Monday 23 January 2012

A Thousand and One Nights - Kay Nielson's Postumous Postscript

In 1976, a minor publishing event occurred when Pan books visionary editor David Larkin released a paperback edition of Kay Nielson's Illustrations for One Thousand and One Nights. For lovers and connoisseurs of the Golden Age of Picture Book Illustration it was a major event. For although some sixty years earlier, Nielson's exquisite illustrations for East of the Sun and West of the Moon had secured him a lasting claim to fame as one of the prime exponents of early twentieth century romantic illustration, his fame was as fleeting as other illustrators of this genre, such as Edmund Dulac.

By the 1930's times were a' changing and with it the sort of work that an artist of Nielson's undoubted genius, but limited repertoire could command. He eventually accepted an offer from the Disney studio (readers of this blog will recall that Walt's European tour which preceded work on Snow White had seen him snaffle up lots of beautifully illustrated books with a specific intent to infuse his story, background and styling departments with artists that were automatically on message with the visions that Disney had surging through his head).

So Nielson with his wife Ulla following on, left his native Denmark and pledged his troth with the Mouse Factory. He proceeded to work his darndest creating some truly inspirational concept drawings for what would turn into The Night on Bare Mountain and Ave Maria sequences of Fantasia. He continued at the studio with a pile of conceptual work for an adaptation of his fellow Dane, Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid. The project was to be eventually shelved until 1989, when work was commenced in earnest on the film that would signify the moment when the Disney studio having reached a point of near collapse following their disastrous attempt to make a feature length film from Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron, re-emerged as the force it once had been in film making.

However, I digress, Kay Nielson's tenure at the studio was relatively brief and his remaining years were eked out seeking work which was becoming progressively more elusive. But such was the charm and warmth that he and Ulla exuded and such was the generosity of their near neighbors that somehow or other they struggled through in elegant penury until Kay passed away in 1957 at the age of 71 to be followed by his wife a year later.

Before she passed on Ulla gave their friends and neighbors Hildegard and Frederick Monhoff a box of paintings for a book that was never to be published. Despite approaching museums both in the USA and Denmark the Monhoff's could find no one remotely interested in sharing these artworks with the world.

No one that is until the Monhoff's approached Elizabeth and Betty Ballantine who issued the illustrations in an identical format to their highly successful Frank Frazetta collections and as David Larkin had co-editioned the Frazetta books under the Pan imprint it seemed logical for him to co-host the Nielson paintings.

So here they are:

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Boot Camp for Artists

The number of simply superb Spanish and Italian illustrators and painters, who refined their craft in the UK comics of the 1950s-70s is simply astonishing. In fact the phenomenon was part of the rationale behind a fanzine that I used to print off on a desk top printer some twelve years ago. Achtung Commando! was founded on the principle that there were a lot of people who were into Commando comics who just didn't seem to know that many of the artists they were oohing and ahhing over had worked far and beyond the confines of the pages of the world's longest running pocket library. Similarly, there were devotees of Warren comics that were blissfully unaware that many of the artists whose work they were so captivated by had actually learned their trade working for publications such as Commando and it's Fleetway rivals War, Air Ace and Battle Picture Library.

The little A5 fanzine was printed in full color and hand bound and trimmed with glossy covers, the whole operation crunching through buckets of Epson ink cartridges. Unbelievably, even with the deterrent cover price of £15.00 the little fellas sold well, in fact sales for each issue were well into three figures and there was always demand for back issues. There was a niche market who seemed to enjoy finding out more about Commando and more specifically the people behind the comics. All in all it was a fun project and I got to network with a lot of fellow enthusiasts as well as having the fun of interviewing many of the artists and writers.

I am very much reminded of those days as I work on the last elements of the first volume in Book Palace Books new publishing venture Illustrators, which includes a fascinating interview with Ian Kennedy, who is to many enthusiasts forever associated with Commando, but as the interview and accompanying artwork attest, there is a lot more to be explored. As I cast my mind back to creating that first issue of Achtung Commando!, I remember chatting to the ultimate resource for UK comic historians, Mr David Roach. David as I have mentioned earlier is the man that appears in the credits for many comic and illustration retrospectives, as he is such a passionate researcher of all this material.

