Returning home from a tour in early April 2016, Life of Agony bassist and art designer Alan Robert entered his New Jersey house and saw his wife and daughter sitting at a table using thin markers to fill in intricate designs in coloring books. "Hey, that looks like fun," Robert said, so his wife suggested he join them. So Robert picked up a book and flipped through it to find an image that piqued his interest.
"I wanted to color, but I really just couldn't find anything that I would want to invest the time in, and my wife said, 'You should just draw your own,'" he recalls. "That sparked the idea of making something that would appeal to me, and of course it had to be the most disgusting thing that I could think of."
Robert went straight to work and drew the filthy, soiled bathroom at the now-defunct New York rock club CBGB, complete with door-less toilet stalls, and layers of band stickers pasted to the wall. He posted the coloring book image on his Facebook as an April Fool's joke.
"It got downloaded more than 400 times overnight," recalls Robert with some of the same glee he felt when he first learned lots of people wanted to color in his drawing. "I had worked with IDW [Publishing] on some comic book projects so I pitched them a horror coloring book and within 15 minutes they greenlit the project. I thought they were joking because they'd never said yes to anything that fast. It always took them weeks of discussion. So I said, 'This is an April Fool's joke, right?' And they said, 'No, seriously. We love the idea. Let's do it.'"
As it turned out, Robert and IDW were on the right page. Robert's first coloring book, The Beauty of Horror: A GOREgeous Coloring Book, came out October 4, 2016 and instantly became a hit at Amazon, Target and Walmart, earning Robert a spot on the New York Times bestseller's list. Robert followed up with The Beauty of Horror II: Ghouliana's Creepatorium: Another GOREgeous Coloring Book, which dropped in September 2017 and also became a bestseller. Last month, his third book in the series The Beauty of Horror 3: Haunted Playgrounds Coloring Book was released, and there are more in the works.
"There's two more releases this year, including a Christmas book that I already drew, and a lot more for next year," Robert said. "And there are some other related projects, you know, taking some of the characters from the coloring books and bringing them to the screen."
Robert started working with IDW when he released first his horror comic book, Wire Hangers, in 2010. The story about a grotesque antihero who wants to get even with whoever wronged him was picked up for monthly release and was then turned into a graphic novel. "It's a super-violent, sick story," Robert says. "The main character is a monstrous homeless guy with wire hangers underneath his skin that disfigured him. I's kind of X-Files meets The Punisher because, at first, you don't know how this happened to him, and you later find out there's this whole conspiracy behind how he became who he is and what he does for revenge."
By 2012, Robert was on to his next comic series, Crawl to Me, which is currently being made into a movie. The following year, he introduced Killogy, a violent crime story that features real-life people — Frank Vincent, Marky Ramone, Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein and Brea Grant — as characters. At the same time Robert juggles various comic, coloring book and film projects, he continues to work with Life of Agony on the follow-up to their 2017 comeback album, A Place Where There's No More Pain.
"I really like to stay busy and I always have, whether I was doing art for Life of Agony or working on T-shirt designs for other people," Robert says. "I make a lot of it work together. I can draw comics on the road and I did a lot of them on tour because there's so many hours to kill. By the time you enter a venue to play a show there's a good six hours of time to work. But the coloring I can only do at home because it requires a different kind of concentration. You really have to lose yourself to draw all those intricate details, so I really have to carve out time to do that."
Right before heading to the studio to work with his Life of Agony bandmates, Robert hopped on the phone to talk about how winning a Kellogg's contest as a child started his career in drawing, how gang life and art school made uncomfortable bedfellows, his fascination with blood-splattering horror and what he does to encourage women — the primary audience for adult coloring books — to embrace his world of monsters and mayhem.
DID YOU ALWAYS LIKE TO DRAW MONSTERS?
ALAN ROBERT Pretty much. I saw Star Wars in the theater when I was six years old and I remember rushing home to draw what burned into my memory from the movie. I drew some of the creatures from the Cantina scene, trying my best to remember what they looked like. I would always do that whenever I saw something that appealed to me on a visual level. And my artwork naturally got gorier as I got older.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST DISCOVER YOU HAD REAL TALENT AS AN ARTIST?
