Archive for February, 2013

Mondo Kong – Part Two

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Here, I’m developing the pencils. I refine them with my 3H pencil (a 3H gives me a fairly hard, light line), getting a little darker as needed. If I need to go even darker, I switch to my HB pencil. Note that in the previous drawing I had made Kong‘s right leg too short, so I’ve lengthened it here (In studying Kong, I’ve found that he has very short legs in proportion to his massive body).

Seeing that I had inadvertently chosen one of the most difficult angles of which to draw Kong’s head, my pal, fellow artist and regular Journal contributor Rick Catizone just sent me a series of freeze-frame head shots of Kong taken from his DVD.

I had already done something similar. I began my first sketches of Kong’s head using a little cast I’ve got of Mighty Joe Young‘s head. That was OK for the rough, but I soon discovered many differences between Kong and Joe. I got out my Kong blu-ray (I don’t recommend the blu-ray version of King Kong, BTW; it looks like the first half of the film was shot in a sandstorm. Two things blu-ray does not do well: mist and smoke. It granulates both. For this same reason, the Island of Lost Souls blu-ray looks awful compared to the laser disc version) and went through it, shot-by-shot, looking for head poses similar to my drawing, then corrected my drawing accordingly. Now that I’ve got Rick’s pics, I’ll compare them to my drawing and see if anything needs adjusting (knowing, too, that the features of Kong’s head change throughout the movie depending upon which figure Willis O’Brien was using in each shot. Then, there’s that giant head they constructed which bears little resemblance to the stop motion figures’ heads).

I’m comfortable with obscuring part of “KING”, as “KONG” is so associated with “KING KONG” that I think any of my potential audience will get the “KING” part because they’ll see the associated “KONG” and put two and two together. It’s all part of my making my audience a participant in the picture. Plus, I wanted to have the K, N and G  of “KING” and “KONG” directly on top of each other. The problem with that is the funky spacing (there’s too much room around the “I” compared with the tiny spacing between the other letters) of the “I” in “KING”. I solved this problem by overlapping the Tyrannosaurus rex head over most of the “I”, giving the viewer something interesting to look at while obscuring the “I” (as I pointed out, also making the viewer a participant, as the viewer has to figure out that’s an “I”). My theory is that if you have a big T. rex head to look at, you won’t mind the odd spacing.

Also note that I tipped the “KING” back in perspective to lead the viewer’s eyes into the picture. I have also designed the picture so that the main composition of the Kong/T.rex tableau is triangular. Then, I set it against a big “U” design (the negative space behind Kong). The triangular design psychologically suggests stability and triumph. The “U” leaves a psychological impression of sadness or depression with the bottom of the “U” graphically pushing down. The overall effect, psychologically, of this triangular shape placed on top of a “U” is Triumph over Adversity.

Typically, I tightly (and I mean tightly; it’s a holdover from my days with Kurtzman & Elder on Little Annie Fanny) pencil everything before I start inking. In this case, my deadline is looming, so I’ve penciled everything a little looser than I usually do. I am also doing tight pencils to little sections I’m unsure of just before I ink them, something that probably won’t show up too much in this step-by-step demonstration, unless you go back and forth, comparing pencils to inks.

A word about how I’m inking this baby: Recently, my publisher John Fleskes came down and stayed with me. He showed me a film he had shot of my friend Mark Schultz at work. It included many close-ups of Mark inking. I was amazed at how loose Mark’s approach is to inking. He tightens everything up towards the end. As an experiment, I decided to try this same approach. It seems to be working so far…

I never thought I’d be turning to Mark Schultz for tips on how to speed up my art process…!!!

To Be Continued…

Mondo Kong – Part One

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Recently, I received a commission from Mondo, an Austin, Texas-based company (http://www.mondotees.com/Info_ep_2-1.html). For those of you out there who are not familiar with Mondo, they came up with a great idea. Mondo commissions their favorite contemporary artists to create new movie posters for old, classic films (and some popular current ones, as well). For example, Drew Struzan painted a new poster for the 1931 Frankenstein.

The posters are serigraphs (limited edition silkscreen prints). As this non-Twitter guy understands it, you have to be on Twitter to be able to purchase a Mondo poster at the time of release. The moment the poster goes on sale, a Twitter blast is sent out to all of the Mondo followers. Typically, their print run sells out in about ten minutes. The prints have an extremely healthy secondary market; many folks buy multiples as investments.

