Monday, March 16, 2009

Imagining Local Legends: Beasts! Book 2

Rob reviews the recent illustrated compendium of legendary creatures, BEASTS! Book 2. It was edited by Jacob Covey and published by Fantagraphics.

The now two-volume Beasts! series has to have one of the oddest premises for a successful coffee table book that I've ever seen. Artists are given descriptions of legendary creatures (manlike and otherwise) and asked to bring them to life in their own style. The artists recruited for the book include well-known cartoonists, fine artists, illustrators, skateboard artists, children's book illustrators and graphic designers. Each illustration features a description on its facing page, told in an entirely straightforward fashion no matter how far-fetched the creature might be. The reason why these books work is because of the total buy-in on the part of the editor, artists and writers of the book. BEASTS! isn't simply a sort of arty Monster Manual; instead, it's meant as a sort of cultural anthropology project crossed with cryptozoology.

The creatures depicted here have a few things in common. Some of them seem to be genuinely odd animals that do exist but have remained elusive. Dan Zettwoch (who seems to have been born to do this sort of book) is one of the few artists who contributed an actual comic strip to the proceedings, brilliantly crafting one of his schematic comics to depict a vessel encountering the Kraken, or what we know as a giant squid. The existence of this creature has been proven, but but its aggressive tendencies are the stuff of legend. That speaks to a variant on the creatures in this book: things that might exist but whose form and behavior is greatly exaggerated. A creature's height, weight, number of teeth, and general ferocity no doubt increases in every retelling of that initial encounter.

The invention of some of the monsters can be seen as a sort of cultural metaphor to deal with shame, especially with regard to sex and sexuality. Others can be linked to a fear of death and the unknown, with the monsters becoming personifications of these concepts. These sorts of beasts become warnings against venturing out into the unknown, a corrective against curiosity. The more vivid the dread generated from a widespread belief in the concept, the more likely it is that deviant or insolent behavior can be contained. As such, BEASTS! 2 serves to document this historical, cross-cultural tendency as much as the monsters themselves.

Highlights of the book included Eleanor Davis' bannik, a creature that can help women tell the future but is otherwise ferocious; Jim Woodring's delightfully warped drawing of a scolopendra & a hippocamp; and Stephane Blanquet's unforgettable & disturbing satyr. Jon Vermilyea and Roger Langridge both contribute funny drawings (true to their own style), with Gene Deitch's serpentine iku-turso was done in the manner of his "sea servant" from his old Terr'ble Thompson strip. The editorial approach here was mostly hands-off, but Covey managed to arrange things so that the reader would get a fair share of variety in terms of tone. With humorists like Langridge and Peter Bagge being asked to contribute to the book, one knew that they would give us funny pictures even if there wasn't a joke, while others drenched their illustrations in gore.

The most successful illustrations in the book where those that were relatively easy to process for a reader. Some of them were just a little too busy, though the reader was rewarded with Dash Shaw's clever drawing of the Wivre, the text for which made very clear why the things in the drawing were occurring. At the opposite spectrum is the entry by Julie Morstad; her spare but haunting drawing of a selkie is one of my favorite in the book. In its own category is the illustration that Thomas Allen constructed: it was a photo of some playing cards cut and reconfigured so as to simulate the attack of Deer Woman, yet another monster preying upon human lust and sexuality.

BEASTS! allows each creator to interpret each creature's myth for themselves and determine what approach was best. Each artist chose their beast to best suit their own abilities and tendencies. This volume really dug deep into Greek mythology, some of the earliest recorded instances of the fantastic being used to explain the mysterious. This gets at the heart of why so many different cultures invented the same sorts of warning/danger figures. For a small or closed-in society, these fears can help bind a clan and keep everyone in line. Other figures are presented as obstacles for that culture's hero figures to overcome, which implicitly are metaphors for the triumph of a culture's virtues over its vices. BEASTS! mingles myths, warnings, fairy tales, correctives, and genuinely unexplained phenomena and allows its artists to run with them. The end result is a consistently beautiful, lovingly assembled book that forms a kind of metacommentary on the entire notion of the fantastic.

1 comment:

  1. This is pretty much on my wish list now! Thanks for the review! Very impressive!