Back in the mid-2000s when I was properly watching the classic Universal monster movies for the first time, I was initially most interested in watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon because, when placed alongside the likes of Dracula or the wolf man, the creature seemed really bizarre.
I'd be so bold as to say it almost seemed too left field to fit in with the classic horror monsters…not gothic enough in its horror elements or maybe I should say too exotic. The creature wasn't a refined monster with a predatory plan or even a decent human being consumed by vices and suppressed longings.
Rather it was a primal, unrestrained child of mother nature; the nightmare for anyone with ambitions of taming the wild. Unlike the majority of its Universal horror brethren, the creature had no basis in literature and its ties to folklore weren't as popularized as the wolf man or history as the mummy. But when you got past that vicious fish DNA, the creature had some sort of feelings of love or lust that overrode its instinct to maul and maim, a trait often underlying the Universal monsters.
It was easy to connect with the natural beauty in the black-and-white underwater world of The Creature from the Black Lagoon but I'm finding it difficult to put the exact feeling into words. The underwater scenes were filmed in Florida (though the film was meant to take place in the Amazon) so there was an instant familiarity and at the same time a sort of boredom in each beautiful shot of the creature in its natural element.
When I say "boredom" I mean the kind that comes with knowing what's behind the curtain. I admired the natural beauty of those shots immensely while simultaneously seeing the springs of Florida and all that those springs represented to me…a sort of isolation from anything exciting. I knew those springs were bordered by trailer parks and retirement communities.
At the same time, there was a slight (and I sincerely mean slight, almost non-existent but still worth mentioning) vibe of Florida's venomous flora and fauna; the mosquitos, mud puppies, lizards, snakes, and alligators. But whether they were boring, irritating, or creepy, these were the devils I knew and its through those filters that I watched gorgeous, shimmering black-and-white scenes of nature that may have been terrifying in 1954, but to my eyes just seemed leisurely.
I keep stressing "black-and-white" because I don't know that the same feeling would have come across if The Creature from the Black Lagoon had been shot in color. In fact, I can only imagine that I'd feel my skin crawl in repulsion if I saw the familiar greenish tint of the springs.
The black-and-white afforded me the mystery of a time before me, a small window for just enough fantasy to creep in so that I could actually still watch the creature mirroring the heroine and feel a sense of wonder. It may not be clear from this tirade but I actually greatly enjoyed knowing that The Creature from the Black Lagoon's aquatic scenes were filmed in Florida.
I didn't try to divorce my fascination with The Creature from the Black Lagoon when I began my illustration of the Gill Man, but a certain severing of past associations with the film came naturally. I should mention that, unlike the Invisible Man highlighted in my previous blog entry, the creature is not public domain.
This is just as well as I love the look of the creature but it doesn't leave a lot of creative freedom. In order to bring myself into the illustration properly, I had to make this my Gill Man and I immediately began to incorporate aspects of the underwater world that frightened and disturbed me but still carried hints to that majesty that I saw in the serene beauty of those aquatic scenes in The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
When I was in 1st grade, my parents bought me a Siamese fighting fish (I think the politically correct term is a beta but the other name just sounds too colorful to pass up). I wanted to incorporate the confrontational frills and almost Oriental style of the Siamese fighting fish's fins into my Gill Man.
I even contemplated coloring him in blues, reds, and violets like my first pet, Syrus, the Siamese fighting fish, but it just felt like the Gill Man needed a more traditional green color. His chest and stomach were designed to resemble that of a crocodile's, easily one of the most terrifying yet interesting animals to grace our planet.
I gave the Gill Man rows and rows of disposable teeth like another terrifying but incredible creature of our planet, the shark. The Gill Man's curved, razor sharp nails were inspired by a scene that I adored in The Creature from the Black Lagoon in which the scientists are examining a mauled corpse with the South American river boat captain Lucas. One of the scientists hypothesizes that the man died from a jaguar attack and Lucas quickly shuts him down, scratching at the air and slurring "A jaguar's claws…they rip like this."
I wanted to create a humanoid, though at the same time alien look to create the proper sense of fear I wanted from my Gill Man and I think this comes across the best in the eyes. In the eyes, you see nothing to hold onto. But I purposely made the eyes yellow while making the eyes of the surrounding fish a supernatural black to indicate that the Gill Man isn't really one of these fish. Its sort of on its own frequency.
In fact, the blackness of the fish's eyes indicates that they are following the Gill Man in a sort of frenzy that defies their usual nature…almost a sort of hypnosis or group mania. (Weird side note: I got massive deja vu while writing the last few sentences).
The fish assembled for this portrait quickly give away that this Gill Man isn't in the Black Lagoon. While the Black Lagoon is situated in the Amazon river (which is terrifying in its own right), the type of fish in this illustration indicate that the Gill Man is in the ocean. But that's really about where the scientific facts end because the fish aren't drawn even close to scale nor are they behaving in a manner that befits their species.
Many are also deep sea fish that wouldn't do well swimming near the surface. This was all contemplated before I even began to add fish into the illustration. While it would have made much more sense to throw some bull sharks or even a saltwater crocodile in the Gill Man's entourage, it wasn't what I was feeling and I opted for feeling over science and logic.
So, the Gill Man is flanked by oversized viper fish and angler fish, braving the surface. Frilled sharks swim side by side with the normally friendly wolf eels and territorial but reclusive moray eels. The barracudas make the most sense, I suppose. Gill Man aside, it may not seem that those kicking feet at the surface are in much trouble, but as the creator of this illustration, I can override science and confirm that each fish you see is very focused on devouring that swimmer.
But one of the most terrifying aspects of the Gill Man illustration for me personally is the vast blue expanse behind everything. I can recognize the beauty in the open water and the ocean depths but more than that I recognize my own terror. I can further illustrate his through an excerpt from a recent entry in my personal diary:
"A few days ago, I found a youtube video that actually showed a crocodile 'trainer' being killed by his crocodiles. I felt bad about watching it. Everything was so pixelated, I couldn't really tell what I was looking at. A man (I'm assuming) in a long black robe was walking with a long stick among several crocodiles on a bank along a large lake while people in manmade stands watched from an elevated point. The trainer was prodding the large pixelated shadows.
As he's stepping over one of the crocodiles, it turns its head casually and seems to catch him by the robe, causing him to fall. At this point, the spectators jump from their seats, screaming in outrage. When we finally see down onto the bank again, I assumed the crocodile was laying upon the trainer though I started to see commotion in the lake. It seemed like the crocodiles had overpowered the trainer and then dragged him out into the water where they tore him apart. This seems so much more terrifying than killing him on the bank."
I was really concerned with leaving so much blank space in this illustration, second-guessing myself, feeling that I could fill it in with seaweed or more fish or something. But honestly, the Gill Man wouldn't be nearly as terrifying on land. What's really scary is that he's about ready to drag that person away from what s/he knows, into that ever-darkening blue.