Wizard #56: Jay Stephens

April 1996 (on sale date February 1996)

If you’ve been following this blog, you probably already know that there were three creators that had the distinction of being the subject of “Palmer’s Picks” twice: Eddie Campbell, Rick Veitch, and the cartoonist featured in the column under discussion, Jay Stephens. Of that infamous trio, Stephens had the shortest gap between his two appearances, around a year and a half. (Campbell and Veitch each had to wait around three years for their second go-around).

This Wolverine cover for Wizard #56, drawn by Bart Sears, features the popular Marvel character with his mid-’90s “bone claws” look.

So why did I feel it was necessary to write about Jay Stephens again, and to do it so soon? Well, aside from the fact that this time I would be able to present my profile as a proper interview, I felt I needed to bring some attention to the news that Stephens was going to be debuting two new series from two different publishers (Atomic City Tales from Kitchen Sink Press and The Land Of Nod from Black Eye). It gave this column a good focus because it was something different that I thought should be celebrated, especially at a time when the market was changing and publishers were cutting back. And I also believed that Stephens was a talented cartoonist with a great style, and I hoped that the extra press would help get his work out there to more readers.

As was the case with many comics from this era, the two publishers of Stephens’ new comic books were on shaky ground and would both eventually go out of business. Luckily, Stephens jumped ship before things got really bad and was able to relaunch The Land of Nod at Dark Horse in 1997. (For the record, Black Eye Productions folded in 1998 and Kitchen Sink closed up shop a year later, although in the last few years of its existence, the company was focused on selling merchandise at the expense of their comic book publishing output.)

Stephens would later find success in the animation world with two cartoon series: Tutenstein for Discovery Kids in 2003 (which earned him two Emmy awards) and The Secret Saturdays in 2008 for Cartoon Network. He also launched the short-lived syndicated newspaper comic strip Oh, Brother! in 2010, co-created with Bob Weber Jr., the cartoonist behind Slylock Fox. Unlike many artists who have left the comics biz for greener pastures, Stephens will still pop up here and there with new comic book projects, like his recent “Arrowhead” stories in the True Patriot Presents Canadian comics anthology.

From the archives: Jay Stephens’ Art Ick International Newsflash newsletter from winter 1995.

Front and back covers of Jay Stephens’ printed newsletter from winter 1995, featuring a peek at the still-unpublished “Wing Tip Caper,” a story intended for Paul Pope’s THB that would have had Stephens inking over Pope’s pencilled art.
Interior pages from Jay Stephens’ winter 1995 newsletter, Art Ick International Newsflash. The Nod’s Tacklebox O’ Fun CD compilation mentioned as “Part Two” of his 1996 plans was finally released in 2000.

Palmer’s Picks

Seriously Funny

By Tom Palmer Jr.

Jay Stephens just wants to get a little sleep; he’s overworked and can’t find enough time for all of his upcoming projects. He’s set to launch two new series this year: Atomic City Tales, a revamping of his goofy superhero comic from 1994, and Land of Nod, a no-holds-barred funny animal comic. Not only that, but he’s busy finishing several collaborations with THB creator Paul Pope, and he may even try his hand at self-publishing a collection of his weekly “Oddville” comic strip. “This is going to be a pretty tiring year for me,” Stephens acknowledges. “I wish I didn’t have to sleep, but I think I’m going to go to sleep for a year in 1997.”

Stephens doesn’t get his work done just by avoiding sleep; he maintains a very rigorous schedule. “I have to work like a regular person. I have to sit down every day and do a bit of work,” he explains. “It’s hard being your own boss, but I’m pretty hard on myself. I keep threatening to fire myself, and it gets me in line. Some days I call in sick, though.”

Not many creators can handle two different series at the same time, but it all comes naturally to Stephens. His first comic, Sin (and the follow-up series Sin Comics), by Tragedy Strikes Press in 1992, was a smorgasbord of different comics. A typical issue of Sin might start with a short gag strip or a fake ad, and then quickly jump to the adventures of anthropomorphic creatures like Merv and Dave or a goofy supervillain group like the Sinister Horde.

Stephens’ two new series separate the parts of his earlier work into different comics. “I’m interested in a lot of different styles of storytelling and cartooning,” Stephens explains. “I used to think mixing it up in one comic like Sin was cool, but I wasn’t getting enough room to play with each of those techniques. Now I have two different comic books, each with quite different styles. If you know my work, you can tell it’s all by the same guy, but both comics really cover a lot of ground for me. Maybe I’m too ambitious, but I think I can do it.”

Aside from the different subject matter of Land of Nod and Atomic City Tales, Stephens’ two new series provide him with new challenges, and the reader with very entertaining stories. Every issue of Land of Nod will feature a complete story focusing on one character from a memorable cast, including Space Ape Number Eight, Captain Rightful, Tutenstein the Mummy Boy, and Irwin. On the other hand, Atomic City Tales will have multi-issue stories with a cast made up of inspired superheroes like Big Bang and the Quirk, and supervillains like Doc Phantom and Z-Girl. Atomic City Tales originally appeared as a quarterly series in 1994 with self-contained stories, which prevented Stephens from leaving the readers hanging at the end of an issue because of the long gap between issues. But the new bimonthly series will delight readers with Stephens’ trademark off-center characters in longer, continual stories.

