LANCE TOOKS The 2015 Interviews

 Lance Tooks has been drawing all his life. A former assistant editor at Marvel Comics, his artwork has since appeared in more than 100 television commercials, films and music videos. He has worked with Lucasfilm and Pepsi Cola, Madonna, Bill Cosby, Spike Lee & the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has worked for Nickelodeon & MTV Animation, among countless other studios. He has self-published the comic books "Danger Funnies" (co-published with Cry For Dawn), Divided by Infinity and Muthafucka. His comics have appeared in Zuzu, Shade, Vibe, Girltalk (Fantagraphics), World War 3 Illustrated, Spike Lee's Floaters (Dark Horse), Pure Friction and the Italian magazine Lupo Alberto. He also illustrated The Black Panthers for Beginners, written by Herb Boyd. He has contributed to a Hurricane Katrina benefit comic, as well as to the Graphic Classics line of books, adapting the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ambrose Bierce. He wrote and illustrated "Narcissa", his award winning graphic novel for Random House/Doubleday (recently translated for publication in Spain) and a four volume series entitled "Lucifer's Garden of Verses" for NBM. He's adapted works by Aesop, Mary Shelley, Somerset Maugham, Nathaniel Hawthorne & Oscar Wilde, collaborated with Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) on books about the Beat Poets and an adaptation of Studs Turkel's "Working". He's hard at work on a new comics biography of Thelonious Monk while also creating an original Top Secret graphic novel project entitled Thug Midwife.
Lance Tooks lives in New York and Madrid. He merely exists everywhere else.

