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Heroes and Villains, Utopias and Dystopias--thank you, Victoria Craven

Victoria Craven died on May 25th, 2021, after a years-long, withering battle with cancer. She was the founder of Monacelli Studio, part of The Monacelli Press. In 2014, I pitched her a book about drawing sci-fi utopias and dystopias. After various discussions and bouts of pitch-tweaking, How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias began to take shape. In December of 2016, after a year of pretty intense and very fun work, the book was published.

Left: Victoria Craven.

Working with Victoria was a cool, pure breeze. All of her ideas and suggestions were right on the money--not least of which was bringing in Jennifer K. Beal Davis to design the book. Jennifer's design flair, sense of composition and choice of fonts made the book special in a way it simply wouldn't have otherwise been.

The last time I saw Victoria in person was at the launch party for the book, at Jake's Dilemma in New York City. She was standing behind a table selling copies with a Square credit card reader, content as ever to play the anonymous support person. But she had made the whole thing possible. I remember telling her at the end of the night that I hoped we could do it all again some day--I didn't really expect that to happen; my default assumption is that every time I work it's the last time (luckily I've been wrong about that so far).

Cut to the middle of 2020, in the thick of covid--Victoria contacts me about pitching something new to Monacelli Studio, which in the intervening time has been acquired by Phaidon. I was of course delighted at the prospect of working with her again, and at the prospect of another year of drawing sci-fi material, which is all the 12 year-old in my 50-something year-old skull ever really wants to do anyway. We had a couple of zoom chats, and then I had one with Phaidon publisher Philip Ruppel, and I did a couple preliminary pitches--and then several months of silence. Which didn't phase me, because I've gotten used to the fact that things move at a glacial pace in the world of publishing. And then I learned--I believe from Philip--that Victoria had died. I was stunned and saddened; I knew Victoria had had cancer, but last she'd mentioned it was in remission--she was back at work, and I had assumed that was that. She was only 62.

A few more months passed, and then I was introduced to Victoria's successor (I say successor--Victoria could not have a replacement): Carla Sakamoto. Carla is young, smart, enthusiastic--but seemed demanding and persnickety in a way Victoria hadn't been. She had me do multiple revisions to the pitch--which morphed from version to version from being a very simple guide for 6 to 8 year-olds to being a straight-up sequel to 'Utopias and Dystopias' (only with a concentration on drawing characters, and for a slightly younger audience). Finally I understood why she was having me jump through these hoops--she presented the final pitch to the board at Monacelli/Phaidon, and it breezed right through. She had known to front-load all the pitch-tweaking, in order to get a painless and immediate approval. From then on I trusted Carla implicitly, and I'm glad I did; her every instinct was also right on target. She also recruited Jennifer Beal Davis, and the two of them fretted, mother hen-style, over every aspect of the book.

How to Draw Sci-fi Heroes and Villains was published on April 26, 2023. Thank you Carla, and thank you Victoria. The book is dedicated to Victoria, and to my late mother Betty Ray Wiseman, who took me see Westworld in its first theatrical run in 1973, and in so doing sparked my lifelong preoccupation with science fiction.

The book is a sequel but also an equal--even though all the art in it was composed over only 7 months (the 7 most busy and intense months of my entire professional life). Like its predecessor, it's over 200 pages long, and broken into multiple chapters filled with demos and tutorials. But I needed an angle to make it stand apart from the first book, and over the course of all those pitch tweaks Carla and I had settled on the concept of teams. As a result the book not only blathers on about how to draw, but presents the histories of two isomorphic teams of characters: The Alpha Union and The Omega Legion. The Alpha Union are a team of 9 good guys (heroes) from the distant future of our own universe. The Omega Legion are a team of 9 bad guys (villains)--the Alpha Union's counterparts from a parallel but negative universe (drawing on a narrative conceit first introduced in an episode of the original Star Trek!).



So: I had 18 characters in toto to create and design, and I decided to draw on/exploit a bunch of different approaches in sci-fi and pop culture generally to do so. Here's some examples:

Phosphorus, of The Alpha Union. The callow youth, eager for adventure and wanting to prove himself, very much the classic sci-fi whiz kid in the spirit of Flash Gordon.

And HESPERUS, of The Omega Legion, Phosphorus' villainous parallel universe counterpart. A ninja fighting machine, tricked out with sci-fi bling.

AURORA, of The Alpha Union. Phosphorus' twin sister--the sci-fi It-girl. A heroine, yes, but one who does her shopping at Sephora and Urban Outfitters.

PENUMBRA, of The Omega Legion. Hesperus' twin sister, dark counterpart of Aurora. Rather in the spirit of Harley Quinn--a damaged, disturbed, mace-wielding, telepathic psychological vampire.

HYPERION, co-leader of The Alpha Union. Father of Phosphorus and Aurora. Very much the superhero right out of central casting, right down to the cape.

CIMMERIAN, father of Hesperus and Penumbra, dark counterpart of Hyperion, tyrannical leader of The Omega Legion. Sword-wielding warlord, modelled on Mongolian warriors.

NADIR--Cimmerian's chief enforcer. A re-purposed military weapon, in the tradition of the dangerous robots one might see in The Terminator or Matrix franchises.

And the lovable LAMBENT of The Alpha Union. A caffeine-supercharged all-around mechanic, the result of a little-known coupling of Chewbacca and Totoro.

That's just a sampling of what's in the book--what a happy time I had working on it. Thank you, Carla Sakamoto, for deftly shepherding me through 7 stressful months, and for caring about every last detail as much as you did.

And thank you Victoria Craven--for making it possible in the first place.

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