Book Reviews: Silhouettes from Popular Culture and The Great Showdowns

Posted 2 years ago by Books

Although most of my writing today is in the non-fiction vein, there was a time when I fancied myself a writer of more fantastical works.  I wrote many short stories, started a handful of novels, and outlined a couple of screenplays, but, like so many wanna-be Stephen King’s, never really got anywhere with it.  However, over the last few months, I’ve come back to fiction, because a friend and I are working on a YouTube series together.

When writing the screenplays for this series, one thing I’ve really been focused on is to making sure that each character is unique and interesting; that they don’t get lost in the crowd.  There are a few tried and true ways to accomplish this task, many of which are explored in two new art collections from Titan Books: Silhouettes from Popular Culture by Olly Moss and The Great Showdowns by Scott Campbell.

Harkening back to the 18th Century, artist Olly Moss has brought the silhouette artform into the 21st Century and given it an unusual twist.  Using a scanned image and a laser cutter, Moss makes very precise, very recognizable paper outlines of icons from modern pop culture, such as Batman, Harry Potter, and Boba Fett.

Scott Campbell, on the other hand, uses watercolor to illustrate the lesson we were all taught in high school English Lit class, about the three primary types of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself.  For example, Campbell’s book features such famous rivalries as Rocky and Apollo Creed, a barefoot John McClane versus tiny, anthropomorphic shards of glass, and Natalie Portman meeting her Black Swan alter-ego face-to-face.  The artwork is unabashedly adorable, with every character and even inanimate objects – like the truck chasing down Dennis Weaver in Duel – bearing a broad, simple smile.  The fact that the characters don’t seem to actually be all that upset with each other takes some of the sting out of the showdown, which almost makes you wonder if they could have been friends were the circumstances different.

What I find most fascinating about both of these artists’ work is the idea of iconography.  The art in both books is untitled, in that there are no individual names associated with the portraits.  So on one level, both books highlight the physical appearance of the characters, with little costuming details cut out of Moss’ silhouettes, and the stylized, but still incredibly faithful depictions of the characters in Campbells’ adorable battles.  In Showdowns, you can tell that’s Royal Tenenbaum, with his slicked-back hair, grey-striped suit, and rectangular glasses, squaring off with Margot Tenenbaum and her raccoon eyeliner, Richie Tenenbaum and his headband, and Chas Tenenbaum in a red tracksuit.  In Silhouettes, the impossible buzzcut of Guile from Street Fighter II is unmistakable, but so is the otherwise ambiguous outline of Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead, simply because Moss had the forethought to add a defining aspect to the cut-out: two small dots of red on the man’s shirt.

Although it could be argued that props are an extension of the costume, there are a few pieces, especially in Showdowns, where the prop is key to the connection.  If you only saw a man dressed all in black with shaggy hair facing a group of thugs, it probably wouldn’t clue you in too much about what movie is being portrayed.  But put a hammer in that man’s hand and a light goes off in the minds of fans of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.

This also brings to mind the idea of context, and how the scenes depicted and the characters’ relationships help define them.  For example, one piece in Showdowns, depicts a woman dressed in a long, shapeless dress, carrying a sledgehammer.  Alone, you might have a hard time placing her, but when seen standing across from a block of wood between two feet, you shudder at the memory of “the hobbling” scene from 1990’s Misery.  Similarly, two men dressed all in black, one in a trench coat, and both wearing sunglasses could be any number of movies.  But when one of them is leaned over backwards at an impossible angle, you instantly know that its Neo and Agent Smith from The Matrix.

Although this context is less important in Silhouettes, there are still a few subjects that require one another to be recognizable.  Based upon the silhouette alone, it would be pretty much impossible to place Kaneda from Akira.  But coupled with the wild-hair, cloak, and obvious scowl – even in silhouette – of Tetsuo, and you suddenly recognize Kaneda’s high-collared jacket with the button strap hanging off.

Of course if you don’t know your pop culture, all the visual clues and contexts in the world won’t help.  And that’s part of what makes both books so cool.  Both connect and communicate with a select audience on a completely different level than mere words could possibly do.  Because when we see E.T. facing off with a Speak and Spell, we’re reminded of the tense and scary scene when our favorite little extra-terrestrial finally phones home.  When we see a silhouette with a red mohawk across from that of a pirate captain, our brains instantly scream out the battle cry, “Rufiooooo!”

Like all great art, these books also make the viewer turn an eye inward, too.  Flipping through these instantly recognizable characters begs the question of how you will be remembered as the hero of your own story.  Will the defining feature be your costume, your props, your relationships, your deeds, or some combination thereof?  Or does it really matter, as long as you’re not forgotten?

The artwork on display in Silhouettes from Popular Culture and The Great Showdowns illustrates not only the undeniable power of iconography, but also the stories in which these characters lived and breathed.  For that alone, both books are worth buying and revisiting anytime you want to spend a moment with old friends and relive shared memories of defeating the bad guy, getting the girl, and saving the day.

Silhouettes from Popular Culture by Olly Moss and The Great Showdowns by Scott Campbell, are both available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, and other great bookstores.  Both will be released on October 30.  

  • CodyMix

    Scott C has some incredible work and if this book is anything like his last it is a sure winner.