Many TV critics and fans of Breaking Bad consider the Emmy-winning meth drama to be art, so perhaps it was just logical that it would inspire artwork. Over the years, artists — accomplished and amateur, working in mediums traditional and nontraditional — have (re-)interpreted the dark themes and mesmerizing imagery of Breaking Bad, a moral-corrosion character study of chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Intrigued by the proliferation of very good Bad artwork all over the globe, series creator Vince Gilligan sought to showcase the breadth and depth of this phenomenon in the art book 99.1% Pure: Breaking Bad Art (Insight Editions, Aug. 17). Here, EW presents a first look at some of the 150-plus images you will find in the 232-page book, as well as an interview with Gilligan, who took no half measures in curating this quirky, colorful collection.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I remember how flattered and intrigued you were, back in the day, when Breaking Bad-inspired artwork started surfacing, When did you first realize that this fan art was becoming a thing?
VINCE GILLIGAN: I can tell you exactly when. It was when [Better Call Saul associate producer] Jenn Carroll, [Gilligan's assistant] Melissa Ng, and [writers' assistant] Ariel Levine [started] pulling these amazing artworks off the internet from all over the world and printing them on photo paper and putting them up on corkboards all around the office. [Caroll, Ng, and producers' assistant Clementine Dunnell curated the art for the book with Gilligan.] They've been putting these up for at least two or three years. And when they filled the first corkboard, I looked out from my myopic bubble that I'm in and I said, "What is all this?" And they said, "This is fan artwork from all over the world!" And I said, "Whoa!" And then a week or two later, there's a second corkboard full. I'm talking a push-pin board that's 6 feet by 4 feet. And a week or two later, there's three of them. They're multiplying like rabbits all over the office. There's something like a half dozen of these all over the office, and every one is filled. So yeah, I think the short answer is when I saw corkboard after corkboard filled with these things all over the office, I started to realize this was a thing. [Laughs]
We're not in the office because of COVID, but when we were in the office, I would linger in the hallway, staring at these things, and they'd say "Where's Vince?" "I'm here looking at the [art], in the hallway!" Each piece of art, just to fit it all in, they scaled it down to maybe three inches square. So there's hundreds of these pieces of art on each corkboard. You look at this thing from a distance, it's this crazy collage of color. And then you get closer and closer, there's all these amazing works, one better than the next. I could stare at these things for hours. So when the opportunity arose to share this with the world, we jumped at it.
You're talking about the Saul offices. I remember during the original run of Breaking Bad, seeing some of that art in your offices.
I knew of its existence then. It wasn't until Better Call Saul and seeing all this art from literally from every continent except Antarctica — from literally all over the world — I didn't realize how much of it there was. I was aware of a fan art going back to a few months after Breaking Bad first came out; we would see these amazing paintings and drawings, and it was wonderful. But this is like a geometric proliferation of fan art that I didn't see coming until Better Call Saul. I was going to say [this book represents] the very cream of the crop, but the truth is there are plenty of pieces of art that were just as worthy that we had to leave out, unfortunately, just for space. So we tried to give the best cross-section.
There is validation through awards, through ratings, through critical and fan praise. But when art inspires art, is that one of the ultimate compliments? What did all these pieces mean to you, as a former aspiring artist?
It is the ultimate compliment. It made my eyes light up every time I walked down the hallway, but I didn't realize that it really is the highest compliment until I was actually writing the introduction for this book. It dawned on me: What better compliment is there than art being inspired by something I had a hand in? What an amazing thrill, this feeling of, "God, this is something we did that inspired artists to do work." Awards shows are great. I'm proud of every award that this show was ever won or been nominated for. But there's something altogether different about the idea of an artist — somewhere in Egypt or somewhere in China or somewhere in Eastern Europe; someone in a place that frankly I didn't even know was aware of Breaking Bad [creating Breaking Bad art]. It's a very profound feeling of gratitude. It's the deepest kind of honor. And I'm just so happy this book exists because it's a way to thank these artists.
Walter White transmogrifies into increasingly uglier versions of himself over the course of the series. What themes did you most see echoed in the artwork, whether it was the idea of a man in devolution or the show's dark humor? What resonated with the artists?
It'd be interesting to plot this on some kind of bell curve. What is the most common subject of this art? And I suppose if you laid it out, you see more representations of Walter White than anyone else. And then after that, it's Jesse Pinkman [Aaron Paul], and then after that, it may be Gustavo Fring [Giancarlo Esposito]. It may be Mike [Jonathan Banks]. But a lot of the art is dark, as is the show. So thematically, a lot of it feels serious and heavy in emotional terms — in a good way.
What I love seeing is artists who sense that about the show, but then turn it on its ear and take it an entirely different way. There's a surprising amount of lighthearted, cartoony art. It's a very interesting, ironic statement on the show that has inspired a lot of folks to go the other way with it. That's what I love about artists: Aside from coveting their talent, I love how they see the world in a way that's different how everyone else sees it. And that's the stuff that sticks with you the most — at least in terms for a Breaking Bad fan looking at this book and thinking, "Wow, I never would have pictured seeing Walter White in this almost whimsical fashion that this artist has particular artist has painted him in."
