Thursday, August 30, 2018

Scarecrow Standees

Quockerwodger the Bucket Scarecrow and a couple of Winnowings in front of a cornfield.
Just thought I'd share a fun little part of my creative process.

A significant component of the development for my children's book, The Scarecrow Harvest Festival, involves making miniature pop-up figures or "standees" for my son. He loves these little cardboard guys and our house has amassed quite the collection of them. In addition to standees of my own drawings, I've also built paper figures from other sources such as Ravensblight.com (which is a fantastic website, by the way. You should definitely check it out for some great spooky, atmospheric artwork, music, paper toys, games and lots more. Seriously, just go take a look), The Papertoy Monsters Kit by Brian Castleforte and a bunch of other paper toy artists, and even some pretty cool pop-up playsets from Wendy's.

I usually start with an idea my son gives me like "a bucket scarecrow" or "a swamp witch" or "a praying mantis ghost" and just let the image take me where it will. It's a fun, loose drawing exercise. Advanced doodling really. But it helps me build up the world of the Scarecrow Harvest Festival, and who knows- I might even expand these characters out into future books. There's certainly a lot of fun things I could do with them.

(Also, sorry for the blurriness in some of these photos. My phone's camera is all scratched up and it's going to be a bit before I can get a new one.)

Gowpen the Counting Scarecrow and Haspenald the Star-Gazing Scarecrow also having a wander through the cornfield.

An old turnip-headed scarecrow (with teru-teru-bozu friends) and a watermelon scarecrow hanging out with Jonny Chiba's Nom Nom monster from the PaperToy Monsters Kit

A pair of Mantis Ghosts and a Swamp Crab trying to catch the last subway car of the night.

A Walking Mangrove Tree and a... Brain Plant (based loosely on a drawing of a D&D Xorn my son saw) waiting in line with an ax-wielding werewolf from Ravensblight for tickets to a Tangerine Dream concert.

The Brain Plant having an important business meeting with a Grim Reaper from Ravensblight and a couple cavern adventurers from a Wendy's toy.

Some more Wendy's toy characters inviting a Pascagoula Robot-Mummy (version 2.5) to their sweet New Year's Eve party.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Review: Monkeyboy by S. Shane Thomas


This is the tale of Han, a young humanoid monkey, and his band of friends as they adventure across their homeworld of Nibiru in a star system far from Earth. Humanity came to this planet on massive Ark ships reverse-engineered from the space-faring technology of lost Atlantis. Upon arriving on Nibiru they discovered and rescued peoples from several other space-faring species that had been imprisoned by a fallen race of would-be galactic conquerors called the Anki. Everyone on Nibiru lives in relative harmony, but  Han and his friends discover that the ancient Anki are not as extinct as everyone thought.

Accompanying Han is a gang colorful, unusual beings: Wisp, a shapeshifter made of pink clouds and his childhood friend and constant companion; Sita, a mixed human/alien girl with long, rabbit-like ears; and Cray, a giant praying mantis-like creature whose mind is perpetually linked to the collective intelligence of his people.

Monkeyboy is like a wuxia novel mixed with space opera then blended together with classic mythology.  The setting draws heavily from Mesopotamian legends such as the ancient and god-like Annunaki, and the knowledge bringing Apkallu- here called Nephilim and depicted as living synthetic servants to the Anki.

The story draws from other myths too. The main character’s full name, Hanuman, is obviously borrowed from the Monkey King of the Indian Ramayana epic, though personality-wise he more closely resembles Son Wukong of Journey to the West. His personality also mirrors Wukong- though maybe it is more akin to Goku, the protagonist of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, which was inspired by Journey to the West. Han can be brash and easily distracted, though he is aware of these foibles and it is interesting to watch as he works hard to overcome them.

Before reading Monkeyboy, I would strongly recommend checking out Shane’s other LARC novels first. Distant Origins will fill you in on the background of the lost Atlantis technology and humanity’s journey to Nibiru. Han’s own origins- as well as the motivations of the Anki antagonists- can be found in the anthology LARC Transmissions. Be aware, though, that there is a bit of a tonal shift between books which can be a little jarring. While Monkeyboy is geared towards juvenile readers, Distant Origins and LARC Transmissions seem to have been written for an older audience. Once you get used to the shift in writing, though, the more action-packed adventure in Monkeyboy is a fun read.



If there is one major critique, it is that the ending is a rather blatant deus ex machina. There really isn’t any build-up to the solution that saves the day. But hopefully, this point will be explained in further adventures of Han and his friends. That quibble aside, though, Monkeyboy is a great read if you’re a fan of quick martial arts action in a unique setting.

