NATURAL HISTORY MURALS ARCUDI: The next things I wanted to talk about are the Paleozoic Life murals you painted for the Houston Museum of Natural Science. How did that come about? It must have been really different for you; what was it like?
STOUT: The best! The Houston Museum of Natural Science was revamping their prehistoric hall. They contacted me because they wanted to license an enlargement of my painting “Mosasaur and Loons” for their new permanent prehistoric hall. In our conversation, I asked if they were planning to have any new murals painted for the new hall. They replied in the affirmative that they were indeed planning to have two 27 feet-long murals painted that would depict Life Before The Dinosaurs. I asked if I could bid on that murals project. They told me I could, and my bid won.
These two murals read right to left.
Prior to that I was one of two finalists for some new prehistoric marine murals for The Smithsonian. I didn’t get the gig because at the time I didn’t have enough oil painting samples of prehistoric life to show them, so the other artist got the job. It was frustrating because I saw painting murals as my next big career step.
It took me nine months to paint both murals, and that was probably the happiest nine months I’ve ever had in my life. It was great on a number of levels.
One reason was that I was painting art that was being permanently installed in a museum so that for decades people will be able to come and see my paintings in a fairly respectable place. I thought about how whenever I visit New York, I always make a beeline to the American Museum of Natural History Museum to see the Charles R. Knight prehistoric murals.
Like his murals in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have become for Charles Knight, my murals would be my public artistic legacy.
Two, it was my first experience painting really large; it turned out to be an unexpectedly physical experience. I actually got a workout painting these paintings. In order to see them properly, I would paint a bit and then run across the yard (I was painting them outside under natural light) to get the overview, and then run back. Plus, the size of the paintings was giving my arms a workout as well, just in covering that amount of square footage on canvas.
Since I was painting big for the first time, I was also learning; I found out that there are things that you don’t do painting big but that you can get away with painting small. One of those things is intensity of color. A bright color accent that looks good small is far too intense and too much to take when it’s gigantic.
I went through a whole series of steps in painting the murals. I did several concept drawings and sent them to the museum for their approval. Then I did detailed color studies, small inch-to-a-foot oil painting versions of the paintings for the museum’s approval before I went to full size.
The step-by-step process of painting my murals is examined in detail in my book William Stout – Prehistoric Life Murals, available at my website shop (bazaar).
ARCUDI: Was this based upon your usual system of problem solving, or is this because that’s the way Rudolph F. Zallinger did it for the Peabody Museum?
STOUT: When you’re painting something that’s 27 feet long and permanent, you want to make all your mistakes while it’s still tiny and easy to change. It’s important to invest a lot of time in the preparatory stage so that by the time you get to the full-size paintings, everybody’s on the same page and all your problems have pretty much been solved.
At the same time, I’m rarely content to just do a job as given to me. I like to expand its depth to reach different levels.
One of the things I love about the Cambrian Period is the creatures discovered in British Columbia‘s Burgess Shale formation. The museum asked for four Burgess Shale creatures to be depicted. Because I love this particular subject so much, I painted twenty-four different Burgess Shale species.
The basic outline of the Houston job was to depict prehistoric plants and animals from point A to point B in timeline fashion. I thought, “Wouldn’t it add to the psychological interest” – because these two paintings are each 27-feet long, a total of 54 feet, or more than five stories of painting – “if I painted this travel in time so that it also becomes a travel through the time of day, serving as a kind of visual metaphor?”
I did just that.
When you enter the hall and observe the beginning of the painting it’s nighttime. As you progress in time the sun comes out and by the time you’re at the middle of the mural it’s noon; when you get to the end of the mural it’s sunset. So there’s a subconscious psychological transition from morning to evening going on while the prehistoric time periods progress as well.
The murals I painted for the Houston Museum of Natural Science led to my painting three Cretaceous murals for Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom, twelve murals for the San Diego Natural History Museum and two for the San Diego Zoo.The creation of the Houston, Disney and San Diego Natural History Museum murals are detailed in the book William Stout – Prehistoric Life Murals. The San Diego Zoo murals are featured inFantastic Worlds – The Art of William Stout.
ARCUDI: I think a lot of people look at landscapes and look at wildlife paintings and they don’t have any trouble with applying the phrase “FineArt” to what they’re looking at. You paint as close to realism as a person can get. But I think people are really resistant to looking at a painting of a Trachodon eating marsh grass and calling that fine art.
STOUT: Incredibly resistant. In fact, they don’t.
ARCUDI: Do you?
STOUT: I tell you I’m always laughing at myself, especially when I consider what I do as fine art. Within the huge realm of representational fine art there is this tiny slice of that pie called wildlife art – a speck on the butt of representational art. Actually, domestic animals or hunting scenes with animals — anything in which people are exerting or attempting to exert dominance over animals — are considered a proper theme for Fine Art. As soon as you paint wildlife, you’re an illustrator. If you paint a cow, you’re a Fine Artist. But if you paint a buffalo, you’re an illustrator.
Anyway, within that narrow slice of representational art called wildlife art, there is dinosaur artor “paleoart”, which is a microscopic slice out of the wildlife art pie. It’s a footnote to an asterisk. But if you think that sounds obscure, I do Antarctic dinosaurs, which is – well, you just can’t get more obscure or find a smaller market for your work. If I were to set out wearing my commercial hat, saying, “You wanna paint wildlife. Okay, if you want to make money at this business, the one thing you don’t do is ‘dinosaurs.’ And if you’re going to do dinosaurs, for God’s sake don’t do Antarctic dinosaurs. At least do North American dinosaurs, where maybe there might be a small market among the U. S. museums.” But I don’t always think logically that way. I follow my heart and my heart led me to painting prehistoric and contemporary life in Antarctica. I don’t consider that work illustration. Believe me, I know the difference. I have to say that I take an absolute Fine Art approach to whatever I do, illustration or fine art. But I draw a distinct line between illustration and fine art.
ARCUDI: So what’s the difference?
STOUT: In a nutshell, in illustration you do the best art you can possibly do within the time allotted. There’s always a deadline with illustration. With fine art, you do the best art that you can possibly do. Period. If that requires going back to the picture in a year and painting some more on it, then you do that. There is no deadline. You finish the picture and make it the best possible picture you can, if it takes a week, if it takes two years. In addition, there is usually a difference in depth. Fine art is deeper than illustration. It has to resonate for a long, long time. It stands on its own, regardless of whether you’ve read the text that goes with it or not.
ARCUDI: If you go back far enough, to someone like Van Eyck, The Annunciation, for instance, he really is illustrating something, and he probably had a deadline, but would anyone argue that that’s not fine art?
STOUT: An even more popular example is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling murals.
It’s a mural and a series of pictures that tell the story of God’s creation of man and other aspects of the Bible. Obviously, on one level it’s illustration – it’s pictures telling a narrative story. But there’s so much nuance, depth and heart and soul poured into that work that it transcends the mere fulfilling of a commercial job for his client, the Pope.
ARCUDI: I don’t want to beat this to death, but are you saying that it’s the talent of a Michelangelo, a Van Eyck, a Bernini, a Leonardo that makes their commercial work transcend commercial work and become Fine Art? Or has there just been a change in the perception because of the distance of time of what Fine Art is today? Do you really believe it’s the talent that makes it transcend the commercial nature of the job?
STOUT: I think it’s a mixture of both. I think the enormous vision those men had that took them beyond the mere fulfilling of an assignment had a lot to do with it. But also we have the benefit of history and hindsight. There were thousands of artists back then, and the artists we revere are the ones whose work had the staying power and has stood the test of time. I’m sure there were thousands of guys doing the same subject matter for whom, to them, art was just a way to make a living, just a job. Their stuff was competent, especially by today’s standards, but is now forgotten.
History has a tendency to color things in different ways. I think there was no doubt in N. C. Wyeth’s mind that he was an illustrator, up until the point where he wanted to change over into what he considered Fine Art. Yet there’s something… Wyeth put so much of himself into his best illustrations, that to me, a lot of his illustrations, even though, yeah, he’s illustrating a certain chapter from Last of the Mohicans or Treasure Island, somehow the quality of the paint application, the design, the color, the subtlety of the way he expressed himself – to me, that takes that particular painting into the realm of Fine Art.
Tom Wolfe made an interesting observation in his book The Painted Word. He presented the theory that the nature of Fine Art and Illustration have switched. It used to be that in order to fully understand an illustration, you had to read the text it was illustrating. Fine Art stood on its own. Now, however, you need to read a contemporary Fine Artist’s manifesto to understand their art, while most of Illustration stands on its own with no need of explanation.
