Monday, November 19, 2007

Desert Island Books - Final Part

And so to my final selection - the arty-farty stuff. I'll begin with the graphic novels if I may. They're a relatively new form of book - maybe less than 50 years old - and, sadly, still have some way to go before they are fully established as proper grown-up literature. And that's a real crime because good graphic novels are better written than 80% of the novels you'll see on your average bookstore shelves. The graphic novel writer has to not only create a realistic world, believable characters and a gripping narrative; he/she also has to work closely with the artist (unless writer and artist are the same person) to bring that vision to life. No one could read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen and not fail to be impressed with the quality. The book works on so many levels, addresses so many issues and is so fecking clever that I still spot something new every time I re-read it. The fact that it is about superheroes is an added level of clever. Graphic novels get their 'not real literature' tag from the fact that the earliest (and still the majority) are merely collections of superhero comics repackaged inside a card cover. True graphic novels are a fully-realised story that is then broken into bite-sized chunks for comic publication. Mike Mignola's Hellboy is another great comic creation and all of the graphic novels are superb. I've included the companion Art of Hellboy book here just because it is so jam packed full of Mignola's chunky graphics. Wonderful. Also shown is Slaine volume 1, a Titan Books reprint of the stories featured in weekly British comic 2000AD. Written by Pat Mills, these particular episodes feature what I believe to be the best artwork ever produced by comics maverick Mick McMahon. I could so easily have included Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman and Joker story The Killing Joke, Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's Marshall Law, Paul Grist's Kane stories and the Preacher series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Or The Trigan Empire by the great Don Lawrence. Or anything illustrated by Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Gil Kane, Adam Hughes, John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Alex Nino, Simon Bisley, Frank Quitely, Roger Langridge, Barry Windsor-Smith, Mike Kaluta, Travis Charest or any number of other comic artists who have wowed me over the years.

But now let's leave comics for the very different world of the book illustrator. Here I have several champions to bow my head to including Quentin Blake, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham, William Heath Robinson, Gerald Scarfe, Ed McLachlan and Ronald Searle. But in terms of greatest influence on me and my drawing style, I must single out Ralph Steadman and Willie Rushton. Ralph Steadman's Between the Eyes is a retrospective of his scratchy, caustic and explosive artwork and I spent hours and hours trying to emulate his style with a dip pen and a bottle of Indian ink. I failed dismally and my final art style looks nothing like Steadman's. But something of his pen work and eye for detail has remained with me and my own doodlings and I still delight in finding new examples of his work. Willie Rushton, meanwhile, is perhaps better known as a comedian and a staple of 1970s quiz show Celebrity Squares than as a cartoonist. But he is probably my favourite cartoonist of all time (closely followed by Gary Larson) and I own every single book that Rushton ever illustrated. I chose Pigsticking: A Joy for life for my Top 10 as I think it contains his best work. Plus he wrote the book and it is wonderfully funny. My signed copy is one of my most prized posessions.

And now, the 'serious' art. I'll begin with Roger Dean's Views which was my first exposure to what happens when fine art meets the marketplace. Dean and his contemporaries like Rodney Matthews, Patrick Woodroffe, Chris Foss and others - made the leap from being mere commercial artists to becoming stars in their own right. Dean's album covers for bands like Yes, Osibisa and Uriah Heep became popular art posters as did Foss's blocky, waspy-striped spaceship-filled book jackets. Woodroffe started to create artbooks including his Pentateuch, a gloriously illustrated alien bible that came with two vinyl LPs of 'alien' music written by Dave Greenslade to listen to as you read. Matthews' book covers also became best-selling posters and postcards. Around the same time, my good friend Huw was given the Dracula Annual for christmas. If ever a book was misnamed ... the aforementioned vampire actually appeared in just one panel of one cartoon strip in this 200 page book. The rest of the strips were reprints of European comics translated into English and featuring art by Enric Sio, Esteban Maroto and others we'd never heard of. The art was so different from the usual US comic fare and so refreshing. It took me 20 years but I finally tracked down a copy of the annual.

Lastly, we come to three fine art books. The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes gave me credibility. Art is all about the effect it has on the viewer. There is no such thing as good art or bad art. There is simply art we like or dislike. I'd always known what I liked but often didn't understand why. Hughes gave me the vocabulary to able to explain to people why I liked Picasso when it was 'all mashed up' or why I was moved by Henry Moore when it's just 'a chunk of rock with a hole in it'. And mention of Moore brings me to Barbara Hepworth by A M Hammacher. Hepworth was Moore's contemporary and friend, and a resident of St Ives in Cornwall, where several schools of art have flourished. I met Hepworth once when my father, a police officer and part-time writer/artist returned a stolen artwork to her. I remember seeing the various monolithic sculptures around her house and garden and being awed by them. Many are still there of course. Since her tragic death during a house fire in 1975, her old home has become a museum and shrine to her work. I've always loved Hepworth's work as much as I love Moore's because both artists could capture the essence of nature. Their sculptures look as if they've been eroded by time and wind and rain rather than by chisel and mallet. They are organic and always look wonderful when displayed against a natural landscape. Also from one of the Cornish art movements - in this case the Newlyn School - is Walter Langley. This book Walter Langley: Pioneer of the Newlyn Art Colony is very hard to find these days which is a shame as its the best book of his work ever published. Written by his grandson Roger Langley, it is an affectionate and comprehensive study of Langley's contribution, so often over-shadowed by the big guns of Stanhope Forbes and others. For me, however, Langley captured life in those old Cornish villages with far more emotion and fondness than his fellow artists did, and certainly better than any photograph ever could.

So there we go. Also-rans would include pop-artist Ron English, forgotten pre-Raphaelite Herbert Draper, ad genius Norman Rockwell, the plump lovelies of Beryl Cook, and Frank Frazetta's action-packed oils.


Anonymous said...

i have a copy of the dracula annual....i love it but couldnt find anything on it...thanks for the information.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Where do dead ducks go? Quackadia.

You may find this of some use: