Today’s obscure modern monster comes from the pages of Thorgal, a fantasy/science-fiction BD series by Jean van Hamme and Grzegorz Rosinski. In it our titular hero Thorgal Aegirsson, a space-faring alien raised as a Viking (long story), and his long-suffering wife Aaricia face insurmountable odds and enemies like the brutal Viking chieftain Gandalf-the-Mad, the sleazy Volsung of Nichor, the sinister Shardar of Brek Zarith, Nidhogg the Serpent, and, of course, Kriss of Valnor. You get the idea.

In Géants (Giants), one of his many adventures, Thorgal finds himself on a journey to Jotunheim in order to recover the memories he lost in the Invisible Fortress (long story). His guide, a Valkyrie, drops him off at the border and warns him of the Guardian. So, for our purposes this story begins here, with Thorgal exploring the barren wastes surrounding the land of the Giants.

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That’s when he is hailed by an unfamiliar voice…

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… and he turns around to find a sort of fluffy shih-tzu type critter, clearly demanding that Our Hero show some ID and justify his existence.

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Naturally Thorgal is enamored of the cute doggo, and obligingly gives it head skritches on demand. He asks if the creature is the guardian, whereupon it responds that we are the guardian.

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That’s right, the little furballs are everywhere.

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“They’re so cute!” exclaims Our Hero. “I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting such a charming welcome…”

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D:

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D8

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Of course Thorgal manages to escape by the skin of his teeth and goes on to his exploits among the giants, which include befriending a not-so-little girl and escaping the clutches of a two-headed falcon (long story). For the return journey he benefits from the same cop-out ride home started by Tolkien, namely eagles a Valkyrie swan. The poor Guardian is left thoroughly nonplussed.

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I feel your pain, little head.

 

anotuw

A Natural History of the Unnatural World

by Joel Levy and the Cryptozoological Society of London

 

The world of teratological books can be a minefield at times. It’s hard to extricate serious research from complete fabrication, and sometimes supposedly serious books (Borges and Dubois’ works notably) have bogus myths that then get parroted by other works as true. Then there are cryptozoological books which generally are separate from myth and folklore… except in this case.

A Natural History of the Unnatural World (ANOTUW from now on) has a special place in my heart for being one of the first books that really got me into mythical entities. Presented as a cryptozoological book written by the ersatz “Cryptozoological Society of London”, it is actually more of a tongue-in-cheek book that treats legendary beasts as cryptids. Oh, and there’s some actual cryptids in there like apemen and the Loch Ness monster, but otherwise ANOTUW is neither fish nor fowl nor alectrocampus. In fact, even the publishers seem to have realized that and reprinted it under the name Fabulous Creatures and other Magical Beings. A much more sensible name, if you ask me, but as I have the original version I will be reviewing that. If you don’t trust my judgement and want to buy it for yourself, you can get it here and here.

Scope

Going by the title you’d think this was a book about cryptozoology, but no self-respecting cryptid manual that I know of has sections on chimeras, simurghs, fairies, basilisks, and griffins. Instead this book covers the wide range of legendary creatures you’d expect from a mythology book. The only actual cryptids are giant invertebrates, lake monsters, the chupacabras, and apemen. Also included are various spotlights on mythical characters who encountered those creatures: Atalanta, Jack the Giant-Killer, Sindbad, and so on. Definitely very broad in scope, which may not be what you’d want as an advanced teratologist. On the other hand, a cryptozoologist would find little in the way of useful knowledge, as the cryptids covered are merely the best-known ones. Besides, lumping them with mythical creatures might be a bit insulting.

Organization

ANOTUW is laid out somewhat haphazardly. The creatures are divided by morphology: Invertebrates, Reptiles, Birds, Mammals, Hybrids, Manimals (that’s human/animal hybrids), and Hominids. The entries themselves are in several different styles: CSL Reviews (magazine entries, the most “serious”-looking ones), Field Reports (field-note style papers and sketches), Letters (correspondence sent to the CSL), assorted document clippings, and large double-page spreads of mythical hero art.

