When I was about ten or eleven years old, I stumbled onto a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. The illustrations, though, were not the famous ones by John Tenniel. They were, somehow, disturbing. Alice was not the prim Victorian poppet of the Tenniel illustations, or even of the Disney film. This Alice looked like the kind of girl in my school or on the playground who was already making me think the wrong thoughts. It wasn’t until nearly five decades later that I discovered that the illustrator of my singular Alice was also the writer of the Gormenghast trilogy, and that 2011 was the centennial of his birth. Happy 100th birthday, Mervyn Peake.
Without any doubt, his illustrations of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books that I devoured during my boyhood were the creepiest. I knew nothing about him except his name; Mahlon Blaine, and I ferreted out every book by ERB that he illustrated. Towards the end of his long and productive life (1892-1969), he was commissioned by the small publisher Canaveral Press to illustrate several Burroughs’ works; in particular the Pellucidar series. The pictures were dense, and sometimes macabre, and I know they disturbed my mother and other guardians of my juvenile sensibilities. It is a good thing that I never investigated him more thoroughly. He was a very productive artist, active from the 20s until just before his death. Somewhat like an American Aubrey Beardsley, his art reveled in the decadent, the erotic, and the occult. He was a strange choice as an illustrator for what is basically boys’ literature, but I’m glad someone had the courage to ask Mahlon Blaine to illustrate these books.
In the early eighties, I found a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a used book store for $75. I tried to ascertain why the book had such a high price tag, and I was told by the girl who was accompanying me at the time that the reason for the price was for the illustrations, which were by Arthur Rackham. She begged me to buy the book for her, but between the two of us, we had probably $15. The illustrations were captivating. I since discovered that Rackham was a very prolific illustrator, having illustrated Charles Dickens, John Bunyan, and Edgar Allen Poe, among others.
His fairies were so unworldly that I often wondered if, like Lovecraft’s Pickman, he didn’t paint them from life.
Vaughn Bodé was a hippie’s hippie. It seems like I was just getting to know him through his work in National Lampoon when he was snatched from us by his untimely death in 1975. In a way, I guess he really couldn’t be called a fantasy illustrator. He illustrated one paperback by R.A. Lafferty, a strange but compatible pairing. Lafferty, for all his playful and ironic prose, was a devout Caholic, and as I said, Bodé was a hippie’s hippie. Bodé also illustrated some science fiction magazine covers, but overall, he was more of an underground cartoonist. His big-eyed, small-mouthed, pneumatic women preceded Japanese manga, and his style is seen everywhere on urban walls and underpasses.