#Captain’sQuarters: Kong of Skull Island Creator Joe DeVito

King Kong. The name is synonymous with cinema and pulp fiction royalty. His exploits in both cinema and literature have been ongoing since his first appearance in the 1933 film King Kong, which gave rise to a plethora of subsequent monster films and kids who grew up dreaming about fantastic beasts.‬

Joe DeVito was one of those kids.‬

Now, as a fully grown man in case you were wondering, Joe does what millions of adventure-seeking kids and pulp fans across the world dream of — creating the stories that capture our imaginations.

In his professional career, Joe has sculpted, painted, and illustrated some of the most famous characters and figures in modern history including the aforementioned King Kong, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Newman. He has sculpted two statues of the Madonna and Child, one of which resides in Domus Pacis at the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, in Portugal. He has even restored works and been commissioned for work by organizations like Land Rover Vehicles, the Edgar Rice Burroughs Foundation, and the Merian C. Cooper Estate.‬

If you’re a Kong fan then the last name should ring a bell, since Merian C. Cooper was the creator of the great ape.‬

What you may not know is that Joe DeVito is the creator of Skull Island and its ancillary work, The History of Skull Island. In fact, he was exclusively authorized by the Merian C. Cooper estate to create the official Kong origin story. He has also co-authored two Kong novels, with a third currently in the works, which is being crowdfunded on Kickstarter. There is a highly successful comic book series and graphic novel based on his ‘Kong of Skull Island’ story and future works include a TV show, comic book series and graphic novel with BOOM! Studios.‬

We could go on for days about his work and projects, but we’d rather let the man tell you about them himself. So, without further ado, we’re very thrilled to present our interview with Joe DeVito.‬

[All artwork courtesy of DeVito, ArtWorks LLC]

  Thanks for chatting with us, Joe. It’s a pleasure to have you! ‬

You certainly seem to have a fascination with archaeology and paleontology, which undoubtedly carries over into your work, and in an interview with Illustration you mentioned that part of this sense of wonder stemmed from a basement filled with sculptures and artifacts. It seems like you were one step away from becoming Indiana Jones, or Doc Savage himself; was being an archaeologist ever in the cards for you?‬

Becoming an archaeologist, no, but it has been a lifelong fascination that has been very helpful in my creative endeavors. It has dovetailed nicely WITH many other personal interests, such as architecture, the workings of machinery, biology – especially all kinds of vertebrate and invertebrate mega-fauna – and a variety of other sciences, that kind of stuff.‬

They compliment each other and inevitably spark broader interests; whole civilizations in general, for example. There are the obvious ones, such as the Egyptian, Aztecs, Incas, Mayan, Greek, Roman and Chinese dynasties. How can anyone not be fascinated by the mysteries surrounding the likes of Angkor Wat, and Machu Picchu?‬

Recently, I’ve revisited the Mongols. I had forgotten how close they came to complete world domination, Alexander the Great and Napoleon pale in comparison. They directly influenced the ability of European culture to develop and gain the foothold it did. Genghis Khan utterly devastated first the Chinese culture, and then the Islamic culture of the Middle East–both of which were arguably more advanced than that of Europe a thousand years ago. The only thing that kept the Mongul armies from wiping out Europe as well was the death of a Khan. They were that close, and they did it with relative ease – they were simply unbeatable and their ruthlessness in the face of resistance unprecedented; today’s atrocities pale in comparison.‬

And those are only some of the known civilizations– how many civilizations have vanished from the face of the earth that remain utterly unknown? Our understanding of the whole 360 of even relatively modern history–say the 20th Century–is so limited that it boggles the mind. All we generally know are the highlights as recorded in history books and whatever other sources, a mere fraction of the totality of the innumerable interactions of events and peoples all over the world. Can you imagine the mysteries still left to BE discovered over a period spanning thousands of years of human history and tens of thousand of years of pre-history?‬

All of these things went into creating my original ‘Skull Island’ world. It is just too much fun to resist .

