Illustrator, storyboard artist, Plastic Man fan tells stories, teaches kids to create

As a child, Jeanine-Jonee “Jenjo” Keith spent most of her free time drawing and was heavily influenced by the classic cartoons of the ’90s, like Doug, Dexter’s Lab,  and Powerpuff Girls. Still, she wanted to be a physicist when she grew up.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. As soon as she learned art could be a viable occupation, she devoted many, many hours to honing her skills and forged a career as an illustrator and storyboard artist.

She’s created storyboards for commercials, films, and games, and illustrated children’s books. Through her illustration company, JenjoInk, she publishes three comic book series, the sci-fi, fantasy and adventure-tinged “Seafoam: A Friend for Madison,” “ROLT,” and “Lastrex Labs.”

Somehow, she also finds time to hawk her art and merchandise at conventions and teach kids how to create comics through community classes, which provide a safe space for young people to geek out over a shared love of cartoons and drawing.  It’s exactly the kind of learning environment she wishes she had as a child.

Aside from being totally inspiring, Jeanine-Jonee also happens to be the first Plastic Man collector I’ve interviewed, which I find weirdly exciting. Read on for a glimpse into the fascinating life and art of Jenjo. 

You’re an illustrator and storyboard artist who self-publishes comic books. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, what does a storyboard artist do?

Comics and storyboards really go hand in hand in my opinion. Both mediums rely on visuals to portray the story being told. The only difference is that storyboarding requires a more technical approach since they will be used for filming and need to be a tad more technical and specific.

As a storyboard artist, I take the script, whether it be for a game, commercial or short film, and draw the scenes and action out. There are a lot of notes involved that go with the illustrations that the director uses as a visual guide for filming. Storyboards are shown to actors, for example, to give them a better idea of where they should be walking in their scene or the crew to help them set up properly for a shot

You often publish or promote your work under the name Jenjo or JenjoInk. I love that nickname. How did you come by it?

Thank you! Jenjo was a nickname originally given to me by friends and family. It’s a combination of my name, Jeanine-Jonee. I thought it was easy to remember and cute so I adopted it for my pen name and illustration company.

You’ve said you “enjoy the challenge of … translating a compelling story into the visual medium and presenting it to an audience.” What specifically do you enjoy about this process?

Visual storytelling is unique in that, if done correctly, it can be understood by just about anybody. When I approach a project, I try to focus on the colors, composition, expressions, and physical actions and interactions of my characters first, before I consider the dialogue. If I can’t hand a comic to someone and they are able to give me the gist of the story without any dialogue then I don’t feel like I’m achieving what I want to as a storyteller.

But what’s most enjoyable, above anything else, is just seeing that a reader can take something away from what I’ve created, or has had it impact them in some way. My love is in telling stories that have meaning and when I hear a reader is actually excited for the next part of the story or enjoyed reading one of my books it just really, makes me very happy.

Jeanine-Jonee’s self-published comic book series “Seafoam: A Friend for Madison.

Did you show artistic inclinations as a child?

Oh, my mother would constantly complain about how quickly we went through lined and computer paper! I was drawing every chance I got. In fact, if I ever misbehaved, which to be honest was rare, she punished me by taking away my art supplies and hiding them, haha! I’d say I’ve always had the love of drawing and telling stories but I don’t think I was naturally good at it. I’ve just put in hours and hours of mileage and consciously worked toward learning new techniques and practicing what areas I’m weak in.

When and why did you decide to pursue art as a career?

Sometime in middle school, when the internet was growing and more information was accessible, I learned that art could be a job. I’d wanted to be a physicist up to that point, believe it or not. Once I discovered I could get paid to draw it just made sense! I loved drawing more than anything and why not get paid while doing it?

How did you develop your unique artistic style and how would you describe it?

I’m a ‘90s kid and grew up on classic Nick Toons and Cartoon Network shows. A lot of the shows I used to watch religiously, like Doug, Hey Arnold, Dexter’s Lab, Samurai Jack, and Powerpuff Girls, all had these unique dynamic and lively styles. They really inspired me to pursue animation as a career. I also have a deep love for Ghibli films, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon.

All of that is just implanted in my mind and heart and when I was trying to find myself as an artist I drew inspiration from those things I loved. A lot of what I create now doesn’t have as much anime in it as it used to, but with projects like Seafoam, it’s something that comes directly from that ‘90s era of cartoons that is so nostalgic for me.

My characters are heavily based on shapes and I try to keep the designs simple, but not underdrawn. Because I have a strong storyboarding background and I think about how the characters are going to move, really even though they are going into a comic, I’m designing them with the mindset they’ll be animated so they can be more easily drawn in movement.

Who and what are some of your biggest artistic influences?

