Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You

By Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black (Simon & Shuster UK)
ISBN: 978-1-41690-136-5

One of the most charming and readable children’s stories of recent vintage (the first volume was published in 2003 and I’ll get to them one day…) recounts the adventures of three American kids who stumble into a forgotten and dangerous world of unseen Fairy Magic. The adventures of the Grace children even emerged relatively unscathed from the transition to the big screen in a winning adaptation entitled The Spiderwick Chronicles.

Modern marketing being what it is, a lot of peripheral material has been generated to accompany the books and it’s one of these I want to bring to your attention. Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You is a fabulous confection, purporting to be the actual tome created by an inquisitive naturalist nearly a century ago, listing in magnificent taxonomical detail and gloriously illustrative manner all the unnatural and supernormal creatures that live beyond the range of normal human sight.

Although Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black are deliberately vague as to who does what to craft these tales the former is credited as illustrator, so I’m assuming the Manticore’s share of the superb paintings and drawings in this volume are his and the explanatory notes Ms Black’s – and frankly astonishing it all is.

Divided into Around the House and Yard, In Fields and Forests, In Lakes, Streams and the Sea, In the Hills and Mountains, In the Sky and Outside at Night this beautiful bestiary covers every invisible wonder from Banshees to Will-o’-the Wisps, Dragons to Unicorns and all European ethereals in between.

This is a book to inspire dreaming and creativity in kids of any age, produced with all the tricks and magic of 21st century printing and paper-technology. A true and total delight.
© 2005 Tony DiTerlizzi & Holly Black. All Rights Reserved.

American Surreal

By Todd Schorr (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-709-9

There’s an intriguing coagulation of populist imagery and the childhood iconography happening on the capital “A” art-scene which blends baby-boomer memories of cartoons, comics, television, toys, monster-movies and a million other empty, unforgettable delights into a high gloss, stunningly lavish exploration of modern culture.

These lush and lavish pictorial conglomerations assemble myriad nostalgia-drenched components into stunning investigations of modernity. Whimsical and sly yet searching they take as their starting point the hyper-realistic painterly techniques of early Salvador Dali and the master artists of the Renaissance. The movement is known as “Lowbrow” or Pop Surrealism and the supreme master of this visual sampling is Todd Schorr.

American Surreal collects his latest works (2003-2009) with many beautifully luxurious close-up and detail sections, explores his work philosophy and techniques and even examines his twin affinities: the Old Masters of the art world – particularly the narrative genius of Peter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch (imagine what they could have done with editorial independence and an exclusive contract with Vertigo Comics) – and the gestalt synthesis of childhood diversions that shaped his own life.

Wry and absurdist, these astonishingly compelling paintings are presented in a deluxe, wonderfully large format (38.6 x 25.7 x 1.8 cm) in eye-popping colour. This exquisite tome is a fabulous treat for anybody who’s ever regretted growing up, put away their toys a little too soon or recently felt the guilty pangs of pure, unadulterated nostalgia.

© 2009 Todd Schorr. Text © 2009 the respective authors. All rights reserved.

Greetings From… Mark Ryden’s Tree Show (micro portfolio #5)

A 15 plate postcard set by Mark Ryden (Porterhouse Fine Art Editions)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-716-7

I’m once more straying a little from my accustomed comfort zone with this delightful and evocative little item that landed in my review tray the other day. Whilst not sequential art the fifteen enticing yet profoundly disturbing images that make up this gift-set of postcards are certainly full of technical craft and intense imagination; and moreover the chillingly subversive pictures tell stories the way no thousand words ever could… by boring straight into your brain and making themselves uncomfortably at home.

Mark Ryden comes from a family of artists and has made his name in the last decade as an illustrator, producing book covers for the likes of Stephen King (Desperation and The Regulators) and record covers for Ringo Starr, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Michael Jackson. His work, reminiscent in style to classic Salvador Dali falls into a category of modern art described as “Pop Surrealism”. He was educated at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, graduating in 1987 with a Batchelor’s Degree in Fine Art. And that’s where his first one man exhibition “The Meat Show” debuted in 1998.

Ryden came to prominence with regular features in “Lowbrow” art magazines such as Juxtapoz and has also exhibited in New York, Los Angeles and Santa Ana. Recent shows have included the retrospective “Wondertoonel” and the quirky tour de forceThe Tree Show” (paintings and sculptures to 2007-2008) from which the contents of this set are culled.

