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Of all the hot commercial "lowbrow" artists today I strongly suspect James Jean would have the fastest growing following. And going by his super extensive portfolio you'd wonder if he's not the hardest working. Regardless, his growing popularity and stature as the illustrator of looking through the groovy darkly is well established.
Originally from Taiwan James Jean graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2001 at the age of 23 and it didn't take him long at all to become a regular cover artist for DC Comics, particularly the Vertigo line, particularly for the comics Fables and Umbrella Academy. And from there it didn't take him long at all to start garnering awards and a wider notoriety.
Having accepted commissions from the likes of Rolling Stone, Atlantic Records and Nike James Jean's biggest step into the world of commercial art and design has most likely been his extensive work in 2008 for the fashion label Prada. He developed a complex but unique look that they've very much taken to heart for their signature range. James Jeans' work is also featured in stunning ad campaigns, billboards and shop layouts themselves. And it all seems to culminate in this beautiful animated short that stands entirely alone as a work to appreciate seperate to its marketing purposes, which of course is quite clever branding from a marketing perspective.
The most remarkable thing about his commercial success is also the very reason for it. And that is his exotic style and technique. Cause though he has used classic interpretations and explored the images of mythology and fairytale his personal interpretation has developed into something incredibly refreshing for the commercial world. And his prolific and fast working ability must make him a boon.
Thanks to his ever-growing popularity his work is being compiled and published. Sadly, his portfolios Process Recess 1 & 2 are no longer available. The Hallowed Seam (PR 3) just came out but is quite different to his earlier portfolios, instead being a collection of studies and such that appear to come from his sketch pad or moleskine. More like his earlier portfolios is Kindling: 12 Removable Prints.
Very cute is his postcard book XOXO: Hugs and Kisses. But my favourite publication would have to be Fables Covers: The Art of James Jean Vol. 1. Not just it is the best collection of his art, even when restricted to covers he did for the Vertigo comic series, but that each work is shown in various stages along with commentary on the process.
James Jean. And even though he has stopped doing the Fables covers I think we'll see more of his haunting mythologies and landscapes of the quixotic. And his following will only continue to grow.
Twenty-five years ago two young amateur comic artists created an indy comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was intended as a homage/parody of Frank Miller. At the time Miller was hot as a writer and artist for his noirish reworking of Daredevil, in particular the long running and absorbing Electra saga. This was also the time Miller was establishing his trademark style that he pretty much launched with the breakthrough mini-series Ronin. This was just before Miller's landmark The Dark Knight Returns and so his hotdom was still a simmering pot within the comic community.
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird came out with the first issue of TMNT at this time aimed squarely at that comic community and the convention scene in the US. Eastman and Laird hit the right buttons with their Milleresque action poses as done by turtle ninjas, poses capturing a fan sense of a new front that would become mainstream comic imagery a decade or two later.
Script wise they were hitting the right buttons as well, achieving that rare creature that plays on the images, plots and characters of the currently hot scene while achieving its own right to exist as an independent work. Its appropriations were clearly referential and in-jokey in a manner that everyone was meant to share. For instance, in Daredevil, Matt Murdock's martial arts sensei goes by the name of stick, the Ninja Turtles are trained in the ways of Ninjutsu and of the ways of being a spiritual warrior by a old rat called Splinter.
Because TMNT has something groovy going on it didn't take long for a licensing agent to approach Eastman and Laird and turn this indy comic into a toy franchise. From there it quickly evolved into endless cartoon series and toy lines. And as this was now almost entirely a commercial venture the turtles also evolved into mainstream family friendly merchandise marketing tools with trademark catch phrases like "Heroes in a Half-Shell" and "Turtle Power", both created by marketing and jingle writers for the toy ads played during the morning cartoons.
The mainstreaming success of TMNT inevitably led to the movies, but I gotta say, I have a fondness for the first film for which Jim Henson's colleagues, especially director Steve Barron, can be largely thanked. It was darker than expected and character driven, more concerned with the motivations of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Splinter than the fight scenes, pratfalls and inevitable pop soundtrack you expect the industry to demand. On the whole, much more sophisticated than I thought they'd ever dare. Sure, it's dated but it remains a highlight on the Ninja Turtles era.
Still, TMNT is now pretty much a franchise and marketing tool, one that has a respectable novelty of its inherent absurdity. I mean Ninja Turtles with Renaissance artist monikers is cooler than say Action Man or G.I. Joe, don't you think? And so I won't dismiss entirely the more contemporary manifestations of the turtles. The recent animated movie wasn't that bad and there seems to have been always a bit of a spark, no matter how dim, within most animated work with the TMNT stamp on it, but it long ago stopped being anything other than a commercial platform.
Regardless, I'm not begrudging the financial success that came Eastman and Laird's way. And why? Because we can still go back twenty five years and admire two bold comicers and their indy publication having gleeful fun with the stylish pretentiousness of hero comics. And despite all the commercial pancaking and soliciting of the children toy market one can still look to the core of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle empire and see something deep inside that remains pretty cool.