I was fortunate enough to catch up to him in a crowded bar in Huertas, sketching away at his new book, while enjoying a fresh J&B and Cola on ice.
 When were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born with my eyes open on September 15th, 1962 in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital one sunny fall morning. I weighed 9lbs, 11oz. I've lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, but grew up in Laurelton, Queens (New York) and lived there for most of my life. I now reside in Madrid and I continue to grow in both ability and girth in my present home. I don't miss America in the slightest, but I do miss family and friends, and can admit to nostalgia about New York in its 20th Century heyday. Or maybe it's just nostalgia about being young.
 Who are you -- as a person and an artist?
I'm very much a product of my upbringing. I was fortunate enough to be born into an artistic family who encouraged me from childhood to view the world through my own eyes and express my views honestly, using whatever creative means I have at my disposal.
 What did your parents do when you were growing up? Did they (or other family members) contribute to you becoming a cartoonist?
My late father, Ed Tooks was a painter, photographer, musician, singer, playwright and Theatre Producer. He built a recording studio in our basement and would give my sister, brother & I weekly creative assignments. We loved him for it and never imagined that other kids might be raised in a different fashion. We were groomed to be artists, and all of us create to this day. He later wrote and produced musical theater with his brother and co-composer, my Uncle George. From my father's example, I learned that the differences between various forms of creative expression are superficial at best; that whether you're a dancer, a filmmaker or a cartoonist, it's all about storytelling... the true art is in communicating your ideas directly to others.
My mother Hazel is a calm, happy person with a soothing demeanor... but don't let that fool you! She's also the stability in a family of Bohemians... if it weren't for her practical nature we would've all been panhandling on the street! She's also a topnotch soul food chef, having honed her skills in the beautiful smalltown of Sunflower, Alabama... then she tested those talents on her most willing guinea pig. Not for nothing did she once nickname me, "the world's fattest starving artist!" ("La artista muerte del hambre mas gordo en el mundo!")
That said, my second greatest creative influences have been Richard Pryor, Bruce Lee & Muhammad Ali.
I even dedicated my comics anthology 'Muthafucka' to the trio, whom I nicknamed 'the Founding Fathers' for their twin goals to 'entertain & enlighten.' I would add Prince to that group as well. I feel more kinship to Miles Davis or Curtis Mayfield than I ever have for renowned popular cartoonists like Jack Kirby or Frank Miller, for example... not that I consider myself to be in their class as artists, but because I feel our goals are similar. To evolve creatively and produce works that affirm life. Also to create personal works that by their simple existence, challenge outdated societal perceptions about the place of African Americans in today's world.
 I don't buy a lot of comics because when I'm not making them I turn to music & film for entertainment. I count film directors like Bunuel, Welles & Murnau among my many favorites. If I ever create a graphic novel with a fraction of the emotion, poetry and impact of their respective works, I'll feel I've done alright.
I admire a million cartoonists though, everyone from Steranko, Ditko, the Severins & Wood- to contemporaries like Kyle Baker & Kevin J. Taylor. The Spanish Horror cartoonists of the 70's like Esteban Maroto and Ramon Torrents were a great influence in my love for black and white art in comics and they set a high standard for illustrators around the world to reach for. Any artist that follows his own beat has my deepest respect.
 What did you want to be when you grow up?
I knew I wanted to be a storyteller.
I have a deep love for music, film, writing and drawing. As I said before, I learned from my father that all of the arts are one. Storytelling is the basis from which they all spring, and the differences between media are superficial at best. An artist can tell the same story of a love affair through song, a painting, a photo or a movie. I love communicating through comics because it allows me to combine multiple media to express a creative message.
 Did any person or event really inspire you to become who you are today?
I'm inspired everyday by the people I meet, the music I hear & the films I see. I view being an artist as a continuing process of discovery, problem solving and learning. To stop learning is to be stagnant. I'm always surrounded by artists, filmmakers, writers and poets... I have the good fortune to call them my friends and they inspire me every day!
Because the family home in Laurelton was a creative hub, we had artists of all sorts passing through the place at any given time. Often my father would wake me and my sister Kim up after midnight on a school night, because he needed our background vocals on a music track he was recording. We'd greet whatever strangers that were sitting behind a guitar or drum kit, sing our little hearts out for an hour in his basement recording studio and then drag our sleepy twelve & ten year old behinds back to bed.
He encouraged us (and my brother, Eric) to draw, to write poetry & scripts, to make films... to be creative thinkers. I shared his multiple interests, but began to worry that by dividing his means of expression the way he did, that perhaps he was denying himself the opportunity to achieve his goals. Like him, I wanted to succeed as an artist, but decided to choose a single path for self expression. And that would be comics.
 Did you go to university? Where?
No... I jumped straight into the workplace. I started at age 16 as an intern at Marvel Comics. The High School of Art & Design in Manhattan, which I attended, had an apprenticeship program which placed students in various professional settings in exchange for school credits. I was chosen from among many students and hired by then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter.
I became an assistant editor there at 18, and had the rare privilege to learn about making comics from seasoned veterans in the field. Marie Severin & John Romita Sr. were especially generous with their time, and patient with my teenaged curiosity. I learned two life lessons from them in particular: In order to improve one's skills, an artist must draw every day... & It's not what one puts into a drawing that makes it good, it's what one leaves out. I sometimes jokingly refer to it as "Marvel University" because I was there for the same four year stretch I would've spent in college... and I was there primarily to learn. I've been a working freelance artist ever since.
 How did you end up as a cartoonist?
Viewing my father's example of dipping into various media, but progressing rather slowly in all, I chose to focus my efforts in a single field. Cartooning suits my need for creative control, as the other media rely too much on collaborators for my personal taste. With comics I can tell the same stories that movies can, while designing the sets, the costumes & the scripts myself, without outside interference.
 When did you realize that you really were successful at it?
When Random House/Doubleday chose me, of all people, to create 'Narcissa', the first in their line of original Graphic Novels, I was flattered. I've come nowhere near the kind of creative success I'd like to achieve, however. I hope to someday create a beloved work that communicates to all people equally.
 Can you describe some of the other work that you have achieved in the business?
I've self-published the comic book  Divided by Infinity, the humor anthology Muthafucka and "Danger Funnies" (actually, co-published by Cry For Dawn Press in 1992). My comics have appeared in magazines like Zuzu, Shade, Vibe, Girltalk (Fantagraphics), World War 3 Illustrated, Spike Lee's Floaters (Dark Horse), Pure Friction and the Italian magazine Lupo Alberto. I also illustrated The Black Panthers for Beginners (Writers & Readers Press), written by Herb Boyd. I've contributed to a Hurricane Katrina benefit comic, the South African fine arts magazine Chimurenga, as well as to the Eureka Graphic Classics line of books, adapting the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ambrose Bierce.  I created "Narcissa", my first graphic novel for Random House/Doubleday (which I recently translated and published in Spain). I wrote and illustrated a four volume graphic novel series entitled "Lucifer's Garden of Verses" for NBM.
 What work have you achieved outside of comics, but as an artist?
After Marvel, I worked in the animation field for several years, as an animator, inker & character designer. My artwork has appeared in more than 100 television commercials, films and music videos. I worked for MTV & Nickelodeon. I created five album covers for PowWow records, a reggae music label. I've painted theater sets in Harlem (including one designed by comics great Billy Graham), acted in theater & film (including a brief stint as a movie stuntman) and spoken at schools & libraries. One of the crazy by-products of living in Spain has been my acting again (after decades away) in four Spanish TV commercials and four short independent films. I regularly read my work aloud in open mikes throughout the city and belong to several expat writers and poets groups. I was also for two years a juror on the Queens Council of the Arts, filling my father's seat when he died.
 What was your first independent comics (or Graphic Novel) project?
Danger Funnies was a 40 page black & white book that I created for Joe Monks & Joseph Michael Linsner's Cry For Dawn press. It was a romance comic, inspired by my love for music, telling a jazz story and a hip-hop story. I published the second issue (Divided by Infinity) alone, after negotiations with Dark Horse fell through. Excerpts from both appear in a slightly altered state in a recent full color comics project. These led to my first graphic novel, which was an illustrated history of the Black Panther political party, published by Writers & Readers as part of their 'For Beginners' series.

 Tell us about 'Narcissa.'
I was approached by Random House/Doubleday editor Deborah Cowell, to create an original graphic novel. Narcissa is the story of a talented and self-centered independent filmmaker, working around the clock on a feature film and finding herself thwarted at every turn by her arrogant producer . The stress is killing her... literally. Warned that if she tries to complete her current project she'll be dead in a week, Narcissa decides to escape the chaos that surrounds her - and the fears that threaten to overwhelm her, by traveling to Spain. As she encounters new people, places, and experiences, Narcissa gradually comes to a deeper understanding of who she is and what she is doing with her life. It was published in the U.S. to some acclaim a decade ago. I recently translated it into Spanish (where it was published by the Salon de Comics and Ayunamiento de Granada, the enchanted city that inspired the book) and that edition is still available in stores all over Spain. It's definitely the work that I'm most known for, internationally.
 What is the Lucifer's Garden of Verses project with NBM?
Lucifer's Garden of Verses is a series of four graphic novels, in differing styles, each of which feature the Devil as protagonist or antagonist. The titles are:
*Vol. 1: The Devil on Fever Street
In which the fallen angel Lucifer, who's slept through the entire twentieth century, awakens to discover that mankind didn't need his help at all in spreading suffering, exploitation and wickedness across the globe. Sensing that their leader might need some encouragement to complete his appointed task as 'bringer of Apocalyse', the devil's loyal demon henchmen Beelzebub & Belial come up with a plan to return him to 'fighting shape', a light warm-up of sorts for the heavy days ahead. He is to tempt the person with the strongest religious faith in the world, a woman named Black Lily Baptiste. But if Satan in his weakened state were to fall in love, could the Tempter become the Temptee?
 *Vol.2: Darlin' Niki (winner of two Glyph awards for excellence in comics)
In which the devil appears as a sixteen year old girl named 'Darlin' Niki' who has been used her entire life as a corporate mascot to sell products, entertainment and a religion to an eager world. Our story begins when Niki is turned out into the street by her wealthy philanthropist father. She seeks a resolution to their endless conflict, and with the help of childhood friend Sussudio, tries to crash a massive corporate banquet in his honor. Niki, a willful first-born teenager is unable to abide by her father's strict and often contradictory rules. Her father spends a lot of his valuable time and money helping others, yet refuses to see his daughter as anything more than a once useful mascot. He now considers her to be too much trouble, perhaps forgetting that she is as he made her. Oh, by the way...
it's a musical!
*Vol. 3: The Student... or, Nude Descending a Staircase, Headfirst
Features a more traditional devil as adversary. Inspired by the German Silent film classic "The Student of Prague", this is the story of Andree' Baldwin, a down-on-his-luck would-be Basquiat who enters into a Faustian bargain with a powerful art critic in exchange for status, riches and the love of a woman. He receives all that's promised him and more, but is haunted by his 'doppleganger': his liberated mirror image tampering with his newfound success. Acquanetta Scapinelli is the critic in question, and she recounts this bitter tale with sardonic delight... "For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
 *Vol. 4: Between the Devil & Miles Davis
The wildcard in the deck, as neither the Devil, nor Miles Davis make an actual appearance in the story. Yet, this is the book that ties the previous trilogy together. Amo Tanzer is a hardened journalist, at war with the human race, who smokes and drinks too much, though not nearly enough for her own taste. Assigned to profile the late jazz legend Miles Davis, she finds herself at a creative impasse. How does one approach such an 'overly-written-about' artist from a fresh angle, and what's her opinion worth anyway in a world so fast unraveling? At her wit's end, she stumbles into the mysterious 'Smokeasy', the only bar in Manhattan where adults are allowed to behave as such; and it is that misty room that Amo falls under the spell of a seductive bartender.
 As readers of 'Narcissa' might guess, I'm an atheist who nonetheless has a fascination with mythology. At five years old I would check the same books out of my local library week after week: anything related to dinosaurs, and the D'Aulaires series of books on Greek, Roman and Norse myths. (I was a fan of Thor stories before I ever discovered the Marvel comics series.) Because my father was an atheist as well, I learned from my earliest days to view Judeo/Christian/Islamic myths as stories meant to teach important moral lessons and entertain, but not meant to be taken literally. The devil, who predates Judeo/Christian/Islamic myths, has always been used in folklore to symbolize evil, conflict, knowledge, rebellion, hedonism, freedom & creativity. His significance depended on the story being told or the lesson to be learned. Later religions prospered by turning Satan into a literal figure, each using him to sell their particular brand of salvation through magic. My hope was to use the character myself, to examine my own feelings about my native America, the changing world and, of course, religion. Philosophy & science might eventually assume their rightful place in society's decision making process but will we live to see that day? Especially when every man with his finger on a nuclear trigger today, takes seriously one form of archaic mysticism or another. Each blames his particular devil & accompanying godless infidels for his woes. But as my pops used to always say, quoting Shakespeare, 'the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.'
That said, my 'Lucifer's Garden of Verses' series is suffused with personal melancholy over current events, and that made the series a very difficult one to create. I'm definitely not the kind of artist who creates with a particular audience in mind... if I knew who to market my comics to I'd probably sell a lot more than the pretty small number I do. But I could understand if a reader found them less than a breeze to get through... they're the hardest work I've ever done.
 How can people find your work here in Spain?
The internet... all of my books are definitely available from sites like Amazon, and from the publishers themselves. I'm on Facebook and my current website is ...anyone can write me there for information... all of my work will be available from a new site I'm creating in the New Year... in English or Spanish, take your pick!
Why do you think graphic novels have become so popular?
I believe it's due to a combination of factors: a wider variety of stories being told by a diverse range of creators & publishers; greater support both within & outside of the comics field by critics and a recent willingness of bookstores & libraries to make them available to the public.

