P. Craig Russell Interview

Elric, The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Sandman #50, and Operatic adaptations, to name just a few, have all been illustrated by P. Craig Russell during his career in comics. This month he returns to Elric with Elric: Stormbringer from Dark Horse, who will publish the odd-numbered issues, while Topps will publish the even-numbered issues. Worlds of Westfield Content Editor Roger A. Ash recently talked with Russell about Elric and other upcoming work.

Westfield: You have done a lot of Elric work before. What keeps bringing you back to Elric?

P. Craig Russell: I like to finish what I start. It's been about 17 years all told since I started working on The Dreaming City which was from the third Elric novel. We did a couple excerpts from that, The Dreaming City and then later While the Gods Laugh and then went back to the very beginning and started with volume 1 which I adapted with Michael T. Gilbert. The series continued for a while with volume 2 and then in volume 3 we reprinted some of the material I had originally done around 1981 and there were series after that. We'd talked all along of some day doing Stormbringer and I really do like to get a sense of finality or completion with something that I've talked about for a long time. And of course, it is the ultimate Elric novel, the ultimate Elric story, so there was that allure too.

Westfield: For those who might be unfamiliar with Elric, what can you tell us about him?

Russell: Elric is the last emperor of the race of Melniboné, a mystic-warrior-occult priest line of not-quite-human characters. He's known for both his powers and his weaknesses, which make him a little more interesting of a character than a typical superhero. It's also the story of his runeblade Stormbringer. Actually, in a certain sense, the whole series is more about the sword than it is Elric. It's the sword that has the last word in the final novel.

Westfield: What can you tell us about Elric: Stormbringer?

Russell: It's the final confrontation between the lords of Law and Chaos and all of the pawns of the Melnibonéans, and the Lands Below and all the other races of earth and the end of this bright empire. It's a very cataclysmic, end-of-the-world sort of story.

Westfield: How do you go about adapting something like Elric?

Russell: To me, the adaptation is the most fun part in any project - taking one form and turning it into another form. I like making a structure. I Xerox the whole book on large sheets of paper so I have lots of white space left around the text. I take it a chunk at a time, reading it over to the point where I almost have it memorized, to the point where I can visualize the events of the story in my head. They're not just words on paper, but I can see it almost as a visual structure in my head so that I can turn around all of the events and the way they line up. Once I can get those events lined up in my head, I start thinking of them as separate pictures, panels, each one related to the other. Then I have to try to design that down onto a page so that each page feels like a piece in itself, almost like the stanza of a poem with a beginning, middle and an end and something at the end that either sums up the page or throws you onto the next page where you have to turn the page to see what happens next. It's very analytical and it's emotional at the same time because you're feeling this story, you have very strong emotional responses to it, but you have to very coolly find the pictures that will translate that in such a way that the readers hopefully will get the same response and, even more hopefully than that, won't see all the seams and pieces that go to putting that together. Hopefully it seems seamless.

Westfield: How much, if any, input does Elric's creator Michael Moorcock have in the adaptation?

Russell: He's left us pretty much alone to do as we will. I did the entire adaptation, wrote it and drew it and had it lettered, and then sent the whole set to Moorcock. Luckily, he seemed to like it [laughter].

Westfield: Elric: Stormbringer is coming out from both Dark Horse and Topps. How exactly is that working?

Russell: You should ask me this after the second issue comes out. Dark Horse will be doing issues 1, 3, 5, and 7 and Topps will be doing 2, 4, and 6. Hopefully it will work out.

Westfield: How does the Elric: One Life story that you adapted fit in with this, or does it?

Russell: It was serendipity. What had happened was, I was adapting Stormbringer and Neil Gaiman knew that I was working on it and faxed me this story he had just written for a White Wolf anthology of numerous authors doing their own Elric stories or some kind of a story that had to do with Elric. Neil's was a recollection of growing up, going to boarding school, and being the boy-with-a-book, and, as a boy, how enamored he was of the Moorcock novels; just having to have the new one. And this was at a period of time when Moorcock just seemed to be doing one novel after another. His favorite character was Elric, and his favorite Elric novel was Stormbringer. At the same time, Neil and I had worked together a couple of years previous on Sandman #50 and had found it to be a terrific experience working together and wanted to do it again. With our schedules, we're having a hard time finding what and when and where and how. This to me seemed a natural. Here was this story he had already written and he didn't have to do anything else. I could do the adaptation, do a comic script from it and provide the pictures. That gave us a chance to work together again. It provided something of an introduction to the Elric mythos and hopefully would also act as a critical spur to the Neil Gaiman fans who would read the book and then might be interested in reading something by Moorcock, or at least an adaptation of Moorcock.

That went fine, except that, for one reason or another, and I to this day don't really know what, Topps just didn't get around to publishing Stormbringer right after that. It was designed to be a lead-in and one month later, Stormbringer would start. That never happened. Almost 6, 8, 10 months later, we approached Dark Horse, who I just signed a six year contract with to produce another project, with the idea of publishing Stormbringer and they talked to Topps, and between them all they decided to co-produce it.