There are a few strong influences. I really admire Hayao Miyazaki for not only his talent in presenting a story with strong characters, but his work ethic. Stephen Silver, who is not only extremely talented but shares his knowledge with the artistic community, is a wonderful role model. Genndy Tartakovsky is an amazing storyteller who manages to always push animation and keep things fun! Rebecca Sugar is such a talented creator and I love how she captures emotion in her characters.

You do storyboards for companies, including Honda, AT&T, and Vitamin Water. Is there a lot of creativity involved in storyboarding or is it more just depicting someone else’s vision?

Most of the time, the director already knows what they want when it comes to commercials and they will provide a shot list and examples of the shoot location. There is some creative control when it comes to, say, actions or poses for the actors. I definitely enjoy working on short films or games more than commercials because I have more creative freedom.

What materials do you use when you do storyboards?

I have a few different methods depending on what the project requires. I’m self-taught in Storyboard Pro, so I use that when I’m working on a short film that requires boarding frame by frame or an animatic to be created. For pitch boards and most commercials, I use Clip Studio because usually the director prioritizes how nice the boards look alongside them being accurate reference material.

What about for illustration?

Clip Studio. It’s an amazing program; I use it for everything regarding digital illustration. Especially for comics and books, I have all my templates saved and you just can’t beat being able to have your entire comic book accessible from a single file.

Children’s book I Can See Peace, illustrated by Jeanine-Jonee Keith.

 You’ve illustrated several children’s books. What do you find compelling about illustrating books for kids?

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher had a class library. We were allowed to draw our own books, staple them, and put them on the shelf. My first book was surreal because I remember that moment when I was little and told my teacher I’d make a real book one day. And I’ve made several and,  you know what, my fourth grade teacher has bought them and has them in her classroom on the book shelf! I suppose it’s a mixture of how much I loved reading and drawing my own books as a kid that draws me to them.

Children’s books are also really fun to work on because they usually do one of two things; they teach kids something or they make kids happy. Most of the books I’ve illustrated have been educational and it’s nice to contribute to something that’s trying to make the world a little better, or help a kid learn how to handle their anger, or teach them about all the presidents and not just Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

Art from the comic book series ROLT.

You also self-publish a couple comic book series. Tell me about those. 

I self-publish three series at the moment: ROLT, Seafoam: A Friend for Madison, and Lastrex Labs.

Seafoam: A Friend for Madison is an all-ages book that follows the adventures of Madison after she helps a beached narwhal back into the ocean. She’s granted a wish and wishes for a true friend. Every issue, she’s taken to an unmarked island where she hangs out with her chosen friend, Blue, a grumpy kid with a secret. The two of them have a different adventure each issue, usually running into a nautical-themed creature.

The series is three issues in and so far they’ve run into a mind-controlling Hypnoctopus, devious Djinn, Magical Jinx puppies, and native-themed cat creatures. Seafoam #1 was the first comic I ever completed and published so I’m a little biased to say this series is my favorite of the three.

ROLT (Realm of Lost Things) is a sci-fi fantasy mystery adventure series that takes place in a pocket universe called The Manta. Creatures and people arrive there by way of water and trade in their memories for a new start in life, so it’s safe to say we never know everything about a character and they may not know everything about themselves right away.

The series intends to follow the King and his round table as they unlock the Manta’s secrets, while keeping the general populous safe from the different powerful beings that wash up on shore. Due to collaborative issues, this series has been put on hold several times and is slowly being completed now that JenjoInk has been established.

Lastrex Labs is my newest series. It follows the lives of Zoe, Doctor Craft, and eventually Mr. Rook. Lastrex is a facility that specializes in taking people with unique abilities and crafting them into government weapons, though that isn’t necessarily the main point of the story. Emily Brigolin, my head writer and editor, uses this environment to explore characters and their growth. What makes someone human and what will some do to get what they desire most?

Zoe, one of the main characters, is a hyper-intelligent psychic fascinated with the outside world she’s never been allowed to experience, but finds purpose in aiding Doctor Craft’s dream. Doctor Craft is determined to make his mark on the world, but finds himself drawn to Zoe. I’d say it’s as much a love story as it is suspenseful sci-fi goodness.

What appeals to you about the comic book medium?

Comics are versatile. I can make issues in a decent amount of time and distribute them either digitally or physically at conventions. They make great takeaways as examples of my ability to not only tell a story, but complete projects.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

Well, not so much decide. It just happened that way. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t wait around. I’ll figure out how to do it myself if I have to! So far it seems I’m never in the right place at the right time, as they say, so my writer and I are working on getting some help in distributing the books. We’re talking to a few publishers at the moment to widen distribution. If there’s a publisher out there that wants some fresh stuff and prints creator owned books, we’d like to hear from you, haha!

