Stout’s annotations are in italics.
This next paragraph got me into a lot of trouble. I lost friends and jobs over it.
ART WITH A CAPITAL ‘A’
STOUT: Marlon Brando said something that really opened my eyes in an interview for Playboy back in the early ‘60s. The interviewer commented about a particular movie being great art; Brando stopped him and said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “No. Come on. Movies aren’t great art.” The guy said, “What? No. What about…?” He named some movies that are generally considered to be really great films. Brando replied with something like, “No. Come on. Great art; we’re talking a Beethoven symphony. Or Michelangelo’s Pieta; Leonardo da Vinci and his paintings – Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Has there ever been a film that even comes close to that caliber of artistic achievement?” And I wondered if he might be right. Like I said – it’s called the movie business; not the movie arts.
Brando talked about acting. He said, “Why would you ever revere an actor? It’s not the actor who is great. It’s the material. It’s Shakespeare that’s great. That’s great art. Just because I can say his words well doesn’t make me great.” Brando was discussing the relativity of quality. Has there ever been a movie that even comes close to being Great Art on Brando’s terms? There are great movies, terrific in relation to other movies. But in terms of the quality of greatness Brando was discussing, I’m not sure it has happened yet. I don’t know…maybe Shawshank Redemption. As much as I love King Kong, does it come up to the best works by Shakespeare or Beethoven? I think it may have to do with the nature of the medium…at least as it is today. I hasten to add that even with this awareness I still aspire to never do less than my best work while making films.
When Jurassic Park was in pre-production, I had lunch every two weeks with the film’s production designer, Rick Carter. We had become friends. My Antarctica one man show was up at the Natural History Museum of L. A. County and Rick was quite gracious with his praise for my show. I fed him loads of stuff to put into Jurassic Park. At one of our lunches, I stupidly and arrogantly I brought up this Brando thing. I think I really hurt Rick when I recounted (and at the time agreed with) Brando’s professing that movies were not Great Art. I was such an asshole. It was a very, very thoughtless thing to bring up. That was our last lunch together and it ended our friendship (though I still love the guy and what he’s done). I wish with all my heart that I could take that conversation back.
ARCUDI: You think comics have the potential to be great art?
ARCUDI: To be the Sistine Chapel?
STOUT: Up with Mozart, the Sistine Chapel and all of that stuff Brando named. I think the potential is there much more than with motion pictures.
ARCUDI: Your assertion is that the best comics are made by a single cartoonist?
STOUT: I think overall, yes. There are real exceptions to that. When you get a writer as good as Alan Moore, you can team him with an artist and he’s going to inspire that artist to do even better work than the artist normally does. I think in music, The Beatles together overall produced better stuff than they did apart. Sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In film, that’s much, much harder to accomplish, because it’s not one or two guys making it.
ARCUDI: Or four loveable moptops.
STOUT: It often takes over a thousand guys to make a movie (much more than that now). On the movies I’ve worked on, I’ve had 1200 people working under me alone – just as the production designer. That doesn’t even count the actors or the production staff, editing, camera or anybody else. The chances of the planet’s aligning within those twelve hundred people and that everyone does their absolute best work to their ability and somehow it all pluses itself and creates a great film – you’re more likely to win the lottery ten times consecutively. That’s why seeing a good film always surprises me and seeing a great film completely amazes me. I know what the odds are against the filmmakers. On top of that, if you roll 50 sevens in a row and make a great film, that still doesn’t mean you’ve made a successful film. It can still bomb at the box office. The success of your picture can be affected by something as uncontrollable as timing and the public mindset. Or the studio can completely botch the promotion – look at Iron Giant.
When Masters of the Universe was released, I watched the box office returns very carefully. It did alright in its first week. Typically, after the first week there’s a drop-off in attendance. But with Masters, the second week box office was even better than the first week’s. That almost never happens. Then, the third week did better than the second and the fourth did better than the third! “My god!”, I thought — “We’ve got a massive hit on our hands!” Then, the film got pulled from the theaters. Why in hell would they do that? I later found out it was because the studio that made the film, Cannon Films, had just gone bankrupt. They couldn’t afford the costs of advertising and keeping the movie in the theaters. So, there’s another example of how a film’s success can be thwarted.
ARCUDI: To put you on the spot, if comics can be great art is that what you’re setting out to do with this superhero book?
STOUT: Certainly; that’s my goal. I’m not saying that I’ll accomplish that goal (Although I have what I think is a very strong and surprising concept and structure for the series, I currently feel I lack the writing chops to achieve what I would like to achieve). I quite frankly don’t think I come even remotely close to having Beethoven or Shakespeare potential. I’m just not that brilliant or deep. But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try. And not just with comics but with everything I do.
ARCUDI: But are you slumming by using a superhero as your focal point?
