Interview With John K. Snyder III on Fashion in Action
Friend of the site Roger Ash conducted this interview with John K. Snyder III about Fashion in Action, especially the music of the 1980s that inspired it and some album cover mash-ups Snyder has done to promote the book’s Kickstarter.
John K. Snyder III is best known for his work on adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent for Classics Illustrated, as well as Grendel and Doctor Mid-Nite, both with writer Matt Wagner. One of his earliest works, an unabashedly ‘80s adventure called Fashion in Action, is being brought back into print via Kickstarter by publisher Hope Nicholson of Bedside Press.
How did you get together with Hope Nicholson to collect Fashion in Action?
JOHN K. SNYDER III: We happened to be tablemates at the 2014 Washington DC Awesome Con and hit it off from there. She was promoting her first publication, the Golden Age Canadian comic series Nelvana of the Northern Lights, and I was immediately taken with her genuine enthusiasm and beautifully put-together presentation of the material as a historical and cultural property with respect and attention to the creator as well. I started talking with her about Fashion in Action, and here we are.
What is involved with the restoration of the art?
SNYDER III: Restoration involves scanning the original greylines and film positives along with portions of the original art, original black-and-white copies, and portions of the actual printed material itself. Then adjusting the color in Photoshop, along with cleaning up areas, for optimum clarity and brightness, as well as clarity of linework and lettering, sometimes using all of the elements listed above for a single page, or panel.
What all will be in the collection?
SNYDER III: The collection includes the original story (with epilogue) originally serialized in Timothy Truman’s Scout #1-8, and the stand alone Fashion in Action Summer and Winter Specials, along with the original eight paper dolls that were featured on the back covers.
In addition, a written piece by Martha Thomases (creator of Dakota North) about the history of the depiction of fashion in comics, and a written piece by legendary artist and comics historian Trina Robbins about the history of paper dolls in comics. As well as original concept sketches, covers, house ads, other appearances, and a gallery of the fine work by our guest artists for the Kickstarter. There’s more, too — it will be a nice collection. And it will be a hardcover.
Why did you decide to do this as a Kickstarter project?
SNYDER III: Kickstarter has become a powerful publishing platform, it’s no secret. The key is finding the right team to work with to put it together and make it happen. I can think of no one more well-suited than Hope Nicholson and her publishing company, Bedside Press, to take an archival property like Fashion in Action and re-introduce it to a new audience through this publishing platform. And she has done an extraordinary job of doing so. Frances and Co. and myself should be so lucky.
For those who’ve never read Fashion in Action before, what is the book about and who are the main characters?
SNYDER III: Here is Hope’s description of the series from the Kickstarter–
It’s the year 2086, and the 2080s haven’t changed much from the 1980s — except of course for the jetpacks, Mars colonizations, and rocket-fueled cars. Frances Knight and her squad are “the world’s highest priced and best dressed celebrity protection agency”. They guard the world’s rich and beautiful and make their base in the refurbished Statue of Liberty.
Fashion in Action square off against the diabolical team of the coldly manipulative Dr. Cruel and his accomplices, Boss One — a henchman just happy to be involved — and the violently unpredictable Roxanne, Frances Knight’s most psychotically devoted fan. Dr. Cruel plots to use the robot clone of a late-night talk show host to turn the world’s elite into gorillas during a snuff star’s celebrity-filled wedding! Will they succeed? Will Frances defeat Roxanne? And will they look absolutely amazing doing so? Fund this project and find out!
What is the appeal for you of doing a book centered on a group of women?
SNYDER III: The appeal came out wanting to do something different. We were getting into the beginning of the Reagan faux macho “Make My Day” era, and it was a real turn-off. On the other hand, there were a lot of independent women voices coming out of the new music era I was wrapped up in, and it was a source of inspiration to me when I was developing Fashion in Action, which began as sketches of the music scene, combined with my love of art deco and the new music graphic design that was popular in some circles at the time. It didn’t seem unusual to develop an all-female adventure series; it seemed right on time to me.
Some of John K. Snyder III’s sketches from the period, inspired by the times. He says, “Some of these elaborate costumes I did not actually see in person (but pretty close!). The Jones and Nomi sketches are from images I saw of them in magazines, did not see either in concert, but I did see the original Pretenders in concert (sketch at bottom).”
Fashion in Action is very influenced by the 1980s. Aside from music which we’ll discuss in a moment, what pop culture and ’80s fashion inspired you?
