John Fleskes publishes some of the most sumptuous collections of art books that you can find on the market. His books present gorgeous artwork by world-class illustrators, reproduced with an eye for detail that helps make them well worth the cover price. Recently Jason Sacks spoke with Fleskes on the eve of the publication of his latest collaboration with longtime friend William Stout. What follows is a really interesting look into how complex books like these are assembled.
Jason Sacks: You’ve published a lot of beautiful art books, but you seem to keep coming back to doing books by William Stout. What is it about his work that makes you keep coming back?
John Fleskes: There’s a few reasons. The first being the art itself, which I am passionate about. Bill has a remarkable facility for staying fresh. And he’s incredibly varied. He works in film, comics, and illustrated books and is one of the preeminent dinosaur and prehistoric artists in this country. These are all genres I personally enjoy.
Bill has the drive of an artist in their twenties. He’s still getting better, he’s still learning, he’s still trying to achieve more. His energy is contagious and I do my best to keep up. I feel Bill is among the top artists around, with an acute business sense. This is a rare combination.
And the other reason is the good relationship I have with Bill. I truly enjoy working with him. It’s an ideal situation for me, as I can place myself in a position to learn from a veteran on the field. Knowing the books help raise the awareness of his work and promote someone I like as a person is rewarding.
Jason: When I think of William Stout, I think of dinosaurs. But it looks like he can draw and paint gorgeous women, too. Is it fun for you to see that side of his work?
John: You bet! You take one side of Bill that produces an oil painting of a scientifically accurate dinosaur from just about any era, then on the other hand a fully rendered beautiful woman pulled right out of his imagination in a fantasy situation–it’s remarkable how diverse he is. Again, it’s his wide range of interests and his easily getting bored that works to our favor by him doing so many different types of work.
Jason: How did you get started publishing Stout’s art?
John: This is a funny story. Randy Dahlk, who is a mutual good friend of Bill’s and mine, and who designed all of our Flesk published Stout books to date, basically tricked Bill and I into working together. Before our first book with Bill, Prehistoric Life Murals, I only knew Bill as a fan. One year, Randy came up to me at a Comic-Con International in San Diego and told me he was talking with Bill, who would love to do a book with me on his recent murals work. I thought, wow, yes, that would be great! So, then Randy went over to Bill and told him that I would very much be interested in doing a book on his murals work, and would he be interested? Randy set this whole thing up. Randy had not talked to Bill before he asked me, and that set his little wheels in motion. Before I knew it Bill and I were talking and Randy was onboard designing the book. Everyone can thank Randy’s manipulative behavior for these books!
To date, I’ve published five books on Bill’s work, Prehistoric Life Murals, Dinosaur Discoveries, New Dinosaur Discoveries A-Z, Hallucinations and Inspirations. Bill is currently writing a new book that will collect his work in the comics field that we have tentatively planned for fall 2011. This will be very different than the previous books and show another side of his work.
Jason: What kinds of things do you do as the publisher to make sure that the work is reproduced as well as possible?
John: The quick answer is whatever it takes.
I will take as long as I need to make sure I get the absolute best source material for reproduction as possible, oftentimes letting the announced book street date slip to put the proper amount of time into the reproduction. I review every piece of art for each book. I have no problem taking the extra time and expense to have something reshot for the book if I think it can be improved. A good example is when I received the scans for Bill’s murals work for Prehistoric Life Murals, there were certain pieces I was not happy with. Bill and I drove to the San Diego Natural History Museum where I photographed each piece I wanted to upgrade myself. The museum was amazing. They had someone drive me around in a lift and adjusted the lights as necessary so I could get the shots I wanted, from just the right angle I needed.
I don’t think there is an artist I’ve worked with that I didn’t ask for a new scan of one or more pieces that I wanted to improve.
Then, once a book is ready for the printer, I set my standards with the printer and raise them to my level. I opt for wet proofs from the printer instead of digital proofs, a greater expense, but the optimum method for matching and testing colors.
You only have one shot to get a book right, and then the book is printed and done. I have to know I did everything I could at the time to be content with myself. If I let something slip it will gnaw at me. I can’t always get the best source material, maybe the art can’t be found, or only a tearsheet is available, but it’s the best at the time. While I’m anal, I’m also realistic.
