This beautiful book makes my mouth water. The story, by Ted Hughes (first published 1968), is pure poetry, and the illustrations by Laura Carlin bring it to life in an uderstated and playful way.
The book opens with the eponymous hero standing on the brink of a cliff as the “wind sang through his iron fingers”. Within moments he has plunged over the edge, breaking into pieces in the process. With a whiff of the creation myth about it, the Iron Man rebuilds himself part-by-mechanical-part, hand grasping eyeball, eyeball and hand groping out leg and so on. Destroyed and rebuilt by his own hand, the Iron Man rises up with the dawn and witnessed only by two seagulls, immerses himself in the ocean. A sort of biblical beginning.
And like the hero of that particular book, the Iron Man is less than popular wherever he goes. He is feared and misunderstood by the locals, who attempt to suppress him forever. The story flows on, part fairy-tale, part fable, but always poetical : “So the Spring came round the following year, leaves unfurled from the buds, daffodils speared up from the soil, and everywhere the grass shook new green points.” Here the Iron Man rises (again), but this time when the folk get antsy, a small boy realises that maybe there’s a place for this giant, whose head is bigger than an entire bedroom, in society after all.
At this point I must mention Carlin’s illustrations and the dynamic design of the book. Carlin’s style has a naive, outsider art quality to it, which plays well alongside Hughes’ theme. She’s not afraid to explore different approaches from page to page, depending on what’s going on and we see everything from ‘Bayeux tapestry-esque’ battles with a touch of spear-throwing cave-painting added in, to graphic shapes cut-out and collaged like bold infographics. She has great fun with the physical page, folding pages inward to echo a split in the earth, which when peeled back reveal the Iron Man’s lurking head.
I particularly like the use of die cuts to build up to a slow reveal of the space-bat-angel-dragon. We watch in horror as this monster descends (a monster to rival any Roald Dahl creation in hideousness), “With slow, gigantic wing-beats, with long, slow writhings of its body, it was coming down through space, outlined black against its red star”.
He promptly lands on Australia and war is declared. War as the human solution to every percieved threat is of course a central theme in this story, and I love how Carlin adds a subtly modern nuance with reference to media coverage in her illustrations.
For a wonderful animated extract from the book, check out Ted Hughes – The Iron Man clip on the BBC’s website.
To see more of Laura Carlin’s beautiful work see Laura Carlin’s blog… she’s doing ceramics now as well as illustration. And if, like me, you’re always looking for tips for success as an illustrator, than you’ll enjoy this interview with Laura.