Atomic City Tales is also unique because of a special cast member. Mild-mannered Jay Stephens is a character in his own comic. “It feels weird, but a lot of people thought that it was an interesting angle to have the cartoonist appearing in a superhero comic,” Stephens says. “I get kidnapped by Doc Phantom in the first issue. He’s holding a Crook of the Year party for himself, and he’s pretty proud of it. All these crazy supervillains are there, and they’re not all that happy that he keeps winning every year. I get invited to draw some sketches of everybody and put them in the comic.”

The unconventional stories of Atomic City Tales and the bold cartooning of Land of Nod are a welcome relief in an industry flooded with super-serious comics. Stephens’ comics are just plain fun to read and look at; he has an unmatched spontaneity and an evocative inking style. Perhaps Stephens’ work is so fresh because of his early experiences with comic books. “Unlike a lot of people in comics, I never did draw comics when I was a kid for myself,” he claims. “Actually, I was religiously devoted to reading comics, to the point where it was almost blasphemy to think about drawing them myself.”

Recently, Stephens has branched out by working with Paul Pope, creator of THB, on a number of jam stories. Collaborations are almost unheard of among “alternative” cartoonists, yet Stephens and Pope seem to work well together. “We connected together really well because we’re both coming from the same place idea-wise, and yet our work is very different,” Stephens notes. “Paul has a very gestural, organic, loose style, a very poetic style of writing, and a natural grasp of architecture and anatomy. Stuff I haven’t mastered. My work is very clean, graphic and iconic. The collaboration was a weird Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup-type thing.”

The pair penciled and inked each other’s work on “Supergag”—a humorous tale of a boxing match between Jay Stephens’ characters and Paul Pope’s, as well as the two creators themselves—which appeared in Pope’s magazine Buzz Buzz #1, and they are currently working on other projects together. Stephens has found his work with Pope to be rewarding in many ways: “It’s interesting how someone else interprets your pencil line. I like it. You get these mixed feelings when it comes out; it doesn’t look like how you would do it, but it’s somehow better. It’s really neat. This is the way collaborations should work in comics.”

With all of these projects set to come out in the next few months, it’s going to be hard to not notice Jay Stephens. Understandably, Stephens is very excited about the possibilities that will be open for him. “The future is uncertain for me, but very bright. I’ll take it as it comes.”

When no one is looking the freelance writer known as Tom Palmer Jr. likes to dress in lederhosen and get down to some good polka music.

FYI: The first issue of the quarterly Land of Nod will be out in March, and the new bimonthly Atomic City Tales will begin in early May. Check your local comic store for both of these series, or write to Black Eye Productions (5135 Parc Ave. #5, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2V 4G3) for information on Land of Nod. For the scoop on Atomic City Tales, contact Kitchen Sink Press at 320 Riverside Drive, Northampton, MA 01060 or call 1-800-365-SINK. Also look for THB #7, Buzz Buzz #1—both of which should be on sale now—and a special project called “Wingtip Caper” (the lead story in the THB B paperback, due in June), all of which present Jay Stephens’ collaborations with Paul Pope from Horse Press.

Jay Stephens’ Recommended Reading

“This is probably too many for you to put in that little box! I really like Charles Burns‘ new Black Hole series. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time, but I got a real big kick out of that. I’m really enchanted and eager to see where he’s going with it next. TUG & buster is cool; very funny. Tom Hart‘s New Hat was great. Those are my big faves right now. Then there’s the consistently good comics like Love & Rockets, Jim, Acme Novelty Library, THB, Eightball, Rubber Blanket, Palooka-ville and Madman Comics.”

Recommended Reading

Patty Cake: Cartoonist Scott Roberts has been doodling Patty Cake since he was 9 years old, and his experience with the character shows. Patty Cake is a young girl who always seems to get into trouble, and every issue of Patty Cake is full of her comical adventures with her parents and her friends Irving and Jose. Roberts’ cartooning is delightful; he’s able to perfectly capture the naive playfulness and harmless intensity of a child’s perspective. (Wow! I got through that without comparing Scott Roberts to Peter Bagge!) The seventh issue of Patty Cake is out in February, and you can write to Scott at Permanent Press, PO Box 546, Monsey, NY 10952 for more information.

Ghost Ship: March looks like it’ll be a big month for Xeric award-winning cartoonist Jon Lewis. For starters, there’s The Memoirs of Lenny the Frog, a big paperback collection of his endearing True Swamp series featuring Lenny the Frog and his encounters with other swamp creatures, both real and imagined. Lewis has also prepared the first issue of Ghost Ship. This brand-new series features the further adventures of the cast of True Swamp, as well as seafaring tales with the crew of the Free Ship Cassowary. Lewis (along with others like David Lasky, Tom Hart, Megan Kelso and Jason Lutes) is part of a new generation of young cartoonists who are willing to take chances and expand comics as a medium of expression. For more information on all things Lewis, contact Slave Labor Graphics at 979 S. Bascom Ave, San Jose, CA 95128 or call 1-800-866-8929.


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