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A P. Craig Russell Interview

(or, The Only Good Writer Is a Dead Writer)

Conducted on August 5, 1999.
Edited by François Peneaud and Craig Russell.

Operas : From Wagner and Strauss to Adams and Glass

In the interview for The Comics Journal, you said that you liked the stories of the operas. Which elements of these stories appeal to you ?

Well, I think, any elements that are in any good story which works on its own, without the music. There are a lot of great operas that have rather silly stories and would not make the jump in another medium.So, they have to work in a literary sense, not just musically. That's what I was looking for. Sometimes, the music influences the drawings, sometimes not. Right now, I'm doing an adaptation of The Ring of the Nibelung, and because of the leitmotifs, the music has very much an effect on what I'm drawing and how I'm telling the story.

For this adaptation did you read other sources than the Wagner text ?

Basically, I'm concentrating on Wagner's story. I read a number of commentaries and different interpretations of his version of the Ring, but I'm sticking directly with his story.

Is there a reason why you've done mainly adaptations of XIXth century operas ?

Ariane and Bluebeard [Opus 26] is early XXth century, so is Salomé [Opus 23]. I think Béla Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle would be an interesting one to do sometime, or Strauss' Elektra. Beyond that, there are not too many that I'm familiar with.

I don't know, maybe Britten?

That's a possibility. I don't know those operas too well, but I'm familiar with Peter Grimes, Albert Herring.

You know Billy Budd (1) ?

That would be interesting, because we could also go back to Melville's original. In that case, it becomes sort of academic whether you're doing the story or the opera.

Yes, that's what I was wondering about.

Well, when I was doing Pelléas & Mélisande [Opus 21], I wasn't that influenced by the opera itself. I was responding to Maeterlinck's play. There were a couple of places where the music had an influence on me. In Salomé, the music had a greater influence : on the very last page, you can see in the repeated thrust of those lances when they're killing Salomé, you can hear the final chords, a sort of thumping, murderous chords from the music.

So, you're using the rhythms of the music to dictate a kind of storytelling ?

Not dictate, but it inspires. There are places where the music just doesn't translate. I tried to, but sometimes, you have to decide that the form has to work on its own, it has its own demand. When I did the layouts for the Ring, it's 424 pages long...

By the way, how will it be published ?

In 14 32-pages comic-books, and the last one will be 64 pages long. And then, hopefully, they will collect them. Anyway, I would be listening to the musical motifs, and they would suggest what people were thinking. I would then be able to visualize that, and if I was working only from the script, it would not suggest the same thing.
For example, at the end of Rhinegold, when Wotan is standing in front of Valhalla, and he has a moment of doubt, wondering about the coming night, whether Valhalla is going to protect them. And as he's thinking this, you hear for the very first time in the whole cycle the motif of Siegfried's sword. There's no way an audience, hearing that for the first time, would know that's what he's thinking about, but Wagner put that in there. So my challenge was to show him thinking of this sword. If I didn't know the music, I wouldn't have gotten that either. So that told me what to visualize. I designed the whole rather abstract sequence that hopefully conveys this inspiration at that point : we actually see the sword growing out of the tree. We go in through Wotan's empty eye, the one he's sacrificed, and from the light on the hilt of the sword, we see it growing and growing, and we find ourselves coming out of his good eye, from the reflection on it.
So, that's obviously from the music. I have a piano here, and I would be constantly listening to recordings and going to the piano and playing certain themes through, while I was doing the adaptation.

So, you play music ?


Does that help you often with your adaptations ?

It certainly did with the Ring. Before that, no, I never worked on the piano, I would just listen. But with that one, I felt it helped to sit down and play the music, just the themes, to become more familiar with them.

Will you use the musical leitmotifs of the characters ?

No, not that elaborate. Only occasionally, in some dramatic moments, it does apply.

It helps more with the psychology of the characters and the key scenes ?

Yes, more with the psychology. And I think that will make this adaptation a little unique. Have you seen the other adaptation of the Ring that was done ?

Yes, the one by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane (2), and the one published in France a long time ago, by Numa Sadoul and France Renonce. The latter is more illustration than comics.

I see.

So, I think it's really different from Gil Kane, and I don't think yours will look like that, either. If you want, I could send you some photocopies of it.

I would love to see a couple pages of it, just to see what the style is. I don't want to look too closely at anybody else's version. I hadn't even really looked at Gil Kane's. I've looked at a couple of pages after I did my layouts...

I wanted to ask what you had thought of Kane's version ?

