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"I pull a lot from my nostalgic memory"

interview

"I pull a lot from my nostalgic memory"

Introducing Dave Rapoza, World Builder.

Arjan Terpstra

30 Nov 2020 ⋅ 7 min read

Dave Rapoza is a natural storyteller. Calling over video, the American artist enchants you with his dark velvety voice, his sparkling and mischievous eyes and an attractive brand of self-deprecating humour.

Before you know it, you're in Rapoza world, a world stitched together from well-told anecdotes and dramatic asides. By then, you will be mesmerised by talk of his inspiring career arc, his love for antiques or his approach to find the right characterization for an image, and everything will handsomely dovetail with everything else.

So when Rapoza fills you in on how he approached the Castlevania art print print commission he did for Cook and Becker, you don't only get the technical details.

"I remember playing Castlevania in our basement as a kid," he would say, before offering a vivid description of said basement. "My dad was an antiques dealer and our parental house was always covered in antiques. The basement would just be stuffed with old brassworks and furniture, with little me sitting there playing this super scary game!"

World building

In essence, you come to realise, David Rapoza (Carver, Massachusetts, 1987) is all about world building, a quality prevalent both in his talk and in his art.

It doesn't matter if you look at one of his super-detailed for Marvel's Spider-Man and Spider-Verse comics, or home in on the rough sketch work for the more-than-funny Steve Lichman comics. Both communicate stories that extend well beyond an individual image.
Castlevania (2020)
© Konami
The same holds true for the Castlevania print, showing the full cast of a Castlevania game, movie-poster style, and then some. How did he arrive at this image?

"I pull a lot from my nostalgic memory. Think back to that basement when nothing in that crude pixel world felt small or dumb, you know? Adults today will see a two-tone purple monster from the 1980's as silly, right?"

"But in that nostalgic memory the magic experience of seeing this thing as something lively and meaningful and scary is still around."

"That really speaks to the great strength of a lot of the older games. The pixels only imply certain shapes, and the player fills in the blanks with their imagination."

"Mine certainly did, and I try to lean into that specific, personal interpretation of the Castlevania I remember as much as possible."
Leonardo
© Dave Rapoza

Leonardo of the Teenage Hero Ninja Turtles (detail). Used by permission.

Shape language

Next, Rapoza homes in on what he calls 'the root of the thing': what was the thought process behind the art of the first, original game?

"Remember, before the first Castlevania game (1986 - ed.) there was no buff hero-protagonist in any Dracula story, so they must have invented this guy from the pop cultural stuff that was around at the time."

"So you imagine these artists looked at Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan movies for inspiration, looked at He-Man and took Indiana Jones' whip. It doesn't matter if this is true or not - it's stepping in the shoes of the designers and figuring out how they arrived at things."

"Of course I also looked at Ayami Kojima's great Castlevania art and found the original Simon Belmont pixel sprite. Plus he is in Smash Bros. today, and you mix all those interpretations and add your own ideas."

Rapoza stresses the importance of keeping the shape language of a character. "People all have favorite interpretations of Simon, and you have to appeal to this idea of the character we all share in our heads or people won't eat it. You can't make him barebones really, unless there's a good reason for it."
Clayde's Six (Destiny2)
© Dave Rapoza

Two panels of the Clayde's Six comics, made for the Destiny 2 game.

Ornamentation

One striking feature of the Castlevania image is the lush ornamentation - something of a hallmark feature in Rapoza's work.

"I guess I have that love for classical ornamentation from my dad. The antiques that came into our house would have beautiful ornaments like the filigree on the furniture or details on brass objects, so that definitely made an impression."

"When I think of Dracula's castle, I cannot imagine it other than this place full of baroque, ornate stuff that has been around for ages. Step into an old baroque church and you step into a forest with an incredible, overwhelming amount of details. Dracula's castle in my mind has the same type of opulence. It must be a place almost disgusting and scary in its details, haha."

Some artists shy away from lush ornaments for reasons of economy. Rapoza is not one of them. "When people ask me where my strengths lie as an artist, I would say in my discipline."

"I just sit down with a piece and just grind on it, even if I don't feel like it on an off-day. Inspiration will simply come once you apply yourself, the focus will be there, the stamina."
Merman
© Dave Rapoza

Merman (He-Man, detail). Courtesy Dave Rapoza.

Credentials

This wasn't always the case, though. Looking back at how he got where he is today, the storyteller takes you on a long, fascinating trip down a very specific memory lane.

"I was always too poor for school. Nothing happened in the way of extracurricular activities, and we couldn't afford any art courses. I wanted to go to art school but that didn't happen. I lacked the credentials to apply, basically."

"At a New York art school in a portfolio review they simply told me that I needed to do every outside class they had before I could apply for their course, even things like math, as my grades were so poor. So that route was closed to me at that point."

"After college I had a scholarship but for some reason I could not use it, so I asked if the funds for the scholarship could be turned to buying me a Wacom tablet. Around that time I was online a lot, looking at concept art and posting things on websites."

Grand larceny

And yet in the first year outside of high school Rapoza lost faith and took the easy way out. "I then got into all sorts of trouble. Legal trouble too, serious stuff (Rapoza was charged with grand larceny for selling stolen goods online - ed.). Being a thief brought me to court, where I was facing a five year sentence for what I did."

Luckily, a paperwork issue saved Rapoza from going to trial, as the case was dropped at the last moment. "To me, this was a pivotal moment. You know, I completely switched. What if I did good with the five years that were suddenly given to me? So I took to work, applied myself, sat down with my Wacom 12 to 14 hours a day, every day."
Venom
© Marvel/Dave Rapoza

One of the Spider-Man/Spider-Verse covers for Marvel Comics. Courtesy Dave Rapoza.

"By looking at the other artists I got a sense of direction for myself, too. A roadmap, a way forward. In my New England small town no one did art, so I had no idea what a career looked like, what artistic progress looked like until I saw people post their art online and talk about that."

Strengths and weaknesses

Soon Rapoza was talking to other artists, asking them how they worked and what they did to grow. "Interestingly, they all told me the same thing: work on the fundamental stuff. And that's what I have been doing ever since - work 12 to 14 hours, study, understand my strengths and weaknesses and dive into them."

Today, Rapoza's grit feels very natural to him. Isn't he worried he will burnout at some point, seeing how insane this schedule is for anyone?

"I don't think burnout is a thing, haha. Not for me at least. I can be very into things, always have been like that. I skateboarded for years, for instance, and today I write comedy with the same abandon - once I find my focus I just go for it."

Dave Rapoza Commissioned Works