This weekend, the comic book industry was shocked to learn of the death of artist John Paul Leon, at the age of 49. The illustrator — perhaps best known for Static, Earth X, and The Wintermen — died on Saturday after a struggle with cancer.
Born in New York City in 1972, Leon’s first professional work came when he was still a teenager, via a series of illustrations for TSR’s Dragon and Dungeon magazines; such precociousness was, perhaps, a sign of things to come. His first comics work appeared while he was just 20 years old and still a student in New York’s School of Visual Arts, via two RoboCop projects from Dark Horse Comics. If his work felt particularly fully formed even in those first projects, it was the result not only of his natural talent, but also of the impact of some of his professors at SVA — a line-up that included no lesser talents than Will Eisner and Walt Simonson.
A year after his RoboCop work, Leon’s breakthrough arrived when he was teamed with writers Robert Washington III and Dwayne McDuffie to co-create Milestone Media’s beloved Static in 1993. Partnered with inkers Steve Mitchell and, later, Shawn Martinborough, Leon’s artwork was a joy to behold, mixing naturalistic character acting with a bold graphic element that showed influences including Eisner and Simonson, of course, but also Howard Chaykin, Alex Toth, and beyond. With each new issue of the series, Leon’s work continued to evolve, and it became more and more obvious that he was a force to be reckoned with.
From Static, he moved to Milestone’s severely underrated Shadow Cabinet series, before he came to the attention of the bigger players, working on such DC titles as Challengers of the Unknown and The Wintermen, as well as Marvel’s The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix and Earth X, across the next decade or so. By this point in his career, he had developed a style that was uniquely his, yet showed a knowledge of comics history on every single page, in every panel — there were lessons learned from the art of Toth, Mark Chiarello, and David Mazzuchelli combined with elements brought in from Mike Mignola or Jack Kirby’s work, but with a sense of framing and pacing that was all his own.
While his sequential art became increasingly rare in the latter years of his career — his most significant contribution in terms of interior artwork in the past decade was the four issue Batman: Creature of the Night miniseries, written by Kurt Busiek, which ran from 2017 through 2019 — his work was often seen on the stands as a result of the cover artwork he produced for a number of series including DMZ, The Massive, and The Sheriff of Babylon; he was recently announced as the artist for a special issue of DC’s Batman/Catwoman series, but it’s unclear at time of writing whether or not the artwork for the issue had been completed before his death.
To say that Leon was highly respected in the industry is an understatement; even before his death, he was consistently referred to by a number of artists as not only an influence, but an inspiration. In the immediate aftermath of his passing, social media was filled with artists from across the medium sharing his artwork and writing about how his work had touched them. “I remain in awe of both his unrivaled draftsmanship [and] his stellar design work — both of which were simply unparalleled and technically just so precise and perfect,” wrote DC Publisher and Chief Creative Officer Jim Lee, “but what really made me a fan was how he squeezed in every bit of emotion [and] life in every image he created.”
Writer Tom King, who collaborated with Leon on an Eisner Award-nominated short for Vertigo’s CMYK: Black, described the artist as “a comic book humanist,” adding, “he grounded the inherent absurdity of conveying myth and story through inked panels by insisting the emotional struggle of our lived experience be in every line, every picture.”
John Paul Leon was, unmistakably, one of the finest artists of his generation, and in the history of the medium as a whole; his absence will make the medium a lesser one, but the work he left behind is guaranteed to inspire comic readers, as well as creators, for generations to come.
Those who wish to contribute to helping Leon's family in his passing can do so by donating here.