I've been a fan of Gil Kane for many years, so when I heard he was doing that, I certainly had mixed feelings. I wanted to be the first one to do it ! On the other hand, I heard from the editor that Gil was saying that this was going to be his real big project. And from what I saw, I don't think it was his best work.

I think that Roy Thomas was not the best choice for the script.


I mean, he's done very good things, I've loved some of his super-hero stories, but I think it's too wordy. And Kane's version lacked restraint.

Yes, I see what you mean.

His line is beautiful, I love the way he draws human body.

Oh, yes.

But the layouts are too heavy.

Yes, it needed greater subtlety of style, it's too super-heroy.


I'm finishing Rhinegold tomorrow, I've been working round the clock for two months trying to finish this off before my vacation. I think, when I finish it, then I will pick up their version and read it.

When should it be published ?

I think they're going to start publishing Rhinegold next winter, it was scheduled for this September, but they had another big project. So, they'll publish it in five or six months, which is fine by me [the first issue comes out in February 2000]. It's being colored now, by Lovern Kindzierski.

Do you work with him closely ?

Oh, yes. We talk on the phone, we have pantone color-books, he sends me copies, if I want changes made, he makes them. It's a really nice way to work.

The colors of your comics are very much recognizable, even when you haven't done the colors yourself.

Well, Lovern is really good in listening to what I want. When we started working together, he had copies of everything I'd colored on my own. So, I could say, I want a color scheme like in the second scene of Magic Flute, and he would look it up. There were other times when I didn't know what I wanted, and he would always have all these suggestions. And now, half the time, I'm saying, I want something like you colored on one of our previous books.

To come back to my first question, I thought you might have responded to the bigger-than-life emotions in most opera stories.

Yes. I think almost everyone who loves operas does.

Well, in most XIXth century operas, even the one without a woman-dying-at-the-end, you know...

Right ! There's a lot of that.

That's why I prefer XXth century opera.

One I listen to a lot is John Adams (3), he did Nixon in China.

Oh yes, I love John Adams' music. The only opera by Adams I've listened to is The Death of Klinghoffer. I'm not convinced by the story. I like the music, but well, I haven't seen it. Maybe that's the problem. And what do you think of the operas by Philip Glass ?

I've tried Einstein on the Beach, there's a lot of Glass that I do like, for example GlassWorks. But I ran out of steam on Einstein after about 20 minutes. Perhaps if I saw it, I think it's a completely different experience in the theater... But I became just bored, I'm afraid. I don't have anything against minimalism, I like John Adams. He has more of a melodic impulse that I can hang on to. With Glass, I just get exhausted. I guess that's why I like his shorter pieces. I take it you like Einstein ?

Oh, yes. When I've got time, I just listen to the whole three hours in one session...

I'm sure it's the way it should be done.

I was thinking of maybe another opera by Glass, Akhnaten, the one about the Pharaoh.

Yes, I haven't heard it yet. Another problem in doing XXth century operas is that so much of it is copyrighted. It's not in public domain.

Yes, I hadn't thought of that. You'd have to have the agreement of the composer. Well, I think Adams could be a good choice.

What about Glass' Beauty and the Beast, have you heard it ?

I think it's one of his most beautiful works.

That's what I've heard. I think I'll try that one.

It's a soundtrack for the Jean Cocteau film.

Oh, I thought it was an opera.

No. He's done a new soundtrack for the film where the characters are now singing.

It could be staged as an opera ?

Oh, yes, I think so. You know, it's a work by Cocteau. Anything by Cocteau could be an opera, I think.

And it's one of my favorite film.

I think your style could be very interesting on a story like Beauty and the Beast. There's a blend of realistic psychology and a lot of fantasy settings.

Oh, yes. That's why I like the Oscar Wilde fairy tales. When I finish the Ring, the next one I hope to do is The Fisherman and his Soul. It's the really big fairy tale. I did the 44-page adaptation about five years ago, the script and the layout, and I can't wait to get to it. It's such a beautiful story.

Do you do that often, doing the script and the layout a long time before actually drawing it ?

Well, two years ago, when I was 45, that year I did 550 pages of layouts. I did nothing all year but layouts. I did the Ring, I Pagliacci [The Clowns], an Oscar Wilde book and something else. I laid out the next six or seven years worth of work.

You're not afraid of getting bored, knowing what you will do for the next 6 or 7 years ?

No, because these are things I really want to do. I look forward to them. And sometimes, I lay something out, thinking I'll draw it as soon as I finish what I'm doing now, and then something else comes up. For example, Neil Gaiman sent me a story he's just written he wants me to do. It would be like 96 pages. It's a [Sandman] fairy tale he's working on with a Japanese illustrator [The Dream Hunters, illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, published in November 1999 by D.C. Comics]. It will be first published as a prose book with illustrations, like Stardust [Gaiman's fairy tale with illustrations by Charles Vess]. Neil wants me to do the adaptation in comic-book form. But I won't do the layouts before I'm ready to start.

Prose and the contemporary writer

Do you think you might be interested in adapting contemporary prose stories ? The only thing you've done is Human Remains, the Barker story. I think it's one of your most beautiful work, and it was one of the best Barker's stories.

Yes, it was one of the best Barker stories, and I was just asked to list five favorite projects of my own, and I listed that one. As hard as can be evaluating one's own work, I think that's one of the best I've done. But I have done Slaughterhouse 5 [by Kurt Vonnegut], for a project that fell through unfortunately. A 120 pages, I did the script and the layouts, it was for another artist. Byron Preiss got the rights for the book, and asked me to do the adaptation.
If you want to get under the skin of a piece of work, do an adaptation into comics, because you have to take every single piece apart and put it back together again. The artist began drawing it, doing beautiful work. His name is Christopher Bing, who's done work for The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, editorial classical illustration. Then, somehow, the financing of the project fell through and it never happened. So, I have my original layouts here, maybe someday I will get to do them. I was really proud of what I was able to do with that sort of thing.

Laying it out for Mignola

Could you tell me what happened with I Pagliacci, The Clowns ? It was supposed to be drawn by Mike Mignola.

Well, I should talk about that with Mike, I hope it didn't hurt his feelings. When we started talking about doing that, Mike, in a certain sense, wasn't Mike Mignola yet. He was really interesting, obviously a terrific talent, I'd been inking a lot of his work. At that point, his layouts weren't very interesting, they were competent. I wanted to see what he would do if he had, without sounding egotistical, a stronger sense of storytelling. But by the time I got around to doing it, he was Mike Mignola. He didn't need me to lay out a page. And Galen Showman was right here in town, so we could work together. I just turned to him, and it was a really terrific working experience, a good learning experience for him. He brought things in everyday and we went over it, it was really a wonderful collaboration. In a sense, it made more sense for Galen to be working in this at this point in his career than Mike.

The only other thing I've seen by Showman was a strip in Dark Horse Presents and it looked a lot like your style.

I don't see it, but I know he's influenced by me, Kevin Nowlan, and Brian Bolland. Right now, he's doing a project for D.C. that I'm doing layouts for, a 96-page story. It's in the Elseworlds series, it's set in 1890, at the world's fair at Niagara Falls. Very Victorian. He's doing beautiful work on it.

The first time I saw The Clowns, I thought that the faces of the peasants looked a lot like Michael Golden's work.

That's another of his influences. He really likes Golden.

Was it a choice to publish this comic in black and white ?

Yes. It's been a long time since I'd done a black and white book, I wanted to do one on the duo shade paper. There are so many possibilities : you can work with designing for black and white, not just drawing a comic-book created in black and white that needs color. Also, the business is not good right now, I knew I had a better chance of getting them to publish the book if it was in black and white. It's an opera comic, the sales are not going to be great. On the other hand, the other project I did layouts for, two years ago, is Cavalleria Rusticana, an opera by Mascagni which is always paired with I Pagliacci. That one I would love to see in color, it's 32 pages long.

On being gay

In the interview for The Comics Journal, you outed yourself. I was wondering about something : there were only two lines about that, nothing else linked to that in the whole interview.

Well, I forget the lead-in question...

It was something like "You are known for drawing the most beautiful men in comics".

I think that in the interview I might have sort of waffled, I didn't give a real straight answer. Then, when I was reading the transcript, I wrote that answer in. So, there wasn't something he could have followed upon.

Ok. That's a good reason !
And has being gay played a role in your career, good or bad ?

I think, nothing. If it's hindered me, if people have not given me work because they knew I was gay, well, I haven't known about it. I've always had more offers than I could accept.
I don't see much of that in this industry. They just care if you can draw. Then, I haven't been dealing with subject matters that are specifically gay ; like autobiographical material where I'm talking about my personal life.

No, but you've worked on the Barker story which is one of his few short stories with gay characters. I was wondering whether that mattered in your choosing this story ?