You can get a copy of Monkeyboy here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Another Scarecrow Harvest Festival Preview

Nunce and Hapax
Today I’m posting a couple more pages-in-progress from the scarecrow book I’m writing and illustrating for my son. It’s a slow process as I’m juggling this book along with a job and kids plus general house maintenance. A pretty common situation for most working artists, really. But I’m still aiming to finish it by Halloween, or Christmas at the latest.

As I mentioned in an earlier post,  I came up with back stories for most of my scarecrow characters. I posted a few of them on another blog but unfortunately didn’t have time to keep up with it. Once this picture book is done, however, I’ll put all the stories together in a companion book.

For now, though, here are a couple of their stories.

Nunce: Each scarecrow in the River Valley receives a unique Animating Name that imbues them with life. The short names by which they are commonly known are but a tiny fragment of this true, longer name, which can take several hours to speak. These names are small pieces of power from the Autumnal Powers themselves.

Nunce is the scarecrow who sits at the desk beside the Powers, transcribing their words into Animating Names. There are far too many scarecrows in the Valley for Nunce to deliver every name herself. Instead she passes the name off to her servants, the wugs, for delivery. The wugs resemble simple bird drawings- little more than a rounded body with two sticks for legs and the vaguest suggestion of a beak. The wugs are paper-thin and can float easily on the wind like fallen leaves, or slip under the door of a house.

(Wugs, by the way, were inspired by the Wug Test of Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist who studies, among other things, language acquisition in children)

(Nunce’s original name was actually Nonce, a term for a word that is coined for a single use. Nonce is also, unfortunately, British slang for a pedophile, so I changed the spelling a little to distance the name from that connotation whilst keeping the same basic linguistic concept).

A couple of Wugs

Hapax: Another scribe for the Autumnal powers alongside his sister, Nunce. But while Nunce takes words directly from the lips of the Autumnal Powers, Hapax- and his own army of wugs- scour the libraries of mankind to find mortal words to give character to the Animating Names.  Sometimes he comes across written words that are known today only from a single use in a dead or forgotten tongue. Perhaps other references to the word are lost. Perhaps it was created for a single, special occasion. Whatever their origins, these single-use words have a particular potency. They are given to scarecrows of special import. Those who serve a key function in the River Valley. The scarecrows who guard the fields set aside for the dead, for example. Or scarecrows who inhabit fields marked by significant events, important battles, and geological anomalies.

Dwizzen and Cucupha


Dwizzen: The story of Dwizzen is really the story of Elihu March and Thomas Steiner, two young men from farming families in the River Valley.

When Elihu was five years old, an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Though his father was compassionate, his brothers and children from neighboring farms mocked him relentlessly for his disability, calling him useless and a burden.  One boy did not, though. Since he first learned to talk, Thomas Steiner struggled with a severe stutter that made even simple sentences difficult. He felt a deep kinship with Elihu and the two became fast friends.

In Thomas’ father’s field was a copse of trees used as a windbreak that the boys often used as a refuge from the mockery they endured on a daily basis. Thomas would carry Elihu to the trees in the early morning where the latter would spend the day with the books his father bought for him. At night Elihu would regale Thomas- and eventually some of the other farm children- with the things he had learned. He told them tales of the giant birds that had once roamed the Valley and left their fossilized footprints in the brownstone.  He told them of the preacher who had tried to build a metal messiah. He told them of the great city to the west that was the center of the world where every language was spoken. He also helped Thomas work on his stutter by giving him poems and speeches to read slowly out loud.

One day Thomas and Elihu went out to their landlocked island after a strong nor’easter had blown through. Several trees had been knocked down and Elihu noticed that a small army of seedlings had sprung up on them. He’d read books on botany and was keen to study the new sprouts. Soon he noticed that the plants formed micro-environments on different parts of the fallen trees. The flora growing on top of the root-ball was different from the flora growing in the pit, which was different from the mosses, lichens and liverworts growing on the roots themselves, which were all different from the other plants in the copse. Elihu took careful notes on his findings and with the encouragement of his father and Thomas he submitted them to a botanist at the nearby college. To his surprise the professor wrote back, impressed with his work, and invited Elihu to give a lecture on his findings. Word of his research soon spread to other members of the faculty and to other universities of the River Valley. He received more offers to speak about his discovery and was soon making a regular lecture circuit. At first, he was carried into the halls on Thomas’ back, but soon one of the professors donated a wheelchair so the boy could get around easier.

Thomas and Elihu grew ever closer and soon their friendship developed into something more. When Elihu’s father passed away, the two of them moved into his old farmhouse together. They wed the next spring with a ceremony in the old copse of trees where they had spent so much time in their youth.