We endeavored all throughout the years of Breaking Bad to make it very visual, and we do the same thing with Better Call Saul. And what I love is seeing some of these highlight visual moments echoed over and over. You see a lot of the RV and the desert, with smoke coming out of the top. You see a lot of Gustavo Fring straightening his tie, with half of the face blown off. Tortuga's [Danny Trejo] head on the tortoise in the desert. I love how often some of our non-submersible — to use the old Kubrick phrase — visual highlights get repeated over and over again in this art literally from all over the world from every continent. It's neat to see a head on a tortoise drawn by someone in the States, and then there's someone in Mexico who's done a sculpture of a head on a tortoise. And then there's someone in Europe or in Australia. It's funny seeing these key visual touchstones showing up over and over again.
Was there a medium that an artist used that particularly amused or intrigued you? I saw that one artist was working with hand-carved skateboard decks, another created acrylic paint Pez dispensers, and another was using repurposed textile waste.
Those are my favorites. Just the originality of repurposing textiles scraps, or creating Pez dispensers in the shapes of all these major characters — I love that kind of thoughtfulness. And it's that quirky way the best artists have of seeing a world where they use different media instead of just standard paints or pencils or whatnot. Having said that, the old-school media that you see on display here too, it's so top-notch. Just amazing craftsmanship, amazing skill and talent that goes into [this], and I love it all. I love the hyperrealistic, photorealistic stuff. There's a young woman in Russia who does these amazing paintings that just look like photos, and they have this luminescence. They seem to glow; they seem as if they're lit from within. God, I could look at those all day.
What is the ratio of hobbyists to professional artists in this book?
I couldn't tell you — and that's part of what I love about this. Jen Carroll and Melissa Ng — and Claudia Azurmendi and Joanna Zhang [who wrote the text in the book] — know more about the artists and their stories. I wish I did as well, but for me, it was just looking at the end result, and I could not tell you who is professional, who is not, because all of it is at such a high caliber. Obviously there were professional artists represented, but [also] certainly folks who were very talented amateurs, and I love that I don't know who's who and which is which. I would have guesses, but I might be wrong half the time.
It's a weird thing looking at this stuff, because on the one hand I'm so honored that they'd be inspired by something I helped create. But on the other hand, I look at these works of art and I do envy their talent because it is something I thought I'd be spending my life doing, 30, 40 years ago. I really thought I had some sort of professional visual arts in my future. And it never went that way. I left it behind without meaning to. I don't even do it for fun anymore. I looked at this book and these folks who have been inspired by Breaking Bad in turn, they inspire me. I'm seriously thinking I need to put pen to paper again. I need to get some colored pencils out or some acrylic paints or something. I need to take my shot at creating art again, just for myself. If I do that, I will have been inspired by these people who were inspired by me and others. It's like two mirrors facing each other. I love the endless reflectivity of that. There's something very exciting about that.
That's a piece for the collection. What was the most surprising work you included? To me, that there is actually Wendy art is a feat onto itself.
I loved that Wendy [Julia Minesci] did not get left out. Her as a subject is one of my favorites. At a certain point you see a whole lot of Walts and a whole lot of Jesses — and I love every single one of them — but you get excited when you see Wendy pop up. I love seeing Huell [Lavell Crawford], never get tired of seeing Huell pop up. I love the deep dives when it's a character that is not an obvious choice. Everyone who's represented here is at such a high level of artistic talent that then what you look for after that is: How are you going to surprise me? And often that is by subject matter, and painting Wendy goes a long way toward that. [Laughs]
How much Better Call Saul art are you now seeing? And when can we expect that book?
All the stuff on the walls [in] our Better Call Saul offices, so much of it is Better Call Saul nowadays. That's another ratio I couldn't give you off the top of my hand — how much of it these days is Breaking Bad and how much of it is Better Call Saul. It may be 50-50 these days. But from your mouth to God's ear, I'm very much hoping that this book does well enough by whatever metric is applied to it in the publishing world to see a Better Call Saul art book. We had so much fun putting 99.1% Pure together that I would love to revisit this process with a great Better Call Saul fan art book.
What did the cast think of all this adoration through art?
The cast loves it. I mean, how could you not? And every now and then, once in a blue moon, I'll see a drawing of myself. That's when I get the feeling of what it must be like for them, because it's one thing to know that your show that you helped write and create inspired someone, but then to see yourself — your face represented somewhere — it's a whole different feeling.
What do you hope that fans will take away from this book?
I hope fans will see the show in a slightly different light, through the eyes of people like themselves, all around the world — people who happen to be artists, but people who also are fans of the show. I learned about my own show from looking at this book. I saw it through the eyes of different people, people all over the planet, most of whom I never even met, and it was a very unique and thrilling experience. And I hope that fans of Breaking Bad get even a fraction of the feeling I got.
Insight Editions/Eugene Huang
Gregory Peters/AMC Vince Gilligan (right) with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul on 'Breaking Bad'