Illustrating Frankenstein

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Frontispiece by Theodore Von Holst of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. The monster in this illustration, which Mary Shelley would no doubt have seen, is closer to the description in the text than the myriad shambling figures that came later.

It’s a recurrent feature of commissioned work that you sometimes find yourself illustrating novels or stories you might otherwise have never attempted. Spanish publisher Editorial Alma have just added a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to their series of illustrated classics, convenient timing with this year being the bicentenary of the book’s first publication. Last year I produced 33 illustrations for Alma’s collection of Poe stories, as well as 3 new illustrations for a small Lovecraft collection. For their edition of Frankenstein I’ve created 24 full-page pictures, one for each chapter. (I produced 25 in total, 24 for the chapters and one for the letters at the front, but the Spanish translation is arranged slightly differently so one of the drawings has been omitted.) In the past I’ve given little consideration to illustrating classic books, preferring to look for subjects which were less familiar. Frankenstein is a book that isn’t illustrated as much as some but Lynd Ward in 1934, and Bernie Wrightson in 1977/78 both produced sufficiently exceptional sets of drawings for me to regard the novel as almost unassailable. Until last year, that is.

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Frankenstein by Lynd Ward (1934).

Despite such formidable predecessors, I felt that with this book at least I might be able to offer something new using the blend of collage and drawing that I’ve been evolving recently. There was additional promise in that the story as it’s written is less familiar than the Poe stories, and much less familiar than its fellow horror classic, Dracula. People think they know Frankenstein but what they often know is the manglings the novel has received in various film and TV adaptations. The Ward and Wrightson illustrations stay close to the text, the latter being replete with period detail, and rendered in a style reminiscent of 19th-century wood engravings. Wrightson even copied two of Gustave Dore’s pictures from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for the opening scenes on the ship, one of which went unused. But Wrightson’s drawings are closer still to Franklin Booth‘s pen-and-ink style which was also derived from wood engraving yet which achieves its effects in a different manner to the engraving process.

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Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson (1977/78).

Even when artists follow the text of Frankenstein more closely than the screenplay adapters, personal tastes can’t help manifest themselves. So Ward’s drawings reflect the angular and stylised compositions of his “novels in woodcuts”, while Wrightson’s work still shows evidence of his earlier career as a comic artist. With my illustrations I wanted to reflect the artistic spirit that gave birth to the novel, namely Romanticism. Frankenstein is very much a Romantic tragedy with violent passions set against the overwhelming landscapes of the Swiss Alps, the Rhine valley and the Arctic seas. Three of the illustrations below allude to Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, while many of the others have had their mundane cloudscapes exchanged for gloom and tumult.

I’ve said before that one of the things I enjoy about the collage technique is being able to use engravings and other graphics from the same period (give or take a few decades) as the story itself. The disadvantage of relying on pre-existing sources is that you’re always limited by the available material, so recently I’ve been pushing the technique further to achieve a hybrid style, something midway between the Ernst/Sätty engraving-collage technique and the very laborious, heavily-shaded pen-and-ink style I used when I was drawing comics. The approach isn’t so different to the one I used in my Lovecraft comics many of whose backgrounds and other details were copied from photographs. The difference is that where I used to spend several days working on a single panel (and two weeks working on a page) I can now create an entire picture in half the time. In these new illustrations I feel the hybrid style is working as I intended, allowing me greater freedom to create the picture I have in mind rather than a picture dictated by the source material. Without incorporating original figures and other drawn elements into the compositions it would have been difficult to illustrate a story with the same characters in so many scenes, a problem I encountered when I was illustrating Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and ran out of pictures of Victorian girls.

The full run of pictures follows below, including the one which was omitted from the print edition. All may be seen at a larger size here. Since the scenes aren’t always self-explanatory I’ve included fragments of text from each chapter.

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“In the morning, however, as soon as it was light, I went upon deck and found all the sailors busy on one side of the vessel, apparently talking to someone in the sea. It was, in fact, a sledge, like that we had seen before, which had drifted towards us in the night on a large fragment of ice.”

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“During one of their walks a poor cot in the foldings of a vale attracted their notice as being singularly disconsolate, while the number of half-clothed children gathered about it spoke of penury in its worst shape.”

This one was omitted from the Alma edition. No loss, really, since the scene doesn’t add much to the story.

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“When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of this author, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studied the wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasures known to few besides myself.”

The diagrams here are taken from some of the books the young Victor Frankenstein is reading. There’s an allusion to this in the magic square on the wall in the back of Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece, the square being the kind of thing seen in books like this one by Cornelius Agrippa, one of the occult philosophers mentioned in the novel.

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Abraxas: The International Journal of Esoteric Studies

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A welcome arrival in the post recently was two issues of Abraxas, the book-format journal of esoteric studies from Fulgur Esoterica. I’ve always observed the contemporary occult scene from a distance, being more interested in cultural spin-offs whether those happen to be music-oriented—as was the late, lamented Coil—or art-oriented. Something I always enjoyed about Kenneth Grant’s books was the amount of unique art material they contained, much of it by his wife, Steffi Grant, or previously unseen work by Austin Osman Spare. Fulgur have for many years continued this artistic focus, starting out by reprinting Spare’s books (and publishing new ones, such as the revelatory Zos Speaks!), and more recently turning their attention to the work of contemporary artists following similar paths.

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Study for Salome (2012) by Denis Forkas Kostromitin.

