Forgive my excitement over this. It's definitely at dorky proportions.
What follows is a discussion of the evolution of the wendigo monster that appears in the first book of THE SECRET JOURNEYS OF JACK LONDON, a new HarperCollins series by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, illustrated by the inimiatable Greg Ruth.
Jordan Brown, the delightful editor who oversaw this project, explains how the book's monster became the unholy terror you get to read about in the book. For illustrators, this is a rare insider's look at how an editor thinks, and how a succeesful editor/artist collaboration unfolds. It's also a smart study of how a monster can't just be scary--it also has to support the text in myriad ways.
And now to the wendigo, an Algonquian malevolent spirit, straight from Jordan Brown himself:
v 1: This was Greg’s first take on the Wendigo close-up. Even in this first stab at the creature, I knew that we would have a spectacular image by the end of the process. This didn’t exactly mesh with my interpretation of what we might want the Wendigo to ultimately look like, but Greg is a master at creating terrifying, stylized monsters, and there was no doubt in my mind that we would want to work with what Greg had here toward a final monster that all of us loved. My initial email response noted that I loved the mouth and eyes, but that the creature overall was perhaps a bit too yeti-ish – that it looked really great, but that the compositional elements of the beast didn’t quite get across the feeling of horror we were going for. In this first email response, I said what I think would become our guiding principle to meld Greg’s fantastic vision with what Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon were doing in the text:
The best way I can put it is also unfortunately the most vague: I want to look at this beast and know that despite how perverted it has been, how much of a beast it has become, it was a human once (and, therefore, something into which Jack could turn).
v 2a and 2b: Here’s the reason why I love Greg: he knows that peeling off or adding layers is often a better way to revise than simply redrawing something, and he never runs out of ideas. Greg’s response to me (and I so very much love that Greg explains his thinking, it’s so helpful, from an editor’s standpoint, because it’s always my aim to figure out what the illustrator’s vision is and to work with that – Greg always gives me a great summary of his vision with every sketch):
These two wendigos are indeed a might bit different, both in pose and look—the former here below is a bit more trimmed that the previous version, but essentially the same fellow. Both are scaled up a sight bit more than the last take. The second is more like a flying monkey gone mad, with darker fur and more animalian features... see which one you like to pursue forward as I suspect neither does the deed entirely.
In 2a you can see how he went about taking his first creation and making him more human. This still wasn’t quite right for me, but Greg’s changes helped me to focus my thoughts a bit, and I expressed this to him in an email response:
What I feel like we might want here is a sense of desperation to the beast’s hunger. Right now, his hunger for Jack’s flesh and life has a ferociousness to it, but I’d love to get the sense that this is a beast who hunts not just for a love of carnage, but also as an attempt to assuage a desperate, endless starvation – not simply a hunger, a starvation.
I wouldn’t have been able to say this without seeing what Greg had already done, what was working well and what we still needed from the image. 2b I include just to illustrate how full of ideas Greg is. This one wasn’t quite right, but is an insanely awesome drawing in its own right. Made me hope that Chris and Tim might find a way to take Jack to the dark impasse of the African continent at some point. Greg never leaves a stone unturned.
v 3: Here, Greg starts over a bit, giving us a beast onto which we can add layers until we’re satisfied. You can see how he’s focused in on the hunger and made a beast who is an embodiment of it. According to Greg:
I've gone a bit far and wide from our previous more monkey style version as you see....emaciated, desperate and hauntingly post-human monster that he now is. Let me know if we're a sight bit closer to the mark... I suspect this fellow needs more of the hair.
Here, Greg’s nailed the spirit of this spirit – this is something that is terrifying not only because of what it might do to you, but because it presents you with an image of what you might become. This is the key element of the terror present in all good zombies, and Greg has outdone them all in this image. Now, it’s all detail work, taking this human beast and adapting him to the north. This is where I become a douchebag editor and try to order my monster a la carte. Luckily Greg doesn’t start hating me for it (or maybe he does?)… My response:
This has something necessary that the others didn’t. But I think you’re right, I think we need to add the hair back a bit – is there a way to get the hair and the strength of the last incarnation and combine that with the desperation of this one? I know I’m being a jerk editor now, trying to make physical changes happen by repeating vague nonsense. Maybe this will help: I actually love the Wendigo in the camp attack scene (note: there’s a more silhouetted version of the monster depicted from afar in an earlier chapter illustration) pretty much just the way he is, and would be delighted if we could retrofit this to match that.
v 4: An awesome thing happened with this revision: I called Greg after emailing him about the last image to talk this over a bit, and we discussed the wendigo for a while, and then got off onto Battlestar Galactica and French silent panchromatic films of the 1920s and whatever else we were talking about that day, and then after like twenty minutes he said “done.” And I said “huh?” And he said “I finished the new sketch. I’ll send it off right now.” He had been sketching the whole time we were chatting, finished a whole new design. See why I love this guy? Anyway, you can see Greg applying a layer of hair on this one, and we’re much closer. My response was long, so I’ll paraphrase: I asked that we have a bit more firm stance, make the beast slightly larger, and let the mouth own the face a bit more.
v 5: Greg, as usual, solves all the problems in ways much more cunning than I had expected. The mouth is fantastic, and I love that he accomplishes the firm stance by simply hiding the feet. An inspired move. And he has the most astute and enlightening comment on the size issue, which I have to share with you here, because it’s brilliant:
It's a funny thing, scale. Counter-intuitively, something on the scale of King Kong doesn't have the same level of terror as say, a Mighty Joe Young. There's this horrid middle ground between about seven or eight feet and about ten or so feet that to me is the real sweet spot for the bad feelings when comes to the beasties. Personally I love this weird middle ground—I think there's a lot of great tension in any creature that occupies this arena—but let me know if we're hitting the right spot on this here one.
Anyway, the beast is perfect. Which means, of course, I ask him to tweak it one last time, because I’m a jerk like that. I asked for a slightly more powerful stance, and a bit more of the claws.
v 6: And here it is, the final, in all its glory. My favorite of the bunch. Flawless.
If there’s anything to take from this, it is the sheer inventiveness of Greg Ruth, and his ability to read my mind when I am throwing at him the most vague feedback possible. He came up with a monster that is entirely his own, my favorite rendering of the Wendigo that I’ve ever seen, and the perfect rendering for this story. It’s a funny thing, illustrating monsters – they often have to physically embody the themes and narrative of the text in an even more acute and representative manner than illustrations of the heroes. The heroes are meant to represent the reader, and are often made to look somewhat universal for this reason. But it’s the monsters that represent the struggle, in the narrative and often in the hero him/herself, and for this reason, they are often the most difficult to design. But also the most fun, if this is any indication.