My parents weren't into art at all and I was the oldest child so I didn't have anyone else to turn me on to art. I just liked to draw and people always commented on my drawings. And then I won a Kellogg's poster contest in the early Eighties. You had to draw all their characters like Tony the Tiger sitting around eating cereal. Then you'd send it in and the winner got an Atari 2600. I was the kid that got the Atari. I was about 11 and I guess that legitimized my artistic ability.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INTRODUCTION TO REAL HORROR? DID YOU WATCH UNIVERSAL MONSTER MOVIES AND START WITH CHARACTERS LIKE FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA AND THE MUMMY?
I got into that stuff later. Around 1980, when we were living in Brooklyn, the movie Amityville Horror came to HBO. I kept seeing advertisements for it and I wanted to see it and I was eight or nine years old and I begged my parents to watch it. They were like, "It's an R-rated movie. You can't watch it." I bugged them so much they finally agreed to let me watch it with them. I had my popcorn ready. I sat down in front of the television and the opening theme song started. These kids were chanting and it scared the shit out of me and I ran out of the room into my bedroom and pulled the covers over my head. But we had these paper-thin walls and I had to listen to the whole movie through the wall. I think it was probably scarier that way because I had to use my imagination for the whole film. I was terrified, but obsessed with it at the same time. After that, I saw all the Eighties slasher movies — The Halloweens, Nightmare on Elm Streets, Friday the 13ths. Everything kind of snowballed from there and I became obsessed with horror. When we got a subscription to this video store I would go every weekend and take out, like, three at a time. I got into the bloodier stuff like Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead and I collected Fangoria magazine and just binged on that stuff.
WHEN DID YOU START APPLYING YOUR INTEREST IN HORROR TO YOUR LOVE FOR ART?
When I started getting into the gory stuff I began making my own comic books. I was one of those kids that didn't play a lot of sports. So during the summer time I would watch baseball on TV and just draw comic books all day. I was kind of in my own world. My parents never really stopped me from doing it to tell me to go outside and play.
DID YOU HAVE ANY ART CLASSES OR PROFESSIONAL INSTRUCTION?
Out of junior high, I passed a test to get into the High School of Art and Design in the city. I was accepted to that for high school, which I thought was really cool at first. But there was a lot of violence in that school at the time, so I end up transferring back to the Brooklyn High School I was zoned for and that's where I met Joey ["Z" Zampella] from Life Of Agony. We became friends and started the band. It's funny, he was actually accepted to the same High School of Art and Design and we both had the same problems with violence. They had something, like, Freshman Friday every week and all these freshmen would get beat up. It was crazy. The school didn't have a handle on the gangs and couldn't control the students. I think it was one of the first high schools to have metal detectors at the door.
DID YOU RECOGNIZE JOEY FROM THE HIGH SCHOOL OF ART AND DESIGN?
We didn't know each other at the school, but when we got back to Brooklyn we kind of recognized each other, which was kind of weird. Joey and I started the band in 1989 and after South Shore high school we went to the School of Visual Arts together for college. The band got signed in '92 and I graduated from SVA in '93 and that's when I had to make a choice to pursue a career as a comic book artist or to tour with Life of Agony. We jumped in the van, and 20 years later here we are.
IN SCHOOL YOU STUDIED UNDER COMIC BOOK ARTIST WALT SIMONSON, WHO WORKED ON THOR FOR MARVEL COMICS. WAS THAT HUGE FOR YOU?
Yeah, but I was way more into stuff like The Punisher. Back then they didn't have anything huge like Comicon, but they had these little comic book conventions in the lobbies of these small hotels. Artists would sit there and sign books and I was one of those little fanboys who went to these things. I'd bring my Punisher comics to get the Punisher artist [Gerry Conway] to sign them. He would sign my stack of books and I'd just sit there and annoy him on a Saturday and get him to draw stuff for me for, like, $50. And Mike Zeck was definitely one of my biggest influences and I also loved Mike Mignola, who did Hellboy.
DID YOU DO ANY PROFESSIONAL ART BEFORE YOU WORKED ON WIREHANGERS?
