Sandman, Smackdowns and Elf Love with Uber Artist Duncan Eagleson
This week we return to the Promised Land − good ‘ol comics. We drifted away to film and music for a few interviews but now we’re back where we belong. And our “comeback to comics” is sure to make a splash. As big a splash, we dare say, as WWE wrestler Kane’s return in December 2011 when he beat down John Cena and revealed not one − but two leather masks.
And irony of ironies, the subject of our interview is the same insanely talented artist/craftsman/illustrator/writer who created those now-iconic masks for Kane (See? Everything has a purpose!)
He’s none other than Duncan Eagleson. I’ve been fortunate to have Duncan involved in a few anthologies I’ve worked on and recently begged/pleaded/cried to have him create some key art for my upcoming micro-budget feature BLESSID. As usual, he exceeded expectations.
You see, Duncan Eagleson is a perfectionist. As such, I am going to use his words rather than my own to describe his accomplishments:
“Illustrator, graphic designer, painter and sculptor, Duncan Eagleson has created art and designs for book covers, movie posters, advertisements, corporate identity projects, videos, magazines, and even T-shirts, for clients such as Doubleday Books, Tor Books, New Line Cinema, Warner Communications & DC Comics, rock groups like The Who, Phil Collins, and Def Leppard. In comics, he contributed art to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, adapted and illustrated Anne Rices’ The Witching Hour. He has created sculpted leather masks for Wes Craven’s Cursed, the WWE wrestler Kane, the Smithsonian, the Big Apple Circus, and magician Jeff McBride. Portfolios of his work, both digital and traditional, can be found at eaglesondesign.com, and on his Deviant Art page at duncan-eagleson.deviantart.com. His sculpture and masks can be seen at maskmaker.com.”
1) You have a long and impressive resume, but one thing that jumps off the page is your work on issue #38 of The Sandman — “Convergence, The Hunt” (1992, DC/Vertigo). What was it like working with writer-savant Neil Gaiman?
(DUNCAN:) Top question everybody asks. I’m happy to be able to say that honestly, it was really great. Neil had certain elements he really wanted the art to reflect − mainly the nine-panel grid structure for the pages − and he was quite patient about explaining why that was important (he wanted the physical structure of the pages to reflect the formal story structure of the “fairy tale” sort of story). Beyond that, he was very hands-off, trusting me to do what I wanted with the art. Neil really is the way he appears in interviews and public appearances: a very unassuming, courteous gentleman, and very easy to work with.
The only minor bump in an otherwise utterly smooth ride had nothing to do with Neil. Some of the powers that be at DC/Vertigo felt the “werewolf sex” scene toward the end of the book was too graphic − despite the fact there were no actual naughty bits showing, I guess it was a bit too obvious what was going on. So I had to tone it down for publication. We went through a couple of versions before they were satisfied that it was family-friendly enough. Which was okay with me − I wasn’t about to scream “Censorship!” or anything. It was DC/Vertigo’s book, they were paying for it, they should get the sort of product they need. To me, it was no different than any other revision. I did, however, save the original pencilled panels.
All in all, the whole thing was a great experience, including, by the way, seeing my pencils come to life through Vince Locke’s brilliant inking. It was almost as if Vince was in my head, doing exactly the inking I would have done myself, if only I’d had the sort of mad inking skills he has.
2) Around the same time you did Sandman you also worked wrote and did art for several issues of Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour comic book series. What was this experience like?
(DUNCAN:) That was a bit of a mixed bag, especially toward the end. It started out looking great − they came to me at first for the art, and they didn’t have a writer. I had just recently read The Witching Hour, and I was wanting to start building a name as a writer, so I convinced them to let me script as well.
Between scripting and illustrating, I had no time to get involved in the marketing, but I probably should have tried. They were marketing the book to comics venues, treating it as if it were a superhero book, which wasn’t the best choice. The Anne Rice audience was huge − but they’re not your typical superhero comics audience. As it was, I think we got some respect from folks in the industry − the one time I met Kelly Jones, he was kind enough to say he thought The Witching Hour was the best full painted book on the market at the time − but the sales of the first couple of issues were disappointing.
To be fair to Millennium, novel adaptations are always a hard sell in comics, and traditionally don’t do very well. And although I think The Witching Hour might eventually have found its audience, they just didn’t have the kind of funding to hold the line until that happened, they needed to make money off the book right now. And that wasn’t happening. So the book got cancelled, and shortly thereafter, the company went belly-up.
As an artist & storyteller, however, I had a great time doing it. I unleashed everything I had learned about drawing and painting and visual storytelling on that series.
