TREVOR VON EEDEN ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
I have followed the career of Trevor Von Eeden since his 11-issue run of Black Lightning. I still remember the original industry buzz that surrounded him – a teenage dynamo drawing DC Comics’ new Black superhero. I also remember being rather bummed when the original series was cancelled. Trevor’s work always felt like it came from his heart. I believed that what he presented on each page was more than just an artist doing his job – it was an artist attempting to share his sweat and tears with the reader.
Thriller was the next Von Eeden project to make an impression on me. Co-created by writer Robert Loren Fleming, Thriller was a supernatural type pulp-adventure that stretched the boundaries of what DC Comics was publishing at the time. Trevor, too, attempted to stretch himself as a storyteller, employing dynamic and inventive page layouts to move Fleming’s story forward. Thriller, however, failed to catch the following it deserved and was eventually cancelled.
Von Eeden has worked for Marvel, DC, and some of the best independent comic book houses. He has drawn Batman, Green Arrow, Black Canary and Power Man and Iron Fist. Yet, his most personal work is The Original Johnson, a 242-page graphic novel biography of boxer Jack Johnson. Trevor shines here. His work is full of life, creativity and most of all, his unique vision. The promise that Trevor showed as a young comic book artist was fully realized within the pages of this work. The Original Johnson is serialized online at comicmix.com and was published in print by IDW.
A gallery of Trevor’s sizzling work follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Trevor Von Eeden: I was offered the opportunity to become a sequential (comics) artist by DC Comics in 1976, when I was 17 years old. Reading comics was one of the joys of my childhood, and I amused myself during the more boring stretches of school by teaching myself how to draw faces, figures, hands, and feet (really tough!) in the margins of my schoolbooks–inspired by the drawings of my favorite comics artists, Curt Swan (Superman, LSH), John Buscema (Avengers), and Neal Adams (Brave & Bold, Batman). My best friend in Junior High School, Al Simonson – who’d also introduced me to comics back in ’72 by sharing his vast collection with me – sent some of my work into DC Comics for criticism (without my knowledge) and received an unexpected letter in response, which included an invitation to “drop by the offices, if I was ever in the neighborhood.” They were intrigued by the quality of my work at age 15 and 16 (some of which can be seen at my website, including the alternate versions of Black Lightning’s original costume.) Coincidentally, the DC editors were in the initial phases of creating their first black superhero Black Lightning, and when they saw that I was brown-skinned (still am), decided to offer me the job of designing the character’s costume and drawing the series. I was a freshman at Columbia University at the time, and officially withdrew in order to start my career as an artist for DC Comics. Needless to say, it was a childhood dream come true – but one that I’d neither actively pursued nor even thought possible! So it was an opportunity that I’ve always tremendously appreciated, and I’ve tried never to take it for granted ever since.
The series debuted in 1977, but was cancelled after 11 of a planned 12 issues, allegedly because of low sales. But would it really have hurt to finish just one more issue of such an unprecedented, historically important, and socially relevant series as the debut of DC Comics first ever black superhero? (John Stewart, the GL knock-off notwithstanding – B[lack] L[ightning] was a true original, with his own title series.) Apparently the powers that be at DC Comics thought so – I’ve never really understood that reasoning. Despite that odd lack of editorial thought and care, B[lack] L[ightning] is still around and reasonably popular today. B[y] t[he] w[ay], in 2003, 26 years after his debut, I returned to Columbia University to take a few classes that I thought would help me in writing my first book. When they discovered that I’d left almost three decades ago in order to become DC Comics first black artist (and youngest ever hired) – and to co-create their very first black super-hero – I was awarded a partial scholarship. You could say that Black Lightning helped me [get] through college. Only apt, since he IS a schoolteacher in his secret identity! I happen to have a special love for teachers. The ones in my life have been invaluable to me. The best thing one can ever do for a fellow human being is to teach ‘em something useful – and truth is the most useful asset in life. It’s an infallible defense against gullibility and self-delusion, and inevitably leads to self-respect, the single most important thing in life.
