Wendy Pini: An Artist Who Needs More Love

Wendy Pini 02Back in my youth in the early eighties, I ran across an indie comic at a science fiction convention.  It was called Elfquest.

I had never seen a comic like this before.  It was in a larger format, was detailed black & white and didn’t have superheroes or any characters I was familiar with.  The style was also . . . well, it drew me in as soon as I looked at it.  It was done by a husband and wife team named Wendy and Richard Pini.  I snapped up the first issue, went to a quiet corner and read through it.  Then I went back and grabbed all the issues I could afford (#1-6.)  I read through the first six issues over and over for the next few months, wishing I could get my hands on the following issues (this was before the rise of comic shops throughout the country.) I started drawing obsessively by copying her art.Wendy Pini 03

A couple of years later I found a new, local comic shop (B&D Comics) and found the rest of the issues up to that point.  I was astounded yet again at not only the artwork, but the writing and storytelling.  Keep in mind that at this point, independent comics were in their larval stage and anything other than Marvel and D.C. were considered ‘odd’.  I entered the D&D addiction around the same time and Elfquest and D&D went together like bullets and guns.  For a couple of years I was elf-crazed.

Moreover, all of this was done by a girl.  A girl!  Hell, I was only vaguely familiar with females at the time, and in a purely theoretical fashion.  I was incredibly shy and introverted and in Middle School–a hellish combination.  Here was one of these mythical female creatures doing amazing writing and drawing in a genre I loved.  What sorcery was this?

Wendy Pini 04Other Elfquest books started appearing on regular bookstores in malls during this period.  Not only were they pretty and glossy, but were in color.  A few years later and Marvel Comics starting reprinting the comics in a standard comic book format.

(The story goes that Wendy and Richard went to Marvel and pitched Elfquest to them and were turned down flat.  Years later after they had exploded in the indie market, Marvel approached them to allow them to reprint Elfquest in their Epic line of creator-owned comics.  I can only imagine how satisfying that felt.)

I digress, however. Elfquest is amazing, but I want to talk primarily about Wendy.  As the years passed, I picked up more information about her.  About her “Law & Chaos” project, for instance.  She had tried to put together an animated movie of an Elric story, all by herself.  For those unfamiliar, Elric was the brooding, elvish anti-hero of Michael Moorcock. The project failed, as you might have imagined due to the massive efforts required to make even a short animated film, but does show the awesome level of commitment this woman had to her artwork.

Wendy Pini 05What truly shows her dedication to her craft is the flawless narrative artwork she has.  Her primary goal in her artwork is to tell a story–and she does it flawlessly.  One of my biggest beefs with newer comic artists is the lack of clear storytelling.  Sure, they can put together pretty pictures, but you often don’t understand the story without the dialogue.  A good artist should be able to tell a story without a single bit of dialogue.  Wendy could do it and make it look easy.

Wendy Pini 06

A page with virtually no dialogue from EQ issue #5

That kind of narrative art is rare these days.  The comics look great but too many artists are so busy making gorgeous illustrations that they neglect to tell a clear story, wherein you never doubt where the characters are or what they are doing.

Despite the success of Elfquest, Wendy gets little recognition from the comics industry.  When I was in the Joe Kubert School, I showed some of her artwork to one of the instructors.  He looked through it in astonishment and said something to the effect of “This is great!  Who is this person?”  My jaw dropped.

You can drop names like Todd McFarlane, John Byrne, or Jim Lee and you’ll get tons of fanboy recognition.  Wendy Pini?  No, not so much.  Not sure why.  Because she’s a woman?  Maybe.  Or maybe because her unconventional subject matter, including the Masque of the Red Death.

Wendy Pini 01On a more amusing note, I found out just a few years ago that she used to dress up like Red Sonja for a show she did with Frank Thorne at conventions called “Sonja and the Wizard”.  Amazing how much the woman captured the part!

Do yourself a favor and read through her works and give her some support.  She’s earned it a dozen times over.