When you got to the point in your career where you thought, “I can illustrate anything,” what did you want to tackle first?‬

I wish it was that simple, Jason! That kind of confidence grew hand-in-hand with the need to pay rent (not to mention school loans), buy a car, having a family, getting a house, kids, and all of the rest – in other words, reality quickly tempered my dreams. I had to make hard choices. It took some doing to create on my own terms.‬

Lucky for me, most of the painting and sculpting I did along the way were in areas I genuinely loved working in. From the outset, though, I set my sites on creating a world to incorporate all of my interests into one project that would  make my art both a means to an end and an end in itself. That is where Skull Island came from. In hindsight, it all happened overnight in 25+ years!‬

You’ve done a great deal of magnificent work for the Doc Savage series, how did you get involved with Will Murray and his run of novels?‬

Like so many other things, it is often just being in the right place at the right time. I was working at Bantam Books and a good friend of mine, Rob Simpson, who was also working there, recommended me to a guy who became one of my all-time favorite art directors, Yook Louie. He asked me if I would like to do the covers for a new series of Doc Savage novels, and of course I said yes! To facilitate the accuracy of my covers, he took the very unusual step of putting me in touch with the author – something that was rarely done.

That was back in the early ’90s. Will and I worked together so well that we did the entire series. We remained good friends after working on Bantam’s Doc series and a few years back, when Will wanted to continue doing Doc novels through Altus Press, he contacted me. Now we are collaborating again, on Will’s “Wild Adventures of Doc Savage” series, which has already expanded to include King Kong, Tarzan, and the Shadow – we’re having a fantastic time!‬

Doc Savage is widely regarded as “the first superhero,” how do you think Doc shaped and influenced what we read today and which characters do you think he’s had a direct influence on?‬

Interesting question! Doc Savage was first published in March of 1933 (coincidentally the same month and year of the original King Kong  movie, but a whole year after the original King Kong novel). In my opinion, Doc’s influence on the current superhero culture is vast indeed. From his name, Dr. Clark Savage Jr., to his larger than life physical presence and almost superhuman abilities, his Fortress of Solitude, and altruistic underpinnings, his influence on the first comic book superhero, Superman (1938) is undeniable.

His mysterious nature, scientific genius and problem-solving also undeniably influenced the second great superhero, Batman. Then when you tie in all of his assistants and their proclivities and various plot dynamics and all the rest, the list goes on and on.‬

 Which iteration of King Kong was the most influential for you and what about it really stuck with you?‬

To me, there is no competition there. As an original work of cinematic art on all levels: originality, technical innovation, story telling, music, cultural impact, etc., Cooper’s spectacular original conception, as brilliantly realized through Willis O’Brien’s stop motion animation magic in the original 1933 movie, has never even been approached, let alone equaled.‬

Its influence on my creative life is difficult to quantify. When I grew up state-of-the-art toys were often solid plastic dinosaurs – any dinosaur lover over 50 will be able to tell you the impact of that great Marx Bros. plastic dinosaur and caveman set that came out in the late ’50s early ’60s. It was unforgettable! There were no computer chips, DVDs, or gaming. When some cool battery operated toy or gadget did come out, we didn’t even have alkaline batteries at first, let alone lithium batteries, so unless your family was rich (mine wasn’t) the thrills were short lived.‬

So spectacular CGI movies every other week that can be viewed at will in your own home a month later on huge screen home theatre systems at will, were not only unheard of, but I would venture to say never dreamed of outside of science fiction novels. State of the art for most was a 19” B&W TV with a rabbit ear antenna. Regardless, it was great IN ITS WAY!‬

Every new dinosaur movie containing stop motion animation that came out after the original King Kong – and none were better or had greater influence than those of Ray Harryhausen’s films such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 20 Million Miles To EarthThe 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason And The Argonauts – was a unique event of barely endurable anticipation and excitement.‬ I can’t resist mentioning other classic ‘50’s flicks that were spectacular in other ways – mostly B&W, with monsters in rubber suits, crude FX and all.