In 2005, I again withdrew from Columbia after completing the classes I’d wanted, and was told that I was welcome to return whenever I liked. (Very nice people at C.U.) A few months later, I got my book picked up, and began to write and draw my very first graphic novel, The Original Johnson. It was completed in ’08. Vol.1 [was] released 12/09, Vol.2 in 02/11, and very well received by both fans and critics. I enjoyed the process of writing very much – it forced me to focus my thoughts and intentions in order to express them clearly to others, and in the process I learned a great deal about myself. Writing gave me a better sense of my own inner self, by making me put into words what I truly considered important about people, ideas, and life in general. It helped me more clearly define the path that I was on. The process involved in writing, the method – focusing, arranging, and expressing my thoughts – helped me to center myself, and better decide what to do with my life. This is why school is important; not to get good grades, degrees, a job, or to impress anyone, but to learn HOW to think. If you really want to think for yourself in life, it helps to know how to think, first. But this is a desire that the student has to bring with him to the classroom – most schools try to teach students WHAT to think. The methods of learning they teach are infinitely more valuable than the content of the lessons themselves.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
TVE: The only schooling/training I’ve ever had was an intense study of the comics that I’ve read. Teaching myself to draw and eventually write comics was like teaching oneself to play the piano by ear – difficult, certainly, but not at all impossible. All it takes is dedication, desire, and a love of what you’re doing. Anything is possible if the results are really worth it to you. It’s also important to realize that unlike fine art, illustration, or advertising art, comics are a field of primarily psychological visual expression. The pictures are used to actually tell a story, not to sell a product, highlight a technique, or illustrate a single moment, and each artist’s uniquely individual “take” on a story or character (their drawing style) is an important element in a comic’s final appeal to the fans. So academic training and correct technical draftsmanship is not as important as honest, sincere, direct human expression, which comes in unlimited forms. It’s a very democratic field of endeavor. All you need is a story, the desire to tell it, and a style of your own in which to do so. The last is the hardest part.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
TVE: Pioneers of sequential art? An entertaining narrative, told in deliberately arranged pictures for maximum visual impact and dramatic effect? Aside from its 1842 creator Rodolphe Topffer, and the brilliant satiric story-paintings of English painter/genius William Hogarth, in contemporary times, I’d say Winsor McCay, Milton Caniff, and Will Eisner are the most seminal and influential creators in the field. In film, Georges Mèliés’ work was very much like comics – hugely imaginative visual fun.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
TVE: I’d define sequential art as a narrative told in a visual sequence, usually with words.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
TVE: I find it difficult to think of the format of sequential art as being in ANY way constraining. A blank page can be divided into infinite forms, shapes, sizes and sections, compositionally – panels – which can contain any action, event, or moment in time, without restrictions of composition or content. These sections – panels – are separated by borders within whose narrow widths incalculable miracles of time, space, and distance can occur. Add the artist’s freedom to manipulate these elements – to see, think, and create in whatever style he or she sees fit – and that simple blank page becomes a window into a world of infinite possibilities!
Art is limited only by the mind of the artist involved, and not by the genre, format, or medium. Sequential art represents the freedom to tell a story, and that‘s really an unlimited freedom. Telling a complete, detailed, pictorial story in the [fields of] fine art or illustration would indeed be very constraining, since they usually involve single pictures (that’s exactly what Hogarth did, and it‘s certainly not easy.) Like life, you get out of art what you put into it. Constraints on self-expression are usually just challenges for the creative mind to find new ways to overcome them.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have??
