Saturday, January 31, 2015

Salem's Lot

-By David Palumbo

Last year, I had the opportunity to work on several really fun properties/projects, but the just recently revealed special edition of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot by Cemetery Dance might take the prize. 

To begin, I’ll say that the illustrated novel as a concept is possibly my favorite niche of the sprawling illustration world.  It’s a tiny niche these days, but the old classics have always grabbed my attention.  Mead Schaefer, Howard Pyle, and Frazetta made some of my favorites, but N.C. Wyeth’s Treasure Island is my pinnacle.  I’ve looked at those paintings for inspiration and guidance time and again, and never more than when working on images in a series. 

In modern publishing, you can count on one hand the number of imprints making illustrated novels with any consistency and they are generally created as limited collector's editions.  Which is to say, jobs like that don’t come along too often.  This has been my second to date.  In a strange coincidence, the offer came in within a week of my having finished reading The Shining (love love loved it) and MAN was I on their wavelength.

One of the really exciting aspects of an illustrated novel is that, unlike so many typical jobs, most of the artwork is hidden inside.  This means that the images are not just trying to grab a potential customer's eye from the rack, but more to reward the reader as they enjoy the book.  The images are not chained to type and design elements either, giving you total control over your composition without compromises.  Most importantly though, the interiors need to be on tone with the story and hopefully unfold at a pace which adds to the experience rather than diminish it. 

The first thing to figure out was what scenes to depict.  Salem’s Lot is fairly crowded with great visual moments and I wanted to choose those which most spoke to my own natural aesthetic.  I also had to be mindful of them not being too bunched together so they would be reasonably distributed through out the book.  My assignment asked for only four interiors, but I started with a list of about a dozen that stuck in my memory.  I noted page numbers and began boiling it down to help divide the four final scenes into early, middle, middle, and late.  There was one scene in particular (Ben with hammer and stake in the Marsten house cellar) which I knew had to be included, and so I built outward from there.

A theme began to surface in my thumbnails.  As I came to the final selection, it seemed clear to me that each of the four interiors would reflect a moment of dread.  Though I wanted to make the four moments relate to the four most important characters, spacing them out was problematic and in the end I decided to let Ben, Matt, and Father Callahan have their scenes and give Mark’s (which was only ten or so pages away from Father Callahan’s) to a minor character early in the book which better fit the progressing visual storyline.  Additionally, I am a big believer in the “don’t show the monster” theory of horror, so I aimed to keep the focus on our human victims and place the monsters and gore out of frame (and still firmly in the imagination of the reader).  I absolutely did not want to show Barlow.

This first scene ended up being Mike Ryerson, the grave digger, looking up the hill at the ominous and lonely Marsten house.  Waking from a strange trance, he realizes that the day has passed and a feeling of dread seizes him. 

I wanted for the scene to have the muted blue tones of dusk.  The figure stands out in silhouette but the dark is closing in on him all around and beginning to swallow him in the lower portion of the picture.  Also, to add to the mystery and stillness of the moment, I turned his face away from us as he looks hopelessly at the gloomy distant house.

The next scene shows Matt, our first hero to encounter the vampires, preparing to climb the stairs to his 2nd floor guestroom where he knows something horrible is waiting for him.  He holds a small crucifix but is overwhelmed with dread.

I loved this moment of a character dragging himself towards something that scares the crap out of him.  I think I particularly related to this scene because of the universal experience of kids (and adults) facing a scary basement or attic or any other spooky place.  I actually still get creeped out every single time that I vacuum my staircase (which is semi-regularly with three cats in the house) because I feel that weird sensation of a figure standing at the railing above and behind me, watching. 

So for Matt’s big moment, I saw an opportunity to box him into this prison of bars and shadows, thrown off balance with a Dutch tilt.  He is leaving the warm comforting light of the known (the only warm and comforting light in the series) and stepping to darkness and unknown.  The upstairs has the same purple/blue tinge as the rest of the series, which means terror.

