We interview artist Duncan Eagleson about The Sandman comics, designing horror masks and more
Duncan Eagleson has been creating astounding content within the artistic industry for decades. He is perhaps best know for his illustrative contribution to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series, which comic book fans still hold Duncan’s name in high regard for. Duncan’s career has also spanned graffiti art, creating horror masks, designing book covers and he has even released his own novel.
We were granted the privilege of undertaking a personal interview with Duncan about his life and his life’s work. This was achieved through my personal ties with Duncan after having hired him for my book cover designs, for my self-published short stories.
Below you will find our in-depth, one on one interview with Duncan.
Let’s start with how you first became interested in art. What were the things that inspired you and first made you realise that you wanted to become an artist?
That’s hard to answer, because I honestly don’t remember a time when I didn’t intend to be an artist of some sort. I was drawing from the time my chubby little baby hands could hold a crayon. Granted, at that age, I wasn’t thinking about a career, that came later.
All children draw pictures and make up stories. Unlike most children, I never stopped. China Mieville had a story in the New Yorker, “Forward Thinking,” where he’s talking about science fiction and fantasy, but it’s applicable to any of the arts. He says, “‘How did you get into this stuff?’ You’re going to be asked this question a lot. … It’s impossible to answer, of course; you didn’t get into anything. …’How did you get into this?’ is to say, ‘How come you are you?’ Mostly those ‘into this’ are those who simply never leave. So you can answer your interlocutors’ question with another: How did they get out of it?”
So how did you get out of it?
Career-wise, I pretty much always figured I’d be in one or another field related to art and storytelling: artist, writer, or actor. As it turns out, I’ve done a bit of all three, though art, in the form of illustration, is the way I’ve made my living for most of my adult life.
What inspired me to that? Movies, comics, and novels. It’s all about the story for me. I never really thought seriously about becoming a gallery/fine artist – what I wanted to do was illustration, telling stories (my own or others’) through words and pictures – book covers, book and magazine illustrations, comics, movie posters.
As a young child, I grew up with beat up old copies of classics like Robin Hood and Treasure Island, illustrated by artists like Howard Pyle and N.C.Wyeth. As I got older, I started coming across the works of the great illustrators of the 60s and 70s, like Sandy Kossin, Basil Gogos, Jeff Jones, Frank Frazetta, Jim Bama. Probably everyone’s at least heard of Frazetta – if you’re an art enthusiast, and you don’t recognize the other names, you should look them up.
You are listed as having been a graffiti artist in the 1980s, with your tags “Daemon” and “Prof-23” appearing on walls and subway cars in New York city. Can you tell us about the meaning of these two tags and the statement that you were making at the time?
Both tags were names given to me by others. The stories behind both are a little long and complicated, but here’s the short version of one:
When I was a kid, because I was a nerd and a bookworm, some of the other kids would mock me by calling me “the Perfesser” (said with a high nasal tone, in imitation of a cartoon character of that name). As an adult, arriving on the streets of NYC, one of my new friends, somewhat awed by my knowledge and education, tagged me “The Professor” (also pronounced “Perfesser,” though without the nasal tones of my youthful nemeses). So for me, it was a sort of reclaiming – an epithet which had been derogatory now applied in admiration.
I added the “23” because I was reading a lot of Robert Anton Wilson at the time, and had become fascinated with the “23 Enigma,” since the number 23 had seemed to have a lot of significance in my own life, even before I discovered there was a well-known “enigma” surrounding it. Personally, I’m inclined to think the whole 23 enigma is explained by Wilson’s interpretation of the 23 mystery: All incidents and events can be directly or indirectly connected to the number 23, given enough ingenuity on the part of the observer.
What sort of statement was I making? Depends on the piece. In the broad sense, I suppose, they were all about waking up, paying attention to the world around you, both the beauty and the horror of it, about understanding that we’re all interconnected, whether we like it or not, and have to find ways to live together in peace. Some people call graffiti vandalism, and some of it undoubtedly is – the territory-marking gang signs, the random obscenities, and such. But there’s still a large contingent of graffiti writers out there who are doing public art – whether it’s sanctioned or not. As an artist – or even as a spectator – you’ve got to look at it like a Buddhist or Native American sand painting – an ephemeral art form that will make a statement and then vanish (like we all will eventually).
I had to laugh a while back when I saw a news story about people who were outraged about the destruction of a graffiti piece by Banksy. I thought the outrage was ridiculous. If Banksy really comes from a background as a grafitti writer, then he’s used to that, and understands that his art is ephemeral. The temporary nature of such art is part of its beauty and its value. Appreciate it now, because it may be gone tomorrow.