Well, they sent me the story, saying, "Would you like to do this ?". I didn't read all the stories and pick that one out. They picked me out and said "You'd be good for this" [Laughs]. There was a gay element in that, but in a sense, there weren't any real gay characters. He was a hustler, full of ambivalence. But there's still a homoerotic element, in the concentration of male beauty. And that I can certainly respond to.

Would you be interested in doing adaptations of work by, I don't know, David Leavitt or Edmund White ?

Well, I've read Edmund White (4), but I don't know David Leavitt.

He's done collection of short stories, Family Dancing, or A Place I've never been, and novels, for example The Lost Language of Cranes.

Yes, I've heard wonderful things about that, but I haven't read it.

I think he's one of the very good contemporary writers, with very various subject matters. In fact, I was wondering whether you'd be interested in adapting stories without any fantasy elements.

Yes. There are some stories by E.M. Forster, he wrote a number of gay-themed stories that I would like to do. There's one, an amazing story, certainly not a light, trivial piece. It's a long short story...
[He's looking for his book]
Ok, where are you, E.M. Forster...

In the closet...

[Laughs]. Yes, he was, wasn't he ?
Ah, here we go. The title is The Life to come and other stories. It's a collection. The Life to come is the really important story. It's about a missionary in Africa, very strict and closeted, who has one night of love with this native who he then converts to Christianity. The man he converts believes that if he waits long enough, their love will be consummated, and this is some sort of trial he has to go through. So, you have this conflict of cultures. It's a great story, and I would love to do it someday.

As you said in the Journal interview, you prefer your writers dead.

Well, they're not looking over your shoulder.

While we're on the gay subject, your work with David Sexton is some of the most gay-orientated work you've done. How did you come to work with him ?

I was at a convention in Chicago, and he came up with his portfolio to show me his work. It had real promise, and we became acquainted. He was from Columbus, Ohio, which is about two hours from here [Craig Russell lives in Ohio]. He came to visit, and we just started working together. We did one story for Taboo, and one for Gay Comics. He's in Florida now, he's a physical instructor.

Do you think he will do more comics ?

I don't know, I haven't talked to him in about a year. He's buying and selling properties, he's like a landlord now. He just doesn't have too much time for illustration. But he's very talented.

It's a pity. I thought that the last page in Gay Comics 25 looked very good. I would love to see more work from him.

I would too, but... He was my model for the character Moonglum in Stormbringer.

Right. That's interesting to know !

Disturbing Dr. Strange

I have a friend who's got a funny theory about the second Dr. Strange story you did, What is it that disturbs you, Stephen ?. He thinks that Strange is gay, and the thing that disturbs him is the fact that he's in the closet, even to himself. I guess that's not what you put in the story.

I'm still not certain what the story is about. You have these two couples, and at the end of the story, Celeste and Galthus are sort of merged into a love unity. The other two, Electra and Strange, absolutely repel each other. She's left insane, and he's floating in the void. So you do have these two couples playing one against the other.

Well, I didn't agree with this theory, but I thought the story looked like an opera.

Oh, good. And she has her big mad scene at the end !

Yes, exactly. You know, the climax of the emotion at the end, one could almost hear the music. Like Strauss for example. Was it a conscious move ?

Strauss is my favorite composer. I listen to his music constantly.
No, it wasn't a conscious thing. I just think that way.
There's a story behind the title, actually. Where it came from. About 20 years ago, I found a word balloon in my studio from a Dr. Strange story I think I had inked, it had fallen off. And the word balloon said "What is it that disturbs you, Stephen ?". I sort of ignored it and about a year or so later, it turned up someplace else in the studio. And every couple of years, I would find this. About ten years ago, having moved several times, I was down at the basement with a friend of mine, going through a big art file cabinet, and I find this word balloon again. So I told him the story. He was staying here at the time, so I went to bed, I was on a schedule, going to bed at 6 in the evening and getting up at 1 in the morning. The next morning, I came downstairs, sitting in the studio, I look on the back of my pencil sharpener, and there's this word balloon. Taped. Ok, that's amusing, he stuck it there. Then I looked up on the wall, I had a photograph of Gloria Swanson. There was a great big word balloon, coming from her, saying, "What is it that disturbs you, Stephen ?" [laughs]. And then I started looking around the house, and they were everywhere. I found them for weeks, in the dryer, undersides of medicine bottles, dressing bottles, I would open the Venetian blinds, and they were stuck on the window... Three weeks later, I was driving, I put down the visor in my car, and it was stuck to the back of the visor. He said, "you're going to find them for years", and so I have. So, when we started working on the story, we decided it would be called "What is it that disturbs you, Stephen ?".

