Sunday, September 18, 2011


The Unstoppable Artistry of William Stout

I've often used this blog to eulogize fallen comrades who have exited this world and, in their passing, left it a duller less imaginative place. But today I am glad to celebrate the life of a hugely influential artist who is still very much alive and kicking. Today we send warm birthday wishes to William Stout! You probably don’t realize it, but your mind has already been invaded by Mr. Stout's fantastic and downright ubiquitous art. In a career spanning more than four decades, the tireless creative whirlwind with the bandana around his neck has applied his talents to such a broad array of cherished cultural detritus that to accurately summarize his resume would require more than a simple blog post. If you doubt that his masterful design, technical brilliance and versatile stylistic repertoire have already completely colonized your imagination, consider this: the man storyboarded Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and First Blood (1982). He designed creatures for Predator (1987), Invaders From Mars (1986) and The Mist (2007). He provided production design for Conan The Barbarian in 1982 (yes, and Conan The Destroyer in 1984), The Hitcher (1986), House (1986), Masters of the Universe (1987), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Return of The Living Dead (1985) and more than 20 other films that have embedded themselves into your hippocampus like so many rabid weasels. He even worked on Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, which is undoubtedly why all that undead disco shuffling looked so badass! Stout is also an accomplished comic and poster artist, theme park designer, writer, amateur paleontologist, conservationist, lecturer, convention circuit celebrity, father and devoted husband. Sorta makes you feel like a slack-jawed slow zombie, doesn’t it? Attentive headbangers may recognize traces of Stout’s swiped artwork on underground releases by such cherished acts as Autopsy, whose highly sought double live 7” Tortured Moans of Agony features a blown-out reproduction of a design sketch Stout created for Return of The Living Dead (lovingly known as the "Half-Corpse"), and Cryptic Slaughter who unceremoniously added a Mohican to Stout’s drawing for the early 80’s horror comic Twisted Tales and used it for their Banned in S.M. cover art. Stout’s iconic poster art for Ralph Bakshi’s 1977 animated classic Wizards (the very first commercial movie poster of his career!) wielded noticeable influence on a young artist named Michel Langevin who in turn gave Stout’s rendering of the character Necron 99 something of a Tarkus overhaul for the debut 1983 Voivod demo Anachronism. The tendrils of Stout’s creative legacy have indeed slithered into seemingly every dark recess of popular culture. Even now there is a gentle tugging in your skull as his forward-looking nostalgia takes control. Yes, you may not have known him by name but the prolific and frequently “uncredited” talent known as William Stout had his creative fingers in your grey matter long before you became the liver damaged cretin stumbling over these words. Today we celebrate his 62nd birthday and acknowledge the fact that he has absolutely no intentions of letting up. Resistance is futile!

Here is Stout's original drawing for the reader mail page of Twisted Tales comic, circa 1982.

And here is Stout's unofficially "punked" drawing as it appears on Cryptic Slaughter's Banned in S.M. release.

Dennis Dread: You've been around long enough to see technology completely change the arts and film industry. I'm curious how you think accessible technology such as the Internet might be affecting our imaginations as a species?

William Stout: Like all new technology, there are good aspects and bad aspects. I think the main bad aspect is that the internet encourages laziness. I often find myself tempted not to do research beyond what I’ve found on the internet. Until I started using Google Images I pretty much knew where almost every single image was in my vast reference library that I might need for a project. Not anymore. I’ve forgotten most of that information because I rarely use my reference library now. Most of what I need can be found through Google. A narrowing of information can unknowingly limit one’s imagination. I think that’s both foolish and dangerous. I think the main good aspect is the phenomenal access we have to people, information and images from around the world. This access can provide enormous inspiration to our imaginations.

One of the many qualities I've always admired about your work is how effortless it appears. You really make drawing look easy! Do you stress at the drawing table or does it really come as easy as it appears?

The trick with all great art is making the enormous amount of work that goes into each piece not show- to make it look like it just happened- creating the illusion of effortlessness. I totally stress over a lot of my stuff. I don’t draw nearly as well as I think I should. I am constantly checking my art, revising it, simplifying it where I can, stressing when I can’t…Most great artists I know are their own harshest critics. The public has no idea how much we demean and critically rip apart the things we create. That’s why when given a compliment about a particular piece the artist may seem less than enthusiastic. Often the artist looks at his picture and just sees its flaws.

Stout did this brilliant portrait of Robert Johnson just a few years ago, in a style similar to Robert Crumb on his Heroes of the Blues collector cards.

You devote a great deal of time and energy to research before diving into a project, for instance your anatomical studies for Return of the Living Dead and your firsthand field research in Antarctica. I'm reminded how guys like Harvey Kurtzman and later Jack Jackson would delve into obscure history to inform and enrich their comic narratives. Was Kurtzman's intense work ethic an early influence?