You illustrated Issue #38 of The Sandman, titled The Hunt, which is a visually sumptuous issue. What was the most difficult composition within this issue and which panel or page are you most proud of?
Thanks for the compliment. You really have to give Vince Locke a lot of the credit for that, too. At the time, I was good with pencils, and with full painted art, but I wasn’t real comfortable inking. Still, I was nervous at having someone else ink my pencils, which I had previously done for myself, and I didn’t know Vince or his work. When I saw the inked pages, I was stunned. Vince really hit it out of the park – the resulting art was absolutely what I would have done myself, if I’d had Vince’s awesome inking skills.
The most difficult part of the job was definitely the notorious “werewolf sex scene.” I rendered it in what I thought was a reasonably PG manner – it was, I thought, pretty sexy (this was comics for adults, after all, wasn’t it?), but it was nowhere near porn, and there were no actual “naughty bits” showing. But DC/Vertigo thought it was a bit too graphic, and sent it back for revisions. We actually went through three or four versions of that scene before they were satisfied that it was tame enough.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. I felt that because this was a major turning point for the main character, the art had to be something special, something that stood out a bit from the rest of the story. Since I couldn’t do that the way I originally set out to, with the more “graphic” version, in the final version I took a shot at some special effects, using color overlays. Now, remember, this was back in the days before Photoshop was widely used, and the coloring of these comics was still done by hand. The effect was something I’d done before, both in print and in screen printing, and it could have worked had I been doing the color separations myself. But whoever was doing those separations didn’t get what I was trying to do, and the end result was a bit of a mess. For what it’s worth, along the way, someone recognized what I’d been trying to do, and in subsequent collected editions, they tweaked the separations so that it came out much closer to what I’d intended. In the original, individual issue, that page looked pretty bad, but the later printings I can at least look at without too much embarrassment.
What panel or page am I most proud of? Wow, that’s hard to nail down to one. Looking through the story now, it seems to be all of a piece, without any single page or panel that stands out from the others. Which I suppose is as it should be – when you’re doing comics, your art is there to serve the story, not to call attention to itself with a “look what cool stuff I can do” splash.
One bit I was rather fond of, though, which probably no one ever noticed, is when we get to the camp of The People, where Vassily meets Baba Yaga, all the people we get a good look at are modelled on actors who played werewolves in old movies – Lon Chaney Jr, Oliver Reed, John Carradine, etc. I went with older films, and and didn’t base them on photos, but drew them from memory, since I didn’t want any legal repercussions for myself or DC/Vertigo. I thought it made a nice little easter egg for those who might recognize it, and a hint about what was coming up.
What sort of feedback did you receive for your work in said issue?
Very little, at least directly. Though someone once sent me a link to an interview where Neil had some nice things to say about my work.
During your stint on The Sandman, how much interaction did you have with Neil Gaiman himself? How involved was Neil in the illustrative process?
You could hardly call it a “stint,” I was only on for one fill-in issue. There was relatively little interaction with Neil – we had one in-person meeting at the DC offices, and spoke on the phone a couple of times. Neil was very gracious and accomodating, and aside from wanting a certain structural formality to the page layouts to reflect the formal structure of the fairy-tale like story, he pretty much gave me carte blanche. Several times I wanted to run things by him, like “Can I make Baba Yaga fat instead of skinny?” or whatever, and his response was always “Sure – whatever you like.”
The Sandman has a fiercely devout fanbase. In your opinion, what is it about the series that incites such a reaction?
Neil has a terrific feeling for how to go about taking mythological themes and making them relevant for contemporary readers. Not to minimize the contribution of the many artists who worked on Sandman over the years – and there were some brilliant ones who contributed much more than I did – but let’s face it, Neil’s imagination was the heart and soul of The Sandman. The guy is just an awesome writer. When you’ve got someone like that, whose ability is of that magnitude, it inspires those who work with them to push their own limits, to up their game to match the level of the material and the collaborator(s) they’re working with. I think that happened a lot on Sandman, and had a lot to do with it’s unique success.
The Sandman never seems to make it to the screen, despite multiple attempts. The most recent of these failed attempts was to star Joseph Gordon Levitt, before he dropped out of the role. What are your thoughts on the adaptability (or lack of) of The Sandman and why do you feel that it never quite makes it to the screen?
