Like bloodthirsty zombies fixated on their victims, Kerry Gammill and his older brother sit in their parents’ living room and eyeball the TV. It’s Saturday night and the boys are waiting for Gorgon to rise from his creaky coffin and introduce the next monster movie on Nightmare Theater in his Transylvanian voice. “When the night falls, when the shadows become deep and black, the silent pall of evil settles upon the earth,” Gorgon says ominously. “Welcome to Nightmare.” The boys, enthralled, absorb every detail of the night’s movie and when it’s over, they leap to their feet and run to their parents. There, in the kitchen den, they act out the scenes – summoning their inner monsters, jumping, screaming, attacking. Mom and Dad clearly missed the greatest movie ever.
The Sixties were heady times – the Beatles invaded U.S. shores, the U.S. landed a man on the moon, the Packers won the first Super Bowl – but Kerry was in the sinister hands of classic horror films and their misunderstood monsters. He still is. “Bride of Frankenstein” remains his favorite movie of all time. “The makeup was so classic. It’s never really been copied, the flat head, the bolts bulging out of the neck,” he says smiling, as he reminisces. “I just ate all that up and just somehow never got it out of my system. I just love that time, and today I think that’s why I do what I do.”
Kerry stops to dive into a plate of cheesy hash browns, sausage, eggs and toast at a Denny’s in Fort Worth. He’s still groggy from babysitting his grandchild the night before and a series of late-night work sessions. The worn-out grandpa across the table is comic book artist and creator Kerry Gammill. Over the past 30 years, he’s penciled pages for DC Comic’s “Superman” as well as Marvel Comic’s “Powerman and Iron Fist,” starring Spider-Man. He’s designed aliens for the movies (“Virus”) and TV shows (“The Outer Limits” and “Tremors”), created storyboards for the big screen (“Species II”), and even helped dream up a new species (the Zeltons!) for the “Star Wars” comic books. He depicted comic book characters on the page for 18 years, and then turned to special effects and storyboarding, creating aliens and monsters on the screen. Just last year, he launched a monster comic book company called Monsterverse. “He’s somebody that other artists admire because they know his craftsmanship and his ability to start scenes,” says Harry Knowles, the arbiter of all things cool in movieland and comics at Ain’t It Cool News online.
It’s no wonder Kerry grew up to be famous for his monsters and superheroes. The monster craze of the early ’60s seeped into his blood like a vampire’s poison. He was monster crazy. He assembled monster model kits. He traded monster cards. He watched “Lone Ranger” and “Superman” on TV like other kids his age, but his favorite was always “Nightmare” and later, “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family.” He devoured every edition of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. He couldn’t stay away from monsters. There was something magical about them: the electric thrill of witnessing a guy transform into Frankenstein or Wolf Man, the classic makeup that dramatized the characters, the creepy music and frightening scenes.
Kerry Gammill unleashed his first 20-page superhero comic book while attending the University of North Texas in 1974, but he never graduated and dropped out to marry his high school sweetheart at 21. To be honest, he says, the only class he found useful was a figure drawing class and even then, his mind kept wandering: He wanted to sketch the live models with huge muscles like superheroes. “It was nice to have something like the monsters and the comics that give you an identity of some sort — something that you’re so interested in and knowledgeable about,” he says. “I was never good at sports or real popular but I liked being Kerry the monster guy. So at least it gave me something to wrap my identity around.”
He pauses to cut a piece of sausage, stabs it and eats. He started drawing at age 4, or maybe it was 5. In high school, he realized that people actually drew comics for a living. His idols were Marvel artists Jack Kirby, known for drawing Captain America, and Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man. Kerry set his sights on the comic book lifestyle and with his portfolio in hand, he haunted the comic book conventions looking for advice and work. His luck shifted when he met Marvel’s legendary writer Stan Lee at a Houston convention in 1978. Stan, impressed, promised to show Kerry’s drawings to his editors back in N.Y.
For 10 years, working from home in Fort Worth, Kerry penciled pages for “Spider-Man,” “Fantastic Four” and “X-Men: Fallen Angels.” At comic book conventions, Harry Knowles says Kerry was so talented he could nail a sketch of anyone in 15 minutes. For 18 years, he drifted back and forth from Marvel, to DC Comics, then back to Marvel again. But the spark was gone. He was assigned to illustrate “The Punisher,” a comic book he’d never read. “Things had changed so much at that time,” he says with a hint of sorrow. “I was just really not feeling like I was able to relate as much to the audience at that time. The characters had changed … and the styles had changed a lot in just a few years.” He says Superman’s Lois and Clark wedding was the last official comic he drew for DC.
He was casting about for work when a few friends told him about a job in California as a special effects conceptual artist. At the time, he was helping with a short-lived local TV show that aired old monster films. Gobbling monster movies all his life, Kerry has always been interested in the technical side of effects. He tried his hand at makeup and submitted a bunch of his monster samples, which landed him a job in Hollywood. At first, he faxed his work out to Los Angeles, but then they lured him out West to work on a little movie called “Virus” that starred Jamie Lee Curtis. Like Superman, he flew to the rescue, helping create the movie’s aliens and storyboarding. He ended up staying almost two years, working on the TV shows “Outer Limits” and “Tremors” as well as the movie “Species II.”
For Kerry, drawing comics is a natural talent. He hated drawing cars and buildings and fire hydrants. He was drawn to the personalities. He’s credited for co-creating characters such as Don the Lobster of “Fallen Angels,” Rose and Victor Palermo of “Spider-Man,” and Frog Man of “Marvel Team-Up.” But by the late ’90s, he realized he was resorting to stock positions and struggling to invent new hand gestures. “You want to use body language to get across whatever feelings the characters have at the time, but it was just hard to come up with different ways to express the same feelings,” he says. “I was getting stale as far as that goes.” He positions his hands in a typical superhero form, like a balled-up fist, to express what he’s talking about. Like every artist, he’s had his ups and downs. At one point, flipping burgers at McDonald’s seemed like an easier way to make a living than sitting in front of a blank page, wracking his brain for inspiration.
As editor-in-chief of Monsterverse – a project that spawned Kerry’s own monster comic with the former art director of DC comics, Keith “Kez” Wilson – he recently made a decision to mainly edit and do some cover art. But for the first bone-chilling issue in 2010, “Bela Lugosi’s Tales from the Grave,” he did it all: the writing, the penciling, the coloring, the inking and the cover – the 43rd of his career. “We’re hoping that we build it into some actual successful business thing, but we really just started it because it felt like the right thing to do – something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Kerry.
The idea of Monsterverse, he says, is to preserve the comic book tradition of EC Comics (famous for “Tales from the Crypt”) and Warren’s Monster World. Horror film star Bela Lugosi is its host for eternity. But what it’s really about is putting Kerry back on his parents’ sofa, waiting for Gorgon to intone his creepy good nights: “Now it’s getting close to dawn and I must say to you, nighty night and beddy bye.”