Jason: How can a reader buy copies of the originals or prints if he’d like to?
John: I would say the best place to purchase originals and prints is from Bill directly on his website at williamstout.com. Even better yet, if you can make Comic-Con International in San Diego or WonderCon in San Francisco, Bill brings a large batch of originals and prints to these two shows. He’s highly personable and enjoys telling stories and answering questions.
Jason: You seem to be a big fan of the highly illustrative painters who paint in a kind of classic heroic style – Williamson, Mark Schultz, Steve Rude, Gary Gianni. What about their work inspires you?
John: I think you’re right, Jason, these guys could be labeled as classic and heroic, and I would add that I like a good adventure story piece to that list. I favor a strong draughtsman who can draw well and tell a good story, whether it is through a narrative form or in a single drawing.
I’ve always been enamored with the golden age illustrators such as Joseph Clement Coll, Franklin Booth, William Russell Flint, Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham and Harvey Dunn (who I just published a book on by Walt Reed), I could go on and on, but the guys I have published so far all seem to have a foundation on tradition, yet with a fresh contemporary flair. They know and have learned from
past illustrators, yet carved out and made their own stamp. You can link Steve Rude to Andrew Loomis, Al Williamson to Alex Raymond, Gary Gianni to J.C. Coll, Schultz to Wood and Williamson, they all bridge a gap without being clones.
One common bond between the artists I have published is, at least I think, they are inspiration to fellow artists. Plus, they are the consummate students, never ceasing to learn more, all working hard to improve themselves.
Every one I have published is among my personal favorites.
When I began publishing I reached out to those I considered the best. I have been incredibly fortunate to have the trust from the artists I publish to handle their work.
Jason: You also published some books about James Bama, who I think of as one of the foremost painters of pulp action. How has his work inspired you?
John: I couldn’t agree with you more.
I came into Bama’s work the opposite way most other fans I know did. I wasn’t around when the Doc Savage and monster kits came out that tug so hard at the ‘60s generation nostalgia string. I first learned of Bama through his fine art western paintings in the early 1990’s. It would be a few years since I even knew he was an illustrator first, and even longer since I knew of his Men’s Adventure art.
Bama’s fine art work inspires me in how he captures real people. He can take the most ordinary person and make him or her special. He finds magic in the seemingly plainest of situations and turns them into a moment worth pausing for.
As for his adventure and illustration work, his compositions are strong and engaging. I’m amazed that the pieces he did for the adventure magazines were weekend assignments he did on top of his regular Cooper Studios work he painted throughout the week. He packs so much action, props and realism in those pieces, I can’t believe he did a piece in two days. They are visually arresting, stimulating and fun.
Jason: What books are upcoming from you?
John: For 2011 you will see more from the familiar faces I have published in the past. I’m working on a new book collecting 52 unpublished paintings by James Bama inspired by his travels around the world. Mark Schultz: Various Drawings Volume Five, Al Williamson Archives Volume Two and the William Stout Comics collection I mentioned before, are all in various stages of development. I’m also well along on a pen and ink collection on Edwin Austin Abbey.
I’m also talking with a few artists in the animation business. 2011 will see the first individual art collection on an animator through Flesk. I’ve been planning on starting a line of animation books for a few years now, and I’m pleased to be almost there. I am very passionate about animation and to be able to publish books on this field I enjoy so much.
Jason: Anything else you’d like readers to know about Flesk Publications?
John: Yes, for those who are just learning about Flesk for the first time, I publish art books focusing on individual artists. To date this has been in the fantasy, graphic novel, fine art, prehistoric and dinosaur, illustration and soon to be added animation fields. I absolutely love what I do.
We just had two new books come out, Harvey Dunn: Illustrator and Painter of the Pioneer West by Walt Reed and Jim Silke’s Jungle Girls. The Harvey Dunn book is not available to the book trade and can be purchased direct from our website. Silke’s book features over fifty new pieces and is a lot of fun. This should start hitting the stores any day now.
We have sample pages for all of our books and full details on our website at www.fleskpublications.com
Thanks so much for your interest and great questions, Jason.