Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These conversations range from analyses of their current projects to a look at the lives they lead outside of comics.
This week’s subject needs no introduction. P. Craig Russell has been working in comics for more than thirty years. He’s worked on superheroes, perhaps most famously his early work on “Killraven” with writer Don McGregor. Russell has drawn Michael Moorcock’s “Elric,” adapted “Conan,” and has been a longtime collaborator of Neil Gaiman, including the fiftieth issue of “Sandman,” and adaptations of the short story “Murder Mysteries” and the novel “Coraline.”
Russell has also adapted opera to comics including “The Magic Flute” and a two-volume “Ring of the Niebelung.” His most recent book is a new volume adapting the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, part of his ongoing project to adapt of all of Wilde’s Fairy Tales into comics. We spoke with Craig about opera, collecting Fiestaware, his thoughts on Northstar’s gay marriage in “Astonishing X-Men” and the creator’s next two major projects.
CBR News: You mentioned that you’re a big opera fan, which people who know your work would have guessed, and you cited Richard Strauss as one of your favorite composers. What is it about his work that you love?
P. Craig Russell: Well for one thing there’s the longevity of it. You’re talking about sixty-five years of music and there’s the wide variety of it in all forms. As opposed to, say, Wagner in which every piece is seminal, with Strauss you have very important pieces and then you have light, refreshing pieces that aren’t storming the barricades all the time. It’s his constant questioning and different approaches, different styles that evolve over the years. As an artist I just find it inspiring.
Do you find German Romanticism especially interesting?
German Romanticism, yes, but mostly in my early days. One of the interesting things about Strauss is that after a certain point he shed his Wagnerian armor, as they say, and evolved into a drier, wittier style. Very stripped down and linear even while he still preserved those gorgeous melodies of his that lasted into old age. It becomes a much more transparent texture. With these operas — this is how I somewhat relate to him as a graphic storyteller — he was concerned about how do you make the voice clear to the audience. Because it was drama they were doing and a pitfall with opera too often, especially with Wagner, is the orchestra overwhelms the singer and it becomes very difficult to follow the story. Strauss was very much concerned about how you made those voices project and what kind of orchestration you use to go along with it. I think there’s something similar to that in how you in comics in how you set your text and how the text works with the pictures and that interplay between what comes forward and what recedes and who takes a turn. That play between visual and auditory, if you will, is always a problem you’re working with. With Strauss I see it mirrored in another art form.
Strauss is also fairly unique in that his late work is amongst his best.
That’s another inspiring thing. He’s like Verdi, in his old age there’s this sort of blossoming. He doesn’t dry up, he becomes even more beautiful than ever and more inspired than ever. He wasn’t as prolific. Whereas before he was doing massive amounts of work as only a younger man can, his works were more carefully spaced in old age, but each one nearly perfect.
You adopted Strauss into comics once.
Yes, his opera “Salome.” It’s sort of a double pronged adaptation in that it’s from a play by Oscar Wilde and then it’s from Strauss’ adaptation of that play. It’s almost an adaptation of an adaptation except that when I did mine I also went back to Wilde’s original play. One of the things I liked about the libretto for the Strauss opera was they cut about fifty percent of Wilde and then I cut it down even farther, but I went back to Wilde’s play, reread it and put a few things back in that Strauss had dropped. I listened to the opera very closely when I was doing it and there were places where Strauss’ adaptation influenced mine in the way he would illustrate an emotional state. For example when Salome looks down into the cistern before John the Baptist comes out of it she looks down into it and says how dark it is down there. Now, of course, on stage you just see her looking into a cistern that would be flat on the floor. In the opera when she does that, the music gets so dark it just goes down and down all these low strings create a black sound. When I heard that, it gave me the idea of taking the viewer down into that pit. We see her looking down it and sink into the blackness and then reverse the camera if you will looking out of the cistern up at her looking down into it so we get to see it both from her point of view and from the point of view of John the Baptist and we take the viewer down into that cistern. That occurred to me like I said because of the black sound that Strauss gave to his orchestra.
The German romanticism movement had big art component to it. The Dusseldorf school and there were a lot of allegorical stories, fanciful landscape. Was that an influence on you?
That period of art, both the German Romantics and then the French and Belgian symbolists of the same era have had a big influence on my work. The subject matter tended to be expressed through allegory, symbolism and myth which feeds into so many areas of comic books and comic art with its reliance on fantasy, horror and superhero genres. There are a lot of correlations you can find that apply to drawing these sorts of stories that you don’t get from following the impressionists of the same era. You could learn something because of their uses of color and such, but for subject matters, those French and Belgian symbolists and the German Romantics really have a lot that we can learn from. Also the artists had a lot of literary models just as the Pre-Raphaelites of about the same era. They were illustrating myths and poetry and plays.