Like many contemporary artists Ryden works across many media, illustrating the guitar of Metallica front-man Kirk Hammett, designing the tattoo art for Aerosmith’s album “Pump” and designing for custom action-figure producer Michael Leavitt’s “the Art Army“. Ryden’s eye-popping creepy explorations of beauty, childhood and popular culture can be found in the book collections the Art of Mark Ryden: Anima Mundi (2001), Bunnies and Bees (2002), Wondertoonel Paintings (2004), Blood Show (2005), Fushigi Circus (2006) and, of course, The Tree Show (2009).

Darkly surreal, with sumptuously lush palettes and a subject matter consisting of little girls, teddy bears, animals and monsters against a gloriously “outdoors-y” backdrop, these paintings are simultaneously beautiful and disquieting; a must-have treat for adults who view the Abstract Concept of childhood with something less than saccharine nostalgia…

© 2008 Porterhouse Fine Art Editions, Denver, Co.

Hi-Fructose Collected Edition

Edited by Annie Owens & Attaboy (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-713-6

If you’re au fait with such terms as Designer Vinyl, Softies, Plushies, Big Eye, Indy Toy, Constructions, Installations and other buzz-terms that define and compartmentalise the modern art scene then you may already be aware of the magazine Hi-Fructose which spotlights in a cool, hip and wonderfully accessible manner the eye-popping creations of modern artists working in every area of creativity from comic strips to photography, street art to customised toy-building, dress-making to performance.

Cutting Edge is a term I’m always uneasy applying to art of any kind but as a general term for “not your grandfather’s painting or sculpture” it will do as a guide to the literally stunning visual content in this book which collects and enthusiastically expands upon the first four issues of the contemporary arts review.

With forty or so artists displayed and/or interviewed, this quality full-colour hardback explores surreal toy photography, the French company Royal de Luxe (who I think created the giant spider that attacked downtown Liverpool during their recent City of Culture celebration), digital collage, animation, caricature, various styles of painting, a life-sized working version of the old children’s board-game Mousetrap, X-Ray photography, all disciplines of illustration, toy design/customisation, and whole bunches of things I don’t really have handy pigeon-holes for.

Art is not in the eye of the beholder: it is in all the processes of society.

If there is a prevailing theme or fascination linking many (never, never all) of the talented makers gathered here it might well be old views of the future and retro-imagery and co-opted popular cultural nostalgia of childhood. Many creators have also worked in the comics biz (Dave Copper, Chris Ware and Jim Woodring among others), but the overwhelming appeal of this book is the sheer, compulsive breadth and variety of the work.

If your eyes and brain are open to stimulation (and your ethical centre can handle the occasional sexually uncompromising image) this is a book that will stir your creative juices and make your arts and craft mouth water. (Painful metaphors can be ignored at will, other descriptive passages can be applied at readers’ request, and the relative value of critical opinion can go up as well as too far…)

All artwork, photos and writing © 2008 respective artists, photographers and authors. Book © 2008 Ouch Factory Yum Club and Last Gasp. All rights reserved.

Beasts! Book 1

By many and various, designed and edited by Jacob Covey (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-56097-950-0

A few years ago an art director at Fantagraphics finally completed a dream project – to compile a catalogue of mythological creatures of all natures and cultures (defined and explained by writers Heidi Broadhead, Felicia Gotthelf, Paul Hughes and Rob Lightner) and brought to better-than-life by the cream of alternative artists. The result is captivating, wistful, funny and truly extraordinary – a Bestiary of the traditionally fantastic for the dreary 21st century where imagination and wonder have been formularised as crypto-zoology.

If you’re inclined towards shopping lists, this next paragraph lists each of the artists and their assignment, and please feel free to skip it if you’re impatient or in a rush, but if you’ve a favourite feel free to browse at your leisure. Like this superb book itself, that’s the point.

