James Stowe is both one of Vampire: the Eternal Struggle‘s most distinctive artists and a prolific creator in the wider World of Darkness. I used to regularly follow James via his website and loved the more cartoony style he was developing there, but that went untended for several years. In preparation for this interview I was worried he’d dropped off the radar completely, but a quick bit of googling saw him alive, well and creating plenty of art. He is, I discovered, a very busy man: James and I had the below conversation over several months. It was a great opportunity to learn more about how he got started and the new projects he’s been working on.
B: To kick off, can you talk me through a little bit about how you got into professional art, and from there how’d you get into working with White Wolf?
JS: I was in college for illustration in Georgia when the opportunity to intern at White Wolf in promotions came my way. Once I got myself into the building I set myself to getting my artwork published there. I would gopher half the day for free, work half the day in their warehouse and then at night paint a new piece that I would take in the next day to show the art directors. After about eight days of that Brian Snoddy (the Vampire: the Masquerade art director at the time) told me he would contract me for work if only I promised to stop putting paintings on his desk every morning. So White Wolf was my first professional work, at the age of twenty. With the confidence and experience I developed with those early pieces I went on to work in over 150 publications and projects for at least a dozen game developers.
B: I remember first seeing your CCG art in 2002, on what was called the Camarilla Edition for Vampire: the Eternal Struggle. How did the format of CCG art differ from what you’d been doing previously, and were there particular challenges from that?
JS: CCG artwork, especial in the mid-nineties, were challenging as each piece was considered to be a cover quality illustration by the art directors on the project (and they paid equivalently). They were very coveted gigs. They paid well and had (and still have) a dedicated fan base. Originally all my CCG work was traditional paint, so time and shipping were a factor. That has now been mitigated or eliminated with the reliance on digital art.
B: Is there a particular piece you’re proudest of?
JS: I have two favorites from VTES. ‘Golconda’, which was a traditional painting where I feel I was very successful with my composition and color palette and a promo card called ‘Spontaneous Transformation’ which was a digital painting that featured some fun interpretations of the Vicissitude discipline. It was a joy to paint and very successfully rendered.
B: ‘Golconda’ is one of my faves of yours – such a great piece. How did you approach composition for what is a pretty abstract concept? Did you get it in one, or did you have a few takes at representing the topic?
JS: At the time I was still painting with paint (weird these days, I know) and I really wanted to experiment with color as a storytelling element. The idea of a warm-toned, almost fiery, set of stone steps encompassing a cool-toned draped figure was a powerful image in my mind. It showed both fragility and strength, which I thought was key to the concept of Golconda. The idea that the world is blood and danger and fire, and in the center is this wispy huddled figure immune to it all. It was a strong visual I really wanted to tell. Luckily I feel like the idea translated well. I am very proud of that piece. I kick myself every day that I sold the original. Thank you for your appreciation of it.
B: Outside of making art, have you had much exposure to the World of Darkness as a player?
JS: I have long been an avid RPG player and GM. My love for roleplaying games is what drew me to apply for the White Wolf internship in the first place. I have run convention demos, 100+ player LARPS and countless private sessions both in the Classic World of Darkness, the New World of Darkness / Chronicles of Darkness, and across many other systems including some of my own. And as part of my contract with White Wolf at the time, and in working part-time in their warehouse, I had a trunk full of Vampire: the Eternal Struggle cards. I remember me and my college buddies playing game after game all night for weeks. We knew to stop playing because the sun came up. It was very unintentionally thematic. I have always enjoyed the TTRPG and I feel VTES was a good distillation of that idea while having some unique play elements all its own. I found that I could use VTES to explain concepts of the VTM setting fairly easily. The ideas of Methuselahs, Jihads, vampiric disciplines and the like were all conveyed in accessible ways through the CCG and then could be expanded upon in the TTRPG.
B: So seeing as you have that connection with Vampire and the World of Darkness, what was it like to help shape the visual look and feel of the card game?
JS: It’s funny, at the time I started making art for the World of Dakness and VTES I was 20 and still in college. I certainly didn’t feel like I was shaping anything. I was just a nerdy artist completely overjoyed that I had somehow convinced these amazing people to let me work on their stuff. As I continued in my career I did a lot of work for White Wolf (over 90 books and several card games) and I loved being a part of the visual development of it all. Overall though, I feel I was a minor cog in the grand scheme of things. I look back at my time with White Wolf fondly. I was glad I had a chance to work with them.
B: So you mentioned your own system earlier – can you tell me more about what you’re working on?
JS: My current project is called Sidekick Quests, an all ages webcomic and RPG focused on kids playing kids in a fantasy world and meant to introduce children and families to the concepts of RPGs.
Sidekick Quests started as a project because my son, who was six at the time, was very interested in my own work and wanted to play these games. But he didn’t want to play the games with me. He wanted to play them with other 6 year olds. I saw an opportunity to work on a game that could be used to introduce TTRPG concepts to young kids. It also became a long running comics project for me. I have been telling Sidekick Quests stories almost six years now. You can read them all for free, and find out further information, at wwww.sidekickquests.com.