Peter Howard Interviews P. Craig Russell
I liken artist P. Craig Russell to a renowned music conductor. He is the commander of his own creative orchestra, conjuring powerful and whimsical imagery through colour, texture and lyrical forms. P. Craig leads readers through his pages like the conductor leads his orchestra and the audience through a piece of classical music. It’s nuanced, articulate, emotional, and, when necessary, builds to a crescendo, leaving the viewer exhausted, yet fulfilled.
Like Mœbius, Jack Kirby, Jeffrey Catherine Jones and Robert Crumb, P. Craig’s art is both unique and immediately recognizable. He is the elegant, artistic maestro of North American comics. And in August 2013 NBM is releasing three hardcover editions of his exquisite opera adaptations. They will sit proudly on my bookshelf.
Peter Howard: My introduction to your work was in Marvel’s Amazing Adventures anthology. Even back in the 70s there was a classical quality to your art. My friends and I bought “War of the Worlds” for the quality of your work. I must ask, what led you to drawing comics?
P. Craig Russell: Chance led me to drawing comics. That, and the fact that in 1971 my Dad needed some sort of artwork for his clothing store and, remembering an article in the East Liverpool Review about a local artist who had just moved back into the area from New York City where he had been working for Marvel Comics, I went to meet him. The artist was Dan Adkins and though he had no time for, nor interest in, my Dad’s commission he was interested when Dad told him about his son who had 8,000 comic books in the attic and was going to art school. Dan told Dad to extend his invitation to visit him in his studio the next time I was back home. I showed Dan my portfolio, such as it was, and Dan—who was interest in starting a studio in Ohio—said that if I would work with him for six months he could get me into Marvel Comics. It was Dan and Dad that led me into drawing comics.
PH: Elric, for me, seemed like a perfect match for you. I have always viewed Michael Moorcock’s world as quite operatic, if that makes sense. What appealed to you about the character and why did you choose to range over that creative landscape for so long?
PCR: I suppose what appealed to me about the character was what you just alluded too, it’s “operatic” quality. The characters were anything but bland—big emotions, grand gestures and all that. There was also the multiplicity of settings: twisted natural forms and fantastic cities that leave the artist free to draw from the entire history of art and architecture for inspiration. Unlike a site-specific story (say, medieval Japan with all its specificity) Moorcock, like Robert E. Howard, allows the artist to be an architectural impressionist.
As to “ranging over the creative landscape for so long”, that was simply the logistics of time, previous commitments, and unexpected opportunities to work on other projects. Also, it took ten years for Roy Thomas, for whatever reason, to drop away from the Stormbringer project so that I could finally script my own adaptation.
PH: Do superheroes appeal to you as strongly as the other types of characters you’ve drawn?
PCR: No. You’d think I would since it deals with the idealized human form but most superhero stories take place in the real world of cars and high-rises and all the ephemera of modern life. I’m just not that interested in drawing that stuff.
PH: I have always looked for artists that pushed boundaries and had the guts to bring something different to the comics market, so Night Music was right up my alley. I have also enjoyed your adaptations of operas and classical literature. Does this type of material give you the greatest opportunity to express yourself and develop creatively?
PCR: Yes. That was easy. The simple reason I have done so many adaptations of classic literature is the same reason filmmakers return to Shakespeare and Jane Austin and Charles Dickens. I’m simply looking for a good story to tell. I’ve said before that if I was offered original scripts as fine as that of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #50 (Ramadan) I’d never do another adaptation. Having said that, I have to say that it’s all adaptation to me. I approach a Neil Gaiman script the same way I do a story by Oscar Wilde or Rudyard Kipling. The only difference is that with an original script I don’t have to decide which descriptive prose to edit out.
PH: I see in your work some influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and sometimes I’m sure that I see you channeling a bit of Kay Neilson. What artists have inspired you?
PCR: Kay Neilson has been an enormous influence and inspiration to me. Some 20 years ago I showed a book of Neilson’s work to a young comic fan/friend, and he looked just a bit crestfallen. He said “I thought you invented all this stuff”. Is my slip showing?
The other big influence, at least outside of comics, has been the great Eyvind Earle. Most people know him through his color design and background painting for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. His effect on me can’t be overstated. And like so many artists who one first assumes “invented” these things his personal influences introduced me to both Gothic art and the art of the Persian illuminated manuscript. I was nine years old when Sleeping Beauty came out and that’s what he pumped into my little head.
PH: Do you see yourself primarily as an illustrator or do you define yourself as a comic book artist?
PCR: Primarily a comic book artist since that’s where the bulk of my energies have gone. Occasionally I’ll look at the wonderful work of Charles Vess or Michael Kaluta and wish I’d spent more time on the single image of illustration but I simply like this storytelling form too much not to pursue it.
PH: What goes through your mind when you’re laying out a story? Is it the storyline? The grid? Do you ever find a common horizon line for your whole page? Do you worry about light and shadow or is the entire process a rather organic experience?
PCR: That’s an enormous question. I’ve spent three Graphic Storytelling DVDs explaining that. I will say my prime focus is taking the script, short story, play, libretto, or novel and working to find a visual structure to express it. It has to work visually, almost as a silent film. Otherwise, why bother? Just read the book. Your “common horizon line” question is interesting in that in recent years, starting with Coraline, I began designing the facing pages together. I’m very much aware of the gutters aligning across the pages. Not always, but most of the time. I’m also playing around a lot more with the contrast between large and small panels and how those large panels relate to each other across the pages. It’s something of a playful formal exercise but I never let it become an end in itself. It’s always in the service of the story being told.
