Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday diversions: Severian

So, it appears that my good friend Gigantic Joe Kuth and I were scouring the internet looking for New Sun and Severian-related art at the same time. I found a few pieces ranging from odd to quite good and Joe passed along some really amazing finds as well. I'm going to post them here, with full artist attribution and links back to the artist's web sites. As far as I can tell, with a few obvious exceptions, none of these have been published and they were all created for personal reasons. Off we go.

First, let's take a look at the evolution of Severian's appearance as he first appeared on the American editions of the books with covers by Don Maitz. I know RF was not fond of the initial cover for The Shadow of the Torturer but, perhaps due to nostalgia, I always quite liked it and felt that it was an excellent introduction to the strange world of Urth and the tale of Severian's rise to the throne.

The young, masked journeyman torturer Severian appears fairly similar on the cover to book two, The Claw of the Conciliator, another cover I liked although I was always a little put off by the histrionic man-apes.

I felt that things started to go downhill with the cover to volume three, The Sword of the Lictor. Severian looks acceptable, although I'm not too sure about the spiky hair, but this Baldanders simply looks dreadful. Far too brutish, lumbering, and ape-like. And in some way, far too mundane. This was Severian's competition as the bringer of the New Sun?

But it's the cover of the fourth volume that really derails the whole affair. I understand that by this point, Severian has journeyed hundreds of miles through the wilderness, he has been lamed and scarred and starving, and he is older. But how does that teenage journeyman from the cover of the first book become a massive, muscular, cross-eyed, blue-skinned barbarian?

Stranger still, I found this preliminary cover treatment by Maitz showing a very different scene. Severian, with appropriately colored skin, in battle against the Ascians' bizarre unit of dwarves riding giants. An eerie and memorable scene, definitely, although Severian does look entirely too static in the midst of what was battlefield chaos.

As an aside, I wanted to include this cover, from what I believe was the British edition of the second omnibus Sword and Citadel by Jim Burns. Although decidedly more realistic and somewhat subdued, I feel it captures some of the heaviness of Severian's sombre nature as well as the grim necessities of warfare.

Centipede Press recently published exclusive limited editions of each of the four books. Actually, I am not certain if they have completed Citadel yet but I know they planned to. At first, these really appealed to me because they were large, lovely, and illustrated. But they were priced around $200 each and while I am certain they were worth that due to the amount of care and labor poured into each title, I simply couldn't justify to myself spending nearly a thousand dollars for a series I already owned in multiple formats. Additionally, once I saw the illustrations, by German artist Alexander Preuss, I wasn't as enthusiastic. To me, they were far too slick, cold, impersonal, and digital. They just didn't seem to fit a series of books that, to me, always looked backward as much as they looked forward. Here are a few of Preuss' illustrations. First, Severian leaving Nessus.

Severian wandering.

Finally, Severian confronting the dying sun. I love the solar and divine imagery here.

Another fact which has only recently come to my attention is that at one point there was an attempt to turn New Sun into a comic. I believe it was going to be a series of mini-series, like Pacific and First did with the Moorcock Eternal Champion books back in the 1980s. Innovation was the publisher, and only one or two issues were put out though. Ted Naifeh handled the art, and there are a few images floating around online. I straight up stole these from this fascinating post by Mordicai (who is quickly becoming one of my go-to people for all things fantasy book related), and, like he said, these seem to be "surprisingly un-terrible." Heavy echoes of the early Vertigo Sandman comics here, which is not necessarily an awful thing, although the cover is astoundingly wrong.

Now, on to the unpublished art. I'm not comfortable with the term "fan art" because that seems faintly derogatory and dismissive. I'm not sure what to call these though, so I'll stick with unpublished. First, a drawing of the crest that Severian visits in his tomb, from very early in Shadow, by artist and cartoonist Joel Priddy. I liked this because the crest was always hard for me to really see in my mind, although I do think Priddy was a bit literal.

Priddy has done four other drawings exploring New Sun which you can see here. Most of them feature a very young Severian, and I'm not sure how I feel about them. I really like Priddy's work, and his graphic novel Pulpatoon Pilgrimage is exquisite, but I really think his Severian is just too cute to work well.

Ordinarily, I am diligent about bookmarking sites and crediting artists, but even with the assistance of a Google image search, I cannot for the life of me find where I first saw this piece. I am sincerely sorry that I can't credit the artist, and if anyone knows where this is from, let me know and I will immediately edit the post. This is an odd piece but its almost Medieval crudeness and heavy religious imagery appealed to me immediately and seemed somehow strangely appropriate for Severian.

