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Art as Play

November 29th, 2012

by Odera Igbokwe

I am a 90s baby (1990 to be exact). When I think back to my childhood, I have flashbacks of waking up at 6 am to watch episodes of Sailor Moon, X-Men: The Animated Series, and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Growing up, I would go through tons of videogames, anime, and other “nerdy” forms of entertainment. I was one of those kids you would find on message boards creating poorly drawn Final Fantasy fanart or sheepishly clogging the manga and comic book aisle of Barnes & Noble.

Yeyo: The Mother

Yeyo: The Mother

My sister (who is now a writer/performer/producer/BAMF) and I would ingest these stories to inspire our own narratives. We created dozens of games. Our favorite was “Alex & Samantha,” which paralleled our own lives, but in this world colors were a bit more vivid, magic was a bit more tangible. We even had our own doorbell that would melodically coo out our names. Alex and Samantha did everything from competing in Olympic Marathons, to preparing concert setlists, to experimenting with alchemy for our spells (that meant mixing our father’s cologne with flour, water, and cheap jewelry) .

I would tell “Samantha” that we had to save the world and harness our special abilities, and she would respond, “Yes, okay! But we can only save the world after going to class and practicing our dance routines.” Alex and Samantha were students, performers, magicians, and warriors. Any role was possible as long as we had our imagination. I didn’t realize it back then, but these were my earliest lessons in honing my craft as an artist. We were creative children to say the least, and our ability to play has kept our sense of wonder alive to this very day.

Erykah Badu

Erykah Badu

In recent years, I find myself exploring the same characters I used to worship as a child, and asking why I was so drawn to them. These characters were usually strong women, mystical children, or those who were underrepresented and oppressed. They were all different faces of the same story—of the same hero (or let’s be real here: of the same diva) .

Lately, my childhood “diva worship” has evolved into a full-blown exploration of contemporary mythmaking. With my illustrations, I love exploring classic archetypal characters and ancient mythologies. However, I am most excited when I start to unearth my own personal mythology by finding new faces within old archetypes.

I Was Here - World Humanitarian Day 2012

I Was Here – World Humanitarian Day 2012

These new faces allow me to define and reclaim different pieces of my identity. It is as though I am meeting myself at the gates of the spirit realm to unravel my mythopoeic self. In this realm there are tons of characters living in a vast nebula of creativity and wonder. They are simply waiting to appear in this reality. So the physical process of creating new work is the crafting, stirring, and molding of this nebula to form new stars, constellations, and galaxies.

When it comes to the actual physical process of creating new illustrations, I have a very systematic approach to sort out the chaos. Typically I start by collecting reference images and doing stream-of-conscious sketches. These sketches are very loose, and are mostly about motion and raw visceral energy. It is akin to freestyle dancing or authentic movement where I allow myself to just move and live on the page free of judgment. Then I create thumbnails based on those nebulous scribbles. When I find a thumbnail that works well, I create a more refined sketch. From there I work on the value structure, and then move onto color. As the image becomes more refined, I allow myself to play with parts of the image through detailing, noodling, and really dancing throughout the picture plane. So essentially the process is a journey that allows me to go full circle.

All of the wonder and curiosity from my childhood is the root of my inspiration. Many years have passed since those days of running around the house shirtless while yelling different incantations and spells. But I still find myself playing, and allowing my wonder to steer me into imaginative worlds.

About the Guest Author

Odera Igbokwe


Odera Igbokwe

Odera is a recent alumnus of Rhode Island School of Design (Class of 2012). As an illustrator and performance artist, Odera explores storytelling through color, mythology, African dance, and of course, divas. With his degree and diverse skillset he hopes to create interdisciplinary work that addresses the sacred and assists in unlocking the mythopoeic self. When Odera is not exploring the spirit realm, he is busy saving the world as a contemporary Sailor Scout or furthering his knowledge in Beyoncé Studies.

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Not Your Ordinary Sweetest Day

October 25th, 2012

by Brady Allen

I can’t plot out my short stories ahead of time; I like to discover them as I write. Just start with an image and see where it goes. That, for me, is what makes writing wondrous.

Wonder is generally seen as a good thing, of course, though some of it is threatening and dark, and I reckon there are only some of us who can’t help but search for it, darkness, and wonder at it.

