Monster Design: Fine Artists, Cartoonists and Illustrators



One of my earliest memories is rifling through my collection of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” a now infamous series of books for kids. I owned the original printings with illustrations by Stephen Gammell. For a full look at the disappointing re-printing, using illustrations by the dude whose art was used in the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, click here.

ZhrkTYvGammell’s original drawings were an exercise in suspense as much as they were depictions of unique monsters. The question of form is present in almost every one – what is this thing? Is it dangerous? As a child, I had no idea, but I enjoyed the sensation of staring at something and trying to figure it out. That’s an effect only a still shot, or illustration, of a monster can do.


ku-mediumIllustration is a well-explored medium when it comes to monster design. Guillermo Del Toro published many of his notebook illustrations as a presentation of his craft. Before creatures like the Angel of Death or the murdered porcelain boy from The Devil’s Backbone were fully realized on screen, they were simply sketches in his notebooks.


I own the full collection, The Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in filmmaking, monster theory or reading about eccentric people.


When we analyze the forms and behaviors of fictional monsters, we’re not usually privy to their artistic development, so concept art and sketches are rare and useful sources of information.

Though Tim Burton has used his skills for illustrations in published storybooks like “Oyster Boy,” his pre-production work is also available online. We see his characteristic style in static form, all his finely tuned long lines and large, gaping eyeballs in shadowed sockets.

Many have compared Burton’s work to his predecessor Edward Gorey, who I would argue is the more interesting monster-maker.


Of course, while some of Tim Burton’s concept art has been distributed in print, a lot of the art found online was used as a means to an end. Finding monsters whose final resting place lies in illustration and contemporary art is a little more difficult. One might turn to graphic novels and darker comics to find examples of this kind of work.


Another definitive childhood experience for me was discovering my father’s collected editions of Frank Miller’s Batman comics. Through Miller’s discerning eyes, the already established monsters in Gotham City are cleaner, more human, and arguably more disturbing. The Joker in particular is a hyper-sexualized, clean-cut, distinctly masculine monster. In one particular scene which scared me deeply as a child, Batman comes across Selina Kyle, who presumably has just been raped by the Joker. I’ll link to the image of Catwoman (dressed as Wonder Woman here) post-assault, instead of posting it directly on my blog: Trigger Warning.

Even Miller’s Batman is crusted and twisted by old age, hulking in a suit that once fit him, and often grimacing at the viewer. In the pages of “Dark Knight, Triumphant,” Batman is a monster himself, much like the Joker. They are both not quite human, perhaps only retaining the worst of humanity behind their masks or makeup. The recent influx of Batman-centered films have yet to tackle Miller’s illustrated Batman in any serious way, or rather they’ve ignored this particular aesthetic. I’m sort of glad for this, as Batman as a grisly illustration will always be my preferred version.



Other graphic novels using the monster as an illustrated form include the works of Charles Burns (which I’ve written about on the blog before), and another of my father’s favorites, DC’s “Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children”. The art in “Beautiful Stories” usually endeavors to make normal images look sinister. There’s a lot of play with the image of clowns, and many characters are ambiguous in age. The possibly-dangerous man-child is a repeated character in the comics.

I’ve found a lot of graphic artists are publishing online. Without the confines of a graphic novel’s plot, some of these monsters are incredibly interesting. We’re left with their uncanniness and asked to imagine a world where they exist, which has a disturbing feel to it. Here are some of my favorites (each picture links to the artist’s website).


Look familiar? Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger was the lead designer on Alien.


David Hockney illustrates Rumpelstiltskin “tearing himself in two.”


Stephen Mackey illustrates the monsters in a child’s dream.


Holly Mills presents her take on ghosts in “Hard Boiled Wonderland”.


Sanya Glisic’s books share a demonic elation present in Superjail!, which is discussed below.


Keith Thompson’s work is unbelievable.


Thompson’s design eye helped in his role in art direction on Pacific Rim.



Gojin Ishihara’s block-art themed “Illustrated Guide to Japanese Monsters” is unspeakably fun.


Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” is my favorite of the Black Paintings. It’s the background on Monster Maven.

One of my favorite stories surrounding the fine artist as monster-maker is Francisco Goya’s black paintings. Goya painted these dark, disturbing images on the walls of his house in the remaining years he had before dying. Much like Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around album (recorded before his death), Goya’s black paintings are a look into the mind of a damaged man facing death and descent into insanity. In fact, looking at each of Goya’s Black Paintings while listening to The Man Comes Around is one of the most monstrous things I can think. Would recommend!

But I disgress. Another realm of illustration to consider is the work of animation. A few of my favorite illustrations (though moving) of monsters and monstrous people come from Adult Swim’s Superjail!, which is an equally joyful and gorey production. David Wain as Superjail’s Warden is just masterful.

superjail4 superjail_05 sj_superjail_any_trippy_cool_walls_desktop_3000x2250_wallpaper-141513

To get a full understanding of Superjail!‘s complexity, you’ll probably have to watch a segment of the moving animation. The detail is astounding.

I’m not an expert on this subject by any stretch, and I’d love suggestions of other horror illustrators or monster concept artists! Let me know in the comments if you have someone you love.


3 thoughts on “Monster Design: Fine Artists, Cartoonists and Illustrators

  1. crawcraftsbeasties

    This made me remember one of my own favourite books from childhood – a collection of fairytales illustrated by Michael Foreman, who doesn’t sugarcoat his monsters for the sake of his young audience. While his take on the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast” makes the Disney version look positively huggable, it was the view of the inside of Bluebeard’s secret room that caught my ghoulish young eye. Bluebeard himself is made to look like a slightly gruff Santa Claus, so you find yourself wondering if maybe society has been a bit harsh on him. It’s the picture of the room that reveals him to be a monster. Unfortunately, I can’t find it online! But you can see some of the other illustrations from the book here:


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