Saturday, May 23, 2009

In Praise of Jim Holloway

Of all the artists who made their debut during the Golden Age of D&D -- his first TSR work was in 1981 -- I think it's Jim Holloway who catches the most undeserved flak. Perhaps it's because he's so closely associated with West End's Paranoia, the darkly humorous science fiction RPG, for which he provided the illustrations. As much as the text itself, Holloway's artwork defined what that game was about and, for many gamers of a certain vintage, it also defined Holloway himself as a "jokey" artist -- highly inappropriate for old school D&D.

I myself think that impression is mistaken. There's no doubt that, especially after he'd done his Paranoia illustrations, Holloway's art tended to include more humorous elements than they had before, but those elements were always present; it's just that Paranoia afforded him the opportunity to cut loose in a way he hadn't before. Of course, that's no defense of the man in the eyes of many, whose conception of D&D leaves no room for humor, even the gallows humor Holloway frequently incorporated into his artwork.

I've always found such criticisms to be odd, since old school D&D, with its fragile PCs and mechanical randomness, is in my experience of playing it filled with moments of black humor, not to mention outright slapstick. Far from being contrary to the old school spirit, I find Holloway's illustrations to look like "photographs" from many an adventure I've run, with the party tripping over themselves in flight from a deadly monster or finding themselves in a sticky situation that'd be funny if it didn't spell their likely doom.

And while his style is very different, Holloway comes closest in my opinion to capturing the grubbiness of the adventuring life that Dave Trampier illustrated so well. Holloway's people aren't nakedly beautiful and heroic like those of Elmore or the other "fantastic realist" artists of the Silver Age. More often than not, they're lumpy-faced, gap-toothed ruffians with five o'clock shadow and distinctly unheroic demeanors. They're not runway models at the Ren Faire, that's for sure, but that's frankly the appeal of Holloway's art. He nicely evokes the dingy, hardscrabble existence an old school D&D character lives if he has a referee who clings to the Old Ways without apology.

Far from being contrary to the old school spirit, much of Holloway's art is a superb exemplar of it, as his recent contribution to Knockspell shows quite well, I think. I hope he'll get the chance to do more old school products in the coming weeks and months. Holloway's work provides a nice counterpoint, both esthetically and thematically, to over the top style so in favor in much of contemporary fantasy gaming, making it one of several artistic guideposts for what old school gaming is about. Goodness knows we could use some more of that.

22 comments:

  1. Highly agreed that the humor is part of old school gaming. The monk class, according to Mike Mornard, had to be invented because of the song "Kung Fu Fighting", which Jim Ward would sing at the table when one was in fact fighting. It's something that I recall when reading, for instance, the somewhat maligned L. Sprague de Camp, who after all wrote some of the better comic fantasy of the day. It's one of the forms of creeping revisionism in old-school discussions, which I think limits our vision to a particular interpretation of what "old-school" was, and isn't really all that accurate to begin with.

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  2. I think Holloway also catches flak for his illustrations in the generally-reviled WG7 Castle Greyhawk, and that many folks unfairly associate him with that module's content.

    His recent work in Rob Kuntz's Cairn of the Skeleton King (in particular the cover piece!), as well as Tower of Blood, are as evocative and compelling as his excellent work throughout S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.

    Allan.

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  3. "I've always found such criticisms to be odd, since old school D&D, with its fragile PCs and mechanical randomness, is in my experience of playing it filled with moments of black humor, not to mention outright slapstick."

    James, welcome to the schizophrenia of the "old school" gamer....as Wayne said, the revisionists would have us believe otherwise. The sheer audacity of some schlub with a 9 STR and 4 DEX (rolled up with 3 dice in order, or course) being anything but a comic masterpiece waiting to happen is lunacy. One of the few "traditional" old school sessions I ran involved a character with a 4 INT keeping his pet cat in his belt pouch, and hurling him into combat...with the result the cat with his 1/1/1 dmg strike killed more orcs than said character in the battle that followed!

    But kudos to Holloway....while not as distinctive as a Otus or Tramp, his workmanlike drawings are often the ones I remember most.

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  4. Excellent posting James! I always have held Jim Holloway in high esteem. Artwork is so subjective that sometimes what drives someone away from a particular artist, or makes you reject a particular piece, is the exact thing that would attract
    someone else.I love Jim's zany humerous style of art.He always wanted to let rip with the humourous stuff, you can see it in all his works.His paintings are really works of art,and then his inking style is very different to his painting style.He loves the use of dark areas to draw the viewer into his pieces,and it definately works for me.He is currently redrawing many of the original Monster Manual two creatures that he originally rendered.He was not entirely happy with the originals as he states he was under time pressure and had to rush most of the original stuff.Which is ironic because Jim created the look of many original AD&D creatures,and they stuck with us old-schoolers to this day.Not bad for a rushed effort,eh? There is also news of a forthcoming Art book by Jim which I will definately be purchasing!:)

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  5. Well, old school is more than D&D and looking at some vargr illustrations in Traveller there's definitely humour involved.

    Tunnels & Trolls is definitely old school and not dead pan serious either.

    Reading what Gygax wrote about gaming I get the impression that he always thought of rpgs was first of all games. A way to spend some time with friends and sometimes good off a bit.

    T&T might be most known for the "silly" names of the spells, but I never thought it such a distinct difference from the "seriousness" of D&D.

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  6. I love that picture of 'Zargon' (from B4) in the current issue of KS!