I was commissioned to create a new poster for my favorite movie of all time (and the first movie I ever saw): King Kong.

I thought you might like to follow the process of creating this poster from beginning to end.

Posted above are the thumbnail sketches I drew in my sketchbook, trying to come up with an idea and a design. I chose one of them and began to sketch it up full size (slightly larger than its final printed size of 36″ x 24″). Here’s that beginning (3H and HB pencils on extra heavyweight cold press illustration board):

To Be Continued…

Alex TOTH and me – Part Five

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

I felt sorry for Alex. He so often found it impossible to maintain long-term friendships and business relationships, often intentionally sabotaging both.

The most famous example of this among artists who were friends of Toth’s was receiving The Letter. I heard this same story over and over from a number of artists. The pattern worked like this:

An artist would develop what he thought was a close friendship with Alex, a friendship that was nurtured over the course of years. Then one day that artist would receive The Letter. This hand-written (Alex never typed anything) missive from Toth would elaborately detail all of the artist’s faults and failings (and none of the artist’s strengths, of course). It would end questioning the artist as to why he ever felt even the slightest bit justified in considering himself an artist in the first place. Toth would advise the artist that the best thing for the artist, for other artists and society in general would be for this artist to immediately give up art and find another more appropriate occupation (like truck driving). You’re no damn good anyway, so please do us all (and yourself) a big favor and stop polluting our eyes with your rotten crap.

I know many renowned professionals who received The Letter. The smarter artists, the ones who weren’t devastated and convinced to give up, kept The Letter and occasionally pulled out their copy, showing it to other people in the business as a sort of perverse badge of pride. I bailed from Alex’s life before I got mine (I kinda wish I had one of my own).

Over the years I have come to deeply distrust people who make the Grand Gesture. Alex made a lot of ‘em. The most common one was showing you a new story he was working on. He would then point out a panel that he considered to be not up to snuff. In front of you, he would then rip up the entire completed page (or, occasionally, the entire story) and toss it into the trash. Then he would pencil, ink and letter that page (or pages) all over again.

This was all done to show you what a great artist he was, that his level of commitment to greatness was deeper than anyone else’s in the business.

Bullshit, Alex. Just do a paste-over, for chrissake!

Harvey Kurtzman and I discussed Toth and his work. After I expressed great admiration for Toth’s storytelling abilities and spotting of blacks, I was shocked to hear Kurtzman describe Toth as “lazy.”

“Toth? Lazy? What do you mean?”

“You know all of that stuff he spouts about his never-ending search for ways to eliminate detail and fill stuff in with blacks wherever he can…?”

“Yes…?”

“Well, sometimes panels need detail. I just think Alex is too damn lazy to draw it. It’s much easier to just black it in.”

I mentioned that I encountered several versions of Mr. Toth over the years. Here’s my favorite:

I was attending the San Diego Comic-Con when I ran into Alex near the hotel pool. We greeted each other with warm familiarity. I introduced him to my little daughter Faith (I think she was in first grade at the time). He knelt down so that they were at eye level with each other. He suddenly became one of the warmest, sweetest and most charming guys I had ever met. My daughter blushed over his compliments and there was a rare twinkle in Alex’s eyes as he chatted with and charmed her. I had never seen him be so tender and kind to someone.

I still treasure that moment and try hard to recall that specific Alex Toth in my mind whenever his name pops into my head or comes up in conversation. I would hope that that’s how he would like to have been remembered.

After Alex had passed, I ran into a former friend of mine. He told me he had been shooting hundreds of hours of interviews with Alex while Toth was in the hospital during the final months of his life.

One day, he asked Toth, “What was it between you and Stout? Why did you end the friendship?”

Toth grew silent. He fixed his eyes on the lens of the camera and declared:

“Because he was successful.”

As tough as Alex was with other people, I think that deep down inside he was roughest on himself, in that he nearly always chose the hardest paths possible to take in life. He made his journey through this world much more difficult than it ever had to be. Many people loved (or tried to love) Toth and his work. Imagine how different and rich his life would have been if he had been just a little bit kinder and a smidgen more thoughtful. If he had more consistently been the guy that met my little girl that special afternoon in San Diego, the world would have been his for the asking.