And now we come to the scene of Ben in the cellar, hammer and stake in hand, confronted with doing the unthinkable.  For me, this is the purest moment of dread in the whole book.  Terrible things happen to everyone else, but those are generally external circumstances or events beyond their control.  This one, this moment, it is a choice and so he must take the guilt along with the pain of it.

I wanted to really drive home that this is not a triumph.  In most stories, staking the vampire is grim but also has a sense of victory.  In this case, it is only regret and sorrow.  My initial sketch was not quite finding the emotion, so I pulled in closer.  In the final, I removed the figures from the background to keep the focus on Ben and his pain.

For the final interior, Father Callahan learns that, as he had feared, his faith is brittle.  There is hope in the beginning but, as he faces off with Barlow, he hesitates and knows in that moment of dread that he will fail.

This painting was one that I was very excited for.  I loved the idea of the priest lit by the glowing cross.  He is small, weak, and alone in a sea of shadow.  There was a problem though which I was not sure how to solve until I shot my reference (always shoot reference!).  I wanted him to be consumed by the shadow of Barlow, but in the sketch it is not entirely clear.  It looks a bit like the shadow is his own, which not only ruins the story of the image but also is inconsistent with the light source.  On shooting my reference, however, I saw how I could layer the actual cast shadow of Callahan over the shadow of Barlow and, in the end, it became my favorite piece of the whole project.

Besides the interiors, I was also asked to create two wrap-around covers: one for the regular edition and a second for the deluxe edition.  A panorama showing the Marsten house with the town in the distance was something which the publisher and I both felt should be one of them.  The second cover wasn’t as easy to nail down though.

For awhile, I wanted to do a companion piece to the view of the house and show the town streets full of undead with the house looming in the distance.  I still really like the concept of this, but my sketches never found that right beat.  Some ideas looked cool, but felt off tone.  After a healthy pursuit in this direction, I decided to step back and, instead, focus entirely on the tone.


The vampires of Salem’s Lot are not sexy.  They are beasts.  They are violent, merciless, and hungry.  So many modern vampire stories romanticize the monsters, but that was not King’s choice.  I wanted to find a concept that spoke to that.  This was how I ended up with my second cover.  I wanted an image which was abstract enough to represent not a specific character or scene (the interiors already did that) but present the overall story.  I wanted it to be simple and on a human scale.  What better than an anonymous vampire exposing the throat of an anonymous victim, half a second before the kill.


Friday, January 30, 2015

MAKING and SURVIVING COMICS (Part 3: Character, character, character.)

by Greg Ruth

The terrible Mr Ward, from INDEH
This post says it's about comics, but really this applies to all storytelling in general. While my views are entirely my own, no matter how much I bloviate as to their merits, they remain mine and mine only. For me the most important aspect of any storytelling is character. You get this wrong, the rest doesn't matter... but get it right, well now you've really got something.  We're coming out of an addicton to high-concept narratives or twisty twists that have us spinning around so much in place we don't notice how flat and utterly boring most characters in these stories are. Clever left turns or overly clever plot points or settings are like a candy bars: they taste great and are utterly satisfying while you're chewing on it, but it's over minutes later and you're still hungry. Create a character people believe in and they'll follow that character anywhere. Create a plot point and you'll only take your audience as far as the plot point's end. Even worse, the reader will have now reason to come back and read it again. We re-watch Star Trek episodes, reread Tolkein or the Dune books because revisiting those stories is like reuniting with an old friend. They are places we want to go to again. They are a kind of home that way. Clever hooks, plot points, single line story grabbers sell books and stories more easily, that is a fact. The mistake comes when one confuses the tag line with the story- remember the commercial is not the product it's trying to sell. Make your story about something, no matter how goofy it is, and make the most effectively painted characters go through its trials and you will leave your publishers and your readers hungry for more. The best compliment you could ever get as a storyteller is to have someone ask if there's going to be another one. Here's a few simple pointers to help you get there:

Places are a character too.
Beyond the fabulously weird literal interpretations of this as in Grant Morrison's brilliant Danny the Street, the transexual moveable city block from the Doom Patrol comics, you should treat your location and setting with the same diligence as you characters. As much as it matter to build up your character with qualities to make them desirable and worth caring about, you settings and places should be attended too in much the same manner. Why is this place here? What is the history of this house? Is there a little crack int he window where a bird struck it last week, still un-repaired? Is it still yellow because the owner just doesn't have the wherewithal to paint a color he likes? The more you bestow your places with character, the more you add to the story's overall strength of purpose. The more effective anything you do there becomes, especially as it ties to how we may read it from a place of our own choosing and meaning. 

