Fan Expo Interviews: Ronn Sutton
Fan Expo Toronto will be taking place this year between September 3rd and 6th, and Graphic Policy had the opportunity to talk with a few of their featured guests before the beginning of the convention. Up first was Ronn Sutton, an accomplished illustrator known for his work in noirish stories and sci-fi. We got a chance to talk with him about his career.
Graphic Policy: One of the characters which you have most worked on is Honey West. What are the main challenges of working in the crime noir genre in terms of the design?
Ronn Sutton: Honey West was a female detective that appeared in nearly a dozen extremely popular pocketbook novels throughout the 1960s. The concept was that Honey’s father was a Private Investigator who was killed during one of his cases. His daughter solved her father’s murder and then took over the detective agency. So the Honey West books, a short-lived TV series, and the comics are all set in the 1960s. This gave me a wonderful opportunity to recreate the time period in my artwork with the clothing, hair styles, cars, furniture, etc of that era. I love researching and drawing comics that are drawn in a specific time period because it gives you a chance to recreate an authentic world on your pages.
But the character I worked on the longest was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Over a nine year period I drew nearly 50 Elvira stories for Claypool Comics. That’s about 800 pages I drew for the Elvira, Misstress of the Dark series. Many scripted by my partner Janet L. Hetherington.
GP: On the same subject what makes for a great femme fatale and how do you give this quality to Honey West?
RS: I was very concerned with making Honey look like she lived in that era. So I showed off the clothes of the period by having Honey wear as many as six different outfits in one comic, using the styles of the times: pencil skirts, fur pillbox hats, gaucho jackets and lots of leopard prints, etc. I was trying to capture the essence of mid-60s female movie stars like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. There’s something indefinable about the way those women stood, walked, and dressed with a real earthiness. I tried to analyze what it was and I think I caught much of it. For the last two HW stories I drew I brought in a model to help me and had her pose.
GP: Switching subjects, how do you feel about the use of horror in comics? Some might say that it is not the best medium for the genre as it is harder to capture the same tension. How can you compensate for it?
RS: I’ve drawn a couple hundred comics, probably the largest portion of them were horror comics. When it comes to drawing macabre comics, its all about the atmosphere; choosing what to show and what not to show. Drawing in a lot of deep shadows and not revealing more than you have to. I have a 14 page adaptation of Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest” coming out in the next month or two in the 144 page horror anthology called Graphic Classics Volume 26: Vampire Classics. I rendered the artwork in full-colour on the actual artboards using markers, dyes, and colour pencils. It required a very limited palette to set a constant mood through out the strip. For the most part in the story, Dracula isn’t really seen. He’s more of a presence. So I had to concoct clever way to visually have him there and not there at the same time.
GP: Do you think that horror relies too much on a single concept instead of reinventing itself? For instance movie horror tends to recycle ideas in numerous sequels while comic book horror tends to be more original?
RS: I think the only limits to horror comics and illustration rest with the person creating it. Horror can be claustrophobic or it can be otherworldly. It can invoke a single horrible villian or even hordes of demons. Comics have a long history of turning monsters into heroes. Horror comics are wonderful to draw because you can let your imagination run wild with pencil & paper creating vistas and creatures that even could be unconvincing in film, as well as being costly and difficult to manufacture.
GP: You have also had the opportunity to work on some characters such as Sherlock Homes and the Phantom. Both of these characters have managed to survive to the modern day with some popularity. What do you think that it takes for some characters to achieve this same level of notoriety?
RS: I think a character like Sherlock Holmes has been around for so long, and been adapted, re-invented and parodied so many times that everybody is familiar with the basic character, while few have actually read the original books (I have!). What is neat about The Phantom is the costume has been handed down from father to son for 21 generations creating the illusion that its been one single long-lived person for hundreds of years. Hence the reference to him as “The Ghost Who Walks”. I think part of the appeal of both characters is they’ve both been around for a very long time; both have distinctive looks, and both are just regular people who rely on superior intellect and physical prowess (without any sort of “super” powers).
GP: One of your projects was Lucifer’s Sword which involved a story focused on a motorcyle gang. How hard is it to draw a convincing motorcycle?
RS: I think the important thing to know about Lucifers Sword M.C.: Life & Death In An Outlaw Motorcycle Club is that it was scripted by Phil Cross, who has been an active member of the Hells Angels for nearly 50 years. The 96 page graphic novel was a slightly fictionalized autobiography. The Lucifers Sword graphic novel was set in the late 1960s in San Jose, California area, so in my drawings I was striving to accurately portray the clothes, buildings, cars and, obviously, motorcycles of the time.
When it came to drawing all the Harley Davidson motorcycles, my editor was an enormous help in identifying and supplying me with photo-reference of those rigid-frame bikes. As well, each bike had to be drawn unique to its owner since those motorcycles were all chopped and customized. So no two were alike. So, on top of all this I was watching all the old Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, etc biker films that were so popular 45 years ago (like Hells Angels On Wheels, Angels Die Hard, etc). I collected up all sorts of biker books and magazines including biker tattoo magazines in an attempt to just get everything right.
I’m VERY happy that the biker community has embraced and praised Lucifers Sword M.C.: Life & Death In An Outlaw Motorcycle Club, and particularly that they cited in their reviews the accuracy in the drawing of the choppers. You can hear a CBC radio interview between Hells Angel Phil Cross and myself discussing our graphic novel here.
GP: Are there any genres which you would life to get some more exposure in?
RS: I LOVE drawing science-fiction strips. As opposed to historical stories I’ve drawn that require so much accurate visual reference research, with sci-fi you get to make up EVERYTHING! Which is both fun and a daunting task. So many of the artists that I admired as I was growing up drew some wonderful sci-fi comics.
I have a “side-project”, that I work on in between more pressing comic assignments, which is a graphic novel adaptation of The Citadel of Lost Ships. It was written by Leigh Brackett and originally published in Planet Stories, in the 1930s. I work on it at my own pace and while I want it to be a ripping traditional heroic adventure, the designs of the costumes, starships and alien cities range from the type found in old time pulp magazine illustrations to futuristic hi-tech. So its a wild amalgam of styles. It will be a long time yet before I’m done, but it will be enormous fun to read I hope. You can watch for news update about this project, and others, on my website.