I always wished I could give a bit more attention to art (and artists) in Designers & Dragons. I even considered putting together a mini-book called Artists & Aarakocra … but then I decided that no one would be able to spell it. So instead I’ve put together this article, a first look at the artists of TSR via the conceit of examining the Dragon magazine covers of its first year (1976-1977).
The Dragon #1: Bill Hannan (June 1976)
If you look at TSR’s early covers you’ll see that Dragon magazine was on their cutting edge for color artwork. That’s probably because it was treated as a wholly separate concern from the rest of TSR, and so it could make decisions about artwork costs that might not have made sense for the games at the time. As a result, every issue of Dragon has had a color cover, starting with issue #1, whereas the rest of TSR was only using full-color covers on their major releases, at least for a few more years.
This first cover, of course shows a dragon, an iconic topic for the magazine. It was clearly a black and white line drawing that was then painted in, with the background created by some type of spray paint. The overall result is quite attractive.
Hannan’s dragon was immediately recognized as an icon of TSR. Jon Peterson notes that it showed up in multiple ads (in its original black & white form). It was also the cover for the 1980 Days of Dragon calendar. Hannan’s dragon even showed up over in Space Gamer magazine! With TSR’s permission, it was used as the header for the “Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine survey” in The Space Gamer #29 (July 1980). Apparently, they were recognizing who was now the big dog (dragon) in the industry.
Who was Bill Hannan, the artist of the first issue of The Dragon? He was none other than editor Tim Kask’s JC art teacher. And, he did much more than that cover. He was also responsible for the magazine’s doodled headers, possibly both “Dragon Rumbles” and “In the Cauldron”, which really gave The Dragon its early look.
Hannan would later return to draw the covers of #8 (July 1977) and #9 (August 1977).
The Dragon #2: Thomas Canty (August 1976)
The cover to the second issue of The Dragon features a barbarian that feels like he speaks to the sword & sorcery origins of D&D. He does, but the art is actually specifically related to a short story within, “Shadow of a Demon”, by Gardener F. Fox. There are more pictures accompanying the story itself, these in black & white, and they depict the same character. So, that’s Niall of the Far Travels on the cover of The Dragon #2.
This was the first Niall story. Fox later wrote nine more, and they’ve recently been collected. They’re all pretty close to Conan pastiche and have been described as Fox’s last take on sword & sorcery. That probably reflects the fact that the genre was quickly dying away, replaced by high fantasy. In fact, it might be fair to say that D&D is the biggest remnant of the sword & sorcery genre. So it’s no surprise that Fox himself is listed in Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) though the hero referenced there is “Kyrik”, another of his Conan clones, not Niall.
The artist is at least as intriguing at the artwork. That’s Thomas Canty, here looking very influenced by Barry Windsor-Smith. This was his first cover artwork anywhere, right at the start of his career. He did one more cover for TSR, on The Dragon #13 (1978), which perhaps was also intended to depict Niall, as there’s another Fox story within.
The thing is, Canty became a really big deal after his Dragon work. He’s credited with pioneering the New Romantic style of painting. If you’ve seen a 19th-century influenced fantasy cover with lots of line art and soft colors, particular on the cover of the ’90s Terri Windling fairy tale anthologies, that’s him.
The cover of The Dragon #2 was in many ways a meeting of the past and the future. On the one hand, here was little Dragon magazine, becoming the place to publish the very sword & sorcery stories that had inspired the game, and on the hand it was debuting an artist who would actually pioneer a whole new style of painting and become one of the most recognizable fantasy artists of the ’90s and beyond.
The Dragon #3: John M. Seaton & Ivor M. Janci (October 1976)
Somewhat surprisingly, the cover for The Dragon #3 is science fiction. This was The Dragon’s first take on something beyond fantasy roleplaying, but it goes hand-in-hand with the logo on the cover, which reads: “The magazine of fantasy, swords & sorcery and science fiction gaming”. One of the few predecessors to The Dragon was The Space Gamer, a board-game focused magazine that (obviously) paid special attention to science-fiction games, which were growing increasingly popular in the mid ’70s. So it’s no surprise that The Dragon opted to experiment with that genre too.
This cover was most likely commissioned to go with the magazine’s lead story, “Does Anyone Remember War of the Empires?”, by Gary Gygax. There, Gygax recalls what he thinks might have been the first science-fiction wargame, a play-by-mail (PBM) produced by Tullio Proni, possibly in 1966. After a short-lived run in 1967, it died out, then Gygax updated the game and took it over in 1969. He eventually bowed out because of the high difficulty of collating player material and photocopying a newsletter for 60 or so players! Gygax actually talked about reviving the game at TSR, which shows how uncertain the company was of D&D’s continued success — and which matches TSR’s few attempted entries into the SF board game genre, such as Star Probe (1975) and Star Empires (1977).
