Open menu Open menu hover pink Close menu Close menu hover pink
O Magazine

A Tasty World:
The Art of Mal Dean.

by Javier Calvo

A Tasty World: The Art of Mal Dean. – O Production Company

In History, there haven’t been many better instances of a perfect identification between a cultural movement and a literary character as the one between 60s British underground and Jerry Cornelius, the cruel and handsome androgynous English murderer, for some Michael Moorcock’s most powerful creation. What many readers don’t know is that we didn’t discover Cornelius thanks only to his author’s distorted and lysergic descriptions: a great deal of his iconic value comes from the disturbing illustrations by Mal Dean, a late multidisciplinary artist that died of cancer in 1974, at thirty-three, but whom by then had already managed to become a key figure of those years countercultural booming. 

They were strange times for British culture when Mal Dean got to London, at around twenty-five, from his native Liverpool, were he’d been schoolmate and friend of John Lennon. Set in Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill, in those years London counterculture bloomed like a poisonous mushroom in the shadow of the official Swinging London. Freak youngsters intoxicated by Burroughs and American beat poets. Eccentric names for new-born bands: Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Hawkwind, Steve Peregrin Took. The explosion of English free jazz: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Hal Bennink. Fanzines, anti-commercialism, political radicalism and the fabulous underground press represented by two publications that would become legendary: the International Times and literary magazine New Worlds. Mal Dean would draw for both of them. In fact, Mal Dean seemed an incarnation of the spirit of his time; a kind of familiar spirit; an incarnation of the time’s anarchic and fleeting nature.

Dean was already a budding musician and illustrator when he met legendary “jazz poet” Michael Horovitz in an St Ives beatnik commune. Together they started a weekly event at the Rehearsal Club in Soho where they fused art, poetry and jazz, often painting abstract paintings live to the sound of improvised music. The popularity of such events got Dean his first important graphic assignment: he was asked to decorate the walls of one of the flagship avant-garde jazz clubs of the time, the Flamingo Club in Soho, with iconic jazz musicians, something that would become a best-known signature in Dean’s work.

The success of the Flamingo’s wall paintings took him, in 1967, to publishing his comic strips on the International Times, the scene’s best-known anti-establishment organ, founded a year earlier by Barry Miles, John Hopkins and Jim Haynes. By then, Dean had already found a way to avoid the restrictions of commercial illustration in favour of his own style: highly free compositions including figures brimming with aggressive energy, always in black and white, with a shading style based on furious crossing-outs, as well as a narrative spirit close to comic books, fantastic and military themes and an inventive that always went beyond the limits of what was expected. His most obvious influences included surrealism, John Tenniel’s grotesque and fantasy world illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, Heath Robinson’s fabulous and humorous Victorian machines and Hogarth’s bloody satire, although I personally think that the dark and evil elements of his style came from Mervin Peake’s illustrations.

Through being published on the International Times, and by contributing a great deal to the aesthetic line of the publication, Dean became a household counterculture name. He made posters and advertisements for London’s Anti University and for bands such as Jefferson Airplane or the Edgar Broughton Band, as well as record covers for artists such as Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments. He had his first individual exhibition in December 1967 at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, directed by Jim Haynes, a space frequently visited by famous figures like Lennon, Yoko Ono, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Lindsey Kemp and David Bowie.

On that same year he was appointed illustrator of the jazz section of musical newspaper Melody Maker, in which his vaguely satirical portraits contrasted with the rest of the magazine’s more conventional style. At the same time, he started writing jazz reviews and playing trumpet with his own free jazz band, called The Amazing Band, which would even perform at the Tate Gallery and on the BBC Radio One programme of a young John Peel. And it was around that time he arrived at New Worlds.

New Worlds had probably been the UK’s most relevant sci-fi magazine since the 1940s, with a history that dated back to the golden age of the genre. The radical turn it would undergo at the end of the 60s took place when the magazine run out of funds and was purchased by Brian Aldiss in 1967 thanks to an Arts Council grant. Aldiss radically changed the magazine’s line. He appointed Michael Moorcock as director and started publishing experimental texts that, although influenced by science fiction, had a lot to do with beat literature, historic avant-garde movements, modern art and existentialism. Dean got there only two or three issues after the change in direction and his arrival was more than providential: it was revolutionary.

In one of those marriages made in heaven, Mal Dean and Moorcock became an almost instant tandem. Just when he started working for the magazine, Dean illustrated The Final Programme, the first instalment of the adventures of Jerry Cornelius, a new antihero, amoral and ultra-subversive, armed with a needle gun, dressed like a dandy from the future and equipped with an arsenal of time machines. Moorcock had been writing Cornelius’ adventures for years, but before New Worlds no publishing house had dared to publish his Burroughsian prose, distorted narratives and anarchic sexual explosions.

The four frontispieces for the respective phases of the programme are, in my opinion, among the best of Dean’s works. Without a clear strict relation to the book’s storyline, the four of them portray Cornelius with almost expressionistic features, as an evil shadow. As a Peakean goblin from the rock and drug underground world. On board of his boat on the first of the frontispieces, in the middle of waters full of corpses and with Miss Brunner on the back seat. Playing a pinball machine representing London’s West End on the second, his face gloomily lit from the bottom.

