Jeffrey Catherine Jones: A Life Lived Deeply

Jeffrey Catherine Jones (January 10, 1944-May 19, 2011), a troubled, transgendered painter, illustrator, and comics artist with a world-wide reputation, died from a combination of emphysema, bronchitis, and coronary artery disease on May 19th of this year. Jones had been in ill health for the last several years, and in the week preceding her death, had lain in coma with little hope for recovery or survival. (Note: the shifts in gender when referring to Jones are deliberate. After undergoing hormone replacement procedures in 1998, to become female at the age of 55, Jones changed his name to Jeffrey Catherine Jones and was thereafter referred to by the feminine gender. Prior to this time, Jones was physically male and will be referred to as “he” when discussing the earlier portions of her life.)

Jones enjoyed a unique position in the worlds of comics, fantasy art, and fine art, for her work encompassed all of those separate dominions at one time or another. Starting in the mid-'60s, Jones began contributing art to fanzines such as ERB-dom, Styx, Heritage, and Amra, mostly drawing muscular barbarians, swashbucklers, and lusciously beautiful women. After graduating from college in 1967 with a degree in geology, Jones and his then-wife Louise (nee Alexander, and currently married to the comics artist Walt Simonson) moved from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, to New York City so Jones could pursue an art career. Although Jones quickly found some work in the city, drawing comics pages for King Comics, Gold Key, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, as well as Wally Wood’s Witzend, and contributing cover art and interior illustrations to s-f pulps like Amazing and Fantastic, the chronically low rates he received made it tough for the young artist to support himself, his wife, and his daughter Julianna, born in 1967. Fittingly, Jones did the bulk of his Warren work, both covers and interior art, for Vampirella, perhaps drawn by the allure of that magazine’s exotic, blood-sucking protagonist, or possibly because of that title’s strong emphasis on sex and beautiful women, two topics of enduring fascination for Jones. “I am a romantic and a painter and I love women… The female form just reflects light so simply and beautifully,” he once said.

After releasing Spasm, an underground comic that he wrote and illustrated, and after taking on a handful of comic book art assignments for DC Comics in the early '70s, Jones eventually foreswore mainstream comics. He did however, write and draw the lushly illustrated black and white one-page strip Idyl for every issue of National Lampoon from January 1972 through August 1975. And in the early 1980s, Jones embarked on a new strip entitled I’m Age for Heavy Metal that was, if anything, even more obscure than his previous comic strip. Jones, of course, never bothered explaining his most abstruse strips, leaving his readers to puzzle over the meanings as they marveled at his ever-evolving draftsmanship. As Jones noted in a 2001 interview: “My general intent in both strips was to explore the difference between men and women. The only real difference between Idyl and I'm Age is that in the former men were generally represented by animals or objects, and in the latter, there were no males present. Idyl was intended as satire and whimsy. One art director and one editor, who met me each month with puzzled faces, continued to remind me that National Lampoon was a humor magazine, "As long as YOU laugh," they finally said. So each month I would go in laughing. I also must admit that I love to draw nude women.”

However, the artist’s early comics and fanzine work provided a showcase for a major emerging talent, and quickly led to a slew of commissions doing paperback book covers, as well as the cover and interior illustrations for Red Shadows, a collection of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories, and in 1968, to painting the cover art to a previously unpublished Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, I Am a Barbarian. Red Shadows proved so popular it eventually went through three editions and helped establish Donald Grant as a major small-press publisher, encouraging others to follow in Grant’s footsteps with illustrated limited editions of classic fantasy and horror.

The mid-to-late 1960s was one of the golden eras of paperback illustration, with artists like Frank Frazetta, James Bama, and Robert McGinnis at the peak of their powers. Because of the popularity of his Conan covers, Frazetta’s work in particular was in high demand, so art directors were constantly on the lookout for artists who could paint in a Frazetta-esque style. Since young Jones was highly influenced by Frazetta’s work at the time, it wasn’t much of a stretch for the talented young southerner to create science fiction and fantasy paintings that echoed Frazetta’s style and characters, though usually rendered in Jones’ distinctive, dark-toned palette. It was because of this early work on genre paperback book covers that Jones, perhaps a trifle unfairly, acquired a reputation as a Frazetta clone, something he struggled to get out from under for years before finally throwing it off through the more ethereal and nuanced quality his later work achieved.

In reality, though, those early painted paperback covers demonstrate that Jones was amazingly versatile, tackling a broader range of subjects in his paintings than Frazetta, painting in genres as diverse as romance, humor, mainstream fiction, horror, even Westerns. It is fair to note, however, that the bulk of Jones’ early magazine and paperback covers consisted mostly of SF, fantasy, and horror subjects. Although occasionally underbid by his younger colleague for jobs, something that nettled Frazetta at times, he eventually acknowledged Jones’s artistic gifts and stylistic growth by referring to Jeffrey Jones as “the greatest living painter.”

