For those of you not already familiar with the name Billy Tackett then you might be surprised at just how much of his art work you recognise and just how amazing his zombie art is.
Starting out life in deepest, darkest Kentucky, Billy’s love of horror and talent for art has cemented his title as Creative Genius & Zombification Specialist as he’s worked his way through numerous artist gigs and projects.
His signature piece, Zombie Sam, has given birth to a graphic novel in the form of his as yet unreleased Dead White & Blue series and forged a path for his soon to be released art book and partial auto-biography, For The Love Of Monsters.
Zombie Command managed to score an interview with Billy in the middle of his current tour.
Zombie Command: Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you ended up drawing zombies for a living?
Billy Tackett: Basically I was raised in rural Northeastern Kentucky and had a pretty normal childhood except for the fact that I had this unusual fascination with horror movies and monsters. I really don’t know where it came from but I know I had always had some movie monster magazines around since before I could remember. It’s strange because my parents never were into that sort of thing but luckily they didn’t discourage me. My love of horror has remained constant. When all my childhood friends seemed to grow out of it horror was still a major part of my life.
I never intended to make a living drawing zombies specifically but I did want to draw horror in general. Once high school was over I opened a sign shop in my hometown where everything was hand painted. I also had the opportunity to airbrush murals on vans, motorcycles and such which allowed the horror to creep in occasionally. After I got married my wife Heather and I decided that a sleepy little town wasn’t good for our careers so we moved to the Northern Kentucky area. I began to learn some computer programs like Photoshop and started to integrate that with my traditional art. Eventually I got some freelance jobs doing book covers for some small publishers. I trudged through that for several years but my career was pretty stagnant.
During this time I had been doing general horror stuff as well as some fantasy and sci-fi art in many different mediums, watercolors, inks, colored pencils etc, but nothing was really happening for me. So I sat down one day and decided that I would focus on just a few mediums which were pencils, inks and oils. I had never used oils before so I don’t know why I chose them but I’m glad I did.
My plan was that while I was learning this new medium I would start attending fantasy/sci-fi/horror conventions to network, meet some potential clients and fans and maybe sell some art prints to make a little cash. My first show-able painting was Zombie Sam that was done for my first con. That image really took off! I sold prints like crazy and had requests for t-shirts which lead to my line of shirts which lead to more zombified images of Americana which lead to more convention appearances which lead to…well, you get the picture.
ZC: Your legend was cemented with your drawing of Zombie Sam, based on the iconic Uncle Sam Wants You poster. What inspired you to zombify such a recognisable image?
BT: Honestly I don’t remember! Several years ago I contacted a zombie themed publication called Fleshrot about doing some art. They needed a black and white one page piece so the original Zombie Sam was born. Afterwards I wanted to do a color version but never got around to it. When I got the spot for my first con I wanted something really cool to show off my new found skills in oils. I think Zombie Sam was just one of those “Aha!” ideas. I knew it was a good idea but I didn’t realise the impact it would have on my career.
And then there’s the Obama-esque poster I did of Zombie Sam on a lark. I got a HUGE response from that one! I think I’m going to campaign Zombie Sam as a write-in candidate in the next Presidential election.
ZC: You’ve gone on to draw many other recognisable zombified versions of famous characters, including Elvis and Santa Claus. Which one was you most pleased with and are there any icons that you would still like to do?
BT: That’s like asking a parent which of their children they love the most! From a technical perspective Cannibal Claus is probably my favorite. But Breakfast Is Tiffany turned out well too. On the other hand Fannie the Flesheater is…ARRGH! It makes my head hurt!
I have a long list on my refrigerator of iconic American images I need to zombify. When I come up with an idea I’ll jot it down and then mark it off once the painting is done.
ZC: You produce art in a variety of styles – full color paintings, designs for t-shirts as well as book and magazine covers. Are you happiest seeing your work in print, on somebodies wall or them wearing it out and about on the street?
BT: Wearing it out in the street without a doubt! For someone to buy your work is a compliment but for someone to like it so well that they’re willing to announce that fact to everyone they see is pretty spectacular for me. I’ll get emails saying “I saw somebody wearing your shirt in Birmingham (or Pittsburgh or Atlanta etc)”.
ZC: Zombie Sam and the other Dead White & Blue paintings meant that Wandering Sage Books gave you the go ahead to produce a graphic novel based on your work. Was this something that you always wanted to do?
BT: No. I never considered myself a writer. Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a story and I’ll write it but I’ve never submitted anything for publication. When my friend and author Shane Moore got the deal to have his Abyss Walker novels turned into graphic novels I mentioned a half-assed premise that had been floating around in my head for a while. I was really just thinking out loud. A few days later he contacted me and said I had better get to writing because Wandering Sage wanted to publish it. Needless to say I was floored. So I’ve had to go from a guy with a cool idea for a story to a writer with a cool story. Luckily I have some great writer friends helping to steer me in the right direction.
ZC: You had to learn to write comics for this project, how close are we to seeing the completed thing and are you happy how it’s turned out?
BT: Unfortunately I had to put Dead White & Blue Comics on the back burner for a short time. My artist had a lot on his plate and may be unable to complete the project. So I told him that I was also working on a book of my art, For The Love Of Monsters, and if he wanted we could put off the graphic novel while I finished it. After that we could re-evaluate the situation and since I’m nearing completion of the book that time will be soon. I have my fingers crossed that he will be able to continue otherwise I’ll be on the hunt for another artist.
ZC: Can you tell us a little about what we can expect when Dead White & Blue is completed?
BT: Dead White & Blue Comics (DWB) is about a group of World War 2 superheroes, Sam & His Fightin’ Americans, that were turned into zombies. Fast-forward to today and a group of modern day Nazis are threatening the Earth with alien technology and the only way to stop them is to unleash this group of All-American zombies on them. My inspiration is the comics of the 70s. That over-the-top Marvel Comics style where it’s intended to be serious but it can’t be taken seriously. Very campy stuff. There will also be tons of surprises as well. Don’t expect a straight forward graphic novel.
ZC: You’ve written about not liking to draw sequential art and another artist is pencil & inking the novel. Will fans of yours enjoy seeing his work in the novel?
BT: Absolutely! Before I began looking for an artist my one rule was that I had to be a fan of their work. I want this to be something that I can be proud of and working with an artist I admire will do that.
My approach to writing in very minimalistic. I want this to be more of a collaboration so I write in a way that leaves a lot of room for the artist to get creative. Being an artist I know how frustrating it can be to have a lot of creative restraints put on you so I’m trying to avoid that. The way I look at it is I’m telling a story, the artist is telling THE story.
ZC: Fans will be able to see you at East Tennessee Tattoo Festival in June. Do you have any crazy fans stories and what will those going this weekend be able to see?
BT: I have met some of the most interesting people. Like the tongue fetish model, the girl in the string bikini with the porn-star body who illustrated children’s books and the communist that was offended by my “Better Undead Than Red” painting. The REAL crazy stories happen after hours. Attending as many events as we do we have developed a close friendship with many of the other guests, actors, authors, artists etc and once dinner has been had and the drinks begin to flow you never know what will happen.
What will people see at my booth? There’s always the art prints and t-shirts. I also sell Artist Trading Cards on which I sketch out a little something or other. It’s an inexpensive way for someone to own an original piece of art. Also I always try to have a new piece of art to display at each event if time allows. Since I have a few weeks until the tattoo festival I should have a several!
And even if people aren’t looking to buy anything my wife and I are always up for a little conversation. Folks have been known to stop by the booth and hang out for a while.
ZC: ZC Gary fancies himself as a bit of an artist and has recreated Zombie Sam here. What advice can you give him?
BT: The artistic vision is there. He just needs to tighten up the details a bit and watch his light sources…on, wait, I was looking at the wrong one!
Here it is…Oh God! Oh God! This is blasphemy! Jack Kennedy is in Heaven bangin’ Marilyn and crying his eyes out right now!
ZC: What projects are you up to at the moment and where can we see more of your great art next?
BT: My part bio and part art book For The Love of Monsters will be out later this year. I’m putting the finishing touches on it now and then it will be in the publisher’s hands. Also I just got a pretty cool job doing an album cover for an Iraqi death-metal band called Dog Faced Corpse.
Look for some new art related to Shane Moore’s Abyss Walker novels throughout the year. New Dead White & Blue art is on the way and I guarantee you’ll like it! If you want to keep up with new stuff you can join me on Facebook or MySpace.