The King of Swords’ Devotion Sacrifices Emotion

Our final frigid stop on our tour through the Kingdom of Swords finds us at the symmetrical castle where the King of Swords resides… if you could call it residing. Here is a figure that found a means to drain himself of the emotions that threatened to distract him from his focus. His eyes have been surgically replaced with scrutinizing metal orbs, his face is constantly hidden behind a mask of honed, precisely sharpened metal, and rumors circulate around the Kingdom of Swords that his heart has even been replaced by more efficient machinery. To the King of Swords, humanity is an unwelcome anchor that restrained him from achieving true perfection.


The Calculated Order of the King of Swords

The King of Swords is a brilliant strategist, dissecting human behavior in constant search of patterns to potentially exploit for his idea of the greatest good. Strings are tied around his fingers, extending to unknown points of importance spanning across the Kingdom of Swords and beyond. These strings feed the King of Swords information that may help him further his plans while allowing him a direct line of manipulation. Though he lives in his own sense of honor, he will mold the world to his own design if necessary, meaning that he has no reservations about manipulating even those closest to him. His full faith and devotion is invested in a concept that is in his mind higher than the workings of humans. A grid of lasers cuts across the dark skies, representing his mathematically exacting control, even over elements of chaos. This focused control is also evidenced by the Sword Knights that flank him in perfect symmetry. Sword Knights are notorious for wildly and blindly stabbing at anything in their confusion (often one another), yet in the vicinity of the King of Swords, they develop an almost supernatural clarity.

Served by Coldness

The King of Swords is an intentionally cold individual because a lack of emotion is the most logical way to reach that which he deems a higher state of being. He keeps his hair pulled back neatly in a top knot style that maintains a regality while allowing him unfettered focus. His robotic eyes aid him in judging situations with unparalleled fairness, though this sometimes coincides with mercilessness. A deep, dark iciness emanates from the King of Swords’ chest as his empathy succumbed to a self-inflicted, psychic frost bite long ago. The people of the Kingdom of Swords celebrate his renowned fairness. Dressed in flowing purple robes, he knowingly wears the color of wisdom and royalty, though metallic blades jut forth from his shoulders, spiked bands line his wrists and ankles, and blades line his skirt, promoting a sense of fear in even those who deeply revere him. This is because he has proven himself to be loyal to ideas over people.


Beyond the Veneer of House Swords

Since the King of Swords has given himself completely to matters of thought while rejecting matters of emotion, he has failed his family on an emotional level. The Queen of Swords spends her free moments locked away in an icy wing of the palace, haunted by past joys that ultimately died. The Page of Swords roams the kingdom, wildly challenging the world around him as a continued reinforcement of his mental superiority. When the family are united, it is in mutual devotion of progress and the furtherance of the House of Swords whether that be political, economical, or otherwise. Does the King of Swords love his family? By his definition, he most likely does. But his idea of love is probably much closer to our idea of emotionless respect or an approval of efficiency.

The border reinforces the King of Swords’ fair yet harsh judgments through a set of scales. The corners show his focus and control represented by a sword flanked by two smaller swords, all facing the same direction.



The Queen of Swords Forgives No Failure… Least of All Her Own

A warm heart beats, often imperceptibly, beneath the pristine blankets of frost that make up the matriarch of the House of Swords; the pointedly regal and cuttingly tragic Queen of Swords. She is isolated in her pain, patiently counting the days in her icy tower, waiting for the gold of the sun to touch her spires once again. In many ways, she is the most admirable figure in the House of Swords but her unwavering devotion to perfection has elevated her far from the reach of other humans.


Haunted by Past Joy

We’ve seen the Queen of Swords before, head held high while demanding no less than perfection from the mystic in the Three of Pentacles. But the Queen of Swords’ personal card finds her in the privacy of her ice tower where she spends her days and nights alone, lost in thoughts of past joys that eventually withered and died in a winter that she alone was strong enough to withstand. These phantom joys of distant days are represented in a cloud of ghost hummingbirds that follows the Queen of Swords wherever she goes. In Native American mythology, hummingbirds are a symbol of happiness. Behind the queen stands a giant ice sculpture of herself in a state of blissful maidenhood; the water of her emotions made hard and cold by the bitter winds of her thoughts to create a constant reminder of a past forever gone. This is not to say that the Queen of Swords is beyond hope. In fact, she has faith that someday she will find the sun again and thaw out the years of solid ice. But she knows not when that day will come and thus she patiently waits in her frozen chamber, musing on her failures while continuing to genuflect to her ideals of perfection.

The Unforgiving Ice Tower of the Queen of Swords

This image shows the Queen of Swords without legs, instead propelled forward by a skirt of iron blades. She wields a sword with a metallic feather handle in tribute to the element of air and a guard comprised of a royal purple heart wrapped in loops of barbwire. Razor blades are woven into her hair and her crown of swords features bands of razor wire. The unnatural blue roses that line her window have their thorns further augmented by barbwire. She lives in a world of unrelenting sharpness. Yet, even with her eyelashes ending in blades and daggers lining her eyes, there isn’t a single scratch marring the perfection of her pale, frost-kissed skin.


The Lonely Heights of Perfection

Sadly, it is her ideals of perfection that continue to tie her to an eternal winter. It’s not so much the lowering of standards or the relaxing of boundaries that the Queen of Swords must embrace to release her from her self-flagellating nostalgia. Rather it’s an acceptance of the imperfections of humanity, including herself. Currently, the Queen of Swords lives in a reality that accepts no human flaws. It’s left her deeply respected and admired but ultimately alone. She has constructed heights that are impossible to meet and made herself at home in them. But in so doing, she is constantly subjecting herself to a pressure she can’t withstand forever. The Queen of Swords is a human that refuses to accept the flaws so inherent of the human experience. Thus she is seen with her feathered sword directed at her own perfect reflection; a focused point meeting a focused point…unable to gain any ground. The only way for the Queen of Swords to move out of the ice is to embrace the inevitable shortcomings of others and, in so doing, embrace her own shortcomings. Lofty ideals are fine but mistakes will be made. A world that won’t allow for mistakes is a very small world and one that will only continue to get smaller.

The sun is further blocked out of the Queen of Swords’ ice chambers by stained glass windows with primitive designs alluding to crying eyes; a reminder of her somber loneliness and cold, scrutinizing gaze. The borders of the Queen of Swords card feature inward facing swords, echoing her inability to forgive the flaws of others and thus herself. The royal purple heart kept isolated in wreaths of barbwire also appears in the borders.

The Page of Swords May Seem Cruel but it’s Only a Game

It’s odd that I find myself tongue tied and lost for words when approaching the subject of an archetype to whom I relate so strongly, the Page of Swords. While the majority of my Suit of Swords illustrations were all completed consecutively, the Page and the Knight were done well before the other cards in the suit. I distinctly remember feeling inspired to delve into my Page of Swords illustration shortly following my work on the Page of Pentacles when I was spending a lot of time visiting my then-mother-in-law in the hospital. It may sound selfish to admit, but it was a gloomy time for me on multiple levels and I found myself feeling isolated which more than likely translated into the idea of the Page wandering the icy shores of the Kingdom of Swords with only snowmen to keep him company.

The Mental Labyrinth Constructed by the Page

Pages are youthful by definition so it was interesting to explore the concept of a child growing up within rigid structures of iron or exploring harsh fields of ice beneath cold skies of gray. The Page of Swords is a child of the mind so, while he can become obsessively fascinated with the world around him, he’s also quite aware of his own cleverness. His precociousness can lend itself to a sense of arrogance which could easily be mistaken for cruelty though that’s not really his intent.


A Game of You

Rather, the Page of Swords is often engaged in some sort of mental game to further reinforce his brilliance… it’s just that the other players may not be willing participants or even aware they’re in the game. This exposes a weakness in the young Page in that his playful mental jousting shows little to no regard for the emotions of others. Here we find the Page of Swords among “friends” he’s created from snow. These men of frozen water (water being a symbol for feelings) have been hacked at and stabbed without a second thought by the strong-willed Page. It’s all a game but we see frowns on the faces of the maimed snowmen showing that the Page’s idea of a good time still has consequences, no matter how innocently he means it.

A Childish Sense of Communication

Due to his intense interest in human behavior, the Page of Swords will often indulge in gossip. He may also explore the power of deceit if it furthers his ideas or perspectives or fall back on language carefully designed to be offensive or insulting to break down a mental challenger. While the enlightened will point out that arguments aren’t meant to be won or loss but rather to find solutions, the Page is too immature to recognize this and deeply wants to win… so much so that he may not accept any alternative.


The Stirrings of Independent Thought

These traits may seem negative but they’re actually the heralds of independent thinking; a vital component to the human experience. The Page of Swords can be admired in that he’s taking his initial steps onto the frigid fields of emotionless thought with confidence. Of course, it’s not unwavering confidence or he wouldn’t delight so much in mentally besting as many people as possible. Still, with maturity, he will perhaps awaken some consideration for the feelings of others. For now, he’s having fun exercising his mental muscle and boldly seeing how far it can take him.

Symbolism of the Page of Swords

I designed the Page of Swords to wear a lot of spikes and thorns to symbolize his mental sharpness along with his wild, unrefined use of it. That being said, he uses his sword with intense accuracy and, even as a child, is one of the best sword fighters in the Kingdom of Swords. His sword’s guard is a mouth lined in spikes symbolizing his tendency to deceive to get what he wants and to gossip. He is seen casually stabbing at a snowman with one hand while using the other to hide his mouth as he leans back to gossip to another snowman. Behind him is a chilly ocean with sharp spires of iceberg mountains jutting forth as water turns to ice. This symbolizes the Page’s coldness turning emotions into concrete thought. In the borders, we see talking mouths engaging in gossip while the corners depict a sword with a spiked handle stabbing alongside a strong gust of wind. This is meant to remind us that the Page is firmly an agent of the Air element.

The Ten of Swords Cuts Away That Which No Longer Serves Us

While I’m not fully convinced that all things come to an end, I have no definitive proof to the contrary. It’s in this space that the Ten of Swords holds its power; the inevitability that everything we know, whether we adore it, fear it or completely disregard it, will come to an end. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the longest relationship of my life concluded during my own personal journey through the Kingdom of the Swords. But as my marriage was extinguished, so too were certain beliefs that no longer served me. The Ten of Swords can be a brutally painful card (hell, the whole Suit of Swords can feel vicious) but destruction paves the way for creation and it’s important to keep that in mind when surrendering to this card.

The Power, and Sometimes Pain, of Knowledge

The card shows us a series of scenes bringing closure to the tale of Ash’s underworld journey while promising rebirth into further cycles. In the lower right corner of the Ten of Swords, we see the immediate aftermath of the Nine of Swords. While that card showed Ash moments away from being cut down by Zombie Red, we see that he was not decapitated (or, more appropriate to the Suit of Swords, he didn’t lose his head). Rather, Zombie Red’s sword of doubt and fear is driven directly through Ash’s heart without resistance, leaving his head clear. Is it a painful death? Certainly. Was Ash terrified to face a second demise? Undoubtedly. But we see the ghost of a smile on his dead visage, showing that, in his final moments, his eyes were finally open to the truth and he accepted it without regret. The Ace of Swords found Ash reborn into a hell of his own making but with the seeds of new thoughts planted deep in his haunted mind; new ideas that he would need to adopt to move forward. Old ways of thinking are hard to break so the Suit of Swords was almost entirely comprised of stumbling and falling. In the end, Ash chose a selfless path. His guile and evasion failing him, he grabbed hold of the sword of truth and faced his ghosts with honesty, bravely contemplating them instead of fleeing them. The result? Well, they violently murdered him. But, as we can see on Ash’s face, embracing his phantoms held the only promise of freedom from the guilt and fear that plagued his mind.  


