Wednesday, January 29, 2020

More than a Thousand Words

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen told us late in the 19th Century, "A thousand words does not leave the same deep impression as one good deed." Today, thanks to the San Antonio Light hawking its pictorial coverage of the Great War in 1918, we have the phrase as "a picture is worth a thousand words." Fiction magazines used to illustrate stories with drawings, paintings and even lithographs, but these days, with fiction magazines all but gone, the relationship between story and art is mostly limited to the book cover, which may or may not actually illustrate some aspect of the story. Usually, it's more along the lines of "inspired by" or "suggested by" rather than actually illustrating; in the case of the great Richard Powers, it was more "I captured the spirit of the book" or "The book is really weird and so is my painting."

We usually think of the story creating the art, but it can also flow the other way, the art inspiring the words. This is what happened when Edwin Markham saw French artist Jean-François Millet's painting L'homme à la houe and wrote the powerful poem "The Man with the Hoe." When I took a creative writing class at Castle Park High School (it was the first of its kind in the district, strictly experimental) we used a book called Pictures for Writing. This approach was particularly helpful for class members who could write well, but had problems finding inspiration. There were a few other books in the series. The problem that some had with the technique, however, was that they could not get beyond whatever they saw in the picture. Others did quite well transferring the old journalist's mantra of "5W's & an H" (Who, What, Where, When, Why & How) to discover the hidden story. My only problem was that every picture inspired me to write a science fiction or fantasy story; these days, however, it would have been a mystery/suspense story. There were times when I almost felt sorry for Mr Ligon (our teacher) when he read my story, looked at the assigned photo and shook his head in dismay and confusion. 

Back in the 80's and 90's, I was very active in the small press movement, a kind of counter-traditional publishing that evolved in the later part of the 19th Century. It often took the form of publishing one's own work, but small or "craft" presses also came into being. Until the 60's, when specialized paperbacks took over from the pulps and traditional publishers discovered a new market, science fiction and fantasy novels were published by the likes of Shasta Press and Gnome Books, after first being serialized in genre magazines. Alas, the small press is no more, for which I blame the Internet and Amazon, my usual Black Hats for things that cannot be blamed on the Usual of The Lone Gunmen will understand. Most of that involvement on my part was as author and publisher, but I also sometimes snuck in as an artist.

However, I never tried to pass myself off as an "artist;" I usually told myself I was just an illustrator, an interpreter of someone else's talent. I read the stories and tried to give the author's words life, choosing just that particular moment that would emphasize the action or distill the essence of the story into vivid graphics. It was just a hobby and I was flattered that people asked me to help them out with their projects. I hope I succeeded more often that I failed. Here are a few of my efforts from published stories:

A Plant-man from a re-issue
 of one of ERB's Barsoom stories.
A sorcerer brings doom upon a city
Pirates attack in this space opera.
A strange cloaked figure wanders through a Celtic land.

Sometimes, I drew illustrations that I would use as a basis for a story, or sometimes I gave them to friends who mined them for stories and poems. However, most of those drawings and paintings I no longer have. This was back in the day before computers and scanners were part of my life. I sent out originals of the works, which were gifts to friends (other small press writers and publishers), whether of not they used them. I do still have a few, though:

For one reason or another, some of them dealing with trauma, others with the more mundane issues of life and and time and events beyond control (and not a little ennui, admittedly), I put away the pens and pencils and papers for a long time. I suppose if there is one thing that can be said with absolute certainty, it's that nothing remains the same, that everything changes. Everything that goes away comes around again, which is why I try to never throw anything away. So, in 2020, I got the drawing bug again. The difference is that, with the demise of the small press, there went my social life. With just a couple of exceptions, everyone I knew from my small press decades have either moved on to other endeavors or passed away. So, now, if the new drawings are to inspire new stories, it will all be up to me...unless others volunteer. 

She haunts the bayou, lingering in the moist darkness
as she watches isolated points of light, the tiny lanterns
of those whose shacks are far from civilization.
And she waits...

The Canvyrn leads an unhappy life, enslaved and
mistreated by its arrogant and foppish rider;
one day there will surely be a reckoning...

The Davyn and its rider lead caravans across the shifting sands
of the Great Sand Sea. Though the Davyn has a 360 range of
view and wears goggles to keep his vision clear, the desert is
a dangerous place, full of perils, from savage marauders
to ancient evils...

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ralph

    I really enjoyed these. I have always been interested in SF and Weird Tales illustration including fanzines and small press publishers so I appreciated the chance to see these.

    All the best