In page order then: Ray Fenwick – Beast Pattern, Art Chantry – American Buffalo, Gilbert Hernandez – Sea Hog, Tim Biskup – Amermait, Jason Robards – Acephalite, Ryan Clark – Aeternae, Charles Glaubitz – Ahuizotl, Esther Pearl Watson – Aitvaras, Ronald Kurniawan – Albastor, Jacob Covey – Argus, Deth P. Sun – Aries, R. Kikuo Johnson – Asp Turtle, Julie Murphy – Aspis, Martin Cendreda – Aswang, Brent Johnson – Auvekoejak, Colleen Coover – Baba Yaga, Katy Horan – Banshee, Dean Yeagle – Barguest, Kaela Graham – Barometz, Jesse LeDoux – Bautatsch-Ah-Ilgs, Marvin Kirschnik – Beast of Bray Road, Andrew Brandou – Big Ears, Renee French – Bigfoot, Lesley Reppeteaux – Black Annis, Eric Reynolds – Boa, Kenneth Lavallee – Boraro, Adam Grano – Brownies, PJ Fidler – Cacus, Brian Ralph – Carn Galver, Angela Kongelbak – Catoblepas, Keith Andrew Shore – Centaur, Amanda Visell – Cerberus, Mike Hoffman – Cheeroonear, Mat Brinkman – Chenoo, Scott Campell – Cliff Ogre, Dave Cooper – Bapets, Corey Lunn –Cyclopedes, Nate Williams – Cyclops, Alex Meyer – Disemboweller, Don Clark – Dog-Faced Bunyip, Kevin Cornell – Donestre, Nathan Jurevicius – Drac, Ron Regé, Jr. – Draug, Meg Hunt – Erinyes, Stan Sakai – Gaki, Marc Bell – Golem, Dan Grzeca – Gorgon, Johnny Ryan – Harpy, Little Friends of Printmaking – Hundred-Handed Giant, Kevin Scalzo – Kabandha, Bwana Spoons – Kappa, Mizna Wada – Kojiki’s Yamata No Orochi, Jeremy Fish – Kraken, Tyler Stout – Kukuweaq, Jordan Crane – Laestrygonians, Peter Thompson – Leveller, Scott Teplin – Loathly Worm, Maxwell Loren Holyoke-Hirsch – Loch Ness Monster, Martin Ontiveros – Long Wang, Chris Ryniak – Lou Carcolh, Andy Kehoe – Manticore, Atteboy – Melusine, Justin B. Williams – Mimick Dog, Jeff Soto – Minata-Karaia, Jason – Minotaur, Jessica Lynch – Monoceros, Nathan Huang – Nuckalevee, Kevin Dart – Odontotyrannus, Jesse Reno – Pegasus, Steven Weissman – Pey, Alan Mooers – Puk, Anders Nilsen – Sianach, Ted Jouflas – Siren, Foi Jimenez – Sphinx, James Jean – Succubus, Jay Ryan – Thunderbeast, Jason Miles – Thunderbird & Unceliga, Tony Millionaire – Leviathan, Josh Cochran – Triton, S.britt – Troll, Stella Im Hultberg – Tui Delai Gau, Seonna Hong – Unicorn, Sammy Harkham – Utukku, Sam Weber – Vampire, Richard Sala – Vodnik, Chris Silas Neal – Werewolf, Joe Vaux – Wihwin, Tom Gauld Wizard’s Shackle, Heiko Müller – Wolpertinger, Michael Slack – Yara-Ma-Yha-Who and Souther Salazar – Aunyainá.

The concept of a Bestiary – a chronicle of fabulous creatures – is probably older than the printed book itself and this incredibly broad and varied collection (originally released as a striking hardback in 2007) uses the very best of modern print technology and design sensibility to deliver an vivid package of sheer fantasy and artistic excellence, with as much emphasis on madcap humour as terror or wonderment. This edition also benefits from slick, coated paper and stunning gold ink, a text feature by “Yeti Hunter” Daniel Taylor, a family tree of Crypto-zoological creatures, an extensive bibliography and biographies of the 90 creators involved in the project.

Combining state-of-the-nation artists from a number of disciplines including comics, poster production, skate art, commercial illustration and gallery exhibitors, this is as much a catalogue of the contemporary US popular arts scene as a bible of the fantastic and a must-have for anyone who wants their eyes to bulge and protrude like a Tom & Jerry cartoon character. Hey? What page are they o…?
This edition © 2008 Fantagraphics Books. All images and text © 2008 their respective creator. All Rights Reserved.

Fantastic Four Pop-Up

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel/Templar Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-84011-670-0

Here’s a hunk of sheer comic extravagance that will appeal to the great, big kid so inadequately buried in us all. Part of a line of publications first released in 2008 (and just now making it into book remainder stores around the country, but also still available online) I got this masterpiece of “paper technology” or pop-up book as part of my recent 50th birthday commiserations.

By selecting pages and scenes from the glory days of Stan and Jack, such as the cover of Fantastic Four #1, the origin of Doctor Doom, the battle against the Molecule Man (FF#20) and many others, the creators have produced a startling, quite literally three-dimensional dossier of the World’s Greatest Magazine heroes and their most dastardly foes. These snippets of King Kirby at his bombastic best include Victor Von Doom, Mole Man, Puppet Master, Sub-Mariner, Super-Skrull, Mad Thinker, and even the incredible Fantasticar, all augmented by the very latest in folding, spindling, sliding and even plastic enhancing techniques.

