Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cover Versions

Well, it's been a bit quiet around here. Not unusual for the middle of summer, I s'pose, although my lack of posting has not been due to any fun in the sun. I've been trying my hand at that "write a novel in a month" thing, and it's working out quite well, but at the same time it's left me with a distinct lack of interest in any extracurricular typing.

But all that will be wrapping up soon, so my semi-regular posting shall resume soon enough.

I just thought I'd check in here with a bit of a rip-off of something a couple other of my fellow bloggers have been up to, namely posting their favorite pieces by select D&D artists. Except in my case, I'm not going by artist but rather by magazine, Dragon Magazine to be precise.

The covers of Dragon were, for me, an early and constant source of inspiration. Dragon, for a time, featured some of the best fantasy art on its covers every month. My retrospective will of course be largely influenced by the period in which I was an active reader and subscriber (circa 1989 to 1995) but as it turns out most of my favorite pieces are from before that era, grown out of familiarty acquired after purchasing the Art of Dragon Magazine many, many winters ago.

So here we go, in chronological order or thereabouts:

First up is a Larry Elmore piece from around the beginning of his tenure at TSR. I've expressed my shameless Elmore fandom here a couple times before, but I should really qualify myself. I completely understand the criticisms some level against him, that his figures are too "posy" and stiff. But I feel that his work while he was with TSR is largely free of that, as much as he can be at least. It was only after he went freelance that his subjects became too studied, I think.

This piece is, of course, classic Elmore, particularly that sweeping landscape. It's also a good demonstration of how 80s fantasy tried to ground its weapons, armor, and equipment in an historical setting. No dungeon-punk spikes here, nosiree.

Clyde Caldwell, on the other hand, I've never been a bit fan of. His style, which makes everyone look like their skin is made of plastic, is a major turn-off for me. And his "Hey, look how good I can paint gems and jewels, so I'm gonna include them in every damn picture I do!" schtick gets old fast. And the man is, of course, the master of the chainmail bikini, and not in a good way.

Yet I have to include this cover, both for its understatement, its simple "call to adventure" and the fact it reminds me of being 10 years old and wanting my character to do enough subdual damage to a dragon so that I could tame it and ride it. A dream deferred, a dream denied.

Ah, our first Jim Holloway piece. Can I just say right now that I think Jim Holloway is one of the most underappreciated TSR artists of the 80s? Sure, he didn't have the technical skill of an Elmore or Parkinson - in fact, I'm pretty sure I read recently that he didn't have any formal training in art at all - but I always found myself drawn to his work, both his cover art and his interior black & whites. His stuff has an organic sense of liveliness to it, and he is, in my opinion, an absolute master of characterization. Every subject in his art seems like a living, breathing character with a fully fleshed-out history and personality, even the dragon in the cover art here.

I really like this piece because it's so 70s pulp fantasy. It looks like it could just as easily be a tour poster for Hawkwind or something. I suppose those are supposed to be some sort of faerie dragon, but I always liked to imagine them as full-sized dragons in some sort of gonzo science-fantasy D&D homebrew setting.

Ah, "Bridge of Sorrows". One of only two of these covers for which I actually know the name of the piece. I cited it in an earlier post about older fantasy art as an example of how to do a compelling, engrossing, exciting action scene without overloading the viewer's eye with the sensory explosion so typical of D&D art today. Plus the idea of a centaur knight/paladin really fired my imagination back in the day. Almost as much as that scantily-clad maiden...

Daniel R. Horne, a.k.a. "the Man". Seriously. Every Dragon cover he did is a favorite of mine, even the April Fool's ones ("Beauty is in the eye of the...oh, forget it!"), but this one is one of my all-time absolute top favorite pieces of fantasy art ever. Every piece of art here tells a story, but this one is just so perfectly rendered: I love how the undead giant is just plowing through the snow, how he's missing a part of a finger (it's all about the details), and of course the question of whether that magical arrow will do the trick, and whether she'll be able to bring her bow to bear in time. Tension! Action! To this day I have a soft spot for campaigns set in the frozen arctic, and this picture is at the root of that.

Another great Holloway piece. I've often heard this cover sited as the all-time best Dragon cover, and you'll get no arguments from me, although it's not my personal favorite (see below). One thing I particularly like about this piece is the arrow sticking through the strip of leather armor. It reminds me of old Japanese prints, where you see crazy-ass sohei charging through clouds of arrows, half of which are sticking out of their clothes, their armor, their staff, their hair...

This is the first issue of Dragon Magazine I ever bought, and it remains to this day my favorite piece of Jeff Easley art. By a mile. If you want to talk about Elmore losing his touch in the 90s, Easley went off the freakin' deep end. But when he was good in the 80s, he was very good, and I suspect my choice of this issue as my first such purchase (I had several to choose from) was influenced primarily by the cover. (Although the articles inside turned out to be pretty good too. I used the article on the Black Death to write an oral report for my 7th-grade Social Studies class.)

I think my love of this cover is sort of the opposite of the Easley piece above, in that it's an old favorite because this is one of my favorite issues in terms of content. It was one of those issues where you find yourself using material from nearly every article at some point or another. But it's also a wonderful illustration in its own right, and perfectly demonstrative of all the things that made fantasy art of this period so damn evocative.

OK, here it is. My favorite Dragon Magazine cover, and perhaps, just maybe, my favorite fantasy illustration of all time. First off, that's another kick-ass dragon. And I love the idea of an elf and a halfling teaming up to rob its horde. I also like that the elf looks "real," not like some ethereal Faerie Queene. But there's just something about the composition that really gets me. I'm not sure I can really put it into words. So I'll just say thank you, Mr. Holloway, for giving us such a great piece.

So now we reach the end of what I consider the classic period of Dragon Magazine covers. Shortly after this cover, another Elmore piece, the logo changed, and with it the quality of the art. It also didn't help that they started going bazonkers with their Photoshop/page layout programs and plastering headlines all over perfectly fine covers (see below). But to this piece: we see the evolution in Elmore's style from his early work, and no, it's not a postive evolution. The posed figures are in full evidence here, yet I still like this cover very much, because it's typical of Elmore's best work in that it tells a compelling story, and catches the action right before (or after) a major event. (And I love the design of that sword, too.)

This is a piece from after I let my subscription expire, but I came across it online a few years ago and really took to it. It's DiTerlizzi, always a favorite of mine, and the full, uncropped piece is even better. I even used it as a cover to a world guide I wrote for a homebrew setting a few years back. But we see the unfortunate tendency to overwhelm the image with a vomiting explosion of fonts and cheap text effects. The magic was gone for me.

The last piece I'm including here not because it's a favorite of mine but because I think it's historically significant. It's the first appearance, as best as I can tell, of dungeon-punk art on the cover of Dragon, a style that would come to completely dominate the magazine's look all the way through to its demise. Blech, blech I say!
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