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Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

BAKER'S DOZEN for 03/17/2010
Send in The Clowns
Greg Houston on The Vatican Shuffle, part two

In this second half of my extended conversation with the creator of Vatican Hustle, Greg Houston talks about his forthcoming second graphic novel, what the future might hold for the characters of Vatican Hustle, and the most important lessons he learned at art school, among other topics.

BB: You mentioned that you’ve done another graphic novel. What can you tell us about that one?

GH: The other one is called Elephant Man. It’s sort of a spoof of the superhero genre.

BB: OK. Is that scheduled to come out later this year, then?

GH: I’m not sure. I sent it in a little while back.

The thing about me is that I work very quickly. With Vatican Hustle, I had six months from the time I signed the contract to the time when it was due, and I did it in about two months. And I was naïve; I thought, “Oh, great, now they’re going to put this ahead” [in the schedule]. But that’s not the case. It’s still on their schedule. So then I just sat around for a long time, wondering what was happening.

This one, Elephant Man, was a shorter book. It’s only 80 pages. So I did that one in about two weeks, and then sent it off. They’ve had it for a while, so I’m not sure…

Again, I was thinking it was another six months thing, so I was way ahead when I turned it in. And that sort of makes you lose sense of time to a degree. So, to be honest with you, I’m not sure when it was due anymore, or how long they’ve had it. But at some point, I guess, it will go on the schedule and I’ll find out a little more about it.

BB: It sounds like you work incredibly fast.

GH: I am. [Laughter] I am fast.

BB: What’s the reason for that? Is it because you’re trying to capture that initial energy on the page, or is it just the nature of the way you work?

GH: I think it’s the nature of the way I work. To a large degree, I do not like having anything hanging over my head. And I can’t relax if I feel like something’s unfinished. So, when you have a book sitting there…

I mean, there’s a point you get to, when you work, that you say, “If I can do five pages, I’ll feel like that’s good. That’s my goal for the day.” Or ten pages, whatever it may be. And I can relax at that point, because I met my goal for the day, and I feel like I’m sort of exhausted, like “That’s enough.” But you get up the next day, and you’re like, “But I still have a hundred pages left. I gotta get crackin’!”

But I’m that way with my illustrations. I’m proud to say, after 22 years as a professional illustrator, I’ve never missed a deadline, not even by a minute. There’s this compulsion, I think, once I have a concept, and once I get the OK—even when I’m working for myself, on a painting or something I’m doing on my own—I need to get it done. I need to get it out before I get bored with it, or before I lose the…

I don’t know. There is a certain energy that comes along with it, and I like to sort of ride that as long as I can, until it’s finished.

BB:
Well, you brought up the subject of your paintings. And in those you showcase your talent for working in color. And I’ve got to say that, just as your illustration style is unique, your coloring choices matches up with it perfectly, and are just as unique.

So I’ve got to ask why you did Vatican Hustle in black and white, rather than color?

GH: You know, I went to NBM…

I contacted one other company first, and they weren’t interested. And I saw that many places don’t take unsolicited manuscripts or ideas. NBM was willing to look at, and I sent it into them. And at that point, I had done it.

I talked to a friend of mine, Brian Ralph, who had some graphic novel experience. And I said to him, “When I’m doing this graphic novel…”

Because I didn’t have a publisher at that point, and I was just trying to come up with some pages as samples; I had the story and everything, everything was already done, I just hadn’t done the artwork. So I said to him, “What size do you think I should work proportionate to? What do you think the ultimate piece would be [printed at]?”

He said, “Well, you know, they come in different sizes.” So, I ended up doing the first twenty pages proportionate to 10 by 12 [inches], not 6 by 9. [General laughter] So, I did twenty pages at 10 by 12, without any dialogue, without any words or text or anything already put in. It was all written, it just wasn’t on the art. And NBM was interested in it.

They said that they would take it, they really liked it, and they said that they would do it as a black and white, 6 by 9” graphic novel. So that was good enough for me.

