domenica 16 luglio 2017

Fantasy Visuals: Frank Frazetta

When talking about the beginning of Fantasy Art, there is no clean transition from what was before, and what we can consider a new genre. Fantasy Art derives from a lot of sources put together: medieval illuminations, movie posters, comics.

But if we must name an artist who has been very influential at the beginning of Fantasy art and has contributed before and more than any other in shaping the genre to what it is today, then there is nobody competing with Frank Frazetta.

A Princess of Mars (1970)
Born in 1928 Brooklyn, NYC, Frazetta was an early genius. Since early school, his teachers had little to instruct him in the field of drawing. At age 8 he entered art school but again, didn't learn much: partly because he was a natural, and partly because he had distracted educators: and that's how he developed his own way of doing things.

At 16 Frank got his first job as an assistant in the comics industry, and eventually developed a career there, working for many different publications. But the turning point was many years later, in 1964, when Frank was already 36, married and with children. On that year, he painted a caricature of Ringo Starr for Mad magazine, which caught the eye of United Artists studios.

It was so that Frazetta started to work on movie posters, which paid a lot more money than comics and also allowed him to develop his talents deeper. "What's New, Pussycat?" was the first commission.

From movie posters to book covers the step was short, though. And that step Frank took, at a time when Science Fiction was booming and Fantasy literature was about to become big but, somehow, a clear visual identity of the genre hadn't developed yet. This is what Frazetta did: he provided a first identity to Sword & Sorcery. His first really iconic work dates from 1966, and it is dedicated to Conan the Barbarian.

That was the beginning of the legend of Frank Frazetta. He became very famous in the industry and influenced a whole generation of artists for Sword & Sorcery. He would work on calendars, advertising, movies (besides posters, he also provided creative support in animated movies), and album covers. In 1972, heavy metal band Dust was the first to let him draw the cover for their album Hard Attack.

Now, a few words on how Frazetta worked: his main technique was oil, although he mastered other media as well. He grew up with the realistic American approach at art which was drawing models all the time, but being a natural talent, he went beyond all his peers and, after a few years, he was able to draw from memory. This allowed him two advantages: the first was to be able to exaggerate traits that he wanted, beyond human possibility. Frazetta loved to draw brawny barbarians, Junoesque women and powerful beasts - mostly horses and great cats. None of these could possibly be real. Even the muscular ogres he occasionally drew were not built on human models in front of him, but out of his imagination.

Cona the Conqueror (1967)

Egyptian Queen (1969)

Thuvia - Maid of Mars (1972)

The second advantage he obtained was to be able to draw dynamic poses that other artists could not achieve, just because models can not freeze mid air during a jump, or a fall, or a run. A common trait of all the works of Frazetta is indeed this dynamism, the tension of movement in everything, not only in the characters, who are always the focus, but also in the landscape. You will rarely find straight lines of perspective, but a tangle of curved lines evoking chaos and evolution.

Spider Man (1966)

John Carter and the Savage Apes of Mars (1970)
Conan the Destroyer (1971)
Frazetta's models were mainly the classical masters of Italian Renaissance painting: Raffaello Sanzio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Caravaggio. Many elements of their paintings are so obviously replicated in Frazetta's work. One of these, directly from Caravaggio, is the extremely limited and simple palette: shapes are defined by light and dark rather than complex shades of colour. Light is also used to focus the attention on the main element of the painting.

Against the Gods (c. 1967)

Cat Girl (1967)

Bran Mak Morn (1967)
Frazetta would go on creating masterpieces for all the '70s, the '80s and part of the '90s. Then he started to have health issues that affected his work, and his wife, with whom he was very close, started to fight a deadly cancer. Frazetta left NYC for the mountains of Pennsylvania, to live in a mansion where he opened a small museum of his works that still exists.