Text

The text makes it clear that the book is not meant to be serious, with plenty of jokes, puns, and stereotypes. The Thunderbird entry is a newspaper clipping from the “Hangman’s Gulch Herald”, complete with an ad for “Dr. Boardman’s Patent Tonic Remedy” and “Pastor’s Dog Has Fleas” in local news. The Phoenix entry is titled “C’mon Baby, Light My Pyre”. The Gremlin entry is especially memorable – I don’t know who started the trend of making gremlin entries seem like they’re falling apart, but I fully condone (and have added to) it. The Black Dog entry is adorable. Other entries offer rational explanations for irrational things – retrovirus origins for lycanthropy, for instance.

It’s all great if the book was a lighter look at mythology, but it’s not billed as such. It would be fine if the book pretended to be mythical creatures explained in a believable way, but it doesn’t claim to be. It’s certainly not a cryptozoological book – at least, I don’t think so. It’s all over the place, and it depends on whether you find it funny or not.

The glossary at the end is a two-page infodump of  loads of mythical creatures, many not covered in the book, which makes a good springboard for further reading.

Images

Images are mostly stock photos and archival images, with relatively little original illustration. I do like the sketches sprinkled throughout. The main goal was to try and depict mythical creatures as plausible animals, and ANOTUW largely succeeds. The catoblepas stands out as an image The manticore, chimera, harpy, basilisk, kelpie, chupacabras… all look believable, as though they were field sketches of actual animals. There is all too little of those sketches, which is a shame really.

Various photos of actual animal anatomy are labeled as belonging to mythical creatures. A turtle skull is an amphisbaena’s, shark jaws are a manticore’s… it kind of falls flat if you know your anatomy, but it’s cute none the less.

Research

Pretty good. Almost all the creatures are “actual” mythical creatures, taken and then embellished upon. The book is not meant to be taken seriously and so hasn’t been copied by others repeating the same mistakes. So, for instance, with the kelpie described as a giant salamander, it’s not so much of a problem because it’s easy to tell that that’s interpretation. At least, I think so…

One problem is that the actual information can be hidden under all the extra stuff. Field notes, for instance, could have just one paragraph with legendary information in it, with the rest being accounts of the expedition across two pages.

The other major problem is the reference section. Namely, there is none. Nada. Nil. Zip. Zilch. Not a sausage.

Summary

ANOTUW is a fun, silly book that I have fond memories of, but teratologists will find themselves wanting actual information, while cryptozoologists may well be offended at the treatment of cryptids. I give it 3/5 gigelorums for creativity, design, illustration, and general quantity of creatures, most of which I hadn’t heard of when I first read it. The rating can be raised or dropped one gigelorum, depending on your tolerance for the jokey style.

3

“But ABC!” I hear you say. “Dinosaurs aren’t monsters, they’re fascinating animals that are still with us today in the form of vicious brain-eating backyard predators!” Rubbish, I say. The dinosaurs I’m about to show you are true monsters that crawled from the fevered minds of 50s children’s book illustrators.

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Specifically, they came from this book The Wonderful World, written by James Fisher in 1954. I suppose it’s okay for a book from the 50s, the information in it is as dated as you’d expect, but the main draw here is the two-page dinosaur spread. The cover gives you a glimpse – okay, a major spoiler of the horror to come.

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This is the bit where the book talks about dinosaurs. The entire prehistory bit was obviously cribbed from the vastly superior The World We Live In (still the best science series/book ever made, 50s or not), with some images directly copied from it. But the dinosaurs look like they started with Zallinger’s mural before getting seriously mangled in translation.

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The sauropods in the background aren’t so bad, even if they do have microscopic heads vanishing into the distance. The true horrors are the two foreground figures.

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By now you know this Tyrannosaurus from the cover. Someone please explain to me the anatomy of this thing, because I’m quite sure it’s impossible on this planet (and several others). The artist must have been playing Starsiege or Mechwarrior prior to painting. I don’t know where its right leg went eithe – oh , nevermind, there it is pinning its food down. It’s munching on Stegosaurus for extra irony (the two never lived together, much as Fantasia would have you believe otherwise. In fact, there’s more time between Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus than there is between Tyrannosaurus and us).

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It’s hard to top the Tyrannosaurus, but in my opinion the hadrosaur is at least as horrifying, if not even worse. Look at it. Look. Its eyes stare into your very soul. Its hand is distressingly human. And it appears to be phasing into the mud (the dreaded Shadowduck of the X-Men). That or it has no hind legs to speak of.

