It has been a long standing tradition among movie studios, record labels, and even publishing houses, to sign reputable independent artists without really knowing what the artist’s reputation is or what they even do. The powers-that-be are utterly shocked when they realize they’re not getting balloon animals and Ziggy comics so they end up working against the guy they’re paying.
At that point, the artist can only hope to maintain their integrity but, as Gris Grimly found out while working on Sipping Spiders Through a Straw: Campfire Songs for Monsters, it can be an uphill battle.
“All artists would like to work without any type of censorship and that censorship isn’t just on a morality or ethical level,” Grimly says. “It also can be on an economical standpoint. I mean how many times do artists have to change what they’re doing because someone in a suit says it won’t sell. And I think, ideally, every artist would like to work in a situation where they don’t have any restrictions to what their mind can produce.”
After hiring Gris Grimly to illustrate Sipping Spiders, it didn’t take long for the suits to get cold feet despite the artist’s solid track record when it comes to working on children’s books.
“[Sipping Spiders] is different than any other book that I’ve done because I think I worked on this book for three years or something like that. It has gone through three different editors, all at the same publishing house. I felt like every editor I’ve worked with, they don’t really understand me or my target audience or the fact that there is an audience for this kind of stuff. So they kept trying to rein me in and I just kept pushing it and pushing it. So we never really got as far along with this book as quickly as we should have and that’s why it went through so many editors. Finally, it got to the point where we were on the third editor and my agent called them up and said ‘You know what Gris does. Why did you hire him if you don’t want Gris Grimly art?’”
That’s a good question and it’s a hard one for Grimly to figure out since people at the publishing company would rally behind an illustration just as disturbing as the ones they would malign.
“One of the poems that I thought was probably the most extreme poem of them all is the one about playing jump rope with your own intestines. You know, people are telling me ‘hey—we can’t have a baby fetus in a jar. That’s too much for kids.’ Are you fucking kidding me? We have an illustration here of kids playing with their own intestines. How can I not have a jar with a baby fetus in it? I thought the intestine poem was way more disgusting than anything in the entire book but for some reason they loved the intestine idea. They’re like ‘yeah, then they can be playing jump rope in the intestines and there could be blood everywhere. I’m like, these guys are on crack.”
As more religious-based organizations lobby against anything that isn’t fuzzy or a talking vegetable, Grimly can’t worry about what might scare an editor.
“I would say that I don’t put any restrictions on what I do. That doesn’t mean that the editors from the publishing houses don’t put restrictions on my work. When I illustrate a book, I illustrate if for myself at the age that I’m at.”
The child-like enthusiasm that Grimly exudes when talking about art, however, makes it hard to pinpoint just what age that is.
“I love art. I love comic books. I love horror movies. I illustrate it in regards to how I would perceive it. So, that being said, I don’t illustrate it for children but sometimes the editors rein me in so I don’t get away with illustrations too over the top, or too gross, or violent, or dark and disturbing.”
While having the full support from the people that hired you creates a more stable work environment, sometimes the artist looses out in the end. Grimly, however, seems satisfied with the version of Sipping Spiders that made it to store shelves.
“The butting heads with the first editors for the book was a result of being matched up with editors who didn’t understand my work, its potential or its audience. But if you can eventually hook up with someone who is in sync with the artist, the project can go forward. Otherwise someone has to break. In the end, the final product is what I had envisioned it to be.”
What Gris seems to envision in the books that he illustrates are books that aren’t concerned with meeting the approval of Kelly Ripa-esque soccer moms. These are books that people who share Grimly’s love for art, comics, and horror can be proud to hand down to their kids, or maybe even keep for themselves.
“And they’re not all necessarily children’s books,” Grimly adds. “I would say that some of my books age can range from five years old and up and some of them are geared more toward pre-teenagers but I think the common thread through all the books that I’ve done is that I m a horror fan and I illustrate the books thinking, ‘what would I like to see in a book,’ and if I saw this book on a shelf, ‘what would make me buy it.’ So, I’m not illustrating books for children even if it is a children’s book.”
