I had the chance recently to speak with the outstanding artist Robert Bailey about his wonderful art for the Star Wars property and the amazing story of how he came to work for George Lucas. This is a very fun interview. I had a great time chatting with Mr. Bailey.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: How often do you get to get down to California to meet with the Lucas folks?
Robert Bailey: Oh, but once every two or three years maybe. Not very often at all. Most of the stuff is much easier through email, the Internet, telephone, that kind of thing.
CB: You’ve been at it for a while.
Bailey: I’ve been drawing since I was about three years of age, which means I’ve been doing it for about sixty-four years.
CB: Wow. How long have you been drawing in this very detailed, very specific style? It seems to be very labor-intensive.
Bailey: It is, yes. Well, that particular style with regard to pop culture subjects, only about seven years on that.
Bailey: Prior to that, for about the previous two decades, I’ve been doing almost exclusively World War II and a little bit of Vietnam era combat and a little bit of World War I combat. But mostly World War II aerial combat.
CB: What made you so interested in drawing that era of combat?
Bailey: If you had been raised in the 1950s, as I was, then most of the adults around you would have been reminiscing about their adventures in World War II. Of course many of them didn’t say a word because they just blocked it out. But my own father would often speak of his adventures in the war. So it became a subject of great interest. I remember that my very first drawings were bombers dropping bombs on military targets, that kind of thing.
CB: And it kind of just something that you just ended up doing? Was this an avocation or was this something that you were able to really make a decent living from?
Bailey: Oh, yes, certainly. I had been making a living at this for a long time. What I decided to as Barbra Streisand decided to do when she entered the singing business, she decided to start at the top. She said, “Why would I want to work my way up to the top when I can start at the top?” I thought that sounded logical.
I began to do these large oil paintings of World War II combat and ran lithos from those to World War II combat reunions, mostly in the U.S., California right across to Washington, D.C. I arranged for the vets to sign the prints. It was the signatures that gave the prints fifty percent of their value because it was an endorsement as well as a collectible edition. So right away I was able to compete on the international market because I was getting people’s signatures that were absolutely class A, people who had been prominent in World War II. So that’s what I did.
CB: I have to admit hearing that makes me envious. I would love to at least see one of those. It sounds like a really special thing to have autographs from people who were actually flying those planes.
Bailey: That’s right. I researched with the pilots, the air crew, and the ground crew of each fighter or bomber group, whether it was Canadian, U.S. Navy, or British before the project was done. So I got to hear lots of exciting stories that were never actually published, lots of background stories.
CB: That sounds fascinating.
Bailey: And you can see those on the Net if you just google “Robert Bailey World War II air combat.” Then you would see lots of images I am sure.
CB: Were you doing that while you were working as a kids’ show host and in your advertising career as well?
Bailey: That’s a good question. I was working in television in the early 1970s. I had my own television show. So all of this artistic material was certainly well in the background. I didn’t take it up as a full-time profession until around 1988.
CB: Are there still videos of you doing your kids’ show work? Could we find those on YouTube?
Bailey: Yes. If you went to my website, which is baileydraw.com, there is a media segment on that website which has I think two or three different videos of me and my World War II air combat stuff.
Bailey: Yes. Well, George has always been an avid fan of World War II air combat. He had seen my website, not as it is today, but the old website, which is now shut down, which was a hundred percent World War II material that I had done. Then he got me into Star Wars, which was fortunate because at that time the market for World War II signed lithos was in a rapid decline. I basically stepped from a sinking ship onto a new one that was like an aircraft carrier.
CB: Yeah, that is the unfortunate thing about those soldiers starting to die off is that the audience of people who understand that sort of material is going away.
Bailey: I had thought ten years ago that as the World War II veterans were expiring that the signatures would become more and more collectible. But the fact is that the younger generations have little or no interest into World War II, probably as much interest as I have in the Napoleonic Wars, if you know what I mean.