The Consequences of Unopen Eyes

After running blindly and relying on old tricks for most of the Suit of Swords, Ash sees his demons with true clarity in the Ten of Swords. Though Zombie Red finally managed to get the revenge he lusted after by murdering Ash in the underworld, he is sort of the true tragedy of the Suit of Swords. Blinded by his quest for revenge, he is ultimately left confused and directionless once he has conquered Ash. In many ways, Zombie Red is sightless, making him the perfect candidate for service to the King of Swords as an ever-disoriented Knight of Swords. Here, we find the King of Swords emotionlessly knighting Zombie Red for ridding the Kingdom of Swords of Ash. There is a look of subservient pride on Zombie Red’s bloodstained mouth; a cracked and damage symbol of uncommunicated truths. As with all Knights of Swords, Zombie Red’s helmet is blinding and he is willingly doomed to continue his crude semblance of life, bound, blind and agonized.

The Liberation of the Ten of Swords

In the upper right corner, we get confirmation that Ash’s actions allowed Alexis to escape the capture of House Swords and that she regained the sword of truth that Ash had stolen from her. Her back is to us as Ash’s adventures are now part of her past whereas her eyes are focused on the promise of the future. And here is where we find the silver lining of the big, black cloud at the center of the Suit of Swords. There is a reason for the pain that Ash endured, a reason that he had to look his nightmares in their eyes, a reason for his arduous sacrifice. After a lifetime of outwitting, outfighting, and outrunning his challenges, Ash looked them in their horrifying faces and saw himself. He felt the pain of the guilt, the pain of the failure, the pain of the fear, and, in the end, the pain of the swords. And, at the center of the Ten of Swords, we see the swords piercing him with their guards consisting of lips (communication of truth) opening to reveal an eye (seeing the truth). But the handle that extends from these symbols is a feather, reminding us not only of the element of air but of angel wings and the freedom of flight. It doesn’t come easy or painlessly but we see Ash ascending from his underworld nightmare. His destruction has actually cleared the way for his rebirth; his skin and hair are regaining their color, the dark circles around his eyes have faded away and he is reaching upward with focus.


In the borders, we see the sword of truth standing before a blue sun that could either be rising or setting (both being appropriate in this card). Crescent moons in the borders indicate completion. The dark blue lightning bolt that stands boldly as the backdrop to the Ten of Swords is one final reminder of the power of illumination alongside the destruction necessary to provide the space for creation.


Nine of Swords is a Nightmare Without Corporeal Form

I’m not sure if I’ve ever fully subscribed to the saying “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself” though there is definitely some wisdom in the old adage. I can think of several examples from my own life in which my trepidation and worry turned out to be completely unfounded or much worse than the resulting reality. This message is at the heart of the Nine of Swords, often referred to as the “nightmare” card. It’s the point where our problems have not only caught up to us but created an unshaken certainty in our own doom. Sometimes, this fatalistic feeling is totally unwarranted and turns out to not be such a big deal. Other times, we are actually attracting intense issues through our own belief in these fears. The nightmares cross from the incorporeal to the corporeal and we feel the very real pain when they touch us. But the Nine of Swords is that nerve-rending moment before our fears either stab through us or crumble into dust. Nothing has actually happened but it’s difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine anything but the worst possible outcome.

The Stage for the Nine of Swords is Set in the Eight

For Ash, this follows the events of the Eight of Swords in which he was caught between the guilt of his past and his most recent betrayal. His decision in that particular card is left open ended but in the Nine of Swords we find that House Swords and Alexis Montclaire are gone. We can assume that whatever Ash chose to do in the previous card left him vulnerable to the hypersexualized spectres and his betrayed former partner so that he is now hopelessly ensnared by them. The spectres’ ghostly hands have achieved physical form thanks to Ash’s belief in his own terror and they now hold him fixed in a kneeling position.



“I Have Nothing Left to Play”

Behind Ash, Zombie Red holds his sword of fear and doubt, smirking as he readies the swing that will inevitably end Ash’s underworld journey. Ash has a look of hopeless resignation on his face. There is nowhere left for him to run, no more choices left for him to make. His course of action now is to kneel within his crippling anxiety and submit to his seemingly predestined fate. Ash has laid his stolen sword of truth down before him in the mud since the purity of the snow is gone. It’s a gesture that recounts a tragic line from Scott Walker’s song “The Seventh Seal”, inspired by the classic Bergman film in which a knight challenges Death to a game of chess in order to delay his own demise. Walker laments from the perspective of the defeated knight, “You’ve won; I have nothing left to play.”

The Haunted Atmosphere

All of this is taking place in the yard of the final haunted house; violent red windows burning from a black structure that almost seems to melt into the black clouds of a blue night. Red bolts of lightning caress the spires of the foreboding manor in an abstract danse macabre. The defective komainu have returned, this time gleefully belching forth the ghosts that they were meant to repel. There is a demonic viciousness in these komainu as they raise their razor lined paws and emit apparitions from their fanged maws.  

The Potential of Swords

It’s important to note that, despite the seemingly bleak situation, none of the nine swords in this image are actually touching Ash. The sword of truth is laid before him, the sword of fear and doubt is possibly moments away from cutting him down but has not made contact with its razor edge, the wintry snowflake icicle swords pierce the hearts of the spectres as a reminder of Ash’s past failures, and five vulture skull swords are suspended in the air, all pointed ominously at Ash. The dark prophecy of the vulture sword is perhaps never more poignant than in this moment as Ash has already accepted, albeit with horror, that everything he knows is about to end yet again.


The Warnings of Rabbits

In the borders, we see the sword of truth fully eclipsed so that the silver has succumbed completely to the black. All of these border swords are pointed inward to symbolize the inevitability of death. The border also features rabbit skulls similar to the one that crowns Zombie Red’s sword of doubt and fear. As I’ve explained in previous tarot cards, Native American mythology often regards the rabbit as a reminder to not call our incorporeal fears into reality by fixating on them. It’s a very easy trap to fall into when the Nine of Swords is at play. In this case, the skulls indicate that these particular rabbits were not able to overcome their fears and thus attracted them, resulting in their own deaths.

In the Ace of Swords, Ash was given a new life in the underworld and he has spent his journey over the last nine cards continuing to run from his past or failing in his methods of confronting his ghosts. He allowed himself to become tied to fears instead of living again, making his decisions out of terror rather than faith.  In the Nine of Swords, that trepidation gave shape to his fears. The consequences of committing to his own worries find Ash in the midst of an execution of which there seems to be no escape.

The Eight of Swords Finds Us With Nowhere to Run or Hide

The Eight of Swords finds our protagonist, Ash Gravedust, in a nightmare of his own construction from which there appears to be no escape. He’s run from his problems as far as his feet can carry him, creating even more problems along the way, and now his enemies have him outnumbered, surrounded and without hope of mercy.

The Unresolved Past Will Eventually Catch Up

On one side, he is confronted with the reanimated corpse of his former bounty hunting partner, Ryuichi Mishima, reborn as the much stronger and more skilled Zombie Red whose sole purpose is extracting slow, painful revenge on Ash. Zombie Red is representative of Ash’s first major betrayal since Ash was responsible for abandoning Mishima to succumb to the Virulent Red virus that transformed him into an undead monster. Behind Zombie Red, we see the spectral remnants of Ash’s true love submissively entwined with the woman who seduced her. These phantoms are representative of a betrayal committed upon Ash but are also a result of his own actions or lack thereof. His self-obsession and neglect left his paramour unsatisfied, so she sought solace in the arms (and, in this case, legs) of a more attentive lover. Together, Zombie Red and the lesbian spectres embody the past that haunts Ash; a past from which he has frantically run even in the underworld. Though they terrify him, he created them.


The Truth May Not Be What You Want But It’s What You Need

On the other side, we see representatives of House Swords who have captured and detained Ash’s former savior, the sword prodigy Alexis Montclaire. Alexis, a scourge of the violent Knights of Swords had originally saved Ash from Zombie Red when he was overwhelmed and nearly murdered by his old colleague. Despite Alexis’s selfless actions, Ash’s building fear of his past phantoms found him stealing her sword of truth and running off in the night, leaving her defenseless and easily captured by the Page of Swords and his men. Ash used his guile and charm to get his hands on Alexis’s sword of truth after his own was lost in a battle to Zombie Red’s sword of doubt and fear. But as Ash is about to find out as he clutches his newly acquired sword of truth, the truth can be hard to handle.

A Snare of Our Own Design

Still, he must embrace this truth. His last chance at making it out of this situation is currently stood before him, bound in chains resulting from his lack of faith. Alexis smiles sadly at the man that she saved only for him to turn around and betray her at his first opportunity. As for the Page of Swords and his knights, they still recognize Ash as an enemy of the crown due to his association with Alexis. Execution by sword is the law for treason. Though the Knights of Swords are typically a confused mess, slashing one another as often (if not more) than their enemies, the Page of Swords has found a way to manipulate their natural chaos to his benefit. Here, though their swords cross and clash, they do so in a manner that blocks Ash’s escape.


The Eight of Swords Offer Choices but Each with a Sacrifice

At some points in our lives, the horror of facing our problems finds us trapped in a tight situation. There is no longer any room to struggle free, no longer any time to wait; a decision must be made and either choice will certainly require a sacrifice. This is the essence of the Eight of Swords. At this point, Ash has only two options. He can do battle with the House of Swords in an attempt to free Alexis or he can attempt to vanquish Zombie Red and the spectres. Either way will leave him open to the attacks of the other. At this point, Ash knows something must be done but his course of action is not yet clear, symbolized by the wind blowing his ascot over his eyes (this is mirrored in the ribbons of Alexis’s bow). He cannot rely on his old ways as they are what landed him in this situation of bondage and restriction. Unlike the Two of Swords where Ash was immobilized by disbelief, here he fully understands the truth and depth of this nightmare and knows there is no easy way out. Though the Eight of Swords can easily leave someone with a negative connotation, these hard paths are necessary for growth and for a greater good.

The Saturation of Symbolism

A lot of previous symbols return in the Eight of Swords because it is a culmination of everything Ash has suppressed or avoided through deception, betrayal or a refusal to accept the consequences of his actions. We have the vultures, aerial servants of death, circling ominously in cloudy gray skies while blue lightning, both destructive and illuminating, flashes brilliantly against the darkness. An ancient haunted house with a roof in disrepair signifies Ash’s deterioration under the mental duress of guilt, self-doubt and fear. Behind Zombie Red, we see open tunnels leading into the dark depths of the mansion; passageways of further potential nightmares. The borders are decorated with bondage rings as symbols of the Eight of Swords’ restrictive nature. In the corners, we see four swords cornering an eyeball indicating that Ash’s eyes are open to the truth, even if it is an unpleasant one. Most of the symbolic swords seen in previous cards are arranged to block Ash’s path reminding us of his journey in which, while running away from the ghosts who pursued him, he actually ran deeper into the underworld until there was nowhere left to run. A crucial lesson that, until this point, has been refused must now be learned.

