A VISUAL COSMOS: AN INTERVIEW WITH AMERICAN ARTIST EVERETT PECK by Brian Blackmon

26 Feb

[The following interview was originally published in the December 9th, 2009 issue of Monmouth University’s The Outlook]

From critically acclaimed animated programs such as Duckman and Squirrel Boy, to the pages of magazines like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, the art of Everett Peck continues to cross media barriers in shaping our nation’s visual language. It is an honor to present the following interview with such an amazing force within the art world. He is
truly one of the most original and influential artists in America today.

Brian Blackmon: Your work has had a big impact on many artists over the years. I feel that you have one of the most recognizable styles out there. Who are some of the individuals that inspired you in your career? What artists make you just look at their work and say “wow”?

Everett Peck: That’s nice of you to say.  I had tons of influences over the years.  When I was a kid, like most kids I guess, I really liked Walt Disney.  I either wanted to work for him or Mad Magazine. Of course Mad magazine was a showcase of great artists with very personalized styles and approaches.  Two of my favorite artists whose work appeared in Mad where Jack Davis and Basil Wolverton. Wolverton’s stuff was especially wild and crazy.  I loved it!

Growing up in Southern California I also really dug “car art” from guys like Big Daddy Roth. That whole scene had its epicenter just north of me in sort of a triangle from Burbank down to Downey and over to Long Beach. When I was older I had a motorcycle that I really wanted pin stripped by Von Dutch but I never did, I had a local guy do it. It was OK, but it wasn’t Von Dutch.

In high school I got really interested in Illustration as a career.  I also got into pen and ink drawing and started looking at 19th pen and ink drawers. I was especially impressed with John Tenniel and Heinrich Kley. I also really liked modern pen drawers like Ronald Searle and Alan Cober.  I enrolled in college as an Illustration major with a minor in Art History. I had a great teacher named Dick Oden who really stressed the idea of illustration as a form of individual expression, which was fine with me. While in college I also started looking at a lot of Push Pin Studio stuff as well as artists like Hienz Edlemann, Daumier, and George Grosz. Grosz is especially appealing because of his social commentary mixed with a strange, disturbing surreal aspect.  Plus the drawing surface is full of energy.

Artists whose work makes me say WOW?  Caravaggio, Jeff Koons, Philip Guston.

Blackmon: You have had a career that remains extensive and diverse, spanning a number of different mediums such as comic books, animation, and magazine illustration. How did you get your start? I know that you did designs for The Real Ghostbusters.   

Peck: I started my career as an illustrator. I actually started working while I was still in school and then transitioned to full time freelance.  I started out doing small regional assignments then worked up to larger national/International ones. Over the years I worked for almost all the major magazines and on various advertising assignments.  I got work mostly by just making the rounds and showing my portfolio whenever I could. I also dabbled in gag cartooning, T-shirts, greeting cards, and a little bit of animation. In the eighties I started seriously pursuing painting.

Throughout most of my illustration career I was involved in teaching at the college level.  In 1984 I took over the Illustration program at Otis Art institute in LA (at that time Otis/Parsons).  I had a lot of great students over the years including Mark Ryden and Andrew Brandou.  In 1986 we hosted what Art Guru Brad Benedict calls the first “Lowbrow Art” exhibit ever.  Robert Williams parked his hot rod right in the middle of the gallery.  I don’t think they ever did get the oil stain off the floor.

We had so many people lined up around the block to get into the opening that the Fire Marshal finally shut the place down. Man, that was a fun night!  But I digress, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, getting started in Illustration.  I think the same thing that was true then is still true; it’s all about networking and personal connections. Web sites and Internet promotions are fine, but I think it’s really about being part of the community. Also I feel the need for an artist to be diversified and entrepreneurial today is even greater.

There really wasn’t much happening at that time with animation.  In my opinion there were two events that kicked off the modern era of animation.  One was the appearance of the Simpsons and the other was the animated feature “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. So by the late 80’s/early 90’s animation had a new lease on life.  I had always been interested in animation and had done a little animation design but now the opportunities where wide open.  I did a few projects for Sesame Street with an animation studio named Klasky Csupo. I became friends with Gabor Csupo and pitched Duckman as an animated series. He liked it and one year later we had a series on air.

It was a few years later that I helped start the animation division at Sony studios where I worked on several projects including Jumanji, Ghostbusters, and Dragon Tails.

Blackmon: What would you suggest is the best way for someone to enter the art field and get their start?

Peck: Like I mentioned, I think the best way to get started as a professional artist is by making connections. Probably the best way to do that is through education. Generally your first contacts come through your time in college.   Another possibility is to work your way in through an established business, but that’s more difficult. The applied arts are a complicated activity that requires a lot of imagination and technical skill.  That takes time and a lot of specific instruction combined with trial and error to develop. And like I mentioned before, this new era of applied art require artists to be very creative and entrepreneurial in their approach to the profession and the development and promotion of their careers.

Blackmon: How should a beginning artist handle rejection? What has been some of your experiences, and how were you able to overcome them?

Peck: Being an Illustrator is like any other artist, you are always subject to rejection on one level or another. You just have to throw it off and keep going. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you, it does.  A friend of mine told me a story about when he was starting out.  He was making the rounds to several art directors in New York City.  He was returning from a particularly harsh criticism of his work and in a fit of despair he tossed his whole portfolio in a trashcan!  He went back to his apartment and started over.  He went on to be quite successful. The point is you’ve got to believe in yourself and keep going even when you get a sucky response to your work. When I was teaching I always told my students the most important thing to develop is a personal point of view, a way of looking at the world that is a true expression of your inner feelings and attitude. Everything else, technique, marketing, etc. follows that.

Blackmon: You introduced Duckman in the pages of the comic book Dark Horse Presents during the alternative press revolution of the 1980’s. Your television adaptation of the character was also part of the prime-time animation renaissance of the early 90’s. When you look at the comic book and animation industries today, do you still sense any of the same openness to creativity and experimentation, or do you feel that there has been a significant change in the attitude and goals which are currently driving contemporary works?

Peck: Good question. I do feel animation is pretty much in a rut, especially primetime animation.  By far the most supportive network for animation in the U.S. has been Fox.  The other networks (with a few exceptions) can’t seem to get anything going with primetime animation. Fox has of course, had several huge successes and they seem interested in creating new primetime animation. Of course committing to a new animated series is a huge investment but even the Simpsons can’t go on forever (personally I’ve made a promise to myself not to watch any new Simpson episodes after 2050).  So what seems to be happening is that rather than creating truly new shows with different looks and fresh characters, Fox just keep going back to the same formulas. So you get basically the same look, feel, and character types reprocessed into a new show. Not that they aren’t good shows, but it would be great to see something really fresh. The last really different thing in primetime was South Park, and that’s been quite a while ago.

So to answer your question I think primetime animation has reached a sort of plateau.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very high quality plateau, but I think we’re due for something really different to come on the scene and shake things up.  And there will be something. That’s the cool thing about primetime animation today; it’s become part of our viewing culture.  Prior to the early 90’s primetime animation was VERY rare and always short-lived.  In the 60’s there were the Flintstones and then the Jetsons, both with very short runs in primetime.  Then primetime animation disappears (I’m not counting some wonderful primetime animated specials like the “Peanuts” specials, the Christmas shows, and the “Bugs Bunny Show” I’m talking series) until the early 70’s with the appearance of the somewhat brilliant “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.” Then once again primetime animated series basically go away until the premier of the Simpsons in 1989. So we are lucky to be living in age of perennial primetime animation, oh joy!

I haven’t been following comics too much lately so I can’t really comment on them. I am aware of a general decline in the number of new humorous comics in recent years. I think it would be difficult to launch a new humorous title today compared to the early 90’s.  Also comic book publishers are very concerned about the economy and the general decline of the bookstore outlet system.  There is a lot of uncertainty about the future regarding all print media.  In my opinion there has been an esthetic shift as well, more away from humor, at least in print, and more toward a darker more pessimistic attitude. That is perfect for the Graphic Novel format with its large panels and very visual format.  Humorous comics generally require smaller multi panels and much more dialogue to set up and deliver the joke. But there is always an exception, that’s what keeps it interesting!

Blackmon: Duckman, like the early episodes of The Simpsons, had a lot of heart behind it, definitely being more than a series of mindless jokes.  I think that is what makes the work of someone like Blake Edwards so special and timeless. It can be silly, but it has a sense of humanity in it. How were you able to successfully maintain that balance in the show?

Peck: Yeah, that was something I really tried to stress in the comic. Sure Duckman was an a**, but I always tried to give him a realistic emotional base. That was very important to me because, like you say, without that you have very predictable characters that are just comic foils. When we began the series I worked closely with the head writers, Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn to keep that attitude intact.

Blackmon: One of Frank Zappa’s last works was composing the theme song to Duckman. Did you ever have a chance to meet him?  

Peck: Yes, I was fortunate to meet with Frank a few times.  He was a great guy and was very tight with his family. Of course his son Dweezil did Ajax’s voice.

Blackmon: Will Duckman and Cornfed ever return?

Peck: Unfortunately, I don’t see it in the near future.

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