No wonder some people complain about feathered dinosaurs. They must have grown up on these abominations.

cover

I swear this is the last postapocalypic robot animals post I make in OMM, but I had to dedicate an entry to Metalzoic, an absurd and highly entertaining story told by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill, and published by DC Comics and 2000 AD. If tales of amoral robotic gorillas beating up tank-elephants are your bag, you can buy this stirring saga in stores, including here and here.

I will try not to give away too much plot, focusing only on the creatures, but if you were planning on reading this someday, spoilers are inevitable.

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Metalzoic is set on Earth during the, well, Metalzoic period. The above timeline explains it far better than I ever could, but suffice to say the Earth belongs to metallic, naturally evolving robot and plants that evolved themselves from prior machinery. There are still pockets of humanity eking out a Mad Max-esque life, but it’s the robots that run this show.

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While the story focuses on Armageddon, Amok, and their respective tribes, it is arguably the Traffids that are the true dominant species. These are the mechanical equivalent of plants. Some grow to huge sizes and form dense forests through which other robots seek their food.

One interesting thing about Metalzoic is that it appears that all the robots are sapient and have names. Even the traffids. The specimen above, the equivalent of a pitcher plant, has successfully replicated a human building, down to the details of the interior, and uses this appearance to trick humans into coming in and dissolving in acid. Our heroes realize something is off when the pages of the books inside are blank.

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The hero of the story is Armageddon, a robot gorilla and leader of the Mekaka*, a tribe of assorted robot primates. Armageddon, as the header image makes clear, operated on his own brain to remove such trivialities as emotion and compassion, making him ruthless, amoral, and highly respected by the other Mekaka. He even manages to pick up a squishy human and keep her alive somehow.

Armageddon’s special power, and a main plot point and deus ex machina, is to call on the power of Inti, the robot god, and start PUMPING IRON. It is as awesome as it sounds.

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Opposing Armageddon is Amok the god-beast, the patriarch of a herd of wheeldebeasts – robo-elephants, the mightiest creatures of the Metalzoic. He’s pictured above with his calf, the little Buboc, next to him. The caterpillar treads and scoop mouth (just above them) strongly suggests ancestry in digging equipment.

Throughout the story Amok leads his herd of wheeldebeasts through various landscapes for a strange, unknown purpose. He is opposed in this by Attila, a younger male seeking to usurp him as leader of the wheeldebeast herd.

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Amok is to the left here, Attila to the right. Why are they destroying the Mekaka village? Is this part of Amok’s mysterious goal? Read the book to find out!

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Mekaka and wheeldebeasts are far from the only creatures shown, and a good deal of attention is granted to various predators that attack our heroes. Skimiteks are the lions of the Metalzoic, with saber teeth and chainsaw tongues, and they get around on skis, flying through the metal jungle at high speeds.

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In this idyllic Metalzoic scene, a skimitek pride (bottom) is at an oilhole, with a girane and her calf (left) and  other assorted creatures of the open land.

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Polarisaurs are found underneath the frozen poles. Clearly the descendants of submarines, they use periscopes to sight prey on the ice before launching a torpedo at them. They then smash through the ice, grab their victim in their jagged teeth, and sink back into the depths. One of those claims the life of a wheeldebeast before Amok could intercede.

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The mirrodillo above has an interesting hunting strategy. It works symbiotically with an airborne helicock, and they share the spoils. The mirrodillo attracts prey with its beautiful shining shell…

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… prompting its helicock partner hovering above to fire a beam that reflects off the mirrodillo’s shell, causing indiscriminate damage to everything around it. The mirrodillo can then vacuum up its share while the helicock comes down to partake of the feast.

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Mugger bugs are the descendants of car crushers, and have massive, crab-like bodies with powerful claws and huge mouths. The underbelly of a mugger bug is a powerful electromagnet that it uses to capture and disable prey before eating it and compressing it into a cube. Its back is covered with the remains of kills, effectively camouflaging it in plain sight. As you may have guessed, this is indeed something used in real life by assassin bugs, not to mention other insects as well. Technology imitates life. Or something.

