I recently did an interview with artist and illustrator Michael Bukowski who does the pretty awesome Yog-Blogsoth. His work is gaining notoriety and for good reason. He took some time to answer some questions I had about the project, and about his process in general, as well as his thoughts on HPL and his writing.
The interview is presented here in full, with light editing.
Shoggoth Kinetics: Could you talk a little bit about Yog-Blogsoth. How did you get started with the project and how long have you been at it?
Michael Bukowski: It started in a gestational form on a trip to Edinburgh with my brother in 2007. I was on the plane reading At the Mountains of Madness and it got to that part where HPL describes the Elder Things. I couldn't wrap my head around the paragraphs of anatomical details, so I started sketching while I read. Then, whenever as I read more, I kept thinking "Yeah everyone has illustrations of Cthulhu, but what about a Voonith?" Then I got asked to do a show at a venue here in Philly and I did maybe 20 pieces based on HPL's work and made some half size mini zines that I wanted to look like a cross between a D&D monster manual and an actual wizard's journal. The show and the zines sold out, but after that I kinda just sat on the idea until 2010. I wanted to start a blog that involved my artwork but I wanted it to stand out from my commission work so I decided to expand that project. The very first post on Yog-Blogsoth is my mission statement. I wanted to illustrate every creature and god HPL ever mentioned in his fiction and poetry. So, to answer your question (finally), I've been seriously working on the blog for 4 years, but the idea has been brewing for much longer.
SK: What draws you to monsters? Why do a sort of bestiary of anything-remotely-Lovecraftian?
MB: It probably has something to do with my obsessive nature. I like to organize and catalog things. I've also loved animals and dinosaurs since I was a kid. So, the bestiary is a great way to present these creatures in an organized manner. It's also really fun. Like reading some of these descriptions and trying to figure out a way these creatures could actually exist, or if they can't actually exist because the break the rules of physics, how do you portray that? One of my favorite creatures is the Byakhee from “The Festival”,
"There flapped rhythmically a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things ... not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor decomposed human beings, but something I cannot and must not recall."
So you've got to figure out which elements of each of those things go where and how do they fit together to make a cohesive being. It's real fun.
SK: The idea of categorizing or organizing these indescribable monsters is interesting. There are actually so many potential questions I could ask in response to this. In the sort of universe that HPL has us living in, do you think it’s ultimately possible for humans to categorize his monsters? Would they fit any classification scheme that humans could invent?
MB: That's a great question that has a complicated answer, haha. Yes and no. I think if this universe was a real thing and we inhabited it, we would NOT be able to comprehend these "creatures" if they even are describable as such. Some seem to take on the characteristics of elementals as we know them or pure energy. Most likely though, they're something altogether unknown to us and unimaginable. If something is so bizarre and otherworldly as to drive a person mad on sight, I'd say it's not something we could categorize. However, since we do live in a world where these stories are fiction, it's fun and interesting to try to portray and characterize these creatures. I'm also assuming we're talking about the Great Old Ones (another term of categorization). However, some of the less powerful creatures, the more traditional "monsters", were very describable for HPL and lend themselves to illustration/categorization. The creatures of the Dreamlands specifically. Ghouls, gugs, ghasts, dholes, moon-beasts, moon-cats, Lengians, all have ample descriptions. I guess just the idea that there are Great Old Ones, and then varying degrees of lesser beings all points to some desire to catalog and organize these beings. I think HPL hinted at it in his writings, Derleth ran with it and then the RPGs and subsequent mythos writers have cemented it.
I think it's important to note that much of the organization I do for the blog is purely for my own sake and shouldn't be taken as gospel. I think the mythos is fluid and beyond one solid interpretation. This is just how I interpret these things.
I don't know if that really answered your question but I'd say that professional and amateur fans have been trying to organize these creatures since HPL thought them up.
SK: One other question on this point: you draw them, attempt to give at least a solid visual form to these creatures. Do you ever actually try to fit them into some kind of monster taxonomy? as in organize them into distinct categories?
MB: I guess I have a loose categorization in my head. There are "creatures" that I envision like animals. So Deep-Ones, Tcho-Tchos, Spiders Of Leng are all in that set and they get smaller 4"x 6" drawings. Then there are the Gods. This includes the Great Old Ones (Dagon, Cthulhu, Chaugnar Faugn, Ithaqua, Shudde-M'ell) as well as what I refer to as the Old World Gods. These are all the references to world mythology that HPL makes (Buddai, Nodens, Charybdis, Kali, Mictlanteuctli) these all get 8"x 10" drawings. Finally there are the Outer Gods. These are the gods that are more like unfathomable energies than anything else. Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep and eventually Azathoth. Azathoth will be the last piece in the project that I do. The Outer Gods get drawings as large as they need to be to encompass their...splendor? haha
I've also had some problems figuring out where Nyarlathotep falls in this taxonomy but I think everyone's had that problem. I decided to make his Haunter Of the Dark avatar the main one and give that the Outer God treatment, while all other guises get the God treatment.
