MAD ARTIST PROFILE
“UGOI OF THE MONTH” September, 2005 Part III - Adam Cooke Interview with Artist Ray Alma
THE STORY SO FAR :......We've learned about Ray's childhood interest in drawing, his formal training at the School of Visual Arts, the joys and challenges he faces as a professional illustrator, and his first significant MAD assignments. We've also learned that the grand majority of Ray's work was done in black-and-white, with the exceptions being a full-colour 2001 MAD 20 cameo (Bobby Knight "Oops! He Did It Again", #401) and a subsequent five-pager ("MAD's Special Interview With Eminem," #406) was digitally colourized, although not entirely to Ray's liking. But now we're about to get the lowdown about a landmark Ray Alma MAD assignment...so let's turn things over to Adam "Canucklehead" Cooke and Ray himself for the gory details...
ADAM: So it's the summer of 2001, and Tim Burton decides he's going to put his own spin on the original Planet Of The Apes, which happens to be a longtime favourite of a certain illustrator from Queens whose name escapes me at the moment...and this anonymous illustrator is said to have badgered the heck out of the MAD art department, declaring in no uncertain terms that he wants to participate in the MAD spoof of this movie. Did that actually happen?
RAY: (Laughs) Well, I never knew exactly what the protocol was for something like this, and I don't think artists are actually allowed to ask for a particular piece. So I was kind of doing it like a joke - I knew the movie was coming out, and I went to MAD and said, "If you guys do the ape movie, I'm a HUGE Planet Of The Apes fan, and even thought I'm sure I'll do a shitty job, you've gotta let me do it anyway." And they listened, and gave it to me, and when they told me it was going to be in colour, they told me I could do it the same way as the Eminem piece - submit it to them in black-and-white, and they'd colour it. But I said, "No, I want to colour this one myself." And I knew it was going to be tougher, time-wise - I had a decent amount of time, but I knew hand-painting it was going to take longer and it would be harder to deliver it on time. Still, I knew I wanted it to be done right - so it took me about four weeks, which was the standard amount of time for that type of piece, and I was openly happy with how it came out.
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ADAM: You've said in previous interviews that you weren't happy with the movie, but you were still thrilled with your final results for the finished spoof, "Planet Of The Remakes" (MAD #411, Nov. '01).
RAY: Yeah, I was ultimately disappointed with the movie, but what I found very satisfying creatively about the spoof was the last page of the piece, with the big battle scene. I'm very proud of that, because the top part of the piece was laid out in four panels, but I went to (MAD art director) Sam (Viviano) and said, "Look, I don't want to cram this big battle into one little panel - can I connect the second panel and the third panel diagonally here?" And this is something they don't usually do - you have a lot of leeway with the splash pages, but once you get back into the story, everything's very standard, because the MAD format is a very strict panel-by-panel set-up. So Sam was very skeptical about how it was going to work, but I did a quick little layout and I showed it to him, and I convinced him to let me do it. And I think it ended up working, and I was just happy because aside from the splash panel, I now had one big panel where I could visually tell the story, and the other two smaller panels were inserted into that larger panel. And that all goes back to being a student with Will Eisner at SVA, and thinking about sequential art - I really felt like a comic-book artist at that point, where I was kind of designing the page a little bit.
ADAM: It was even a jump forward from the standard panel-by-panel format Mort Drucker used to illustrate Arnie Kogen's original spoof of the Planet Of The Apes series in the '70s. Had you seen that "Milking Of The Planet That Went Ape" parody before?
RAY: Oh yeah - as a Planet Of The Apes fan, I bought that issue on EBay for a couple of bucks, just so I could have it.
ADAM: Apart from that, what's the most unusual bit of Planet Of The Apes memorabilia that you've got?
RAY: It's strange that you should mention that, because usually it's been toys and puzzles and models - a lot of the stuff I had as a kid, growing up as a Planet Of The Apes fan, which I'm now re-acquiring as an adult. But recently I met a guy from Long Island who was a Planet Of The Apes collector, and just last week I went to his house to see his collection, and he was very excited that I was the MAD artist who had done the "Planet Of The Remakes" artwork. So he has actual props from the original movies - and my wife thought I was totally nuts, because when I came back she asked me what I saw, and I told her, "I touched Charlton Heston's pants!" He had the astronaut pants that Charlton Heston wore in the first movie, and I got to touch them. It was so exciting!
ADAM: And then this loudspeaker kicked in: "GET YOUR PAWS OFF ME, YOU DIRTY MAD ARTIST!!!"
RAY: (Laughing uncontrollably) That would have been PERFECT!
ADAM: Or..."THEY'LL HAVE TO PRY IT FROM MY COLD, DEAD PANTS!!!"
