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Stephen Gammell: A Friendship Forged in the Dark

stephen gammell

 Greetings, fellow fear followers. Tis’ another frenzied frightfest filled with eerie exploration.

Grab your torches and pitchforks. Let us mob-march together across yet another murderous moor. Tonight we brave the mist in search of the ultimate bearer of bedtime burdens. He’s the drawer of dark art that gifted us our first ghoul-gasm. He’s the herald of horror headaches, and he put the chill in children illustrations. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m speaking, of course, about the juicy genius of Mr. Stephen Gammell.

He’s one of those mystery magicians who has a reputation for macabre magic among the youth of the 80’s and 90’s. You may not know his name, but trust me, you know his work. He’s been doing his thing as a paid professional since the 70’s, but he’s particularly fear-famous for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. Like many currently-early-30’s children, I was introduced by this dude (along with writer Alvin Schwartz) to terror tales in the best way. You see, fear is a tricky thing. Often times, it keeps us from moving forward. However, true morbid masters of the netherrealm find a way to give darkness a sort of awkward gravitational pull. Fear is supposed to be something you run from, but Gammell turned darkness into a siren’s song that many adolescents are still singing along to today. Gammell didn’t always do horror, but he was always brilliant. Like all kings and queens of creativity, his brilliance had to start somewhere.

From a very young age, Gammell’s parents put a perfectly good sheet of paper in front of him to ruin. Those are paraphrased words from Gammell himself. It’s easy to see how a young son might get “drawn in” by illustration when his dad is the art editor for a major magazine. Encouragement from your parents is one thing, but I think growing up in Iowa must have been an even bigger influence. I mean seriously, what’s in Iowa? I’m pleading ignorance here. Will someone please message me and tell me what exciting thing existed in Iowa as a kid 50 years ago or something? Oh, my bad. I forgot. You guys have Albert, the world’s largest bull. My life is made. Thanks, Iowa. Anyway, sorry for my lack of Iowa knowledge. I’m sure Stephen probably appreciates it a lot more. If you are reading this Mr. Gammell, please accept my sincerest apologies. Des Moines is much more interesting to me now than ever, thanks to your existence.

In my limited experience, I find that art is not something you chase.

It seems to be something that always chases you. I read that, from a very young age, Stephen Gammell found pencils much more interesting than toys. I also read that he credits drawing as the thing that “got him through” school. I don’t know about you fellow creators out there, but I definitely credit curiously cultivated fantasy as the ultimate cure to the soul-sucking scholastic disease we adult children now call boredom. For the record, it’s not the fault of your teachers, my friends. It is the system’s fault. If you don’t believe me, just check out one of the old school houses circa 1876. I hear they have one in Iowa. You’ll find that it looks strikingly similar to our modern day desk dilemma. Alas, my ADD has appeared again, and this is a topic for another time. For now, back to Stephen. P.S. This article does not reflect the opinions of ComixCentral, nor does it belittle the value of education for the youth. P.P.S. Yes it does. P.P.P.S. Go to school anyway. Stephen did. He did not, however, go to school for art.

Like many unique geniuses, Gammell didn’t have any formal artistic training. There’s nothing wrong with going either way necessarily, but those who don’t follow formulas are bound to find something special. I would venture to guess that they find their own way a bit faster, but everyone has influences. Gammell was first influenced by the periodical illustrations his father would bring home from the office. As a songwriter/musician by trade, I was first influenced by Brian Wilson and my mom’s old THK tapes of The Beach Boys Greatest Hits. What can I say? We’re all a product of our surroundings.

Once Gammell came into his own, his first published illustrations came in the form of squirrels declaring war on a farmer. The book: A Nutty Business written by Ida Chittum. Since then he’s illustrated/written over 50 stories and poems. Other illustrated works include: Old Black Fly, Mudkin, and, one of my personal favorites, The Relatives Came (written by Cynthia Rylant). Incidentally, this one came out the year I was born. While these were not especially creepy, you can see Gammell’s style in each picture book. His illustrations have a way of both complementing the writer and maintaining a unique, very memorable signature all its own. He was a runner-up for The Caldecott Medal in 1982 for Where the Buffaloes Begin (written by Olaf Baker) and finally nabbed the award in 1982 for Song and Dance Man (written by Karen Ackerman). The Caldecott Medal is a pretty major award in the league of little kid literary gentleman. Unlike the sexy leg lamp in A Christmas Story, this award actually means something.

Now that some back story has been taken care of, let us return to why we are here together.

While some of Gammell’s literary partnerships may have won awards over the years, no partnership has created more buzz, or more controversial excitement, than his literary marriage of imagination with the flesh fevered folklore king, writer Alvin Schwartz. Both creative wizards remembered something that so many “adults” often forget. There’s this phrase around storytelling and self-esteem every kid grows up getting sick of, thanks to every kindergarten teacher ever. Say it with me, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” It’s a childishly delicious sentiment with a gushy cliche’ center, but the inside truth is that pictures mean so much more than “a thousand words” when you’re somewhere between 9 years old and a “hormonecidal” maniac. As a youth pictures mean everything. There’s no better tapestry of that understanding than the covers on the front of any ORIGINAL Scary Stories tale. We’ll talk about why I capitalized original in a moment. For now, let’s take a ride back ‘round a crooked carousel of magnificently mangled memories full of creaky stairs, angry shutters, haunted whispers, and cat-eye shadows. What was your favorite story, and perhaps more importantly (since Gammell is our focus today), what was your favorite image? I honestly can’t decide. Let’s you and I go through some of them briefly, and maybe you can help me remember the best of the best.

