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Artists' artist John Paul Leon dies at age 49

John Paul Leon
(Image credit: John Paul Leon)

Artist John Paul Leon died Sunday morning, May 2, surrounded by his friends and family. His death is attributed to cancer, which he battled with for the past 14 years.

John Paul Leon was an artists' artist, well-known and respected inside the comic industry as much (if not more) than by the general public. Primarily known for his work on Batman (both in comic books and in movies), Leon's inky expressionistic work fit well for the Dark Knight and the tenor of the stories he is best known for.

John Paul Leon entered the comic book industry at age 19, drawing the limited series Robocop: Prime Suspect while a student at New York City's School of Visual Arts (SVA) under Walter Simonson and Will Eisner.

(Image credit: John Paul Leon (Milestone Media/DC))

Leon's first breakout work came with Static, the flagship comic of Milestone Media under a distribution deal with DC. The series debuted while he was a senior at SVA, and he continued to draw the series for several months after his graduation. 

Following that, Leon soon became an in-demand artist for DC and Marvel, drawing the limited series The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix and Earth X, while also contributing to the ongoing series Batman, New X-Men, Superman, and Challengers of the Unknown.

By the turn of the century, Leon's talents were noticed by DC's sister company Warner Bros., which enlisted him to draw style guides for films such as Superman Returns, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Green Lantern

Leon returned to comic books on a more regular basis in the mid '00s. He became one of the industry's most in-demand cover artists and drew limited series such as The Winter Men and Batman: Creature of the Night

"When I graduated SVA, I remember they had us fill out a form, for what purpose, I don't recall. But among the questions asked was something along the lines of, where do you see yourself in 20 years, or what are your goals for the next several years," Leon told Newsarama in 2019. "I remember my answer was, '... To build a body of work and to be highly regarded among my peers.' Something like that."

And he did, according to Simonson.

(Image credit: John Paul Leon (IDW Publishing))

"I am honored to have John Paul's Ragnarok cover framed and hanging in our front hallway," Simonson says. "It's a constant reminder to do better every day and to try to make myself into the best artist I can."

Leon specialized in chiaroscuro impressionism - a technique famously used previously in comics by Milton Caniff, Alex Toth, David Mazzucchelli, and later, Chris Samnee. The Miami-based artist combined that with an expert compositional technique that, due to silhouette, delivered intricate artwork with relatively sparse use of shape and line.

Leon was diagnosed with stage two colorectal cancer in 2007. After several rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, he was diagnosed cancer-free in 2012. The cancer return returned in 2018, and Leon resumed chemotherapy in early 2019. During all of this Leon continued to work, with a new project - Batman/Catwoman Special #1 - announced just last month.

Leon is survived by his wife and daughter, along with an older brother.

In lieu of flowers, Leon asked before his death that a trust fund be set up for his 17-year old daughter to fund her future education and interests in engineering. Long-time friend Tommy Lee Edwards has set up a GoFundMe in Leon's name, which has already amassed over $18,000 - nine times the initial $2,000 goal.

Newsarama Senior Editor Chris Arrant has covered comic book news for Newsarama since 2003, and has also written for USA Today, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher's Weekly, Marvel Entertainment, TOKYOPOP, AdHouse Books, Cartoon Brew, Bleeding Cool, Comic Shop News, and CBR. He is the author of the book Modern: Masters Cliff Chiang, co-authored Art of Spider-Man Classic, and contributed to Dark Horse/Bedside Press' anthology Pros and (Comic) Cons. He has acted as a judge for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Harvey Awards, and the Stan Lee Awards. Chris is a member of the American Library Association's Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table.