Joe DeVito is a true Renaissance man. He is a man of many accomplishments and skills. In his 20 plus year career, he has illustrated hundreds of paperback covers in every genre, from romance novels to fantasy and science fiction. His art has won coveted Gold and Silver Awards from Spectrum Fantastic Art. Ninety of his images were printed as a collector fantasy art trading card set by FPG. He has worked for the major comic book houses such as DC Comics and created masterful images of Batman, Catwoman, Spiderman, Superman, and Wonder Woman among others. His art has been featured in several of their trading cards sets and others’, such as the Art of Star Wars Galaxy. He has contributed to the magazine world with cover credits ranging from MAD Magazine to Amazing Stories Magazine and Prehistoric Times. His contributions to the sculpting world include Tarzan, Superman, Doc Savage, Wonder Woman, The Hulk, and a classic statue of King Kong for the Merian C. Cooper Estate. Currently he is finishing a fine art sculpture of the Madonna and Child that is twice life-size and is working on designs for a 70’ wide site where it will be set. He has worked for the movie, TV and toy industries for the likes of New World Pictures, Hasbro and Kenner and created many design drawings for the dinosaur toys of Jurassic Park II. He has sculpted various wildlife themed collectibles for the Bradford Exchange and paleontologically accurate dinosaur sculptures for Saurian Studios. His first book as both author and illustrator, a lushly visual prequel/sequel to the original 1932 novel, King Kong, called KONG: King of Skull Island, was just published by DH Press.
Famous monsters, Super Heroes, Super Villains, dinosaurs, romantic couples, Alfred E Neuman, theology, and wild life all have found their place in his work. After graduating with honors from the Parsons School of Design in New York City, Joe has added to his painting skills through his association with the Art Students League, and to his anatomical studies with John Zahourek. Always willing to learn, always willing to experiment, Mr. DeVito has blossomed into an artist of incredible aptitude and attitude. Although mindful of the technical nature of his craft, he seeks to reach beyond that and reflect the soul to create complete pieces of art.
Joe, every creator, whether it is art or literature has had a ‘calling’ to their craft, What initially sparked you to be an artist?
There is no short way to answer that one. I guess if you understand a person’s beginnings, it may be easier to understand their art. I was born into a close-knit Catholic, Sicilian family living in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. Both my mother and my older brother, Vito, were very artistic. I had an Uncle, Joe, who was both a priest and an artist (athletic as well, he occasionally gave boxing exhibitions with his parishioner, Jake LaMotta, to raise money). When he visited us he often worked on his oil paintings. He would talk to my brother and I about Leonardo, Michelangelo and art in general as well as give us drawing lessons.
Our home was full of statues and icons. There also was this deep dark basement, filled with mysterious sculptures and old artifacts my uncle would collect. It had tons of cobwebs and old machines like table saws. It had the dank smell of brick and dirt. “City dirt” smells completely different than "country" dirt. When I was little, it all contributed to a strong sense of mystery and wonder. Outside, the multitude of sounds and sights, both near and far off, always made it seem like something was going on and my daydreams would fill in the blanks. I traveled many places without ever leaving my small backyard on West 43rd Street.
Given your early environment, how did the world of wildlife and eventually Dinosaurs come about?
I have always had an innate love of animals both real and imagined. This was probably first sparked through illustrated books. As a kid in NYC, where the main form of "wildlife" was the pigeon, these interests were pursued in esoteric ways. I found close observation of animals, living and dead, in fish markets and butcher shops to be fascinating. I was enthralled by all of these incredible creatures: lobsters, red snappers, squid, turkeys, lambs, pigs, chickens, whatever. When I thought no one was watching, I could not resist moving their fins, jaws, eyeballs or anything else that wasn’t frozen or under water to see how they worked. I got yelled at a lot.