You’re a fan of obscure composers.
Yes. I find it interesting that as the years pass you can only haul so many artists into the future. Many of them don’t make the cut or you just don’t have time for them. A lot of times there are artists who were incredibly popular or influential in their time and you can find a lot of great music from composers who are somewhat disappeared. One of my favorites is Erich Wolfgang Korngold. I even did a three-page documentary essay on his life. He came to write a lot of film music in the ’30s when he escaped Germany, but before that he wrote operas and all sorts of chamber music and songs. It’s beautiful, beautiful music and he’s nearly forgotten. Another one is Alexander von Zemlinsky. I had a friend who looked at my shelf and said, “You have entirely too much Zemlinsky.” I said, “I don’t have nearly enough.” I do have just about everything that’s been recorded. He did seven operas, one of which was Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta,” which I adapted as a graphic story. Not the Zemlinsky version; I was doing straight up Oscar Wilde.
You’ve been adapting Wilde’s fairy tales. Are you a great fan of his work?
Of course I am, but not a great fan in the same way that I am of John Steinbeck where I tried to read everything that he ever wrote. Or at one time, I wanted to read everything Yukio Mishima or Herman Hesse wrote. I haven’t read “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and I haven’t read all of his plays, but I do love every single one of those fairy tales and “Salome.” I think I’ll have satisfied my Wilde fix when I finish the fairy tales. Nine fairy tales and one play.
Another of your hobbies is collecting Fiestaware. Why?
One is it’s just fun. For anyone who doesn’t know, Fiestaware comes in an assortment of colors. The original vintage Fiestaware came in eleven different colors from the nineteen-thirties into the early sixties. The new Fiestaware which started coming out in 1986 is in thirty different colors so it’s a real draw for the collector mentality. You wait to see what the color is going to be this season.
Then there’s also a personal connection to it. The pottery, Homer Laughlin, is in Newell, West Virginia which is my mother’s hometown right across the right from where I grew up in Wellsville, Ohio. My grandfather worked at that pottery and he may have even made some of it. I’m not exactly sure what he did at Homer Laughlin Pottery, but he was a potter, so there’s that connection. People in this area of the country in particular, and in my hometown, are Fiestaware fans. If you’re seen “A Christmas Story,” they’re eating off Fiestaware on their kitchen table.
Is there a specific period or something that you collect?
Well, it’s all the same design. It was designed by a man named [Hurten] Rhead and that design has remained consistent to this day; these concentric circles on the outside of the plates and certain specific shapes. That remains pretty much uniform whether it’s 1936 or 2012.
You live in Ohio. Why Kent?
Kent is about eighty miles form my hometown of Wellsville, which is right across from the tip of the panhandle of West Virginia. Kent is inland about eighty miles and I came to Kent because they invited me here to teach a course in illustration. They would bring in someone from the outside that specialized in a particular area of illustration, but I just made so many friends here in such a short period of time. It has the advantages of being a small town and yet a university town too. It’s just a very pleasant place to be so I settled in.
We’re less than an hour from Cleveland so we have the museums and the symphony and all that if we want to go. And Akron is about twenty minutes away. We’re about an hour and a half almost two hours from Pittsburgh. It’s accessible. It’s not like living in New York City where you can just jump on the subway or get a taxi and go to Lincoln Center, but it’s there if we want to make the effort.
When I asked you what would most surprise people who only know you from your work, your reply was “I’m one American flag away from ‘Gran Torino.'”
Yes. I live on a two block stretch of road right next to the university. It’s almost all student rental housing so that gets a little shabby and beat up. Landlords tend only to do as much as they need to do. In the last couple years I had this artist’s block, but I just can’t sit around. I have to have a project. I just started spiffing up all the landscaping around my house and my neighbor’s house. All of her landscaping was totally overgrown so I went at that. I spent an entire summer and I had this thing pruned to a fare-thee-well. My house stands out from the rest of the neighborhood by being rather close to impeccable at times in its appearance surrounded by some pretty shabby looking dumps. [Laughs]
This is what you meant when you said you’ve been consumed by yard work recently.
Yeah. Also I’m getting old and crotchety and squinting at the neighbors going by. [Laughs]
I wanted to ask you, because Marvel announced their gay marriage in “Astonishing X-Men,” and you did the first interracial kiss in comics in “Killraven” back in the 1970s. You, as many people know, came out as a gay man many years ago and was wondering what your thoughts are on Northstar’s marriage?
[In “Killraven”] they were so nervous they wanted us to color them as what we call a knockout color meaning they would be in shadow, so you would color both figures purple so you couldn’t actually tell they were different races. Well we went ahead and did it with straight coloring and it went through.
