Gary Gianni talks "Prince Valiant," Michael Chabon and More

Gary Gianni worked as an illustrator for years before he turned his attention to comics. He illustrated two "The Shadow" miniseries, collaborated on short stories with Harlan Ellison, Andrew Vachss and Archie Goodwin, and has been a regular contributor to Dark Horse's horror anthologies. Gianni also created, wrote and illustrated "Monstermen," the cult favorite series.

In addition to his comics work, Gianni is also one of the most respected book illustrators of his generation, and is perhaps best known for his depictions of the Robert E. Howard characters Conan, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane.

A few years ago, Gianni took over the art chores on "Prince Valiant," becoming only the third artist (after Hal Foster and John Cullen Murphy) to draw the revered comic strip in its more than seven-decade history. CBR News checked in with Gianni on how the strip is going, what it was like to illustrate Michael Chabon's upcoming novel "Gentlemen of the Road," and more.

How did you come to be offered "Prince Valiant" and what made you say yes?

Basically, my work was seen by one of the assistant editors at King Features, Brendan Burford, and Brendan suggested me to [Editor-in-Chief] Jay Kennedy. This was back in 2000, I think. I didn't know any of this was going on. I didn't know that they were looking for a new artist for "Prince Valiant." I wasn't even sure "Prince Valiant" was still running in the newspapers at the time. John Cullen Murphy was getting on in years and starting to think about retirement a little bit. They wanted to find an artist who might be able to help him out once in a while and ultimately be a replacement for him when he should decide to retire.

I was contacted one day by Kennedy and he asked me if I'd be interested in being an assistant or part-time help for Mr. Murphy. I was completely taken by surprise by this. It was the furthest thing from my mind. I certainly never went after this job. At the time I wasn't even sure I wanted to do it because I was involved in so many other things, but the idea and the opportunity of working with somebody from the Golden Age of Illustration seemed to be a great opportunity.

So I said yes and they gave my background information to Murphy who by that time had seen some of my samples and so he called me. I wasn't sure what he wanted me to do. I had never really assisted any other artist before and I had my own work to do on top of that. I said, so what is it you wanted me to do, would it be backgrounds or inking or penciling? And I remember his exact words. He said, "No, I wanted you to do the whole shmeer."

That really threw me because I hadn't seen "Prince Valiant" in 25-30 years. It doesn't run here in the Chicago area. On top of that, I had no idea what the characters looked like or [what had happened in ]the story arc. It was a little disconcerting to have him ask me if I would do the whole thing.

Of course, that was just a sample at the time; he wasn't asking me to jump right into the swing of it. So I produced a sample for King and for Murphy and apparently they liked it well enough to ask if I would help him. And over the course of about three years I think I did about twenty of the "Prince Valiant" strips. That's how it started anyway, working with Murphy.

John Cullen Murphy was Hal Foster's assistant for a number of years. Was it a similar dynamic?

No, it was completely different, as a matter of fact. For one thing, Foster was a very hard taskmaster and he leaned over Murphy's shoulder quite a bit, providing him with very detailed preliminaries or roughs. And of course he was still writing it. So Murphy wasn't much more than a guy who was finishing up the strip for Foster. That went on for ten years. Not many people realize that. If you ever have a chance to see the preliminaries that Foster would do for Murphy, this was between roughly 1970 and 1980, and they're very nice. So he was still very vital in the production of the strip even though he had somewhat given up the reigns. Murphy didn't even have his name on the strip. It was uncredited. It was just "Hal Foster's Prince Valiant." Foster wasn't signing them, but neither was Murphy. That went on until about 1980.

Whereas with me, when I would assist Murphy, he'd just send me a blank sheet of paper. And of course the script. His son wrote the scripts, and his son had been somewhat tutored by Foster in terms of writing. So there was this smooth transition from Foster to the Murphys and it worked out very well. It was seamless, as a matter of fact. And yet with me it was just sort of handed over. I'm still talking about when I would assist him.

He'd send me the script. He'd send me any reference that he had or maybe some sense of what the current characters that were in the strip would look like. But I still never saw it on Sundays, so I really had no idea what I was doing. It wasn't easy. And when he'd receive any page from me, he'd make changes. He was very handy with an ink eraser. Of course it was his strip so I had no qualms about him making any changes. As a matter of fact there were times when if I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be doing in this panel or that panel, he'd said, leave it for me, I'll do it. He was very easy to get along with and he genuinely seemed to enjoy what I was doing. He had a good sense of humor. I think the few times there was a major change he would just tell me, "Don't think of it as a correction," just think of it as an old man who's set in his ways. So he was really great about it.

And it was a real learning curve for me, because, well, I was never a Foster guy. I guess Murphy looked at a lot of illustrators and book artists and so on, but he liked the fact that my stuff had a traditional look to it and seemed to be more influenced by older illustrators than just by looking at Foster. Or Murphy, for that matter. He really didn't want somebody who was just going to copy stuff and just do the same old thing. I think he was looking for somebody who could bring something a little new to it.