David it was who identified one of my all time favorite Commando artists (although he only did perhaps two or three issues). Juan Gonzalez Alacreu (not to be confused with Pepe Gonzales of Vampirella fame), was a consummate draftsman and a man obsessed with light and form. Like many of his contemporaries working in Barcleona's busy studios, he would utilize photos for many of his facial references, but his mastery of form and design enabled him to use such props creatively rather than being restricted by such aids. His fascination with light and capturing it's effect on form, made his work stand out from his contemporaries. He would literally take a scalpel blade to the surface of his work to add reflected light and texture to add further dynamism to his drawings.

Here's some examples from a couple of Commando comics; Dangerous Dawn and Terror Team (both worthy of inclusion on Commando's current list of titles worthy of reprint) from the late 1960's and here are some much more recent examples of his paintings which show the same preoccupations in an albeit much more serene setting.

And while we're about it, here's the latest four issues straight from operational HQ in Bonnie Dundee:

Commando 4459

Invasion Watch

In the early days of the Second World War, men too young, too old or too infirm for the regular services flocked to join Britain’s Home Guard to “do their bit.” Because of this, the units were dismissed as a bit of a joke in some quarters.
   If those nay-sayers had listened to the conversation in one Home Guard headquarters on a night in 1940, though, they might have changed their minds. For as the men there shared their stories it became very clear that they had fought, and would fight again. And fight like the demons they were.
   Invaders beware!

Script: Mac MacDonald
Art: Carlos Pino
Cover: Carlos Pino

Commando 4460


Fighting men come in all shapes and sizes. They wear different uniforms and follow different flags. But the best of them share one quality. And that one quality marks them out from everyone else as men to be feared and respected in equal measure.
   That’s the quality that marks them out as…


Script: Mac MacDonald
Art: Keith Page
Cover: Keith Page

Commando 4461

Upside Down Ace

Alan Burnett and Colin Harvey flew as the crew of a Boulton Paul Defiant night fighter. They shared the same room and spent almost every second of every day with each other…yet the very air around them seemed to vibrate with the fierce hate they had for each other.  

   But, despite their bickering and brawling, they had the highest score of kills in the Group. How they kept it up was their own special secret… 

Introduction by Calum Laird, Commando Editor

The Boulton Paul Defiant was one of many planes which didn’t quite live up to their designers’ hopes. But you’d never guess that from Ian Kennedy’s dynamic cover where, as only he can, he turns the world on its head to create another perfect composition.
   Inside, John Ridgway — in only his second Commando outing —delivers an ideal complement to the cover, his crisp, accurate linework being perfect for aircraft illustration. Being a trained draughtsman is quite an asset.
   The script, by Brunt, gives them him full rein to tell the Defiant’s story while at the same time touching on some of the super-secret “boffins’ war” that went on behind the action in the Second World War.

Upside Down Ace, originally Commando No 572 (August 1971), re-issued as No 1604 (May 1982)

Script: Brunt
Art: John Ridgway
Cover: Ian Kennedy

Commando No 4462

Death Of A Wimpey

They found an abandoned plane in the desert, sand almost covering it. The paint was hanging off in shreds, the engines had seen better days and the fuselage was riddled with bullet holes. But it was still a Vickers Wellington bomber…one of the tough, famous Wimpeys. And it could fly — just.
   So the men who found it, three army deserters and a no-good R.A.F. pilot, began to make plans to get back into the war — flying their own private bomber!

Introduction by Calum Laird, Commando Editor

At the end of October last year at the Dundee Comics Day, two men were honoured for their outstanding contribution to the comics artform. Though they are not related, they share the same surname and, as you can see from this book, they have both worked for Commando.
   I’m talking, of course, about the two Kennedys, Cam and Ian who together have produced the art for this tale. Ian’s cover wonderfully captures a stricken Wellington bomber trying desperately to land, while the characterisation and movement Cam brings to the inside art is outstanding.
…And let’s not forget scriptwriter Ken Gentry without whose contribution this classic Commando story the two Kennedys would never have had the chance to showcase their talents so well.
   By the way, I got to present the awards — how cool is that?

Death of A Wimpey, originally Commando No 469 (April 1970), re-issued as No 1335 (July 1979)

Script: Ken Gentry
Art: Cam Kennedy
Cover: Ian Kennedy

Commando © DC Thomson 2012