At the time, my idol in comics was Bill Sienkiewicz. That man’s full-painted comics art was some of the most inspiring, innovative, and masterful work I’d seen in years, with the possible exception of Dave McKean. Considering how extreme he got with some of that work, it’s amazing to realize that he always managed to keep it in the service of the story, never let it become all about the art. No matter how stunning any individual page or panel was, he designed it to keep you caught up in the characters and the narrative, moving forward through the story. That’s not easy to do when you’re also pushing the boundaries of what has been done visually in a medium.
I tried hard not to imitate Sienkiewicz − or Bernie Fuchs, or Bob Peak, who I was also looking at a lot in those days − but to use their examples as an inspiration, to adopt a similar conceptual approach without also adopting anyone’s specific signature devices. And I think I mostly succeeded, giving the book a unique look and feel.
This was in the days before the use of Photoshop had become common, and I was doing a lot with Xeroxing drawings and photos onto colored paper, and painting over them with gouache, acrylics, airbrush, and pastel pencils. At one point, my editor, Jordan Bojar, called me up and said “I don’t know how you created this, what kind of techniques you’re using, but whatever they are, don’t ever reveal them to anyone.” Of course, I said “Why not?” I’m always happy to share whatever I’ve learned with someone who wants to know. “Because this is unique, these techniques are a gold mine,” he said. I thought he was nuts. Far as I’m concerned, anyone who wants to try out these techniques, knock yourself out. If you’re a mediocre artist looking for a gimmick, you’ll produce a cheap knockoff. If you’ve got imagination, and are good at what you do already, you’ll do something else with it, use it to develop your own unique creation. Why would I feel threatened by either possibility? A cheap knockoff will almost always be seen for what it is, and an imaginative, unique creation deserves to succeed, and be cheered on.
3) Did you ever get to meet the “Queen of Vampires”?
(DUNCAN:) I never did. She seemed to keep a certain distance from the comics versions of her works − or at least Millennium’s comics versions, which included The Mummy as well as The Witching Hour.
I did talk to her personal assistant once. Long after The Witching Hour and Millennium had both tanked, I heard that the comics rights to Anne Rice’s books had reverted to her, and she had announced her intention to do her own graphic novel versions of all her books. I had always felt I’d love to finish the series, so I called her office to see if they were interested in my working with them. Her assistant was very polite and cordial, but also very non commital, and the basic message was “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” And of course, they never did. As far as I know, they eventually abandoned the whole graphic novel idea.
4) More recently, you were involved with another Pop icon. You created two leather masks for WWE wrestler Kane’s “resurrection” when he intruded on a matched and rudely slammed John Cena to the mat. How did you get involved in the melee?
(DUNCAN:) People who know my work from comics and book covers may not be aware that I’ve been making sculpted leather masks for many years. I’ve made masks for many theater productions, for the Big Apple Circus, for mask magician Jeff McBride (a long-time friend), for Wes Craven’s movie Cursed, and even for the Smithsonian. If you Google “leather masks,” my mask website (maskmaker.com) usually turns up in the first few results. Which is how the Creative Director from the WWE found me.
I went and met with the creative director and production designer, and of course, Kane himself. They already had certain ideas about what they wanted the masks to look like, but were willing to listen to my input, as well. I sat down with Kane and talked with him about his previous masks, about what worked well, and what didn’t, and how we could improve on what he’s had before. In the end, I made two masks, the red inner mask, and a sort of over-mask that looks a little like a welder’s mask.
5) Another notable piece is Hollow which you worked on for Archaia Studios Press. The pages on your website have a definite “extraterrestrial” vibe. Can you explain the storyline since you did the pencils and ink for issue 1 in 2010?
(DUNCAN:) The writer on the Hollow was a very talented young man named Larime Taylor. I had worked with Larime before, providing masks for a play he wrote and directed, Call of the Dragon. When he came up with Hollow a few years later, he got back in touch, asked me if I’d be willing to pencil and ink issue one.
Those creatures that look rather like extraterrestrials are actually the beings who conduct dead souls into the light or the darkness. They’re also the beings responsible for placing souls into babies. And they’re all upset because one got missed − there was a child born without a soul. Both the dark and the light are hunting for this soul-less child, who in the meantime has grown up, and is about to come of age, which redoubles the urgency with which the agents of Light and Dark are searching for him/her/it.
6) My favorite Duncan Eagleson work is Railwalker: Tales of the Urban Shaman.
(DUNCAN:) Thanks very much.
6.1) Explain the premise to our readers. What are your plans for the series?
