The great news is that the manuscript for Ragged Claws is back from my editor, John Jarrold, and ready for the final knocking into shape before release. The book is 99% finished, with just a few minor adjustments and tightening of knots before it gets pushed out to the world. I will announce the release date shortly.
Anyway, to celebrate I thought I’d do two things. First of all I’m knocking the price of the e-book version of Thumb down to around 99 cents/75 pence. This is because Ragged Claws is the sequel (and part two of a four-book series), and people really need to read Thumb first to understand the beginning of the story of Max and Abby and the surreal universe they inhabit. You can buy a copy by clicking on the links in the sidebar.
Secondly I thought I’d reveal the beta version of the cover. Apart from a few minor adjustments this is what it will look like.
As with Thumb, I wanted a cover that referred to to an episode or characters in the book. I also wanted to change the colour scheme, so that the pallet for each volume in the series is different – Red for Thumb, Blue for Ragged Claws etc. I won’t spoil the story or give too much away by explaining who the white figure is, or what she’s doing with those glowing lines. I was still aiming for an overall German Expressionist aesthetic – big bold shapes and a sense of sinister mystery.
This image will be the wrap around for the paperback:
A while back I posted one of Tom Gauld’s cartoons on this blog and wrote a brief piece for my newsletter. His work is so clever, and pushes so many of the right buttons for an Eng-Lit professor turned science fiction writer that I couldn’t help but share some more of his work, taken from his book You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013). Normally I hesitate before buying a book of cartoons, after going through them once there’s rarely enough to pull me back, but Gauld’s collection is a happy exception.
Analysing jokes inevitably kills them dead, and besides these cartoons often poke fun at overwrought intellectual interpretations. Talking too much about Gauld’s work risks putting legs on a snake (as Kurosawa once described the process of looking for hidden meanings in his own movies). His ideas are reminiscent of Edward Gorey and the lesser known B. Kliban, both US illustrators known for their surreal humour and, in Gorey’s case, gently nostalgic nods at Victorian and Edwardian narratives transformed into total absurdity. Gauld’s ideas, like those of the Monty Python team and the stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, are filled with the same bizarre non-sequiturs.
Sadly, this one isn’t in the collection.
One recurring theme is pushing together the (supposed) high-brow and popular culture, as in Samuel Beckett’s Adventures of TinTin, or Dickens’ Great Expectations re-imagined as an old Spectrum-style computer game. Science Fiction plays a big part in Gauld’s world, as do the trials of trying to be a novelist.
As a Science Fiction fan navigating his way through the often unbelievably pretentious world of Literary Academia (especially in the early ’80s) I feel like having half a dozen of these tattooed to my chest in reverse so I can laugh at them in the bathroom mirror when I get up. I vividly remember one ultra-cool Guardian reading professor who sneered relentlessly at SF ‘discovering’ Joanna Russ when the Women’s Press published The Female Man, (of course he still refused to accept it was SF at all). I can really, really relate to You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack.A must for any writer/critic/SF fan.
The history of British TV is littered with brilliant one-off series and TV programmes that appeared once or twice and then vanished, seemingly forever. John Hurt as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1979), Nigel Kneale’s horror series Beasts (1976) and the Bavarian film of Carmina Burana that appeared on screens over here in 1975 are three examples. Luckily the ones that weren’t erased to make way for Match of the Day or It’s a Knockout, (a fate that befell the BBC tapes of the Apollo 11 moon landing) are now re-appearing on DVD, including Leslie Megahey’s brilliant film of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter, released in November last year.
Periodically, and usually at Christmas, the BBC would have a crack at one or two ghost stories, often taken from classic writers like M. R. James, Dickens or Saki. In those days TV dramas were happy to go for the slow burn, coming up with many very creepy and effective tales. Unfortunately most were let down by the anti-climactic eek scene at the end. Writers like James and others, with their hinted-at terrors were hard to render visually and what was toe-curlingly horrible on paper ended up looking a bit feeble on screen. Jonathan Miller’s otherwise brilliant adaptation of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad (1968) is a case in point. It’s creepy, sinister and atmospheric right up to the point when the ghost appears and the monstrous half animal half humanoid creature running across the sands in the original turns into a chamois leather on a stick. Even though Schalcken the Painter suffers from this to a slight extent, the rest of the movie is incredibly sinister and stunningly beautiful to look at. It haunted me for years after I first watched it in 1979 and so I was delighted to see it re-released by the BFI.
One of the movie’s many tributes to the paintings of Vermeer.
The story is based on a painting by the real life Schalcken, a late 17th century Flemish painter. It shows a woman in a nightdress holding a candle while behind her a man makes to draw a sword against a shadowy assailant. Le Fanu’s story tells of the young painter’s apprenticeship under Gerard Dou, his unrequited love for the man’s niece, and the mysterious stranger who persuades the old man to let him marry the girl in exchange for an unheard of sum of gold, with fairly predictable results for anyone well-read in the genre.
