Q: Hello Ronn, many thanks for taking time away from your very busy schedule to do this interview. Could you tell us of your early days reading comics and the things that moved you towards a career as an artist?
A: All kids read comics when I was a boy. They were everywhere. There were racks of them in variety stores, grocery stores, drug stores, everywhere. Even the barber had comics. I guess a turning point for me was in Toronto in 1966 George Henderson opened the first comic book store in Canada (called “Memory Lane”). A room full of 2nd-hand comics, most were five cents each. About once a month I’d travel downtown and return with a shopping bag of 100 comics or more. I had near full runs of all the titles I collected. Around the time Kirby left Marvel I was losing interest as a reader but developing my own art skills. I came from a blue collar background. There weren’t any artists in the family for me to learn from. So I taught myself how to draw.
Q: Who are the artists who have inspired and continue to inspire?
A: Bill Payne was the first professional comics artist I ever knew. I was probably 16 and he was drawing a daily historical newspaper comic strip called The Giants in a very realistic style similar to Stan Drake or Leonard Starr. I learned a lot from him. I got him interested in actual comic books and he later drew a few stories for DC’s The Witching Hour, House of Mystery and one Skywald story for Nightmare. Bill eventually drifted away into other fields. Berni Wrightson was a big influence from the first time I saw his work in 1968 or ‘69. I met him shortly thereafter and a few years later found myself sleeping on his living room couch for a period in ‘72. I’ve been influenced by an ever changing roster of artists over the years. All the horror comics of the 1970s (Warren, DC, Charlton, Skywald) had a big effect on me. They still do. I didn’t discover the ECs until much later.
Q: Given the Canadian government’s ban on horror and crime comics as early as 1948 how easy was it to get hold of these sorts of comic as a youngster?
A: I don’t recall what comics were around me as a child but I read everything and anything I came across. I don’t remember there being horror and crime comics, but I know my uncle read ECs.
Q: Did you ever become active in comic book fandom during your early years?
A:As a teen I published a half dozen issues of my own mimeograph (!) fanzine called Whirlwind. Completely forgettable and I’m grateful so few copies have survived. Eventually I was doing illustrations, portfolios or strips for better quality fanzines like Comic Crusader, Comic & The Crypt, Always Comes Twilight, The Comic Reader, etc.
Q: Where did you get first paid job as a comic book artist?
A: It’s difficult to say. For a while I assisted other artists. Sometimes I penciled, sometimes I’d ink, but either way it was the other artist who signed the work. I “ghosted” for Howard Chaykin, inked with Wrightson, worked periodically at Neal Adams’ studio, helped Bill Payne and later Gene Day make deadlines. Sometimes you got paid, sometimes you didn’t. With my own early solo work some publishers were unreliable. It could be very frustrating. It was part of the reason I stopped doing comics for a few years and did magazine illustration and design instead.
Q: At what stage in your life did you decide turn fully professional?
A: It happened in stages. In the 1970s and ‘80s I went through periods of struggling to draw comics for a living. I’d have to take on other work to survive and eventually I’d slide over to design or illustration work completely for a few years. But since 1994 I’ve been doing comics nearly exclusively. There’s been a bit of animation work or magazine illustration and now the courtroom sketches, but really the comics take up 95% of my drawing time.
Q: Was this an easy decision?
A: It still isn’t.
Q: In a volatile market Elvira enjoyed a very long run, what aspects of the strip do you attribute this to?
A: The Elvira, Mistress of the Dark comic from Claypool was published monthly for 13 years, from1993 to 2007. I joined with issue #57 (Jan ’98) and contributed strips regularly right up to the final page of the final issue (#166). Elvira is a popular and easily recognizable personality. I think the comic’s success is attributable to editor Richard Howell who kept it on a rigid monthly schedule all those years. It was a humor comic unlike anything being offered by other publishers. Despite a lot of cleavage and bare thigh, it was an all-ages book. The comic was accessible to new readers since nearly every story was self-contained. The comic had a very loyal readership. I couldn’t tell you how many fans I’ve met that have the entire set. It wasn’t sales figures that discontinued the series.
Q: How easy was it working with your partner Janet on this series?
A: Janet L Hetherington and I have been a couple for more than 16 years and we’ve collaborated on a number of projects including a short-lived daily newspaper comic strip as well as comics for a variety of publishers. As well she wrote and drew her own series of humorous macabre love stories in Eternal Romance (later collected into an Eternally Yours tpb). After I had been drawing Elvira for a few years, Janet started submitting script ideas and eventually became one of the two regular writers on the series. She was writing scripts for all the artists, not just me. However, having an in-house writer (literally) she’d tailor scripts to my exact interests. It worked out very well and I was almost always drawing the things I wanted to.