His wife passed away in July 2009. After her death Frazetta hired two professionals to handle his business, but this decision created tensions among the four children. Although in November that year Conan the Conqueror was auctioned at USD 1 million, the following month the firstborn Frank Jr. Frazetta was arrested trying to steal 92 paintings from the family museum, trying to get control of his father's legacy. This opened a family dispute with legal consequences that settled only in March, 2010. But on May 10th Frank Frazetta, who now had moved to Florida, died of a stroke, last of a long series, at age 82.

Rest in peace, God among Fantasy Illustrators.

I'd like to close this post with a few final considerations. Although whole books could be written about Frazetta's influence on the Fantasy genre, there are two people which I would like to mention. The excellent Angus McBride, whose masterful compositions of finely detailed characters interacting vividly on a vague background of mountains, forests and fortresses so obviously owe to the old master Frazetta. And Bryan Ansell, head of Games Workshop during the "Golden Years", who explicitly mentioned Frazetta as his inspiration when creating the iconic Barbarians/Marauders and Chaos Warriors that everybody knows and loves.
The following painting is probably the one that first sparked in Ansell's imagination the idea of the Chaos Warrior.

The Death Dealer (1972)
Incidentally, this is one of my two favourites among Frazetta's works (a lot of people's favourite, as a matter of fact).
The other pieace I am absolutely in love with is this, taken from Michael Moorcock's 1970 novel Phoenix in Obsidian, also titled the Silver Warriors.

Silver Warrior (1972)
What's your favourite piece from Frazetta, if you have one? Let me know in the comments!

domenica 9 luglio 2017

Brandir the Adventurer - Citadel Elf Warrior (1987)

Some NPCs are so good they eventually become PCs. This is the story of one of them, Brandir.

Brandir's story begins with that of his older brother Gelmir. The two are born, together with a third sister, from a poor Sea Elf family living in the miserable village of Grilm, on the coast of the Wasteland. Father dies at sea when the children are young. Mother is slain by Greenskins during a raid, while the kids hide under the bed. The three survive by begging and stealing.
Then, at some point Brandir's story takes a different turn, a grimmer one than his siblings who will eventually get saved and adopted. Little Brandir, while in the gutters of Zeaburg, is lured with an apple by a smiling man and invited into a private house. He gets a hit on the head and drops unconscious. He is taken away. The man is a thief and smuggler, and he also, in his own way, adopts Brandir, but he is far less kind than Elmerin. Brandir learns to steal and stab and trick and becomes, willing or not, part of Johann the Lame's band of footpads and cutthroats. They spend most of their time in Marienburg but travel the Wasteland when times are hard and the guards are on their trail.

Years pass, and eventually Johann the Lame gets old. Brandir has little love for him and, at the first good chance, he takes over the band and offers the old man a kind choice between retiring to a dilapidated country hut with little to no pension, but alive, or retire at the bottom of a canal of the Kruiersmuur, with no need of any pension. Johann makes the wise choise.

A few members of the band, the old ones, leave, but new ones join and soon Brandir's band increases its business substantially. The Elf is young and less cautious than Johann, taking risks that offer high returns. He seems blessed by Ranald, and his reputation grows, until one day he is introduced to an ascending merchant, going by the name of Johann Hess.

In order to make his family rich, Hess has his fingers in many pies, including illegal ones. Smuggling is one of them and, with his activities growing, he needs to outsource the extra job to smart people. Soon Brandir starts making a lot of money, especially with those new shipments of closed crates coming from Norsca. All marked with a red X and solidly nailed so no one can spy their contents.

It is when some members of his band start displaying strange signs of mutation that Brandir decides to do what he has been explicitly asked not to do: open one of the crates. It is full of shards of black, iridescent stone.

That is his last delivery. He goes to see Hess and tells him he's not feeling well and wants to leave the business for some time. But Hess guesses Brandir knows more than he says. The same night, coming back at his band's den, Brandir finds assassins. He barely escapes with a few men, but loses all his savings. At dawn he silently navigates the marshes on a rowboat, headed at Lame Johann's hut. It's empty, the old man must have died years ago.

Enraged at Hess's betrayal Brandir plans revenge, but he decides to wait - too many people are looking for him in Marienburg. He spends some time in the town of Bokel, across the frontier of Nordland, but he soon finds out the Warpstone has tainted him: he has started losing all the hair on his body.