In time the expanding town bought up Elihu and Thomas’ land to make way for expansion. When the couple moved to a new farm, they took one of the old, tipped-over logs with them as a reminder of their home. Weathering and cracking had given the stump the rough semblance of a face, so Thomas and Elihu thought it would be only appropriate to give it a body as well. The log head was too heavy for the body to hold up, but as it happened, Elihu was looking to obtain a new wheelchair and gave the old one to the scarecrow, whom the Autumnal powers named Dwizzen.

Recently Dwizzen’s chair has been fitted with bicycle wheels to make it easier for him to navigate his fields. Like his human creators, Dwizzen is interested in the succession of plant communities. He has seen neighboring fields go fallow and give way to meadow then savannah then young forest. He often ponders what will happen when his own field is finally reclaimed by the land. Perhaps he himself will become the nursery for a new forest.

(The design and backstory for Dwizzen were inspired by the ecological concept of pit-and-mound topography.)

Cucupha: this scarecrow had been guarding his fields for many decades without anything very interesting happening. Until the day something finally did. One early spring morning, a group of strange men came to the fallow meadow adjacent to his cornfield. They worked for many days, on what exactly he did know, for the project was guarded day and night and he dared not approach close to see what it was. When they left at last, he crept to the meadow and discovered a giant arrow of poured concrete lying flat in the grass, pointing to the West. He spent many a night staring at it from the edge of his field, wondering what it could be for.

One day a strange bird flew over his field. It was larger than any bird he’d ever seen before. Its wings were stiff and dark. The creature did not have any feathers that he could see.  Only smooth, white and gray flesh. It flew in a straight line, not swooping or banking like other birds. Cucupha was frightened by this odd creature, but he knew he had to do his job. He ran out into the open field, waving his arms to spook it. The bird did not cry out or swerve away as others did, but Cucupha’s efforts must have worked, for instead of landing to steal his crops, it continued on its way until it disappeared in the distance.

Things were quiet for a while after that. But a few days later another odd stiff-winged bird flew overhead. Again he ran out to spook the bird, and again it continued on its unwavering path to the west. Later that night another odd bird flew by, lower this time. And again he made a ruckus to scare it away. Then another the next day. And another. Soon there were strange birds flying overhead almost every day.

Where were all these avian aggressors coming from? It soon dawned on him that they had only started appearing after the men built that concrete arrow in the meadow. It must be some sort of beacon to the birds, he reasoned. Surely the men must have been jealous of his fields- the best fields in the River Valley- and had put up the arrow to summon the monster birds to devour his grain. But Cucupha would not allow that. He began to spend more time at the concrete arrow, waiting for the birds to come so he could chase them away.

When the farmer noticed Cucupha wasn’t in the fields anymore, he put up a new, non-living scarecrow. This didn’t bother the old scarecrow, though. Now he could devote more time to chasing off the monster birds.

In time the farmer moved away and the fields were left fallow. Meadow grass moved in to replace the grain. But Cucupha never noticed. All that mattered to him now was keeping the strange birds away.

By now readers may have figured out that the strange birds were actually airplanes. In recent years, the River Valley Postal Service has started using these new technological marvels to transport mail across the continent. The only problem is the long trips are difficult to navigate. While pilots can guide themselves by landmarks on short voyages, it’s all too easy to get lost on the long journey from coast to coast. To help their pilots, the Postal Service has erected a series of large concrete arrows all across the country. The markers are large enough to see from the air, and some are even lit up at night with torches. You can learn more about the Postal Service Arrows here.




Monday, June 18, 2018

Podcast Review: Literary Wonder and Adventure Show


I found the Literary Wonder and Adventure podcast last year while searching for something to keep me company on a fossil-hunting trip to the Catskills. After listening to a few episodes I discovered that host Robert Zoltan and his snarky companion Edgar the raven make perfect travel companions.

Zoltan (who is also the show’s producer, writer, composer, sound-mixer, editor and a dozen other occupations) travels the multiverse with Edgar (who is, well, a black-feathered bird. Voiced by Zoltan. I’m sure he does other things too. Maybe ), in their dimension-hopping domicile, the Dream Tower, in quest of speculative fiction authors to interview.  Interview, though, may not be an accurate description,  because the show is more than simple question-and-answer.   Each episode is a full conversation with many asides and much meandering. But it is meandering in an interesting way, leading you places you might never have thought to look.  Zoltan and his guests discuss the art of writing speculative fiction, often via the works of classic authors like Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J. R. R. Tolkien, and more. They illuminate the lives of classic pulp and fantasy authors in ways that you might not have seen.

