February 15, 2011

Drawings From Inside My Mother’s Womb

An Interview with John Sprengelmeyer

Part 1 of 2 (link to
Part 2)
Click on any image to embiggenate

Not a thousand days ago, I was doing my usual walking and stalking about the Internet looking for ‘new’ and/or interesting talent to feature on the blog, when I came across an absolutely genius depiction of ‘Lion-O’ from
Thundercats ‘re-engineered’ in the classic ‘Hello Kitty’ form! Putting my own feelings of incredible graphic inadequacy aside, I immediately began looking into the artist responsible for this design.

Of course, thanks to the power of GOOGLE and my good friends at the CIA (hi guys! BTW: the oney-may is on the ay-way, I omise-pray!), I quickly identified said clever person as one
John Sprengelmeyer. And then that nagging feeling I often get these days reappeared. You might know the one: when you’re standing in a random room in your house, wondering why you’re there and what it was you wanted to do. That feeling you get when the ever-fading voice in your head is screaming ‘you know this guy!!’ ... but alas all you can rely on is what’s written on the ‘Post-It’ notes stuck near the light switches throughout the house (‘turn off lights’, ‘you’re in the office’, ‘don’t go outside without pants’, etc.).

Thankfully, a couple of clicks later, it was all too apparent: John is none other than the artist behind the all-time classic strip of ‘Captain RibMan’ (and suddenly, dozens of buzzing voices reading this are saying ‘Hey, I know that, too!’)! In addition, he’s highly sought after as a commercial and even tee-shirt designer, with projects ranging across the board, up and down the Western Hemisphere plus much, much more! As such, Ziggy Nixon was pleased to recently catch up with John for a few moments of his valuable time!


Hi John, welcome to the show! First of all, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re up to these days?
Hey, Ziggy! Thanks for the invite!

First of all, I want to say ‘thank you’ for your interest in my work and thanks for your blog. It is great to see all these artists profiled.

So, to get you up to speed about me: I am an illustrator and designer who enjoys doing a wide range of work. I love designing everything from fun children’s toys to uptight, anal-retentive corporate logos. It is this range that keeps me fresh and wanting to keep working.

How did your interest in your eclectic range of what I’ll abbreviate as ‘design’ get started?
I’ve always worked in different styles. My artistic heroes range from Leonardo da Vinci to
Gary Larson.

Da Vinci had so many interests from painter to mathematician to scientist to inventor; I think this kept his mind constantly engaged and allowed him to be so prolific in each field. And Larson... well, Larson is just damned funny.

I have so many interests and I like to design to their audiences.

While we’re busy reading from our ‘Homeland Security’ print-out, how did a nice, young fellow originally from Kansas City find his way out to California?
Back in the ’90s, I had a little comic strip called ‘Captain RibMan.’ It was about a less-than-super-hero who would always do his best to avoid doing anything super-heroic.

As time went on, there arose some interest in turning it into an animated series. So I just thought it would be easier to be near Hollywood. (More about ‘Captain RibMan’ later.) Being a freelancer, I can live just about anywhere … okay, I can’t live inside an active volcano… or on Saturn… but anywhere with an Internet connection. Anyway, I packed up and moved West.

Actually, to be honest, I just really wanted to surf.

You’ve got a fantastically interesting portfolio, where you seem to incorporate in many cases on a lot of ‘pop’ culture. Why is this so appealing to you from a design stand-point?
Okay, more artistic heroes of mine include Warhol and Lichtenstein. Pop art, to me, is an interesting way to look at the world. A Campbell’s soup can is very utilitarian, but there is still a designer behind it. When Warhol created his version, that was genius; it redefined what art is. Art is everywhere and doesn’t reside solely with the old masters (sorry Leonardo).

I have always been a sucker for pop culture, from ‘Superman’ to ‘Star Wars’. Hmmm… okay, that isn’t a very big range. I enjoy music, movies, sports (playing them, not watching them) and comics. And I always jump at the chance to combine my passions.

Speaking of chances, you’ve had the opportunity to do some nifty toy designs, along with accompanying promotional or other fun side materials (magazines, games, etc.). How did you come to get so many cool projects with what seems to be every restaurant- or fast food-chain in the world? Seriously, doing research on you has only made giving up fried food that much harder!
I must give total thanks to Bob Cutler, the founder of ‘
C3,’ (short for Creative Consumer Concepts) a terrific company that specializes in the children’s market, especially restaurants.

When I first entered the job market, Bob hired me and immediately put me to work developing toys for a national market. This was a perfect fit since it played into my strengths, allowing me to work in a huge range of styles since each restaurant chain needed it’s own individual look.

For example, ‘Olive Garden’s’ children’s program needed to look completely different than ‘Arby’s’. One of my favorite programs was for ‘Whataburger’ where I co-developed their characters and, each month, we would create new toys for them – everything from action figures to full-length comic books. This allowed me to design for 2D as well as 3D and I never get bored.

Plus, it is so much fun to see a child playing with a toy I created!

You’re also quite well-known on the tee-shirt design circuit. Why do you seemingly enjoy getting so much of your work ‘published’ in this way?
To me, tee-shirt design is a purely fun outlet. If I have an idea that makes me laugh, I draw it. If it seems to have a broader appeal, I will unleash it to the tee-shirt community. I mean, there aren’t many other outlets for an illustration of ‘
Boba Fett’ as a Mexican wrestler or ‘Lion-O drawn like ‘Hello Kitty’.

Here’s a fun side note: I did get an e-mail from ‘The Smurfs’’ lawyers asking me to pull down my illustration of ‘A Clockwork Blue’ (a ‘Clockwork Orange’ version of a Smurf), stating that it didn’t uphold the morals of the Smurfs. Oops.
(ZN: yeah right, ‘morals of the Smurfs’: a village of randy elves where all the guys run around with only pants on and there’s only one woman! Smurf that!)
(Extra Bonus Interruption: for receivers of the official ZN e-mailings, we may have ‘accidentally’ included this very image [apropos: Post-It note on the screen to remind us!!]!! Let us know if you want to join, too! The mailing list I mean, not the Smurfs...)

One aspect of all your offers seems to be an amazingly direct or straightforward way of presenting your images balanced with their messages. I ask this all the time, but how do you keep from ‘over-engineering’ a design and still keep the sense of it in intact?
I love simplicity of concept. The bigger something is, the simpler I make the design. This adds to the impact of the visual.

If something is small, you can stare at it closely and pick up more details. But on the other hand, if you are designing a billboard, it needs to be immediately read and understood. I like to convey my concept quickly – besides, usually my designs aren’t layered messages with veiled meanings that need to be unearthed.

John’s recent ‘COEXIST’ tee design, with the following convenient guide for your, uh, convenience:

C = Star Wars
O = The Lord of the Rings
E = Aliens
X = The X-Files
I = Doctor Who
S = Harry Potter
T = Star Trek

Continued in
Part 2

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