SK: Could you talk about your design process? How do you decide what a given monster, alien, god, or entity is going to look like? What sorts of references do you look at? (and if you do use references to design a creature, why do you choose the kinds of references you choose?)
MB: It depends really. The Yithians have a very exact description. Still, I did look at pictures of slugs and snails to get the "foot" how I wanted it. I also look at crabs and insects all the time to get claws to look cool. Also, insect, arachnid and crustacean anatomy is really complicated so I look pictures of those a lot. Macro pictures of mites and other insects are great. Basically I'm looking for something fantastic with a basis in the real world. I also pose for a lot of reference myself. Especially for the gods based in old world mythology. They're all humanoid. Some of them are more muscular so I look at body builders etc.
SK: I’m also kind of curious, do you think there will be an end point for Yog-Blogsoth? Will you draw all of the creatures directly created or written of or mentioned by HPL and then stop, or will you expand your project to include the creations of Lovecraft’s successors, like Bloch, Long, and Derleth, etc, in the same systematic way you've approached HPL?
MB: I do think there will be an endpoint. I'm actually getting pretty close to that time. I'm also talking to Niels and the other organizers of NecronomiCon '15 in Providence, and we're talking about the possibility of showing ALL the work I've done for the blog. That would theoretically be when the blog is done and my Azathoth will be "unveiled" at that show.
However, I think even though I'll have done all of HPL’s creations, I would love to move on to other authors that work within the mythos. I've been dying to illustrate some of Ramsey Campbell's creatures and deities. Talk about incomprehensible....read a description of Daoloth! Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith have some great creatures too. I'll definitely be keeping the blog alive post-HPL.
SK: Finally, and I know this is a bit of a loaded question, what about Lovecraft has drawn you to his work? You’ve got a whole blog dedicated to his monsters, so I think it’s fair to ask what your take is!
MB: I'm actually doing a post of a Karl Edward Wagner monster in December and I pulled a quote from him to go with the piece. It's a great summary of what I love about HPL:
"To my mind, what’s impressive about Lovecraft is his profound cosmic negativism: the idea that mankind is confronted by horrors that are completely beyond his comprehension, forces against which he is powerless, and when he begins to realize these horrors exist, they inevitably destroy him."
I do love his nihilism, his atheism, the fact that he created a mythos where all the creatures and stories cross reference. I LOVE that he opened it to other authors and Clark Ashton Smith will reference the Necronomicon or Robert E. Howard will create his own Unaussprechliche Kulten and then HPL will reference that in one of his stories. He also encouraged tons of budding weird fiction writers to keep doing what they were doing and improve it. I also love that, at a time when Weird Tales was full of werewolves and vampires he came along with "indescribable" monsters that sometimes required 4 paragraphs to lay out their alien anatomy.
I HATE his racism, class elitism and sexism. This has been a point of much debate recently because of the World Fantasy Award proposal. It's honestly shocking to me that anyone would debate it. It's factual that he was a racist and he seems like a pretty deplorable person. I love his fiction but there are aspects of it that are horrendous. Like “The Horror At Red Hook”, “Medusa's Coil”, “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” are all stories ABOUT the horrors of other races or tainted blood. I think any fan of his work comes to a point where they (hopefully) say to themselves "Well, that was cool story, but there are some troubling ideas in there. What's that all about?" And I think the most important thing we can do is talk about it. Talk about it, debate it, converse about and don't let it fade away. If you've read any of his letters you know HE sure liked to talk about it!
SK: You mention HPL’s shortcomings as a person. I absolutely agree he held some incredibly despicable views on politics, race, class, etc. But does Lovecraft also sometimes stop short with his good ideas? This is kind of a weird question. I’ll try to rephrase it; among Lovecraft’s good ideas, are there any that you feel he didn’t push far enough?
MB: I think the problem is that he doesn't stop short haha. He nailed the good things so well, that people try to overlook the bad. If he had really terrible ideas for his fiction (as opposed to his politics which worked their way into his fiction), everyone would've written him off as a jerk. But because he nailed that cosmic horror, nihilism, universe building and pure horror, those other things become unfortunate foibles.
arts educator, painter, drawist, heavy metal enthusiast, and long-time Lovecraft fan