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September 23, 2004

{     Interview : Ragnar     }    

Maybe it was growing up in Las Vegas that did it. Dazzled by the glitz, glitter and glamour of Sin City at an early age, it's easy to imagine how images of beautiful women, hard-boiled romance and elements of sophisticated retro-design permanently wormed their way into Brandon Ragnar Johnson's head. What's harder to believe is how well he's able to pull those images from his brain and bring them to voluptuous and stylized life. His work oozes a vibrant sexuality, dripping with noir, and his color-selection sets a distinct mood and tone for each piece. In terms of style and execution, he's one-upped his contemporaries and defined himself as a man apart. His dames are dangerous, every one a heartbreaker- I double-dare you not to fall in love.

&otAdam: Your work is extremely unique; if not in the classic subject matter of beautiful women than certainly in the slick, modern style you bring to each piece. There is definitely something retro going on, but the influence of animation upon your work, the decision to portray women that are sexy and stylish but not vapid, and the smooth layer of digital processing make it something that transcends mere nostalgia. Are people catching on to this sophistication, or do you find yourself lumped in with the "lowbrow" crowd due to your somewhat provocative subject matter?
Ragnar: While there's certainly the tendency to lump me in with the lowbrow scene I don't feel that I belong there. I suspect that the actual lowbrow artists would resent it even more so. There are certainly elements of my work that are common within the genre. However, I've been really surprised by how diverse a group my fans and collectors are.

On the subject of classic pin-ups, which artists do you feel have been most influential on your work?
Gil Elvgren of course, the godfather of pin-up. Other, less obvious influences would be comic artists like Owen Fitzgerald, Matt Baker, Bob Oksner and Don Flowers.

You also seem to have a very evident love of 50's and 60's design and architecture. What hooked you in, and what are your favorite design elements from this era?
Actually my preference is a little bit earlier. Late 30's to early 50's architecture, furniture design, graphic design and advertising. I'm not too big on "googie" but rather the "form follows function" Bauhaus approach. Design more so than decoration. I also favor the tendency to use dominance of hue, or analogous color schemes. Accomplishing solid design with simple shapes used sparingly is something so deceptively difficult that is still astounds me. I'll take design over decoration any day.

Are you a lounge-culture addict, or just a passive fan of the leisure lifestyle?
I do listen to quite a bit of surf, but my musical diet is still mainly punk rock.

Really? Such as...?
I listen to a mix of both old and new stuff. Though, I suppose older stuff makes up the bulk of it- The Wipers, The Crowd, Sham 69, The Dickies, Minor Threat, Descendents, DOA, Rezillos, 999, The Damned, Ramones, Effigies, Marginal Man, Agression, Peepshows, Jawbreaker, Hot Water Music, Blacktop Cadence, Swingin' Utters, Flogging Molly, US Bombs, The Hunns, The Business, Husker Du, The Briefs and many more I'm sure I'm forgetting.

As an illustrator, you've worn many different hats- working in the comics field, producing a children's book, and developing animation concepts. This work has obviously cross-pollinated with your fine art work, and vice-versa, so I thought I might ask you a bit about each, and how they have affected your work in general. Let's start with Chromaphile. First, for those who don't know, can you tell me a little about it?
Chromaphile was a book I self published in the summer of 2003. It was a small print run of just over a 1,000 copies. I really had no idea of what to expect in terms of sales, but in less than 9 months I sold through the entire print run. That's with no distribution and only a small handful of retailers. I was amazed at the reception it received. At first I was adamant that it not go back to press for a second print, but Bob at Baby Tattoo eventually convinced me. There will be a second bookstore version available in late 2004. This will have a much larger print run and be available in bookstores internationally. The variety of work I get to do is critical to my creativity. While I love doing posters, animation, toys etc., if I had to commit to just one I'd go mad.

Do you have plans for more steady serialized work, or is it just an ad hoc kind of thing?
Right now it's just a matter of my work schedule being in the right place when I'm asked. Unfortunately I've done very little serial comic work. I've been asked, but I'm pretty slow and could never keep up the schedule of doing a regular book. I generally stick to pin-ups and covers. Though at some point I'd like to do my own project in the comic form. Maybe a longer one shot book that I could take my time with.

"Got Your Nose" is a lot of fun, and it's one of the best-looking children's books I've ever seen. With "Izzy's Very Important Job" due out this fall, and perhaps even another title on the way, you seem fairly committed to this endeavor. What first led you to create children's literature?
"Got Your Nose" was never intended to be published. It was created as a Christmas gift to my son Oliver. I made a complete copy of it to give to him, I had the copy with me at a convention when Bob from Baby Tattoo saw it and offered to publish it. Since it was already done it seemed like an easy decision. Of course I spent another couple of months tweaking it before it finally went to press. Izzy's Very Important Job was my attempt at bring some parity to my daughter Isabel. I also have the beginings of a pop-up book started for my
youngest son Monty.

What benefits does this medium offer that aren't available to you in a comic or serialized print format?
There's no pressure or expectation to build it into a "property". I can produce each book in a different format with different characters for a different audience. Of course it also allows me relief from having to adhere to a regular monthly schedule.

