Interview with Joseph Vargo about The Gothic Tarot
for the Pagan Writers Community, March 2012, by Angela Holtz

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We are pleased to welcome Joseph Vargo as our Featured Author for today. Thank you for joining us!

It's my pleasure Angela.

Please tell us a little more about yourself.

I started my career as a gothic fantasy artist, painting moody images for magazines, books, and music cds. In 1991, I established a publishing company, Monolith Graphics, to sell art prints, calendars and t-shirts of my own design. Since then we've branched out into several artistic avenues ranging from running an art gallery and publishing a magazine to creating and publishing several books and music cds with my band Nox Arcana and a few other musical artists. In 2002, I created The Gothic Tarot, then produced The Gothic Tarot Compendium a few years later. To date, I've written and co-written five books.

How did you get started as an artist? When did you move into writing?

After high school, I attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, but became disillusioned with the curriculum and left after one semester. I got a regular job and nearly gave up on pursuing a career as an artist. Eventually I began taking jobs here and there as a freelance commercial artist. It wasn't anything glamorous, but it kept my interest in art alive. In my spare time I began painting and building my fantasy art portfolio.
       After establishing Monolith Graphics in 1991, I began selling my prints and t-shirts at local boutiques and Renaissance Fairs. As my work became more popular, it garnered the interest of some national distributors who wanted to carry our merchandise. By 1997 we were producing posters and calendars in very large quantities to sell in several popular chains of stores. Around this time, I had begun producing music and branching into other artistic areas when a writer friend of mine, James Pipik, approached me with an idea to publish an illustrated book of short stories based on the gothic characters in my paintings. I really liked the idea and contacted several other writer friends for the project, including Joseph Iorillo, who I later collaborated with on The Gothic Tarot Compendium.
       Aside from creating the artwork, I also wrote several stories for the anthology. The book, Tales From The Dark Tower, was published in 2000 and did very well for us. Later that year we launched Dark Realms, a quarterly magazine that explored the shadows of art and culture, showcasing the works of up-and-coming artists, bands and writers. I wrote numerous articles and reviews during the magazine's eight year run, and also contributed several short stories. We later compiled the stories into another book titled The Legend of Darklore Manor and Other Tales of Terror. We also published Born of the Night: The Gothic Fantasy Art of Joseph Vargo, which contained a retrospect of my artwork. Once again, I collaborated with Joseph Iorillo.
In 2011, Joseph and I wrote Beyond The Dark Tower, a sequel to the original Dark Tower book that expanded the mythos and we have begun working on a third book to complete the trilogy.

Tell us more about The Gothic Tarot and The Gothic Tarot Compendium.

Creating a tarot deck is an ambitious project for any artist because of the amount of time it requires to research, write and illustrate. The Gothic Tarot is a standard tarot deck with paintings depicting all 78 cards of the Major and Minor Arcana. The images are based around classic gothic themes such as vampires, ghosts, gargoyles and dark angels. A large percentage of the art was adapted from my original existing works, while other art was created specifically for the deck. Many of the existing pieces were altered to include pentacles, cups, swords and wands. Although the project took less than a year to assemble, it represents over ten years of my artistic career. The deck is like a miniature gallery of my most popular works in the gothic realm.
       It was always my intent to publish and distribute the deck through Monolith Graphics, but we ran into a few problems finding the right printer. One of the companies refused to work on the project because they thought that tarot cards were evil. We also had a problem with one of our major retailers who refused to carry the cards in their stores because the some of the cards depicted images of pentagrams. It was like we were back in the Dark Ages. Eventually we ironed out all the problems with production and distribution and the deck became very popular and garnered some critical acclaim.
       The response was so positive and we received so many requests for an expanded guidebook, we decided to create The Gothic Tarot Compendium a few years later. I was very busy at the time, working on the magazine, creating new art for my annual calendar and writing and producing music with Nox Arcana, so I decided to work with a writing partner. I began working with one of our magazine writers on The Gothic Tarot Compendium, but after several months, things got off track and didn't work out, so I had to go another route. It was one of those instances where fate intervened and led me down the path I should have taken all along. I called my friend Joseph Iorillo, who had just written an article on the history of the tarot, and explained the situation then asked him if he would be interested in working on the Compendium with me. He accepted the offer and I began working with him the next day. The project, which had been stalled for half a year was completed within two months and it really turned out great.
       The Gothic Tarot Compendium contains illustrations of all 78 cards of the Major and Minor Arcana, and translations of their symbolic meanings, allowing readers to utilize The Gothic Tarot to its fullest divinatory potential. The book also offers my personal insights concerning the mythological and occult symbolism hidden in the artwork, and includes detailed instructions for several traditional and original card layouts that reinforce the gothic theme of the artwork.

What inspired you to create a Tarot deck? And how did you come up with the designs?

