Vincent Locke Interview

From Evisceration Plague Graphic Novel
From Evisceration Plague Graphic Novel. Metal Blade Records

Many pivotal figures in the death metal scene like to strike an imposing figure. Deicide frontman Glen Benton may have loosened up in recent years, but is still widely known for branding an upside cross on his forehead. Former Cryptopsy vocalist Dan Greening had a fearsome stage presence and often consumed live worms during shows. The antics earned him the well-known moniker “Lord Worm.”

One of the most important figures in the history of death metal likely wouldn’t be recognized if he strolled into a concert.

In fact, people would probably think he was a parent watching out for his kids. Vincent Locke is a soft-spoken dad who lives in the Michigan suburbs and spends most of his days working in his art studio. He listens to classic rock; underground metal doesn’t suit his fancy. He illustrated a graphic novel A History Of Violence, that was made into a critically acclaimed Hollywood film. He is enamored with classic artists like Andrew Wyeth as much as he is by underground comics.

But there’s another side to Locke that you will see at any death metal show in the world. Since 1989, Locke has been the sole illustrator for death metal legends Cannibal Corpse, beginning with the Eaten Back To Life album. Locke was just a teenager when he was contacted by former Cannibal frontman Chris Barnes. Barnes liked Locke’s work on the Dead World apocalyptic zombie comic and asked him to try an album cover. Locke didn’t think much would come of it.

Two decades later, he is still working with the band and Metal Blade Records.

Locke has since illustrated covers that have become both legendary and notorious. Wearing a Cannibal shirt is a rite of passage for young metalheads looking to scare the crap out of their parents. The infamous zombie doctors on Butchered At Birth, the bile-inducing cover of Tomb Of The Mutilated and the hideous birth scene of The Wretched Spawn are all his handiwork.

If you’ve been to a death metal show lately chances are you’ve seen Locke’s work on tee-shirts, patches and buttons.

Locke recently finished his most ambitious project yet for Cannibal Corpse; a full-length Evisceration Plague graphic novel that was distributed at stops on the Rockstar Energy Mayhem tour and during Cannibal’s European tour. The book features a comic strip based on each song. If you don’t have one yet, you might want to start scouring eBay as copies are already scarce. However, Locke hints that a similar collaboration with the world’s biggest death metal band is a possibility. recently had an exclusive chat with the artist about his background; how the graphic novel came about; how he sometimes needs to keep his children out of the studio and the problems he had illustrating Tomb of The Mutilated.

Justin M. Norton: When did you first get interested in art and drawing – did you draw or sketch when you were a child?
Vincent Locke: Like most kids I drew a lot, but I never stopped. A lot of kids get distracted by other things as they get a little bit older. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with art, but I knew I wanted to do something where I could draw or paint.

I just fell into drawing comics.

What stoked your passion in art when other people lost interest?
My parents were into art, and my Dad was a sign painter who did hand lettering. He did his own drawings and paintings that I would try to copy. We’d go to museums and I’d be exposed to a lot of art. I saw a book on faeries, a book on giants, gnomes and other things.

What else were you influenced by? Comics? Classical art?
One of my biggest influences is Andrew Wyeth. He painted landscapes. I loved his watercolors and how a lot of his paintings were very sketchy and loose and parts of it were real tight. I also love a lot of comic book artists and painters.

Your work sometimes has a feel like Tales From The Crypt and Vault of Horror comics. Were those influences?
I didn’t see a lot of horror comics in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

I got a lot of stuff from book illustrators at the turn of the century that worked for pulp novels. I think I was more influenced by that stuff than regular comics.

Has your work always dealt with darker themes and images?
It usually had a weird element to it, even when I was a kid.

Where do you think that came from?
I thought I was just being a kid, into the old monster movies and Cracked and Mad magazine, just different weird stuff. I was into science fiction and fantasy, so for a while I was more interested in dragons and mythical creatures. As I got older it turned to darker, more horror-type stuff.

Were you surprised years ago when you approached by a young death metal band named Cannibal Corpse to design their first album cover?
I was very surprised. I just got a phone call at 10 at night, and it was Chris Barnes (former vocalist, now of Six Feet Under). He tracked my number down and called me up. He told me who he was and what he wanted to do. I said it sounded pretty cool and to send some of your stuff and maybe we can do something.

The Cannibal guys were fans or yours from the Dead World comic, correct?
I know Chris Barnes was.

Did you ever think the relationship would last this long?
I never would have guessed it. It’s been pretty nice, right? I thought (the first cover) would be it. It’s hard for any band to make it. I’ve done other artwork for bands that never comes out and stuff for books that never comes out. I never expected it to last this long. That was my first album cover.

How do you feel about your artwork influencing virtually every death metal band that tries to one-up each other with gruesome imagery? Does art come first and shock come second?
My main focus on the album covers is an eye-catching image. You just picture these rows and rows of CDs and you want something that is going to grab your eye. I never thought it had to be extremely gruesome, but that’s where the band wanted to go.

I had done that with the Dead World comic, too. On the second issue we did a violent cover.