Most of all, I loved going to the museums. Seeing the dinosaur skeletons and all the other animal exhibits was nothing short of wondrous. The backgrounds on most of those exhibits are extraordinarily beautiful. I also collected every toy and book I could find. Slightly later, my older brother began collecting Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them. I developed a fascination with the great monster movies, especially King Kong and Ray Harryhausen movies. The transferal of all these things into a desire to draw was instantaneous. I cannot remember not drawing or playing with clay. I was told I started drawing recognizably and consistently somewhere between the age of three and four.
It’s obvious that your love of fantastic creatures was nurtured early on. What drew you back to the ‘real’ world of animals?
A second, extraordinary, time in my life began when my family moved to Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. I was six years old. Suddenly, instead of concrete playgrounds, I was in the middle of fields and woods, with access to rivers and all kinds of different things. There were real, living animals to be seen. Most importantly, I met an incredible group of friends with whom I am still close to this day. It was culture shock of an extreme sort.
It was a fantasy childhood. The first several years my friends, Joe, Ed, Ronnie and Bug (the only girl we allowed in our group), and I spent enormous amounts of time together. Some day I’d like to write a story about that town. No one would believe the characters that lived there. Telling stories was a favorite pass time. Besides what we would tell each other, Ronnie’s father used to scare the daylights out of us with tales of his encounter with the "Wooly Wookses" and other adventures from his childhood that he swore were real. He had a phenomenal imagination (unless he wasn’t kidding). This often took place while roasting marshmallows at night. When it was time to go home, my friends and I would look at each other and then run like hell to get home before we were ripped to shreds by one of those creatures. I’ll never forget it!
Living across from a huge field, I discovered I was athletic and sports took equal footing with art. My friends and I were outside playing constantly. We also lived down the street from the library and I turned into a voracious reader. From gizmos to spacecraft, all things mechanical enraptured me. Well before my teens, I could describe virtually any warship, airplane, tank and rocket in detail, and had started to create imaginary ones. I had a fascination with drawing cut-away views of all kinds of things from monster subterranean drilling vehicles to space ships. I also began to acquire a great interest in history, biographies and geography (for some strange reason I loved to draw maps of imaginary countries and design port systems and land topography). I read comparatively little fiction; I was too busy learning about real things and people and applying my own imagination to them.
Apart from dinosaurs, wildlife, and crafts of all sorts, did literature add to the gamut of influences you had?
Eventually, yes. Instead of reading non-fiction in high school, I was drawn to classics from "Beowulf" to "The Great Gatsby". I became absorbed in many from other genres, ranging from Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Hesse’s Steppenwolf to Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar. The main exception was that I became fascinated with theology, philosophy and logic. I had an extraordinary teacher in that area, just at the time I began to ask those deep questions about life. In short, I began to grow into myself like everyone else.
So, if you combine all of these elements, you have an outline of what turned me into an artist. That may have been a bit more than you were looking for, but everything is intertwined.
Other than an artistic uncle, what other factors made you finally decide to go into art school?
Due to athletic successes in grammar and high schools, I did not progress artistically as I should have. But what made sense at 14 no longer made sense at 18. At the urging of my art teacher, Ed Havas, I picked up a paintbrush and oil paints for the first time my senior year in high school. By that time my outlook on life had changed drastically and art was the only thing I could imagine doing. But I had no idea of how or which way to pursue it. I felt hopelessly behind others who had progressed steadily throughout.
I initially studied to become a medical illustrator, but circumstances forced me to get job, so I went to college part time at night in the hope of finding a direction. At one point I took part time classes in two colleges at once. I felt lost. After three years, I ran into a friend who was attending Parsons School of Design in New York City. She lined me up an interview two weeks before the fall semester started. I was lucky enough to get in and graduated from there in 1981.
With degree in hand, was that enough to gain your first paying job in illustration?
Yes and no. Many ask what school you went to, but no one ever asks to see your degree; meaning the only thing that really matters is what you can actually do.
Isn’t it the art school that teaches you that?