There’s another difference, though, between illustrators and fine artists. With Fine Artists, you judge them by their entire body of work. Illustrators, you judge by the best 25% of what they’ve done, discounting the rest for the time limits of deadline pressures, the limited scope of some of the work that was demanded by the job, the interference of art directors, and other things that may have affected the quality of the work. You have to cut illustrators a lot more slack than you do Fine Artists who should be allowed no slack at all. Not everything that N. C. did was great. I’ve seen a lot of stuff that was pretty bad. But I don’t know what was happening to him at the time. Maybe the magazine needed a painting in a day. That’s certainly happened to me.
ARCUDI: And so, to make the obvious connection, Andrew Wyeth is certainly considered to be a Fine Artist by most people who know his work.
Those people who know his and his father’s work still consider Andrew Wyeth the “Finer” artist of the two painters in the sense that Andrew was painting “art-for-art’s-sake,” whereas N. C. Wyeth, even at his best, was just an illustrator. You agree, or disagree with that?
STOUT: I bristle at the phrase “just an illustrator.” I think at least as much if not more high quality contemporary “fine art” has been produced by illustrators as has been produced by fine artists. On the whole, though, I agree with what you said. Again, to compare Andrew and N. C., you have to compare the entire body of Andrew’s work, because he is considered a Fine Artist, with the best 25 percent of N. C. Wyeth, and that’s kind of unfair right there. N. C., because he was trained as an illustrator, had a different set of values and goals with his work, I don’t mean moral values, but techniques, devices, and methods to convey his passions.
For the most part, N. C.’s pictures couldn’t be anywhere near as subtle as Andrew’s – they wouldn’t have satisfied the job. Most of N. C.’s work demanded an immediate impact with the public to sell a book or a product. So N. C. loses out there.
A lot of times N. C. would try to advise Andrew to change something so that it would have a greater emotional impact. He didn’t really get what Andrew was going for, that Andrew was not going for the greatest emotional impact, which is almost invariably what you do go for when you’re doing illustration. You’re trying to connect with your public in an immediate, forceful way. Andrew was going for something subtler, something softer, more contemplative, maybe more spiritual. His father didn’t — or couldn’t — get that. So, yeah, Andrew really is a Fine Artist, and N. C…. I think some of his work is as good as any Fine Art that has been done, but essentially, he was an illustrator. But he was way more adventurous with color than Andrew has ever been. Which shows you how unimportant color can be in art.
ARCUDI: Which of those two artists has had a greater impact on your work in Fine Art?
STOUT: Oh, without a doubt, N. C.; not that Andrew hasn’t had an impact.
I’ve taken a lot of stuff from him and from his son Jamie, who I consider a combo of his two predecessors, but if you’re going to learn color, you don’t go to Andrew Wyeth to learn it. You go to N. C. to learn color.
N.C. also is interesting to me, because he broke a lot of design rules. The big one that he broke is the one you hear over and over again: Never put the focus of your painting in the dead-center of the canvas, and he did that constantly – and pulled it off.
It doesn’t bother you. It looks just fine. Plus, N. C. had a great impact on Frank Frazetta, and Frazetta was one of my main influences early in my career.
STOUT: Too personal? Not likely…This is already like a Playboy interview – but without references to my sex life.
ARCUDI: Okay. Talking about people who, through their style and their technique, usually remove the viewer from their technique, do you think that says anything about their personality or their view of art or their view of humanity, or what?
STOUT: I think it says a lot. And one of the things I love about comics is there is such a diversity in art styles right now and storytelling styles. I have different rules or demands upon different artists depending upon how they are trying to convey what they do. If for instance, an artist works in a realistic sort of turn of the century storybook style, a lá the Pre-Raphaelites, Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac or an early illustrator-influenced style like Williamson, Frazetta or Krenkel – I’m thinking of guys like Kaluta, Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Charles Vess, etc. – I apply a different set of standards to those guys than I do to someone who works in a more expressionist style, like say Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes or Brian Ralph, the guy who did Cave In. Different rules apply because it’s obvious that these first guys are trying to compete with the great illustrators of the past, so I’m going to be a lot more unforgiving when it comes to bad drawing. If you’re going to jump into that rarified arena, you damn well better have the chops.
ARCUDI: To make this more personal, what does it say about you, then? Looking at the way you draw, what does that say about you as a) a person; b) an artist; c) a misanthrope. Do you think that the techniques you’ve developed say anything about you as an artist?
STOUT: I think it speaks volumes. For one, it says a lot about how I approach problem solving, which is letting the problem dictate the solution and style, what I call the “Chouinard method,” as we discussed before. That has resulted in a remarkable diversity in my work. It has exposed me to more things in the art world than has your average comic artist. I get the feeling that people who like my work want me to experiment as much as I have. They seem to appreciate that I’m on this diverse artistic journey, and at least from what I can tell they seem to be delighted to come along with me. I think the joy for me and for my fans is the constant surprise of what I do. They – and I – never know what’s going to come out of me. It’s a double-edged sword, though. Because of that, for a lot of people it’s really difficult to identify my work — or even know who I am.
I just read an interview with a currently popular, very talented comic artist whom I had voted for one year for Comic-Con‘s Russ Manning Newcomer Award. I had to laugh at one bit:
Q: Do you know the work of William Stout?
Q: He was big in the ’70s.
I guess I peaked early!
Experimenting and diversity are also what I call “The Slow Path to Fame”. If you want to become famous, draw the same thing over and over. If you keep changing things up, like I do, it will confuse your audience — and often make them uncomfortable. Most people like familiarity and predictability, hence their love of sequels.
I think that path would bore me to death. That’s not who I am. I truly enjoy diversity. I like surprising myself and relish attempting things that I’ve never done.
Segueing from Stout’s involvement with Underground Comix to his creation of a modern underground classic,MICKEY AT 60, seems(Mr.) natural at this point in the interview.
ARCUDI: On the flip side of that is Mickey at 60 – isn’t that really a reaction to what was going on at the time?
STOUT: Absolutely. It was a reaction to my own work in a sense. Mickey at 60 came about when I was working as a full-time consultant for Walt Disney Imagineering, designing additions to Disneyland Anaheim, Tokyo Disneyland, Euro-Disneyland, and Walt Disney World in Florida. This happened to be during Mickey Mouse’s 60th Anniversary. We were being inundated with this Mickey’s 60th stuff.
I stopped and thought one day, “What would Mickey really look like if he were 60? He hasn’t done a picture in years; he’s probably let himself go. Minnie’s divorced him and is living off of her alimony in Miami.” I did this drawing of this fat, grotesque rat-like creature. He’s unshaven and sulking in his own sort of miserable past glory. I showed it around and it got a big laugh, a big reaction at work.
I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a strip of this guy.” So I did a three or four panel strip and I left the word balloons blank. The strip consisted of just Mickey’s facial expressions changing. I passed the strip with the blank balloons to my friend Jim Steinmeyer, one of my best friends at Disney, a brilliant guy. He’s probably the world’s greatest authority on 18th and 19th century stage magic. He creates and designs magic tricks for a living, like the major illusions for David Copperfield, all of Doug Henning’s stuff, Siegfried and Roy, Lance Burton – Jim’s the best; an extraordinary guy. He’s also a very funny writer and a great caricaturist as well.
Jim filled in the word balloons with some of the funniest dialogue I’d ever read. It just had me on the floor. I thought, “This is great.” I drew some more strips and passed them to him, just to see what he would write and he wrote some more stuff in them.
It was just as funny if not funnier than the stuff he’d originally written. People saw them and they wanted copies of them, so we Xeroxed copies and passed them around. We kept doing this because it was so much fun.
It was the antithesis of everything that I was known for as an artist. People usually expect really slick, completely planned-out stuff with a really fine finish from me. I was always fascinated, though, by Robert Crumb’s comics and sketchbook stuff. A lot of the stuff that he did wasn’t penciled. He was inking it directly from his head. He did a lot of it actual size. It was just amazing to me. And it looked great, besides. So, I made a promise to myself that I would draw these strips actual printed size but I wouldn’t pencil them. I would just go right to ink. I wouldn’t even use rulers for the panel borders. That way it didn’t seem like work. It was really liberating to be that free with my line.
Because I wasn’t actually writing them except for doing dramatic visual set-ups for each strip, the actual dialogue was being written by Jim Steinmeyer, this kept it really exciting and fresh for both of us. He never knew what I was going to draw, and I didn’t know what he was going to write; it was entertaining and amusing and always a surprise to each of us.
After a while, I thought, “You know what? I think we might have enough of these strips for a book. Wouldn’t it be fun to… (harkening back to my underground stuff) … publish a Mickey at 60 book and see the public’s reaction.”
Again, I deliberately did really cheesy printing; it was Xerox printing on white paper with cardstock covers and a two staple binding. I called it an “anti-comic” because it was sort of the “anti-” of everything else I’d done in comics. There was a purposeful crudeness to it.
We did a limited signed edition. I thought of it more as an art object like the artist books that Ed Ruscha(pronounced Roo-SHAY) did back in the `60s. For comics people who aren’t familiar with Ed Ruscha, which is probably all of you out there, he was an important Los Angeles pop artist who did – and still does – extraordinary stuff. He worked in a realistic art manner with a great sense of humor. Probably his most famous piece is one that’s not actually funny. It’s a picture of the Hollywood sign at sunset.