Westfield: Aside from Elric, you've also been working on The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. Do you have any idea when the next book in that series will be out?

Russell: No I don't. I was supposed to do the third one this summer and I've actually written and laid out another one, but NBM counts on simultaneous publication in several countries and getting all those companies lined up isn't always easy. So for right now, the project is on hold. They're also shopping around another book of mine at the same time trying to find co-publishers. So instead I took that break I had, that hiatus from my Dark Horse contract this summer, to do a 48-page Dr. Strange story for Marvel. It's all done and at the colorist now. I've been told it's being solicited for Jun '97.

Westfield: Is this the first time you've done Dr. Strange since the Annual from the late '70s?

Russell: Yes. And as a matter of fact, what started it was Mark Andreco, who scripted this book, suggested when I had this hole in my schedule that I call Bob Harras and suggest reprinting the Dr. Strange Annual with new pages. I've tried to do this every five years, ever since it came out in '76. So I did and Bob went for it. I told him I just needed to add 13 new pages. Well, I pulled out my old artwork and it just looked completely wrong to me. If nothing else, the styles would no longer mesh. So I ended up redrawing the entire thing, which was an interesting exercise, to take the same picture and either totally reconceptualize it, in other words, throw out the old picture; or simply using the same layout or design, redraw it with better anatomy and draftsmanship, better structural detail underneath it. So that's what I did, and we added new story, we changed the plot somewhat, threw out the old script, wrote a new one and just refashioned it to the point where I considered it a completely new piece. Although if anyone wants to have fun with it and get the old Annual and go through it and see what is similar and what is dissimilar, it could be a fun game in itself. There are pages where you'll see the layout is identical. I used one single panel from the old Dr. Strange Annual, just to put it in there to see if anyone could find it if they looked hard enough.

Westfield: Do you adapt all the stories in the same way you described earlier, like the Oscar Wilde stories for example?

Russell: Yeah. I Xerox the whole thing so that I can lay out pages in front of me instead of just flipping back and forth through the book. Then I can underline it and then make sketches right beside it on the white part of the paper. When I get those little thumbnails done, then I lay them out on large sheets of paper and letter them all in and rule the panel borders so sort of the skeleton of the story is there. I might not actually draw the thing for several years. I've got The Fisherman and His Soul, which I did last summer, a 44-page Oscar Wilde story sitting in my drawer and a 15-page Oscar Wilde story called The Devoted Friend. Those are all scripted and laid out. I don't know when I'll get to them. Right now I'm laying out and adapting Wagner's Ring and I have about 124 pages of that done.

Westfield: Is that the Dark Horse project you mentioned earlier?

Russell: Yeah. That's the big Dark Horse project. So, after I do these layouts, then I start the research work. I use friends as models to act out a lot of this stuff since I don't consider myself a natural draftsman. Left to my own devices, my anatomy is way too shaky. So, I research everything so that I can get it right and there's that whole phase of the process and then I actually start the drawing.

Westfield: Since you do have such a detailed style, how long does it take you to do a page once you start drawing?

Russell: Once I start drawing, depending on the complexity of the page, I can pencil and ink a page a day. On this Dr. Strange piece, which is one of the most visually dense pieces I've ever done, on a good day I could do a half to two-thirds of a page.

Westfield: Do you have any other projects coming up aside from what you've already mentioned?

Russell: The Ring is the big project. What I've got going with Dark Horse is that I'm supposed to work four months out of the year inking various projects, like I just did the Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire series. The other eight months will be spent working on the Ring. For the first two years, and that's this past year and this next summer, I've got two months off to work on other projects, presumably the Oscar Wilde books. So next year I might get the chance to do the Oscar Wilde if we work things out with NBM. Hopefully I will. I had hoped to get them all done before I started the Ring, but we just came up against it and now seems to be the time to do it.

Westfield: Do you have any closing comments you'd like to make?

Russell: It was a real satisfaction to me on doing Stormbringer to get to do the script myself. When I was doing the earlier ones, I was approaching it in much the same way, the difference was that Roy Thomas was giving me a synopsis to start with that structured out the story, either the individual stories, or as in the first novel that I did with Michael T. Gilbert, the six issues. But then I always went back into the book and did pretty much the same thing I'm doing now, which was to decide what dialogue exactly was being said, not just doing sort-of pantomime of people talking, but figuring out line by line where it came from Moorcock. This was a terrific apprenticeship way to work into doing adaptations. I could do that and still not be responsible for the final script, Roy always wrote that. No matter how well you work with another writer, there's always going to be places where you look at it as an artist and say no I would have done that differently and they should not be speaking here, or there should be two word balloons or three or whatever. To do the script myself was the main reason for me to do Stormbringer and one of the reasons it took so long to get around to doing the adaptation is because I insisted that I would only do this project if I could do the scripting and the adaptation myself. So that was a rewarding thing to do.