Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Pulping of Roald Dahl

This is a little bit of an explanation of what I was doing during the six months last year when I didn't post anything . I'd been wanting to do a portfolio of children's book covers for a while, I'd already made a start with the first two books of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. I intended to start work on the third cover but felt I wanted to ring the changes a little by working on something by a different author. So in the name of research I got into reading children's books again, looking at what was out there in the 8 - 12 age range. I took in a few new titles and went back to some classics.

One of the authors I re-read was Roald Dahl. I didn't really think his books would be ideal to work with because visually they are so closely linked with the style of Quentin Blake. Going back to his books though I was suprised at just how weirdly twisted they seemed. It was as lurid and frequently grotesque as anything you'd find in the pulp fiction of the 1930s and 40s, as if Robert Bloch, Ray Bradburry or L. Ron Hubbard had been asked to write for kids.

Dahl gave us the hunted turned hunters in the form of family of rifle brandishing ducks in The Magic Finger, a man eating Rhinoceros and a gigantic floating peach looming above the big apple's skyline in James and the Giant Peach a child scientist experimenting on his granny with a Food of the Gods style potion in Georges's Marvellous Medicine, and in The Witches we had the unforgettable scene of a beautiful young woman tearing off her own face to reveal a hideous visage "all cankered and worm-eaten". Classic pulp artists like Rafael de Soto and George Rozen would have had a field day with this stuff. This was the lightbulb going on moment, when I realised which cover I wanted to work on next and how to approach it. I wanted to take Dahl's books and redesign their covers in a retro pulp style. The look itself would be so far from Blake's that I thought it might at least make an interesting alternative.

My first choice was perhaps the most obvious. The unmasking of the Grand High Witch from the Witches was just crying out to be illustrated with all its lurid details. The point about the face coming off as a complete mask and half covering the real face reminded me of a few different Pulp covers from the classic era ( a couple illustrated below) - it just seems a very pulp like device. So maybe this would help suggest the hideousness of the face but also help obscure the details.

I also needed to do something special with her eyes. Dahl's narrator mentions how he feels 'mesmerised' by the witch and that 'there was a look of serpents in those eyes of her'. A little later he describes how:

"...a stream of sparks that looked like tiny white-hot metal-filings came shooting out of The Grand High Witch's eyes and flew straight towards the one who had dared to speak. I saw the sparks striking against her and burrowing into her and she screamed a horrible howling scream and a puff of smoke rose up around her. A smell of burning meat filled the room."

I thought of the Poster for the 1960 version of Village of the Damned, where the mesmerizing stare of the alien children is represented with a border of erratically drawn lines radiating from the eyes. I thought this might work as the witch's sinister fiery stare.

I did some more research to get the look of the Grand High Witch right before drawing. I was working from reference of everything from Bettie Page to Ray Harryhausen's version of Medusa from Clash of the Titans (1981)

As I started working on some black and white compositions in photoshop and painter it became clear I needed another element to let people in on the joke, to let them know it was a kids book. So I decided if we could get the narrator in there after he's been turned into a mouse that would help. Maybe having him scampering out of a pile of childrens clothes just post transformation with a look of terror on his little furry face might let people in on the fact he's no ordinary rodent.

When I was happy with the composition I laid down another layer, did a basic tracing, to map out where all the separate elements were and then printed this out as a guide for the finished pencil drawing above.