Fish Are Terrifying: An Interview With Suicide’s Run Artist Jeffrey Johnson

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Conducted by Carter Newton

Jeffrey Johnson is a talented artist who has done a great deal of work for Hex Games. He may be best known for illustrating the cover of the ENnie Award-winning RPG Hobomancer and the Hobomancer Companion. Recently Jeffrey illustrated my novel Suicide Run: A Tale of the Hobomancers. I had some questions for him, and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer them.

Carter Newton: Jeffrey, you’ve worked on several Hex products, including Hobomancer, in the past. Was your process different for this project than it would have been for a gaming supplement?

Jeffrey Johnson: Usually on the game supplements, there is no particular story that needs to be told. Both covers and interiors simply need to evoke the feel of the game setting and hopefully entice people into looking at and ultimately buying the books. Generally I’ve been really lucky when working with the folks at Hex because the brief goes something like this: “We have this game, it’s about such and such, here’s a copy of the text, make something cool.” So I read as much of the content as I have time for, jot some notes down, work out some ideas in my sketchbook, and maybe look for bits and pieces of reference on the internet. Speaking of internet reference, one of my friends told me that they always try to guess what kind of project I’m working on based on what I pin on Pinterest. It’s not just for girls planning their weddings, you know.

The process for this project WAS a little bit different, though. First off, I couldn’t put the book down—even that first (or second) draft was amazing! So I read through the book and some of the characters jumped out at me from the beginning, so they immediately landed in the sketchbook. The second read through was chapter by chapter, talking with you and  picking out key scenes that hopefully wouldn’t give anything away, but that also showed some of the terrific action and character in the text. The book is Bo Suicide’s story, so mostly I wanted to focus on him.

CN: You had extremely clear visions of several of the characters – better than even my own! What did you see in the story that gave you such a clear image of the characters? Were any of them clearer or stronger than others? Were you especially drawn to any of them?

JJ: Montana Handle was the first drawing I sent you. I think he was inspired by a mix of Sam Elliot and watching a lot of “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” with my daughters. That’s become part of the pattern for drawing characters in the worlds Hex designs. The Who Would Play Them In The Movie? (WWPTITM?) mechanic of QAGS always gives a handy jumping off point. I always loved Montana Handle though, and he’s the most “out of my head” of all of the characters. 

Bo Suicide didn’t really become a person to me until about two thirds of the way through the book. In the scene at the section house he gelled as a young Dick Van Dyke. Looking for scenes to illustrate and keeping that look in mind and the feeling I got from that initial illustration really helped make him a likable character for me. It’s really hard to do several drawings of someone you don’t like.       

The general Store owner could’ve been any number of people I’ve known in small towns in Missouri, Alabama or West Virginia.

One of my friends posted a recent photo of Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and she was just so calm, and in command, and refined. She was George Porter, no doubt about it. Then later, talking to you about some trouble with the drawing, you said something like “less serene, more Bruce Lee,” which really fleshed out the idea a lot.

CN: Your image of the monsters in this story is gripping. I actually rewrote sections of the story to more closely reflect the picture you’d drawn because it totally gave me the creeps. Where did that come from?

JJ: There were a few iterations in my sketch book. At first I was thinking something more spidery with long spindly legs, like the war walkers from War of the Worlds. Those sketches gave way to something more like a horseshoe crab…Often as I’m sketching I tell myself stories about what things look like, how they’re connected to the world, and what purpose different parts serve.     

Many of my monsters, especially the ones for the Hobomancer world, are based on fish. I guess part of that is a Lovecraft influence, but let’s be honest here…fish are terrifying. I remember thinking that it should definitely have little, beady eyes, and it should seem nearly unbeatable, all teeth and fire, grabbing arms and claws. Its only real purpose in the universe is to hunt and to eat.

Thanks, Jeffrey! To learn more about Jeffrey’s work, visit his blog and his Etsy shop.

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