He would do stuff like render blobs of water pooling up on a slick surface and he would make the water spell out the letters “drops.”
Or he’d render all of these realistic-looking ants; they’d all be bunched together in clusters that spelled out “ants.” Stuff like that. Ruscha’s work got appropriated by a lot of people, especially in advertising.
Ed Ruscha used to do these cool little books of his photographs. Judy Goode, my girlfriend at the time (1970), turned me on to Ed’s art books. Ed was the Best Man at her first marriage to celebrated pop artist Joe Goode. Ed did one book where he photographed the entire length of the Sunset Strip and then made a book titled Every Building on the Sunset Strip.
The book was printed on one continuous sheet so that you could unfold the pages of the book and see the entire Sunset Strip. Another book was of places that were called Ed’s. Another was just photographs of Los Angeles palm trees. You could purchase these inexpensive books (I wish I had) in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art gift shop.
So I saw Mickey at 60 as being an art object like Ed’s books were. It was unbelievably successful. We printed 300 copies; it sold out in about two hours at Comic-Con in San Diego. Michael Eisner personally requested a copy. I sent him one via our WDI interoffice mail system. We charged 15 bucks apiece for them and donated all of the money to the Crippled Children’s Society. Since Jim and I were doing work at Disney, we didn’t feel that it was right to make money from anything even slightly related to Disney — although we hung on to all of the Mickey at 60 rights. A good thing to do, as later Disney licensed the character from us for use in their Comedy Warehouse at Pleasure Island in Walt Disney World.
They also licensed a page we did for inclusion inThe Art of Mickey Mouse book. There we were, in a fine art book with Andy Warhol.
ARCUDI: Every strip, you do the art first and there was no discussion at any point about the direction any of these strips were going to go?
STOUT: There was discussion about the direction, but it was in the vaguest of terms. I would never dictate dialogue to Jim. For instance, I would say, “This is Mickey at a book signing, and no one’s showing up for the signing. Or maybe one person shows up. On this page, he’s in the progressive stages of having a heart attack.” [Laughter] Not only is he having a heart attack – and this is something I didn’t know of course, because I didn’t write the dialogue – he’s in the recovery room after the heart attack, and you discover through Jim’s dialogue that Mickey’s been given a heart transplant; he’s been given the heart of the baboon from The Lion King. Which of course sends him directly into another heart attack. We wouldn’t tell each other what we were going to do. That was part of the fun of it.
ARCUDI: You were really dictating more the way the story was going than Jim, I guess by virtue of the art?
STOUT: Not necessarily. There’d be a page and I’d say, “This is Mickey in Las Vegas.” I wouldn’t tell him any more than what he could conclude from the pictures – that Mickey’s watching a stage show or he’s working the slot machines. Because of Jim’s Vegas experience, Jim suggested that Mickey play Keno in one strip.
ARCUDI: I know you weren’t with Disney anymore, but when you did the second issue, did you do the strips in the same fashion?
STOUT: Yeah, the exact same way. It was a little more frustrating for me because I was really tempted to write. I really wanted to write some stuff of my own, but I thought, “No. I really want to keep that Jim’s domain.”
ARCUDI: Was that liberating in the sense of, “Hey, I don’t have to do what everybody expects Bill Stout to do when I do this?”
STOUT: That was exactly the most liberating factor of it, discovering that I can do something kind of rough and crude and it’s still effective as art; it doesn’t have to be the ultimate in slickness. There was such a freedom to that.
It was also interesting to me what happened with the strip and where it went. Even though the very first drawing was, “O.K. What would Mickey Mouse look like if he were 60,” almost immediately the strip had nothing to do with Mickey Mouse. It was really a satire of old Hollywood actors that both Jim and I had known; the life of these guys who were still mentally living in their days of former glory but who were now holed up in these squalid little bungalows, all bitter about the biz. There’s a lot of Mickey Rooney in our Mickey. It became a satire on show business, especially as Mick tries to get work and has to deal with the studios. At one point Disney takes away his ears. They won’t let him wear the ears in public any more. [Interviewer laughs.] That came out of a real life situation, when the studio who owned the Lone Ranger wouldn’t let Clayton Moore (the actor who played the Lone Ranger on the TV series) wear the Lone Ranger mask in public.
ARCUDI: Have you done anything since?
STOUT:We did that second issue of Mickey at 60 you mentioned in 1996. It was an election year, so we had Mickey running for President — just as Mickey Rooney had done. Looking back at this issue recently, I was astounded. For the readers of this new version of the interview, I’ll show you a few of the strips that gobsmacked me with their prescience. You’ve got to remember that this was written in 1996:
Remind you of anyone?
I am a big fan of Edward Hopper‘s art. I adapted five of his drawings and one painting to portray the bleakness of Mickey’s life.Unlike the strips, these were pretty tightly executed, as I really wanted to keep the Hopper flavor and mood.
ARCUDI: Have you allowed yourself that same freedom since then?
STOUT: Well, yeah, somewhat with my sketchbooks, although they seem to be getting tighter and tighter. One of the things I do now with some of the sketchbooks I’ve published is show my thumbnail drawings. I also show sketches that aren’t necessarily finished sketches but that I think have a kernel of either a good design or a good idea; they’re not necessarily all slick and finished.
That’s the sort of stuff I like to see from artists. I learn so much more from looking at sketches and drawings when I go to museums than from looking at the finished paintings. Because the finished painting – it’s difficult to see how the artist thinks because all of his thinking is buried under the layers of paint and and a slick finish. The artist is actually trying to remove you from that in his finished work and to present the finished work as an entity on its own, whereas I’m more interested in the process of how the artist got to that finished piece.
My Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dinosaurs and Monsters sketchbooks show that process. It shows stuff like, “I started out drawing aT. rex this way, but I didn’t like that, so I redrew it that way. But I had a better idea the third time and that’s the one I went with.”
WARNING! If bad language and descriptions of arcane sexual practices upset you, then please skip this section of the interview. We get into some pretty raw stuff here.
ARCUDI: Before you started doing movie poster work, if I’m not mistaken, you got back into doing some underground comix, right – like Bicentennial Gross-Outs?
STOUT: Since the Those Lovable Peace Nuts, there wasn’t anything that I knew of that was called underground comix at the time. That was kind of a one-off thing. I just forgot about it after that. Then I met Jim Evans, who was art directing a rock festival I wanted to work on (and ended up working on). I didn’t get hired to do any of the work for the rock festival but Jim and I stayed in touch.
Jim was the guy who introduced me to underground comics. I had never heard of them. Jim knew I was a big Rick Griffin fan. I loved Rick’s stuff. He was an enormous influence on almost everyone in Southern California drawing cartoons in the ‘60s because of the Murphy the Surfer strips he was doing for Surfer magazine. Everybody had Murphy the Surfer on their notebooks. Everybody.
ARCUDI: What year was this?
STOUT:Murphy the Surfer stuff? That was the early ‘60s.
ARCUDI: When you met Jim Evans?
STOUT: That would have been early ‘70s. I think I’d mentioned Rick’s work to Jim because Jim was a surfer. I said, “Rick Griffin. I wonder what ever happened to that guy. I’d love to see his stuff.” And Jim said, “Oh, man – you haven’t seen his recent work?” Actually, I was aware that Rick was doing some rock posters, and I thought that stuff was great. But Jim said, “He’s doing comics, too. He didn’t stop doing Murphy the Surfer. His comics have really taken a different direction from the Surfer magazine days.” I said, “Oh, really. I’d love to see what he’s doing.”
I should also mention that Jim also gave me some very valuable lettering tips that helped to make me a much better letterer.
So, Jim brought over some of the early Zap! Comix with Rick’s work. That was the first time I ever saw Robert Crumb’s stuff. I remember reading the Crumb story “Joe Blow.”
I read that story and I was forever changed. It was astounding; it was this moment of revelation – a real Eureka. It was, “Oh, my god! Comics are capable of anything!”
That was an amazing revelation. They didn’t have to be superheroes. They didn’t have to be for kids. They could be anything that we wanted to make them. I got so excited by that; I just went nuts.
Of course, I had to pick up as many of these “comix” as I could find. At the time, you couldn’t just buy underground comics at a store. There was no way you could do that. I think a few of the porno shops sold them. The way I got them back then was this:
My band and I found out there was a guy who had underground comix at his little news rack — but none of the undergrounds were displayed on the rack. You had to walk up to the guy when there wasn’t anybody around and mention that you wanted to buy some underground comix. If you mentioned it when someone was there he’d yell at you and berate you. “Shut up!” If you were alone, he would look around furtively to make sure that no one was approaching, open up a little cabinet, and pull out the comix. You couldn’t even look at them. You just had to buy them sight unseen. I’d pass the money to him and he’d say, “Now get ‘em out of here. Get ‘em out of here. Don’t let anybody see where you got ‘em.”