 Do you prefer to read comic or graphic novel format? Why?
Fine work has appeared in both formats, but the better quality printing that the graphic novel format generally affords can sometimes make a good book better.
 How do you approach a single page of art from scripting to finished artwork?
I don't script my comics or create in single pages. I consider myself a storyteller first, and my approach is to work out the book with hundreds of notes and images. I build my stories using collage & improvisation, throwing out anything that doesn't feel right for the tale I want to tell. I always design pages in pairs and use panels & word balloons sparingly. My books are usually interior stories about people, told in first person monologues, so I prefer very simple backgrounds. I draw inspiration from movies and music, especially jazz and hip-hop, forms where collage is essential.
 What supplies and techniques do you use to create your artwork?
Each individual image starts with rough pencil quickly rendered in markers. I scan these into photoshop and choose where to place them in my two-page layouts depending on how the story seems to flow best. I often add hand-lettered text and altered photographs; then use tones and patterns to direct the reader's eye. No page is finished until they all are. I love photoshop (if it didn't exist I would've found a way to invent it) and it makes the process of turning work over to an editor very easy as well. The internet enables me to live here in Madrid, and easily work for international publishers... theoretically I suppose I could live anywhere, but what civilized person wants to live in a country without queso manchego?
 What are your hopes and expectations for your work?
Well, just like 'the Founding Fathers' did, I hope to entertain and enlighten. I always do my best and I'm proud of the completed work regardless of how it's received. I don't spend time thinking about something I've no control over anyway.

