P. Craig Russell Interview (DEC 2008)

 height=P. Craig Russell has drawn Killraven, Elric, Sandman, Batman, and many more in his distinctive style over the years. He's adapted numerous operas, Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, and Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book stories for comics. You can currently see his work in DC/Vertigo's Sandman: The Dream Hunters. He is also the subject of the documentary, Night Music: The Art of P. Craig Russell, which is currently available on DVD. Westfield's Roger Ash recently spoke with Craig about this film.

Westfield: What is the Night Music documentary and how did it come about?

P. Craig Russell: I'm not exactly sure how it came about, it's been so long ago. It's a documentary about my professional life, not my personal life. It started about 10 years ago when my friend Wayne Alan Harold, who's made a number of films like Killer Nerd and Bride of Killer Nerd, decided he wanted to make a documentary about me. We've been filming it for what must be hundreds of hours. Every couple years, Wayne would get new and better equipment and we'd start all over. So all of this keeps getting scrapped until about two years ago. He got a really, really good camera and a deadline somewhere along the way, so it all finally got put together.

Westfield: What has the reaction been from people who have seen the film?

Russell: It seems to be pretty positive so far. We showed it at the Mid-Ohio Con and the people there seemed to enjoy it. I think the thing Wayne did that is nice and works in this, opposed to some others, is that it's not just talking heads or corny Wham! Bam! sound effects. We get out in the world at least a little bit; down to Ohio State University and the Cartoon Research Library; various parties and concerts and exhibits around and about. Hopefully it moves around a bit. There's variation in it, which is always good.

Westfield: Speaking of parties, the film opens with a party for people who have modeled for you. Was that a special occasion or do you do that more regularly?

 height=Russell: This was definitely a special, or contrived, event. It was Wayne's idea. He wanted to talk so some of my models that I've used over the years. That's certainly a wide variety of people. He said, "why don't we have a party? You invite as many of the models that are still in the area." By now, they're all over the place. It turned out to be one of the best parties I've ever had because it was such a mixed bag of cats from all over. Not just my close personal friends, but acquaintances and friends of friends. It was a real sort of side show experience and everyone seemed to have a really good time meeting each other and seeing who the other people were in the comic books.

Westfield: A sequence in the film shows you talking about the art by other artists that is hanging in your studio. How much does the work of those artists or others influence your work?

Russell: I think early on is when other artists had the greatest influence on my work, I think it's true of most artists. When you're starting out, you're a big sponge and you're not exactly sure what your own voice is yet and you try on a bunch of different styles. When I was starting out, there was a mixture of Jim Steranko and Barry Windsor-Smith and Bernie Wrightson and Will Eisner and Bernie Krigstein and all sorts of people. After a while, you get your own footing. While I can be inspired by other artists, I don't know that I would say that I'm actually influenced by them any more. Aside from being influenced by comic artists, I try to learn from and be influenced by things outside of comics such as a lot of 19th Century art and early 20th Century illustration, and animation and film. Anything you can bring from the outside into this so it's not quite this insular circle we can live in.

Westfield: A section of the film that I found fascinating was your explanation of why you laid out a two-page sequence in the Ring of the Nibelung the way you did. Is the design of the page something that you really enjoy developing?

 height=Russell: There's nothing I enjoy more than the initial layout and design of the story. Making the blue print of trying to take those situations that don't seem to have a visual solution immediately apparent. Any time there's action, that's easy to do. They're doing things. You show them doing things. Or if there's a conversation, there's a back and forth and you choreograph it like it was a film or on TV. You decide who's close up is there and such. Those are the easy things, action and dialog. Then there are those other things where people are talking about, say, somebody's place in society or things where nothing is happening, but a lot of information or a lot of the ideas and the mood of the piece are being put forth. That's the challenge, to find a visual structure for that and that's what I enjoy doing the most and that's what I like taking apart and explaining to people because a lot of times, that's sort of invisible. There's an invisible art to layout. People tend to focus on the drawings themselves and maybe they shouldn't be too aware of it. If they're too aware of it, maybe you're not doing your job. They're not always aware of the structure that's going on underneath and to me that's the most exciting part. And then it's almost like manual labor. You have to do these, 3, 4, or 2,000 drawings that go into finishing the piece.

Westfield: Is that part of the attraction of doing the opera adaptations, trying to figure out how to do music visually?

Russell: Absolutely. There are those moments where the most thrilling part of the opera is when someone just plants themselves in the center of the stage and sings this enormous piece about whatever is happening; their emotions, their ideas, their feelings. The words themselves might be trite, but the music is so profound that you have this tremendous emotional connection to what they're saying. If you put those same words down on the flat page, all that triteness is revealed. I had to come up with something else; some visual structure that gives that same emotional punch at that point. That's when the form really becomes visual and the solutions are visual. Not easy! Sometimes you struggle with it for weeks. When I was doing Pagliacci, which was published as The Clowns, the next to last page I think I did 15 versions of before I came up with the one that, to me, seemed to work and get that excitement across.

Westfield: In the film, you talk both about your career in comics as well as your working methods. Do you find one of these subjects easier to discuss?

Russell: They're two separate subjects. I don't find either of them difficult to talk about. I find it very exciting to talk about the way things are put together; the working methods. Wayne had heard me talking about that double page spread in the Ring of the Nibelung. He said "We need to get this in the film." We had put something like that up on the web site and we got a terrific response from people. They really liked seeing that stuff explained. It's not difficult for me to talk about it.

Sometimes it can be difficult to explain because you'll forget why you did something in a certain way. When I was teaching a course in illustration at Kent State University in 1983, it was really good training for me because a lot of these things you learn on your own. You learn by doing it. You never have to verbalize it, you just do it because you found out this works. Then I had students and I could tell something was wrong with their drawing and I would say so, and they would want an explanation why. I was forced to then verbalize and think these things through. I couldn't just say to them, "Well, because I say so." You have to give them a reason and that was good training to actually put these ideas into words. It helps order your thinking.

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

Russell: It's gotten us started on some other projects. We have plans to do a series of short films that could then be collected into one longer piece in which I go over every one of my Opus numbers, which is what I put on every individual work. Just talking about them and explaining something about it. There's really not that much done in comics, or in films about comics, that goes into the nuts and bolts of how a story is told visually. I'd like to do some on other artists because I've given a number of slide presentations at conventions and schools and such where I show slides of work by Bill Watterson and Mike Mignola and different people and how they tell stories with pictures. Sometimes it's easier to talk about other people's work than your own. You can wax enthusiastic about somebody else's work. You can put it up there and say, "Isn't this marvelous?" You can't do that about your own. [laughter] It doesn't look good. You can just simply explain what it is you were doing. You can convey your joy in other people's work easier than in your own.

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