Interview with Joseph Vargo by Rachel Boese, December 2020
I know that you've created an expansive array of artwork, featuring many mythical creatures and monsters, but when is the first time that you became interested in Vampires specifically and was there anything that particularly spurred that interest?
I've always loved monsters. When I was a kid, I was constantly drawing monsters—dragons, werewolves, skeletons and of course, vampires. My earliest influences came from movies, the classic Universal monster movies and all the B horror films of the day. I loved the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula. The stark, gothic look of the black and white film left an indelible impression on me and really piqued my interest in the concept of vampires, but it was the gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, that turned my interest into obsession.
As I got older, I felt that my love of monsters was just a childish phase that I would eventually outgrow. When I began my career as an artist, most of my subject matter dealt with fantasy and sci-fi themes, but there was always an underlying gothic influence to my work. In 1997, while displaying my work at an art festival in Cleveland, I was approached by the founder of a group called "The Undead Poets Society." She had taken an interest in three pieces of vampire art that were nestled between the various fantasy prints of dragons and barbarian warriors that I had on display. She invited me to be the featured artist at their next event—an art show and vampire poetry reading. I was intrigued by the concept and agreed to do the show. I had a few weeks to get ready, so I painted two more vampire paintings and brought about a dozen gothic works to display at the event.
The show was a real eye-opener. Everyone came dressed in formal gothic attire, the music was appropriately spooky and the featured poets recited verses of haunting melancholia. I felt very much at home. I met some writers and publishers and rekindled my acquaintance with Michelle Belanger, who was one of the featured authors. I came away from that event with a new mindset and redirected the main focus of my art back toward my original love of creatures of the night. The timing was perfect. A few months later I was selling t-shirts and prints of my gothic work though Hot Topic and my partner Christine and I had begun construction on our gothic fantasy art gallery, The Realm.
What is your favorite historical story and/or fictional depiction of Vampires?
It's difficult to select one specific favorite, especially since vampires have been depicted in such vastly different ways, ranging from tragically romantic heroes to bloodthirsty monsters. Famous historical "vampires" like Vlad Tepes and Countess Elizabeth Bathory were in reality sadistic serial killers. There was nothing romantic about their bloodlust or vicious cruelty, although their tales were later romanticized in folklore and modern fiction. While Vlad's savage actions can be attributed to the horrors of war, Bathory's deeds were purely the acts of a demented mind that was entirely devoid of empathy. Though both of these historical figures have been immortalized as vampires, the actual truth is far more horrific than the legend.
When writers like Polidori and Stoker began writing fictional accounts of vampires, they added elements of gothic romance, replacing the ghoulish walking corpses of folklore with suave, seductive aristocrats. The 1992 Coppola film, Bram Stoker's Dracula, is one of my favorite films for several reasons. The music and artistic direction are hauntingly beautiful and the story is faithful to the novel, depicting Dracula in a variety of vampiric guises, ranging from a demonic beast to an irresistible seducer.
Another of my favorite vampire films is Near Dark, mainly because it was one of the first films that depicted vampires that had somewhat adapted to modern times. They weren't sophisticated European vampires that lived in castles. They were a rough, nasty coven trying to survive their curse. The film opened the doors for subsequent vampire films like The Lost Boys, which gained far more recognition. Of course there were Anne Rice's vampire books and films that offered entertaining new takes on the genre. I also enjoyed films like Vamp and Fright Night that added touches of humor to the vampire mythos, while still remaining dark. This concept was later taken to new heights with What We Do In The Shadows, the film and TV series.
Finally, there's the vampire action-hero category. Films like the Blade and the Underworld series introduced us to vampires battling other monsters in explosive action-movie settings. Though there was a lot to enjoy about both of these franchises, I'm just not a fan of vampires using guns. There's nothing gothic about guns.
There's no shortage of sub-genres when it comes to vampires. I appreciate them all for different reasons, but there have been so many interesting and entertaining variations on the vampire mythos that I find it impossible to have a top pick.
Is there anything you want to elaborate on that has encouraged you to continually revisit the vampiric archetype in your music and artwork over and over again?
To me, the vampire encompasses the best elements of gothic horror. I love things that are dark and mysterious. Add an element of danger, and I'm hooked. I am also a romantic at heart. The vampire combines all of these factors while representing unattainable, dark desires, a haunted and brooding soul, otherworldly power and unimaginable horror lurking in the shadows. I also find a beauty of darkness, which is a concept that is prevalent in the modern vampire depictions.
The name of my musical project, Nox Arcana, loosely translates to "mysteries of the night". When creating Nox Arcana's concept albums, especially on our Transylvania album, William and I wanted to be sure that the music would convey these various gothic aspects. Tracks range from hauntingly melancholy melodies to pulse-pounding orchestrations, accented by chanting choirs and sinister sound effects, creating a soundscape that spans the full vampiric spectrum.