CB: Yeah. I come to this mostly as a comic fan. And there is this interesting paradox where aside from a few prominent creators, any work that is older than about fifteen years, especially from people who aren’t top line, is often cheaper than buying stuff from new creators. It seems completely backwards to me. Obviously just from a supply and demand standpoint, it makes sense to buy something older. But I’ve gotten some unbelievable bargains for stuff that I was just astonished I could get in the first place.
Bailey: Yes. What you are saying is absolutely correct and seems to defy logic, but that is the way things have turned out.
CB: I suppose as a collector I feel fortunate.
Bailey: Yes, if you want the older stuff. Then, yes, you can get them for lower prices. It seems to be more of a business now where it has to be fresh, it has to be current to be marketable.
CB: I guess you are lucky in that Star Wars is something that’s both fresh and also is very classic. The people who are in my age group, and I am in my forties, are very nostalgic for the original Star Wars in particular.
Bailey: Yes. My work is more the old school Star Wars, as you may have seen. But I am looking forward to the time when I will be able to do drawings from The Force Awakens. That probably would not be until next spring before I am allowed to do anything that would be able to be sold on a retail market.
CB: Have you had a chance to see anything from the new movie?
Bailey: Yes, I did three or four drawings from Force Awakens that were based on the Disney trailer, but it got me into some really bad trouble. I have been advised to stay away from it for the time being.
CB: Yeah, Disney is a tough company to work with, that’s for sure. I’m sure it was a bit easier working with the Lucas Film folks before.
Bailey: Yes, things have certainly become more stringent since Disney took over Lucas Film.
CB: Have you been enjoying drawing the Star Wars characters? There is a lot of similarities to the World War II fighters. I’ve read some stuff about Lucas based the battles, especially in the first movie, on the actual World War II filmed battles.
Bailey: Yes. That’s right. There are many similarities to the two genres. When I was first asked to do Star Wars, my gut reaction was, “Well, how can I do Star Wars when I don’t know anything about Star Wars?” Lucas licensing told me, “Well, George said to tell you it is like World War II, but it is different looking ships.”
I said, “Well, okay. I guess it is still combat. It is still war, World War II or Star Wars. So I will try my best.” So now it has been a total, hundred percent transition. I’d say about seventy-five percent of my total output is Star Wars and the other twenty-five percent would be divided into subcategories of, for example, Lord of the Rings and all kinds of other movies and TV series.
CB: Right, well that is a lucrative market these days.
Bailey: Absolutely, yes. And Marvel had licensed me to do their characters, so I am doing Spiderman, not for the comic industry, but for sale at ComicCon.
CB: Is that fun for you to be crossing over to these different sorts of properties?
Bailey: Well, once I got a firm handle on Star Wars, it kind of loosened me up a lot from being stuck with World War II and I was able to transition. I became more flexible and had more reason to paint The Avengers and Superman and Game of Thrones, that kind of thing.
CB: I never imagined when I was a kid that this culture would really take over the world, but I guess it is symbolic that this is the kind of material that has replaced the World War II related stuff.
CB: It’s interesting. It sounds like you have a great career in your semi-retirement, though.
Bailey: Semi-retirement? I am working six days a week.
CB: Are you really?
Bailey: Yes, and those would be nine to ten hour days.
Bailey: I don’t think artists really retire. I think they basically work until they drop dead, which will certainly be my situation. I feel that I am at the top of my game and I am certainly at the top of the output scenario, too, with respect to the number of drawings I am doing. I have never been in better shape. I don’t see any end of this at this time. I don’t see any slackening of the pace at this time.
I can probably do ComicCons for the next five to ten years. And God bless his soul, Stan Lee, who is 92 now I think, he is an inspiration to me. I am 67 and I was thinking, “Wow, I am getting too old to travel.” And there he is and he is 92, so that’s great.
CB: Yeah, I have gotten to do a few pressrooms where he has worked them and he is amazing. The way he comes to life on camera is inspiring.
Bailey: Oh, absolutely. And I love his cameos in the various Marvel films. It is very funny.