Q: After such a long run how did you react to Elvira’s cancellation?
A: I was saddened because after nine years I was pretty attached to the character, but I was grateful as nine years drawing one comic is almost unheard of these days. I could see the cancellation coming from a long way off, so there was no shock or surprise involved. It wasn’t an overnight thing, it was building for about a year and a half. The series had almost ended about a year earlier and there’s one strip where instead of putting “the end” on the last page, I wrote “That’s All Folks!”, anticipating that it was my final Elvira strip. But there was a reprieve. I should point out that it was neither the publisher nor Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson that wanted to stop publishing the comic. It was problems with the distributors that forced the comic’s cancellation. But with so much advance warning I started looking around for other assignments. I did the Fear Agent story for Dark Horse, as well as four 30-page online romance comics (for a company attracting female Harlequin Books readers, offering pay-per-view online love comics). I drew a promotional comic to publicize the release of the DVD documentary Vampira: The Movie. There were other assignments.
Q: You have developed a reputation for erotic horror, is this by design or pure chance?
A: Both. For a very long time I drew awful looking women. I used to say they looked like men with long hair and breasts. When I worked on The Savage Dragon animated TV series I ended up doing a lot of scenes of She-Dragon. That meant hundreds of drawings, so by sheer volume of drawing the look of my female characters improved dramatically. When I returned to comics every single assignment I got offered were female vampires. Actually, female lesbian vampires… Draculina, La Femme Vamprique, Luxura, there were more. Eventually Elvira came along and saved me from a career of female lesbian vampires. As I was growing up I loved the underlying eroticism of the Hammer horror films. I’m a big fan of 1940s & 1950s pin-up art as well as early 1960s men’s magazines. I’ve tried to incorporate into my work some of that sensuality, to make the art “flirty” instead of sexually explicit.
Q: With the success of Fear Agent will be seeing more of your work with Dark Horse?
A: At the moment, I have a project with writer Steve Ringgenberg that Dark Horse is considering for a mini-series. We’ll see what comes of it. The Fear Agent story I drew was inked by Hilary Barta. He had previously inked my final couple Elvira strips. At the moment we’re working on couple new projects together. One is a Munden’s Bar strip and the other is a horror story. I hope our association continues. Hilary and I bring out the best in each other, we really play to one another’s strengths. I’ve got other projects in the works. I’m lined up at the moment to draw stories for Imperium’s Trailer Park of Terror and Asylum’s Asylum of Horrors anthologies, as well as ten full page illustrations of The Phantom for Moonstone.
Q: You’ve worked for a lot of publishers over the years, could you tell us of some of the ups and downs?
A: Getting paid is an up, not getting paid is a down. Unfortunately most artists can tell you their stories of creating work and getting ripped off by unscrupulous publishers. Working with smaller publishers increases the chances of a bad experience, but on the other hand there’s usually a lot more freedom to work the way you prefer. I used to write most of my own stories. And ink them and letter them too. At some point a decade or so ago I got turned into a penciler. Instead of dividing my attention and talent in a few directions I’ve been able to focus entirely on my drawing, so it has improved immensely. The comic book market itself has had a lot of ups & downs in the past 25 years, so publishers have come and gone. It makes it difficult to plan your own strategy for the future in an unstable environment. But if you love drawing comics you always manage to keep afloat somehow.
Q: Is there a particular favorite?
A: Without a doubt drawing Elvira, Mistress of the Dark for nine years was an almost entirely wonderful experience. But I also have a soft spot for the issue of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I drew in the late 1980s for T.E. Comics. It was drawn entirely in markers (with no penciling) during evenings and weekends while I held down a fulltime magazine art director’s job. As a kid I always hated that TV and movie comics rarely had good likenesses of the actors so I was determined to draw actors Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G Carroll accurately. The script described another character as a “bumbling Don Knott-type”, so I added Knotts to the mix. I then decided to cast the entire comic with actors and personalities in various roles. David Bowie became the head of T.H.R.U.S.H., with Steve McQueen as his assistant. Lou Reed and Clint Eastwood both had cameos. A girl I was dating became a spy. I guess I didn’t draw myself in because I was already using myself as a model for the lead character in a series of StarBiker stories that had been published by Vortex and Renegade Press.
