Saturday, May 7, 2011

Underground comix approach to OSR art

Once again I'm going to riff on something Stefan Poag has written on his blog, because it's about art and I like art as a topic. Stefan posed this question at the end of his post here:
I don't know if I think the OSR is going to diverge from 'mainstream' RPGs like the current edition of D&D and become a kind of 'alternative' aesthetic counterpoint like the weird and perverse underground comics once provided for the more wholesome mainstream comics from Marvel, Dell, Gold Key and DC. But I think that would be a viable alternative vision of what these publications can be for individual members of the OSR to pursue if they choose.
I think we have already diverged. So far, with the exception of Zak/Raggi, that divergence isn't particularly deliberate or forward-looking. That doesn't make it bad, it's just that a lot of it has been driven by some other factors. These: (1) we generally started on lulu, even though we may generally be starting a move to RPGNow, and lulu's price on interior color pages is very high. To keep prices affordable, we've de facto gone with b/w interior art. (2) We generally have been looking to aesthetics defined by Trampier or Otus back in the day. By definition, we're a retro community, and that has been reflected in the art. (3) With small expected sales, investing in color art for internal pages would never recoup the cost.

In a sense, that harks back to an interesting effect. The art style and subject matter coming from Trampier and Otus is actually very close to underground comix. It's not on the weirder side of it, but it's not exactly mainstream. Which means that by being retro we have actually moved into an artistic forefront ... what's old is new again, and we are the new black. Again.

Will the OSR become a platform for a more avant-garde underground comix type of aesthetic beyond the extent where we're already there? That's an interesting question, but I really think it's worth noting that:
1) We already have a different underlying type of fiction that we're adapted to. Our talking heads are pretty sword-and-sorcery oriented rather than high-fantasy oriented. I don't know if we shouted down the high-fantasy guys with internet punditry, or if this represents a real trend in the OSR.
2) My guess is that even the high-fantasy guys in our community see head-shop hobbits in the mind's eye rather than the slim and trim ninja halflings. Take a look at some of the 1970 art having to do with Tolkien, and remember how people interpreted the hobbits' love of pipeweed and mushrooms. Tom Bombadil's hippie love. Go ask Alice about Tolkien when she's ten feet tall.

When you've got a different underlying story, you get a different underlying aesthetic. So we might not be at the "movement" type of point where Stefan sees the potential for us to go, I just want to point out that we're already more than half way to what he's describing.

I'd not be interested in seeing our art get into some of the realms explored by the underground comix, but in terms of the style, technique, and basic subject matter, we've already become almost avant gard, almost by accident.


  1. ...we've already become almost avant gard, almost by accident...

    I think that's the best way of being "avant garde," isn't it? When you just do what you do instead of doing it to try to get attention? "Ars gratia artis" instead of "épater le bourgeois"? My own recent promise to myself is to try to push the envelope a little more... and make my work more reflective of me and my interests and less like a sort of "downmarket fantasy art circa 1980 with too much swipe from TSR era Erol Otus."

  2. Matt, I think there are quite a few artists out there that are developing their own stle that does parallel the underground comix work. Stefan, Peter, ATOM, Glad, yourself - all those guys have a distinctive style that is quite different from what the bigger publishers are putting out. I'm enjoying watching the styles develop and diverge. It'd be awesome to have a "fantasy jam" were the artists went crazy and developed a wild image and some of the writer types created an adventure based around those images.

  3. Looking back at the pre-1982 D&D artwork, you see a wide range of styles... foglio, wham, willingham, darlene, otus, tramp, dee, roslof, mclean, sutherland, nicholson, lockwood, jaquays, holloway and so on.

    I like that there was no coherent art direction applied to those early D&D products. The introduction of art direction, and professional artists, in 1982, was a step backwards.

  4. @Johnathan: The next issue of Fight On (#12) should have at least one article where an artist produced work first and then a writer built an adventure around it. There could be more coming out of this thread here.

    The article I know about is based off of Vito's towers.

  5. Underground comics publishers (frequently the artists themselves or collectives thereof)had no choice but to print in b&w for the same economic reasons as OSR-type publishers and the start-up TSR back in the '70s. Sometimes arbitrary limitations nudge creative culture along in new and weird directions. Underground cartoonists had to contend with the howling white emptiness on the page that Marvel could fill with color and did so by inventing or reinventing a wild variety of b&w styles. Another factor is that DIY publishing allows artists whose work is unconventional to become visible (and sometimes popular) without professional art directors to get in the way!

  6. I could have done the cover art for my book in full colour if I'd wanted to, and it wouldn't have taken much more time and effort. I really like the aesthetic of high contrast B&W artwork, and I think it helps the book stand out.

    I have no doubt that many OSR publishers could do their artwork in full colour if they wanted to, but I think many (like me) use B&W not out of necessity, but out of choice. :)

  7. Stuart, your book jumps out not so much because it is B&W, but because it is simple and easier to "read" (you can tell what it is) from that list of small covers. With most of the other covers, there is just too much clutter. It's as if people think more = better, so they try to cram as much as possible into the cover (a mistake I think).

    I'm not a fan of B&W covers (I think color covers is the way to go), and I'm not a fan of color interiors (B&W interiors are the way to go, because it doesn't clash with the text, which should also be B&W).

    I think this is an important point that a lot of people in the OSR miss. If places like RPGNow are your main avenue, you need a cover that reproduces well at a tiny size.

  8. After I read this post, but before I went to read Stefan's original post over at aldeboran, I was wondering "Why is Matt focusing only on art in OSR products?" The one paragraph you quoted at the top doesn't even mention art, and indeed can be read as a much broader comment on the outsider/underground nature of what we in the OSR are doing. "Weird and perverse?" So true in many ways! :-)

    But yes, Stefan was talking primarily about art -- which BTW for me is way, way, way down on the list of things I look for, or care about, in new work coming out of the OSR.

  9. I'm an underground comix artist from the 70s and animator and I've put my comix and animation together as a 'light show' for a band in a live show called Rock & Roll Rehab. If any underground comix fans would like to check out the show for FREE just come to the Hayworth Theater, 2511 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles on Saturday, Feb. 4 or 11 at 8:00 and tell the doorman 'Neal' sent you.

    Neal Warner