Too cartoony for my tastes, but I did like seeing the avern in this piece by Rebecca Dart and she seems to have the details down very nicely.

A bit of a Gothic / steampunk vibe to this Severian by Paul Chung. Mostly good, but the boots aren't doing much for me.

And now we start to kick some ass. Yeah, this one is cartoony and rude and in your face, but I like it. It seems to fit, somehow. This is a portrait of Severian by artist Jimmy Giegerich. Definitely metal, but I am always a sucker for that.

On his Tumblr The Ayatollah of Rock 'n Rollah Jimmy mentioned fellow artist Andrea Kalfas and her Tumblr where she posted this remarkable illustration of Severian being confronted by one of the undines. A very memorable scene, incredibly imagined by Andrea.

Which Jimmy then responded to with his own phenomenal drawing of the conclusion of that scene with the undine. This is fucking mindblowing.

It's really hard to top that so I'll close with some oddities. First, a strange illustration of Severian's temporary traveling companion, the little Severian, getting blasted on the gold ring of Typhon. This one is by Thomas Herpich and it is so strange because it takes a truly shocking and almost heartbreaking scene and makes it kind of, well, alarmingly amusing.

What post would be complete without a Playmobil Severian? No post, that's the answer! This gem is from this intriguing post on the blog of Don Doggett. And I LOVE it.

And finally, I will close with this incredibly bizarre cover, again from the UK, for a paperback edition of Citadel which, for some reason, features one of the Autarch's flying semi-nude female harpy soldiers (I can't remember what they were called. Can anyone help?)

Many many thanks to all the artists who have created art based on these magnificent books. I have an idea for a drawing of the Hierodules Ossipago, Barbatus and Famulimus that I may contribute to this growing body of work. All I need is the time. Also, many many thanks to my compadre Gigantic Joe Kuth for his help unearthing some of this art and to Mordicai for posting about the comic. Have a good weekend, everyone.


  1. After over a decade since my first reading of Shadow of the Torturer, which did have the Maitz cover, I have come around to really liking it. It suggests a lot but shows great restraint, and the only inaccuracies I can see are the unlikely floral print lining and the reflective material of Severian's cloak. Obviously, the whole cloak is fuligin and so ought to be depicted with a pure and flat black. The heads I see as stylized decorative sculpture rather than the shrunken heads someone else mentioned, so that's no problem for me.

    I like the Claw cover a lot too, but it's definitely starting to veer toward a more traditional barbarian action scene, typical of the Frazetta covers of Conan reprints.

    I dislike the Sword cover even more than the Citadel cover, particularly for Baldander's dopey looking face and lurid grimace (boasting a nearly Image Comics-like toothiness). I do like the apparitions in the mist from Baldander's machine though.

    I agree that the rough version of Citadel is much better than the final, for its stillness and the appealing haziness of the brush strokes.

    The Jim Burns cover for the British edition is just okay, I hate the glossy digital sheen, and the baluchither looks more like a reptile than a rhino-beast to my eyes.

    The illustrations by Alexander Preuss are pretty good, I like that they emphasize the cities and landscape of Urth more than the characters, so there's almost a McCloudian character-identification thing going on. The digital manipulation kills it though, pretty unfortunate since there's a lot of potential there.

    There were three issues of the Shadow of the Torturer comics, I've got all of them if you ever want to take a closer look. The covers are awful, they are perfect examples of drawing being drowned out by excessive stylization. Clearly the Ted Naifeh interiors mostly suffer from being stuck in an early 90s Sandman trap complete with scratchy inking, but I think improved figure drawing would have helped it more than anything else. Everyone has unhinged arms and is built like stick insects (look at the panel where Severian has his hands in his pockets), it is hideous and very distracting.
    And it is full of that classic signifier of bad 90s comics, the completely unrealistic hand positions where at least two fingers are held together at all times. You know an artist's influences and resources are pathetically narrow when you see that turning up.
    It's still not quite to my taste, but Ted Naifeh's drawing these days is much, much better than what you see in these comics.

    I pretty much completely agree with what you say about Priddy's sketches, but I do like how his Triskele looks. I do think the crest would be more effective if the images were more iconic, it looks much more like three separate illustrations than it does a unified graven symbol.

    (I'll come back to comment on the rest later)

  2. Joe, an absolutely excellent and very welcome comment. Thank you for leaving this. It is perhaps easiest for me to respond in line with your own thoughts.

    I think we have different perspectives on the Maitz covers. I was fonder of them, and more forgiving of their errors, years ago when I first encountered them. Unlike you, as the years have passed, I have in general grown to like them less. The cover for Shadow is the most successful, and I do agree that it does an especially good job of setting the tone for the series. Additionally, I will give Maitz a lot of credit for really getting the torturer's mask right.

    I often miss the little details of the apparitions in the mist on the cover of Claw. Maitz seems to have this odd ability to really nail some of the more ephemeral aspects of a piece while rather clumsily botching the central images. I only now, after decades, noticed that the cover of Citadel also, in the background, shows the giant-riding dwarf warriors. So Maitz did find a way to include that.

    I'm re-reading the series now, and I can't quite figure out what Burns was going for. I used to like that cover, but the scene with the baluchither seems to come much earlier, as Severian and Jonas are abducted from Saltus by Vodalus' men and brought to his jungle hideout. Additionally, Severian kills the men and the baluchither stumbles into the stronghold with a headless corpse at the reins and smeared with blood. It's a striking scene, and while the Burns cover seems to allude to it, the illustration misses some really important details. (continued)

  3. I liked your thoughts on the McCloudian character identification. By always showing Severian from behind (at least in the illustrations I was able to find) that really reinforces to the viewer that we ARE Severian in the story and that we are seeing Urth through his eyes. His face could easily be our own, if we were to see it.

    I will gladly take you up on that offer of reading over the Innovation Comics adaptation. For nostalgia's sake, I am often ridiculously forgiving of poor comic art, at least up to the 90s. I would rather see bad, scratchy Sandman-inspired imitations than Rob Liefeld / Jim Lee overrendered, overpouched, overzippered and overmuscled idiocy. I remain intensely curious about these comics, and have a strange desire to see how well they hold up against the Moorcock adapations I loved so much in the 80s. Then again, those Moorcock adaptations benefited from art by P. Craig Russell, Mike Mignola, Michael T. Gilbert, Rafael Kayanan and others so Naifeh may be out of his league there.

  4. The crude medieval-looking drawing is one of my favorites here, it's really oddly intriguing.
    Is that bat supposed to be a notule or what? Is that the salamander on fire in the back? And the sitting two-headed figure must be Typhon. A strange one.

    I do think Rebecca Dart's style here could be too cartoony to sustain a series, but for just this one illustration I really really like her Severian. Love the avern. Dart's Rabbithead is one of my favorite comics of the indie fantasy type, it's a really unique comic. There are a few Gormenghast illustrations on her blog too, I'll have to send you some links to those.

    The Paul Chung Severian has a NIN video/pigfuck vibe that I'm not into, the figure drawing is meek, it's drawn digitally; this one is just not very interesting.

    The Jimmy Giegerich drawings are possibly my favorite interpretations that I've seen, although Severian's get-up seems a bit unnecessarily ornate and colorful. His undine drawing is really fantastic, I would love to see more like this by Giegerich. If I hadn't seen these on his own blog, I might have taken these for either Kazimir Strzepek or Zack Soto's work (and I know Soto is a fan of the New Sun books), just by style alone.

    Andrea Kalfas' undine is great too, and those colors are really beautiful. I think a slightly flattened, oddly-colored and keenly-designed interpretation like this could be a really interesting approach to a series of New Sun illustrations. Make some more, Kalfas!

    I like the Thomas Herpich drawing a lot myself, that's a great moment to capture, and I really like the color and texture of Typhon's stone fingers. I spotted that drawing while clicking through Herpich's online gallery, and was able to spot where the scene was from before noticing the title to confirm it. I was pretty surprised at the time!

    The Playmobil Severian is a hoot, and the sword looks pretty accurate to the description too!

    I like the British Citadel there, I've seen other covers from those editions and they are all pretty interesting. I like that they actually look like the stylish Richard Powers-type of sci-fi covers, since most editions of the New Sun just look like your typical sword and sorcery (which is understandable).
    I can't remember what those winged women are called either, but I'm on the lookout!

  5. Joe, I am really starting to agree with you that the crude medieval-looking drawing may be my favorite. I wish I could remember where I found it, or who the artist is, so I could credit them. It seems to somehow blend all of the best elements of the character into one sincere, brutally honest image. I love all the details as well. A closer look reveals not only Typhon, the salamander, and what I do think is a notule but also the trio of Ossipago, Barbatus and Famulimus (complete with golden halos similar to Severian), Baldanders on the shore of Lake Diuturna, the Claw of the Conciliator, the avern, and the green Moon. The only symbol that is lost on me is the skull and the flower in the lower right. This piece is really striking though.