Zoltan’s guests also talk about their own writing and creative inspirations, which can become quite personal at times. I was especially drawn to author Scott Oden’s description of that timeless, almost child-like feeling of discovery one gets from the creative process. I also related all too well to his past struggles with dark feelings and how writing was a life raft in that tumultuous sea.  

I’m interested in the history of speculative fiction, so I also quite enjoyed Zoltan’s two-part conversation with author Allen Steele about the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Though SF has its roots in the works of Jules Verne, J.-H. Rosny,  H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and, one could argue, Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World), Steele suggests that the genre’s modern incarnation really began with Hugo Gernsback’s 1926 publication of Amazing Stories and fully crystallized with the 1939 issue of Astounding Stories, which featured some of the first stories from early SF legends like A. E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, C. L. Moore and others.

 As I drove through upstate New York in search of stromatolites and petrified Devonian trees, I felt as though I was listening to old friends having a scintillating conversation in the back seat.  The podcast’s format may not be for everyone, especially those looking for a typical Q & A, but it is greatly rewarding if you are a fan of more casual, discussion-format shows. Episodes warrant a second- and a third and fourth- listen to pick up and follow all the places Robert and his guests go.
Each installment is bookended with vignettes from Robert and Edgar’s latest adventure across the dimensions. In the course of the show, they’ve fended off vicious pterodactyls, tricked a revenge-seeking orc, dealt with a high-tech vacuum cleaner that has achieved inconvenient sentience and lived through even stranger oddities.

Zoltan spices the podcast with audio adventures, usually featuring his Leiberesque sword and sorcery rogues Dareon and Blue. These are fully realized productions brought to life with full sound effects and ambient music on par with classic radio dramas,. In their first adventure, Dareon and Blue tangle with a strange merchant and his eerie, sorcerously cerulean lamp. In their second outing, the pair protects a ship of traders on a journey through a sweltering river delta choked with mangroves, flies and dormant eldritch horrors.

The show’s theme song (composed and performed by Zoltan, of course. I doubt Edgar has the dexterity to work a synthesizer) is appropriately big and bombastic. It is the overture to a lone rider and horse galloping across the steppes to clash swords with a demon awakened from eons-long slumber in a forgotten tomb. Or perhaps it is the accompaniment to an Art Deco rocketship trailing fire as it launches from a Martian outpost to explore the star-dappled infinite night. Whatever it is, it’ll definitely get stuck in your head.


 Coming in at over an hour each episode, the Literary Wonder and Adventure Show is a great podcast for listening to on a long trip in quest of ancient sawtooth sharks (or any other type of quest, really), or while you’re writing, drawing or engaged in more esoteric creative pursuits.

You can find the Literary Wonder and Adventure Show at the Dream Tower Media website.

Episodes are also available on Youtube. On Itunes. Or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Colobops Noviportensis: A Triassic reptile from Connecticut with a powerful bite

My reconstruction of Colobops noviportensis, inspired by the Satanic Leaf-Tailed Gecko, Uroplatus phantasticus. And yes, that IS one of those "Silkhenge" spider egg structures (first discovered in the Amazon back in 2014) in the lower left.

Here's an article I wrote for the Spring issue of Tracks and Trails, the Dinosaur State Park newsletter.


The Triassic was a time of evolutionary experimentation. In the wake of the mass extinction at the end of the Permian that killed 90% of life on Earth, only a few unspecialized species remained.  As animals adapted to the vacant ecological niches, they evolved a staggering variety of unusual forms: vacuum cleaner-faced aquatic herbivores, fan-winged gliders, long-necked “living fishing poles” and many more. The Triassic creatures probably most familiar to Dinosaur State Park’s visitors are the crocodile-like phytosaurs and the giant flat-bodied amphibian metoposaurs. But these are only the most visible members of the strange Triassic fauna. The largest and flashiest creatures. Like our modern ecosystems, there was much more diversity on the small scale lurking in the low scrub along the river’s edge, scampering among the pine branches, burrowed under roots and in the mud. Case in point, the palm-sized Triassic lizard Colobops noviportensis which had a bite unique among reptiles both living and extinct.