 

 

 

 

Stephen Fabian: An Artist Who Needs More Love

Stephen Fabian 01Many years ago, while stationed in Wildflecken, Germany, I bought the 2nd Edition AD&D new boxed set of the Ravenloft  role-playing game campaign setting.   I was exposed to artwork from an artist heretofore unknown to me: Stephen Fabian.  These were in the days where game companies couldn’t really afford to get much in the way of color interior artwork.  All of it was, with rare exceptions, black and white.  This didn’t mean there weren’t some damn fine artists putting out illustrations, but most game designers were smaller companies who didn’t have a stable of artists who could paint interior illustrations on a whim (and computer illustrations were purely theoretical.)Stephen Fabian 02

Along comes Stephen Fabian.  He had done illustrations for TSR (the creators of D&D before being absorbed by Wizards of the Coast,) but the Ravenloft setting allowed him to really shine.  For those unfamiliar, Ravenloft is a world setting for D&D that is essentially a combination of dark fantasy and Gothic horror.

Stephen Fabian 04Most of the other artists employed by role-playing games came from a more comic-book tradition.  Fabian, on the other hand, was very much a pulp illustrator.  He did very little line work, and instead he used solid whites and darks with gorgeous gray washes.  Where washes weren’t used, he would use stippling instead of hatching.  The moody and dark tone worked perfectly with the setting.

I had never seen anything like it before and fell instantly in love.  I snapped up every Ravenloft supplement I could find, and Stephen’s illustrations were a big reason.

Stephen Fabian 03 Stephen set a new standard in an era of very little experimentation in rpgs, as did the Ravenloft setting (most younger gamers have no idea how much Ravenloft shaped a lot of monsters they’re familiar with, especially undead–but that’s another subject.)  Stephen’s stark,eerie style struck just the right note.  He was also fond of graphic flourishes, such as stylistic borders and icons relevant to the subject material.  It turned mere game books into pieces of art.  He even did the illustrations for an entire deck of cards in the Tarot tradition called the “Tarokka” deck.

I discovered later that Stephen was no newcomer to the illustration field, and had been doing illustrations to fantasy and science fiction since the sixties.

Stephen Fabian 05He’d done illustrations for various pulp writers, such as Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt and older writers such as William Hope Hodgson.  I dug up whatever artwork I could find and ordered an art book from Bud Plant.  His scope of work was impressive and he had been favorably compared to Virgil Finlay.  Virgil’s influence on Stephen was apparent and it definitely fit with his pulp style.

I haven’t seen many new projects since his memorable run on the early Ravenloft products.  He’s been nominated for a Hugo Award and in 2006 received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement.

Stephen Fabian 06If you’re at all a fan of classic illustrations styles, pulp styles/subjects and an eerie, ethereal style, you should check out Stephen Fabian’s artwork.

 

 

 

 

 

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H. P. Lovecraft: The Dunwich Horror and ‘Getting’ Lovecraft

Dunwich Horror 01H.P. Lovecraft has achieved a modern cult status among horror fans through several sources.  I find a great deal of the people who talk about him, haven’t actually read his original material.  They’ve been exposed to the whole Cthulhu Mythos from other media.  Pop culture has created an entire Cthulhu brand name.  Just this evening I discovered that there are “Cthulhu Mints” at a local candy store.  I’m sure plenty of people have seen Cthulhu plush toys.

To be fair, Lovecraft isn’t the most accessible writer.  His style is ponderous, verbose and filled with arcane adjectives.  I can sympathize.

 

His horror fiction isn’t really ‘scary’ per se (with a couple of exceptions.)  What he does excel at, however, is creating a disturbing mood.  A feeling of uneasiness that he crams down your throat by seeing the events through the eyes of another character, who is often willfully ignorant of weird events, because they’re unable or unwilling to acknowledge the events.  They go through mental gymnastics to escape the awful truth.

His strongest works, in my opinion, are The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Dunwich Horror.  I tend to enjoy Dunwich the most, since he takes the ‘unseen horror’ to a new level.  It, like Colour, it takes place in a backward, rural society in New England.  The claustrophobic nature of this insular society is a staple of Lovecraft.

