Photo courtesy of: Sandy Plunkett
Excerpts from "Doubts," an introspective sketchbook comic in which Plunkett portrays himself.
Illustration by: Sandy Plunkett
Jul 8, 2010
By Monica Chapman
In November 2008, former director of Ohio University Press David Sanders strolled into the Kennedy Museum of Art, hoping for a few insights from the evening's local presenting artist, Sandy Plunkett. He walked out with more than he had bargained for – the makings of a new book.
This summer, Sanders' vision came to fruition. "The World of a Wayward Comic Book Artist: The Private Sketchbooks of S. Plunkett" hit bookshelves in June. Featuring nearly four hundred selections from sketchbooks kept over the past twenty years, the collection celebrates the talents and creative processes of Plunkett, an accomplished artist whose reputation among comic book collectors and illustrators is highly regarded.
The official book launch will take place at 6:30 p.m. on July 15 at the Athens Public Library. Free and open to the public, the event will feature a presentation by Plunkett, book signings and a door prize.
"An artist's sketchbook, like a writer's notebook, is a revelation for the rest of us of the underlying process. It's a glimpse into a world we seldom see or are even aware of," said Sanders. "My hope was that a book that explored that by a kind of bald presentation would provide the world with this rare view. I believe that the book is successful in doing that."
Discovering his calling
Plunkett's career path traces back to Manhattan, where the "wayward comic book artist" came of age during the 60's and 70's. It all began when the janitor at his childhood apartment building began handing down discarded comic books.
Due to dyslexia, reading had never been among Plunkett's interests. But bit by bit, comics began to spark newfound curiosity until one day a book published by Marvel Comics appeared in the stack.
"It was a Fantastic Four comic," Plunkett recalled. "And that was it. I was a goner. Within two or three days, I was at the newsstand trying to find more of these comics."
Plunkett spent the next several years relentlessly delving into comics and drawing his own. But feeling pressured to outgrow the passions of youth, he gave up comics for much of his adolescence.
Fortunately for comic book fans, Plunkett could not ignore his calling for long.
"By the time I reached 11th grade I had come to my senses," said Plunkett. "I said, 'I don't care what people think.' These comics that I was seeing on the newsstand when I got out of the subway, they were interesting."
The reunion of boy and book also unleashed Plunkett's stifled creativity.
"When I stopped reading comics, my interest in drawing also faded," Plunkett reflected. "It was only when I started reading comic books again that I got inspired to draw again."
It was soon evident that Plunkett had found his vocation.
Plunkett's first commercial illustration appeared in print at age 17. The next year, he began drawing for Marvel Comics, one of the world's most prominent character-based entertainment companies, which has introduced the likes of Spider-Man, X-Men and Hulk, just to name a few. He went on to draw for several other major publishers including DC Comics, whose notable comics include Superman and Batman.
According to Sanders, it was Plunkett's superb craftsmanship and keen eye, "almost a poet's eye for finding the unrevealed in the obvious," that enabled him to transform shapes and images from the physical world into the fanciful creations of his comic book drawings.
Living the "Huck Finn fantasy"
By measures of many aspiring comic book artists, Plunkett was living the dream – illustrating for major New York City publishers straight out of high school. But through the 1980's, Plunkett grew increasingly unhappy.
"The city really changed a lot. It was really unrecognizable from the city I had grown up in," he said. "For some reason after growing up in cities all my life, I had a real strong pull towards the natural world."
In 1990, after several visits to Athens County, Plunkett relocated to the area permanently – a move that he equates to a "Huck-Finn fantasy."
"There was a certain kind of freedom – a looser quality to life," he said, reminiscing about a long-forgotten skinny-dipping pond and the intentional community where he spent his first Athens summer.
Perhaps most alluring was the fresh mind-set that he observed in Athens' residents.
"People weren't simply talking about needing change in society and what should be done. They were actually doing it," said Plunkett.
The move necessarily expanded Plunkett's repertoire to include a broad range of illustrations and styles – from t-shirt and CD cover designs to medical illustrations and architectural renderings.
Today, the local landscape is so inundated with Plunkett's art that Ohio University Press recently launched "Show Us Your Plunkett," a promotional series of interviews celebrating Plunkett's local influence. Housed on YouTube.com, the videos include Assistant Professor of English Mimi Hart's reflections on Plunkett's "The Year of the Cicada" poster as well as local artist Colin Glover's tattoo art, which is based on a comic Plunkett produced for the A-News on rainforest restoration.
Though many local residents know him best for, say, a favorite Halloween t-shirt design, his comic art still periodically finds its way into the local media.
"'Did you see that Sandy Plunkett cartoon this week?' is an oft-heard question in Athens," reflected Ohio University Press Publicist Jeff Kallet. "And it's often followed by knowing laughter and the acknowledgment that he once again elegantly and humorously illustrated – with expert draftsmanship – the dynamics of some local issue."
Strokes of plurality
Though he is well-suited to Athens' pace and culture, Plunkett admits that he feels a bit out of place in this day and age, opting instead for the aesthetic culture that existed before the rise of mass production.
"There's this tension in my psyche, and I think it's a source of creativity. The tension being I live in this modern digital world, but what I am attracted to is the world that existed before I was born," he explained.
This plurality, he said, is reflected in his sketchbooks – where dark fantastical creatures are juxtaposed with peaceful rural landscapes. In "The World of the Wayward Comic Book Artist," the sketches are complemented with journal entries and essays, all written by Plunkett, on subjects ranging from George Harrison's death to creative processes and the "roller coaster ride of insecurities" that defines the careers of so many artists.
As for baring his soul, Plunkett holds true to a mantra developed over the course of publication: "Things tend to get a lot more interesting when one has the courage to be honest and open."
His unapologetic honesty offers a breath of fresh air to fellow aspiring artists.
"Watching him struggle through certain issues is appealing on a human level that you sometimes don't ever get to experience with artists that are more commercially viable, and I can imagine the book being a certain boon to life-long artists in similar situations," read a March 9 review published in "The Comics Reporter."
Ever sincere and humble, Plunkett's intentions in publishing are far from self-serving. Rather, he hopes his sketchbook will help to rekindle what he refers to as the "lost art of drawing."
"By most measures I'm not a success," he said. "I haven't won any awards. I haven't won any fellowships. I don't have any degrees from any institutions. …I really haven't done anything particularly prestigious… What I'm hoping for is that (readers) will see the enjoyment I take out of drawing and that enjoyment will transfer off the page."
Ohio University Press is the largest university press in Ohio, publishing 40 to 50 books annually on a variety of topics. These books carry the Ohio University name into the world, receiving national and international attention from leading scholarly journals, prominent review media, and prestigious award competitions.