Colobops- whose name means “shortened face” because of its small snout-  is known from a single mostly complete skull about 2.5 centimeters long found in a sandstone outcrop near Meriden, Connecticut. Initially discovered during roadwork in 1965, the fossil was not examined scientifically until 1993. At first, it was thought to be a distant relative of the New Zealand tuatara, but a re-examination this year made with a computer-generated 3-D scan of the skull placed it in the archosauromorpha, the group that eventually led to dinosaurs, birds, and crocodiles. Furthermore, Colobops is also thought to be one of the earliest members of the rhynchosaurs, an odd group of beaked herbivorous reptiles- though Colobops itself did not show signs of having had a beak.
The major features that make Colobops unique are its large jaw muscles called adductors. Though the muscles themselves have not fossilized, their size and strength can be inferred from the exaggerated size of the temporal fossae- the holes on the back of the skull behind the eyes that accommodated them (in humans, the temporal fossae are the depressions on the sides of the skull that run from the temples down under the cheekbones). Colobops’ adductors are, relative to its skull size, proportionately larger than those of any other known reptile, prehistoric or modern. This means that Colobops had- again relative to its size- a more powerful bite than any other Triassic reptile.
Another unusual feature of this creature is the tip of its snout which is reinforced with partially-overlapping nasal bones, a trait it shares with its larger rhynchosaur cousins. This toughened nose is also similar to the snout of the unrelated modern-day amphisbaena or legless lizard and thus may indicate some level of digging behavior in Colobops or at least an adaptation to frequent blunt force to the tip of its skull.

Since no teeth were preserved in the fossil, it’s not known exactly what Colobops ate. However, its unusual jaw adaptations suggest that it had a specialized diet rather than the generalist feeding habits of many modern small lizards. Perhaps it ate tough-shelled burrowing invertebrates. Or, if it was herbivorous like its larger rhynchosaur cousins, maybe it consumed small tubers and other tough plant parts.


While phytosaurs, metaposaurs and other odd megafauna may dominate our vision of Triassic Connecticut, Colobops and its unique jaw structure remind us that there were just as many unique animals lurking in the undergrowth, though much of their diversity has been hidden from us due to the dearth of good fossils.

REFERENCE








Monday, June 4, 2018

Review: Fauldon's Dream and the Karier of the Task by Enoch K. Enns


Mr. Fauldon is jobless and desperate (a situation many readers can relate to, I’m sure). While wandering the city streets trying to make ends meet, he comes across a curious shack offering employment. Nervous but hopeful, Mr. Fauldon steps inside and soon finds himself transported to the strange world of Euphora, tasked with the role of “carrier”- a job and title he won’t come to fully understand until late in his journey.

Mr. Fauldon is a passive character. Rather than taking decisive action, he typically allows things to happen to him instead. Any time he tries to question his circumstances, he is met with light mockery or dismissal by his apparently omniscient companion, Mr. Knowington. To a reader used to modern fantasy with active, decisive heroes this can feel odd, even tedious at times. But Fauldon’s passivity is clearly a very deliberate decision on Enns’ part rather than simply bad writing. The story seems to be an homage to Victorian-era adventure fiction in the spirit of H. Rider Haggard, where the protagonist was led on what amounted to a “sightseeing tour” of the strange world they ended up in. The reader is meant to focus not on Mr. Fauldon but on the lush, strange world of Euphora. And there is certainly plenty to see. There are mushroom people and golems made of fire, magic silk that can weave portals through the ground, playing cards enchanted with powerful, djinn-like beings, and many more, even odder things.

Enns’ writing style is deliberately anachronistic. It is at times ebullient, at times casual. There are shades of L. Frank Baum, E. R. Eddison, and James P. Blaylock’s more whimsical adventures. The author’s frequent asides throughout the story are reminiscent of Elizabethan-era plays, a resemblance that is further reinforced by the chapter titles which are all labeled by “scenes”.


In his afterword, Enns’ says that there are more adventures to come in the world of Euphora, so hopefully readers will be able to explore deeper into the stories of the characters we have seen so far. The writing style is definitely not for those looking for a typical modern fantasy or pulpy action adventure. But fans of Victorian and early-20th-century fantasy fiction will find much to enjoy in Fauldon’s Dream.

You can get a copy of Fauldon's Dream here.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Scarecrow Harvest Festival preview!

For the past few months, I've been writing and illustrating a book for my son.  He's super into all things spooky and Halloweeny, so this story is all about scarecrows. You may remember some of the sketches I posted a while ago, and the "Scarecrows I Have Known" blog (which is kind of hanging in limbo right now). I wanted each scarecrow in the story to have its own personality and backstory. Eventually, I plan to write up all those backgrounds into their own book with new illustrations. For now, though, I'm focusing on finishing this picture book in time for Halloween.

Here are a few preview pages. While the scarecrows themselves are finished, the background isn't final, though it gives you some idea of what the pages will look like.

 




And just for fun, here are some of the original doodles that these guys are based on.





I'll post more preview pages soon, along with background information and some of my inspirations and influences.