The film is wonderfully atmospheric, not least because it is one long homage to the paintings of the era. Almost every shot evokes an image from the work of Vermeer, Rembrandt and, of course, both Dou and Schalcken themselves. The interior of Dou’s house is taken straight from such masterpieces as Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and The Art of Painting. The largely static camera work focusses on doorways set in walls at right angles to the lens so that you alternately see figures framed against panelling or at the end of corridors opening on chequer-floored rooms, with people (usually women) standing in the light falling from diamond paned and stained glass windows. Alternately the night scenes, lit by one or more candles, are essays in chiaroscuro. In one brilliant shot, a second long if that, a visitor looks back as he steps into the night and you realise it’s Rembrandt himself from his 1661 self-portrait, complete with white hat.
Schalcken, Gerard Dou and his niece Rose await their guest.
The tale is also rendered more effective by virtue of being almost entirely silent, with very little dialogue apart from the key scenes where Dou, his pupil and niece meet the stranger, and later when the niece briefly returns from her marriage. The rest of the time very little is said, which both adds to the evocation of a series of paintings, and the slow build up of tension. Charles Gray supplies the voice of the narrator, and an interesting commentary on the artist’s masterpieces. I particularly enjoyed Dou’s lessons to his pupils – “The Temptation of St Anthony, St Anthony, Temptation, Devils. You will imagine the devils. Begin,” is his advice after yanking a couple of models around a bit. Incidental music is kept to a minimum, so the sound effects themselves add to the brooding sense of impending horror. A single creak of a floorboard announces the arrival of the visitor, the sinister Vanderhausen.
He might be a bit green, smelly and never blink but check out the gilders.
The film is as much about greed and the treatment of women as disposal possessions as it is about the supernatural. The horror of the tale is equally derived from the casual way in which Dou disposes of his beautiful niece, sending her off to marry a man who is, to say the least, a bit unprepossessing. It’s clear from the scene where he joins the others for dinner that all is not well, not only does Vanderhausen not eat anything, he’s also a decidedly peculiar colour and stares at the niece through the entire repast. Like Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black, you would have thought that Dou and Schalcken would be familiar enough with ghost stories to realise something was amiss, but Dou still cheerfully dispatches the wretched girl in exchange for a manky old chest full of gilders. Schalcken is a waste of space, doing nothing to prevent the marriage, throwing himself into his painting and eventually groping the servant girls or visiting the brothels of Rotterdam for a bit of consolation.
Almost every shot evokes the Flemish school, in this case a memento mori still life.
I won’t spoil it by describing the inevitable denouement. As I said before, these classic tales always ended up a bit wanting in the end, as clumsy special effects or trite endings undercut the build up of atmosphere. Schalcken the Painter manages to carry it off better than most and of all the classic ghost stories I’ve seen over the years this one has perhaps the strongest resonance. It’s perhaps not as laden with symbolism as the accompanying essay by Ben Hervey tries to make out, but it’s as unnerving to watch now as it was in 1979. As a classic ghost story, a tribute to later Flemish painting and a detailed evocation of how these old master’s worked it’s well worth a watch.
The DVD comes in standard and Blu-Ray format and can be bought from Amazon.co.uk here.
Olivetti Lettera 32, designed by Marcello Nizzoli in 1963
A Happy New Year to everyone! This is my one hundredth post and I thought I’d follow tradition by talking about what Santa brought me for Christmas.
When I was eight years old, and a precocious little sod, I filled a couple of reporter’s notebooks from W. H. Smiths with a ‘novel’. My dad was impressed enough to buy me my first typewriter. He later regretted this because it meant that the noise of the office now followed him home as I banged out an endless litany of juvenilia – three novels rejected by Puffin (bastards), a short story read out on Radio Leeds and finally, seven issues of various SF fanzines – ending with 101 Ballooning Adventures That Thrilled the World (don’t ask). What I didn’t realise at the time was that the typewriter was an Olivetti Lettera 32, an Italian thing of beauty designed by Marcello Nizzoli that was later to become a style icon and emblematic of a new generation of roving gonzo journalists and counter-culture writers. It was the kind of machine Michael Herr would balance on his knee when sending reports from Khe Sanh. Leonard Cohen used the earlier version to write ‘Suzanne’ and other light-hearted masterpieces. Cormac McArthy’s Olivetti sold for $254,500 in 2009, and he treated himself to a replacement for $20.
My fingers started getting tired by the end, hence the increased error rate.
My Olivetti eventually gave up the ghost before I went to University. I replaced it with an Olympia (if I remember, Olivetti’s were no longer available in North Yorkshire) before graduating onto an electric typewriter that had a kick like a mule and one of those strange death star rotating balls instead of type bars. In 1984 I bought a BBC Micro 32 and discovered word processing, so my typing days were over.
