FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 15 / FEB / 2021
An Illustrated Cosmic Odyssey
by Bruce Jones
Warner Books: New York, 1980
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen
Neville Scott, a 28-year-old "space jockey and freelance rocket man" lives a Bohemian life, drifting from planet to planet in an unspecified future. Having spent his money on "wine, women and wine" he finds himself unable to pay his fines and has his spaceship, Amberstar, impounded by monks on the highly moral planet, Cylis 4. The book that carries the spaceship’s name follows Scott as he survives a series of intergalactic scrapes. Its space opera plot barely stands up to scrutiny but Amberstar’s visual narrative is sublime.
The book’s blurb claims that "through the miracle of the PHOTO-MULTIPLE® process comes science fiction’s greatest pictorial triumph". Such a superlative ‘miracle’, in fact, required a lot of labour, involving three photographers, two special effects staff and a four further colourists. The ‘multiple’ seems to come as much from the ensemble effort - including six actors, several different planetary landscapes and a fleet of plastic spaceships and toy dinosaurs – as it does from the complex collage and overlay technique.
Inspired by Italian fumetti photonovels, Bruce Jones, a stalwart of the US comic book scene, tried this photo-colourisation method in an experiment that began and ended with Amberstar. Hoping for a filmic effect, he first choreographed elaborate black-and-white photographs to which a distinctive palette of pinks, mauves, neon greens and acid yellows were added in the studio of famous comics book illustrator, Richard Corben. The result is a slightly sickly psychedelic aesthetic redolent of Roger Dean’s fantasy art and David Bowie’s solarised Ashes to Ashes video from the same year. Perhaps the most significant visual reference is Star Wars; as Jones acknowledged later in life, Star Wars style at the time added saleability to almost everything.
It is no coincidence, then, that the central character, with knee boots and a laser gun holster, cuts a Han Solo-like figure, at least from the waist down. His top half, with a hairy chest barely contained by a red striped vest and black leather jacket, evoke a moody Lou Reed. True to his cosmic drifter role, Scott conquers an alien-cum-nymph, Lehan, after finding her bathing naked in a stream. The toning adds an eerie tint to Lehan’s Kate Bush-like beauty but notably doesn’t conceal her very earth-bound filled molars. After flirting on the back of a centaur, the couple’s act of consummation is detailed in a five-panel horizontal series of erotic manoeuvres rendered in a soft purple haze.
The sex scene is distinctive not only for signalling the adult nature of this rather childlike tale, full of almond-eyed aliens, glowing green cyclops and pink plastic octopi. It also provides a place where the image layout provides an effective narrative. The text-image juxtapositions are at times unsophisticated in Amberstar; little thought has been given to their positioning on the page. Not quite a graphic novel, its clunky script appears in chunky blocks. Illustrations do not feature the speech balloons typical of fumetti but they are still expected to speak in sequence.
The most alluring scenes play with scale and perspective in dramatic ways. A truncated view of Lehan’s fleeing leg, in silver knee-high boots, towers over a tangerine triceratops in hot pursuit in a full-page image that could standalone as a space-age poster. In another outstanding image, where Lehan finds her ghostly clone in an uninhabited palace full of marble, glass and computer dashboards, the couple are seen from a high angle and sliced into a tight space of dramatic diagonals, textured surfaces and cold colours. The detail of this single panel, with its multiple visual elements, shows a massive investment of time and perhaps explains the hastier renditions found elsewhere; it must have been hard to maintain this momentum in a book of around fifty spreads.
Overall, while the book’s sherbet colour spectrum lends itself well to the tale’s cosmic smog, solar flares and dream sequences, the amateurish parts where the joins show give this book its charm, like the primitive special effects of vintage Doctor Who. Rubber-headed aliens in cagoules and pipe-smoking, laser-toting toffs might be characters now most likely to be found in The Mighty Boosh but for all its comic implausibility, Amberstar’s production was taken extremely seriously, not least in its painstaking paste-up, which now seems a world away.