Monday, November 16, 2009

The Unknown God

Back during art school, a pair of fantastic magazines were introduced: Science Fiction Age and Realms of Fantasy. I bought both, with subscriptions to one or both for a bit during their early years. I would keep them in my car. Since I commuted from So. San Jose to basically Berkeley for school, I would leave the house at 6am to arrive before the traffic got crazy. I'd arrive about 7:15 and be 45 minutes early (if I left even 15 minutes later, I might be late!). So I'd read in my car or nap if I was a complete zombie, and I often was. Sometimes the one would lead to the other. The stories published ranged wildly across the full spectrum of each genre, and what's more they both contained full-color illustrations by new and established illustrators. While art by big names was often re-use, newer folks were generally the ones who provided the new illustrations. The quality was mixed, but generally decent in those days. For instance, it was in those magazines that I first encountered the work of Todd Lockwood as he made his entrance into the genre after a career in advertising art. I remember noting him as someone to watch, and sure enough he's become a powerhouse.

Science Fiction Age eventually died off, sadly. But Realms of Fantasy continued on. After college, once I started illustrating more, I didn't have as much time so lost track of it some, though I'd flip through it on the newsstands from time to time. I was disappointed that over time the covers began to be media-related photo-design montages. A photo of Xena, or whatever. But hey, business is business I guess.

Then Realms of Fantasy died. That was sad. Then Realms of Fantasy was reborn with only the slightest hiccup in publication. That was nice.

So I included the new RoF team in my promotional mailings, and very soon received an email from their Art Director Douglas Cohen. In assigning it, he mentioned that it was the most difficult story in that batch of commissions to illustrate, because he didn't feel it was the most visual storytelling. That made me a little nervous, but I dove into the manuscript, reading Ann Leckie's "The Unknown God" multiple times, marking it up and taking notes. Doug was right, in that while there are visual references, to use some of them would've given the wrong idea about the story. A main character is a talking frog, for instance. But it isn't at all the sort of story one thinks of when a talking frog is present.

Doug and I chatted on the phone, and I communicated that I was hesitant to portray many of the straight scenes from the story, particularly those with the frog, and that many of the remaining scenes would not sum up the story well enough. Those were his thoughts, as well, to the point where he mentioned that had I come to the illustration seeking to portray the frog in a scene, he would've considered me the wrong person for the job! Whew. I gave him my idea, which was to use a scene from the story's past, where the main character utters a curse. The story eventually revolves around whether he will undo the curse. I decided that showing the curse literally emanating from his mouth would be visually interesting, and somehow showing that emanation wrapping back toward him might get across the "calling it back" concept. Doug thought it was interesting, so let me run with it. I began thumbnailing.

I never send these to Art Directors as they are illegible.

You'll see that in many of them, the script forms a loop around the character, as it makes its way back toward his mouth. This was harder to get to work than I thought, and when Doug emailed me later to express his concern about that same thing (two cases of mind-reading, now), I changed it to a sort of J-bend in the final two thumbnails, figuring I could incorporate the same into thumbnails 1-4 as well, quite easily. Changing it also changed my point-of-view to a higher camera angle, so as to show this new configuration. This also served to create a more dynamic angle altogether.

The final sketch was a combination of the last two. I worked up the drawing, and submitted a digital greyscale study to the Art Director.

Doug liked the approach, and gave me the go-ahead. He had one suggestion, and that was to include an Easter Egg in the magical script, which would help to tie it back to the narrative. Since I was taking an actual scene, but imbuing it with more than was written, he thought it might help to unpack it a little and keep it tied to the story. It was a brilliant suggestion, the sort of thing that appealed to me naturally anyway. So I went ahead with the painting. You'll note that those runes got beefed up considerably. After doing the study it occurred to me that it was looking a little anemic. Doug was thrilled with the final, and I was pleased as well. A few months later, when the story was scheduled, I received another email with some particularly good news--the illustration was chosen for the cover of the issue! That was a very nice bonus piece of news, and I'm sure the author was pleased to learn it, too.

It was a very good collaborative effort: Ann wrote an interesting story (which took me a couple of reads to get a good handle on), Doug gave me an initial carte blanche to find a good solution, then used his suggestions as invaluable spice to the dish. My job was to be chef with these ingredients and make a nice meal. I hope you enjoy it!

The magazine hits your local newsstand in December sometime (despite the 2/10 cover date), so be sure to grab a copy. A book store would be your best bet. If you are curious about or interested in imaginative fiction, this has always been a good magazine to sample a very broad range of fantasy fiction without committing to novels, by established and new writers both. Most folks think Tolkien when they think fantasy, but truthfully the genre has always been much, much broader.

The original drawing and final painting can be seen on my site, including a link to a detail image.