Superman illustration by Dan Jurgens
Photos courtesy Dan Jurgens.
Growing up in a small western Minnesota town, Dan Jurgens’ passion for comics began like many other children’s: by watching old Batman episodes on TV. But while for many the fascination stops there, Jurgens turned his love for iconic superheroes into a career writing and illustrating for DC Comics and Marvel Comics—two of the largest comic book companies in the world. In preparation for Comic Con’s first visit to Minneapolis May 2-4, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine spoke with the artist about his MCAD training, the future of comic books, and his two new projects debuting this spring.
How did you go from being a student at MCAD to writing and illustrating for DC and Marvel?
At MCAD I was a graphic design major, and I worked with instructors who understood the interest I had in comics and were kind enough to indulge me in exploring that interest. For example, for my senior thesis project, which I was required to do, I did a full-color comic that melded my skills of illustration and design. And that’s how I started to build my portfolio. Shortly after I graduated, an artist for DC, Mike Grell, was making a personal appearance in town. He was someone who I had been a fan of for a long, long time, so I stopped in to meet him and show him some of my portfolio. It just so happened that he knew DC was looking for another artist. One thing led to another and I started working for them in 1981 or 1982, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
So you got lucky. The job kind of fell into your lap.
Well, like so many things, I was at the right place at the right time. Whatever skills you have, think of them like a toolbox. If your car breaks down, you need to have a toolbox, and I think being out there, having the right tools, and being able to demonstrate your use of those tools is everything. So, yeah, it all fell together.
Walk us through the creative process of creating a DC or Marvel comic.
If you pick up the average Marvel or DC comic, typically there is a writer and an artist. I’m somewhat unique in that I both write and draw. Sometimes I just write and draw my own stuff, sometimes I write for other artists, other times I draw to what writers have written. There are times when I’ll go to a creator and say, “Hey, let’s do this,” and they say, “That sounds great.” But there are other times when I’ll get a phone call from a creator and they’ll say, “Hey, do you have any interest in this particular character? What are your thoughts on it? What would you do?” Sometimes projects originate with me, other times other people have thoughts and ideas and they give me a call. Once you have that longstanding status in the business, or those longstanding relationships, things come together in a variety of different ways.
When you’re not the writer and illustrator on a project, what do you think is more challenging: working with another artist as a writer, or working with another writer as an artist?
This is a collaborative medium. When I write for another artist, I try and find out what that person’s strengths are, what they’re interested in, what’s going to draw the best artwork out of them. By the same token, if the writer is giving me a script or a story idea, I try to find out: What is your point of emphasis here? What do you want this to be at the end of the day? All of that, again, comes down to a personal relationship thing. It isn’t to say writing for someone else is easier or harder than drawing what someone wrote. It comes down to the relationship you have and the common goals you have for the project.
Tell us more about your two new projects debuting this spring.
The first one, which came out the first week in April, is called Aquaman and the Others. Aquaman is obviously a longstanding character in the DC universe, and he does have his own title, but early in its run, about two years ago, they introduced a new group of characters called the “Others.” So this is a book that’s going to focus on Aquaman, as well as some of the other characters that were introduced at that time. In addition to that, I’m working on a new series called The New 52: Futures End. A couple of years ago, in 2011, DC restructured its entire publishing line and started shipping 52 titles a month that really restarted, if you will, the entire DC universe of characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and many more. What we’re doing now is coming out with a weekly series, the first issue of which will be given away on May 3 as part of Free Comic Book Day. The story will tell what happens to the entire DC universe of characters in the future. We’re going to take readers on quite a wild ride with that one. That’s part of the reason why it’s going to be a weekly, because we have so many characters to play with and such a big story to tell.
Who’s your favorite character?
That changes from time to time. I created a character for DC called Booster Gold that I am still very much linked with and very fond of. And, obviously, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Batman—those iconic characters are always the ones that are really fun to work on, to get the chance to contribute to that tapestry of legend that they become part of over time.
Do you ever feel pressure working on those legendary superhero characters?
You are definitely aware of the responsibility there is to keep the character viable. As I said, these characters are legendary, but we’re hired as illustrators and writers for individual differences, really. You try to find that element within your style that is appropriate to the character, and add something that doesn’t necessarily contradict what might have come before. Superman, for example, was created in 1938, and what you want to do is add to that, so when you leave it, you can say, yes, my body of work contributed to that, and it was equal to anyone else who might have worked on the character.
Speaking of Superman, there was a pretty strong response to your comic, The Death of Superman. Are your fans always pretty vocal?
They certainly can be, and I think social media has only added to that. I did The Death of Superman in 1992; nevertheless, it’s something people continually ask about. Not that many people had access to the Internet back then, but now through social media, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, or something else, fans are able to interact much more with the creators and ask questions or make comments. I think that has certainly given fans greater access to people and making their opinions known.
What’s the most difficult part about being an artist and pleasing your audience?
Keeping your style fresh. I could not be drawing the same way that I did in 1981. I could not be writing in the same way that I did in 1981. You have to grow and adapt. You don’t want to give up the strongest elements of your style and voice, but you have to find a way to blend it so that you’re doing something in 2014 that is attractive to the audience just as it was in 1995.
One way the audience seems to be staying connected to comics in 2014 and recent years is through Hollywood remakes of classics like Batman, the Green Lantern, and Spider-Man. Why do you think that revolution is happening now?
One of the main things is that it’s just possible right now. There are special effects that have evolved over the last 10 or 15 years that we couldn’t have filmed before. The other part of it is the audience. They just seem ready for it right now. I don’t know if they would have been ready 15 years ago, or 15 years from now, for whatever reason. If you look at the movies that have come out in the last five years, the movies that are driving Hollywood and driving the success, they come back to comic books. The audience seems to want it. They respond with numbers, they respond with dollars, and we’re finally at the point from a technical standpoint where we can provide the imagery.
How do you imagine the future of comic books?
We’re making a transition to providing more and more material digitally, but I think there’s always going to be a place for paper. Some people like the tangible feel or experience of reading paper, like collectors, who want the cleanest possible copy because they’re going to save it for years. I also think fans will continue to have more interaction with creators.
If you weren’t making comic books, what would you be doing?
You know, when I first started doing this I thought, I’ll do this for a few years and get it out of my system. And to this day, I still make jokes about someday growing up and getting a real job. Yeah, it can involve long hours and a lot of tedious work, but anything you do for a living is work. I have a lot of fun with it and, honestly, I can’t even imagine doing anything else.