What’s challenging about that and what’s freeing about self-publishing?

The challenge is definitely in the promotion side of things. There’s so much content out there nowadays that getting people to just see your stuff is difficult when you’re doing everything out of pocket. I have a few Patreons that cover my WonderCon table expenses, but the books, advertising, merch, con expenses add up. I pay for most of it using the money I make freelancing and my writer helps pay for books. I really have to thank my wonderful boyfriend for chipping in here and there when he can, too! We don’t have a huge budget but we make it work.

I’d say the bright side is definitely the creative control and keeping my comics ad free (aside from a link to my website). There’s no one telling me how to do it, though I’m always receptive to critique and suggestions from my writer and my boyfriend, Kyle Holland, the marketing master behind JenjoInk.

Are you a comic book reader? If so, what titles or books do you enjoy?

I am! I can’t keep up with most long running arches because they just get too crazy so I mostly stick with short-running series. Right now, I’m all about Last Man by Bastien Vivès. It’s such a fresh story, and I love how Bastien expresses so much with such minimal lines and tones. The animated series is just amazing as well, very inspiring.

Aside from that, I am enjoying “I Hate Fairyland” by Skottie Young, and just got “The Terrifics,” as a gift since it has Plastic Man. Some of my favorite web comics at the moment include “Monster Boy,” “Long Exposure,” and “Space Boy.”

“Pumpkin Spice Babies” by Jeanine-Jonee Keith.

You sell your comic books and art at conventions. What are some of the events you booth at?

I’m a WonderCon regular, but lately I’ve attended San Francisco Comic Con, Fantasia Con, AlienCon, Comic Con Revolution, and am trying my hand at Palm Springs Comic Con at the end of August. We’ll see how it goes, but you guys might see JenjoInk at San Diego Comic-Con next year, too!

 Why is that a valuable experience for you as an artist?

Well, for one, it allows me to speak to new and current fans of my work. I love speaking with fellow artists and have made quite a few friends over the years just by being placed next to someone for a few days.

You just returned from San Diego Comic-Con. How did that go?

Yes, I was running loose in San Diego! No booth this year. I just enjoyed the event, met up with friends, and participated in the portfolio review. Highlights included the Steven Universe Movie reveal, Resident Evil 2 interactive photo exhibit, my very much treasured Camp Nick box, and the Deadpool Dance Party display.

I read that you make art every day, whether personal or professional. Why have you adopted this discipline?

Mileage is one of the most important things to getting better at anything, but aside from that I enjoy drawing and it makes me happy. I just don’t feel right unless I sit down and draw at least one thing a day, even on a day off.

Aside from your illustration, comic book, and storyboard work, you teach kids how to create comic books and children’s books in community classes. Why did you decide to give back to your community in this way?

As a child I loved to draw, and would have loved a drawing class that specialized in making comics. The only issue was there weren’t any. One of my earlier jobs was running a classroom in an after-school program and there I discovered that there still weren’t very many classes like these and the few that were available were seemingly taught by just about anyone, not artists or instructors that had made a book themselves.

I enjoyed working with the kids and had a weekly club in the program where I taught them drawing tips so I took that and tried my hand at starting a comic book class at the community center. These classes provide aspiring artists a place where they can learn some really helpful information, use more advanced materials, and hang out with other like-minded kids. Many go to the same school and don’t even know it till they are in the class! Teaching at a younger age gives these kids a bit of a head start and with affordable prices for the classes just about everyone can attend.

What’s a typical class session like when you’re teaching?

I’ve fined-tuned a five-day session that guides the kids through the complete process of conceptualizing, penciling, inking, and coloring their comic. The short sessions allow the classes to be affordable and with the curriculum I’ve developed, the kids can create a three to six-page full-color comic each class session.

Each day is broken into two fifteen minute lectures and about fifty-five minutes of lab time. Typically, the first lab is at the beginning of the class and will cover the step in the creative process the kids will be at that day; this includes basic composition, inking demo, breakdown of storytelling basic and some layout advice.

During lab time, the kids are allowed to talk as long as they are working and get up to retrieve what supplies they need. While I’m lecturing, they can keep drawing but there’s no getting up or talking so they can listen. I always have notes up on the whiteboard and a work in progress class book with examples and notes available.

Have you learned anything from the kids?

Oh, goodness, yes! For one thing, they can be so much more creative than me. Some of the things they come up with just makes my day. It is also good to see kids who come in on the first day terrified that they won’t fit in find out the entire room (myself included) are also huge cartoon goobers and they open up and join in on conversations. This is another reason I wish I had a class like this as a kid. I was very much that timid child that was afraid to talk to others or share my drawings.

