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Taken from Legendarium – 6/16/2014
Legendarium’s Exclusive Interview with Artist and Illustrator Charles Vess!
“…one of the things I really, really like about mythology and folklore is that they are really fun stories but also when you are reading them you are learning about another person’s mythology, another person’s folklore and you’re starting to understand a different group of people on the planet and you become more accepting of various peoples’ ideas”
Green Man Press is located in the back of a magnificent home-turned-business in an historic southern community. Like the beginning of a fantasy adventure, oneturns away from the obvious, a cavernous and welcoming entrance, and steers left down carefully-placed stones which slope downwards among shady trees and vines crawling up century-old brick. The wind whispers a greeting through the rustled leaves and guides you gently around to a hidden entrance- a curiously common door which leads to a whole new universe. Here is the place where worlds are sketched into existence by the talented hand of Charles Vess, whose enchanting studio can quickly draw one into the whimsical worlds of fantasy and mythology.
You may recognize Vess from many publications over the years. In the 1980s, Vess worked at Marvel and illustrated such greats as Doctor Strange, The Warriors Three, and Spiderman. Later, he would depict the fantastic world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, serving as an art director for the film version released in 2007. He has also created images for the worlds of George R.R. Martin (Storm of Swords), Charles de Lint (Circle of Cats, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest and Seven Wild Sisters), and Susanna Clark (The Ladies of Grace Adieu) among others.
Image Courtesy of igallo.blogspot.com
It is no surprise that Vess began by collecting comic books as a young boy. His mother had a pamphlet titled 100 Masterpieces of Art which first introduced him to great works of art, but it wasn’t until his first encounter with comic books that Vess would consider illustration and art as a career. Growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, Vess and his brother accompanied their father during a monthly visit to the barber shop. There, Vess began reading and collecting comic books. He started with Tarzan of the Apes and Uncle Scrooge, but was completely smitten when Fantastic Four #4 was released: “I had never thought about this before, a human being drew those pages. If a human being drew those then there are other ones and I can draw them too”. Vess’ expansive interest covers comic book illustrators to fantasy artists such as John Bauer, Alphonse Mucha, Hannes Bok, and Edmund Dulac among others. Vess was enchanted by the artists and comics of his youth such as Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, Walt Kelley’s Pogo, Alley Oop, and Flash Gordon.
From that moment, Vess was hooked, but unfortunately there were no art books (and no internet) to delve further into the talented illustrators he admired. His first art book, purchased his senior year of high school, chronicled the work of Aubrey Beardsley. Then while in college at Virginia Commonwealth University, Vess had access to art books for many prodigious artists including Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and Arthur Rackham (the last being his personal favorite and most significant influence). Vess read an article featuring four comic book writers from the Richmond area and wanted desperately to meet them. He would eventually strike up a friendship with all four writers, especially one named Michael Kaluta. Kaluta was working in New York and asked if Vess would be his roommate. He needn’t ask twice:
I put everything I could into a station wagon. I drove to New York, loaded it in, and then I was hanging out with him and his friends and meeting editors and artists and things. Most of them were in the comic book field – Archie Goodwin and Walt …They would see me, they met me, and then they would start asking me if I wanted to do a story for them and I just sort of slipped in the back door.
Vess posing with several of his many accolades
But the back door is most certainly the best way to enter (remember our arrival?). Vess’s work was in high demand. He was attending comic book conventions, doing story art, and selling his artwork. He was making a living through art, although he comically remembers that he “did laundry in the bathtub” and “ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches”.