So they really were underground. It was like he was selling dope or something. At the time, what was available was almost all Crumb’s stuff, the early Zap Comix and some of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comix. Really primo stuff.
I knew I had to do that kind of work. So Jim Evans said, “I’m publishing an underground comic called TheDying Dolphin.”
It was an environmentally aware political comic about dolphins and saving the oceans. I jumped at the chance to contribute pages to Jim’s book. It seemed like a good opportunity to get into the underground scene. Coincidentally, just a couple of days after Jim had introduced me to my first underground comics, he came over and said, “Hey. Let’s go over to Cherokee Books and see what’s up.” Cherokee Books was a local bookstore in Hollywood. Upstairs was a legendary old comics department run by an odd fellow by the name of Burt Blum. We used to pore through the boxes of comics up there and try to find EC’s or other good comics to buy. I picked up a lot of Frazetta funny animal comics from Burt.
As we’re walking up to the door of Cherokee Books, walking out of the shop is Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez… the entire Zap gang!
Jim knew these guys, so he introduced me. That was the very first time I met all of those guys. I happened to have with me my Dying Dolphin comic pages. They asked to see them. They looked at them and I got a whole variety of reactions. The nicest person, and the guy who is still one of the nicest people in the world of comics, was Spain Rodriguez. He went, “Cool. Just like Wally Wood. Wow, this is great.” Later, I became good friends with Robert Williams, who lived locally (and with Spain, who didn’t). The rest of the guys were pretty much San Francisco/Bay area boys.
I did my two pages for Jim Evans, and he couldn’t use them. Because they were… In my mind, “underground” meant that you could do anything you want. My story included sex, naked women, dope and all kinds of stuff. That was not the direction of Jim’s book, though, so he had the unpleasant task of telling me I couldn’t be in it. I was disappointed but philosophical about it all and set the story aside. Either Robert Williams or George DiCaprio remembered my story; one of those guys got it into a magazine called Flash.
ARCUDI: This is Leonardo DiCaprio’s father?
STOUT: Yes. Leonardo DiCaprio’s father used to distribute all of the underground comix in Los Angeles. He and I were really good friends.
I started to draw more underground stuff on my own. I took that two-pager that Jim rejected and used that to begin my own comic. I drew an entire comic book called Juicy Comix. I even did hand color separations for the covers and everything. I flew up to San Francisco. Like an idiot, I didn’t call anybody first and make appointments. I thought, “Well, this is the underground! I’ll just show up! They’ll love to see this stuff and they’ll all want to publish it!”
First of all, no one wanted to see me. They didn’t know who I was. They were busy. I tracked the guy, Big Bob I think he was called, who owned Print Mint down at a party and showed him the pages. He just flipped. “How dare you bring business into my personal life?” He practically kicked my ass out on the sidewalk. He was furious.
But Last Gasp’s Ron Turner was incredibly kind about the whole thing. I think, like a lot of people in my life, like Harvey Kurtzman and Russ Manning, Ron saw past my socially inept enthusiasm to the person inside with a passion, who really loved what he was doing. Ron said, “I don’t have the budget or the space or the time to produce this right now. But I think it’s really great work.” We kept in touch. He kept me in mind for future projects and called me up when the next issue of Slow Death was being planned. I ended up doing a couple of covers and a two-page story for Slow Death.
Ron especially knew about my passion for environmental politics, so the cover of Slow Death #8, a special Greenpeace issue, was earmarked for me. I contributed a two-page story as well.
I later learned that my two-pager “Animals Your Children Will Never See!” is what ignited Leonardo DeCaprio’s passion for saving and protecting the environment. I was gobsmacked when I learned that. Leo has donated literally millions of dollars to environmental causes. I am so proud to have played a small part in that.
Then around 1976, the bicentennial year for the United States, Ron and George DiCaprio both approached me and said, “Remember that story you did on Disneyland?” I did a satire, an 11 or 13-page satire on Disneyland called “Reality Land” partly based upon my experiences working there. They said, “That would make a perfect story to go into a bicentennial book.”
ARCUDI: This is the one you did for your own comic that ended up not getting published?
STOUT: Right. I had planned it as the centerpiece for Juicy Comix. George DiCaprio, I think, had come up with the name Bicentennial Gross-Outs. George and I agreed to co-edit the book. I edited half of the book and he edited half of the book. Half of the book was my art plus I got Dennis Ellefson and Bill Wray each to do a piece. George got different people to do stories for his half of the book (at their request, I donateda copy of Bicentennial Gross-Outs to the Bicentennial Collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County).
The book included a documentary story I had done about the Filipino massacre, something that’s been censored from all of our history books. It’s the story of when the United States went into the Philippines and committed mass genocide, slaughtering approximately two million men, women and children.
ARCUDI: The aboriginal Moro?
STOUT: Yes – we referred to that conflict as the Moro Wars.
I was a big fan of Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales books. I thought, “Here’s my chance to do my own true war story.” This was something that had nested in the back of my skull after reading a Gore Vidal state-of-the-union essay for Esquire in which he tangentially mentioned the Filipino massacre. It caught my attention; I thought, “My god — I’ve never heard of anything like that. Ever.” I couldn’t find anything about it in the history books. And so it just sort of stayed in my mind for a while. I believe a month or two later I mentioned it to James Demeter, my lead guitar player who said, “You should talk to my landlord. His father was there – and he took photographs.” I went, “Oh, my god.” He said, “You have to be careful with the guy; he’s a really hard-core conservative. He’s worried that the commies are going to get their hands on this material.”
So, I posed as a UCLA student writing a paper on the Philippines. I called him up and got permission to interview him. He wouldn’t let me borrow the photos, obviously, but I got to take photos of the photos. I had a really good Nikon 35mm camera, so I got really great photos of this stuff. His father had taken and kept the photos and his orders, just in case there ever were Nuremberg-like trials in regards to the Filipino genocide.
His photos were astounding. One photograph showed dozens of people in a pit they’d dug up just before they were executed. I have a “later” picture that shows the same tribes peoples’ heads lined up on a log after their executions. The U. S. soldiers used the heads for barter. It was astounding that he had all of these photographs. With these photographs, I didn’t just luck into a “smoking gun” – I was holding a smoking Howitzer! I turned it into a documentary story for Bicentennial Gross-Outs called “Filipino Massacre.”
ARCUDI: You were the very first non-Zap! artist to do a comic book with the Zap! guys.
STOUT: I’m really proud of that work. I think it’s some of the best comics work I ever did. In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the Zap! comic artists – Robert Crumb, Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson…all of those guys were brought up on pornography charges. They had drawn these small digest-sized comix (with titles like Jizz and Cum) that were considered pornographic. Janis Joplin testified on Crumb’s behalf.
They were acquitted because the judge and jury declared that these books had socially redeeming value in that they made you laugh. The Zap! guys were delighted not to go to prison, but they were kind of pissed off because they felt it removed some of their outlaw sheen. Their work had actually been officially justified and sanctioned by the Establishment; they chafed at that legitimacy. So S. Clay Wilson said, “Let’s do a book that no one could possibly condone or defend. Let’s do an entire book on felching.”
ARCUDI: I can’t believe you’re going to talk about this. Go ahead.
STOUT: The Zap! guys said, “Felching? What does that mean?” S. Clay explained. It’s an arcane sexual practice that…I don’t think we can really describe it here without getting Fantagraphics into enormous trouble.
Here it is, folks: To “felch” is to fuck someone in the ass and then suck out the cum. In the comic, that semen is referred to by one contributor as “the Devil’s nectar”.
Let’s just say that as soon as you hear what it is, your typical reaction is either complete revulsion or you laugh your head off that anyone would do or come up with such a thing – although, since the publication of that book, I’ve had offers…
All of the Zap! guys each agreed to contribute a story; Robert Williams contacted me to do a story as well. I wrote my story in a sort of Dr. Seuss style. I met my deadline right away, but some of the guys dragged their feet. By the time the book got published, the American public was so blasé about that stuff that it caused nary a ripple.
ARCUDI: I’m surprised to hear you refer to it as the best work you’ve ever done, because it’s…
STOUT: No. I think it’s one of the…
ARCUDI: OK. It’s one of the best things you’ve ever done. And certainly, in terms of the writing, considering the subject matter, it’s hilarious. But it’s fucking out there.
STOUT: It is indeed out there. But I felt so honored to be in the company of those guys. Robert Williams was nice enough to say that my story was his favorite in the whole book, which was really sweet.
ARCUDI: The word “sweet” used to describe someone’s reaction to a story about felching is a bit too much for me to wrap my head around.
