Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hi-fi Swords & Sorcery Art

So I love the lo-fi art, the works of hand-drawn, fan-drawn pictures that graced the covers of 'zines, and the pages of RPG books. I also understand that even back in the seventies and eighties, those weren't the sorts of things that made it on to professionally published publications. 

The thing about the professionally painted (or whatever) covers of that era is that they didn't look like they could be on a romance or airport thriller. They only thing a Michael Whelan or Frank Frazetta S&S cover could be was a S&S cover. The pulp roots showed thru, loudly and majestically.

Here's four sets of covers, chosen because I love the old one, and the thematic similarity of the new one. This is not a comment on the stories themselves. I've only read (and enjoyed) Robin Hobb's writing (though not the book shown). The others are names I know, but haven't crossed my desk or caught my attention. I just know they're popular and get some pretty good notices. 

Nonetheless, their books, at least these ones, have crappy covers. In no case would I buy the new book instead of the old one based on the cover. 

Sword-wielding women with visible skin. The first, though, also hints at the world and the existence of other characters. And the woman looks like she could kick your ass. The Brett woman is a pouty girl covered in henna tattoos and probably reeks of patchouli.
Note: I know Gates is really sci-fi, but the book is planetary adventure is cast from the same mold as S&S.

I don't hate the Sanderson cover, but it just can't compare to Hodgell's. The new cover's thief looks like she exists independently of an external world, just floating there. Hodgell's heroine exists in an urban landscape of tile, masonry, and strange figures fishing the streets below. It looks interesting, it's luring me inside with the promise of the strange and weird, not just some generic character.

Yeah, no. Death Angel's Shadow is my favorite Kane cover, rejecting the fur-loincloth depiction of the Frazetta Kane and making him look like the brooding, blue-eyed killer from the stories. Stover's guy looks like David Hasselhoff in a Neil Diamond's suit. 

Of all these new covers, this one's my favorite, and not because it's simply the least bad. I the tree limbs materializing through the falling snow, looking like monstrous growths from the warrior's back. Put up next to Whelan's Elric, though, you realize it could just as easily come be on a historical novel. There's nothing that really says "fantasy," let alone heroic fantasy. It doesn't help that his expression is bland. He's looking off to the left with a little Clint Eastwood squint, but no real visible emotion. Elric is downright scary. You can tell he's a threat and that he's facing down something right now. Then there's the elaborate detail of the ship's stern and the crowd of men behind Elric, almost cowering in fear from whatever he's preparing to kill.

If I was more aware of new fantasy I could probably do this all day. I think these four sets are enough to make my point. Sure, not scientifically, but enough. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Lo-fi Swords and Sorcery Art

To continue on the discussion started in the comments on the last post, here are some of the best lo-fi swords & sorcery art I could find in a quick scouring of the web. I'd been planning to do this, but Raphael Ordonez's comment inspired me to actually do it.
I have to like the cover if I'm going to read the book. I'm embarrassingly superficial like that. I recently saw a number of old Arkham House books for sale, and I totally would have bought them for the dust jackets, if I'd had the money, which I didn't. It's interesting what you say about the amateurishness, which I've often noticed. For some strange reason that only increases the appeal for me. It seems to go hand-in-hand with their unapologetic enthusiasm.

I see nothing strange at all about liking the "unapologetic enthusiasm." That's what gets me the most about this art. It makes no bones about being done by fans for fans without the mediation of professional marketing or focus groups. It was created by artists who love monsters, heroes with big honking weapons, mad sorcerers, and exotic, dangerous worlds and know that's exactly what we S&S fans love as well. 

Other than pictures my friends or I drew, the earliest fantasy artwork that stuck in my brain were from the original D&D pamphlet my friend Densel E. used to teach us how to play. I was only eleven or twelve, so I didn't understand they were "crappy," I just knew they were cool. And I still do.

I don't hate covers that don't take the lo-fi road, not at all. There's just something cool about illustrations that don't try to include every detail, and every shade mentioned in the text. Instead, they present a picture that's impressionistic, capturing the feel and intensity of what it's depicting but leaving the details for my brain to fill in. 

Several people have told me that the awful photshopped art endemic to modern fantasy covers are what have been proven to sell. Even though the many of these covers still contain some of the standard fantasy elements (swords, magic blasts, etc.), they seem like they're reluctant to embrace the genre. They seem to reject the pulp roots of fantasy, instead striving to look more mainstream. I get it, but I just don't like it. These pictures, I like. Can you imagine any of these being in a gaming supplement or on a cover today?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

When Covers Were Cool - Brian Lumley's covers

Once upon a time, in the not too dim and distant past, fantasy books had cool covers. Whether you went for the throbbingingly lurid styles of Boris Vallejo, or the oddly antiseptic yet still colorful Darrell K. Sweet, or the thunderous and blood streaked work of Frank Frazetta, you knew you were reading something special. And there were even wilder artists, such as those whose magnificent art graced the covers of Lin Carter's Ballantine Adult Fantasy line; Gervasio Gallardo, and Bob Pepper. Fantasy books didn't look like anything else, and that was a good thing.

At some point this changed. Perhaps it was the mainstreaming of fantasy. Maybe the triumph of the marketers. I'm not sure when, but at a point in the past decade, what I derisively call the photoshop covers started appearing. They're too clean, too similar to those of romance and airport potboilers. Even if there's someone in a cowled cloak on the cover brandishing a knife, it doesn't "feel" like I'll be reading a story rooted in pulp or heroic fiction.

I don't know anything about Paul Ganley, except that in the eighties and nineties he published several volumes of Brian Lumley's Mythos-inspired fiction. His were the first American editions of the Titus Crow, Primal Land, and Dreamlands novels. 

The thing that most stands out, I imagine, to the casual viewer, is the almost amateurishness of these covers. They really aren't that much better than something a kid, albeit a talented one, might draw on the back of a notebook. That same roughness would have kept them from ever gracing a book that got front of the store placement in Barnes & Noble. 

Even those by Steve Fabian, an artist of tremendous renown among S&S readers, while much more polished than the others, would still be relegated to the back shelves if at all these days. And that's great. These covers practically ooze fannishness. There's an utter love for the material depicted in this art that I rarely get from modern covers. The new ones could just as easily have been done by anybody or even a machine, for all the intimacy with the material they evince. Yeah, I'd go for a book with a cover like this a hundred times before some of the abominations out there today.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Once More Into the Primal Land

While I had known for a long time that Brian Lumley wrote a series of swords & sorcery stories set in HPL's Dreamlands, I only discovered his Primal Land stories two years ago. I devoured the first collection, The House of Cthulhu, and reviewed it at Black Gate (here). It's not poetry, but it is a great big helping of Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany-inspired S&S. 

Looking for some pure S&S for this week, I settled on the second Primal Lands collection, the woefully named Tarra Khash: Hrossak!. Tarra Khash is the name of an adventurer born of the stepped-dwelling Hrossak people. Until you actually know that, it's just a string of nonsense syllables, but then naming has long been a source of amusement in S&S. Whatever. So far, like the first volume, this one's a lot of old school fun.

Here's some covers where the stories in Tarra Khash first appeared