Or a Few Days Abroad
I’ve always been leery of conventions in North America – once you’ve given the convention itself the once-over, there’s not a lot to do outside the convention itself, unlike European events where there’s generally much more that’s worthwhile visiting in the city itself.
Not a problem in San Diego; you can’t actually manage to see the whole convention, it’s just too huge; the exhibition hall is about half a mile long and just packed with stalls and booths and huge displays. I diligently put in the footwork – a LOT of miles, I’m sure – but still must have overlooked whole sections. San Diego Comic-Con is pretty much an assemblage of superlatives.
Between signing sessions (always agreable) and the conference (always fun) I had a secret mission. Having ascertained that Berni Wrightson was actually attending the show, I was determined to go say hello, and satisfy a fan-boy yearning nearly three decades on. It’s always a bit of an anti-climax to meet people you’ve admired in your teens (especially in the air-conditioned white noise of a convention) but on the other hand, it is simultaneously sublime. I still have my copy of “A Look Back” (not the second edition of 1991, the FIRST edition from way back in 1978, which I bought with money earned pitching hay.) I still have all the first eleven issues of Swamp Thing that he drew. Wrightson is part of my teenage fantasy art pantheon, along with his three comrades of The Studio, published by Dragon’s Dream (remember them?) in 1979. So, meeting someone who occupies that place in your life, who helped me decide that illustration could be a profession, can’t be an anticlimax, even if it is just a few minutes’ conversation.
Mission accomplished. One down, three more to go.
Otherwise, caught up with a few illustrators I already knew from the time spent on the first Narnia film, hung around the Weta Workshop booth (half-blinded by the flash bulbs continually going off), and had the enormous pleasure of meeting the likes of Mike Mignola, Rick Berry, the grand Goef Darrow, Donato Giancola, Simon Bisley, Rebecca Guay, Todd Lockwood and a lot more. (Living on this side of the pond does not mean you run into them very often.) I also make a few unexpected encounters, amongst them the Shiflett Brothers. (Take a peek at the tutorials.) Brandon and Jarrod Shiflett do the most amazing astounding work. The only word I can think to describe it is “painterly”, very refreshing in a world of over-detailed and ultimately static movie memorabilia. They were lost in the middle of Artist’s Alley, the free tables set aside for independant artists down one end of the hall. I don’t think they’ll be there for long, next year they’ll be in a real booth; they certainly deserve it, even more so since they just sent me a box with their first four sculptures. So, I have set my son to assembling them (he is an old Warhammer afficionado, so possesses the requisite skills and more) mainly because otherwise I’d be doing it, and taking undeserved time-I-don’t-have off work.
Left: Signing session on the first day. (The gentleman with the books under his arm patiently stood in the queue again with three more, and three more and three more and… over two entire days. I believe I signed a full shelf in his library.)
Centre: The frazzled look is courtesy of Continental Airlines, who managed to deliver my luggage a couple of days late (admittedly preferable to crushing it and tearing the straps off, which they did on the way home).
Right: More signing, this time at the publisher’s booth.
Given that my responsibilities were limited, I browsed all the booksellers’ booths. There was a beautiful collection of old books – a dream library. Generally, when I want to be left on my own, I ask the insistent assistant for a book nobody EVER has, just so I can be left alone to browse freely. So, to the “Can I help you sir?” I smugly replied “I’m looking for Poe’s “The Bells”, with illustrations by Dulac.” The lady replied “Oh, I’ve got that right here!” and pulled it off a shelf. Damn. (It was stunning though. So was the price. Next time. Maybe. But if I do eventually buy it, I’ll have to think up a similarly obscure title to use for the future.)
Even the public was a delight to watch, European crowds haven’t yet caught on to the serious dressing-up bit. There were dozens of Heath Ledger Jokers, Jedi knights, a crowd of Steampunk Victorians, and all manner of other characters and creatures. All in all, I haven’t felt so much positive energy in ages, and you have to admire American illustrators, who are so debonair and relaxed with their public. In all fairness, with so many stars per sqaure yard, the only things that really drew a crowd and clogged the aisles were events like the dozen Leia-in-Slave-Costume look-alikes posing in front of the full-sized resin Jabba the Hutt…
Left: Greg, my minder, (additionally queue control and estimated-time-remaining expert) rolling up a poster.
Centre: With Tony Swatton and a lady friend. Tony is actually one of the unsung (and uncredited) artisans of Narnia, who made Peter Pevensie’s sword.
Right: Meeting Berni Wrightson.
(Thanks to all those persons who took the photos, forgive me for not rememebering which name to match up with which.)