The cartoony style

The first time I saw this style in your work was for the Cyrano de Bergerac story (Opus 32).

That's the first time I used it.

So, obvious question : Why a new style ?

I had gotten to the point where I saw I was driving myself into a corner. I have a realistic style, I use photo reference, I have people model, I take hundreds of photos for everything, to get the poses right. And I started feeling little trapped by that, thinking that I couldn't draw if I didn't have this reference material. I had a sort of cartoony style I would use when I was talking on the phone and doodling. Even some of the early Elric stories I did had more of a cartoony element, much more drawn from the imagination than something like The Magic Flute which was very realistic.
I was upstairs, and I found a book of short stories, and it had that story in it. I was just on the floor laughing, and I thought, I must do this. Even though I was in the middle of another project, I came downstairs and started working on it. I had the full thing done in about three weeks. And it felt so good to just sit down and draw and not have to do reference and study and research, just simply draw. Then I started to try and integrate it into my realistic work. One of the things I like about the Disney cartoons like Cinderella is the combination of realistically-drawn characters with cartoony characters. I think they make it work so well, I wanted to do that in my own work.

Well, it certainly took me some time to get used to this cartoony style. But now, I think it's a very effective way to give depth to the characters and the background. For example, in the Batman story, Hothouse, Batman, Poison Ivy and the other main characters were very realistic, while the crowds were drawn in a cartoony style. I was wondering whether the use of a cartoony style for the background characters was a way of enhancing the identification for the reader, like Scott McCloud said in Understanding Comics about less iconic art styles.

I don't think it was as planned out as that. It was that with the crowds, I had the freedom to do it because they weren't front and center.
I think it's a difficult thing to balance. I think that in the Oscar Wilde fairy tales, it's been more successful than in the Batman story, because of the fantasy elements. In The Birthday of the Infanta, I don't think anything is realistic in there except some of the background. All of the characters are very much like animation. In The Young King, he's drawn realistically and everyone else is somewhat cartoony. In Wilde's description of him, he has to be drawn in a beautiful realistic manner.

Elric and growing out of it

That may sound stupid or pretentious, but what do you find in Elric stories ?

[Laughs]. I like playing with the extremes, between Order and Chaos, Apollonian and Dionysian. And there are so many things that are fun to draw. It doesn't go much deeper than that. While I was drawing Stormbringer, I even thought at one point, aren't I getting a little old for this ? I mean, there must be things with greater weight, more literary substance. But I also like to finish what I start, and I had decided to do Stormbringer ten or fifteen years ago. It took that long to solve all the different problems to publish it. And I liked the idea of it being the final Elric story.

Is there life after Ragnarök ?

So, there's the Ring you want to finish first...

I'm almost up to two hundred pages. I think it will take me about another year and a half, certainly less than two years. I have to be done with it ! Then, I'll either do the next Oscar Wilde book or start on the Neil Gaiman fairy tale.

Do you have other projects at that point ?

Well, I'd like to do the Cavalleria Rusticana, as I mentioned. I've always wanted to do at least twelve operas. With the Ring, that will make ten. I count it as four operas. That leaves Cavalleria and one other. Last year, on my vacation in the Rocky Mountains, I took a copy of Edgar Allan Poe's The House of Usher with me. I had scripted and layed out this story for artist Jay Geldhof about ten years ago for the revamped Classic Illustrated line. It's a story I've always felt I could have gotten deeper into so as a playful challenge to myself I completely rescripted and relayed it out. I also resisted the temptation to look at my original version. I've done well over 1 000 pages of layouts since my initial attempt and I think it shows this. I've got some other things, like the E.M. Forster story, that could be years in the future. Then, sometimes, someone comes up with something, like the Neil Gaiman story which came up a few weeks ago. So, who knows what else will come up between now and the time I finish the Ring...

Notes :

(1) An opera by Benjamin Britten, first played in 1951, based upon the 1924 novel by Herman Melville, about a young sailor who will be executed for having killed one of his superiors. This story has strong christic and homoerotic undercurrents.

(2) Four prestige-format comics (or one paperback) published by D.C. Comics in 1989.

(3) John Adams is an heir to the Minimalist composers (Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich). But his music has evolved and is now influenced by many other musical styles, classical and otherwise.

(4) Edmund White has written short stories, novels, non-fiction, and a biography of Jean Genet. His best-known novels are the semi-autobiographical A Boy's own story and The Beautiful Room is empty.

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