pictures and it requires understanding of what’s called closure (if you’ve ever read ‘Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art’ by Scott McCloud, you’ll know what I mean). This means being able to understand what happens ‘between’ panels. That’s an important cognitive ability and again I believe a very strong tool for learning to read.

I’ll quite often try to explain it from that point of view. Because if you try to talk about comics from the angle of just Batman or Superman or any of your other favorites then a lot of people react and will just say ‘oh what a childish kind of thing.’ But I would note that I happen to love Batman. I actually just had the Batman symbol tattooed on my right shoulder. I mean, should I tell you how old I am?

ZN: Sure, go ahead, I can always clean it up later in editing.
Well, I’m 47 and just got my Batman tattoo like 5 months ago. That just goes to show that part of me is still just about 14 years old.

ZN: You say your wife hates the comics world, but she is quite active in the company’s design endeavours? Is there any conflict in that regard?
Well, my wife – Lisa – is originally trained as an interior designer. That’s part of why she does so well. Plus, I think it’s also that she’s convinced that men are well...

ZN: Idiots?
Actually, now that you mention it, I’ve just been handed a note by my wife that says I’m 49, not 47. That gives you some idea of how it can really get. I’ve lost a couple of years somewhere in my drug-induced haze. But I do know that I did get a tattoo. And it doesn’t wash off.

My wife is convinced that men are much less mature than women. Ha, and as you heard, what just happened is a great way to confirm that she’s in charge and I’m just a silly child.

ZN: In the 25 years or so that you’ve been illustrating, how has your style and your methods evolved?
I majored in both illustration and design as an undergraduate and once I got out of college, I started working in both areas. But at this time, we were right in the middle of the Reagan years – which was not a good time for our industry. With that in my face, I kind of drifted towards art direction and design, you know just to be able to make a living. Lisa and I got married right out of college so I had to make some money. But between 1982 and 1987, I did very little illustration.
1987 is when the computer – at least for me – started to become a major part of how we were working. It didn’t catch on in a big way until ‘92 or ‘93 for the larger companies. But for a small place like ours, we would use that to differentiate ourselves from other companies. For us, working with computers just opened up a whole world of possibilities.

Before that I did everything with an airbrush. For me, when I first starting using
Illustrator, it was like using a giant airbrush. It was really kind of a natural extension. From there I moved into 3D work which I just loved. I loved building models and working in 3D. That actually kept me really busy and we actually did very well with that.

But I decided to go back to school in 1998 and that changed what I did and how I did it very dramatically. I had actually never painted before, you know, with actual paints and a brush. Again, I had always airbrushed everything in my analog past. I went back to get a Master’s Degree with the goal of learning how to work in that sort of classic, sort of golden age illustration mode. Plus, I really wanted to work in different areas of illustration. I was particularly interested in getting a chance to do more illustration for books. As such, I went back to school and I just started to paint.

During this period I had to spend more time writing for my thesis than I did illustrating. Still, we (the company) did have illustrations to do. So I started to paint in oils, which I’d never done before. I found it to be much more difficult than I ever imagined. But since that time, I’ve painted primarily in oils. I’ve created a working process that involves grisaille – which is basically a grey or umber under-painting with the final values in place in terms of ‘darkness’. I get that ready on the computer and then I output it on illustration board or canvas or whatever. Then I paint on top of that.

Really, I use the computer to work on the basic things, you know, where I can still use the good old ‘Undo’ button. But somehow with all this going on, I’ve been learning and teaching myself how to paint. At the same time, I’m combining these new skills with the digital skills that I already have. That’s really how then my style has developed and how my methods have changed over the years.

ZN: Where do you find yourself now in terms of having a definitive or even recognizable style?
Where I am right now is trying to develop a children’s book style that’s much more – I don’t know – I guess you could call it ‘child-friendly’. I think you can sort of see that a lot of my children’s stuff is dark or maybe darker than what you often see. I’ve decided – for me anyway – that it’s way too realistic. I’d like to get something that is much more stylized and has a happier kind of tone to it.

This is the first time I think I’ve tried to sit down and consciously invent a style. Which most people would tell you anyway is kind of impossible. That styles evolve.

ZN: Are you inventing a style or avoiding a style?
Slightly both it sounds like. Again, I’m consciously trying not to use a very realistic style. I mean, a lot of people say anyway ‘OK, these are photographs’. Well, they’re not photographs but admittedly I have a desire to make things look as real as possible. That’s been built in since I left college.

In college my stuff was much, much different. It was much more stylized, mostly because I had just come from spending most of my life drawing comic books. What I’m doing now is a conscious decision to develop a style that is more commercial in certain ways to a certain part of the children’s book industry.

ZN: In terms of your desire to illustrate very realistically, do you ever get criticised for being too realistic?
Sure, lots of people say ‘what’s the point basically? What’s the point of painting this way if I can just take a photograph?’ Hopefully, the point is that there is a certain kind of life to it even though it’s painted very realistically – which you couldn’t get otherwise in a photograph.

And I think I’ve been successful with that... most of the time. I don’t know if I can say all of the time and I certainly wouldn’t claim to be a brilliant illustrator. But I think that I’ve done reasonably well with that kind of style. But it’s also a competitive issue. There are a lot of people that work that way and are better at it than I am. it’s extremely competitive – which means there are quite a bit fewer work and project opportunities. You definitely need to find a competitive edge.

Continued in Part 2


All pictures, videos and other media are used with written permission of Jack Harris, or are available in the public domain (noting copyright and other restrictions, accordingly). No further reproduction or duplication is permitted without contacting the artist directly. For further details to illustrations, commercially available pieces, and much more, please visit .

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