Alex TOTH and me – Part Four

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

I finally got my chance to work with Alex Toth when I was made the production designer on an American Godzilla movie being produced and directed by Steve Miner from a brilliant script by Fred Dekker. I began as the film’s pre-production artist and storyboard man, then (with some spurring from my friend, the legendary storyboard artist Mentor Huebner) asked for and received the job of production designer on the film.

There were special effects shots in nearly every scene, so practically the entire movie needed to be boarded so that the production could get a realistic guesstimate as to the film’s effects budget. I immediately hired Dave Stevens and Doug Wildey as storyboard artists. My pal and studio mate Dave could be slow if left entirely to his own devices, so I drew rough layouts for most of his scenes to speed things up. I revered Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey (now there was a guy who knew how to visually tell stories for the screen!) and found it ironic that he was working for me, especially as I was learning so much from him about film and visual storytelling as we collaborated.

There was still plenty of storyboard work that needed to be produced, however. A light switched on in my brain.

Here’s my chance to work with Alex Toth!

We could collaborate and I could say “thank you” to him for all of his inspiration by tossing a good job his way on a potentially great film (in addition to Dave and Doug, animation master David Allen was hired to do the stop motion animation effects, paleoartist Stephen Czerkas created the armature and sculpted form of our stop motion Godzilla figure and the celebrated make-up artist and innovator Rick Baker was taken on to create a large robotic Godzilla head)! We had a real Dream Team working on this film.

I phoned Alex.

“Alex! This is Bill Stout. I’d love to have you work with me on this new Godzilla film I’m on.”

Alex was immediately dismissive.

“I don’t do that kind of movie.”

“But Alex — you haven’t even read the script! Its not like any Godzilla film you’ve seen in the past. It’s terrific! It’s a sort of Spielbergian version of Godzilla as seen through the eyes of a 14 year-old boy. You’ll love it. I’ve been made the movie’s production designer. We need to have the entire film storyboarded, so that’s why I’ve called, hoping you’d like to work on this with me.”

“If you couldn’t handle the job, why’d you take it?”

Wow.

I made some quick, parting niceties and got off the phone. That was the last time I ever spoke to Alex. I decided that maintaining our friendship was just too much hard work — especially since all the work was on my part and none was on his.

I decided I’d be much, much happier admiring Alex’s work from the distance of the printed page.

To Be Continued. . .

Alex TOTH and me – Part Three

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

In the early 1970s there were two comics publishers based in the Los Angeles area. One was Western Publishing, who produced the Dell and, later, the Gold Key comics. The other was Petersen Publications, with Hot Rod Cartoons, Car-toons and Cycle-toons. Toth created a substantial body of work for both publishers. I went to work for Cycle-toons, which was edited by Dennis Ellefson.

When Dennis found out I knew Toth, the first thing he asked was, “So, did Alex tell you he wants to kill himself?”

I said “No.”

“He will. He always does,” said Dennis. “I got so sick of his telling me that I told him,’OK! Then just DO IT! I’m sick of hearing you talk about it!’”

Dennis told me it was Alex’s way of getting attention and sympathy from folks. “Oh…poor, poor Alex,” said Dennis. “Bullshit!”

The more friends of Toth I met, the more I heard that story. Eventually, Alex confessed to me that he wanted to kill himself. I nodded in acknowledgement of what he had just said then quickly changed the subject.

Ironically, it was Dennis Ellefson who took his own life. Alex eventually did, too, if one considers cigarette smoking a slow form of suicide.

In my youth I made a list of the four comic book giants with whom I wanted to work: Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby and Alex Toth. I ended up getting to work with Kurtzman on “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy (and a number of other projects as well); with Jack when I got to ink an issue of The Demon; I also inked two of the pin-ups he drew for his wife Roz: The Demon and Devil Dinosaur. I jumped at the chance when Will Eisner asked me to ink over his pencils (and then color) on a cover for The Spirit.

I almost got to work with Toth when I was working as an assistant (mostly inking and coloring) to Russ Manning on the Tarzan of the Apes Sunday and daily newspaper strips. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. decided that they wanted to try their own hand at publishing comic books starring ERB’s famed creations. They made Russ the chief editor of this new comics line. Russ and I were also working on Tarzan graphic novels while we did the newspaper strip work.

“How would you like to ink Alex Toth?” Russ asked me one morning.

