PULP ARTISTS’ WEEKEND-VER CURTISS, RENOWNED COMIC/PULP ARTIST
VER CURTISS, Pulp/Comic Artist
AP: Thanks for joining us, Ver! To start with, how about telling us a little about yourself — in other words, what’s the secret origin of Ver Curtiss?
VC: The secret origin? Well, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret! But what I can tell you is that I live in Northern Virginia with my wife Linda. My wife is the Virginia native, but I lived in Idaho, California, and Tokyo before finding myself on the East Coast. Besides doing my art, I run a small, one-man computer troubleshooting company (since art doesn’t really pay the bills). So until I find the proverbial rich “patron of the arts” who can’t live without my art, I’ll spend my days chasing virii, Trojans, worms, and other nasty data-eating critters, while producing art on weekends and between clients.
AP: You’re quite an accomplished artist — what mediums do you like to work in?
VC: Thanks! Though I’m not always sure what my art is really accomplishing. Actually, it would be easier to ask which media I don’t like to work in. As a self-taught artist, ink and graphite are my two oldest friends. Seems like just about every artist starts with pencils and pens, just after graduating from crayons. I also like using fine-tipped ink pens and markers. But I really love using Sumi ink and a brush. Sumi’s a Japanese ink made of soot and ash, which is much darker than standard India ink. Of course, the brush takes a lot more time than markers, but the results can be well worth it. I enjoy sculpting, though I don’t get to do it very much because of the cost of materials and the cost to my back (I live with chronic back pain, and sculpting can tend to really aggravate it; much more than the art table or easel). Photography’s always been a favorite of mine, as has painting. I’ve used acrylics and watercolors a lot in the past, but I’ve been teaching myself oils these last few years. With water-soluble oil paints, it’s easy to get some really nice results without my entire home smelling of turpentine and linseed oil. I also love using the airbrush, but the tedious cleaning of all the little parts can be a real buzz-kill. And I like my art to be fun.
As you can tell, I prefer keeping things “old skool” in my artwork, but I’m not against doing stuff digitally when appropriate. I’ve actually been using the computer to help my art for about twelve years. But unlike a lot of the “new skool” digital artists out there, I see the computer as more of a tool than an all-inclusive solution. Pure digital art just seems to lack “soul” to me, for some reason. I’d rather ink or paint by hand, but there are some things which are easier and quicker on the computer. Like any good medium, I think the computer should free the artist rather than constrain him. ANY medium should merely be a means to an end, and that end is self-expression.
Lastly, I really enjoy making art from the unexpected, what some would refer to as “found art”. For instance, a few years back, when all my clients insisted on giving me all the CDs they were getting in the mail, I found myself gifted with spindles and spindles of AOL, NetZero, Prodigy, and a plethora of other promotional CDs. As soon as the client would say something like, “I hate to just throw these away, and figured you could use them,” I knew I was going to be handed a bunch of AOL CDs. So after receiving literally hundreds of them, I decided to start making cyber-skulls out of the CDs and worthless computer components (also gifted to me). Some of the skulls would appear to grow from old motherboards, some had pulsing neon lights, etc. Just last week, I saw a picture of my CD skulls on a major Steampunk site and a German Web page; I don’t know how they found them, but it was cool seeing that they were finally being appreciated. But they aren’t the only “found art” I produce. Recently, I found a perfectly preserved dead bumble bee on the sidewalk next to my mailbox, and created what can only be called a “Cyber-Bee” or “Steampunk Bee”. It took a lot of traditional small watch parts and some very small electronics, but turned out much better than I’d even hoped for. Now the owner of the local art gallery I display at is anxiously awaiting a whole series of Steampunked insects. My good friend Ron Hanna (of Wild Cat Books fame) loved the Cyber-Bee so much, he decided to encourage my art with a gift of ten mounted exotic bugs from Thailand, and I just finished a Steampunk rhinoceros beetle from the collection Ron gave me. Part of me can’t wait to do more, and part of me is asking “What the frak am I doing, super-gluing this this watch jewel to a dead bee’s eyeball?” But I guess that’s art! So I guess you’d call super-glue, broken clockwork, and bug parts my newest media.
AP: What artists inspire your work?