TVE: The most important quality for a storyteller to have is a clear idea of what he or she is trying to communicate to their audience, and a genuine respect for that audience. One should never “talk down” to one’s audience. If you create for your peers and superiors (whether they exist in your reality or not) this will ensure that you‘ll always do your best! Pearls before swine are genuine, even though wasted. Artists should realize that an audience represents a part of their own psyche [that is] analyzing, criticizing, commenting, and reacting to yet another part of that very same psyche – their art. To respect one’s audience is to truly respect oneself. Art brings an internal reality to life in external reality, so the more authentic and universal that inner reality is, the greater its appeal and artistic expression will be. In successful works of art, artist and audience become one through the medium of the artist’s own creation. To effectively express or comment on the human condition, however, one has, first, to be human, and then recognize the actual humanity in others. The masochism of altruism is not the desired goal here – that leads to self-hatred and mental slavery. Compassion alone leads to true understanding and human freedom.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
TVE: When I work I first read the entire script then roll the ideas around in my head for a while until a visual idea occurs to me. I never work until I have a clear idea of what it is that I’m trying to do. I then put layouts down on the page in lightly penciled form, directly as they occur to me. (With full scripts, I also pencil in balloons, captions, SFX, etc., to make sure that none of my art is inadvertently covered by copy later.) When the page is finished and laid out I let it sit for a little while. I come back to it later with a fresh perspective, and if it looks good I finish the drawings in darker pencil. I always let my finished work sit for a while before final quality checking. It’s amazing what a fresh perspective can reveal – that which was once hidden in plain sight, right before your very eyes! The only mistakes I ever worry about are the ones that I don’t catch.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
TVE: I try to work every day, but the amount of time spent at my board, and the level of my productivity, vary. As a bachelor, I have a lot to take care of single-handedly outside of my professional life – and it’s sometimes difficult to get as much work done as I‘d like. But when things go well (and they usually do) I pencil a page a day, two if necessary. On average, I can produce 5 penciled pages a week. In a crunch, I can ink two pages a day, which I recently did a few weeks ago for Stalker # 2 (a new series that I’m drawing).
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
TVE: It was never a struggle in my career to make ends meet until after 9/11, when racism once again reared its ugly head in America, in her corporate/cultural response to the cowardly attack launched by a group of brown-skinned lunatics. After that, brown-skinned artists were hard to find in the comics industry for a long time. They were scarce enough to begin with–which was one of the reasons I’d first decided back in 1996 to write The Original Johnson. Racism’s not completely dead in America just yet. It’s been a struggle to find work only since 9/11. Before that, no problem.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
TVE: My most valuable professional experience was the decade or so I’d spent working at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios beginning in 1978, concurrent with my tenure at DC Comics. I drew storyboards (which I hugely enjoyed – they were like mini-comics) and learned different forms of advertising art there. I learned a great deal by speaking with Neal Adams, whose staggering accomplishments, ability, and ground-breaking originality in the comics field is unquestionable. He once told me, “Trev, I don’t see myself as an artist – I’m a businessman!” which I found both informative and fascinating. Neal’s talent is equaled by his generosity, and I didn’t fail to take advantage of the incomparable asset he represented as a successful professional artist and a veteran in the comics field. He‘d share his vast knowledge and experience with me on any subject that I cared to broach. But he was an inspiration for me to create my own vision, rather than to imitate his; to do that which only I could do, just as he had done. Good teachers have that effect on me.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
TVE: What inspires/informs me on a daily basis are the products of other people’s inspiration and creativity, which I see all around me every day. A skyscraper can be the symbol of an evil, soulless, corporate way of life; or it can be the symbol of man’s engineering brilliance, an artistic achievement, and a triumphant affirmation of the power of the unconquerable, creative human spirit. A television set can be a mind-numbing tool for corporate brain-washing and consumer based conformity, a symbol of blatant cultural propaganda and psychological programming; or it can be the symbol of spectacular technological achievement, a brilliant electronic invention, and a product of the scientifically questioning and intellectually ambitious mind that forever changed the nature of society and the world,. A gun is an engineering miracle; and like money, evil only in evil hands. The actual nature of things apart from their use, misuse, ill-use, or distorted and perverted abuse by others is what interests me. Seeing the various creative expressions of the many artists, designers, architects, engineers, etc. in society is something that I find very useful in creating my own work. Inspiration is information. You just have to learn how to look, in order to find it. It’s all around.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
