When I last interviewed comic artist Ronn Sutton for PCA his nine year stint as the artist for Claypool’s long running Elvira: Mistress of the Dark was just coming to an end. In the six years since that interview, Ronn has been hard at work in both his career as a comic artist and a court room sketch artist for the Ottawa Citizen. However, in recent months Ronn has found himself once again drawing another sexy femme fatal from another popular pop culture genre – detective Honey West for the upcoming story arc in issue #3 through #5 in Moonstone’s new Honey West ongoing series. Combining retro style with crime noir, Ronn Sutton is once again doing what he does best – drawing sexy women for the comic page. One of my all time favorite comic artists, Ronn has been working as a freelancer in the comic industry for four decades but in recent years has been best known for his “gals and ghouls” artwork. However, with his latest work on Honey West due to hit comic shops in January 2011, Ronn will get the chance to show off his take on a new character, a new franchise and a new comic genre.
I spoke to Ronn Sutton about his work on Honey West via telephone in December 2010.
Sam: So how long will your run on Honey West be?
Ronn: I am doing three issues of Honey West – numbers three through five. Issue number three is supposed to come out in January.
Sam: For people who might not know, tell me about the history of Honey West.
Ronn: Honey West was a series of paperback novels that began in the late 50’s and I think they went right into the 1970’s. It was done by a husband and wife team of Gloria and Forrest E. Fickling that were writing together. The story of Honey West was that she was the daughter of a private investigator that got murdered during one of his cases so Honey took over the case and solved his murder and ended up taking over the detective agency. So there are all these paperback novels, and then in 1965 there was a short lived television series starring Anne Francis. That series was actually cancelled because the network that was running it realized that they could import The Avengers TV series cheaper than making new episodes of Honey West. Gold Key did one issue of a Honey West comic in 1965. I don’t know who wrote it but it [featured] Jack Sparling artwork. Then earlier last year Moonstone got the rights to do Honey West and I contacted them because I wanted to do an issue, which turned out to be three issues.
Sam: Is there going to be a fourth or fifth issue?
Ronn: Not by me in this run anyways. The first and second issue were written by Trina Robbins and drawn by Cynthia Martin, and then my storyline is written by Elaine Lee, best known for doing Starstruck with Michael Kaluta. Then somebody else is doing the next two issues, and then Trina is writing again but she is working with a different artist. Theoretically I may be doing more issues down the road.
Sam: Tell us about the storyline in your story.
Ronn: It’s sort of funny actually because what I had envisioned was some sort of story where Honey is looking for missing pearls and ends up on a yacht and there would be gunfights and what not. Well the script that Elaine sent me, which I should have figured given her writing background, is basically a murder on a set of a science fiction B-movie. It’s 1965 and a starlet gets murdered and Honey goes undercover by getting a role on this lousy science fiction movie to find the killer. It’s actually a lot of fun and it is very much in keeping with Elaine’s writing. She was actually a large part of the reason I wanted to work on the book because I like her writing a lot, and of course I like drawing girls a lot.
Sam: You’re good at drawing the girls. That’s for sure.
Ronn: Well I didn’t used to be. There was one point during my career where the women I drew looked like men with long hair and boobs.
Sam: (Laughs) Well you improved.
Ronn: How I improved was that I ended up working on the Savage Dragon animated TV series and they gave me tons and tons of She-Dragon to draw and then my drawings of women got very good very fast and all that anyone has ever offered me since is female characters. With Honey West I’m trying to draw the most overtly sexy woman I’ve ever drawn. My Honey West has very big boobs. In the books she is described as having a 38 inch bust line. I guess I’m drawing her with a 38 EEE bust line, which I think I’m allowed to do. I’m not drawing all my women with a 38 EEE bust line. All the other women are more normally proportioned. It’s funny because a lot of people have come to me and said “It doesn’t actually look like Anne Francis.” Well, in the beginning I had no intension of making her look like Anne Francis. Moonstone told me specifically told me not to make her look like Anne Francis, and then after I did my initial drawings they said “Make it look more like Anne Francis.” Well she’s well endowed in my issues of the comic, which ought to be a surprise to some readers because they are doing three separate covers for one issue, and one of the covers is a photo cover of [Moonstone’s] own model who is fairly flat chested in comparison.
Sam: One thing that I noticed in the preview of the art you sent is the retro style of the comic. You’ve even managed to capture the feeling of the 1960’s without making it an imaginary version of what some people think the 1960’s looked like. How did you manage to do that?