While Jones was incredibly prolific early on (averaging a painting a week at his peak), and so painting dozens of book covers every year from 1968 until 1977, he eventually renounced commercial illustration, claiming, “It is my firm opinion that illustration is immoral.” He then ceased taking on jobs that he did only for the money and that he thoroughly despised, and began making his living almost solely from personal work that was published in portfolios and prints. The epitome of this moment was perhaps his work as part of "The Studio," a massive loft in New York City that he shared with Michael Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith and Bernie Wrightson. All four were attempting to break out of the work-for-hire life, to varying results. Only very occasionally after this did Jones take on illustration assignments such as Queens Walk in the Dust, which he deemed worthy of his prodigious talents. As Jones noted many years after giving up commercial art,

Years ago I had goals (to get to this or that place), and when I did I found that all I wanted to do was art. So I have given up goals. When I was young, my passion was art, eventually comic book and fantasy art. I've seen a lot of people lose their childhood passions, not only for art but for life--just getting squeezed. My passion was and is my art. However, there was a time when I became aware that I might be losing it. Having used my ability to draw to buy approval from my childhood peers, I entered the real world with my "cash" in my pocket. I wanted to be published so badly that in the beginning I took on a lot of work that I hated. Ah, but maybe a million people would see it and love me. I lived in fear. What happened? I found that the more I went to the drawing board or the easel to do work I hated, the less I wanted to go there. I was losing my joy, and I found eventually that my joy was more important than approval. I began to get "difficult to deal with" and began to lose jobs. I became determined to, well, not so much "have it my way," but to do work I loved. It's not so easy to pursue, or even know what your heart's desire may be.

Despite Jones’ absence from the worlds of comics and illustration, the short-lived trading card boom brought his work to the attention of comics fans and collectors when the now-defunct FPG card company put out two sets of Jeffrey Jones trading cards. The cards featured old work, and a large number of new paintings, many of them commissions for private collectors that otherwise would have gone unseen. These card sets and several art books that came out in ‘90s and early ‘00s, kept Jones’ work and reputation alive, even earning her new fans.

Jones’ determination to chart his own artistic destiny did not come easily or cheaply, and the artist often struggled, both with making a living and with increasingly thorny personal issues. It’s now known from the artist’s personal writings that he had felt conflicted about his gender since childhood, always feeling a greater affinity for the fair sex than for his own maleness. Having grown up as a product of the patriarchal 1950s, with a domineering war-hero father, Jones did not know how to cope with his yearning to be female, and felt ashamed. For years he tried to drown these feelings in alcohol, but, after much soul-searching, Jones realized that although he’d been born male, inside he was a woman. He began hormone replacement therapy in 1998, and set out upon a new phase of life as a woman, changing his name to Jeffrey Catherine Jones.

Yet even this transition did not bring peace to this gentle, troubled artist, for in 2001, she suffered a nervous breakdown, which led to the loss of her home and studio. However, she eventually recovered, and by 2004 began painting and drawing again. As Jones’ small army of fans and Facebook friends can attest, art continued to pour from her fingers almost to the very last: drawings, landscapes, sketches, paintings, studies, even photographs and poetry.

Jeffrey Catherine Jones passed away at 4 A.M. on May, 19th, surrounded by friends and loved ones. She is survived by her daughter Julianna and her wife Maryellen.

* * *

Jeffrey’s friend and colleague George Pratt was kind enough to share some parting words about the much-beloved artist: “Jeff Jones was one of the most inspiring artists and teachers I've ever known. He opened doors to the larger world of art for me to such an extent that I could never repay the debt I owe him. I am honored to have called him friend. The world is a lesser place without Jeff's uniquely sensitive voice.”


22 Responses to Jeffrey Catherine Jones: A Life Lived Deeply

  1. Nice piece, thanks. The extended quote from JCJ is a good summation of the eternal problem of the illustrator. There seems little memory of her work in the comix field anymore but I think that in her prime, she was one of the best pen & inkers in North America. I’m Age & Idyl made a huge impression on me as a kid and 30 years later, they still do, which is unusual for most youthful illustrative passions, if you know what I mean.

  2. Jack Offinson says:

    To refer to Jeffery jones as a woman is ridiculous. He got a little wild during the end of his life well after his time as the artist we knew. Please let him rest in piece without exploiting your social agendas.

