Sunday, December 21, 2008

Merry Christmas to me: John Howe's Myth and Magic art book a nice find

Christmas is all about giving, but while shopping for a present for my kids in Borders the other day I was overcome by a selfish urge and made a purchase for myself. Sitting on a bargain book table and priced at a very affordable $7.99 was Myth & Magic: The Art of John Howe. This sweet baby retails for about $39.95 (though it was not made in Grand Rapids, Michigan), and includes some 250 illustrations by Howe, a bona-fide fantasy art kung-fu master.

Normally I'm not an art book collector for two reasons:

1. It's expensive. Were I loaded I'd start my own fantasy art gallery, but that's never going to happen.
2. I prefer text over photos and would rather let my own imagination do the work.

Well, the $7.99 bargain-bin price tag overcame barrier # 1, and Howe is a rare exception to rule #2. His work, and in particular his illustrations of Tolkien's books, are bar none among the best fantasy artwork you can find. I find Howe inspirational, his images capable of conjuring stories in the mind. His artwork actually enriches my favorite scenes and passages from the books as they cause me to rethink my own mental images. For example, I hadn't thought of Tolkien's dwarves in The Hobbit as very warlike or grim until I considered this shot of Roac delivering news to Thorin atop Lonely Mountain (look at Thorin's knotted pipes!):

Howe has illustrated the works of such diverse fantasy authors as David Gemmell, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Robin Hobb, and, as did the immortal Frank Frazetta with the Lancer Conan paperback series of the 1960s, has undoubtedly boosted their sales. Myth and Magic has a chapter entitled "Works of Art: Fantasy and SF Book Covers," which includes some pieces that have graced these authors' covers, as well as critical appraisal by the authors themselves. Universally, they state that Howe's art nails exactly--if not surpasses--the images they had in mind while writing. "John Howe's images of the characters and settings from my book do not match up with my mental images at all. They are far better," Hobb writes. "His art has the jagged edges of another reality, one that snags the viewer's attention with detail and colour."

I've included a few pieces of Howe's work from this book as a demonstration of the man's staggering talent. I note that Peter Jackson drew heavily from Howe's images when having the sets of The Lord of the Rings built, which are often near-exact replicas of Howe's fertile imagination. For example, Bilbo's hole at Bag End looks awfully familar...


...as does this image of Mount Doom, straight out of Jackson's ROTK:


I love this shot of Gandalf in particular. Look at the purposeful look on his face, his long, league-eating stride. He looks as though he were caught on some important errand, perhaps en route to research Bilbo's mysterious ring in the library at Gondor:

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