SNYDER III: This could take a whole other interview! The series was a mix of everything I grew up around and had been influenced by up to that point; the ‘60s spy craze, the film design of movies like Alien and Blade Runner, my exposure to ‘70s movies in my late teens/early 20s at local repertory DC theaters like the Circle and the Biograph. In comics, the growing post-underground comics scene; comics like Star Reach, Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy’s Sabre graphic novel (Eclipse), and Heavy Metal that were featuring amazing, high adventure series with no limits. I should also note that Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter series was a huge influence, as well as Howard Chaykin’s work, specifically Gideon Faust (from Star Reach) and American Flagg, and of course, Miller’s Daredevil and Love and Rockets. The fashion influences stretched back to the art deco/Vogue cover art of the 1920s, pre-hippie ‘60s style, and the early days of ‘80s fashion coming from designers like Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Anne Klein.
Now to something I know we both love: ’80s music. How much did music, or specific performers, affect Fashion in Action?
SNYDER III: I was fortunate enough to be in my late teens/early twenties (late ‘70s/early ‘80s) when a lot of this music first hit, and living in the Washington, DC, area, I was able to see a number of acts live, local, national, and international. I went everywhere, music halls, clubs, bars, and saw a lot of great music. And it was great to see all the different fashions the bands wore and those attending as well. Plus, a lot of music videos were being shown at these venues, showing acts you wouldn’t see on MTV (which didn’t come around until 1983) — didn’t matter, I didn’t have cable, and who had time for watching TV at home anyway? And when I was home, I was drawing and listening to the great local independent radio station WHFS, which is where I discovered a lot of this music as well. All of this was just a musical and visual explosion, it was impossible not to be influenced by it all.
One of the big additions to music in the ’80s was the rise of the music video. Did music videos have an impact on the look of the series?
SNYDER III: Yes, too many examples to list, but I’ll give you a few — right off, you got a chance to get a look at clothing and style you wouldn’t see anywhere else — Bowie’s videos seemed to be among the first, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Fashion”, and a couple from his Lodger album come to mind. A few years later, in a music club/bar, I saw the first Eurythmics video, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, with Annie Lennox in full androgynous splendor in her cropped orange hair and suit and tie, and it was very striking for the time; a real statement, and a major influence for Frances Knight and the FIA. There were a lot of great videos from this period from bands like Cabaret Voltaire and so many others. Seeing them in the clubs made it a much different experience than if you were watching them at home. It’s difficult to describe. It felt like you were in on something that was only available to a select few, something new.
You’re doing some really cool paintings as Kickstarter rewards that are based on classic ’80s album covers with the addition of comic characters. Did you choose the albums for the look, the impact the music had on you, or some of both?
SNYDER III: Some of both. I did focus on female performers/characters for the most part, but I had to give a nod to DEVO and Adam and the Ants in there. It all started with DEVO for me, and the visual New Romantic/Pirate look of Adam Ant and his crew just had to be noted as well.
Let’s start with Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm. Using Storm instead of Grace Jones seems a natural choice since they’re both African-American women. Are there other reasons you thought this was a good match?
SNYDER III: Honestly, it was an album I listened to quite a bit when working on the initial proposal and first episode of the series, so I recall the cover being in plain view. It really stuck with me, a very powerful image. I started going out a whole lot less; I was too busy working on the series! So I would tend to listen to the same albums over and over, this being one of them.
What about this album caught your attention and how did you bring that to Fashion in Action?
SNYDER III: It was something of a concept album and just seemed right for the time. Grace Jones is an icon, not only for her music, but she is art in motion. Just take a look at her numerous collaborations with artists, musicians, and photographers over the decades. And her style takes a number of directions, mixing elegance and the absurd, something I tried to have as an underlying theme in my series.
I never thought the New Romantic look would mix so well with disco, but your Adam Ant/Prince Charming-inspired Dazzler is stunning. What about this mashup works for you?
SNYDER III: I was inspired by Bill Sienkiewicz’s wonderful painted Dazzler covers of the time, and concept art he had done of Dazzler with an updated outrageous ‘80s haircut. That and her face paint seemed to match up with Adam and the Ants’ New Romantic look quite well.
Adams and the Ants had a distinct look. Did that and the New Romantic look in general inspire any of the book’s design?
SNYDER III: Not so much in specific costume design, more for the concept of mixing clothing from different time periods with a futuristic bent. Though I did have a number of Adam Ant-style space pirates in my sketchbooks, but they never made it to the pages of the series.
