The Stormbringer Sessions by James Cawthorn

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One of the books I was designing last year is published next month. The Stormbringer Sessons is a resurrection by John Davey of a sketchbook created by James Cawthorn in the mid-1980s for an Elric graphic novel that Cawthorn was commissioned to adapt and illustrate for Savoy Books. This is a limited edition that’s unlikely to be reprinted so anyone interested is advised to pre-order. (See below.)

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Slipcase decoration.

The original Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock isn’t a novel as such but a collection of the second series of linked novellas about Elric of Melniboné that Moorcock wrote for Science Fantasy from 1961 to 1964. Over the course of ten stories Moorcock introduced a character and a world that acted as a riposte to the Tolkienite school of heroic fantasy, where the divisions between Good and Evil are clear and fixed. Elric is like one of Sergio Leone’s characters: the difference between Clint Eastwood’s “Good” in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Lee Van Cleef’s “Bad” is merely a matter of degree; both men are killers chasing the same hoard of gold coins. (By coincidence, Leone was preparing to the upset the Western genre with A Fistful of Dollars just as Moorcock was finishing the first Elric stories.)

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James Cawthorn was one of Moorcock’s oldest friends, and a frequent collaborator. He not only illustrated the first Elric stories but also co-wrote the fourth one, Kings in Darkness. Despite having created many Elric illustrations Cawthorn always seemed to want to draw comics based on other characters, notably Moorcock’s Dorian Hawkmoon whose adventures have recently been reprinted in three volumes by Titan Books. The Stormbringer commission was a result of the late David Britton’s obsession with Elric in general and the Stormbringer book in particular. Stormbringer begins with Elric having retired from adventuring; his soul-stealing sword is locked away and he’s settled down to married life. The opening scenes parallel (and prefigure) many Hollywood plots: Elric’s wife is abducted for unknown reasons so Elric has to take up his sword and go after her. What follows is a pursuit into a world growing increasingly dark and chaotic, and with it the realisation that the events taking place are a part of a long-foretold apocalypse that will (and does) destroy that world. The progression from a regular sword & sorcery tale to doom-laden widescreen baroque, with a dragon army flying over a churning Boschian hellscape, is one of the enduring attractions of the book.

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Britton had first persuaded Cawthorn to adapt Stormbringer into comic form in 1976 but the work on that occasion was compromised by lack of time. The sketches in The Stormbringer Sessions are Cawthorn’s roughs which were drawn in preparation for the second attempt, with the entire story worked out in panel form over 250 pages, complete with dialogue and captions. Some of the opening pages are rough indeed, but the drawings for the apocalyptic finale, presented in many double-page spreads, are almost finished pieces. The sketches may lack the finesse of Cawthorn’s other comics work but the power of his drawing and his imagination shines through. Nobody seems to know why he abandoned this project despite having a publisher waiting for it, but he was also adapting the third Hawkmoon book at the time, and had already spent the past decade working on the Hawkmoon trilogy.

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My design for this one is fairly straightforward, mostly a matter of framing and typesetting the opening and closing pages, as well as creating graphics for the cover and the slipcase. As with the Elric-themed Hawkwind album, The Chronicle of the Black Sword, I opted for Celtic-style knotwork for the decoration. Elric’s world isn’t our world but knotwork designs are universal (maybe even multiversal) while being satisfyingly antique and abstract. The publication is a co-production between Jayde Design and Savoy Books, with the book being limited to 100 numbered hardbacks in a decorated slipcase. Each copy also contains a colour print of the cover painting. The book may be ordered here. More page samples follow.

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David Britton, 1945–2020

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Mister Rock’n’roll, 1969.

David Britton, author, artist and publisher, died on 29th December. I wrote this for the Savoy Books news announcement:

My closest artistic collaborator from 1989 to 1999, and a close friend for longer than this: capricious, determined, fearless, funny, generous and inspirational. No David Britton, no Lord Horror; no Lord Horror, no Reverbstorm. He changed my life.

He’d been increasingly ill for several years so this came as less of a surprise to those of us close to him than to others. Dave and I used to talk at least once a week, and on the last occasion he’d sounded worse than usual. Those talks were episodes in a conversation about art that ran for over 30 years, beginning in the mid-1980s at the counter of the Savoy bookshop in Peter Street, Manchester, continuing in the Savoy offices with co-publisher and collaborator Michael Butterworth, and resuming on the phone; art in all its forms and in any medium, with no attention paid to categories of “high” and “low”.