It is several months after his flight that Brandir returns to Marienburg. By now he has become completely glabrous, even losing his eyelashes. He wears a hood over his head or, sometimes, a wig. He calls himself Gelmir, the name of his lost brother. Working isn't easy when nobody knows you and, desperate for money, Brandir enters a gambling house planning to get something to start again. But the games are rigged, and the house belongs to Hess. Soon he has an outstanding debt, and Hess's thugs are on his trail once again.

With two companions he boards a ship bound for Erengrad, where he hides for a while. It is here that his brother finds him: hunted by Hess, the real Gelmir find the impostor, recognizing him as his long lost, and now mutant, brother. Together, they vow revenge on Hess and on his network of warpstone smuggling, funded by the Skaven. And so it begins Brandir's life as a PC.

The miniature I choose for Brandir is no. 9 in 1988 Citadel Catalogue, Elf Warrior Category. It is marked as "Elf" and dated 1987, so it probably debuted on an earlier White Dwarf, The line is designed by Jes Goodwin and Aly Morrison: it's not clear who sculpted this particular figure but my guess is Jes Goodwin.

There are lots of things to like in this sculpt. The simplicity first of all. Lots of empty areas to freely paint. Then the shady look - there is something thievish with this hooded Elf, shield raised and sword reared, leather jacket, bag across the shoulder and a rope hanging from the side.

Missing the original shield, I recycled a 15mm Medieval shield which looks enough like a buckler, where I painted the device of Liria, a free city of sea merchants on the eastern borders of Tilea.

Comments? Did you also happen to turn NPCs into PCs? Leave some feedback below!

domenica 18 giugno 2017

Slann Shaman - Citadel C32 Slann: Ribbet Ribbet (1986)

My second Slann miniature is this: Ribbet Ribbet, first seen in the 1986 Citadel May flyer, part of the C32 range.

It's a pretty good piece, up to the standards of the Perry twins. It represents a Slann, shorter than others, in a seemingly dancing or jumping pose. He holds a staff in his left hand, topped with what could be a wooden image of a bird's head, decorated with feathers. His right fist is raised. His body is covered by a crocodile/alligator skin, with fur on the inside, held together by strips of rope or leather. From the neck hangs a small animal skull.

There is no background for this miniature but I am pretty sure it was meant to represent some kind of shaman or witch doctor, a follower of the animal-shaped new gods of the Slann.

It is a grotesque history, that of the Slann - from all powerful world shapers to a people of savages living in jungles and worshipping gods born from the cataclysm that doomed their own race. A feeling of grotesque, incidentally, is one of the main foundations of Old School Warhammer. Chaos at that time was grotesque and everything it touched was tainted by such feel.

There isn't much background on Slann in the original material, so during my WFRP years our group created a great deal of it for our campaigns. According to our own house fluff, the core cities of the Slann maintain old culture better than peripheric areas. But as one travels to the swamps and hills of the north and east, Slann become more and more primitive. Their skin is often marked by other colours and this shaman displays blue streaks and spots on the back.

Dancing to the rythm of ancient rituals developed thousands of years ago, this Shaman is able to call to the animals of the jungle, speak to them and command them to do his bidding, all thanks to the blessings of the New Gods.

Right, I'll have to build two Slann warbands now: one for the imperial cities, and one for the remote jungles. They will be good factions for Mordheim/Shadespire games set in Lustria. Lots of fun coming!

lunedì 12 giugno 2017

Review: Khurasan Slav Subject Archers

Khurasan miniatures is a US manufacturer, a one-man company doing excellent figures in a very wide range. I ordered some samples last year but only now do I find the time to paint some. I have started several units but the first to be finished is this one: the Slav Subject Archers, Skirmishing (KM-904).

Part of the Avar range, this pack of 12 figures is sculpted in 15mm by Tony Aldrich. They are made in nice white metal: solid, bendable, detailed and clean of strange flash. They come in 2 poses.

