The Business of HYPE is a weekly series brought to you by HYPEBEAST Radio and hosted by jeffstaple. It’s a show about creatives, brand-builders and entrepreneurs and the realities behind the dreams they’ve built. On this week’s episode, Jeff sits down with illustrator and artist James Jean to talk about how he made the leap from comic book covers to white box galleries around the world.
Every superhero has their origin story. James Jean’s is one of a humble work ethic and DIY ingenuity: when he was looking for jobs at the tail-end of his time at SVA, Jean sent handmade portfolios to art directors around the city. He was largely ignored. “I got a reply from one children’s book publisher. They were kind of interested, but they thought my portfolio was a little strange and inconsistent for them.” Nowadays, Jean’s portfolio spans from DC Comics all the way to Prada.
In this interview, Jean recounts how he paid a visit to DC and shared his sketchbooks with the staff there; he was offered a gig illustrating covers for the Fables series, which became a regular paying gig over the next seven years. The freelance rates from DC and Vertigo were healthy, but he warns aspiring illustrators and artists that the checks have remained more or less the same since the early 2000s. “They paid decently for their covers,” Jean says, pausing and considering his next words carefully: “especially compared to other companies.” Jean’s early editorial illustration work was largely pro bono — editors would scoff when artists asked about budgets for projects. “Once those first few covers hit, though, that gave me some legitimacy,” he says. “Other art directors—who were also comic book fans—hired me to work at those magazines.”
Jean also explains how the publishing game has shifted since his first short-run of 3,000 books in 2005. “Barnes & Noble is, like, dead,” he says, with a morbid laugh. “So now we’re talking about Amazon—that’s where the game is.” He recounts the commerce giant contacting him about publishing programs that they’ve explored where they commission special projects. Amazon’s vertical business model, coupled with the steady paychecks from DC meant that Jean was practically coasting. “Professionally, at that point it was going well. I wasn’t making millions of dollars, but I was comfortable as an artist.”Nowadays, Jean has seized on his massive social media following as a promotional tool. He arranges regular drops: pieces are made-to-order for limited times only—blink and you’ll miss them. He still takes private commissions for pieces, but between his upcoming shows at Kaikai Kiki gallery in Japan and special projects like Prada, it can take a year for him to get around to these special projects. “Some of the commissions turn out to be really popular when I post them online,” he says, “Then I’ll do a print release and that’ll do really well.”
This episode contains references to the following:
Click play on the episode above to hear more about Jean’s origin story, his relationship with Takashi Murakami and why he insured his hands, just in case. Make sure to subscribe to HYPEBEAST Radio on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Overcast, or wherever else podcasts are found. Make sure to leave comments and reviews too; we want to hear from our listeners.