But when I was in art school, I remember we had Disney studios come to the school and they were not interested in samples of how well you could draw Mickey Mouse. They wanted to see good drawing and good figure work. And so it's much the same way with a strip like this. I think he wanted to find somebody who could make a good picture. I'm sure there were a lot of guys who could make good pictures out there but for some reason he seemed to like what I was doing. So it kind of developed from there.

You never read "Prince Valiant" before working on it. Were you just familiar with Foster and aware of the strip's existence?

I had a few books on "Prince Valiant," but I never really followed the strip. I knew about it. And of course I thought Foster was a great artist, a terrific illustrator doing tremendous stuff, but I can't say I had much more than a general understanding of the strip. I didn't even know Prince Valiant had a family. So I was really way behind on the strip when I first got involved in it. Which is ironic, actually, because there are many artists out there who have followed Val and have a good grasp of the thing. I still run into people who know so much more about the strip than I do. But I'm learning. I've had to get up to speed on it pretty quickly.

When you started, Murphy's son Cullen was writing the strip and after you took over he left and Mark Schultz came onboard as the writer. What's different in how they approach the strip?

Well, I think with Cullen Murphy, who at the time was the Managing Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, he was a very busy guy and he was working on "Prince Valiant" because he liked working with his father. And once his father retired, he was really looking for a way out himself. He even told me that it's time to turn it over and look for some new ideas for the strip. Working with him, I was a little more deferential with him in terms of whatever he sent me week to week, I pretty much would just follow his story line. I was just really still learning. I didn't really suggest any different tacks we could take on a story. It just kind of went the status quo, as if he were still working with his father.

Once he decided he wanted to leave, which was after about four or five months, I managed to bring Mark into the picture. The difference was in the fact that it was a lot more organic. I've known Mark for a long time. I respect him and he's also a friend and I knew that he and I were pretty much on the same page as far as this stuff goes because we've talked about it quite a bit. And I knew that I'd be able to take a little more of the "Marvel" approach to the story. Where Mark might suggest a broad story line and break it down into weeks and then send me this breakdown and then I'd start working it out. And if I had any different ideas I'd call him up and it would go back and forth. We'd change things. Even from week to week we might make some changes in our long range plans. So it's a lot more give and take.

I feel very comfortable working with Mark just in terms of the way we can bounce back and forth off each other. It's a lot more seamless, I think. And of course he's also a terrific artist and he knows some of the limitations that one runs into with this kind of material, especially in a comic strip. So he's more inclined to be thinking in terms of it as an artist and not just as a writer. I've worked with some people in the past-I'm not talking about Cullen--there have been some people in the past I've worked with who don't really understand the mechanics of comics and I think at times maybe they think they're writing for a movie. They'll suggest several actions in one panel and so on which is so hard to do. You really need somebody who knows the comic book medium. Or in this case, a comic strip medium. This is different again from the comic book medium. Mark had written some stuff for comic strips too so he was very well versed and as I said it's working out very well.

What has it been like adjusting to the comic strip format, where the size and the layout and the color quality change from one newspaper to another?

The format breaks down differently. I set it up as a tabloid where it's long and it runs in a vertical. The strip happens to run in a horizontal fashion in many newspapers, they have to reconstruct the blocks, or panels, so they have this very tight grid that needs to be worked within and at times it really limits what I can do with the page. Of course with a comic book, all bets are off as far as how you tell a story, it runs the gamut from A to Z. So there are limitations in comic strips that still make me bristle but nevertheless, that's the medium. There's not much you can do with it. I try to be as creative as I can within the parameters, but that's the nature of that particular beast.

What's your process? What happens after Schultz sends you his outline?

I'll read his general outline for that week and just try to visualize in a series of little doodles. They're very little more than just a doodle, but I'll lay out the page. And then I'll send it back to him. It only takes me about an hour to do that, where I'll work out the rough. And I'll fax it back to him and from that he can write the actual captions because now he can see what's happening and the pacing of that page. As I said, it's a little more organic where we're back and forth a little bit more like a ping-pong game. And while he's writing the captions for the week, I'll begin the actual finishes, working out the pencils a lot more tightly and then finishing the ink. The whole process takes about four days to do a "Prince Valiant" page. And at the end of the week he'll send the completed script back to me. I may even alter some of his captions if I see that the space is such that the captions aren't going to fit.

You're coming out with an art book on "Prince Valiant" early next year. What led you to assemble this and what can we expect to see in it?

Well, I think what you're going to see in it is pretty much what you and I have just talked about. Although there you'll be able to see a lot of the visuals in terms of preliminaries, pencils, the development of the strip. I use a lot of photographic reference in this strip. That's another thing I should point out. When I started doing "Prince Valiant," Murphy used to suggest to me that I should use more photo reference. In my comics, when I worked on "The Shadow" or my own stuff like "Monstermen," a lot more was made up. But "Prince Valiant" requires a certain degree of accuracy that I wasn't comfortable with so Murphy suggested, why don't you use reference. Particularly with things like horses, I'm a city boy and horses were always difficult for me to draw. So there's a lot more reference, just a ton of photographic material that I use for "Prince Valiant."