To be honest, I’m not very sanguine about a screen version of The Sandman. Mind you, I fully understand that film is a very different medium from either novels or comics, and that bringing a property from the page to the screen inevitably requires making certain changes. And I’m okay with that – supportive of it, even – as long as the adaptation is faithful to the spirit of the original, and preserves the elements that made the original work so unique and appealing. However, Hollywood doesn’t have a real great record when it comes to adapting works of the caliber of The Sandman – very often they capitalize on whatever splashy, violent, sexy material they can skim from it, and miss all the finer points, deeper meanings, and subtle character touches. Granted, that’s not always the case, there have been brilliant adaptations, but a lot of adaptations have just sucked. The reality is, it’s a crap shoot – even if you get a good cast, good director and writers, there are all these other fingers in the pot, producers and executive producers, other studio execs, many of whom have the power to demand stupid changes in the interest of appealing to the lowest common denominator. So I tend to be wary of the very idea.
I don’t know why it hasn’t happened yet, and I haven’t really followed the news stories about it. But my best guess would be that because it’s too deep and complex, it can’t be reduced to one of those high concept log lines that the money people in Hollywood are so enamored of. It may be comics, but it’s not superheroes, so it’s not as likely to get fast-tracked.
If you could choose any director or showrunner to adapt The Sandman, and any actor to fill the titular role, who would you choose for both of these roles?
Even though there are short stories within the series, I find it hard to imagine doing justice to The Sandman in a two-hour movie. As showrunner, I’d probably vote for Ronald Moore, Daniel Knauf, or David Milch. Possibly Benioff & Weiss. However, the fact is, just because they handled one show well, doesn’t mean they’d do equally well with a different property. So I’d say one of the most important requirements is that the person or persons love the material, are passionate about it, like Peter Jackson was with the Tolkien books, or Benioff & Weiss with George Martin’s novel series.
As to an actor for Morpheus (resisting the impulse to say Laurence Fishburne, sorry), the fact is, with a good director, any decent actor who was drawn to the part could probably handle it. Gordon-Levitt is the current front runner, I guess, and I’m sure he’d do a bang-up job. The more I think about it, the more I’m liking the idea of Kody Smit-McPhee for the part. Cumberbatch or Hiddleston would be good, I’m sure. Maybe Adrian Brody. Of course, Dream is sort of androgynous, so you could cast a woman – I could see Eva Green, Tilda Swinton, or maybe even Carrie-Anne Moss.
But considering the way things have been going, probably all of them will be to old for the part by the time it gets made, so maybe we should be thinking about someone like Max Charles or August Maturo.
You created the pre-release poster for Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street. Are there any posters for modern films that you admire and if so, which ones?
Well, I’m a painter, so naturally I admire illustrated posters, which you don’t see much anymore – seems sometimes like they’re all photoshopped photos these days. But I must say I liked Drew Struzan’s poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Struzan seems to be one of the last illustrators Hollywood will still hire for posters. He’s an amazing artist, with a lengthy film poster portfolio, from the early Star Wars films to movies like Hellboy, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Walking Dead.
I’ve long been a big fan of Bob Peak’s work – Peak died back in ’92, but he left a terrific legacy of brilliant work, especially in his posters: Apocalypse Now, Excalibur, Star Trek, Pale Rider, and many others.
I’ve admired a few of those photo-based posters, too – most are little more than a formula, a collage of the star’s head shot with a couple of supporting characters or a landscape in the background. But some aspire to more – like John Alvin’s famous Scarface poster, or the Perfume poster from BLT Communications. Alvin, a brilliant artist who died in 2008, also did a ton of hand illustrated posters, including Blade Runner, The Color Purple, and Cocoon. BLT Communications, while their work is always professional quality, some of it’s a bit formulaic. BLT doesn’t seem to want to credit individual artists, so it’s hard to say who may have done what. Nevertheless, they’ve done some truly great work.
But you know what’s impressing me more than movie posters these days? Game art. You look at the art being done for Wizards of the Coast, or Applibot, or some of the concept art these young guys are turning out for games and movies, there’s some amazing ability there. Jaime Jones, Eytan Zana, Noah Bradley, Slawomir Maniak, Anthony Jones, Wojtek Fus – just to name a handful – those guys are turning out some brilliant art, and a lot of it, you could look at a painting done in photoshop, and swear it was an oil painting.
You once created a very gorgeous H. P. Lovecraft cover. Are you a fan of his work and do you have a favourite Lovecraft short story?