RAY: (Still laughing) From now on, when I tell the story, I'm going to include that part and I'll give you credit. Although it's tough now, with his having Alzheimer's - you never know whether to make fun of the guy. Then again, the whole NRA thing happened beforehand, so it's open for contention.
ADAM: Well, Dick DeBartolo made a couple of jokes to that effect in the spoof, so it all tied in very well.
RAY: Although there's a mistake in the text, which I pointed out to them, and they never corrected it. In the last panel that Heston appears in, the other chimp character says, "You're still trying to win one of those golden idols, aren't you?" But he's won an Academy Award already, for Ben Hur. So they said, "Okay, we'll fix it," but they never did. Oh, and speaking of mistakes, there's a glaring mistake in my Dawson's Creek spoof, too.
ADAM: "Dudson's Geeks" (MAD #392, April '00)? What happened there?
RAY: Well, there's one panel where the Michelle Williams character is cursing out her grandmother, and they have the tails of the balloons wrong, so it looks like the grandmother's cursing at her. I assume people got the joke anyway, but it looks like the wrong character's speaking. And when I finally saw it I was like, "AAAARGH!"
ADAM: Ooops...On the plus side, Ray, that spoof is still a favourite of many MAD Mumblers. It's gotten many glowing mentions on this site over the past year.
RAY: Really? Cool!
ADAM: Yes, that's true. And at this point, Ray, I wanted to pass along a question from Alyssa, one of your biggest fans on this site and someone who's been pushing for you to get another TV satire for a long time now. Alyssa would like to know whether you work with any other paints besides watercolours, and whether you use any airbrushing at all.
RAY: No - there's no airbrushing. And it's almost all watercolours. Sometimes I'll augment it by using coloured pencils over the watercolours, to try to get an extra bit of texture. Occasionally, if I need to fix something or paint over something to repair it, like if I've made a mistake - which hardly ever happens (laughs) - there's an opaque watercolour wash which I use to paint over stuff. But I try not to use it very often, because the difference between the transparent watercolours and the opaque wash is very noticeable.
ADAM: Actually, that brings me to a question I had about your art approaches. It seems to me that there were two pieces you did in the fall of 2003 - "Signs That Friends Doesn't Give A Damn Anymore" (#435) and "More Pleasant Little Thoughts To Help You Sleep Better At Night" (#436) - that used a softer focus for your outlines than we'd seen in your previous MAD work. What exactly were you doing there?
Copyright - Ray Alma
RAY: Very good eye! There was definitely a change there. In lot of the earlier colour stuff, like "Planet Of The Remakes," I used a watercolour base with a sepia ink line, so it was basically like an ink outline - and I did it in coloured pencil. That's not a bad style, and it can have a lot of emphasis, and it was mainly the style I was using in my editorial illustration. But I've been so blown away by Hermann Mejia's work, and I'm so impressed with what he was doing with paint - I'm not trying to copy him, but I just feel influenced by him, because there was always a part of me that also painted without the ink line. It's strange, because when you have an outline and you colour it in, it has a weird "cartoon" effect to it, whereas if you just paint it, it's now like a portrait. So for those two pieces, there was no ink outline - it was all watercolour, and it created this softer look to it. This didn't always work in every situation - some of the "Friends" panels were a little too soft and out-of-focus, and a bit too inconsistent. But I thought the "Pleasant Thoughts" piece worked a bit better - I thought the painting was a little more solid on that one than on the "Friends" piece.
Copyright - Ray Alma
ADAM : The Friends artwork was still striking, though. It's hard to believe that your article, an accompanying piece by Drew Friedman, and that issue's cover by Mark Fredrickson were MAD's first major swipes at Friends since Mort Drucker and Josh Gordon parodied it in the summer of 1995, following its first season.
RAY: Well, the neat thing was that one of the producers of Friends bought the artwork for all of the Friends pieces in that issue (#435), including Mark Fredrickson's cover. The strange thing about that cover was that Mark did it as a digital piece, and he had to re-do it as a painting so he'd have something to sell.
ADAM: I still think he should have done all six of the cast members as Alfred, instead of just the guys.