Seven of Swords Uses Mental Strategy for Gain at All Costs

The Seven of Swords is a card that can evoke tact, stealth and even manipulation in order to achieve a goal. These matters are often the domain of the mind as opposed to the heart so morality can fall by the wayside during the events of the Seven of Swords. Such is the case with our protagonist Ash Gravedust. Here, we find him giving in to the terror of his impending problems and deciding his best course of action is to protect himself from his spectral assailants by any means necessary. Thus, he chooses to repay Alexis’ trust and kindness by stealing her enchanted sword in the night, leaving her defenseless to the marauding forces of the Swords Kingdom.

The Path of Mental Manipulation

Of course, the Seven of Swords isn’t always about such obvious underhandedness. Sometimes, pacifistic measures and charm succeed where straight out guile fails. For example, Ash’s charm and charisma are solely responsible for so quickly gaining Alexis’ trust. Whether through deceit, glamour or diplomacy, the Seven of Swords will always find the subject choosing to use the mind to settle a problem instead of any type of physical action. Ash has never been so far from his heart as he is in this card but, as emotions fade, the cold, clinical powers of the mind amplify. There are no feelings of guilt or clouds of conscience to confuse Ash. He is singularly focused on his survival and his survival alone.


The Mind Fully Eclipses the Heart in the Seven of Swords

There’s a deep sense of moral ambiguity in the Seven of Swords which can be hard for some people to surmount but for Ash, deceit is a well-worn path. This situation is slightly different in that he is typically betraying fellow scoundrels and not heroic teenage girls who saved his life but, as mentioned before, his focus is undistracted by emotion at this point in his journey. Instead, he feels the looming presence of his worst nightmares and wants to be certain he’s armed and ready if they should find him. While we’ve been watching Ash’s journey unfold on a physical level, the truth is that his actions have not deviated from those of his past. He may have contemplated new paths and momentarily put his fate in the hands of others but he has done nothing selfless; nothing that deviates from his own focus of self-preservation. After considering alternate routes to a solution, it can be sad as a spectator to watch Ash so easily fall back into his system of selfish dishonor. But Ash feels none of this sadness. For people who often act with integrity, however, the Seven of Swords can be a troubling point of compromise. It is also often a point of flight from devious action and, sure enough, upon thieving Alexis’ sword, Ash retreats into the night. While Alexis is now alone, asleep and defenseless, he is staying ahead of his ghosts and he’s armed should they find him. In his mind, this is all that matters.

Spirits in the Material World

In my rendition of the Suit of Swords, I wanted to make sure to use the traditional Japanese symbol of the torii gate. It appears twice within my Suit of Swords; initially in the Seven of Swords and again in the Nine of Swords. The torii is often regarded as a symbolic entry point to a sacred area but can also mark the crossing point between the physical and spiritual world. Here we find a somewhat corrupted version of a torii comprised of a series of swords. On the one hand, it is representative of the sacred space that Alexis occupies and that Ash is so callously violating. On another level, it’s a focal point of Ash’s fears as his nightmares are coming into his physical reality through the spiritual (or even mental) world. The torii serves as a reminder that Ash’s ghosts are solid and can bring him pain on physical, mental and emotional levels. So, in the Seven of Swords, the torii illustrates the catalyst for Ash’s dishonorable actions as well as the depth of the dishonor itself.

The Creation and Destruction of the Swords

A series of familiar swords are used in the construction of the torii. We see the image of Ash’s sword before it was shattered by Zombie Red, the eye-of-the-hurricane sword, the symmetrical snowflake sword with icicle handle first witnessed in the Six of Swords, and Zombie Red’s sword of fear and doubt. However, we’re also introduced to a scimitar with a guard fashioned to look like the spread wings of a vulture and a handle alluding to a gust of wind. Not only are these echoes of the air element but also reinforce the symbols of death associated to the vulture. We also get our first look at another sword that’s been used to impale a defenseless snowman. This sword finds a blade fashioned to resemble a lightning bolt extending forth from a dark storm cloud guard and wind gust handle. There’s a bitterness to the lightning bolt blade rammed through the silent snowman in that quiet deception is being favored over illuminating honesty and truth, which lightning symbolizes. Lightning also symbolizes creative destruction which could be a symbol for those seeking creative power at the cost of a few bridges.


Snowmen of Deceit

The snowmen pictured here are symbols of deceit as well as foreshadowing to threats of future cards in the Suit of Swords. Unlike the vandalized snowmen of the Six of Swords, these snowmen are devoid of mouths to allude to silence, deception and hidden motives. Their arms have been chopped off, leaving them as defenseless as Alexis, who is sleeping in the cold, icy ground just before them, separated by thick clumps of thorny tendrils. These snowmen are victims of the Page of Swords who delights in sadistically playing with sharp objects at the expense of the soft powdery effigies.

Fright Night

In the foreboding, gathering clouds above a haunted manor in the distance, we see the ghastly faces of Zombie Red and the lesbian spectres that pursue Ash. This image was strongly inspired by the movie poster for the 1985 film Fright Night. While Ash is far from the days when his fear immobilized him, it is still a motivating factor in his base actions as the ghosts that cloud his mind terrorize him into the focused, clinical action of the Seven of Swords.

As a reminder of Ash’s most recent betrayal, the borders of the Seven of Swords feature weasels. In Native American mythology, weasels are regarded as providing the medicine of stealth which Ash employs to steal Alexis’ sword before silently fading away into the night. At the corners of the illustration, we find Ash’s previously destroyed sword clashing with Alexis’ sword as a symbol of his betrayal


Six of Swords Restrains Our Obstacles with Thorns and Allows Us to Move

The Six of Swords offers a snapshot of Ash Gravedust on his new path, following Alexis Montclaire, a teenager who became a precocious master of the sword by fending for herself in the harsh environment of the Kingdom of Swords. Ash is following Alexis down the winter road, a cold and treacherous path purified by the fallen snow. The Six of Swords doesn’t so much present Ash in a moment of repose as it shows a careful sense of peace in his movement forward. His mind has had time to process his brutal near-death defeat and recognize that he cannot defeat Zombie Red on his own. If only for a moment, Ash can leave behind his fear and terror as he focuses on his new path. This is represented by the haunted house that, while still looming, is now behind Ash and Alexis.


The Relief of a New Way

When we’re confronted by a daunting problem or a personal nightmare, we can find ourselves paralyzed and haunted by indecision. The moment we recognize a new method of meeting this challenge, a sense of relief washes over us. The problem still exists and will certainly challenge us as we move to overcome it. Simply having a direction for our action can bring relief. This clarity is illustrated in the Six of Swords. Twisted, thorny branches and twigs ensnare the swords that would torment Ash, allowing him safe passage on the soft, snowy path.

The Soft Yet Frigid Winter Road of the Six of Swords

Though the path is more obvious, there are clear signs that Ash isn’t exactly moving forward into celebratory times. For one, he is disarmed, having lost his sword in his failed attack on Zombie Red. Now he must put his faith in Alexis and, even now, he eyes her sword with a sense of longing mixed with trepidation. It is clear, however, that the path of her sword is the only path worth walking. Vandalized snowmen seem to call out desperate warnings to Ash and Alexis. Each of these effigies has been run through with a sword, a calling card of the sharp tongued youth, the Page of Swords. Despite the relative calm of the Six of Swords, these snowmen serve as cautionary reminders of the challenges awaiting Ash as he moves further up the distinct winter road. Even the winter road itself is at once harsh in its nurturance. The snow is soft but frigid, the trees that hold back the swords are lined in thorns that care not who they prick.


Holding Back the Blizzard

The borders simply reinforce the theme of the card holding back Ash’s threats long enough for him to process and move forward. The corners show the thorny twigs restraining Zombie Red’s sword, representative of doubt and fear. Likewise, dead leaves line the border, representing the passing of seasons, the movement associated with time, the patterns and cycles of life (and death) that Ash is coming to understand, and the need to let go and continue forward, no matter how bitter the weather.


Five of Swords Smashes Us Against a Dead End While Showing a New Path

A lot of tales would have us believe that simply confronting our challenges is enough. However, in reality, sometimes we give a situation our best shot and still end up losing. The Five of Swords finds Ash Gravedust stepping out of the temporary protection of the Four of Swords to face his tormenter, the menacing Zombie Red, only to be mercilessly bested. In life, Ash had been a more skilled fighter than Ryuichi, but since being resurrected by the Virulent Red virus, Zombie Red trained relentlessly with a singular focus on the day when he would meet his former partner once again. The Five of Swords would inevitably be the end for Ash if not for the intervention of Alexis Montclaire, the teen scourge of the Sword Kingdom. She is seen approaching the fallen Ash with sword drawn, eyeing the gloating Zombie Red. In this story, Alexis is a defender of the underdog, often battling the rigid (and at times oppressive) House Swords. The decaying remains of several Sword Knights litter the yard of this card’s haunted house; reminders of previous battles with Alexis.


The Accidental Suicide Mission

After the recuperation period of the Four of Swords, we may be tempted to look again at our frightening, looming problems and decide to attempt to finish it all in one go. Possibly this is still a residual fear reaction or maybe it’s a sudden surge of over confidence. Admittedly, this ominous problem will not go away on its own and must be addressed but, in the case of the Five of Swords, it’s going to take more than one pass to overcome. The results of the immediate failure can range from humbling to outright humiliating. Ash recognized an inferior opponent in his former partner but is unceremoniously cut down. The card shows slashes across Ash’s face and a look of shame as he averts his gaze from the wickedly triumphant Zombie Red.

A Loss with Consequence

This is also a loss with a fairly major consequence for Ash. In battling Zombie Red, he is disarmed and the Five of Swords depicts the moment when the undead assassin shatters Ash’s enchanted sword. The shattering of Ash’s sword represents crumbling truths. Ash is out of practice with honesty, having lived his life as both the traitor and the betrayed. Therefore, Zombie Red’s sword of doubt and fear ultimately overcomes Ash’s weaker sword of truth.


The Overwhelming Truth in the Five of Swords

Losing is important. Making mistakes is important. These are the moments when avenues we’ve never considered become possibilities, new opportunities come into play and we really find ourselves. Truth doesn’t always come through strife but this is often how it appears to us in the Five of Swords. Just as Ash has violently thrown himself against his own demise and all seems lost, Alexis arrives. Though it is not depicted in the card, it is implied that Alexis uses her own sword of truth (a mirror of Ash’s) to momentarily defeat Zombie Red. Alexis is representative of a new path opening to Ash; one that he may have been too proud to take before. It’s important to note that Ash decides to follow Alexis after he is saved from imminent danger. He could continue to run and hide or he could try to face Zombie Red again (though this would almost certainly be his final mistake). It’s not fear that finds him casting off his pride and deciding to follow a teenage sword prodigy into the snowy hills of the underworld. It’s a genuine recognition that she has what it takes to defeat his adversary and he doesn’t.