Dunwich Horror 02I, like many people, got my first education in Lovecraft via role-playing games.  In the old 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Deities and Demigods books there was a set of the Cthulhu Mythos, illustrated by Erol Otus.  The mythology was put into an AD&D product for some reason, even though it doesn’t really fall into the ‘high fantasy’ or ‘heroic fantasy’ line of fiction.  Although, interestingly enough, the Conan sword and sorcery series does technically take place in the same universe as Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors.  This is actually not as strange as it sounds, as there was a definite aura of nihilism and dark horror in the original Robert E. Howard books.  The two authors were actually pen pals and swapped ideas.

In any case, Lovecraftian fiction mixing with Tolkienesque elves, dwarves and halflings doesn’t work easily.  It certainly didn’t give me a decent understanding of Lovecraft, nor was it easy to find copies of Lovecraft’s stories at the time.  Ergo, I ended up with a distorted view of his works until many years later when I actually read them.  Even then, I didn’t start to ‘get’ Lovecraft until I read The Dunwich Horror.

Dunwich Horror 03Lovecraft has two great strengths that were brought to the fore in Dunwich: establishing a disturbing background and keeping the horror hidden for most of the time.  In this case, it was impossible to see the final horror and its worst aspects are seen through its deeds in a slow, increasing fashion.  Even throughout its rampage, Lovecraft keeps building on what else is worse out there.  There are terrible things out there and they’re quite literally incomprehensible.

If you take Lovecraft’s monsters out of their element, they don’t work nearly as well.  Is a shoggoth horrifying?  Sure, but not nearly as much without its build-up in At the Mountains of Madness.  Lovecraft’s setting and mood sells them, the same way he sells Wilbur’s brother in Dunwich.  When I put down the book, Lovecraft’s ‘package deal’ clicked.  I got it.

Sadly, I only see a minority of fandom out there who ‘get’ it.  Modern fans are used to seeing the horrors in great, High-Definition, 3-D detail.  Lovecraft understood that the human mind will always come up with a worse horror without seeing a thing.  Once you see the horror, no matter how awful, at least you know what you’re up against and can try to deal with it.  The unseen, cosmic horrors of Lovecraft are beyond that.  You simply can’t deal with them because you only catch glimpses of them.  The horror comes from what they do or (more often) what they suggest about the nature of reality.

Dunwich Horror 04Lovecraft isn’t for everyone.  If you have a low tolerance for a kind of fatalistic nihilism, you’re liable to avoid Lovecraft.  There aren’t any heroic efforts or happy endings.  The best the protagonists usually do is merely escape the ancient horrors that still lurk within the outer dark, or a brief pause before the ultimate doom wipes mankind from the face of the Earth.

It’s also difficult to translate Lovecraft into Hollywood movies.  They’ve been mostly quite bad, with such crap as Die, Monster, Die!, The Haunted Palace, The Necronomicon and–unfortunately–The Dunwich Horror.

Dunwich Horror MovieIt’s worth seeing–once–at least for the oddball nature of Dean Stockwell and Sandra Dee in a Lovecraft adaptation.  It’s not a completely terrible movie, but it’s definitely a terrible Lovecraft movie.

There have been better Lovecraft movies, but I plan on talking about them in a future post.

The Lords of Dus by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Lawrence Watt Evans BasiliskThe Lords of Dus were the first fantasy novels I ever read by Lawrence Watt-Evans–way, way back in the early 80s.  I’d seen the four novels sitting on the rack at Waldenbooks for a while and finally decided to give the first one, The Lure of the Basilisk, a try.

Lawrence hooked me right from the start.  He had a way of making even the mundane interesting as his inhuman protagonist “Garth” tried to navigate a human world.  (Apparently he named the character “Garth” because he had only slits for a nose like the character “Simon Garth, the Living Zombie” from Marvel Comics.)  The character is far different from most fantasy antagonists up to that point, as he was entirely inhuman–an “Overman” that had been created by magic as soldiers in ancient wars.