(There’s some nice additional detail on War of the Empires in Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World, which includes discussion of how it might have influenced D&D’s levels, experience, and perhaps even alignment.)
The artists for the cover are listed as “Seaton / Janci”. That’s John M. Seaton and Ivor M. Janci, who grew up in the same town and had been friends since the third grade.
John M. Seaton is the one who introduced Brian Blume to Gary Gygax, presumably at Gen Con VI (1973). So, he’s a critical but to-date undocumented link in the TSR story. This led to him (and Ivor) playing a pre-publication copy of D&D at Brian Blume’s house, presumably later in 1973, so he was in the right place to be a contributor to early D&D. He ended up providing some line art for The Strategic Review v1 #5 and v2 #1 and then wrote an article on “Monkish Combat in the Arena of Promotion” for The Dragon #2.
By the time that Seaton was assigned the cover for The Dragon #3, he was a gamer at Columbia College in Missouri, part of the “Missouri Mercenary Group, a division of the McHenry Mercenary Group” — the latter being the name for a group of friends include Janci who began gaming together in high school in 1976 and continue to this day. Because Seaton was now in the NROTC, he joined the Navy shortly afterward, and disappeared from the pages of TSR’s magazines. He’s mostly a SCAer today, though he still plays D&D on occasion and contributed art to Inner City Games’ “Brunch at the Coliseum” game in recent decades.
Ivor M. Janci was at the time studying at the University of Michigan. Unlike Seaton, he’d be involved in the later industry. In fact, Janci’s contribution to the cover for The Dragon #3 lies several years earlier than the rest of his professional gaming work. Soon afterward he became a art directory for an ad agency in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, not far from TSR. In the early ’80s, he was hired by TSR for his graphic aptitude and his knowledge of SPI games. Most of his work was for their SPI wargames, but he also did graphics for Indiana Jones and for the Top Secret line. He was the company’s art director by the time he left in 1985. He wasn’t quite a victim of TSR’s layoffs; instead he left for Tonka because the frequent layoffs encouraged staff to take interviews with other companies. Janci is still a minor member of the wargame industry today, with his own Marek Janci Design.
The Dragon #4: MAR Barker (December 1976)
The fourth issue of The Dragon has a cover that looks like it’s Egyptian or Middle-eastern, but actually it’s from Tékumel.
It’s a remarkable cover in several ways.
First, it shows editor Tim Kask’s commitment to The Dragon being about more than just D&D. Yes, Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) was a TSR game at the time, but it’s still astounding that just four issues in, Kask was looking at other worlds.
Second, it shows how multi-talented Tékumel creator MAR Barker was. He wasn’t just an author and a world-builder, but also a very talented illustrator. That’s right, the cover to The Dragon #4 is by M.A.R. Barker himself, the first game designer to be so honored. Oh, and he was a language scholar too, because that illustration is covered with Tsolyáni, one of the languages that Barker invented for Tékumel.
The actual artwork depicts the land grant to the Shipáli Family of the Protectorate of Kérunan. In other words, it’s meant to be an in-world artifact. There’s a bit more on the document at the Tékumel web site.
Designers & Dragons struggled somewhat with how to write about Tékumel. The problem is that it’s the great roleplaying setting that’s never gotten the attention that it deserves. Though it started out at TSR, afterward it bounced from small press to small press. Designers & Dragons is company-based, and no company has its full story, and for that matter most were small enough that information on them was hard to come by.
The story of Tékumel appears most fully in Gamescience, one of the last histories to be written for the four-volume Evil Hat edition. That was a history that came about somewhat by chance, when Lou Zocchi called to speak on another matter. Afterward, he was generously willing to talk for hours on the phone, providing the details on Gamescience that the press at the time had missed. The Tékumel story was in those discussions just a bit (and the company history itself talks about the other publishers, both before and after Lou).
The Dragon #5: David C. Sutherland III (March 1977)
The cover to The Dragon #5 notes that it includes another Gardener Fox story, “Beyond the Wizard Fog”. In fact, it’s the second Niall of the Far Travels story. And, there’s another barbarian on the cover too, this time facing off against a big snake. Comparing it to Thomas Canty’s cover for The Dragon #2, it’s pretty obvious that’s once more Niall on the cover, making him the recurring star of The Dragon’s covers after just five issues.