The Futility of a Locked Door

The haunted house featured in the Five of Swords prominently displays a lightning bolt in keeping with the running theme in the Suit of Swords of illumination to the truth and destruction to make way for creation. Lightning dramatically touching down from the skies reinforces this theme. However, this haunted mansion is unlike the others featured in my Suit of Swords in that it features intricate patterns of bars over the stained glass windows and a steel locking vault door as its main point of entry. This is meant as a rejoinder of the necessity to seek out a new path because this haunted house, locked tight and surrounded by mountains of ice, is a dead end.

The borders are marked with a labyrinthine design leading to a lock in the center showing no immediate solution to a major problem without first doing the work, obtaining the key and choosing the right path. At the corners, the remnants of Ash’s sword are shattered against a cracked background.

Four of Swords Provides Reprieve in the Eye of a Mental Storm

Collecting oneself in the midst of a mental maelstrom can be vital to eventually facing our challenges with confidence and focus. In this way, the Four of Swords is sort of the eye of the storm, allowing Ash Gravedust a moment of reprieve from the demons that torment him. We find him slumbering as soundly as one can in hell, protected by a ring of salt and four swords. One of the many haunted houses of his underworld journey looms ominously over him, reminding us that his respite is not a permanent solution. At some point, he will have to exit that protective salt circle and face the nightmare once again.


Ash’s Salt Sanctuary

Naturally, the trauma and emotional exhaustion of the Three of Swords has found Ash needing a period of recuperation which is what the Four of Swords is about. Many religious tales recount the purifying qualities of salt which Ash has used to form the protective ring that almost acts like a bubble, guarding him from the harshness of the underworld for the night. Here he finds the time to properly reflect on his encounters with Zombie Red and the lesbian love spectres and potentially begin to formulate a course of action. The salt ring is further reinforced by swords; one of which is his own.

Defective Komainu Just Beyond the Border

It can be difficult to find moments of stillness and silence amidst a particularly chaotic and confusing moment in our lives but it is in that stillness that we find the focus and inspiration to move forward. As Ash rests his body and mind, the chaos waits just beyond the salt circle. To present the chaos, I used a series of symbols that are themes throughout my entire Suit of Swords. While this is the second appearance of the defective komainu (or foo dogs), this is the first encounter with real prominence. The komainu statues were actually believed in Asian cultures to have the power to guard a domicile from evil spirits. Typically, one komainu statue has an open mouth while the other has a closed mouth. This is meant to convey one komainu speaking the first letter of the alphabet in Sanskrit while the second komainu is speaking the final letter as a representation of the alpha and omega. One mouth opens to catch the spirit, the other closes to contain the spirit. However, both of these komainu are frozen with mouths wide open, allowing free passage for the dark spectres of the underworld.

The Cracked and Penetrated Sanctity of a Haunted House

As with every house in my Suit of Swords, the ominously looming house in the Four of Swords is deeply haunted. The home is often a symbol of sanctity for people. For many of us, it is the place where we can most easily relax into our true selves. It’s a salvation from the harsh winds. A haunted house, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. For me, the haunted house became the best representation of a disturbed mind. These houses are haunted by phantoms of doubt, confusion, fear, regret and even guilt. All of the thoughts that make you lose sleep at night haunt the houses of my Swords Suit. However, in the Four of Swords, Ash has a moment’s reprieve from their grotesque harassment. The lightning bolt is worked into the design of this haunted house (as with many in my Suit of Swords) to re-establish illumination of the truth and themes of destruction in the name of creation.


An Important Reoccurrence of the Hurricane Sword

Another sword is introduced in my Four of Swords illustration. This sword has a simple grip, a black crystal pommel, and a guard that is actually fashioned from the blade itself to resemble a primitive vulture skull, once again recalling the symbolism of the carrion bird. This sword’s symbolism is not directly tied to the Four of Swords but is more applicable to the suit as a whole. However, the hurricane sword that made its first appearance in the Three of Swords has no stronger relation than to the Four of Swords due to the “eye” of the storm; observing a situation from a momentary respite.

The borders feature simple masks similar to those seen in the Two of Swords although the masks in the Four of Swords have their mouths covered as opposed to their eyes. This is a reminder of the need for silence in this time. However, the truths processed in that silence may be painful so the masks are once again shedding tears. In the corners, swords join together to contain a hurricane with a literal eye staring forth from its center, observing and processing before the harsh winds return.

Three of Swords Aims for the Heart with Betrayal and Loss

When I was learning tarot, I was taught that the Three of Swords primarily signifies tragedy. My teacher, who I considered a very skilled reader and a spiritual master in general, displayed a distinct aversion to the Three of Swords that she didn’t show to any other card in the tarot. For her, it signaled that a dramatic loss was possible; one that could even result in mourning. Through my own research, I came to recognize themes of betrayal linked to the loss in the Three of Swords. Personally, I’ve always associated betrayal to sexual or romantic aspects of my life and I wanted to convey that sense of sexuality along with pain and brutality. Here, we are introduced to another pair of spectres in the afterlife of Ash Gravedust: his estranged wife and the woman with whom she fell in love. While the image clearly depicts Ash responding in a jealous homicidal rage, this action is contained within the spirit world. Ash did not actually murder his wife or her lover. In fact, he didn’t even know that his wife was engaged in a lesbian love affair behind his back until this moment. It’s a bit like A Christmas Carol except Ash is being haunted by a reality left in his wake. Even prior to his death, his wife was driven to explore her true desires and Ash is left ineffectually stabbing at demonic mirages that feed off of his devastation. Though it was Ash’s shortcomings as a partner that eventually resulted in his wife finding pleasure in the arms of another, he is left baffled and victimized in a private hell while the reanimated corpse of his former bounty hunting comrade, Zombie Red, delights in licking the blood from the blade on the other side of the wall.


A Personal Intensity Bleeding into the Three of Swords

The Three of Swords is easily one of the most intense cards (if not the most intense card) I’ve illustrated. As my life often parallels my work on the tarot, I feared something major could happen…a death or something. But while I was working on this card, my marriage came to an end. This card doesn’t remind me specifically of that time; its imagery is tied to far too many personal feelings and experiences that have stretched across my life. But that energy of grief and pain, of a partnership collapsing, bleeds into the watercolors and ink of my Three of Swords.

The Death Spectrum

There is an intense moodiness in the Three of Swords but I felt two distinct types of moodiness; the stormy cold blue of grief and the burning hot red of passion. When something beautiful dies, you see a full spectrum, all of the highs and lows as the lights go out into permanent darkness. Here, I juxtaposed the red intensity of emotion in the room of the haunted house as a symbol of the heart. Outside is the cold reality. Ash’s sword is violently puncturing the red room, the heart, leaving it vulnerable to that cold blue world that will soon consume it.

What Once Was Living Now is Dead

Stormy winds blow red, dead leaves across the harsh landscape like droplets of blood. Zombie Red is crouched beneath a dead tree, a reminder that what was once so full of life is now dead. The spectres that have adopted the images of Ash's wife and her new lover are in a strange state. Mesmerized by sexual desire with fanged mouths open in soft moans, they seem to not even notice the trinity of swords piercing their hearts. Yet, tears spill from their white eyes as a ghost tribute to tragedy.

To Crumble Inelegantly

The Two of Swords presented a problem that Ash had to face but couldn’t through his sense of shock. Here, that problem intensifies and explodes into a burst of revelation. Reality can only be ignored for so long. Ash’s response is frenzied and far from elegant as he stabs through the spectres that somehow emit wild ecstasy and a deep sense of the forlorn. Hot tears spill from Ash’s eyes as he recognizes the truth, the consequences of his life. His paralysis is gone but his action is to dramatically shatter. The Three of Swords is a reminder that our actions have consequences and that our shadows don’t disappear when we ignore them but often instead build inertia and power. Ash’s wife is not to blame. His choices resulted in neglect so she found sexual infatuation in another and that sexual infatuation turned into love. The silver lining of this very black cloud is that with Ash released from his illusions, he can feel enough pain to finally take action. In his case, it’s still a long, painful road.


Symbols of Lust Eroding Stagnant Love

With the Three of Swords being such a pinnacle of emotion for me, I found it easy to work in several relevant symbols. At the top right corner, a cobra chandelier decorates the haunted house inhabited by the lesbian spectres. Here, the chandelier references illumination while the serpentine design alludes to betrayal. A vase of anthurium flowers stands on a dresser behind Ash and the spectres. Anthurium are heart shaped, poisonous flowers with a phallic spadix and vaginal spathe (I won’t connect the dots any further than that). The dresser itself features ornamental vulture skulls. Being a bird, the vulture is an agent of the air element but is also distinctly a carrion feeder, attracted to death. The handles of the dresser are the first appearance of the komainu. The komainu appear in three cards of my Swords Suit and are each time defective. Komainu, or foo dogs, were used to guard houses from evil spirits. I’ll go into greater detail about this trait of the komainu in the Four of Swords but for now, I’ll point out that the ring in the mouths of these komainu dresser handles are preventing them from protecting this house from evil spirits. The haunted centerfold portrait adorning the walls of the lesbian spectres is one of my favorite aspects of this illustration. The white-eyed centerfold represents the essence of sexual seduction and the perspective of resulting corruption. She is directly tied to personal childhood nightmares and sexual awakenings I had in the ‘80s. Her vagina, often associated with the creation of life, is replaced by a deep red coffin with an inverted cross, creating a juvenile allusion to the vandalism of sacred feeling. This portrait taunts Ash, a symbol that feelings of love were easily washed away by perverse fantasy and lust. This is not to say that I believe there is anything perverse or abnormal about lesbianism. Instead, it’s meant to show Ash’s unrealistically sweet impression of his wife as she gives in to a longing he never knew, one that corrupts his fantasy vision of her. As she receives new heights of pleasure from another woman, Ash ineffectually stabs at them with his sword and they take no notice.

Further Swords in Service to the Air Element

Two new sword designs are introduced into this illustration that relate more to the overall themes of the Suit of Swords than to the specific themes of the Three of Swords. One of the swords has a stylized guard that resembles a hurricane, a symbol of adversity and confusion in that it spins in circles. A literal eye is placed at the center of the storm, a reference to seeing the truth through deception, despite the pain it may bring. This pain is further reinforced through a tear pouring from the eye. The symbol of the air element is on the grip of the sword. A second sword features a guard of metallic bat wings that descend into a whirling cyclone guard. Again, the bat is an air agent representing themes of death, rebirth and the need to let go of things in our past that no longer serve us. The cyclone guard, like the hurricane guard, references dizzying mental confusion and challenges.

The border depicts breaking ashen hearts to remind us of perspectives of emotional treason that Ash is feeling as he begins to comprehend his consequences. The corners depict Zombie Red’s sword of fear and doubt plunging through a heart.


Two of Swords Pits Uncomprehending Paralysis Against Rigid Control

While the Two of Swords typically shows an individual blindfolded and numb to a reality that they don’t want to accept, I chose to show Ash Gravedust instead clashing swords with eyes open wide to a reality he is failing to comprehend. If he were able to process what’s standing before him, the horrifying possibilities of Ash’s afterlife would be introduced through this encounter with his former bounty hunting partner, Ryuichi Mishima, the infamous Zombie Red.