CB: Yes, absolutely. And what you are talking about too is something I’ve heard from a lot of artists and I have seen with a lot of artists where through a life of experience you just keep getting better and better.
Bailey: I think that whether you are an actor or an artist or anyone in the creative arts, you have to be improving as you go along. Otherwise you stagnant and then fall away.
So I am very happy to be diversifying into these other movies, but I am also always striving to improve my style. When I look back over say two years and look at my drawings from that period, I can see a definite change in the style, which I think is better than two years ago and hopefully the fans feel the same way. At least it is reflective as such in sales.
CB: That is exciting to hear. Continually improving. You never stop getting better. I love that.
CB: So are you looking forward to coming out to Fan Expo Vancouver next week?
Bailey: Oh, yes. I enjoy the ComicCons. Usually I don’t like being in crowds. I don’t airports because of the crowds. But at a ComicCon, when you arrive, you have already established your own territory; when you are behind the table, that is your home base. And you are able to sally forth now and again into the crowds, but at least you are able to be in one spot. Meeting the fans for me is a huge necessity because it balances me back that for the rest of the year I am working in one room alone producing these drawings.
Bailey: So going to Cons (I am attending seven this year alone as a guest), it really gives a good psychological balance between creating something alone and then being with the fans and receiving their appreciation of what you’ve done. So that is great.
CB: Yeah, you can exercise your introvert muscles and then your extrovert muscles.
Bailey: That is exactly well put, yes.
CB: Well, thank you. Do you have any favorite stories from Vancouver Fan Expo?
Bailey: From the Vancouver Fan Expo?
Bailey: You mean from last year?
CB: From last year or previous years.
Bailey: The one that comes to mind is that a German film crew came around to my table and they said, “Would you like to do a five minute interview?” And I said sure. And then she said, “Do you speak any German?” I said, “No. The only German I know is to say, ‘I love you very much and your eyes are wonderful.'” And she says, “Well, at the end of the interview, would you mind saying that?” I said sure. So she interviewed me in English of course and then at the end, she said, “Do you speak any German?” And I said, “Ich liebe dich sehr, und Ihre Augen sind wundervoll.” And even so she blushed. That was funny, yeah.
Bailey: I love meeting the celebrities and I am certainly looking forward to seeing Carrie Fisher, who I’ve met on three previous occasions. I have several drawings for her. I think she has something like fourteen or fifteen of my drawings to date.
CB: Oh, wow.
Bailey: And I always throw in a few extras for her mother, Debbie Reynolds. And Carrie, I give her not drawings of herself as Princess Leia. I think she’s had enough of those. And I still have a few more of those to give to her, but she likes other things, like for example, a cameo appearance in Blues Brothers were she had the M-16 and the rocket launcher.
Bailey: And she was trying to kill John Belushi. She likes things like that, too. So I will be supplying those.
CB: I may be interviewing her as well. You gave me a great thing to ask her about.
Bailey: Oh, good! Yeah, yeah. Of course she missed John; you know he passed away. She has fond memories of him. So I will be giving her more drawings at the Vancouver show.
It is too bad that she’s the only Star Wars celebrity of any note for any of the Canadian cons in western Canada this year. I know that in Toronto they have the fellow who played Chewbacca, Peter Mayhew. And I’ve done quite a few Chewbacca drawings for fans to sign at the Toronto Expo of Peter Mayhew. But Calgary has no Star Wars actors as far as I can see to date. So Carrie will be quite the splash for western Canada this year.
CB: I think William Shatner will be at that convention too.
Bailey: I’ve given him drawings, but I’ve never actually met Bill Shatner because he would send someone to the table to collect the work. Whereas with the other celebs, I actually go up and I hand them their material in person.
CB: He is at Vancouver I believe. I am going to try and see if I can say hello to him and shake his hand.
Bailey: Yes, Bill Shatner will be at Vancouver. I do have a number of Star Wars drawings featuring Bill Shatner, which I hope fans will buy to have them signed.
CB: That’s a great idea.
For more information on Fan Expo Vancouver, visit their website.