Absolutely. I call it the “Kurtzman Curse”. Since working with Kurtzman & Elder on Little Annie Fanny I have become obsessive about authenticity. Kurtzman never assumed knowledge. Even though he may have drawn a particular hand position thousands of times, he would always pose his other hand and draw it from life as if it were the first time he was seeing it in that pose. One day I had to draw a fire hydrant for a scene in Annie. I drew it from memory. Harvey looked at and said, “Let’s go outside.” We left the studio and found an actual fire hydrant. Harvey pointed out the subtle details I had forgotten. I sketched the hydrant on the spot, then brought my sketch back to the studio and redrew the hydrant in the strip from my visual notes. It’s little things like that that add so much to what we do and take it to the next level of quality.

"I can feel myself rot." Autopsy 7" featuring Stout's uncredited design sketch for the "Half Corpse" from Return of the Living Dead.

Original Stout design sketch of the Tar Man!

On average, how would you break down your time on a typical project from research, to sketches, to final product?

I have no typical projects. Every job is different. I’ll draw a T-shirt design one day, a comic book cover the next, followed by some theme park design, after which I’ll create a creature for a movie. I love being a freelancer; I’m never bored. In trying to answer your question, however, I spend about 10-20% of my time coming up with a concept and design I like, another 20-40% of my time on research and about 40-60% of my time on the finish. Penciling is slow (my pencils are very detailed), inking is faster, and coloring I can do very quickly. Typically, with an 18” x 24” oil painting I spend Day One doing thumbnails, laying in the picture’s values (dark & light systems) in umber and painting the local color to establish the painting’s color scheme. On Day Two I go back and forth between drawing and painting on the canvas, constantly refining the picture. On Day Three I continue with the draw-paint-draw-paint and then take a few hours to add the finishing touches.

You've frequently referred to yourself as a political conservative but I think perhaps our generations have very different understandings of what that means. Can you illuminate your political perspective, how it has evolved and how it might influence your art?

I describe myself as a conservative primarily because I believe in conserving. I feel it is our responsibility as citizens to conserve our nation’s beauty- which includes Nature’s beauty as represented by our wildlife and undeveloped lands- and to conserve its cultural traditions like regional cooking, for example, which is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by uninspired, unhealthy and homogenous fast food. I believe in fighting for the rapidly disappearing traditions of manners and intelligent discourse. I am appalled by the so-called “news” channels that seem to have abandoned their responsibilities in delivering solid news to the public in favor of mindless talking heads chatting and opining about the news. I’m a strong supporter of our National Parks system, one of the best ideas America ever had. I strongly support old-fashioned ideals like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and separation of Church and State. I was appalled by the passing of the Patriot Act and am still appalled that any aspect of this attack on our fundamental liberties is still being implemented. I think monopolies are a terrible idea but in recent times our government seems to have embraced them and protected them instead of fighting them. I see the acquisition and consolidation of different media into colossal media conglomerates as one of the most dangerous aspects of our current culture. I believe that what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom should be nobody’s business but their own. Gays in the military? Not even an issue; there have always been gays in the military. I guess I could best be described as a Teddy Roosevelt or Barry Goldwater conservative Republican, which nowadays seems to put me way to the left of the wackos that seem to be dominating the GOP’s public discourse. As a strong environmentalist (which I see as a conservative issue), a lot of the art I create is political, as it is created to generate public awareness as to what we might be losing. I try to use my art subversively to begin conversations as to how things like our world’s beautiful untamed lands and wildlife might be preserved and protected.

Slow Death #7 featuring Stout cover art, circa 1977.

Speaking of subversion, you were sort of on the margins of the late 1960’s underground comix scene and made a successful leap into more mainstream commercial work relatively quickly. How were you received by the more transgressive artists of that era?

Although I was a latecomer to the underground scene- although my first underground comic, Those Loveable Peace-Nuts, was published in 1967- I was fully embraced by comix artists like Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, Spain Rodriguez…well, all of the Zap guys, I guess…plus folks like Trina Robbins and Richard Corben. Despite my mainstream work, I’ve never stopped being subversive. I created the Mickey at 60 underground comic, for example, while I was working as a full time consultant for Walt Disney Imagineering.

Have you ever been concerned with the sort of underground notion of "selling out"? Is there any work that you might refuse on principles of personal ethics?

I think there’s a real difference between making decent or good money and “selling out”. I think artists tend to undervalue their work. I’ve fought for artists’ rights for a long time. I give free business lectures to young artists. Just because you’re being paid well for your work doesn’t mean you’ve sold out. I made up my mind a long time ago (with some nudging from my friend Jean “Moebius” Giraud) to assess each job that comes my way and refuse to do it if it is detrimental to our society or if it does not benefit our society in some way. I won’t do any tobacco advertising, for example. I won’t do anything that encourages or supports the harming of children or animals. I have to be able to look my kids in the eyes and at myself in the mirror.

