Eric Drooker is standing at a pay phone in the Society of Illustrators in New York City. Heís just finished up jury duties at the organizationís 45th Annual Exhibition, judging paintings and drawings alongside illustrious illustrators like Jules Feiffer, Stan Lee, and Chris Ware. Now heís talking about his own work ó specifically the serendipitous genesis of his new "silent ballad," Blood Song (Harcourt), a pictorial novel heíll "read" from this week at the Lucy Parsons Center and the Brookline Booksmith.
"The whole idea came to me rather quickly," says Drooker, whose stylized, pithily eloquent works have graced the covers of the New Yorker and the Village Voice. "I was in Amsterdam, walking through the park. It had just rained, and I was walking in circles . . . I just kinda got into a trance and it played out before my eyes. A waking dream, I guess you could call it."
Blood Song, a swift-moving narrative of austere cobalt blue and black imagery dabbed sporadically with the vivid red of menstrual blood or the bright green and yellow of a tropical bird, certainly does have an dusky, oneiric feel. But its mute fable ó a teenage girl flees helicopter-borne soldiers who destroy her Edenic jungle village and eventually arrives in a nameless teeming city thatís patrolled by brutally rapacious police, where she finds a fleeting, regenerative love ó is as brutal and sad and beautiful as waking life.
These 300-plus drawings, which took Drooker almost four years to complete, were etched with a razor blade; he scratched the ink away from an ink-coated surface ("a similar technique to a woodcut or a linoleum cut"), then brushed the negative space with delicate sweeps of watercolor to create textures and accent chiaroscuro. "I wanted it to be very simple. Eliminate as many details as possible. In fact, for a while I had a little note on my drawing board that just said, ĎSimplify. Simplify. Simplify.í "
But despite their stripped-down æsthetic, Drookerís taciturn, haunting images speak volumes. Heís equally adept at limning the lush canopy of an overgrown jungle and the vaulting leaps of a soaring metropolis. He shows the girlís reactions and emotions (and those of her companion, a plucky black mutt) with the barest suggestion of gesture. Any one of these pictures would look beautiful in a frame; their cumulative effect is stirring.
And Drooker, whoís authored one other image-only novel, the semi-autobiographical Flood! (1992; Four Walls Eight Windows), knew theyíd be a more than adequate method of relaying his story. Thatís why he eschewed expository dialogue entirely. "I think it would be very heavy-handed if it had any text to it. I like the reader to be able to make their own conclusions. It would be too dogmatic otherwise."
One problem. How does one read from a book that has no words?
"Iíve developed this slide show where Iím projecting images from the book [youíll find a Flash preview at www.drooker.com], and from other work Iíve done recently. I sing a little bit. I read poetry. And I play music along with the slides. Itís evocative of an old silent movie, where youíll have a guy playing piano on the side. Only I play harmonica. Itís more portable, for one. And I donít know how to play the piano."
Eric Drooker appears next Thursday, November 21, at the Lucy Parsons Center, 549 Columbus Avenue in the South End. Call (617) 267-6272. Then the following Monday, November 25, heíll be at the Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street in Brookline. Call (617) 566-6660.
BY MIKE MILIARD