If I were to describe author and artist Joe DeVito in two words, they would be “passionate” and “enthusiastic”.
I’ve had the pleasure of becoming friends with Joe over the last several months and both his passion and enthusiasm for this project are unparalleled. The level of detail that he’s put into every aspect of this project, which started almost twenty five years ago is staggering. He’s getting to do something that anyone who grew up loving something almost never gets to do; he’s contributing to the mythology he loved with the support of it’s creators behind him.
With the full blessing of the Cooper family, Joe’s book, King Kong of Skull Island, found itself completely funded less than a day after it launched. And now, with still almost a month left, there are plenty of opportunities to join Joe’s passion project, share his enthusiasm and help support this amazing book.
Joe took some time to talk to me about the project, his love of Kong and his influences.
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FOG!: Joe, tell me about your Kickstarter for King Kong of Skull Island. What were the project’s origins?
Joe DeVito: It’s probably safe to say that most kids are fascinated by dinosaurs. Anyone who was a kid back when I was in the late’50’s/early ‘60’s wiII remember that the state-of-the-art in dinosaur toys were made out of solid plastic (Most notably that fabulous dinosaur set from the Marx toy company). Beyond that the main exposure to dinosaurs was through books.
By the age of three I was already drawing dinosaurs continually–I actually knew how to spell Tyrannosaurus rex before I knew how to spell my own name! I had the good fortune to be part of a large (and thankfully) very understanding family who brought me to visit the American Museum of Natural History as often as possible to soak in its incomparable Great Hall of Dinosaurs. The impact of those colossal skeletons–especially the T. rex in its classic original pose (erect, tail dragging)–on my imagination is impossible to quantify. Add to that the spectacular dioramas of the African, Asian and American mammals, and well, anyone who has actually seen them can easily imagine the effect such sights would have on an impressionable young mind.
These all combined to inspire constant drawings. But any concept of real dinosaurs existed wholly in my imagination. So you can you imagine how it affected me first time my older brother, Vito, sat me down to watch King Kong on TV when I was about four. All of a sudden these creatures were stomping around, roaring and fighting this huge, utterly fantastic creature called King Kong. All of this unfolded across a dream-like landscape that further enhanced the unbelievable believability of what I was seeing: I knew these creatures existed, I had seen their skeletons! I bought the reality of it all completely. I have no doubt I was told it was just a movie, but that did not matter; the imagination and wonder of it all was completely real to me.
Living in New York City, the Empire State Building was right there for me to see almost every day. I could not help but think to myself: What did they do with King Kong’s body? It made perfect sense to me that the only place it could possibly be was in the American Museum of Natural History. Where else would it be?
And yet whenever I went there I never found that hoped for fantastic display of King Kong’s skeleton.
The question never completely left me. The sheer fun and imaginative possibilities inherent in it were simply too much fun to resist. So the technical short answer to your question is that the recent origins of King Kong of Skull Island go back to 1992 when I first began concepting a prequel/sequel mythology to the original King Kong story called, “Skull Island.” But in spirit, the roots go back to when I was about three years old.
How did you go about it?
From the beginning, I set out to do it properly and wanted to make sure I had the approval of the Cooper family. As even moderately dedicated fans know, it was Merian C. Cooper (who passed away back in early ‘70’s, I believe) who first conceived the character and story of King Kong. If they were unhappy with what I was doing, I could not in good conscience follow through with it.
That was an adventure in itself that lead to the meeting of some extremely people. The lawyer and representative for the Cooper Estate at that time was Charles FitzSimons, who was a fascinating figure in his own right. In addition to being the president of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood, he was the brother of Maureen O’Hara, had appeared in the classic movie, The Quiet Man, and was a producer on the fabulous 1960s Batman TV show. His kindness and knowledge were instrumental in helping me get my project off the ground across the board.
From the outset, Charles determined that in order to have the full support of the Cooper Estate, I needed to base everything in the original 1932 King Kong novel, which preceded the original 1933 movie, and this I did.
The mythology you created is the basis of the BOOM! Studios comic book series, but not the upcoming feature film. Do the projects share a continuity?