Some of those ‘50’s classics have also never been outdone to my mind: The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing From Another World, It: The Terror From Beyond Space, Forbidden Planet – and those great Bert I. Gordon movies, The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Manand War of the Colossal Beast ARE SOME OF my favorites.‬

The point is that because they could not be viewed at will it only heightened the expectation and thrill when they would pop up on TV, or better still, when they would occasionally be re-released in movie theaters. The saying that nothing is so desirable as that which you cannot have is very true. The wonder and excitement of those movies will never be forgotten by those who experienced them at that time in that way.‬

Your Kong of Skull Island comic and graphic novel series has been quite successful, with several issues and the first graphic novel already out. Is delves into the origin story of Kong and Skull Island. What can you tell us about the series without giving too much away?‬

First, let me give a shout out to BOOM!, James Asmus, the writer, artist Carlos Magno, and colorist Brad Simpson– as well as the many others contributing fabulous cover art – they are doing a phenomenal job!! Carlos is creating extraordinary pages, many of veritable cinematic proportion and James is writing some intense stuff that really digs into Skull Island and its many mysteries!‬

The series is based in my original Skull Island property that I created in both words and pictures (that was copyrighted but unpublished in 1997). Skull Island is a prequel sequel to the original King Kong story conceived and created by Merian C. Cooper. Many people do not know that King Kong first came out as a story serialized in magazines that was then novelized and published in 1932 before the original King Kong movie was released in 1933. My story seeks to delve into the many mysteries of Skull Island and their origins: Where did those people come from and how did they come to live there? What was King Kong and how did he come to exist on an island filled with dinosaurs? How did the natives manage to build that wall with all of those monsters roaming around, and if it was built to keep Kong out, why does it have doors big enough to let him in?

These were some of the many questions I wondered about. Perhaps the most common sense one to me when I was a little boy living in New York City was, whatever happened to his body? How come it’s not in the Museum of Natural History with all the other dinosaurs?‬

Skull Island is the result of a multitude of fascinations we talked about earlier and others, combined with life-long infatuations with King Kong, dinosaurs, adventure and the like that just weren’t content to stay floating around in my head. This led to “Kong: King of skull Island,” (published in ’04 by DH Press), a more extensively illustrated novelization, with Brad Strickland as the lead writer, that is wholly based in my original Skull Island. It begins 25 years after Kong’s legendary battle atop the Empire State building and follows the fate of Carl Denham after Kong’s NY rampage in pursuit of an answer to a life-long question: Whatever happened to King Kong’s body?‬

My newest book is King Kong of Skull Island. This vast expansion my original Skull Island story 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.

It also contains a 30,000 word section called the “Denham Diaries”, that recaps Skull Island, both co-written by me and Brad. It then goes onto to include a huge, new sketchbook section of over 25,000 words and dozens of drawings that dig far deeper into Skull Island’s mysteries than ever and a Kong art gallery. It’s been quite a bit of work pulling this one together, and we’ve launched a Kickstarter page to help get across the finish line!

You’ve done work for both Marvel and DC, were there any striking cultural differences between the two and who were your favorite characters you worked with?‬

My earliest remembrances were with Superman and Batman comic books, however I have vivid memories right on the heels of those dealing with Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk and others from comic books and TV shows I liked as a kid. Being a sprinter through my mid to late teens, naturally I loved the Flash as well. As I think back I’d be remiss to not mention the influence of early Japanese Manga: Astro Boy, Gigantor, Speed Racer, and perhaps my favorite, 8th Man.‬

As a kid I did not really care much about the cultural aspect of things – when you’re 10 years old and younger what you’re mostly concerned with is what it would be like to have those superpowers! As an adult working in the industry, my concerns were obviously much different. Capturing the personality and the environment of the characters in as striking a composition as possible is what I was after – it was more picture making and art that I was concerned with, though the individual personalities of the characters directly influence that and brought back some fun memories.‬

I can’t say for sure, but I think I was one of the first artists to portray many of the classic superheroes as real people in traditional oil paintings outside of conventional inked and colored comic book art. I remember getting my start at DC in the early ‘90’s working with the late, great Joe Orlando, and Charlie Kochman (now of Abrams Books fame) as some of my all-time best working relationships as a professional illustrator.‬

