Vargo acquired his dark passion
at an early age. "As a youth, I tended to gravitate toward
horror movies, monster models and anything that could possibly
warp my young and impressionable mind," he recalls. "My
sister and I used to rush home from school to watch the old Dark
Shadows TV series. I was constantly drawing, and the subject
matter was usually some sort of monstrous creature."
Like many artists coming
of age in the 1970s and 1980s, his early stylistic development
was heavily influenced by legendary fantasy icon Frank Frazetta.
According to Vargo, "His work is seething with energy and
has a dark, primal quality to it. He is a master at capturing
the action just before a fateful encounter, right when your adrenaline
begins to rush." Echoes of Frazetta can be discerned in
many of Vargo's fantasy works.
Vargo quickly forged his
own style, one in which the raw, brutish power of Frazetta became
increasingly overtaken by subtler, moody evocations of horror
and enchantment. Gaunt vampires lurking in shadowy catacombs
are a favorite subject of Vargo's, as are beautiful and dangerous
seductresses, who may either be in league with the undead or
members of it. The sensuality and understated dread apparent
in Bram Stoker's Dracula and the works of Edgar Allan Poe emanate
like a Victorian mist from many of Vargo's paintings and illustrations.
His artistic style developed
and matured solely through hard work and discipline. Though he
briefly attended art school in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio,
Vargo found the experience disheartening, even detrimental to
his own goals, and he left after one semester. Of his instructors,
he observes, "Their ideas of fine art were completely the
opposite of what mine were. I expected to hone my skills and
learn to paint like the Masters. Instead, the curriculum consisted
of nurturing undisciplined expressions of creativity, such as
splattering paint against a wall. It was a disillusioning experience,
and I did very little artwork in the following five years. Eventually,
though, I returned to art and began training myself and honing
The necessity of self-reliance
soon became a recurrent theme in his professional life. The mainstream
art community, historically hostile and pessimistic toward fantasy
art, offered him no support or encouragement, and even the more
commercially driven fantasy and science fiction publishers and
distributors were unwilling to promote a relatively unknown talent.
Since going through normal channels proved to be a dead end,
Vargo quickly learned that if any opportunities to promote his
work were to come his way, he would have to make them himself.
To that end, in 1991, he established his own company, Monolith
Graphics, to sell art prints, calendars and t-shirts of his own
design. In 1992, graphic designer Christine Filipak came on board,
and her computer expertise became a valuable complement to Vargo's
talents in acrylics, oils and inks.
Monolith soon developed a
reputation for striking, high-quality duotone reproductions of
Vargo's gothic fantasy works. "In 1997, we started printing
a line of posters and calendars in a blue and black duotone,"
Vargo recalls, "mainly because it was more economical to
print with two colors than with four, but it also captured the
gothic atmosphere of the subject matter. The look really caught
on and blue and black have since become our trademark colors.
Many people are surprised to see that a lot of my original paintings
are actually rendered in full color." During this year, Vargo opened
his own gothic art gallery, The Realm: Showcase of the Fantastic, which
featured his works as well as those of many other popular fantasy artists.
In addition to Monolith's
array of prints, calendars, t-shirts and other products, Vargo
soon extended his talents to other venues. In 1998, he developed
the concept for a gothic soundtrack and produced the cd Born
of the Night. Vargo continued as artistic director on the
follow-up cd, Realm of Shadows, but eventually left to
form his own band, Nox Arcana, with fellow composer William Piotrowski. A short time later, Vargo wrote and published The Legend of Darklore Manor and Other Tales of Terror, a novella that chronicles the grim history of the haunted mansion that inspired Nox Arcana's debut album.
In 2000, he published and
illustrated the anthology Tales From The Dark Tower, an
atmospheric collection of thirteen short stories inspired by
many of his gothic paintings. The anthology, which delves into
the mysteries surrounding a medieval tower inhabited by cursed
vampires and other lost souls, featured many stories written
by Vargo himself as well as by several emerging writers. "The
primary intent of the project was to give some talented but relatively
unknown writers a chance to be published," he explains.
The book has garnered worldwide acclaim. In 2011, the sequel Beyond The Dark Tower, as well as The Dark Tower soundtrack were published.
This interest in promoting
the talents of others-a courtesy that was, ironically, not afforded
to Vargo himself during his early days as a professional-lay
behind his decision in 2001 to create and publish Dark Realms, a quarterly magazine showcasing the works of up-and-coming gothic
artists, bands and writers. The magazine became an instant success,
capturing the attention of a wide audience with eye-catching
layouts, thought-provoking articles and arresting covers painted
by Vargo. Each issue has quickly become a highly sought-after
collector's item soon after its release. Also high on the collector's
list is the first edition art book, Born of the Night: The
Gothic Fantasy Artwork of Joseph Vargo, which features over
100 paintings and illustrations in glossy full-color, plus commentary
from the artist.
In 2002, Vargo unveiled one
of his most ambitious projects to date: The Gothic Tarot. Comprised of 78 images either adapted from his existing works
or created specifically for the deck, this darkly elegant deck
of fortune-telling cards is a veritable miniature gallery of
his most popular works and a lavish testament to Vargo's gothic
realm. In 2007, Vargo co-wrote The Gothic Tarot Compendium,
a detailed guide to understanding and using his best-selling
Gothic Tarot deck.