I was delighted, therefore, to get a genuine Olivetti Lettera 32 for Christmas from my kids, in full working order with a spare ribbon. It came completely out of the blue, I wasn’t expecting it at all. Opening the box resulted in a feeling of instant familiarity, combined with the bizarre sense of stepping back forty years in time to an era when every single manuscript document on the planet was thrashed out on a mechanical typewriter. I’ve been playing around with it over the last couple of weeks and it’s fascinating to drop back into the mind-set of writing with a portable, while getting to grips with having all the advantages of a word processor whipped away. Here’s some of the conclusions I’ve come to:
Original US advert
1. The Olivetti Lettera 32 was a piece of compact engineering genius. As you’d expect with Italian design it combines attention to detail with a really cool vibe. There are loads of little levers and widgets to adjust tab stops, page ends, margins, lock the carriage etc. Bits of the insides look as delicate as a clock. It’s also very light, though the turquoise body is aluminium and feels pretty tough. It would probably stop a couple of stray bullets through the window of the Saigon embassy.
2. We’re spoilt in the range of letters and typographical tricks word processors give us. There’s no number 1 for a start, you had to use the letter ‘l’ instead. You would also need to add accents with a biro afterwards (bearing in mind this is an Italian typewriter), and yet it has a bunch of fraction keys. You’re stuck with Courier, and you can underline for emphasis – and that’s it. It means you are closer to the words themselves, undistracted by any visuals, which is why editors and publishers prefer manuscripts to look like they’ve been bashed out on one of these machines.
3. Typing is physically hard work. You have to belt the keys all the way down to get an impression. By the end of the first paragraph my fingers started to hurt and the mistakes increased. How people learned to touch type on these machines I don’t know, they must have had digits like Arnie’s thighs after a few months. After typing for ten minutes I went back to my Mac keyboard and nearly broke the thing, I was belting it so hard.
4. Writing is like carving on marble, or doing a tattoo – there’s no room for error, no cut and paste or spell checking. It feels like you are following a one-way street with no room for manoeuvre. Of course if you did bodge things up you could put a line through it, or overtype (or get out the Tippex), but the whole process forced you to think more carefully about the words you committed to paper. If I remember, the rule of thumb was no more than two mistakes per page, so if you got to the bottom of your A4 sheet and made your third because your fingers ached you had to start all over again. A complete page of error-free typescript from an Olivetti Lettera 32 represents a real piece of hard work and craftsmanship.
My kids inform me that mechanical typewriters, and especially Olivetti Letteras, are style icons with hipsters who sit in parks with them on their knees and no doubt type out homages to The Smiths, or lyrics for their own band Chlorine Shadows Fall Across My Soul’s Daisies. I couldn’t in all honesty return to composing on a typewriter, it’s too constraining and my workflow has changed from the ‘make it up as I go along’ process of that eight-year old me. But it’s a fascinating piece of history to have in the house, and a few minutes belting the keys takes me right back to the feeling of living in the late 60s and early 70s, especially if I put Tubular Bells on the Stereo Record Player.
The first draft of my next novel and sequel to Thumb, Ragged Claws, is now finished and tucked safely in a drawer for a month. It’s hard not to keep re-reading and tinkering, but I know from experience that if you’re not careful you end up reading what’s in your head, not what’s in the manuscript itself. So to keep myself occupied I’m spending the next few weeks creating the artwork and for that I’ll be using the 3D animation software Houdini 13, which was released last week. Normally a full licence for this would cost anywhere up to $9,000. That’s if you are one of the big studios who uses it for movies like Thor: The Dark World or Gravity. For people like me there’s the ‘starving artist’ edition which is a mere $99, which is incredible really because it’s no different to the full version. The only difference is if you use this on your Hollywood blockbuster, SideFX’s lawyers will pull your toenails out.
Many many years ago (1974) BBC 2 did a series called ‘The Do-it Yourself Film Animation Show‘ which showed people how to make their own cartoons, with the help of famous animators like Terry Gilliam of Monty Python, and Bob Godfrey who was responsible for the hysterical he’s-eaten-too-many-jelly-tots cartoon Roobarb. In those days the technology stretched to cut out bits of paper, felt pen and biro (which gave Roobarb it’s unmistakeable psychedelic vibe) and for the really ambitious, acrylic paint on acetate (Disney). I built myself a rostrum with bits of wood and paint cans, bought a second hand ex-Wermacht (probably) Standard 8 cine camera and made a few films. It was great and I fell in love with animation.
A couple of Vipers I built using the 3D package Lightwave.
I saw Tron in 1982 and like every other geek on the planet my jaw hit the floor with a loud clang. Even though the actual animation in the film is under 20 minutes, the potential it had for creating entirely believable fantasy and science fiction worlds captured my imagination. Over the next thirty years I tinkered on and off with different 3D computer packages, creating landscapes in Bryce 3D with its ground-breaking terrain generators, and learning how to build Battlestar Galactica Vipers in Lightwave which, for a short while, was the program of choice for budding 3D animators. The special effects in Babylon 5 and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica were both done in Lightwave.