In contrast to the BOOM! series, which is fully authorized and is based in our Kong of Skull Island Universe (Asmus, Magno and Simpson are doing a spectacular job creating an ‘Elseworlds’–like storyline utilizing our key character, plot and overall Skull Island details!) neither DeVito ArtWorks nor the Merian C. Cooper Estate have authorized Legendary or Warner Bros. to use any of our King Kong/Skull Island property in the upcoming film.
Anyone familiar with your work, can tell instantly that both Kong and Skull Island are a huge influence on you. Do you remember anything else about the first time you saw King Kong and what about the mythology still resonates with you today?
That is certainly true. It is odd that I cannot remember the exact day for something that influenced me so greatly, most likely for two reasons: The first, as I mentioned earlier, is that I was very young–probably four–and saw it on a small black-and-white TV in the living room. The second was the experience was so vivifying that even though I remember the essence of it, I cannot remember many details outside of what I was feeling, it was the experience of it that left the deepest impression. I was riveted to the TV! My excitement was so great that I was barely able to comprehend what my eyes were seeing. It was a combination of my love of dinosaurs, the dream-like visuals, the music, and the frightening wonder of King Kong himself.
I don’t think I gave Ann Darrow a second thought until many years later – it was all about the dinosaurs and Kong (truth be told, it still is)! As I mentioned earlier, I began to ponder: How come I never saw King Kong in the Museum of Natural History – what happened to his body? Where was that island and how could I get there? It was the first time I saw dinosaurs outside of a museum skeleton or on the printed page. I was absolutely mesmerized by them and could not believe that they were alive and moving on the screen. This was no movie to me, it was REAL.
As I grew older and began to delve into paleontology and the like, these questions grew into others. How in the world did such a primitive tribe manage to build that wall on an island populated by gigantic dinosaurs and a monster like King Kong? And if they built it to keep Kong out, why does it have two doors big enough to let him in? Finding answers to all of these questions and others, and being able to do it in pictures and words, while pursuing a multitude of deeply held interests was an irresistible lure. I thought to myself: Hey, why don’t YOU do it? So I did.
You previously co-wrote two other Kong books (both of which are Reward Levels on the Kickstarter). How are they different from your new book?
The first book, Kong: King of Skull Island, was a published, more extensively illustrated novelization wholly based in my original copyrighted but unpublished “Skull Island” story that was completed in 1997.
“Skull Island” begins 25 years after Kong’s legendary battle atop the Empire State building. It follows the fate of Carl Denham after Kong’s fall in pursuit of an answer to those life-long questions concerning the ultimate destiny of King Kong’s body and mysteries surrounding Skull Island.
My initial quest began 25 years after Kong’s disappearance and eventually led me back to Skull Island itself in the persons of Carl Denham’s paleontologist son, Vincent, and Jack Driscoll, who was the key character in the saving of Ann Darrow from the very grasp of Kong. Once there, they learn the answers to those aforementioned questions through a mysterious, ancient Island elder aptly called “Storyteller.” Ominously, they come to realize that her story has ulterior motives. Their lives become inextricably woven into the past, present and future of the island itself. The fate of all ultimately becomes bound up in the Storyteller’s tale of an orphaned young giant and his impossible journey to become a king and a god in the world he knew. Everything unfolds against a sprawling prehistoric backdrop filled with an ecology teaming with monsters and other natural wonders that have continued to evolve over the intervening 65 million years since the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. These combine for the first time to effectively make Skull Island a character in its own right.
One of the best things that happened during the novelization of that story in Kong: King of Skull Island was working with the accomplished author, Brad Strickland. Not only was I doing the world creation and illustrations, but it was also my first time out as an author. My plot was complicated with multiple timelines and it was important to me that the writing be commensurate with the art. Brad was instrumental in establishing the basic structure of the novel and kept things on track as we sent entire chapters back and forth to each other throughout the entire writing process. We had a fantastic time writing together and became close friends in the process. When it came time to restructure the original King Kong story for the Cooper estate it was a no-brainer to collaborate on that as well. This time with the writing split down the middle as I did not have more than the cover and a few interior pieces of art to illustrate.
Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong came out in ’05, a year after Kong: King of Skull Island was published. It brought into play everything that was learned on the first go-round and added four new chapters to the original Kong mythos (most particularly dealing with Kong’s rampage through Manhattan), vastly updated the paleontology, tied in some key characters from “Skull Island” to maintain a uniform, authorized King Kong/Skull Island Universe, while making the syntax a bit more friendly.
