Book Review: Setting the Table
Reviewed by Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 3, 2010
Star Wars Art: Visionsintroduction by J.W. Rinzler; foreword by George Lucas
Abrams, 176 pp., $40
Sci-Fi Art Nowby John Freeman
Collins Design, 192 pp., $29.99
Whether you like the fact or not, George Lucas' Star Wars changed science-fiction and fantasy art forever. Like James Whale's Frankenstein or J.R.R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, there's just a before and an after. Lucas always talked about his cinematic influences – Akira Kurosawa, John Huston, The Dam Busters – but in his introduction to Star Wars Art: Visions, he gives credit to painters like Saturday Evening Post cover artist J.C. Leyendecker and cartoonists like Flash Gordon penciler Al Williamson, who shaped his sensibilities. With this collection of art inspired by his tales of a galaxy far, far away, as Darth Vader said, the circle is now complete.
Forget the idea of back-of-sketchbook doodlings of Princess Leia in the gold bikini. John Mattos playfully apes Picasso in Pablo's Cantina, while the influence of Sir John Everett Millais' iconic Ophelia is as strong as the Force in Serge Michaels and Michael Malm's Padmé's Dream/Slipping Away. Some of the most successful works also serve as a commentary on Lucas' creation. Dave Nestler binds together Lucas' obsessions with space and speed in Double Cheeseburger With a Side of Crumb, a cheesecake-tinged mash-up of Tatooine and American Graffiti. Peter De Sève explores the Muppet link in Easy Being Green, It's Not when he puts the two great swamp-dwelling puppets – Yoda and Kermit the Frog – on the same log. More indirectly, H.R. Giger, whose eroticized nightmare designs for Alien violated the cozy world of the creature feature, pays his own homage. For the first time, he admits here that one of his most famous panels, 1980's Work No. 476: N.Y. City XVII (Crowley) was a fever-dream inspired by watching The Empire Strikes Back.
Because the Star Wars influence is so pervasive, it's hard to look at Sci-Fi Art Now and not search for those same visual clues. However, while Visions' contributors are primarily American, this edition draws heavily from British artists, many of them veterans of cult UK anthology comic 2000 AD, others familiar to literary sci-fi fans for their book covers – the perennial bread-and-butter for many genre artists. Unlike Visions, this collection serves as a how-to guide, with creator bios and explanatory paragraphs bundled with their works rather than collected glossary-style at the rear. That does leave a few images, like SMS' Edvard Munch-inspired Weltallschrei, a little crushed, but when a page explodes, as does Chris Askham's DayGlo collage Rise of the Robots, the effect is extraordinary.
The trade-off for this kind of book is that smaller images mean more new artists get exposure. By breaking down the work by themed chapters – from crinoline-draped steampunk to alien worlds that doff a pseudopod to H.P. Lovecraft – the breadth of both style and innovation within the genre blooms like a triffid. As legendary spaceship artist Chris Foss explains in his foreword, when it comes to sci-fi art, "We built a leviathan and now it's running us over."