Interview: Joe DeVito

Creating Worlds: An Interview with Artist Joe DeVito
This interview originally appeared in Soul Magazine in 2005. For more information about Soul Magazine and The Blue Army, click here.

Joe DeVito was born in New York City in 1957. Inspired by seeing the movie King Kong, Joe became fascinated with dinosaurs. A frequent visitor as a child to the Museum of Natural History, Joe began to explore his artistic talent by drawing and sculpting animals.

Now a professional artist, Joe has created paintings and sculptures of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Spiderman, and many others for such companies as DC Comics, Fleer, Dark Horse, and more. Also an accomplished science fiction and fantasy illustrator, he has painted book covers for many authors, including Robert Heinlein.

One of his recent projects is a twice life size Madonna and Child sculpted for the Blue Army in New Jersey. Joe DeVito lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two children.

Q: In your book, Kong: King of Skull Island, you take the reader into the world of a modern mythology, with rich symbolism and artistic depth as well as adventure and action. How do you see your faith as a Catholic playing a role in how you portrayed this story?

A: That is a very interesting question. My main intent for the story was that it be first and foremost an action adventure tale that digs deep into the lore of King Kong. I wanted to address many of the mysteries surrounding his existence that I had been wondering about since I was a kid. For instance, when I went to the Museum of Natural History in New York City as a boy, I was enthralled when walking through the Hall of Dinosaurs. But I found myself wondering “Where is King Kong? What did they do with Kong’s body and why isn’t it here?” It was so real to me! Another question that eventually popped up, of course, was if someone built a wall on Skull Island big enough to keep Kong out, why did it have doors big enough to let him in?

That said, just as important to me was for my story to contain a strong human element to provide more to hang onto than giant monsters. Regardless of the action and adventure a story may contain, if it does not have a storyline that we can relate to on a personal level, I believe it would suffer greatly.

In the plot of the original King Kong, the human dynamic was embodied in the classic Beauty and the Beast theme in an essentially literal way – Kong was a beast and Ann Darrow was beautiful. The dilemma I was faced with was how to devise a unique plot that would compliment that. My solution was to in effect invert the original’s theme so that the beauty and beast elements were embodied within the characters themselves. What I did was draw a parallel between the wall that Vincent Denham is building within himself (he is the son of Kong’s captor, Carl Denham, and he returns to Skull Island in search of his father) - and the physical wall that exists on the island which has cut that civilization off from everything around it.

Both are living in fear and slowly dying inside. Each has to struggle between the two halves of their own nature, with their very survival depending on the outcome. Of course in keeping with my original intent, the resolution of the human character’s dilemmas revolve around and are directly contingent upon the story of King Kong himself.

To develop the entire dynamic there was no better reference I could think to draw from than classic biblical themes of Good and Evil. They are timeless and not subject to change so long as humans remain human. To paraphrase what has been said many times before, science may advance, but human nature stays the same.

Q: On the dedication page, you credit many people, but add at the bottom: "and last but first, Mother Mary and St. Jude". How has Mary helped you in your work as an artist?

A: I was told I was specially dedicated to Mary as an infant and I have had a special devotion to her all of my life. I have been helped throughout my career too many times to count. Here’s one:

Last year I met Ray Harryhausen for the first time at a book signing in New York City. I got to meet him in a private room before he went out to talk. His guide through the city that day was Rhona Knight, the grand daughter of the famous paleo-artist Charles R. Knight. She was looking over his shoulder as he was reviewing pictures of art from my Kong book. At the end of it were photos of a twice-life sized statue of the Madonna and Child I have sculpted that I thought he would like to see since he is a sculptor as well. Just as he got to the first one he was immediately called in to go talk. When I went to go out and listen, Rhona pulled me aside. Wanting to know all about the pictures “...of that beautiful statue”, she asked me to go back with them to the hotel to talk more with Ray and fill her in on the statue afterward.

The odd thing was, when I left that day I was going to take the Madonna pictures out of the binder when I suddenly had a very strong feeling to leave them in. Because I did, I got to spend the whole evening with Ray Harryhausen back at his hotel talking all about his movies and King Kong. It was a night I’ll never forget.

Q: Ray Harryhausen, who wrote the introduction to your book, is one of the most celebrated animators and special effects monster creators in the history of motion pictures. How has he influenced your work?

A: Ray Harryhausen has influenced me from the time I was about four years old and saw Mighty Joe Young for the first time (on which he did about 75% of the animation). Since then I have seen his films innumerable times. There are untold millions of people around the world who grew up on Harryhausen movies. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Twenty Million Miles to Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts... the list seems endless.