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Reverbstorm, the Lord Horror comic series that we created throughout the 1990s, was the product of those conversations, and was also produced mostly through conversation, working by instinct without a script. The series, which was compiled into definitive book form in 2012, is testament to a pooled breadth of interest, encompassing/quoting/appropriating/reworking Pointillist, Cubist and Expressionist painting, Modernist poetry, pop songs, Sondheim musicals, Finnegans Wake, Tom Phillips’ Humument, Burne Hogarth’s Tarzan comics, Joel-Peter Witkin’s photographs, voodoo chants, Piranesi, King Kong, Bauhaus graphic design, Hugh Ferriss architecture, and illustration of all kinds, from fairy tales to cosmic horror via Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke; there’s even ballet in the mix if you look closely. Dave always liked the idea of Lord Horror leaping and pirouetting like a dancer. More than anything, Reverbstorm is rock’n’roll, and this is partly what the title refers to: a thundering rhythm.

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Britton art from Weird Fantasy #2, 1971. This is the drawing that caught the attention of William Burroughs when Britton and Butterworth visited Burroughs in New York City in 1979.

The term “rock’n’roll” always requires qualification when considering the Britton oeuvre, he used it with regularity while remaining bitterly aware that the original charge of the words had been degraded by over-use, reduced to a caricature by too many mediocre music acts and lazy journalists. I chided him a couple of times that his use of the term was functionally meaningless, a synonym for “my favourite things”. But the application was always a serious one, a label for any work that he found sufficiently thrilling, wild, original, excessive, anarchic, flamboyant, boundary-breaking or confrontational. Little Richard, Larry Williams, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley were Dave’s kind of rock’n’roll, as were Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, PJ Proby, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, The Cramps, The White Stripes and the Wu-Tang Clan. No surprise there, but Burne Hogarth was also rock’n’roll, although Hogarth would no doubt have disputed this. Another favourite artist, James Cawthorn, was given the label because Dave had discovered Cawthorn’s work when his teenage rock’n’roll obsession was at its height; two forms of art were permanently bound together, with sword & sorcery recast as the literary equivalent of a delinquent musical idiom. Dave’s other artist collaborator, Kris Guidio, was rock’n’roll for having served time as a peerless portraitist of The Cramps. LaVern Baker was rock’n’roll, as was CL Moore. Aubrey Beardsley was rock’n’roll and Harry Clarke was rock’n’roll; William Burroughs and William Hope Hodgson were rock’n’roll, so were Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison. Francis Bacon and Paula Rego were rock’n’roll; Alan Clarke was rock’n’roll and so was David Lynch. The quest for more of this rare commodity was relentless and unceasing. Many of our conversations were little more than enthusiastic discussions of shared favourites, or recommendations to watch/read/listen to something new.

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The first Savoy publication from 1976—Cawthorn adapting Moorcock’s apocalyptic Elric novel—was a declaration of intent: maximum rock’n’roll.

The photo at the head of this post is one that Dave had reused in recent years, one of the few portraits he seemed to like. It first appeared inside his debut publication, Weird Fantasy #1, a genre fanzine that was also enough of an underground publication to receive a passing mention in Oz magazine. The picture is emblematic of the Britton character, dressed in a manner at odds with the north Manchester surroundings he grew up in, and where he was still stuck at the time, a world of back-to-back housing and squalid ginnels. Rock’n’roll in all its forms was the great escape from a world of severely limited horizons and circumscribed lives, where all you could look forward to after a few years of poor education was a job in the local mill or factory. People who dismiss the gaudier forms of entertainment as “escapist” are usually middle class and blessed with comforts and opportunities that reinforce their condescensions; people who never had to consider a life so lacking in promise that a song heard on the radio, a vinyl record, a comic book, a paperback found on a market stall, might be the key to a wider world, an affirmation that there was more than the brick walls of your immediate environment, and there could be even more than this. “Escapist” suggests a hiding away but it also means breaking free. In later years Dave maintained a sporadic correspondence with Alan Moore; they never met but were mutually supportive, thanks in part to a shared background as bright boys from working-class backwaters with no encouragement to try and transform their lives through their escapist enthusiasms. Alan maintained an affection for his background, but Dave seldom spoke of his without a shudder, as though he’d evaded a fate worse than death. One thing he retained from north Manchester was an ebulliently vulgar sense of humour. He agreed with Picasso that good taste is the enemy of creativity.