  3. Dana Andra says:

    Jack Offingson’s comment is typical those who know nothing of what it means to be transgendered. No one is exploiting any social agendas. Jones changed her gender (I prefer to use the word “corrected”) and her name, and when transgendered people transition, they become the person they’ve always been. Jones was never truly male. To be transgendered is essentially a birth defect, whereby the inner person doesn’t correspond with the outer person. Transitioning has nothing to do with getting “a little wild.” It’s about becoming your authentic self. No one does this on a whim, or without a great deal of thought, or without the requirement of gaining the approval of several therapists and psychiatrists. I likewise take issue with the author using the male pronoun for her pre-transition career. One doesn’t become male or female only after they’ve transitioned. They transition because they already were the other gender.

    Jones was a brilliant artist, whose work I’ve loved since the ’60s. I bought an ink drawing from her several years ago that she allowed me to pay off in installments and which I will long treasure. She was a fun and lovely presence on Facebook, and she will be sorely missed my so many for many reasons. But let’s show her the respect she deserves, and respect her for the person she was.

  4. Matthew Southworth says:

    To Jack Offinson:

    If Jeff Jones undertook the extensive (and no doubt expensive) path to reassign his sex, then she has a right to be remembered as a woman. I suspect you can’t imagine the inner turmoil such a decision would be made out of, and I imagine it would have been a very significant act of will to make that change. For you to write in to a website with your assertion that there is a “social agenda” behind simply reporting the facts of Jones’ life demonstrates a complete self-absorption and lack of care for this artist you “knew”.

    If you cared so much about Jones’ art that you’d take the time to read the obituary, then comment on it, you must have cared about it enough to walk up to Jones and tell her she’s just “a little wild” and has no right to exploit a social agenda by choosing who she wants to be, how she wants to dress, how she wants to present herself to the world, right? Did you ever take that opportunity? Or are you just an anonymous little internet sniper?

  5. Gauge says:

    Jack, you’re transphobic little snark is beyond reprehensible. We’ll refer to her as she saw herself. Your misguided attempt to erase her identity by claiming she was anything less than she herself said she was and to interject your own interpretation of it as pushing a “social agenda” is disgusting. Go hate somewhere else.

  6. Methinks you’re not up on the concept of gender reassignment

  7. Why not look at the art? What more do you want from life? Look!

  8. cbren says:

    When the comment by anonymous jackoff went up last night I responded with totally justified spewing and violence that tcj moderators were equally justified in not making visible (although I’m confused as to why anon’s comment was made visible to begin with?) I’m glad there are some other people who commented with less violence after that. People often think that it is really silly to get worked up over an internet comment, and it is, most of the time. But I can’t really explain how it affects me to see somebody’s identity erased like that when they have just died—even if it is only by an anonymous internet troll. There’s something violent about that kind of erasure, and projected ownership over a person’s body and identity, that engenders a violent response, from me anyways. But others have already said it better than me

  9. Robert1014 says:

    How odd that Jeff Jones, who late in life became transgendered, was close friends earlier in life to another troubled and popular artist, Vaughn Bode, who went through his own turbulence regarding his sexual orientation (Straight? Gay? Bi!) and who, for a time, had entered into the preliminary stages of sexual reassignment. Was it random coincidence or did they, perhaps, somehow recognize in each other this commonality? I was never particularly a fan of Bode, though I respected his work…it was just too inside, too much his own private world. Jones I discovered early on–in Larry Ivie’s MONSTERS AND HEROES, or elsewhere? I can’t recall. I always liked his work, and thought he just got better and better.

  10. Frank1066 says:

    I have been inspired by Jeff’s work since I first saw IDYL in an issue National Lampoon in 1973(?) It prompted me to start drawing and painting which I still do today. A few years back I was online looking for new work by Jeff when I saw that he had the breakdown and was at a low point. I emailed him and told him how much I admired his work and how he had inspired me and continued to do so. He responded right away with the most gracious letter and thanks. We stayed in touch for a while and for a time he seemed as if things were getting better. He seemed to see things in such a romantic way. I don’t care what gender he felt was right for him. I just know that he was a talented, generous individual who left us to soon. Maybe he was not meant for these times but I am sure glad he was here in my time.

  11. ScottGrammel says:

    However one ultimately rates Jones’ artistic output, I think it’s hard to argue that his/her comics work is either critically or historically important. For my part, I guess if I was rarely genuinely excited by one of the strips, it was usually drawn well enough — and short enough — to be close to an absolute if minor pleasure.

    As for the contretemps above over Jones’ late-life sex change, Jones certainly didn’t help matters with the wishy-washy “Jeffrey Catherine” appellation. If you want to be Ms. Carlos instead of Mr. Carlos, a simple and emphatic “Wendy” is assuredly better than “Walter Wendy”.