There’s something about “The Red Spot” that sticks with you. I scratch my cheek just thinking about it. The illustration for “Oh Susannah” doesn’t really connect with the story, but it sure reaches into the imagination. If you need immersion therapy into the depths of dying female desperation, definitely check out the images from “The Bride” and “The Haunted House.” Last, but not least, the image (and story) that never left me to this day has to be “Harold.” I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s because I have a farmhand’s soul. Maybe it’s because the story addresses bullying in the best way, and I was sort of going through some of that stuff in my own life at the time. Either way, trust me on this, don’t torture things you don’t fully understand, even if it’s something as simple as a scarecrow named Harold.

As I examined some of these stories from my past, my girlfriend remarked, “I can’t believe they thought these stories and pictures were okay for kids!” THAT, my friends, is exactly my point. The reason why these stories are so beloved is because both Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell approached their passion with bravery. Even more so, they had faith– faith in their audience regardless of age. Nightmares were not to be shied away from, but exposed for what they were and are still today.  It seems to me that both the artist in question (Gammell) and the writer (Schwartz) understood the difference between “childish” and children, “youth” and young adult. It’s an important distinction. Any artist with an ounce of courage puts passion in front of controversy. They put joy ahead of concern. They value charisma beyond critique. You get it. If you take one thing from this piece, I hope it’s this: push boundaries in order to get pushed back. Otherwise, you’ll always be one step behind the artist you were meant to be. With that said, every artist has their own mental paint brush. The same story project could be given to ten different illustrators, and they would have ten different takes. So let’s take a quick look at the Scary Stories 30th Anniversary blunder and my thoughts around the new illustrations.

Brett Helquist is a brilliant illustrator. Do you hear me people? For real though, he’s really good. He can’t stand up to Gammell, but that’s not really his fault (kind of). Before I start to ramble, let me back up a bit. For those of you who didn’t know, Harper Collins decided to accidentally ruin lives when they had Stephen Gammell’s illustrations redone for the 30th Anniversary release of the Scary Stories series. If you don’t believe me, check out some of the Amazon reviews. All the one-star writeups come from surprised angry readers expecting a night scream and getting a whimper at best. I’d break down how I feel with words here, but again, pictures are worth so much more in this scenario.

Bottom line: Brett’s great. He’s best known for his work with Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) and A Series of Unfortunate Events. The fact is, his stuff would probably work with just about anything else. I did some research, arguably limited, and found all these people hating on Brett for his part in destroying memories of our childhood. Look, stop hating on this guy. He’s awesome. He was hired to do a job, and he did it as he saw fit. It’s not like he stood in a candlelit room cackling while dismantling the dreams of Stephen Gammell after he got the call from the publisher. If you’re gonna hate on anyone, you should probably hate on Harper Collins. They’re the ones who finally caved in to all the helicopter parents and book ban lists. If you’re one out of a million people who actually like the new illustrations, good for you. I know what you might be thinking– something along the lines of, “Brett’s illustrations are more directly connected to the story.” Guess what? You’re right. However, you are once again missing the point.

Scare-reaction is much more about what you CAN’T see.

I don’t know Gammell personally, so I’m not sure whether his vision was a happy accident or a well-thought out gallery of gore. However, it’s obvious that Stephen understood that the one thing more important to a kid than pictures is imagination. Of all the things an adult world can stop, imagination isn’t one of them. Parents can’t protect their kids from an imagination anymore than they can stop them from growing up. A message to all the parents who hate on Gammell’s illustrations: go away. No one likes you. Fear builds strength and character, and as a hopeful father myself, I’d much rather that fear come from Scholastic than some street corner. If fear is learned under the covers, within the confines of a book, in a happy home, then it can be slowly absorbed, explored, and, on some level, appreciated. If it is thrust upon you in some dark alley, then all you’ve got is fight or flight, and that, I’m afraid, is barely human. If anything, Gammell’s art reminds us that we aren’t just animals fleeing from life. We are people. We are people with hearts that beat for the sake of adventure, even if that adventure is so frightening that our hearts seem to leap ahead of our chest. As a kid, Gammell (and Schwartz) taught me that I could handle more than I bargained for, and I felt stronger for it. If you’re still haunted by these images, then good; they did their job. Besides, that’s what therapy is for. There are limits to fear, but they are only as limited as the human experience itself. You might say that bravery is at the heart of storytelling. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s something you find. His gritty imagery helped me smile in the face of darkness. We still don’t always get along, but thanks to Stephen Gammell, the dark and I will always be good friends.


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