|It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.|
So goes Michael Moorcock’s “official” description of his albino antihero Elric of Melniboné, in this paragraph from Elric of Melniboné, written in 1972. (The yellow robe may be a nod to The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers.) Fantasy artist Robert Gould, who did the cover art for the Grafton/Ace-published Elric books in the 1980s, followed this passage for the depiction above. Gould’s style was very different from other SFF cover artists of the time, who were mired in colorful, action-packed realism. He was less painterly, more illustrative, relying on a pale, subdued palette worked in chalk and colored pencils. Very linear, like Ingres. His Elric is a grandiose icon, inert as a Kabuki actor in a pose, with hooded eyes and a glazed stare that has a disturbingly kinky undertone, as does his long, feminine fingernails. He holds a potion in his left hand like a chalice, for he needs regular ingestions of herbal tinctures to maintain his strength.
Elric appears again on the right with a female companion who looks none too thrilled at being in such close proximity to him and his overly shaggy eyebrows. Indeed, he looks like he might bight her tiny extended hand. In the stories, too, he is hardly a babe-magnet, aside from his one big love, his cousin Cymoril. Powerful, melancholy, philosophically constricted, he’s the perfect hero for a teenage boy.
Gould’s Elric is larger than life, but there are many other interpretations. The stories written prior to 1971, the year that can be considered Elric’s rebirth and renaissance, did not go into the details of his appearance, only that he was an albino and on the sickly side, relying on Stormbringer to give him strength. The first picture of him is below, on the cover of a pulp magazine from 1961 in which he made his debut.
Quite a difference, isn’t it? More manly and more generic, save for that outrageously patterned tunic and green cape, not to mention purple boots. Well, Melnibonéans always were great lovers of rainbow colors! You can see more retro Elric art here.
In the decades since depictions of the character have wandered all over the place. Take the Elric below, by Michael Whelan. Though his face looks harsh and inhuman (as appropriate) his arm muscles have achieved steroid size and so has his chest. IMO it’s wrong for the character. For one thing, he’s supposed to be sickly. Do all those muscles disappear after his tonic wears off or he misplaces Stormbringer?
This cover was one of six by Whelan for a series of Elric novels published in the US by DAW books in 1977. Only two were actual novels. The others were compiled of previously published Elric stories with some rewrites and newly written connecting material, turning them into a continuous saga. If you began to read SFF in the 1970s these will be very familiar to you. (The confusing timeline and publication of the Elric tales is recapped in this helpful Reddit post.)
Another subset of Elric art emphasizes his faeness. They range from merely handsome to full-on bishonen territory, like the delicate Japanese watercolor below where he appears crucified, eyes modestly downcast towards his dragon-skull codpiece. Female but for breasts, there’s never a hint in the stories that he’s not 100% masculine.
The sexually ambiguity, to some minds, may highlight his alieness; yet, his cousin Yyrkoon, of the same race, is as nastily, incestuously het as they come.
Two more fey depictions, the second with delicate gold fingernails.
Yet, Elric is just as often resoundedly masculine, as in this bullish depiction which implies a barrel chest and tons of sleek fat and gladiator’s muscle under that armor. He looks like he might grunt instead of speaking eloquently like he does in the books. In spite of this, he looks wounded and lost. His skin has the pink cast of a true human albino’s, and this, too, makes him look vulnerable.
A more confidant Elric in charge of the sea, again very manly. I bet those skulls on his knees aren’t too comfortable if he has to kneel for some reason. Unlike the previous pic his skin is not pinkish but chalk-white… very goth.
The square-jawed face of this Elric reminds me of Henry Cavill in his role of Geralt of Rivia, aka The Witcher. Which, to me, is not Elric. There needs to be an oddness in his depiction, a hint of depravity. This guy is too big and strapping and wholesome.
This youthful Elric, by SFF artist Chris Achilleos, isn’t bulging with muscles, but he isn’t too skinny either, looking like an average built man who occasionally goes to the gym. His pose is diffident, hesitant. He holds back from life.
This Elric is slim yet wirily muscled. He looks demonic and out of control, another popular way of depicting the character. Stormbringer is what eggs on his bad side, making him kill when he’d rather not.
Anger control, thy name should be Elric!
Another pissed-off, wiry Elric who seems to be literally grasping at power. The artist has emphasized the alieness of his face, with high cheekbones, a tiny mouth, and slit-pupiled eyes that AFAIK aren’t mentioned in the stories. The tassels add a foppish touch. Note also his high boots that reveal splayed, powerful thighs, a feature so common in his costume it’s practically artistic canon. Also canon: a long, narrow nose with slightly flared nostrils.
Occasionally, Elric can be vulnerable. His frailness is not depicted physically, for that might alienate his fans, but as spiritual. Here, slim and shapely as a male fashion model, he sinks helplessly into the sea as giant hands emerge to grab him.
In this atmospheric watercolor he seems to be begging for mercy, a prisoner of Stormbringer which is busy sucking up someone’s mortal soul. Though it gives him enormous strength and power, he’s also in its thrall.
This is one of the rare Elrics I found that was painted by a woman. Immediately I see a difference. He’s not in action, or brooding, or overly muscled; he’s posing as if for a portrait. His hair is white and his skin a pinker shade of white that looks faintly sickly. There’s more inner character to him. He is vulnerable, but no pushover.
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