Q: Do you see yourself as a horror artist or are there other avenues you’d like to explore?
A: Horror comics have always appealed to me more than any other type of comic, both as a reader and as a creator. Science-fiction, too. I’m trying to vaguely steer myself into an all-horror career but other opportunities come along. I would like to do one large grisly horror project in the future that I’m developing right now.
Q: As an artist how do you react to all of the computer aided design of the modern world?
A: We’ve all seen a lot of bad work by people more adept at computer technology than creative skills. But there are some computer-based illustrators out there with masterful talents. I envy them because I’m really on the bottom rung of technology. As I always point out to people, I make my living with a pencil.
Q: How more low-tech can you get?
A: Six of my assignments in the past couple years have been for online comics sites. More than 150 pages. Its sort of peculiar to me, I still prefer that printed page that you can carry around with you and then stick in a bookshelf.
Q: How did you become involved in television animation?
A: Nearly 20 years ago a small Toronto animation company called Lightbox Animation hired a number of comic book artists to help work on the Batman animated TV series. Although none of us were animators they wanted the sensibilities that comic book artists could bring to the project. I worked with them for about six months on a variety of projects (TV shows, commercials, animated feature film). Eventually I drifted over to Animation House to work on a variety of TV commercials. When I came to Ottawa I did work for a couple studios. The most fun was working on The Savage Dragon TV series based on the Image comic book by Erik Larsen.
Q: How do you vary your approach when you become involved in animation?
A: I’m not really an animator, I do “key drawings” which are the basic visual scenes and other people come along and draw in the actions in between my contributions. In animation you’re part of a team. Everybody is working toward one goal and every drawing has to be in harmony with what’s being produced down the line. But it’s a much looser style of drawing than comics. And you use skills that you can bring back to your other work. For me, the money has always been good and it’s been a pleasant experience. It’s a lot of work by sheer volume of drawing. All the latter projects I did from my own home studio and would just drop off the finished work. They trusted my skills and professionalism that I didn’t need to work on site. Which was just fine by me. It’s been a few years now since I’ve done some animation work.
Q: You’ve had an involvement with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, have you had any near moments yourself?
A: I’ve donated drawings to the CBLDF’s auctions plus I’ve contributed artwork to five different fund raising comics (True North, True North II, No Justice No Piece, More Fund Comics, Even More Funds). Those latter two were fun as they were among my collaborations with Michael T Gilbert of Mr Monster fame. In Even More Funds we had a story where we were both drawing within the same panels despite the fact we live in different countries. A bit of a challenge. My own experiences with censorship are fairly minimal. The one that comes to mind immediately was a story about cyber-sex called “Virtual Sexuality” in Millennium’s Sex & Death #1. The publisher got cold feet at the last moment and whited-out all the nipples despite having approved the pencil art before I inked it. There’s been a few small incidents like that but I contribute to the CBLDF because I believe in the cause.
Q: Has anything ever shocked you in the pages of a comic book?
A: Despite there having been an awful lot of comic books with the word “shock” in the title, it’s pretty difficult to shock someone with a comic book. When I was 15 or 16 I was probably shocked by the expressly sexual images of S Clay Wilson or Robert Crumb. Shocked in the respect that I’d never seen such explicit, sometimes ugly and sometimes funny images. Not shocked in some prudish manner. Mostly surprised by the excess, really. Some of Tim Vigil’s work fits that description with its unrestrained sex & violence. He probably succeeds because he draws so well, a lesser talent might just be ignored. I contributed a strip to one comic, Night Terrors, that included a story about incest. The intention was obviously to shock the reader, but frankly, it was so poorly executed that it failed miserably. It’s difficult to shock people. I find a lot of horror movies attempt to shock the viewer by excessive use of gore. However, grossing out someone isn’t the same as shocking them.
Q: You do your fair share of conventions, how do find them and how demanding is it penciling all of those sketches?
A: We just came back this past weekend from a convention of about 40,000 attendees. Its quite a feat to draw in that atmosphere, whether the crowd is just walking past you or staring over your shoulder. You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself and your talent. You just block out your surroundings and draw. My drawings aren’t really sketches, they are much more finished. I pencil and ink them. Sometimes a buyer has to come back because I’m taking my time trying to do a nice piece, or I’ve been interrupted by conversations. I’ve never had anyone disappointed by the drawing after the wait.
Q: As a comic book pro do you still find yourself a fan of comic books?