What do you think of The Rock being cast to play Doc Strange?‬

The Rock is an excellent choice. I remember back when I first started working with Doc thinking Dolph Lundgren would have been perfect visually with an appropriately ‘detached’ Doc aura. Even now that he is a bit older, in my opinion he would still fit the character because Doc, with the bronzed, weathered skin and all, had that look about him anyway.‬

What I’m more concerned about is that the movie is done right, with appropriate seriousness and inventiveness. It is an interesting challenge portraying a philosophically uncompromising character in a world saturated with grays and contradictions. From what I’ve seen, Shane Black has great insight in regard to Doc, with nuanced plans on how to retain what makes Doc unique while crafting a film that will resonate with today’s audience. I hope he gives Will Murray a call to discuss Will’s unparalleled understanding of Doc Savage as well.‬

In addition to all the rest the other Doc attributes, he is the Godfather of Steampunk gadgetry and the like – I just love that stuff and hope they use it well: unlike all the electronic chip wizardry of modern day devices, you could build some of Doc’s in your own garage it you were smart enough!‬

Which creation of yours are you most proud of, and which would you say was the most difficult?‬

The typical answer to that question is, “The one I am working on at the moment”, but in this case it’s absolutely true! King Kong of Skull Island is the most comprehensive work, meaning the one that calls into play the broadest spectrum of my personal interests. It even taps a deep-seated interest in philosophy – in my opinion the greatest and most influential of all the sciences – and wraps it all in with my infatuation with dinosaurs, giant monsters, science fiction, action-adventure and story telling (I have another such property, The Primordials, which is even broader in scope, but it is in an earlier state of development). That it all enables me to draw, paint, sculpt and write to my heart’s content seals the deal – does it get any better than that???‬

On an only seemingly completely different note there are two, twice life-size statue of the Madonna and Child that I designed and sculpted. One is located on the grounds of the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Portugal, and the other at the Fatima Shrine in Washington, NJ. That’s the closest opportunity I have ever had to emulate my favorite Renaissance artists with a subject that I hold most dear.‬

Both of those projects are  probably the most difficult I have ever completed due to their sheer scope and the learning curves they required. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of looking up at what seems and insurmountable mountain, and then turning around to look back up from the other side and wondering to yourself: how did I do that?‬

Who was your favorite superhero, or comic book character, growing up?‬

That was a lifetime ago – things were so much simpler when we were kids! Probably my all-time favorite was Superman. He was different back then, there were no limits to his powers and that kind of character was less ubiquitous. I don’t remember there being so many virtually indestructible characters  like there are now. The Flash, Iron Man and Thor were also favorites. If I had to pick my favorite superheroes in the real world, I would have to say my wife for staying married to an artist for almost 30 years, followed by my manager, Dannie Festa, who I often refer to (only half-kiddingly) as Superwoman!‬

Whom were your favorite artists/illustrators growing up?‬

For me, everything started with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.‬

I was born in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City into a large, quintessentially Catholic, Sicilian family. Two of my uncles were priests and I was named after one of them. Coincidentally, my Uncle Joe was a talented oil painter, calligrapher, mathematician. He was an incredibly creative guy and introduced my older brother, Vito (also now a professional painter and sculptor), and me, to the classic Italian Renaissance artists that became my biggest influences.‬

I grew up with the images of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo ever present. Reproductions of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ and Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling were the main ones. I immediately connected with Michelangelo’s sculptures, especially his first Pieta, which I still vividly remember seeing in a large, print book my Uncle Sal returned with from the Vatican. I could not put it down.‬

Apart from dinosaurs and all manner of animals, my interest in the broader range of sciences developed more gradually. My drawing style has always been directly influenced by Leonardo’s notebooks. There have been many others influences over the years, of course, particularly the Brandywine school and the Golden age illustrators, to name a few, but when it comes to the foundation on which everything else is built, Leonardo and Michelangelo tower above all the others, both then and now.‬

