Sunday, April 10, 2016

Zen and the Art of Avon

I was first introduced to Blake's 7 in the late '80s when I was visiting my friend Beck at college.   "There's a Blake's 7 marathon on PBS tonight!" 
"Oh, what's Blake's 7?"
"It's a British science fiction show about a bunch of space renegades. You'll love Avon."
             "Who's Avon?"

Subsequently, I found out who Avon was.

Of the five crew members of the rebel ship the Liberator (with its two super-computers, Zen and Orac), Avon was the brooding, scowling technical genius who you wouldn't want standing behind you on a cliff. He had questionable morals and he skulked about the ship in black leather and made derisive comments, especially at their idealistic leader Blake (played by Gareth Thomas).

"He's sarcastic," I said. "I like him."
Some of the highlights of my first couple episodes of Blake's 7 were Kerr "I am not expendable, I am not stupid, and I'm not going" Avon being the fastest draw in the west with a space gun/curling iron. And part of the fun was hearing actor Paul Darrow snarl, purr and growl the best dialogue in the show at friends and foes alike in his velvet voice. Sitting on the floor of my friend's dorm in front of a tiny television, we were several episodes into the marathon, watching him snarking and pissing off his fellow crew-members.
          ...And then came "Sarcophagus."

     "This one was written by Tanith Lee!" I said excitedly. (I was a huge Tanith Lee fan, having read her books throughout high school and college.) "This should be good. Wait... Avon's in charge now? How did that happen?" (There were a couple continuity jumps during the marathon...)
       "Blake went away."
       "Sure, he did... Why?"
       "Long story. Ssh."

And then Avon snogs an alien who has possessed telepathic crew-member Cally. So... it was almost like he was snogging Cally.
"YES!!" we screamed in unison, high-fiving each other. "Good ol' Tanith doesn't disappoint." I loved the weird, fantasy aspect of this episode with its Jungian archetypes. One guess which crew member was "the Shadow".

Avon to Dayna: "You've just cured my headache."
Years passed, and because of lack of Blake's 7 videos and dvds in this country, I wasn't able to see the infamous finale until many years later. (Although I knew about it, of course.) Only recently this year, I've finally watched all four seasons consecutively and re-acquainted myself with the show, picking out other favorite characters, aspects and episodes.

I especially loved the tough female crew members: pirate and Liberator pilot Jenna, mysteriously chosen by Zen; tough and innovative Dayna (who always had a hidden explosive on her somewhere as well as being the first woman on the show to kiss Avon, right after she rescues him. Go Dayna.) Soolin the gunslinger who had some fantastic lines a little too late in the show's last year (Gauda Prime was looming); and Cally, poor Cally. For an alien, she was also the everywoman trying to fit in.

And then there was Servalan, their arch-nemesis, who was beautiful and oozed fabulousness. (It was the '80s, after all.) All of these ladies need portraits someday as well.

Sometime last year, a FB and Twitter friend (Neil Rule. Thanks again, Neil!) told me that Paul Darrow had seen and liked some of my Doctor Who artwork, so that's how this project got started. After I fangirled like an idiot over that news, I decided I needed to do an Avon portrait. (Or two...)

The "he" in question being Peter Davison. And then Neil sent me this picture:
Neil (wearing my Fifth Doctor t-shirt), sitting between Servalan and Avon,
aka, Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow.
And so...
Some very rough sketchbook drawings:

My idea in the tiny thumbnail sketch (to the left) is  Avon transitioning after the destruction of Blake’s ship, the Liberator, and the new ship, the Scorpio. (I thought an apt ship name for a leader known for his sting.)      

The outfit he's wearing is from the episode "Terminal" which saw the Liberator exploding (along with the heartbreaking death of Zen). This is where it's argued that Avon started the downward spiral that would lead to his final fatal mistake in the last episode.                                                                                                                                        
Zen, the ghostly ship's computeris the hexagon framing device behind Avon.) He never actually has both those guns at the same time (before anyone gives me grief!) And the little super-computer Orac is  in the corner, a bit of a nightmare to draw in perspective. Sure, "he" only looks like a harmless box of junk.

Finally, I've got Avon transferred onto a good piece of paper and Orac in perspective (with all "his" wires and tubes and thingamabobs). The ship's computer, Zen, is  in the background. The picture would be mostly monochrome except for Zen's blue and yellow flashing "disco" lights.

The pencil drawing was lightly inked to get ready for all the detail and shading of the acrylic gouache (the fun part!) It looks pretty basic and plain at this stage. This is how I start all my pictures, with just the simple outlines indicated. I keep a photocopied sketch (from the original sketchbook drawing) taped nearby for reference. I also loaded my iPod with photo references I can quickly consult for Avon's two guns, transporter bracelet, holster, the two computers, etc.

Next: Avon and Zen get attacked by a giant sea sponge!
(Bear with me on this one: it's for the texture on Zen's screen.)

This was fun. Sponges are fun. And messy. This makes a texture I can enhance with a brush a little later.

Below: you can see more texture on Zen, more detail and outline (helped by a Pigma Micron brush pen).

More progress, and I turned on Zen's disco lights. I also re-painted the hand holding the Scorpio gun. And the final version again, below, with a sample background color.

This is first of two Blake's 7 pictures I'm working on.

I was also playing around in my sketchbook with my two favorite (male) characters, Avon and Vila (who is holding Orac. He always seemed to save Orac despite Orac "suggesting" Avon throw Vila off the escape ship in the episode "Orbit". As I said, not a harmless box of junk.)

The planet they’re on was meant to look a bit like the Season Four opening credits, but it also looks like they’re up to no good in an alien Monument Valley. This, I thought, might fit with the “western in space” theme of the show: all the characters are outlaws, chased by the evil Federation. In the sky is their ship of the last season, the Scorpio.

Servalan’s probably hiding behind one of those rock formations, ready to pounce with her goons. Or at least to snog Avon.

(Waiting for her portrait too or there will be hell to pay.)

"Beware, Colin Baker! We will curl your hair EVEN MORE!
Look what we did to Tarrant."

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Strange Days

By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!
    My other favorite Doctor who debuted the year I was born (1963) is Doctor Strange. I discovered him when I was a very young pre-teen growing out of my Supergirl and Wonder Woman comics and finding what I thought of as the "more mature", teenager-friendly Marvel Comics. (These superheroes had Angst and Stuff™, like me.)   

     I had come across a discarded copy of The Defenders and found myself most fascinated by the guy with the mustache and gray streaks in his hair that the other Defenders team members were just calling "Stephen" in this particular issue. He had somehow been captured by demons and badly needed rescuing by Valkyrie. (The fact that a valkyrie had to rescue him appealed to me. Norse mythology and the "Yay, girls!" factor.) I later learned that this was Doctor Stephen Strange and he usually wore a grandiose cape with a high gothic collar because he was some sort of  magician, and this was part of his fashion sense. Or at least the Sorcerer Supreme's, and his powers weren't working very well at this moment.
     This required further investigation on my part. (He seemed oddly sad in this particular comic and my teen-aged self wanted to make sure he was all right. He had Angst and Stuff™, apparently.) Strange in general was just a sad guy all around. He had important Sorceror Supreme stuff that needed doing and it was lonely and stressful work. I got that. 

      What this led to was my discovering what's been called the "trippy" and "psychedelic" weirdness of Steve Ditko's art, to be followed by such amazing artists as Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, P. Craig Russell and many others. Ditko originally based Strange's look on actor Vincent Price, but he went through many stages of handsomeness, from Errol Flynn to even Frank Zappa.

I still need Volume Four...
      Stephen Strange is a vain surgeon whose hands are scarred and crippled in a car accident. He travels the world in search of a cure and unwittingly finds himself in Tibet, where he meets a mysterious being named The Ancient One who sees that there is some hope and decency left in this arrogant, selfish man. And thus he trains him to become a dimension-hopping sorcerer who finally learns humility and becomes a hero. Angst and Stuff™ ensues. I ate it up.

Having fun with a blank
variant "sketch cover"and
my sketchbook drawing.

       The stories were just downright weird and the artwork was intricate, gorgeous and insane. I adored it. I found myself picking up issues of Doctor Strange intermittently through my college years, even though I was aware he wasn't exactly Marvel's top-selling superhero. (I went to college at Pratt Institute and often bought my comics in a small shop in Greenwich Village, the part of New York City where Doctor Strange's infamous Sanctum Sanctorum brownstone, with its distinctive window, was supposedly located.)

He tended to disappear and reappear in other characters' comics. I had hoped for years for a proper Doctor Strange film or television adaption, but knew his lack of sales probably would mean that it wouldn't be happening any time soon, if at all. And yes, I had seen the '70s Doctor Strange tv movie the first time it ever aired, and, well... just... no.) There was an excellent animated movie that Marvel released a few years back that changed a lot of the backstory but I enjoyed it nevertheless. This was closer to the Strange I was fond of.

      Oh, and then there was the Venture Brothers' Doctor Orpheus, of course, to hold me over with their wacky Doctor Strange parody. (Strange really needs a cat now and a goth teenage daughter... Doctor Orpheus is just so damned lovable.) BUT THEN I heard Stephen Strange's name mentioned for the first time in a modern Marvel film (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) which was the personal highlight of that film for me. Did this mean what I thought it meant...? After all these years, would we finally be getting a big-budget, special effects-laden, crazy Doctor Strange movie?

      Yes. And he would be played by Benedict (Sherlock) Cumberbatch. For me, it was like Christmas and Halloween (my favorite holiday) rolled into one. And did I mention it will also have Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen and Chiwetel Ejiofor in it? (Swoons)

   Initially I thought Cumberbatch was far too young for the part, but hey, he's got the cheekbones. And he can play angst and arrogance equally well. I am keeping my fingers crossed. I'm hoping for the Doctor Strange movie I've always wanted to see for our 53rd birthday in November, Strange and I.
And I need to draw more of my favorite Marvel character. But he needs to say this just once in the film.
                                                            Just once? Please?