    In general I like Rebecca Dart and Rabbit Head was brilliant. I think she came close with this one, but it's still just a bit too...I don't know...lighthearted I guess.

    Nice, and accurate, description of the Chung piece as having a "NIN video / pigfuck vibe." That is more or less exactly why I am not thrilled with it. You're a harsh judge of figure drawing though! I mean, I would agree with you here, but I'm starting to really work hard at figure drawing myself, my single greatest weakness as an artist, and it terrifies me. I have to get so much better it hurts.

    I don't know nearly as much about Soto or his work as I would like. I've got a few Study Group anthologies but that's all. And whatever happened to "The Secret Voice?" I loved the first issue. Strzepek is fantastic though. I could read a thousand volumes of The Mourning Star. I had no idea either of them were fans of New Sun.

    I'd definitely be down for an entire Andrea Kalfas-illustrated version of the series. Her style is so unexpected and yet it seems to work. I think it's in how she nicely captures the exotic alien nature of Severian's world. Just enough of the familiar, but a nice dose of the strange.

    Another artist who I think might work really well, although in a somewhat more conventional fashion, on New Sun is Kent Williams. Especially his more recent paintings. They are anchored in a kind of expressionist, fleshy reality but their darkness and eroticism works well.

    Ordinarily, I would love this cover for Autarch, but I think it's just a stretch in terms of the tone of the books. I am thinking it might be an early Rodney Matthews image, but I can't verify that.

    I'm currently scouring my Lexicon Urthus to find the name of those angelic flying female warriors of the Autarch's. I'll post it as soon as I find it or you leave it in a comment.

  6. I actually just finished my third read through Shadow of the Torturer earlier today, so I read this scene with great care, but still with no further enlightenment. It really is one of the most obtuse passages in the whole series.

    I do recall reading an interesting interpretation on the Urth list about the Piteous Gate scene, and thinking that the most likely solution involved one of the undines passing through Gyoll, but I couldn't recall much about it.
    After trying to track down that discussion, I discovered this article Swimming With Undines by Robert Borski. It turns out Borski (I have a copy of his the Solar Labyrinth on the way) has given this scene plenty of attention, and seems to have unlocked some of the mystery surrounding it. I share this with no intention of halting the conversation, but here is Borski's theory, which appears to be well supported:

  7. I'm only harsh on figure drawing when someone makes a failed attempt at accuracy ... obviously by figure drawing standards, that naive medieval image is pretty dismal, but it's irrelevant because it's not trying to depict anything like real anatomy and is successful on its own terms.
    I have to admit I can't quite imagine realistic figure drawing in Matt Kish's world, but of course I'm still quite curious to see whatever it is you're working on in that department.

    I recall discussing the New Sun with Soto on a message board years ago so I know that he's a fan. The second issue of Secret Voice was being hyped for a bit but never surfaced, probably too late at this point.
    I don't know whether Kazimir Strzepek is into the New Sun or not, although it wouldn't surprise me. I do have a mental list going of all the cartoonists that I know have read it!
    I've never seen Kent Williams' work before, but it's great stuff from what I can spot online, and I would certainly love to see some New Sun related work from him.

  8. Thanks for clarifying that Joe, it makes a great deal more sense now and I tend to agree completely.

    Also, you're not alone. I can't quite imagine realistic figure drawing in Matt Kish's world but I am finding more and more that my real inability to depict much of anything in a realistic or more three dimensional fashion is starting to get in the way of some of my ambitions. For example, I'd love to do more comics...short pieces, and eventually a graphic novel. But I've really got to improve my drafting skills to create something that will sustain some kind of internal logic and reader fascination so I am sketching like mad. Fortunately Ione is always willing to pose for anything from hand sketches to nudes so that takes care of a lot of the trouble.

  9. 'Anpiels' were the angel-soldiers, you may recall.
    Great blog post, I'm glad I stumbled across it. ;D

  10. Yes! Anpiels! Thank you very very much! Okay, so from Michael Andre-Driussi's excellent Lexicon Urthus:

    ANPIEL: a member of the Autarch's elite aerial forces. Anpiels have the bodies of slender young women with rainbow colored wings, and in combat they fight naked, with a pistol (of stellar technology) in each hand. Each squadron is led by a seraph.

    Myth: from rabbinic lore, an angel in charge of the protection of birds, who resides in the Sixth Heaven.


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