The Daily Heller: Apocalypse is Not Alien to H.R. Giger

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H. R. Giger, the designer of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, Alien, was a master at conceiving massive biomechanical dreamscapes, which defined a certain dystopian worldview. His Necronomicon became the visual inspiration for the extraterrestrial environment and title character of Alien, including all the stages of its lifecycle. His designs earned him the 1980 Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects, and his other film work included Poltergeist II, Alien 3, Species, and the legendary unmade film, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune (Denis Villeneuve’s version came out in 2021, without hint of Giger’s influence).

Giger’s dystopic visions are phenomenal artistic accomplishments, yet nonetheless too nightmarish for me; my limited taste for futuristic imaginings stays true to Disney’s benign, optimistic fantasy of the worlds of tomorrow. But when I was asked to write the foreword to Ryan Standfest’s (Rotland Press) incredibly researched and edited rare collection of Giger’s Atomkinder— his early underground cartoons spanning the 1960s— I took a deep breath and jumped into breach.

My goal was not to write a biography of Giger, who is ably served by Stanfest’s author’s notes and the astute preface by art historian Philippe Kaenel. Instead, I was asked to place Giger’s dystopian cartoons into a continuum of similar-minded artists who share a spiritual affinity with Giger’s lesser-known cartoons. The first connection I made was to Ron Cobb, the most acute and witty of the ’60s underground press political cartoonists, who in later years turned to doing science fiction paintings and sets for film production. I had not initially seen the direct relationship between alternative culture satire and sci-fi fantasy, but after enough reading of Philip K. Dick, I finally understood. Then comes Hieronymous Bosch’s nightmarish creatures (some three-dimensional versions of which I have sitting on the bookshelf in front of me), who is arguably the grandfather of all the apocalyptic artists. There’s J.J. Grandville and Albert Robida, 19th century French satiric illustrators whose imagery was less grotesque, but nonetheless proto-surrealist early sci-fi with a dash of comic anthropomorphism. I’ve always marveled at the genius Alfred Kubin, the turn-of-the-century Austrian symbolist whose fantastical, often violent vignettes bear a striking affinity to Giger’s early and later work. Then there’s my favorite lesser-known symbolist-expressionist, the German A. Paul Weber, who through horrifying pictorial allegories portrayed Nazis as monstrously dark otherworldly creatures.

These early 1960s Giger drawings have a raw quality compared to his paintings and articulated linear qualities similar to those artists mentioned above— and he also shares an interest in the depraved sexual aspects of their work.

However, in my eyes, Giger veers away from these spiritual cohorts with Atomkinder, or “Atom Children.” This form of underground cartooning was produced from 1963-1964, when his technological transfigurations turned into extreme humanoid mutations and deformed beings combining skeletal and exoskeletal frames and shells. It is a precursor of his art that represents the existential morph of the human race into machines comprised of painstakingly rendered serpentine forms and reptilian features.

One of Giger’s signature recurring images is a headless human torso attached to the semblance of arms and legs whose chest (if you can call it that) includes troubling voids— empty holes where the heart and genitalia should have been. Giger’s soulless stumps are controlled by another of his indelible creatures comprised of a grotesque head with a hideous face, sans torso and arms, yet emerging from the shoulders (if you can call it that) are two legs extending from an errant groin. While these serve as prototypes for what would become creatures in his mature fantastical paintings, they also fit squarely into a continuum of symbolist and satiric commentary of the 19th and 20th centuries, extending into today. This book is quite timely, for Giger’s cartoons from 50-plus years ago feel especially resonant in our brave new crypto-bio-mechanical-techno age, and just as scary.

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