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Paving the Road to Infinity: Jim Cheung Pt. 1

From Young Avengers to AvX, the artist recalls the lessons learned throughout his career at Marvel!

Infinity #1 preview art by Jim Cheung

By Jim Beard

On August 14, Jim Cheung leads an all-star assemblage of artists by kicking off INFINITY #1 with writer Jonathan Hickman. You’ve already gotten a taste of his space-spanning art in the FREE COMIC BOOK DAY: INFINITY preview, but the event itself encompasses the Marvel Universe and Cheung has been working toward this day since his first Marvel work in the 1990’s on such titles as X-FORCE, FORCE WORKS and MAVERICK. These early projects represent what the artist calls the “evolutionary road” of his career.

Marvel.com: Jim, what do you feel you learned from your earliest projects that really helped you develop as an illustrator?

Jim Cheung: I would say that there have been a variety of things that have helped me over the years; one of which was learning the importance of adhering to deadlines! [Laughs]

More seriously though, I would say that honing the process of developing the script from printed word into visual images has been critical in developing my storytelling abilities. I'm constantly trying to learn from my respected peers, and even now I'm experimenting with new ways—for me—of improving my techniques.

It’s a slow process, but hopefully I'll eventually reach a point where I won't be too critical of the results by the time the reader sees them.

Marvel.com: YOUNG AVENGERS in 2005 really stands out as one of your first major works; how would you describe your method of working with writer Allan Heinberg on it?

Jim Cheung: Working with Allan was a delight. He was so open to my ideas and thoughts, even though they were often silly. He was always kind enough to entertain them and not just laugh and hang up the phone. I think that might just have been because it was his first foray into the world of comics, so he had a lot of patience for me.

Marvel.com: Was YOUNG AVENGERS an overly-complicated book, compared to what you’d been working on at the time?

Jim Cheung: For the most part, the work was pretty straightforward. I don't think anyone knew if the characters would be well received or not, so we just did our best. Designing them was a collaborative affair between editor Tom Brevoort, Allan and myself, since I came on board after the team was already crafted and basically defined. I think Allan had an idea for all their personalities too, so all I had to do was provide some outfits. I credit the success of the book mostly to Allan's characterization and great pacing of the story. I don't think I started really figuring out each member's personality and mannerisms until after a good few issues.

Also in 2005, Cheung’s inclusion in the “Young Guns” spotlight of artists made even more fans sit up and take notice of his rising star. He continued to hone his skills on YOUNG AVENGERS and cover work, and in 2007 an incredible opportunity came along: the chance to not only work with writer Brian Michael Bendis, but on one of the most unique Marvel concepts yet.

Marvel.com: Taking on NEW AVENGERS: ILLUMINATI meant partnering with Brian and some of the most prominent Marvel characters ever; how did you approach that level of being in the spotlight?

Jim Cheung: Working with Brian was a little daunting. Being offered a book where the writer already has this huge following did make me a little nervous since I wanted to make sure I didn't disappoint. I knew people would be paying particular attention since Brian's name was attached, but I don't know if I really did that well on the book overall. It was a thrill to be able to tackle some of my favorite moments from my childhood, namely Secret Wars and the Beyonder, but there are many moments I would love to revisit and revise. I don't think I really got into the flow of Brian's scripts until I worked on fill-ins in NEW AVENGERS.

Marvel.com: What was the research like for you on the era-hopping set-up ILLUMINATI?

Jim Cheung: Research is always fun for me. I love it when I get to dive into the archives for reference because I've really grown to appreciate the heritage that all the classic Marvel characters have. Even now, for INFINITY, I am hopping back into the old Jack Kirby FANTASIC FOUR books for inspiration because they are just so amazing. I like trying to put a modern spin on all those wonderful designs, without disassembling them because they really are gold and too often ignored in an attempt to put a fresh coat of paint on things, so I try to preserve as much of that as possible.

As Cheung’s portfolio of projects expanded, particularly in a re-teaming with Allan Heinberg on 2010’s AVENGERS: THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE, a desire and demand for his covers also grew. In 2012, an assignment arrived that once again placed him on the front lines alongside Marvel’s biggest characters for one of their most explosive events.

Marvel.com: Did you look at the design of your AVENGERS VS. X-MEN covers differently from other covers you'd created before them?

Jim Cheung: I think I tried to approach the AvX covers in my regular manner, although the magnitude and scope of the book meant I was always trying to throw everyone and the kitchen sink into each one. Luckily Tom Brevoort knew when to rein me in so that each one didn't look identical, though the challenge did come in fitting everything into the tiny window, because there were just so many cover elements to dance around. That AvX logo was a big one!

Marvel.com: With that in mind, did you try to put anything special in them for fans?

Jim Cheung: The one thing I tried was to design the covers so that they would reveal something once the logo and cover copy was taken away. Kind of like an Easter egg as it were. Since the cover copy was so big, I knew that if I just drew around it, the covers would wind up being unbalanced when reprinted in the trade, so I tried to make sure there was more in the half that would initially be hidden. Of course, I wasn't able to implement this for every issue, but for the few that I could, I tried to have fun with it.

Marvel.com: In general, do you have a philosophy for approaching cover designs?

Jim Cheung: When approaching covers, the only philosophy I have, besides making it attractive, is to make the cover flow as best I can. Sometimes when there are a lot of elements on a cover, it can get confusing, so I think it's important to make sure everything reads well. When a cover is stacked up on the shelf next to the hundred other books out there, it’s important that it holds its own. These days though, the bar has been raised so high with the level of talent out there that it’s a struggle to keep up.

Overall, Jim Cheung remains one of Marvel’s most down-to-earth artists, a man who always places the work before the accolades.

Marvel.com: How did it feel when you first saw your star rising and your art being recognized?

Jim Cheung: It was nice when people started recognizing my work, but it was—and often still is—mixed up with other artists’. I still think there's a long way to go before I reach the point where I'd like it to be, but I hope I won't run out of steam before I get there.

In part two of our exclusive interview with Cheung this Wednesday, he talks about the favorite project of his career and details the inner workings of the massive INFINITY event.

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