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May 19, 2011

Jeffrey Catherine Jones, 1944-2011


Jeffrey Catherine Jones, a painter and illustrator who influenced comics both as a member of The Studio and as a surprisingly prolific maker of work in the field, died May 19 after a brief period of complications related to issues of lung capacity. She was 67.

imageJeffrey Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1944. Her father served in World War II. He returned home from deployment in Germany a couple of years after the fighting had ended, late enough in the 1940s that Jones was old enough to keep memories of his arrival home into adulthood. Jones lived in near-northeast Atlanta, near the Fabulous Fox Theater in that grand movie house's heyday, and describes in her autobiographical notes a living arrangement straight out of a gothic novel: a big house with clay tennis courts, where multiple generations of slightly lost, elderly relatives haunted its airy rooms and moss-canopied lawns. She came of age in an American south that, like her own personal journey and that of the curious, hybrid art form in which she frequently worked, would all the way not resemble itself by story's end.

Jones describes a childhood interested in art for its own sake and for being rewarded by an early facility in making images come to life in a way her peers could understand and enjoy. She mentioned in a later-life essay that unlike many kids that ended up in comics in one form or another, Jones started with a broad interest in art that only later on narrowed into a focus on fantasy illustration and comics. She later cited an issue of Joe Kubert's 3-D work on Tor as a particular inspiration as a child. Jones also read and enjoyed cartoon story strips such as those that Carl Barks wrote for the Disney duck comics, comics to which she returned when reading them to her daughter in the 1960s and 1970s.

She wanted to be a scientist when she grew up. Jeff Jones attended Georgia State College (I think the one that became Georgia State University as opposed to the one that became Savannah State). Jones studied geology in college, building on teenaged experiences searching out stones. She was also a passionate rocket builder, and later spoke wistfully of a time when a kid could purchase supplies for a hobby like that without a background check. "I loved school," she told Sequential Tart in 2004. I was very big into science; had a lab in the basement. I used to make rocket fuel. The tar that budded up from the pavement was a very good oxidant and I would use it in the fuel. I had to build my own rockets out of aluminum tubes from the hardware store. In those days a kid could go into a chemical supply store and buy anything. In high school I was the weird kid -- wasn't into sports; I was into the chess club, Latin club. I was the geeky kid."

Jones began dating fellow Georgia State College student and Atlanta native Mary Louise Alexander in 1964. They were married in 1966. In their early-married months Louise worked at the phone company while Jeff, conscious of the draft, stayed in school. Their daughter Julianna was born in July 1967. By that time, Jones had become a professional cartoonist and illustrator, with a growing portfolio and a promising series of forthcoming gigs. Jones started doing work for the thriving comics fanzine scene in 1964. Her first professional work was for Witzend in 1966 -- it was published some years later. In her on-line autobiographical notes, Jones names Screw Magazine, and foundational underground publication The East Village Other as early markets for her work.

imageSpurred on by a correspondence with Larry Ivie, a first-order fanzine-maker and occasional comics artist, Jones visited New York in the winter of 1967 with the idea of finding a place to launch a more ambitious career in commercial art. Jones found an apartment during that winter's notorious February blizzard that rented for $100 a month. Upon returning to Atlanta, Jones told her pregnant wife he'd be moving to the Big Apple with her or without her. Louise was more than happy to make the move, and their daughter was born that summer. Jones' client began to expand to include minor assignments for Gold Key and King and slightly higher profile work at Warren (a cover would wait until a 1970 effort for Eerie #67). She also provided illustrations to the sister publications Amazing and Fantastic. She created a few memorable covers for DC Comics, including a couple of pieces for their Wonder Woman comic book, and also worked for Skywald and Charlton.

Jones' move to the big city was specifically well timed in terms of her illustration career. Successful movie poster illustrator -- and one time prolific comic book/comic strip artist -- Frank Frazetta had stormed into the consciousness of the prose publishing world with a series of highly successful paperback covers that found their sales stride in the form of a Conan series that launched in 1966. Art directors wanted to find people that painted like Frazetta; Jones came as close as anyone out there to the successful artist's facility and the underlying grace of her figures.

Jones' first formal book illustration job was the dust jacket and frontispiece for an unreleased Edgar Rice Burroughs work, I Am A Barbarian. Jones' second book job was four color plates for a book of Robert E. Howard Solomon Kane short stories called Red Shadows. Among her prominent assignments during the next dozen years were the Ace paperback editions of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series and various high-profile Andre Norton releases. Jones worked in a variety of genres, however, and with a range of cover subject choices; she kept up a prolific pace of 10-15 covers a year for nearly a decade. A nice selection of that initial burst of covers can be found at Bud Plant's site here.