There are essentially three levels of 3D software for those interested in having a go. At the bottom end Daz3D and Poser are used by many to populate Uncanny Valley with thousands of unfeasibly-breasted fantasy mannequins. These programs operate a bit like an Action Man or Barbie set – get a standard human figure, pull it about a bit to turn it into a character, dress it up and plonk it in a pre-designed landscape. Bingo, Thongar the Barbarian rescues Princess Mammaria from a giant Steampunk Robot. You can actually get very good results if you put in the time and effort, though it’s pretty easy to spot artwork from this end of the spectrum because of the doll-like sameness of a lot of the images (and the slightly, er, adolescent subject matter).
Houdini demo reel
There’s not as much available mid-level any more, although the wonderful free program Blender is still around. This is because 3D animation has now reached such a level of sophistication that in order to achieve the quality expected by most production houses you have to go for one of the high end professional packages. In the past these cost an arm and a leg. A lot of companies realised that this was counterproductive if they wanted to make sure that each new generation of artists were adequately skilled in their software. So they started making student editions available, which is great news for the rest of us who baulk at stumping up $9000 a licence. The professional 3D animation world is dominated by Autodesk’s Maya, and Houdini, which is odd because you will very rarely hear about the latter in 3D forums, despite being used on just about every major movie. Opening credits to Skyfall? Big splashy whale in Life of Pi? All done in Houdini. The problem is that the software uses a completely different paradigm to all the other packages, which makes it both incredibly powerful but also a bit of a challenge to learn. Once the penny drops, though, it’s fantastic to work with.
At the moment I’m working on the back cover for the book. Without giving too much away I wanted to show some strange vehicles making their way over a weird blocky landscape in an empty universe. As I mentioned before, the overall aesthetic I wanted to aim for was somewhere between the art of the German Expressionists, and the very early SF covers of the 1930s, especially those of Frank R. Paul and Wesso. I didn’t want to make it look like a super realistic vision of the future – partly because I see too much of that in movies, and partly because it takes huge teams of software engineers months to make it look good.
Test render of the strange Expressionist caravan.
So here is the strange vehicle. It had to look sinister, and slightly distorted, like a child’s toy that’s gone a bit grotesquely mad. Without going into too much technical detail, Houdini uses a procedural system that allows you to work at any stage of a model build so you can revisit earlier parts and make fundamental changes without impacting on the details you add later. In this case I decided to fatten up the wheels and angle them a bit more, to make them look reminiscent of a bug’s legs.
An early test render for the mysterious vehicles.
The next thing I wanted to create was the landscape. It’s the skin of a man-made mannequin five hundred thousand miles long, built from debris and scrap brought from the distant past. Up close it’s a wilderness of blocks, shapes and lights flung together. I’ve built a routine in Houdini that allows me to randomly generate huge swathes of this landscape. Here’s an initial render of the landscape to allow me to check the geometry of the scene.
Test render of the surface of the titan’s skin. High above the atmosphere.
At this point it’s worth stating the number 1 Golden Rule of 3D.
THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR IN A 3D IMAGE IS THE LIGHT
It’s also the bit that’s often ignored. After spending months building, rigging and texturing a model a lot of artists just bung in a couple of lights and end up with the kind of unmotivated and flat illumination that plagues many 3D images. Obviously with the scene set in the eternal night at the end of the universe I’ve got to get the balance right between showing a landscape plunged into darkness, lit here and there with a few guttering lamps or mystic light sources, and making sure enough of the scene is visible and recognisable. Here’s a draft of the final image, with the vehicles added to the landscape.
The whole thing needs a lot more work, but as a first pass I’m quite happy with the results.
Manticore from a 13th Century Bestiary. Check out that cool hat.
Herodotus the father of history divided knowledge into three types. Things he saw with his own eyes, information people told him which he could verify as true, and things he couldn’t verify and might easily be completely made up. He visited Egypt, and so when he writes about its manners and customs we can be assured that his descriptions are more or less accurate, if a bit quirky. Gold-hoarding giant furry ants living in India were clearly the deranged invention of someone he met in a pub
Medieval monks faced the same problems but magnified. Herodotus got about a bit. Your average Brother in 13th century Lindisfarne rarely ventured further than the monastery herb garden, and so their understanding of nature follows the same pattern as Herodotus’s writings. They can confidently talk about dogs, cats, mice and jackdaws but once they’re asked to describe creatures a bit further away they struggle. Lions, camels and elephants they can just about manage – after all Biblical tradition is full of those – but they rapidly come unstuck with Rhinocerii, Chameleons, Manticores and other fabulous creatures. This didn’t stop them having a go, especially in England where we have a unique tradition of beautiful illustrated catalogues of medieval creatures. One of my favourite books is the Folio edition of a Medieval Bestiary from the Bodlean Library in Oxford. It dates from round about the thirteenth century (the time of King Edward I) and is full of wonderful illuminated miniatures of the animals it describes. Bestiaries are a fantastic window onto the medieval mind.
