How a Vir­ginia-born artist brought world of Earth­sea to life

The Progress-Index - - AMUSEMENTS - By Emma Schkloven

ABINGDON — It took a year to draw the dragons.

"That was my orig­i­nal draw­ing, with big long hands, big long eyes, big mouth and all sorts of spiky things," mythic il­lus­tra­tor and Lynch­burg na­tive Charles Vess says, point­ing to var­i­ous parts of the dragon on his lap­top screen as he sits in his stu­dio one Oc­to­ber af­ter­noon.

The crea­ture in the hand-drawn sketch has a snake-like body that curves in a clas­sic s-shape, slanted eyes, a long, hinged jaw and talons for claws.

It looks ex­actly like what you'd pic­ture when you think of a dragon. But it wasn't the myth­i­cal be­ings renowned au­thor Ur­sula K. Le Guin imag­ined when she wrote her epic fan­tasy Earth­sea sto­ries.

Vess, 67, flips to another draw­ing, then another and another. It's al­most like ob­serv­ing the evo­lu­tion­ary process in a time-lapse video.

The body loses some of its rep­til­ian cur­va­ture, the talons shrink into claws and the crown of spikes atop its head curve at a less ag­gres­sive an­gle.

"The mouth has got­ten a lit­tle shorter and the eyes are a lit­tle more hu­man," Vess says.

It is this form of the dragon that ap­pears on the cover of "The Books of Earth­sea: The Com­plete Il­lus­trated Edi­tion," which was re­leased by Si­mon & Schus­ter im­print Saga Press.

An om­nibus that took four years to com­plete, the 1,000-page tome brings to­gether all of Le Guin's cel­e­brated Earth­sea works in one hard­back for the first time.

In be­tween the pages of the short sto­ries and nov­els rest more than 50 il­lus­tra­tions by Vess that bring the world of Earth­sea to life in one of the most vivid de­pic­tions in the works' half-cen­tury his­tory.

"He wanted to know what was in her mind's eye," says Theo Downes-Le Guin, the au­thor's son and lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor of her es­tate. "So, the re­sult is very much Charles Vess — there's no mis­tak­ing the art­work, but it is also very much my mother. And that's kind of per­fect."

A 1969 graduate of E.C. Glass High School, Vess broke into the in­dus­try through comic books, draw­ing for Marvel and DC Comics af­ter he grad­u­ated from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity in 1974.

De­spite the suc­cess they brought him, comics be­gan to lose their lus­ter for Vess by the late 1980s.

"Su­per­heroes solve their prob­lem by who has the biggest fist," Vess says. "I don't think in that kind of terms for life, and I don't want to draw those kinds of sto­ries."

The il­lus­tra­tor says he wanted more, and more came in the form of "Star­dust," a 1999 col­lab­o­ra­tion with au­thor Neil Gaiman that earned him his first World Fan­tasy Award in the artist cat­e­gory.

Vess, who has re­ceived numer­ous hon­ors in­clud­ing three Eis­ner Awards — widely de­scribed as the "Os­cars" of the comics in­dus­try — would go on to win again in 2010 and 2014.

"Star­dust" so­lid­i­fied Vess as one of the pre­miere il­lus­tra­tors of fan­tasy works.

From there, he drew for an all-star list of writ­ers in the genre, in­clud­ing Terri Win­dling, Charles de Lint, Su­sanna Clarke and Ge­orge R.R. Martin.

Though he's now of­ten re­ferred to as a fan­tasy artist, Vess says he prefers the term "mythic artist."

The word fan­tasy con­jures im­ages of knights in blood-soaked ar­mor bat­tling dragons, Vess says, some­thing sel­dom found in the il­lus­tra­tor's own sweep­ing land­scapes and fan­tas­ti­cal por­traits.

"One of the best things about mythic art or writ­ing is it's metaphors for life," Vess says.

That's why the il­lus­tra­tor fell in love with Le Guin's Earth­sea when he read the first novel "A Wizard of Earth­sea" as part of a chil­dren's lit­er­a­ture course at VCU in 1970.

Writ­ten in in­cre­ments over more than 50 years, the Earth­sea sto­ries, whose ac­co­lades in­clude a Newberry Honor and a Na­tional Book Award, chron­i­cle life on a fic­ti­tious archipelago where magic and dragons ex­ist.

Un­like so many in the genre, Le Guin's comin­gof-age tale de­scribes a dif­fer­ent kind of heroic jour­ney.

"She was very con­scious of the grey be­tween black and white and the idea that it's not good and evil," says Downes-Le Guin. "Good and evil are al­ways there, and it's the choices we make and the ac­tions we take that de­ter­mine our re­la­tion­ship to them."

Vess never dreamed of work­ing with the famed au­thor un­til his for­mer agent, Joe Monti, pitched him the idea of an Earth­sea an­thol­ogy.

The plan, he told Vess, was to re­lease it in 2018 in cel­e­bra­tion of the 50th an­niver­sary of the first novel, "A Wizard of Earth­sea."

"There are only two real edi­tions that have this in kind of a ubiq­ui­tous way," says Monti, the ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor of Saga Press. " . . . It's Tolkien, "Lord of the Rings," and it's Nar­nia, C.S. Lewis. I wanted Earth­sea to be part of that."

Con­vinc­ing Le Guin to go along with Saga's project hinged upon Monti choos­ing the right il­lus­tra­tor to tackle her world.

The au­thor, who had seen her racially and cul­tur­ally di­verse is­lands turned into a stereo­typic medieval king­dom in cover il­lus­tra­tions and adap­ta­tions, wanted to be com­pletely in­volved with the process.

This re­quest ce­mented Monti's de­ci­sion to nom­i­nate Vess, who he said knew how to col­lab­o­rate with writ­ers from his comic book days.

"One of the great things comics do is there's a di­a­logue be­tween the art and the script," Monti says. "They sup­port each other."

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