Illustrator Kerrith Johnson wants to use art to remove obstacles to cultural understanding. It’s a pretty giant take for pen and ink and pixels.
But his recently viral “Believe Series” has inspired, excited, and seems to prove that the artist’s reach doesn’t exceed his grasp.
Taking up where the tagline for the movie Superman left off, “Believe a man can fly,” the series covers comic characters, male and female, DC and Marvel. With the addition of his “Accept” series, done in a similar style, it also includes villains.
Colleen: Your comic-inspired “Believe” images have gone viral. What inspired the series philosophically? Stylistically?
Kerrith Johnson: I was honestly surprised that the “Believe Series” went viral. I only knew because I randomly saw the different articles on Twitter. Before I saw my name in the tweets, I thought “Oh that sounds like a neat idea for illustrations…wait…me? Ha! No way!”
Now, stylistically the series comes from a project I did for a History of Graphic Design course I did at McMaster University while in honours art in 2005. I had to take a piece of work from a graphic designer in the textbook, read up on the artist and infuse the choice with my take on it. So my Superman piece was based on a poster by Joseph Binder who designed for the Vienna Music and Theatre festival in 1924. My piece for the class was originally acrylic, but then I redid it in Illustrator later that year because I liked it so much; I then did a Batman variation, too. I always meant to do more but never did until now when I restarted the series with Wonder Woman.
Philosophically, the series comes from my love of heroes, heroines, and mythology. Heroes are meant to inspire and be admired; they teach us to never give up and always help. They are examples of what we can be and give us modern day mythology. Tying these Heroes to their iconic selves and positive ideals makes me happy, and I think showcasing them as positive icons is important to do.
You have a varied collection of heroes, villains, men, and women in the series. How did you select who was front and center?
Ha, well, I’m a huge nerd, and I had to use my extensive comic knowledge for something! All I did though was thought about the characters as if they were real people. If I came up with a word or phrase which I thought resonated with their personality or what they stood for, I’d do them. Generally though, I’d do characters I liked or if I thought it would be cool to see a group shot. I’d do each character separately and then the team as a whole. To keep the series manageable, I’ve stayed within the DC and Marvel universes. I have a lot more to go!
Do you have a favorite from the series?
Each time I finish a piece, I’m excited to post it and see people’s reactions to it. Sometimes because I like what I’ve done with the characters’ poses or how they’re depicted, or even with a piece I don’t think is done that well. I’ve been surprised a lot of the time when pieces I think are awesome (Supergirl) get no response and pieces I don’t think I did justice to (Two-Face) people really like.
Having said that, I like all of the pieces for different reasons: Supergirl’s energy, Harley’s interplay with her secret identity, Wolverine’s ’regular joe’ secret identity and Superman’s positive message. I could go on, but I’m happy when I see someone say: “Oh cool you did….! He/she’s my favourite!”
Your portfolio covers a wide range of styles and media, not just comics and illustration. What about comics first excited you and continues to intrigue you?
When I was little (Yes, we’re going there. . ), one of my older brothers had a drawer full of comics. It was such a huge deal when he allowed me to take one to read and a even bigger deal when I was allowed to take one from the ‘special’ drawer which was full of his comics all in plastic bags. Also, my Nana always got us Archie digests when we were little, too. So I think that sense of reverence and love got me hooked and indirectly impressed on me that comics were these ‘important’ stories which allowed me to take myself to other worlds, distant futures or were just goofy comedic stories.
I love storytelling and have found in my study of myths from various cultures that we as a species actually have a lot of similar goals and ideas. I see comics, Western and Eastern, as modern day mythologies, which can be enjoyed and show us all through storytelling how we are similar to each other and help us to understand our differences.
If you were to make another, similar series or “Believe Series” posters set in reality, who would you like to cover?
There is a huge swath of people you could do with a series such as “Believe” with bringing uplifting characteristics to the forefront being the core of it. A lot of people have positive ideologies about them that should be exemplified. On a personal level, I could easily do one for each member of my family, no problem and also my close friends. Historically and contemporarily, there would be any number of artists, scientists, philosophers, or entertainers I could think of which I respect for different reasons.
The most important question of all; what is your favorite breakfast food?
Ha, a big scrambled eggs and bacon breakfast with whole wheat toast on the side.