Welcome to the beginning of something new here in the VoH--a series of interviews with some of the most interesting graphic artists working in the horror field today. We begin with Billy Tackett, a Kentucky-based painter and illustrator who specializes in the process of "zombification", and is also known for his acclaimed Dead White & Blue Comics.
You call yourself the "Creepiest Artist in America". Explain.
That is said in humor, of course. The story is that we moved to the Cincinnati area 10 years ago from a very small town in Eastern Kentucky. I thought that living in a major metro area, I would be able to find like-minded individuals--but I was wrong!
For years, I tried to find some type of horror culture, but failed. So, naturally I deduced that I must be the only dark artist here. I began calling myself "The Creepiest Artist In Cincinnati" for a couple reasons: First, it could be good publicity; and second it could draw out other artists to call my bluff, which was fine by me.
A while later, my friend, author Shane Moore, told me I needed to set my sights higher, and he began touting me as "The Creepiest Artist In America". That worked very well because of my Dead White & Blue series of paintings. Plus, it was just over-the-top enough to be fun and funny.
Tell me about your love for Famous Monsters of Filmland.
FMoF has always been around for me. I can't remember a time when I didn't have a copy around. I'm talking even before I could read, I was talking my parents into buying them! This was a time before DVDs, VCRs or cable TV, so FMoF and similar magazines were the only place I could learn about the classic movie monsters.
As much as I love FMoF and their legendary covers, the publication that inspired me even more was Curtis Publishing's Monsters of the Movies. A highly underrated artist by the name of Bob Larkin did work for them that inspires me to this day.
You also call yourself a "zombification specialist". How did you discover you had this particular knack? Has there ever been a time you simply couldn't pull it off to your satisfaction?
The reason I started painting zombies so much (aside from the fact that zombies are the shit) was to practice oil painting. I could experiment with colors and techniques on zombies because they don't have to be perfect. Zombie Sam was one of the first ones, and it and grew from there. I do a lot of traditional portrait commissions, so coupling that with my love of zombie culture was a pretty natural progression.
For me, the hardest part about the zombification process is deciding how rotten the zombie will be. Before I start a piece I will sit down and think it through: Will this have more impact as a fresh, human-looking zombie or a rotted, oozing bag of bones? The possibilities are endless. There's one piece, Bombshell Zombie, that I keep getting these weird comments on that tells me I hit the nail on the head. I've had more that one person tell me "I'd still do her!" I may have hit zombie Zen with that one!
How did "Zombie Sam" come about?
That question is the one that I get asked the most, and unfortunately I don't have an answer for it! Several years back, I contacted a bi-annual zombie comic anthology about contributing. They commissioned a one page pin-up, and that's where the original black & white Zombie Sam came from. I'm not sure if I had the idea before, or if I came up with it just for the commission. If I had known he would turn out to be so popular, I would have taken notes. The black and white version is now plastered all over the internet, with some low quality text added to it.
When I began oil painting, I thought Sam would be a good one to do. His popularity got me into the graphic T-shirt business, as well as inspired the whole Dead White & Blue series of paintings.
Did you ever get any backlash over it?
No. I thought I would, but I have been shocked at how well he and the entire series has been received. When I began doing the Dead White & Blue series, I had no political statement to make. I'm very patriotic and a big zombie fan. That's about it. The really shocking part is the diversity of the fans of the series. Politically right and politically left, pro and anti-war, American and Iraqi...yes, my Dead White & Blue series has a fan base in Iraq, not only among the military but among the citizens! I just recently completed a CD cover for a death-metal band based in Baghdad called Dog Faced Corpse.
So there's something about this series that speaks to everyone. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that I'm not trying to make a statement. It's all neutral, which allows the viewer to put his or her own statement behind it.
I do have to share this story: A couple years ago, we were at a big convention and two guys in their early twenties were thumbing through my portfolio. When they got to the image of Sgt. Rot, the one that says "Better Undead than Red" one guy laughed and the other huffed and walked away. After he left his friend informed me that he was a card carrying communist! I guess commies have no sense of humor...
What's your favorite of these "zombifications"? Any future ones we can look forward to?
That's like asking a parent to choose their favorite child! But if I had to choose, I guess the one that turned out better than I had hoped would be Cannibal Claus. And yes, there will be more. I see no reason to stop now. I have a list on my refrigerator of potential subjects for the zombification process. It's just a matter of time.
Tell me a bit about Dead, White and Blue Comics.
Dead White & Blue Comics was sort of inspired by the images Zombie Sam, Fannie the and Sgt. Rot. At some point, I half-jokingly mentioned to Shane Moore the fact that I thought these characters would make cool characters in a comic, and he told me I should write it.
For a long time, I've had this rough idea for a comic book in my head that was very over-the-top b-movie-esque, so I altered that a bit and Dead White & Blue Comics was- or is being born. Since the project is still underway, I don't want to give too much away. But I can say that the main characters were a superhero team during WWII, and they were inadvertently turned into zombies. Fast forward to today, and Nazis that have been living on the moon return to Earth with alien technology and want revenge. The only way to stop them is to unleash Zombie Sam and company. If I had to put a label on it, I would say it's a super hero/horror/sci-fi/historical fiction/spoof/homage story.
I'm particularly enthralled by some of the black and white ink portraits you've done, especially the Frankenstein's Monster. Did you start working in this medium later, and is it more difficult than your other work? It looks quite involved.
I started doing the stipple technique way back in high school. Other than pencil, I've been doing this longer than anything else. It's not necessarily more difficult but it is more time consuming. I've tried other ink techniques like cross-hatching but I always seem to over do it. Stippling is such a slow and tedious process that it's hard to over do it. I guess that's why it works for me. An 11"x14" picture can take over 40 hours to complete. It's a long journey, but the finished product is pretty impressive.
Being a fan of movie monsters I wanted to do some fan art, but I wanted to do something different than the (mostly Gogos "inspired") paintings everyone else seems to be putting out, so I went with the stipple look.
What other future projects might you be able to tell my readers about?
I'm finishing up my art book For The Love Of Monsters. I should have a publication date soon. I just did an interview for an upcoming non-fiction book by called VAMPIRE HUNTERS and Other Enemies of Evil, which should include some of my art as well. I have a movie poster or two on the drawing board, and as always I'm working on Dead White & Blue art.
There's also some potentially exciting stuff coming up, but I don't want to say much until everything's set in stone. Check out my website www.billytackett.com for all the new stuff, and a calendar that shows all my upcoming convention and event appearances.
Thanks to Billy Tackett for taking the time out for this interview. Visit his website for more of his amazing work, and stayed tuned right here in the Vault for future installments of Visceral Visionaries!