The Gardens of Hell Are Lined with Poison Ivy

Like Ash Gravedust, Zombie Red is actually plucked from deep within my mythology, having made appearances in a comic book I was writing as a kid. In those days, his origin story was largely the same as it is here, inspired by a physically and psychologically excruciating bout of poison ivy that I personally endured. For weeks, my eyes were swollen and itchy and a red rash covered me from head to toe, barely soothed by numerous baths of oatmeal and scrubbing with lye soap. It got so bad that my mother took me to a doctor who prescribed me a steroid to help my body fight the effects of the poison ivy. Yet, after almost disappearing, it returned with a vengeance. Baffled by the dramatic resurgence, the doctor told me I was psychologically manifesting the outbreak. During this time of discomfort bordering on outright torture, I recognized how agony could be used to mentally twist somebody; a theme that I’d found disturbing since childhood but now experienced firsthand. It seemed the constant itching and physical shame were warping my mind into something miserable and cruel. I felt abandoned by humanity, isolated in my relentless irritation.

Virulent Red Transforms Ryuichi Mishima into Zombie Red

Ryuichi Mishima was initially a bounty hunter who partnered up with Ash Gravedust but was abandoned on a planet after contracting a virus called Virulent Red. Ash believed that he was leaving his partner to die an excruciating but inevitable death. However, he was ignorant of the nature of the virus, which actually killed his partner and reanimated him while retaining his memories. The result was Zombie Red, an undead husk with red swollen eyes and constantly itching skin, cracked bleeding lips and a burning hatred for the former partner who left him to his fate. Zombie Red will haunt Ash throughout the Suit of Swords but the Two of Swords is Ash’s first confrontation with the partner he failed. While Ash is shocked into disbelief, the undead Mishima is calmly smiling, feeling that he has the upper hand.

Paralysis and Chosen Ignorance is at the Center of the Two of Swords

While the Two of Swords typically incorporates a person who chooses blissful ignorance to a looming problem, Ash isn’t exactly ignoring the issue. He’s just too paralyzed by shock and horror to adequately handle it. Normally a skilled fighter, Ash is instead only able to defensively block an introductory sword slash from Zombie Red. Surprise and confusion has found Ash’s skill abandoning him and though his sword is defending him from physical damage, he is too stunned to actually save himself. However, Zombie Red is not at this point trying to murder Ash. Rather, he’s dreamt of nothing but vengeance in his itching, frenzied state of madness and is enjoying toying with his former partner before he carries out his revenge in full. If anyone understands control, restraint, and even pleasure delay, it is the abomination known as Zombie Red. Thus, while Ash is locked in a stalemate, Zombie Red has the advantage of awareness.


The Paralysis of Disbelief Must Eventually Give Out

The result of the Two of Swords is a precarious balance that will likely tip in favor of the ignored problem quickly. Ash is having trouble not only processing the resurrection of a dead partner but also recognizing his own role in the agonizing final moments of Ryuichi Mishima. The confrontation takes place within a haunted house with a window looking out on yet another haunted house with storm clouds gathering ominously above it. A few symbols are worked into the haunted house in the distance such as the metal bat atop a spire. In Native American medicine cards, the bat is symbolic of death and rebirth or a need to let go of an aspect of oneself. This can include old beliefs and tired philosophies. Bats are also tied to the element of air. The insignia of an eye glows in neon pink from the roofing of the haunted house. Here, the eye is a signal to open one’s eyes to face disturbing truths.

Zombie Red’s Sword of Doubt and Fear

The Two of Swords also introduces us to Zombie Red’s sword which is much different than Ash’s sword. The blade itself is curved with the guard fashioned to resemble a closed eye with razor lashes. This shows the shadow qualities of the Suit of swords; deception, confusion, fear and an inability to accept the truth. Zombie Red is an agent of Ash’s fears and doubts and his blade aptly reflects this in its grip and pommel, crafted to resemble the vertebrae and skull of a rabbit. In Native American medicine cards, rabbits symbolize the tendency for people to attract problems through fear addiction. The ribbons at the end of the rabbit skull pommel further allude to the floppy ears of a rabbit.

The Rigid Restraint of Leather

Though not a unique symbol to the Two of Swords, it’s also worth noting the bondage gear that adorns Zombie Red. This is a window into his masochistic, highly restrained nature. Zombie Red is marked by a militant sense of control and self-discipline with his leather suit preventing him access to the majority of his virulent rash and thus depriving him of any relief. This is also symbolic of his closed off, rigid focus. As he represses any means of soothing his irritation, his mind is further steeped in madness with one outlet: the death of Ash Gravedust. This singular sense of control is very in line with the themes of the Swords.

The border is punctuated with blindfolded masks that each shed a single tear. These masks are reminders of those unwilling to face necessary, yet painful truths despite being aware deep down of a growing problem. The corners depict a stalemate clash of Ash’s and Zombie Red’s swords.


Ace of Swords Presents a Call to Adventure… and Challenge

The Suit of Swords is possibly one of the most difficult projects on which I’ve worked but I recognized this early on, before I’d even drawn a single line. The Swords deal with matters of the mind, often exploring challenging themes and disturbing elements that we’d rather ignore than face. Perhaps more so than in any of the other Suits, the Swords deal with fears and doubts. Immersing oneself in the Season of Swords can be a cold, isolating experience.

Caught on the Winds of the Season of Swords

I knew that the Swords would be challenging but what followed were some of the most difficult moments in my life. I was caught off guard by the end of my 7-year marriage, saw one of my greatest inspirations and a lifelong hero David Bowie die, voted unsuccessfully against the ascendance of a political administration more disgusting than any I could have imagined possible. I dreaded working on the Swords Suit knowing that my life often absorbs the essence of these cards as I work on them, drawing uncanny parallels. Yet, I felt its frigid currents blowing through my life and knew ignoring them would be much worse. Shortly following the loss of Bowie but prior to the nightmare of November and the personal devastation of December, I began to actually draw the Ace of Swords…and so began the stirring of those winds that would eventually blow away the ashes of the life I had known.


Omega Meets Alpha in the Ace of Swords

The Ace of Swords begins my Suit of Swords with the death of its protagonist, a self-obsessed bounty hunter who is reborn into an underworld-style afterlife under the name Ash Gravedust. The card depicts two distinct scenes in Ash’s story: his violent death and his resurrection into his afterlife. Bisecting this scenes is Ash himself, wrapped around his sword that is a central focus for much of his story. In the Ace of Swords, the dual nature of the sword is thematically significant. I decided to make Ash’s sword itself reflect this dual nature. The black edge of the blade touches his past; a scene in which he dies from a head wound, reinforcing the Suit of Swords’ purpose of understanding the mind. The silver edge of his sword touches his present; his resurrection with new “life” into the underworld. While his decisions to pursue a career as a bounty hunter eventually cost him his life, it was not the end as he had always imagined. Death was not final after all.

This bleeds into another concept of the Ace of Swords: what we perceive as negative may ultimately be positive. That’s not to say this card calls for celebration. Rather, the blessing in disguise is often accompanied by hardships and challenges that must be overcome. Thus, as Ash claws his way triumphantly from the earth, it is amidst a Japanese cemetery with a haunted house in the distance illuminated by an ominous bolt of blue lightning. Ash isn’t exactly dead but he’s certainly not safe either.  

Walking With or Against the Wind

As with the Ace cards in all of the Suits, the Ace of Swords carries a current of dynamic energy. Ash isn’t exhaustedly pulling himself from the earth, he’s triumphantly emerging from dead limbo, reaching for the sky. Likewise, wrapped around his sword at the center of the card, Ash wears an expression of marked determination though he may not fully realize the challenges he is about to face. Again, the dual nature of the Swords comes into play. We see this spark in Ash, this desire to live. But the Swords are representative of wind, a force with the ability to push our sails forward or immobilize us or even set us back with merciless resistance to our intentions. It’s difficult to make out but the haunted house actually features stone gargoyle-like faces that emerge from some of its corners. These are actually tiny faces of Fujin, the Japanese god of wind blowing gusts of air to remind us of the adversity on the horizon for Ash.


The Futility of Resisting Life’s Lessons

But Ash isn’t necessarily in the underworld to be punished for his self-obsession or as condemnation for his scoundrel lifestyle. He is here to learn lessons that he resisted in life. In his moment of death, he is sprawled across a cold, metallic floor with a series of arrows pointing downward, indicating his need to go to the underworld to learn his next lesson. Likewise, the sword at the center of the card is pointed downward. Ash’s lessons will be delivered with a fair amount of pain, though this is directly proportionate to how long he walks against the wind as opposed to letting it guide him into the direction of the fears he must confront. Again, that dual nature rears its head as there is a beneficial type of resistance that Ash must embrace: the resistance that finds him facing his challenges. There’s also a destructive form of resistance which will be explored in the next card: an unwillingness to accept a harsh reality and deal with it.

The Symbolism of Ash’s Sword

Ash’s sword is forged with some other general symbolism important to the Suit of Swords. The pommel of the sword is a silver owl with white diamond eyes. In Native American mythology, the owl is skilled at seeing through deception to a hidden truth. The Suit of Swords often deals with great truths and communication being either obscured by lies or guided through truth. The significance of diamond eyes is twofold: I used eyes as a recurring theme in several of my Swords cards as a reminder of the relation of personal perception to the truth or an echo of the saying “open your eyes” to an apparent truth. Diamonds parallel the lessons learned by Ash; highly precious but arrived at through great pressure. The handle of Ash’s sword is marked by a silver lightning bolt, another common symbol on several of my Swords cards. Lightning is often used to symbolize new ideas or philosophies and the illumination of truth. But lightning is also seen as an agent heralding destruction; a supernatural cleansing that allows for creative fertility in its wake. In this way, lightning can be traumatic but eventually leads to great benefit. As Ash goes through a private hell, he’s learning vital truths. The guard of his sword is comprised of a series of symbols including an eye, a crescent moon, and the sun. This shows the duality of mystery and the illumination of truth.

In the border of the card, we find simple reinforcements of the themes already discussed. Sky blue diamonds, partially obscured by shadow punctuate the border. At the corners, we see Ash’s swords bisecting panels to create a silver and black duality.


Attempting to Capture Carisa Bianca Mellado’s Black Opera The New Queen in Portrait

My portrait of Carisa Bianca Mellado for her New Queen phase came together during a melancholy point last November, amidst disturbing political news, creative complications and personal crisis. In that point where the orange glow of autumn begins to blur into winter’s iron gray, I put aside work on my Swords Suit to explore another artist’s world momentarily. The portrait was intended as a surprise gift for Carisa’s birthday. Over the years that I’ve known her, I’ve learned that Carisa is fiercely protective of her vision. Her New Queen album challenged me as a listener more than her other material because of its connection to classical and experimental work. I thought it was important to try to convey the darkness of the source material while also indicating the dramatic trajectories of the story that Carisa had so artfully constructed.