TVE: Digital comics? To each his own. In today’s computer-driven age, it seems an inevitable progression; but personally, I prefer the direct, interactive tactility of putting pencil and pen to paper when drawing, and the physical sensation of actually turning the pages, when reading. I have nothing against Kindle, for instance, but nothing beats the pleasure of holding and reading an actual book to me. Besides, I don’t like the idea of needing batteries in order to read a book; it reminds me too much of that old Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith as the misanthrope who’s happy to be the last man on Earth as long as he has his books…then he breaks his glasses… I’m 53 years old (will be on July 24th anyway) and from a much earlier, less electronically based generation, so I tend to prefer the simpler pleasures in life – and I just love books.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
TVE: As far as changes in the comics market go, I really couldn’t say. I’m more interested in creating a good product for it. But in the process of writing my second book, I’ll undoubtedly pay more attention to the goings-on there than I currently do. As far as the industry itself, I’d definitely like to see less WMD in comics than there is now, and by that I mean White Male Domination, not weapons of mass destruction, which is (probably not coincidentally) basically what the average super-powered costume character represents nowadays… I’d rather see a change in the source of those characters’ creation and handling than any facile, cosmetic change in how they‘re presented. Racism is still alive in comics today, as it is in American society, and it’s a psychologically limiting affliction on a primal, human level. It literally prevents the racist from being able to understand basic, fundamental truths in life, and that’s ultimately counterproductive for ANY human being, of any color. (Basic truths such as the fact that there’s only ONE “race” on Earth – the Human Race – and it’s composed of different PEOPLE, not different “races.“ The inherently divisive concept of “race” was created during the early days of American Slavery, specifically to justify the slave owners’ own odious hypocrisy – that “inferior” races are by definition “less than human” (and should therefore be enslaved and brutalized by the “true” human race, apparently…?) Here in the 21st century we perpetuate that sickening, self-delusional mentality every time we continue to use the fallacious concept of “race” to divide human beings from themselves. We deny a bit of our own humanity every time we deny basic humanity to others, however subconsciously. (“Mixed race”/“Interracial” – what does that mean? the union of an Earthling and a person from Pluto? I’ve never understood those phrases. “Multicultural” is more accurate.)
Racism is an emotionally destructive, insidiously corrosive evil, and it should be actively opposed, rather than blithely ignored or, even worse, used as a tool for propaganda and/or profit. At present, comics, like most of 21st century American culture (especially the movie and advertising fields), are just too overwhelmingly white. Most of what I see is blatant, facile propaganda, disguised as simple, innocuous entertainment. I happen to love American ideals; they’re the absolute best in the world. As an artist and a human being, I’ve always tried to live by them, and that’s exactly why American hypocrisy is the worst – because its ideals are the best that mankind has ever created. The fact is that a truly superior people never have to cheat to win. Period. America now has her first non-white President, and that‘s a good sign for change in the right direction because that’s just what she, herself, is. B[y] t[he] w[ay] The “Chief” whom we hail is actually supposed to be the servant rather than the ruler of the nation, so maybe that precedent will also be set…
Personally, I like comics that are ideologically courageous as well as entertaining, rather than interchangeable, superficially generic pap designed to make a buck for publishers and innumerable corollary industries instead of providing genuine quality to the fans. Comics are (and should be) fun; but to me, they should also inspire. The child in every comics fan is a die-hard idealist at heart, and ideals need fuel, or else they eventually die. The world of comics is entirely one of symbols and ideas, so there‘s an unlimited potential for expression there. Comics are a conceptual art, and we need to have bolder, more interesting, and much more intelligently adult concepts expressed in it. Comics can help you free your mind to pursue and attain your own happiness, all without being afraid of the world – just like heroes are supposed to. I’d like to see comics used to greater and more positive ends than just selling merchandise, toys, simple-minded fantasy, and shallow fluff to an easily appeased public. The average comic nowadays seems designed mainly to pander to the lowest common denominator among us at the expense of any real, meaningful human content. The comics industry in the 21st Century reminds me of George Lucas’ movie The Phantom Menace; a superb technical achievement, but devoid of any real depth, content, or human feeling. The triumph of the Techno-Nerd, in a shallow, corporate-run and consumer-designed society. The betrayal of a cherished memory and a childhood ideal. Fortunately, my happiness wasn’t dependent on it.
