Thursday, March 31, 2016

Better Things: The Life and Choices of Jeffrey Catherine Jones

Kino Lorber, DVD, Release Date February 24, 2014
Review by Christopher S. Long

“Who is Jeffrey Jones? … I don't know.”

That's how artist Jeffrey Jones opens the documentary “Better Things” (2012), so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when my informal poll of fellow comic book aficionados produced a similar response. You mean J.G. Jones? No, Jeff. Bruce Jones? No, the totally awesome Jeff Jones! Even an acquaintance who has eidetic recall of the inkers and letterers on every comic book he's ever read couldn't place the name, which makes me sad and which makes director Maria Paz Cabardo's movie even more essential.

The Studio

Jones was one of the four founding members of The Studio, a 1970s comic book artist collective in New York City which included industry superstars Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith and Mike Kaluta. Those three names remain widely recognized by fans even forty years later, but Jones has since lapsed into relative obscurity. Where the others worked primarily in comic books and were closely identified with specific characters (Wrightson had Swamp Thing, Smith with Conan and others, Kaluta and the Shadow), Jones's brush graced the covers of many fantasy novels (including a gorgeous edition of the Solomon Kane collection “Red Shadows”) as well as fine art illustrations. Jones still produced brilliant art for the major publishers, including a few of the best “Wonder Woman” covers ever made, as well as early work in the Warren horror and war magazines, but never had a sustained run on any single title. Jones was not temperamentally inclined to produce work on a factory schedule.

For anyone not familiar with Jones's work, the documentary showcases numerous examples that testify to an extraordinary talent, reason enough to watch the movie. The film also includes several interviews with some of the biggest names in the field (all big Jones fans as well) including Neil Gaiman, Moebius, Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Mike Mignola, and Rebecca Guay along with former Studio-mates Wrightson and Kaluta. Writer-editor Louise Simonson, formerly married to Jones, provides unique personal insight to augment the enthusiastic professional appreciations.

Jones's "Tarzan and the Dum Dum"

But the centerpiece of the documentary is the eloquent but sad Jeffrey Jones, interviewed mostly in 2010 and now both alone and poorly rewarded for a lifetime of high-quality work. Living in a nondescript one-room apartment, Jones is frequently in a reflective mood and keen to discuss deeply personal matters. Jones recalls always (even from the age of five) feeling like a female trapped in a male body, began cross-dressing as a teenager and continued to do so in secret while married; the revelation of that secret at least partially contributed to Jeffrey's divorce from Louise in the early '70s.

Later in life Jeffrey Jones became Jeffrey Catherine Jones, beginning hormone replacement therapy in 1998. Jones unfortunately doesn't joke often in the movie, but does note with some humor her surprise upon realizing that “I was now a lesbian.” She continued to paint, but also continued a life-long battle with depression and anxiety. Jones suffered a nervous breakdown (Jones's term, though one not accepted clinically anymore) in 2005 and 2006 and was no longer able to create the beautiful images that had marked a unique talent for the prior four decades, both a personal loss and a loss to the world. Jones died in 2011 at the age of 67 of complications from emphysema.

One can't help but mourn for Jones's death (a eulogy delivered by daughter Julianna is heart-breaking) as well as the first-hand knowledge of her intense struggles, but “Better Things: The Life and Choices of Jeffrey Catherine Jones” also leaves us with much to celebrate: the resilient spirit of someone who fought every day, the admiration of so many of her peers, and, above all, the extraordinary legacy Jones left behind. The gallery of stunning portraits occasionally leave the viewer breathless as well as wanting even more. It's easy to understand why the legendary illustrator Frank Frazetta once described Jones as “the greatest living painter.”

The movie is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The SD transfer from Alive Mind Cinema and Kino Lorber is solid if unspectacular. The documentary relies heavily on talking-head interviews and the transfer is more than adequate to that task. Perhaps a high-def rendition of some of Jones' art would reveal more detail, but what we get is just fine.

The Dolby Digital Stereo track is free of any noticeable distortion. Dialogue is clearly mixed. No subtitles are provided.

Nothing at all. It's understandable that no supplements were available, but a stills gallery of Jones's art would have been nice.

Final Thoughts:
Comic book and fantasy art fans who don't know about Jeffrey Catherine Jones now have an opportunity to fill a major gap in their knowledge. “Better Things” is a moving testament to the life and work of a major American artist.

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