At the turn of the last century, illustrations were everywhere. The pages of daily newspapers, satirical magazines, and catalogs were all chock-full of hand-drawn images. Most novels were illustrated, even those intended for adults. Fifty years before, Charles Dickens
had included two pictures in each of his monthly installments, and his influence persisted. Certainly, no self-respecting book for teenagers would have appeared without at least a few glossy plates.
But then history went awry. Photography took over catalogs and print advertising, starving the legion of journeymen illustrators whose job it had been to draw the latest hats and shoes and farm implements for Sears and Roebuck. The publishers of novels found themselves suddenly without a cheap and ready supply of artists, and fashion followed economics. Nowadays, people older than 12 rarely get pictures in their novels. Graphic novels and manga abound, thankfully, but not prose mingling with images in the old-school way.
I was contemplating all this while beginning work on Leviathan, a steampunk adventure set in 1914. I wanted the novel to capture the feel of that era, and it occurred to me, why not make the book itself look and feel like an object from an alternate history? Why not illustrate it?
After some searching, I found Keith Thompson, an artist capable of echoing the elegant, handcrafted style of those old illustrations while masterfully updating them for a modern audience.
A little background here: Leviathan is set in a world where DNA was discovered by Charles Darwin, and the Victorian Empire built on the backs of fabricated species. The Clanker powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, however, have hewed to the lifeless principles of mechaniks. So the looming Great War is a contest between opposing technologies and aesthetics as much as rival ideologies. The story follows a young Darwinist girl, disguised as a boy and serving on a living airship, and the son of the Archduke Ferdinand, on the run from the men who murdered his parents. To keep things simple, I won't mention message lizards, Stormwalkers, or secret missions to Constantinople.
To illustrate all this, Keith has invented a style I call "Victorian manga." As you can see (from the pictures), it's a mix of old and new, much like steampunk itself. We collaborated closely to create the fantastical creatures and machines that inhabit the world of Leviathan, with me writing at most a few chapters ahead of, and sometimes even following, his work on the images.
To tell you the truth, we went a bit mad. A real novel from 1914 might have had six or maybe 10 illustrations, but Leviathan wound up with 50. But, after all, it's alternate history. So why not imagine a world in which every nine pages or so a gorgeous piece of art appears?
It could happen.