Some stores loved it and sold more of it, and some stores couldn’t put it out. For the next issue we did two covers: one violent and horrific and the other just creepy.

And that’s something that happened with the Cannibal Corpse covers as well.
I think that was a cue from the Dead World comic.

Which Cannibal cover is your favorite and why?
My favorite is the one that didn’t make it on the cover of Kill. That was technically the best piece, and I think I captured my original idea, what I saw in my head. It’s a really creepy image without being gory. It kind of upsets people, even though it isn’t gory. I was influenced by Ivan Albright (magic realist painter who worked in the 20th century). He did the paintings for The Portrait Of Dorian Gray. In the movie there’s a final painting, this horrific picture that showed how evil Dorian had been. I wanted to do that in this painting.

When did the idea of doing a graphic novel based on Evisceration Plague come up?
Last fall Metal Blade contacted me and said they wanted to do it, and had questions about how to go about it. They went to different comic companies, but it fell through. In March they said we’re doing it ourselves, and they are going on tour this summer, how quickly can you get it done? I dropped everything and jumped on it.

How did you approach a project where you had to draw based on song lyrics as opposed to a script written by a comic writer?
There was a lot more interpreting on my part. When I get a comic script it’s usually broken into panels and the dialogue is already there. There’s creativity in it, but working on the Evisceration Plague book was like a blank canvas. Some of the stories stick really closely to the lyrics and some are a bit more satiric. There’s lots of imagery in lyrics. I wished I had more time to develop it further, I could have made even more of a story out of it, but it was fun doing what I did.

One thing I notice in the graphics is that even when you are dealing with violent imagery the intricacies of facial expression seem prominent in your art and storytelling.
I want it to have a real feel to it, to have more punch. I definitely try to get across emotions.

One of the strips that interested me and where you told a story well and developed a character was Cauldron Of Hate. Could you tell me more about how you approached that piece?
Reading the lyrics, I just saw this loner guy being rejected and not taking it very well. I had the lyrics printed out on paper and tried to mark off what I think would make a page. Then I loosely do really small sketches, like one and two-page layouts, breaking things into panels. Then for the little thumbnails I go back and do sketches, the whole page. Then I draw it out. I always want to make sure things are going to fit and where it’s going to pace.

Your career has had some interesting arcs. You are very well known in the underground for designing death metal album covers, but at the same time you illustrated a graphic novel that was turned into a critically acclaimed Hollywood film. Do the two sides of your work ever get confusing?
Not to me, but I do wonder what fans thing of it. I have fans in different realms that are very different. I’ve done some mainstream work for Vertigo and worked on Sandman, and then A History Of Violence. But it’s all stuff I like to do. I’ve never felt like I was compromising or just churning stuff out for a paycheck.

Can you tell me the back stories of the two most infamous Cannibal covers: Butchered at Birth and Tomb of the Mutilated?
With Butchered at Birth they gave me a complete description of what they wanted. I know I did one sketch that was rejected, or at least they gave me notes and said they wanted some stuff changed. I think the original was of a woman with her abdomen cut up with a fetus hanging outside her rib cage. They came back wanting the woman on the table with zombie butchers, so I took it from there. I did one sketch for that and they liked it a lot.

I had trouble working on Tomb of the Mutilated because of the graphic cover. That was definitely directed by the band. I didn’t want my art to be perceived as glorifying hurting women. Not that I had trouble with the subject matter -- but I didn’t want anyone thinking that and I didn’t wanted to be labeled. So on the cover I tried to put the woman in power with her sitting up the way she was.

So much of your art is identified with death metal music, but how much of it do you listen to? 
To be honest, I don’t listen to it all, outside of what Cannibal Corpse sends me. I like ‘60s and ‘70s rock, blues, Pink Floyd, The Doors. I do like Nine Inch Nails and lately I’ve been into The White Stripes.

Being a family man, is there ever a disconnect between some of the imagery you’ve created and your family, or are art and life two separate realms?
The only hard part is not being able to let my kids see some of the artwork. There are times they can’t come in my studio. Since I work at home, they often come and go and see what I’m working on. But there are definitely times where they need to stay out, or I work out a way they won’t see it accidentally. Some stuff is not for kids, right?

Do you feel like death metal covers that try to be as violent and extreme as possible without attention to the artwork are missing the point by just going for gore?
Definitely. Cannibal Corpse sings about violent, horrific stuff, but there is artistry behind what they do. It’s not just cranked out. The artwork should be the same; there should be artistry behind it. Without some thought behind it it’s not interesting.

Can you see doing another graphic novel project with the band?
I’d love to. I had a blast working on this. The whole thing was just a blast, some of it was editing work, some of it was painting. I was able to do whatever worked at the moment. My favorite story was “Carrion Sculpted Entity.” I loved the whole idea of a carcass coming to life, killing other things and attaching them to itself.

How do you feel when you see people wearing shirts with artwork you designed our on the street?
It’s strange. Recently, I met a few of my neighbors and got to know them a little better. I found out they were fans of mine. They were like “You’re Vince Locke? You do the stuff for Cannibal Corpse?” (laughs).