A Surprise Collaboration

Since I didn’t fully understand The New Queen when I first heard it, Carisa painstakingly explained her concepts to me over the years. It’s actually a very rich opera that adds a strange majesty to tragedy; a sort of high class horror. I’ll say no more for fear of minor misinterpretation but the record is still available in digital format and the videos, all conceptualized and directed by Carisa, are also available to watch on the Carisa Bianca Mellado site. I had the honor of playing keyboards as part of Carisa’s orchestra for her sole live performance of The New Queen opera and also performed as the characters H and Gebo in the videos. However, like all of Carisa’s music, I had no creative input in The New Queen (in fact, it was recorded before I even met her). So, doing a portrait of Carisa’s New Queen concept as a surprise birthday gift was akin to a surprise collaboration…which could have ended disastrously. Fortunately, Carisa seemed to enjoy the result.

In Favor of Mystery

Normally, I like to explain the symbolism behind my art but, in the spirit of this piece, I’ll leave all symbolism up to the viewer to piece together through the music and videos already out there. The portrait is centered on Carisa as the nameless queen, wearing a mask comprised of iron roses, red thorns, a black heart, and a pattern reminiscent of dripping blood. In the artwork for the album, Carisa is often portrayed wearing a mask with feathers sprouting from the center so I took those asymmetrical black feathers and positioned another image of the queen so as if the feathers would allude to black angel wings. In this image, the queen is holding her head high in a haughty manner with a collar punctuated by iron blades and a jagged crown with a single red jewel at its center.

The Figures of Carisa’s New Queen Mythology

To the right of the queen is M, a frolicking maiden-like entity that appears throughout the album. At her other side is Gebo, an advisor to the queen with uncertain intentions. The clothes of both characters are adorned with the runic symbols that Carisa assigned to them when working on the concepts of The New Queen. Across a spectral checkerboard floats the visage of an entity called H who appears at times in Carisa’s New Queen mythology. The borders of the portrait depict a bear, a zebra, a pig, and a horse; animals that are prominently featured in the videos and album concept.

A dark political atmosphere was an appropriate time for this portrait. But there was also a strong sense of sadness beyond politics that was in the air at the time though it went unrealized by me for several weeks. It didn’t really find its way into this piece but is saturated throughout my Swords Suit which I look forward to sharing over the coming months.

The King of Pentacles Exhibits His Gilded Love for the Material World

The King of Pentacles didn’t flow from me with quite the same confidence as the Queen of Pentacles because he was illustrated at a point in time when I was struggling with seeing myself as abundant and capable of attracting wealth on my own. However, I did have a genuine love of material opulence which allowed me to fondly recount times in my life when I’d been better off. Revisiting those times with gratitude in my heart allowed me to first envision my idea of the King of Pentacles. I also took a lot of aesthetic inspiration from an Indonesian marionette that my wife at the time had received from her brother as a gift. Through mixing these influences, I was able to imbue an initially cold elegance of materialism with a gilded warmth closer to how I felt about wealth when at my financial prime. 

A Pure Love of Wealth

This scene actually finds the King marching to war against the Kingdom of Swords. His face is calm, smiling with warmth and pride as if he’s already attained victory. His smile is an important window into his personality, showing that his love of the material is a pure love and not corrupt. I’ve heard many opinions across spiritual communities condemning a love for the material. While I can see this point applying to those who lose themselves solely in the material world, I think it’s actually healthy to appreciate possessions and express gratitude for luxury. Personally, I find it much easier to operate with generosity and love when I feel abundant. This is the way I view the purity of the King of Pentacles’ love for wealth. He hasn’t lost his soul or abandoned his feelings in pursuit of material conquests.


An Abundant World

Even en route to the battlefield, the King of Pentacles is surrounded by abundance. This illustration shows that he is in the company of the Knight of Pentacles and a duo of clone servants, one waving the red-and-gold war banner of House Pentacles, the other pouring the King a golden chalice of pomegranate wine. Pomegranates are often symbolic of wealth and fertility and were used heavily in my Knight of Pentacles card. The King, the Knight, and the two clones are actually part of a larger procession of the clone army out of shot of the King’s portrait. The battalion marches through a lush pumpkin patch where scarecrows are busy harvesting handfuls of ripe pumpkins.


The King of Pentacles Dirties His Golden Hands

There are a few messages to be gleaned from the King joining his army in battle. The first is in the battle itself. The fact that House Pentacles is even going to war against House Swords reveals the King of Pentacles’ penchant for ambition and material conquest. But he is not barking orders from the comforts of his throne room, rather he is actively engaged in the war. He believes in action; in rightfully earning his rewards. That doesn’t mean he won’t stop to enjoy the niceties afforded him; he will gladly accept the cup of pomegranate wine from his dandy clone servant. But when the time comes for battle, he’ll be the first to get his golden hands dirty.

The Sign of Taurus

The King of Pentacles is often tied to the sign of Taurus, representative of love for the material world. References to the bull have been worked in throughout the illustration, from the golden bulls with ruby eyes in the border, to the King’s horned golden crown which combines bull-like horns with a warped golden pentacle. A golden ring pierces the King’s septum, again in reference to the bull, while the connecting chain was somewhat inspired by the Indonesian puppet I mentioned earlier. I imagined the King of Pentacles to wear armor of cybernetic gold, similar to the material used in the Queen of Pentacles’ gown, to reinforce themes of material decadence but also imply the functionality of the King’s personality. He is not a frail dandy but rather someone who works for his achievements. I felt a golden suit of mechanized armor would clarify this. Originally, I had planned on illustrating the King of Pentacles tossing golden coins to his servants to symbolize his beliefs in rewarding good work. However, I felt that I had already adeptly demonstrated his qualities without distracting his confident smile with this action.

The King’s Pet Squirrel

I do want to point out two more symbols that reinforce the essence of the King of Pentacles. The first is his pet squirrel, following the King in matching golden armor with pentacle coins woven into his bushy tail. A squirrel may seem to be an odd choice of pet for a monarch who values the finest things in life but we must consider what the squirrel represents in Native American medicine: preservation of wealth through careful planning and saving. Likewise, squirrels harvest with confidence, preparing for even the harshest of winters through working both hard and smart.

The Golden Tower

The final symbol is the towering palace of gold reaching to the heavens beyond the King of Pentacles. This is the physical embodiment of his life’s achievements, glowing warmly in the earthy dusk. While most of us do not have a physical tower as an avatar of our achievements, we build our own towers through our lives nonetheless. Think of all the wealth you have accrued from birth to this point: the meals you’ve enjoyed, the beauty captured by your eyes, the games you’ve played and the places you’ve stayed. You’ll find there is always something for which to be grateful and this will serve to align you with the energy of the King of Pentacles.


Spirit Guide of Choice & Spirit Guide of Optimism

It’s been ages since I’ve made a proper update but I’ve been pretty much buried under the work I’m doing for the Swords Suit of my tarot deck. The Swords are the suit that I struggle with the most on a personal level so it makes sense that this portion of my tarot project would be the most difficult for me. That said, the Swords Suit is coming along. In addition, I’ve been working with my Peppermint Pumpkin bandmates James Rupert Powell and Carisa Bianca Mellado on finalizing our debut album The Children’s Crusade which we began work on something like 5 years ago. Other commitments and a bit of laziness on my part have left the recordings in limbo but James and Carisa have finished producing it and it’s in the mastering stages. My goal is to have it available to everyone by Halloween.

 So, while I’m moving forward on these rather major projects, I wanted to take a moment to share a spirit guide portrait that a dear friend commissioned me to create for another dear friend. I did this about a year ago and wasn’t sure whether I’d share it because I only had a couple hasty photos of it with my iPhone but I really enjoyed how it turned out so I figured what the hell. There was a whole build-up to channeling these spirit guides which I won’t go into, but it involved a deserted nocturnal midway illuminated by red posters, a monolithic stone elevator, and horror film white strobes. What follows are excerpts from my initial notes.

I regarded the first entity I encountered as the Spirit Guide of Choice: The first Spirit Guide reveals herself to me just beyond the elevator doors. She is rising lithely from a white bed blanketed in soft, silky white sheets, looking up to me with a red, featureless face. In rare moments, I see a single eye peering from a hole in the deep red visage but this is fleeting. The eye seems to regard me with curiosity, drawing a sense of safety from the red mask. She has an athletic frame, almost waifish. Two mirrors levitate in her midst, attached to her through chains that connect to rings piercing her nipples. I don’t know what she sees in these mirrors. It feels like a violation of privacy to ask and she never offers so this remains a mystery to me. She wears a lavish sort of collar made of a tough black frame that almost appears rough and chitinous. Within these frames are mirrors and while the floating mirrors remain obscured, I can at times catch glimpses of the reflections in the mirrors of her collar. At times, I see in the mirrors a pale angelic feminine face with red eyeshadow, dark hair tied over her head, black lips, and sharp features. She is smiling and while there is a darkness to her, I sense nothing sinister. At other times, I see a demure pale face with a soft pink glow to it. This face averts its gaze while a strong wind blows a wild mane of blonde hair beneath the soft pink clouds.

I regarded the second entity I encountered as the Spirit Guide of Optimism: Suddenly, a young girl (I’d estimate somewhere between the ages of 9 – 11) comes strolling out of the darkness. Her skin is an otherworldly gray and she is dressed in patchwork rags, yet she seems so cheerful. A warm October breeze blows her long stringy blonde hair. Without hesitation, she takes the hand of the red-faced Spirit Guide. I immediately realize that, despite a jarring lack of similarity, the gray child Spirit Guide and the red-faced Spirit Guide are friends. At this point, I come out of my trance.

The choice (because I do believe it is a choice) for the red-faced Spirit Guide to wear the red, featureless mask may have obstructed my view, but it didn’t feel confrontational or reclusive. Rather it seemed to have almost a logical caution to it. In the rare moments when her eye was visible, I noticed no suspicion or fear but rather a calm curiosity. She actually came off rather kind and gracious despite aspects of her appearance that seemed sharp and cold.

Ultimately, I feel the caution exhibited by the red-faced Spirit Guide is actually the result of her primary essence which is that of making choices. The featureless red face makes no commitment to identity while the mirrors display varied faces such as the sharp woman and the shy soft woman who are possibly exaggerated archetypes that the red-faced Spirit Guide can access through these mirrors. It’s as if she is trying on a new face, a new personality, a new lifestyle and testing it out before committing to it. There’s a playfulness to this, like when one plays dress-up as a child.

I feel like this Spirit Guide is a chameleon, ever-changing as she makes new choices but never sticking to one form. Perhaps the day will come when she makes an ultimate choice and strips her red mask away but for now I feel she is enjoying the fun that comes with versatility.

This may be less important but still worth noting: just because this Spirit Guide exhibits caution does not mean she is timid or afraid. In fact, she exhibits a great deal of confidence, knowing she’s making her choices after educated assessments. This is most apparent in her spiky head dress, a crown of sorts. This Spirit Guide is very comfortable as the queen of her castle, though it is admittedly a small castle for now.

The gray child Spirit Guide didn’t disturb me despite her shabby condition because her smile seemed to burn away her circumstance with its cleansing glow. She came into the scenario the way a happy child greets a new day, paying no heed to her tattered dress and dirty socks. I didn’t get the impression that her hands were bandaged for any particular reason save a quirky fashion, possibly some fancy of make believe or a game to which I wasn’t privy. This child had obviously been up against adversity and challenges, yet she smiled as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Therefore, I see optimism as the primary message of the smiling gray child Spirit Guide.