I bought these to join my developing Magyar army for 9th-10th centuries, and they make a fine addition. The price was fair and the service very quick and with no mistakes. It took some time for delivery to Europe, but that's not the manufacturer's fault.

These archers have been painted according to internet images for early Slavs, since I'm no expert on the subject: but they are supposed to represent Slavic archers conscripted by the Magyars to help defend the territory and support the cavalry.

Painting them was quite fun and fast. Overall, a good product that I recommend to anybody interested in the time period.

venerdì 9 giugno 2017

Fantasy Visuals: Gary Chalk

The other day I was thinking that Fantasy owes its identity to illustrators as much as it does to the writers who created it. We've all heard about R.E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, M. Moorcock, G.R.R. Martin, but the worlds they imagined would not be half lively as they are without those who drew them and painted them.

So I thought to start this section of my blog dedicated to these people, and to call it "Fantasy Visuals". Where to start? From the guy who inspired these thoughts, one of the under-credited giants of Fantasy whom I rediscovered last week. Gary Chalk.

Gary Chalk is a character of a man, a hero of the 80s whose professional life has gone up and down as he chased his dreams and followed his heart. Whereas many illustrators were happy doing their things behind a desk, Gary Chalk was doing a bit of everything. Game designer? Check. Entrepreneur? Check. Rebel against the system? Check.

Chalk was born in 1952 in Hertfordshire, a rural area just north of London. Since an early age, he was interested in wargames and history and showed great creativity. After achieving a BA in Art, Gary Chalk wanted to become an illustrator for children books, and moved to London where he started working for design studios in advertising, instead, waiting for his chance to follow his own road. It was at this time that he became interested in fantasy art and started developing his own drawing style which, incidentally, employed techniques of his own device since, by his own admission, he hadn't paid much attention at Art School. Mark this, because it shows already a side of the author's character which would be a trademark: independence from any teacher or master, and a genuine anarchic attitude towards any system that refuses to be bettered.

More or less in these years he became frustrated with traditional wargames, which were all about heavy rules and strategy, and he developed his own set of rules: faster, funnier and with a closer look on individuals. This is how Cry Havoc was born, a game that to this day has a following of devoted fans. It was 1981.

Gary had developed the game single-handedly: rules, typing, illustration, printing and sales. No wonder he found it difficult to succeed: the task was too much more one person. At this time, Gary Chalk met a guy who was an employee in a shop of wargames, and kindly agreed to stock Cry Havoc and try to sell it. The guy's name was Joe Dever.

Around the end of 1982 Gary was noticed by two young entrepreneurs who were also in the gaming industry, but with a more businesslike vision: these were Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, the founders of Games Workshop. They hired Gary with the title of Game Developing Manager and put him to work on a game they had just acquired from its author, R. Harris: it was about children competing to become prefect of the school, but the guys at GW wanted to change it to a fantasy setting. Chalk completely redesigned the board and illustrated all the cards. Renamed "Talisman", the game was launched in 1983 and it has since become one of the most popular boardgames ever.

For the art of Talisman, Gary Chalk inspired himself to the drawings of Dungeons & Dragons (mostly by Larry Elmore, but also Jeff Easley, Timothy Truman and Keith Parkinson), which was also imported and distributed by GW, but soon he developed his own distinctive style, less realistic and epic, more funny and detailed than the source. Characters had caricature-like traits, big heads, eyes, hands and feet, fancy helms and hats, long hoods, and clothes and weapons very much rooted in history rathern than imagination.

Chalk went on to work as illustrator on several issues of White Dwarf and followed closely the product "Blood Bath at Orc's Drift" (1985), for which he produced almost all the art.

It is to Gary Chalk that Fantasy owes the early depictions of Goblins with pot-helms or horned helms, scale or chain mail and cruel slant eyes.

Chalk was very fond of heraldry and very good at it. He developed shields, banners and general devices for Goblinoids, Elves, Fimir and many others.

He liked to have Elves and Rangers dress in green clothing with hoods, all with lobed edges reminding of oak leaves.  Really, not much says 80s fantasy like these things that would completely disappear in the 90s.

