Over the weekend, I attended the SoCal Joe Show and Toy Convention, a small toy expo that occurs twice annually in Temecula, California. While the show focuses on toys, collectibles, and even boasts some show exclusives, art and comic books are never discounted. Among the three special guests at the show was artist Jay Sullivan, who is well known in the community for his work on the G.I. Joe comic books from IDW Publishing.
I had the chance to hang out with Jay in front of a fire for an exclusive PopLurker interview. But see, the show was at the Hilton, and they had a fireplace in the lobby, so I promise we weren’t burning anything down and…
You know what, let’s just get to the interview, yeah?
Hi Jay! Thank you so much for giving PopLurker this interview. I adore your art and think you’re just one of the coolest people. Let’s get right to it. So, before you started down a professional art path, you mentioned that your background was in radio?
Yeah, I was in radio. When I was twenty, I got a job working at a local classic rock radio station in Sacramento. At the time, it was the 20th market in the country, which is pretty large, and I was on the air. I started out doing the punk show every Sunday or Monday night, which was an hour long, and from there I did the Evening Drive. So, for three years, I was a DJ on the radio. During that time, I had to work regular jobs too. People have this misconception that you make a lot of money doing radio, but you don’t. I just liked being behind the microphone and introducing people to new music.
It’s the same misconception with drawing the G.I. Joe art—everyone thinks you make a lot of money and you don’t. I draw G.I. Joe because I love G.I. Joe. I love working for IDW and for my editor, Tom. I’ve been working with him for almost ten years.
So then, you got your degree in marketing and went on to work at the radio station, is that correct?
I was working at the radio station and a grocery store at the same time while getting my marketing degree. Thirteen units at school, full time at the grocery store, and thirty hours a week at the radio station. All at twenty years old.
What did your social life look like at that time?
Uhhh…yeah. It was interesting. You meet a lot of the opposite sex working a radio gig. Girls will do anything for concert tickets.
Anything, you say?
No, I’m just kidding. But my social life was just pretty okay.
When did your career segue into something more art focused?
Well, I always enjoyed drawing. I wanted to be an artist or an astronaut when I was little. But I get really bad motion sickness. That’s why I don’t do rollercoasters either. But back to art—I got a job at Michael’s designing Plantagrams. From there, I got a job doing box layout, package art, commercial stuff. I got a job with Disney doing package design with them. Both for toys and the shit you see in the park. But then, Disney bought their Disney Stores back from The Children’s Place and our jobs went away. After that, I worked at Hot Topic doing marketing before my wife and I decided to open a comic book store.
Tell me about your stint as a comic book store owner. How did it go?
You know, it wasn’t bad. The shop stayed open for six and a half years, which is a pretty good run for a comic book store. Especially these days. It’s hard for established stores to stay open purely on comics. But it was fun, and I was drawing the whole time. Having the store, I got to meet a lot more people in the industry. Those connections led to doing variant covers for comic books here and there, and next thing I know, Tom at IDW was asking me to do G.I. Joe covers. He’d seen a ton of the stuff I’d drawn, like the Robotech art with Toynami and loved it.
I have to interrupt and tell you how much I adore your Macross artwork. Seriously, I’m crazy about that style and what you bring to it.
I appreciate that. Anime just doesn’t look like that anymore. But there’s still anime from the 80s that doesn’t look good. Like Voltron—the best way to enjoy the old Voltron is in your memories. If you watch Voltron now it’s awful. The story is pretty loose and weak, but the animation is really sloppy. They weren’t even trying after the first few episodes. But Tatsunoko Productions were doing killer stuff with Macross and Orguss…Southern Cross is hard to watch, though.
Would you say that those 80s anime titles were some of your earliest fandoms?
I grew up in a really small northern California town called Wheatland. The population was like, 2,600 and there wasn’t shit to do. My grandfather was one of the first people in town to get cable. Back then, Showtime used to show anime. It wasn’t called anime back then, we just called it Big Robot Cartoons. The first ones I got into was Combattler V and Gaiking. Then, on UHF, the good old antenna, they showed Starblazers, which was huge for my childhood, which then led into Macross.
I remember watching a lot of those old Toei fairy tale movies as a kid. You know, the heartbreaking ones where everyone dies at the end.
Yeah, I saw Nausicaa as an early teen and Black Magic M-66. There’s a lot of people who say it inspired The Terminator.
Do you remember how back in the 80s, all early childhood programming was anime? But not only was it anime, but it was all secret Miyazaki stuff? Like the Little Women cartoon?