A warm October wind blows her hair, the warmth of an Indian summer pushing back the bitter colder months. This child, despite the cold gray skin with which she was born, radiated a warmth and an appreciation for rustic simplicity. I have no doubt this child actually enjoyed sleeping on a bed of dirt beneath the stars. Clothed in rags, she smiles because she’s already acquired the most important things in life and is certain that she will be able to get the rest when she needs it.

Optimism and choice can work beautifully together or rather optimism typically improves choice. While it may seem that the red faced Spirit Guide has taken the gray child Spirit Guide’s hand in a moment of maternal affection, I believe that the gray child is equally her guardian.




Horror Art Amplified by the Influence of Stephen King’s It

When I was around 11 years old, my family decided to drive from southwest Florida to northern Ohio. I wasn’t that great at videogames so, figuring my Gameboy wouldn’t keep me entertained for long, I decided to buy a book; one that would be long enough to last me through the trip there and back. I finally decided on Stephen King’s It; a book that would stay with me long after that trip. I had already been pretty obsessed with horror art as a kid; gravitating toward the Ravenloft campaign setting in Dungeons & Dragons and drawing any monster that my imagination could conjure (or in many cases regurgitate) but It knocked me on my ass. I’d never read anything so raw, so perversely vicious…I felt like the book was radiating illness into me, yet I still couldn’t put it down. I’d seen new depths of terror by the time I finished the over 1,000 page vacation in hell; a sickening depression taking hold of me as I constantly thought of the sadism and brutality that the endless creature emanated while leaving a void where childish innocence had once resided. To this day, no reading experience has come close to matching the hopeless low of It with the exception of The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers which left me despondent for nearly 2 weeks.

Floating in the Deadlights

With It, King immerses us in cinnamon childhood nostalgia with brownish bloodstained edges, the intense terror of psychotic afterschool bullies, and a transdimensional cosmic nightmare too immense and horrific for our minds to properly process. In this reality, no amount of purity and innocence can shield you from the fates that stories typically reserve for only the most horrid of villains. Our very flesh becomes just another weakness, another vulnerability to be exploited by an insatiable creature with no reason. The ones we love turn to dust in our arms and the ones we once feared are slowly digested before our eyes. And then there’s this whole other level that It refers to on a number of occasions; the deadlights, an orange glowing radiance that actually sucks away light and beauty, a foul error in cosmic balance that slowly consumes the sacred.

Skarsgård as the 2017 incarnation of Pennywise the clown.

A Legacy That Decays Forever But Never Dies

I regard It with a reverence owed to the blackest of the black. I’m a fan of Stephen King’s work in general, having devoured his novels in middle school, but none even scraped the surface of the constantly corrosive predatory nightmare of It. After reading the book, I avoided watching the mini-series that had come out the year before, fearing if it even came close to the unbridled mania of the book that it would be far too much for me to handle. The images in my head were almost paralyzing at times. Several years later, in my late teens, I finally gathered enough courage to watch the mini-series and, though it was entertaining, it never came close to matching the rusted, grotesque depravity of the book. I’m not sure how I even imagined a made-for-TV mini-series could come close to touching the cosmic horror of the novel. For years, I rested in the assurance that the terror I’d felt as a child would never manifest with the life…or unlife…with which it had lurched forward in my own imagination. Then, it was announced that Cary Fukunaga, he of True Detective fame, was developing a 2-part It film and just the notion of Fukunaga’s direction combined with the most soul-sucking book of all time made me shudder. Then, after a few stumbling starts, Fukunaga was out and I could rest assured that terrible Hollywood decisions had saved me from having a few years scared off of my life.

The version of Stephen King's It that I read when I was 11. 

The Inspiration of the New Pennywise Pierrot

But a few days ago, images were released of the new look for Pennywise in the 2017 remake of It that has moved forward without the dark artistry of Fukunaga. I’m not that afraid of clowns, so Pennywise in his actual clown form never frightened me much, especially as a smart-assed Tim Curry. The latest incarnation of Pennywise doesn’t frighten me that much either but I think he looks fucking rad. Costume designer Janie Bryant talks about it in-depth in an Entertainment Weekly article and her attention to detail is impressive. The idea to portray him as a predatory jester out of time is a way I hadn’t imagined Pennywise myself but one that plays so well into my own aesthetics of fools, harlequins, and clown princes. Merging this trusted archetype with something so base and sinister is truly brilliant and it’s these juxtapositions I feel that propel horror art forward or, at the very least, connect it to me in a frighteningly personal way. Bill Skarsgård (of Hemlock Grove) is cast as a more youthful take on the character of Pennywise; a factor that I feel could make the whole atmosphere somehow sadder. Tim Curry presented a garish, old man Bozo-style clown taunting children while Skarsgård will be this strangely foppish, infantile pierrot literally devouring children.

Childhood Universals Cast in a Nightmare

Another reason I’m excited about this remake is the casting of Finn Wolfhard (who turned in one of my favorite performances as the instantly likeable Mike in Stranger Things) and Owen Teague (who I know as the somewhat tragic Nolan from Bloodline). I am really curious to see how the film handles Teague’s character Patrick Hockstetter who was a disturbing character in the novel in his own right. I won’t spoil Hockstetter’s unique perspective for anyone who hasn’t read the book but he’s also an interesting character for one scene in which he surprisingly initiates an eerily manipulative homosexual experience with the primary bully of the novel. There’s a universal aspect to sexual experimentation in childhood years but it’s given a grotesque frame when presented within an epic about an extradimensional hyper predator that seasons young blood with pure fear and adrenaline. Normally, I’d assume that Hollywood would take a safer route (especially in the wake of cutting Fukunaga from the film after he demanded an NC-17 rating) but I’ve read rumors claiming the new director has stated plans to explore the homosexual aspects of Hockstetter’s character.

The Bowers gang with Owen Teague as Patrick Hockstetter (far right).

Though Stephen King’s It has left an immeasurable influence on me, it’s definitely in a deep end of terror that I often avoid in my own horror art which strays from gore mostly because I use my own imagination as an alluring escape. That being said, I revere the pure horror that King seems to effortlessly tap in It as a truly moving force; one that echoes in the recesses of our hearts and minds long after the final page is turned. Leaving someone so fundamentally disturbed is an emotional experience the equal and opposite of passionate, hearts-a-fluttering romance. At times, I feel compelled to purposely approach the barriers of what disturbs me in an exploration of the horrors I can’t quite explain. It’s hinted at in some of my art but probably won’t be fully explored until I begin work on my graphic novel which presents my complete mythology in elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  


Archetypal Influence of Fellini’s Brilliant Sci Fi Period Piece Satyricon

Satyricon was the first Fellini film I ever had the pleasure of viewing and, though I consider Fellini a true master, it has remained my favorite after repeated viewings. In fact, it easily tops my favorite films having spoken to me on so many levels about the importance of the cosmic fool, the charm of the scoundrel, the familiar sting of betrayal, and the importance of myth. I’ve witnessed many viewers daunted by the fragmented nature of the film, mirroring the incomplete shards of mythology provided by the classic Petronius epic. But I’m somewhat offended when I hear someone slag Satyricon off as pretentious because I connect to it so strongly. I recognize the questionable nature of making such a bold statement about a movie that basically follows the exploits of two degenerates in the age of Nero involved in an often literal tug of war over the affections of a teenage boy. But there are such colorfully melancholy truths beyond the details.

Science Fiction of the Past

The aesthetic of Satyricon was accurately described by Fellini as “science fiction of the past.” Shrill horns merge with atmospheric synths as unsettling gazes stare directly from the screen at you, constantly breaking the fourth wall as if you are some alien observer. Fellini’s depiction of Rome in the age of Nero flows like a casual nightmare with monolithic tenements jutting forth from ever-present shadows. The characters seem as disoriented as the viewer, falling from one absurd situation into another, asking disjointed questions such as “Do you know where I live?” Some characters speak undecipherable languages while the dubbed voices carry on strange conversations forcing the spectator into the role of the stranger in the strange land. My DVD offers dubbed and subtitled options but I find the dubbed version far superior, with lines such as “he sits down to piss as if he’d never been born a man” and a vicious fight between former friends ending with an exasperated “I’m sorry, love.” This unforgiving apocalyptic landscape is almost a character in itself yet serves as the lightbox that so gorgeously contrasts the archetypes I adore.  

There's a general uneasiness that creeps in throughout the alien realms of Fellini's Satyricon. 

There's a general uneasiness that creeps in throughout the alien realms of Fellini's Satyricon. 

Beginning a Sci Fi Fantasy Film with a Towel Fight

SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ONWARD: The moment I truly connected with Fellini’s Satyricon comes early in the film. We’re initially greeted by the oiled Roman Ken doll Encolpio, Rocky Horror before there was Rocky Horror, pushed into a homicidal rage by the betrayal of his teenage lover, the supernaturally cherubic Gitone. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it can be reasonably assumed that Gitone wouldn’t actually be everyone’s cup of tea, but the film reinforces his super pheromones quite regularly. As the scene progresses, we’re introduced to Ascilto, Encolpio’s darker more clownish roommate who raped Gitone while the boy slept in Encolpio’s embrace. This obviously causes a rift between Encolpio and Ascilto and we see this played out in an oily wet towel fight in a bath house where Ascilto has just severely beaten if not killed a john.

The characteristically determined Encolpio. 

The Familiarity of Betrayal

Eventually, Encolpio tracks down Gitone who seems to sort of just go with the flow; he doesn’t seem overjoyed to be united with Encolpio but he willingly absconds with the older man to the tenement squat they share. Bear in mind, this was ancient Rome where the love affair between a man in his 20s and a teenage boy was accepted. If you can’t suspend your repulsion of that, Satyricon will be an impossible film to absorb. Anyway, Encolpio ends up getting intimate with Gitone and later Ascilto sneaks into the tenement to find the two sleeping. Encolpio, high on reuniting with his lover, no longer wants to murder Ascilto but instead seems content to simply kick him out of the flat. Finally, Ascilto asks how they will divide up Gitone, a question that Encolpio can’t even seem to fully process. Ascilto suggests they allow Gitone the free will to choose who he will follow. To our surprise as much as Encolpio’s, Gitone chooses his rapist, Ascilto, leaving Encolpio suicidal and shattered. This all happens within the first 15 minutes or so of the film.

Encolpio and Gitone in happier times. 

Few cinematic moments gutted me with the severity of the scene where Gitone chooses Ascilto. In fact, I think they are the only words Gitone utters in the duration of the film so Fellini obviously intended them to speak volumes. In that moment, I divorced the fact that Gitone was a boy choosing between two sexually predatory men. Encolpio’s actions speak of infatuation and a gentleness but in that vulnerability, Gitone actually dominates him. In a moment of true darkness, Gitone chooses the man who cares less for him but also the man who is not so easily tamed. It’s a nauseating twist but so beautifully illustrates these bizarre yet relatable archetypes, no matter that they may be difficult to face.

