Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Torture Hits Home

Wow. I've been a fan of Owen Smith and his pulpy cover illustrations for a long time, ever since I first noticed his work on the cover of The Low End of Nowhere, a novel by Michael Stone featuring his hard-ass Denver bounty hunter and sometime private eye Streeter.

Smith's work subsequently appeared on a few other Streeter novels, but then I began to notice his work -- he has a very distinctive style -- popping up all over the place. An Aimee Man album cover (for which he won a Grammy). Maureeen Dowd's Are Men Really Necessary?. Numerous magazine covers, including The New Yorker and, I think, Sports Illustrated.

Owen's illustrative work is a marvel of swirling, pulpish impressionism that harkens back to the days of public works programs and working class murals as much as it does pulp magazines. It's not really "realistic," but it's vibrant and muscular and there's a throbbing, almost disturbing visceral energy about the way he portrays the people in his paintings. There are no wimps or pretty people in his work -- everyone's built like a bruised brick shithouse.

But his cover for the March/April 2008 issue of Mother Jones is something else again. The theme and title of the issue (and presumably the illustration itself) is "Torture Hits Home" and if you don't think a simple illustration can shock or disturb you, if you can look at this and not squirm, if you can study this picture and simply shrug it off, we all know which side of the torture debate you stand on. And it's far, far away from most of us.

This is illustration played for keeps, a mouthful of blood spit out in defiance. One image, and it makes all the rest of the issue, all those well-intentioned passionate words of condemnation and righteous outrage superfluous.

Look at that illustration. Look at it close.

This is pulp. This is hardcore.

Well done, Mr. Smith.

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