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David Britton’s first novel wasn’t one he considered his best but it remains the most notorious thanks to the conscientious literary assessments of the Greater Manchester police.

I’ll miss Dave’s infectious humour, just as I’ll miss the conversations that so often provoked it, the quest for better art, some new kind of kick, more rock’n’roll. I’ll miss being able to show him something I know he’ll enjoy. He always liked quotations so I’ll end this with a lengthy one from Walter Pater, the aesthetic theorist whose ideas energised the Decadents and the founders of The Savoy, the magazine from which Savoy Books took its name. It summarises Dave’s attitude to life even if he’d never discuss things in such a grandiloquent manner:

…we are all condamnes, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnes a mort avec des sursis indefinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Previously on { feuilleton }
James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art
A Reverbstorm jukebox
Reverbstorm: an introduction and preview

Weekend links 550

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Illustration by Moebius for Les Robinsons du Cosmos (1970) by Francis Carsac.

Notre Dame des Fleurs is a collection of art based on or inspired by the Jean Genet novel. The book, which includes some new work of mine, will be published in February. Editor Jan van Rijn has a trailer for it here. It’s limited to 150 copies so anyone interested is advised to pre-order.

• Books that made me: William Gibson‘s influential reading. Good to see him mention Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, an outstanding novel that might be better known if it wasn’t for the gravitational pull of McCarthy’s other works.

• Zagava have announced a paperback reprint of The Art of Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald, a collection of neglected Art Nouveau drawings and designs compiled by Sven Brömsel.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Black_Acrylic presents…He Stood In The Bath And He Stamped On The Floor: A Joe Meek Day.

• More yearly roundups: Our Haunted Year 2020 by Swan River Press, and The Year That Never Was by blissblog.

• New music: Spaceman Mystery Of The Terror Triangle by The Night Monitor.

Ralph Steadman’s guided tour through six decades of irrepressible art.

• At Greydogtales: Valentine Dyall: Mystery and Mesmerism.

• At Wormwoodiana: The Esoteric in Britain, 1921.

• At Strange Flowers: Marie Menken’s Lights.

I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974) by Richard and Linda Thompson | Neon Lights (1978) by Kraftwerk | Lights (1980) by Metabolist

02021

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The Elephant Celebes (1921) by Max Ernst.

Happy new year. 02021? Read this.

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Desert Sunset (1921) by George Elbert Burr.

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The Great Tower (1921) by Giorgio de Chirico.

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Evening Glow at Yanaka (1921) by Kawase Hasui.

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Construction (1921) by Gustavs Klucis.

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Three Musicians (1921) by Pablo Picasso.

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Illustration by Willy Pogány for The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived Before Achilles (1921) by Padraic Colum.

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Sketch of Figural Movement for Dance (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer.

Jean Giraud record covers

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Disc design for Eight Day Journal (1998) by Sam Rivers / Tony Hymas.

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. I’ve used the artist’s full name (or his Earth name, if you prefer) in the title of this one to distinguish Moebius the comic artist and illustrator from Dieter Moebius of Cluster, Harmonia, et al. As with Harry Clarke, it’s taken a long time for Discogs to compile a substantial collection of these covers, and catalogue there is still incomplete thanks to a lack of credits on some of the sleeves. Unlike other artists whose cover work tends to be a repurposing of existing art, many of the Giraud/Moebius covers were created for the albums on which they appear.

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7 Colts Pour Schmoll (1968) by Eddy Mitchell.

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An album by a prolific French rock’n’roller. Giraud (as he was credited here) was no doubt hired on the strength of his Blueberry strips.

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Blueberry (1973) by Dadi.

And speaking of Blueberry… Jean Giraud drew the adventures of Jean-Michel Charlier’s Western anti-hero for 15 years under the name “Gir”. The character was very popular in France, hence this spin-off single by Marcel Dadi.

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Dadi’s Folks (1973) by Marcel Dadi.

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Jazz Septet (1973) by Ogoun Ferraille.

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Are You Experienced / Axis: Bold As Love (1975) by Jimi Hendrix.

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A gatefold sleeve for a series of four reissues of the Hendrix catalogue on the Barclay label. The other covers were by Philippe Druillet, Jean Solé and an artist unidentified on the link above but it looks to me like the work of Philippe Caza. I’ve got most of the music but I’d buy these for the covers alone.

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