Again, yes and no. The first day of Parsons, I remember sitting in an auditorium with a few hundred people. The speaker said that only 2 of us were going to make it. So I thought, how good can these people be? Was I good enough? After a great deal of hard work, I found I was good enough – but so were a lot of other people. Surprisingly, that is not what I found the deciding factor to be. In my opinion, common sense was. My first year I took everything. I had 9 classes and I handed in 9 different assignments each week. After the first 1 1/2 years, I began to see there was something wrong with that picture. While it was okay in the beginning, I realized it would not due if I had any hope of surviving in the real world.
I began to run into trouble because I was working my way through college by waiting tables on the weekends. There was no time to work on my art outside of class and I started to fall behind. So I decided to cram all of my classes into 3 days a week, from 8AM to 10PM. I then had 2 full days a week to work on my art before the weekend. That simple decision set the tone for the rest of my career. As things turned out, I needed a 3-credit class on a Wednesday night to make my whole plan work. There was a class in that time slot for painting paperback book covers. That sounded pretty good, I thought. Especially since the instructor was the head art director of the hottest paperback company in the city at the time. He promised to take one student each year and give that person a job after the class was finished. I took the class and felt it was the most fun – and potentially lucrative – opportunity I had had.
So as often as I could I did one project, a paperback book cover, for all classes that gave assignments. The instructors didn’t like it. But, I stuck to my guns. To me it seemed logical – I would rather put 9 times the effort into one project and do it great, than do 9 different projects that were mediocre.
The happy ending was I had my first job the day after I graduated. That initial success led to a myriad of other opportunities over the years. All because I took a common sense look at my situation and then took steps to improve it.
You mean the school would not have prepared you?
I found what I needed to know, but I had to actively look for it.
In an art school (and probably any other kind as well) which offers a curriculum and a degree, it is my opinion that there is an enormous amount BS to sift through. An example of this is the lunacy of many art instructors who look down on a mastery of craft and serious anatomical study as though these pursuits put the "artist" in a straight jacket. It is my opinion that those who worship at the altar of "creativity" before mastering fundamental techniques are mistaken. What good is the most brilliant of concepts if what is in your head cannot be expressed by your hands?
These things probably happen due to an infinite human diversity and a school’s need to satisfy everyone. Eventually it is incumbent on the student to make personal decisions not based on what the crowd is doing, but on what works for him or her as an individual, and then seek out those instructors who teach in a way that they can absorb.
So, after graduation, you went to work for Pocket Books, and your first published work was...
A book cover for a romance novel done in 1981. I never would have imagined it - romance novels? I was into all of the stuff I am into now. But that was where the opening was, so I took it. It turned out to be a great training ground. There is nothing more important than working with the human figure, and for the first couple of years, that’s all I painted, along with backgrounds that included a myriad of other subjects.
When an artist is starting out, there is nothing like repetition. I painted all day every day. It really polished my skills after I got out of school. I attended the Art Students League and dabbled in the Riley Method of painting, which emphasized a controlled palette, value relationships and strong picture making. The latter two things are what it is all about for representational art. The method is similar to what the Golden Age illustrators like Pyle, NC Wyeth and Rockwell used and is the same one used today by James Bama, Bob Maguire, Roger Kastel, and many other great illustrators. Unfortunately, I was forced to drop out of the League after a month because maintaining my freelance career made it impossible.
Luckily, there was a book cover artist and portrait painter by the name of Ralph Amatrudi living in my apartment building. Because he followed the Riley method, Ralph was able continue my education on the fly and my professional painting schedule never missed a beat. After I got the basics down, I morphed things to fit my own personality and talents.
You mentioned that as a youth, you were fascinated with dinosaurs. How were you able to use your interest in dinosaurs to your advantage as an artist?
In several ways. Serendipitously, dinosaurs are all the rage these days in everything from kid’s books to movies. Knowing all about them opens up all kinds of opportunities. Because of this I was hired by Hasbro to do many of the design drawings for the dinosaur toys of Jurassic Park ll. Being familiar with the variety of saurian forms and understanding how they work as physical machines goes a long way towards creating interesting and convincing aliens, robots and other SF or Fantasy related things. This enabled me to do a lot of conceptual work for TV shows and other projects.
In fact I just finished my first book, KONG: King of Skull Island, where a lifetime of dinosaur related interests have come into play. This, in turn will hopefully lead to a myriad of other things.
Mostly, it is always to your advantage to pursue the things you enjoy because it makes you happy!
When did you start to explore your other interests at Pocket Books?
A couple of years painting romance covers was enough for me. After I tested the waters of professional illustration, it was time to branch out into areas where I really wanted to be: those of the imagination in all its forms; both real and fantastic. Science Fiction and Fantasy book cover illustration was perfectly suited for that and complimented my love of reading. So I went to other companies, like Avon, Bantam and Zebra Books in search of different commissions.
Obviously, King Kong had been around since 1933. When was your first exposure to Kong?
In the late fifties to early sixties, I don’t know if the movie was being shown anywhere. Unfortunately for me, I always saw it on TV. I watched it every chance I could. Any time that beeping RKO radio tower was heard at the beginning of a movie, everyone knew to immediately clear the path between the TV set and me or risk serious injury! Since RKO made many movies besides King Kong, I was often disappointed.
You just mentioned disappointment, and as someone who appreciates art, I know that emotions play a large part in any creative piece, art or literature. If we look at the worlds that exist in our own imaginations, the initial emotional element cannot be duplicated. In short, the first anything is always the best. Obviously, your emotional attachment to Kong is high, and your first exposure must have been truly moving.
I fully agree: When your memories are tied up in something like that, it doesn’t matter what technological improvements there are. The initial wonder of your first infatuation can never be surpassed. I still think King Kong is the greatest monster movie of all time. Merian C. Cooper’s story and movie were incredibly original and powerful. It is difficult to put in perspective just how unique that film must have been. Almost thirty years after its release it changed my world – and I didn’t even see it in a theatre. Can you imagine what it was like seeing that on screen in 1933, when movies were less than twenty years old? People were just getting used to talkies, let alone seeing what they never imagined. Willis O’Brien’s special effects work on that movie inspires filmmakers to this day. He was a genius. What I would have given to be there and experience the opening of King Kong!
The Aurora monster models also resonate high on the emotion meter. I can’t count the number of times I built them when I was young. When they got re-issued, I bought them all again. There are some great things available today. Some of the new toys, collectibles and kits, (particularly the ‘Side Show’ Universal Monsters series), are wonderful. But because of the memories involved, for me nothing compares to the original Aurora models and their painted box covers.
I always loved the artwork on the boxes. They were a real piece of art, every one.
What I never knew about the model boxes, until I began painting the Doc Savage covers, was that James Bama painted the original artwork for all of the Aurora monster kits. Because of the memories they bring back, they are some of my favorite illustrations.
Have you ever talked to Bama in person?
Yes, just recently when he wrote a marvelous review for my Kong book. We had a wonderful conversation. He was as down to earth as could be, and being born in New York City as I was, we had and instant rapport. One of the Doc fanzines interviewed me during my Doc Savage days. I was asked if I wanted to change Bama’s version of Doc to my own. I said no; the main reason I wanted to paint Doc Savage was because I was so connected to the Bama’s interpretation. Sometimes there is a fine line between being an artist and being a fan. He and I definietly have that feeling in common: much of his art flowed from what he loved as a kid as well. A few years back I was one of several artists to be interviewed by Paul Jilbert for his PBS documentary, The Art of James Bama. I highly recommend it as a great tribute to an extraordinary talent.
Do you feel your work is similar to his?
I would say he is one of many who influenced me. He is the ultimate craftsman who creates art very intellectually. He meticulously plans and uses photographic reference which is then carefully rendered and reinterpreted with paint to capture his original concept.
As a 180-degree contrast in influence, there is Frank Frazetta, who is an intuitive painter. Frazetta's work is heavy on suggestion with detail only in key areas. He paints very quickly and mostly on the fly, often without any reference at all. To me, both approaches are equally valid.
