Alternate history book imagines look to be the new reality

| Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Ever feel like you've woken up in some kind of strange, alternate universe?

The landscape seems normal, but, wait — what's with the giant rubber duck patroling the Point?

That seemingly out-of-place duck is perfectly in line with the world of Pittsburgh artist Matthew Buchholz. His new book “Alternate Histories of the World” (Penguin, $25) sees massive, tentacled-sea monsters lunging out of the Monongahela as something obviously fascinating, yet totally commonplace.

A map of 1876 Pittsburgh shows the location of “Living Dead Outbreaks & Attacks,” credited to mapmakers Romero & Sons. The Great Wall of China, is constructed to keep marauding dinosaurs out. George Washington is seen winning the battle of Stony Point with a big assist from a detachment of Martians ­­— and their saucers' death-rays. President Lincoln is at Gettysburg with Vinlar the Destroyer — a giant ape-beast with a robot head — chilling in the background.

“I think people like the incongruity of it,” Buchholz says. “When I'm at craft fairs like Handmade Arcade in Pittsburgh, it's fun to see people walk by and say, ‘Oh, it's an old map.' Then they look a little closer and see a tentacle coming out of the river or something, and kind of do a double-take.”

For history geeks, sci-fi geeks and geeks in general, the appeal is kind of a no-brainer — particularly the zombies.

“Everything starts with research, whether it's online or finding old maps in stores,” says Buchholz. “I bought some vintage maps on Etsy and eBay. It all starts with finding an interesting map or print. The key is to change as little as possible in the original piece.

“Then, I look at the texture and style of the map, and try to find a monster drawing from some kind of 1950s movie poster or vintage political art. I think that squid (from the Pittsburgh sea monster print) is originally from an 1800s political cartoon. It's depicted as an oil tycoon whose tentacles reached across the globe. I used some of those tentacles.”

The new elements take a lot of work to make them fit in with the print.

“I'll find a map or photo of Downtown that I like and look at what the negative space is,” he says. “If there's a river, it make sense that there's a river monster.

“I use Photoshop on the computer to match them. To be blunt, I'm not really a great physical artist, but I've found a niche in a thing that I'm good at.”

Buchholz is originally from Tucson, Ariz., and went to Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. After 14 years in New York, he came to Pittsburgh.

“Moving to Pittsburgh was such a breath of fresh air, both in terms of the pace of life, and in the support you get from people,” he says. “People who you could say are, technically, my competitors in terms of art, are so willing to reach out and share, and discuss. It's overwhelming. ... It's unlike anywhere else I've ever experienced.”

Buchholz got a job at Wild Card, a gift shop in Lawrenceville that specializes in locally made art, crafts, clothes and cards. That's where he first started selling his prints and Christmas cards with aliens, dinosaurs, flying saucers worked subtly into classic Currier & Ives-style prints.

“In 2011, this was still a fun hobby that made a little money on the side,” he says. “I had tried to do some publicity on my own, but you don't really know how the Internet is going to go. I remember I started getting a lot of blog hits, my Etsy sales were going up, and I was looking to see where people were coming from.

“A paper in Philly had picked it up, and once one site would pick it up, another would repost it. It would go to sites like io9, Gizmodo and Apartment Therapy. The big one was a posting on the Huffington Post. This all happened in a few weeks, and overnight, transformed the nature of my business. It went from a fun hobby to something I could make a living at.”

Buchholz is hosting two special release-party events for the book this week. On Oct. 10, he'll host a party at Brillobox.

“I'll be playing video clips from 1950s monster movies, industrial things. I'll be DJ-ing a set of 1950s space-and-monster-themed rock and roll, kind of a retro-vintage fun night.”

On Oct. 12, he will sign books and offer a trunk show at Wild Card. All proceeds from the trunk show will benefit Animal Friends, an animal shelter in the North Hills.

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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