Last weekend, my son and I went to Edinburgh, which was another world away. Only being obliged to give a short conference in the evening, we pretty much had a full day to ourselves, so we walked non-stop around the city from dawn ‘til dusk. I must say I was incredibly taken with the churches and cathedrals. For somebody who hasn’t a pious bone in his body, they contain a fervor that was totally unexpected to someone who’s grown accustomed to the self-conscious neutrality of their Swiss counterparts. One custodian gave me a thorough explanation of his edifice, probably thinking “dumb American” and all the while speaking with exaggerated care. (To be honest, we asked directions constantly, just to hear people speaking with a Scottish accent, so delightful it was to our foreign ears.) Many of the kirks in Edinburgh were either built or heavily restored in the late 19th century, so each is a tribute to Scottish Arts and Crafts movement. (Anybody who can name the “Glasgow Four” off the top of their heads gets special mention in my books. If you can add the names of the “Glasgow Boys” onto that, AND the “Glasgow Girls”, you deserve a special mention and a gold star.) Moreover, they are crammed with ex-votos, memorial plaques, ragged banners, solemn apopthegms, and memento mori.
Ceiling of the Thistle Chapel in Saint Giles Cathedral (the chapel of “The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle”) built in 1911. It is filled with the banners and figured helms of the Knights of the Thistle – “Nemo me impune lacessit” – which take on a truly storybook quality very much at home with Walter Scott and John Duncan. The Scottish delight in turning their history into epic story. (This said, given that they have been alternatively courted and repressed by their expansive southern neighbours ever since Hadrain considered the Picts bad enough news to build a wall from Segedunum at Wallsend, you get a lot of good solid pathos to tell about. The next emperor, Antoninus Pius, took up wall-building too by the way, but a little farther north. Actually, the raising of walls and dykes between troublesome neighbours seems to be a tradition in Britian, starting with Agricola’s wall from the River Clyde to the River Forth, Wansdyke, Wat’s Dyke and Offa’s Dyke between Mercia and Powys, and finally Scott’s Dyke in the 1500’s.)
Art Nouveau is present everywhere, and no dull, consensual and sensible colours – another Swiss speciality – either.
Was particularly struck by an early 20th-century painting called “The Presence” in the Cathedral Church of Saint Mary, into which we wandered as it was on the way from the hotel to the Mound. Painted in the cathedral in 1910 by a certain A. E. Bothwick, it was sent to Germany for reproductions to be made (bad timing) and ended up being sold to an American buyer after the war and eventually found and returned to Scotland. Bought a postcard of it, which doesn’t begin to reproduce the melancholy and aura of the original. (And of course lost the postcard, so I can’t even post the image here. Apologies.) A rare exception to what is pretty much a century of growing mediocrity in religious art.
We dutifully visited the Castle (after and hour in the line and 12 pounds each for admission, we weren’t going to miss even a scrap), took turns posing next to the Mons Meg (after watching a kilted guard attempt to forcefully extract an idiot that hand clambered inside the barrel), grimaced at the corny museography leading up to the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Scone (now generally referred to as the Stone of Destiny to avoid any dubious pastry-related jokes*), were awed into reverent silence by the stunning Saint Michael suspended from the vaulted ceiling of the Scottish National War Memorial (another exquisite Arts & Crafts edifice, no cameras allowed, please sir; but I have the image tucked away in my brain for future use).
Edinburgh Castle, from a cemetery. The Scots seem to have a healthy appreciation of skulls on headstones, some solemn, some positively jocular. (They also have a no-nonsense approach to boneyards; several aisles of the same cemetery were occupied by a bustling crafts fair, with booths posed atop the graves.
We hiked over towards Calton Hill to see the Time Ball poised atop the tower of Nelson’s Monument, having read up on the One O’Clock Gun (display manned by “Tam the Gun”, who appears to have enlisted a century or two ago when the guns were founded) and discovered (trivia is always easy to retain, must be something about inverse proportion to usefulness) that the only two guns still fired every day at one pm in the entire world are in Vancouver and Sydney (of all places), curious far-flung reminders of empires faded. We prowled around the uncomfortable facade of Saint Andrew’s House, a truly sinister sprawling Art Deco edifice reminiscent of a Batman movie set. (It’s the Scottish Parliament. My apologies. Undoubtedly it’s very nice inside.) Checked out the Calton Old Burial Ground, (pit bulls charging about amongst the No Dogs signs) which would do for the cut scenes, and on up the Hill proper. We marvelled at the dubious and misguided Neo-Classical enthusiasm that had prompted the construction of a colossal colonnade of gigantic Doric columns** atop the Hill, (which seems to house a heteroclite collection of unrelated structures – there is also a fake Greek choragic replica dedicated to Dugald Stewart, the City Observatory and even David Hume in person: “Born 1711, Died [——]. Leaving it to posterity to add the rest.”) from where we contemplated making a quick dash for the summit of Arthur’s Seat, but prudently chose to prowl the National Galleries instead, pausing on the way to gawk at the Walter Scott Monument – a rocket ship designed by Villard de Honnecourt. We were hypnotized by John Duncan’s “Saint Bride”, delighted by the eclectic collection of old masters, by a most unexpected (and decidedly biased) Allegory of the New and Old Testaments by the younger Holbein (to please Henry VIII, who had just kicked off a few centuries of religious strife so he could ditch his first wife and get cosy with Anne Boleyn***), by a pair of tiny Dutch 17th-century interiors, one with an alchemist, one with a musician, by an unlooked-for Boticelli and dozens of beautifully melancholic Scottish landscapes.
By then it was time to head off to the conference, which was very good fun, though an hour always seems a little short, followed by a signing session, followed by dinner, a stroll back to the hotel and a plane back home early the next morning. A day out in Scotland. A world away.
We were stopped in out tracks by this Arts & Crafts chapel reminiscent of Kilpeck, tucked away on a street corner, before we noticed it was actually a… casino. “Join and Play Right Away, It’s the Biggest Deal in Town.” It was closed, so we missed out on the Big Range of Table Games and the Big Food & Drink Offers. I was mildly shocked; that kind of building in Switzerland would be restored to death – a Swiss speciality – and used for something other than housing Big Choices of Slot Machines. Edinburgh, we thought, must be so chock-a-block with virtuous historic edifices that they cannot rescue them all from vice.
Another unexpected juxtaposition when we went in search of the Runic Stone pinpointed on a our free map of Interesting Edinburgh Spots; we clambered up the back of the Mound and found the stone duly inscribed with runes, but cowering under the overhang of the looming edifice of the bleachers installed around the Esplanade for the Tattoo✝. It seemed an inauspicious Spot to set a Runic Stone, but we concluded that Scotland must have so many runic stones just kicking around that secluded glens and picturesque park settings can’t be found for them all.
*A scone, that of the edible kind, is also of venerable Scottish origin (attested from 1513) my etymological dictionary tells me, perhaps from Middle Dutch schoon(broot) ‘fine (bread).’
**This, it turns out, is the National Monument, a memorial to those who died in the Napoleonic Wars. Designed by archaeologist and architect Charles Robert Cockerell, whose most memorable exploit was “saving” the reliefs from the temple of Apollo at Bassae (they are now in the British Museum) and likely acquiring the incongruous idea of building a Parthenon on Scottish soil in the process, the memorial was started in 1822 and never finished. It was intended to be a full replica, but money ran out with only one side completed. Glasgow reportedly offered to cover the costs but Edinburgh declined the charitable offer. (It’s also called Edinburgh’s Disgrace or Edinburgh’s Folly, which seems a little harsh, given the amount of ruin-building in which the Victorians so romantically engaged.) Enthusiasm ran out too, and subsequent proposals to complete it met with studied indifference. It’s just as well.
Speaking of monuments, I picked up a postcard of the National Wallace Monument (the real MacCoy, not the stupid statue of Mel Gibson – another moment of misguided enthusiasm if there was one) near Stirling, and so MUST return to Scotland to see it for real.
*** As well as instigating the Dissolution of the Monasteries all over Britian in passing, very convenient for replenishing the royal coffers.
✝Tattoo, by the way, is an unfathomable term, about the origins of which we interrogated every available Edinburgher, but to no avail. Wikipedia came to the rescue. Turns out it’s another Dutch loan word, dating from the eighteenth century and the British occupation of Flanders during the War of the Austrian Succession. (The term “War of the Austrian Succession” includes two Austro-Prussian wars (the First Silesian War, from 1740-1742, and the Second Silesian War, 1744-1745), an Austro-Saxon War (1741), an Austro-Bavarian War (1741-1745) and the Franco-Austrian War of 1744-1748, in which English and Dutch troops fought on the Austrian side. Isn’t European history just such a headache?) Drummers from the garrison were sent out into the towns each evening to beat Retreat, summoning the soldiers to return to barracks for the night. The process was known as “Doe den tap toe” or just “tap toe”, a warning to the inn keepers to “turn off the taps” or to stop serving beer and send the soldiers back for the night. Now I have to learn the correct Dutch pronunciation – trivia never sleeps.