Over on my own Art of the Genre site, I talk a lot about Dragon Magazine. And why not, there are tons of them, and most are filled with great artwork. Typically, I review at least one Dragon a week, and after doing this for a couple of years I felt it was high time I composed one of my infamous ‘Top 10’ lists here on Black Gate, this time around ‘The Top 10 Dragon Magazine Covers of the 1970s & 80s!’
First off, apologies to the 1990s and 2000s, but you all didn’t make the cut for this list and I’ll have to address those two decades in a later post.
Now, for me, finding 10 ‘top’ covers is a hard list to make, primarily because so many Dragon magazine paintings have strong feeling of nostalgia attached to them. The greatest of these, of course, would be the very first Dragon magazine I ever saw, #88, with cover by Jim Holloway. That, in my book, is #1, but I’ll do my best to take a step back, evaluate with a more critical eye, and see what that list actually shakes out as.
And remember, I’ve been blogging Art of the Genre for five years, am approaching a quarter of a million unique page views, all for free, so please don’t troll my list, I think I’ve earned the right to post it, but feel free to share memories or your own favorites!
So, without holding you hostage any further, I present my list of the Top 10 Dragon Magazine Covers from the 1970s & 80s!
I include this cover because it isn’t a painting, but instead a cut paper sculpture, and I love that about it, but really, the truth of the piece is best described by Dragon Editor-in-Chief Kim Mohan.
It’s fitting that an issue filled with things we’ve never done before should start off with a cover that’s unlike any of the ninety-nine that preceded it. The artwork is actually a paper sculpture created by TSR’s Dennis Kauth, who built up shapes and surfaces from a flat background to produce this scene of a faerie dragon serenely gliding along the edge of a stream, while the sword and the small pile of coins suggest that some other creature had come this way before. The sculpture was turned into a photograph after being illuminated to bring out the three dimensional aspects of the piece, and for an extra touch we tossed in some color on the dragon and the Dragon and had the colored part of the cover embossed. Why purple? Because a purple faerie dragon is the oldest and most powerful of its kind. And the faerie dragon itself is symbolic of DRAGON Magazine’s contributions to the AD&D game; the description of the creature, originally written by Brian Jaeger, appeared in issue #62 and was later picked up for inclusion in Monster Manual II.
I’m going to be honest with you, the first four years of ‘The Dragon’ as it was called is a tragedy of art. I mean, all but 2 of these covers could splash across the cover of the 50 Shades of Vorpal Kickstarter and you wouldn’t blink an eye.
Still, Issue #2 has some Barry Windsor Smith promise in it, so I had to get it in here someplace. Done by artist Tom Canty, who I’d have loved to see more of, this reflective warrior illustration holds both mystery and promise, and if you needed to pick an image from the beginning, this would probably be it.
Perhaps the most controversial cover ever used on Dragon Magazine, art director Roger Raupp had to go to great lengths to get this witch properly covered, and Editor Kim Mohan certainly took a good deal of blowback from it.
Still, it is gorgeous, with the divine feminine raising itself up to the full moon in all its Wiccan glory. Artist David Martin only got two covers for Dragon, this one being his final, probably because Raupp didn’t want to deal with any more spankings from Mohan, but whatever the case, #114 still sticks out in most gamers’ minds as a triumphant divergence from the pure D&D fare most covers received.
I’m sure more digital ink has been used concerning artist Den Beauvais’s ‘Chess’ series than any other artist’s work on Dragon. These covers were so popular, so beloved, and so different that fans still get all squirrely when talking about them.
I, for one, loved them all, and for my first cover commission as the Art Director at Gygax Magazine I had to get Den to do another in the series because what geeky art guy with power wouldn’t? In all, there were four in the series [now 5 with Gygax], and of them this is my favorite.
Ah Valshea, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. In my youth, it took very little to make me fall in love (lust?) with various D&D inspired heroines, but of them, Valshea holds a special place in my heart. She is stunning, and artist Keith Parkinson made the most of his very first Dragon cover by insuring it was one that would never be forgotten.
From the fairy dragon to the distant snowcapped mountains, Valshea is about forbidden adventures in the wilds of any truly rich fantasy world. It is a masterpiece, plain and simple.