I see darkness in a look one student gives another in class when I’m teaching; in the grocery store when some gal tries to get a green avocado near the bottom and sends the whole pile tumbling to the floor; in the shoes tossed over the phone lines and the birds that sit next to them; in the man selling flowers on the street corner on Sweetest Day; in an apparently empty rowboat, or high school band concert, or a can of Silly String, or even a family having a picnic to celebrate the Goodness of the Good in the Good, Good World. Even in a sweet comment my four-year-old daughter makes, and in a bumper sticker that says, “My daughter the honors student can kick your football player’s ass” (okay, I’ve never seen this one, but I’ve always wanted it).

I’m far from a worrywart about myself or things related to me. In fact, I’m probably just a bit too irreverent and unconcerned. But I worry about those closest to me, like my aging parents, and, of course, first and foremost, my two daughters. So, the answer here about how wonder, and more importantly darkness, are part of my creative process, well. . . .

This is far from being my original thought, and Ray Bradbury probably put it better many times, but, consider this: wonder comes with remembering what it was like to be a kid. Kids have a childhood full of “whys” and “hows”: Why does the moon change shapes? Why do we have eyebrows? Why does pencil lead stick to paper? (The last being a question from my teenage daughter when she was in pre-school—she was the master of the Stump-Daddy Question.)

As we get older, we have to keep the why/how part of us but also let it blossom into the “what if” stage. This is where invention comes in, how we progress and adapt and evolve. It’s also how we start to worry, and how we cause ourselves to have to face the darkness, the Unknown, if you will. What if ________, whom I love dearly, gets sick, gets hurt, disappears, or, God forbid, dies?

For fiction writers, especially speculative fiction writers, our job is in the equally maligned and loved What-if Business. Those folks who don’t write, or at least read, fiction may not understand. Those of us who like to write and/or read dark fantasy fiction, or horror fiction as we should call it unless we’re afraid of the stigma, well, our what-ifs tend to be the kind that make some folks shy away, I reckon. You see, I believe that what-ifs are further probes toward honesty. If hows and whys lead to “facts,” what-ifs lead toward deeper exploration, something beyond facts: truths.

If facts deal with science and logic, truths deal with what it’s like to be complex, sometimes disturbed, confused organisms called humans. So truths deal with humanity beyond a biological level. These truths are in the darkness, they are the Unknown, and that’s what we’re striving for.

Fiction is all a big humpin’ WHAT IF.

What if one of my students has noticed a tiny, hairy, naked woman climbing behind another student’s ear while carrying a spear? What if the gal who dumped the avocados all over the floor leaves them there, and then me and the other shoppers find her in another aisle later and she is trapped, her face in a silent scream just beneath the surface of a newly sprouted but already dead-looking avocado tree in the cereal aisle? What if the birds are the ones that steal shoes and string them over power lines? What if the Sweetest Day flower salesman has a thorny rose where his penis should be? What if worms fill the bottom of the rowboat, and they have teeth and someone desperately needs to get off the shore? What if a fire alarm sounds during the school band concert, the auditorium is evacuated, and the firefighters and rescue squad go on an ax-murdering rampage?

What if?

The wonder is in the form of imagination for the writer. And imagination can only come from memory. We draw upon things in our mind already and put them together in new ways. No one could have written about a flying ship . . . if a ship and knowledge of flying were not already there in the ol’ brain, in other words. And dark fiction likes to work in fantastic imagery, which often serves intentionally or unintentionally as metaphor.

The tiny, hairy, spear-carrying woman might stand for jealousy. The face in the avocado tree might represent selfishness. The shoe-stealing birds might stand for mankind’s inadequacies. And the flower peddler’s anatomy might represent greed or secret lust.

Wonder for me—dark wonder, so often in my work—is in saying, in wondering, “What’s the story behind that?” Going from the concrete, which is the literal imagery in the story, to the abstract, which is, really, theme.

It’s in seeing and showing the world in vivid detail and in discovering what humanity’s place is in it by witnessing human struggle. And in knowing that if you see Silly String scattered and sprayed all around the end of someone’s driveway and mailbox, it surely has to do with a mail carrier who is struggling desperately in his relationship with a rodeo clown who is haunted by dreams of a psychic bull that can predict the immediate future.

