(reprinted with permission from Diabolique)
Whereas the moniker of “Zombie King” is one that fawning devotees of artist/illustrator Arthur Suydam most likely assume to be a badge of honor, to self-important purveyors of fine art, such a title might be an excuse to recklessly deride whomever holds it. But what does Suydam himself think of the name? When asked “Do you like that title?” by a news anchor on a WGNTV news broadcast in Chicago, Suydam shrugs and responds, self effacingly: “Eh, what can I say?” Suydam’s sentiments surrounding the descriptor may be vague, but despite a shortage of evidence that points to a definitive answer to the anchor’s question, it’s also quite apparent that Suydam knows exactly what he’s doing by embracing, rather than rejecting it.
Nomenclature is something of an art in and of itself for Suydam. Freely interchanging his name to align with whatever medium he chooses to tackle at a given time, he can be either Arthur Suydam, the esteemed experimental painter from a long lineage of Suydam family artists (among them, Henry, James Augustus and Edward); “Red” Suydam, the singer-songwriter who fronts The Crocodiles, a prominent New York rockabilly band, and performs with the likes of Bob Dylan, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen; or “Zombie King,” the pioneering sequential artist whose cross-contamination of oil painting and comic book pulp reinvents the likenesses of such household name superheroes as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk and many more in his wildly irreverent work on the Marvel Zombies franchise.
Considering the gritty details of the numerous facets of his life and art, Suydam is an ideal candidate not only to depict zombification, but to empathize with the very plight of being a zombie. Whether he was staring down death in the wake of a life threatening (and skin-eroding) accident at the age of five, or honing his painting skills and eye for the human anatomy by studying the appendages of long-dead corpses, Suydam consistently found himself teetering, sometimes dangerously, other times flirtatiously, on the brink of death. Accordingly, such past trials and tribulations have become teachable moments for the artist, and continue to inform his perspective of the art of the present and the realm of genre comics that awaits innovation in the future. Whether Suydam is cognizant of it or not, the word “Zombie,” along with all its associated meanings, is inextricably linked to his lifetime of experience.
But what of that other word, that other half of the name – “King”? Well, since Suydam – whose illustrations for The Walking Dead comic series is proudly displayed by several of the cast members of its television adaptation – is now working side by side with George A. Romero for a new series for Marvel entitled Empire of the Dead, is there really any other title left to give him? “Zombie King,” if not earned by Suydam’s immense body of work alone, is a title bestowed upon him by default in a world in which flesh-eaters can only have one “Godfather.”
Speaking with Diabolique, Suydam expounds upon what it means to carry on his family legacy in his own subversive fashion; champions the expansive medium of comic book art; vents about the world-weary pessimism contained in his song lyrics; and gives some insights into his unique childhood experiences. It’s enough to remind that there’s more to a name than a gimmick – even if the name in question is more infectious than most.
DIABOLIQUE: The Suydam name connotes a legacy that far precedes you and your work; Henry Suydam, James Augustus Suydam and Edward H. Suydam are three of the bearers of a long-continued tradition of artistry in your family.
ARTHUR SUYDAM: Edward was an architectural artist with work hanging in the Museum of New York and the White House. James and Henry belonged to a small group of American artists known as the Hudson River painters. About a dozen or so painters – including Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, Albert Beirstadt, John Kensett, Sanford Gifford, James and Henry Suydam and a few others, who lived in and painted the landscapes of New York’s Hudson Valley at the outbreak of the Civil War. The Hudson River painters won American artists worldwide recognition for the first time at a time when America was regarded a primitive nation, and the established art world recognized French, Italian, Dutch and European artists exclusively and poo-pooed the Americans.
My academic interest has always been tied heavily to classical figurative art. Anatomy. The work of the renaissance masters, minus the theocratic subject matter. After high school, I had scholarship offers and was looking for an art academy that offered traditional [schooling], a classical masters study program.
DIABOLIQUE: Your work is the first of your family’s to explore the pulpy territory that often comes with comic book art.
AS: When I couldn’t find a suitable school, I began writing and illustrating short horror stories for DC Comics and Heavy Metal magazine in New York. At that time, I wasn’t happy with my level of drawing skill, and what I really wanted was to go back to school. Years later, I discovered a great atelier four blocks from my apartment in New York – a recreation based on the notes of Michelangelo, Leonardo da’ Vinci and Raphael from the 16th century. I began formal studies at The New York Academy of Figurative Art in the ‘80’s, majoring in anatomy. We did a fair amount of hands on work with cadavers – drawing, painting and sculpting them. Bodies hanging on hooks from the ceiling, disemboweled on the tables. Mostly prisoners and seniors, who I imagine donated their bodies to science. The med students had them during the day and the art students at night. I’ve always had a thing for anatomy. I still study and practice regularly to keep sharp, wind down and relax. I was reading lots of comics and watching horror movies at the time, and going to the Academy. Put that all together and this is what you get.
Painting landscapes feels very natural and comfortable for me, and is most likely something I will return to at some future date, when I can slow down and maintain a slower life pace. The toxicity of the paint and solvents there is also an issue for me. Presently, I get plenty of landscape practice painting the backgrounds of the fantasy paintings I do.
DIABOLIQUE: Was there ever a sense of trepidation on your part about focusing on comic book art, which, to some dogmatic, formally or classically trained artists, might be considered low-brow or kitschy?
AS: Comics: the sight; the smell of the paper and ink; the smell of the pharmacies where they sold them; the squeaky sound of the spinning comic racks… I love comics and I’ve always loved comics. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. For me, comics is where it’s at. Where the talent is.