Some may say that it is their mastery of their respective techniques that makes them unique. But if you look at all the people who have tried to imitate them, you can clearly see it is far more than that. The bottom line is anyone can copy a technique; no one can copy a personality. As an artist, you’ve got to be yourself.
With regards to Frazetta, do you feel you have anything in common with his art or his life?
Unfortunately, I have never formally met or talked to him. I do know that we both have Sicilian blood in our veins and that, like Bama and me, he is originally from NYC. But that may be where the similarity ends. I have a feeling that the essence of what makes me tick is very different from that which makes him tick. Make no mistake though; his art has greatly influenced me for years.
How can two such dissimilar artists influence you?
I’m influenced by everything I see. Bama and Frazetta are great in different ways and for totally different reasons. Stylistically, I think I fall somewhere in between. I tend to paint representationally, but I often paint with no specific reference at all. I have developed a love of detail, but get bored with staying too close to photo reference. Additionally, I also sculpt as much as I paint and have branched out into other areas as well, such as writing. It is difficult to pigeonhole any art or artist. Regardless of the method, you utilize whatever helps you best express whom you already are.
What motivates your art?
That’s an interesting question – like "Why did I become an artist," I don’t know how to answer it simply. As it pertains to me being an artist, I first need to ask, "What is Art?" Here I do not think I can separate Art from philosophy. In simple terms, for me it comes down to one elemental question: Does God exist? The answer to this question informs my whole concept of art, not to mention reality itself. If the answer is yes, then for me art serves to reflect an objective Truth. If the answer is no, then art is purely subjective. We can spend a few hours dissecting those statements, but the essence is this: with the former, there is a difference between Art in its pure sense and creative histrionics; with the latter, anything goes. I choose the former.
Based on that premise, what makes me ‘tick’ as an artist in one way is delving into the wonder and the mystery in things, and then trying to communicate that in a way that helps others better understand me and visa-versa. Ultimately, regardless of the subject matter (and that could encompass anything) or the medium, it is important for me to do this in a way that does not purposely distort or manipulate in a negative way. My point is that at the end of it all, I believe there lies something very profound and not arbitrary.
So, as an artist, you feel a compulsion to create, to explore the creator/created relationship?
I believe all people, artists inparticular, have a need to create. Art is a unique and elemental aspect of self-realization. Although it mostly harnesses some form of tangible vehicle such as paint and canvas, its language is symbols, analogies, relationships and ideas. That is the power of Art – to physically express the intangible things that are essential to our well being. I think the ultimate purpose of art is to feed the soul, not to poison it. I believe that true science and true religion have a common beginning and a common end; that they are two sides of the same coin. In that light, in my opinion art could be considered a third aspect of some cosmic triune equation - the edge of the coin, if you will. It straddles our psyche and helps to unite the two fundamental aspects of human reality: body and soul.
Tim: Let’s switch gears slightly, and talk about a specific period of your life. What led you to Doc Savage?
Joe: Good idea – if we unraveled the mysteries of the universe here, I’d have to retire! Somewhere around 1990 I remember being at Bantam Books in the office of my art director, Yook Louie. He asked if I would like to do this job, which turned out to be Doc Savage. I said of course. And that was it. As it turned out, I ended up painting the covers for the last 7 Doc novels. Noted Doc historian and author Will Murray wrote the novels based on unfinished manuscripts by Lester Dent (the creator of Doc Savage). He and I worked together. It was the first time I had worked in conjunction with an author, and I think the conceptual collaboration produced some good art. I think we even contributed three Doc “firsts”: We showed Doc with a bathing suit instead of jodhpurs in Frightened Fish, and we showed the villain with a smile on his face in Whistling Wraith, and on The Flight Into Fear we were the first to depict the entire crew in the main painting in addition to having the first wrap around formatted painting. For the last one, The Forgotten Realm, things went full circle and I worked from an original Steve Holland reference photo taken by Bama in the 1960’s.
I have seen a couple of photos of Steve Holland, and he was an amazing male model.