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?‬

 Perhaps a paleontologist, or some other scientific persuasion. On the flip side, philosophy and spirituality have always played an important part in my head as well. If getting married had not been a foregone conclusion, a path similar to a Teilhard de Chardin could have combined both. All that said, I believe I am exactly where I was meant to be, and for the most part doing exactly what I was meant to do – it is tough to imagine it being different!‬

What’s the most difficult part of the creative process for you, and how do you overcome it?‬

That has changed over the years. In the beginning, because I had no formal training, it was trying to figure out how to acquire the skills to express the ideas in my head. After that hurdle disappeared by going to Parsons, the hardest part was keeping up with my schedule, which forced me to create art whether I wanted to or not – getting marred and having a family does not leave much choice. Yes, I love what I do and that is what made it all possible, but when I had one crushing deadline after another it wasn’t easy! In recent years I have been able to work on my own schedule. Now, often the hardest part is finishing a work after I already know how it’s going to come out. Time is so short and I want to move onto the next idea.‬

Film buffs generally lament reboots of the classics, what do you think the producers and directors are missing that the originals captured?‬

 If there is one answer that fits all, it’s in the word ‘original.’ It is near impossible to re-capture the magic of the first-time experience of a fantastic, original film. There’s nothing like experiencing anything for the first time – especially if it’s great.‬

 Not too many people can say they’ve professionally illustrated, painted and sculpted pop-culture and pulp icons. But you’ve also sculpted and restored classical works that are on prominent display. Is there anything you can’t do?‬

Ha! I’m glad my family isn’t here to answer that question! I’m sure they could tell you plenty, starting with 50 projects around the house! The thing is, when it comes to art and the creative process, I’ve never acquiesced to the ubiquitous group-think that divides creativity into intellectually digestible bite-sized pieces. I do not relate to specialty zones, like ‘fine art”, ‘illustration’, ‘sculpture’, ‘graphic design’, ‘basket weaving’, whatever. They are fine to facilitate general communication, but Creativity has no such artificial boundaries, it is limited only by our own imaginations. Art is infinite. I just go with whatever gives pause for creative contemplation  and work in whatever medium best fits what I want to say.‬

What advice would you give aspiring creatives beyond “practice makes perfect”?‬

I have found that the rarest gift of all is not a particular creative talent, it is stick-to-it-iveness. If there is one bit of advice I would give to anyone seeking to become successful in any field, it is to acquire the mental toughness to not quite and see things through to the end. During the years that I taught university level art courses, I always said “You can eliminate 90% of your competition simply by finishing what you start.”‬

Another tidbit of extremely efficacious advice I would give is this: pray. It is my experience that little of what happens to me in my in life is within my direct control. The only things in life that I can truly call 100% my own are the decisions that I make. Partly because of this, I have always found spirituality, art and science to be inextricably connected. They all drink from the same well. When practiced in their pure forms, without personal or political prejudice so to speak, I believe they all converge on the same mountain top: Truth.‬

A last bit of advice I would give is to cultivate a most uncommon thing: common sense. Everyone has fears, but you have to discipline yourself to act boldly. When it comes to that, there are a couple of sayings from Teddy Roosevelt that may say it best of all. To paraphrase: “Better to be among those brave few who tried and failed, than to be among the huddled masses who never tried and asked “What if?”. And to bring the common sense I mentioned artfully into play, he also said something like this: “Reach for the stars, but keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.”‬

Oh yeah,  one more piece of advice: Practice makes perfect!‬

And there you have it, some wonderful words of wisdom and great insight into how one of the best in the business gets it done. Massive thanks to Joe for taking the timeout of his busy schedule to chat with us, and again sure to check out his Kickstarter page for “King Kong of Skull Island,” which “is a large format, illustrated novel that explores the history of the Kongs and the culture on Skull Isand.”

You can stay up to date with Joe’s work on his website, Twitter and Facebook and we look forward to the completion of his current projects!

[All artwork courtesy of DeVito, ArtWorks LLC]

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