And he’s also not working with only children’s book authors even if it is a children’s book. The Dangerous Alphabet, another recent release illustrated by Grimly, paired the artist up with master storyteller Neil Gaiman. Working with the renowned author proved to be a much different experience for Grimly compared to the game of musical editor’s chairs that was played throughout the creation of Sipping Spiders. With The Dangerous Alphabet, Neil Gaiman sought to capitalize on Grimly’s artistic talent by letting the art do most of the talking.
“We worked very close together because the writing in the book so minimal, he wanted me to tell as much of the story with the illustration as he would if he wrote more.”
While Grimly doesn’t normally work with the author, the chance to work with Gaiman was too good to pass up.
“I met him at a book convention right before we started working on the book and we kind of discussed what his idea for the book was and he said he wanted to work very closely with me because he wanted there to be multiple threads of narrative throughout this book almost so that the reader can open the book and make up their own story or tell their own stories through different characters in the book and create their own kind of path throughout the book. The book is a basic alphabet book kind of with one line per letter so by giving it this kind of depth through the illustrations also creates depth in the story. So we did that, we stayed in contact, talked on the phone. If I came up with an idea I’d call or if I didn’t understand where he was going with certain things I’d call him up and ask him what he had in mind. This was the only time I ever worked this closely with an author.”
Ironically, it is Grimly’s appreciation for the days before the digital revolution that make him such an important and relevant artist.
“I gravitate to a lot of classic elements,” he says. “I love old books. I love books in general. I love holding a book. I love records. I love cd’s even now when things are moving to MP3. I love comic books. I love old classic black and white horror films. There is something about me that likes to hold on to something classic. And I hope that we never lose literature in a form that we can hold in our hands because I think it means, I see it music I see it films but there is something about holding a book- I hope it never leaves us. I don’t want people to be looking at my artwork through their iPods or cell phones. My artwork needs to be printed in a full size book for it to be enjoyed and beyond that, I just don’t want to see literature being changed into a digital format because I don’t think it will be embraced as much in that format and the last thing we need is more kids today to grow up without that benefit or that opportunity for knowledge. I think changing literature into a digital format can really lose a lot of readers and you can grow your knowledge in many ways but there is something about reading a book that no other format can give.”
Grimly’s love for classic black and white horror films was evident in Cannibal Flesh Riot! The short film blended classical elements with biting humor (no pun intended, I swear) so perfectly that the film’s main characters, Stash and Hub, are being immortalized as vinyl figures for sale through Grimly’s Mad Creator Productions.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘are you planning on doing more with Stash and Hub? Are you planning on doing a sequel to cannibal flesh riot!?’ I definitely…Stash and Hub were killed in the first film and [Cannibal Flesh Riot!] stands alone. I like what it is and I’m ready to move on and do something different. The next film that I want to do is like a psychological anti-love story sort of inspired by Hitchcock and sort of an Edgar Allen Poe tale.”
While the film’s cult following awaits a sequel that Grimly says will not happen anytime soon, the filmmaker has already scripted his next film, adapting a story from the most classical horror novelist of all– H.P. Lovecraft.
“’The Picture in the House’ is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories. It doesn’t revolve around mythical monsters or gods, like his other works. But there is something about it that resonates terror and suspense within me. Maybe the whole theme about naively roaming around the den of the killer. It’s that moment, when it snaps and you realize where you are and how deep you are.”
As fans eagerly await Grimly’s next film, they can rest assured that Grimly will continue to grow as a filmmaker while emphasizing the classical themes that have defined his style as an artist and are sadly becoming more and more rare these days.
“This film will not be executed as tongue-in-cheek as Cannibal Flesh Riot!,” Grimly reveals. “But it will still have a whimsical, almost comic book, side to it. That’s just who I am.”