Natasha Francois talks to rock ‘n’ roll legend, vintage store proprietor, former waiter, pool cleaner, dog walker, burger flipper and radio host Johnny Moondog about his career as an illustrator/ animator.
Johnny Moondog first discovered the power of the pen when he drew a picture of a blue dragon for a classmate he had a crush on. “She was very impressed”, he remembers.
It was then he realised art “could make people happy and it was a real thrill. I also learned much later it can totally piss people off too.”
Nearly four decades later and he’s still doodling away. Having worked as an animator and illustrator for much of his life, in between touring the world playing rock ‘n’ roll, Moondog is now back at the drawing board full-time.
He describes his style as a modern take on a classic sixties, 2D cartoon comic style with a very economic use of line.
“It’s all about bold block colour with a pop culture reference. A strong bubble gum noise that’ll slap ya good and leave you wanting more!”
When we needed a logo for our blog (which launched 6 months ago), Johnny Moondog was the obvious man for the job.
“The brief was for something psychedelic and real girly,” he says. “I thought with that name reference it had to be sixties themed. I went with a Paisley Josey and the Pussycats styled drawing. The garish colouring was fun to do.”
Check out the result below and read on for rest of the interview!
How did you first get interested in illustration/ animation?
I started taking myself seriously as an illustrator when I was hired by a New Zealand, animation studio. The studio was contracted to complete TV series work for Disney (god bless evil Uncle Walt). That was in 1992. Up until then my drawing was definitely semi pro, designing up posters for various bands I have been in, or doing T-shirt and tatt designs for mates.
My interest in drawing has been there since I can remember. Spending time copying comic characters, and designing monsters to scare my friends. I drew a blue dragon when I was 8 years old for a girl who sat next to me in class that I liked and she was very impressed! I realised it made people happy and that was a real thrill, I also learned much later it can totally piss people off too.
An interest in drawing will always be there as you can never master it. Progressively you get better, learning more every time you put pencil to paper. I know as much about the human anatomy as a doctor by now… probably.
Have you done any formal training?
No, I never had formal training. My school was the Saturday morning cartoons, 2000AD and Marvel comics then later the EC horror comics and then all sorts of independent comic art. I used to spend hours at the old book cellar in Albert St deciding which ones to buy or acquire…
I think if I had formal training my style would probably be more generic. Institutions tend to smooth the edges off you in my opinion.
Can you give us a brief overview of your artistic career to date?
My first paying job was as a ticket writer back in 1982 for the Orewa jewellery store. I was twelve and thought I hit the big time! Every day after school writing out tiny price tags in a fancy calligraphic font.
Ever since I was a teenager I have played in bands and always did all the poster and album design work, so it was kind of semi professional getting paid if we made money at the gig.
It was here that I really developed my drawing confidence and learned about graphics and fonts. Poster layout is an art within itself. You see them plastered all over the streets and you have the most visible gallery in town!
In 1992, after answering an ad in the Herald newspaper (remember those?) I was hired by an animation studio that were completing TV animation for Disney. After three months of intense training I was thrown in the deep end of the Duck Daze pool. I can still draw a kick ass duck bill.
While working here I was part of a team that completed various shows for big American production studios including Warner Bros, Nickelodeon, HBO etc. It was cheap for them to produce it here due to the exchange rate and cheap labour. Four years later this all changed and the work went off shore and the studio was liquidated.
Since then I have been employed by various small animation production studios to work on TV series, ads, film, music videos and illustration.
In 2000 I was hired to develop the New Zealand animated phenomenon that was Bro’ Town. A small group of five animators and comic artist named Ant Sang set out to visualise the first script written by the naked Samoan comedy troupe.
As soon as the concepts were solidified we went about hiring an army of animators some of which had little to no experience. I was put charge of the clean-up department, which is basically the inking side of the drawing production. It was the first time a series this size was produced locally and we came up against many difficult issues, including censorship, budget, impossible deadlines, writer strikes, temperamental artists, drugs, booze, scandal and all types of logistical nightmares. It was the best job I ever had!
Bro’ Town lasted five seasons before everyone was just plain burnt out. But it’s a show that all of us that worked on it are immensely proud of. It picked up multiple industry awards and remains a peoples’ favourite to this day.
In 2009 my wife Labretta Suede and I relocated to New York City where we concentrated on music and touring with our band Labretta Suede and the Motel 6.
I looked for animation work and visited Mike Judges studio and met the guy who designs Beavis and Butthead. They were working on Superjail in a super modern studio where everything was drawn on computers. Unfortunately this is the way all modern animation is now done and being that I draw the old fashioned way I said good-bye to my animation career and threw it in for rock ‘n’ roll.
As of the time of writing I now pursue work as a full-time illustrator and have been extremely happy working for myself, although I do miss the buzz of a studio. Don’t get me wrong – it’s all hard work to make ends meet and have also been a waiter, pool cleaner, shop owner, dog walker, burger flipper and radio host.
What have been some of your career highlights? What work(s) are you the most proud of and why?
There have been many. ‘The Third Pig’ was a cartoon horror for Tales from the crypt which was great fun.
‘Downtown’ for MTV. ‘Bro’ Town’ was definitely a highlight, I got to design Nick Cave and Vincent Price amongst other celebs for this show. What I’m most proud of though, is designing all the artwork and branding for ‘Labretta Suede and the Motel’ 6 along with my wife as it is all ours.
Creative influences and inspirations?
My early inspirations were mostly comic book artists such as Carlos Ezquerra, who drew ‘Judge Dredd’ and ‘Strontium Dog’ for 2000AD. That comic had so many great artists of varying styles.
Check out John Hicklenton…. Later Ed Roth and his hot rod monster art designs. Robert Crumb, Coop and his devil woman. As soon as I saw his stuff I knew that’s the direction for me. I was already drawing that style so it validated what I was doing.
There are so many. Aubrey Beardsley with his monochromatic ink work. Ashley Wood is a genius along with Tomi Ungerer.
As soon as I read Love and Rockets by Jamie Hernandez I really studied the way he used high contrast black and white inking and his seemingly simple and economic use of line, man he rules! But the king of my castle is Warhol, say no more.
How would you describe your illustrating style?
I would say it’s a modern take on a classic sixties, 2D cartoon comic style with a very economic use of line. Bold block colour with a pop culture reference. A strong bubble gum noise that’ll slap ya good and leave you wanting more!
How has it evolved over the years?
I have got better at drawing hands, eyes and hair.
Can you tell us a little about your creative process and how that works?
I usually research the subject pretty thoroughly by using reference books and the internet (loving Pintrest). Then I will do a very loose rough or a layout. I have a rickety old vertical drawing board with a spinning acrylic disk so my drawing surface is backlit. Next I will pencil in the rough and get to a near finished drawing, then the final clean line goes over the top on a fresh piece of paper.
It is more work than people realize. All my wording is hand drawn too. Finally I colour it on Photoshop, which I have just learned. I used to ask my nerd mates to do that for me but you can only ask so often before their specs fog with rage.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever been asked to draw?
Everything I get asked to do is pretty weird so, when someone asks for a logo or something pedestrian that’s weird to me. I had to draw myself as a character in Bro’ Town, they cast me as a homicidal killer in a boys home. I have been commissioned by a rotary car club to design a t-shirt so I drew a sexy devil girl next to a RX3 with the plate number ‘EVIL”. Turns out, the president of the club was a hard-core Christian. So it was a “thanks but no thanks” situation.
Then someone asked me to draw a porn comic of their sex life but he was full of shit. I also got asked to draw a snuff scenario for a dodgy website but instantly refused.
A couple of years ago a promoter asked me to do a zombie tiki party poster that caused a huge furore.
The show was held at the Samoan Fale (church) up on K-road. The finished poster had an undead zombie priestess holding a shrunken head and a northern hemisphere tiki character incorporated into the design.
As per the brief by the promoter, who himself is Samoan, he wanted to see nipples. Jesus what a shit storm! Myself and the promoter were totally overlooked and the PC crazies went straight for poor Labretta. Attacking the band viciously and labelling us as New Zealands most culturally inappropriate band. Radio stations blew it all up and wanted to interview Labretta. It made local and international news. We got death threats and had to hire extra security at the show. It turned out it was mostly keyboard warriors that couldn’t be arsed tearing themselves off the internet to confront us in person. Bizarre!
What do you enjoy the most about what you do?
I enjoy the process of the work and when I am drawing its an intense concentration and almost Zen like state of mind. There is a discipline to drawing and feels satisfying when it’s complete. I also enjoy people’s reaction to a finished work, good or bad. It is great to complete projects where the only limit is the imagination.
What projects have you been working on lately?
I have just finished an album cover design for a rockabilly artist living in Hollywood who wanted to be sitting on top of a flaming piano, while he played it with his feet, while playing a guitar and singing into a vintage microphone. So, that was fun.
Next up I’m drawing Bob Log III riding Buckey the giant beaver for an Aussie tour poster.
What would be a dream commission for you?
Years ago I started developing a short animated horror film about drag racing delinquents crashing into a gothic country church and then get savaged by supernatural forces of the un-dead that lie in the graveyard. It was to be in black and white with a rock ’n’ roll instrumental soundtrack, no dialogue. I got to the storyboard stage, then zombies became flavour of the month and I shelved it.
I would love to complete a b-grade exploitation animated film.
Where can people find out more about you?
You can see more of my work at Johnny Moondog Art on Facebook and feel free to message me if you need some illustration work done up right.