Here, Read · Interviews · Jeffrey "Jeff" Catherine Jones · Michael Wm. Kaluta

Here, Read: Jones on Kaluta, Kaluta on Kaluta vs. Jones

Here’s Jeffrey Jones on Michael Wm. Kaluta, from Comic Book Profiles #7: Michael William Kaluta (Summer 1999), pages 28 – 29:

How did you first meet Michael?

If memory serves, I met Michael and Bernie Wrightson at a New York City convention in the fall of 1968. Michael may dispute this because he is the “memory giant.” But I remember this as being so. We were there to show our fledgling work. I had arrived in New York about a year earlier and had a couple of jobs done. My memory is sketchy as to details but Bernie had a bunch of $5 and $10 ballpoint pen drawings piled on a table in the art show for sale. Michael was more of the portfolio type. I mention Bernie in the Michael question because he was the one who introduced us.

What do you feel is his strength as an artist?

Michael’s greatest strength as an artist has always been his ability to remind us to stay alive. His art is moral in the sense that it, as the best art, has absolutely no function except to exist. It has the promise of function and will remain where that beauty lives. I speak of the human spirit and its passion to rise above everything, except that which we all already know. Michael reminds us of that connection between all lives and all that makes us human. This takes a true artist.

You and Michael worked on projects together, both formally and informally. Does any one project stand out as particularly memorable?

The thing that jumps to mind is a period of time during The Studio days, if you will, when we were trying to decide what to call our upcoming book (The Studio). Michael taped long rolls of brown kraft paper to one wall where each of us, usually clandestinely, would write our suggestions. Well, this certainly started out seriously but quickly degenerated into a list of some of the most preposterous titles imagined by the minds of the deranged. I believe that even though most of these would appear in the dark of night, it was pretty easy to tell who wrote what. We laughed for what seemed months. Definitely a great achievement in the art of cooperation.

Now, it seems to me that what Jones viewed as the “greatest strength” in Kaluta’s work back in 1999 is precisely what Jones has always pursued in her own work.

And I have little doubt that Kaluta was, at the time, flattered by Jones’s praise; I mean, who wouldn’t be?

And yet, based on the very plain-spoken, practical analysis that Kaluta offers up in an early promotional trailer for Better Things: Life + Choices of Jeffrey Jones of the difference between his own unabashedly functional, commercial body of work, and the sometimes obliquely functional but always deeply felt and humanely expressive work of Jones, I’m not entirely sure that Kaluta actually would have agreed with Jones’s contention that his (Kaluta’s) artwork “has absolutely no function except to exist.”

Here is a partial, lightly edited transcript of the trailer, which features a rough-cut interview with Kaluta:

Artistically, [says Kaluta] one works for oneself. You have to. To get anything good, you kind of have to work for the person that’s inside of you; however, to be able to live, you have to work for companies. I had to work for companies; other artists, perhaps, can work for galleries, or posterity. An illustrator is someone who draws for money. I don’t do what some of my friends are able to do, which is paint their souls, their dreams, their nightmares for themselves, and that’s art — and it is. I am happiest when I am reading someone else’s material and crafting it into a picture that will reflect to my best efforts what I think the writer was trying to say, trying to visualize. I would say that Jeffrey Jones is both an illustrator and an artist, using the descriptions we have just talked about. He covers a wide range of self-motivating imagery. It comes through him, and every once in a while he’ll apply that specific power that comes through him to an illustration job, or he’ll use the characters that have been written by other people as a vehicle for his own talents. I wouldn’t say he’s as much of an illustrator as I am. I think that he’s more of a personal storyteller who now and then might come close to illustrating something [laughs], on purpose.

In the portion of the trailer I haven’t transcribed, Kaluta goes on to describe his first meeting with Jones, which Kaluta says occurred at “a World Science Fiction Convention here in New York City in 1967.” LOL!

