Jellyfish, Deerstalkers, and the Weirdness of Unillustrated Text: Scott Westerfeld at Kidlitcon 2011

Scott Westerfeld gave the keynote speech at Kidlitcon in Seattle this year. In the spirit of the just-ended Steampunk Week, just picture my thoughts traveling since that fateful September morning via horse-drawn robot, or maybe very slow walking tank, from my brain to the keyboard, and thence to the screen you see before you. It took me almost all that time to process what he said, because he talked about, well, everything.

The official topic of Westerfeld’s speech was the relationship between text and image, with a focus on his copiously-illustrated Leviathan series. Westerfeld and illustrator Keith Thompson discussed the illustration process in a couple of interviews for in 2009 (you can find them here and here), and he covered some of the same territory in his Kidlitcon keynote. But he also touched on all the following: 

  • The deep weirdness and cultural specificity of things we take for granted, like novels without illustrations, and how “all of us, when we were eight years old, were handed a book with no pictures in it, and we were like, ‘well, this sucks’….and we were told ‘oh, this is so you can use your imagination’….but that’s bullshit!” (Really it has to do with the invention of the camera, and the rising cost of hand-drawing, and publishers’ budgets.)
  • Sherlock Holmes, and how nowhere in the text of all of the Holmes stories does Arthur Conan Doyle ever mention Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat, in fact it would have been totally anomalous for Holmes to wear such a hat because he was an urban sophisticate and deerstalker hats were sort of a country-bumpkin thing to wear, but the illustrator, Sydney Pagett, drew Holmes in a deerstalker because he was a country guy and hunted deer himself and now that image has such strong associations that over a hundred years later that hat has come to stand not just for Sherlock Holmes but for the whole mystery genre (like when you go to the library and the books with deerstalker-hat stickers on the spines are the mysteries). Such is the power of illustration.
  • The Sears and Roebuck Catalog, which “a hundred years ago WAS the Internet…the internet was hand-drawn.”
  • Charles Darwin’s stomach condition, which was such that if he got in an argument with someone his stomach would bind up and he’d have to lie down for like five hours (“If you have that kind of condition,” Westerfeld noted, “you should not discover evolution.”), so he had to have someone to advocate for him so that he wouldn’t have to be incapacitated by his stomach all the time, and his advocate’s name was Huxley, and Huxley was a jellyfish expert, and that is why the giant hydrogen-breathing flying jellyfish in Leviathan are called Huxleys.
  • Why the wheel is not always better than the foot. On rough or desert terrain, for example. People assume the the Clankers in Leviathan—walking armored tanks—are wholly made up, but not so! Westerfeld showed a real-life drawing of a walking machine, used for farming, that was invented in Italy in 1914. The point being that technology that seems obvious and inevitable to us in retrospect—of course wheels are the best way to get around—ain’t necessarily so: “We made a technological choice: rather than building legs on our machines, we paved the crap out of the entire world.”
  • The Boys’ Own Adventure series he happened upon as a kid, books like A Journey to Mars which featured many male characters having exciting escapades, and no women at all. Another slide illustration, full of manly men with much facial hair: “Apparently Mars is like Portland—everyone’s got a beard.”
  • And finally, the amazingness of fan art and fan fiction, which “expands everything in many directions,” and has even affected the way he writes. For one thing, he noticed lots of people like to do fan art about the characters just hanging out, and realized an important part of bonding with the characters is the chance to see them doing just that, getting to know each other, and that they don’t always have to be doing something active.

There was more. Much more. There was manga and Lego and Charles Dickens and… did I mention he talked about everything? I’m amazed the man does not get whiplash from the force of the many different directions his brain goes in. And his concluding point was more than worth getting up early in the morning for:

“Maybe,” Westerfeld said, “we are living in a world of illustrated novels again, and that which the camera took away is being given to us again by the Internet.”

Elisabeth Kushner is a librarian and writer in Vancouver, where almost no one wears a deerstalker hat, more’s the pity.


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