Archetypal Influence

I find the exploration of archetypes to be crucial in my artistic work with the archetypal influence of Satyricon still resonating strongly in my visual art, stories, and music. On the forthcoming Peppermint Pumpkin record The Children’s Crusade, I explore the volatile reaction between true romance and dark sexual urges on “The Degenerate.” The Degenerates was an alternate title for Satyricon. The character of Encolpio had a tremendous visual influence on my design of the golden youth who is cloned to provide an army for the King of Pentacles in the Pentacles Suit portion of the tarot set on which I’m working.

Gitone and Ascilto watch on at Encolpio's wedding to the sea captain Lichas. 

Gitone and Ascilto watch on at Encolpio's wedding to the sea captain Lichas. 

But less directly, though no less potently, the strange connections of romance, rivalry, friendship, and betrayal that connect the characters of Encolpio, Ascilto, and Gitone find their ways into my ideas; into the ways I imagine my characters interact. On a fundamental level, Gitone is a victim of pedophilia. But when removed from the mores and seen through safe filters of fantasy and mythology, Gitone is a cunning coquette and a natural prostitute. In this perspective, Encolpio is actually the fly in the web. Ascilto may be a murderous criminal but there are moments where his sneer is lost in shock or anger that we see he most likely cares far more for Encolpio than Gitone, for whom he impulsively sacrificed his relationship with Encolpio. As if to clarify this point, Gitone is lost to both of the fools halfway through the film, no doubt carried away on his own adventures spurned on by his otherworldly charm. As Encolpio and Ascilto face minotaurs, commit crimes against hermaphroditic demigods, struggle against impotence, and even, in one case, meet an unglamorous fate, Gitone is never mentioned again.

The Ancient Roman love triangle of Encolpio > Gitone > Ascilto. 

I can’t quite find the words for the higher truths that these relationships and circumstances speak or how they so strongly inform my own art, but somewhere in that ancient Roman bravado and clownish charm, I feel the love of an enemy, the cold cruelty only accessible through love or obsession, and a forgiving nature of familiar friendships, set against the iciness of alien environs, that is all heavily worked into my art. 

The Page of Pentacles Introduces Financial Revelations

The Page of Pentacles is the first of the 4 Page cards I will illustrate (as of writing this, the only other completed is the Page of Swords). I started illustration on the Page of Pentacles before the rest of the Pentacles Suit (with the exception of the Knight of Pentacles who was illustrated independently of the other cards in the Pentacles Suit). Since Pages are often about beginnings, it seemed an apropos place to start.

In the timeline of my Pentacles Suit, you could imagine that the Page is probably having his epiphany roughly around the same time that the space mystic is undergoing the strain of the Five of Pentacles. Stories of Scarecrow Agriculture have reached the Page who is starting to realize a solution to the recent death of the first Knight of Pentacles: recreating that essence using the mystic’s unique ability to animate scarecrows. The scarecrow looming over the Page, though lacking sentience, is an allusion to Scarecrow Agriculture and we can connect the dots to imagine what the Page sees as the potential of the golden coin. 

A Dedicated Follower of Fashion

All of my Pages are loosely based on the same youth so that hopefully there will be a strong resemblance between all 4 when they are completed. That being said, each has a distinctly different personality and style. I decided to portray the Page of Pentacles as a mod, a dedicated follower of fashion, because of the youth’s proclivity toward the material world. Though pink is not a color oft-associated with the Page of Pentacles, I felt immediately drawn to the color as it’s one I personally feel drawn to in my own fashions. If I want to stretch for a connection, I could point out that the heart chakra consists of the colors pink and green with green also expressing life, nature, and money. But the truth is that pink just has a materialistic charm for me; something squeaky clean, glossy, and somehow innocent in a plastic, self-absorbed manner. The Page is also wearing pretty pink make-up in this illustration, re-emphasizing his interest in fashion and appearance. There’s a certain sense of glamour in his fresh, rosy cheeks and glossy pink lips.

The Page of Pentacles Connects to the Earth

That being said, the Page of Pentacles isn’t a very plastic fellow. I tried to draw some connection to the earthy colors typically associated with the Page by using a rustic brown color as part of the stripe pattern decorating his trousers as well as earthen colors for his sweater which is divided down the center by a golden textile chain of pentacles. Another color I used liberally with the Page is a golden yellow since, in the Pentacles Suit, I often used golden colors to represent material wealth. The Pentacle design emblazoned on his cap is golden, while the clasp that keeps his luxurious cape together is fashioned from gold. He wears bright yellow gloves clasped with gilded pentacle buttons. His hair, cropped into a page bob, is a lighter golden blonde, reminiscent of straw – a connection to the abundance of the land. The pentacle pattern that adorns his cape is actually the pentacle symbol combined with a bull’s eye target, emphasizing the Page’s characteristic focus and determination.

Revelations of a Budding Youth

The land itself around the Page is overflowing with the voluptuous bounty of nature and he is transfixed in awe at the center of it. Budding roses in the border are a reminder that this is a boy not yet in bloom but still evincing the flushed colors of potential. Since the Page of Pentacles is often a representative of comprehension of the full cycle of life (growth, harvest, death, and re-birth through the shifting of seasons), I decided that the crops growing around him should represent my association to differing points of the year. I see strawberries as my favorite fruit in warmer months while pumpkins hold a very special place for me in relation to my favorite season, autumn. The plentitude of fruits and vegetables presented in this illustration point to the obvious rewards for work and planning, yet the flowers serve no immediate purpose to the Page other than their gorgeous appearance. This is to remind us once again of the Page’s preference for material pleasure and his weakness for fashion over function. Despite the Page’s material inclinations, this illustration finds him at a turning point, demonstrated by the look of awed realization in his face as he fixates on the golden pentacle between his fingers. It may be a singular coin, no more than the golden pentacle that begins the mystic’s journey, but the Page of Pentacles often portends small starts to big stories. In his intense gaze, we can gain a sense of the potential he sees through the material world. 

Careful Nurturance Grows Big Rewards

Keeping up with the theme of big things growing from small seeds, I illustrated the Page sowing pumpkin seeds as he gazed into the coin; an allusion to his future with Scarecrow Agriculture (the scarecrows are animated through magical pumpkin heads). These seeds also punctuate the pentacles that stand at the four corners of the border of the card. Sometimes seeds need gentle nurturance to produce their miracles and this energy is in sync with the essence of the Page of Pentacles. He can be at times joyful and flushed with the possibilities of the sensual world but then at other times quite somber, displaying a sensitivity that demands gentle guidance. In addition, we’re reminded that the minutest of seeds can, with diligence and time, become mighty redwoods. Again, the Page excels at the manifestation of the large with the small through diligence and determination.

The Page’s Yellow Roses

Without any initial research, I knew the Page would be surrounded by yellow roses specifically. With a cursory glance, I discovered that yellow roses in Eastern cultures could be seen as a symbol of wisdom and power, both of which figure heavily into the Page of Pentacles. His wise revelations reveal to him the power of the pentacle coin within his hands as he recognizes the full potential. However, the yellow rose is also used to symbolize a focus on new beginnings which is another theme deeply engrained in the Page of Pentacles.

Brave Boundary Breaking

The border of the Page of Pentacles is unique in that it’s the only one of my Pentacles Suit to have a pentacle with a point that breaks its own circle. I intended this as a reminder that the Page sees beyond the immediate and into the greater picture. It also can remind us that the Page is not afraid to enter new situations and scenarios to achieve his focus. 

The ill-fated original sketch 

The ill-fated original sketch 

False Starts Miles from Earth

I began the sketch shortly before departing on a trip to Brighton where I was playing guitar for Carisa Bianca Mellado opening for the Academy of Sun. With a 13 hour plane trip ahead of me, I decided I’d have plenty of time to work on the sketch so I brought my illustration pad along with me. But before I’d even left LAX, I’d managed to spill a bottle of water directly onto my drawing pad. I never found myself in the mood to draw on the plane anyway and when I returned to Los Angeles a week later, I felt a distinct lack of inspiration stemming from the jet lag. There was something intensely beautiful to me about the face of the Page of Pentacles in my original sketch and it was a distinct charm that I wasn’t able to match in my subsequent effort that became my official illustration of the Page of Pentacles. Initially, this left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth, though I immediately liked my second attempt. Today, I’m pleased with the end result on the Page of Pentacles and feel that it is the representation it was always meant to be.

Kay Nielsen and His Art Nouveau Fairy Tales

I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember but, aside from a mandatory Humanities class in college, I’ve rarely sought out influence through other artists. That’s changed somewhat in the last few years, but spending 90% of my life largely ignorant of other illustrators has left that facet of the art universe relatively unexplored by me. When speaking of visual artists, chances are I’ve never heard of them. So it came as a pleasant surprise when, last week, my friend Jared asked me if I’d ever heard of Kay Nielsen. 

The image used to introduce me to Kay Nielsen. 

The Age of Generic Dragons

The initial image Jared shared with me was taken from Nielsen’s illustration work for a project called East of the Sun, West of the Moon which compiled fairy tales that Nielsen further brought to life through his mystical art nouveau illustrations. This brings me to a personal point that I feel is particularly illuminated by the mastery in Nielsen’s unique works: a cursory search for “fantasy art” brings up a seemingly inexhaustible army of computer-generated pieces with, in my opinion, only the minutest of distinctions between them. They’re nice enough to look at but they lack the combined spirit and edge of artists like Nielsen. I’ll rarely waste moments focusing on what I don’t like in art so let me put it succinctly: I’d get lost for longer in just one of Kay Nielsen’s majestic visions than I would in thousands of computer-generated generic dragons that seem to be the hallmark of modern fantasy art. 

The Sylvan Mystery of Kay Nielsen

I haven’t read the fairy tales that accompany Nielsen’s works but the stories untold almost make them more special to me. When given just what Nielsen allows us (and don’t get me wrong, what he allows us is generous) we can fill in the blanks with our own stories and visions. I love this mystery in art though I often get so excited by my own visions that I can’t help but explain every nuance of my art and every tale behind it. The questions posed by the elongated, pointed, sylvan characters that elegantly stroll through the fantasy-scapes of Nielsen reignite the excitement of childhood enigmas. I would have loved to see a Kay Nielsen and George MacDonald collaboration. MacDonald’s horror fantasy fairy tale Lilith: A Romance was one of the most profoundly moving novels I’ve had the honor to read (and one which I’m sure to revisit at great length on a posting here in the future). Nielsen’s nimble yet regal creations, straddling the line between children and adults, would perfectly suit the mood of MacDonald’s Lilith.

The Folly in Abandoning Art

In reading about Nielsen’s life, it was disheartening to discover that he died in poverty after being let go from his concept art position at Disney. During his 4 years at Disney, Nielsen created art for the iconic “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia as well as concept art that was used over 30 years after his death in Disney’s rendition of The Little Mermaid. Thinking of so many great artists dying in penniless rejection brings me concern for modern society’s ignorance to the integral nature of art. Art communicates mythology. Without it, we are walking alone in darkness and we’ll never find one another. Following his death, Nielsen’s estate attempted to donate his amassed body of illustration work to museums but was met with rejection. Obviously, someone recalled Nielsen’s greatness and today his work is honored so, at least for his audience, this story has a happy ending. But abandoning art is a dangerous folly of the modern world and one that can’t endure for long.