Charles Vess is quite simply one of the great fantasy artists of our time.
In comics, he’s best known for his many collaborations with Neil Gaiman including two key issues of Sandman, the series finale #75, and the World Fantasy Award-winning #19 (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The two have also collaborated on picture books and the beloved, heavily illustrated novel Stardust. Vess drew Rose, the Jeff Smith-written prequel to Bone. Vess has had lengthy collaborations with Charles de Lint, and others. In 2009, Dark Horse published Drawing Down the Moon, an art book celebrating his work.
One of Vess’ most personal project was The Book of Ballads. Originally a series of black and white comics, Gaiman, Smith and De Lint, along with Jane Yolen, Elaine Lee and others, adapted classic ballads to the comics format, illustrated by Vess. This month, Titan Comics has published an The Book of Ballads: The Original Art Edition. The art is presented in an oversize format, in its original black and white (similar to IDW Publishing’s Artist’s Editions).
Vess spoke to CBR about the project, his recent book readers may have missed and how his original art ended up in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress.
CBR: How did this Original Art Edition come about?
Charles Vess: Titan editor Steve Saffel asked. Then we had to get permission from the Library of Congress, where all the art resides in their permanent collection. Martha Kennedy, the head of their Prints and Drawings Division, suggested that Steve come down to Washington D.C. for a few days and scan all the original pages himself, and he did. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there but the holding of the Library of Congress are vast and exciting to see — so I believe that he enjoyed himself, when he wasn’t overseeing the scanning.
I have to ask, how did your original art end up in the Library of Congress?
I had this rather large selection of art, scripts and pencil breakdowns that I knew would be diminished if I were ever to break them up and sell off or give away individual pages. For a number of years I’d been looking for a home for them. I’ve given quite a lot of my art and book/GN collection to my alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University, but for this particular body of work I was looking for a institution where people interested in art or music or ballads themselves could study the work.
I was complaining to two friends of mine who work in the Folklife section of the Library of Congress about my problem, and they looked at each other and said, “How about us?” The thought had never entered my mind before. Have work of mine in the Library of the American People? But it was a perfect fit, and I’m still very chuffed that those pages have a nice home.
I wondered about the styles you used for these books. For example The Galtee Farmer looks like your work, but it’s a little different stylistically. Tam-Lin and Alison Gross are done in a different style and approach from the others. Three Lovers played with presentation. How much of that came from the writers and how much of that was you?
I produced approximately 150 pages of graphic narrative story material, and since I’d always planned to eventually collect it all in one book I wanted there to be some variance in my art. Too much of any one style would have been a bit much. Then too, each story called for a slightly different approach. So, after several long, dramatic tales it was an absolute delight to let all my love of Walt Kelly loose on the pages that made The Galtee Farmer a far more humorous story. And all of the writers left me alone to decide what style I might attach to their words, and as far as I know, everyone was pretty happy with the results.
Do you have any favorites among the stories here in the book?
They’re all my little babies and I love each and every one of them. But as the years go by and different moods come and go there is always a new favorite. With the last read through it was The Three Lovers, but that’s sure to change.
Has your process changed much over the years since you originally made these stories?
I’m always changing things up, trying to learn new methods or new ways of thinking and I hope to keep my art fresh that way for many years to come.
In recent years you’ve been drawing children’s books and working as an illustrator. Have you left comics behind for good?
Absolutely not. I won’t ever be drawing any work-for-hire projects but I love the form of the graphic narrative. In fact I’ve got a few stories that I’m working on right now.
Is there a chance we’ll see more Ballads from you one of these years?
There are still hundreds of ripping good ballad stories out there, so you never know.
I know that one of the projects you’re working on now is the covers and illustrations for a new set of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Like a lot of people, I love her work. What has that been like, and what’s been the biggest challenge — or opportunity — working on that?
My ongoing illustration work for The Books of Earthsea has been a tremendous and exhilarating challenge for me as an artist. Ms. Le Guin has been my art director for the past four years as I’ve tried to slowly crawl inside her brain and see the world she created through her eyes. And, its a tremendous responsibility to be put in charge of the visual aspects of stories that millions of readers have read and loved. Each and every one of them already have their own portrait of her characters in their heads, so who are you going to please? I’m excited that next year (2018) the book will be published and then I’ll find out if I’ve been successful or not.
Is there anything else coming up or anything you’re working on?
I had a book published of my work last year that few of your readers will be aware of because it was published by a small press with no advertising budget. Walking Through the Landscape of Faerie is a 120-page book of full color painting accompanying poetry by Neil Gaiman, Alice Hoffman, Terri Windling, Ursula Le Guin, Delia Sherman and others. It can be ordered from the website of its publisher, Faerie Magazine.
The Book of Ballads: The Original Art Edition is available now.
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