Bradbury: An Illustrated Life
(Morrow, $34.95, 200 pages, hardcover, October 9, 2002.)
Ray Bradbury writes in the introduction to Jerry Weist's handsome Bradbury: An Illustrated Life that he hasbeen saving metaphors since he was three years old, but didn't realize it until twenty years ago. It was then that he saw the golden mask of Tutankhamen in a display at a local art museum for the first time since he was three, and it reminded him of "one of my Martians" from The Martian Chronicles. Later, while producing a stage play based on the very same book, Bradbury looked at the golden Martian masks his actors were wearing and exclaimed, "My God! It's Tutankhamen!" After that, he began noticing metaphors everywhere.
Bradbury calls this book a display of his metaphors. Indeed, its subtitle is "A Journey to Far Metaphor."
I, on the other hand, have remained ever amused with the ironies we encounter by frequent happenstance throughout our lives; at times with cruel intent, at others, with an air of comic relief they bring.
The irony of a coffee table biography that uses marvellously vivid photographic illustrations accompanied by only bare-bones text to effectively celebrate the career of a man brilliant at being able to illustrate so vividly with words is inescapable. It is neither cruel nor comic. It is an entirely appropriate means for Weist to examine Bradbury's professional life and the influences upon it when you consider where the subject grew up and what his biographer's area of expertise happens to be.
Ray Bradbury became a Los Angeles dude in 1934 at the age of fourteen when his father upped and moved the family from their native Waukegan, Illinois. I have long held that science fiction developed differently on the West Coast than in any other part of the world because of the surrounding presence and influence of the motion picture industry, a predominately visual medium, on its local fandom. Bradbury's love of visual media -- movies, funnies and comic books in particular -- certainly had a great effect on his picturesque storytelling style. We learn here that Bradbury's stories easily transcended sf fandom and found their way into the mainstream via hardcover books, paperbacks, comic books, "slicks" (mainstream magazines printed on glossy paper), motion pictures and, later on, television. (Indeed, to this day there is no genre author better known outside sf than Ray Bradbury.) Certainly, one could say that, of "The ABC's of Science Fiction", Asimov's core audience was the corduroy-jacket intellectual, Clarke's was the lab-smock scientific, and Bradbury's was the white-collar commuter on the 5:15 from Grand Central Station, as well as his comic book reading, junior high school son.
Weist, on the other hand, comes to us from the collector's world. He is Sothebys' expert on science fiction, fantasy and comic book collectibles and he also runs their comic art auctions. A genre buff since his youth (when he met Famous Monsters of Filmland's creator Forrest J. Ackerman during Ackerman's famous three-thousand-mile drive across the United States to meet his fans), he produced a fanzine titled Movieland Monsters as a grade-schooler, as well as one of the first EC Comics fanzines. And he is an old, dear friend of Bradbury's, having corresponded with the author as early as 1969.
There is a third, less obvious factor in the artistic success of this project and that is the publisher. The William Morrow imprint has long been associated with top-quality hardcovers and oversizes of all subjects, from fiction to pop culture. With their history of impeccable judgement regarding the look and layout used in their products along with their utilization of cutting-edge materials and processes, there could be no publisher better suited to present this book.
All of which makes the book one of the finest examples of an oversize pictorial I have encountered in the genre to date.
This colourful two hundred-page offering is a gourmet feast for the eyes. The publisher decided quite correctly to use a thick, coated paper stock that was muted in gloss, rather than a high-gloss of the type used to great effect with fantasy art books. This lends a regal, high-ticket quality to a product which, at $34.95, is a steal, even at its full retail price.
But what about the content? The several hundred photographs featured within are meticulously reproduced with high-resolution clarity. They include personal snapshots of Bradbury's sf life, posters of movies made from his stories and screenplays, dozens of book, magazine and fanzine covers (including two antique books given to him by his Aunt Neva, the strongest influence on the young child Bradbury toward a life of writing fantasy), pages of related artwork, as well as other significant documents. Had it not been for the highly professional overall design of this book, one would feel as though s/he were peeking into a scrapbook of great personal significance, such is the intimate nature of certain of its contents. This, despite Weist's focus on Bradbury's professional life. How ironic!
Bradbury: An Illustrated Life divides the author's life into eight chapters -- eight demarcations, if you will, to the career of this genre renaissance man. Chapter 1: "Early Life: Early Fandom" is perhaps the most fascinating for one as enthralled with the history and sociology of sf fandom as I. We are treated to photos of the teenage Bradbury and pal Ackerman before leaving for a movie opening, in gorilla and golem costumes respectively. (Bradbury's mask was made for him by another pal, future fx legend Ray Harryhausen.) There is one of Bradbury with short-time writing partner Leigh Brackett and two other friends at what appears to be a Mexican bar. And we sense Bradbury's fannish excitement in a marvellous photo of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society's 100th meeting in 1940, in which we see the subject seated with, among others, Leslyn and Robert Heinlein, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Ackerman and Harryhausen. (It would look like a government sub-committee hearing were it not been for the pulp cover art hung in crooked haste on the back wall.) And there are gorgeous, colourful reproductions of movie posters (Things to Come takes up almost an entire page), pulp mag covers (the Air Wonder Stories covers depicting floating cities and imaginative airships are most impressive), and a first US edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas as well as the John R. Neill-illustrated The Magic of Oz. The photos of these collector's treasures are treasures in and of themselves.
"From Pulps to Slicks" pictorializes Bradbury's story sales to widely read magazines such as Macleans, Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post, with reprints of the title pages to several of the stories, including "The Rocket Man", "The World the Children Made" and "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms". Mainstream illustrators such as James R. Bingham, Al Parker, Michael Mitchell, the legendary Stanley Meltzoff and Lew Keller (whose detailed colour illustration of three astronauts and their rocket ship on the front lawn of what appears to be an ordinary row of houses for "Mars is Heaven" is about as perfect a story set-up as a reader could ask for from an illustrator) are given their due here.
Other Bradbury significata included within are the texts of letters establishing the almost overly amicable relationship between the subject and William Gaines, the editor of EC Comics (for whom Bradbury adapted his stories in the early 1950s), as well as some of the Bradbury-related artwork of EC's Al Feldstein. (Seeing it made me realize just how deeply Feldstein was influenced by the legendary Chesley Bonestell.) Director Francois Truffaut's journal, kept while filming Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, tells of the respect he held for the writer as well as his gratitude for Bradbury's cooperation during the production. The joy on Bradbury's face in a group shot with the cast of Something Wicked This Way Comes expressed the author's love of the performing arts better than words could have. And there are photos of Bradbury today, still attending and being part of the stage productions of his stories, the scripts for which were written by ... Ray Bradbury.
Weist's text is appropriately concise. He allows the photographs and their captions to do the talking; it is an illustrated biography, after all. What he does offer in historical and accompanying expository is well written, albeit without significant revelation. And more irony -- the words telling Bradbury's story do not come from Bradbury himself, eh?
This book is a must-have for those who enjoy reading about science fiction as well as those who are collectors of genre memorabilia. I would go so far as to recommend Bradbury: An Illustrated Life to anyone who simply likes looking at wonderfully reproduced photos of pop culture.
So long may Ray Bradbury continue to collect his metaphors. It still turns out, though, that the best Bradbury book of the 21st century to date is not by him, but about him.
I'll enjoy that bit of irony all day long.
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© Randy M Dannenfelser 16 November 2002