RAY: That would have been too creepy! (Laughs) But when I was talking to the producer on the phone during the art sale, he says, "Hey, are you going to be in California anytime between now and December? We'd love to have you visit the set." And I said, "Oh, that's nice," but I wasn't planning on going to California during that time. But when I got off the phone with him and told me wife, she's like, "The show's ENDING this year! We've been invited to see a taping of one of the last episodes, and to MEET them!" And I agreed that this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so we arranged to go to California and it was fantastic. We saw the third-to-the-last episode, and at the end of the taping, when the studio audience left, we were asked to hang back and we got down to the set. We didn't meet any of the cast, because even though Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow were on the set, they were getting pictures taken with these Make-A-Wish Foundation children. Which was all very nice, but in the back of my mind there's a selfish part of me going, "Those damn Make-A-Wish children! Can't you leave?" And as soon as they were done with that, they left the set. But we were on the set and got a lot of pictures taken, and the producer who had invited us was a big MAD fan, and he goes, "Hey, you should go in Monica's bathroom and sit on Monica's toilet and open the MAD Magazine!" So there's a picture of me sitting on Monica's toilet, reading that issue with all the Friends stuff in it.
ADAM: I was about to ask you if you got to meet the guy who played "Gunther," but that sounds even more surreal than getting to meet Gunther!
RAY: Well, actually, I *did* get to meet David Arquette (aka. Mr. Courtney Cox), who was there with a professional wrestler - apparently he's a big wrestling fan. So David Arquette's showing this professional wrestler around the set, and the producer calls him over to meet me - "Hey, this is one of the artists from MAD Magazine." And David Arquette's actually excited about meeting me - he loves MAD Magazine, so we got a picture with him too.
ADAM: "The Fabulous Life Of Ray Alma!" Meanwhile, back on the East Coast, you were preparing the first installment of what has become a much-loved feature of MAD's new Fundalini Pages - "The Cover We Didn't Use." I still get a kick out of the original "Simple Life" image featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie getting ready to "probe" the Alfred E. Neuman cow. Was this feature MAD's idea, or yours?
RAY: That comes straight from MAD; I only wish I could come up with these ideas. It all goes back to the difficulties I had as a "gag" cartoonist when I started training at SVA - that's still the case with me today. I can come up with the visual jokes for the background, but the actual concepts aren't really my forte. I think these come directly from their cover meetings, because they allow themselves as much creative freedom as possible in the original sessions of creating cover ideas. I think some of the ideas are funny, and they'd love to use them, but they know they couldn't put them on the cover. There are so many considerations - they have to answer to DC, and DC has to answer to Time Warner, and Time Warner has to answer to AOL. And in this post-Janet Jackson era, there are so many questions about what's acceptable and allowable. I personally think that's one of the motivating factors for this whole series - these are actual cover ideas they come up with, so if they decide they can't have the Alfred cow getting a rectal exam on the cover, they can still put it in the magazine.
ADAM: These "unused covers" have made up the bulk of your MAD output over the past year - is this an enjoyable format for you?
RAY: It's been a lot of fun to do, because up until now, I wasn't drawing Alfred unless it was in the background of something - which I didn't do too often, although he's in the splash panel of "Planet Of The Remakes." This is a chance for me to draw Alfred in a cover context, and as a longtime MAD fan, it's a huge thrill. Even though they want it in these little postage-stamp-sized pieces on the inside, I'm still working on Alfred-themed illustrations, I get a huge kick out of it and I'm really excited to be doing it.
ADAM: Which brings us to a question that has often been kicked around on this site by Alyssa, myself, and many other MAD Mumblers: When is Ray Alma going to get a REAL cover job?
RAY: (Chuckles) Honestly, I don't ever see it happening with the way things are right now. I think Mark Fredrickson does a great job, and I think they like that "photo-realistic" look. And since I don't do that, I don't see it happening. But you never know - I think the nice thing about "The Cover We Didn't Use" is that they treat it very seriously, even though it's this goofy thing that appears in a small size. But when they come to me with their art direction, they're serious about it - eg. "Alfred should be a little bigger here" - it's not just something they blow off. They treat it like it's a real cover, so I try to finish it as if it's a real cover, and give it a hundred percent and put as much detail into it as possible. I would love to get a real cover, but at this point a guy like Hermann Mejia's only done two covers, and I'd love to see HIM on the cover more. Have you seen the Lost cover he had (for #453)?
ADAM: Beautiful. And his Hulk variant cover (#431) was terrific as well. Of course, Tom Richmond has also been getting a lot of praise on this site, and a lot of push from the Mumblers to get his own cover as well.
RAY: Absolutely. I think Tom would do a great job, also. So it's not just me that's waiting on a cover, and I'm content to wait my turn, like anyone else.
COMING UP NEXT... WE HEAR FROM RAY'S MAD COLLEAGUES AND FANS!
SEE WHAT "THE USUAL GANG OF IDIOTS" REALLY THINK OF MR. ALMA, AND GET A GLIMPSE OF SOME OF HIS NEWEST PROJECTS!
IT'S ALL HERE ON MAD MUMBLINGS...COMING NEXT WEEK !
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