Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Legends of RPG Art: Russ Nicholson

Chances are if you played a UK variant of a roleplaying game in the 1980s you would have come across the work of Russ Nicholson. Nicholson's distinctive line art graced the pages of the Fighting Fantasy game books, White Dwarf, and its contribution to the world of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, the infamous Fiend Folio, among other publications. It's in the Folio that his work shows the greatest range and alongside occasional contributions by Erol Otus and some notable UK contemporaries, Nicholson's linear, pointillistic style is the most prominent. Like Otus his concept for a monster, the Folio's Githyanki (originally for WD) survives and remains the definitive visualisation, imitated by successive artists to be one of the few success stories from the book.

Unlike some others of his time Nicholson's approach brought with it the artist's intimate knowledge of historical war gear, which isn't to say his pictures were faithful to history, rather that they were used sympathetically - armour was often rendered a mismatch combination rather than a full-suit (or worse, the deaded chainmail bikini and its variants). He seems to have eschewed the likes of plate mail for the more visually intricate and interesting ring, chain or scale mail. For small work Nicholson's work is sufficiently detailed that you can get lost in them easily, and it remains the main reason I still admire his style, indeed, he's the first fantasy artist I tried to mimic as a teenager. His approach is rarely static in a form (usually bookplate illustrations or monster portraits) that doesn't always invite dynamic poses or movement - but there's movement of line and of shading evident in his work, and a great sense of weight in his characters - he renders flowing robes beautifully, tongues of smoke curl from his dragons' snouts, the rotted clothing of a zombie barely held together, seemingly shredded with decay. His figures are for the most part contrived to be thin or drawn, his goblins especially having pointed features and long noses and limbs, but Nicholson's work isn't strictly speaking all grotesques, as this rendering of a Houri for WD shows, exotic but unfussy, betraying his confessed admiration for the works of Aubrey Beardsley. Of all his work it remains one of my favourites, a great composition with clever use of line weight.

While Beardsley's fantasy work took in the creations of Poe and Wilde and classical mythology Nicholson's artwork features heavily in the 1980s RPG revivial of that literature, including a stint illustration Puffin Books' two licensed Robin of Sherwood game books. Coming from his later work it's a little less interesting and a little more realistic - I definitely prefer his early Eighties work, particularly that of his Fighting Fantasy contributions, and namely The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and The Citadel of Chaos. In fact thinking of those books and their hared worl of Allansia, it's Nicholson's artwork that draws it all together for me as the definitive version, an alluring combination of the high, exotic fantasy of, say, the Arabian Nights, and the grimier low fantasy of Lieber and the shabbier corners of Middle Earth. And speaking of which, what could only be a Balrog, the only Tolkien-derived image I could find from the artist, and in colour too.

Edited to add: My sincere thanks to Russ for his comments and clarification below. The above isn't one of his works after all, alas. Thanks for visiting, sir!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Video Affects - Billy Idol: Hot In The City, 1982

In 1981 William 'Billy Idol' Broad of defunct latterday UK punk act Generation X crossed the Atlantic to carve out a new career as a solo artist. He took with him a version of the band's earlier song Dancing With Myself and an image carefully combining the sneer of Presley, the patois of Iggy, the hair of Sid Vicious and the bleach of Sting. The music was as carefully pruned - Dancing, with its 4/4 beat and "whoah-oh" rejoinders could have been a longer, more commercially-lucrative Ramones track, the guitar work of Steve Stevens was an essential element in hardening an instrumental approach that owed as much to synthesisers, and yet with Hot In The City there's a look back in its pretence of earlier rhythmic trappings, and the inclusion of female backing singers (not an obvious punk ingredient) adds to this. The song's beat isn't dissimilar to Springsteen's Hungry Heart, two years older and also checking the rear vision mirror with its influences. Where Hot differs is the then ultra modern 80s punk look of its singer and the video tailored for the song.

This is the earlier version of two - the second, with a mock crucifixion (Idol being as willing to adopt the cross and rosary that the likes of Prince and Madonna would make emblematic) fell foul of MTV and was censored, but no matter - it's this version that made the impact on me. A girl walks into a record store, sees Idol's single sleeve which (with the aid of a not that convincing vis-mix) morphs into the man himself, and the song begins, Idol's face burned and overexposed with some rudimentary post-production, and some appropriate explosive images key in the background to denote - y'know, hotness and all that. If you've seen the video and on the evidence of my previous post you can probably guess the rest - some of said images are of atom bomb tests with the required infernal mushroom clouds, disintegrating model towns and burning living trees. Striking stuff; arresting images, and though I’d have had to recognise them for what they were I'm convinced that this is the first time I saw those now-ubiquitous film sequences. They freaked the hell out of me given that I was twelve and starting to notice the wider world around me.

