ARCUDI: A little bit later you did movie poster work – Wizards, Rock and Roll High School. That came about, as you just said, because you were able to do those patches for that other poster.
STOUT: It wasn’t a poster, but prior to S*P*Y*S I drew the newspaper ad for Linda Lovelace for President. The producer who commissioned it wanted the ad drawn in political cartoonist Herblock‘s style. He paid me $400 cash upon delivery. That was a lot of dough back then, when my rent was just $80 a month.
Actually, getting into movie poster art was a slightly more intricate path than that. S*P*Y*S came about because I was able to duplicate styles.
My second one sheet was my poster for the film Wizards.
I had been working for an ad agency that had me doing comics-style stuff. They got a chance to compete for doing the poster for Wizards, so they called me up. I thought, “A poster for an animated film? Awesome! That sounds great to me.” I was aware of Ralph Bakshi. I knew he’d done Fritz the Cat. I said, “Well, let’s see the movie.” And they said, “No. We’re not going to show you the movie. You won’t do as nice a poster if we show you the movie.”
Instead of showing me the film they got me a set of really crummy frame blow-ups of some of the characters. I said, “Wow. This is what I’ve got to work from?” They said, “This is what we want you to do. Do the movie poster as if it’s your own movie. Draw these characters as though they’re your characters.” I agreed, and that’s how I drew the poster for Wizards.
I was in this interesting movie circle at the time. I was doing work with Roger Corman, so I got to meet directors Joe Dante and Allan Arkush in their formative years. I knew a lot of the people doing a lot of the work for what was known later as the Brat Pack: John Milius, Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma and George Lucas. I was good friends with Charlie Lippincott and Mick Garris. They had just been hired by George Lucas to oversee the merchandising of a new film that he was about to released called Star Wars. I went over to visit those guys; they were in this little office. It was the two of them plus Mick’s wife at the time, Kelly; she was the receptionist/secretary. It was like being on the beach with three friends watching a tsunami heading your way. Three people to handle the entire merchandising for Star Wars!
They hired me to do the very first commercial merchandising, a series of twenty-two Coca-Cola cups for Burger King.
George Lucas is a very loyal guy. Any time any comic-style work would come up, George would make a call and have me hired. American Graffiti was being re-released. George wanted a new ad campaign for American Graffiti. He insisted that the ad agency, that was reluctant to hire me because they’d never worked with me before, hire me to do a whole bunch of caricatures of the cast of American Graffiti, plus a new movie poster.
ARCUDI: What year was that?
STOUT: Star Wars came out in 1977, so the re-release of American Graffiti would have probably been in ’78. That launched my movie poster career, which I was really eager to get into because at that time – it’s not that way any more – movie posters were the highest paying job in illustration. It paid huge, huge dough. Suddenly I was right in the center of that world. I remember during one week in the late ‘70s looking in the Los Angeles Times and finding eight of my movie posters in the movie calendar section.
ARCUDI: That’s pretty cool.
STOUT: It was awesome. I needed a pitchfork to count the dough.
ARCUDI: You told me this once before and I found this really interesting that when you worked on the Rock and Roll High School poster and other posters for Roger Corman, that you actually worked directly with Corman?
STOUT: Yeah. I love Roger. He’s an amazing guy. He was very up-front about everything, which was basically… “We’re not going to pay you much, but you’re going to get the chance to do what you want to do.” That’s how Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Alan Arkush, Ronnie Howard and Martin Scorsese got to make their first movies (I highly recommend the documentary on Roger Corman, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. Go buy it now!). They didn’t get paid much to direct, but they got the chance to make their movies. Plus, Roger did always pay. He didn’t pay much, but you never got stiffed. And, unlike many of the big studios, he always paid off on points if you had participation points in a film’s profits.
His movie posters were the same way. He’d hire young people to do his posters. Obviously, they had to be competent. But traditionally, when I would do movie posters, the agency would have me do a whole series of roughs. I’d get so much per rough. From the roughs they’d select a couple of ideas to do as comps – comprehensives – sort of in between a rough and a finish. So I’d do maybe more four or five comps. Then if they liked some of those comps, sometimes they’d have me do a color comp, which was like the poster in color but not quite as finished as a finish but more detailed than a rough. Eventually we’d go to a finish. I got to bill for each of those different steps.
