I’ve been a fan of comic book artist Gary Kwapisz for decades. He first drew professionally for the Comics Journal between 1979 and 1982 and was eventually discovered on DC’s ‘New Talent Showcase’ in 1984. All through the 1980s he worked on one of my favorite titles, Marvel’s ‘Savage Sword of Conan’ as well as many of their full-color titles like ‘Moon Knight’, ‘Ka-Zar: Guns of the Savageland’ and ‘The Punisher’. His artwork is best described as dynamic and realistic, in the vein of artists such as Hal Foster… especially in his later works. One of his hallmarks is that he always created meticulously drawn backgrounds in his works. While very successful in drawing figures with dynamic movement, he also excelled at drawing architecture and naturalism.
Nowawdays, Gary is illustrating Civil War adventures and fantasy jungle tales with his long-time collaborator Chuck Dixon. I spoke with Gary last week about his career, his current project, and learned more about this artist I’ve admired for years.
JA: Gary, thanks for chatting with me. You’ve drawn everything from Conan to Crazy magazine. Now you’re doing historical fiction based around the Civil War. How did you break into professional comics work?
GK: I was ‘working’ at the Comics Journal and slowly starving to death, so I bundled up my cartoon work and went up to see Larry Hama at Marvel. He was the editor on Crazy at the time, and through cunning guile and an artfully pitiful appearance, I weaseled my way into some work there. When my work wasn’t enough to keep Crazy from being canceled, I used the same con on Larry at his new job as the Conan editor, and then I was off and running.
JA: Looking over your most recent work, your skill and talent is still just as strong as ever. Why are you no longer regularly working at any of the mainstream publishers?
GK: When the ‘comics implosion’ hit in the nineties I had been doing comics for a dozen years and was ready to move on, so I decamped for the world of commercial art. While I love comics, it has never been a burning desire for me to work in corporate comics again, (and, I’m no fan of super-heroes) so I’m am happy following my own, more eclectic path.
JA: You and Chuck Dixon worked together back in the hey-day of Savage Sword of Conan, how did you guys wind-up reuniting to produce Civil War Adventure?
GK: I had read Shelby Foote’s monumental history of the Civil War, and I was consumed with the idea of doing something like that in comics. I knew that Chuck had done some publishing, so I called him up for some advice, and after telling him what I wanted to do he said he wanted to partner with me—so we did.
JA: How long have you been interested in the Civil War and what is your fascination with it?
GK: The two most significant events in American history are the Revolution and the Civil War. If you don’t understand the Civil War, its origins and consequences, you won’t understand modern America. That, and it had some of the greatest characters and adventures you’ll ever read about—and they have the bonus of being real.
JA: Your latest work, Rebel Dead Revenge, seems like a similar theme, but with a twist. Tell me about the book. Who is the creative team?
GK: I’m the creative team (for better or worse). I wrote, drew, colored and lettered it! I was in Gettysburg selling our Civil War Adventure GN and in talking to some reenactors was surprised to hear they would be more interested in a “Civil War Walking Dead’ book than in real history. Intrigued, I asked Chuck about maybe doing something like that, and he said that he would rather “Work in a dry cleaner than do a zombie Civil War book.” I took that as a, ‘No,’ and as a challenge to see if I could come up with something that wasn’t just another zombie story. I was fascinated by Stonewall Jackson, and since he died during the war, he made a perfect subject to work with, and the idea just grew from there.
JA: How did you transition from just doing the art to also doing the writing? Was it a natural shift?
GK: I plotted a lot of the SSoC stories that I drew, and I’m a voracious reader, so it just came naturally. Also, I am plagued by random ideas racing through my brain constantly, so it is a relief to find a use for a few of them.
JA: The book started out as ‘Stonewall’s Arm’, what’s different about it now?
GK: Stonewall’s Arm was a title I loved, but the publisher thought that not enough readers would understand it. Reluctantly I had to concede that point, and so we settled on Rebel Dead Revenge. But, it’s my baby, and I still think of it as Stonewall’s Arm!
JA: What is your creative process like – both writing and art?
GK: Since I was doing the whole thing myself, the process was kinda eclectic. The story is ‘unknown history’ rather than an alternative history, so I did a lot of research so that I could fit it chronologically with the known history. At the time of his death, Jackson was one of the most famous people in the world, and his funeral and burial was very public. So I had to figure out how to explain what everyone thought they saw in his open coffin while he was actually shambling across battlefields gathering up an army of zombies-soldiers to try and destroy America. Writing it, I came up with a loose outline, and then I’d relax on the couch, close my eyes and get to the hard work fleshing it out.
My wife thinks I’m taking a nap, but I’m really engaged in important, creative work! Then I’d do a rough page layout, scan them to the computer program that I letter on, then I do the writing right on the art. When there is finished art, and it’s time to do the final lettering, I take that opportunity to adjust and do any re-writing that I deem necessary.
JA: Even though Chuck Dixon didn’t care for the Civil War/zombies tales, you and Mr. Dixon have still been doing a lot of work together lately, what are some other recent or upcoming projects you can discuss?
GK: We still do a weekly, online Pellucidar comic strip for ERB, and we just finished an adaptation of P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves.
JA: Having worked in the industry now for nearly four decades, what do you think is different now than when you first began in comics?
GK: When I was working at Marvel in the mid-nineties, the business was very artist-centric, and that has flipped now, and the writers are now the headliners. In general, I think that is probably a good thing, but only up to a point. The stories are less formulaic now, but too many comics seem to read like television shows and are not as visual as they use to be. Also, as a general rule comics aren’t a career anymore. Most artists could make more money managing a McDonald’s than drawing comics, so the talented artists are looking elsewhere for careers.
JA: Have you seen any improvements with how the business or the craft has evolved?
GK: As a business, the ability to make and sell your own comics is much easier than it has ever been. Unfortunately, you still have to do your own marketing… On the craft side, the coloring in comics is very often phenomenal now.
JA: Where can we find your latest work?
JA: Thanks, Gary. I’m a big fan, and I wish you great success with these books!
GK: My pleasure, Jamison!