I mean, I didn’t pitch it in color, because I wasn’t sure if anybody was interested in color. So I pitched it black and white, figuring that would be the best way to get it bought. But they didn’t ask for color at that point. And we changed the size. [Laughter]

Which presented a problem, because I didn’t want to re-do the first twenty pages, so I had to figure out a way to get them proportionate to 6 by 9. But it all worked out.
And I like doing black and white as much as I like doing color. I get bored with anything [I do too much]. If I’m doing too many color pieces, I yearn to do something black and white, or vice versa. Or even in terms of subject matter; if I’m doing something that’s really goofy, again and again and again, then I want to do something that’s scary, or serious, or sad, or whatever. Or something that’s sequential. Then I want to do a stand alone [illustration]. Or, too many stand alones, I want to do something sequential.

So it was a nice opportunity to do the black and white. And it is fast. It’s easier; it’s quicker than doing color, so I was perfectly happy with that.

BB: One of the things I immediately noticed about this story is that you left it wide open to a sequel. In fact, there’s a really nice set up for a follow up to this book. Do you have anything planned, or in the planning stages, on that front at this point?

GH: Well, I do. [Short burst of laughter] Of course, this would depend on everybody reading it! [More general laughter] If there’s a hue and cry from the crowd, if people want to see one, I certainly have something that I could do. If that doesn’t happen, then maybe I’ll have to beg NBM to give me another chance to put Boss Karate Black Guy Jones out there. But I don’t have a master plan or anything like that. What I do have are some stories that I have been sitting on for a long time. Elephant Man really isn’t a story I had for a long time; but I had the character and I just developed the story.

I have a couple other things that I’d like to do, and then, if the audience is there, I have an idea for a Vatican Hustle sequel that would be pretty funny. And it does have Chocolate Dynamite, who comes in at the end. She would play a much bigger role, and I have some other characters, who aren’t in this book at all, that would be a lot of fun.

I hope I get the opportunity.

BB: I get the impression that you could probably tell quite a few stories featuring these characters.

GH: Maybe. I’d like to think that would certainly be a possibility. Again, I don’t really have any real master plan, but if I could revisit these characters…

As I said, I get bored with things, so I like to mix it up a little bit. But I also like to come back to things. So if the opportunity was there, if it presented itself to do these characters again and again, I certainly would jump at the chance. As long as I had something that I thought would be a little bit different, and still maintain some level of quality, then I’d absolutely be happy to do it again and again.

BB: You mentioned that you’ve not really been into comic books seriously, and the superhero book you came up with is a satire on the genre, but I have to ask if you have any interest in working in mainstream comics, whether it’s superheroes or even something like Mad magazine?

GH: Well, I loved Mad magazine growing up, and still do. I mean, I haven’t looked at it in a long time, so maybe that isn’t a fair thing to say. But just the concept of it, I think it’s great.

And I also read Cracked as a kid, and Sick. I don’t know if you remember them.

BB: Oh, yeah!

GH: And they had some great art. When I was a kid, my grandfather had these little pocketbook collections of Mad magazine. I don’t remember if it was one issue per collection, or if it was multiple issues of the magazine collected in one book. I don’t remember how it worked, but they were from the late 50s and early 60s, what I would call the real Golden Age of that magazine. But things like “Superdooperman,´ and “The Shadow,” and “The Face Upon the Floor,” all those were really great.

And you saw this great artwork. I mean, [Will] Elder, and Wally Wood, and these jam-packed frames. I don’t know how they did it, these jam-packed frames, but you could decipher everything that’s going on. It was so beautiful, and so wonderfully done.

I don’t know. I mean, the opportunity to do something for Mad? I don’t think I would ever work for Mad. I, myself, am an idiot. I’m not sure that I [would want to be part of] the Usual Gang of Idiots that punches in every day. But an opportunity to do something for them on a freelance basis, that would be great. That would be terrific.

I’ve never approached them. I don’t know how they even work it, to be honest with you. But if they deemed me worthy, I certainly would appreciate an opportunity to have something in Mad. They’re great.

