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

James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art

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The past year would have been busier than usual with the amount of illustration work I had to deal with, but it was made even busier with my having to design this book at the same time. James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art was originally intended to be a modest memorial by Maureen Cawthorn Bell for her artist brother following his death in 2008, but the book grew into a heavyweight volume of 448 pages containing over 800 individual pieces of art: book covers, illustrations for magazines and fanzines, private pieces for friends and relatives, and many sketches or preliminary works, most of which have never seen print before.

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Given Jim Cawthorn’s long association with Michael Moorcock, as both friend and collaborator, the task of collating the artwork and editing the book went to Moorcock bibliographer John Davey, who also serves as the book’s publisher. John spent three years locating over 3000 pieces of artwork, large and small. Some of these pieces are now lodged with the Moorcock archives in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, while others may only be found in the pages of the many science fiction and fantasy fanzines that Jim illustrated, copies of which are stored at the British Library. From this body of material Maureen and John selected a core of representative work from Jim’s private as well as public life, although no-one at the outset of the project was expecting the final picture tally to be so high.

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My task as the book’s designer involved making the text presentable (easy) and corralling the artwork (not so easy, and I also had to either clean or colour-adjust every single piece). Maureen had divided the book into several sections, beginning with a lengthy biographical reminiscence. Following this was “Jim by Jim”, a selection of interviews, magazine pieces, some fiction, essays and book reviews. There was also a lengthy extract from Fantasy: 100 Best Novels (1988), a book credited to Jim and Michael Moorcock but, by Moorcock’s admission, mostly Jim’s work. Jim Cawthorn was very well-read, especially in the genres—he was old enough and interested enough to have read The Lord of the Rings when it was first published—and could also present his erudition engagingly for a reader, so the text section of Maureen’s book is far from indulgent.

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The book design isn’t as elaborate as some I’ve worked on but it didn’t need to be when the pictorial material is rich with what Moorcock calls “wizardry and wild romance”. Maureen wanted a particular picture of Moorcock’s Elric character on the cover so I took details and motifs from some of Jim’s many Elric illustrations to give the book a thematic thread and internal consistency. Cawthorn was present at the creation of Elric in the early 1960s; he not only provided Moorcock’s characters with their first illustrations but even helped plot one of the earliest stories, Kings in Darkness.

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Page numbers are framed by the swords from the Elric stories.

Using motifs such as the sword silhouette and Elric head is something I frequently do with book designs but for this book I also went to the trouble of creating a one-off font for the drop capitals based on Jim’s hand-drawn lettering. Jim drew titles and other lettering throughout his career, so again this was a decision warranted by the book’s contents. The few times we met I never asked him about this but I’ve always thought his lettering designs were derived from the stylised titles that J. Allen St. John created for many of the early Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Jim spent most of his life drawing Burroughs’ characters, and was very familiar with the work of Burroughs’ original illustrators. I was hoping to find a title design of Jim’s that I could rework for the book’s title but none of the examples worked as well as I hoped. For this reason the title lettering is based on different styles from the John Carter novels that were Jim’s favourites among Burroughs’ works.

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Other features include a foreword by Alan Moore, an afterword by Michael Moorcock, a gallery of Jim’s Lord of the Rings drawings and character sketches from the early 1960s (which predate all others bar those by Tolkien himself), artwork for Hawkwind (including Dave Brock’s “Meliadus” T-shirt), and even a handful of photos from the set of The Land that Time Forgot (1975), the ER Burroughs-derived feature film scripted by Jim with Michael Moorcock. The page samples here are necessarily few given the size of the book.

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For the moment James Cawthorn: The Man and His Art is available exclusively from publishers Jayde Design at a special pre-publication price of £20. After publication on 6th August the price will rise to £35. Further page samples follow.

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The Chronicle of the Cursed Sleeve

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A copy of the cover art that I attempted to colour-correct some years ago to compensate for the poor print reproduction.

This month I’m in Record Collector magazine talking in a sidebar feature about my work on the Hawkwind album The Chronicle of the Black Sword. The issue is Hawkwind-heavy, with a Nik Turner interview, a history of Flicknife Records (the label that released COTBS), and a retrospective feature on the Black Sword album which was released in December 1985. My words were slightly cut to fit the allotted space but I can run the full text here in which I describe my ambivalent feelings towards this particular cover.

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The Black Sword album for me has always been a combination of pleasure and disappointment. I was very pleased initially to hear that Hawkwind were writing a concept based on the Elric books, a series I’d enjoyed for many years. Cover discussions were a little more detailed than usual since this design was sketched out beforehand then approved by the Dave Brock and co. Prior to this I’d been creating something vague after equally vague requests; communication back then was all done via post and call box as I didn’t own a phone.

This was the first album where I was able to create an integrated front and back cover design. A friend had recently found me a copy of George Bain’s Celtic Art: Its Methods of Construction (1951), a study of the creation of Celtic knotwork, and I was keen to use this somehow. Rather than do a cover that looked like a fantasy paperback the idea was to use the knotwork style to create something that was suitably Hawkish whilst also fitting the Elric theme. The front cover has some nods back to earlier Hawkart in the winged sphere—which goes back to Barney Bubbles and his obsession with Ancient Egypt—and the eye-in-a-triangle, a symbol which first appeared on the cover of the Hawklog booklet in the In Search of Space album, and which I scattered throughout many of my Hawkwind designs.

All the lettering on the album was hand-drawn (not very well in places) using letterforms based on Bain’s examples from the books of Kells and Lindisfarne. I drew the track listing onto the artwork for the back cover, a decision that later proved to be a bad one when the band decided to change the running order of the songs, hence the large purple square that spoils the design. My lack of any direct contact with the record company made problems like this inevitable; I was trying to do graphic design at a distance without having any communication at all with the printers responsible for the sleeve. Before digital design, the creation of an album cover could be a complicated business involving photo-mechanical transfers, knockout areas, overlays, typesetters and more; if you weren’t in direct contact with the printer (or somebody who was) then you simply had to hope for the best.

This process of design-at-a-distance led to the disaster with the cover printing, the front of which has an unwarranted blue cast that dulled the impact of the sleeve and, for me, ruined the whole thing. You can see how the cover should have looked by comparing the background colours of front and back; the front was also printed in its true colours on the back page of the 1985 tour programme. It was this, and the messy appearance of the lettering on the back, that pushed me further towards ending my involvement with Hawkwind and doing something of my own over which I’d have complete control.

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The retrospective feature in the magazine includes a picture of the back cover of the tour programme (above) so those familiar with the album can see the difference in reproduction. The difference isn’t so noticeable on the copies posted here after I tried altering the tones of the cover. Over the years I’ve grown used to the blueness but the back cover remains blighted by its purple boxes.

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HPL in France

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Les Autres Dieux et autres nouvelles (2002).

In 2002, French publisher J’ai Lu used my perennially popular view of R’lyeh on the cover of a small collection of HP Lovecraft’s fiction. This replaced a Michael Whelan painting on an earlier edition which looks fine but which happens to be a detail from one of his old Elric covers.

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Par-delà le mur du sommeil (2002). Cover art by Eikasia.

Looking through the Lovecraft pages at Noosfere this week turned up some recent French covers I’d not seen before. One of the striking things about cover art for French genre titles is the amount of artists who also work in comics. This isn’t so surprising given the scale of the French comics world but in the UK the tendency is for people to work in one area alone. Artists such as myself who move freely from comics to cover art to graphic design are a very small minority.

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Night ocean et autres nouvelles (2005). Cover art by Richard Guérineau.

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