John Paul Leon opens up on his cancer battle & his Batman: Creature of the Night work

John Paul Leon
(Image credit: John Paul Leon)

On November 27, the fourth (and final) issue of Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon's Batman: Creature of the Night will be released. The book is drawn, lettered, colored, and editor Chris Conroy has confirmed it's already been sent to the printers.

(Image credit: John Paul Leon (DC))

It took nine years, but the four-issue series Batman: Creature of the Night by writer Kurt Busiek and artist John Paul Leon is complete. While that amount of time might seem odd, it's an achievement - on the page, and backstage.

While Busiek's health problems were generally public, Leon had his own health issues which kept him away from the drawing table. But he didn't give up, and he's back after successfully beating cancer a third time. As he tells Newsarama, his body is responding well to the chemotherapy, "and, all things considered, my energy level is not bad."

Newsarama talked with Leon about his health, Batman: Creature of the Night, as well as big anniversaries this year - the 20th for Earth X and his 25th for graduating art school. Through it all, he tells Newsarama, he's constantly learning, adapting, and persevering to do the best work he can.

Newsarama: John, this year is the 20th anniversary of one of your first big projects: Earth X, for Marvel. And it's the 25th anniversary of your graduation from the School of Visual Arts, and over 30 years since your first pro work. Back then, where did you see yourself 20 or 25 or 30 years ahead?

(Image credit: John Paul Leon (DC))

John Paul Leon: I can't believe it's gone so fast! I kind of saw myself in a similar position to where I'm at. 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.

I remember my answer was, "... To build a body of work and to be highly regarded among my peers." Something like that.

Nrama: I need to call SVA to dig that up. But do you think you achieved that? I think so.

Leon: Thanks! I think so too, Chris... So far!

Nrama: Right now you're just finishing on Batman: Creature of the Night, which my friends at DC tell me has become a passion project for you. How are you feeling now about the project?

Leon: This project has been a challenge for unexpected reasons. For a long time, Kurt Busiek and I were working without a definite deadline or schedule. DC hadn't announced the project so we weren't exactly tearing through it. Then, as luck would have it, both Kurt and I were besieged with health problems right as DC solicited the series. Our health issues completely blew up the schedule, and now I find myself getting in the studio only when it's physically possible. The rest of my time is spent recovering.

However, I'm into the work big time. Kurt has written a great script, and this is the first long series where I'm doing all the art: from pencils to colors. So far, I'm very happy with the results!

John Paul Leon

(Image credit: John Paul Leon)

Nrama: Can you talk about your health problems? If not, it's okay.

Leon: Without going into too much detail, my health woes began in 2008, when I was first diagnosed with stage two colorectal cancer. I've had several bouts with it since and been in and out of the usual treatments: chemo, radiation, surgeries. I was cancer free since summer of 2012, until my current situation, which began in January of 2018. The disease has returned for a third time, again in my lungs. The good news is that I've been back on chemo since January 2019 and I'm responding really well to the treatment. My blood counts are stable and even showing improvement in some cases. Also, all things considered, my energy level is not bad.

Nrama: Glad to have you here, John.

I see you've posted some uncolored pages from #4 on your Twitter. How do you feel about the ability to instantly share in-progress art online with fans now?

Leon: There's an upside and a downside. Seeing my work on social media is always interesting. It's another form and that usually gives me a different perspective than what I have in the studio, or a website. I love the fact that I can be working on something in the studio all day, throw it up on Twitter that afternoon, and start getting instant reactions from people. It feels good, especially when the reaction is positive!

On the other hand, I feel there's a downside to this cycle that results in near-instant applause. Something is released, it gets a reaction, and the circle closes. Personally, I feel like I'm back to square one. I'd be curious to hear what some fans think about seeing works-in-progress (WIP) on social media prior to reading the story.

Batman: Creature of the Night

(Image credit: John Paul Leon (DC))

Nrama: Where are you at seeing artists you admire share their WIP work online? How do you feel about it as a fan yourself?

Leon: I love it. I'm selfish that way. I see most of what's out there through social media, so seeing behind the curtain courtesy of Lee Weeks, Tommy Lee Edwards, or Bill Sienkiewicz is always special. I wonder if any of them share my feeling that it can be draining.

Other artists that I enjoy following and seeing the occasional WIP from: Walter Simonson, Mike Mignola, Bernard Chang, Mitch Gerads, Adam Hughes, Duncan Fegredo, Sean Murphy, and more! I'm sure others will come to mind soon after this goes out.

Nrama: What do you feel you've learned so far in your 30 years as a professional artist?

Leon: Drawing from life will help prevent my art from becoming formulaic. I don't do this nearly as much as I should.

You can't wait around for inspiration. Just start working and hopefully, inspiration will arrive at some point in the process. I can't control if I'm inspired or not. I can control how much concentration I bring to a job.

There is a huge difference between experiencing artwork as originals, (live, in the flesh.) and experiencing it after it's been reproduced, reduced, and made into a product. When you're in the room, looking at an original piece of art, one of the things you're experiencing is a sense of the time it took the artist to make the piece. This sense gets almost completely erased once you reproduce the art. The surface gets flattened out and homogenized. I think this is one of the reasons why I find making digital art so unsatisfying. Even though, in the end, digital is probably the most efficient way to make art for print.

Nrama: Sounds like we need to see more of your original art. Have you been approached for any of those Artist's Edition type books of your work? Do you have scans of all your work? Or a good portion of it?

Leon: No, I've never been asked to do an Artist's Edition book. I have scans of just about everything since around 2004.

Nrama: Scott Dunbier, if you're reading this, get in touch.

John, when it comes to comics, is there something you wish you'd have learned sooner?

Leon: Difficult to say. I'm sure something will pop into my head once this interview is over, but, in general, I don't have many regrets. I would like to have learned a few things sooner, like inking with a brush, or using Photoshop, but I tend to be pretty set in my ways and it takes me some time to move from my current position.

So if I really think about it, the list of things I wish I'd learned sooner is probably very long, and would include such banalities as drawing hair, drawing mouths - and fingernails. Let's just say that drawing is a never-ending learning process - if you're doing it right!

Nrama: What's the last thing you say you've learned, or re-learned, then?

Leon: Solve the hard storytelling problems, as best as possible, in the layout stage. It's not going to get any easier down the line. This could be something as simple as how a character is holding something, or finding the right environment for a scene.

Nrama: Your work has become a benchmark for budding and other pro artists. Whose work do you look to these days to inspire you?

Leon: That's very flattering. Thanks! I'm constantly blown away by Kim Jung Gi's work. He's probably the closest thing to Moebius that we have today. I don't know how he does it!

For Batman: Creature of the Night, I've been going back and looking at Robert Fawcett again. Can you imagine what a Batman book drawn by Fawcett would have looked like? I never stop looking at the mid-century illustrators: Austin Briggs, Noel Sickles, Bernie Fuchs, etc.

John Paul Leon

(Image credit: John Paul Leon)

Nrama: I know you don't do many conventions these days, but is there anything you'd like to tell your fans and fellow creators?

Leon: I'd like to thank them! The fans, because without them, this whole thing would come to a screeching halt. Also, from what I can tell, there is some great, varied work being done in contemporary comics. Even though I see most new stuff through social media, from what I can tell, comics creators are doing a lot of wonderful work. So a big, 'Thank you!' to all the creators out there raising the bar.

Nrama: Big picture, what are your goals these days as far as comics go? 

Leon: Right now I'm focused on doing the best work I can, and trying to make the latest project the best project I've ever worked on.

Virtually all of John Paul Leon's comics work is available digitally. Check out Newsarama's list of the best digital comics readers for Android and iOS devices.

Chris Arrant

Chris Arrant covered comic book news for Newsarama from 2003 to 2022 (and as editor/senior editor from 2015 to 2022) 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. (He/him)