As far as mainstream comics, I don’t read them. I see them, here and there. And I don’t want to sound like I’m a snob, like I’m one of these people who that’s like, “Oh, I don’t read comics!” It’s not that I have anything against them, because there’s some really beautiful work that’s being done, but I just have other stuff going on.

So, again, if I had the opportunity, I think it’s always great to try something different. It’s always great to collaborate. I’m not sure that my stuff would lend itself to something that’s more mainstream, but maybe it would. If somebody thought that was the case, and they were interested, I’d certainly be open to that.

I think I might be more like somebody they would be willing to give a cover. I don’t know if you want me to do the whole thing. But, yeah, absolutely.

I’m an illustrator. I’m fortunate in that I work in a lot of different styles. I don’t know if you’ve been to my website and saw my paintings—I get the impression that you have—but if you have, you’d see that I work in a lot of different ways. And I think that the good news is that allows me to do a lot of things, and I’d like to continue to try out different things. So, as long as I was not doing a disservice to the client, I would be happy to try different things. That would be great. [General laughter]

BB: Well, earlier you mentioned that you attended the Pratt Institute, and talked about one bit of advice you got from one of your teachers there. Are there any other similar bits of advice that they gave you that you rely on regularly?

GH: Oh, gosh. Pratt was a phenomenal experience for me. And I didn’t go to SVA, and I didn’t go to Parson’s, so I don’t mean to slight anyone else when I say this, because I don’t what their programs were like at the time, but Pratt’s program was phenomenal.

And Pratt was this sort of broken down campus in Brooklyn—when Brooklyn was a very dangerous place, by the way. This was not the elegant Brooklyn Heights area of Brooklyn, or Park Slope, which is now really nice. But this was Bed-Stuy, which was scary. And we were all in the community. And when we went to the city, we went to the city. It wasn’t like Parsons, where you were in the city and you were just going to waltz down to Fifth Avenue or something. We were kind of an island.

A lot of the instructors I had at Pratt also taught at SVA, and Parsons, and [other schools]. I clearly remember having a conversation with one of them and somebody else asked him, “What’s different between Pratt and Parsons and SVA?” And he said that the thing about Pratt was that it really emphasized the fine art, and learning to be an artist, rather than developing a style—particularly a style that was current. They really wanted to drum into you that knowing how to draw, knowing how to paint, understanding color, understanding light, and typography, all of these things were really important. And so that was the lesson that I got from Pratt, more than anything.

I had some phenomenal instructors there: Donn Albright, Dave Passalacqua… I didn’t have him as a teacher, but just as I was leaving, Kent Williams had come back, maybe like a year or so before I graduated. He had graduated from Pratt, and he had come back to teach. So they definitely had quality instructors there.

But I thought it was a great community, and it was a great work ethic. They really drummed it into you. And when I teach now…

I teach at Maryland Institute. I teach as an adjunct, a class here and there type of deal. But in the summers, I teach in the pre-college program, which involves these high school kids from all over the country, and in some cases, all over the world. We have kids from other countries that come, and they spend a month on campus, and I have them for illustration three days a week, from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon. [Laughter] And then I do a workshop class on Friday.

And that’s what I always tell them: I want to see who can draw, who can paint. I want you to think about the choices you make, because you can’t push a button and undo the color choice you just made. You spend hours painting, and if you don’t like it, you’re going to have to spend hours repainting something else over it.

I want the kids to see there are consequences. You make choices because they’re good choices, not just because you’re pickin’ wallpaper, or you’re going to sort of walk ass backwards into something that’s good. You need to know why to do these things.

That’s the lesson I got from Pratt.

BB: What do you get from creating art, generally, and what do you get from doing graphic novels that you might not have gotten from your other work?

GH: I’m not really sure I can answer that, to be honest. I mean, it’s just fulfilling to create stuff. There’s stuff in my head that I need to get out. And I don’t mean that if I don’t, something bad’s gonna happen. I just mean that I have these images that float around in my head, and some of them for years, and I need to just pick them off. Get them done, get them out there. Just let them breathe, you know?