And then, more and more magicians in colourful and fancy robes. Look at these things, and you will recognize old school Warhammer. The influence of Gary Chalk on this has been truly great, and yet underestimated by many, first of all the very company employing him, Games Workshop, and for a number of reasons.

What happened then? According to Gary, at that time Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, besides their main business with wargames, were writing game-books for the Fighting Fantasy series published by Puffin, a division of Penguin. The books were successful but the authors didn't have much time to write as they had to run a company, too. So they offered Joe Dever and Gary Chalk to ghost-write game-books for them. The catch was, according to Chalk, "a princely royalty of 1%" on the sales. Chalk went to Joe Dever, whom at this time was working in GW's warehouse, and convinced him to sidestep the employers.

The result was "Flight from the Dark", the first adventure of Lone Wolf, published in 1984 by Hutchinson Publishing. If you have ever heard the name Lone Wolf, and probably you do, you also know that the series was very succesful, certainly more than the books written by Livingstone and Jackson whom, I imagine, were not at all pleased, considering Gary Chalk and Joe Dever were also recipients of full time wages at the company.

No wonder then that the relation between employers and employees soon deteriorated and Dever and Chalk left GW to pursue independent careers. Chalk was already very critical of GW's approach to gaming which was, in his view, too much on the side of business and too little on the side of pleasing the fans.

But who cared? They had Lone Wolf! For a lot of teenagers in the '80s and '90s, this was the introduction to Fantasy and Role-playing games. Gary Chalk's illustrations, made between 1984 and 1987, had an imprinting effect on a generation of fans worldwide. The series sold more than 9 million books.

The attitude of GW was mixed at this time. They were threatening to sue the authors but, since technically they never signed a contract with them, it was difficult to bring any evidence in court. Yet Citadel produced a range of miniatures dedicated to Lone Wolf, so an agreement should have been reached. But Gary Chalk didn't like GW and the feeling was mutual. In 1986 the company moved their premises from London to Nottingham and word is that Gary Chalk's original art made its way to the garbage, and before some colleagues could save it, the drawings and painting had been destroyed by rain.

Gary Chalk worked together with Joe Dever for many years but after a time he longed for new projects. Having put aside some money, he decided to face GW directly: at this time, the fan base was already moaning about changes and Chalk thought he could give them something better than Warhammer, some game with realism, fun and a fair price policy. Together with Ian Bailey, another of GW's ex-staff, in 1990 he launched Fantasy Warlord.

The venture was a spectacular failure, where everything went wrong with partners and the fans. As economic crisis hit the UK, suppliers went bankrupt before they could deliver goods and services, and fans didn't buy as much as expected. This marked the beginning of bad times for Gary Chalk whom, at length, decided to give up the business of fantasy gaming and painting, and dedicated himself to his first true passion, making illustration for children books.

Today he lives in Normandy where he is able to get commissions from all over Europe and the US. Recently, he did some more works based on Lone Wolf for a kickstarted boardgame. He is often invited at conventions and interviewed by fans, and many of them can be found on the internet.

It is difficult, after all, to leave behind the success he had, and the fact that for a few years in the 80s he has produced works that set him among the Fathers of Fantasy.

So here's a number of pictures to mark the main elements of his wonderful style:

Magicians fighting Gobli-I mean, Giaks! 
(BTW, Banedon was the coolest character in the series)

Evil warriors in heavy armour, their faces covered in baroque helms!

Highly detailed portraits of side characters, with realistic depictions of clothes and trappings, and caricature-like drawings of faces. Truly, nothing says Gary Chalk art more than these cartoonish faces of innkeepers, travellers and thugs.

Monsters also share the caricature-like traits, mixing human and animal elements with wholly fantastic features.

I close with a piece of art that is probably my favourite among Gary Chalk's work: the victory of Sommlending forces at Ruanor, against the Vassagonian bandits of Baraka. This drawing is just perfect, old school fantasy art at its highest. Thank you, Gary. Thank you truly.