Yes and no. I’ve enjoyed some of Lovecraft’s work, and clearly he has had a profound influence on modern horror – lots of writers want to tap into the whole Cthulu Mythos thing. But for my money, Lovecraft himself just wasn’t all that good as a writer. His characters are cardboard, his plots predictable, his themes repetitive. But he’s hell on atmosphere. If what you’re looking for is that feeling of creeping dread, and a visceral sense of the insignifigance of us pitiful humans in comparison to these vast and ancient alien powers, Lovecraft’s your man. I think his great accomplishment was in conceiving of these utterly new monsters. While everyone else was going to the well of folklore and myth, trotting out vampires and werewolves and ghosts and demons, Lovecraft was inventing his own monsters, a mythology which, although entirely constructed, also sounded entirely legitimate – you end up feeling that there must have been cults of Cthulu in ancient times, that the Necronomicon must actually have existed.
Lovecraft’s vision, and his realization of it was so intense that there are those who believe it’s totally real. I’m not talking about folks like the Campus Crusade for Cthulu, or other such people, who have their tongues firmly in their cheeks, I mean there are serious occultists I’ve met who insist that Lovecraft [was] actually channelling information from some other dimension, that the Necronomicon actually exists, etc. You have to walk away shaking your head, right? I mean, really.
In any case, despite Lovecraft’s shortcomings as a writer (and let’s not even get into his racism), you have to acknowledge what an important impact he had on fantasy, science fiction, and horror. My favorite of his works? I’d have to say either his novel At the Mountains of Madness, or the short story “The Haunter in the Dark.”
You have written your own novel, which was released in February 2014. This is titled Darkwalker: A Tale of the Urban Shaman and is the story of an Order of warrior shamans who are hunting a supernatural killer known as “The Beast”. How did you go about constructing the world within this novel, before you put pen to paper? Have you ever considered writing a follow up book set within the same world?
Darkwalker started out as an idea for a short animation, following the outline of the epic poem Beowulf, but set in a spare post-apocalyptic Mad Max/Tank Girl type environment. I started writing the script, and before I knew it, it had grown far beyond what I could do in a ten-minute Flash animation. The world and its history started to develop as I was writing, and I thought, well, why not make it a novel, where you could explore all that stuff?
I refer to the world as post-post-apocalyptic — it’s 300 some odd years after the Great Crash, and there’s been a lot of rediscovery and rebuilding in that time, so they have things like computers and electric cars, while a lot of the folks outside the cities still exist more primitively. But to answer your question, I didn’t really construct it before setting pen to paper. Foolish, I realize now, but at first, I was winging it, making up stuff about the world and the culture as I went along. Then I kept finding myself having to go back and tweak things. For instance, at one point, I decided I wanted them to have access to a certain amount of pre-Crash pop culture, which meant they couldn’t have been as ignorant of pre-Crash times as I’d shown them to be a few chapters ago, so I had to go back and revise those chapters. About a third of the way into the book, I finally sat down and did what I should have done in the beginning, which was to figure out, at least in broad strokes, the whole history of the Great Crash and what had happened since then. Most of the story happens in a city, which brought up lots of questions about infrastructure and where do they get food and water, what do they do for energy, and so forth. Some of these things could be built on the ruins of the old world, but many had to be created anew. These weren’t all things that had to appear overtly in the book – but I had to know about them, so I could write convincingly about that environment.
As to writing in that world again, the simple answer is yes, I’m working on a sequel. The more complex answer is that in some sense, I’m always writing in that world. I’m interested in doing a variety of different types of books – I’ve got four other novels making the rounds of publishers even now, and they’re mostly contemporary or historical settings, not futuristic – however, I see almost all of my books taking place in the same “world,” if not at the same time, and they’re all at least slightly related to each other. For instance, one is a contemporary urban fantasy featuring Brick, who, after the Crash, will found the Order of Railwalkers that Wolf, the hero of Darkwalker joins 300 years later.
You have also created horror masks for such films as Wes Craven’s Cursed and for WWE’s Kane. What is the most horrific mask that you have ever created, in your opinion; which is the one that you’d least like to find stepping towards you out of the shadows in a dark alley?
I’ve been a horror fan since I was a kid, so it’s pretty hard to scare me. Despite that, I haven’t really done a lot of horror masks – most of them are animals or from classical mythology. But I’d have to say one of the most intimidating was a mask I made for another wrestler who goes by the name of “Death Machine.” You know how Arnold’s Terminator looks in the last scenes, when he’s had most of his flesh burned off? It was a little like a Steampunk version of that.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
Focus. Become disciplined. Choose a path and stick to it. Do it every day. I’ve met lots of young artists who spread themselves too thin – they write, paint, make comics, play music, they’re jacks of all trades and masters of none, as the saying goes. Diverse interests are fine – necessary, in fact, for artistic growth. But to master any medium, you’ve got to give it consistent, disciplined attention. You have to work at it constantly.