STOUT: I was at a bar at Palmer Station in Antarctica, the only bar that station has, and one of the guys was having a conversation with the woman running the bar. Suddenly he made reference to felching. Boy did I perk up. My eyes riveted to his; he saw my reaction and he knew: “Ah-HAH! A kindred spirit!” That someone would even know that in Antarctica… Man, I think that says a lot about Antarctica and who goes there.
I am currently compiling a huge book on my comics work. My felch story will be published in a separate book compilation that will solely deal with my underground comix work.
CREATORS’ RIGHTS Stout believes that “there is more of an attack on creator’s rights now than I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
This is the section of the interview on Creator Rights. It did not appear in the magazine; it was posted onThe Comics Journal website.
ARCUDI: Most people make the decision to draw somebody else’s characters.
STOUT: I know; it cracks me up. When you do your own stuff you end up with a licensing property. Plus, you don’t have anyone telling you what to do, at least at a certain point. You may, later, if things become so enormously successful that your control and power is being wrested from you. But that’s like winning the lottery.
I’m seeing in alternative comics the beginnings of what I consider to be a renaissance within the media. I see comics growing up. I see the alternative books as the fruit that was born from the seeds of the underground comix movement. I see such an array of personal expression within the field. In attending APE, the Alternative Press Expo, I was really struck by the quality of fans as well, the quality of the readership, the quality of the people who attended that show. They were really passionate about the stuff that they were reading. They were literate and concerned about the text. They were concerned about the art but not in a way that was remotely similar to the suoperhero fans. It was on a higher intellectual level, a much more personal level.
The project that I’m working on right now sort of combines an alternative point of view with the superhero genre. I’ve always loved superhero comics, and I’d like to do a superhero that crosses over and combines the personal qualities of, say, Daniel Clowes’s work or the Hernandez Brothers’ work with the superhero genre.
ARCUDI: I’d like to go in another direction here for a minute. It gets back to adaptation. This is actually the reverse, movies and comics. Lots of media seem to have a problem with originating source material. The best example of that might be Classics Illustrated, where comics are obviously inferior to prose and, therefore, they seek their source material elsewhere. They can’t have original comics stories of any merit in spite of what…
STOUT: Are you saying this as a Devil’s Advocate, because I don’t believe that comics are inherently…
ARCUDI: No, I’m saying this because I think most people who produce comics believe that, which is why they suck. A lot of people in comics seem to believe that “The only way that we can get any kind of validation for our source material is if someone makes a fucking movie out of my comic.” I’m not saying that that’s what happened with Dan Clowes, because I know that’s not what happened. But a lot of people produce comics these days with the intent of selling it as a franchise, turning it into a movie, turning it into a TV show. That’s where they seek their validation. A more pragmatic or venal person might say that they’re just looking for the dough, and that’s probably true, too. But as artists, I think a lot of comic book artists seek validation through, “Somebody made a movie out of my comic.”
STOUT: That’s so amusing to me. If anything, validation is sort of the opposite of what you get. Usually, they just…
ARCUDI: I’m not making this up, brother. Just talk to some of these people.
STOUT: I know, I know. You’re absolutely right. There are few but obvious exceptions, but the reality is that whatever was special about the original material usually gets corrupted and oftentimes destroyed by the movie-making process — forever.
ARCUDI: Right. And that’s almost unavoidable except with the most careful of adapters. It takes real love and care for the material. I’m basically going to put you on the spot here and ask, are you planning to make a movie of your comic book?
STOUT: Nope; not at all. My goal is to have it work as completely as a comic as I can using that media., the limitations of that media, the strengths of that media. If it becomes something else I’ll deal with that when and if it happens — but I’m not banking on it. No. I want it to be at a level of art that is responsible only unto itself. I believe in the medium of comics themselves as a potential high art form.
ARCUDI: Frequently, and this is why I believe it’s a matter of validation rather than just cashing in, creators — I should probably get off my soapbox…
STOUT: No, go ahead.
ARCUDI: Creators, when they bring their own personal projects to publishers will relinquish a lot in terms of creative or creator rights, so that the person to whom they takes it, whatever company that is — I’m not naming names — will have the freedom to shop that around and get it turned into a movie, get it turned into a TV show, get it turned into a series of children’s books, or whatever. This gets back to what you were saying earlier about you might as well do something that’s more personal, something that you own, and some of them do that, except they turn around and say, “Okay, I’ll sign away all film rights or this and that to you, blah, blah, blah,” I’m guessing you think that’s a huge mistake?
STOUT: A HUGE mistake. It’s like when young and dumb musicians sign away their publishing. But each of those huge mistakes or potential huge mistakes needs to be weighed on an individual level or basis. I can’t say for everybody that whatever deal comes along you have to do this or stick to your guns here. I look at each deal on a case by case basis. Who is offering you the deal? If it’s a film deal, who wants to be involved? What’s their track record? Do they have integrity or are they hacks?
ARCUDI: Right. But what I’m saying is that they’ll take it to Comic Book Company X and Comic Book Company X says, “We love your project. It’s very amusing. You have a fanciful light tone to your work, we want to own it.”
STOUT: Just say no.
ARCUDI: That’s what I’m saying. It’s usually not the film company — well, of course it is the film company later — but it’s the comics company (and this isn’t always the case) that will wrest away the creative control over what happens to your work — such as how to turn it into a film or whatever — if they publish it for you. Some companies don’t do that, but you have to look for them.
STOUT: That comes down to a basic flaw that so many artists have — most are not good business people. It’s a tragedy and a shame, but from Superman on, creators have been getting screwed in the comics business. It is the artists’ own obligation to educate themselves as it pertains to business.
Business negotiations can be every bit as creative as writing or drawing comics. It’s not always about money. There are all kinds of things you can negotiate. And everything is negotiable. You can negotiate kings, countries and everything else on down from pennies to parking spaces. Artists need to be aware that if they do give stuff up, what they are giving up. And then, once they have that knowledge, if they still want to be fools and give that stuff up at least it’s an educated decision. They only have themselves to blame, they can’t blame ignorance anymore. I’ve been fighting for artists’ rights ever since I’ve been in this business.
ARCUDI: They resist.
STOUT: That’s for sure. I certainly don’t get support from the comic arts community for what I’ve done. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stabbed in the back — not by publishers, but by fellow comic artists (and artists in the other fields I work in) who I’ve helped — all of whom pretended to be my “friend” or a fan of mine. But, hey — that’s blood under the bridge.
I’ve been constantly trying to set precedents, and apparently, I have to be the guy to set these damn precedents because so few artists are willing to fight for themselves. They just roll over for the companies — it’s really disgusting. The hard thing about setting a precedent is that on the company side, no one wants to be the first guy to give in on something to an artist. There’s no problem being the second guy, because if you’re the second guy you can always point to the first guy: “We did it this way last time.” You’ve got a scapegoat. If you’ve given the artist something that’s never been given before and if it doesn’t work out or blows up in the company’s face, then that negotiator usually gets fired. So, you need that precedent. It makes it easier for me the next time I negotiate; I can always say, “Well, I got it on my last job.” “You got it on your last job? Okay. You can have it.” By setting that precedent I’ve made it much easier for other artists to get the same thing, too. “Stout got it? Oh, well, if Stout got it, okay.”
ARCUDI: Yeah. But the argument usually is, But he’s Bill Stout.
STOUT: Never accept that. I give a lot of business lectures to artists and I often hear that: “Of course — you’re Bill Stout. Of course you can get your originals back.” I tell them when I was making four bucks an hour doing advertising I was getting my originals back. When I was a complete unknown in the film business I was getting my originals back. You either give me the originals back (or separately purchase them from me) or I don’t work for you. You don’t need the originals. Copies will suffice. It’s not because I was famous, because I was not famous my entire life. Hell, I don’t consider myself famous now; I’m always having to educate new clients as to who I am. So that’s no excuse.
ARCUDI: No, what I’m saying is that it’s frequently an excuse for the company. “Yes, we did give that deal to Neil Gaiman — but you’re not Neil Gaiman.”
STOUT: Well, you have to believe in what you do. Also, in any negotiation you have to be willing to walk away.
I was negotiating a very lucrative deal with a major film studio over the telephone. We reached an impasse in the negotiations. I politely told the attorney that I was sorry, but unless they acquiesced on that particular point, we didn’t have a deal. No hard feelings. I wished them luck. Then I hung up. My wife — she was horrified. “I can’t believe you stuck to your guns knowing we only have fifteen dollars left in our banking account!” It was during one of those down times that happens to all freelancers. I explained I had to; if I wasn’t willing to walk away there wouldn’t have been a negotiation — they’ve got you. At a certain point you gotta have some balls. I told my wife, “They’ll call back.”
ARCUDI: And if they didn’t?
STOUT: I’d have walked.
ARCUDI: What happened?
STOUT: They called back a minute later, acceding to my demands. I set another precedent and astonished my wife, both of which I always like to do.