3 thoughts on “Here, Read: Jones on Kaluta, Kaluta on Kaluta vs. Jones

  1. Yes, that sounds like Jones’ latter-day philosophy, that commercial art is immoral. This is ironic, because the commercial venues (comics and paperback book covers) are what first made Jones famous. Kaluta nailed the solution in mentioning that, whilst working in the commercial publications to make money, the best artists “work for the person that’s inside you.” I’m glad that Jeffrey Jones has gone onto fine art, but his commercial work was a necessary stepping stone, and now that most of those books are out of print, his cover art stands on its own merit—certainly in keeping with his fine art ideals. And Jones’ comics work is some of the very best in the medium, showing what comics as a true art form, not commercial kitsch, can be.

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  2. I thought Jones’s “latter-day philosophy” was more specific than that. I thought it was not that commercial art (drawing for companies, for money) is immoral but that illustration — narrowly conceived as taking a written text, e.g., novel, short story, etc., that is already a complete and self-sufficient work of art on its own and crafting the descriptions into pictures that reflect, in a literal fashion, what the artist thinks the writer was trying to visualize — is immoral because it impinges on, deforms, and/or impoverishes the imaginations of readers, who ought to be free to visualize the writer’s creation in their own terms. Because there is plenty of work in commercial art that is not illustration in that literal sense — unlike most prose fiction, comics, for instance, are explicitly designed (and can, almost, be defined) as a “co-mix of words and pictures” (Art Spiegelman); also, lots of commercial “illustrations,” maybe even the majority, tend to be suggestive analogues rather than literal retreads of prose descriptions; and so on — and therefore such work is not immoral according to Jones’s view (if I’ve read her right). In fact, if you examines the work of the four commercial artists featured most prominently on this blog — Richard Powers, Paul Lehr, and, yes, Jeffrey Jones and Frank Frazetta — you will find that even book covers, which are, for some reason, often thought of as selected moments from the novels they are attached to, need not be (and, I would argue, most often are not) illustrations in the sense Jones objects to, and therefore, again, would not be viewed by Jones as immoral.

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  3. In support of my last post, here’s Jones in conversation with George Pratt and David Spurlock, excerpted from Jeffrey Jones Sketchboook (Vanguard, 2000):

    P: You mentioned once that you see illustration as immoral.

    J: I do see illustration as immoral, for the same reason music videos are immoral. It’s a thief. It robs the reader of his imagination by either showing him ahead of time what something’s going to look like, therefore not allowing his imagination to run free, or by contesting his imagination if he’s formed an opinion before coming to the picture. Then he has to have this fight with the illustration.

    I’m talking about illustration for a book that needs no illustrations and wasn’t written to be illustrated. Someone later came along and said, “Let’s add something to it to make it better.” I don’t think it can work that way. In comics and children’s books, pictures and words come together and really work. One needs the other. I’m an illustrator and my primary influences were illustrated books, but if I really get down to the nitty gritty of it, illustration’s not a really good thing.

    [….]

    In a number of the hardcover books that I illustrated, I never tried to make a picture of what the author said. It would either be a picture of a character, or it would be an atmospheric picture of a place with the character in it. The figure was usually doing something that was ambiguous enough where the reader was never robbed of their imagination. I purposely did this, because I didn’t want to tell anybody what it looked like.

    S: How long would you say that has been an application in your interior illustration, or even cover illustration?

    J: From the mid-70s. Cover illustrations were really weird, because I never had a book to read ahead of time. It was a memo from an editor to an editor, and I would say, “What color is the hero’s hair?” “Oh, we don’t know.” It doesn’t matter, we’re just trying to sell the book. It’s a cover to sell something else.

    An illustrated book is something different, because it tries to incorporate the images. So I guess it was around my first book, Red Shadows by Robert E. Howard. It was about the time of the second edition of Red Shadows that came out in ’78 that I really started to consider it as an interpretation of the world that the writer created, and not a recreation of the scenes. So it’s an odd kind of stance I take as I approach an illustrated story. [pp. 90 – 94]

    Whew! I’m relieved that my memory of Jones’s view was reasonably accurate, though since I own the book, I probably should have looked up the passage before I posted.

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