VC: Now that’s quite the question! I’d have to say my earliest inspiration was John Romita (Sr.). I really started drawing when I was about eight or nine. More than anything else, I wanted a Spider-Man poster, and the only way I could get one was to make it myself. So for quite a while, Romita Sr and Ross Andru were the entire art world as far as I was concerned (I was Spidey-crazy as a kid). Not long after that, I discovered John Buscema and some of the other comic luminaries of the time. But as a teenager, I discovered Frank Frazetta, and it was like everything came into focus! Frazetta opened my eyes to the true power of art! After seeing Frazetta, it was no longer a matter of just wanting to reproduce WHAT I saw on the printed page, but now I desired whole-heartedly to learn HOW real art was made and WHY it could speak to me like it did. I wanted to learn all I could about his art which inspired me so.
Since that time, there have been a great number of artists whose work has inspired me. Michael Golden’s early work on the Micronauts taught me the value of contrast. The classic Art Nouveau artists Parrish and Mucha taught me the importance of beauty and elegance in art, etc., etc., etc.. There have been SO many since then, I could never name them all! But I try to learn as much as I can from each one. In recent years, there have been so many important artists in my life! The incredible Steve Rude, Mike Mignola, Kenichi Sonoda, Ugetsu Hakua, Samura Hiroaki, Ryan Sook, Gil Elvgren, Walter Baumhoffer, Shirow Masamune, Andrew Loomis, Dave Stevens, etc., etc., etc. And when I get a bad case of “artists’ block”, all I have to do is pull my Frank Cho books off the shelf, and the beauty and simplicity of his line-work makes me want to draw again!
I guess that’s both the curse and the blessing of being a self-taught artist. When you go to school to learn art, you may have half a dozen influential teachers. When you’re self-taught, you might have hundreds! Each new artist you discover not only touches your soul with the beauty of their work, but they ingrain a little piece of themselves into your artistic style.
AP: How did you come to develop an interest in the pulps?
VC: It seems like such a cliché answer, but I discovered the Doc Savage paperbacks as a kid, and loved them. I’d known of Doc from the short-lived Marvel comics series of the period, and just loved reading a prose novel of the same “super-hero” I was reading about in the comics. I read every Doc Savage novel I could find, and did several book reports on them. I remember one in particular. Not only did I write the report, but decided to jazz it up a bit by drawing a poster-sized reproduction of Boris Vallejo’s beautiful cover. The teacher loved it, and consequently the first A+ she ever gave a book report went to “The Boss of Terror”. After a while, I moved on to other things, as kids will. But almost twenty years later, I happened to be working/living at a group home for juvenile offenders, and discovered a Doc Savage paperback on a shelf of donated books for the kids to read. I picked it up, read it, and found that the magic was still there. Admittedly, it wasn’t the best of the Doc novels (“The Motion Menace”), but it sparked something special again, just like the books did when I was a kid. I asked my supervisor if I could keep it, and started scouring the SanJose bookstores for more Doc Savage books. When I left the group home a few years later, I took with me dozens of great Doc paperbacks, and left behind a bunch of my duplicates, just to inspire future readers. And though I have all the Bantam paperbacks now, I still have that magical first copy of “The Motion Menace”.
From there, the habit just grew. My wife gave me a beautiful copy of the original pulp “The Green Master” for our first wedding anniversary. That was the first true pulp I ever held. Little did she know what she was starting! A couple of years later, I saw Ron Hanna’s newsgroup posting looking for artists for his new pulp fanzine, and thought, “I can draw Doc!” And the rest, as they say, is history.
AP: You have a strong connection to Ron Hanna and Wild Cat Books — can you tell us a little about that?