ARCUDI: I’m struck by the sort of curious nature of the industry as it is today, that there is a greater array of material available to a smaller audience. The illusion I think is that there are more creator rights than ever.
STOUT: The illusion. There is more of an attack on creator rights now than I’ve seen in my entire life. With the consolidation of the entertainment industry into three entities, they are doing everything they can to crush creators and roll back our hard-won rights. I’ve never met with such resistance in my whole history of being in the entertainment business.
ARCUDI: And this is just through your personal experience?
STOUT: Not just mine — it’s everyone I know. My feeling is if we creators can weather the storm and stick to our guns, we’ll be alright. But if we cave in, we’re going to end up as serfs. It’s going to be horrific.
The other aspect of that is whenever something like that happens, immediately an underground culture is created. I think that’s sort of what’s going on right now with the alternative comics. It is a sort of underground culture. It’s not like the underground culture of the ‘60s, where we were exhilarated by the freedom of being able to show sex and drug use and whatever else we wanted to do. I think the fruit that I was talking about is that we are now in a place to say, “Okay. With all of the choices open to us now in expressing ourselves through comics, we can choose to work on themes that are deeply important to us; things about which we are passionate. We don’t have to just do superheroes. We don’t have to do girly books or whatever. We can reveal aspects of the human condition in a way that’s meaningful to people, and we can take the medium of comics to the next level — that of High Art.”
This was not a part of The Comics Journal interview. It’s a completely new addition that adds to Stout’s experiences in trying to make a John Carter movie.
STOUT: I got called again to A Princess of Mars years later via Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles. This time it was a Paramount movie in the hands of Kerry Conran and his brother Kevin, who had just made the magnificent Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. They assembled an incredible art department that included Iain McCaig, Bernie Wrightson, Michael Kaluta, myself and about four or five others. I immediately hit it off with Iain. It was like meeting my brother-from-another-mother.
At an early point in our first round table meeting, Iain asked all of us, “What is this movie?”
We each answered. Iain and I were totally in-sync. “It’s the greatest love story ever told, a love that transcends two planets.”
Then, original art and other rights issues reared their head once again. I bailed after about two days. Kerry really wanted me on the film and was willing to fight the studios on my behalf.
I ran into Kerry and producer Sean Cunningham at a Cal Arts event.
“Kerry, I can fight my own battles. I don’t want you to make any concessions or compromises to the studio on my behalf this early in the game. The picture will suffer.”
“Bill just gave you some great advice, Kerry,” said Sean.
As it turned out, Sky Captain bombed and the John Carter movie was promptly ripped out of Kerry’s hands. Before that happened, Kerry directed a John Carter promo/work-in-progress demo reel that I think really captures the spirit of the John Carter of Mars books and the film we all wanted to make. Watch it at:
Next, A Princess of Mars was given to Jon Favreau, who had just made the sci-fi feature Zathura. Jon and I met and had lunch together to discuss the project. Jon is one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met in The Biz and we hit it off. Then, Zathura tanked and the John Carter film was snatched away from Jon (if only they had known he had the potential to direct something like Ironman).
I wasn’t involved in the Disney John Carter movie that finally made it to the screen. I have issues with it. There is no chemistry between John Carter and Dejah Thoris. If this is supposed to be the greatest love story ever told, then the two leads have to be believable as lovers. They’re not. Also, she looks too old for him; he looks too young for her. It ain’t happening. I did like the Warhoon battle sequence, though. Pure Frazetta!
One major problem of any attempt to film A Princess of Mars is the fact that the first book ends with a cliffhanger. I think that ERB’s Martian trilogy would best be served by a Game of Thrones-style mini-series. Wouldn’t that be incredible!
Disney’s John Carter is not a bad film; it just doesn’t come up to what it could have been. It wasn’t helped when Disney smothered their own baby in the cradle. Two weeks before the release of the film, Disney was labeling it a failure, a huge bomb. How in the hell could they know that prior to the film’s release? It’s the public who determines what is a hit or a miss. Then it came to me: regime change. The Disney mucky-mucks who okayed John Carter were no longer in power. The new regime had to make sure John Carter flopped to justify their own new jobs. That’s how I read it, anyway.
Plus, Disney bungled the promotion. One problematic issue was that the John Carter books had been visually looted by Hollywood for years., especially by Return of the Jedi. The public, upon seeing trailers for the film, assumed John Carter was just a Star Wars rip-off. I would have simultaneously educated the public and sold the movie with this sort of ad line:
“Before there was Star Wars, before there was Avatar, before there was Superman and before there was Lord of the Rings…there was John Carter of Mars.”
We resume talking about the attempts to makeA Princess of Marsas a movie. This was not part of the printed interview in The Comics Journal.
ARCUDI: A lot of the stuff you’re talking about, like, “Why does he have to be from Virginia?” — not to let anybody off the hook — is inherent in adapting material from one medium to another.
STOUT: I understand that completely. I am not so naive as to think that a straight adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novel would be effective or successful. It wouldn’t. Burroughs did not write screenplays. His novels are not structured the way that films are structured. If you adapted A Princess of Mars exactly the way it was written, the audience would be way ahead of you from the start and drop you shortly thereafter. You have to make changes. But the changes I am suggesting are changes in the structure, not in the inherent qualities in the material that got you excited about doing the project in the first place.
I know; I’ve adapted Robert E. Howard‘s work for the screen — I wrote a Conan screenplay, Conan the Buccaneer, based upon his years as a pirate, when he became known as Amra the Lion.
Adapting Howard was one of the hardest writing challenges I’ve ever had. His stuff reads great as short stories and novels, but as soon as you put his writing into the structure of a screenplay…well, the audience would be so far ahead of you. There is almost no formal dramatic structure in Howard’s works. Instead, you’re sucked in by his exotic descriptions and his action passages. When you start breaking his stories down into the bare bones of plot, you realize there isn’t much of one there. So, you have to take those elements that got you excited about doing the project in the first place and weave them through your own dramatic structure, using a fresh structure to set off Howard’s tableaus and key visual elements. You can’t directly adapt literary source material 99% of the time. But in adapting you don’t want to take the essence of what made this project special and just toss it out from the get-go, as was planned by the first A Princess of Mars producers.
ARCUDI: So, you’re not anti-adaptation, per se.
STOUT: No. Not at all. And, before I forget, in regards to John Carter of Mars — it’s already been made into a movie; a really successful one. So, we need to ask ourselves, do we need to make another? That film’s title is Return of the Jedi. Princess Leia is dressed as Dejah Thoris throughout the film; you’ve got Martian flyers as ERB described them; the main characters sword fight throughout the movie. If you look at it, Return of the Jedi is essentially a John Carter movie. So, if you make a John Carter movie, your audience, who are mostly unaware of the Burroughs books, is going to think you’re ripping off a Star Wars film.
ARCUDI: Of course, that’s usually why people make a movie anyway. They remake a movie that was already successful even if they don’t call it the same thing. So that’s not an argument that wins you any points in Hollywood.
STOUT: Except that they were really going for an “A” picture; they had McTiernan. I can see your point if they had hired some hack to direct. Some other directors, if they’d been hired, I’d say, “Yeah. They were just making a buck.” But this really wanted to be a special “A” project.
ARCUDI: What finally happened?
STOUT: John McTiernan had a pay-or-play deal. For our readers who may be unaware of the meaning of that particular bit of show biz lingo, allow me to explain: You have it in your contract that if the project is not a “Go” project by a certain date, you get paid regardless and then you’re free to leave. They did not have the money in place to go into production by the time John’s pay-or-play time period expired, so he took the money and went on to another film project. That was the end of Princess.
ARCUDI: I’m in the wrong business. So, you still have big problems with the film biz.
STOUT: When I first got into the film business it was a really exciting time to be in that world. Working on Conan the Barbarian with Ron Cobb; Raiders of the Lost Ark with Steven Spielberg; The Return of the Living Dead with Dan O’Bannon; Invaders From Mars and Masters of the Universe with Cannon Films; Roger Corman producing a film of my first screenplay (The Warrior and the Sorceress) — I’m a very lucky guy.
Most of the films I worked on early in my career were shot out of the country. There I was in my wild youth, traveling around the world on somebody else’s dime, experiencing all of these different cultures; living in Spain, Yugoslavia, Rome, Mexico and Canada. I was working hard, romancing beautiful actresses, having a really great time with this tremendous family of filmmakers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a very special quality to the people that the Dino DeLaurentiis family would put together to make their movies (Okay; there was fucking Carlo Rimbaldi, too — there’s always going to be at least one fly in the ointment). I became very close to those people.
That began to change dramatically in the 1990s. Most of the really nice people I knew in the business got out of the business. Because the expense of making movies had risen dramatically, fewer films were being made. Because of the greater costs involved in producing each film, more hung in the balance for the studios for each film. The studios also got extremely greedy. A healthy profit was no longer enough; the profits on each film had to be obscene or the film was considered a failure. In a climate like that, studios tend to play it safe. They do less adventurous projects. They make lots of sequels. They give the creators much less freedom. Most of the nice people got out of the business and the sharks and the really reptilian people took over — with apologies to my friends, the snakes and lizards.