(DUNCAN:) The premise behind Railwalker was the idea of a genuine urban shaman. This guy (who we know only by his street name, Brick) has no cultural tradition behind him, no elder indigenous shaman he apprenticed to − he was just a guy from the streets of Brooklyn, a graffiti writer, who one day found the crows started talking to him, and teaching him things. He had no idea, at least in the beginning, that what the crows were teaching him is what anthropologists would call magic and shamanism.
Brick actually started out as a supporting character in a graphic novel I was trying to sell back in the 80s. In the 90s, the Earthspirit Community approached me about doing a comics series that would tie in to their Rites of Spring Festival (they had in mind either a single-panel, or a four-panel strip format), and I thought Brick would be the perfect protagonist − he’s a total outsider to modern magic and neo-paganism, but he’s an intelligent and sympathetic outsider.
When I started the series, I was thinking in terms of humorous strip comics, and was working in a kind of cartoony style. But I’ve never really thought of myself as a humorist, and the humor in Railwaker at Rites is generally not a broad laugh-out-loud kind of humor, but more wry and dry. So as the series went on, I gradually started transitioning the look of the art to a more sophisticated realistic style, which seemed more appropriate to the material I was writing. People seemed to like it, so I kept it up. The strip ran for three festival seasons, and after it ended, I set up a web site specifically for Railwalker.
Not long afterward, I started experimenting with animation in Flash. Over the course of the next couple of years, I created a short animated Railwalker movie, Keys, in several chapters. Keys tells one version of how Brick became the Railwalker (yes, there are others).
I had toyed with the idea of doing another short animation based on Beowulf (this was long before the Avary/Gaiman CG film version), but I was going to set it in a post-apocalyptic world, with a Mad Max type character as the hero. As I worked on the script, it started to morph and change and grow, and one day I thought, “Screw the animation, this wants to be a novel.”
So the Mad Max-like character became one of an order of traveling Warrior-Shamans, and what better to call his order than the Railwalkers? Which told me that after the Great Crash, Brick must have founded an organization to battle the chaos and monsters that appeared in the Crash’s wake, right? Since the Beowulf poem is in one sense a paean to the passing days of the great heroes, to be true to the flavor of the thing, my tale would have to happen during the final years of the Order, when they’re in their decline. So we’re 300 years after the Great Crash.
(“Harkinton,” the short story I did for the 2012: Final Prayer anthology, tells a tale of Alec Bane, one of the “Five Ravens” who formed the first generation of Brick’s Railwalker Order.)
With the working title of Wolf, the novel that resulted was something like Beowulf as a post-post-apocalyptic noir occult thriller. If that makes any sense. I didn’t really set out to blend, or transcend, or mashup all that many genres, but that’s the way the story developed. Of course, in allowing myself the freedom to do that, I probably hurt my chances of being picked up by a mainstream publisher. Those folks need to be able to neatly categorize and pigeonhole their product, and this novel would be tough to do that with. How do you market something like that? I wasn’t thinking about marketing the thing until after it was written. However, it’s been picked up now by one of the small presses, and should be out within the year.
As a result of that novel, I had a whole history of this order to come up with (at least in broad outline), not only in the formal organization created by Brick, but also in its roots, the many individual Railwalkers who had existed through history before Brick. Railwalker lore tells of a depression-era hobo, a traveling bluesman in the 1920s, an aristocratic Englishwoman of the Victorian period… but the Railwalkers seem to appear only after the Industrial Revolution. Which has to do, I’m sure, with their being particularly urban shamans.
I have two books of an urban fantasy series done, and a third in progress. They don’t involve Brick or the Railwalkers. At least not yet. But they will tie into the Railwalker universe timeline, and end in the Great Crash.
I also have some notes and sketches for what would be, not exactly a sequel to Wolf, but a story set around the same time and place, with a few overlapping characters, but no direct connection to the events of Wolf. But that’s an embryonic project, so don’t hold me to that − the thing could still evolve in a different direction.
7) You’ve done some short graphic works as well. Recently, you did pencils and ink for some work that appeared in Elf Love (Pink Narcissus). I had the pleasure of doing a review of this great fantasy anthology. Tell us about your work and the anthology.
(DUNCAN:) Thanks, glad you liked the anthology, and thanks for the good review.
A friend sent me the call for short story submissions for this anthology. At first, I wasn’t very interested − I didn’t think I had anything to say about elves, particularly elves and love. But the idea got under my skin, and a few days later, I had not one, but two story ideas. I wrote them both up, submitted them, and to my surprise, they accepted them both.