[With regards to the marriage] I think it’s great fun. On the one hand, it gets a lot of publicity and notice, which certainly in the days of declining sales we need so anything that gets a buzz going. And I think it’s just a nice thing that they’re doing. That’s about all I know about it other than I heard they’re going to have a gay marriage. I’m not on the inside track so I don’t know much about it. It should be fun. I look forward to seeing it.
What are you working on now?
I’m right in the middle of working on “The Graveyard Book,” [an adaptation of] Neil Gaiman’s novel, and it’s going to be for Harper Collins like “Coraline” was. It’ll be a 352-page adaptation. I’m doing the scripts and the layouts for the entire book and the finishes for one or two of the stories and then seven other artists [are] doing finishes over my layouts. We tend to be artists of a somewhat similar bent so it’s not going to be a wide variety of styles. We wanted it to have a fairly homogenous feel because it’s a single story although it takes place over about sixteen years, just like the “Jungle Book” stories. So from the top we have Kevin Nowlan, myself, Tony Harris, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, David LaFuente, Scott Hampton and Michael Golden. I’m very excited about everybody. Scott Hampton is doing the longest story of the book. It’ll be about one hundred pages and I’m very excited to see work from him. I was going to do the very first story in the book but when I called Kevin Nowlan and he said he would do something, I put him on the first one. I want to open the book with him so he can set the tone.
Why is Kevin Nowlan a good fit for that story?
He has such an elegant style and I just think he’s so good that to lead off the book with him is a good thing. Also there’s a scene in the beginning in the first four or five pages that takes place in a wide, narrow house and he’s good with architecture. Just the way he draws doors and baseboards. [Laughs] You would think there are only so many ways you can do baseboards but he does it beautifully and I like the idea of him doing that design because the nature of this thing, these aren’t separate stories, there are characters that run throughout all of them so some characters he’s going to be designing that all the other artists will have to follow and I think he’s a wonderful designer, also. So some of the ghosts he’s doing, his designs will be followed. There’s also a couple characters that I’m designing that I’m giving him the designs for that he’ll follow. And also, just like I said, the look of the house. In the seventh chapter, the big one that Scott Hampton does, we come back into that house again so he will have that to refer to like having a model sheet when he starts doing work on his chapter.
You, of course, adapted Gaiman’s “Coraline.” After the success of that did they ask you to do this?
Neil did. He and I have been working together for about twenty years ever since I did “Sandman” #50. “Murder Mysteries” and “Death in Venice” and “Coraline” and a couple other projects, too. He simply asked me if I was interested in doing “The Graveyard Book” and I said yes.
Why are you working with many different artists instead of drawing it all yourself?
Well, they want the book out as soon as possible and if I did the entire thing myself it would be a good three years before I could produce that many pages. If we divide it up among people and maintain some continuity with my layout style, which I think is rather particular, and use the same colorist, Lovern Kindzierski over the whole book, it will give it the veneer of continuity.
The book lends itself to that. Very distinct chapters that take place over a period of time.
I think so. Harper Collins’ main concern was that it be stylistically consistent. On this one, like you say, it’s one long story but there’s a couple years difference between each one. Bod the boy is about two years older in each story just like Mowgli is in the “Jungle Book” stories and so I think you can get away with using different artists so long as we’re not too different one from the other.
The most recent volume of “The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde” just came out and you’re in the midst of “The Graveyard Book.” Have you started pondering what’s next?
Yes. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the book “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. I hadn’t heard of it until an editor from Houghton Mifflin contacted me and asked me if I had and if I hadn’t would I read it. I did and just fell over when I did. I liked it that much. It won the Newberry Medal for young adult literature. Since I took this on I’ve talked to a number of kids and they’ve all read it and know what it’s about. I took seven weeks off from December until February and without a contract or anything I sat down, scripted and laid it out as a 178 page story. Now as soon as I finish “The Graveyard Book,” I’ll jump into that and on this one I’m doing the artwork entirely on my own.
So much of your work is adaptations from other sources, particularly the work you write. Why is that?
A lot of the stuff I was being offered from mainstream publishers I just didn’t find all that interesting. It was fun doing superheroes and that stuff but it’s not what I’m really interested in. I just started looking for stories that were good to begin with so the raw material I was working with was well-written, and the dialogue sparkled. I was just looking for good stories to do. I’ve said a number of times that if I was given scripts like “Sandman” #50 every day, I’d never do another adaptation. I’d never have to. It’s wonderful to get a script like that, but you don’t very often, so I do adaptations. And even in the half a dozen projects I’ve done with Neil, two were original scripts, “Sandman” #50 and “Death in Venice,” and the rest are pre-exiting prose pieces that he’s written that I’ve done the adaptation for. Dead or alive, as long as it’s a good story, that’s what I’m looking for.
For more on P. Craig Russell stay tuned to CBR News or visit his official website.