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Loco-constrictors, finally, are enormous snake-robots that evolved from trains, and still use the ruined rail system to get around. At least one of them, Nikku, was capable of generating paralyzing electrical shocks from the plates on her sides. She tries to eat Buboc, and gets chomped through by Amok for her trouble.

Metalzoic is © Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill, DC Comics, 2000 AD, et al.

*Mekaka!

mwm

Meeting with Monsters

by Jon Baldur Hlidberg and Sigurdur Ægisson

This time around the book I’m reviewing is less mainstream than the previous ones. While Rose’s and Dubois’s encyclopedias cover a wide range of material around the world, this exquisite little tome focuses entirely on non-humanoid folkloric creatures of Iceland. Is Meeting With Monsters any good for what it does? Let’s find out!

MWM is hard to find in general bookstores, even online. I got my copy from this specialty store, and there are probably other places it can be found too.

Scope

As mentioned above, only non-humanoid Icelandic creatures are covered, with the authors asserting that humanoids will be covered in a later volume. While this is a narrow field for someone looking for an Encyclopedia of All Creatures, it is no less than a godsend for research. It’s hard to find academic books focusing on creatures from a single, less-commonly discussed region, and yet this one does it – with pictures too!

I’ve reached the point where I can’t get myself to buy books like 100 Animal Facts or Uncle Greasebeam’s Big Book Of Scary Dragons. This specialty, academic-friendly approach is just what the doctor ordered.

Organization

They’re all Icelandic, so no divisions by country. Instead, the book is in two main halves, the first covering the land and the second covering the sea. All creatures get at least one full-color painting and a full text description. It’s clear and straightforward, nothing surprising here.

Text

The text has been translated from the original Icelandic (if you’re reading the English version), so I can’t verify whether it loses anything in translation (do I have any Icelandic followers?). It is, however, lucid, clear, and relatively jargon-free, with some amusing tongue-in-cheek comments here and there.

Besides the main text written by the author, text boxes with direct quotations are interspersed throughout the margins, giving you details straight from the horse-whale’s mouth. It’s a clever touch, and one I appreciated.

Images

Glorious. The images are color paintings on a white background (much like a certain blog devoted to cataloguing creatures), with additional black and white sketches and silhouette scale comparisons of each creature. (I swear I had started ABC long before I knew this book existed).

The illustrations are field-guide caliber, clear, detailed, and biologically sound. While not alluding to it, the authors have made sure that all the creatures look like they could plausibly have evolved from something. They do engage in some speculative biology, but read on…

Research

Complete fabrications are the bane of my existence, but MWM manages to dodge that bullet as well. The authors provide a good deal of biological speculation – the horsewhale and redcrest have serrated spines laced with bacteria, the skate-mother is actually a predator of skates that looks like an aquatic bat, and so on – but these embellishments are kept to marginal descriptions of the images, not in the actual text.

The authors have done a lot of research, and it shows. While the exact sources for each creature are not given, there is an extensive bibliography at the end for further reading (hope you know Icelandic). The creatures on display include well-known ones such as the horsewhale and obscure, hard-to-find ones like the shell-monster. All in all, the book is a treasure, a compilation of information on Icelandic creatures. In English, no less. And the references have led me on to other sources.

Summary

By now you’ve probably realized that I really like this book (my love of Icelandic creatures is probably also a giveaway). It has everything one could want from a bestiary: thorough research, marvelous art, and tasteful embellishment. The only thing keeping Meeting With Monsters from being on the shelf of every serious teratologist is its scarcity. But even with that, I have no reservations about awarding it a perfect score.

5

extranimals-logo

The last time we discussed a short-lived car toyline with a biotechnological post-apocalyptic plotline, it was in the mid-90s. This time our story takes us to the late 80s, when French toy car manufacturer was in a bit of bind.

As mentioned in the Carnivores entry, superhero toys – I mean, action figures were all the rage, and more traditional toy companies such as die-cast car makers were losing the battle. Majorette, founded in 1961, was in decline, shutting down branches and cutting corners by replacing die-cast chassis with plastic and hinged doors with fixed ones. The company went out of business in 2000 and was bought by Smoby, but not before it tried to reinvent its brand and appeal to the modern demographic.