About the Guest Author

Brady Allen


Brady Allen

Brady Allen is the author of Back Roads and Frontal Lobes, a collection of 23 tales in the genres of horror, crime, the road story, soft sci-fi, dark fantasy, surrealism, existentialism, the weird tale, and even some plain ol’ realism. He has published numerous short stories in magazines, journals, and anthologies in the U.S, England, and Ireland and has received honorable mentions for a couple of them in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror volumes from St. Martin’s Press, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship in fiction from the Ohio Arts Council for three others. He loves Reds baseball on a transistor radio, and the sound of a train in the still of the night calls to him. Allen teaches writing at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and lives in Dayton with his two daughters.

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Uncharted Vistas

September 20th, 2012

by James L. Sutter

I love traveling to new worlds.

I realize what an obvious statement that is for a speculative fiction author, and even more so given that my day job is working to build the setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. But it’s true nonetheless. With both literature and visual art, I’m constantly hungry for media that will show me landscapes I’ve never seen before—alien worlds, bizarre cities, ancient ruins, heaven- and hellscapes, and other visions of impossible or impossibly distant places.

Aït Benhaddou by Jerzy Strzelecki

Aït Benhaddou by Jerzy Strzelecki.

In truth, the landscapes don’t even need to be all that different—for instance, my zombie love story “The Long Road to the Sea” (now a free podcast on Pseudopod) came from childhood vacations in the dry hills of eastern Washington and imagining how little they might change after the apocalypse. National Geographic’s photos of places like Aït Benhaddou, Machu Picchu, monasteries in Tibet, or crumbling lake castles in Europe all fire that same sense of the exotic and fantastical.

But more often, I’m captivated by vistas of worlds fundamentally different from our own. I’m especially a sucker for landscapes that have unusual architecture in them—futuristic cities, mysterious castles, and alien ruins all immediately spark the sorts of questions that only stories can answer: Who built them? Why? Are they still in use, forgotten, or actively taboo? In my case, the old saying that “a picture’s worth a thousand words” is fairly literal.

Artists—especially concept artists—who can paint intricate and alien structures fascinate me, and I can study their work for hours. And filmmakers like Peter Jackson will always be able to take my money because, regardless of the story they’re telling, I’ll happily sit and look at a city like Minas Tirith or Gondor’s mountaintop signal fires until the special effects budget runs out. (While the Lord of the Rings trilogy is objectively awesome, I’m also perfectly happy to watch bad SF as long as they’ve got good art direction.)

My Wife's Mural

My wife’s mural

I think part of what’s so inspiring to me about landscapes and architecture is that I’m fundamentally wired for language. As I suspect is true for many folks reading this site, it’s difficult for me to even think without language—I’ve got a constant narration running inside my skull. When I stumble across artists who are able to create worlds visually, to pull them full-formed from their heads without relying on the observer’s imagination to fill in the details the way a writer has to, it’s something I have no personal experience with, and thus far more magical. So deep is my love of fantasy landscapes that my wife is currently in the process of painting one across the entirety of our bedroom wall.

I can’t draw or paint, but when I write, it’s often that same effect I’m trying to capture. Thus, when I sat down to plan out Death’s Heretic, my first novel, I knew I wanted to visit a bunch of very different fantasy worlds. The story that evolved—an atheist forced to work against his will for the goddess of death, tracking down a missing soul—allowed me to go to all sorts of different planes of the afterlife, from the seat of judgment for departed souls to bizarre cities full of robots and monsters, fairy dimensions, the plane of chaos, and so on. All because I knew that, if nothing else, the chance to describe those profoundly different landscapes and bizarre sights would keep me interested.

Fortunately, it seems I’m not alone in my predilections. Because really, if we didn’t all want to visit different worlds, why would we be reading SF in the first place?

Some of my favorite fantastical landscapes:




About the Guest Author

James L. Sutter


James L. Sutter

Fiction editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, James L. Sutter’s novel Death’s Heretic ranked #3 on B&N’s Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Escape Pod, Podcastle, Starship Sofa, and Pseudopod. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published stories by speculative fiction greats with new commentary by the authors themselves. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three roommates, and a fully functional death ray.