At a time when so many were dressing up lizards with an assortment of pasted on body parts, Ray Harryhausen created timeless movies using stop-motion animation. He moved intricately built articulated models one frame at a time (24 movements are required for one second of natural motion!). He single-handedly kept alive the art he learned from its creator, Willis O’Brien (who animated Kong in the original movie).

He was a creator of the highest rank. More than just with the animation, he was involved with every aspect of the film from script to costuming, always seeking to keep the overhead low and stay on budget. What he accomplished with so little is simply extraordinary. Harryhausen’s movies captivated generations of movie makers that followed, including Steven Speilberg, George Lucas and Peter Jackson, who recently directed the Lord of the Rings.

When all is said and done, I am really a fan at heart. As much as anything else, my Kong book was an effort to become a part of something I’ve always loved. In making it I not only got to meet two of my creative idols, Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury, but over the years I have also become very close to the family of Merian C. Cooper, the man who created King Kong. All along the way, meeting them was a thrill and to have their names associated with my book is more than I could have hoped for when, about thirteen years ago, I first told a friend all about my idea over a slice of pizza in New York City.

Q: You've worked for some of the biggest companies in the comic book and graphic novel publishing world. Comics began with authors and artists like Bob Kane, Stan Lee, and Jerry Seigel, and now the genre is dominated by names like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Todd MacFarlane. How is the world of comics different now as compared with comics in the earlier days?

A: Styles and subject matter, like virtually everything else, have had the envelope pushed farther and farther. Story lines originally targeted at a younger age group a generation ago in the US have followed the Japanese lead (as an example, Manga is absolutely huge these days) where the primary readers are adults.

The range of subjects now encompass far more than super heroes. Sometimes visuals and story lines have gotten so ‘dark’ that in my opinion many have become oppressive. The line has often become indistinguishable between good and evil. Interestingly, metaphysics has found its way into many story arcs, where theo-philosophic traditions are mish-mashed with myth and legend into a constantly mutating Joseph Campbell brand of soup seasoned with the problems of modern day culture.

Another development is that with advances in technology and the internet, there are more self published comics and projects of every description than ever before. Only time will tell where everything will end up.

All in all, comic books and everything related to them encompass an art form like no other. They are incredibly kinetic and fluid and are an essential part of the cultural landscape. They have a finger on its very pulse. Some of the newest and most thrilling manifestations of creativity to be experienced anywhere are found in comics. There are a unique form of artistic expression.

Q: What lies ahead for you? Any projects that you'd like to tell about?

A: There are several but they are all over the board. I’ve just finished co-writing an updated version of the original King Kong novel with Brad Strickland for the Merian C. Cooper Estate that will be released in the fall of ’05. This will synchronize perfectly with my present Kong book for one contiguous storyline and will contain new, albeit far fewer, illustrations. I have also finished sculpting a statue of King Kong for the Cooper Estate that is in the process of being produced as well.

I have been illustrating the covers for a kid’s series of the original classics, such as War of the Worlds, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Sherlock Holmes and the like for Harper Collins. I also have other stories in the works that follow on the heels of my Kong book on a potentially even larger scale that I hope I get to realize.

I should be finishing work in May on the most ambitious sculpture I’ve ever undertaken (the one I mentioned earlier). It is twice–life size and will be part of an entire site dedicated to Pro-Life that will be installed at the Blue Army Shrine in Washington, New Jersey. The dedication is October 2, 2005, I believe. It was a conceptual challenge trying to address such a volatile issue in a way that sought to appeal to everyone, regardless of religious or political persuasion. It was financed by the Birchfield Design Group and has been named “Mary, Mother of the Life Within” by a group of seminarians at St. Charles Boromeo Seminary. As a boy growing up on Michaelangelo and Leonardo, I never dreamed I’d get a chance to work on such a project. I am so thankful I’ve now had the chance.

You can see more of Joe DeVito's work on his website, which also contains some very instructive step-by-step demonstrations. You can also visit the website for his book, Kong: The King of Skull Island.


theodore said...

Thanks for the interview John, this was very interesting. That is quite a contrast between king kong and the gentle Baby Jesus with a little bird. He is quite a versatile artist.

Tommy said...

I would have nothing but compliments for Joe DeVito, though it's not stuff that much grabs me personally.
HOWEVER: That Madonna is really wonderful.