Drawing on Your Nightmares: Jo Chen
This week I want to talk about an artist who blows my mind on a monthly basis — Jo Chen, the cover artist on the bestselling, award-winning Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight.
I know Buffy’s not a straight-up horror book — it deals with elements from the genre, but the emotional vibe is different, more optimistic and easily redemptive. Buffy’s a prime example of how the material in this genre has leaked into the mainstream. Here’s another: last night they were playing the old Martin Sheen movie, The Believers, on a weird local station called This — “This,” that’s the name of the station. (It sends me into an Abbott and Costello routine.) But This shows cool old movies and TV shows—I can’t imagine what their program manifesto is, unless it’s off-the-beaten-path-stuff-Scott-might-find-interesting.
Now, The Believers is not a good movie, but when I was a kid I was grateful for it, because it attempted to treat voodoo as a serious plot device — why I cared about that at seventeen, I don’t know, but I did. The Believers approached voodoo with smarts, and that was rare in the mainstream at the time. Even just twenty years ago, stories and information about the occult were relatively hard to come by. Buffy and The X-Files changed that, and while the results are mixed, I’m happy to have more of this stuff to choose from.
But back to Jo Chen.
Full disclosure: I’m basically here to announce a new feature on the Dark Horse site, a feature I asked for and which was ably executed by Mike Denning and Matt Parkinson: a Jo Chen art gallery, featuring all of her beautiful covers for Dark Horse.
Jo started out as an artist in mainland China, but she has been working in America a long time, working first with Udon Studios and now with Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse. She came to us care of Joss Whedon. Joss enlisted her to do a cover for Serenity, part of a series of nine covers by superstar artists, each featuring a different member of the Serenity cast. Jo drew Jewel Saite, with whom she’s become friends, so obviously it was a nice piece.
If you go to the gallery and scroll all the way to the end, you’ll see that first Jo Dark Horse cover. At the front of the gallery, to be updated every month, are Jo’s newest covers for Dark Horse. Go there now, and you’ll be among the first to see the covers to Buffy Season Eight Volume 5: Predators and Prey, Star Wars Invasion #1, and, most appropriate for this crowd, Tales of the Vampires.
Tales is written and drawn by Becky Cloonan and Vasilis Lolos, cocreators with Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon of the epic horror graphic novel Pixu: The Mark of Evil, soon to be released from Dark Horse. Becky and V. teamed up here to create an amoral look at vampirism in the Buffy universe, and Jo gave us a haunting cover. She also gave the book a leit motif that Becky and V. are latching onto.
When I got the cover, I asked Jo, “Is that a pomegranate on the cover of my vampire comic?” She explained it to me over the phone, but I had to have her email me to follow up …
“My own feelings about pomegranates are that of forbidden fruit. They look so organic, raw, sexual: blood, pulp and seeds. Pomegranates are also historically imbued with religious and mystical symbolism. In Buddhist mythology, Hariti, a cannibalistic demon who would later become a protector of children, fed her own 500 offspring with the flesh of human children.
Buddha hid Hariti’s youngest son, intentionally, in order to force the demon to understand the pain and the loss of parents whose children had been sacrificed to sate her brood’s hunger. Subsequently, Hariti promised never to prey on humans again, vowing to protect children ever after, and instead use the pomegranate as a substitute for man’s flesh and blood.
Because of my cultural upbringing and because I will forever associate pomegranates with flesh, blood, seeds, and sex, it seemed a natural connection to make with vampires. So I worked a pomegranate into the cover. It’s sensuous and lascivious. I think that the bible’s writers got it all wrong using an apple. Meh. If God really wanted to dangle something tempting and lurid in front of Adam and Eve and still convince readers 2,000 years later, He would have used a pomegranate. Not something you make turnovers and pies with.”
Dave Stewart, the colorist on the book, pointed out that the bible originally didn’t specify what kind of fruit grew in Eden. Apples were foisted on us by the mainstream churches, but Dave says some of the smaller Christian groups say grapes—and that some name the pomegranate. Read the comic, see how Becky, Vasilis, and Dave pull the idea from the cover into the story itself. The creative process—the collaborative process — at work.
Jo Chen is one of the best artists in comics today. Horror buffs should scroll through the gallery, taking note of the covers from July, November, and December 2007, August and November 2008, and February, May, and June 2009. Some pretty haunting images.
I also want to mention that Eric Powell’s The Goon turns ten years old this week. Now on sale you’ll find Goon #32, the anniversary issue, with some crazy stuff inside, including a cameo by Frank Darabont (who sort of did the opposite route as Cronenberg, with Oscars and then The Mist). We’re also celebrating the anniversary with a Goon story on MDHP, the free online anthology. This week, if you’re in Nashville, Powell’s throwing a party on Friday the 13th, celebrating the Goon anniversary.
Finally — comics shops are currently placing orders for my graphic novel Solomon Kane: The Castle of the Devil, a blood-drenched gothic horror story inspired by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, about demons, a werewolf, and a puritanical swordsman seeking vengeance on behalf of the Lord. Ask your local comic-book shop about it!
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