Definitely, and you could totally tell it was him, but it’s stuff no one talks about. They’re really good. I tried to draw that stuff when I was a kid. Various cyclones and jet fighters.
When did you make the leap from ‘trying to draw’ to realizing that ‘Oh shit, this looks amazing’?
Never. Really, never. Talk to my wife. There’s nothing I’ve drawn hanging in my house. I see every flaw and fuck up there is. And there’s a lot of them. I hate it. There’s stuff I’ve drawn for my daughters in their rooms, and I’ll draw for my wife. She always asks me to draw Jem or The Nightmare Before Christmas but I don’t draw Disney stuff anymore. And if I do, it’s my own version. I did a Toy Story piece, but it’s my own take on it. It’s realistic, if they were real people. But sometimes I’ll break down and draw the Nightmare stuff and Erin will post it, and people will comment that it’s awesome and they wish they could have it. And I think, ‘Oh…sold!’ and then I sell it.
You were doing commissions and I read recently that you’re stopping for a while. Is that correct?
Yeah…there’s just not enough hours in the day. There’s the stuff I’m paid to do, professionally. There’s my own passion projects and my own IPs that I’m involved in, there’s stuff that I want to draw, and then there’s commissions. So, out of those four things, something is going to take a hit. That’s why I’m scaling down commissions to about one per month. I do a mailer now, too. I grew up on Bantha Tracks, the old Star Wars newsletter. This paper pamphlet—I lived for that coming in the mail as a child! Right now, we just do an email newsletter, but I really want something in paper to come out every three months. Something that offers original pieces.
When I do a cover, a do a bunch of drawings and put them together to lay them out, much like I did when I was in the package design industry. I’ll do individual pieces by hand and lay them out on the table, figuring out how they’re going to go. I’ll do a final rendering and one more layout and a hand-drawn final rendering of everything. So, I have stacks and stacks of pieces that were never meant to be for sale. I don’t show them to anyone, because they’re never meant to be seen. I’ve even tossed some of them out, but my wife insists that people might be interested in them. My oldest daughter, Audrey, has started cataloging them and offering them off for sale.
It’s actually really funny—I was doing a recreation of G.I. Joe issue 30 with all the Dreadnoks on the cover earlier this week. I asked the younger one, Chloe, what she thought of it. She mumbled that it was nice while she was walking past me. Then there’s Audrey, who is a lot more like me. I’d say she’s the little version of me except that she’s six feet tall. Lately, I’ll ask her what she thinks and she doesn’t care either. Teenage girls.
When did you start taking the convention circuit and public appearances more seriously?
My very first convention as an artist was WonderCon, the first year it went to Anaheim. I’ve gone to San Diego Comic Con for the last twenty-nine years. I’m old as fuck. But I’ve gone to conventions for decades, and it was really weird doing one as a guest. That was back when I did a Last Starfighter exclusive and companies didn’t give a shit. They didn’t care that I didn’t have the rights to the IP. It sold out in twenty minutes because I only printed thirty of them. And I was really surprised by that. I look back at that drawing now and I think it’s awful. I’ve thought about redoing it, but what I want to do now just for myself is a Greatest American Hero movie poster.
Would you tell me what’s next in the pipeline for you?
Right now, I’m just working on my commissions and the G.I. Joe covers, which go through next year. I’ve got some package art to finish for Toynami and their Robotech line. I’m doing the card art for the next two waves of action figures. I’m doing a couple of pieces for myself that I’ll print up and offer for sale, which is where that Greatest American Hero movie poster comes in. One of my biggest influences is Drew Struzen, so the style will be similar to that. And it will be big. Everything I draw is large and I draw everything by hand. I just bought a Wacom cintiq, so I’ll start doing some of the colors digitally, but all of the drawings will continue to be by hand.
The thing about drawing by hand is that no matter how complex and good Cintiqs get with their brushes, you can’t replicate that line you get with real ink and a brush. If I screw up on something I’m drawing by hand, I have to figure out how to get out of that. Whether I use white out or just decide on a new way to implement that mistake into my picture, I really have to think about it. When you do it digitally, you just hit ‘back’ or ‘undo’. But I like the happy accidents. I grew up on Bob Ross, and those mistakes just change it. Sometimes they change it for the better. There’s a lot of covers I’ve done that turned out good and better than I originally had it in my head because I had to make changes that really tested my abilities of what I could do by hand, and not on the computer. I’ll always draw by hand. At least until these things give out.