Leviathan is the main iconic reference on the third, towering gigantic over a symbolic multitude, making a reference to Jerry Cornelius’ massive party taking place on the third book. And on the fourth, an androgynous Cornelius Brenner, an unsettling divine face from the heavens. His chest in full ascension is like a mystical image, and it fits the end of the novel perfectly: the androgynous god conquering the future of humanity. His triumphant gesture, with hands in the air and bare nipples, would remind us of Woodstock hippy aesthetics if it weren’t for the ominous image of the clouds.

Dean would continue in the magazine for two long years, specialising in the   Cornelius’ stories, illustrating the first four ones: The Final Programme, The Delhi Division, The Tank Trapeze and A Cure for Cancer, which would become the second book of the saga. In line with the political Grand Guignol tone of the novel, the illustrations of A Cure for Cancer are far more satirical than expressionistic. Amoral bishop Beesley, Cornelius’ opponent during most of the book, appears in many of them, as well as the diverse military factions in the book, always used as an excuse to draw war aircrafts and helicopters, two of the illustrator’s great fetishes. Several vignettes include explicit sex, like the one, unthinkable today, in which a girl sodomises the bishop.

The four amazing covers that Dean drew for New Worlds are among the best in the history of the magazine. Instead of the stereotypical extra-terrestrial landscapes, they show Mongolian horse riders charging against a plane or fragments of medieval armour inexplicably appearing in the middle of a tropical sea. All accompanied by ironic slogans. Apart from Cornelius, Dean illustrated a dozen other short stories for the publication, among them Brian Aldiss’ The Firmament Theorem and two texts by J. G. Ballard: The Disaster Area and Journey Across a Crater, an early version of Crash that would remain unpublished.

When in 1969 The Final Programme was finally published as a hardback volume, Mal Dean’s comic book cover continued the logic of perverted humour of the magazine. Printed in flashy red, yellow and black ink –almost like a Lichtenstein parody–, the jacket is like a dislocated two-page comic book, sexy and violent, in which author and illustrator are as protagonist as the book characters. We see laughter, flames, shootings and shouts, but all the cartoons are cut so that you can’t see what’s happening or what they refer to. The design highlights the central vignettes, in which the last sentence of the lysergic-mystical-Jungian end of the book is used –A Tasty World, Mister Cornelius– and turned into a kind of mantra or slogan for the book, of course, but also for the spirit of the times. Moorcock and Dean’s Cornelius captures the illusion of 60s omnipotence, but also of 80s voraciousness. It’s a celebration and also a threat.

We owe Dean, thus, Cornelius’ most iconic rendering: the gothic cowboy armed with an electric guitar biting a bone on the cover of New Worlds issue 191. It’s impossible to imagine the origin of the image, but still, no matter what, it’s the one we associate with him the most. Around 1970, Dean’s personal obsessions had heavily permeated his collaborations with Moorcock: Victorian culture, indeed, and Beardsley’s decadent androgyny. But also his love of machines and war planes, in particular his beloved Spitfire (he even exhibited his paintings of World War II planes in a show entitled War Machines which took place within the Islington Festival).

At the same time than Moorcock, although in a different direction, Mal Dean was experimenting with an incongruous mixture of tones, times and styles. The two didn’t even share symbols or images. They were the ideal artistic couple, especially because they were both as unpredictable and equally embarked on a crusade against conventions and established morals. In his Cornelius books, Moorcock played at going a step further than anyone else (except probably Burroughs). His treatment of the hero, of masculinity and of narrative itself was brutally parodic. Dean played at turning Cornelius alternatively into clown and demon; his art flirted with obscenity. He openly mocked rock aesthetics and spy novels. 

Dean’s death in 1974 prevented us from seeing how his career would have evolved. His trail was so short that it didn’t take long for it to disappear from the firmament. Upon his death, in July 1974, there was a retrospective exhibition of his work at the ICA in London, accompanied by a series of concerts in his honour. The following year, New Worlds, in it issue 209 (issue 8 if we follow the numbering used at the time), devoted a memorial number to him, with his illustrations and some texts, among them an obituary written by Moorcock that said:

[Dean] not only had talent, but was one of the most individual talents of his time and maybe that’s why he didn’t enjoy the success that some of his contemporaries did. He wasn’t very good at making concessions and almost all he did, he did in his own terms –illustrations, record covers, paintings, album reviews, comic strips and music– and, in consequence, everything was almost always vital, complex, sardonic and very personal.

Dean’s work would have been forgotten already if it weren’t because Moorcock insisted on using his illustrations in the successive re-editions of his Cornelius’ stories.  Most of his works were compiled in Mal Dean, 1941-74: Cartoons, Illustrations, Drawings and Paintings, edited by Bryan Biggs in 1993 and now practically impossible to find. But the best way to access his work is reading the English murderer’s original stories. In Spanish, Dean’s illustrations can be found on Minotauro’s edition of Las crónicas de Cornelius, and on the compilation La naturaleza de la catástrofe published by Francisco Arellano Editor. Maybe his artwork for the Cornelius saga is the tip of an iceberg that sunk decades ago, but that we can still use to imagine the rest.