I've always been fascinated with the Tarot. I think my interest was sparked at an early age when my aunt gave me a deck of Gypsy Witch fortune telling cards. A few years later, I picked up the Waite and Marseille decks. I loved the symbolism in the illustrations and how they could be interpreted a variety of ways depending on how they pertained to a person's life and present circumstances.
       I had considered doing a Tarot deck as early as 1981, but I just didn't have the patience to commit to such an extensive project back then. As the years passed, and my portfolio of work grew, I began thinking that a lot of the images that I had created could be used for a Tarot deck, and since my forte was gothic fantasy art, it stood to reason that my Tarot deck should embrace the darkside. Once we started compiling the images from my existing body of work, which at the time consisted of over 200 images, it was strange how many of them fit perfectly into place with little or no alteration. I think of it as serendipity. It was just meant to be, or perhaps I was always subconsciously painting images for The Gothic Tarot without being aware of what I was creating.
       A majority of the pre-existing images that were used in the Gothic Tarot were altered to fit the deck. These alterations were usually subtle and consisted of simply adding the various suit icons, but in some instances, the alterations were more dramatic. In the end, I only had to create about fifteen entirely new images for the deck.

Did you start Monolith Graphics for The Gothic Tarot or was it created earlier to help distribute your artwork?

Monolith Graphics had been around for about ten years before we decided to begin The Gothic Tarot. I had a lot of other projects I wanted to complete before tackling something as involved as creating a Tarot deck. It all worked out very nicely though, since we learned a lot about publishing, manufacturing, and distributing with each new product we created. It also helped that I had painted over 100 new images during that time and later utilized many of them in The Gothic Tarot.

Are you thinking about creating another Tarot deck?

I worked with my partner Christine Filipak to create the original oracle deck Madame Endora's Fortune Cards. I developed the concept for the deck and Christine and I collaborated on the artwork. It's very different from The Gothic Tarot, but it conveys a similar mystical, Old World feel. We currently have Apps for both decks, The Gothic tarot is available for the Android and Madame Endora's Fortune Cards is available for the iPhone.

What inspires you when creating a Tarot deck?

JV - Creating a Tarot deck is a real commitment and takes a great deal of drive. Because of the extensive amount of specific artwork involved, it usually takes several years to complete, so you have to constantly find new ways to inspire and motivate yourself. You'd be surprised how many people start their own Tarot projects, but never finish them. Most artists begin with all the cards that are fun to depict, usually the cards of the Major Arcana, then put-off all the cards that are more ambiguous till the end. Eventually you have sixty or seventy pieces of art complete with a dozen or so pieces that you have to make final decisions about.
       Inspiration comes from several sources, such as mythology, movies and classic art, but I have always believed that the best inspiration comes from within.

How would someone go about getting their 1st deck printed and marketed?

There are basically two ways to go about it. The first way is to pitch your completed, or nearly completed deck to a publisher that produces and distributes tarot decks, such as U.S. Games or Llewellyn. If they accept the deck for publication, they will handle all production, distribution and marketing. This is a good thing if you don't want any business hassles, but you will also get a much smaller percentage of the money from each sale. Another down-side to this is that the publisher will only continue to promote the deck as long as it remains a popular seller.
       The second way is to self-publish the deck. This requires a lot more work and it takes a substantial investment, but you control all aspects of your product and you don't have to split your profits with a publisher. Self-publishing also requires you to warehouse and distribute your product to wholesale and retail customers, which in turn requires you to advertise your product or possibly sign up with a distributor. Working with distributors in the book industry is very risky and they take a large cut of the profits. We never use them. Amazon.com is a great marketplace for independent publishers, and they have their own production company, Amazon Create Space, for small runs on books. We recently helped some friends with the production of their own Tarot deck, The Watcher Angel Tarot. They used our manufacturer (Delano/EPI in Battle Creek Michigan) for the deck, and published their guidebooks through Create Space.

And what weight of paper do you think is best?

The cardstock for a tarot deck has to be sturdy, but thin enough to allow for easy shuffling, so something around 14pt coverstock is best. Printers also offer various coatings and varnishes for the cards. You just have to be sure the finish isn't too glossy, or you'll get too much reflection off the cards. For our Tarot and Fortune cards we use 14pt coated coverstock with a clear layer of fingerprint-resistant aqueous coating.

What is the most important piece of advice you would offer a fellow artist?

Work hard, learn from constructive criticism, study other artists, and practice every day. I believe that the power to achieve our life's goals lies within each of us. Don't rely on other people to make your dreams come true. Take control of your own destiny and work hard every day to improve your skills and make your desires a reality. Be ready when opportunity presents itself. Never let go of your dreams.

Where can we go to learn more about you and purchase your works?

You can see and purchase all our products at our main site www.monolithgraphics.com. Fans of my artwork can view a large gallery of my paintings at my personal site www.josephvargo.com, and anyone interested in my music can visit www.noxarcana.com

And finally, do you know anyone who plays Patience/Solitaire with their deck? (I have)?

No I haven't heard any comments from anyone who has used the deck for that purpose. What was your experience like?

We appreciate you spending some time with us today Joseph! We wish you continued success with this deck, and with all your artistic endeavors.

Thank you Angela.