ARCUDI: You don’t want them running the country. (Now there’s a prescient comment, John!)
STOUT: Too late for that. Each film project started to be less and less fun as a job. In fact, the last several films that I did the people I was working with kept asking me the same question: “Bill, you’re a really nice guy. What are you doing in the movie business?” You hear that enough times and you start to think, “Maybe there’s something to what they’re saying.” I started doing less production design and more of what I call emergency design surgery — design E. R., or design paramedic services. If you need a creature or something special designed or if you have a particularly hard design problem in your motion picture, come to me and I’ll work on it for a couple of days or weeks and solve it. In. Out. That usually works out pretty well for everybody. I get a taste of the business again, enough to make me realize why I don’t want to be in it permanently, and I get another credit on my resume. It’s a nice hit-and-run and I don’t have to deal with the politics.
ARCUDI: There’s kind of a big question actually that I’m sure will open up a bunch of other avenues, but working extensively in the industry as you were before you struck what’s analogous to a “script doctor” type relationship, did you feel that, artistically, film design stunted your growth?
STOUT: Oh, absolutely. Working in the film business is weird. You’ll never work harder in your life than working on a film. If you’re not working seven days a week, twelve to eighteen hours a day, you’re not doing your job — and there’s somebody very ready to take your place. On the other hand, it can make you really lazy as a writer or an artist.
When I write screenplays, I don’t have to use the precise language that I would use if I was writing prose. That’s not important to what you want to convey in the screenplay. It’s the opposite, in fact. You want as little variation as possible in your descriptions of recurring characters, things and events so as not to confuse the reader (and, eventually, your audience), to let him or her know that you haven’t just created something or someone new but, instead, you’re returning to something previously mentioned in the script. So, writing screenplays over a period of time can make you lazy with your choice of words.
As a designer, you are only asked for finished work in the very first stages of the film. That early finished work is mostly to set a visual direction for the production and to inspire your investors. The closer you get to production (the shooting of the film), the faster you have to turn out the art, the less finished your work gets until, finally, using Conan the Destroyer as an example, I was scribbling designs on the backs of envelopes and then handing them to the model maker so he could run back to his shop and start building it for a shot later that week!
You’re not really producing what anyone would call “art”. You’re creating designs in service of the final art, which is the motion picture itself.
It makes you sloppy as an artist. If you’re not careful and stop using your finishing skills and disciplines that you have honed over the years, you can lose them. If I had stayed strictly with production design I would have lost my ability to do the fine brush inking that I do or the detail work that I can achieve in oil paint. It’s “Use it or lose it”. I spend about a year or two on most of my films. That’s a lot of time away not only from my family but from my easel perfecting my oil painting skills. That’s time away from my drawing board perfecting my drawing and inking abilities. Things don’t have to be drawn perfectly for film. They just have to be clear enough so that someone can understand how to make or build it.
ARCUDI: Correct me if I’m wrong, but in a film you’re really doing all of these things, no matter how creative you are, in furtherance of someone else’s ideas. Do you find your imagination sapping away from you when you come away from a film as well? Are you at a loss for concocting your own imagery for your paintings?
STOUT: No, actually — I think it’s the opposite of that. I think film making is incredibly stimulating because you’re working with some of the smartest people you’ll ever encounter in your life and constantly solving really difficult problems on the fly — like visually creating the ERB Martian culture.
Prior to my involvement with the film, as an ERB illustrator, I’d never thought of that material with the same amount of depth that I approached it when putting it on film. My illustrations all stopped with Frazetta, Krenkel and Williamson.
Going beyond what they had done never occurred to me; there was never that demand. But in the film version of those characters and settings, there has to be a certain level of richness and realism that goes deep below the surface. Plus, as an illustrator, you can get away with being vague; you can’t when you’re designing a film. Someone’s going to build whatever you’ve drawn, so your drawings have to be specific. You also compress a lot of visual information into that hour-and-a-half. I find that kind of thinking really inspiring.
This is a section that was cut from the magazine interview and posted on The Comic Journal‘s website.
THE PRINCESS OF MARS FILM In 1990 Stout was hired to work on the (potentially) disastrous A Princess of Mars movie, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel. The director was John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, The Thomas Crown Affair). Luckily, the movie was never made.
ARCUDI: There were a bunch of films you worked on that didn’t pan out; I remember one in particular: A Princess of Mars.
STOUT: I’m almost happy that one didn’t pan out. That was the right project in the wrong hands at the wrong time. I was first approached to work on A Princess of Mars in early 1990. I was called by Hollywood Pictures, a subsidiary arm of Disney, to show my work and be interviewed.As with most job interviews for the film business, they never really tell you for what job you’re being interviewed. It’s always been a mystery to me. I don’t know why they just don’t come out and say, “We’re considering you for production designer or creature designer.” But they don’t.
That was probably the single worst interview I’ve ever had in my life.
I met with two young producers, a man and a woman. After talking to them for five minutes I could tell that these clueless individuals had never produced anything in their lives. Plus, they were idiots. They began by asking me if I was familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian John Carter novels.
“Yes; very much so. I’ve read each one three times; I am now reading them to my young sons.”
“So, you’re familiar with the creatures in the books…”
“Yes! The tharks, zitidars thoats and calots…I’ve drawn them all many, many times.”
“Well, we want to see something different.”
At that point I thought, “Oh, my God. Right off the bat they’re already tampering with what may be the very thing that has kept these books alive for the past one hundred years.” Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water! But I didn’t say anything. Our conversation from that point on went downhill fast, especially when we got to discussing contractual matters. They had real issues with my artist’s rights and concerns; getting my original art back and things like that.
“Of course Disney will retain ownership of all the original art that you produce.”
“I’m sorry; it’s my corporation’s policy that I keep all of my originals. You don’t need the originals to make your film; you can use copies of my art to make the movie.”
“Disney always keeps the original art.”
“My corporation always keeps the original art. It’s my 401K.”
It quickly turned nasty.
“Well, we’ve talked to some famous artists for whom our keeping their originals is not a problem.”
“They may be famous and excellent artists — but they’re lousy businessmen.”
Anyway, I didn’t get hired. It was very clear about fifteen minutes into the interview that there was no way on earth that they would hire me to work on this film. So, I forgot about it. I was kind of relieved; I felt in their hands it couldn’t be anything less than a total disaster.
While on Conan the Barbarian, I learned that our line producer, Buzz Feitshans, owned the movie rights to several non-Tarzan Edgar Rice Burroughsnovels. I let him know what a huge fan I was of ERB’s works. The novels I would like to film the most are his two novels featuring The Mucker.
A few months later I got a call from Buzz Feitshans.
“Bill, how would you like to work on a John Carter of Mars movie?”
“I’d love to…who’s it with?”
“Disney figured out they couldn’t make the film. So, it’s a joint production between Disney and Cinergi Productions. Cinergi will do the work; Disney will handle distribution.”
I knew that Cinergi was Andy Vajna‘s (1944-2019) new production company. Andy had produced First Blood, which I had storyboarded. I liked Andy.
“I interviewed with Disney for this film. We hit an impasse in regards to my keeping my original art. Do we have a similar issue?”
“No…I have no problem with you keeping your art. We don’t need your originals to make the movie.”
“Great! Let’s do it!”
So, I began working on A Princess of Mars. We were working out of Sylvester Stallone‘s Santa Monica art studio. To my amazement I found a room that contained over half a dozen huge bronzes by Antoine Louis Barye, the greatest animal sculptor who ever lived. Barye launched the Les Animaliers art movement in 1840 when he became the first European artist to acknowledge that wild animals were an appropriate subject for Fine Art. Prior to Barye, the only animals in Western art were animals in situations that related to man, either hunting scenes or domesticated animals. Barye changed all that.
As stated, the director was John McTiernan. We had briefly worked together on Predator when he asked me to design the creature. I greatly admired his film Die Hard. John seemed to be obsessed with an architectural computer program. Every time I visited his office he would show me a house he had designed.
I was given an enormous stack of John Carter art that had been previously produced by Ron Cobb, the Jim Henson studio and Ralph McQuarrie. I was told to select what I felt was appropriate and then toss the rest. I covered a wall of my office with some pretty wonderful art (especially Cobb’s pieces). But I’d say about 90% of what had been produced was unusable for our film’s needs.
Filming a John Carter movie with all its fantastic creatures was going to be extremely difficult. CGI had only just begun. It was an extremely slow process. So, I was told to design creature suits for camels and elephants. The four-armed Tharks (key creatures in the story) would now just have two arms each.
I was getting depressed. After two days, I was ready to bail. I explained the issues I was having to my friend and fellow Burroughs collector Robert Barrett. He focused me. I asked him if he thought I should quit.