A lot of people are surprised by that. Actually, I'm surprised that they're surprised. Or else they might be giving me more credit than I deserve. I'm no genius. I need a lot of photo reference for "Prince Valiant." And I also need to look at what Foster and Murphy did also. This is the sort of thing you'll find contained within that book. I hope it doesn't come across too much like a pedantic volume. I tried to keep it as light as possible. And I also show examples of things that I've done in the past that have led up to "Prince Valiant," helped me get the job in the first place. I even show some of Foster's preliminaries and how Murphy had to work his finishes from Foster's preliminaries. So I'm sure the book will appeal to students and hopefully it will appeal to people who genuinely just enjoy comic art in particular. So that's the sort of thing you'll see in the book and I hope that people will get a chance to see it. It'll be coming out next spring from Flesk Publications.

And coming out this fall is "Gentlemen of the Road" by Michael Chabon, a novel you've illustrated.

It comes out the end of October. That particular project was a joy to do. Michael Chabon managed to write just a wonderfully whimsical, grand, swashbuckling adventure that I haven't seen done since maybe some of the pulp stuff of the '30s. It's in the vein of Talbot Mundy and Rudyard Kipling, [Robert E.] Howard and Rafael Sabatini. It has a lot of sources its drawing from and it's even dedicated to Michael Moorcock. He's really doing some fun things with the genre which I think the general reader might not be familiar with. So I think the book will have a broad appeal. I was very delighted to be included in working on it.

How did you end up being involved in this project?

I guess Chabon suggested me. I believe he suggested me, although it may have been some of the editors at Del Rey. I've done some other books which Del Rey has published, the Robert E. Howard books. But apparently Chabon has been familiar with my work. I think he felt I might be able to delineate his passages in a way that fit his intent, which is something I'm very conscientious of as a book illustrator. I try to keep in mind the tone of the author's work and I try to make sure that the illustrations don't interfere with the text and what the author's trying to accomplish.

Is that difficult to go back and forth between "Prince Valiant" and a book illustration where what the purpose of the image, your approach to it, almost everything is different?

That's a very good question. There's a lot of screeching and grinding of gears in my head between these endeavors. I think illustrations, comic books and comic strips, as much as there are similarities they're also differences. And yes indeed there is a great deal of scene changing in terms of how you think. I won't get into all the technical points, but there is a big difference between the three and at times it's hard to be objective. I think I've developed a fairly good grasp at being able to jump back and forth on this stuff. Also it's just as difficult to jump back and forth from black and white pen line illustration to full color oil painting. There are a lot of little compartments inside an artist's head and he just has to find the right door to each one of these little aspects he's grappling with at the moment.

Have we seen the last of "Monstermen?"

No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I have one particular story that I'm dying to do. I was just talking with Mike Mignola the other day about where we could find a place I might be able to place it within some of his books. And that's something that is slow going in terms of getting that done because of all the other things I have going on. That's one of the nearest and dearest things to me because then I have a chance to just completely do in a way you're always wearing your strong suit when you're doing everything, writing and drawing, creating a whole package like that. There's no second guessing. Or at least I don't feel somewhat confined to others expectations as much. It's pretty much just me in the drivers seat, so that's pretty appealing, to any artist, when he has that chance. So I really would like to get that strip going again.

CBR: Do you have anything else in the works?

Through Flesk Publications I'm going to reissue "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," which I had published myself in a small run about six or seven years ago. I'm re-tailoring it somewhat and adding some new material to the back of it. That book will probably come out next year.

I originally did it for Classic Illustrated when they were redoing that series in the '90s. There were a lot of really talented artists working on them, people like Gahan Wilson and Rick Geary and a lot of guys who aren't coming to mind at the moment. They folded at some point and I had just finished adapting "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" for them so I put it out myself. I put out a limited edition and it sold out fairly quickly, I was surprised. And I keep getting people asking about it so it might be time we reissued that in some other form.

Updated 9/27/07 - After reading this interview, Gary Gianni sent along the following note as clarification for some of his statements above. "I did not mean to diminish John Cullen Murphy's role as Foster's assistant on 'Prince Valiant.'

"Although I stated he was working from Foster's tight pencil layouts and was 'a wrist man,' he was certainly a far, far better artist than that would imply. As a matter of fact, I wish Foster would have given him more artistic license early on in their collaboration of the strip.

For almost 10 years, he was under Foster's heavy supervision. For all the work he did between 1970 and 1980, he never received credit. This did not seem to bother Mr. Murphy. On the contrary, it speaks volumes concerning his commitment to Foster's vision and his own deferential manner. He was a tremendous talent in his own right and the strip took some interesting turns once he and his son Cullen were able to tell Val's stories themselves."

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