William Stout Sings the "Blues"

Stout's new book from Abrams ComicArts is a departure for the artist. "The Legends of the Blues" is a celebration of the great American art form and highlights the lives and work of one hundred musicians. Stout is a longtime fan of the blues, and he spoke with CBR News about the project, thinking about portraiture and some of the choices he made in depicting people. He also discussed his time working as an assistant to Russ Manning on the "Tarzan" comic strip, which is currently being reprinted in four volumes by the Library of American Comics.

CBR News: You talk about this a little in the book, but for people who don't know, where did this project come from?

William Stout: "Legends of the Blues," from start to finish, has been a total labor of love. I would have completed this project whether I had a book deal or not.

It all began in 2003, the year the United States named as official The Year of the Blues. Shout! Factory decided to issue several "Best of" collections of prominent blues artists. For the CD cover art they got permission to use the images from Robert Crumb's "Heroes of the Blues" trading card set. There were a few musicians that Robert hadn't drawn, however, and Crumb did not want to do anymore in that series.

The president of Shout!, Richard Foos (a co-founder of Rhino Records), is an old friend of mine (I created the cartoon logo for Rhino Records). He asked if I would draw Ma Rainey, Mississippi Fred McDowell and J. B. Lenoir in the same format as the Crumb cards. I agreed.

I wasn't prepared for the fun and joy of this experience. I did not want to stop. I drew Robert Johnson in the same format, just for myself.

Not too much later I got diagnosed with prostate cancer. I had about two months of recuperation following my surgery. Never one to just sit around, I made a list of all my favorite blues musicians --- excluding the ones that Crumb had already drawn. I began to do portraits of each one in the same format as my first four. Before I knew it, I had fifty portraits completed.

I then made a list of my fifty favorite British blues musicians and drew them -- I just had to draw Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimi Page. I made another list of fifty modern blues artists as well -- I couldn't leave out Paul Butterfield, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jack White, now, could I?

I approached my friend Denis Kitchen, the original publisher of Crumb's music trading cards, about publishing my portraits as a card set. He suggested, instead, that I publish them as a book. I took on Denis as my book agent and he sold the project to Abrams ComicArts, who had success with the collection of Crumb music images in their book "Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country." They asked that I expand my book to one hundred entries. I happily complied.

Now people who know a lot of your work, whether your dinosaur murals, your movie work, your monster work or your comics, portraiture isn't what people would have likely expected from you. You've done album covers in addition to things like movie posters in the past but I'm curious what the most exciting and challenging elements of a project like this were for you, because it does feel a little different than much of your other work.

It seems very different to me, too, from what I "normally" do. When I began this project in earnest, I set forth a number of goals for myself:

Get Robert Crumb's blessing on this project. If he felt I was ripping him off or impinging upon his turf, I would have ended the project right then and there.

Don't duplicate Robert's choices. I ended up repeating just two of the musicians in Robert's blues card set: Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson. Those two meant so much to me I just couldn't leave them out.

Dig deep. I didn't want to just copy photos. I searched high and low for photos of the musicians I chose that exhibited what I called "messed up" qualities (I actually used a more vulgar term). I wanted that odd take, something that revealed their humanity more than a polished studio publicity photo. I then emphasized that humanity in the drawings I did.

Don't repeat color schemes. Similar (or the same) color schemes could get very boring over the course of perusing one hundred images. My subjects were never boring, so nothing about this book should be boring, either. I'm pretty damn good when it comes to color, but this goal really pushed me into places I had never gone.

I wanted longer bios than are present in the Crumb book. I wanted to write them myself so that in the process of doing research on each entry I could learn much more than I had previously known about these amazing musicians. Including recommended songs and interesting cover versions was important to me as well; I wanted this book to feel very, very personal.

I was once told by a great filmmaker that I have "the common touch." He told me he recognized that I seem to intuitively know what the general public finds interesting and that I have the ability to communicate that with words and images that the public finds appealing. I hope he's right!

It's easy to think of the book and this project as you taking the aesthetic look and sensibility that Crumb established and using that as a style guide almost. Can you talk about to what degree that's true?

Yes and no. As stated, I worked in the same trading card format as Crumb but I tried to put my own spin on each image. I work in a lot of different styles. The pen inking style I chose you could say on the surface is a blend between Crumb and Jean "Moebius" Giraud but, honestly, I think each picture is in my own style, mostly due to the goals I set and the quantity I was asked to produce.

Something similar happened to me in the creation of my 1981 book "The Dinosaurs: A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era." In my opinion, I didn't have my own style back then; I was still experimenting and searching. I began by aping the art styles of my favorite children's book illustrators: Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Edward Detmold, N. C. Wyeth, Franklin Booth, etc. That went well at first. With the amount of illustrations I planned for the book and my looming deadline for completion, I quickly dropped that notion and began to draw and paint as fast as I could. Out of that large body of work my own style emerged.

With "Legends of the Blues" I was conscious from the get-go that there would be comparisons between Crumb's work and mine, so I never tried to consciously ape Robert's work and did what I could to make my work different from his.

Many of the portraits are very straightforward but others are more playful and you took a different tact with them. I'm thinking of your portrait of Robert Johnson. Why did you choose to draw him that way?

In general, I didn't want to do "straight" portraits. I wanted something personal in each portrait, some sort of indication as to their life or music. I wasn't always successful in that goal but that's pretty much what I tried to adhere to with each portrait.

There are only two known photographs -- a third one may have surfaced recently -- of Robert Johnson, so everybody works from one of those two photos when they draw him. I decided to combine both photos. To give my portrait an even more personal touch and to differentiate it from all the other Robert Johnson portraits, I decided to draw the pupils of his eyes as little skulls, a subtle indication of Johnson's short, dangerous life.

