Pete Von Sholly was “mesmerized” by the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, and began devouring classic monster movies on black-and-white television as a kid. He had a dream (or nightmare, if you prefer) that has come true: Von Sholly has enjoyed a long and successful career as a Hollywood storyboard artist on more than 100 feature films, including such classics as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist, The Blob and Mars Attacks. Over the years, Von Sholly was a Disney Imagineer, and has also created monster-ridden graphic novels, model kits and trading cards published by Dark Horse, IDW, BOOM!, Kitchen Sink and Clover Press, as well as the book Pete Von Sholly’s Lovecraft Illustrated. His illustrated editions of classic horror books by Lovecraft, Joe R. Lansdale and Stephen King are also legend among the monster circuit. (Go here for a selection of Sholly’s written and illustrated books.)
The images and spreads shown below are from Von Sholly’s incredible History of Monsters, an 18-foot-long mural between covers of the famous, infamous, gruesome and comic from the movies, a veritable Sgt. Pepper’s-plus of the creature canon. Each panel includes a key identifying the mash-up. I asked Von Sholly to give us an exclusive tour of this life’s work and to detail his devotion to monumental and mini monsters.
When did you join the monster club?
I think when I saw Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the first mag of its kind, in 1958. My older brother bought it and let me look at it. He was a monster fan for a while but “grew out” of it (whatever that means), so I inherited his magazines and the interest. Plus, they were starting to show the classic Universal monster movies on TV then, so you could actually see them for the first time in a long time outside of a theater. I learned about Karloff, Chaney, Lugosi, etc., and Jack Pierce, Ray Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien, etc.—the people who played the monsters and the people who made them. This added a dimension to the subject for countless thousands and thousands of fans. The impact of that magazine cannot be understated. And then monster model kits, toys, TV shows, etc., started to appear. There was a monster craze upon the land and I embraced it!
Why are monsters such a consuming passion for you?
Simple answer is they’re fun! Fun to watch and fun to write about and draw. I think being scared is a survival tactic, and being scared is exciting. Monsters are a harmless way of being scared, at first, and then you get to know and love them! I guess I also have some kind of passion for creating monsters which just never goes away, if I can say that without sounding egotistical! There’s no comic or movie or story that wouldn’t be better with a monster in it!
Are there any monsters that you left out of your multi-page gatefold?
Oh, so many, even [with] over 1,100 specific ones in it. I kept adding them and have a new batch in the wings. I keep discovering “old new” ones, too. One thing I wanted to do was make History of Monsters as inclusive as I possibly could. It started out as the panorama of my faves in chronological order, but then I realized that if it was going to be a real history it had to include “everything,” or as much as I could possibly jam in there, anyway. It grew and grew into the sprawling thing it now is.
What is it about monsters that captures the public’s interest?
The fun of being scared—when people experience shock, suspense and violence in a fantastic and safe way, I think it’s quite acceptable, even enjoyable. Monsters certainly don’t seem to be disappearing from out popular culture, so there’s an allure there for sure. There’s way too much real horror in the world, so the pretend horrors are welcome and entertaining. But haven’t people in virtually all cultures and religions since our earliest days loved and created monsters? The mural traces monster history from mythology to movies and fiction, comics, etc., and it’s fascinating to see the archetypes repeat over and over. Monster history is inextricably entwined with our history, and you can see over the centuries and decades in the mural.
Do you believe that with the advent of CGI, monsters have become more or less scary?
They were never inherently “scary” or “not scary” just because they were there. It’s what you do with them, isn’t it? Rare movies like The Haunting (original, not the atrocious remake) and The Blair Witch Project succeed by NOT showing you a monster at all. Our imaginations do that work better than most special effects do it. There is one thing that’s changed, though. You used to be able to watch a movie with special effects, like King Kong or 7th Voyage of Sinbad or 2001 and marvel. “How did they DO that?” Now, the answer is almost always “computers,” so people are almost impossible to surprise on that level anymore. No matter what it is, we know how they did it. The last great monster movie before computers that really worked, for me, was John Carpenter’s The Thing, which featured some of the most inventive and startling imagery yet seen, all done the “old way.”
As AI develops, do you speculate there may be a genre of self-generating monsters?
There likely already is! Or at least there’s probably a hundred movies and shows that feature that theme!
Of all the artists to devise monsters, who and what are the most empathic?
Graham Ingels, who drew for EC comics in the ’50s—his character The Old Witch from the Haunt of Fear comic was SCARY! Lee Brown Coye, pulp artist, had the touch, too. As Alan Moore pointed out (we don’t have to explain who he is, right?) people say that they want and like horror but they really don’t—they want titillation. There are lots of artists who offer that, and some like Bernie Wrightson carry it to a gorgeous finish, but the really disturbing and upsetting talents are less known.
And who do you think is the most iconic monster of all other than the usual list of Frankenstein, Mummy, Wolfman, Godzilla …?
Well, I have to mention King Kong, even though he’s one of the usual; and I only refer to the 1933 original! Lovecraft’s monsters are pervasive and his influence is an ever-creeping blight on sanity … so Cthulhu, of course, is a contender. I think we’re going to see more and more Lovecraft, or Lovecraftian, monsters as time goes by. And we’re already seeing a lot.