There was never any model like Steve. He was head and shoulders above anyone else. He moved a certain way where he was dramatic and balanced at the same time. I worked with him when he was in his 70’s and still no one could touch him. He was an artist himself, so he understood what looked good. He kept himself in great shape. He may have been portrayed on more book covers than everyone else combined; countless more than the romance novel icon, Fabio (with whom I also worked once).
Other than paperback covers, you have done sculpting. Was that part of your education at Parsons as well?
No. In Parsons I spent all my time trying to learn how to paint. Although I loved modeling clay as a kid, I never really worked much beyond a few crude clay pieces because clay wasn’t as readily available as pencil and paper were. I fooled around with it while making props for some of my book cover paintings, but that was about it. I did not get a shot at doing it professionally until ten years ago. I was given a chance to sculpt a full figure Doc Savage piece by Bob Chapman, owner of Graphitti Design. From that time on I have sculpted constantly. In fact, until I began work on Kong, I did very little else but sculpt for about four straight years.
Four years is a long time to sculpt. Obviously, the Doc Savage piece is one that you have produced, what else has come from your clay knife?
A whole range of things. I collaborated with Burne Hogarth and the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate to produce a Tarzan piece based on one of Burne’s drawings; again for Bob. That was a distinct experience, which I will never forget. I have also sculpted Golden Age versions of Superman and Wonder Woman, and other classic characters as well. I was commissioned to sculpt international trophy awards for Land Rover Vehicles, and the Bradford Exchange has commissioned several wildlife pieces, and recently I finished a statue of King Kong for the Merian C. Cooper Estate.
I’ve sculpted everything from little collectibles and figurines 6 - 12" high, to a twice life sized statue of the Madonna and Child which I just finished. The former were done for various companies and provided a great opportunity to hone my skills. The Madonna is on a whole other level. It will be part of what is projected to be a 70’ wide site, which I am also designing. It has been cast in a combination of marble powder and resin. It is to be an outdoor piece, located at the Blue Army shrine in Washington, NJ, and should long outlive me.
While you are working on the King Kong book?
I sculpted the Madonna & Child statue before I began. I will put the finishing touches on it now that I’m done with my book, which is called KONG: King of Skull Island. It is a heavily illustrated prequel/sequel novel about 65,000 words long. My tale is carefully woven around Merian C. Cooper’s original conception that was novelized in 1932 by Delos Lovelace, slightly before Cooper’s classic movie appeared. My book has the full backing of the Cooper family and is the authorized addition to the original novel. It will include somewhere between 35 and 45 finished paintings and drawings as well as numerous sketches. KONG: King of Skull Island is a very nuanced story developed over many years and my first book as an author. I chose to co-write the final version with Brad Strickland to make sure the writing was commensurate with the art. Brad is a noted SF/Fantasy author of over 50 books to his credit. His expertise was indispensable and it has been extraordinarily enjoyable working with him. The book is published by DH Press and should be in bookstores everywhere by the time this article appears.
It seems fate had me pegged to get my two largest endeavors off the ground at the same time; one in sculpture, the other in painting. As an artist, I am thankful.
Tim: Being a King Kong fan, you must be aware that Peter Jackson is remaking King Kong. With his track record on the Lord of the Rings, what are your thoughts on his tackling Kong?
Joe: I have heard from my friend Bob Burns (a great 50’s monster movie SFX artist, genre film historian, and memorabilia collector extraordinaire), and also read more of the same, that Peter Jackson truly loves the original 1933 Cooper film and will throw his whole heart and soul into doing it right. As I have come to realize while working on my book, knowledgeable Kong fans are everywhere. It can be very tricky messing with other people’s dreams. All a person can do is treat the subject with the utmost respect, give it all they’ve got, and hope for the best. I am greatly intrigued to see what he comes up with.