PH: How do you feel about the emerging digital landscape? Are you strictly a traditional media artist or have you embraced the digital age? What do you think of digital books?
PCR: I’m still a very hardcopy kind of guy. I try to get hand lettering on the pages whenever I can. The upcoming Graveyard Book is hand lettered. On the other hand, I’ve been working with Lovern Kindzierski, my digital colorist, for twenty years. I like the freedom the computer gives to try out any number of color palettes without having to physically paint and repaint.
PH: What has been your most fulfilling work to date?
PCR: Adapting the complete fairy tales of Oscar Wilde (five volumes to date, one to go) has been a delight spread over 20 years now. My most ambitious work was without a doubt The Ring of the Nibelung. At 400 pages and over 3,300 individual drawings it was the project of a lifetime and took nearly five years to complete. The night I finished it was one of the happiest, most satisfying times of my life.
PH: Do you ever struggle creatively? What has been you greatest creative nightmare?
PCR: I struggle all the time. The deficiencies of my training bedevil me every day. My greatest creative nightmare? Drawing horses.
PH: Have you ever considered walking away from comics?
PCR: No. Of course, someday I will. I’d like to at least get in a solid fifty years. Nine to go.
PH: In our interview with him, Michael T. Gilbert spoke very highly of you. Does collaboration give you something that working alone does not? Between working collaboratively and working alone, do you have a preference?
PCR: The Graveyard Book has been a fascinating collaboration. Eight other artists have been working over my layouts and it’s been interesting to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of everyone involved in working with the same material. Working with Michael T. Gilbert on Elric back in ’83 and ’84 was my first in-depth collaboration with another artist. He brought all sorts of production ideas to the table that I hadn’t considered, especially when it came to the coloring process. We were very different artists in our approach to drawing but by the last few issues of the six-issue run I think we had synthesized our styles into something unique to both of us. The cover design and, I think, all the cover ideas for issues #2 to #6 were Michael’s. Overall, I think the most successful collaboration, the one I’m happiest with, was with Galen Showman on The Clowns, my adaptation of the opera I Pagliacci.
PH: I see more open spaces in your art, and less line work. Are you deliberately giving colour a greater role or is it a natural, undirected progression?
PCR: Most artists, with age, try to do more with less, sometimes simply because now they can. It depends on the nature of the story, too. I tend to oscillate between detail and simplicity. The Dream Hunters of a few years ago with its Japanese influence was clean lines and simple. The piece Between Two Worlds from 2002(?) was highly detailed, one of the more complex pieces I’ve done. Coraline was clean lined but my contribution to The Graveyard Book, chapter two, “The New Friend”, has more lines per square inch than anything I’ve done in years. All those leaves.
PH: I’m sure that many writers are anxious to work with you. Are there some writers that you have thus far found particularly interesting to work with? Are there writers with whom you have not yet worked but would like to work with?
PCR: I enjoy being my own writer. Taking a book and wrestling it into a graphic story is my favorite part of the process. As to the original scripts I’ve been given, there isn’t a writer I haven’t enjoyed working with. Certainly Don McGregor was one of the most significant people in my career.
PH: NBM has released many collections of your work. In August they are releasing your complete opera adaptations in three hardcover volumes. Is this your most prized work? Have you made any changes to your art or to the colouring for this edition?
PCR: It’s very satisfying to see the operas collected into three volumes by NBM. No, there’s no new coloring or reworking in these volumes. My friend and working partner Wayne Alan Harold, who is producing the graphic storytelling videos, has done an incredible restoration job on my original coloring cells from Salomé and we will be releasing that with all sorts of extras as a separate volume a few years from now.
PH: Please tell us about your Guide to Graphic Storytelling series. What does it offer the aspiring artist? Is it available online?
PCR: The Guide to Graphic Storytelling series is my attempt to deconstruct a series of my own comic art pages with a view to explaining the nuts and bolts of how a page is designed and to what ends; I cover why panels vary in size and what those size relationships mean; I cover the challenges of adapting prose, particularly prose passages that are essential to the story but in which there is no overt action to stage; I give examples of those passages and illustrate the visual structures I came up with to illuminate the non-action; I cover lettering and balloon placement and how it can lead the eye around the page in ways that are counter-intuitive to panel progression; I cover ways in which the artist brings his own sensibilities to a script and how he can mine a script to find visual possibilities the author may have been unaware of. There are many other things I cover but above all I try to communicate in as clear a fashion as I can. If I have a point to make I always provide a concrete visual example.
PH: Is there a question that no one has yet asked you but that you would like to answer? If there is, what’s the question…and what’s the answer?
PCR: Q: Do you have a bucket list?
A: My bucket list doesn’t travel far afield from where I am right now. I’ve always had a list in my head of stories I want to do before I hang it up. Many of them have been crossed off the list. It took me 23 years to get to The Ring of the Nibelung. I’ve been checking off the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde for over 20 years. The final one I scripted and laid out some 18 years ago and it’s been patiently waiting in a drawer for me to get to it. There’s a Neil Gaiman story The Problem of Susan that I laid out as a 30-page graphic story. It’s only been waiting, along with Dark Horse Comics, a mere four years. There are others. I think about them all the time and at this point in my career, 41years in, there’s not much room for anything else.