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
TVE: I’ve already apprenticed under the only artist in comics whom I’ve ever wanted to meet, during the time I’d spent working at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios. My whole purpose there was to study one of the greatest and most successful talents in comics history and hopefully [to] learn something that would benefit me both as a professional artist and as a human being. I think I did, but time will tell for sure…
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
TVE: What I’d like to accomplish in the future creatively is to write and draw my second book, Heru: The first Hero, an Ancient Egyptian myth from about 5,000 years ago, more commonly known as the tale of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. The plot, a son avenging his father’s murder by his uncle, was later reused in both Hamlet and The Lion King. My main objective will be in relating Heru’s epic battle against his murderous uncle Set, which lasted for years. Known as The 82 Contendings of Heru and Set(h), it’s an ongoing comic book series all by itself. It consists of 82 different battles – monumental, literally earth-shaking struggles – between two of the earliest gods known to mankind, each possessing many different powers, and capable of taking on many different forms. The very first super-powered heroes, created 5 millennia ago! Those Sands of Time sure do cover a lot! Heru was also called The God of Wisdom in Action because he automatically learns from every encounter with a foe, and is thus smarter, stronger, and better prepared for the next battle (the “automatic self-education” version of Wolverine’s “automatic healing factor.”) The concept of a black man actually becoming smarter after every battle is an absolutely wonderful idea for a super-hero/role model, and certainly one that’s never been used before – not even for a white super-hero. The challenge (and the fun) for me will be to create sufficiently convincing fight scenarios for a character who becomes stronger, smarter, and better after every fight! It’s not as simple as Hulk- gets-stronger-as-he-gets-madder. I’ve got to come up with actual ideas to show what Heru learns, how he learns it, how that knowledge is applied to the next encounter, and [to] dream up a new battle scenario from Set that […] tests that new knowledge and forces it to grow. Each battle/test has to be presented as a natural progression, each flowing in logical progression from the previous, so that at the end of the 82 battles Heru is a much more advanced and improved version of his former self; the same character but older, wiser, and stronger after his ordeals and contendings with Set. You may notice that this is, oddly enough, a metaphor for education; a child’s passage through school, and the lessons they learn for dealing with life. No coincidence there. Score another one for Ancient Egyptian Mythology, eh?
Over the years, Horus has morphed into DC’s Hawkman, and into Marvel’s The Falcon; and Isis was last seen on Saturday morning TV shows as a white woman. So be it. As long as the exploits of The God of Wisdom in Action can become available to the impressionable non-white youth in America as well, I’ll live with all that. The concepts of Resurrection, The Creation, The Holy Trinity, Immaculate Conception, Heaven, Hell, and the Devil also all originated in this Ancient Egyptian Myth. Heru’s uncle Set was also known as Set An, which eventually became Satan. But, that’s another story…
“Heru” is the original version of “Horus”; “Horace” is its modern derivative. “Heru” is also the origin of the word “hero”. Not too many people know that, and I think they should.
Because ignorance is never REAL bliss; only truth is.
George Freeman is the colourist of the two final rendered pages of The Original Johnson found in the gallery below.