I designed the art for Life of Agony and made some of them myself. And I did all the T-shirt designs. But I actually wrote the story for Wirehangers when I was in the School of Visual Arts and then I sat on it for decades. I tried to hook up with a couple artists to draw it for me because I wasn't that confident in my own abilities to do a whole comic series by myself. And everyone that I hooked up with took forever to get me artwork. I finally got frustrated and said, "You know what? I'm going to do this myself." I got inspired to do it on my own because I saw this book 30 Days of Night by Ben Templesmith and Steve Niles. They did it for IDW and it was a very different style than the traditional Marvel and DC Comics I grew up with. There was a lot of textures and a lot of Photoshop techniques and the drawings were very raw. I said to myself, "I can do something like this," and that's the kind of style I used for Wirehangers. Since then, I've purposely tried to change my style for each book.
DID YOU HAVE A DEAL WITH IDW WHEN YOU WROTE WIREHANGERS?
I didn't have an agent or anything I just figured I was going to self-publish it. I had only drawn three pages in 2009 when I joined Twitter. I started following Ben Templesmith and some other people from the comic book industry, including this guy Chris Ryall who was working on a new sci-fi book with Templesmith that was coming out on IDW. Chris was a big metal fan and the two of us connected. He liked Life of Agony and I started sharing some music and he sent me a box of comics. We became friends. I told him that I was planning to put out Wirehangers myself. I put together a little teaser, and he hit me up and asked me if I'd want IDW to put it out. I was like, "Yeah!!" I didn't understand how he was connected to IDW, but as it turned out, not only was he a writer for the company, he was also the publisher! I've been with them ever since and they've greenlit every project that I pitched them.
DID YOU EXPECT WIREHANGERS TO BLOW UP LIKE IT DID?
No, I had no idea and I was really nervous about it because I didn't know if I was going to be taken seriously or viewed as just some rock guy trying to do comics. But people really liked it and that gave me a bit of confidence going into Crawl to Me.
WHAT'S CRAWL TO ME ABOUT?
This young family moves into a house in the middle of the winter in the middle of nowhere. And there's a little boy who discovers that there are strange things happening. So the reader is left trying to figure out if there are actual supernatural events happening in the house or if the boy is losing his mind. And there's a huge twist ending that I won't spoil. That series got me a lot of attention and we've been developing the film for the last couple of years. We finally got a great team together to work on the movie and an awesome director. I can't say who it is, but there's a lot of momentum happening with that.
WAS IT HARD TO SWITCH FROM COMICS TO COLORING BOOKS?
There was a huge learning curve for me because with comics I was coming up with the story and then doing all the coloring and the lettering. There's a lot of ways to make a page look rich with shadows and t textures and lighting effects. And coloring books just involve pen-and-ink line work with no shading or textures. The composition had to really work to inspire someone to want to invest their time in a page. So I spent a couple months in the beginning trying to figure out my style for coloring books. Also, comics have a different audience. It's mostly a female audience for the coloring books — probably 85 percent. And the coloring books have outsold all of the graphic novels now. It's a crazy phenomenon, just adult coloring in general, but especially horror coloring.
IT WOULD SEEM LIKE COLORING HORROR WOULD APPEAL MORE TO MEN THAN WOMEN.
There are some guys into it, but it's still mostly women. I guess they're getting bored of coloring nature patterns and mandalas. But I take that into account, and if you look at the artwork itself, it's a mixture of horror and beauty. Even it an image is an intricate, bloody mess I'll do it in a way so there's also a flower in her hair or something. A character may have an axe in her head but there's a bird sitting on the axe. It creates a balance that's kind of funny.
DO YOUR BANDMATES LIKE READING YOUR COMICS OR USING YOUR COLORING BOOKS?
Oh, yeah. I sometimes see Mina [Caputo, Life of Agony's vocalist] coloring in some gory picture. Mina's really into that.
DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER ART OR MUSIC PROJECTS ON YOUR PLATE?
I recently hooked up with a Claymation animator, who's a great guy all-around. He's very creative and he's putting together a Claymation [film] for the Beauty of Horror Christmas Book that's going to be insane. He has already modeled a lot of the characters including this little undead girl who appears in the whole series. The story will be about how these characters are dismantling Christmas in a very gory way. I can't wait until he's finished because I think it's going to be amazing.
See more of Robert's art from across his career below: