Looking Back with Charles Vess
After more than 30 years in the business, artist Charles Vess has worked on some of the biggest characters around. His early work decorated Heavy Metal magazine; in the mid-’80s, he worked on Spider-Man; and later, he went on to collaborate with Neil Gaiman on The Books of Magic and Sandman. That was just the beginning of his work with Gaiman, which also includes Stardust and Blueberry Girl. Now, Dark Horse has just released Vess’s intense retrospective Drawing Down the Moon, a 200-page look back at his decades in the business. We talked to Charles about what it’s like to revisit his body of work at this point in his career.
How long did you spend putting this book together?
I initially rushed to put together a massive, hand-pasted-up dummy of the book in January of 2007 because Dark Horse had intended to time the release of the book with that of the film adaptation of Stardust in summer of 2007.That, of course, didn’t exactly happen. Then, because the production schedule stretched out over several years, I was able to slip several projects finished only this year (2009) into the mix. So we have a double-page spread featuring the 16-ft. bronze fountain that I designed, sculpted, and poured the metal for as well as several images from Blueberry Girl, the picture book that I just did with Neil Gaiman.
What does it feel like to look back on your collected work now?
Well, it’s pretty strange, almost as if I’m holding my life (so far) in my hands. The earliest piece in the book is the splash page for a comic book I was working on when I was 17 years old. And, of course, the latest work is from 2009, so the reader/viewer gets to watch my progression as an artist. Hopefully, they’ll see some improvement over the years.
Is there anything you notice about your older work now that you didn’t realize back when you were creating it?
I talk about this in the text of the book. Looking back, I realize that I was applying so many crosshatched lines onto each piece in an effort to distract the viewer from what was then pretty inadequate figure drawing. I still absolutely love to hatch lines with my pen but again, hopefully the drawing underneath is a bit better now.
As you were putting the book together, which pieces stood out to you in a significant way?
Well, there are certain pieces that, even at the time you’re working on them, you know that mysteriously you’ve suddenly become a better artist with. A couple of them are The Earth Witch, which was the first painting that I did after moving to New York City in 1976; all of my illustrations for the 1988 edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which were executed as I was preparing to move out of the city and get married; and then there are the paintings (175 of them) that fill the illustrated edition of Stardust—they changed my life.
It’s great to see all the superhero artwork contained in Drawing Down the Moon. Do you think this will be surprising to some people?
I hope not. Working in comics was a great joy and I learned so much drawing/painting all those pages. I certainly wouldn’t be the artist I am today without that work. Both this book and the TwoMorrows-published Charles Vess: Modern Master #13 were supposed to be released within months of each other. This book was to concentrate on my illustration career, and the other covered my life in comics. They are a nice complement to each other.
Do you have a favorite piece of work in here?
I love all my kids. Even the bad ones teach me a lot.
Who or what influenced your style?
Hal Foster. Russ Manning, Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkle, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Reed Crandall, Winsor McCay, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, John Bauer, Kay Nielsen, and I could go on and on and do, in a slide presentation that I give from time to time.
Do you remember the first comic book you ever read?
It was either an Uncle Scrooge or a Tarzan comic book read at my local barbershop. However, it was reading Fantastic Four #4 that made me want to own a comic book. The first issue I ever bought was FF #6, and I’ve never looked back ever since.
How did you break into drawing comics?
I became friends with artist Michael Kaluta and eventually moved to New York City to share an apartment with him for 12 years. He mentored me and showed my work around and eventually I was attending a comics convention in the city and Archie Godwin dropped by my table and, after looking at my work, asked me to draw a story for his Epic Illustrated that Marvel was publishing at the time.
Why do this retrospective now?
Well, I’ve been willing to produce a book like this for a few years now. I’ve been working, making my living as an artist, since 1976, so there’s a lot of art under my belt, so to speak. I also produce work in many different marketplaces and thought it would be nice to put everything in one basket for everyone to see.
What are your aspirations in comics at this point? Are there characters you would love to draw or books you would like to work on?
I’m writing a novel at the moment that I’m planning to have sections of that are graphic narrative only. Those sections along with multiple single-page illustrations and the text will all tell the complete story. If the reader tries to skip over one or the other, he or she will not be able to follow the story. It’s a sort of new form that I’m experimenting with. There have always been certain sections of any comic-book story I’ve drawn that I’ve felt really didn’t need to be drawn, so this is in answer to that.
I’ve drawn Spider-Man (my graphic novel Spirits of the Earth) and painted covers for Swamp Thing, so I can’t think of any characters that make me itch to draw them. I’d always rather do something new….
What’s next for you after this?
The novel I talked about, The Greenwood. Then there’s an expansion of a previous book that I illustrated and Charles de Lint wrote called A Circle of Cats. He’s adding another 40,000 words, and I’m painting at least 40–50 more illustrations. I think it will end up in a format much like Stardust and published by Little Brown & Co.
This last summer, I completed 40 paintings for an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s poem Instructions, which HarperCollins will be publishing this next May (2010).
And there’s always the 4 by 8 ft. watercolor waiting for me to find the time to get back to it…