A blog about games, gamers, and various and sundry geek culture-related ephemera and paraphernalia.

Friday, May 8, 2009

I Never Much Cared for Erol Otus' Work

I know, I know: this is the sort of statement that is likely to get me lynched by a torch-and-10-foot-pole-wielding mob of old school gamers, or beaten up in a dark alley by a pack of geeks armed with polyhedron-filled socks.

But it's true: I couldn't stand Erol Otus' work. From my first taste of it - the illustration on the front cover of Moldvay Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set - I disliked it. (Although I think it was the interior illustration of the party divvying up treasure that really turned me off.) It wasn't like I thought to myself: Hmmm - I don't like this. On the contrary, it was a purely subconscious reaction. On some lower level, my brain simply had a very negative reaction to Otus' highly stylized characterizations.

And I think I know now why that was. You see, to my teenaged mind, the more realistic the artist's depiction, the better. I mean, how better to bring a fantasy world to life than to make it look like life? To that end, I believed that Larry Elmore's fantasy work was the height of fantasy illustration.

Well, They say that as we grow older, so too do we grow wiser. (I don't totally agree with the veracity this axiom, but let's run with it.) Insofar as appreciating Otus' distinctive style, I'd have to say that I have indeed grown wiser. I now realize that making the fantastic look real is not, nor should it be, the fantasy artist's ultimate goal. In fact, in our day and age, I believe that it's far easier to depict the fantastic in terms of our modern, cynical perspective than it is to preserve its strangeness - much less extol its phantasmagorical elements. As I grow older still (a strange effect that seems to be neither slowing nor halting) I find myself realizing more and more just how challenging it can be to keep fantasy, well, fantastic.

But somehow, Otus did it. Through a style that - regardless how you feel about his work - was all his own, Otus showed us a world of true fantasy. Not a world of fantasy seen through a modern lens, but a world of fantasy seen on its own terms. Otus' Dungeons & Dragons illustrations, prolific as they were, depicted a fantasy world that was fantastic. As I grow older - and, hopefully, wiser - I've come to appreciate this work in ways I could never have predicted two-and-a-half decades ago. And Otus continues to do it: I'm glad to see his artwork still gracing our hobby to this day, and hope to see much more of it in days to come.

Nope, I never much cared for Erol Otus' work; but now I love it.

Oh, and so as not to exit this post without providing you with a little eye candy, here is a trio of Otus' pieces that I really love (as published by TSR in 1980's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Rogues Gallery):



. . . . .

11 comments:

  1. Back in the day Otus was my least favorite too. We used to play "Spot the goo" in Otus illustrations: there's almost always some dripping slime somewhere in his work. Like you I came around to him much later.

    ReplyDelete
  2. We share a boat. I was not interested in EO's art back in the day. In fact, I found it kinda repellent. I was young - but a lot of his art is really really creepy in very subtle and strange ways.

    I was much more a DCSIII fella, with a wordless reverence for everything Trampier did. EO's art has aged well with me though (and I still can't summarize Tramp's impact on me). Much of Mr. Otis' work has become some of my favorite D&D art.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post! I'm a big proponent that something can be great simply because it is so classic, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily great artwork on its own. We can still enjoy it, but no matter what any kind of stylized art is going to bother someone.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm of two minds with regard to Otus:

    1. I absolutely LOVE his tentacled, oozy, gloppy stuff (as best exemplified in his Cthulhu Mythos stuff in DDG).

    2. I don't like his humans and demi-humans. I prefer Sutherland and Trampier for those.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Conversely, I've loved Erol's art since that first glimpse of the Moldvay cover on a friend's Expert set on a rainy day in 6th grade. However, it's certainly not for everyone.

    "In fact, in our day and age, I believe that it's far easier to depict the fantastic in terms of our modern, cynical perspective than it is to preserve its strangeness - much less extol its phantasmagorical elements. As I grow older still (a strange effect that seems to be neither slowing nor halting) I find myself realizing more and more just how challenging it can be to keep fantasy, well, fantastic."This is absolutely, absolutely true, and I think it's the core of what I love about his work.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Welcome to the fold of EO fans. I think his art is great for just the reasons you desrcibed, but I hope you haven't lost your Elmore love in exchange. One think I like about fantasy art is how it can span from otus fever-dreams, to Elmore's "you are there" aesthetic.

    Maybe I'm weird, but my tastes in fantasy is pretty wide, and I think it helps me from being too cranky as time have changed.

    Except for one thing. I swear there was a period in D&D 3.5 days when I was utterly unable to tell one artist from the other. Everybody looked like they were copying Wayne A. Reynolds. I like WAR, but c'mon, who wants hot-fudge sundaes for every meal?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Candid post! Kudos!

    The humans/players in EO's work are so vulnerable; if they haven't already, they look like they're about to be gutted or digested any second. I think most tween boys are more attracted to the "Yee Haw!" ass-kickin' Frazetta characters.

    When I think of EO, I think of the Valerius illo from the back of "the Rogues Gallery". You should post that!

    --As I grow older still (a strange effect that seems to be neither slowing nor halting)--

    Amen, brother.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I wasn't and still ain't very fond of his color work, such as the Moldavy box Cover. Just seem so washed out and dim. To my sensibilities his style required vibrant, "phantasmagorical" colors. The DCC#35 cover is pretty cool though.

    But, I've always totally dug his BW line art. The Rogues Gallery group shot is tops. That illusionist (always thought of him that way) with his hand down the fighter's shirt, eyes casting subtle glamor "Yes, friend. Come join my little troupe of thralls"

    ReplyDelete
  9. Not only did I instantly hate his artwork 30 years ago, I continue to think it is quite ugly.

    To each his own I suppose. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Seán: Indeed - especially when it comes to art, which is all about subjectivity. Having been in your camp for so long, I can't really fault you for feeling the way you do about Otus' work. I just hope that one day you'll come over to our side. :)

    ReplyDelete