What truly hooked me, however, was that unlike most of the fantasy epics I’d read before, Garth didn’t have some mystical ‘gift’ or ‘insight’ that allowed them to pluck a magic sword or toss a magic ring.  No, he just cobbled together solutions out of whatever makeshift plans or ideas he could come up with.  He got things done, but it was usually messy and haphazard.  Like Indiana Jones’s line from Raiders of the Lost Ark: “I’m making this up as I go.”  It did turn out later that Garth had a mystic ‘destiny’–but the destiny kinda sucked and it was completely unwanted.

This was the norm for Lawrence’s characters.  Courtesy of stumbling and seeking, they found their ways through tough situations by improvisation, stubbornness and wits.  The solutions usually weren’t perfect, but they would get them done.  This is what endeared me to him, and still does.  He has definitely influenced my style of writing and character development.

Lawrence Watt Evans Altars Lawrence Watt Evans Sword Lawrence Watt Evans Book The series incorporates a lot of fantasy cliches but manages to turn them on their head in most respects.  Mystic destiny?  Yes, but it’s mostly an unwanted curse that will kill a lot of people.  Rescuing a maiden?  Yes, but as an Overman, Garth has zero romantic interest in her.  Great quests?  Yes, but they’re never what they seem and wreak havoc on innocents.  A powerful wizard as a patron?  Yes, but he’s an apathetic nihilist.  Etc., etc.

If you crammed together elements of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Moorcock’s Elric, and some wry snippets of L. Sprague de Camp’s characters, you might get a rough estimate of what this series is like.

It’s well worth reading.  If you like these, you’ll enjoy the Ethshar series by Lawrence.

 

 

Roger Zelazny and The Chronicles of Amber

This is my first post in a long time, and I apologize.

Amber-Nine Princes in AmberAmber-The Guns of AvalonAmber-Sign of the Unicorn

Amber-The Hand of OberonAmber-The Courts of Chaos

Okay, I wanted to talk about a subject and individual I care deeply about–The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny (May 13, 1937 – June 14, 1995.)  Usually the response I get from people–especially younger ones is: “Who?  What?”

This is rather depressing since I consider him one of the 20th century’s greatest masters of fantasy.  He has one of the most unique styles of anyone I know and came up with an entire genre of fantasy which had nothing to do with elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc., yet remains virtually unknown outside of fandom.  The closest he’s come to real fame was a horrible movie adaptation of his 1967 novella, Damnation Alley which he later expanded into a novel for the movie.  There was also the attempted adaptation of his novel Lord of Light which was never produced due to legal problems, but elements of the film, including concept drawings by Jack Kirby were later used by the CIA in an operation to smuggle people out of Iran during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979.  The fake movie was renamed Argo and a film concerning the events was filmed in 2012.

Other than those undistinguished blips, he’s virtually unknown outside of fandom.  This is a crime, since the man was brilliant.  Foremost among his achievements is the creation of the Amber series of novels.  This is a fantasy series which is breathtaking in scope and yet a personal squabble between family members.  It starts out fairly straightforward and then spirals off in directions which you never would have guessed.

What I usually say to people when I try to describe it is: “It’s a family of Machiavellian demigods fighting a war for the seat of creation–and that’s just the first book.  After that, things get really interesting.”

I consider my writing most strongly influenced by Zelazny and if I could be half the writer he was, I would consider my life complete.

What made me bring this up and make a blog post about it was the news that apparently, after many, many decades, it appears that The Chronicles of Amber is going to make its presence felt on television.  I am both delighted and horrified by the prospect.  Delighted, in that maybe there will be a chance for this man to received the accolades he’s due, yet horrified that they’ll screw it up.  I am glad to see Robert Kirkman of Walking Dead fame producing, so that fills me with some optimism.  I know George R.R. Martin considers Game of Thrones inspired by Amber.

But don’t wait for an Amber series.  Go out and read them yourself.  There are ten of them in two story arcs.  The first five are generally considered superior, but I thoroughly enjoyed all of them.