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  7. Yeah, I dig Holloway, too...if I'm not mistaken he did a lot of the art for Boot Hill (the modules, anyway) and his illos are both dynamic and interesting. I need to pull those BH 1-5 out of storage...hmm...

    Why someone would hold Paranoia against him is beyond me...his artwork is perfect for conveying the play style and themes of that particular game. That = good artist, in my book!

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  8. I'm happy to see this post, too. As others have said, Holloway may not have been a stand-out technically, but I often found his work to be the most memorable and/or inspirational. My all-time favorite Dragon magazine cover (#161) is by Holloway:

    http://www.boomspeed.com/mcphobby/dra161.jpg

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  9. My dislike for Holloway's art has no grand ideological basis. I just don't enjoy looking at it.

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  10. Interesting how art is always such a subjective thing ... Holloway is, by far, my least-favorite of the old-school artists. Never liked it back then, and not much has changed since then.

    On the other hand, I could look at Erol Otus art all day, and his style just doesn't do it for some people. So, basically: go figure. Art appreciation is always going to be a very individual thing.

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  11. Holloway does nothing for me. I don't hate his work as I do most D&D art of the last 10+ years, but neither do I like it. It's "meh" for me.

    To me, Sutherland and Trampier typify what a healthy A/D&D work looks like. Otus's works illustrates what happens when that healthy A/D&D world is diseased by an incursion of Lovecraftian horror (which is a good thing).

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  12. Well, Jim's artwork does it for me! It has ever since seeing it in Castle Amber, The Lost City, and The Lost Caverns of Tsjocanth.

    As for art, it's all in the eye of the beholder! To me, it's suits me just fine - the more, the better!!

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  13. I love Holloway's work! As you say, his illustrations often look more like my games actually went, rather than how they were envisioned. The one thing I like the most about Jim Holloway's art is the detail and realism of the characters, equipment, and weapons. I can recognize historical accuracy in the designs of his weapons, even when they are stretched abit for fantasy's sake, and that's just something I very much appreciate. It makes the image more possible in my mind. I hate giant ridiculous fantasy swords that would weigh eighty pounds in real life. Holloway's art is a better match for my reality-plus version of the game world.

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  14. I think Holloway's art is just a bit too un-heroic for my tastes. I like a bit more escapism.

    Word Verification: bling

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  15. I must admit, I'd rather see adventurers than heroes.

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  16. Amen to the celebration of Jim Holloway. The sheer bizarre genre-bending nature of some of his art (notably in "The Book of Wondrous Inventions" for BECMI D&D) never detracted from my appreciation of his skill and eye for humour.

    No-one had quite the same knack of bringing out the inherent hilarity of some quintessential adventuring situations. The illustration for the Dragon article "It's Sort of Like a Wand..." (three adventurers gawping as they try to puzzle out the arcane mysteries of a sink plunger) is unforgettable.

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  17. Not much to add to this post. I love how all his pictures give the perspective of the hapless characters/players.

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  18. I think Holloway also has a really nice knack for monsters, mostly from his naturalistic approach. His version of the umber hulk from the 2nd. Ed. Monstrous compendium, for example, is the one I envision when I think of the monster, rather than the strangely gangly thing that the 3rd. Ed. made it out to be. His monsters have heft, and are always at least realistic enough to buy as foam rubber denizens of a monster movie, if not real.

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  19. Holloway's work with AD&D was exceedingly bland; comparing his work to DAT's seems laughable. Tramp infused his illustrations with atmopshere, intelligence, and tone. Holloway's graphics for AD&D are technically good, but very flat. The nadir of his work is, I believe, in the Pharaoh module; take a look at his illustration for a brazier full of fire. It looks like a clean sheet, not at all like flame.

    When I look at Holloway's images, they don't inspire me as a player or DM - something Tramp, Otus and others definitely do.

    There's a thread on Dragonsfoot showcasing his newest works, and I will say I think many of them are just great, and have far more flavor, energy and oomph to them than anything he did back in the day. It's too bad his work for TSR never displayed this kind of life.

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  20. I didn't like a lot of Holloway's stuff back in the day. At the time I thought it was mostly his style- I, too, like my PCs to be of a somewhat more heroic stamp. Or at least, not buffoonish, which many of his subjects are. So there's definitely a question of personal taste. But even though I didn't personally care for some of his stuff, even then I found some of his works quite good. I seem to recall a Dragon cover featuring a Half-orc hiding out in a swamp. I'm also vaguely recalling art from an article on the Ecology of the Giant Leech, which was both interesting and atmospheric. His latest stuff that keeps getting posted on Dragonsfoot is pretty much uniformly excellent too. So I think that the idea of some of his AD&D work being rushed has credence. There's definitely a quality variation.

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  21. I love Monster Manual 2 in large part because of Holloway's work. His version of Derros, duergars, myconids, etc are classics in my book.

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  22. I really liked Holloway's stuff as a kid. Now that I've been rediscovering his art thanks partly to his website, I've been thinking that what I really liked is his ability to suggest a story; his adventurers were usually doing something really germane to the idea of action and adventure. I also really liked the accuracy he worked into his Japanese-styled characters (for the most part). Even though he wasn't the most technically polished of TSR's artists, I think he was definitely one of the most evocative.

    I can see though how people would really hate the funny illustrations. The humor always seemed somehow too forced - as though the artistic statement there was something like, look, you're supposed to laugh at this! See, isn't it funny? See see see? Funny, huh?

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