Artist Clyde Caldwell did an amazing amount of work for Dragon magazine over the years, and as per his want, the bulk contained his hip-exposed women. This cover is no different, and yet his lovely lady is overshadowed by something he did better than most realize, the ugly.
Caldwell’s unwashed legions, while still somehow beautiful in their own fashion, help balance the piece beyond a tribute to cheesecake. Clyde manages to inspire with movement, with threat, and with dark magic that helps propel this piece into the list alongside so many of his fellow D&D greats.
What list of any type of D&D artwork would be complete without at least one Elmore? Well, frankly, it would have to be a long tail niche to be sure. But as this is more far-reaching, Larry Elmore shows up with perfect form. ‘Avalyne the Life Giver’ is certainly one of Larry’s best, and there isn’t anyone who discusses it that doesn’t have an opinion of what story is unfolding before our very eyes.
The over the shoulder turn by the giant’s gaze is certainly one of the greatest promises Larry ever gave us in his art, as is the hint of a smile on the monster’s face.
5: Dragon #34 [by Ken Rahman]
I’ve little knowledge of artist Ken Rahman that I can share, however, that doesn’t detract from the fact that for this cover, he’s found a wonderful time capsule into the evolution of the Dragon as a professional magazine.
His work blends an almost Tolkien feel of the late 1960s, and certainly reflects the publishing tone of epic fantasy during that time. I’m more inclined to imagine this piece on a yellow-spine DAW dime store book than Dragon, but nonetheless I’m captivated. Perhaps it is this divergence that included it in this list, but whatever the case, I’m happy it made it.
Humor wasn’t a completely foreign concept to Dragon, and although most humorous covers do stick in folk’s minds, especially those of artists like Jack Crane and Daniel Horne, I can’t help but feel that this particular cover is the most inspired vision of D&D relaxation.
Artist Linda Medley has outdone herself with this tavern gem, and I’ve spent many an hour looking over all that is happening within the frame, from the Wizard/Reaper’s payment to the discarded plate leggings of the Halfling. And, Medley goes so far as to break taboo and have a goblin drinking in the tavern well before goblins were ‘cool’.
Seriously, it’s like finding a 747 a hundred years before the Wright Brothers flew, or seeing a good Drow in the TSR classic module Vault of the Drow (circa 1981) seven years before Drizzt appeared in Icewind Dale.
Well, you really didn’t think I’d do a list without Phil did you?
Foglio is, or should be, a canonized patron of D&D artwork. His work has made players smile for too many years to count, and I will credit him with finally breaking the doldrums of The Dragon artwork over their initial four-year run by finally showing us a true piece of art in Issue #25.
Foglio, of course, is more well known for his comics that appeared in the back of the magazine, then Robert Asprin’s Myth series illustrations, and finally his own Girl Genius, but for this strange perspective alien piece, he made just the right impression at just the right time.
Artist Den Beauvais is the only one to make it on this list twice, and I think he probably could have done so even more, but I have to limit things somehow!
Although his Chess series is stellar, and he’s done some other incredible one-shot pieces, his cover for Dragon #92 is one of the most D&D game-evoking images that Dragon ever presented to the fans. It has a bit of everything in there from true D&D adventuring party, to dragons, and even some great swords & sorcery elements with the half-clothed maiden.
The crumbling bridge and centaur knight complete the scene with just that correct mix of terror and salvation. Truly an incredible vision on his part.
Just as the title of this incredible work of art indicates, I was ‘Saving the Best for Last’ with Daniel Horne’s cover of Issue #126.
Many folks don’t realize that although Horne used professional models for nearly all of his work, the female archer for this cover was actually his eight-month pregnant wife. She was a trooper, standing in that pose for so long, but the end payout was flawless.
Saving the Best for Last has everything a great piece of art needs. Bold competition between palettes, strength threatening from above, and the story within the image that compels everyone looking closely to ask, ‘will she make it?’ Is that arrow, yes, obviously magic, the one thing that can kill this undead giant?
I hope so, and when I sat down with Daniel, he confided that it did, and not only that, he’d done preliminary work on Saving the Best for Last Again, this time with our now familiar heroine showing the spoils of a life of adventuring. Now I’ll have to be looking for that in the future!
As always, thanks for reading AotG, and remember that we REALLY need your support with a pledge or share of my new OSR art inspired 5E module Kickstarter. Thanks you in advance, and good gaming!