Russ had written a ten-page prologue to our latest Tarzan graphic novel. It took place in the past, so Manning figured that a different art style (as long as it was inked to look somewhat like Russ’ Tarzan) for the first ten pages would not be out of line, that it could work well within the context of the story. Russ called Alex and gave him the penciling job.

We eagerly waited for the pages to arrive. I was there for the Big Day when Toth’s package was delivered. We were stunned.

It was awful.

Quite frankly, it was one of the worst things I ever saw by Toth, a complete strikeout — not even a base hit (to push the analogy). There was none of Toth’s romance, nor nary a whiff of the exotic qualities we cherished in his art. It was dull, dull, dull. The drawings of Tarzan were stiff and the Ape Man looked overweight. I watched as Russ was forced to erase and redraw 80–90% of Alex’s ten-pager. A disappointed and despondent Russ ended up inking it all himself.

To Be Continued. . .

Alex TOTH and me – Part Two

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

It’s no secret that Alex was a heavy smoker. His place reeked of stale tobacco. That was hard for me to take and, quite frankly, it forced me to limit my visits. My father was also a heavy tobacco user. I am somewhat allergic to cigarettes and viscerally hate their stench. It was one of many reasons I couldn’t wait to earn enough dough to become financially independent and get my own place. From my experience with my dad’s addiction and Alex’s own railings against government attempts to limit smokers’ rights, I knew that it was most likely that Alex would never quit. He knew about peoples’ aversions to cigarette smoke yet I never once saw him defer to anyone and not smoke in their presence. In Toth’s world, it was his way or the highway.

Like I said, Bob Foster was Alex’s best friend. Bob couldn’t do enough for the guy. When Bob found out that Toth didn’t have any copies of his own Dell comic work, Foster tracked down pristine copies of each and every comic Alex had drawn for Dell, had them beautifully bound as hardcover books and presented them to Alex as gifts.

Bob was that kind of friend, that kind of guy.

Bob also functioned as Toth’s archivist, documenting and keeping records of everything Alex had touched as a creator. I believe they were the best of friends for well over a decade. It was Bob who really educated me as to the finer dimensions and aspects of Toth’s comic work. It was Foster who showed and explained to me why Alex was such a damn good storyteller.

That is why I was shocked when one day Bob called me up, very upset. Toth had completely severed their friendship after Bob had made a casual joke about Communism.

BAM! That was it.

Alex was furious over the jest. Bob apologized; he had no idea that Alex would take what was meant as a lighthearted throwaway quip so seriously. Bob was told in no uncertain terms to leave the house immediately. From that moment on, Foster was no longer allowed any contact with Alex; no phoning, no letters, and, above all, no more visits. Toth threatened Bob with physical harm if Foster ever dared to show his face in Alex’s presence ever again.

This happened while Toth was finishing up the work on his own self-written and illustrated comic book, Bravo For Adventure. With his Johnny Bravo comics, Alex was going to show us all how he thought comics should be done.

The problem was, that when he finished it, Toth no longer had his Number One Fan (Foster) to show it off to; no one to immediately give Alex the accolades Toth thought he was due for this comics “masterpiece”. But this was not to be. In a pattern that repeated itself throughout Alex Toth’s life, he had successfully isolated himself from Bob (and, eventually, a lot of other folks who loved — or tried to love — Alex and his work).

So he called me.

Because of my friendship with both Bob and Alex, I knew exactly what was going on. It was clear that Toth wanted me to come over and be the first to see his Bravo book and shower him with praise for a superb job well done.

It was clear he was lonely. But he was lonely by his own design. I was personally angry over the way Toth had treated Foster. I also didn’t relish descending into that foul tobacco pit of Casa Toth. I knew that even though he was pushing me to come over for a “quick visit” to see the finished book, I was aware that there was no such thing as an Alex Toth quick visit. Despite isolating himself from so many of his closest friends, he still craved attention, occasional companionship and deep conversation. Not surprisingly, Alex was a lonely guy, so these “quick “ visits nearly always ended up taking a minimum of three or four hours. I used a few easy deadlines I had as an excuse not to come over.

Upon buying my printed copy, I was amazed by Bravo for Adventure — amazed that Alex’s writing seemed to violate everything he railed against about other writers. I found it unbelievably overwritten — something I knew Alex hated in a script. I guess that Toth had a blind spot when it came to editing his own stuff.