You’re a registered tribe member of the Cherokee nation. What’s your experience been like as a Native woman in the art and comic book communities?

I can’t say I’ve had much specific experience in this matter, mostly because for a long time I didn’t really post about it, or it never came up. I’ve been working to be more active in my tribe’s community and learn more in depth about my culture. They just started a free program to learn the native tongue, which I’m planning on taking.

Art from Lastrex Labs.

You have a Patreon to help enable you to produce more original content. It seems like more and more artists are going this route. How is it working out for you?

Well I only have a few Patreons at the moment, so the money is saved up all year to go towards my WonderCon booth expenses. It’s a big help with that being the most expensive con I go to, but I’m trying to expand my Patreon so I can go to more conventions and take less freelance jobs to produce more original content. Most of my work is still in niche groups so I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten too much traffic there.

You’ve designed some tees, bags, and other merchandise for sale on Redbubble. Is it fun to feature your art in this way?

Yes, I love T-shirts. It gives people a way to purchase merchandise outside of my usual stuff like comics, stickers and pinback buttons. I also love their shirts. They’re so comfy!

You’re a horror movie fan. Why do you like about that genre?

There’s a fascination with suspense and the mood of a horror film that just draws me in. I love the atmosphere, how they often have paranormal tie-ins and the adrenaline rush of a good scare. It’s just nice to snuggle up next to my boyfriend with a fresh tub of popcorn and anticipate the next twist and turn in the story. I’d say I also acquired a love of horror films from my mother, though she loves gore (those Saw movies). Gore isn’t really my thing. I’m more into ghosts, suspenseful mysteries, and the classics.

What are some of your favorite horror films?

I am a huge Evil Dead nerd and have seen everything, even the musical in Las Vegas. I’m a big fan of James Wan and all his movies. I love how with Annabelle Creation, they’ve just been progressing further in creating this whole Warren and Wan universe. To name a few more: Lights out, The Orphanage, The Fly, and The Witch.

You also watch a lot of cartoons. Which ones?

Classic toons dear to my heart include: Powerpuff Girls, Doug, Dexter’s Lab, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, SpongeBob, Rocko’s Modern Life, Invader Zim, and Rugrats.

More recent shows I’ve been really digging are: Steven Universe, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Gravity Falls, and Over the Garden Wall.

What appeals to you about animation?

Firstly, you take a drawing or a model and move it in a way that the character is given a breath of life and it’s moving. That’s some kind of amazing. isn’t it? There’s so much to get sucked into when you see characters come to life that way. You can exaggerate and deliver the story in a unique way with animation.

You have a Plastic Man collection, which you describe as “modest.” When and why did you begin collecting this superhero? Tell me more about your collection.

He became my favorite character after reading JLA: Tower of Babel. Plastic Man, original Plastic Man … even going back to Jack Cole’s original works is a goofy character, a thief who acquires powers and is trying to atone for his misdeeds. However, what I love about him came about in Tower of Babel when the superhero identities of the JLA were separated from their alter egos.

Plastic Man actually saves the day there by bringing everyone together. He realizes that without the hero, he’s just falling back into being a thug, and his powers without the balance of his dark past make him completely useless as a hero. He often masks his insecurities with humor and aspires to be a great hero like Batman. Mix all of that with his ability to stretch and shapeshift, and simple but iconic design and I was just hooked.

So I’ve collected his comics, have the model sheets from his TV show, and just about every figure of him that exists (even the McDonalds and exclusive Pop! figure). Because he isn’t exactly a super popular character, his merchandise can be difficult to find and a little pricey when I do track it down so progress is slow. I never buy the merch online. Part of the fun of the collection is hunting it down on foot or coming across something I need at Frank & Son or a convention. It’s like a fun constant side quest!

It looks like Plastic Man is making a comeback with the new comic book run by Gail Simone. How do you feel about that?

I’m excited! It’s good to see Plas getting in some of that spotlight and being introduced in more things like figures and shows. I ran into a bit of a snag trying to find #3 … but that’s one more thing to hunt down!

 The “Fan Art” section of your website includes pieces inspired by Moana, Steven Universe, Animaniacs, The Little Mermaid, Teen Titans Go, and others. What do you consider to be your major personal fandoms?

I don’t draw nearly as much fan art as I used to, mostly because I find work picking up and free time or slower weeks going towards completing my personal projects. When I do draw fan art, it’s mostly Steven Universe, at the moment, though I’ve really been itching to try my hand at Berserk and Last Man fan art.

If readers want to purchase your comics, art work, etc., where could they do that?

My main website, Jenjoink.com, has links to either purchase the books from IndyPlanet, Amazon, or myself. I’ll note that books purchased directly from me are signed and come with a button and company sticker. I’m also almost always available for commissions, digital or traditional.

 

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