Monday, March 17, 2014

The Book of Conquests

'The Book of Conquests' by Jim Fitzpatrick

The English artist Barry Smith (he later adopted the surname Windsor-Smith) began working for Marvel comics in 1969, providing artwork for issue 53 of 'X-Men'. In October 1970, the first issue of 'Conan the Barbarian' was released, with Smith as the artist. 

Within a matter of month's, Smith's artwork for 'Conan' had adopted an ornate, intricate tenor that mingled Pre-Raphaelite art, and Art Deco, with the styles of the great illustrators of children's books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, and Walter Crane. 

There was nothing else like it in any comic book from any publisher, and there was nothing like it in the world of commercial illustration, which at that time was mired in Modern Art approaches, as exemplified by work of illustrators like LeRoy Neiman (the pseudonym of Leroy Leslie Runquist) and Murray Tinkelman.  

Smith's artwork for 'Conan'  revolutionized illustration, and laid the commercial groundwork for a new generation of young illustrators, like Jeff Jones, William Michael Kaluta, and Berni Wrightson, who modeled their craft on that of 19th century British and American artists and illustrators.

One of the artists who belongs in the category of the above-named artists, is the self-taught Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick did album covers for a number of bands in the 70s and 80s; among his most memorable works are the album covers for the band Thin Lizzy, including  'Jailbreak' (1976) and 'Johnny the Fox' (1976).

Fitzpatrick's most famous piece of artwork is his two-tone silkscreen image of Alberto Korda's photograph of the Argentinian revolutionary, Che Guevara, whom Fitzpatrick met while working as a hotel barman in Killkee, County Clare, in 1962. [I was surprised to learn that Guevara's mother was Irish ?!]

In 1978 UK publisher Paper Tiger published 'The Book of Conquests', Fitzpatrick's illustrated re-telling of old Celtic myths: The Story of Tuan; The Coming of the Tuatha de Danann; and The First Battle of Moy Tura. 

These ancient tales circulated in oral form for centuries before first being recorded on paper  ca. 1100. They relate the conflict between two tribes - the Fir Bolg, and the Tuatha de Danann - over Ireland.

Negotiating  the Gaelic proper nouns is not easy, and the narrative has the stilted syntax that frequently marks translations of ancient writings. However, Fitzpatrick's artwork is what 'The Book of Conquests' is really all about.

Every page is embroidered with intricate illustrations of Celtic knotwork and calligraphy. Then there are the depictions of various events, involving heroes and battles, recorded in the sagas; these feature a style reminiscent of the artwork of Barry Smith.

There is genuine craftsmanship and artistry in every page of 'Conquests', and Fitzpatrick's work is all the more impressive when you realize it was done back in the late 70s, when there was no such thing as computer graphics. It must have taken Fitzpatrick weeks (months ?) to do a single page. 

The intricacies of composing, drawing, and coloring the knotwork and glyphs on every page of 'Conquests'  must have driven Fitzpatrick close to the edge of a semi-psychotic state of existence.....

Sadly, 'The Book of Conquests' has long been out of print; however, you can still find used copies for reasonable prices at your usual online retailers (although copies in mint condition have starting price of $139). And it's certainly worth picking up if you happen to find it on the shelves of a used book store.


Imran Husain said...

Really nice piece on Jim Fitzpatrick!

As you may know, he did a follow-up to THE BOOK OF CONQUESTS called THE SILVER ARM. I chanced across both books in the 90s and snapped them up.

Fitzpatrick also released a book called ERINSAGA: THE MYTHOLOGICAL PAINTINGS OF JIM FITZPATRICK, in the 1980s. It included his paintings from the first two books, along with other works. I bought a copy back in the 80s, and while the artwork and printing are excellent, the binding isn't great -- at least not on my copy.

By the way, this is my first comment, but I've been reading and enjoying your blog for some time now!


tarbandu said...

Imran, thanks for visiting the PorPor Blog...I will investigate those two Jim Fitzpatrick books you describe in your Comment