Toon Musings: Illustrated Life
Barbara Remington died recently, which set me to thinking about literature, illustration, and my relationship to both.
My father dabbled in cartooning. I used to love to watch him draw; it was exhilarating to see him effortlessly create silly characters from nothing with only a sheet of paper, a pencil, and his own antic imagination. It used to make me laugh, watching him; not from mere amusement, but from sheer awe at his prowess. Little wonder then that I took up the craft myself. I became a celebrant of the imagination, expressed visually, and I drew incessantly. I became bookish and socially awkward, at least where girls were concerned. Often, I drew what I read. I copied Peanuts characters, and was inordinately proud that I could tell 1953 Snoopy from 1962 Snoopy from 1965 Snoopy from 1973 Snoopy. Did you know that Linus, Lucy, and Schroeder had the same shaped head? I was, to say the least, a peculiar child.
I was an avid reader. As a tot, one of my early favorites was the Eloise series by Kay Thompson with drawings by Hilary Knight. My favorite was Eloise in Moscow, chiefly because on each page of Eloise’s antics in the faded elegance of the capital city of the oppressive Soviet Empire was hidden a tiny black-clad spy, shadowing her; what fun! Another favorite was an illustrated book of Norse mythology, the very same one that was recently reissued, prefaced by Michael Chabon. Since this was my first exposure to the Mighty Thor (I was a DC kid then—didn’t start reading Marvel until fourth or fifth grade) I was perplexed later when I encountered the Thor of the comics: “Why is he blond? His hair should be red! And his hammer’s handle is too long!” I wonder if it was around then that people began to actively avoid me.
As I approached adolescence, my nose supported my lifestyle choice by growing from small and cute to rather bulbous and potato-shaped. Then, around the time I entered seventh grade, it developed an enormous, boil-like lesion on the left side. This unsightly pustule was so pronounced that I was called to the nurse’s office one day to discuss basic hygiene, so as to prevent the acne from spreading to the inside of my nostril, and thereby to my brain, causing madness and death (or so I inferred). This confidence building persisted all through those awkward, formative junior high years and into high school. It lent a certain je ne sais weird to my personality. Since dating was unlikely, I drew more pictures.
In adolescence, I became enamored of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series, so much so that I carried them with me to my classes—not just the particular book I was reading—the whole series, all eleven books.
The fact that they were paperbacks only slightly mitigates the fact that I was a pretty weird kid. At this point I was drawing the characters from the books (the male ones, anyway—this weird kid was, at this point, uncomfortable drawing women) and took my cues from the cover illustrations. Not the sexy Michael Whelan covers, or those of the great Frank Frazetta; my edition was published in the early 60s and used a particularly groovy font on the cover. Robert K. Abbett was the artist. The hero on those books had a haircut like Don Draper and costumes like a Chippendale version of Roman soldiers, so naturally my drawings of Barsoomian swordsmen tended to look like Madison Avenue admen in bare-chested Centurion drag.
It was about this time that I undertook a project. One of my classmates in fifth grade heard I liked the teevee show The Addams Family, and had informed me that it was based on the New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams. Years later my parents gave me a large collection of those cartoons, and I determined to develop a floor plan for the family mansion, using the views depicted in the cartoons as a reference. Yes, weird, obsessive fandom did not begin with the internet. I labored mightily on that production, and never did get it quite right.
Which brings me to Barbara Remington, and works of J.R.R. Tolkien. She provided the cover illustrations for my edition of both The Hobbit
and the trilogy.
I realized rather early on that: 1.) the covers of the books were actually pieces of one large painting she did,
and 2.) she hadn’t read the books when she painted the covers. Otherwise, why would she put a lion in the part of the painting representing the Shire? There were no lions in the Shire!
It didn’t bother me; marketing having advanced by that time, I was purchasing all sorts of ancillary merchandise, including calendars featuring the art of several other artists, some of which matched fairly closely the images I had conjured on my own. I liked Tim Kirk’s work the best; his orcs were appropriately feral and nasty, and most closely matched my conception of them. The Hildebrandt brothers, on the other hand, painted orcs with pig faces, and their cities were clunky and unconvincing. In succeeding years, calendars continued to be released featuring a veritable army of artists with different conceptions and in different styles, so there were enough images out there to choose from and I learned to be more discriminating. This was long before the movies came out and overwhelmed, by quality and by sheer volume, most other conceptions of the stories’ characters and settings, but by then I had long moved on, drawing creatures of my own creation. I caught my son watching me sketch once. It made him laugh; I’m not sure why.
That is, after all, how we learn. First we ape others’ work, then we reimagine it, then we strike out on our own. It also helps if you’re at least slightly odd, so people leave you the hell alone while you’re exploring your warped little mindscape. But that’s my own experience; your mileage may vary.
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures