This weekend I finally started digging into about 5 years worth of sketches and thumbnails doodled in the margins of my school notes. The majority of the sketches are for helmets, masks, and faces, but there are some symbols and ritual magic designs.
Most of the helmets on the left are meant for Redcaps, which are elves that have warped their bodies into killing machines. Their helmets usually have a grinning skull motif, like death masks. On the right are robes, designs, and a mask for a necromancer. The almond-shaped mask design is one of the oldest masks I made.
Most of the designs on the left are ritual hook designs, surrounded by symbols. I’m not sure what I’ll use them for yet. The other symbols scattered around the page are for necromancy. On the far bottom-right corner is a sketch of the god of death, Erroth.
I’ve been experimenting with creating a language of symbols for magic based on Chinese or Japanese pictograms. The two blocks in the center and left are some automatic drawing examples. On the right is a design based around the mask of the god of death.
More helmets on the left, and death masks on the right. The mace in the middle is a take on the Gae Bolga, the famous weapon of Cuchulain, the Irish hero.
These are some assorted drawings of faces, including the skull-like face of a necromantic character and the alien-like neck and head of Absurdity, which is an embodiment of chaos.
“I was inspired by two of my favorite painters, Zdzislaw Benksinski and Chet Zar. Their apocalyptic tones and surreal, fleshy creations have fascinated me for a long time. I tried to capture a feeling of ruin and foreignness and focus on a lone entity, with the secrets of the fallen civilization locked away within its fortress-like skull. It all really started with trying to emulate my favorites, really.”
I’m gonna hang this on my wall, right above the bloodstains. You can check out more of Joel’s work here.
Sketches of fractal Apollonian gaskets contained in eyes, with the title “OROBORO” overhead. I’ve been fascinated with fractals for the past couple years, especially how they relate to infinity, symmetry, and the bounds of mathematics. You can read more about how fractals factor into my fantasy world and writing here.
While trying to visualize the character, I took some inspiration from one of my favorite movies, Apocalypse Now. The beginning and ending music of the film was taken from “The End” by The Doors, who took their band’s name from a quote within Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” I thought that strange string of connections between that movie, that song, and that quote should be incorporated into my stories, somehow.
The lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison, was one of the most charismatic and iconic figures of the 1960s. In 1967, he did a famous photo shoot titled “The Young Lion.” Here’s one of the photos from that shoot:
As soon as I saw this image, I knew I wanted to base Oroboro’s physical appearance off of Morrison. I really liked the aesthetic of this photo: Jim Morrison isn’t a muscled guy, and in fact looks kind of emaciated and drugged out. He’s not a physically imposing person, but his gaze is very intense. His hair is also long and unkempt, which makes him look sort of like a madman or a serial killer.
I imagined Oroboro as looking similar, but with one distinction: he would have no cheeks or lips. After reading a graphic novel version of The Man Who Laughs, I was fascinated with the grotesque imagery of a death’s-head grin, where someone’s face hinted at the bone and blood underneath.
Back in college, I took a course on Critical Theory and became interested in the concept of “the abject,” as described by Julia Kristeva in The Powers of Horror. The heart of the abject is the idea that there exist images and sensations that can destabilize a person’s sense of selfhood. This is where we derive our sense of the uncanny, the disturbing, and the disgusting: everything that evokes these reactions is a facet of the abject, and (according to Kristeva) represents an unconscious threat to our ideas about who we are, mentally and physically. I disagreed with a lot in Kristeva’s essay, but there were parts I resonated with, including one passage on corpses:
“The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.”
As I imagined it, Oroboro’s mutilation wouldn’t come from a sadistic group of kidnappers, like Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs, but rather from screaming so intensely that he dislocated his jaw and split his cheeks, so that all that would remain would be flaps of skin hanging from his upper and lower jaws. After shearing away these loose flaps of skin (and the rest of the skin around his jaws), he would have the appearance of a living corpse, the essence of everything horrible, uncanny, and disturbing.
The first sketch of Oroboro came directly from the reference photo of Morrison–this was Joel’s initial sketch of Oroboro’s unharmed, unaltered face:
Next, Joel created a sketch to visualize the structure of the skull and the weaving of the muscles around the face and mouth:
From there, Joel made the first draft, incorporating Jim Morrison’s face and his anatomical sketches. This first draft had the nose sheared off as well as the lips and cheeks. To Joel and I, this looked less like the aftermath of self-surgery and more like a zombie.
In the second draft, Joel added his nose back in and made some finer touches. The end result is starkly horrifying: everything around the mouth is relatively normal, even attractive, but the mouth dominates Oroboro’s face in something not quite a grin or a grimace. It’s just a maw.
The exposure of the character’s teeth is meant to evoke a lot of different ideas and feelings, but there was one in particular I had in mind when conceiving this character: cannibalism. As I mentioned in the previous post on this character and his helmet, Oroboro’s necromantic modus operandi is eating other people (or their souls/egos). So it’s appropriate that his appearance evokes an abject, monstrous set of teeth. Taken together with his specially made helmet, he resembles something like a Lovecraftian horror:
When I think of necromancers, I imagine a cross between a Zen Buddhist monk, an amateur surgeon, and a hardcore survivalist preparing for the end of the world. It’s not about raising an army of the dead and taking a kingdom, it’s about being the last man standing when the Sun falls out of the sky. It’s about living forever. This is someone with the apocalypse constantly on their mind, thinking of contingencies. That obsession with survival made me think of an astronaut’s space helmet, a kind of sealed, self-contained piece of headwear that could protect the skull and seal out dust, fire, and the vacuum of space.
I started to wonder what a survivalist necromancer’s helmet would like, so I drew on some of my favorite helmet designs from across all kinds of media, from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied to Daft Punk and TES III: Morrowind. The final product was appropriately macabre, frightening, and functional for someone bent on eating souls and living forever.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: The Native Chuzei Bonemold Helm
(If you haven’t read my long-ass post about how Morrowind should be the gold standard for fantasy worldbuilding, read it here)
Morrowind’s Bonemold armor is so damn cool: crafted from bonemeal, the individual pieces of armor are molded in hard, light shapes, like the lacquered wooden armor of samurai. Each Dunmer House has its own style of armor, with their own custom helmets and shields, each reflecting their own unique character. House Redoran’s helmet had a shawl to keep out the dust and House Telvanni had some kind of insane squid helmet because they’re weird-ass wizards who live in mushrooms. But the single coolest helmet in the history of fantasy gaming is the Native Chuzei Bonemold Helm.
The swept-back design with the swooping crest on the back and lack of conventional eyeholes in favor of dual slits made it look intimidating, alien, and sort of like a grinning, demonic face. I loved this helmet, and I wanted to steal its design for any kind of helmet I made in the future.
Daft Punk: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s helmet
I have an obsession with Daft Punk, especially their helmets. There’s something about the anonymity of masks that makes the wearer larger than life. My favorite version of Guy-Manuel’s helmet is still the one used in ELECTROMA.
When I was still in high school, I actually attempted to make Guy’s gold and black helmet from a skateboard helmet, a motorcycle visor, and a paintball mask:
I loved the helmet design so much that I wanted to incorporate in my stories, which is where Guy Manuel’s helmet merged with the Chuzei helm to create the helmets that the Elves in my stories wear:
Elves in my stories are the end-products of generations of the pursuit of immortality: humans warped and altered into a completely different species. Their helmets, like my initial astronaut helmet idea, allowed them to survive the vacuum of space, like the starfish-headed Old Ones in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. And like other human necromancers, survival was the ultimate priority.
The skull-hugging shape, smooth lines and lack of conventional eyeholes stuck with me in particular. But that changed when I saw…
Neon Genesis Evangelion: EVA Unit-01’s helmet
Evangelion is my favorite piece of media, hands-down. Between the Kabbalah occultism, the Phillip K. Dick-inspired apocalyptica, the complex mathematics and existentialist philosophers snuck into the show, it is the Space Odyssey: 2001 of mindfucks. And they had some really cool robots.
There’s a rumor that Hideaki Anno, the creator of NGE, wanted the EVA units to be extremely complicated so that the famously aggressive Japanese toy industry wouldn’t be able to create action figures of them. In the end, we still got Evangelion canned bread.
The most beloved EVA unit, and my favorite, too, is Unit 01. It’s got a kind of kabuto helmet, and its giant, toothed jaws are both really cool and absolutely horrifying once it starts screaming and eating other EVA units.
Yeah, the EVAs are nightmarish homonculi made of human flesh and bone grafted onto mechanical parts, animated by trapped human souls with the capability for madness and rage. The reveal that EVA Unit 01’s helmet covers something approximating a metallic skull is one of the images from NGE that stuck with me. The teeth and jaw especially appealed to me.
Elfen Lied: Lucy’s helmet
Elfen Lied is the most violent, gory, and traumatic romantic comedy anime ever (only half-joking here). From the opening minutes of the first episode, a naked pre-pubescent girl sealed in a helmet from The Man in the Iron Mask starts vivisecting, decapitating, and ripping the literal hearts out of a team of security personnel in a juxtaposition of eroticism, innocence, and relentless, brutal gore.
And damn is that helmet cool.
Lucy’s helmet is relatively simple, both in its design and concept: round head and jaw piece sealed onto the skull to restrain a prisoner in a test facility. It looks suitably clinical, the kind of medical appliance you’d imagine would be in use in a telekinesis research facility. In Lucy’s case, wearing this helmet isn’t a choice–it’s forced onto her, as a means of control, as if they were trying to seal her skull in a container, like an airtight jar.
The Necromancer Helmet: THE GRINNING MAN
Building off the idea of “the crownless king,” the title I made for a necromancer who could survive decapitation, I wanted to create a helmet for a character who would keep their head sealed in a helmet like a safe. This would be Oroboro, the same necromancer mentioned in the Ergodica posts. From there, this character could actually substitute other people’s heads for their own, as a sort of voodoo: with possession of another person’s head, they could gain all of that person’s knowledge, speak in their voice, and communicate with their ghost. The idea emerged of a necromantic collector, someone who collects trophies from their dead enemies and binds their ghosts to his helmet by stealing their heads.
I imagined an eyeless helmet with a hinge on the front, so the entire thing could open like a pear of anguish, and a removable jaw.
I decided to describe the helmet to a friend of mine, Joel, who has done a lot of fantasy concept art in the past. This is what I told him:
“When you consume someone’s ghost or soul, you gain all of their memories, identity, and knowledge…he keeps the heads of people he values in his helmet, or their teeth embedded in it. The teeth are like quick-keys to call up the ghosts of those he wants to channel, and the head in the helmet is possessed. He’s supposed to be an abomination. The helmet and everything connected to it breaks every rule I could think of when it comes to magical morality…I’m not sure how I want the jaw mechanism to work–I was hoping you could help me figure that out. The goal of it is to be able to unhinge the jaw, so he can take abnormally large objects into himself, like a snake. As for the material, I was thinking of either iron or heavily pitted and varnished wood.”
After some back and forth about the lore behind the helmet, the magic and mechanisms, Joel produced this rough sketch, meant to depict an iron helmet:
Joel described his sketch like this: “I really liked the worked metal aspect around the teeth, like it’s been scratched or welded into shape to hold the teeth, so I ran with that. Tried to give it more of the welded look, it makes it look almost flesh while the rest of the helmet is obviously metal. I thought the concave shape around the teeth gave it a more unnatural look and gave the impression that you almost had to dig out some of the mask to find the teeth underneath.”
I loved Joel’s sketch, especially the teeth–they evoke the ravenous, all-consuming potential of the eyeless Langoliers from Stephen King’s story The Langoliers, as well as David Hine’s graphic novel, “The Man Who Laughs,” published by Self Made Hero, which was the inspiration for Batman’s Joker. I decided to dub this helmet “The Grinning Man.”
With Joel’s rough sketch showing how it all would fit together, I decided to do a sketch of my own based off Joel’s art, showing the complete helmet:
Necromancers can be a lot more than guys summoning skeletons. These are the people who are plumbing the depths of life and death, the decay of the body and the action of time, searching for the line between man and god, mortal and immortal. They can be horrifying in their own right, and they don’t even need zombies to get the job done. And they can look absolutely terrifying while doing it.
Years ago, sleeping on a futon after a long night of reading about Sierpinski Gaskets and Pascal’s triangle, I had a dream about a pyramid. Rotating in three-dimensional space like a computer simulation, I could see that it was a pyramid made of pyramids, with letters running along the edges. It was a name I’d invented years earlier: OROBORO, a stylized version of OUROBOROS.
I was attracted to the name because it was a palindrome, and because you could place the letters around a circle to create a loop that had no beginning or end:
In my dream, each one of the letters of OROBORO were placed at the vertices of the pyramid, arranged so that when you read along the edges of the pyramid, you looped around the whole pyramid and came back to where you started, creating an infinite loop.
When I woke up, I immediately drew what I’d seen in my pocket notebook. It became one of the key images of my stories, a sort of keystone that brought together trigonometry and eternity. You’ve probably glimpsed it a few times already in my notes:
What makes this frightening and interesting, though, is that once I was awake, I couldn’t figure out how to put together the 3-D jigsaw puzzle I’d seen in my dream. Maybe it was mathematically impossible–in the dream, the number of letters and vertices on the pyramid had matched up perfectly, but I’d never run those numbers before. Ten vertices, seven letters, but repeated how many times? Even stranger than that, when I tried to write it out on paper, I couldn’t visualize the layout in three dimensions, or figure out the right arrangement of letters to create the infinite loop. Maybe it couldn’t be done, and I was just operating on the flawed memory of dream logic.
But if it was possible to arrange those letters on the pyramid to create the infinite loops, that would mean my mind was designing puzzles and patterns that I couldn’t figure out when I was awake!
Finally, I figured it out. It was possible. Each face of the pyramid could spell OROBORO, and, when read from the correct starting point, could spell it in three dimensions.
The pattern only works because the first ‘O’ in OROBORO can also function as the last ‘O’. Two full OROBOROs can fit on the pyramid, which would normally add up to 14 letters, but because of the dual-purpose ‘O’s, there are only 10 letters needed.
The amount of insane coincidences and patterns is mind-boggling. OROBORO, from Ouroboros, the worm that eats its own tail and the symbol of infinity, has just the right number of letters to fit on the pyramid in perfect loops, becoming exactly what it’s meant to represent. The fact that I was obsessed with triangles to begin with, and that a figure made of triangles could fit the name I had come up two years earlier is also bizarre. But strangest of all was that I had figured out how to fit it all together in my dreams.
So now I’m working on a new project: a real Oroboro Pyramid, made of folded black paper, wires, and white beads placed at the vertices, with each of the letters written on them. The plans are below:
As I start assembling the pyramid, I’ll post some pictures of the progress. It’ll bear a lot of resemblance to the ANATMAN pyramid, but will hopefully be sturdier.