Ronn: Its sort of three things colliding at once. It’s my love of mid-60’s movies and TV shows. I also went out and bought myself a 1965 Sears catalogue and you go through that and you can find everything that you’d ever need to draw with the exceptions of cars and buildings. It has references for shoes and refrigerators and sofas and filing cabinets. You name it and it has a picture of it. Also, a number of comics that I like were drawn around that period and people were drawing things that were contemporary at that time, such as the Secret Agent Corrigan by Al Williamson and Cannon by Wally Wood. They are a little bit later then 1965, but they were doing contemporary and that is amongst my favorite artwork so I’m looking at their stuff and going “Okay, that’s what a cab looked like in 1965.” I’m doing a fair amount of research and I’m trying to make it look like the time period as much as possible with the clothes and the telephones and everything else that is in it. I’m also really trying to get a Jayne Mansfield look for Honey. That kind of sex kitten look which doesn’t really exist anymore but is appropriate for the time period too. In many ways, that time was the last hurrah of that very “girly girl” look.
Sam: Now apparently you are going to be actually working with a model when doing the third issue!
Ronn: Yeah. The first issue I did I penciled and inked in full and it came out fine, but in retrospect I didn’t capture a lot of what I wanted in it. When I did the second one I put an enormous amount of time into this thing. It’s just been ridiculous how much time I’ve spent on this trying to get the details and trying to get a certain feeling or a certain aura into the work. It has taken me forever, so in order to speed up the process of the third issue I have a model who is going to come in and do all the major poses for me and I’m going to do a photo shoot and work from the photos. As opposed to so much of the comics I see these days, which I dislike…well…I see a lot of comics where guys are taking photos of their models and basically tracing the photos of their and signing their names, which I find rather distasteful. What I want to do is work with the photos like Leonard Starr, who worked on the On Stage strip, and use the photos as a starting point to sort of give you a quick break into what you’re going to do. Quite often when I’m drawing I’m working from reference photos or images, but by the time I’m done drawing you wouldn’tmatch the drawing and the photo. It’s been so drastically altered. For me it’s going to be the starting point. It’s not going to be the be all and end all. I already told [the model] that I want her to pose and I will photograph her, but the final drawing will not look like her because it’ll just be a starting out point.
Sam: Have you worked with models in this fashion before?
Ronn: I have but it’s been a long long time. It’s been about twenty years since I’ve worked with a model, but when I’m drawing something in general I’m not making up everything out of my head. I’m sometimes working from found photos. I have a filing cabinet full of reference but it’s just a tool. I’m not tracing the photo and saying “There, that drawing is done:” When I was growing up I saw a lot of TV and movie comics and [the characters] never looked like the actors. When I did The Man From UNCLE comic I wanted it to look like the actors so I got every photo I could find of the three major actors from The MAN FROM UNCLE series and I was working closely with the photos because I really wanted it to look like Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. But with Honey West, it’s my version of Honey West. It’s not anybody else’s version. It’s very much like when I was drawing Elvira. I was drawing Cassandra Peterson’s character, but I would say to people that it was my version of Elvira.
Sam: In the past you have talked about being typecast as the “ghoul and girls/beasts and boobs” artist due to your work on Elvira. Do you think you’ve broke that typecasting, or do you think Honey West will be a way to show off the larger scale of your talent? Do you think you’ve got out of the rut you were in?
Ronn: Well, I was intentionally creating that rut because I worked on Elvira for nine years and it was a humor book. I guess the first rut in my more recent part of my career was doing all the vampire girls and Goth girls, but that leads into Elvira so my art was being much more geared towards that look, and when that ended there wasn’t really anybody else who wanted that kind of look. I guess with Honey West I’m taking a much more realistic approach in the drawing. Hopefully that will get me more work. It’s funny because I just want to draw girls anyways. I guess that’s the market that will appreciate my kind of stuff.
Sam: And there is no fear of that market running dry.
Ronn: That’s for sure.
Ironically, as I was preparing this interview, I learnt that Anne Francis, the actress that played Honey West on television, passed away at age 80 from a battle with cancer. This unfortunate incident has suddenly put the character of Honey West back in the pop culture spotlight once again, and with Ronn’s first issue of Honey West being ready to go to stands only weeks after Anne Francis’ death, it will be sure to attract curious fans in mourning. A bitter sweet opportunity for Ronn, Elaine Lee and Moonstone, but at an unfortunate price. Anne Francis will be missed, but via Ronn’s pencils, Honey West will live on.