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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

THE ART OF WORDSMITH’S R. G. TAYLOR

THE ART OF WORDSMITH’S R. G. TAYLOR

A few columns back, I had a great time interviewing Dave Darrigo, the creator and writer of the pulp era set comic, Wordsmith, originally published in the 1980s. While Dave strung together the words making up the tales of pulp writer Clay Washburn and the heroes Clay created for his stories, Canadian artist R. G. (Rick) Taylor gave the comic its unique artistic stylings – which still garner praise and influence illustrators today.

After teaching elementary school for 27 years, Rick became a fulltime artist in 2000.  Since then, he has become a popular and critically acclaimed painter while still dabbling in cartooning and illustration. His recent one man show, featuring his transportation series of paintings was a huge success.  In 2008, Rick published Growing Up With Comics, a thoughtful and expressive series of memoirs by comic writers and collectors, each told via the medium of comics featuring Rick’s unique style of black and white illustrations.

Having interviewed the writing half of Wordsmith, which remains one of my favorite all time comic series, I’m delighted to chat with the artistic side of the creation, Rick Taylor…

WORDSMITH CAME ALONG EARLY IN YOUR COMIC CAREER. HOW DID YOUR ASSOCIATION WITH DAVE DARRIGO OCCUR AND HOW DID YOU DECIDE ON YOUR ARTISTIC APPROACH TO WORDSMITH?

Dave was managing a comic shop I frequented. At the time I was doing a cartoon strip about my experiences teaching grade two. It was called the Blackboard Jumble and I did it on and off for 25 years. Dave had seen my sketches and the strip showed I could tell a story. We had lunch and he discussed Wordsmith. I liked the concept, in particular the story within a story part. It meant I could do anything from westerns to detective stories. I also felt setting the book in the thirties was unique. We pitched it to Deni Loubert who was starting Renegade and we were a go.

Although I had looked at a lot of comics, I was a bit ignorant of what was involved in making them. I knew I wanted it to look like a newspaper strip and I knew that required using models. I also knew the logistics of rounding them up from month to month would be challenging so I used myself and my family as well as Dave as characters. 

After that it was several years of non-stop activity working every night and weekend, even some early morning, then teaching school all day. I penciled and inked and painted the covers. My father took over the lettering after the first issue. At one point we reluctantly took the book to a quarterly schedule to avoid killing me. 

DID YOU HAVE AN ARTISTIC GOAL WITH WORDSMITH OR WERE YOU JUST BUSY EXPLORING YOUR TALENT?

Once you start a periodical you are riding a runaway train and all you want to do is tell the story quickly and clearly. Not a lot of time for experimenting. You get better simply because you are putting in hundreds of hours. I confess I have only glanced at Wordsmith since it finished. I see every mistake that was the result ignorance or rushing to meet the deadlines. But people still talk about it and it continues to find new readers. I have done lots of other comics since and have still not missed a deadline. Wordsmith was collected in two volumes by Caliber and I painted new covers. That was enjoyable. Then the publisher Gary Reed published it again in comic form and again I did new covers. Now its fourth incarnation is coming, a volume from Dover Press. Pretty cool.

WHO WERE YOUR ARTISTIC AND COMIC INFLUENCES AND HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR UNIQUE STYLE OF COMIC ILLUSTRATION?

My first serious comic, after reading Bugs Bunny, was a Kid Montana by Pete Morisi. Charlton comics were easier to come by than other comics in the small Ontario town where I lived, so I enjoyed their westerns and war books. I think they had strong distribution along the northeast seaboard. Later I became addicted to Russ Mannings unbelievably brilliant Magnus Robot Fighter. Most of all I loved the newspaper strips Steve Roper and On Stage. I still think Leonard Starr is the pinnacle in art and storytelling. Later I discovered Kirby and the Fantastic Four, but distribution was very erratic. I might come across an issue like number 32 and not see another one until 42. Frustrating.

IN THE EARLY ‘90S YOU DID A RUN ILLUSTRATING SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATRE. WAS THERE A DIFFERENCE TAKING OVER AN ESTABLISHED TITLE AS OPPOSED TO WORKING ON AN ORIGINAL TITLE LIKE WORDSMITH?

Wordsmith was great preparation for Sandman Mystery Theatre. Both were set in the thirties and the Wesley Dodds character was similar to Clay. I had the coats, the hats and the model cars. All I had to do was find a gas mask in an army surplus shop. I had already been buying the comic and really liked it. Matt Wagner wrote a great script. It was a Vertigo book and therefore rather edgy and violent for my tastes. I really enjoyed drawing the developing romance between Wesley and Dianne. It was almost like a romance comic in those sections.

The monthly schedule was grueling since I was still teaching elementary school. Fortunately my editor, Shelley Bond was wonderful. She encouraged me every step of the way. I was hoping to do the bulk of the work during my summer vacation, but that didn't prove to be possible. You can imagine the pressure. I actually did a complete issue, pencils and inks in two weeks, again while teaching all day.

