'Canute' painted 1982. Bartlett, Ray and Jarvis Ltd.
Maidens and monsters
Kirby’s imagination gave rise to some remarkable imagery when interpreting the words of authors, but equally fascinating are the pictures that he made for his own interest. Indeed, a distinctly surreal and magical thread permeates certain pieces and the tradition of fairy tales is also in evidence.
Kirby’s fondness for playing with scale manifests itself in paintings of giants confronting humans, albeit those with superhero strength. His Selphine series satisfied a desire to paint quicker, more improvised pictures, whilst also providing a degree of sexual tension between the protagonists: “Beauty and the Beast”, in Kirby’s words.
There were some authors, like Neal Barrett Jr, whose far-fetched writing particularly appealed to Kirby, enabling him to pursue more fanciful ideas or incorporate a favourite motif. Kirby’s frequent re-working of favourite images also manifests itself here, reaching a peak in a ‘life-sized’ alien that started out as a standard, small-scale book cover commission.
Humorous fantasy and beyond
The association between Kirby’s cover art and a rollicking good read, exemplified by the Discworld books, led to a growing number of commissions from publishers seeking his unique visual ‘brand’ for their own authors. Kirby, in turn, responded to the humour in much of this fantasy literature, since it enabled him to expand his already playful and distinctive approach.
Although his paintings for other authors were closely tailored to their individual stories and styles, they remained unmistakably the work of Josh Kirby. He pushed the creative and comic boundaries as far as the art editors would permit and relished the opportunity of visualising characters and locations from outside the Discworld. Similarly, commercial or private commissions also arose that were not for book covers, yet offered the chance to pursue a new challenge.
But the connection with Terry Pratchett was never far away. The author even found himself re-branded when books that had originally been launched with artwork by other artists were given new Josh Kirby covers, guaranteeing their saleability on the foreign market.
Games and gamebooks
The upsurge in computer games and gamebooks - where the player becomes a character, following their pick of different plot lines - has been a natural development within the science fiction and fantasy arena, also uniting large communities of people over the internet.
Kirby’s status as a fantasy artist brought him commissions from leading publishers including Games Workshop and Corgi, painting imagery as colourful as all that had gone before. If anything the situations pictured are more perilous, reflecting the life and death decisions to be taken by the role-player in the comfort of their living room.
The complexity of giving flesh to stories that have, by necessity, had their plotlines shuffled like cards is perhaps greater than in a regularly ordered book. Kirby met the challenge by making copious rapid drawings of appealing scenes, selecting a favourite to work into a finished cover. There are even occasional crossovers with his Terry Pratchett work since occasionally paintings that appeared in games books were inspired by scenes in Pratchett’s novels.