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Growing up, I didn’t always have access to comic books but if I looked hard enough, even the most boring adult’s book cases or magazine racks contained at least one classic book, packed full of strange illustrations. Works like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Salome, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are still as well-known for their art as for their stories, and the writers’ words have become inextricably linked with their illustrating collaborators’ imagery. While they weren’t comic books, they used pictures to develop and enhance the stories to such an extent that they transformed them. Those drawings shaped the way the world perceives and celebrates these stories.
Looking at John Tenniel’s detailed work on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and “Alice Through the Looking Glass is a creepy little delight. Hired at the last minute, Tenniel’s illustrations were well known at the time from his regular work on the well-known periodical Punch (a satirical political magazine) and already had a following. Carroll (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, since Lewis Carroll was a pen name) had made his own attempts at illustrating his story, but opted to hire the cartoonist and changed his book forever. The detailed engravings offered a dark and mature look into the surreal environment in which Alice found herself, altering the tone of the book and depicting potentially impossible images for us to experience more directly. While Carroll created this strange fantasy, it was Tenniel who gave it substance in our world.
A favorite of mine is Aubrey Beardsley, who as a young artist was hired to illustrate the British publication of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. He became completely enthralled by the work and it has become the go-to art reproduced when discussing Wilde. While Beardsley’s art contains many elements typical of the Art Nouveau era in which he worked, the content and darkness of it was quite unique and startling at the time (and still is). It isn’t surprising that, upon first seeing the illustrations, Wilde was upset and feared that the impact of the illustrations would completely overshadow his writing. Like Wilde’s writing, Beardsley’s art was considered scandalously witty, and for a time they moved in the same social circles, so it makes some sense that Beardsley’s art would have become inextricably linked with Wilde after their collaboration.
It is hard to say whether many of Roald Dahl’s “delightful” children’s stories about evil old women and subjugated little orphans would be quite so sweet if many of them weren’t tempered by the frenetic, playful art of Quentin Blake. Over the years the artist became such a frequent collaborator with the author, that his illustrations now characterize his work on the author’s posthumous website. While Dahl’s surreal and inventive stories seem tailor-made for the vicious imaginations of young children, it is Blake’s art which allows humor and frivolity to shine through. Together they have the perfect creative relationship, a kind of storytelling alchemy where they fill in each other’s blanks and create a well-rounded whole.
Another artist who has taken a pass at illustrating Alice in Wonderland is Ralph Steadman, though he is best known in America for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson. Steadman’s vision of America compounds Thompson’s, with their scathing commentary on America brought to fruition in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Steadman’s drawings for the writing include depictions of Thompson himself, and so he is somewhat unique in shaping not just the perception of Thompson’s writing, but of his public persona as well. Thompson’s gangly figure replete with hat, cigarette holder, and omnipresent sunglasses is accurate, as is the chaotic fervor which Steadman brings to it. Taking every element of the work to its extreme conclusion, representing every possible extreme, the two echo and amplify each other’s work. It is amazing that Steadman never accompanied Thompson to Las Vegas, as he managed to represent the towering insanity of it quite perfectly.
Often illustrated as an afterthought, there are many illustrated works for adults and children which have become entirely synonymous with the illustrators hired to create imagery to supplement the story. In terms of visual storytelling and creating a richer world than words alone ever could, these illustrations fulfill their promise and more so, creating iconic, lasting images of imagined realities. In many cases the imagery has become more identifiable than the words they accompanied and now it’s impossible to imagine these stories having the impact they’ve had without these powerful drawings.