Cliches can be your friends, but mostly they're the other thing. 
Cliches derive from some originating truth, but the cliche has at this point overtaken whatever reality it stems from to render that argument meaningless. We like as an audience to see the next stage of the basic character cycle- the reverse cliche. The hooker with the heart of gold, the tough biker who maintains a Hummel collection, Spock crying. These are all obvious by virtue of citing the cliche they are reversing. It's a reflection in a mirror and not as a fact, entirely different. My usual advice is to take a character and add at least a third wrinkle to them and see how immediately they become something more. 

Dancy Flamrion from ALABASTER

Pretty does not equate with empathy.
One of my favorite examples of this mistake is the film, Cloverfield. Not a work of high art by any means of course, but who cares about that. the idea of a Godzilla film told via cell phone footage or whatever could be epic, and in some respects it achieves that. But it suffers almost entirely from the key problem of confusing handsome attractive characters, devoid of much else. In this particular story the problem is catastrophic because in order for the drama to be meaningful, you need empathize with them, not delight in seeing them all get crushed because they look like d-bags out of a Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. If you're goal is to do this, then push that all the way to its most intense extreme, but generally you should not. Imagine that film with the cast from say, The Wire. Imagine that you wanted to see them survive and how much more it would have been if they had bothered to achieve this basic hurdle. The knee jerk thing to do in telling a story with a character is to put forth the prettiest ideal- the fantasy version. But really it's far FAR more effective to avoid the fashion runway and make them look like your Aunt Helen or Uncle Morty, because even beyond the novelty of that approach, tangible real characters are the epicenter of what makes most stories function. A thriller is more thrilling if you care about your character's fate. A horror story more horrifying, and drama more dramatic, and comedy is more hilarious. It's the difference between the silly yawn fest of Friday the Thirteenth as compared to the narrative genius that is The Babadook. 

This isn't to say ugly is the solution immediately of course, but if you're finding this hard to bend to, go for ugly and see what it teaches you. And let's face it when we're talking about actual beauty we really mean something more than sexy vampires or the posters out of Tiger Beat. Find the flaws, the human characteristics and make them paramount.


Don't take your characters too seriously. 
Know the difference between being dramatic and being maudlin. Don't tell me why the character is supposed to be sad, make them cry as if all you need to do is tell me they're crying when you really should be crafting them in such a way that I am crying with them whether I want to or not. Pay serious attention to them, but don't become so entangled by them that you lose an editorial perspective on what they story needs them to do. Remember: you're making things and playing pretend up for money. It's a ridiculous job to have by any measure, so lighten up and have fun. Don't be afraid to counter sad moments with humor or the reverse. Keep a wide range of emotions in play as this will enable the character to be more real, and by association, more readable and fun to experience. 

Pamela Sweetwater gets got but not gone, from SUDDEN GRAVITY

If you don't believe in your characters, why would anyone else?
Seriously- you are your first and sometimes only fan. So be a true fanatic and love and be your characters. By a hat they would wear, and wear it while writing him/her. Find all the details of their lives that have brought them to this place even if you never once mention any of it in your story. It will inform your character's most essential qualities and shape their responses in a way that will only make them richer on the page or screen. Think about their voices, what their breath smells like, keep crafting all the little bits that make a person in your head until that magical tipping point comes and they start talking back to you. If you're doing this right, this will happen. You're not crazy, you've only finally achieved a character that is rich enough to be on its own, and argue with you when you make it do things counter itself. This crazy is the sound of success. 