Pages from a medieval bestiary.
To understand why they came up with stuff that seems ludicrous to us now, it’s useful to know some of the basic principles of medieval alchemy. To begin with everything had a secret name that concealed its true nature. When Adam named the animals he used the original language of Eden, which monks thought to be the language of God. This was lost when God destroyed the Tower of Babel and mixed all the languages up. If an alchemist could rediscover the true names of things he would have power over them. Bestiaries go to great lengths to determine the etymology of animal names – even if they’re clearly making stuff up again (“The name mule comes from the Greek, because the beast is yoked by the miller to the heavy millstone”).
Secondly medieval learning was founded on reasoning through association. If objects appeared similar in the great scheme of things, it was because they had real relationships that could be manipulated. To give a simple example – the sun is the greatest celestial object, the king is the most powerful man, the lion the strongest animal and gold the noblest metal. Therefore these four items are linked through mystical relationships that, if discovered, can allow them to be controlled. It’s all complete nonsense of course, but it was central to the medieval mindset.
Gryphon eating a pig, or dancing with it.
Finally knowledge came from ancient books, not from reality. Plato and Aristotle received their wisdom more or less from God, even if they were pagans and it came to them in a slightly roundabout way (involving the Egyptian God Thoth, and Moses). So what they said was divine truth. If a monk looked out of the window and saw something different (e.g. a bear giving birth to something obviously a little bear, instead of an amorphous lump that it subsequently licked into shape) then nature had probably got it wrong, which was understandable because it was corrupt, sinful and messy, whereas God’s wisdom as described by Aristotle was eternal and true.
Bestiaries were essentially religious books. Medieval scholars would often misread animal behaviour by awarding it moral qualities. Thus if an ape “bears twins, she will love one and hate the other. If she happens to be pursued by hunters she will clasp the one she loves in front of her and carry the one she hates on her back.” Nearly every animal echoes a lesson from Scripture. The basilisk, which can kill a man by looking at him “signifies the devil, who openly kills the heedless sinner with his venom”. Often the desire to force an analogy leads to the good brothers dispensing misleading, if not fatal, advice. The lion, we are told, represents Jesus and is therefore filled with mercy and kindness. This is “confirmed by numerous examples: they will spare men lying on the ground, and will lead captives whom they meet to their home.” They also have sex face to face, as do the lynx, camel, elephant and rhinoceros – so perhaps the Can You Feel The Love Tonight bit in Disney’s The Lion King wasn’t so wide of the mark.
Because Lions are like Jesus they won’t attack pilgrims who lie down. Honest.
The Bodleian Library Bestiary cheerfully wanders all over the known world in a fairly random fashion. Ethiopia gets mentioned a lot, probably because it hosted one of the earliest Christian churches and so there were well-established lines of communication between it and rest of Christendom (by medieval standards anyway). The common language of Latin united religious communities in a wide-ranging network of information exchange, even if the information itself was often muddle-headed, apocryphal or just plain wrong. Outside the known world we are firmly in the realm of Bored Monks Making Stuff Up. The chameleon looks like a one-eyed multicoloured deer. The amphisbaena “is so called because it has two heads, one in the right place, the other on its tail. It goes in the direction of both heads, and its body forms a circle” and the manticore is bright red with a human face and three rows of teeth.
You have to admire the imagination of the monks, not least for the stunning illustrations, and we have them to thank for considerable chunks of the D&D Monster Manual. It’s a shame that manticores don’t exist, and that lions are a slightly less accommodating than their cuddly medieval counterparts. On the other hand there’s less chance of an unwary traveller being eaten because he lay down in front of a enormous hungry African carnivore hoping it would be all meek and mild like Jesus
Following on from Jim Barker’s post about the need to take comics seriously I thought I’d write about an artist who is recognised as one of the greatest comic book writers of all time, Osamu Tezuka and his finest creation, the twelve volume Phoenix series (Hi no Tori), first published in Japan between 1967 and 1988.
In the West Japanese cartoons are tainted by association with violent porn aimed at adolescents, or Pokemon. Think anime and images of big robots slugging it away, irritating creatures incessantly droning ‘Jiggly Puff’ or monsters doing unpleasant things to schoolgirls pop into the mind. Once a year a Miyazaki Hayao Studio Ghibli film is released, a door opens and we get a brief glimpse of intelligence, beauty and a stunning grasp of narrative, then it slams shut and Transformers and green fifteen-foot willies take over once again.
Problems of perception from Volume 5 of Phoenix
The second problem, which has prevented Osamu Tezuka getting the international audience he deserves, is the one that Jim Barker so eloquently described in his post. In the UK especially, comics are for kids. Even if the artwork is stunning, the story lines adult and you call it a Graphic Novel, it’s still a comic for kids. If your drawings look like they were aimed at seven year olds (which is the case with a lot of Tezuka’s artwork) then you are completely buggered, even if you write a twelve-volume masterpiece on redemption and forgiveness that spans humanity from the dawn of time to the distant future.