It was at one of these conventions that Vess serendipitously struck up a conversation with an emerging writer named Neil Gaiman. Vess and Gaiman shared an affection for the writings of Virginia fantasy writer James Branch Cabell. Gaiman was currently writing the Sandman series and asked if Vess would be interested in illustrating some issues, but Vess declined. He much preferred to draw folklore and mythology over modern horror: “I’ve always responded to [folklore and mythology]. It’s more natural, less hard-edge and technological. There are natural rhythms in forests that I like to draw…one of the things I really, really like about mythology and folklore is that they are really fun stories but also when you are reading them you are learning about another person’s mythology, another person’s folklore and you’re starting to understand a different group of people on the planet and you become more accepting of various peoples’ ideas”. Gaiman later created a Sandman storyline incorporating African folklore and the two agreed to work together for issue #75. This successful collaboration led to many others, including Blueberry and the much-acclaimed work Stardust. When asked about his impressions working with Gaimon, Vess replied:
It was great working with him. What you discover doing any kind of collaborative work is that the better the writer you are working with, the better the art you’re going to end up with, the more they pull things out of you that you never knew were inside your brain. Collaboration is a really interesting thing. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it does, it’s like sitting in a room with a bunch of friends and you are talking, and the words start bouncing around and all of you in that room come up with a joke that none of you had come up with by yourself. As long as you can check your ego in at the door and make the best thing you can, you become sort of a third voice that is the combination of both people. It’s really interesting.
Currently, Vess continues to illustrate for fantastic children’s books such as Driftwood Days and Anna Myers’ Tumblewood Baby. Vess himself has previously published some art collection through his Green Man Press (http://www.greenmanpress.com/). Vess previously published a collection of adaptations featuring English and Scottish traditional ballads through Green Man. When asked about the origin of the name, Vess stated that he had just been sent a copy of Green Man: The Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth which captures Green Man statues in various places around the world. He describes the Green Man as a “sort of a pre-Christian nature archetype, sometimes signifying man’s progress with nature, feelings with nature”. The book is out of print, but is now being republished by Titan Books. Titan will produce an artist’s edition in the original dimensions of the artwork which will include “all the mistakes and corrections and tea stains”.
Image Courtesy of www.wings-in-the-night.co.uk
Vess is now adding “writer” to his extensive list of accomplishments. Just recently, he sold his whimsical tale of Santa Claus, Father Christmas, A Wonder Tale of the North for publication. The book is expected to hit stores shortly before the holiday season. Vess is also hard at work on several other projects. Queen of Summer’s Twilight is an 87,000-word manuscript of exclusively text while The Greenwood is approximately 67,000 words with a combination of text and images. He is also lending his talent to an adaptation of Appalachian Jack tales titled How Jack Made His Fortune.
Vess stands in front of a bookcase of stories all featuring his artwork
When asked what advice he would give to aspiring artists, Vess replied, “Use a big eraser, be stubborn, and draw from your heart”. He also suggests that new artists network by joining various societies and attending conventions. He has an excellent and enlightening discussion on creating art under the “Art Process” tab of his website (http://greenmanpress.com/artprocess1.html). Vess urges young artists to expand their horizons by saving pennies and booking tickets: “You want to do it? You do it. There’s always a way to get where you need to go”.
Visit the Amazon page of Charles Vess to buy illustrated works.
Catch Charles Vess at the following events and conventions:
Heroes Convention, Charlotte, NC
America’s favorite comic convention since 1982, famous for its family-friendly, laid-back, comics-oriented atmosphere. I’ll be in Artists Alley.
Creative Writing Days, Virginia Highlands Festival
w/Lee Smith and Gwenda Bond.
A two-day workshop examining and developing your own writer’s voice under the tutelages of award-winning authors. In this session, I will work with the writers to demonstrate how an illustrator can enhance text – and subtext – and draw the reader into the story.
Narnia Fumetti 9
As I type this, in the early morning hours, the sun hasn’t dared to climb over the horizon yet. Darkness pervades out every window. To prevent eye strain, I have a bronze lamp which illuminates my office, casting shadows across my desk. When I step into the hallway, I realize that I am once again visiting the darkness. With each step, I am carried away from the safety of that single bulb, which burns confidently under a tempered-glass hood.
Things are obscure in the darkness. It is not about tripping over a pile of laundry or hearing the shrill squeak of the dog toy when my foot finds it (and it always seems to find it in the quiet hours of morning). Really, it is about the uncertainty. I cannot see things well. The path in front of me, the steps I take, are tenuous and unsure. In those moments, I swallow panic and combat increasing anxiety. I don’t know nor do I have control over the threats I encounter in the darkness. There are moments where I place hands on the hallway walls to cautiously guide my steps. I grapple in the inky blackness for the light switch. I know it is there within arm’s reach. When my hand finally locates it, the frowning switch is quickly thrown Heavenward. A simple yet profound motion – pushing up, conquering gravity. And in a solitary moment, clarity prevails. Lights blaze and all that was hidden is finally revealed. There is great comfort in that truth.
About three and a half years ago, my mother was contacted about an unusual spot on her annual mammogram. With knees on the carpet, I pleaded with God. Please don’t let her have cancer. After a biopsy, the doctor confirmed that carcinoma cells were present (although they were not spreading). Shocked and scared, I came to God a second time, fingers nervously tracing the carpet as I talked to Him. Please can we avoid a mastectomy? A couple of weeks later, her oncologist reported that the cells, although sitting still within the quiet ductal walls like sentries awaiting a signal, could mobilize at any moment. “It is best if we just remove it,” she said. A third time, I approached God. This time I was tired, emotionally drained, and, quite frankly, irritated. I asked and I didn’t receive. The floor’s harsh fabric was beginning to aggravate my knees. My cheeks were flush with anger, with disappointment. In the span of just a few weeks, my life had completely changed. “We’ll start looking at you in a few years,” her oncologist said to me. I cowered under the shadow, the pervading silhouette of fear. I prayed and cried. Every day presented an opportunity to be strong. Can I survive this day without dwelling on it? Should I feel guilty if I choose distraction? Some nights, I collapsed into bed at night victorious, and others I stiffly crawled to the covers discouraged and conquered. But the next morning, I had another chance.
And then, after about a month, I decided that I would not allow her diagnosis to impact the rest of our lives. I had to believe that she would come through this and that this time of terrible uncertainty would one day be in my rear-view mirror. I could continue to limp, back sloped in defeat and head hanging, through the rest of my life cringing over words such as mammogram. Or I could carry on with optimism. I had to make a conscious choice. I had to choose hope. I had to believe all of those truths from Sunday School, that all of the colorful cut-outs prancing on flannel boards – David fighting Goliath, Jonah praying inside the whale’s dark belly, Noah constructing an incredible boat for impending floods, even Jesus conquering death on a cross – were plagued with doubt and uncertainty at times. They all made a choice. They all faced what seemed to be an unassailable enemy. They could have easily predicted the odds and found them slim, but hope was a fire not too easily extinguished. I had to believe that my Mom would conquer this. I knew she was strong enough. I had to remind myself that God is bigger than cancer, God is stronger than fear, and that light will always overcome darkness.
The doctor explained that once in the lymph nodes, the cancer can travel throughout the body. It is like the interstate in the voluminous network of our bodies. Once there, it can be carried to infect other areas. I hit my knees one more time in earnest pleading. Please God please, keep the cancer out of the lymph nodes. Just a couple of weeks later, when the mastectomy was performed, the lymph nodes were clear. God be praised!
But now for my family, the ominous clouds of uncertainty gather above our heads once again. Just recently, my uncle Johnny was diagnosed with stage four melanoma. He has always been a kind, gentle soul. An unusual mole appeared on his thigh about six years ago. Recently, after his family insisted, he had it checked out. Just yesterday, after a complete PET and CT scan, it was discovered that the cancer has spread to the immediate area. He will begin aggressive treatment soon. He needs our support and prayers during this difficult time. He has a loving wife, a daughter and son who dote on him, and family and friends who are willing to do whatever is necessary to give him the medical attention he needs. Friends, I ask that you join us in prayer. It is hard to articulate the fear we are experiencing right now, but we huddle on the carpet together and remain vigilant that our prayers will be heard and answered. We KNOW he can defeat this. We ask that you pray for strength and endurance and peace of mind as he fights. We will keep pushing up, remaining optimistic, and praying for healing.
The sun awaits to meet the horizon outside my office window, but birds are beginning to sing. They serenade the arrival of light, the presence of hope. The morning is upon us.