Get outside your comfort zone. 
If you make stories about bunnies and teddy bears, use that ethic to tell me a story about biker gangs on Mars. If your schtick is the woman's point of view, use a man's. This is not necessarily to say you should go all anti-Woody Allen and refuse to write what you know, but more as an exercise to see what you're about by playing in a sandbox you're not about at all. We find and define ourselves by what we are not. We only confuse ourselves by thinking we are what we imagine ourselves to be. So flex some unused muscles and get out of the yard for a bit. You'll craft far richer and more varied characters this way, and despite the fear of doing it, you'll have fun too. 

The Laamia Berry explodes, from THE LOST BOY

It's great to use magic to get a character into trouble, 
disastrous to use magic to get them out. 
This is an old Pixar-ism, and one of it's most essential truths. The basic thrust being that leading a character into a trap by a fantastical device can be world building and powerful, whereas using some similar device to save them from defeat, is lazy and rends the character from its own agency. Indiana Jones is more exciting to see in action as compared to say, Moses because he survives his trouble by being able to exploit opportunities and accidents to his own ends. Moses has God's ultimate lightening bolt to hide behind, and so there's no real threat to him, and thus no agency or interest in that way. The most famous of this kind of mistake goes back to Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower after being dead for a year and simply writing it off as that whole year being in fact, a dream. Or in the case of Interstellar, saving everyone by invoking broad concepts like "time", "gravity" and "love" but refusing to buttress these ideas with any realities within the story. It's fine to surprise your character with a last minute gift that saves him/her- be it a lifeline jungle vine that drops just before Indiana Jones before the boulder crushes him, reaching your hand behind you fro the Doctor's as a monster comes at you from the front. Magic in this case is a previously unsupported trick of the narrative that hops in only to rescue the character from a plot-trap the writer won't invest in a more clever way to escape from. It's sanguinely bad writing at its core, but it's worse than lazy because the pretense carries with it the scolding of one's character fro refusing to play along with the saving grace. So have fun getting your characters into trouble, but make sure you allow them to enjoy getting out on their own. Anything else is dull at best.

First draft of the death of Haloran from THE LOST BOY

Don't be afraid to say goodbye.
This is mostly for the writers out there, and something both entirely difficult and more overwrought and poorly executed than most. Whether you're killing Superman, Sherlock Holmes, or Wolverine, kill them dead and be merciless. Avoid graveside maudlinism, overwrought emotion in lieu of plot. You don't need to be cruel but you have to make something like this count and you must have it make some kind of sense- or if it doesn't and it's just your guy getting run over by a train by accident, then make that cruel randomness the point. The hardest thing for a writer to do is to let go of a character, especially if that character has lived with them for so long. It's also the easiest to screw up too because the writer's emotional investments make it hard to see the difference between eulogizing a character's exit and making that exit meaningful to others reading the story. Again, the more real world weight and quality you apply to your setting and characters, the more transparently goofy a melodramatic hacked out end will feel. Respect the work you've put into the character, the story and all the rest by really taking time to get out of your comfort zone and make it count. You only get one shot at this, so try and aim true. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Open Studio - Donato Arts

by Donato

For the first time in years, I will be opening the studio to visitors who wish to stop by and take in the extensive collections of paintings, drawings, sketches, books, prints, and other arts on display and for sale around the studio.

Saturday  February 7, 2015
12 - 6 pm

Donato Arts
397 Pacific Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217

New paintings from the 2015 George R.R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar will be fresh back from the Society of Illustrators, including oils from my work for National Geographic, Tor Books, Magic: The Gathering, Middle-earth, Disney, and many other projects over the past few years.  Scores of sketches and preliminary drawings never before exhibited at conventions or galleries will also be laid out for perusal.
Discounted prints, books and DVD's will be available to those who make the trip. 

I've included a few shots of works already hanging as well as a sample of the pieces to be on display throughout the four floors.  As much as is shown here, it is just a teaser for what will be on exhibition!

A new monumental canvas of Beren and Luthien in the Court of Thingol and Melian, from J.R.R. Tolkien's the Silmarillion is in progress in the studio for those who would like an early peek at a work in development.  The final canvas will be 9' x 5'.

I will be present the entire afternoon, so feel free to stop by and talk some art!

Pretender    15" x 24"   Oil on Panel