Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Illustrated Harlan Ellison

Bryon Preiss was an influential publisher & packager of books who was one of the great early promoter's of the graphic novel. Books that bore the Preiss stamp included Steranko's Chandler, Howard Chaykin's sci-fi adaptations Empire and The Stars My Destination, the Weird Heroes series, and two books solely devoted to one author, Gray Morrow's The Illustrated Roger Zelazny and this one, The Illustrated Harlan Ellison.

As lavish and well put together as Preiss' books undoubtedly are, they all kind of suffer from the same problem. At this point in the history of the medium, no one was too sure as to what actually constituted a graphic novel, and Preiss' books are usually an uncomfortable mix between the traditional comic and an 'adult' book, with art, text & design all pulling against each other in fascinating, flawed ways. One of his best experiments was The Illustrated Ellison, which was so good, even Harlan liked it!

After that brilliant Micheal Whelan cover with it's '50's bubblegum pop logo, and a beautifully '70's frontispiece from Leo & Diane Dillon, (responsible of course, for so many Ellison book covers) comes the first story Deeper Than The Darkness, about a pyro - psychic forced to use his powers against his will, and the choices he has to make to ensure the safety of the universe. It's a great story about 'life choices' and personal responsibility, although it does suffer from the weakest art in the book courtesy of Wayne McLoughlin, who's okay at space scenes, but generally has little grasp of anatomy.

Next up is Croatoan, from the unbelievable team of Tom Sutton and Alfredo Alcala. Suitably for Alcala's pitch black inking, this is an incredibly nihilistic piece that takes in the New York singles scene, abortion, the urban myth of alligators in the sewers and the true story of the disappearance of a colony of settlers on Roanoke Island in the 16th century. Easily one of the highpoints of the book.

Get out those 3-D glasses next for Jim Steranko's astounding adaptation of Repent Harlequin! Said The Ticktockman. This was also released as a portfolio at the time, but can you imagine having this on your wall?

Here's Tom Sutton again, for refugee tale The Discarded. This is the piece in the book that adheres most to comic's conventions, being more or less a regular strip, which bizarrely kind of jars with the rest of the pieces. I saw this story adapted in Masters Of Science Fiction recently, with Brian Dennehy and an unbelievably over the top John Hurt. Tom's version is by far the better one.

Next we have a portfolio from the Dillon's, something insisted on by Ellison, apparently. There's some great stuff here, including this illo for A Boy & His Dog.

And this cheeky piece, simply titled Harlan!

The bitter end of the '60's is revisited next in Shattered Like A Glass Goblin. This one was originally to be illustrated by Berni Wrightson, but I don't think anyone'd argue with Bill Stout's beautiful work here. It's a lesser Ellison story to be honest, as a soldier comes home and
then, through drugs and transformation, never manages to leave again. But it's amusing to note that the hopeless, listless housemates the hero becomes sucked in by were actually based on a similar group of sci-fi fans Harlan knew at the time.

Ralph Reese is the artist for Riding The Dark Train Out, a story based on a character Ellison met while travelling the rails himself. It's a bittersweet, whisky-tongued tale of redemption, with gorgeous art from Reese, seemingly channeling the Golden Age of magazine illustration.

Finally, we have probably the best story, and Harlan's personal favourite art job in the book, the galactic jewish comedy I'm Looking For Kadak, all about a group of multi-armed, multi-eyed Rabbi's trying to sit Shivah for their about to be destroyed planet, and needing to find the no-good schlemiel who's disappeared before they can. It's killingly funny, and Overton Loyd's illustration's are, as you can see, spot on. It's a great ending to an, at times, mismatched book. Still, like with all of Byron Preiss' publications, better a flawed masterpiece than no damn masterpiece at all.

An interesting footnote: I first saw this book in Cambridge's then greatest bookstore Heffers, sitting on the shelf right next to The Illustrated Zelazny. I didn't buy both books because when I picked this one up, the thing practically fell apart in my hands, the Steranko section in particular being completely loose. So I just bought the Zelazny one, and always regretted not getting Ellison ( It's ok, it didn't ruin my life or anything ). Years later, I came across the copy I own now, and sure enough, that one too fell apart practically before I could get it out of the shop!
And here's the punchline: There's a Comics Journal interview with Harlan, where he complains that his copy falls apart, while he's doing the interview.
Byron Preiss passed away last year, I think. Wherever you are, Byron: Ten out of ten for advancing the cause of the graphic novel almost singlehandedly. But minus several million for your binding, buddy.


  1. heh. mine fell apart, too. and my copy of Empire. both of them.

  2. Hi! I am a Brazilian fan of Ellison! I can not speak english, I'm writing this using "Google Translate". But really wanted to compliment your article. I loved finding your blog! I loved finding this article about something so obscure that great writer!