A different sort of challenge was the fact that you drew a portrait of Clarence "Pine Top" Smith. Talk a little about your thinking as far as including him and the choices you made in depicting him.

For that one I had to put on my Sherlock Holmes deerstalker, as there is no known photograph of Pine Top. He was too important to the history of the blues not to be included, however. Since he wasn't called "Big" Pine Top or (ironically) "Tiny" Pine Top I felt it was safe to assume he wasn't overweight, so I drew him with a slight-to-medium build. Most musicians smoked back then, so I gave him a cigarette, the smoke of which helped to obscure his features, which I pretty much kept in silhouette. I gave him a style of suit popular at the time, as well as a hairstyle that was fairly common among African American musicians of that era.

I've asked about the artwork, but you also wrote the book as well. You mentioned you're a big fan of jazz, so how much research and work was involved in writing the book?

The research and writing took much longer than the art. I also spent thousands of hours listening to hundreds of CDs to determine whom I would include in the book. One basic rule of inclusion was that I had to love their music. There were a few prominent musicians I left out because their music for some reason or another just didn't speak to me on a deep, personal level.

I also wanted to include unusual tidbits I thought the readers would find fascinating, so that took some digging, too.

My original bio for Louis Jordan ran eight pages long, as he remains one of the most important and successful African American musicians of all time. When it comes to chart success, Stevie Wonder is a very, very distant second place to Jordan's first place honors. It was sheer agony compressing Louis Jordan's life to fit onto just one page. At one point I was really tempted to make him the sole exception in the book and give him two or three pages of biographical material but, ultimately, I didn't do that. I found ways to trim, cut and edit yet still reveal lots about this guy and his life without leaving out too much.

You mentioned that this was to your mind the first of three books on the blues. Have you started working or thinking about the other two?

The first fifty drawings for "Legends of the British Blues" are inked but not colored. My music friends were surprised that I was going for another hundred; they didn't think there were that many important British blues musicians. Fifty, sure -- but one hundred? In actuality, I've had to exclude a few Brits from the list of a hundred.

At least half a dozen of the portraits for "Modern Legends of the Blues" are finished. Some were drawn and painted for "Legends of the Blues" but got excluded once I decided upon a born-prior-to-1930 cut-off. Almost none of the text for either book has been written, although much of it has been started.

Just to switch gears a little, the Library of American Comics is collecting Russ Manning's complete run of "Tarzan" comics in four volumes with the first coming out next month. You wrote the forward and you worked as Manning's assistant for a while. Can you tell us how you got that job and what it entailed?

All I can say is, thank God for fanzines!

I subscribed to the ERB [Edgar Rice Burroughs] fanzine "ERB-dom." During this period, around 1970, ERB's "I Am a Barbarian" -- the life of Caligula as told by his personal slave -- was published for the first time in book form. Jeff Jones drew the illustrations. Quite frankly, I was not impressed by what Jeff had done, so I drew a whole set of my own illustrations for the book and sent them in to "ERB-dom." I drew each illustration in the style of a different artist, choosing the works of Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Reed Crandall and Roy G. Krenkel, for example, as inspiration. The picture I drew in the style of Carmine Infantino as inked by Murphy Anderson caught Russ Manning's eye. He saw potential for me as a possible assistant on the "Tarzan of the Apes" Sunday and daily newspaper strips. He got my contact info from "ERB-dom's" editor and called me, offering me a job as his assistant. I jumped at the chance and a great relationship began. I inked everything except Tarzan himself and a few of the main characters. I also colored the Sundays. Russ taught me the importance of deadlines. My lettering skills were still pretty weak back then, so Russ lettered the strips.

We did three graphic novels together as well. I still think apprenticeship is one of the best ways for an artist to learn his or her craft.

I'm also curious about your own thoughts about "Tarzan" and what you love about the character and about Manning's take in particular.

I was a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs fan as a teen. I loved drawing his characters. ERB created so many illustrative opportunities within the pages of his books. Before I saw his take on "Tarzan," I was already a big Russ Manning fan thanks to his beautiful work on "Magnus Robot Fighter." I was shocked the first time I saw Russ Manning's "Tarzan" in the Gold Key comics, as it was exactly how I pictured Tarzan when I read the Burroughs books.

I love the exotic qualities of the Tarzan books, as well as Tarzan's strong moral center and his relationships with Africa's wildlife. Tarzan's philosophies obviously reflect Burroughs' own thoughts and opinions on many topics. They just happen to coincide with mine. I relish Tarzan's dry sense of humor. And according to Gore Vidal, a huge Burroughs fan, few writers describe action better than Burroughs. I agree.

You're always working on many other projects, but I wanted to ask about the Antarctica project which you've been working on for a number of years. Where does it stand and what part of it have you.

I think it will be my most important book. I intend for it to be the first visual history of life in Antarctica, from prehistoric times to the present day. My goal is one hundred oil paintings. I've completed seventy-five. I've saved the hardest pictures for last. I wanted to have all that brush mileage under my belt before I attempted those final ambitious paintings.

Since I'm doing these paintings on my own time and my own dime, paying jobs take precedence, hence slowing the process of finishing the Antarctica book.

The text will be a mix facts about the prehistoric and contemporary wildlife woven through with autobiographical notes and personal tales of the months I have spent living in Antarctica, scuba diving under the ice, camping out in the Dry Valleys and climbing the active volcano Mount Erebus to explore its ice caves and to peer over its rim to look down upon its lakes of lava.

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