A: I’m very aware of comic industry news and what’s currently being published although I don’t buy much of it. I don’t pay attention to any particular storylines or characters, I just tend to follow the work of individual artists. Even then I look at the artwork more so than read it. I have an awful lot of EC reprints. Any sort of horror comic usually gets my attention. None of my comics are in plastic bags. There are just big piles of them, usually lumped together by the artists who drew them. A number of them have color post-it notes sticking out to indicate some good reference or some noteworthy drawing. Any serious collector would be horrified to see them, but I treat them like they were…well, comic books, y’know.
Q: You are probably one of the few comic book artists who, renders horror on the page and then sees it first hand in a court room. How did you make the jump to being a court room artist?
A: Sort of by accident, actually. It was getting near Halloween a few years back and I sent out some packages of Elvira comics to some newspapers and magazines suggesting they might want to consider them for an upcoming article. A few weeks later someone from the CanWest Network called. They are a chain of a dozen newspapers plus television stations across Canada. They asked if I had ever done courtroom sketches. I said “no” and they suggested that maybe I could try some quick sketches from TV and submit them as samples. I said I would, but I never got a chance to do the samples. They phoned the very next day and asked if I was available that day to do some courtroom sketches. So obviously they had been right on the brink of needing someone. My first assignment was drawing Renee Michaud who murdered a married couple. Complete strangers to him. He had five tattoos on his face including two large handguns tattooed on his forehead. You almost have to admire that dedication to evil. Almost.
Q: Have there been any horrifying moments in the courts?
A: Most of the time I am concentrating on getting a good likeness of the accused, the lawyers, etc. So a lot of what is going on in the courtroom just goes over my head. But I’ve been startled a few times. Jennifer Teague was a young woman who went missing for weeks before her murdered body was discovered. I drew her murderer on several occasions but I was sort of taken aback when the prosecutor held up in the air the very large hunting knife that her abductor had used. It sort of brought the events of her death into real focus. On one occasion I sat next to a man who admits to twelve separate murders. A drug lord’s hit-man once turned to me and asked “Hi. How’re ya doin’?” as he was being whisked out of court. A pedophile who killed two children kept mugging and making faces as I tried to draw him. Then he kept gesturing for me to show him my drawing. I didn’t, of course. I’ve been recently drawing the trial of Momin Khawaja, the first man in Canada charged as a terrorist. He was connected with the five would-be bombers convicted in London. Security was ultra-tight: police snipers on the courthouse roof, police with machine guns and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the hallways, x-ray machine, walk-thru metal detectors and a hand search with the metal detecting wand. The day a convicted member of al-Queda testified he was surrounded by heavily armed police the entire time he was on the witness stand. It’s pretty strange sometimes.
Q: Looking back on your time in comics what do you consider to be the high point?
A: That’s very difficult to answer. Working on Elvira was a fun and long on-going project. Unlikely I’ll ever have an opportunity like that again. I’m very proud of the Fear Agent story I did with Hilary. I have all the pages framed on the walls in our home. Previously I’ve never hung up any of my own work. The 1974 cover I did for the Spider-Man Index was a big step for me. I not only penciled & inked it, I also did all the mechanical color overlays. Something I’d never done before, but I figured it out and it turned out fine. I hope the next two stories I’m doing with Hilary will be a high point. I’m hoping to start developing a much larger pure horror project. Maybe that will be a career highlight.
Q: We have quite a few up and coming creators reading From the Tomb, as a long standing professional is there any handy advice you can provide?
A: Good, clear storytelling is the only thing that matters in comics. Jack Kirby absolutely proved that highly-refined rendering, photo reference, and medically-correct anatomy might be nice bonuses in comic art, but they are completely non-essential to good storytelling. Conveying the story in as clear a manner as possible should be an artist’s main goal. Doing comics is a lot work. Talk to a lot of artists about their working methods and the tools they use. Buying or building a lightbox is probably a smart move. I personally do very detailed roughs at about 6 x 9”, enlarge them by photocopy and draw/trace them onto the finished board. My roughs are the same size as the printed page, so you’re creating exactly what the reader will see. You should always be thinking in terms of clarity to the reader. Don’t fall in love with your own work. If you’re not conveying the story properly to the reader, rub it out and try again. And finally, it’s absolutely essential to have a website. It’s an instant online portfolio to display your work to potential employers, as well as fans and other interested parties. Mine is pretty basic, but it’s gotten me a lot of work in recent years. It needs a major re-design, but you’re welcome to have a look at www.ronnsutton.com (Feel free to say “hi”).