The White Wolf Rides Again: Artist John Picacio on Illustrating Michael Moorcock’s “Elric: Swords and Roses”


Ask any illustrator which contemporary fantasy epics are the “dream projects” to illustrate and you’ll get a range of responses. You can bet though that every artist worth his/her salt will say Elric of Melnibone is on their dream shortlist. Today, Ballantine/Del Rey releases the sixth and concluding volume of their definitive Elric omnibus series, Elric: Swords and Roses by the legendary Michael Moorcock.

I illustrated the cover and interiors for this volume as well as the first of the series, Elric: The Stealer of Souls, and the cover of the third volume, Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress. I joined the great Michael Kaluta, Justin Sweet, and Steve Ellis, as the artists chosen to illustrate this series.

Most of my cover illustrations spring from something essential within the text and this one was no different. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Swords And Roses:

“As his warhorse stamped upon the filthy shingle, he drew the runesword out of its scabbard so Stormbringer’s black radiance poured into that great, ruined space, and a dangerous murmuring song came out of it, as if it lusted for the soul of he who had tried to steal its energy. And the warhouse reared up, pawing at the murky air; and the albino’s scarlet eyes blazed through all that layered darkness, and he cried out the name of the one who had wronged them, who had created all this, who had abused every power, every responsibility, every duty, every treaty, every trust ever placed in him.”

Why did this passage call out as a cover inspiration? Mike once said his early career was inspired by the old American cowboy movie serials he watched, amidst the rubble of a WWII-torn London. It occurred to me that they often ended with some variation of the hero riding his horse into the sunset at story’s end. Well, this series was coming to a close, but Elric wasn’t going to be galloping gently into any tranquil sunsets. He instead demanded to subvert that cliché as he’s done to so many for almost fifty revolutionary years.

When I illustrate a Moorcock book, my art best serves Moorcock’s glorious prose as an emotional conduit, rather than as a literal visual translator. That’s my intention going in because his writing is so stirring and visually potent by itself. One big advantage came attached to this job: I knew exactly where the cover typography would be. The cover type is a unifying element across the series and in this case, is positioned in the same place for every book. I knew the composition would be full-bleed (no borders and art pushing beyond the edges of the cover), but only the top-half of the image would be seen above the typography that would dominate the entire bottom half of the cover. That’s an interesting challenge, especially considering I wanted a dynamic action shot of Elric on horseback.

I remembered a classic N.C. Wyeth painting of an Indian on horseback, galloping toward the viewer, with spear in hand. One of the initial rough sketches that I submitted to art director David Stevenson was very much an homage to that Wyeth image. It was by far my favorite of my ideas. On the plus side, I really liked the way Elric’s riding posture, facial expression and the horse’s upper anatomy compacted into a tight compositional space. That would help the image to fit within the cover’s particular type scheme. On the downside, I thought my initial sketch was very much a derivative adaptation of the Wyeth image and would need to evolve much more in order to become its own thing. Thankfully, it did just that, and I think my final art found its way toward something iconic and essentially Elric.

On to a glimpse of the book’s interior illustrations, which were art-directed by Del Rey VP/Editor-in-Chief Betsy Mitchell. Here’s a peek at three of them. I did these with traditional Faber Castell pencils on illustration board.

This first one is simple but it’s one of my favorite Elric drawings I’ve ever done. For me, it captures a melancholy that’s essential to the character. This is the first illustration of Chapter One. I drybrushed white acrylic to get thebacklight coming from the right across the horse’s face and neck.

The second preview is inspired by the following passage:

“He raised the blade, almost lovingly, cradling it like a child. ‘We have need of each other still, thee and I.’”

Elric and his soul-drinking sword Stormbringer have one of the most compelling and destructive relationships in all of modern fantasy. They indeed need each other, as a junkie needs heroin. I see Elric and Stormbringer as the Pieta, just as much as I see them as Sid and Nancy.

This final one is a full-pager for the novella Black Petals, included in the book.

This one speaks for itself, doesn’t it? No introspection here. Elric is in trouble, but he’s got Stormbringer, and I think we all can imagine what might be coming next.

There’s more where these came from in Elric: Swords and Roses.

For me, it’s a bittersweet day. I’m overjoyed at the release of this latest omnibus, but sad to see the completion of this great series from Del Rey. I want to read more adventures, but that’s the great thing about the best revolutions in pop culture. They transcend and remind us of the best we have, when we need them most. Today’s a great day for swords, roses and revolutions. Long live Elric.