The images after twenty years plus perhaps another thirty to forty don't carry the weight they must have back in their day or mine. The regularity with which they've been used counts towards that, as well as their replacement by other, more recent images - I can probably name videos which have include Kennedy's assassination and the destruction of the World Trade Center, for example, but those examples as much as this have affected me in the idle (sorry) way that documented historical footage and images can be adopted in the name of popular entertainment - in the case of Hot the images are in the background, 'filler' rather than focus, simply there to neatly underline a suggestive lyric. But it never left me that on seeing them at the time and some time afterwards their appropriation seemed somehow wrong - this was weapons testing, a show of strength and power and utter annihilation backing a song about feeling a bit 'restless'? Very punk and confrontational, I suppose, though not quite swastika armbands on Bill Grundy's Today show. But then even to twelve year old me Billy Idol wasn't punk, he was pop, and the visual collision of those two worlds shook me and scared me.

Mind you, for what it was worth, Idol's first couple of albums aren't bad, but that third one was a stinker.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Little Black Book of Atomic War

I am fourteen and my brother has just bought a new book which we'll both read - he because he bought it of course and me because I am his little brother and still not quite out of copy-cat mode. Plus it has a bewitching cover, all black save for white blade-serifed text and some orange line art. It is The Little Black Book of Atomic War, and even if the cover hadn't been so fetchingly set out I'd have probably sought the book out as soon as I'd heard of it on the strength of the title alone.

I am fourteen and it is 1984, which means that I am a child of the Eighties. Here follows a brief digression:

There's a lot of stuff about these days concerning being a Child Of The Eighties, much of it rather silly and pointless about the silly and pointless - shoulder pads, leg warmers, After School with Olly Ohlsen, Ghostbusters… I'll stop now, my point being that for the most part this sort of nostalgia plays into the reader's warm and fuzzies, or at worst the harmless cringes of looking back - they make great 'blog' topics for newspaper websites because all you need to do is blurt out a few key phrases Mork and Mindy Back to the Future Duran Duran and your target audience will torpedo themselves out of the woodwork for an extended round of "me too!", adding extra do-you-remembers like a Greek chorus with the predicted effect of making said decade look cheesy and ridiculous and hopelessly naïve. We used to do this sort of thing with the Seventies too, and the decades before that, and although it's only ever for entertainment purposes and easy copy for a salaried blogger, I fear the chance of this form of pop culture reflux overwhelming the 'other' side of the Eighties. There were a lot of really scary, bad and depressing things that happened over the course of those ten years, but for fourteen year old me, the scariest was the imminent threat of Nuclear Armageddon. It is 1984 and the Doomsday Clock has been adjusted to three minutes to midnight, the closest setting then (and since) to 1952's two minutes.

Ironically (I think) for the pooh-poohing I make of pop culture burps described above, it’s from that arena that the barometer of the times can be read. The early 80s saw the launch of the Mad Max and Terminator movies, plus Wargames ( and Red Dawn (never saw it, sounded cool). My comic of choice, 2000AD used Nuclear War as the starting point for two of its most celebrated series (Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog) and the theme ran in other stories as well (Meltdown Man, Rogue Trooper, ABC Warriors). TV mini series were made and celebrated as grim cautionary tales (Threads, The Day After - both pointedly concerned with the aftermath of a war, another sign of the times) and as a whole the mood of these pieces, though sometimes fantastic, bore testament to the prevailing mood - at least, say, from 1981 to 1985.

Marc Barasch's Little Black Book is a curious tome, its title is dead-on, being a sarcastic look back at the hopelessly naïve concerns and enthusiasm for all things atomic in the 1940s and 1950s as equally new wonder product and energy source (Atomic steam shovels! Atomic airplanes!) and device of war ("In Baltimore people will be expected to evacuate the city in sequence according to their zip codes"), and the bleaker realities apparent in 1983. It's a piecemeal, lightweight read - I would dip into it and put it away gingerly when I'd read enough, but its total effect was pessimistic, humour of the blackest kind, as its tagline promised "the last word - and the last laugh - on the war to end them all". Inside are tidbits ranging from the birth of the bomb, eyewitness accounts of the Trinity tests and Hiroshima detonation, infamous near-misses in diplomacy and sabre-rattling, the best 'bland reassurances' of modern nuclear history, and, for 1983 at least, some sobering statistics. Big brother and I got a lot out of it as far as the pencilled-in underlines and asterisks tell - I think he used it in school debating, and I got a pretty decent mark in Biology essentially cribbing a comparison chart between cockroaches and humans in the post-war survival stakes. Re-reading it now the staistics are out, the anecdotes uncited and in general the coverage itself is a piece of history as much as its archived novelty content - quotes on communal survival strategies attributed to FEMA, for example, take on an interesting aspect post-Hurricane Katrina.

I'm glad we still have the book, but in all I don't respect it as much as I did, or fear it. And I'm grateful that to some degree the paranoia of the later Cold War has subsided, even if it's been replaced by something a little more local, a little more global. I was interested to read on Wikipedia that the Doomsday Clock hasn't measured risk according to nuclear conflict for some time, and global terrorism and environmental collapse are among the new parameters. A sign of the times then, just perhaps not that much more comforting.