I don’t put much faith in trends devised by agents, critics, businessmen or gallery owners. Those guys are on power trips, telling their clients what to like, what to buy. Art is about talent. Art is subjective. I purchase a fair deal of original art in my travels, mostly by artists no one will ever hear of. I enjoy looking at their work far more than my own. Once I finish a work and put it away, that’s it. Once it’s completed, my work makes me tired when I look at it. Puts my mind back into work mode. But for my own work, the goal was always to learn the skills, secrets of the great masters – comic, illustration, classical. To bring that kind of quality level in illustration to comics, where the subject matter is more about adventure and suspense and good clean American fun.
DIABOLIQUE: What have the artists of your family made of your stylistic choices?
AS: You spend years studying and practicing. Then one day, it’s time to go to work. You do what you know. I was preparing for a career in science, entomology or herpetology. Things fall by the wayside. I had an uncle who reportedly studied with Norman Rockwell. I inherited his work books and learned the ropes of formal illustration, the science of the single image story from those books. Later on, I discovered egg tempera techniques and incorporated that into my work process. Mom always worried that I wouldn’t be able to make a living in art. The more she talked, the more determined I was to prove her wrong.
She liked pictures of kittens and puppies. I tend to be a private person. I don’t believe most of them have any idea just what it is I do. Pop-Pop had some of James and Henry’s paintings hanging up at the old country house. Everyone in the Suydam family plays instruments. Dad played country. I grew up hating country music, then ended up playing rockabilly years later.
DIABOLIQUE: Your heartland rock sensibilities as a musician seem to align with your choice to revolutionize the medium of “the everyman” — comics.
AS: As time passes, the more I study and learn cultural trends in music; literature; science and art; past and present; the Dutch Renaissance; Michael Jackson; Hammer films; zombies; and the events and the players, the easier it becomes to understand my own work. [I begin to] draw comparisons, useful parallels, perspectives, options on directives for study and for future works. One serves the other. It’s like learning languages. For me, the great artists who came before me serve as both inspiration and competition.
I learned lyric writing from Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, and good storytelling is a cartoon. It’s all a classroom. I read and listen to all types of world roots music, mostly because I feel it has the most soul and communicates the clearest mental imagery. Americana happens to be what I know best, what feels the most comfortable. In Jersey, you are growing up in a melting pot of cultures. Experiences define your work.
DIABOLIQUE: And once you left New Jersey, you opted to continue a storied tradition of the artists of your family, by moving to New York.
AS: Living in New York is essential. For the continued study of man, and self. For the pursuit of intellectualism. I live in a modest apartment on the lower east side. Tiny. It’s the same street where James Suydam lived (though this occurred coincidentally). Living in any other place feels like sensory solitary confinement to me.
DIABOLIQUE: As a young boy, you were involved in an accident that resulted in prolonged hospitalization. Would you say your “brush with death” so early in life informs the darker, macabre or morbid facets of your work in illustration?
AS: I was burned very badly when I was five years old. they didn’t expect me to live. Of a team of four doctors, some of the physicians wanted to let me go. they didn’t think I was going to make it. My dad argued and threatened them. I was in the hospital for a year. Once a week, Dad would bring me comic books to read – mostly DC and dinosaurs. And once a month, a silver dollar was saved for me in an old fruit jar. Soon as my hands were healed enough to hold a tool, I began drawing, holding the pencil on the only part of my hand that was less burned. Mostly dinosaurs all the time. There were decades of reconstructive surgery that followed. Skin grafting was the worst. That stuffs all in the past now, long forgotten.
I consider myself rather jolly.
DIABOLIQUE: Your song, “Eye for an Eye,” written for Thomas Berger’s “The Feud,” introduces and, at the end, repeats, the line “On judgment day, they take an eye for an eye.” That line paints a pretty grim picture about the nature of the world.
AS: I call it as I see it: one set of rules for the rich and another for the rest of us. You steal three trillion dollars from seven million taxpayers and you get a house in the Hamptons and a bonus. Steal 70 bucks from a 7-11 clerk and you get seven years to life in a privatized prison system.
DIABOLIQUE: You’re no stranger to depicting visions of the “end of days,” or fragments of bleak, dystopian universes; your work on the Marvel Zombies and Walking Dead series best exemplifies this. How does your worldview seep into your interpretation of societies in collapse or the zombification of recognizable superheroes?
AS: Everything corporate is a scam on someone. That business model should be outlawed. Life with these corrupt corporations in the driver’s seat spells a one-way trip to hell for us all. Everyone is on the bus.
DIABOLIQUE: You’re widely known as the “Zombie King.” Are you comfortable with such a label?
AS: That all started with the kids calling me that at shows and online. Then it spread. I have no preferences about it one way or another. They say Richard Corben and I were the first to introduce fully painted sequential art to US comics back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Many credit the work Robert and I did on Marvel Zombies with prompting the current zombie explosion.
My focus is to try to maintain a level of quality in the work; designate a little time to my continued studies; help newbie clients get it right; and maintain schedules and deadlines, while juggling time for a healthy lifestyle.
DIABOLIQUE: You did a self-portrait with pen and ink in which you depict yourself as a frog, wearing clothing that evokes the classical period. It’s as though the piece, on one hand, uses the older clothing to stake your claim as a torchbearer of a legacy of formally trained artists, and on the other, uses the image of a frog to suggest your ability to “leap forward” from tradition.
AS: [Laughs] Yeah, I know that piece!
That’s an interesting analysis. I have spent a great many years chasing the techniques of the classical masters. Regarding the frogs, I see anatomical similarities in the pus. I think we look alike.