The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire

By Howard Pyle, illustrated by Mike Grell (Donning/Starblaze edition)
ISBN: 978-0-89865-602-2 (TPB)

People who work in comics adore their earliest influences, and will spout for hours about them. Not only did they initially fire the young imagination and spark the drive to create but they always provide the creative yardstick by which a writer or artist measures their own achievements and worth.

Books, comics, posters, even gum cards (which mysteriously mutated into “Trading Cards” in the 1990s) all fed the colossal hungry Art-sponge which was the developing brain of the kids who make comics.

But by the 1970s an odd phenomenon was increasingly apparent. New talent coming into the industry was increasingly and overwhelmingly only aware of only comicbooks as a source of pictorial fuel. The great illustrators and storytellers who had inspired the likes of Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, P. Craig Russell, Charles Vess, Mike Grell, and a host of other top professionals were virtually unknown to many youngsters and aspirants.

I suspect the reason for this was the decline of illustrated fiction in magazines – and of magazines in general. Photographs became a cheaper option than artwork in the late 1960s and generally populations read less and less each year from that time onwards.

In the late 1980s publisher Donning created a line of oversized deluxe editions reprinting “lost” classics of fantasy, illustrated by major comics talents who felt an affinity for the selected texts. Vess illustrated Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kaluta did likewise with the script for the silent movie Metropolis, P. Craig Russell created magic for The Thief of Bagdad and Grell took the biggest risk of his career by providing new illustrations (6 in colour and 15 monochrome) for a fantasy masterpiece beloved by generations of youngsters – and still today an incredibly popular reissue in loads of different formats…

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was first published in 1883; the first work of art prodigy and father of modern illustration Howard Pyle. A jobbing magazine illustrator, Pyle (1853-1911) gathered together many of the stories and legends about the bowman of Sherwood Forest, translating them into a captivating ripping yarn for youngsters. He furnished his book with 23 spellbinding pictures that created a mythic past for millions of readers.

It became the definitive work on the character: all iterations since has been working from or in reaction to this immensely readable and influential book. If you’d care to see the wondrous original illustrations you should track down The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, a signet paperback (ISBN: 978-0451522849) which accurately reproduces the 1883 edition complete with Pyle’s drawings.

Pyle was a master storyteller and an incomparable artist who produced many other books illustrated in his unmistakable pen and ink flourish: both adaptations of heroic stories and wholly original material. These include: Otto of the Silver Hand, Pepper and Salt, The Wonder Clock, Men of Iron, The Garden Behind the Moon, plus a quartet of tomes that delineated the life of King Arthur: The Story of King Arthur and His Knights, The Story of the Champions of the Round Table, The Story of Lancelot and His Companions, and The Story of the Grail and the Passing of Arthur.

Believe it or not though, these books are not his greatest legacy and achievement. Pyle was a dedicated teacher also. In 1896 he took a position at the Drexel Institute of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia where the first students included Violet Oakley, Maxfield Parrish, and Jessie Willcox Smith.

He held summer classes at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania where the initial attendees included Stanley Arthurs, W.J. Aylward, Ida Daugherty, Harvey Dunn, George Harding, Percy Ivory, Thornton Oakley, Frank Schoonover and the just-as-legendary N.C. Wyeth (Dunn caught the bug here – becoming another dedicated educator, passing on the spark and the drive unto the next generation).

In 1903 Pyle founded his own art school in Wilmington, Virginia, and his dedicated, passionate and immensely talented followers became known as The Brandywine School. Why were they so successful and influential?

In a word: Action.

Before Howard Pyle, illustration was formal, staged, lovingly rendered but utterly static. There was no more life than in a posed photograph of the period with all elements locked in paralysis. Pyle introduced flowing, dynamic motion to illustrated art. He created “Life”.

All of which is a long way of saying that this is a great book with sumptuous Grell illustrations – especially the six paintings (a luxury most publisher’s budgets wouldn’t permit very often in Pyle’s lifetime) – and if you’re a fan of his work you should own it. However, you might also want to track down a reproduction of the original (as I said, there are many) with those groundbreaking original drawings and enjoy the pictorial component which inspired Grell fully as much as that stirring prose.
Art © 1989 Mike Grell.