Which brings me on to Phoenix. This is perhaps Osamu Tezuka’s finest work, a long sprawling saga covering millions of years of history, all revolving around the mythical firebird. The blood of this legendary creature bestows eternal youth on whoever drinks it and so some of the many tales in the epic concern those deluded enough to try and kill the bird and guarantee their own immortality. Other stories focus on doomed love, the search for glory and power, and the bigotry and cruelty this engenders. In these stories, some of which are traditional tales set in medieval Japan, others science fiction stories set in far-flung corners of galactic empires, the phoenix appears as moral commentator and guide. Throughout the cycle the same characters pop up again and again, the searcher for forbidden knowledge, the warrior thug obsessed with wealth and power (his inner turmoil signified by an enormous noise covered in boils), the tragic lovers etc. All of them end up suffering heartache and tragedy, partly through circumstance and partly as a result of their own ungoverned desires. It’s an incredibly complex and imaginative saga that needs to be read many times before all the parts of the puzzle click into place.
Another tormented soul trapped on the endless wheel of Karma
To understand Phoenix you need to know a little bit about the principles of Mahayana Buddhism which inform Tezuka’s work. In a nutshell, life is characterised by suffering caused by excessive personal attachment to things that are transient. We constantly torment ourselves by striving for illusory goals, either chasing the rainbow or clinging desperately on to stuff that eventually slips from our grasp, because of the mutable nature of the universe. Greed, jealousy, hatred and cruelty are the products of this attachment and the aim of Buddhism is to free every living thing from this cycle of illusion and disappointment. One interesting consequence of this moral framework is that there is no absolute evil, merely bad deeds done by ignorant and tormented souls. Everyone has a chance of redemption given enough time and guidance, even Hitler. Reincarnation is a fundamental component of this process, if you do bad things you tend to be reincarnated further down the scale (with hungry ghosts and the denizens of hell at the bottom – though even hell is still only a way-station and not a permanent abode). Humans are unique in that they have the conscious mind capable of grasping the system, but they are at greatest risk from their own inevitable greed and stupidity. In this context the phoenix itself is essentially a Bodhisattva, a being that has attained enlightenment but who chooses to remain in this universe to help others do the same.
The bandit Gao and the mysterious woman Hayame from the anime version of Volume 4
The story of Gao in volume four is a perfect example of Tezuka’s belief in Buddhist redemption. Set in the eighth century during the construction of the Todai-ji temple and its massive statue of Buddha, it tells of two characters, the vagabond thief Gao and the sculptor Akanemaru. Gao starts the tale as a complete villain – a murderer and rapist who thinks nothing of killing a child in front of its mother. One day, hunted through the fields, he impulsively allows a ladybird that has crawled on to his arm to live. Later he meets a beautiful white-haired woman in the forest who treats him with kindness no matter how cruel he is to her and others. He begins to fall in love with this enigmatic creature but is betrayed into murdering her. Overcome with remorse he wanders the world as a beggar before he discovers he has a penchant for carving exquisitely hideous faces channeled from his own inner torment. He ends up being commissioned to carve the demons that are put on roofs of Buddhist temples to frighten away evil spirits. At this point he bumps into Akanemaru who is obsessed with his own quest for perfection, a self-destructive pursuit of the impossible that causes him to visit cruelty on others, including the reformed Gao. It’s a stunning, complex tale that contains within it most of the themes of the entire series. Tezuka has an uncanny knack of interweaving a tale of intense drama and tragedy with moral lessons that are never preachy, and some genuine instances of laugh-out loud humour. It’s also fascinating for anyone interested in early Japanese history (the era is that of Charlemagne and the first Viking invasions of Britain). For people interested in the series it’s a good place to start.
Osamu Tezuka, 1928 – 1989
The other books in the series move from the stone age through to the distant future. Tezuka loved science fiction, and was a fan of, among others, Isaac Asimov. Several tales pose the question what it is to be human, and whether our moral duty to fellow creatures extends to artificial intelligence. One particular story in volume five is a direct tribute to the first short story in Asimov’s collection I, Robot (1950), ‘Robbie‘ in which a little girl has a robot teacher/playmate. Be warned, though, Tezuka’s version comes to a far grimmer conclusion. Indeed, throughout the series there is a constant tragic thread that, at times, is quite hard on the reader and his or her favourite characters (think George R. R. Martin). This fits in with the peculiarly Japanese concept of the tragic, hopeless hero who no matter what they say or do, end up perishing in some god-forsaken wasteland having achieved very little. To be fair though, the overall message is one of eventual redemption as all the tormented souls weaved into Tezuka’s massive tapestry end up being led by the phoenix to enlightenment.
Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones can often look a bit silly. Not this one – this would give any Shoggoth a run for its money.
