Art of the Genre: Bill Willingham Loved the Ladies, Even if TSR Wouldn’t Always Let Him Show Them…

Art of the Genre: Bill Willingham Loved the Ladies, Even if TSR Wouldn’t Always Let Him Show Them…

Check out the lady below Elric in this Willingham done for White Plume Mountain.  Bet you didn't realize it was cropped, did you?
Check out the lady below Elric in this Willingham done for White Plume Mountain. Bet you didn’t realize it was cropped, did you?

Former TSR Artist and now comic writer sensation [Fables] Bill Willingham wanted to be Frank Frazetta, or so I surmise. I’ve always been a fan of his work, dating back to those early days in the RPG field when he was a member of ‘The First Four’ at TSR.

Along with Jim Roslof, Jeff Dee, and Erol Otus, Bill managed to produce some absolutely lovely interior illustrations and acrylic covers for the first sets of D&D modules, once the business took off and TSR could afford color. His tenure there, which ended with a blow up concerning the termination of artists that removed both he and Dee from the company, ended up being the best thing for him as he went on to relative fame and fortune in comics, a place that his talent certainly spawned from.

I sat with Bill at a seaside café back on 2009 when ComicCon was still a monster, but not the headache it is today and we discussed his work in the field. Nothing too in-depth, and sadly he was unable to add his art to my Art Evolution project because it had been too many years since he’d done that kind of work. Still, he looked over all the other artists who had donated work and was most pleasantly surprised to see his old friend Jeff Dee in there. Obviously Dee was ‘the kid’ during his time in the burgeoning TSR ‘pit’, and at 19 there was no doubt that was the case, but Bill seemed to have a twinkle in his eye for Dee’s version of Lyssa in the project, and I was at least happy to somehow connect the two again, if even for a just a nostalgic moment.

Nonetheless, I didn’t have time to go into great detail concerning his work at TSR or the landscape that those days held. Later that year his email account was hacked and he ended up leaving the online world once his entire contact list of comic publishing emails were made public by a nasty little bot. That would be the final time I talked with him, but certainly not the last time I thought about his work, or how much he seemed tied into the Swords & Sorcery sexual pandering side of it. There is no doubt that a younger Willingham loved the female form as much as any male artist with the skills to depict the opposite sex in an appealing way. His covers have more ‘skin’ than any others, and his females all seem to take a page from either Red Sonja or some vague pre-cursor to Japanese Hentai.

A classic from D&D Basic, and boy does it make me want to roll some dice.
A classic from D&D Basic, and boy does it make me want to roll some dice.

Perhaps that sexual bent was why I loved his work so much in my early years, or perhaps it was that he seemed to draw on the comic styles of the Avengers or Alpha Flight that I was reading, ala the Byrne years. Whatever the case, Bill did some groundbreaking things for the genre in those early days, and I still can’t help but smile when I see his work in whatever reference material I’m using on any given day making modules here at Art of the Genre. I truly wish I had an original of his, but those times seem to have slipped away, so I guess I’ll just have to enjoy my tattered image gallery and think about ‘what could have been’ which really makes itself known in the opening image of this article. Had there not been a deadline, perhaps his Elric inspired image on the back of White Plume Mountain might have had another sultry female I could have pined over when I was fourteen.

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Theodric the Obscure

Yay! Willingham was my favorite back in the day, but I always felt like other artists got all the attention.

Nick Ozment

Funny: I am quite familiar with Willingham’s work from both “eras” of his career: I grew up with his iconic illustrations gracing all those great TSR products, and I know his work on the hot Vertigo series Fables and others — but until I read this post, I never put the two together and realized that it’s the same person. Sheesh.

Btw, a testament to how iconically essential his illustrations are to the old-school feel of original D&D, the company Dungeon Crawl Classics, which ostensibly came into existence to create the sort of classic old-school adventure modules that WotC was no longer doing, intentionally used (and uses) art on their modules that deliberately imitates Willingham’s.


A few years ago I met Bill at a comic convention in Charlotte, NC, and had him sign a bunch of the old adventures with his art. He laughed and said it was a long time since he’d seen some of those pieces, and thanked me for bringing them in.

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