About ten years later I was with Bob Foster during the San Diego Comic Con when we spotted Alex on the other side of the hotel’s swimming pool. Bob said something to the effect of, “It’s been ten years. I know I wasn’t in the wrong but, what the hell — I’ll take the high road and go apologize to Toth for any and all perceived slights I might have made. I miss him. I’d love to restore and resume our friendship.”

Bob began to make his way over to Toth when Alex suddenly spotted him.

“FOSTER, YOU SONUVABITCH!” he shouted. “I told you if I ever saw you again I would beat the living hell out of you!”

With that, Alex began pushing aside chairs and tables in an attempt to get to Bob and begin assaulting him. People grabbed Toth before he could land the haymaker he wanted to deliver. Some of Bob’s friends and I hustled Foster away from Toth and off to safety. Needless to say, Bob was pretty disappointed and upset.

To Be Continued. . .

Alex TOTH and me – Part One

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Of all the people I have known, comic book legend Alex Toth was several of them.

Like a lot of unsophisticated kids, I didn’t like Toth’s work at first. I preferred the slick superhero drawings of D. C. Silver Age comic book artists Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino, especially when they were inked by Murphy Anderson. To my eyes, Toth’s work committed the sins of lacking detail and looking “different” from the other comic book artists’ work. Alex’s work never had any of the fine feathered inking I admired, unless he was being inked by someone else which, by the time I discovered Toth’s work, was pretty rare.

As I progressed in my aspirations to become a professional comic book artist, I kept hearing over and over again from my heroes and a few peers about how great this Alex Toth guy was. Their admiration seemed to stem from his “storytelling” abilities, whatever the heck that meant. I began to collect Toth’s comic work, thinking that, like medicine, it was probably good for me and that somehow, perhaps through osmosis, I would begin to understand the finer points of this “storytelling” thing they were yammering about and in the process become a better artist.

Sure enough, through time, education and exposure, I finally began to “get” Toth’s work. Eventually it had a huge and permanent impact and influence on my work. I fell in love with his sense of design, his spotting of both blacks, dialogue balloons (and sometimes whites), his graphic use of sound effects, the naturalness of his drawing style and his ability to capture a mood using simple black and white.

Eventually, I met Alex Toth through his closest personal friend (at the time), Bob Foster (Bob and I knew each other through many mutual friends and because we both drew underground comix. Myron Moose Funnies was Bob’s big underground claim to fame).

It was Bob who first took me up to Alex’s home nestled halfway up the Hollywood Hills (just a few minutes away from my Beachwood Drive Hollywood apartment). By reputation I already knew about Alex’s volatile personality. I could tell that this small gathering of fans (there were others there that evening besides Bob and me) was intimidated by Toth and it was equally clear that this group’s primary function was as an audience so that Alex could hold court and pontificate about what was right (but mostly what was wrong) with comics, movies and other elements of our popular culture.

I listened and learned, not always agreeing with Toth (but keeping it to myself when I didn’t). Over time, our relationship grew friendlier and friendlier. I made a lot of trips up to Casa Toth, as Alex rarely felt like leaving his home.

To Be Continued. . .

Legends of the Blues

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

I just received an advance copy of my new book, Legends of the Blues. It’s published by Abrams ComicArts and contains 100 full color portraits of my favorite blues musicians born prior to 1930. I also wrote bios for each entry with recommended songs for introductory listening and notes of interesting cover versions. The book also includes a blue CD with selections I personally chose and sequenced.

This was a real labor of love for me, a very personal project.

Although the blues is (are?) my favorite genre of music, the initial inspiration for the project came from Robert Crumb’s Heroes of the Blues trading card set. None of whom Robert drew for his card set (with the exception of Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson) are in my book. For the most part, I covered a much more recent generation of blues musicians and singers, including Robert Johnson and the legendary Chess Records recording artists, such as Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

After getting Robert’s blessing on the project, my enthusiasm quickly carried me through to the end. The book is the same size and roughly in the same format as Crumb’s Abrams ComicArts book Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country.

My pal, writer Ed Leimbacher (Ed was the first person to purchase original art from me at a convention — it was at the first E. C. Convention in 1972), wrote the most perfect introduction for my book.

I see that it’s already available as a pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I believe the official street date is May 7, but I have a hunch it will be available much earlier than that.

If you get a copy, I’d love to know what you think.