Delightfully ingenious, fabulously fun and capable of reducing sour old coots to fits of gleeful burbling this is just plain fun and you really, really need it…

TM and © 2008 Marvel Characters inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Best of Simon and Kirby

By Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and various (Titan Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-931-4

There’s a glorious wealth of Jack Kirby material around at the moment and this astounding collection of his collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon is a gigantic box of delights that perfectly illustrates the depth and scope of their influence and innovation by reprinting the merest fraction of their output over nearly two decades.

Divided into key genres, supplemented by informative features from that ever-engaging writer and comics historian Mark Evanier, this striking compendium leads with The Heroes. reprinting in eye-popping colour ‘Captain America and the Riddle of the Red Skull’ from the landmark first issue (March 1941), and an untitled adventure of the Golden Age Vision from Marvel Mystery Comics #14 (December 1940).

From S&K’s incredible war-time tenure at National/DC comes ‘The Villain From Valhalla!’, a Sandman yarn first seen in Adventure Comics #75 (June 1942), followed by the origin of the incredible Stuntman in ‘Killer in the Big Top’ (Stuntman Comics #1, April 1946). ‘Assignment: Find the King of the Crime Syndicate’ is a raucous romp from their spoof patriotic hero Fighting American (#2, June 1954) and this section ends with a tale from Adventures of the Fly #1(August, 1959) entitled ‘Come into My Parlor’. Each text section is copiously illustrated and classic covers for each genre further sweeten the pot…

Way out Science Fiction follows, represented here by Solar Patrol in ‘The Tree Men of Uranus’: a Joe Simon solo production from  Silver Streak Comics #2 (January, 1940), the eponymous hero from Blue Bolt Comics #4 (September, 1940) and the magnificently spooky short ‘The Thing on Sputnik 4’ (Race for the Moon #2, September 1958).

War and Adventure highlights some of their most passionate yet largely unappreciated material. Boy Commandos often outsold Superman and Batman during World War II, and the moody ‘Satan Wears a Swastika’ from the first issue of their own title (Winter, 1942) clearly shows why, whilst the nuclear armageddon depicted in ‘The Duke of Broadway: My City is No More’ (Black Cat Comics #5, April 1947) set the bar for all others creators.

Simon and Kirby famously invented the romance comic genre and in The Birth of Romance we can see why the things took off so explosively, if not why all their imitators so timidly bowdlerized their own efforts. ‘Weddin’ at Red Rock’ from Western Love # 1, July 1949, is a raw, wild tale of obsessive passion, whilst ‘The Savage in Me’ (Young Romance Comics #22, June 1950) easily stands up against the best melodramas Hollywood was then producing.

Crime Drama uses three tales from 1947 (at the birth of the trend that led, with horror stories, to the instigation of the Comics Code Authority) to show how the dynamic visual flair of the ex-ghetto kids raised work like ‘Trapping New England’s Chain Murderer!’ (Headline Comics #24, May), the infamous Ma Barker story ‘Mother of Crime’ (Real Clue Crime Comics Vol. 2 #4, June) and ‘The Case Against Scarface’ (Justice Traps the Guilty #1, October) far above most of the avalanche of material all those decent folk and politicians railed against.

The Great Western features some of S&K’s most revered characters with ‘Apache Justice!’ from The Kid Cowboys of Boy’s Ranch #2 (December 1950), a spectacular spread ‘Remember the Alamo!’ from issue #5 and a captivating tale ‘Doom Town!’ starring the masked hero Bulls Eye from the fourth issue of his own short-lived title (February 1955).

Oh! The Horror! holds some especially impressive work, including ‘The Scorn of the Faceless People’ (Black Magic Vol. 1 #2, December 1950), the haunting ‘Up There!’ from #13 (confusingly also numbered as Vol. 2 #7, June 1952) and the remarkable ‘The Woman in the Tower!’ from The Strange World of Your Dreams #3 (November 1952).

Less well known are the forays into Sick Humor as seen here with ‘A Rainy Day with House-Date Harry’ (My Date #4, January 1948), the utterly wonderful parody strip ‘20,000 Lugs under the Sea’ originally seen in From Here to Insanity #11 (August 1955) and a couple of solo pieces from Simon. ‘Lenny Bruce’ and the editorial page are both from satire magazine Sick (Vol. 1 #2, 1960) and readily display the design and literary panache as well as artistic virtuosity he brought to the partnership.

With an extensive but far from complete checklist (talk about impossible tasks!) this tremendous hardcover is a worthy, welcome start towards acknowledging the debt our art-form owes these two unique creators. Now let’s have some more please…

© 2009 Joseph H. Simon and the Estate of Jack Kirby. All other material is © and TM the respective owner and holders and used with permission. All Rights Reserved.

