We Are the Mutants

‘Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials’, 1979

Exhibit / July 25, 2017

Object Name: Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials
Maker and Year: Wayne Barlowe, Beth Meacham and Ian Summers (text), Ballantine Books, 1979
Object Type: Illustrated book
Description: (Richard McKenna)

The work of what its creator called “a hungry youth with something to prove,” Wayne Barlowe’s 1979 Barlowe’s Guide To Extraterrestrials was published amidst a glut of grimoires of imaginary realities—Wil Huygen’s Gnomes had been released in 1976 and Stewart Cowley’s Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD in 1978, while 1979 saw the release of Cowley’s Aliens in Space: An Illustrated Guide to the Inhabited Galaxy (written under the pseudonym of Steven Caldwell), as well as David Day’s Tolkien Bestiary and Alan Frank’s Galactic Aliens. Yet Barlowe’s work managed to distinguish itself through a powerful combination of artistic skill and biological knowledge.

The punkish conceit of Guide To Extraterrestrials was that of producing a book that would classify and describe the creatures from a selection of respected works of science fiction in the manner of an illustrated natural history book. As the son of two successful and prolific natural history artists—Dorothea and Sy Barlowe—Wayne Barlowe was perhaps uniquely positioned to succeed in the task of producing a bestiary of the various alien lifeforms, but what he produced—a series of reliably literal interpretations of the source material—possesses a singular strangeness that even at a distance of decades remains testament to the artist’s obsessively personal vision of other-than-human life. It is a compelling picture of a universe filled with diversity of form and function.

An art student at Cooper Union in New York, Barlowe had started like many others—by providing cover art for sci-fi novels. It was through this job that he met the art director of Ballantine Books, Ian Summers. Encouraged by his parents, the then-21-year-old Barlowe pitched the idea of the Guide To Extraterrestrials to Summers, who accepted and offered him a contract. The book was a success and sold well internationally, winning several awards including Best Book For Young People by The American Library Association.

Though adept at producing the garish, Rennaissance-influenced hyperrealism beloved of American SF publishers, Barlowe’s best work possesses an unsettlingly unearthly quality that suggests both the mannered craftsmanship of the Dutch masters and the stark contrasts of texture and form of Surrealists like Max Ernst and Dalì. When this surrealist mood clashes with his realist tendencies, as was the case in Guide To Extraterrestrials, his art is at its most evocative: the almost pornographic rendering of inhuman detail makes the pictures extremely memorable, and despite being nominally “lifelike,” they possess a disconcerting otherness.

The book enjoyed an unexpected afterlife when, in 1982, Barlowe was contacted by two toy designers—Ned Strongin and Len Mayem—who asked him to create a series of children’s toys for Revell based on the creatures included in Barlowe’s Guide To Extraterrestrials. In the hopes of competing with Mattel’s successful Masters of the Universe line, launched the year before, Revell had decided that Barlowe’s febrile visions could provide the key to dominating the plastic action figure market. Prompted by his childhood love of toys like Zeroids, Colorforms’ Outer Space Men and Mattel’s Major Matt Mason, Barlowe accepted the proposal, and the intriguingly off-beat series of action figures that resulted—Power Lords, The Extra-Terrestrial Warriors—was launched in 1983. Despite being promoted through board games, video games, and comic books, however, Revell’s optimism proved unfounded: perhaps too outlandish to compete with the straightforward Manichean machismo of the Masters of the Universe, the Power Lords ceased production the following year.