Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows are kicking off the new ongoing Crossed: Badlands series in March with a bi-weekly three-part storyline, to be followed by story arcs written by Jamie Delano and David Lapham. I had an opportunity to pick Burrows' brain (much like one of the Crossed might do) and get some insight on his return to the Crossed franchise, his inspirations, and artistic influences.
Q: Your original collaboration with Garth Ennis on Crossed lasted ten issues, while your reunion that launches the new Badlands book will span the first three issues. What are your thoughts on telling a more concise story in the Crossed universe?
Burrows: It is kind of nice from an artistic perspective. I get to hop in, play with some new characters and locations, and then hop out to do something else. Neonomicon was only four issues, but I worked on it before and after the first series of Crossed so it felt like I was coming off two very long commitments. It is kind of nice doing a couple of shorter pieces. The first arc of Badlands really works well as a quick, mean little story that hits all the right notes for the Crossed world and establishes what the series will be about. How do people survive in the Badlands?
Q: You've illustrated many Crossed covers, sometimes showing scenes relevant to the story within, and sometimes a snippet of horror from somewhere else entirely. When illustrating the covers, do you get instruction on what's needed, or are you left to your own devices to come up with the cover concepts?
Burrows: For a while now, I have really been left to my own devices when it comes to covers. We always ask for notes from the writers, but since we do so many covers, we need to get creative. I prefer doing covers based on interiors, but you can only do that so many times per issue without spoiling the story, so I tend to try to come up with themes for my alternates. Like in the first series, the Wraparound covers were all based on familiar places at the beginning of the outbreak that also happened to have all been places where people have turned violent in real life. For Badlands, I am doing a series of EC Comics-inspired covers for the Auxiliary variant editions.
Q: Of the Crossed characters themselves, do you have a particular favorite among them, one you enjoyed drawing more than any other? What was the appeal?
Burrows: I really liked one of the random guys from Horsecock's gang in Series One that I dubbed "Scratches." He was my own invention. My thinking was that the Crossed virus could possibly enhance people's own neurotic inclinations. Scratches was likely a masochist who was obsessed with savoring his own pain, and once he "crossed," he took it to the extreme and covered his body in massive scars.
Q: In your opinion, what's the most gruesome image you've had to illustrate for Crossed?
Burrows: Without a doubt, it is the big splash image at the end of issue #1 of the first series (a gruesome sequence of a family's demise at the hands of a Crossed gang). Once you've established the stakes, you really don't have to go back. There is violence in the book after that, but nothing comes close to that image.
Q: After finishing the first Badlands arc from Garth Ennis, you're slated to tackle the third story arc as written by David Lapham (who wrote the Crossed: Family Values, Psychopath, and Crossed 3D titles). What are your thoughts on working with Lapham? What do you expect a Lapham Crossed story will require from you artistically?
Burrows: I've been a huge fan for a long time. I have every individual issue and a complete set of trades of Stray Bullets, which I still think is the best crime book published in comics. I'm excited to be working with the man. We've met a couple of times now and I think we're really on the same page about this upcoming arc. I don't want to spoil the fun but this one is a little different. It was conceived from the get-go to give me a chance to really cut loose like never before, and I expect it to be huge for fans of Crossed and horror in general.
Q: Is there a scene from one of Lapham's existing Crossed books that you thought, "Wow, that would have been a fun one to draw"?
Burrows: I really liked the Crossed gang in Psychopath that are all adorned with the skins of their victims. It is a really strong visual. I could have a lot of fun with that one. It kind of takes me back to when I worked on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre comic back in the day, which was always one of my favorites.
Q: Without giving too much away, there's a certain real-life celebrity among the cast of Crossed: Badlands, whose face is horribly mutilated. In creating his look, did you pull from actual visual reference, or given the nature of his wounds, create his appearance completely on your own?
Burrows: I'm a stickler for references. Whenever possible, I like to have images of the real thing on hand and in this case, pictures don't help a tremendous amount but I focused on body type and certain postures to try to add to the feel. The overall look was pretty clearly described in the script, though.
Q: The action of the first Badlands story arc takes place south of the Scottish highlands. How would you describe that landscape, and how it's different (or similar) to other environments you've illustrated?
Burrows: It was actually kind of a challenge. You have the big gorgeous peaks you can use in the background, but overall, it is kind of a featureless wilderness. Not a lot of trees and shrubbery, just big rolling hills and rocky areas. It can be hard to make locations seem different from one another without major landmarks and environmental shifts, but I think we pull it off.
Q: There's a pervasive mood unique to your work on Crossed, a sense of tension and dread throughout. For you, it may take weeks to illustrate and create the atmosphere which a reader experiences in a half hour of reading. How do you sustain that sense of atmosphere throughout your creative process?
Burrows: I'm a big fan of the genre. I watch horror movies, listen to a lot of audiobooks, read comics, listen to a collection of work music I've been putting together for years, and play horror video games in my downtime like Left 4 Dead and Killing Floor –- whatever I can find to keep a bit of that vibe in my daily routine. But most of the time, I can focus on the mechanical aspects of the job which doesn't require being in a dark place all the time. The rules of composition, design, perspective, and anatomy don't change from genre to genre. It is just in the early layout stages that I have to be super-focused on capturing the tone of the Crossed world.
