Thursday, January 21, 2010

Words (now New & Improved, with Pictures!)

There are people who will tell you that artist conceptions of characters, places, & things from books ruin the thing. That "your imagination" is better than anything some artist can supply. These people are speaking errant nonsense. Fiction is based on taking someone else's imagination & uploading it into your skull. Straight up using other people's ideas. & you know what-- pictures, illustration, whatever-- visual art is a legitimate addition to that.

Now, I realize I am speaking to the choir here, a little. Heck, who hasn't read a comic book? Where words & pictures are indelibly wedded. So let me take this & twist it around a little to specifically talk about science fiction, fantasy & horror. I mean, these are the genres where you imagination is really asked to do the heavy lifting. Heck, half the time the monster in horror is suggested only in metaphor, half-glimpses, or as a non-Euclidean squamous beastie.

These are zones where letting your imagination go wild pays off big. If the writer suggests the creature to you, then you are left to fill in the blanks with the emotionally appropriate imagry, right? If you are afraid of spiders, the creature is more arachnid. Afraid of swimming? Piscine. Toothy maws can be lupine, shark-like, or filled with grinding human teeth. So it seems like artists are better off leaving well enough alone-- right?

I'm not convinced. Especially when there is a good artist on the scene. Sure, a hack can ruin something alien & beautiful; it is a worry. The risk is there, but if it pays off...well, now we're talking! David Lynch makes the Third Stage Guild Navigator a giant naked mole rat grasshopper thing, & ugh, how much more creepy is that then what Herbert actually lays out? The right artist can take a thing & make it solid. I'm sure there is something tied up in mirror neurons & visual memory, right? Neuroscience or something.

I think the reason I'm chopping at this here is: intertext linkages. Sure, sure, people can mention this book or that book & seem erudite as hell. Good for them. Artists can take the context & spin it into another medium. I'm not talking college art show here. People like Alan Howe & John Lee-- Sorry, I mean John Howe & Alan Lee, my brain is always conflating the two-- defined how people think of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. They were so successful at this that they were called into the movie to be the primary visual innovators. Between the two of them making pictures they managed to define the canon. You think you know what a balrog looks like? Go back & re-read the passage & see just how sparse the description is in the primary source. Yeah, I said primary source; this is what I mean by multimedia intertexuality!

Why is all of this on my mind. A couple of reasons, stemming from Wayne Barlowe, the artist whose book Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials is pictured above. First thing: I looked at the picture of an Alzabo in Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy (& a creature in The Book of the New Sun) a while ago & said "Huh. I guess it is red." I'd totally missed it. & secondly, because I've seen illustrations, like the one of Gorice XII from The Worm Ouroboros, will make me pick up & read a book I would probably never have noticed twice. So. I've been thinking about it, is all.


Anonymous said...

I think accompanying art can be evocative and suggestive without being prescriptive, but not photographs. It's why hint-of-misogyny-be-damned, I don't mind covers of books that cut the heads off their (usually) female characters.

mordicai said...

I like the head-cut-off too; I don't mind objectification, I just mind that that is as far as it ever goes, with women-- ya know?

Chris said...

This is a good post, Mordicai! I'm glad you linked to it. Sometimes in the course of this translation project, I feel a lot of anxiety about the responsibility that comes with depicting literature so concretely as an illustration. This makes me feel better.

mordicai said...

Wait Chris, you mean because there are lots of wee pictures of Vikin's all up in the margins of manuscripts or Wagner's funny hats, or what?

Chris said...

Oh, well, it's because my friend and I want to publish my translation alongside his illustrations. So we have to decide things like what Thor or the World-Serpent looks like. I tend to be a perfectionist, so I get real worried about getting any details demonstrably wrong, while at the same time filling in the blanks with something interesting.

mordicai said...

Interesting! This is I guess why modern day Shakespeare & Space Opera are easy. Science? History? PSHAH.

If it was me, I'd be making stuff way crazier than it is in the source; I feel like the emotional oomph of the World Serpent, to be better translated to modern viewers, should have a lot of Lovecraftian tentacles, for instance. Isn't Cthulhu the World Serpent? He will rise up one day!

Chris said...

That is EXACTLY right. Dragons just don't have a lot of impact, so it won't work for the world-serpent anymore, even if that's what they originally imagined. Ryan and I studied a lot of pictures of different crazy deep-sea creatures, seeing which still affects people on a visceral, upsetting level. The design he recently showed me is REALLY great.

mordicai said...

Counterwise, I like it Cthulhu is identified as a dragon. I mean, like I said above, if you look at the text instead of the popular art image, he's all huge & scaly with wings & such, right? & that reminds me of Coulthart's Cthulhu.

Do I know this Ryan? Does he "blogo"?