Connected \\ August 2, 2017

Drawing horror

Last year, PEM selected illustrator R. Kikuo Johnson to create the cover art of the exhibition catalog for ‘It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Movie Posters from the Kirk Hammett Collection’.

It’s quite a mouthful, we know, but Kirk Hammett has been a great fan of classic horror movies since his teen years, and his abundant collection of objects is a vibrant showcase of the beauty and artistry of genre poster art. The Golden Age of Hollywood saw adaptations from the pinnacle of gothic literature, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, earning stars like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff iconic status as the canonical monsters of modern imagination.


New Yorker cover
New Yorker cover
New Yorker cover

Johnson’s task was to draw inspiration from this tradition of imagery, providing a clever twist on horror tropes within his own signature graphic style.

Some of us may be familiar with Johnson’s work on the covers of The New Yorker or The New York Times Book Review, but I was first introduced to his work through his acclaimed graphic novel Night Fisher, published in 2005. Set in his native Hawaii, it’s an honest depiction of adolescent awkwardness set against the “languid tropical climate and strip mall tackiness of Hawaii,” an ironic juxtaposition only locals are quite as acquainted with.

Knghtfshr Sm005

I picked up the book having just graduated from high school in Honolulu, feeling wistful for the familiarity of little details I had once found strange or annoying, as happens after one leaves a place.

Johnson’s smooth, understated linework, reminiscent to me of Charles Burns, played well with the ennui of the teenagers in his story, estranged in purgatory.

I contacted Johnson over email with a few questions about his process. How does an artist convey a narrative with only one image? I wondered how he would respond to the drama and titillations of these horror poster designs, and if the unnerving quietude I knew him for would find its way into the project.

“Growing up on Maui before the internet, comic books were some of the only art I had access to,” says Johnson.

“I lived on a fairly rainy, rural part of the island, so there were plenty of afternoons spent inside with only drawing materials to entertain myself.”

“I have never designed an actual movie poster, but as a graphic novelist I often turn to vintage movie posters for inspiration for their hand-lettered type and striking imagery. New movie posters are almost always devoid of any narrative, instead focusing on the stars' faces. Vintage posters often try to hook you by telling a story.”

Storytelling is a skill very much honed in comics, as panel-by-panel visual progression leads the reader across the page, here zooming into a detail, there pulling away to take in a wide vista, setting the scene. It stems from the same storyboarding techniques used in cinematography.

I love designing narrative images because the story dictates every decision," Johnson explains. "My approach is always the same: tell the story as directly as possible arranged in the order in which it should be read. If it's not telling the story, it's distracting from it.

Image of work in progress
Image of work in progress
Third image of work in progress

“Our publishing team at PEM is always on the lookout for fresh ideas and idea creators. The obvious solution would have been to reproduce one of the posters in the collection,” explains Kathy Fredrickson, PEM’s Chief of Curatorial Affairs. “Collaborating with a young artist like R. Kikuo Johnson to create an original cover inspired by the horror film genre was the less expected solution. Kikuo was able to synthesize the material in the collection with a nod to Kirk's heavy metal background in a slyly humorous solution that felt just right to us.”

For PEM’s It’s Alive! project, Johnson referred to the objects in the exhibition for inspiration, but focused in particular on the work of Bernie Wrightson, famed comic illustrator who created Swamp Thing for D.C. Comics in 1972, adapted Frankenstein for Marvel Comics in 1983, and continued on to adapt the works of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King.

Wrightson’s Frankenstein

There is indeed a deeply unsettling quality to Wrightson’s artwork, and his indulgence in beautiful, meticulous detail contrasted with romantic grotesquerie. PEM was very pleased at Johnson’s witty fusion of this aesthetic with his own somewhat brighter feel, in his sketches for our exhibition catalog cover. The final artwork is equal parts vintage horror poster, Wrightson, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, injecting traditional imagery with a pop sensibility befitting the show, and our rock star collector Kirk Hammett.

Wrightson passed away of brain cancer earlier this year, and multitudes of fans including Joss Whedon, Neil Gaiman, Mark Hamill and Guillermo del Toro paid tribute to him in memoriam. The Walking Dead dedicated its 7th season finale to Wrightson.

All this is to say that the visual language of Hollywood horror has deep roots, and we see these influences play across the objects in the It’s Alive exhibition, and its catalog alike. Many thanks to R. Kikuo Johnson for a wonderful homage to this lineage of artwork, with his striking catalog cover. Pick up a copy now at!

It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection runs August 12 through November 26.

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