VC: That first drawing I submitted to him was a real catalyst. It accomplished two things: 1. It introduced me to Ron, and we started corresponding. We met at Pulp Con a few times, and became fast friends. When he decided his life needed a change of scenery, my wife and I offered our spare bedroom to him and his cat (despite my allergies). And we’ve been best buds since. He’s a true brother to me, and we absolutely love doing projects together. 2. That first piece literally revived my art from the dead. In college, I’d worked as full-time lead artist at a graphic design company, as well as doing a twice-weekly cartoon strip for the college paper, all while providing just about any other art the small college needed (murals, graphics for the teachers, yearbook design, special event posters, etc), and trying to do paintings for my own enjoyment as well. I was so burnt out on art by the time I graduated, I didn’t want to do ANY art beyond the occasional doodle during grouphome meetings. So for about five years, my art was as dead as disco. Then when I did that first piece for Ron, I found the fun in my art again, and thought, “I’ll have to draw again sometime.” Ron liked it so much, he asked me if I’d do more work for him, and before I knew it, I was in almost every magazine he published. I look at those old pieces, and just want to gag at how primitive they were. In essence, I was teaching myself how to draw all over again. Art isn’t like riding a bike. You can’t just forget about it for half a decade and hop back on at the place you left off (at least, I couldn’t). You don’t quite start from square one, but it’s darned close!. Yet Ron saw the potential in my art, and kept pushing me to do more, while simultaneously encouraging me to do better. He has a true gift to do what I always refer to as rescuing “lost” artists and writers. A lot of his “kittens” (as he refers to the Wild Cat Books family) have shared their similar experiences with me. He sees a spark of potential, and fuels it into a full creative blaze.
I firmly believe that the creative spark is a huge part of how God made humanity in His own image. People instinctively create! Give any small child a crayon, and they start drawing (often all over the walls if you don’t watch them closely). They don’t need to be told what to draw or how to draw; they just DO it. Play music, and they’ll begin to sing along (usually with their own lyrics, made up on the spot). And if they don’t sing to the music, they’ll dance to it. That’s the Divine spark within the human heart! God is the great Creator, and being made in His image, we have a built-in need to be creative as well. Unfortunately, as we “grow up”, we seem to forget HOW to create, or we just lay that creative nature aside! It’s a real tragedy, but it happens to more people than you’d think. I truly believe the Lord put Ron Hanna on this earth to rescue “lost” creative types: artists, writers, etc. And he does that job wonderfully! Ron rescued my own creative spark, and he continues those rescues to this day.
AP: You’ve worked for Moonstone as well as other publishers — can you tell us a little about what you’ve done for them, specifically about the Black Angel character?
VC: I’ve worked with several publishers, but Moonstone’s been a real dream come true. I’ve always wanted to work for a real comic publisher, and it’s finally happened. I started working with them when Martin Powell (writer extraordinaire) introduced Joe Gentile (Moonstone’s publisher) to some of the work I’d produced for Ron, portraying the pulp character Domino Lady. Not only was Martin involved with Wild Cat Books, but he was also one of the lead writers on the Moonstone prose collection of original Domino Lady stories. Joe Liked what he saw, I guess, and the next thing I know, I’m working on the Domino Lady prose book, providing an illustration for each of the stories. It was a lot of fun. When Moonstone decided to do a revival of “Air Fighters”, including Black Angel, they asked me if I’d be interested. They didn’t have to ask twice! And the really cool part was the fact that I got to work with Martin Powell again! He’s writing the adventures, and they’re absolutely great! I can’t wait to see the characters all develop and see what sort of surprises he has in store for us! I’m hoping we’re going to see a lot more of the Black Angel character in the near future.
I’ve read most of the stories from the original “Air Fighters” of the 1940s, and they really don’t hold a candle to what Martin’s already been able to do with the character. But don’t worry, he’s being as true to the original as possible, so don’t expect modern-day adventures. Black Angel spends her time kicking Nazi backsides! She’s a very unique character, combining both compassion toward the innocent and ruthlessness toward evil, as well as more than a little bit of sexiness. The stories are a lot of fun to do, but I have a feeling both Martin and myself are just getting warmed up! Keep watching!
AP: If you had a dream project, what would it be?