And be aware that no matter how good you get, you may never get rich at it. To really hit it big, you’ve not only got to be good at what you do, you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time, with the right people and all the stars in alignment. However, not being a artistic mega-star or multiple New York Times bestseller doesn’t mean you have to starve. There is a middle ground. It is possible to make a decent living at art, writing, music, if you’re willing to do two things: one, you must put in the time to get good enough, and just keep at it; two, you have to be willing to promote yourself, and deal effectively with the business side of things.
Oh, yeah, one other thing: look up Shaddy Safadi’s lecture “The Law of Increasing Awesomeness.” It’s a Gumroad tutorial, but it’s not about brushes and techniques, it’s about a certain philosophy, an attitude toward art. It costs, I think, $3, but would be worth it at many times the price. Granted, he’s talking specifically about concept art, but I think it applies to any commercial art. Shaddy’s a leading light in concept art, head of the studio One Pixel Brush, and a brilliant guy. He’s also got a great sense of humor and a bad attitude, so besides giving you important information, he’s also entertaining as hell.
You are the Art Director for Corvid Design, among other ventures. This is a company whose aim is to change the face of books, from small, independent and self-publishers. I have previously contracted Corvid Design for my own books and can vouch for its excellence. Can you tell us more about why you set up this venture and how it helps aspiring writers?
A few years back, when I first started taking notice of that burgeoning phenomena of small presses and self published books, the illustrations and graphic design on the vast majority ebook covers were terrible. They looked crass and amateurish. Yet many of those books were actually pretty good. Which sort of stands to reason – the big publishers couldn’t possibly even find all the good ones, let alone publish them all. So even though ebooks in those days had a reputation as being mostly crap, there were bound to be some good ones. That’s the upside to Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap.” If that’s true, that means there’s always that 10% that might be gold. It’s just a matter of finding it.
Sturgeon’s law applies to the big New York publishers as well as the self-published, but whether a book is good or bad, the problem remains: how do you get the self pubbed and small press stuff on a level playing field with the big guys? Amazon and other online retailers help, of course, and can make those self-pubbed books as available, but then what happens when they’re stacked up next to books from the big companies? The fact is, we do judge books by their covers, and to get an equal shot, a self-pubbed book needs a professional looking cover. Of course, your average self published author can’t afford the kind of prices the big houses pay for cover art. So my partner and I looked at how to cut corners, lower expenses, streamline our production process, and still make quality, professional covers available at prices individual authors who had no big corporate budget could afford.
Now, we’re not the only artists to think of this, there are a lot of artists and studios doing it these days, and I’m happy to say that at this point, the general quality level of small and self published book covers has improved immensely. What we offer that many don’t is years of experience working for the majors, and the fact that we will read your book before designing your cover. Some studios charge extra for that – we don’t, it’s part of the service. I can’t tell how many times we, as readers, have become annoyed to discover that the cover didn’t really match the contents of the book. It might be the wrong mood, or the protagonist might not be depicted accurately, or whatever. Back in the 80s, when I started doing book cover design, I swore I’d never do that if I could help it, that every cover I designed or illustrated would accurately reflect what was in the book. My partner Moira shared that point of view, so it became a cornerstone of Corvid’s approach.
Finally, is there any personal artistic project that you are working on at the moment? Where do you see your work taking you in the future?
Several projects. Besides the sequel to Darkwalker, I’m working with my sometime collaborator, Rev DiCerto, on a Weird Western novel, and I have an illustrated fantasy novel about half finished that I’m debating taking either to Kickstarter or Patreon. Necon Ebooks, another small press I do work for, is considering going into print books as well as ebooks, and we’re in talks about an illustrated print version of the Les Daniels “Don Sebastian” vampire series. So I’m looking at lots of writing and painting in the next few years. Thanks for inviting me to do this, it’s been fun.
We would like to sincerely thank Duncan for taking the time to undertake this interview with us. I’ve personally found to the be a very enjoyable experience and we hope that it has provided readers with some key insight into one of the comic book industry’s unsung greats.
Those who are interested in Duncan’s art can find this on Duncan’s personal website, Duncan’s DeviantArt, or if you are interested in engaging Duncan’s services for your book cover art, you can approach Corvid Design.
Contributor (two questions): Jennifer Izykowski
Image credits: Duncan Eagleson