This month Dragon magazine reaches two milestones: its 400th issue and its 35th anniversary. To celebrate, they’re looking back on the magazine’s storied history and the WOTC website has created an online gallery featuring the cover art of Dragon’s first 100 issues. The covers of Dragon are a great source of gaming inspiration, and feature some of the best talent in fantasy illustration. The art was so good that TSR often reused it in its other products (which drew its share of criticism but never bothered me – it made me feel like an ‘insider’ when I recognized a painting from Dragon). For me the covers also signify something in addition to great art. My interest in Dragon magazine grew as I made the transition from player to dungeon master, developing into a very long subscription and culminating in what some would call an obsession (well, anyone who’s seen the boxes of magazines on my book shelves).
There are some excellent covers in those first 100 issues (seriously, check them out now), including Denis Beauvais’ incredible series of chess themed paintings (probably my all-time favourites), but I missed out on most of them. The very first issue of Dragon that I owned was number 87, indefinitely borrowed from my school library (don’t tell Baythorn Public School). Sure, later I acquired many pre-100 issues, but it wasn’t quite the same. I read the back issues with the eyes of a collector. When my monthly copy of Dragon came in the mail though, I absolutely devoured every page. And when I wasn’t reading, those covers stared up at me from my pile of gaming books spread across my mom’s kitchen table.
So I’m joining the celebration and over the next couple of weeks I’ll showcase some of the magazine’s stand-out covers – post issue 100. These are images that for one reason or another have stuck with me over the years, and flipping through my collection today they still have an emotional impact. It was nice to have the excuse to get reacquainted with some old friends (as usual, click on the pictures to see them full size).
Issue 116 featured an amazing scratch-built model of a red dragon by Peter Botsis. I really love the combination of miniature painting and smoke effects – the three-dimensionality somehow makes it seem more real to me than a traditional painting. It took me a decade and a half of waiting, but in University I was finally able to combine dry ice and miniatures for my own tabletop game (thanks to a friend who works at a lab) – although instead of dragon smoke it simulated the fetid miasma of the Hive for a Planescape campaign.
The cover of issue 115, the Antagonists by Denis Beauvais (of the chess covers) is truly a classic. Many of his covers featured the struggle between good and evil, but what I love about this painting is how the composition engages the viewer by putting them on the side of light, confronting the demonic forces of darkness face to face (almost daring you to open the cover and face the dangers within). I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I ever saw bladed wolverine style armguards as well, a look that surely influenced artists like Brom and Wayne Reynolds. Oh, and it was so badass that Ral Partha immortalized it in miniature form.
A frost giant skeleton bursting out of a snow bank hardly seems subtle, but my favourite parts of the cover of issue 126 by Daniel Horne are the small details that move your eye around the page and tell a story without words. The skeleton’s missing finger, the sword lodged in its armour, the ineffectual scattering of arrows, the empty quiver, and finally, if you look very closely, you can see that the last arrow gives off a slight glow… an arrow of undead slaying perhaps? It’s also nice to see a female character dressed appropriately for adventuring.
Dragon 127 and 129 are both Keith Parkinson paintings and both were reused in more than one TSR product (the Big Stash – the one with the dwarves, I remember being included in a Forgotten Realms calendar I got for my birthday when I was a kid). Parkinson was a master of atmosphere and the paintings’ multiple appearances are a testament to that. With his painterly style and slice of life (fantasy life that is) subject matter you can’t help but be drawn into the D&D game world with these covers.
I’ve mentioned before how much I like Jeff Easley’s dragons, but the cover of Dragon 138 shows that he can do just as well depicting the undead. I really dig the earthy palette of this painting – it reminds me of a freshly churned grave (in true horror movie style with a rotting up-thrust hand of course). Dragon’s October issues had a long tradition of following a Halloween theme, and I always looked forward to them.
Fred Fields did a lot of work for TSR, but this cover for Dragon 142 stands out for two reasons. The first is purely nostalgic. This issue of Dragon marks the transition from 1e to 2e D&D. I was buying every issue in the local games store by then and it was soon after this that I got my subscription. The other reason I love this picture is that it represents a scene that every dungeon master has wanted to spring on his players, the classic ‘that hill you are sitting on is actually a dragon’ (which just beats out ‘that cave you walked into is actually a monster’s mouth’). I never managed to pull that one off, even though I set an adventure with a black dragon in a swamp shortly after this came out.
I enjoy the cover of Dragon 148 by Ned Dameron for similar sentimental reasons. This issue was awesome because it had a cardstock insert of the infamous magic item, the deck of many things. I immediately inserted it into the campaign I was running (totally disrupting it with excessive amounts of magic) and that meant keeping this issue on hand. There’s something to be said of the hard bitten everyman adventurer of old school art, but to a scrawny kid getting ready to enter high school for the first time, these were the kind of larger than life demigods that I wanted to play (I rooted for the guy with the Morningstar, since I thought he was a thief, and they were my favourite class).
It might be the sense of dread evoked by the sickly green glow reflecting off of the bugbears’ scales (actually I’m not exactly sure what they are, but I always assumed they were bugbears because of their ears and sneaky disposition), but it’s probably just the expression on the little bastard’s face in the bottom right corner that makes me love this cover for Dragon 152 by Paul Jaquays. When I was a kid, I played with a guy whose character was always running off and trying to steal all the treasure. I wanted him to get his just desserts, like the subject of this painting.
There’s not more of a reason why I like the cover of Dragon 154 by Bob Eggleton other than I think it looks like an awesome monster combination. Earthtones and undead definitely feel right together… A theme picked up by Michael Weaver for Dragon 162 (surprise, another Halloween issue). The more I stare at this painting the more I feel haunted. The hollow, rusted armour, the emotionless disembodied head, the lonely fall colouration – for some reason it all reminds me of the ravine near my mother’s house (not that its filled with the restless dead, it’s just that certain parts of the ravine had a definite character that I see in this cover).
Gerald Brom’s unique paintings captured the brutal savagery of Frank Frazetta and infused them with a dark edge that twisted everything into an alien form – a style that was absolutely perfect for the Dark Sun setting. In fact, Brom’s style is so synonymous with Dark Sun that Wayne Reynolds paid obvious tribute to his work with the covers of the 4e revamp of the game world. Brom made two Dark Sun themed covers for Dragon, issues 173 and 185. The first issue, with the belgoi, had me sold on Athas, and I bought the boxed set soon after. Brom’s work was also immortalized by Ral Partha, although they used the belgoi as a model for their gith shaman.
Larry Elmore is one of the giants of fantasy illustration, and he painted a lot of covers for Dragon magazine, but looking back through my collection I have to admit that most of them didn’t really jump out at me as exceptional (unlike his product and book covers for which his reputation is well deserved). Most of Elmore’s covers were just pretty women standing idly in front of a scenic backdrop. They were well executed technically, but they didn’t inflame my imagination. Unlike those paintings, the cover of Dragon 200 lives up to Elmore’s exceptional Dragonlance work… plus it had a hologram (in the eighties if you wanted to jazz something up you made it glow-in-the-dark, in the nineties it was holograms).
In the next instalment I’ll look at Dragon’s covers post 200.