Ghosts on a Grand Scale

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Illustrator and graphic novelist Nora Krug has a new lavishly made silk-screen book done in a limited edition of 400 copies. Shadow Atlas: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits was printed in three colors (yellow, blue and red) and one special color (silver). The books are sold here, or through Krug at

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What inspired Shadow Atlas: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits?

For me, illustrating is always a way of researching, and all my projects begin with an idea or a subject that I am interested in learning more about. It’s never the act of drawing itself that gets me involved in a project, but a subject I want to explore. I’ve always been interested in why people believe in ghosts, and in the power of the stories that are constructed around those characters. The narrative in which a ghost appears and enters into a relationship with a human being, and the descriptions of what the ghost looks like and how it acts helps cement these beliefs in sometimes very visceral ways, and thus deeply emotionally embeds its relevance in our daily lives. In some cultures, these ghosts are directly tied to Christian religion. One example is the Hapiñuñu, a female flying creature that kidnaps lonely travelers in the Andes by lifting them up with its breasts, and that can only be appeased by Christian prayer. In this example, I was interested in how pagan beliefs are combined with Christian religion. In other countries, ghosts explain natural phenomena.

Such is the case, for example, with the Ccoa, a Peruvian feline ghost that can destroy whole harvests by shooting a stream of hail out of its ears, mouth and eyes. Another example is the Rakshasas, an Indian ghost that can travel from one person to another through contaminated food, just like a disease can be transmitted from one person to another. What I found particularly interesting, though, was that a lot of ghosts from around the world mirror universal fears. The fear of losing one’s child is represented in many ghosts around the globe, and those ghosts often serve as an explanation of a child’s sudden death. Another universal fear, that of not recognizing the person you love, is represented by the Japanese ghost called Zunbera-Bo, which can take on the appearance of a family member and then make its own face disappear at will, leaving behind a surface as smooth and blank as the shell of an egg; or the fear of someone’s own identity being stolen, as is the case with the Russian ghost called Ovinnik, that lives in kilns, helps families clean up the kiln, but if angered, can take on the appearance of the kiln’s owner and burn down their house.

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Where did you find your subjects?

My main source was a thick and heavy book from the 1970s, that I found one day at the New York University library, called ‘Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folkolore, Mythology and Legend‘ (referenced in the back of my book), which lists an incredible range of ghosts, spirits, mythological and literary characters, and provides historic contexts. Additionally, I interviewed some of my friends from all over the world, to find out whether they grew up believing in particular ghosts. I also did some research online, but there wasn’t much of interest – another proof that libraries and field research are still the best resources to learn about the world. I decided to pick one ghost per letter, and to cover as culturally wide a range as possible. I made an effort not to research how these ghosts were depicted by other artists in the past, because the way in which those creatures were described textually in the reference books already provided a lot of visual reference and inspiration.

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This is a massive volume all screen printed and handbound. Have you ever worked on this scale before? And how was it different from your smaller work?

This is the first time that I’ve worked on this scale. The publisher I worked with, ‘StraneDizioni’, an innovative printing press run by Marzia Dalfini and Enrico Fiammelli out of Italy, offered to print a book at the maximum size possible. That was one of the best incentives for me to create the book, but it meant an incredible amount of physical labor for the team that had to print thousands of pages by hand. To me, the physical appeal of books will never disappear, and part of the physical experience of holding and reading a book is the visceral understanding of the physical labor that was put into creating it. This is especially true for a book that is hand printed and bound. I also decided on the large format, because I (conceptually, but not illustratively) wanted to reference the old encyclopedic compendiums found in dusty, 18th- and 19th-century libraries. In an attempt to chronicle the completeness of the world, these codexes and atlases were often quite big, and looked at stationary, in the quiet refuge of one’s library. A big illustrated book also gives you the chance to get lost in its content in a completely different way than a small book, or a digital application would. Hopefully, turning the pages in this massive book will also help generate a sense of anticipated terror of what’s lurking behind the next page.

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Do you have a favorite ghost or spirit?

None of the ghosts in my book are particularly likable. So if I had to pick a favorite, I might go with the scariest one. The Abiku is a Nigerian spirit that can enter the body of a child, cause its early death and get reborn in an endless cycle into one and the same family. Physical deformities such as the missing of toes or fingers are explained through the doings of this ghost, and in some rural communities in Nigeria, Tanzania and Burundi, even today, children that look different, especially albino children, are thought of possessing magical spirits by some, and are regularly kidnapped, killed and their body parts sold for rituals of witchcraft. The idea of this ghost, to me, is particularly scary, because it represents existing beliefs that can be dangerous and even deadly to individuals that are considered ‘different’ by the society they live in.

For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at