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The Virtual Real

August 23rd, 2012

by Lawrence C. Connolly

I am inspired by the curvature of space. Not necessarily by the vast, physical manner that Einstein postulated early in the last century, but in a more personal, immediately perceivable way. There is something in each of us that allows (and sometimes forces) us to bend the hard-edged realities that we move through and interact with every day.

Fred Astair--ROYAL WEDDING

Surely you’ve experienced this. Fall in love, and the world seems brighter. Smells intensify. The most mundane things become wondrous, and the world’s ugliness melts away. This is the condition that philosopher Slavoj Žižek refers to as the virtual real. It’s what gives Fred Astaire the ability to dance on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, and if you haven’t experience it at least once, you need to get out more often.

The converse happens when we experience pain, whether physical or emotional. On painful days, reality curves like a funhouse mirror, distorting our perceptions so that the ugly things of life become disproportionally large, and beauty and joy shrink or vanish altogether.

I’ve written about such things in a number of stories and novels, and it seems to me that such magical transformations lie at the core of all fantasy—whether it is the kind we encounter in our daily lives or in the worlds of fiction. Thus, when Fantasist Enterprises asked me to ponder where I encounter magic in my daily life, I began wondering where it was that I first realized that my sense of wonder is rooted in the real. That’s the nice thing about writing prompts. They help you discover things you don’t know you know, and I’ve evidently known about the virtual real for quite a while.

Here’s a story.

Levittown, Pennsylvania.

Aerial view of suburban Levittown, Pennsylvania.

I’m nine years old and living in Levittown, Pennsylvania, sitting around with my friends Tommy and Tommy. We’re sitting on the sidewalk outside one of our houses. It doesn’t matter whose house because the houses are all the same in Levittown, just as all the mothers and fathers and siblings and pets are all the same. Just like Tommy and Tommy are the same. There’s not much variety or excitement in that ticky-tacky town circa 1960, but there are Popsicle sticks, and if you rub them just right you can turn them into swords.

We used to chase each other all over the neighborhood with those sharpened sticks, playing Count of Monte Cristo, poking and parrying and pretty much ignoring our moms when they shouted: “You kids are going to jab your eyes out.” We knew that couldn’t happen. Nothing like that ever happened in Levittown. At least, we never imagined it could, and that counted for a lot. See, we lived in a world of imagination.

Here’s another.

TV

Television in the late ’50s and early ’60s was a lot more interactive than it is now. These days, it’s all there for you in a million pixels. Back then, an old black-and-white cathode-ray set with a pair of rabbit-ear antennae was more like radio than television. You couldn’t see for crap when the reception was good. And when it was bad, say when an airplane was going over the house or someone was running a vacuum cleaner, all you got was static.

To give you an idea how bad it was, one of my Tommy friends used to play superman by stripping down to his underpants, tying a sheet around his neck, and drawing an S on his bare chest. I can still hear his mother shouting: “Get in here before you get arrested!”

Back then, I remember thinking that the costume looked pretty authentic. Later, I was surprised to learn that George Reeves had actually been wearing a unitard (a wrinkled one at that), and that the big bullet-repelling S on his pecs was not tattooed directly onto his skin. Somehow, realizing that made him a bit less super.

Likewise, it was years before I really knew what Godzilla or King Kong were supposed to look like, and then I was amazed to discover that the images I’d imagined were so much better, richer, than the ones that were actually in the movies.

So how do these things play into my creative process?

I suppose it’s that my friends and I learned early on to find wonder in sticks and static. We learned that the things we could create on our own were as good as or better than the ready-made wonders the world served up. Knowing that set me on the course to being a guy who bends reality and writes stories.

What awakens my wonder? That’s easy. It’s knowing that I have the ability and license to transform the ordinary.

It’s imagination.

About the Guest Author

Lawrence C. Connolly


Lawrence C. Connolly

Lawrence C. Connolly’s books include the novels Veins (2008) and Vipers (2010), the first two books of the Veins Cycle. Vortex, the third book in the series, is due to be released in 2013. His collections, which include Visions (2009), This Way to Egress (2010), and Voices (2011), collect his stories from Amazing Stories, Cemetery Dance, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Twilight Zone, and Year’s Best Horror.

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VOICES CoverVISIONS CoverVEINS CoverVIPERS Cover