Fantagraphics Looses the Beasts Again

In last year's "Beasts," Fantagraphics editor Jacob Covey compiled an illustrated encyclopedia of cryptozoological curiosities. Apparently, the Chupacabra has a big family, as Covey is back this year with a collection of that book and a brand new book of more than 90 new beasts.

The editor's brought along an entirely new slate of cartoonists, including notables Blex Bolex, Craig Thompson, Dash Shaw, David B., Ellen Forney, Femke Hiemstra, Jaime Hernandez, Kim Deitch, Lilli Carre, Paul Hornschemeier, Peter Bagge, Ray Fenwick, and Yuko Shimizu, each contributing a full-page illustration.

CBR News spoke with Covey and Hiemstra, one of the book's international artists, about thee new "Beasts" and the hunt for cryptids.

CBR: What's more challenging, finding beasts or artists to include in the books?

Jacob Covey: There is no dearth of human imagination and therefore neither is difficult. Trimming the list of both is the difficult part.

What was the original impetus of the first "Beasts?"

JC: Primarily, the first book was born out of my curiosity about this mysterious world of creatures that very few people have reported seeing and yet some people in the historical record have sincerely believed in. I can't say that I try to force the reader to delve into this beyond the enjoyment of monsters depicted by amazing illustrators, but I contacted all these artists for selfish reasons -- I would like to find the parallels in artistic expression and the study of alchemy or the faith of religious belief to get some understanding about the stories behind unicorns and fetus-eating-ghouls. There's something more significant to these often-ridiculous creatures. That's also why I pursued interviews with a sober-minded scientist alongside a passionate hunter of werewolves.

When the first "Beasts" came out, was there already a plan to do another? Did the book sell well enough that you saw the market calling for another?

JC: The first book simply sold out immediately. Then the second printing did. Rather than keep reprinting it, I saw an opportunity to find more artists to depict more beasts. Any other publisher would have just done a third printing, but Fantagraphics decided to do another volume.

Do you give much guidance to artists, or just tell them to have fun?

JC: The artists have free rein to do their best work. I gave zero guidance and restricted nothing. There are, admittedly, a few pieces that may be weak representations of the artist but mostly they really did just get inspired and do some of their finest pieces by being trusted to do so.

Editorially, how do you mix the sort of funny/goofy aspect of "Beasts" with simultaneously trying to create a somewhat serious catalog of cryptozoology?

JC: I'm way more interested in the sincere parts of this book than the obvious humor. Still, this isn't really a catalog of cryptozoology in that I doubt many people these days are arguing that there is a mammal out there that is an incarnate of Afterbirth, a bloody placenta that wreaks havoc. Nor is it meant to easily dismiss that myth (of the Kekkai) as a preposterous relic of ancient civilization. I'm not sure if the writers and I succeed at straddling that line but that would be my goal. I do want people to think about a time when science didn't explain away every anxiety and every bit of mystery in our lives. Science has replaced mythology and that's worth some pause.

Are there any creatures in either "Beasts" book that you believe to exist or to have existed?

JC: I don't have an opinion on whether they exist -- somebody believed in them and I've sought to preserve them through the eyes of these artists. Certainly most of them don't exist in some literal form, but I'm trying to read "Beasts" with new eyes all the time.

Femke, how did you get connected to the project? Have you worked with Fantagraphics before?

Femke Hiemstra: I knew Fantagraphics as a publisher of comics and the great "Blab" series, but I did not know them personally. Jacob asked me to join in, and since I was familiar with the first book and knew how fabulous it was designed with huge respect for the illustrations, I immediately said yes.

How did you pick your beast, or was one assigned to you?

FH: I got the list of available stories and picking one out was tough. I liked a lot of them! I narrowed it down to five favorites and decided to go for the unexpected one: the Japanese mountain woman. The other four already sounded a lot like my own works/stories. I wanted to do something different. No animal or strange creature but a human form.

How much research did you do for the artwork? Is there much visual reference out there for cryptids?

FH: When I read the story provided by Jacob, I thought of the mountain woman as a young but creepy Japanese beauty in a lovely kimono. But when I did my research I found out that the 'Yama-uba' was actually an old hag in rags. I hesitated; do I change her appearance or do I stick to her original form? I could have taken the artistic freedom to make her young and pretty but I choose to go with the latter. I wanted to do something different in the first place so I gave the "old version" a go.

To get in the mood, I searched books on old Japanese art for landscapes and typical Japanese touches. I love to put details in my work that go with a main concept. Small, cryptic stuff. But the more typical details I sketched, the older the atmosphere of the drawing got. For example: first I had this little Hokusai-like man with straw hat in front of the mountain woman, but it didn't fit. I changed him into a cat, which I felt worked better. It gave the image a modern touch, made it a little bit more "kawaii." It also made it more sad, even poor little kitties are not safe from the gruesome mountain woman.

I gave the demon the outfit and a hairdo much like a geisha would have. In one old Hokusai drawing. she's almost naked with only a straw skirt to cover herself. My mountain woman also shows some skin, her cheeks are peeping out of her kimono. If you're going to be eaten by a female demon at least it's a half naked one.

This sort of content must be pretty fun, as an artist.

FH: Yes, it was great. At the time I just finished my first solo show, and I was dead tired. I had to focus on my own stories for months. Doing the mountain woman was something different, almost relaxing. I had much fun researching and drawing the piece. And sure, I wanted to be part of this club. I loved the first book, now I could be a part of the second one.

Do you have any other projects coming out or in development?

FH: I'm thrilled to announce that Fantagraphics will also be the publishers of my first book about my art and illustration work, called "Rock Candy." It will be available next year. Right now, I just finished a piece for a group show at Copro Nason and I'm also working on a new website where I will present some new print series (including the mountain woman piece).

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