Charles Vess

"A Dream of Apples"

by Terri Windling
and Charles Vess

One hundred years ago, a diverse group of English artists defied strict Victorian conventions dictating which subject matters, and medium, were deemed suitable for the "serious" artist. These rebellious young painters turned from acceptable subjects, such as classical and Biblical scenes, to portray Celtic myths, Arthurian legends, fairy tales, and romantic poetry, using colors and symbols considered shockingly bright and crude to Victorian critics.

Detail, "The Unquiet Grave" by Charles Vess © 2000
Ignoring these critics, the Pre-Raphaelite painters brought imagery from ancient magical tales into fine art galleries and museums; artists such as William Morris, Charles Ricketts, and Charles Shannon turned such tales into exquisite hand press books; watercolorists such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac produced lovely illustrations for children's fairy-tale volumes; while Margaret and Rene McIntosh, Arthur and Georgie Gaskin, and the other artists of the Arts-and-Crafts movement worked this imagery into murals, stained glass, metalwork, textiles, and ceramics. In the years to come, these artists became respected masters in their various fields — and their beautiful work, standing the test of time, still enchants us today.

Detail, "The Unquiet Grave" by Charles Vess © 2002
"The Unquiet Grave" by Charles Vess, © 1994
"The Unquiet Grave"
by Charles Vess © 2000
Despite our general assumption that modern art has few equivalent taboos, there are nonetheless still subjects and medium the "serious" artist is expected to shun.Today, when a painter like Charles Vess uses his considerable talents to illustrate legends and fairy tales, and (worse!) to do so in comic book form, such work may be dismissed as pop culture or commercial art by some stuffy art critics, and yet it's as slyly subversive as that of the young Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones . . . and it has captivated large audiences for many of the same reasons. By wedding mythic and folkloric material to a distinctly modern form of visual storytelling, this artist is keeping myth alive . . . and creating a magic all his own.

Charles Dana Vess was born in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1951. He spent most of his formative years playing in the fields and forests that surrounded his family's home, or else hunched over a table, drawing. "I can't remember a time," he says, "when I wasn't sitting with a pencil in my hand, drawing something. My parents were very supportive of my efforts. They always managed to find me some kind of paper to work on. Early on, I filled those blank sheets of paper with leaping, cavorting superheroes from the comic books I was reading."

Then, in his first year of high school, Charles discovered J.R.R. Tolkien's "Ring" Trilogy. Soon thereafter he was devouring his way through Lin Carter's line of gorgeous fantasy novels for adults, Under the Sign of the Unicorn. Charles' life and his art would never be the same again. "Until then I had only brushed the surface of myth and folklore as a subject matter for my art; reading those novels fueled my imagery and turned me away from the brightly colored world of Superman and Batman. I never looked back."

After receiving a degree in Fine Art, he graduated with a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and worked for several years in commercial animation for Candy Apple Productions in Richmond.

Detail, "Tapping the Dream Tree" by Charles Vess © 2002
In 1976, he moved to New York and became a freelance illustrator, working for publications such as Heavy Metal and National Lampoon, for Singer Sewing Machines, and on numerous comic-book series from Doctor Strange to The Warriors Three.
Detail, "Tapping the Dream Tree" by Charles Vess © 2002
"Tapping the Dream Tree"
by Charles Vess © 2002

"I was desperate in those days for the rent money and would have to work for anyone who would hire me. So I spent several years drawing the comic-book characters whose early exploits I had read as a young boy down at my local barber shop. However, the deeper I delved into the incredible treasure trove of story, myth, and legend that exists within the mythologies of this planet,
Detail, "A Dream of Apples" by Charles Vess © 1999 
"A Dream of Apples"
by Charles Vess © 1999
the more dissatisfied I became with what I had to work with at Marvel or DC. Instead of waiting for a publisher to come knocking on my door with a project that I might be interested in, I had begun to concentrate on developing projects of my own that I would then present to them. But the children's book editors said my work was too sophisticated for their audience, and the editors of the "adult" publications thought my work too lyrical for theirs. The editor at Heavy Metal finally gave up on me, saying my work was too 'nice' for their tastes."

At the time, Charles worked from a studio he shared with fellow artist, William Michael Kaluta, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, his drawing table wedged into a room crowded with bookshelves (packed with art texts, fiction, and folklore), music recordings (particularly Celtic and British folk), and natural objects (stones, feathers, and the like) gathered from lands around the world and from his extensive travels in the British Isles. As his work gained prominence, winning several prestigious awards in the comic book field, Charles explored other book projects, including The Horns of Elfland (Archival Press) and The Raven Banner (Marvel), taught at Parson's School of Design, and created images for reproduction as limited-edition prints. His work was featured in various exhibitions in galleries and museums, including The New Britain Museum of American Art, the Delaware Museum of Art, Four Color Images Gallery in New York City, and the Mythic Garden sculpture exhibition in Devon, England. He was also one of six artists profiled in The Dream Makers (Paper Tiger Press).
"The Corn King" by Charles Vess © 2000
"The Corn King"
by Charles Vess © 2000

In 1988, The Donning Company published an illustrated edition of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with some 40 illustrations by Charles. "I needed a project that could bring me closer to the myths that I loved, yet also put bread on the table. Fortunately, I managed to talk an editor at the Donning Company into the idea of an illustrated Midsummer. Drawing and painting those pictures was a glorious experience.

"Every day I attacked the drawing board with a frenzy of renewed energy. Picture after picture seemed to quite literally draw themselves. It was only with great effort that I pursued my personal life. With each new drawing that flew from my fingertips, I could see my ability to draw the human figure grow by leaps and bounds. I was suddenly able to conceptualize and then to draw those images that I saw, both easily and accurately. It was then that I realized that a great story can reach within and plumb those deep inner recesses, returning with artistic impulses rich in true, personal vision. In time, I realized that it was this personal vision that I had always sought out, responded to, and wanted more of from other artists, be they painters, writers, or musicians."

In 1990, Charles began his now famous partnership with British writer, Neil Gaiman, working on Neil's darkly magical Sandman series (issues #19 and #75, DC) and on The Books of Magic (the mini-series, issue #3, DC). In 1991, Charles and Neil were awarded the World Fantasy Award (in the "Best Short Fiction" category) for their collaboration on Sandman #19 — the first and only time a comic book has been awarded this honor.
"A Circle of Cats" by Charles Vess © 2002
"A Circle of Cats"
by Charles Vess © 2002

Charles met his wife, Karen Shaffer, a fellow Virginian, in New York City. After a stint in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York the two decided to move back to Virginia, where they live today in a lovely old farmhouse in an area reknown for its Appalachian folk culture and music. In this idyllic rural setting, Charles' work began to expand into new directions. He designed a 30' x 50' wall sculpture based on Appalachian "Jack" tales for the Southwestern Virginia Community College, for example, and created set and costume designs for Barter Theater's production of Peter Pan. With Cindi DiMarzo (then an editor at Philomel Books), Charles curated a major exhibition of modern artists following in the tradition of Rackham, Dulac and other influential figures from the turn of the century. Called Dream Weavers, this exhibition opened at the William King Regional Art Center of Virginia and then travelled to museums across the nation. The exhibition featured over 40 original works by Alan Lee, Brian Froud, Gennardy Spirin, William Michael Kaluta, Jim Gurney, Alicia Austin, Scott Gustafson, Ruth Sanderson, Dawn Wilson, Dennis Nolan, Jerry Pinkney, Terri Windling, David Christiana, and Charles himself.
"A Gift from a Spring" by Charles Vess © 2001
"A Gift from a Spring"
by Charles Vess © 2001

Detail, "A Gift from a Spring" by Charles Vess © 2001

It was also after the move to Virginia that Charles founded Green Man Press to publish a project that brings together his three great loves: art, storytelling, and music. Called The Book of Ballads and Sagas, this project (originally published as a comic book series, now collected in a trade book format) enlists modern writers to retell Irish, Scottish, and English traditional folk ballads, accompanied by Charles' magical illustrations and assorted notes on the ballads themselves.

"Over the last 20 years," he explains, "I've been listening to Scottish, Irish, and English folk music. There is something in the imagery of these ancient and not-so-ancient ballads that resonates deep within me. Perhaps it's that these songs, with their eclectic mix of story elements that have been continually transformed by the oral tradition for hundreds of years, have within their mix the raw, basic elements of myth and truth. Whatever it is, I love to listen to them, and it has been a rare treat to participate in their tradition by drawing them."

"Masquerade" by Charles Vess © 2001
by Charles Vess © 2001

Thus far, the Ballad series includes "The False Knight on the Road" by Neil Gaiman, "King Henry" by Jane Yolen, "Thomas the Rhymer" by Sharon McCrumb, "Barbara Allen" by Midori Snyder, "The Galtee Farmer" by Jeff Smith, "The Daemon Lover" by Delia Sherman, "Twa Corbies," "Sovay" by Charles de Lint, and Elaine Lee's rendition of "Tam Lin." More ballads are in the works. In 1997, Charles won the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for his work on The Book of Ballads and Sagas as well as on Sandman #75.

In 1999, Charles again collaborated with writer Neil Gaiman for their most ambitious project yet: Stardust, a novel-length "Faerie Romance" with lavish illustrations by Charles. Set in a village at the edge of Faerie, and drawing upon a wealth of Celtic folklore, the story sparkles with Neil's enchanting prose, reminiscent of great nineteenth-century fantasists such as George McDonald and Christina Rossetti, accompanied by art steeped in the "Golden Age of Illustration" tradition. For this project, Charles created over 175 paintings, conjuring the vivid imagery of a plot that runs from Victorian England to the dark outer reaches of Faerie. "Creating the paintings for Stardust was an exhilirating but very exhausting experience," Charles recalls. "Afterwards, my brain and my hands were so very tired. I had to take a vacation, see some art, hear some music, and juice up my batteries before I could return to the studio again."

"Into the Green" by Charles Vess © 2001
"Into the Green"
by Charles Vess © 2001

But return he did, for another enormous undertaking: 130 paintings for Rose, written by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books). In the summer of 2002, Charles won a Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for his work on Rose. He won even tougher recognition among the readership. Rose tells the back story of Jeff Smith's multi-award-winning title, Bone, which Smith has been writing and drawing since 1991 with the deftness of a transmogrified Walt Kelly. The readership is large and ranges from avid to rabid. Yet Charles strode into this realm, and with his richly stylized paintings he conquered its uncharted hinterlands with such authority, Smith himself would seem an interloper in this visualscape. Where the scope and grandeur of legend is required, Charles Vess reigns.

In addition, Charles contributed magical cover paintings and interior illustrations for two works of mythic fiction: The Green Man: Tales From the Mythic Forest, a Young Adult anthology edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Viking Press), and Seven Wild Sisters, a "Newford" novella by Canadian writer Charles de Lint (Subterranean Press). The latter, though set in the hills surrounding Newford (an imaginary city created by de Lint), was inspired by the hills, fields, and woods of Charles' home in Virginia. The book was published in a beautiful limited edition signed and numbered by writer and artist, and the entire edition of 3,500 copies was sold out before the book went to press. The two Charleses are now working on a second book for Subterranean Press, called Medicine Road, this time inspired by the Sonoran desert landscape of Arizona.

Other forthcoming works include cover art for Tapping the Dream Tree by Charles de Lint, Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones, and Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card, as well as cover and interior art for a new edition of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan.

"Over the Hills" by Charles Vess © 2002

"Over the Hills" by Charles Vess © 2002

Misha Merlin Press' illustrated volume of George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords will feature a cover painting, three interior paintings, and 75 black-and-white illustrations by Charles; and he's creating cover art and 30 interior illustrations to Skade by Rob Walton (Top Shelf). In addition to his studio work, Charles writes on comics for the annual volume The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin's Press); and he is curating an art exhibition for Mythic Journeys, a conference on myth scheduled for June, 2004.

For more information about the mythic art of Charles Vess, and his many publications,
please visit the Green Man Press website..

Copyright © 1998-2002 by Terri Windling and Charles Vess.

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