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Book Review: ‘Drew Struzan: Oeuvre’ Is A Beautifully Complete Look At The Master Illustrator’s Work

Book Review: 'Drew Struzan: Oeuvre' Is A Beautifully Complete Look At The Master Illustrator's Work

Last fall, the great “Art of Drew Struzan” book was released. It did a fairly comprehensive job of chronicling the career of the master illustrator and offered colorful commentary by the artist, giving us an exclusive peek behind the scenes of some of his most memorable work. Just as amazing as seeing early versions of his poster designs for movies like “Back to the Future” was learning some of the circumstantial anecdotes, such as how his concept for “Money Pit,” featuring the house capsizing like the Titanic, was shelved because of a real-life ocean liner tragedy. But the selection was obviously chosen for specific reasons – to illustrate a certain point or showcase the artist’s creative process. All of his iconic illustrations were there and accounted for (every “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” one-sheet, splashed across the glossy page) but there was just as much left out.

Enter “Drew Struzan: Oeuvre,” the most complete collection of the illustrator’s work yet. While those work-in-progress sketches and anecdotal asides aren’t present, what you’ll get is a whole lot of fucking artwork, beautifully reproduced and laid out. If you aren’t dazzled by his artistry, the sheer volume of his work might take you aback. Struzan has contributed to pop culture in a big way, and this book is an excellent testament to that contribution.

The book is broken up into five sections – Music, Movies, Publishing, Commercial, and Personal. There are brief introductions to each section, and the illustrations aren’t given captions – if you’re thinking “What is that?”, you have to flip to the index in the back. These reproduced illustrations are completely unadorned. Like much of the book, purity and simplicity are first and foremost (sometimes this isn’t a good thing).

After the obligatory introduction by frequent collaborator George Lucas, we’re given an introduction by Dylan Struzan, Drew’s wife and the author of most of the text in the book, who warns there is a caveat about the book’s title. “Please dispense with the idea that this book is the ultimate and final work on Drew Struzan’s career. He is, after all, still very much alive.” In other words: “Expect further volumes of this book in the next few years.”

The music selection is a collection of fascinating oddities – everything from an Alice Cooper greatest hits collection to the soundtrack to Disney‘s “Beauty & the Beast,” to a truly jaw-dropping, incredibly kitschy design for Black Sabbath‘s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – one sleeve features a man, presumably on his death bed, surrounded by loved ones draped in mourning. On the other sleeve, the color scheme has shifted from red to blue, and the bed has been replaced by the outstretched hands of a demon, the mourners turned into devils and a naked succubus, a rattlesnake wrapped around the man’s throat. It’s the kind of lacquered outrageousness that Struzan does expertly well but gets to exhibit infrequently, since his bread and butter has become drawing Harrison Ford with a giant head.

The movie section will be the one that most everyone pays attention to, and for good reason – this is how most of us know Struzan, as the man who got us excited for the next Saturday afternoon outing to the cinema. And it’s all here, including his work for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Frank Darabont. His Comic Con exclusive “Hellboy” posters (which easily trumped their actual studio-sanctioned counterpart), multiple designs for everything from “Coming to America” to “Name of the Rose” to the “Crocodile Hunter” movie (RIP Steve Irwin). This thing is fully rounded to a fault – who knew that Struzan created the poster for the 2009 direct-to-video animatronic dragon fantasy film “Labou?” The design is derivative of his earlier work (replace the dragon with E.T. or Harry Potter and you’ll get the idea) and a depressing reminder of his loss of cache as an illustrator and the increasing reliance on Photoshop and computer augmented imagery over hand-drawn artistry. (Tellingly, the box art for “Labou” didn’t even feature the Struzan illustration.)

Here’s where a little context would have been helpful – the section starts off with an image created for this summer’s dreary sci-fi mash-up “Cowboys & Aliens,” with a silhouetted monster roaring in front of the twin giant heads of Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig. (Ford’s giant head must float, Cheshire Cat-like, in Struzan’s brain, eternally.) Some explanation would have been greatly appreciated. It’s been reported that Struzan has been retired for a fair amount of time; this is why that expertly replicated “Super 8” poster that made the rounds this summer was instantly dismissed as being a forgery – Struzan, after all, wasn’t working anymore. So why crawl out of retirement for this wretched film? What was the image created for (since this is presumably the first time it has surfaced)?

Next up is the Publishing section, which is an exciting proposition – a Drew Struzan dust jacket must really pop, after all. What’s disappointing, then, is that the majority of this section is just like his film poster work – lots of continued “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” adventures, with the odd wrap-around “Star Trek” jacket thrown in for good measure. You’d think this would be a place where he could experiment with the design and framing; instead things are squarer and less crazily fun (honestly, an image of a scowling Kurt Russell is the best he could come up with for a “Snake Plisskin” comic book cover?)

Somewhat more interesting is the Commercial Works section. Part of it is no-brainer stuff you’ve seen before without realizing it was Struzan’s work (of COURSE he designed the poster for the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye attraction at California’s Disneyland and the box art for the VHS of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade“) and some of it is genuinely new and exceptional. It’s in this section that you’ll get everything from his poster for a hippie 1980 music festival in Lake Arrowhead, California to a Princess Diana commemorative plate, the kind they advertise on late night television, to a poster for a Smithsonian retrospective on American International Pictures.

Again, some context would have been happily appreciated. There’s a splashy, fantastical two-page spread featuring a man riding a motorcycle that’s also a living buffalo and a small bulldog with wings. The index states it’s a “Raiders of the Lost Art” promo poster, but what does that mean? It’s easily one of the most striking for-hire pieces in the entire book, with both Struzan’s fine line work and painterly colorization nearing perfection. But the mystery of what the piece is dilutes, not deepens, its appeal.

It’s the book’s final section, of Personal Works, that should hold the most interest for long-time devotees. If you only know Struzan from the movie theater lobby, this should be eye opening indeed. (This section has the longest introduction, again by Dylan and Drew, as if to absolve them from sharing such personal designs and to let everyone know that, hey, it’s okay for the guy who drew the posters for the Muppets movies to sketch naked ladies). Many of these images are genuinely haunting and beautiful – the section opens with a naked woman, her hair tumbling over her shoulders, a dark wedge of pubic hair in between her legs, her head an oversized skull, red and boiling.

His nudes here make an impression – they have given him freedom in content and form – a naked woman stretched out across two pages, her outline messily sketched, is broken up by tiles, some dark, some gold, with one featuring some etching of an ancient, worshiped deity. Elsewhere, two nude women are side by side, the shape in between them becoming something deep and important, a kind of glowing negative zone. But not everything in this section is nudes. Sometimes “personal” means “I didn’t do it for some giant corporation,” so you get haunting, lovingly rendered illustrations of a gorilla gazing intently at the viewer, or a jaguar surrounded by jungle fauna. And other times “personal” means “very personal” – like sketches he does of his young son or historical figures he admired (like Lincoln). Struzan showcases his fascination with Native American history in this section, as well as his love of giant beasts (like an ecstatically inky rhino). Oh, and lots and lots of naked ladies.

As far as a career-spanning retrospective, “Oeuvre” is hard to beat. There aren’t any glaring omissions, and while the lack of context and commentary (both of which made the earlier “Art of Drew Struzan” so much fun) are sorely lacking, it certainly won’t take away from your enjoyment from the book. And when you finally put it down, you’ll certainly be taken aback by the breadth and scope of the artist’s work and realize that he has influenced popular culture in ways that shaped our collective imagination. He might not have made our cultural dreams, but he was certainly responsible for getting us excited about them. [A-]

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