The Extranimals were one of those ephemeral experimental lines, designed to alleviate Majorette’s problems in every way. These car/animal hybrids were both cheaply made and had a (flimsy) plot set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, meant to attract action-oriented children while being easy to manufacture. They even got two commercials on TV, and an audio cassette (little more than a dramatic retelling of the first commercial). The American release was called Wild Wheels, but I’ve never seen those. Unfortunately the Extranimals suffered from low advertising, lack of backstory, and no cartoon, which is why they lasted for two years before vanishing into obscurity. Today they can be found in the dystopian hellscape of Ebay, where they command monstrous prices.

Image below taken from this excellent French site.

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The brilliant idea behind the Extranimals was that they required very little work on Majorette’s part. The car bits were taken directly from models already in production, allowing them to repurpose surplus die-cast stock. The chassis, monster truck wheels, and animal parts were plastic, with the animal parts vacuum-metallized in chrome or gold.

The main gimmick of the line was that the wheels could be adjusted into different positions, allowing the vehicle to tackle different forms of terrain. As far as toy gimmicks go, this was a very lukewarm one, especially considering the competition in the form of, say, car that transform into robots. Do note also that the cardback below, for the Mustang, also makes sure to advertise the Elephant, the biggest and most expensive toy in the line. The makers took no chances.

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The plot cast our vehicular animals in a not-so-distant future where humanity has gone extinct and the world has become a jungle of concrete, twisted rebar, and encroaching vines. In this world animals have melded with vehicles – or is it vehicles that have evolved animal features? – and wage endless battles for survival in the wasteland. There is no characterization besides the commercials suggesting that the Mustang and Elephant are the good guys.

basics

The original line (1988) consisted of 4 “basic” Extranimals and the “jumbo” Elephant. The basics were 4 variations on a theme, coming in several colors at the same size and with the same adjustable-wheels gimmick. The Mustang was made out of a Ferrari and Taurus was a Lamborghini (and if you have no idea why, look up the Ferrari and Lamborghini logos. Go on, I’ll wait). The Rhino was evidently an armored truck, and the Panther for some reason was an Excalibur (maybe it was meant to be a Panther de Ville?).

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The Elephant, on a truck chassis (only the red cab is die-cast), was the largest and doubled as a car carrier for the smaller vehicles. In addition to the wheels, it also had a spring-loaded head that could knock over anything in its path, allowing for plenty of play value and hours of fun smashing things. With the second color variation in blue and red, the Optimus Prime parallels are even more striking.

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By the second wave of Extranimals of 1989, Majorette had apparently figured that they couldn’t sell the same sort of toy four times even with different animal heads attached, so the “medium” newcomers were a diverse lot with unique gimmicks. The Naja (cobra) above, for instance, was chromed in green and had a movable tongue and doors in addition to 6 configurable wheels. Its base was Majorette’s stretch limousine.

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For the Shark, Majorette used their submarine truck as a base, kept the submarine, and added deployable floats. I always wondered why the submarine itself wasn’t shark-themed, and that was because it was unchanged from its original release. No idea why – I always thought it was some sort of symbiotic sentient organism dependent on its larger host for survival. Or something. I used to make stuff up as a kid.

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The Scorpion had plenty of play features, with a ball-jointed stinger tail, a scoop that can be raised or lowered, and swiveling pincers. This one evolved from a loader.

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Finally, the Eagle is the odd one out of the group, swapping its trademarked wheels for spinning feathered helicopter blades and grasping talons. Its ancestor was a Gazelle helicopter.

I still have memories of seeing those in toy stores, and I always wondered if I hadn’t fabricated the memories out of a deep-seated desire for post-apocalyptic vehicular beasts. It took a while to find them. I still think they could have been an interesting series had Majorette invested more into plot, characters, and production quality, but the series is long gone now.

Extranimals are © Majorette.

Last time on the Making of ABC, I discussed the importance of following a breadcrumb trail of references back to its source. This implies a significant amount of scholarly research. But I don’t want to discount another major source of creature discovery; namely, serendipity*.

Sometimes you don’t find the creature, but it is the creature that finds you. And for creatures to find you, you have to do a lot of reading of books both digital and physical, a lot of exploring in libraries and bookstores old and new. And I’m not talking about online bookstores, I’m talking about brick-and-mortar, real-deal, honest-to-goodness secondhand bookstores where the wonderful scent of books hits you as soon you go in, and where you can spend long, happy hours finding things you never knew you needed. I have made a number of discoveries merely by reading, whether in my home, in libraries, or in bookstores**. Caspilly surfaced in an old Larousse book on the sea. The Swan Valley Monster lurked in a corner of a used bookstore in Pennsylvania. The dreaded Wheel of Balsaeg, the unspeakable Boongurunguru, and the vast Trolual and Ziphius were found for the first time in a children’s book of mythology. The list goes on.

In summary, I guess what I’m trying to say is

reading

really

pays

off.

So next time you’re looking around in a bookstore full of books that nobody wants, you may yet find the next big thing. Who knows?

*No, not the pink dragon.
** I swear I would buy the book too.

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La Grande Encylopédie des Lutins/Fées/Elfes (The Great Encyclopedia of Faeries; The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins, and other Little Creatures)

by Pierre Dubois, illustrations by Claudine and Roland Sabatier

The three encyclopedias written by Pierre Dubois and illustrated by Claudine and Roland Sabatier are a bit of a special case. As of writing this, there are 3 volumes, covering goblins, fairies, and elfs (respectively), but they are relatively little-known in the English-speaking world. Passable English translations are available, but the books have had an influence on French bestiaries in the same way Rose’s books have had in English – and that includes the mistakes too. I have a soft spot for these books – again, I read them cover to cover back in the day – but do they stand up to scrutiny today? Let’s find out.

Can be bought from Amazon in French here, here, and here, and in inferior English here and here.

Scope

The encyclopedias cover all sorts of magical beings but leave out the more “prosaic” creatures such as bonnacons and leucrotas. There is a marked tendency to favor humanoids above everything else, even when the creature in question isn’t humanoid (more on that below).

Otherwise, they cover a broad range of cultures across the world, with a strong focus on French creatures, giving them a niche that sets them apart.

Organization

Goblins, fairies, and elfs, but the distinction is vague and hazy at best. “Fairies”, for instance, includes basilisks and codrilles, valkyries and nagas. Chapters are by habitat: those of the Earth and caves, those of woods and forests, and so on.

The distinctions are arbitrary at best, but then that’s the author’s prerogative. Considering Dubois’ views on scholarship and classification, his categories come across as somewhat ironic.

Text

Florid, long-winded, pompous, purple, and fluffy. Dubois is a master at making mountains out of molehills, and creatures with summary descriptions are given extended biographies. For instance, the Duphon – literally the eagle owl, except it’s blamed for typical fairy behavior – is made into a sort of Knight Templar of the mountains by Dubois, with extended descriptions of its hunting habits and suicidal recklessness. None of this is corroborated in the primary literature.

Each creature gets a summary of vital statistics (size, habitat, food, activities, etc.) in the margins, which gives the book a further encyclopedic feel. These vital statistics are also often completely fabricated.

Dubois’ embellishment can take on rather uncomfortable tones. We really did not need to know what the pubic hair stylings are for the skogsra (thick) or the makralles (shaved). Nor is there an explanation for his alteration of some stories: the original tale of the girls and the pilous, for instance, ends with the girls shutting up and the pilous leaving, but Dubois makes the pilous stomp into the room, strip the girls naked, and force them to dance until exhaustion. There is no mention of the fact that vouivres get slain same as any other dragon. These modifications have no basis in the literature, which is cause for concern – not just for bad scholarship, but because they also say quite a bit about Dubois.

Images

There have been complaints that the drawings are “childish” and “comic-booky” and “not serious enough”. I on the other hand have no such problem. The ink and paint drawings by the Sabatiers are easily some of the best selling points of the books, often conveying a setting without even showing the creature front and center. There are interesting takes on some creatures (the Yara-ma-yha-who and the Gremlin come to mind).

Any inaccurate depictions are ultimately Dubois’ fault, and I would not blame the Sabatiers for them.

Research

This is where I reserve most of my criticism, although it overlaps a bit with the text complaints. The fact that most of what Dubois writes about is obscure gives him free rein to invent anything he wants, and a lot of his inventions have been parroted by later authors, making it even harder to separate myth from, er, modern man-made myth. Dubois has also made it clear that he has nothing but scorn for research, study, academia, books… And it shows.