My new book, King Kong of Skull Island is a hardcover, limited edition book that builds exponentially on my original “Skull Island”. It is a 95,000 word novel in two parts. Part 1: Exodus details the enigmatic origins of the Kongs, the Tagatu civilization, and their first arrival on Skull Island. Part 2: The Wall chronicles the incredible events resulting in the building of the iconic Wall that spans the island’s peninsula. To keep everything in context, King Kong of Skull Island also contains the 30,000 word “Denham Diaries” that recounts the key story contained in previously described “Skull Island.” Both are co-written by me and Brad.
I also composed a special “Sketchbook” section of well over 25,000 words and dozens of accompanying drawings that delves ever deeper into all things Skull Island with many spectacular suprises. Rounding out the 300+ page volume will be a King Kong of Skull Island gallery section of several major Kong-related paintings and highly detailed graphite drawings.
You’ve painted virtually every major pop icon of the Twentieth century including Alfred E. Newman, Kong, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. Do you have a favorite character to do Who is it and why?
It is not an exaggeration to say that I loved working with all of them! When you are a kid it’s impossible not to get hooked by superheroes and fantasize about having superhuman powers. That’s about as fun as it gets–along with daydreaming about dinosaurs. I do remember wanting to be Superman because of his abilities – I mean, what pre-teen wouldn’t want to be super strong, super fast and be able to fly? Come to think of it, I still wouldn’t mind having those abilities!
These days, for more pragmatic reasons, my favorite is one that I did not find out about until much later: Doc Savage. Not only have I made some fabulous friends working with the character over the years, such as Will Murray (a.k.a. Kenneth Robeson), Jim Bama and many others, but Doc has been the catalyst for many important milestones in my career. Not the least of which is opening the door to my becoming a professional sculptor.
It was while painting Doc covers for the Bantam Book series that I got the opportunity for my first professional sculpture, the Doc Savage Giant Python statue I sculpted for Graffitti Designs, owned by Bob Chapman. He came to my studio and I talked him into (accompanied by a little begging if truth be told) giving me a break sight unseen as a sculptor. I told him if he didn’t like the way it came out he didn’t have to buy it. I had never sculpted a full figure to that date, let alone a professional level piece (though I knew from little studies I sculpted as props that it was as natural as breathing for me, far easier than learning to oil paint). Eventually he said, “OK – design it any way you want and let’s see what you come up with.” The rest, as they say, is history and I will be forever grateful.
I was surprised to learn that you have produced works of art for the Catholic Church. What was the genesis of that partnership and what kind of art have you done for them?
I come from a large, typically Catholic, Sicilian family. Ironically, I was born in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, which at least back then was predominantly Irish (which probably explains why my wife is Irish;-). Two of my uncles were priests. Both were artistically talented and were huge influences in my life: One of them, my Uncle Sal, was a highly accomplished writer and newspaper columnist in the Philadelphia and New York City areas. The other, my Uncle Joe, whom I was serendipitously named after, was a talented artist, oil painter, calligrapher and more.
I, and my older brother, Vito (also a painter and sculptor), grew up surrounded by the imagery of all the great Renaissance artists, Church statues that would come and go for repairs and my Uncle’s similarly-themed oil paintings–that sort of thing. Leonardo and Michelangelo in particular, fueled my creative personality from as far back as I can remember. From the time I was a kid, the dream of sculpting a giant statue or painting a Sistine ceiling was a given.
But where in the world do those opportunities come from these days, particularly when I was simultaneously mesmerized by all the great fantasy and science-fiction movies, especially those fabulous black-and-white B flicks of the 50s (they were all B&W to me – we did not have a color TV)? Predictably, my career took a path steeped in the media driven, pop-culture world I grew up in.
Fate has a strange way of making things happen.
Through a series of unanticipated events that began after being asked to contribute conceptual models for a shrine at my local church, I was unexpectedly commissioned to compose and sculpt what eventually turned out to be a twice-life-size statue of the Madonna and Child. I had never sculpted a figure over 12 inches tall before.
Naturally I said, “Of course, I’d love to do that!”
I ended up sculpting two of them, one for the U.S. and a matching statue for the grounds of the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Portugal.