VC: Only a handful of people know, but I’ve actually been working on my own graphic novel for about seven years now. Most of that time was spent on research and just trying to get the story right. The story takes place in ancient Japan during the Sengoku period, often called the “time of the Warring States”. It’s known as the bloodiest period in human history, and deservedly so. The story’s called “Makigari”, and I’m hoping to have the first portion of it ready to shop out to publishers soon. My dream would be for Makigari to get picked up by a comic company and distributed both here in the States and in Japan. I think American readers will enjoy it, without having to know anything about Japanese history, because a lot of the story centers around the human condition and universal experiences (loss, grief, hope, redemption, vengeance, etc.), and there’s also a lot of action and warfare (not only physical warfare on the battlefield, but psychological and spiritual as well!). I think a Japanese audience would enjoy the fact that I portray some familiar historical figures in a completely new light, and I’ll be pitting them against unfamiliar enemies and allies. There’s a HUGE twist to the story, which you’ll just have to wait to see!
AP: There’s a lot of discussion about the modernization of classic pulp heroes — what do you think about that? is it okay to update characters or do you prefer to see them as close to their original incarnation as possible?
VC: I honestly waver back-and-forth on this question. I typically prefer to see the pulp era characters kept in the pulp era. It’s such a unique period of American history! The Art Deco and Art-Nouveau influences were everywhere, making it a potentially stunning era for any good artist to portray. And a good writer should recognize all the various cultural influences of the time. America was just clawing its way out of the Great Depression, leaving millions out of work and crime on the rise. The environment was an even bigger concern than today, due to this little thing called the Dust Bowl. The big cities were all on the rise, and finding their own identities. The world was on the brink of another “Great War”, due to a frustrated little German oil painter with a silly mustache. It’s such a great era, so rich in potential stories! Yet most artists and writers barely touch on any of that, often leading to stories which are mediocre at best.
I think that’s why so many people want to modernize the pulp heroes. They think that the pulps would be more appealing if modernized, so people can relate to them easier. But I believe the real reason for wanting to modernize the pulp characters is that it’s EASIER. The writers and artists know today’s world, and are spared from having to due research if the characters are modernized. It’s very disappointing to me. As a reader, I don’t relate to a character because they happen to breathe at the same moment I do. I relate to them because they share the human experience in all its grit, grime, and glory!
On the other hand, modernization of characters CAN be quite good when in the right hands. Look at Batman and Superman, Both of these characters are originally from the tail-end of the pulp era, yet they continue to amaze and entertain audiences to this day! Why? Because they continue to portray the human experience. Superman the Kryptonian takes the “glory” to occasionally ridiculous extremes, but Clark Kent’s always there striving through life in his human guise. He’s easy to relate to for almost every guy out there. It took him… what… almost five decades just to tell the woman he loved who he really was. That’s a guy any other guy can relate to! And Batman most certainly is easy to relate to in the “grit and grime” aspect of human nature.
AP: Are there any “new” pulps that you really enjoy?
VC: Not to sound like I’m playing favorites, but I’ve really enjoyed some of the “modern” pulp heroes I’ve had the opportunity to work on. Kevin Olson’s “Spring-Heeled Jack: Gunfighter” comes to mind immediately, as does Barry Reese’s “Rook”, and John French’s “Bianca Jones” character. I freely admit I don’t get to just kick back and read these days, but I will almost always insist on reading a book before I illustrate it. I’ve been impressed with these characters and their stories. The Rook stories are a bit like the mutant love-child of “Weird Tales” and the detective pulps, and I love the series because of it. Spring-Heeled Jack is based on the legend by the same name, but Kevin’s taken him from the streets of Victorian England, and dropped him smack-dab in the middle of the Old West as a gunfighter! Talk about shaking things up! and John’s character Bianca Jones is a feisty little police detective who tracks down and kills some big monsters in the streets of modern Baltimore! I guess I like characters and stories that mix together things you’d never expect to be combined. It’s that whole peanut butter and chocolate idea, but with monsters, maidens, and a fare share of madness (at least in Jack’s case).
AP: What’s coming down the road from you? Any new projects you’d like to mention?
VC: I’m hoping and praying that Makigari will be done sometime in the coming year (finally!). I think my friends and family are all sick of hearing about it! I’m also hoping for more Black Angel stories. And anything else Moonstone (or other publishers) cares to throw my way would be welcome. I have to admit, my life is the very definition of the word “freelance”. I never know what each new week will hold. It might be filled with a bunch of computer clients with serious virus problems, or a publisher looking for artwork, or a gallery looking for something unique to display. I guess only the Lord knows what you’ll see from me next. I certainly don’t!