The early 1970s saw a renaissance in Science Fiction and Fantasy cover art in the UK, led by New English Library and Panther. If you compare the drab covers of the 60s with what came after the difference is striking. Gone are the clumsy Pop Art/Op Art photo collages and instead the shelves of W. H. Smiths were filled with the gorgeous colours of Bruce Pennington, the meticulous figure work of Jim Burns, Foss’s vast spaceships and the insane acid dreams of Bob Haberfield‘s covers to Mayflower’s Moorcock books. As the decade progressed, and each artist spawned their own imitators (particularly Foss) then a certain feeling of sameness started to creep in, which only made the illustrator with a unique style stand out even more.
One such artist was Ian Miller, whose incredibly detailed and frenetic drawings started to appear on the covers of fantasy and science fiction novels from 1973 onwards. By the time Science Fiction Monthly interviewed him in 1975 he’d produced a small but startling selection of illustrations for Panther (Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and The Haunter of the Dark) and Pan (including Ray Bradbury’s S is for Space). His art was about as far away from the brightly coloured planets and spaceships of his contemporaries as you could get. Instead he produced incredibly detailed almost monochrome images that were reminiscent of the work of renaissance artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) and Hieronymous Bosch (1450 – 1516).
The first impression on looking at Ian Miller’s work is that these are the nightmares of someone who has gone completely mad. In his pictures disturbing machine/insect/plant hybrids loom over human figures, set against monochrome or flat colour landscapes devoid of any real perspective. The humans often wear landsknecht armour, and have the same childishly vacant expressions you see on early Renaissance saints or Russian icons. The demons and monsters are truly hideous creatures straight out of Bosch. Often Miller drops in a musical box or a rocking horse or two into his apocalyptic scenes, where they take on a sinister, grotesque power. As is often the case with Grotesque and Symbolist art, you get the impression they are supposed to represent something else, but god knows what, and that makes them all the more frightening. Interestingly in his interview in SFM Miller suggested an interest in Jungian theories of archetypal symbols popping up throughout human consciousness over the ages, but where a rocking horse fits into that I’ve no idea. You get the sense that he and the interviewer are over-egging the pudding a bit, and that Miller just puts stuff like this into his pictures because it looks very scary and weird.
Miller’s wonderfully dark take on The Lord of the Rings for the Tolkein Bestiary
Despite trying to move into SF covers, Miller’s work was clearly a far better fit for Science Fantasy and Horror. He really came into his own working on Games Workshop’s Warhammer series, and did some truly wonderful illustrations for the Warhammer role-playing game book and supplements published in the 1980s. In many ways his art outshone the game itself, capturing the atmosphere of a darkly insane parallel Renaissance world to a far greater extent than the often childish content.
From the graphic novel The City. King’s Cross underground marginally different from what it is today.
He also produced a graphic novel with James Herbert, The City, (1993), which portrayed a journey into a post-apocalyptic London dominated by mutant rats. The story is a bit predictable, but the artwork is both utterly absorbing and creepy – not the kind of comic you want to read late at night on your own.
The Hall of Bright Carvings from Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan
Ian Miller is still going strong as an artist, and he’s now producing some wonderfully minimalist, and just as disturbing, images for his blog. You can also browse his portfolio of earlier works, and buy prints, including some of his fantastic illustrations to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy.
I’m still waiting for Conan. The first Arnold Schwarzenegger film was kind of OK, and had one or two impressive moments. The second was dire and I still can’t bring myself to watch the remake with Jason Momoa (despite the fact that his Khal Drogo is as close to Conan as anyone – though Rory McCann’s Hound comes a close second). The problem is that for me Conan is Frazetta’s Conan, an ugly vicious bugger with a face like Les Dawson’s Cissie Braithwaite. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jason Momoa are simply too clean and pretty, like cosplay fans oiled up and tanned for the next fantasy con. Conan’s world is, to my mind, the world of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, all cryptic utterances, bleak moors and your own innards falling into your lap – and only Frank Frazetta comes anywhere close to the capturing the visceral darkness of Robert E. Howard’s original tales. Everyone else seems a wee bit feeble in comparison.
This week I downloaded the documentary Frazetta: Painting with Fire (2003) from iTunes. Like many documentaries coming out of the U.S. it leans towards simplistic hagiography, but once you get past the ‘Frank was the most wonderful person in the entire cosmos ever’ comments that bookend each chapter of the film the contents are eye-opening. On the outside Frazetta looked like another example of that peculiarly American phenomenon, the cowboy artist. Ruggedly good-looking with an easy smile, dressed in Levis playing baseball, he resembles Jackson Pollock – an icon of US artistic freedom encouraged by the CIA to counteract Soviet culture (if you think I’m being ridiculous here, the CIA funded the New York Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s as part of their propaganda war against communism).