Middle Earth – The World of Tolkien Illustrated

By David Wenzel, with an introduction by Lin Carter (Centaur Books Inc.)
ISBN: 0-87818-014-1

With all the fuss being generated by the perpetual hubbub in regard to the upcoming Hobbit movie I thought I’d take refuge in the distant past, to a time when the Ralph Bakshi animated feature had so soured most fans to the concept of film adaptations that the only acceptable visual interpretations of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien were those generated by devoted fan-artists.

By 1977 The Lord of the Rings and its test-run The Hobbit were world classics of literature. There had even been a consequent fantasy novel revolution which spawned hundreds if not thousands of similar tales from dozens of publishers. Even comic books were slowly making inroads into this new-ish sub-genre (in Marvel Super Action #1, 1976, Doug Moench and Mike Ploog produced a delightful strip called Weirdworld that eventually evolved via Marvel Premier #38 into the groundbreaking Warriors of the Shadow Realm specials) and the independent phenomenon Elfquest was not too far on the horizon…

Still and all, dedicated, passionate purists had the field mostly to themselves and foremost among these was a young illustrator and sometime comics creator named David Wenzel.

Now the most memorable thing about those times is the perpetual cries you’d hear at every convention, launch or bookshop. You couldn’t move for the plaintive “That’s not what Hobbits look like!” At all those occasions I heard it least about this book and this artist’s interpretations…

Wenzel moved from comics to the field of fantasy and especially children’s illustration in the 1980s where he’s worked with icons like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and creators like Maurice Sendak, but his greatest achievement is probably the three part adaptation of The Hobbit he produced with Chuck Dixon and Sean Deming for Eclipse Comics in 1989 (and which I’m saving for a later date).

Before that though there was this lovely piece of work featuring extracts of Tolkien’s prose wedded to 15 lovely line drawings and 11 beautiful, sensitive watercolours with such titles as ‘Bagend’s Quiet is Shattered’, ‘Spiders and Swords in Mirkwood’ and ‘Conversations with Smaug’ that perfectly display the artist’s love of and reverence for the source material and his debt to cited influences Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, , Howard Pyle, Alphonse Mucha, Barry Windsor-Smith and Frank Frazetta; as well as Dutch painters Pieter Bruegel and Jan Steen.

Probably impossible to find in its original low-print-run original, I hope some enterprising entrepreneur is preparing this lovely art-book for a timely re-issue…
© 1977 Centaur Books Inc. Art ©1977 David Wenzel. All Rights Reserved.

The Art of Segrelles

By Vicente Segrelles (NBM)
ISBN: 0-918348-39-0

Born in Barcelona in 1940 Vicente Segrelles Sacristán is the creator of one of the world’s most popular fantasy graphic novel series, as well as a renowned illustrator of magazines and book covers on three continents. His first comics album ‘El Mercenario’ (The Mercenary) was released in 1980, the tale of a knight fighting his way through a fantastic world of science and sorcery. Rendered in lush oil-paints, the tales blend visual realism and accuracy with fable, myth, historical weaponry, contemporary technology and classical science fiction themes. There have been twelve more since.

Hugely in demand for his painted covers since the 1970s, he has produced book covers for the works of such authors as H, Rider Haggard, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, Alistair McLean, Desmond Bagley, G. F. Unger, Andre Norton, Joel Rosenberg, Charles DeLint, C.H. Guenter, Jason Dark, Terry Pratchett and a host of others. European readers may also know him as the cover artist of Italian Science Fiction magazine Urania.

This lavish oversized edition published in the late 1980s reproduces 32 of his very best covers ranging from his own Mercenary covers to paperback commissions from around the world, and includes a very brief note from the artist on his work method. Although sometimes considered a little static his vibrant, classical realism has inspired many modern narrative painters and this is a lovely book to dip into and admire.
© 1987 Vicente Segrelles, controlled by NORMA. All Rights Reserved. English Translation © 1987 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

Old Jewish Comedians

Old Jewish Comedians 

By Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN 10: 1-56097-741-8
ISBN 13: 978-1-56097-741-4

Technically, this isn’t a graphic novel or trade collection, it’s a picture book. But when it’s a series of drawings depicting a procession of Jewish American Comedians in their wrinkly twilight years by the absolute master of pencil rendering and ironic nostalgia I’m prepared to bend whatever rules I need to in order to make more people aware.

Friedman can just plain draw. His caricatures are powerful, resonant and joyful. He at once captures what these wizened laugh-smiths were about, and gives them a beer-goggles beauty that our generation of comedy fans just doesn’t see in recordings of the performers. A book for true art collectors, whatever their particular fascination.

© 2006 Drew Friedman. All Rights Reserved.