I always made more money from my roughs and comps than from my finishes. At that time I’d rather not do the finish. I had to work slower on a finish and there was the added pressure of it having to be perfect, whereas with the roughs and comps I could just bash ‘em out. Roger Corman didn’t want to spend that kind of money on a movie poster – so I would just show him a thumbnail sketch. He was very lucid visually; he could look at a thumbnail, completely understand it and go, “Yes, Bill. That’s what I want. Go to finish.” So he cut out all of those other steps, saving himself a ton of dough.
I’ll never forget his instructions to me for the Rock ‘n’ Roll High School poster.
“Bill, you can do anything you want — as long as it looks like Animal House.”
Okay, so I didn’t make all that much money from Roger doing a poster for him, but there was a tremendous exhilaration in working with him. A lot of times, doing all of those steps for the other agencies resulted in a loss of energy and enthusiasm when it came time to do the finish – I’d already drawn the damn thing dozens of times! But with Roger, going right from a rough to a finish, all of the energy was poured into the final illustration. I’m one of those guys who hates to draw the same drawing twice, which is why I never got into animation. So, yeah. Roger was great. From rough to finish and boom. And I got paid upon delivery. With Roger it was fun and I made a little money. With the others, it was work but I made a ton of money.
ARCUDI: Since you were making so much money doing these movie posters, did you pretty much abandon comics?
STOUT: It was a really easy decision to make. Let’s see… Do I do this underground comic where, with all of the money spent on reference material, with all the research and work I put into it, I am basically making about five bucks a page; or do I do this movie poster where I’m making $200 an hour?
ARCUDI: You were a single guy then, though, right?
STOUT: Yep. I was a single guy, rent was a little over a hundred bucks a month in my rent-controlled apartment.
ARCUDI: You should have stuck with comics.
STOUT: I should have taken all of that money and invested it in real estate…
ARCUDI: Well, yeah. No kidding.
STOUT: …instead of buying art books.
ARCUDI: So you seem to have been, at that point, working exclusively at movies, not a lot of comics work, really, in between ’78 and now, really.
STOUT: First at advertising movies, then at actually making movies. Those, surprisingly, are two separate worlds. I wasn’t doing a lot of comics work, but I still managed to do something in comics each year.
ARCUDI: Is that true?
STOUT: They may be hard to find, but if you dedicate yourself to some searching, that stuff turns up. I made a checklist recently of all my comics and comics-related work. I thought it would end up being about two or three pages of listings – the list ended up running over 60 pages! (I am near to completing a book for Flesk Publications that will compile all of my comics work, excluding the undergrounds, which will be a separate volume. It looks like it will be the same size as Fantastic Worlds — a huge book). I never stopped drawing comics. There were long spaces between each endeavor. It’s one of the reasons I kept doing covers – to keep my hand in comics. I did lots of covers for the undergrounds.
ARCUDI: I was wondering if it had something to do with the disillusionment, because earlier you talked about how, when you saw your first underground comic you thought, “My God. You can do anything with underground comics.” Did you think, “This is comics’ coming of age? We’re really going to see something happen.” And then of course, that’s not what happened.
STOUT: The blossoming of comics as a mature national art form got co-opted by the guys who were doing stuff for Marvel and D.C. They looked at underground comix and said, “Oh, we can do anything.” So what did they do? The same old juvenile crap they had been doing but with tits and ass – extremely adolescent garbage; nothing adult about it at all. Insipidly puerile. People began to associate that with underground comix. They totally missed what was going on in the undergrounds, the main point of those books. Sure, a lot of undergrounds had sex, but there’s always something thoughtful going on beneath the sex, some comment about us or our society – or really great humor. They weren’t just jack-off books, which is what a lot of those New York idiots were doing.
ARCUDI: It seems to me that you really saw it as a way to put forth a political agenda.
STOUT: A way to put forth every agenda. Not just political, but a way to function and communicate graphically as a mature art medium in an adult way; to express adult concepts, ideas and dilemmas. That’s what excites me about the alternative comics scene now. We’re at a real crossroads here in the world of comics. Currently the numbers of the regular comics have dropped so low they’re basically at the same level as the late ‘60s/early ‘70s underground books. There’s virtually no difference from a numbers/business standpoint between the two (actually, underground comix pay me twice as much as what’s been offered to me by D.C…What’s wrong with that picture?). So if an artist has a choice between expressing himself personally with whatever he wants to do and working for Marvel or D.C. drawing someone else’s characters – characters that the artist will never own – why on earth wouldn’t they be doing their own stuff? There’s no point that I can see in working for Marvel or D.C., really. So many of my friends in the comics biz have not been properly rewarded for the characters they created for those two companies…characters that have made those companies a fortune. Their contracts are ridiculous; I won’t sign them.