Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In Praise of Larry Elmore II

Larry Elmore catches a lot of grief round these parts for his seminal role in establishing the look of Silver Age Dungeons & Dragons (not to mention Dragonlance) and I make no bones about that. Elmore's a very talented artist on a technical level and many of his pieces are quite evocative, but there's also a crisp sameness to much of his output that just doesn't sit well with me nowadays -- at least as far as fantasy goes.

I was recently looking over my collection of Gamma World materials and spent a lot of time poring over its 1983 second edition, which I consider its best presentation to date (heresy in some quarters, I know). I noticed that Elmore did all the interior art for this edition, something I suppose I always knew but to which I'd previously never given much thought. I was struck by just how good all the art is and, more precisely, how appropriate it is. I know there are some who favor a more Otusian fever dream interpretation of Gamma World, but I've long felt that the game demanded a solid grounding for its flights of fancy, lest it degenerate into utter lunacy (or parody). Elmore's "fantastic realism" provides such a solid grounding in my opinion.

And that's when it hit me. As strongly associated as Elmore is with fantasy, I actually think he's a far better artist of science fiction. His Star Frontiers cover, for example, is for many gamers of a certain age the iconic representation of the genre. Indeed, his work on that TSR RPG is almost uniformly excellent, the "crisp sameness" I described above being a virtue when illustrating a high tech setting, whereas (for me anyway) I find that the same quality grates in the context of (most) fantasy. Granted, I speak primarily of his black and white figural work rather than his color outdoors pieces, many of which are quite good for fantasy. Still, looking at Gamma World 2e today really did open my eyes to a possibility I hadn't considered before, namely that Larry Elmore makes a fine SF illustrator.

33 comments:

  1. Its hard for me to have the hate towards Elmore's work, just because I associate it so strongly towards my beginnings in D&D. The Beginners set had those pictures of the young fighter in that "Choose your own way" introduction that I loved, plus the expert booklet, that had some beautiful drawings..I that had to have one of the coolest pictures of a fighter in the players section (complete with chipped armour, I loved that); not to mention the expert cover; It's a great cover in my opinion. However when I see some of the Dragonlance pictures, I have to agree with you; there is something a little too perfect and too cold in the people drawn; I wonder why the difference. Anyway, its nice to see a little love thrown old LE's way

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  2. > And that's when it hit me. As strongly associated as Elmore is with fantasy, I actually think he's a far better artist of science fiction... the "crisp sameness" I described above being a virtue when illustrating a high tech setting, whereas (for me anyway) I find that the same quality grates in the context of (most) fantasy. Granted, I speak primarily of his black and white figural work

    Works fine for cross-over in SnarfQuest, IMHO. ;)

    ===
    verification: nonalism

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  3. long felt that the game demanded a solid grounding for its flights of fancy, lest it degenerate into utter lunacy<

    I recently ran a couple Mutant Future games, and they seemed a bit wacky and even silly, moreso than our Gamma World and Met. Alpha games of old. I really think the cartoonish, over the top artwork in the MF book promotes the sillyness, so I think you are spot on with this comment.

    WV:"wishant" - the wish granting insect from Fiend Folio 2.

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  4. Not having any special emotional attachment to the "early stage" of D&D art, regarding much of it as junior high scrawling, I consider Elmore the best D&D artist ever... Things did seem a bit "posed" at times, but his technical proficiency is hand and foot above the rest with only rare exception (Brom?).

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  5. Beautiful illustration chosen for this post.

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  6. James - as a latecomer to Gamma World (actually introduced to it through Mutant Future, which I learned about on your blog, so thanks very much!), I managed to score the 1st and 2d editions from ebay last year.

    I instantly fell in love with the 2d edition, in large part because of the illustrations. In fact, I have been doing a series of posts called "2e Tuesday" on my mutagenic substance blog converting Gamma World 2e creatures to Mutant Future - I started it because I felt the illustrated bestiary included in the 2d edition was pure gold.

    Great post

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  7. And speaking of heresy: his fantasy art is great as well.

    On Gamma World: I think I agree that 2e is its best outing overall. Fourth, which has classes, is also good imo.

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  8. With the exception of the creature pictures, I really dislike Elmore's art in 2e Gamma World. As a matter of fact, I even dislike the typeface and layout of the whole book. To prepare for my 1e GW campaign I actually cropped out the 2e rules I wanted to use and made my own pamphlet so that the art-style wouldn't spoil my flavor.
    And for me that flavor is all tied up with the Trampier illustrations from the 1e rules. Okay, I selectively ignore the flying hippo mutant... but, the bear on the title page, the hoops, the yexil, and hisser are all classic to me. And then there is the color cover from the box... its the perfect embodiment of GW!
    I will admit that Elmore's work for Star Frontiers is pretty iconic. His simple/clean futuristic style fits well with that game's "space federation" kind of setting. But, I like my GW a lot more gritty. (My Traveller too, for that matter!)

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  9. Yeah I really liked the artwork in Star Frontiers and I thought the game was pretty solid but a bit lacking in development. Granted, you are only as limited as your imagination, but it is helpful to have some more structure to the game and the design as intended by its creators. Yazirians were a cool race for the game, I think one of my friends like the race enough to brink into one of his fantasy campaigns.

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  10. Yeah, I have to say that the Elmore/Parkinson/Easley trio really raised the bar when it came to the art associated with TSR products. Of course, I came to D&D and came of age during the "Silver Age", so that colors my perception. But I have to agree with mxyzplk above that those three and their contemporaries seemed more "technically proficient" than a lot of the art that graced the earlier books.

    There was an interview with Elmore that made the rounds a few weeks ago where he pretty much stated the same thing, i.e. that he and the other artists employed at TSR at the time worked hard to get things "right" and be consistent.

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  11. I have a strong disagreement and a strong agreement:

    1. I disagree with you about 2nd edition Gamma World being the best. I am a big proponent of 1st edition Gamma World. That 45-page game is almost perfect.

    2. I agree with you about Larry Elmore's Star Frontiers art. The cover of the original game is pure gold. Every time I look at it I want to play a Star Frontiers human character crash-landed on a dangerous, alien world.

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  12. Elmore did the Star Frontiers cover? I never recognized his hand there for some reason.

    I've always felt bland about Elmore which seems unfair given his ovious talent. I guess its part and parcel of the Basic Set Moldvay/Mentzer divide.

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  13. The best art at TSR was done by Elmore, Parkinson, and Easley. Check out "The Art of Dragonlance".

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  14. I have strong nostalgia for Mr. Elmore's work. I think a hallmark for a large swath of RPG related artwork has been cheap uniformity ... past, present and probably future. You look at the time line some of these guys work under and the volume they are expected to pump out ... combined with purportedly low pay. I've always heard TSR, the Wizards and then WOTC has never really paid its talent very well ... again don't go postal on me if there is a forum post somewhere that contradicts that ... just what I've heard. I agree 100% that some of the most memorable "silver age" D&D artwork are Elmore pieces, especially many of the landscape type work he did that graced covers, etc. particularly some of the Dragonlance related pieces (agree with the previous post on that).

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  15. I liked his outdoor pictures that captured the autumn colors and low wooded hills of Kentucky (where he works and lives). I believe the ones that come to mind in terms of paintings are Dragon covers.

    I wasn't thrilled with bikini chainmail+perms. But, a friend visited his workshop once to act as models with their local SCA. So it does have a posed look for a reason and apparently his wife turns up in dozens of his paintings.

    His pen & ink never did it for me. It was a little stiff for my taste. While Snarf Quest seems to break this general rule about his style.

    And yeah, the Star Frontiers covers were very sweet. And gave the game more life then the setting and rule book actually implied.

    On a side note does anyone know who did the cover art for the edition or book of Gamma World that had the Death Machine rampaging in the background with a human and mutant foreground. The humaniods are wielding stone axe and a strange future weapon while dressed in furs and odds-ends. That captured a bit of the Gamma World experience for me. I remember our group giggling over some Dragon article called Sticks and Stones and Death Machines. Which was a guide on random encounters in the Gamma World. Basically, how not to kill everyone without trying.

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  16. As much as I liked Elmore's art as a kid, nowadays I find his color art almost offensive to the eyes.
    Elmore's art in GW2 is however well above average.
    As stated here on Grognardia a few days ago Elmore - and Easley - are at their best in B/W art.
    PS: Gamma World 2nd edition is the best! ;P

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  17. I tend to like everything about Elmore but the faces. That's what makes it seem "posed". If the woman standing next to her dragon looked like she was actually looking out into unseen vistas, she would look like she had something else to do than be a pinup for adolescents to drool over.

    Elmore's people always look like they're having their picture taken, not like they're having their portrait drawn.

    The chainmail bikini pinup thing actually wasn't as bad with him as other artists, though admittedly he never should have started doing it.

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  18. The era of Elmore, Parkinson and Easley may have been the Silver Age of RPG but it was certainly the Golden Age of D&D art. I never felt ANY kind of attachment to the older guys, exception made of Holloway and sometimes Moldway. I understand that the older art was closer to a certain pulp look that informed much of early D&D, but it was generally not very proficient technically.

    Really, for me, the most iconic art EVER for D&D (any edition) was Elmore's cover for the Basic Set, with the Expert set coming very close.

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  19. The more I read your blog lately the more I realize that I am a seriously Silver Age guy. Elmore is a favorite and always will be. While there is a certain uniform look to much of his art, it's 'distinctly uniform'. That is, you always know an Elmore piece when you're looking at one.

    Having met him on several occaisions at cons and such, I also just really like the man. He's real, honest and not egotistical at all. Its a pleasure to talk to him and I hope I get the chance to do so again.

    As a comic book fan and a Sci-Fi guy, the art of the early additions of D&D did little for me. It all seemed so unprofessional compared to other works I'd seen. Elmore, Parkinson and Caldwell made you feel that you were looking at pro artists.

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  21. I too appreciate Elmore/Easley/Parkinson/Caldwell's (Points to Barking Alien for not leaving Caldwell out!), efforts during their tenure as the artists of D&D and here's why.

    When I think back to being a kid and looking at and loving those pieces, what I was struck by was how alike they were. Their styles complemented each other to the point that even though they were different artists, they brought a similar look and vision to the game, such that my young self couldn't really tell them apart. While now, older and wiser, it's easier for me to see the differences, and even form distinct opinions about each artist, the effect is still there. I have to admire how these four guys were able to pull that off.

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  22. Elmore is my favorite artist. It seems to me that people tend to criticize him just to get "cred" among the grognards. Sure, his work is not perfect (what is?), but alot of the criticism seems unfair.

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  23. I really think the cartoonish, over the top artwork in the MF book promotes the sillyness, so I think you are spot on with this comment.

    My one complaint about MF is the artwork, some of which I think sets the wrong tone for the game, but art's a very subjective thing, so one man's "cartoonish" is another man's "whimsical."

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  24. And for me that flavor is all tied up with the Trampier illustrations from the 1e rules. Okay, I selectively ignore the flying hippo mutant... but, the bear on the title page, the hoops, the yexil, and hisser are all classic to me. And then there is the color cover from the box... its the perfect embodiment of GW!

    I don't think I've ever seen a Tramp piece I don't like -- the man was a genius. I like his artwork in GW 1e too; I certainly didn't mean to denigrate it. My point was simply that Elmore's style of art is better suited to SF than to fantasy in my opinion and it was GW 2e that set me to thinking about that.

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  25. I guess its part and parcel of the Basic Set Moldvay/Mentzer divide.

    I think you're on to something with this. There definitely is a divide and my experience online is that whether one began with Moldvay or Mentzer is a big (though by no means only) predictor of how one looks at D&D and fantasy more generally.

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  26. Elmore, Parkinson and Caldwell made you feel that you were looking at pro artists.

    Probably because you were :) Elmore and the others of his era of TSR artwork were all professionally trained artists, many of whom had worked in fields outside the games industry, whereas their predecessors were mostly amateurs -- talented amateurs in some cases -- so there's a clear difference in their art.

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  27. It seems to me that people tend to criticize him just to get "cred" among the grognards.

    I'm not sure why anyone would want to do this. There are enough old schoolers who do like Elmore's work unreservedly -- Gygax, for one -- that it'd hardly be necessary to "prove oneself" by criticizing Elmore.

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  28. Dang, I knew I forgot one in my above post - Caldwell!

    Thanks for reminding me.

    Truthfully, I still have a bit of trouble telling all 4 artists' work apart from that period. I guess I need to go study them some more...

    :-)

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  29. I think GW2E (the one I started with too) is an illustration (HA!) of the power that having one artist illustrate the whole book can have. If he is in tune with the material, it gives the book a unified look that is rare in most RPG's. I'll note that they kept those same illustrations for the creatures around for 3rd & 4th editions as well.

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  30. I would take your comparison between art styles as a sign that Elmore et al were under pressure from TSR to produce later edition D&D illustrations under a particular framework - maybe consistent with the marketing ideals of TSR during what you call the "Silver Age".

    I liked the Elmore art but considered it posed and contrived, and got sick of its sameness after a while. But I really liked some of the Dragonlance art, which really helped to define that book and the game for me.

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  31. Something to consider with regard to the Moldvay/Mentzer divide is that Mentzer was the first edition to be widely translated to languages besides English (and published in countries outside the English speaking world). In this part of the world D&D is widely associated with Elmore's Red Box, while even among gamers, few have even seen a copy of Moldvay or Holmes.

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  32. Something to consider with regard to the Moldvay/Mentzer divide is that Mentzer was the first edition to be widely translated to languages besides English (and published in countries outside the English speaking world).

    Yes, Jim Raggi has noted that on several occasions. It's an interesting bit of data to consider.

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  33. While Elmore was probably the first artist I really took notice of when I got into D&D back in 82', it's Jim Holloway's art that has always stood leaps and bounds over the rest of TSR's brood for me personally. His sense of humor (which was always an integrital part of any gaming session I played in back in the day) not to mention his particular ability to capture a moment and give, at least what I consider, the definitive look of what D&D was in my mind's eye over any of the other artists was always what made him stand out above the others for me. Nevermind the fact that his art was utilized not only for TSR's D&D game but felt equally at home in Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Oriental Adventures, the western themed game, Boothill, Gangbusters and other non-TSR genre RPG's such as Battle Tech and Paranoia. He could do it all.

    When I first got turned on to Gamma World, I tried to wrap my head around what the game "visually" looked like, especially since I had known no other RPG up to that point besides D&D. Then I saw his cover to the GW module, "Famine in Far-Go." Between his take on what a couple variations of what "mutants" might look like with the tall blue mutant holding the ray gun and the small green mutant, complete with Nike tennis shoes, trashcan lid shield and spiked baseball bat along with their human counterpart with camouflage pants and stop sign shield, I instantly fell in love with the game based on his visuals alone and made wanting to learn the dynamics of the game even that much more important to me. To this day, Gamma World is still one of my all-time favorite RPG's and I contribute a lot of that due to Jim's visuals and the flavor and tone they set for the game.

    And he did it without the aid of an art education like the other "biggies" at TSR in their heyday. The man did it on natural talent alone without ever having art lesson one. If I'm not mistaken, his dad painted a little bit and he used to watch him, but aside from that, he was self taught.

    An impressive feat considering how prolific he was and still is to this day.

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