Louise and Jeffrey separated during the early 1970s. She kept the name throughout the early part of her own successful comics writing and editorial career, eventually taking on the last name of eventual husband Walt Simonson.

imageIt was roughly in that divorce period that Jones began work on the first of two celebrated, independent magazine strips. Her strip Idyl appeared in National Lampoon in the early 1970s. A later comic, I'm Age, appeared in Heavy Metal in the early 1980s. Jones was one of the few artists to easily span the late-underground and early over-ground periods. A spotlight magazine called Spasm came out in 1973 from Last Gasp (she also did a short work for the Print Mint publication Junkwaffel); one of the more memorable covers for the publication Star*Reach came from Jones' drawing board, a portrait of sorcerer king Elric that appeared in 1976. You could also say that Jones bookended the early independent comics movement. A late 1983 one-shot from early independent label Pacific Comics called Ravens & Rainbows collected a number of Jones' fantasy-tinged comics and related artwork and repackaged them for a new, comic store-oriented generation of readers. In the end, however, the momentum was sustained. It's believed that Jones stepped away from comics largely because artistic interests took her elsewhere, for instance into expressionistic artwork over the classic rendering of figures and set pieces. Jones lingered long enough to proved one of the most memorable covers in the short run of Epic Illustrated, published in 1984 and a sign as to how mainstream comics had absorbed a lot of what distinguished the early independents.

Jones' legend was already secure, by prodigious output and via synergistic proximity. Starting in 1975 Jones worked for a few brief but memorable years in a large, shared Chelsea neighborhood space with fellow artists Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith and Michael William Kaluta. The four artists had early success and boundary-pushing in common, at a time when work in comics and perhaps more broadly illustration seemed at the end of a cycle rather than at the beginning of one. That space and their time together was known as The Studio -- a book of that name came out in 1979 and solidified the space's reputation, ironically after all four men had moved on to different work situations. The legacy of that much talent doing what was collectively very good work at a point of almost monolithic and degrading corporate influence over the kind of art they wanted to do has provided The Studio with a legacy that can be embraced even by those that didn't particularly care for the artists' output. The idea of a dedicated workplace that would allow for coercive influence one artist to another has been carried over into very nearly ever cartoonists' collective space initiative since.

Beginning in 1998, Jones, after years of consideration, pursued sex reassignment surgery and began to live as a woman. A flurry of mental health issues that surfaced in 2001 led to a nervous breakdown and accompanying personal and professional setbacks. In 2004, Jones apparently got back on her feet. Now settled into an isolated area in the Catskills, she began to reach back out into the comics and illustration worlds, attending a convention here and there, connecting with fans that knew her at stages of her career spanning from the undergrounds to trading cards, keeping a lively on-line presence through a web site stuffed with scans of work and later through social media services. Facebook and its focus on wide outreach, curatorial participation and recurring accomplishment seem perfectly suited to Jones and her philosophy of an in-the-moment interaction with art. Always pressing for new areas of artistic exploration, in a Sequential Tart interview in 2004 Jones said she had recently been working in sculpture in terracotta.

A documentary film about Jones by Maria Capardo called Better Things: Life + Choices of Jeffrey Jones has been in the making for some time, pressing forward as much as possible despite a recently failed kickstarter campaign to secure more significant funding. Capardo was one of the first sources close to the artist that confirmed her passing. That project gives us this poignant footage of Jones discussing her mortality, and one hopes it can one day see completion.

imageShe cited "I Bled The Sea" (2001), a two-page illustrated poem, as a personal favorite among her later-period comics.

Jeffrey Catherine Jones reportedly died at 4 AM on May 19 after suffering from emphysema and bronchitis -- it was asserted that the doctor noted some hardening of the arteries around the heart as well. She was too weak and severely underweight to muster a fight, and had in fact been brought into hospice care early this week after a period of rapid decline. There was no resuscitation order. Jones leaves behind a legacy of image-making and comics creation of high craft quality and sincere, personal expression, of making comics fans reconsider the value of art as a narrative device and of making illustration fans aware of the mix of word and picture, of story, always story.

As evening closes on the first day without this special artist since the mid-1940s, testimonials from peers and fans both professional and personal continued to wink into existence. The artist and author James Owen wrote, "C.J. was one of the best painters, ever; one of the most elegant draftspersons, ever. And a very gentle soul who was trying to make her way in the world."

style note: Jones says she felt like she was meant to live as a woman from a very early age; the personal pronouns and possessives have been changed in the above to reflect that statement.

posted 4:00 pm PST | Permalink

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