Abraxas is a venue for the latter group, especially in the most recent issue, no. 3, which features a wealth of new art, photography, essays and poetry. In the past I’ve complained about the misunderstandings Austin Spare’s work used to generate among otherwise intelligent and sensitive critics when faced with the artist’s occult obsessions; the usual response would be to lazily dismiss this side of his work as “black magic”, and therefore either kitsch or nonsense. Things have improved in recent years but it’s taken a long time for critics and curators who would show the greatest respect to a minority belief from South America, say, to offer the same respect to equally sincere artists who happen to be working in London or New York. One of the values of Abraxas for artists such as Jesse Bransford and Denis Forkas Kostromitin, both of whom are interviewed here, is that they can have a conversation with someone who won’t treat their work or their interests in a condescending manner. I’m particularly taken with Kostromitin, a Russian artist whose work I only discovered recently.

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M L K (Moloch) (2011) by Denis Forkas Kostromitin.

Elsewhere in Abraxas 3 there’s a feature on the recent exhibition of Aleister Crowley’s extravagant daubs, an article by Francesco Dimitri about tarantism in southern Italy, a piece about Dada by Adel Souto, and text by Paracelsus with illustrations by Joseph Uccello which is printed on a different paper stock. The production quality is as good as any art book but then that’s standard for a Fulgur publication. Mention should be made of the interior design of this issue which far exceeds the often perfunctory layout of many publications from smaller publishers. Tony Hill is credited on the masthead as Creative Director so I’m assuming he’s the person responsible. Abraxas is an essential purchase for anyone interested in contemporary occult art. The hardback of no. 3 is a limited edition that includes a signed and numbered lithograph by Denis Forkas Kostromitin.

Previously on { feuilleton }
I:MAGE: An Exhibition of Esoteric Artists

Weekend links 145

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Weird Tales, October 1933. Cover art by Margaret Brundage.

• Michael Moorcock’s novels are being republished this year by Gollancz in a range of print and digital editions. Publishing Perspectives asks Is Now a Perfect Time for a Michael Moorcock Revival? • Related: Dangerous Minds posted The Chronicle of the Black Sword: A Sword & Sorcery Concert from Hawkwind and Michael Moorcock. My sleeve for that album was the last I did for the band. • Obliquely related: Kensington Roof Gardens appear as a location in several Moorcock novels, and also provided a venue for the author’s 50th birthday party. If you have a spare £200m you may be interested in buying them once Richard Branson’s lease expires.

• One of my favourite things in Mojo magazine was a list by Jon Savage of 100 great psychedelic singles (50 from the UK, 50 from the US). This week he presented a list of the 20 best glam-rock songs of all time. For the record, Blockbuster by The Sweet was the first single I bought so I’ve always favoured that song over Ballroom Blitz.

The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage is a forthcoming book by J. David Spurlock about the Weird Tales cover artist. Steven Heller looks at her life (I’d no idea she knew Djuna Barnes) while io9 has some of her paintings. Related: Illustrations for Weird Tales by Virgil Finlay.

The masterpiece of Mann’s Hollywood period is, of course, Paracelsus (1937), with Charles Laughton. Laughton’s great bulk swims into pools of scalding light out of greater or lesser shoals of darkness like a vast monster of the deep, a great black whale. The movie haunts you like a bad dream. Mann did not try to give you a sense of the past; instead, Paracelsus looks as if it had been made in the Middle Ages – the gargoyle faces, bodies warped with ague, gaunt with famine, a claustrophobic sense of a limited world, of chronic, cramped unfreedom.

The Merchant of Shadows (1989) by Angela Carter. There’s more of her writing in the LRB Archive.

• Television essayist Jonathan Meades was back on our screens this week. The MeadesShrine at YouTube gathers some of his earlier disquisitions on culture, place, buildings and related esoterica.

• Sometimes snark is the only worthwhile response: An A-Z Guide to Music Journalist Bullshit.

• London venue the Horse Hospital celebrates 20 years of unusual events.

The Politics of Dread: An Interview with China Miéville.

How Giallo Can You Go? Antoni Maiovvi Interviewed.

A guide to Terry Riley’s music.

• Three more for the glam list: Coz I Love You (1971) by Slade | Get It On (1971) by T. Rex | Starman (40th Anniversary Mix) (1972) by David Bowie

Giovanni Battista Palatino

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Say the name Palatino today and the only thing it brings to mind for most people is the elegant typeface designed by Hermann Zapf in 1948. Giovanni Battista Palatino (c.1515–c.1575) is the Italian calligrapher from whom Zapf took the name, and the pages here are from a 1550 reprinting of one of Palatino’s sample books, another of those volumes with a sprawling title: Libro di M. Giovambattista Palatino cittadino romano: nel qual s’insegna à scriuere ogni sorte lettera, antica, & moderna di qualunque natione. One of the fascinations for me in going through these old alphabet books is seeing the same designs reprinted down through the centuries until you arrive at the origin of a particular page or design. The third image in this post I have uncredited in a 1997 Pepin Press book of typography; I’ve seen someone wearing it at a gig on a T-shirt, and it turns up in a number of 19th century design books. But this is its origin, and for once the designer receives a credit (although he did sign some of his pages).

Also of interest in this book are the renderings of ancient alphabets. These range from familiar Greek and Hebrew letters to more obscure alphabets some of which resemble a number of occult alphabets that appeared around this time. Agrippa’s Passing the River and the Alphabet of the Magi by Paracelsus in particular look as though they might have been derived from a lettering book such as this.

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On the Moon

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Two Apollo 11 pictures from NASA’s endlessly fascinating collection of high-res photos. Both these are of Buzz Aldrin taken with Neil Armstrong’s suit-mounted Hasselblad. The one above is the most famous of the lot, of course, reproduced endlessly (I even copied it once as part of a drawing), but you hardly ever see it in its original tilted state like this; picture editors prefer to balance the horizon. The one below I hadn’t seen before in such detail. The lunar lander here looks remarkably small and fragile.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Memories of the Space Age
Apollo liftoff
Earthrise
East of Paracelsus