I know that contractually there's probably a lot you aren't able to say about the animation you've worked on, but are there any names you're able to drop, or projects you can let us in on?
I can talk about them, I just can't show anything. I did quite a bit of development work at Disney over the span of a couple of years. It can be a challenging and fun but more often than not it means that work will never be seen by an audience outside the studio. I've worked on the following shows at Disney as either a character designer, art director or creator.- Danger Baby, Fish Head Stu, Big Babys, Lucky Town, The Beat, The Brontes, Jill The Pill. At Warner Brothers/Cartoon Network I worked on Batman. I recently worked on a great show at Nick created by Carlos Ramos that I can't talk much about because the pilot hasn't aired. The show just got picked up for series. Unfortunately I won't be staying on with the team due to my current schedule and prior commitments.

When you work on animation, are you usually producing original material or do you work from a commissioned concept?
I got into the business by pitching and selling my own projects but eventually began working other creator's shows. With studio projects it can happen in any number of ways. Sometimes they want me to rework something that another artist has submitted, other times it's working from a pilot script, or show bible. I haven't pitched any of my own projects in a few years.

Will we be seeing an entirely original Ragnar animated series anytime soon?
Possibly but my heart really isn't in it right now. I recently got on offer from one of the aforementioned studios to turn "Got Your Nose" into an animated series. However, I just don't see it. My wife and I were just discussing how strange it is to be turning down work in the field that I was so recently anxious to work in. It's very odd.

I've heard mention that you also do a little toy design. Are we talking mainstream toy industry here, or limited collector's market stuff?
I've been a toy collector for 15 years so this is a dream come true. I'll have a few different things out over the next few years with a few different companies. One that I can mention now is "The Maltese Chimp" with Electric Tiki.

What types of characters/concepts are you using in your toy design?
Girls of course, but since I've been wanting to do this for so long I've got a backlog of ideas that have been fermenting in my head for years. So expect the requisite monsters and robots as well.

I'm fascinated by the fact that Hans Karl has written an entire album's worth of instrumental music, inspired by your "Chairs" series. How did this come about, and what are your thoughts on what he is up to?
In many ways this is the oddest project I've been involved with. When he first approached me about this I immediately said yes. It wasn't until after he began working on the compositions that I had any hesitations. When it became a reality I began to worry about whether or not I'd like the music, or whether I'd agree with his interpretation of the pieces. Once I realized that none of that mattered because it was his work and this was NOT a collaboration I became comfortable with whole idea again. He speaks of and experiences music unlike anyone I've ever met. His passion is infectious.

Any other collaborations (musical or artistic) in the near future?
I wouldn't mind doing something on the other end of the spectrum. My good friend Garrett Chow is half of The London Police a graf crew from Amsterdam. I can't imagine what a collaboration between us would look like, but creatively there is no one that I trust, or admire more.

Dark Horse has just released a whole slew of items branded with your images- two stationery sets, an exquisite hard-backed journal, and a tin of sexy drink coasters. Had you worked with them prior to this, and how did this merchandise become a reality?
This is the first wave of products we've done together. We'd been talking about it casually for at least a year, before they said "Here, this is exactly what we want to do". I think they make quality stuff and choose great artists. It's good company to be in. I hope the items sell well, I'd like to do more stuff with them.

I understand you were pimping some fresh Ragnar gear at San Diego Comic Con this year. What new items are you bringing out?
After much delay we'll be releasing some new shirts. There are a few designs from the Pulps series and several form an old property called Big City. We've partnered with Chaser who is starting up a new company and a new line of artist's properties. There are also some new skate decks that Acme produced that look amazing. Other than that there will be a chimp calendar released in the early fall.

I was hoping you'd tell us about the gallery show at LA's Meltdown. How did it go, and what pieces did you show?
It went really well. It was a chance for me to begin to break away from the work I had been doing for that last couple of years and slowly pick up the brush again. The paintings in the show were very rough and textured compared to my digital stuff.

How was the work received?
I wasn't sure how it would be received but they sold, so there you go. I hedged my bets a bit and showed several new digital pieces form the "Windows" series as well. I plan on doing one, or maybe two gallery shows a year for the next couple of years.

There's been so much crossover in the world of illustration and animation into the world of fine art that the lines are becoming indelibly blurred. As someone who has moved in both crowds, where do you find yourself most comfortable?
There's no question that I'm more comfortable in the commercial arena. I find the challenges more interesting. The accolades and praise that friends of mine who are fine artists find rewarding leave me feeling flat and not enriched for the bother. That world holds no mystique for me. I intend to stay on this side. I have no interest in pursuing entr e into that world. Creatively I find illustration provides me with the satisfaction I crave...

    » Much more of Ragnar's work can be seen on his website Littlecartoons.com

Comments

I totally did fall in love. . . and I've already seen and loved the Dark Horse merchandise. Going through the galleries on site made my heart pound a bit faster, my breathing shallower, and a dull ache of longing spread throughout me. I'm not even shitting with you in the slightest.

Posted by: benjamin at September 24, 2004 5:32 PM

mi coments is in spanish you workis beuriful and perfec it is profecionales and never stop in the working

Posted by: joshi at August 29, 2005 12:00 AM
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