“If you leave, then who on the film will be in Burroughs’ corner?”
What Bob said made sense; I stayed on.
I began to focus on Barsoom (the Martians’ term for their planet) and what I thought it should look like. I gave each part of Barsoom it’s own distinctive architectural look. I saw parallels between Helium (the city of Dejah Thoris, the princess and love of John Carter’s life) and Beirut.
I began thinking about and designing the city of Helium. I based the architecture of the city on some of the designs by Austrian architect Otto Wagner (1841-1918).
This planet had been engulfed in war for so long that the city’s needs had changed. Most Martian men and women functioned as warriors. The core of Helium was protected but the closer you got to the outskirts of the city, the more ruins there were from the war. Like Beruit, there were not enough civilians to maintain the outskirts of Helium, which was under regular attack.
I began to re-examine the Barsoomian cultures. I thought about the Tharks and their nomadic culture. I researched what nomadic cultures had in common. They tend to carry all of their wealth with them. They don’t use banks or have a permanent place like a home where they leave everything. Nomadic cultures tend to wear a lot of their personal wealth and decorate themselves. Those observations gave me good design directions. I had the Tharks, who have these big tusks, I had their tusks covered with scrimshaw-like, Maori-like carvings. I thought it was cool because it took the notion of what had been done visually in the past with Burroughs creatures to the next level, a deeper level. It went beyond what Burroughs had described without really violating what ERB had described — just adding to the richness of it.
ARCUDI: Right. Essentially fleshing it out for more “sophisticated” audiences, but also for the sake of yourself, for keeping your enthusiasm.
STOUT: But also, making it real for us and the actors. The more detail you can layer into things like that, the easier it is for the actors to have something to chew on and be inspired.
ARCUDI: How was the script?
STOUT: There were several John Carter scripts. I read all of them. I hated the one that made John Carter a gum-chewing goofball from Brooklyn. Had the writer even read the books? This was not John Carter’s character.
Okay; I understand why the writer did that. It’s really easy to do. It’s much easier to write humor if you’re writing jokes. It’s much harder to do what Burroughs did; he had humor all through the story in the form of reflective irony. Irony is much harder to write than wisecracks. It’s more subtle. But, hey — that’s why you’re paid the Big Bucks, writer guy.
The best John Carter script I read was one of the scripts planned to be directed by Kerry Conran.Kerry’s A Princess of Mars will be discussed in an upcoming Journal entry.
So, I’m happily humming away on this and from the other room (his office was right next to mine) I hear McTiernan say, “Virginia! Does he have to be from Virginia? How about if he’s from Alaska? That’s a much more butch state…and, we wouldn’t have to deal with those touchy race issues.”
I put down my pencil and walked into John’s office.
“John, there are really great reasons why John Carter needs to be from Virginia. During the Civil War, John Carter was a captain in the Confederacy. He was on the losing side. As the greatest warrior on earth, this was too much for him to take. To escape the turmoil within him he went west, away from all of the Civil War elements in his life. He didn’t own slaves; he was a warrior his entire life. He leaves Virginia for Arizona, where his plan is to be alone and mine for gold. Soon, he’s engulfed in another warrior situation; he gets caught up in the Indian Wars. Then, he ends up on Mars, in the middle of a world civil war. He’s back to Square One — but now he’s in a world he was born for. He learns that he can’t run away from himself; he comes to the realization that he is the greatest warrior of two worlds — there’s no escaping it. That is who he is; that is his ultimate destiny. If you make him come from Alaska, you lose all that.”
John came to me one morning. He was extremely excited.
“I just saw Jurassic Park. We can do all the creatures using CGI!”
“John,” I responded, “how much CGI do you think is in Jurassic Park?”
“Tons! It was all over the place!”
“John, there were twelve minutes of CG animation in Jurassic Park. The rest was Stan Winston‘s puppets and robotics. That twelve minutes of CG animation you saw took them two years to produce.”
John’s face fell.
“John,” I continued, “If we’re lucky, we could spend six years creating the CG for this film — but, honestly, I think it will be more like eight to ten years if we do it right. That’s how long it takes to do this kind of stuff right now.” We still had the enormous problem of creating believable Barsoomian creatures.
A budget was done for the film; my friend Buzz’s face was ashen. If we had made the film as written and budgeted, it would have been the most expensive film in movie history.
STOUT: Long ago our readers must have thought, “What in the hell does this have to do with comics – or even movies?”
ARCUDI: Fair question.
STOUT: I think what we’re talking about here is crucial to both comics fans and creators – and especially movie fans.
ARCUDI: How so?
STOUT: I used to be a huge movie fan; seriously, a bigger movie fan you’d never met. I’d go to all the L. A. film festivals, movie marathons where you enter the theater on Friday and don’t emerge until Sunday evening. I was walking up Vine Street in Hollywood when a friend spotted me from his car. He pulled over. (Since this interview, I’ve promised not to mention any names here for the sake of privacy) It was the brother of my best friend at art school. He had led an extraordinary life, growing up in Mexico City, running away to Tahiti when he was fourteen, taking up with an older Tahitian woman and teaching Spanish Literature at UCLA. His family was amazing as well. His grandparents were famous novelists; one uncle was a movie star; another had won some cinematography Oscars. His dad was English and his mom was French Tahitian (and a helluva cook; she made me the best mole poblano — the oldest known complex recipe in the history of cooking, pre-dating French and Chinese cuisine by two thousand years — I’ve ever had) and his sister became a top model.Damn good genes!
“Hey, Bill — Whatcha doing?”
“I’m going to see a new movie!”
He looked at me like I was some kind of schmuck. He cut off my brief excited rant about the movie I was going to see. He sneered at my anticipation of whatever cinematic event was forthcoming and said, “Wow. Watching a movie — two hours alone in the dark. Movies are someone else’s adventures. Wouldn’t you rather spend those two hours having your own adventures?” It really stopped me.
I thought about all that time I had spent in the dark living someone else’s dreams and adventures. It flipped a switch in me. I decided to make it a point to start having my own adventures, living and creating my own compelling stories based upon my own life rather than wasting those two hours in the dark. Errol Flynn’s autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways was an inspiration to live life to the fullest as well.
Using the money I made from my Wizards poster, my first big adventure was traveling to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and Lima, Cuzco and the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru. I took a fantastic all-day train ride from Quito, Ecuador up in the Andes, all the way down to the city of Guayaquil on the coast — riding on top of the train though jungles and rainforests! And I’ve been doing that kind of thing ever since. I’ve tried to pack three lives into one.
ARCUDI: Wake up, everybody! Get out of your parents’ basements!
STOUT: Exactly! Do something you can call your own for chrissake. Live! Feed yourself and your creativity with adventures! Expand your world view!
Okay, on to the National Science Foundation trip to Antarctica: this time, I was down there for three months. For six weeks I was based at McMurdo Station, a U. S. station – the largest station in Antarctica. During the Antarctic summer, which is our winter, there are about 1200 people there, so it’s like a small town. The other six weeks I was based at Palmer Station, which is on the Antarctic Peninsula. There are only thirty-nine beds at Palmer so there are only thirty-nine people at that station. You can fly into McMurdo station, but the only way to get to Palmer station is by ship, because there’s no place to land even a helicopter at Palmer. I took an American scientific research vessel down from Punta Arenas, Chile, down the coast of Chile, crossed the dreaded Drake Passage (fifty ft. waves breaking over the ship on an average day) and sailed down the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula until we got to my drop-off point: Palmer Station. Palmer Station is the station most tourists visit because the Antarctic Peninsula is where you see the greatest abundance of life. It’s warmer than the rest of continental Antarctica.
I got certified as a Zodiac operator at Palmer so that I could man a Zodiac, a type of inflatable boat, and take it to a different island each day. Each island was unique. I’d spend the entire day sketching and painting the wildlife. I did all of my ice dives at McMurdo; I did one shore dive at Palmer. At McMurdo I was transported to my ice dive locations in a Spryte, a box-like ice vehicle with tank treads. I drove my own Spryte over the sea ice to see a distant Weddell seal colony.
If where I needed to go was farther than the range of a Spryte they’d put me on helicopter and helo me out to where I wanted to go. If it was too far for a helicopter they put me on a Twin Otter, a fixed wing plane, and fly me out. When I went to visit an Emperor penguin colony, I took a Twin Otter to get there.
The two Canadian pilots who flew me there died in an Antarctic plane crash two years later.
Here’s the Happy Ending to this Antarctica section of the interview: Pressure from the UK and Japan was put on President Bush to renew The Antarctic Treaty. He finally signed it, protecting Antarctica for another fifty years. But for me, that’s not enough. I want Antarctica protected forever, hence my involvement in making Antarctica the First World Park.
For those of you out there who think this is a worthy idea, please contribute to The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. Their website is at: www.asoc.org.