 What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
I've been gratified by the opportunity to work with & learn from a spectacular array of artists. I'm proud of the work I've done, and humbled by how much I've still ahead of me to learn.
 What is on the horizon?
A few years back I taught my first week of classes in 'Creativity: Comics & Film Storytelling' at the Universidad Europea de Madrid, and look forward to a chance to do so again. I spent one summer as a storyteller in a school in Jaca, Spain, using Aesop's Fables to teach kids English vocabulary. It later inspired me to tackle the fables in comics form for the recent Graphic Canon volume, pages of which are currently on display at The Society of Illustrators in Manhattan. I've adapted works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joe R. Lansdale & Oscar Wilde for Graphic Classics, for whom I also co-edited a wonderful volume called African-American Classics, which collects stories by great Black writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, none of whom have ever been adapted as comics before. That was an amazing honor, a highlight in my career. I collaborated with the late Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) on books about the Beat Poets and an adaptation of Studs Turkel's "Working". A new volume of biographies of Bohemian Artists came out recently, and I contributed two long pieces on Modern Dance (another secret love of mine) and a piece about the legendary wandering poet Claude McKay. I just finished illustrating "As Others See Us," a graded reader written by Nicola Prentis for the Cambridge University Press... it's meant to teach English to kids around the world. My current big project is a biography of the Jazz legend Thelonious Monk for the Duke University Press, due late next year. That book will be followed soon after by Thug Midwife (Maton Matrona) which is one I can't say much about now, but it's a story I've wanted to tell for years... I can't wait to share it with the world. It's going to be a lot of fun to make, and I can promise you that it'll be a thrill to read as well! 
 Do you ever exhibit your artwork?
I've had art in galleries in Spain, New York, Canada, Detroit and even Mississippi! My original art from Narcissa was on display at Rutgers University last year in a well attended cartoonists exhibition. I'll be having another show in Madrid very soon, with pieces blown up to poster scale that the public can buy for their homes if they so fancy.
 Do you work with any charitable groups or have a charitable interest?
As mentioned, I was twice a juror on the Queens Council of the Arts (occupying my late father's seat), I've created works to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina and I continue to write & draw political comics to further causes close to my heart such as feminism, the environment, diversity & an end to war.
 Why are you living in Madrid?
I've lived in Madrid, Spain for ten years now, but have loved the country from afar since I was nine years old. My first Spanish teacher exposed me to the culture, the music and the food. By the time I made my first trip here twenty years ago, I was already seduced by the legendary Spanish attitude towards life. I still love America, and despise politicians as any true patriot would. What probably inspires me most, in a creative way, is the amazing nightlife in Madrid. I live in a tiny apartment, and this has forced me out onto the street in order to get work done. I concentrate better in a bar full of young vital people than I do at home... their joyous energy nourishes and inspires me. One of my favorite things to do is to sit by a window with a glass of whiskey in one hand and a pen in the other. Time rushes by that way... a decade has in fact!
Do you have specific hopes and expectations as a black artist in this industry?
I want to continue to tell stories my way (it's the family business, after all) and look forward to collaborating with other writers & artists in the future. I learn something new every time I finish a page. I hope to continue supporting myself by doing this work that I love. I hope others regardless of race or gender are encouraged by my example, as I am by theirs. African-American Classics is a great place to start for anyone with an interest in the amazing variety of talented Black comics creators who are currently invigorating the relatively young artform.

In closing... do you have any advice for would-be graphic novelists?
Sounds corny, but I mean this with all my heart... "Always do your BEST."
My sister Kim, who teaches Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia used to say that an artist should remember three words... "Risk your comfort!" I think that's a great rule for anyone to live by. "Live without fear of change!"

Lance Tooks

(PS... Here's a bonus Lance Tooks interview from 2015 just in case you aren't tired of hearing Lance Tooks talk about Lance Tooks!)

(PSPS... and if you've had enough of Lance Tooks talking about Lance Tooks to last a lifetime, here's another Lance Tooks Interview from 2015 that should help take your mind off Lance Tooks for a little while!)


Popular posts from this blog

NARCISSA by Gwendolyn Brooks

"Everytime I think I'm out... they pull me back in!"

Last Tango in Madrid...