William Stout is a fascinating individual. A true Renaissance man; he’s been a comic artist, album cover artist, film production designer, theme park designer, fine artist, and Paleoartist. He’s traveled the world for his art; from the Playboy mansion to Antarctica, and everywhere in between it seems. He’s worked alongside some of the greatest artists comics have to offer, and created some of the most memorable sets and characters in film. And boy does he have some stories!
I briefly met him at Long Beach Comic Con a few months back, where he was gracious and welcoming, and after having a chat I asked if I could interview him. I knew a little of his work, but what I didn’t know was so much more interesting. I spent a few weeks researching his work and his life and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The more I read, the more excited I became for this interview, and the longer I knew it would become.
William Stout has lived an incredible life, and I was excited to learn more about it, so here’s part one, where we candidly discuss his childhood, his art school days, his early days in comics working alongside the likes of Russ Manning and Harvey Kutzman, creating bootleg album covers for the likes of The Rolling Stones and others, working for the Firesign Theatre, and being one of the first Americans to contribute to Heavy Metal magazine. Join us next week for part two.
I was about three or four years old. I drew cartoons. I remember drawing a picture of a guy in prison eating beans. Knowing what happens when one eats beans, I lettered “Toot! Toot!” coming out of his butt. My parents thought that was hilarious (I had no idea why; for me it was just honest reportage and speculation), so I grinned and drew more stuff to please them. My Aunt Rosie tells me that at a very young age I stated my desire to grow up and be an artist for Walt Disney.
I don’t remember a specific comic. I created the character Courageous Kid, a super Platypus, when I was about five or six. At about eight I read Classics Illustrated comics because my parents thought they’d be good for me and perhaps get me interested in reading the original prose classics that the comics were adapted from (they did…sometimes). A couple of years later I fell in love with Archie comics. My pal Bruce Rolie would let me read his Archie comics while he read his Superman comics. Eventually, the Superman family of comics caught my interest, too. It wasn’t until the Silver Age that I began to develop a serious interest in comics and began to draw my own. I became heavily influenced by the DC Comics work of Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, and Murphy Anderson.
At what age did you decide you wanted to create art for a living?
I was going to be a doctor. I was a Science-Math major all through high school until my very last semester when I switched to Art. My first year at high school was great. I got a tremendous education at Reseda High School. But my last two years were spent at Thousand Oaks High School, a terrible school. I felt that the two years of non-education I got at T. O. High would put me two years behind the rest of my fellow medical students in college. So, I switched to art.
I loved (and still love) comics. I always thought that I’d never stop drawing comics. And I never did, even at my most busiest as an illustrator.
Was your family supportive and encouraging?
Amazingly so. Having a son switch his major from Science-Math to Art? Going from wanting to be a doctor (a somewhat financially secure vocation) to pursuing art for a living? To their credit, they stuck by my decisions and never wavered in their support of my choices. My many doctor friends all tell me I made the right decision.
What was your family life like growing up?
Both of my parents came from farm families, from Idaho and from Wisconsin. We were extremely poor for a long time. On Thursday nights we had gravy on a slice of bread for dinner. I didn’t feel sorry myself, though. I didn’t know I was poor; all the kids in my neighborhood were in the same boat. I had nothing to compare it to. Funny thing, though — nearly every boy in my neighborhood went on to great prominence in their chosen fields.
My dad was smart and hard working. He worked his way up from a blue collar lower class life to the white collar middle class. My parents divorced when I was fourteen. That was not a bad thing, actually (my dad and I did not get along), but it meant my single mom had to get a minimum wage job and I had to do a lot of the raising of my three younger brothers. I cooked a lot of the meals. My mom taught me how to be a pretty good cook.
Extremely important. Because of my poverty and my perfect SAT scores, I received a full California State Scholarship to whatever university I wanted to attend. My high school friends were astounded I picked CalArts over Harvard or Yale. The Chouinard Art Institute (Cal Arts’ original name) saved my life and was an enormous factor in my later success as an artist.
I studied privately with the head of the Illustration Department, Hal Kramer, for about twenty years. He was probably the best art teacher I ever had. Chouinard’s emphasis was on helping you to become a better you. They developed individuals, as opposed to our rival Art Center, whose graduates’ art styles were indistinguishable from one another. The faculty while I was there was the best in the country. For example: Edith Head was the head of our Fashion Design; Ravi Shankar was the head of the Music. People from all over the country attended the annual sale put on by our Ceramics Department. Animation was headed by T. Hee and taught by him and the rest of Disney’s Nine Old Men. It doesn’t get better than that.
Design, painting, lots of figure drawing, advertising design. And I’d sneak into the Animation Department whenever they were showing any of the Disney classics (there was no home video back then).
Which was the one that taught you the most?
Harold Kramer was my best teacher. Hal was truly profound — and funny. Advertising design taught me a great method to inspire creativity and solve problems. Those brutal ad classes also gave me a ferocious work ethic. But five hours minimum per day of figure drawing really improved me as an artist. I still do three hours of figure drawing every Sunday at my studio.
What were your early inspirations and influences, and how have they changed or evolved as you’ve grown as an artist?
My inspirations and influences are constantly evolving. My earliest artistic inspiration was the work generated by the Walt Disney Studios. After that I was influenced by the Silver Age DC Comics artists. Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Roy Krenkel and Reed Crandall became big influences in my teens. In art school I got turned on to the great illustrators. Studying my favorite artists led me to their influences and my great love for late 19th Century artists and early 20th Century illustration. Robert Crumb and Jean “Moebius” Giraud became two more huge influences.
Oil painting most of all. I’ve always loved line work, so pen & ink, too. Plus, I’ve loved watercolor ever since I learned how to handle it at Disneyland. I like doing ink-and-watercolor pictures a lá Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.
You began your career at the tail end of the sixties, and the comic industry was a very different place back then. Your first published work was in the short lived Coven 13 pulp magazine. Did you only paint the covers, or did you have a bigger role than that?
I painted the first four covers (some good, some bad). I also drew some of the interior illustrations for the first issue and all of them for the other three.
Can you tell us a little about what it was like breaking in and working during that era?
CalArts’ Illustration Department had a great policy. If you got any real jobs outside of school, you could turn them in in lieu of your homework. By my last year at school, nearly everything I turned in was a real job. It made my transition from academia to the real world absolutely seamless. In the beginning, I took any job that came my way. I did the first national advertising campaign for Taco Bell. I created the first promotional and catalogue illustrations in this country for Toyota. By doing that stuff I quickly found out what I did not want to do. It was pretty funky back then, a lot looser. Sometimes, to make a deadline I would bring my sleeping bag with me and sleep on my client’s floor.
You began working as Russ Manning’s assistant on the Tarzan newspaper strip in 1971. What was it like as a relative newcomer to work with such a seasoned pro?
Apprenticing under Russ Manning was a fantastic learning opportunity. I gained an enormous amount of knowledge from Russ. I’ll be thankful to him forever — especially for his introducing me to Japanese prints.
What did your job entail?
Inking and coloring, mostly. A little penciling. No lettering — I wasn’t good enough yet. Those skills came later.
How long did you stay with Russ?
I believe it was about three or four years, off and on.
Do you have any good stories you’d like to share of your time on the strip?
Russ was also a volunteer fireman; he lived in a pretty rural area. It was not unusual for the fire alarm to go off while we were working. Russ would instantly jump up, dash to his truck and head to the call. Russ knew that a few seconds delay might cost one of his neighbors their home.
In 1972 you worked with Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman on the much loved Little Annie Fanny for Playboy magazine. What was it like working with two giants of the field?
The best; I learned so much from Harvey and Will. We became very, very close friends and colleagues. They were already big heroes of mine before I became their assistant. Working with them made me admire them even more.
That was Playboy’s heyday, for sure. What was it like working for the magazine?
I didn’t have a lot of direct contact with Playboy, except for a bit of time with Cartoon Editor Michelle Urry — not one of Kurtzman’s favorite people.
Did you ever get invited over to the mansion?
Harvey took my wife and I to the Playboy Mansion every time he visited L. A. Harvey really disliked the Mansion unless he could share it with his friends. Yup; my wife and I swam naked in Hef’s grotto.
You didn’t stick with cartooning during that time, and began drawing album covers for bootleg record label Trademark of Quality in 1973. Your first was the Rolling Stones’ All Meat Music. How did this job come about?
I’m a huge music fan. I loved bootleg record albums (typical bootlegs consisted of live recordings made at concerts with portable Sony equipment then pressed to vinyl and sold on the streets a week or two after the show). I was highly anticipating the boot of a Led Zeppelin concert I had just seen. When it came out, I was extremely disappointed with the crappy cover. I thought the band deserved better. Out loud, in the record shop, I said, “I wish someone would get me to do these covers.” A shady guy tapped me on the shoulder. “You wanna do bootleg record album covers?” he whispered. I said, “Yes”. He said, “Meet me at the corner of Selma and Las Palmas Friday night at eight.” He paused. “Be alone.”
I went to that sketchy area in Hollywood as instructed. At eight o’clock an old coupe with smoked windows rolled to a stop in front of me. The passenger window opened a bit. A paper was pushed out of the crack. I took it. It said “Rolling Stones – Winter Tour” and had a list of the LP’s tracks.
A voice inside the car said, “See you in two weeks. Same time, same place. Be alone.”
I drew the Stones cover, inspired by Robert Crumb’s Cheap Thrills cover. I changed the name to All Meat Music.
Back at Selma and Las Palmas, the same car pulled up. They slightly cracked open their window. I put the cover through the slot, like mailing a letter. A fifty dollar bill rolled out in its place.
That was the beginning. Eventually, the bootleggers trusted me enough to see them. I ended up doing about 45 covers for them. Because their company name was Trademark of Quality, I pushed them to live up to their name, creating better and better LPs and packaging. It was a lot of fun.
Years later, The Who and Neil Young contacted me and asked my permission to use some of my covers in retrospectives of their careers. Those were nice surprises!
Completely different. BecauseTMoQ was only paying me fifty bucks a cover, I had total freedom with my bootleg covers. They weren’t paying me enough to dictate anything to me. Firesign knew exactly what they wanted, though, and it was blast to work closely with and get to know these four incredibly funny and smart guys who had been huge comedy icons to me. We immediately clicked because of our shared enthusiasm for the work of Harvey Kurtzman.
How long were you creating album art for them?
I still am! I did some work for them about a week ago. I think the last LP cover I did for them, though, was either Lawyer’s Hospital (an adaptation of my Mixville Rocket cover) or Nick Danger – Third Eye (a revamping of my Nick Danger T-shirt). Recently I drew the cover for their Everything You Know Is Wrong DVD.
As we’ll talk about more in depth in a bit, you are a big fan of dinosaurs. Was the Firesign Theatre album cover for In the Next World, You’re on Your Own your first time drawing a dinosaur as a paid professional?
No; I drew dinosaurs in the Tarzan of the Apes Sunday and daily newspaper comic strips when I was assisting Russ Manning back in the early 1970s.
By this point you were becoming well associated with popular music, and were hired as art director for Bomp! magazine in 1974. That’s a very different job than cartooning or creating album covers, or is it?
Art directing is very different from illustrating, although both are about problem solving. I hired myself to do all the illustrations for the magazine, working in different styles, of course. I also strived to establish a visual look for the magazine, a look that set it apart from other music magazines. Greg Shaw (the editor-publisher) helped shepherd me through the process.
You were also one of the first Americans to contribute to Heavy Metal magazine. Did they contact you, or did you submit artwork to them?
Byron Preiss sold (traded for free ads, actually) them the rights to print my comic-style illustrated version of Harlan Ellison’s “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” from the forthcoming (at the time) Byron Preiss book, The Illustrated Harlan Ellison.
My great thanks to William Stout for such an in-depth interview. Make sure to check back next week where we’ll discuss his work in the entertainment industry, his love of the Blues, and his travels to Antarctica, Tokyo, and Chile.