It is a dilemma of sorts: The original King Kong can never be dulplicated because of its amazing intangibles: being the first of its kind, the influences and the memories it engenders are unique to it. There are also the tangibles – all of the “firsts” it achieved: the first giant monster; the perfection of many animation and film techniques, etc.; the climax atop the Empire State Building (which had just been built), and all that it represented; I believe Max Steiner’s was the first full musical film score; rear projection; I could go on and on. Additionally, there was no CGI back then. It was all done by hand. And you couldn’t view a tape or a DVD at will. When a movie left the ‘Silver Screen’, you had to patiently wait. And wait. Until it was re-released or finally appeared on TV. You could not pause or rewind. Your imagination strained to retain every fleeting scene. The thrill was electric! A very different experience from the instant gratification of today.
On the other hand, there is a whole new generation that did not grow up with it. They may never connect with the original because it was made in 1933, is in b&w. They are less likely to care about the original’s aforementioned attributes, which are now either obsolete or taken for granted. They may never feel the wonder and mystery it inspired. As a Kong fan it is natural to want them to know how great the film was and to reintroduce Kong in a way the character deserves.
The possibilities of what can be done by reinterpreting King Kong for the present generation must be incredibly enticing to a director like Jackson who was so inspired by the original. Having so successfully brought Tolkien’s world to life (something many others have crashed and burned trying to do) he has the resources to remake the movie itself. I would imagine if anyone could redo King Kong, he could. I think that many Kong fans worldwide are waiting with baited breath to see what he comes up with, and that movie fans of all stripes will be in for quite a thrill.
Is that what you would have done if you were a movie director?
Who can say? But being an illustrator, almost thirteen years ago I took a decidedly different approach. My reaction was to expand on the Kong mythos by creating a book. My idea was a prequel/sequel based wholly on the original 1932 novel. The stories are virtually identical, but there are some interesting, very cool differences. I sought to explore everything that was not in the movie. I wanted to delve into the myriad fantasies and mysteries the story of King Kong engendered in my mind since I was a kid and hopefully do the same for others.
Many veteran artists have said the industry has changed so much since they got their start. When they started, in the late 1940’s you hung around a company and eventually you got an assignment. If they liked your work, then you got hired. From when you started, to the marketplace today, do you see the ‘break in’ process as more difficult?
I’ve found that if I was just myself and said what came naturally, things took care of themselves. An example is when I happened to be in an art director’s office and had just turned in a Doc Savage cover. During a conversation I mentioned that the only thing I missed about painting romance covers was painting beautiful women. He then asked if I would like to paint a book cover for Wonder Woman. Fortuitously, I had to get DC Comics’ approval before I could paint the cover. My portfolio review at DC was with Joe Orlando and we immediately hit it off. What was supposed to be a 15-minute interview, turned into an hour and a half of riotous story telling. We talked all about art, family and work related anecdotes (Joe’s sense of humor was insanely funny!), and had a blast. It opened up a whole new genre for me, all because I was hanging out with my Art Director and made a comment. That led to a ton of work for DC and MAD magazine and some of my favorite commissions in both painting and sculpture.
How did your career change when you began work for DC and MAD?
In an unusual way. Up until that time, I was illustrating things of genre interest, i.e. science fiction novels and the like. But that is different than working with specific icons of your childhood, like Superman and Batman. It is a great deal of fun actually adding my art to the overall oeuvre of art created for such characters. There is something elemental about that which is very satisfying. Although a primarily a monster and SF movie fan as a kid, comic books and MAD magazine were right up there with them. There is something so elemental about super heroes that in some ways it is difficult to imagine life without them. That is one of the primary reasons I became an illustrator, to take part in the things that I loved so much as a kid. I think working for DC was the first direct taste I had of that. Now that I am working on King Kong, I’m pushing the envelope even further.
Many artists in the industry have started doing commissions just to survive. Is that something that you have considered?
Everyone’s situation is different. After all these years, I realized I wanted to create my own properties. Doing freelance is great, but I also have a strong desire to realize projects of my own. Doing this should certainly provide a larger safety net for my family and myself by vastly expanding opportunities. The creation of both KONG: King of Skull Island and major projects I am developing to follow on its heels, incorporate much of the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years. Although it is often extremely hard work and requires a great deal of personal investment, I believe the payoff will be more than worth it. I have never had more fun in my life!