The cover artist is David C. Sutherland III, the first Dragon cover artist who was already a TSR employee at the time he contributed to the magazine. He was also one of the most prolific and influential artists during D&D’s early days.
Sutherland served as a Military Policeman during Vietnam, but he also loved to draw and was a fan of the fantasy and science-fiction genres. His gaming experience started out as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). That led SCA friend Mike Mornard, who was a member of early Blackmoor and Greyhawk games, to introduce him to MAR Barker, creator of Empire of the Petal Throne (1975). A fertile creative relationship would soon develop between Sutherland and Barker.
With friends like Barker and Mornard, it’s no surprise that Sutherland joined TSR in 1976. He was the listed as the staff artist for The Dragon starting with issue #1 (June 1976), though this was his first cover.
Sutherland did work for the OD&D game (1974-1976), but his most memorable work was on the next few editions of the game. He drew the cover for original Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1977) by J. Eric Holmes, and then drew the original Monster Manual cover, with its dozen monsters front and back. However, his most notable work may have been the Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), with its efreet on the front and its famous landscape of the City of Brass on the back. But those were far from Sutherland’s only contributions to D&D. In those early days, Sutherland was a major member of TSR’s small art team — which also contained Dave Trampier, David S. LaForce, and Erol Otus — so it’s no surprise that his art is commonplace both on the interiors and covers of TSR’s earliest books. Other famous covers include the entire “G” series (1978), the entire “D” series (1978), and S1: “Tomb of Horrors” (1978).
Sutherland became the Artistic Director of TSR and from 1983 on focused his personal creativity largely on cartography. His map work in I6: “Ravenloft” (1983) would be revolutionary for its isometric design and its focus on inter-level connectivity, which created a true three-dimensional locale.
Sutherland wasn’t just an artist; he also produced two notable game products for TSR. Legions of the Petal Throne (1977) was a wargame for MAR Barker’s Tékumel, while Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980) completed the famous “GDQ” saga.
Sutherland stayed with TSR until the Wizards of the Coast buyout in 1997. He passed away in 2005.
The Dragon #6: Bradley “Morno” Schenk (April 1977)
The cover to The Dragon #6 is a strange one. It has a very ornate frame and it shows a warrior facing off against a harpy and an elf in some sort of strange house. A caption at the bottom reads “Mythos and Logos”. Presumably that refers to the two women and suggests the warrior is choosing between mythology and reason.
Once more the strange cover can be deciphered, at least to some extent, by looking inside. It’s clearly connected to “The Forest of Flame”, another short story. The connection is clear because both cover and story are by the same creator, “Morno”, who also supplies interior illustrations for his piece.
Now what the cover illustration is supposed to represent is less obvious. It’s certainly not the hero of the piece, Visaque, a wizard who is probably shown on page 13. But it might be a depiction of a page from Visaque’s book of stories, perhaps a page that reveals one of the warriors mentioned on page 12. It’s thus most likely Vishre Vishran, who Visaque is interested in due to the similarity of their names.
However, the real person of interest here is the artist Morno, and that’s because he was already a person of note in the nascent roleplaying industry before this April 1977 Dragon cover.
Morno started playing in 1975 with a woodgrain OD&D box (1974). He began illustrating almost immediately, with his earliest work being for Wee Warriors. He drew the cover for The Character Archaic (1975), the first-ever standalone professional character sheet pack, and the cover for Palace of the Vampire Queen (1975), the first-ever standalone professional roleplaying adventure. Wee Warriors books were picked up by TSR, before they started doing character sheets and adventures of their own, and it seems likely that this is how Morno came into contact with TSR. (The Dragon #6 has Morno’s only cover for the magazine, but there’s another illustrated Visaque short story, “The Journey Most Alone”, which appears in The Dragon #7.)
Morno also drew the covers for several early Alarums & Excursions magazines, starting with #11 (May 1976). Presumably, he was located in southern California at the time, since that was the gaming nexus that included both Wee Warriors and A&E. He also published one board game, Dragonlord (1976 or 1977), which he designed and illustrated, and which was coproduced by Wee Warriors and by Cosmic Frog Productions — the latter being Morno’s own company/brand. Morno’s work can also be found on a few early Arduin books, such as Welcome to Skull Tower (1978) and The Arduin Adventure (1980). The last may have been his final RPG work, though he continued with illustrations for the SCA for some time afterward.
That’s the end of Morno’s story, but not the end for illustrator Bradley W. Schenk, to use his proper name. In more recent years, Schenk has done considerable computer graphics work and also co-produced the graphic adventure game, The Labyrinth of Time (1993).
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #31 & #32 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.