Conan fighting Frost Giants
One thing the documentary does bring home is the revolutionary nature of his paintings. More than any other fantasy artist, he had the uncanny knack of capturing a perfect instant of pure action and emotion. Some of the remarkable claims to emerge from the documentary are that he didn’t really have a formal art training, which is very hard to believe looking at his figure work, and that he worked at incredible speed entirely from his own imagination. Once the image lodged itself in his head then he would crank it out in eight to fifteen hours.
It’s clear that the dynamic action shots that dominate his paintings come from his apprenticeship working as a ghost artist for comics like Tarzan of the Apes and Li’l Abner, and that his figure work is in the tradition of artists like Burne Hogarth (who produced wonderful textbooks on dynamic anatomy that are invaluable for illustrators and animators alike). The documentary argues that his intuitive grasp of anatomy in a state of extreme exertion also came from his own love of sports, including baseball and karate. What sets Frazetta’s fantasy art apart from the work of, say, Boris Vallejo and Chris Achilleos, is that it very rarely looks posed.
A painting like Sacrifice, for example, shows his ability to capture an instant with all its drama and emotion. Yet even though the first response of many is that his technique is photographic, it actually isn’t. He is essentially an Impressionist, working at speed (especially in oils) to give his pictures a loose, sometimes even abstract quality, and I think that is where the emotional power comes from. His compositions are often quite narrow (dictated by the aspect ratio of a paperback cover), frequently use a pyramid composition where everything piles up to a dramatic figure in the centre (often top-lit so that the features and lower body dissolve into shadow). Then, very rapidly, the imagery bleeds out into a patchwork of shadows and menacing figures half-glimpsed in the background, which might be real or just phantoms. It’s a very powerful combination that other commercial artists have found hard to match.
Admittedly his paintings of women are less assured than those of the men, his females are usually draped over scenery like large plumped-up cushions. While most of his men are clearly self-portraits (especially John Carter) his women often look like someone’s stuck the head of a twelve-year old girl on top of a stripper. Having said that, they are refreshingly chunky-looking, unlike the anodyne aerobics instructors of later imitators , and occasionally his action shots of heroines matched those of his heroes. Dejah Thoris’s bum in this painting of John Carter fighting the apes of Mars is a stroke of compositional genius.
John Carter, Tars Tarkas, a load of Apes and a bit of Dejah Thoris
Thirty years of post-modern cynicism, and thousands of inferior imitators, have sadly led to both Frazetta and Conan being relegated to the realms of amusing kitsch. As T. S. Eliot famously said, between the conception and the creation falls the shadow. In the documentary John Milius proudly states that the orgy scene in Conan the Barbarian was directly influenced by Frazetta. Cut to half a dozen surfer dudes and babes in faux classical costumes rolling around in a cheap set with totally unmotivated lighting. Chaining a topless girl to a pillar does not a Frazetta image make, and yet Sword and Sorcery is now wedded to images of Arnie running round soft porn sets in furry underpants, and Frazetta’s wonderful paintings suffer by association.
Frank Frazetta was an amazing artist by any standards, and despite his own aw-shucks self-deprecation, a surprisingly dedicated and focussed craftsman. After a series of debilitating strokes he taught himself to paint and draw with his left hand, and while he never matched the brilliance of his work in the 60s he managed to produce some pretty impressive watercolours. Perhaps one day someone will have the courage to bring his Conan to life in a serious reboot.
I’ve been working on some art/visualisation pieces for Thumb. As I mentioned before I wanted to capture the feel of the German Expressionist artists and films of the 1920s and 1930s. The movement grew out of a desire to overturn the established order of nineteenth century Europe, whose triumphalist and Imperial certainties had been completely destroyed by the horrors of World War One. Expressionism was characterised by bold colours and lines, and distortion based on the emotions of the writer, painter or film maker. It was Impressionism in reverse. Instead of recreating the impression of the world on the eye, Expressionism expressed inner feelings, often focussing on madness and dreams.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari film poster
A still from the film, note the distorted set.
German Expressionist Cinema was a sub-genre of the movement, and produced some of the most striking movies ever made. The most famous, and most typical of the style, is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), the tale of a murderous somnambulist set in a crazily distorted world. Other classics include Murnau’s Faust (1926) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Here are some sample film posters of the period:
Poster from Paul Wegener’s 1915 film Der Golem.
Murnau’s Head of Janus, 1920
And finally, a magnificent poster of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
If I wanted to sum up Thumb in four words it would “Indiana Jones does Kafka”. While there are Steampunk elements in the novel, I’m more interested in capturing the fin-de-siecle absurdities of the early twentieth century, and the atmosphere of Kafka and the German Expressionists. The artwork and trailer I’m doing for Thumb is therefore based on these styles, although I’ve toned down the frantic distortions a bit (mainly because I’m nowhere near as good an artist as those painters and designers of the original movement). Interestingly enough, someone said that the picture of the house in the Wasteland reminds them of Tim Burton’s style, which is great because Burton is also heavily influenced by films like Caligari