These led to other religious commissions and restorations in both painting and sculpture. At times it’s been quite a crazy creative life: I remember going from sculpting a seated Madonna and Child statue that was 8 feet high (had she been standing would have been close to 12 feet tall), with my next sculpting commission being for an 8 inch figure of Wonder Woman for the Masterpiece Edition from Chronicle Books!
Can you tell us a little about the unique rewards offered through the Kickstarters?
They span a pretty wide gamut, starting with a bare-bones e-book without all the art, to a spectacular $8500 very limited King Kong bronze (only 9 of a total of 10 are available).
In the middle are limited combinations of King Kong of Skull Island with Kong: King of Skull Island”, Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, King Kong vs Tarzan, and Doc Savage: Skull Island, as well as a variety of King Kong/Skull Island Limited Edition prints.
You currently paint covers for The Wild Adventures of Doc Savage and continue to paint other pulp icons. What kind of influence did former Doc Savage cover artists like Walter Baumhofer, Douglas Rosa, James Bama and Bob Larkin have on your work and what artists have been your biggest inspirations?
Though a few years older, I consider Bob Larkin a relative contemporary of mine. He’s a good friend, a fantastically talented illustrator and extremely versatile. I’ve always admired his art in a whole range of genres and characters.
Bama, however, who just turned 90, preceded both of us by a generation. He laid the groundwork for the both of us and countless others. He painted the entire original Doc Savage paperback series for Bantam Books and created the now iconic “look” Doc with widow peak, ripped shirt and jodhpurs, which was inspired by Flash Gordon. Bama’s initial Doc series also ushered in a new era of paperback book cover art. His monolithic, forced perspective compositions, strong form lighting, etc. introduced classical painting and picture making techniques into a field that had mostly been abstract/expressionist/symbolic in nature. His use of a limited palette also conveyed a certain seriousness to the covers that strongly enhanced the perception of the character while reading the story. Powerful stuff.
Another paperback cover artist that blew the lid off things and influenced a generation was Frank Frazetta. He had a style and approach about as different from Bama’s as you can possibly get.
Those are just two of the more recent artists. Of course, there are a multitude of others who came generations earlier who affected me just as greatly. Off the top are the extraordinarily atmospheric works of Gustave Dore; N.C. Wyeth (of course) and others of his era; needless to say all the great Renaissance artists, Rodin, the Pre Raphaelites and countless others.
On a more practical level there was Frank Riley (Bama’s teacher), who introduced a modern-day version of Howard Pyle’s painting techniques and picture-making approach that I absorbed initially after attending some classes with Jack Faragasso at the Art Students League, and much more in depth on the fly from my friend, the late Ralph Amatrudi. They influenced my thinking tremendously in regard palette organization, value, color control and the mechanics of picture making.
Equally fundamental to my artistic thinking were two teachers I had at Parsons. One was Bill Klutz, who taught me how to control value relationships. The other was the innovative anatomy teacher, John Zahourek. I continued to study with him for some time after graduation, taking intense workshops centered on biped and quadruped comparative anatomy. These used both traditional dissection and Zahourek’s own additive anatomy techniques. They helped my painting and sculpting enormously – especially when creating believable creatures that do not exist. I mention these last two teachers because I have used what I learned from them virtually every day of my career, particularly when it comes to drawing and painting completely from imagination.
But when all is said and done, it is Leonardo and Michelangelo who remain far and away my greatest influences to this day. They formed the initial foundation upon which everything else was built.
What are you currently geeking out over?
During the day I alternate between movies, news, music, TV and talk radio. Except while I’m writing, I rarely sit and work without a TV, stereo or radio going. At the end of a long day about the only thing I can still do is read or veg for an hour or so in front of a TV.
I am constantly reading everything I can get my hands on about everything I am interested in as it applies to Kong and his Skull Island environment. I’m a Survivor fan, and I try to keep up with the many of the series on streaming channels, which are often excellent. I like everything from Mad Men, The Walking Dead, The Man In The White Castle, and Daredevil, to Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge. I’m fascinated by all the machinery in Robot Wars. Presently I am finding it near impossible to stop watching Dexter – it is hilariously sick, well-written and acted. And then there’s Big Bang Theory! One of the funniest shows ever!