Robert Anning Bell’s Tempest

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British artist and designer Robert Anning Bell (1863–1933) illustrates Shakespeare in this 1901 edition at the Internet Archive and the work seemed to give him an excuse to embellish many of the pages with writhing mer-folk. His adaptation isn’t as striking as William Heath Robinson’s Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1914 but then few books are. In style Bell is closer to his contemporary Charles Ricketts with very open line work and no heavy black areas. Ricketts produced his own version of Ariel’s Song to Ferdinand for The Magazine of Art in 1895 but doesn’t seem to have illustrated much more of The Tempest as far as I’m aware, although his Vale Press did issue an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. It hadn’t occurred to me before how few illustrated editions there are of The Tempest; this seems surprising given the fantastic nature of the story. It might be that illustrated plays have never sold so well despite there having been a number of illustrated Midsummer Night’s Dreams. I’d love to have seen Harry Clarke tackling Ariel and Caliban.

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Also at the Internet Archive is a 1902 edition of Shelley’s poems illustrated by Bell (above) and an 1897 edition of Keats in the same series (below). Great poetry doesn’t necessarily lend itself to illustration so it’s no surprise that these books are less interesting than the Shakespeare.

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Bell later reworked his illustration for Keats’s Ode to Psyche as a painting which he called Cupid’s Visit. I much prefer the drawing to the painting.

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Cupid’s Visit (1912).

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Charles Ricketts’ Hero and Leander
Another Midsummer Night
Arthur Rackham’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
The art of Charles Robinson, 1870–1937
William Heath Robinson’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Berni Wrightson’s Frankenstein

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A recent conversation with Evan J Peterson touched on the subject of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Evan is currently working on something based on the novel and—in the interests of disclosure—he wrote a very flattering piece about these pages recently. In addition to this, Peter Ackroyd’s latest book works his familiar intertextual games with the same story, placing the monster creator in London where he meets various significant literary types. Andrew Motion reviewed the latter this week and wasn’t impressed.

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Which preamble brings us to Berni Wrightson’s treatment of the story and a work which was a major inspiration for my HP Lovecraft comics and illustrations. Wrightson’s illustrated edition of Shelley’s complete novel was published in 1983 with an introduction by Stephen King. I’d admired Wrightson’s technique for years but wasn’t always impressed by his subject matter which tended to revolve around the stock selection of favourite American horror characters—vampires, werewolves, zombies and so on—while much of his early art was indebted to the EC horror comics which never interested me at all. Jokey horror has always seemed to me a debased and neutered horror, horror-lite, and yes, that includes plush Cthulhus and the rest of that tat.

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So the immediate attraction of the Frankenstein book was seeing Wrightson take the story back to its origins and treat it seriously. Frankenstein—creator, monster and myth—has been subject to as much degradation as Dracula over the past century which made Wrightson’s approach very welcome. Crucially, it also gave me the key to interpreting Lovecraft visually. It was very evident that his drawings owed a debt to a favourite illustrator of mine, Gustave Doré; two of the pieces were almost straight copies of Doré drawings from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In terms of overt influence, Wrightson’s book is dedicated to the great Roy G Krenkel, one of the finest fantasy illustrators of the early 20th century. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but Wrightson’s style here also owes much to American illustrator Franklin Booth (1874–1948), one of Krenkel’s own influences. If the monster in his drawings had a touch of the lumbering EC zombie about its features that was allowable given the other influences at work, and besides, his compositions are perfect. Once I started work on my Lovecraft drawings I quickly found an approach that suited my own obsessions with fine line and detail. But it was Wrightson’s example which pointed the way.

The only problem discussing this is that the copies available on various sites, including Wrightson’s own gallery pages, don’t do the drawings much justice at all. (There’s a large copy of one picture here.) Where the more detailed pieces are concerned you’ll have to try and find a copy of the book. This year is the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication so Dark Horse Comics will be publishing a hard cover edition in October 2008. In addition, Darkwoods Press have announced an “ultimate edition” which will reprint all the artwork (some drawings weren’t used) with quality reproduction. No further information about that, however, and given that they’ve having to source all of the original drawings it may be a while before it appears.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Berni Wrightson in The Mist
The monstrous tome
Franklin Booth’s Flying Islands

Watchmen

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This year sees the 20th anniversary of the publication of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This landmark comic book, one of the few to deserve the designation “graphic novel”, remains a particular favourite of mine, and one that still excites today for its consummate command of the comics medium. The following is a very long round table discussion with Watchmen‘s creators from issue 100 of Fantasy Advertiser, first published in March 1988. It’s surprising that this doesn’t seem to have been posted anywhere else on the web as it’s an excellent discussion into some of the details of this great book.

Spoiler warning: this piece discusses in depth just about every revelation in the story so you’d be advised to skip it if you haven’t read the book.

MARTIN SKIDMORE: Alright, let’s have a starting point… just what is it about Watchmen that distinguishes it from other…
STEVE WHITAKER: Cream cheeses?
MS: …superhero comics on the market?
DAVE GIBBONS: Is this in the form of direct questions to us, or…
FIONA JEROME: No, we’re all gonna talk.
DG: Well, I’ll have a schnoozle then…
SW: The thing that I think distinguishes Watchmen from other comics is that the series holds together more like a novel. Your climax isn’t in the last 3 panels in Watchmen 12. There are long quiet tracts with exciting bits or…moderately exciting bits (LAUGHTER) In terms of Jack Kirby Wham! Smash! Pow! it’s all very quiet. There’s a lot of suffering but…
MS: …it’s all emotional rather than physical suffering.
ALAN MOORE: It’s a difficult question for me and Dave to answer, probably one that you could answer better, but if I had to say anything then it’s the degree of structure that me and Dave have applied to it—I can’t think of many examples of that degree of structure, that degree of layering.
FJ: I was going to say: especially visually you don’t get such a use of motif certainly not in American comics.
MS: Doug Moench has used it occasionally.
FJ: But not with the same complexity and not filling-in with written structure as well.
PETER HOGAN: The thing is: you’re given a world. The characters, alright, they’re based on the Charlton Characters but they’re new as of page 1. Even so, they’re characters with a history that comes out over the course of the thing… Their world has a history… it has a cohesion to it.
SW: Something that quite interests me now we’re talking about structure and stuff, is the symmetry—there is a real symmetry to Watchmen and the way the characters are set up.
DG: Two arms… two legs. (LAUGHTER)
MS: Perhaps the Comedian and Rorschach…
SW: I was thinking more of Osterman and Ozymandias.
MS: That’s right—the intellectual and physical, chaos and law…
AM: It’s difficult pinning down what’s symmetrical to what—I mean to me, at least to some extent, there’s an equally good case for contrasting Nite Owl and Rorschach.

Continue reading “Watchmen”