Creatures that are non-human are changed to become humanoid, often losing their best features in the process. The beefy-armed water-horse Mourioche becomes a goblin in a jester’s hat. The shapeless pilous become anthropomorphic dormice (to be fair, I liked that look enough to keep it for my pilou. I am part of the problem). The tourmentine and parisette plants become a goblin and fairy respectively, complete with backstory. The Rabelaisian coquecigrue bird becomes a tiny snake-fairy. The Breton tan noz will-o’-wisps become goblins. The list goes on and on.

Other creatures are fabricated out of whole cloth. The H’awouahoua has found its way into less critical bestiaries, even though this purported Algerian bogey has meaningless gibberish for a name. The Processionary, the Fougre, the Danthienne… The list of dubious creatures goes on, made worse by the difficulty of finding primary sources.

Dubois has also used a pseudonym, Petrus Barbygere (“Peter the Bearded”, i.e. himself), which he uses as a source for a number of citations. Whether this is amusing or not depends on who you ask, but it only muddies the mixture further.

Summary

There is a lot to fault in the Dubois encyclopedias, foremost being an attitude to research similar to that espoused by Attila the Hun. Once again, however, I can’t bring myself to lower the grade too much, as those books have nice drawings, obscure creatures, and helped set me on the track to finding out more.

3

carnivores-logo

Ah yes, the 90s, back when men were XTREME, women were XTREME, and toys were THE KOOLEST EVER. Toy manufacturers were constantly outdoing themselves in making XTREME action figures, and in a post-Transformers landscape, the importance of a storyline to enhance the play pattern was recognized.

Makers of toy cars in particular had to reinvent themselves. Making die-cast toys was becoming increasingly expensive, forcing them to cut corners (more on that in a later post); worse, they were losing in popularity to the XTREME newcomers. That’s when increasingly bizarre lines of “cars” were produced and died with a whimper. They were not huge sellers, but they were pretty cool- sorry, I mean XTREME. This post is dedicated to one such short-lived line.

Matchbox’s Carnivores (Carnivores, get it?) were short-lived and obscure by any account. There was only one wave produced in 1995, and nothing else after that. The backstory was fairly flimsy – car-monsters battling each other in an XTREME post-apocalyptic landscape – and the marketing was half-hearted (Skull Shooter, for instance, didn’t even get advertised on the back of the packaging). They did make a catchy ad for them with a bit of claymation, though. Nowadays they lurk in the dark recesses of eBay.

What connection do I have with them? Back in 1995, I was presented with the opportunity of having either a Carnivore or The Illustrated Book of Myths. I chose the latter, obviously, but the toys and their box art remained etched in my young mind. It wasn’t until years later that I found out what those things were.

There were seven Carnivores in total. All of them had “Ax-L Action”, which is to say that the wheels made their legs move around like they were crawling forward. Two of those were “deluxes” slightly larger than the others and with more action features. As for the creatures themselves, well… let’s see what they have to offer. I will be using the box art because it’s even more gloriously monstery than the toys.

iron-claw

Iron Claw is fairly typical of the “basic” line, with crawling legs and a simple action feature – in this case, pressing the back claw causes the front claw to stab downwards. Iron Claw himself (only male pronouns are used, because girls aren’t allowed to play with XTREME car monsters) appears to be some kind of slug (or at least a mollusc), with a round sucker mouth, the eponymous iron claws, and an engine block in his back uncomfortably surrounded with tubercular tumorous tissue. He’s beautiful.

buzz-off

Buzz Off is much easier to narrow down: a giant car-wasp, with ragged membranous wings and three pairs of legs. And bull horns, apparently. But what’s with the chains? You will note that almost all the Carnivores have broken chains on their legs. Were they once tied up? Are they a top secret government experiment gone wrong? The world may never know.