Q: Where have you drawn your artistic influences from?
Burrows: I am constantly devouring art from every source I can for inspiration, from inside comics and without. You can't just pick a few of your favorites and become a well-rounded artist by studying them, but there are always a handful of guys in comics that you go back to frequently for inspiration and ideas, the ones who set the bar for you. The big ones for me were Jean Giraud (Moebius), Katsuhiro Otomo, Bernie Wrightson, Edvin Biukovic, Dave Gibbons, Chris Warner, Tim Vigil, John Buscema, Art Adams, and Joe Kubert. In more recent years, I've been obsessing over the work of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Enrico Marini, Frank Quitely, Alex Toth, and Duncan Fegredo. There are so many amazing artists in this industry, past and present. It constantly motivates me to keep improving day by day.
Q: Let's say an aspiring artist wanted to learn "how to draw the Jacen Burrows way." How would you define your artistic signature?
Burrows: I don't know. My style has just sort of evolved on its own over the years, and I'm never quite happy with how it turns out except for the occasional panel. That's how artists are. All I can see in my own work are the things I wish I could go back and change. My focus lately has been on trying to create a more solid sense of volume and more realistic proportions. I've always been a big fan of having a somewhat cartoonish approach to characters with detailed, realistic backgrounds, but the subject matter of my recent work has pushed me into more realistic areas which can make things a bit stiffer than I like. I'm still trying to evolve and find new, interesting approaches while still utilizing the detail that I enjoy but it is always a work in progress.
Burrows: That happens a lot less than you'd think and I wish that wasn't the case. Usually you meet these folks out at a bar after the con, and no one really wants to talk shop when they are relaxing after a tiring day on the con floor, but it happens occasionally. I get to talk art with the Avatar crew because we're around each other during the downtime, but I'd really love to pick the brain of some of my favorite storytellers like Stuart Immonen, Eduardo Risso, or Terry Moore.
Q: Are there ever Crossed survivor characters that you get emotionally attached to? Are you affected when you have to kill them off?
Burrows: Sometimes when I read the scripts initially, I might have a bit of an "Aww" response, but it is always in service to the story, so I don't take these things too hard. I was a bit sad to see Thomas and Kelly go (near the end of the original Crossed series), but the odds are against every character in this world.
Q: Garth Ennis recently said, "Jacen really is one of my all-time favourite collaborators. He gives me everything I ask for and more, with… flawless storytelling. Even the risks he takes are smart and rewarding." How do you feel, knowing that you've done Garth Ennis proud?
Burrows: Well, that is my goal, honestly. I have been working with top notch writers for a long time now and I respect their ideas and their vision for their creator-owned work. In many ways, I am drawing the books specifically for them and it is important that your writer trusts you with their baby. As long as the writers I work with are happy, I feel a lot of pride about each project I do. Sales are great, but the respect of my collaborators and a reputation for professionalism is far more rewarding at the end of the day.
Q: Fill in this blank, and please feel free to elaborate: "If you're a fan of _____________, you really should pick up Crossed." What fans would you like to see come over to Crossed?
Burrows: Crossed isn't for everyone, certainly, but it shares aspects of zombie fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, survivalist fiction, sci-fi, and splatter horror. The stories are about the darkest parts of the human mind unleashed and what it takes to survive when everything you know is over. Taken to those extremes, the world is a ripe playground for writers to explore character and conflict. Nothing is safe in this world, which creates some very interesting opportunities. This is horror without a safety net, and for fans of strong, character-driven stories that explore those dark corners, Crossed is what they've been waiting for.
Q: Crossed: Badlands begins its bi-weekly, ongoing schedule on March 14th. It's really popular demand by the fans that's made such a publishing schedule possible. How do you feel, as one of series' key contributors since its 2008 debut, having created something that's inspired such fan fervor?
Burrows: It is always surprising to me to see how big the audience for the book is, and how varied the Crossed fans are. I guess people were really hungry for unpredictable, all-bets-are-off horror. And I really think Badlands is going to be something unique. They're going to love it.
Q: At comic book conventions, what's the most frequent question that you're asked by fans?
Burrows: These days, it is, "What's it like to work with Alan Moore?" But usually, I get, "Does any of the stuff you draw disturb you?" The truth is, since so much of my focus is on the mechanical side of the job (composition, anatomy, storytelling), I don't get the visceral reaction that readers get from the finished work. Once you are past the layout stage, the job becomes very technical. It's just different when it's your drawing. I get more of a reaction seeing what kind of stuff Matt Martin or Raulo Caceres come up with.
Q: At conventions, you're frequently commissioned to illustrate Crossed characters. Has there been a particularly memorable Crossed commission that you've taken, one you enjoyed drawing more than others?
Burrows: I really enjoyed doing a particular Crossed Joker piece. It was just the right mix of funny and twisted!