Reading the screenplay of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by Joel and Ethan Coen led me to the real artist whose work features in that piece of fictional fiction – Gregory Manchess. It is one of those happy discoveries that make reading a pleasure. Manchess is the author and illustrator of the Science Fiction novel, Above the Timberline. It is both a portfolio of paintings and a novel.
Both art and prose
I don’t want to call it a graphic novel because his style is not line art, with speech bubbles, but actual oil-on-linen paintings with text – the description “illustrated novel” would be better. Manchess’ illustrations have appeared in magazines, digital murals, illustrated movie posters, advertising campaigns and book covers, including sixty covers for Louis L’Amour Western novels – which made him a perfect fit for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. His style – somewhat loose and with visible brush-strokes and exposed canvas – evokes the art of the masters of American Western painting Charles Marion Russell, Frederick Remington and Thomas Moran.
For this novel, he has transferred his skills with horses, prairies, grizzled miners and gun-toting cowboys into paintings of strange furry beasts, airships, sailing craft and steam-punk aviator-explorers – and also amazingly beautiful depictions of snow and ice. Above the Timberline is part art, part novel – each page is a fantastic painting, which you have to read and interpret as if you were reading prose. You therefore have to assess both the art and the prose.
The story initially moves between dates and places in the far future, 3517 to 3518, almost teasing the reader into forming a mental setting. Then it settles into a direct depiction of the climactic final moments of the story. The narrative varies between third person descriptions and first person narrators. The narrators are “Wesley ‘Wes’ Singleton”, the seventeen-year-old son of the second narrator, the explorer and archeologist “Galen Singleton”, who has gone missing on an expedition into the “Phantom Waste” to find the mysterious city of “Arcturus”. A woman called “Linea”, one of the people who live in the snow-bound Phantom Waste, which was created by apocalyptic tectonic shifts centuries before, provides a third voice.
Manchess acknowledges in the book that combining cinematic-style paintings with prose required a different mindset and the help of many people in the writing community. (A very quotable quote from one of his team members is “All good writing is rewriting”. True, that.) All the same, it is very well written – the language is flowing, polished and quite inventive. He created all sorts of interesting snow-and-space-related swearwords and exclamations, making the dialogue in the book both amusing and unusual.
Steampunk and the future
The world he created, featuring smart, huge bears, hairy rhinos, gyrfalcons as messengers, and blood-thirsty snow tigers is futuristic but, at the same time contains references to the late 19th and early 20th centuries – the explorers fly huge airships or dirigibles and mosquito aircraft, Wes escapes on a steam-powered raft and cutter sailboat, and there are huge industrial-type machines with massive wheels, cogs and gears. Also, the pilots wear what looks like WWI leather bomber jackets. The characters and devices have a recognizable steam-punk style. So far, so normal. But there are elements in the novel that are entirely original – the bears, who (that?) are highly likeable, the “Arktos Device” and its purpose, and the notion of the world having been torn apart and the poles reversed. The resulting landscape is beautifully described and painted.
Attention to detail
Manchess sets the action at specific GPS coordinates. If you look them up, you will find that they are off the West coast of what is at this moment the USA, and in the far, fictional future becomes the South and North poles. Attention to detail like that means that the author knows his audience (people like me!) and knew they would check.
An interesting detail is the name “Arcturus”, which is both the hidden city which lies up “above the timberline”, hence the book’s title, and the name of a star. (The universe, in this novel, is still the universe we know.)
“Arcturus, designation α Boötis (Latinized to Alpha Boötis, abbreviated Alpha Boo, α Boo), is the brightest star in the constellation of Boötes, the fourth-brightest in the night sky, and the brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere. Together with Spica and Denebola (or Regulus, depending on the source), Arcturus is part of the Spring Triangle asterism and, by extension, also of the Great Diamond along with the star Cor Caroli.” (Source: Wikipedia)
This reference is even more meaningful if you know the mythology behind the name of the star:
“One astronomical tradition associates Arcturus with the mythology around Arcas, who was about to shoot and kill his own mother Callisto who had been transformed into a bear. Zeus averted their imminent tragic fate by transforming the boy into the constellation Boötes, called Arctophylax “bear guardian” by the Greeks, and his mother into Ursa Major (Greek: Arctos “the bear”). The account is given in Hyginus’s Astronomy.” (Source: Wikipedia)
So the theme of the sapient snow bears is nicely tied into the quest to find the mysterious city.
A quest narrative
This is what the novel is in essence – a futuristic quest narrative. As “Galen Singleton” writes in his diary:
“That is why other explorers fail. The idea of rebuilding, of rejuvenation, of rebirth does not occur to them. If something seems impossible, then it is impossible. They don’t understand it’s not the failure but the recovery that matters.”
There are other classic quest references – the monastery in the mountains is reminiscent of the mythical “Shangri-La” or “Shambhala”, the objective of many explorers, and the former partner of Galen Singleton is a lookalike, even to his pose, for author and adventurer Ernest Hemingway in his later years in Havana.
There is a little bit of romance between Wes and Linea, but thank goodness no smoochy bits and heavy breathing, and the romantic parts are mercifully restrained, for instance when Galen Singleton writes a last, desperate letter to his wife:
“…This is my last entry. The best of me is so miserably poor, dear Elizabeth. I realize now, the drive to find the City became my answer for finding what most men search for more than anything else: a way to beat the fear of inadequacy. To become. Perhaps my love for you will redeem the poverty of the rest of me.”
How does it end?
Does Wes, the querulous and rebellious teenager, who wants nothing more than the approval of his father, find his missing Dad? You’ll have to read it yourself to find out, sorry. I can say that I found the ending satisfying and fitting. In terms of suspense, Manchess refers early in the novel to an incident where Wes’s home is broken into and someone gets a dog bite. That is a foreshadowing to later developments. But the sustained suspense means that one does work quickly through the book to get to the conclusion, only slowing down to revel in the artwork.
A beautiful production
It is an admirable achievement for an author-artist to produce a book which is an aesthetically pleasing object, both in its production and its contents, and which is also aesthetically pleasing in its prose.
This book is large format (11 x 0.9 x 9 inches), and the publishers skipped on the page numbers and chapter headings, intending the book to be consumed page by beautiful page like revealing a panorama each time. It has 240 pages and 124 paintings! I thought this was a massive effort, and surely he had to have re-used a few images, for instance the small paintings of the gyrfalcons. But no, each one is unique.
I can bet my bottom dollar that this will result in a film. The premise, the characters and the bears are too gorgeous and intriguing to resist. After all, this novel found a publisher because of the concepts as well as the art.
About the author
Gregory (Greg) Manchess is from Kentucky, USA. He earned a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1977. He spent the next two years as a studio illustrator with Hellman Design Associates which was led by Gary Kelley. He lectures frequently at universities and colleges nationwide and gives workshops on painting at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. He leads an Illustration Master Class in Amherst, MA. His excellent figure work has led to numerous commissions for stamps by the US Postal Service, and the National Geographic Society sent him on an expedition and chose his work to illustrate the first discovery of an actual sunk pirate ship for the traveling exhibition Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. He has been awarded the highest honour of the Society of Illustrators, the Hamilton King Award. His website is manchess.com, and if you want more Manchess eye-candy, he blogs at muddycolors, a fantasy arts blog.