Gleeful chipmunks bravely exploring the furthest reaches of dark, cold space... gargantuan robots locked in mortal combat amid the ruins of a crushed city... anthropomorphic hot dogs screaming in agony as they're being pecked to death by chipper birds... Such images don't often visit the minds of ordinary human beings, but if you're one Joel Trussell they come quite naturally. Fortunately, he's also an illustrator who's able to vent these creatures onto paper—otherwise who knows what might happen.

An added benefit of this creative expulsion is the fact that we can enjoy his bizarre, colorful visions of pop-culture gone slightly mad. (Attentive PopCult readers will recognize Trussell's illustrations emblazoned on a variety of PopCult products.) From goateed mutant hipsters to devastatingly chic women who look as if they're from lost '60s European sex comedies, Trussell's art reveals a mind irreversibly warped from prolonged exposure to several generations' worth of pop culture influences. Cartoons, advertising, comic books, movies, and MAD Magazine all had their ways with the young Trussell brain, leading to an adult artist who fuses these pop-culture forces into spectacles of rampant weirdness.

"I grew up an only child and developed a pretty keen sense of imagination to keep myself entertained," Trussell confesses. "Drawing and watching cartoons topped the list of interest for me, while my basketball and football collected dust."

This early fermentation of Trussell's creative juices led him to major in drawing at the University of Tennessee, where he would sometimes turn in short films for drawing assignments. After graduation, he pursued animation further by moving to Seattle where he took classes from local animation guru Jim Coffin. Soon, he scored a job as animation director at smashingideas.com, working for three years in the trenches of corporate animation. Deciding to strike out on his own as a freelancer, he moved back to Tennessee with his wife and son, where he devises projects for such clients as The History Channel and Barbie.

–C.T.

What were your favorite
cartoons or comics growing up?

I'd have to say Looney Tunes really affected me the most throughout my childhood. Road Runner was so much fun to watch because it even cracked my dad up. He was a man that didn't laugh until tears too often, so I was convinced it was the funniest cartoon ever!

Superhero comic collecting didn't interest me much, but I did collect Harvey comics (Hot Stuff, Casper and the like), Car-Toons, Mad, and Cracked magazines along with Archie comics. Yeah, I said Archie. Dan DeCarlo had a way of drawing sexy innocent girls.

TV cartoons are difficult to narrow down too much, because I enjoyed so many. A few are Bullwinkle and Rocky, Woody Woodpecker, Mr. Peabody, Pink Panther, Tom and Jerry, Tennessee Tuxedo, etc., etc.

What did you first start drawing?

It was pretty much a grab bag of images, but I was mostly interested in drawing human figures and weird faces. I do remember drawing lots of ladies and hiding them as a youngster. My mom had always told me she felt I was going to be an artist once she saw I was drawing boobs on my stick figures at a very early age. I don't know that's a sign of an artist myself… maybe a lecher. Sheesh.

Was there a particular artist
(or artists) who sent you
on your path to your
current drawing style?

There's a TON of artists that have influenced me. A few of my favorites are Gene Deitch, Ed Benedict, Jay Ward, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Miguel Covarrubias, Tom Oreb, Al Hirschfeld, Mary Blair, Aurelius Battaglia, Harvey Kurtzman, Hank Ketcham, Mel Crawford, Windsor McCay, Maurice Noble, John Kricfalusi, Lynne Naylor, Shane Glines, Tim Biskup... Whew! Is that enough? I also feed off of my artist friends a lot.

What is it about their work that inspired you?

Overall their wackiness and simplicity. I listed so many it's hard to be too general, but there's humor in all of them, and most worked in simpler shapes or economical line work. I've just got a fascination for well-made cartoon images. A funny expression or a gesture can make me snort with laughter.

What kinds of things inspire you now, aside from other illustrators?

Music, photography, design, film, literature, fashion, packaging... any of these things can get my juices flowing just as much as cartoons; however, just as with cartoons, very little of it does. I'm pretty narrow on my likes and heavy on my dislikes, but I love to see someone doing something risky... especially if it's entertaining and interesting.

How would you describe
your own style?

Hmmm… well I guess sorta one part line flow, one part interesting shapes, sprinkle with some questionable content and a dash of humor. I'm not much of a wordsmith… maybe acidretropunkcartoon? I'm sure I'll regret ever saying that.

I really enjoy the old UPA style of character design and animation, and I think that attraction carries over into some parts of my work. Yet I find myself normally throwing some type of aberrant twist to my projects. Probably because I'm attracted to children friendly images, but don't want to be locked into a child's genre. I tried kid stuff for a while and found it very unrewarding for myself.

It's hard to say though, since my style is constantly fluctuating.

Do you consciously think about the pop-culture influences at play in your illustrations, or do they just come out that way?

I have to admit it's not a very conscious process. For me there's just a natural attraction to popular culture so it comes through in my work. Sometimes I may look at things like a gun-wielding chipmunk on a '70s cereal box and think, "I want to play around with imagery like that," but never consciously think about the role of the image as pop culture.

"Retro" illustration styles—harkening to '50s/'60s ad design or cartoons—seem very popular now. Why do you think that is?

In my opinion, the '40s through the '60s were when the best cartoons were made. Seems as if cartoonists and animator's gave more thought to the funny shapes or expressions of the characters instead of bothering with inane details.

So many modern cartoons try for "edgy" or "extreme" content and design. Execs seem to want to repackage recent ideas and sell them over and over, so maybe the public is getting fed up with the current offerings. It could just be the natural need to look back and take from the past when we all get bored with the present.

So how does an illustrator
find work these days?

Well, it's hard work to find work. Especially projects that you feel are worth the effort. It helps staying active in the art community as much as possible. Having friends never hurts. I also try to make time for personal work as much as possible. It helps keep my head clear about where I'm trying to get artistically. Heavy emphasis on the word "try" there.

What are some of your
current projects?

There's a few things coming out this fall I worked on.

I just tied up directing a music video for "The Illness" by Oakland laptop warrior kid606. He was a pleasure to work with and a super talent as well. His music has so much energy it was easy to create visuals to. I also lent a hand in doing the illustration for the CD's inside, backside and faceplate, so keep your eyes peeled for the Kill Sound Before Sound Kills You LP.

Also, oddly enough, the History Channel has a pilot coming out this fall that uses a good bit of my animation. Can't divulge the name yet. It may end up in the scrap yard.

Additionally, I did some storyboards and animation for some Barbie cartoon CDs due out this fall.

Lastly, Yee-Haw Industries invited me to design a series of greeting cards and they're currently for sale. Those Yee-Haw folks are the greatest. The old-school print technology really enhances the illustrations.

Where do you hope to
take your efforts?

I really enjoyed directing this latest music video and would certainly like to explore that more, but I also enjoy working in a large team environment. You can't beat being surrounded by talented people working on a project you all have great faith in. I know that doesn't happen too often, but still.

With all that said, I suppose working on a film would be the apex. We'll see what turns up. I'm thankful for anything God gives me.

 

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