Welcome back to Jewels of Apator, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer's column about the intersection of art and the fantastic. Three-time Hugo Award winner Frank Wu isn’t much interested in boring old reality — that’s clear from his kinetic, psychedelically surreal artwork, which uses bold, sometimes delightfully lurid, color choices and an aggressive approach to subject matter. Wu never met pulp or pop culture he didn’t like, and this provides the basic fodder for his energetic, ever-roving vision. From his stunning Elvissaurus to a rendering of Cthulhu that uses a vibrant selection of greens-and-pinks, Wu has a restless eye that requires conveying the idea of motion, of life, as you can see from our gallery below.
“Harlan Ellison’s story ‘“Repent, Harlequin!”’ Said the Ticktockman’ was (and is) a favorite story,” Wu says, not surprisingly. “It has this vision of a futuristic city, all regimented, people on moving sidewalks like Twinkies on conveyor belts in a Twinkie factory. And then — suddenly! — this trickster dumps jelly beans — jelly beans! — by the thousands and millions, into the gear works. All these colors and flavors raining down from on high, making everyone laugh and giggle and hoot like children. It gums up the gears and throws everything off schedule — but for the first time in ages, it makes people feel alive. That’s what I want to do with my art, my writing, my life — help people feel alive.”
Wu says that some of his artwork springs from “finding a weird connection between two seemingly disparate things. Example: H.P. Lovecraft wrote these horror stories about Cthulhu, who’s a squid-headed demon-god, the ultimate evil... And then there are cats. And if you’ve ever lived with someone else’s cats, you know that, despite their irresistibly cute behaviors, they can be messy, lazy, self-indulgent, dangerous, vicious little nuggets of evil. Thus, I bring you... CATHULHU! You have no idea what a thrill it is to bring that piece to sci-fi conventions and show furries in full-on cat costumes and have them laugh and give me a thumbs up. That’s the best. Makes everyone happy. “That’s what I want to do. Another example: Once I mentioned on my blog that there was LOLspeak version of the Holy Bible. So the part in Matthew about the Devil tempting Jesus becomes something like: Basement Cat tuke Jebus to teh mountain, n showd Jebus all teh orsumness of teh wrld, srly.’ N sed, ‘All da base r belong 2 u if u am mai BFF, kthx.’ But Jebus sed, ‘STFU Basement Cat, R U DUM. Ceiling Cat am mai BFF cuz he am teh 1337!’ Den Basement cat wuz pwnd....This LOLBible is the craziest thing, like a jellybean from the sky, and after I blogged about it, I got the best comment evar: ‘You give me the will to go on, Frank Wu!’ And that’s the best reason to create stuff.” It should come as little surprise, then, that Wu’s art is “purposefully eclectic—people have told me that they wouldn’t have known all these pieces are done by the same hand unless I had told them. Led Zeppelin took influences from multiple sources — folk, reggae, blues, heavy metal, middle-eastern music. I want to do the same, because you never know what art style will be appropriate for what text. I don’t do the same style for every story. One story by James Van Pelt was more bucolic, so the style of Julia Margaret Cameron’s old photographs worked. But if I’m doing dinosaurs playing guitar, then a style like glam rock or Abba concerts is better. I love all sorts of art—da Vinci and Michelangelo, and the nameless artisans who churn out faux icons for tourists at the base of Greek monasteries. I did the cover for the Klingon translation of the Tao Te Ching, and I borrowed the style of ancient Chinese landscape artists like Meng Chiao.” On the SF side, Wu has “run the official Frank R. Paul website for ages. He essentially invented sci-fi magazine art in the 1920s — he was the first guy to ever paint a flying saucer, first guy to paint a space station, the first guy to ever make a living drawing spaceships. Think about that. At a time when the world was shocked that a guy could fly solo across the Atlantic, at a time when most Americans didn’t own a telephone or a flush toilet, he was painting covers with spaceships that could traverse the galaxies. Wow.” Wu admits that his hyper-enthusiasm for almost everything he does has its downsides. “Sometimes I defeat myself. I get so psyched up about doing an acrylic painting that I rush through it. And voila! It’s done. I scan it and email it to the editor, who loves it and then sends it off for printing. Then I look at it again a couple days later and realize... oh, it wasn’t really done after all.” He also wishes he received more book cover assignments that included “spaceships, robots and aliens. That’s why I got into this field in the first place. Why I loved crappy old TV shows like Lost in Space and Thunderbirds and even that craptacular suckfest The Starlost. The stories and dialog and acting sucked, but my gosh the spaceships, robots and aliens were magnificent!... Where the freakin’ monsters at [these days]? Gimme some drooling tentacular horrific monstrosities, baby! When was the last time someone wrote a novel starring a cool-looking robot? Somebody, anyone, quick, write me up a novel wherein the world splits open and nasty ickalicious alien jaws of doom with big T. Rex teeth rise up from pools of boiling hot magma ringed by rows of human skulls, with techno-dinosaurs with freakin’ lasers on their freakin’ heads jumping around fighting... I dunno... polars bears of death with numchucks and laser-cannons! I’ll do THAT for ya. It’d be awesome.” Currently, Wu is spending a lot of time, as one does, working on a film about a giant space chicken... Frank Wu on His Giant Space Chicken:
Last year I unleashed upon the unsuspecting world the Director’s Cut of my animated short, “The Tragical Historie of Guidolon, the Giant Space Chicken.” It’s about a giant space chicken making a movie about a giant space chicken. He has delusions of grandeur — he thinks he’s a Shakespearean tragic hero, when really he’s just a giant space chicken. His girlfriend Trisuron is a giant space Triceratops and his pals are a giant space jellyfish and a giant space octopus. Together they destroy cities and make movies. And now we’re expanding that ten-minute short into a full-length animated movie. The short was hand-drawn, but there were a lot of flaws. The characters didn’t move as smoothly as we wanted, and there were inconsistencies in their look from scene to scene. So that’s where computers come in. Instead of hand-drawing frames, we’re making 3D computer models of the characters. We had no intention of competing with Pixar —which is impossible — so we’re using a process called “cel shading” or “toon shading.” This is what they do in “Futurama” whenever they show the spaceship or a cityscape. These are all 3D models that are then squashed down, with just the outlines and a few other lines and solid blocks of color without shading. They look hand-drawn (the characters themselves are hand-drawn). We’re going to do something similar — 3D animates the main characters, and then hand-drawn some minor characters and all the backgrounds. (At this point I should give a shout-out to some of the people who are actually doing this work at my direction: Jonah Gray, the main animator, Shon Mitchell, who’s making some of the models, Suzanne Rachel Forbes, who’s done a ton of art, and Brianna, who’s the technical wizard and director’s confidante.) The whole film is incredibly time-consuming, and I pretty much expect to be working on it just about every day for a looong time. But I’m hoping that in three years or so, everybody reading this will be able to enjoy on a screen (big or little, we don’t know) the new adventures of Guidolon, the giant space chicken! [Frank Wu]