And the graphic novel was different. It was something that I hadn’t really done, and it was a challenge. And I didn’t know… [Laughter]

It’s fun to do something you haven’t done before to see if you can do it, and—hopefully—do it well. That will be up to others to decide, but it’s done. That much I can say. And I feel good about it.

It’s like anything. I think anybody who’s a craftsman, anybody who builds…

I’m not a craftsman. My fiancée and I built shelves in our bedroom, and it was not a big deal, but we were so proud of them. We had people coming over, [and we’d say,] “Can we show you these shelves we built?” [General laughter]

There’s just this great sense of accomplishment when you do anything. And, I think, especially when you do something that you haven’t done before, like the graphic novels…

When I was in college, we had a comic magazine at Pratt. I did work for that, and it was fun. But this is the first time I’ve really done it on a large scale, and for a client, for an audience that was not just my buddies or the people I went to school with. There were a lot of balls in the air, and just pulling it off is exciting. I guess that’s the thrill of it to a large degree.

BB: How about your audience? What do you hope that they get from The Vatican Hustle, and from your work in general?

GH: From my work, in general? I just hope it makes an impact in some way. I don’t know necessarily what they should feel, or think, if they see it. I’m an illustrator, so I’m about visual communication, so I hope that whatever point that I’m trying to make, they got. Maybe it landed, or it mattered to them, or didn’t matter, but I hope that they at least understood it.

But I think that you should look at art and you should be drawn in, whether it’s illustration or design or fine art or photography, whatever it may be. So I hope that people, when they see my paintings or drawings—whether they’re the things that I do for a clients, or that I do and hang up in a gallery somewhere—I just hope that they are drawn to it, that it connects with them in some way.

As far as the graphic novel’s concerned, I hope that people are amused. That’s really the reason that it exists, for them, anyway. There’s no great social point being made. I’m not solving the world’s energy problems or anything like that. It’s silly—which isn’t to say that I didn’t put a lot of work and effort into it. But, for them, I just want somebody to read it and say, “Hey, I like Blaxploitation!” or, “I think it’d be cool if the Pope were a big, mean guy that could float!” or, “I don’t like clowns,” or whatever it may be, and just be amused by it. [General laughter] And tell their friends, and make them laugh about it.

And that, years and years from now, they can probably say, “Remember that thing we read when we were kids, and it was goofy, and we really liked it? What was that again?”

“The Vatican Hustle?”

“Oh, yeah!

“Hey, whatever happened to that guy?”

“I think he’s in an asylum or something.” [More general laughter]

But, I just want them to be amused. I don’t have any great goal beyond that.

BB: Anything else you’d like to add?

GH: The one thing I would like to say is that NBM and Terry Nantier have just been great to work with. They’re not a huge company, obviously, but they’re an old company, and I think they’re a respected company. At least, in the research I did, they certainly seem to be.

I think that, if you’re an artist, they’re a good company to work with. Martin Satryb, the art director, and Terry have just been great. And it would be wrong of me, if I didn’t stop and acknowledge them, and thank them for the opportunity to do the book. I think a lot of places wouldn’t have done this book, and so I’m glad I found a home with them.


And that’s it for this time, folks. To learn more about Greg’s two graphic novels, the recently released Vatican Hustle and the forthcoming Elephant Man, head on over to www.nbmpub.com. And don’t forget to check out the other fine offerings from that seminal publisher of graphic novels. There’s truly a goldmine of sequential entertainment awaiting you there.

If you’ve not yet had enough of Greg’s particular craziness, then click on through to www.greghoustonillustration.com for a bodacious dose of his patented form of visual insanity.

Finally, don’t forget that Greg’s first book, Monkey Genius And His Bikini Assassin Squad And the 349 Other Best TV Shows of All Time, about his illicit affairs with all the “so bad they’re brilliant” television shows of his youth, is still available via your local bookstore, comic shop and all of the best online booksellers.
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