Stout's beautiful and iconic poster art for Ralph Bakshi's Wizards!
And here is Michel "Away" Langevin's killer drawing for the debut Voivod demo! Away is certainly no hack but I don't think it's too much of a stretch to recognize Stout's influence on his composition here. Fuck, I LOVE this drawing!

You've worked within the high-stakes entertainment industry for several decades and yet you seem to have retained your integrity and credibility as an artist. So many others seem to get chewed up and spit out by the competitiveness of the industry but you don't seem bitter or jaded at this stage of your career. What has been your secret to longevity in the field?

I don’t seem bitter or jaded? We need to talk more…

Actually, there are two main things that get me through all the Hollywood/Show Biz bullshit. One is my sense of self worth. Artists think that if they roll over and give in during a contract negotiation that the producer will consider the artist to be a good guy and that it will aid the artist in getting the job. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you are in negotiations, you are playing the producer’s game. If you immediately buckle under then you’re playing that game poorly --- you look like a schmuck in the producer’s eyes. He loses respect for you. If you’re clever and present a strong case for your side of the negotiation…well, that’s something a producer admires. You are playing his game well. The second thing is even more important: my sense of humor. In fact, when I’m functioning as the production designer on a film, if you don’t have a strong sense of humor, I won’t hire you. I’ve found it’s the way-too-serious people who always crack under pressure. A great joke or witty remark at the right time is sometimes all a situation needs to break the tension on the set and relieve some of that pressure.

Your promotional art for Steve Miner's film House (1986) was something of a nod to your earlier frontispiece for Slow Death #7 (1977) with the zombie soldier reading a comic in a war-torn alley. Was that an intentional reference or am I just a hopeless nerd for noticing the similarity?

Hopeless nerd, I’m afraid [Doh!]. I draw lots of zombies (especially lately) and, because I’m the guy drawing them, they tend to have a similarity in style. You might have noticed that most of the zombies I draw look like they’re having a good time, too. So, there’s that similarity as well. And both zombies you mentioned are wearing Army uniforms. In both cases, that look was part of the solution to each picture’s visual problems. Nothing more was intended.

Frontispiece art for Slow Death #7. I love the clean lettering and powerful cinematic chiaroscuro technique he achieves with this one! It's no surprise that he would soon make the leap into Hollywood and carve out a wonderful career for himself.

I thought I was on to something here but, as it turns out, I'm just a hopeless nerd.

Do dinosaurs tell us anything about the future of the planet or our own evolution as a species?

They do if we’re paying attention. I always laugh when people refer to dinosaurs as failures. The human race should be so lucky to have such longevity! One hundred million years! We’ll be fortunate to survive a decent fraction of that.

What do you think of the late Greg Irons' dinosaur artwork?

I thought Greg’s stuff was terrific. He was very conscientious in his reconstructions. Irons was being advised by a fine paleontologist, my pal Rob Long. Greg’s stuff inspired several pieces in my book The Dinosaurs – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era. He was a dear friend; I miss Greg a lot. Irons was one of the first artists I met who knew the value of his work. I respected him for that, even though it meant I couldn’t afford some of the pieces I wanted to buy.

Here is just one example of the late and very great Greg Irons' dinosaur illustrations that I found online. If I have time I'll scan some better images from his children's coloring books. R.I.P.

And here is a fantastic example of Stout's amazing dinosaur illustrations, perhaps showing a bit of Frazetta influence in the foreground composition and detail.

You were commissioned by the Chinese government to design a dinosaur museum in Zigong, China. How is that developing? Is the museum open to the public yet?

Honestly, I do a job like designing a theme park and then move on to the next gig. I don’t keep track of whether or not they’re made unless I get called back to do some more work on them. I’m pretty sure they built the museum; Zigong is a huge Chinese tourist destination. I don’t know how many (if any) of my concepts and designs were used.

Do you still visit Antarctica regularly?

I try. Friend and paleontologist Bill Hammer (he discovered Cryolophosaurus, the first dinosaur discovered on mainland Antarctica) keeps promising to take me on a dinosaur dig in Antarctica, but the logistics and funding always seem to fall through at the last minute. Plus, I need to clear away some work time for such a trip as well as stockpile a bunch of dough for my wife to live on for the months I’m away and not earning any income. I am determined to get back ASAP, however. It’s been awhile and I need to finish my Antarctica book.

For more insight into William Stout’s artwork and production design be sure to grab a copy of The Comics Journal (Winter 2003) and The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead by Christian Sellers and Gary Smart published by Plexus (2010)! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BILL!


Jorge A. Trejos I. said...

Awesome post. I didn't know this artist, great work.

Ryan S. said...

Great interview, thanks man. Also, how did I never notice that Voivod/Wizards thing? It all seems so obvious now...