STOUT: That’s just a passion that I’ve had ever since I was a kid. There’s an operatic, bigger than life, mythological aspect that the superhero genre has that I still find very appealing and certainly challenging to me as an artist and writer. Jack Kirby certainly understood that nature of superhero comics. Superhero comics get looked down upon, especially by the general public – but not comic fans. Obviously, the fans have a great love of the genre. But is it possible to take a genre that is considered sort of silly and frivolous by the art literati and produce something that is substantial and speaks to the human condition and is of lasting value (Obviously, this interview was conducted well before the dominance of superhero movies in our current culture, and before the release of terrific superhero films such as the Dark Knight trilogy, Logan, Doctor Strange, Joker, Into the SpiderVerse and the Captain America movies.)?
ARCUDI: At this point in your career, or at any point in your career over the last ten years or so, is there any temptation – because after all the bigger companies have some of the best toys, right? They’ve got Batman and they’ve got Superman. You said you started out with the Atom and the Flash, but is there any temptation to go in and play with those toys and say, “You own them, but I want to play?”
STOUT: Yes there is. I was asked (and I’ve agreed) to do a Batman story for Batman Black and White.
I have no illusions about owning Batman. I know that DC or Time Warner owns Batman. There are other aspects, perks and rights for which I can negotiate, though. I’ve always liked Batman. I’ve never really done a mainstream popular superhero, so it will be a challenge. I’m going to do a black-and-white story; I think black and white is really appropriate for Batman. I’m not pretending that this is going to be “Great Art” with this one. I’m going to do an enjoyable Batman story, a real detective story.
ARCUDI: But you’ll still approach it with the attitude of producing the best Batman story that you can produce…
STOUT: Yeah. And I’m going to do it in a way that is different from any Batman story that I’ve ever seen; it will require reader participation and involvement (My story was scheduled for the second Batman Black and White book, which was cancelled. I wrote my story but never did a final draft or drew any of the pages).
I was knocked out by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. I thought he did a tremendous job of rethinking that character and the Joker.
ARCUDI: It is Batman so it’s Frank Miller. But you have no illusions about that being great art necessarily?
STOUT: Oh, God no. But I think Dark Knight was a major step toward us all getting there. I don’t think Dark Knight is Shakespeare and I think Frank would agree with me that it’s neither Shakespeare nor Mozart, but I think by rethinking the superhero genre as an adult he it pulled that genre up to the next level. He put us a step closer towards doing something that’s more adult, more complex and more interesting within the superhero genre.
ARCUDI: Hmm. Okay. All right.
STOUT: You saw the public’s reaction. When Dark Knight came out, for the first time people who had never entered a comic shop began venturing inside these shops saying, “I love this book. This is great. What do you have that’s like it?” And, of course, there wasn’t anything like it. We’re catching up now, though.
ARCUDI: Some would say in the 1980s that presumably the superhero book was coming of age, which is sort of an oxymoron. But right now, there seems to be a new opportunity to really break free from the idea that comics are for children. And the alternative market, some of the stuff is very exciting.
STOUT: Oh, it’s really exciting. Not just the writing itself. It’s the art, too. You don’t have to draw the “Marvel Way.” You can paint your strip. You can do it as wood block prints. You can do it as an etching. It doesn’t matter. You can do it in any style. There are comics with a beautiful primitive style. There is stuff that’s really elegantly drawn. There is stuff that harkens back to the ‘30s or the ‘20s. It’s just completely open. In a sense, I think it is the fruit born from the underground comix movement’s seeds.
ARCUDI: And in a way, I think the undergrounds were fruits born – especially some of the covers – of the EC seeds, in a lot of ways.
STOUT: Yep. We consider Harvey Kurtzman the godfather of the underground comix movement.
ARCUDI: In that way, he’s a grandfather to what’s happening right now. I’m thinking that something’s going to happen to crunch this, though, because that seems to happen with every generation.
STOUT: Well, when I talk to people about it, I say, “Enjoy it while it lasts, because nothing good lasts forever.” I’m a pretty optimistic person, but I’m realistic as well — no Golden Age ever lasts. It’s that way with radio stations, with comics, with any sort of media.
ARCUDI: Do you have any favorites of the alternative stuff right now that you care to mention?
STOUT: Oh, man. Almost everything my two sons show me. They’re really selective. They don’t show me anything but the very best stuff: Barry Ween, Akiko, Bone, From Hell, Cave-In, Eightball and Jimmy Corrigan – stuff like that. I’ve become a big fan of the works created by Seth, Darwyn Cooke, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Chester Brown and Joe Matt. The art skills of my pals Mark Schultz, Mike Mignola, Mark Nelson and Frank Cho are out of this world, continuing, in a way, the EC tradition of terrific comic art. And it’s hard to beat writers like you, Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison.