There are lots of odd things I can’t stop myself from doing, like fiddling with the soft wax you find at the top of a burning candle, walking in time with music on my headphones, trying to mimic the way my youngest son chews his bottom lip whenever he draws, and trying to guess the exact moment the cinema lights are about to dim. But high on my list of things I can’t stop doing you will find dreaming up monsters. Whether it is creating my own or enjoying other people’s creations, monsters have occupied my imagination for a great deal of my life. Come to think of it, they’ve probably occupied too much of my life, but there’s not much I can do about that now.
It all started in 1979 when I was seven years old and I saw my first real monster. I must have seen lots of cartoon monsters and aliens on the TV by then, but up until this point in my life they had never got inside my head like a real monster should. But one night I was watching the BBC show Top of the Pops with my parents and the music video for “Another Brick in the Wall” by the legendary rock band Pink Floyd came on the screen, and everything changed…
THE GIGANTIC MONSTER TEACHER
Amongst many images I found deeply disturbing in this music video, including an army of marching hammers, was a gigantic monster teacher. He was bigger than a school, had a wild, manic disposition and soulless eyes, and he would take great handfuls of students and eagerly push them through a mincer so that they came out the other side as sausages. The image flipped a switch inside my tiny mind and though I had nightmares for a long, long time afterward—I was also utterly captivated by what I had seen. Gerald Scarfe’s drawings for the video were scratchy and messy and came to life in the most alarming way. I slept on the top bunk (my little sister Zoe below) and I used to imagine the scary monster teacher would come into my room and plunge a great sword into my bed. For this reason, I used to sleep with my back arched so that he would miss and I would be alive to go to school the next day.
THE STAY PUFT MARSHMALLOW MAN
I loved Ghostbusters. It seemed to me that someone had read my mind, found everything that I loved, and put all of it into one film. Gadgets, a cool song, ghosts (but not too scary), silly jokes, and a glorious sense of inventiveness. The idea that a monster could literally come from your imagination was as brilliant as it was silly. I grew up in England and we hadn’t even heard of Stay Puft Marshmallows but as soon as we saw that gigantic, squishy mascot round the corner of a Manhattan street we completely understood why it was so funny. There are a lot of stories with monsters in them and many look, well … kind of similar. There are the lizardy-dragony kind and the gothic-troll kind but like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, my favorite monsters are born from a unique imagination and appear as mutated reflections of unlikely heroes.
FISH, IN GENERAL
If you are trying to design a new monster and you are looking for inspiration, look no further than your nearest ocean. Put on your goggles, swim down to a depth that the sun cannot reach (bring a flashlight), and you will find some of the most spectacularly hideous beings on earth. I mean, look at this goblin shark. Just try sitting at your desk and coming up with something as scary or as weird as him. He’s slippery and slimy and the eyes are… well, they are just all wrong! All I have to do is imagine one swimming out of a dark void toward me and I can feel my skin bristle with goose bumps. I don’t know about you, but characters with a fixed expression have always given me the creeps. This may explain why I find clowns and scream masks so unsettling and also why in general, I find fish to be are among the freakiest creatures on the planet. However great your monster design is, Mother Nature has you beat.
JIM WOODRING’S MONSTERS
Jim Woodring is an extremely talented illustrator of all things bizarre. I think his pen is filled with ink that flows directly out of his brain. Despite many of his images being black and white, there is always an incredible amount of complex and delicious detail in every crazy picture. His monsters are not only spectacular in their design but they are nearly always up to something very odd indeed, like idly tearing clouds open to reveal nasty things inside or opening up their skulls to scratch their brains. I have never met Jim Woodring and I’m determined not to Google him so that I can continue to enjoy the image I have in my head of him looking like a Dickensian-style villain with very large, heavy-lidded eyes, long bony fingers, a silver beard, black velvet robes, bare feet, and hunched over a candle-lit desk in a tower that leans perilously over jagged, rain-lashed cliffs.
A MONSTER CALLS BY PATRICK NESS
I was on holiday with my family and lots of our friends when I began to read A Monster Calls. This turned out to be a bit of a mistake because instead of being a jolly dad and helping to barbecue sausages and that sort of thing, I spent days indoors with red, swollen eyes from crying and I was completely lost in thought about with the welfare of the characters in the book. It’s all Patrick Ness’s fault that I wasn’t outside building sandcastles and throwing Frisbees about. His monster had stomped into my head and given my emotions such a tremendous kicking I didn’t know where I was! Though the writing is tremendous, Jim Kay’s illustrations are just stunning. Every single image is a work of art and the feeling he is able to conjure with those wild ink marks is in perfect harmony with what is written. And I will never forget the night I finished the book. It was very late, I was in bed with my wife fast asleep beside me when I turned out the light and suddenly the whole room began to shake. Tables inched across the floor, ceiling lights swung, and a rumble unlike anything I have ever heard before made my teeth rattle. The monster had come for me just like it had come for Connor! Then just as suddenly it all stopped and I realized I had experienced my first earthquake. I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to finish reading such powerful and truly magical monster story.
Top image from A Monster Calls; art by Jim Kay.
Garth Jennings has directed many music videos and commercials as one third of the production company Hammer and Tongs. His work includes videos for Blur, Radiohead, Beck, Fatboy Slim, and Vampire Weekend. He is the director of two feature films, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow, for which he also wrote the screenplay. He is currently directing Sing, an animated musical comedy. The Deadly 7, available April 5th from Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers, is his first novel.