This was at a time when the computer was only just starting to play a greater role in the process, but I didn't own a computer, let alone a scanner. I was on the phone with Shelley a lot and there a lot of back and forth between here and New York via FedEx. It must be so much easier today. Scan your pages and get feedback within minutes.

DID YOUR TALENT FOR ILLUSTRATION EVOLVE INTO A DESIRE TO PAINT OR WAS PAINTING ALWAYS A GOAL? DID YOU HAVE ANY FORMAL TRAINING OR DID YOU LEARN ON THE JOB?

I have always been interested in painting and cartooning. I was not exposed to art history in my small town youth, but loved movie posters and any magazine illustrations I could find. My father was a sign painter who also did some oils, so there was never a dividing line in my mind between high and low art. I feel the same today. Good is good. Ironically when I started doing comics, I was criticized for being too loose and painterly, and when I painted the naysayers said I was too illustrative. When I stopped listening and over thinking it, I introduced heavier line work into my paintings and my fine arts career took off. Dealers and collectors commented on my unique graphic look.

HOW ARE THE WORLDS OF COMIC ILLUSTRATION AND FINE ART DIFFERENT? THE SAME?

Both require solid drawing and a willingness to put in thousands of hours to get to a marketable skill level. Both can grind you down if you let them. I am still telling stories in my paintings, especially in my urban landscapes. I am as passionate about both worlds. One of the advantages of painting is I can finish a piece in one to five days, rarely longer, whereas a graphic novel can take what seems like forever. Then there is the issue of the audience. More people saw an issue of Sandman the day it came out than will see a lifetime of my exhibitions. I can deliver a piece to the gallery, they might sell it almost immediately and then it disappears into someone's home. There are exceptions. We sold a painting to the Toronto deputy chief of police and I have been told it hangs prominently in police headquarters and is seem by hundreds. Mind you, I suspect only a few stop to look.

YOUR GRAPHIC NOVEL GROWING UP WITH COMICS IS A HIGHLY ORIGINAL TAKE ON THE RECOLLECTIONS OF INDIVIDUALS INVOLVED IN VARIOUS COMIC DISCIPLINES FROM WRITERS TO COLLECTORS TO SELLERS. HOW DID YOU APPROACH THE VOLUME, THE PHOTOGRAPHS, AND THE ART INVOLVED? WAS IT DIFFICULT MIMICKING MANY DIFFERENT COMIC ILLUSTRATORS’ STYLES FOR THE COVERS OF THE COMICS INVOLVED?

The book began as a three pager. My cousin Mel Taylor and I were always very close and shared a love of comics. I was visiting him one day and he was chatting about buying his first comic, Hulk #6. He paused, ran upstairs and pulled it out and flipped through it while remembering the family camping trip and the thrill of seeing Steve Ditko's work. I said I had an idea. I'd come back a week later, pick him up and we'd go to his parents' house and I'd photograph him flipping through the comic. I drew the images and he added the narrative, retelling the story that started it all. It was a little gem and Joe Pruett published it in Negative Burn.

I showed it to other chums and not surprisingly they had similar tales about their first important comic and how it shaped them. My very good friend Ron Kasman had been very active in Toronto fandom and we decided to do a full length story about his history. This is when I realized I was on to something kind of new. Sure there had been autobiographical comics, but this was docu-comic. Ron came up with the title Growing Up With Comics. Eventually Joe felt we had enough to collect in a book.

Mimicking other artists was just a ball. I used to do the same thing when I was twelve. I always loved Kirby, but after coping his Fantastic Four pages, I said to someone, "He was not of this earth." Genius incarnate. 

YOU ARE NOW HIGHLY ACCLAIMED AS A PAINTER OF OUTDOOR SCENES, TRAVEL SCENES, AND MOST RECENTLY FORMS OF TRANSPORTATION. HOW HAS YOUR ART AND YOUR ARTISTIC GOALS EVOLVED, AND WHERE DO YOU SEE YOUR ART GOING IN THE FUTURE?

My painting career has been very gratifying. The Ontario government purchased four of my pieces for the archives and cited me as a significant Canadian painter. My second one person show is currently in Artworld Fine Art and the staff tells me I am their second best seller. Nonetheless, almost to my surprise, I am eager to start a new graphic novel. This time I will be collaborating with my nephew, Kevin Taylor. Kevin played the baby in the final issue of Wordsmith. He's really good and we are working closely together. Moreover, its protagonist is a painter. As with Wordsmith, it will deal with the challenges of living a life as a creative person. Everything seems connected in my artistic endeavors and I am hoping it will be the best thing I've ever done.

A BIG THANKS TO RICK FOR TAKING THE TIME TO ANSWER MY QUESTIONS. TO SEE MORE OF RICK’S ART CLICK HERE

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