When I was maybe four years old, give or take, somebody (presumably my mother) gave a coloring book called, simply enough, Robots In Space. It was about exactly everything that was important to me at that time, which was robots and space, and influential enough on my life that we named our family dog after one of the robots (Boz). The story was actually surprisingly ambitious, as far as coloring book material goes, and now that I’ve lived in China for three years, I could probably write an entire essay on how Robots In Space, in less than five hundred words, imparts everything from Western morality to the American Dream, from legendary archetypes to hard speculative science fiction. However, that is a project for another day.
One of the things that made the biggest impression on me, though, was the front cover, mirroring one of the coloring pages, but in full oil-painted splendor, and it is undoubtedly this that made me want the thing in the first place. It featured two of the robots, Arana (the artistic one) and Rock (the strong one) standing on a desolate, rocky precipice, set against a deep maroon sky, watching something explode high above them (and I cannot find a picture of it anywhere on the internet to save my life, so the next time I’m in the USA I’ll dig through my boxes of books and find it and scan it). If I came across that coloring book now for the first time, I would buy it without a moment’s hesitation, that’s how awesome just the cover on its own was.
Much later in life – in the summer of 2012, I believe – I came across the coloring book again, having stashed it in one of the countless boxes of my stuff in my parents’ basement. It was still great, but this time it crossed my mind that there was probably a person who had done the artwork somewhere along the way, because I’m clever like that. The only credit given in the book was “Mones.” A single word that I’d never seen before, foreign, enigmatic. A mystery. Fortunately, I had the internet.
After a little bit of searching, I discovered Isidre Mones Pons, a Spanish illustrator whose portfolio seemed to fit the style of my beloved Robots In Space cover. I found his blog and emailed him, briefly asking about his career and the cover and mentioning that it was one of the most influential things in my childhood, never expecting to hear back.
It was a very short time later that I received a reply, in Spanish, from the man himself. Yes, he remembered the robots and had painted them (I learned in the process of writing this article that he in fact did the whole coloring book); he was happy to hear from me; and here were some more examples of his work. Um, awesome.
In poking about his website, I discovered more about him. Isidre Mones has been a prolific illustrator of children’s books for decades – you’ve probably seen his work in almanacs, or in easy reader short stories from Disney or George Lucas, or countless other incidental books, and never thought about who might be behind the art. His commercial signature is realism, which he’s quite good at. But a closer look, especially in his more personal work, reveals that his art goes much deeper than these recognizable but less stylistic illustrations. His real passion grows from deep roots in setting, in place, in atmosphere. In retrospect, I believe that this is a big part of what stood out to me about the Robots In Space image, even as a child.
The steep mountains and historical Mediterranean architecture of Spain have been the backdrop for much of Mones’ life, and they embed themselves in his art, lending a sense of long history and old, silent life to what, in other hands, might be a generic picture of a building. His long love of the fantastical – many of his better-known pieces are for science fiction comics or horror stories – bleeds in, as well, even when the subject matter might be mundane (as opposed to supernatural). Mones’ pencil sketches, especially, turn out traces of the ghosts in the old brick and adobe buildings that dot the countryside around his home. If Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger was set in Spain instead of England, the eponymous visitor would haunt Mones’ shadowy buildings and hills.
Besides the Robots In Space cover, one of my favorite pieces by Mr Mones is a painting more forthright in its fantasies, evocative because of its setting. It’s primarily a landscape: an evening sky over the countryside, rugged mountains, crumbling buildings, train tracks. But also present is a slightly shabbily-dressed figure, almost human, but not quite. I’m not usually a big fan of anthropomorphic animals, but the 60s-dressed duckman in this painting fits in so well that I can’t help but wish I could sit with him a while.
When I began getting serious about The Crown of Secrets – then called Stories To Tell To Children – one of my most exciting ideas was to work with the man who had brought the robots in space to life for me two and a half decades earlier. I emailed him again with the pitch for my story The People of Naphoth Tsur, an apocryphal story set during the Biblical narrative of Joshua. I knew exactly the art style I wanted – if you grew up reading Bible story books, you’ll know it, as well – but along with the realism, I wanted that special kind of subtle magic that Isidre included in his work.
Again, to my surprise, he replied enthusiastically. The sketches he sent me a few weeks later were spot-on with my vision.
It’s an honor for me for Mr Mones to be working with me on The Crown of Secrets – not to mention very exciting. You can read the story and see the drafts here. I can’t wait to show you more!
All pictures by Isidre Mones, taken from his website, except for the three coloring pages, which I found on an eBay shop. Look through Mr Mones’ blog for some serious 80s nostalgia.