    And while I think it is nothing less than simple respect and good manners to follow the presumed wishes of a transgendered person by bestowing upon them the pronouns and nouns most suited to their altered state, I also tend to think this is an important issue only to the living. It may just be a failure of imagination, but I simply can’t imagine any afterlife existence in which such trivialities would not appear as trivialities. A Heaven in which we’d have to carry our ego baggage around for all eternity strikes me as a pretty crappy last surprise.

    For me, recognition of Jones’ transformation in message board postings is, like so many rarely articulated but nevertheless fairly stringent social codes, just one of those small things we agree to in order to concentrate on more important things. Still, a hysterical reaction about such offenses is hardly appropriate, either. “There’s something violent about that kind of erasure, and projected ownership over a person’s body and identity” is so far from a reasonable response that it almost makes Jack Offinson look like the more lucid poster.

    I will say one thing, though, about the absolute conviction that such transgendered people must, absolutely, be correct in their decision for even themselves: about six months, a year ago, I read about a documentary playing at Facets here in Chicago, in which, as the paper reported it, two older transsexuals (I think in a northern European country) had a conversation in which they both admitted to regrets about having made the change. Well, to me, considering what must be the almost overwhelming psychological pressure to never second-guess such a decision, I thought — think — it was just about one of the most horribly sad things I’d ever heard. (And no I didn’t see the film.)

  12. Matti says:

    Thank you, Gauge. Spot on.

  13. Sean Michael Robinson says:

    >>to follow the presumed wishes of a transgendered person by bestowing upon them the pronouns and nouns most suited to their altered state>>

    It’s not about the perceived gender of someone’s body, or something as medical or analytical. It’s a basic respect for a person to call them the name, and use the pronouns, that they wish. If you, as an adult, decided that you would forever be known as Richard, and I persisted in calling you Scottie, that’s crossing a line. The principle is much more significant when it involves issues of gender, something that plays such a strong role in our societal interactions.

  14. Eric Paul says:

    I’ve been out of the loop so long I’ve only learned today of the passing of J C J. I’m not taking it well, I must say. Remembering Catherine’s early work when I was just a kid brings back fond memories of the days long gone by of immersion in fantasy and the art that came out of that time. She put a light in my eye, a gleam that sustained me. You can’t forget that kind of magic. The world will be poorer without her, but we have the images, beautiful expressions of a fine mind and spirit.

    LOVEdevotionSURRENDER ~

  15. irisexit says:

    the fact that gender has to come into this at all is stupid. jcj was an immensely talented artist, regardless of where jcj was in jcj’s head. it saddens me to know that someone else in the world had to deal with all the bullshit that comes with being brilliant and trans in this society. it doesn’t always bring you to a place of peace, understanding, or comfort. how many posters here are transgendered? i am.

  16. Joseph Kelly says:

    Jones’ comic Idyl was the reason I picked up a pencil and began drawing back in the 1970s. When I finally got up the courage to write him an email and show him one of my own book covers he wrote back within ten minutes and thanked me. A great artist. A great soul.

  17. Jeremy Ritter says:

    JCJ was an amazing artist. She definitely inspired me as a younger artist with her wonderful ink renderings and paintings. Another great talent gone too soon.

  18. Pierre Champagne says:

    Just discovered this discussion while reading Jack Williamson’s “Darker Than You Think” and again appreciating the gorgeous cover art by “J. Jones”. My great respect to this talented human being who gave me joy in my youth.

  19. Chris A. says:

    Jones told Arnie Fenner (publisher of Underwood Books) that the gender reassignment turned out to be a dead end. It didn’t solve his problems. He lamented that he couldn’t turn back. This was in a published interview and documented as such in Jones’ Wikipedia entry, but quickly deleted by those with an agenda to obscure any negative comments about the topic. Great artist whose latter ‘fine art’ output became a bit too “one note” (that’s one of the benefits of commercial illustration assignments – many artists are forced thereby to draw or paint subjects that are not in their normal periphery or strengths, and that’s a good thing).

  20. Andy says:

    Chris, if you read this piece by Cheryl Morgan http://www.cheryl-morgan.com/?p=11073 you’ll see that the situation seems to be more complex than you are trying to portray it.

  21. Colin Mayne says:

    Jeff had the breakdown in early 02′

  22. Jones did not have a sex change. He used hormonal therapy for gender reassignment. He did not legally have his name changed but took on the “Catherine” informally. He was a very complicated personality with a lot of contradictions in his life. So he was never technically a woman, and so was never a female artist. Too much is made over his gender reassignment — he was an artist plain and simple. It seems many people have been drawn to him solely because of his gender reassignment with no real appreciation of him as an artist. As to “respecting” him by using female pronouns, his friends called him Jeff and used “he” and “him” and Jeff had no objections.

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