Buzz Off’s gimmick is a “stinger missile”, a missile that can be spring-loaded and fired a short distance. It also appears to be sentient. Maybe they chat with each other in between dismembering prey.

chomper

A huge mouth, teeth, drool, wrinkly skin… Yup, this hits all the right buttons. Chomper’s gimmick is straightforward: he chomps stuff. This is the sort of thing that could keep you busy forever. Chomper seems rather toadlike, but I want to imagine that it’s a mutated horned lizard. And can also shoot blood from its eyeballs.

spitfire

Spitfire is apparently some kind of squid? But it also has a ring of teeth and tentacles with claws attached to them? Yeah, I don’t know either. This one’s gimmick is spewing “deadly venom” – OK, water – that you load up and fire by pressing the soft plastic engine block on the back.

skull-shooter

Skull Shooter, the zombie skeleton of the bunch, is the “secret” Carnivore, being largely unadvertised. He’s grabbing a pair of human skulls, so apparently the Carnivores share the Earth with us, and it gives us a sense of scale. He doesn’t seem to correspond with any known animal as far as I can tell.

Oh, and he shoots his own spring-loaded head off as a weapon. Metal.

venom-spitter

Venom Spitter is one of the two “deluxe” Carnivores, and is a large creature that’s mostly mouth and which has stolen Spitfire’s venom-spewing powers. It’s not clear what it’s mean to be, but the first thing I think of when I see that huge mouth and those tusks is a hippopotamus.

bite-wing

Bite Wing, finally, is the other “deluxe” and is the most unconventional Carnivore, being not a car but a helicopter that evolved from some kind of mutated bat. It also has what seems to be an insect’s thorax and abdomen, so it’s another one of those darn GMOs.

It comes with not one, but two “parasite bombs” that look like secondarily flightless vampire bats. And they too seem to have a mind of their own. Do they make small talk while being carried by their “parent”? Do they monitor Carnivore activity from on high?Are they good cops or loose cannons? Do they like lattes? So many questions, but the closure of the line in 1995 means that there will never be answers.

Carnivores are © Matchbox.

A short interlude to explain a bit about how the art for A Book of Creatures is made. Like every artist, I’m my own worst critic and think my work is awful, but I do feel obliged to explain how I make the things that I believe could have been done so much better if only I’d used more ultramarine.

Most of the art in ABC is acrylics and pencil, with touchups on Photoshop. Some paintings (the Sinad, Dijiang, and all the Libyan snakes) were done in watercolor and pencil, for no real reason other than “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. The extent of Photoshop adjusting varies from 0 to extensive, depending on how much I hated the final result. To my eternal shame, I have not yet figured out how to paint on Photoshop, but I swear I will one day. Eventually…

For my example, I will be following the creation of Haakapainiži, everyone’s favorite murderous anthropophagous eye-gouging grasshopper. Like all good paintings, Haakapainiži started out with a sketch, and before the sketch came the research. I knew Haakapainiži should be a grasshopper, but what kind of grasshopper? I love lubber grasshoppers, and their reduced wings, spikes, and poison seemed ideal for a ground-based menace like Haakapainiži.

1

Once the rough sketch is done, I start filling in details. This includes the basket, patterns, and textures. Probably because I’m used to painting animals, I don’t like to add lots of unnecessary detail for the sake of adding detail. This may or may not be a good thing. Spikes were an obvious addition, as were the little chevrons on the thighs. The stripes were added to give more of a predatory look.

I cannot stress how important it is to make a good underlying drawing. In my experience with acrylics, bad painting can be saved by good drawing, but no amount of good painting can save a bad drawing.

2

Now the fun starts. I usually use acrylics like watercolors, laying successive washes of increasingly dark colors, then picking out shadows and highlights. It was at this stage I decided to give Haakapainiži a colorful network pattern on his wings, like real lubbers have. It was also at this stage that I smudged paint on the paper. Fortunately, that’s what Photoshop erasing is for! And you thought thought an artist’s life was glamorous…

3

Light washes are followed up with darker ones, stronger colors. I decided to stick with a yellow palette in keeping with the desert theme, but actual lubber grasshoppers are really pretty and colorful. Don’t eat them.

4

Finally, I added shades of red in the eyes and around the body, and made the painting more three-dimensional by putting blue in the shadows and picking out highlights with undiluted white paint.

5

All that was left to do was erase everything that wasn’t Haakapainiži and do the usual entry format. For a change, I thought it was good enough that it didn’t need much adjusting in Photoshop besides tweaking levels.

And that’s how it’s done!