Then I got a phone call from the Pink Narcissus Editor-in-Chief, Rose Mambert, saying, “Hey, you’re an artist, too, right? Would you be interested in doing the cover for this book?” Long story short, I not only did the cover, but continue to do graphic design and occasionally illustration for them. Oh, but you asked about “Of Roots and Rings”, the comics story in that anthology…
I belong to a writer’s group, and one of my friends there, Sarah Eaton, is a terrific playwright. When she learned about Elf Love, she was intrigued, and had a story in mind for it. But she had never done a text story, had only ever previously written scripts. So I said, “Well, write it up as a script, and I’ll see if Rose is willing to have me illustrate it as a comics story.” When I broached the idea to Rose, she was delighted, said they’d love to include a comics story in the anthology.
“Of Roots and Rings” was great fun to illustrate. Especially since the historical material that appears toward the end gave me a chance to revisit the historical montage look I’d been using for certain sequences back when I was doing The Witching Hour. I love doing that stuff, it’s almost like a comics story within the comics story.
8) Which is your greatest passion: writing, drawing, painting or mask-making?
(DUNCAN:) Storytelling, in whatever form. Everything I do, even making masks, is in some sense a form of storytelling.
I think that the desire, the need, to tell stories is the creative engine that drives all artists, even the ones who think they’ve transcended the narrative urge. They’re still trying to communicate, to say something, and that something has a context, a story, which they can’t avoid invoking or referring to in some way, even if only obliquely.
It’s all about The Story.
9) What writer and artist makes you go, “Damn, how did they put that much talent in one person?”
(DUNCAN:) You mean someone who writes AND illustrates? Well, Eisner, of course, he’s the grand old man of writer/artists. Howard Chaykin − I think one of the finest science fiction comics series ever created was Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! Brilliant work by a brilliant artist/writer. Mike Mignola consistently amazes me, his visual storytelling is superb. Frank Miller, Matthew Dow Smith, Sam Keith, Dave Sim, Phil Foglio, Matt Wagner… I could go on, but those are the top names that spring to mind right now.
10. What’s next for you?
(DUNCAN:) I’m off to Necon July 19-22, then it’s back in the studio for a while. I’ve done a lot of events the last few months, showing masks and art, plugging my writing, and I need some uninterrupted time to get some new work done. There are covers to be done for Pink Narc books, and Wolf will be going through the editing process.
I’ve just finished a steampunk novel in collaboration with Rev DiCerto − we’re now giving it the last once-over and final polish before we submit it. I’m working on another novel of my own, in a different, darker genre. I’m also preparing a proposal-slash-presentation on an illustrated novel, in which a depression era carnival encounters the local Fae in an obscure hamlet in the backwoods of New York State. The story is loosely tied into the mythology of the New York Faerie Festival. If you wanted to get all “high concept” about it you could call it Gaiman’s Stardust meets HBO’s Carnivale. Watch for the Kickstarter campaign, hopefully mounting this fall.
Also, I can’t talk details yet, but just this morning I was invited to participate in a new anthology where the rest of the authors are mostly famous science fiction writers. No pressure, or anything, right? It’s a great opportunity, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of living up to the standards of that august company.
11) Big finish − where can people go to see your work and buy your comics, masks and other creative endeavors?
My online portfolios are at Eagleson Design and my Deviant Art page is here.
Prints are available both at the Deviant Art page and at my Zazzle Store.
Masks and sculptures are on maskmaker.com.
Keys and other Railwalker stories can be found at Railwalker Comics. The Railwalker story “Harkinton” appears in the Heske Horror anthology 2012: Final Prayer.
Some of my short fiction appears in two anthologies from Pink Narcissus Press, Elf Love and Rapunzel’s Daughters, and I’ve done covers for their Bleeding Hearts and Feasting with Panthers, terrific novels both.
Thanks Duncan. May the Muse be a crow on your shoulder and ever whispering in your ear.
An award-winning indie comic creator and screenwriter, Bob Heske wrote THE NIGHT PROJECTIONIST. This graphic novel hit stores on July 5th at a price point of only $12.99. Order your copy at your local comic shop today – tell them the Diamond code is MAR121187! It can also be ordered on Kindle and on Amazon.
Bob has also published COLD BLOODED CHILLERS, the award-winning anthology BONE CHILLER and his end times tome 2012: FINAL PRAYER. BONE CHILLER and 2012: FINAL PRAYER are also available on Amazon Currently, Bob is making his family nervous by investing his time and money on an incredible micro-budget film called “Blessid”.
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Bob’s website is www.coldbloodedchillers.com.