2-Tone era ska bands like The Specials, The English Beat, and Madness are some of my favorite bands so I was very happy to see your take on Spider-Gwen as The English Beat’s Beat Girl and Spider-Man as 2-Tone’s Walt Jabsco. Why do you think those characters work well with ska?
SNYDER III: I just went with a basic vibe that like 2-Tone ska, the Spider-characters have an urban background/setting, and both costumes break down well graphically to that stark black-and white look, especially when Ditko would leave off all the webbing on Spider-Man’s costume when he got to be a bit small for the panel; a great look. I was actually thinking of the Miles Morales character as Spidey in this piece, though I know he has a much more elaborate costume.
The ska from that era was often about social or political situations but still kept a bouncy, upbeat rhythm. Did you bring any of that into Fashion in Action?
SNYDER III: I think so; the idea of mixing serious themes with a bright, visual, playful look. I guess you could say it’s a sort of way of coping with life and society with art and a smile.
There was also a strong, very basic design element to 2-Tone with the checkerboards and clear, almost minimalistic, art. Did that influence you at all?
SNYDER III: This goes back to my love of comic strip art when I was a kid, specifically Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy and some of the design elements I would pick up on when I was a kid in the ‘60s in product design and older movie posters and record covers. The 2-Tone graphic look was a modern, hip take on all of that to me at the time, and definitely had an influence on my work.
Vampirella appears in a tribute to Marianne Faithful’s Broken English album. I admit that I’m not very familiar with her work. What is there about her music that speaks to you?
SNYDER III: This was an unusual departure from Marianne Faithfull’s previous work, even she refers to it as “the masterpiece”. It’s very moody, and she has a particularly raspy, and confident, voice throughout. It was a great late-night favorite of mine to listen to, and when thinking of characters and albums from this period to mash up, this combination came to mind pretty quickly.
Wonder Woman takes the place of Martha Davis in a stylish interpretation of The Motels All Four One album. Since this is such a simple cover, what challenges did you face interpreting it?
SNYDER III: I always thought this was a very striking cover, and it’s deceptively complex– the multiple zig-zag borders counter the simplicity of the main image. In this case, it was more of a visual theme rather than the music itself, though Martha Davis has a great voice and was very fashionable as well. The challenge, as with any type of homage/remake of any iconic image is the delicate balance in how much you alter it and retain the original impact of the image. Too much variation, and it’s gone — it’s a different picture. So you have to be careful in what you add or take away; the more simplistic the image, sometimes the bigger the challenge. Everything has to be to be a little more exact in its placement. Fortunately, Wonder Woman’s tiara fit right in with the design and immediately defines the character.
And we finish up with my favorite of the paintings; a duck-infused version of DEVO’s classic Are We Not Men? album. Where did the idea for this painting come from?
SNYDER III: For me, all roads lead to DEVO. They were the first band I heard from this period, in my late teens, and outside of Bowie and a few others, really got me to listening to music and how it interacted with art and social commentary and life in a way that is still difficult for me to verbally describe. So I guess it just comes out in the work.
When he first appeared, Howard the Duck was very much an instant counter-culture comic hero for me in my mid-teens — Steve Gerber’s scripts were full of social and political commentary, and his primary voice was a duck. A cigar-chomping duck intolerant of society’s ills, not a Disney duck. At least he wasn’t a Disney duck then. So that mashup just came together, using a kind of haunting clip-art duck image and adding the cigar.
And to ask a question that Chico Marx made famous, why a duck?
SNYDER III: I believe Groucho’s reply included the line, “It’s deep water. That’s why a duck.” I’ll end with that.
If people want to read more work by you (aside from that mentioned above), what would you recommend and why?
SNYDER III: Later this year, I believe part of the run of Suicide Squad I worked on in the late ‘80s will be available, where I got the chance to work with writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale. Kim was always a big supporter of my work and John will be writing the introduction for the Fashion in Action collection.
And I have new work coming in 2017, a graphic novel/adaptation that I’ve been working on for some time that I look forward to talking more about after it’s formally announced!
Anything else you’d like to add?
SNYDER III: Check out the Kickstarter! Hope and I have a great book planned for you, lots of art and other incentives still available as well! And I hope the project inspires comic creators young an old to continue to pursue their own creator-owned concepts and characters! As The Specials said, “Enjoy Yourself!”