A Chat With P. Craig Russell
Since breaking into the comic book industry in 1972, P. Craig Russell has established himself as one of the comic book industry’s preeminent talents, winning multiple Harvey and Eisner awards.
He’s worked for virtually every major company in comics including Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Eclipse, Image and of course, NBM Publishing, where he has published both his series of The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde as well as his Opera adaptations, which are back in print and bundled at a reduced price.
Craig took some time to chat about his work and the challenges in adapting music to sequential art.
You’ve been working in the industry for close to four decades. What is the continued appeal of comics for you?
When I was a kid my favorite occupation was not drawing pictures so much as it was drawing architectural floor plans. I would spend hours drawing the most elaborate single story houses. I was fascinated with making all the different rooms and hallways work together, flow one into the other. It was only decades later that I realized what I was doing was training to lay out a comics page. Each panel was /is like a room, existing both on it’s own and in relation to all the other little ‘rooms’. To this day, the design of the page, the ‘blueprint’ of the story is still the most fun part of the process.
Besides working on a number of mainstream comics over the years, as well as notable collaborations with Neil Gaiman, you’ve also found yourself adapting a number of operas, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, Moorcock’s Elric, and a number of other works in Night Music. When did you first decide to adapt these works and what was the motivation behind it?
The motivation for anything I’ve ever done is simply the quest for a story worth telling and I’ll look to any possible source for that. Operas, short stories, plays, novels. It’s not much different from the world of filmmaking. You are always on the lookout for an interesting plot with sparkling dialogue. With Oscar Wilde it doesn’t get much ‘sparklier’.
What makes the medium of opera desirable to adapt to the comics medium?
As with the previous answer it all has to do with a story worth telling. And as to the next question…
What are the challenges of trying to visualize music in your opera adaptations?
I love opera but know that there are many operas whose success is almost entirely musical, not literary. But the ones that are well written stand a chance of surviving the leap into another art form. Even so, those operas still have those purely musical moments, those emotional nuggets, devoid of action, where the singer stands in the center of the stage and pours out his or her heart. Those are the moments I find most challenging to find some sort of purely visual structure that in it’s purely visual way is every bit as authentic and peculiar to it’s visual form as singing is to it’s musical form.
What is your research process like?
It depends on the subject. On something like the recently completed The Happy Prince I decided to ground the story in a mythical Holland. That meant looking into Dutch clothing and architecture spanning several hundred years before settling on a generalized 19th century ambiance. I found it significantly more difficult to find visual reference for this than for that of corresponding French or German costume and design. Beyond that, if I’m going for a realistic look for one or more characters I pose models.
In The Happy Prince, the happy prince is a statue and as such is seen from numerous angles, the more angles the better in order to avoid visual monotony. For consistency’s sake I costumed and single-posed a friend, moving around him taking dozens of shots so that no matter where he appeared in the panel he would always be true to his frozen state. It was certainly one of the easier gigs any of my models have ever had.
I know that you are currently working on a new volume of Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales. What attracts you to his work specifically rather than say Hans Christian Anderson or The Brothers Grimm?
As opposed to the endless list of Grimm’s fairy tales the nine Oscar Wilde stories present an approachable cycle if one is thinking of any sort of ‘complete’ approach. Also, his writing, well over a hundred years later, still feels fresh and modern. What western reader can’t identify with the political type, exemplified by the wolf in The Star Child, who blames the brutally cold weather on the government?
Who or what are the biggest influences on your work?
Many, many influences. The great animators and designers of Disney’s early period: Marc Davis, Vlad Tytla, Eyvind Earle, Kay Neilsen, Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, and on and on and on. In comics all the great visual storytellers: Eisner, Steranko, Krigstein, Barks, and on and on and on. And in book illustration: Rackham, Dulac, Neilsen, Clark, and on and on and on.
If someone isn’t familiar with opera, but likes comics, why should they check out the books?
It’s always amused/bemused me when people come up to me and say “ya know, I don’t like opera so I was surprised that I liked your Salome/Magic Flute/Ring of the Nibelung, etc., etc. So, back to where we started, a story is a story is a story. And if a soprano isn’t screeching it in your ear you can sit back, relax, and enjoy it.
For more of P. Craig Russell’s work, check out his Official Site HERE!