While The Gothic Tarot consists of traditional icons such as ghosts, gargoyles and dark angels, the reigning cards of the major arcana are represented by vampires. It seemed fitting that vampires would hold dominion over the Gothic realm. For this reason, I cast Dracula as The Emperor and Lilith as The Empress.
The Dark Tower book series was originally based on my existing gothic paintings. It was fun creating the back stories for artwork I had created years earlier and linking the characters together. It was an easy choice to make the main story line center around vampires because they held the most potential for character and story development, and I really liked the idea of creating my own vampire mythos.
You have influenced the vampire community greatly, not only with your artwork and your music, but also your magazine, Dark Realms. You've featured many artists early in their careers that have gone on to be quite successful. How did you choose who you featured and is there anyone you still work with or admire now from that timeframe?
We began by featuring people we personally knew and had worked with and also sought out gothic artists, writers and musicians that we really liked. Searching the internet allowed us to discover and contact other artists whose work conveyed a dark aesthetic. Once we became more established, we received regular submissions from book publishers, record labels and bands, but we still continued to seek out up-and-coming artists that we had discovered on the internet. Deviant Art and Youtube became invaluable tools in these searches.
I admire all of the artists, writers and musicians we featured and support those who continue to create dark works. I think it's great that you have resurrected Vampyre Magazine to continue to promote darkly creative minds. Aside from my partner-in-crime, Christine, I have continued to work with Dark Realms writer and horror novelist Joseph Iorillo and have collaborated with him on various projects including The Gothic Tarot Compendium and our Dark Tower book series.
What do you think about the concept of vampires as a predatory archetype vs the more romantic portrayals often seen in modern pop culture?
Vampires are perhaps the most complex genre of fictional characters and have the widest range of physical and emotional traits. They can be otherworldly in their allure or as loathsome and vile as graveyard ghouls. I tend to prefer more romanticized versions of vampires, rather than tales that portray them strictly as ravenous demons. My favorite vampire depictions combine both concepts to show the dichotomy of the creature.
While writing the Dark Tower books, I specifically set out to create characters that personified all of these traits, from the fiendish Baron of Vasaria to the seductively alluring Dark Queen, Mara, to the forlorn, romantic guardian of the Dark Tower, Lord Brom. By balancing their unearthly powers with a brooding mindset and a sorrowful, tragic past, these characters appeal to people who may feel emotionally forlorn or misunderstood by society. I think a lot of goths can relate to being outsiders with tastes that run much darker than what the mainstream deems normal. Many of us close ourselves off from the outside world and retreat to our own gothic sanctuaries. The vampire has evolved into an iconic antihero for creatures of the night.
What are you currently working on?
I'm always writing new music. When I'm not writing for a specific project, I write music just to suit my mood. Later this year, I'll begin work on a new Nox Arcana horror-themed album. In the meantime, we'll be working on a new computer game, Doctor Arcana and the Secret of Shadowspire, a sequel to The Cabinets of Doctor Arcana. It's a creepy adventure game set in a mysterious castle filled with devious puzzles. I get the most amount of personal satisfaction from creating a computer game, but it's also the most time-consuming of all the projects I've worked on. I've also been writing stories for a new anthology of gothic fantasy tales set in an ancient realm where monsters and the undead stalk the night.
Is there anyone you haven't gotten to work with or any project you've always wanted to do but haven't yet?
I'm a control freak. I prefer to work alone or with one or two close friends. I don't collaborate much, and the few times I have, it's usually with someone I know very well, whom I trust and respect. I have several friends who are very talented writers, artist and musicians, so I have a large pool of talent to tap into if and when I need to. Past partnerships with gallery owners, former bands, game designers and indie filmmakers didn't end well. I like to be in charge of all aspects of my projects and gladly do the lion's share of the work on anything I'm involved with, contributing music, writing and art. Sometimes, when working with others, there's a clash of ideas that leads to an unresolvable dispute. More often though, it ends up with me or my team doing all the work for someone else's project, polishing all their rough concepts and putting them together in a cohesive and artistic way to bring them to fruition. In these cases, the partner's contribution is so minimal, it's not worth the hassle of collaborating.
I also like to maintain all copyrights and publishing licenses on my work. Working with bigger companies and studios allows less creative freedom and requires sharing or relinquishment of ownership rights. The exposure and potential payoff is bigger, but there's a huge risk that the project might careen off track.
An ideal artistic partnership would be with someone who brings something new to the table, like a director or film company with a decent budget that would entrust me with total artistic freedom to create an epic gothic film.
How can people find you and your work?
There are websites for everything I do. MonolithGraphics.com has all our products. NoxArcana.com has all the band related stuff, DoctorArcana.com has the game info and JosephVargo.com has a virtual gallery displaying all my artwork. All our sites have email links for those who may want to contact us.